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.

St├ęphane 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. St├ęphane 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.