Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Rodents, mousetraps, and a grim tale of operational excellence...

I cannot tell you why I remembered this today, nor can I tell you why I'm compelled to write about it. I ate chicken wings very late last night, that could be it, or perhaps the onset of a neurological disorder? Oh the things I'm willing to do in the name of content! Anyway...

There were many mice living between the walls of my first apartment. The beautifully converted attic was spotless but I lived right next to a rather large vegetable garden and the legion of vermin it hosted tended to be a rambling bunch. I stuffed as many holes as I could find and wound up keeping everything but canned food in the fridge but in the end I had to resort to traps. As the picture above attests they're rather cute but the even sound of them scrabbling away in the dead of night can make you feel unclean.

One trap in particular was noteworthy: It would go off reliably every few days and after a couple months this thing looked like it belonged in a horror movie. Blood had soaked into all of the wooden base and the killing bar was crusty with whatever you might find in a rodent's skull in addition to bits of bone and fur. You might think that any sensible rodent would have nothing to do with what was clearly the Auschwitz of mouse traps but sadly no; in exchange for a spot of cheese they would merrily place their fuzzy little heads into the merciless jaws of what became known as Old Gruesome.
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To replace Gruesome with something less monstrous - and in retrospect more sanitary - would have set me back a mere two dollars but the whole project entered a weird place somewhere between a high art and a fraternity dare. As the trap became positively gunky and could boast ending the lives of over fifty mice it eventually snapped its way into my heart, much like the favourite club of a seal hunter.
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As all evil eventually consumes itself the trap broke; its' powerful spring had been coated with enough blood to rust it through and it snapped into pieces. Old Gruesome's final victim did not fare much better and I finally threw both of them in the trash; victor and victim, embracing for all eternity, buried deep in the bowels of some nameless landfill.
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There were other mousetraps but like a grown man landing his first sucker-punch it just wasn't the same. Lesser traps lacked one-tenth of their predecessor's stamina and broke regularly, which led me to believe that Gruesome gained some measure of vitality through its' many acts of murder. If an argument can be made that mice have souls then I'm certain Old Gruesome hungered for them.
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I miss him still...
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In hopes of not completely wasting your time with this post I am submitting an article that talks about an artificial eye complete with a hook-up to your brain. They claim this technology might be implanted into your head in about five years. It would be so cool to look deeply into your lovers eyes and see NIKON in tiny letters around the iris. I'm pretty sure that as soon as I'm able to start replacing my perfectly working parts in favour of bionic I will. I've got two words for you... TELESCOPIC NIGHT VISION. Yeah, I know. Don't worry, I'll save a space for you in line at the doctor's office.
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Wait, oh sorry. That was three words.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Another overblown review complete with a title that is attempting to be humorous...

The next game to be reviewed from the so-so pile is the long delayed and often re-imagined Dark Sector. This title was developed by Ontario’s own Digital Extremes and put out by D3 Publisher for the X-Box 360 and the PS3. The project began as far back as 2004 and I actually remember it well because its teaser trailer was one of the first to come out for what is now this generation’s hardware. Dark Sector started out in space but by 2006 it got a make-over into a bleak secret agent story that was released just this year.

Four years is way, way too long a development cycle to make a video game. A game of course takes that long only when there are serious problems afoot and it’s been my experience that when the game is finally released those problems are still there. Dark Sector is sadly no exception.

I am still very keen on the premise of Dark Sector. Imagine if you will the fictional Eastern bloc nation of Lasria. This country is cut off from the rest of the world and left to develop advanced weapons technology and experiment with strange biological compounds. Something with regards to the later went wrong, killing or altering most of the poor country’s populous. The story begins with the protagonist; a hard-bitten American assassin, infiltrating the country in order to get to the bottom of things.

Dark Sector makes use of Digital Extreme’s proprietary Evolution Engine and this is the first time we get to use it in play. I thought it did some things rather well such as lighting, particle effects, and explosions. I thought in some places it needs to improve such as enemy movement animations and textures, and in a couple areas, such as human faces, its absolute rubbish. The main character’s head is weirdly shaped, too small, and from the sides his eyes bulge out awfully. It’s not only impossible to empathize with such a grotesque figure; you actually want to have nothing to do with him. Being this is the engine’s very first time out however these issues should be forgiven.

For reasons I don’t want to explain the main character quickly comes into possession of a strange weapon; The Glaive. This multi-bladed boomerang actually saves the game because it works really well, is damn effective, and improves in interesting ways as you go through the story. The glaive is quite the butcher’s tool and the removal of enemy heads and limbs makes for a satisfying bit of shrieking, bloody execution. In this Digital Extremes did such a good job that the game has been banned in a couple countries. For this, at least, I commend the developers.

There are other, more conventional weapons to use such as machine pistols and shotguns. I was pleased to see that these secondary side arms get a fair work out as well. You can actually wield the Glaive in one hand and a small gun in the other and this dual action is pretty slick. The combat in Dark Sector is by far its best feature.

The game boasts a weapon upgrade system so that your firearms can get tricked out to match the increasingly powerful enemies. If you’ve played games like Resident Evil 4 or even the newer Army of Two then you know that this kind of development can add a lot to a game. In Dark Sector however the developers totally missed the mark. The system seems installed as an afterthought; it’s too simple, it’s poorly implemented, and the greater impression winds up being what the upgrade system doesn’t do rather than what it does.

Having a game where the main character sneaks through a spooky Soviet-styled city while making contact with the black market or other colourful characters seems a great setting just brimming with possible stories. It worked wonders for Half-Life 2. Unfortunately Dark Sector’s environment and level design is some of the most boring in memory. The setting itself is sadly nothing but window dressing for a number of courtyards connected by side streets where you fight and fight and fight. The Lasrian city has no life and there is so little to distinguish one area from the next that you can immediately spot when they are reusing an asset that you visited not even an hour ago. As well there are many times when you will find yourself walking down a series of winding hallways with nothing happening. Pure speculation; I suspect this is a trick to let the computer buffer the next real encounter in order to facilitate shorter load times. The trouble is this design decision plays hell with the game’s pacing.

The story itself is scant and it seems to intentionally leave out a great deal as if all will be explained in a sequel but that scores this title no points in the here and now. That said, the boss fights were pretty cool and we don’t get too many of them in a shooter game. Some scenes had their moments and were able to convey emotion and intensity; there are graveyard and other 'haunted' scenes that deliver. For the most part however the game was a fairly flat experience. Finally there is an on-line component to Dark Sector but like so much in this game it’s too light in content to improve one’s opinion of the title.

What disappoints me most about Dark Sector is that you can see a fantastic game lost somewhere in here. If there was more to do in Lasria, if there were more people to meet and some side quests to complete, if the buying, selling, and weapons upgrading component of the game was at least as good as anything it’s trying to ape, then I would have loved this title. In the reviews I’ve read this game was often compared to Gears of War and Resident Evil but it cannot hold a candle to either.

What tipped the scales and made me buy this game at full price was that it comes out of London, Ontario and I felt that if I’m going to throw my money away at least let it be to a home grown cause. Supporting Dark Sector does in fact feel something like a charity and I hope that Digital Extremes realises that if they are going to make a sequel they need to rebuild almost every aspect of this game from bottom to top. I hope they attempt to give it an honest try.

Old video games with their titles changed makes for incredibly obscure humor.

In further attempts to avoid any and all news items I give you this site. If you were not born in my time you will not get most of this humour. If however you are my mother then it's worth checking out if only to be envious of the mad photoshopping skills my generation possesses. We can make anything look like anything else. It's a gift.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Shooting cyborg zombies is great fun but once they start pontificating on foriegn policy we're told it's pretentious...

I have been wasting what time I can burning through a number of second-rate games and this is in fact a public service to you; the gentle reader. I am more than willing to be the canary in the video game mineshaft when it comes to the first person shooter format. It's strange but I much rather play a mediocre shooter than a top notch racing game or dating sim. If I were to guess what it is that brings me back time after time I might say... oh, I don't know... THE SHOOTING.

These are titles that I was looking forward to optaining upon release but when they got reviews in the 6’s and 7’s my priorities naturally changed. Such titles can be usually picked up for half-price within a couple months of release thanks to the numerous copies to be found in the used aisle of your local game store. I’m going to review a few of them this week in hopes of getting back into blog-making form, to tighen up my blog-gina, as it were.

BlackSite: Area 51 was developed and published by various wings of Midway as a multi-platform release that was mostly skewered by the gaming enthusiast media. The game’s developer even went so far as to publicly denounce it by outlining the difficulties faced in the development cycle before leaving the company. Juicy! I was willing to slog through this potentially bad game because I absolutely fell in love with the demo and after finishing it my initial impressions stand. I’m happy to keep this one in the collection.

BlackSite is an alien/robot/zombie shooter (seriously, all three) that I must admit fails to deliver in several aspects. The story and level design are lacklustre in addition to being short in duration. As well the developers were unable to add a co-op element and the multiplayer is forgettable. So why am I not slamming it? Here’s why; it’s a shooter and the shooting is bloody excellent! If you get this one thing right with this kind of game then in my books most other factors will be forgiven. In BlackSite the weapon of choice is this meaty, chugga-chugga M4 carbine and it felt like a much-needed extension of my dick! This was one of the most satisfying weapons I have used in a game and as the ladies will not hesitate to tell you, I aim to satisfy! This one element made the game at least a fun-filled, visceral experience.

This game was something of a throwback; like an old Doom or Quake game. It’s hard to explain but when playing you don’t feel like a soldier with a rifle – as you would in Call of Duty 4 – but more like a mobile weapons platform. It was actually a nice break from some of the slower moving, more realistic titles I’ve been playing lately. You just move through the funhouse at high speed and blast away any zany creatures that happen to pop up. No strategy, no taking cover; just pure, unadulterated run and gun.

Throughout the game you travel with a couple soldiers who you can direct with the most rudimentary of squad commands. Though other games have fleshed this out far better in Blacksite it is nonetheless an effective mechanic. With a click of the button you can ‘paint’ a target and your team-mates will go after it with gusto. I quickly found that as battle was joined it was important to give your squad targets in order to maximise your power. This and an interesting Squad Morale system kept the fights interesting. As well, I have to give BlackSite props for using the Unreal Technology to create some of the most realistic character models I’ve seen to date. Even Bioshock with its herky-jerky character animations could take a tip or two from what Midway did with the same middleware.

BlackSite has its more than a few shortcoming; one of them being it happens to be very critical of the United States and the Iraq War it started. The game’s not-so subtle message was that volunteer soldiers are being betrayed by their government with such measures as extended tours, stop-loss policy, and institutions such as Walter Reed Hospital. I don’t think these concepts are going to sell games this year and perhaps this is because Americans don’t want to hear about that stuff right now. The reviews I read were fairly harsh and dismissive to the topic; they even questioned its place in a game. I feel it’s a topic worth discussing and any venue is better than nothing. Such talk of a nation’s culpability does not however sit well with the citizenry even in the best of times.

I won’t go so far as to say that this game was reviewed unfairly and in truth I would be very surprised to see a sequel of any kind. Overall I felt the good outweighed the bad and I found the highly charged political aspects interesting. Now I've played through on the 360 version and also did a few chapters on the PC and will vouch for them. However I hear the port to the PS3 was not as good. Let the budget bargain bin buyer beware!

The news these past couple weeks has not been doing it for me. It's been either too dumb (Clinton vs. Obama) or too depressing, but I will leave you with this.

In-Meatro is coming!!!

My comments are thus... VAT GROWN MEAT!

Monday, April 7, 2008

The new new face of freedom... Kind of looks like the old face of fascism...

The gamer-wife Mike and I finished Army of Two last week and were pleased overall. Developed and published by Electronic Arts for both the PS3 and the X-Box 360, this game is heavily focused on two-man cooperative play. Utilizing Unreal Technology 3 in the third-person shooter format, the game has you taking the roles of a mercenary duo as they travel the world killing ethnics for cash. Play this game and you get to live the dream!

Beyond a standard game that you can simply play with your buddy; titles like Gears of War or Halo 3 for example, Army of Two has put in a series of special two-man manoeuvres in hopes of enhancing the cooperative spirit between partners. Indeed, some of these abilities are vital to completing the levels and in that way treats co-op as a different genre of game rather than an alternate mode as presented in predominantly single player titles. These special moves tend to work in making the game original and they do so by setting up a precedent that carries through the experience; there are roles to play, you must play those roles when they come up, and these roles will switch at any given moment.

The best way to illustrate this is to describe the Aggro and Stealth game mechanic. If one player is shooting at enemies effectively they will earn the Aggro; meaning their character glows red and becomes the target of choice for the enemy. While this is happening the other character automatically enters Stealth; which means they become transparent and even enemies that are nearby will ignore them. This allows that player to flank the enemy or move through the map to a safe place. Aggro, Stealth, and the lack of either are three states the player will find themselves in and it can change with the placement of but a single bullet. While in Stealth if you take out a couple guys with their back to you then Aggro will be your reward. Your role suddenly changes and you must react effectively, in this case by playing the aggressive role. Your partner’s role also changes the instant yours does and they must now work off a different strategy as well.

This back and forth game mechanic adds new weight to the quickly concocted plans, trash talk, and demands for immediate assistance that creates the bond of camaraderie which makes co-op games so enjoyable amongst friends. In this way Army of Two succeeds; the addition of new rules enhances the co-op experience. The other half of the game; its polish and presentation is mixed bag. Personally I liked it and liked what it said, including the subtext. Others may fairly have a different opinion entirely.

Army of Two is undoubtedly the most American game I’ve played in a while. It assumes that heavily armed Yankees have a place and role in other people’s countries so even when they parachute in uninvited it’s for the greater good. There is much talk of terrorism of course, and arms dealers, and hostage taking, and all the other things that quicken the news media’s pulse. There is also much jocularity amongst the mercenaries while they work; head-slapping, high-fives and air guitar between bouts of destruction. Inappropriate? Perhaps. Fun after three or four beers? Absolutely. Army of Two may not be in good taste but it tastes good.

One place this game literally shines is the weapon upgrade system. With your hard earned wages you can buy and upgrade weapons to a delightful degree. New barrels and grips, extended clips, grenade launchers and more can trick out your gun including a ‘pimping’ of it’s appearance; to plate the whole thing in gold or silver and jazz it up with all manner of trim and filigree. More than making the weapon worthy of a rap video this appearance alteration affects the stats of the weapon. When you tote around a Stinger Missile System that’s been decked out to look like a pirate cannon you of course draw attention to yourself, and therefore Aggro. Mike and I spent much time in the shopping menu, too much time.

Army of Two looks pretty good overall, graphically it gets the job done. The same can be said for level design, story, dialogue, and music. These aspects of the game are passable and it’s the two-man manoeuvres plus the weapon customisation that make it worth trying out. If you and a buddy have the same console then this game is worth you going halves to get a copy. I hope the game does well enough to merit a sequel, I want to see the two-man stuff expand beyond basic training because I think the developers are on onto something.

I’m at least mid-way through a game called Dark Sector so I’ll write about that next. As for news I’m not finding much that’s interesting…

On the paper trail that lead to torture…

This is an in-depth Vanity Fair article on how and why torture became common practice at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I haven’t finished it, I’m finding the play by play record keeping of the tortured subjects to be quite off-putting.

Iraq Attack – Green Zone is the new End Zone

The Sadrists are still giving the Americans hell, shelling the fortified Green Zone, killing three soldiers and wounding a couple dozen over the weekend. Meanwhile in Basra the militias continue to control the port city, repelling Iraqi forces to the point where around 1,000 newly trained troops fled the field of battle, going AWOL rather than fighting their own kind. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki has been soundly trounced over this and any illusions that remained as to his effectiveness or strength have been shred away.

Presidential hopeful John McCain has been downplaying these outbreaks, stating that Iraq is returning to a state of normalcy. It seems the Republican talking point is to set the stage for America to remain in Iraq indefinitely no matter how much tension their presence creates. Plus, just to be different, they’re going to lie about it the whole way through.

Cause and effect rules all, don’t you think? Operation Iraqi Freedom has a much lower body count then the Viet Nam war for many reasons, not the least of which is the strategy of troops remaining in their fortified bases in order to avoid casualties. Doing that gave the streets to Iraqi gangsters however and guys like Moktada al Sadr was able to increase their influence by taking over governance of the neighbourhoods. Once that control was established his militiamen could then shell Americas’ biggest fortified compound for days and the troops have not yet been able to stop them. It just goes round and round.

There will be no troop reductions. Surprise – surprise!!!

That America needs every troop they can spare in Iraq is nothing newsworthy. This article goes a bit deeper though in outlining the direct and close relationship the President has with the four-star general in charge of Iraq. It circumvents the chain of command, which is strange in itself because that’s heresy in military organizations. It’s weird to read the quotes of a national leader who says things like "I said to the general: 'If you want to slow her down, fine; it's up to you.' " Sounds like the stage is set to pass the buck when the shit hits the fan, if you ask me.

Could I fit anymore clich├ęs in a single sentence?