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12.28.2011

Oh dear, the Internet's in Trouble Again...


If you love the internet (and let's face it, we all do to some degree) then you need to watch this video. It's a bit dry. It's a bit scare-mongery, but it's also vitally important.

For those unaware. There are a couple of horrible, horrible bills floating around the U.S. Congress - Protect IP and SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) - which concern the future of the internet. Basically, these bills are the entertainment industry's attempt to fight piracy and copyright infringement.

Look, piracy is wrong. People shouldn't do it, but this isn't the right response either. Thing is, how the internet actually works is complicated and technical so writing law surrounding it needs to be done carefully so as not to end up with hundreds of thousands of unintended consequences.

These laws jeopardize the freedom of the net and could lead to censorship. At minimum, they are anti-competitive. At worst, they get us a lot closer to China's "Great Firewall." They must not pass.

The internet is an awesome opportunity for regular people to broadcast their ideas as well as an outlet for large corporations to reach their customers. And that's why it's great. It's pretty much the closest thing to a level playing field there is.

If you care about the internet, please do something about this. I urge you to get in contact with your local representatives and voice your opinion on the subject.

I don't get political about too many things anymore, but when it comes to messing up the internet, it's nerd rage time!


12.19.2011

Why Bastion is Awesome


This is, perhaps, one of the most pure and enjoyable gaming experiences I've had since I first played A Link to the Past.

For those of you who don't know my relationship with ALttP, this is saying a tremendous amount.

Now, I want you to know that I realize a few things:

1. The things I review here are a fairly eclectic mix. I try to keep them a bit dated on purpose. I don't want to build expectations that I'll review a new movie, book, or game when it first comes out or even within several months after its release.

This isn't that kind of review series. This is simply a "here's what I've been geeking out about lately" series.

The games I've been playing (often years after they first came out), the books I've been reading (likewise), and the movies or TV shows I've been revisiting. All of these are candidates for coverage on this series, and I like to give attention to the things that are important or meaningful to me.

(For these and many other reasons, I realize now that I should probably talk about A Link to the Past today instead, but I haven't played that one lately, so it's going to have to wait.)

So, yes, once in a while, you'll get something like my Alloy of Law review, simply because I'm a huge fan of the series and I consume the books I'm excited about. Other times, you'll get reviews like this one, because a game or etc. is Just. That. Good.

Most of the time, however, you'll get stuff like my Arkham Asylum review, because that's what I want to do.

2. I realize a lot has been said about the narrator in this game. It's all true. He really is that good. The game is worth getting for so many more reasons than just him, but his presence is yummy, yummy icing on top of an already delicious cake.

(Mmm...cake...)

On with the review.

12.05.2011

Explanation for Delays

Hey, everyone.

I know the posting has been a bit less than consistent in the past few weeks. I'm sorry about that, and thought you deserved a bit of an explanation.

As Matt mentioned at the beginning of November, we both participated in NaNoWriMo this year.

Obviously, that took a lot of time. It also wasn't our only obligation during the month, so other goals had to slide.

The experience was worth it, though, and I'm actually quite pleased by how much we were able to post during the month, maintaining a reasonably consistent one-post-per-week for the majority of the month.

As things began to pile on, however, cuts needed to be made. Matt had some projects come up, which slowed his progress with the NaNo novel (which I'm really looking forward to read, buddy), and I had to put in a pretty major push to finish off my own novel (you can find the results of my efforts, including the entire novel, over at my writings blog here).

Unfortunately, finishing November's goals didn't free up much time for us, as we are now in full swing for final projects here at the end of the semester. I know I'm certainly facing an impenetrable wall of intimidation that's making it very difficult for me to get my regular writing done, much less additional writing for these blogs.

Again, I'm sorry about that, as I really enjoy posting here and exploring other sides of my geekery. But... well, such is life, right? Let it be.

My hope is that, once Finals are done with, the posting will resume on a consistent schedule (you know, like we started to hint at during November), but I try not to make promises anymore. (We've seen how consistent I am at keeping them. Sigh.)

Anyways, I hope that this explanation doesn't disappoint you all too terribly, and that if you've been wondering at the silence, this will suffice until the posting picks up again.

Until then... well, it's time to go back and face that wall...

I'm Joshua Kehe, and I don't have anything else to say.

Except, of course, that I have another blog where I'm challenging myself to write one short story per day during the month of December. It's slow-going so far, but you can read about my efforts, as well as the rest of my writing life, over there at The Craftsman's Journey.

11.21.2011

Zelda: Skyward Sword First Impressions


I found myself in a Best Buy store for a brief time this evening. Wondering if their Wii display might be have the latest Zelda game just released yesterday, I wandered to the video game section. Sure enough, there was a Skyward Sword demo in the system. Awesome.

The latest Zelda game has been getting lots of buzz. Some reviewers have called it the "best" Zelda game ever. That Skyward Sword might be the best game of a 25-year-old critically acclaimed series is a huge statement.

The biggest question for me regards the touted motion controls. I have no doubt that the level design, art, and gameplay is all good stuff. Nintendo's pretty consistently good at that. But did they ruin it with their own attempts to innovate with motion control?

I am a motion control skeptic. No. That's not accurate. I hate motion controls. I can and have ranted on this topic to various people who were polite enough to listen. In summation, I feel motion controls are either annoying gimmicks tacked-on to games like 3D is tacked-on to movies or integral components which ruin otherwise good games (i.e. Metroid Prime 3.) It is rare that motion controls actually make games better or even come close to working as well as advertised.

Nintendo, ironically, gained huge praise and notoriety in its early days for tight controls in games like Super Mario Bros. and the original Legend of Zelda. But for the life of the Wii, they've been making, in my opinion, the aforementioned mistakes with motion control in their flagship franchise games.

Ask anyone who played Twilight Princess. Did the motion controls help? No. Everyone I've ever talked to who played the Wii version complained that the small amount of motion control added to the game at the last minute degraded the experience. I thought the control was great. I played it on the good ol' GameCube. With buttons. Real buttons.

The Skyward Sword demo had three selections: flying a bird (that's how you get around the overworld), a dungeon, and a boss fight. I didn't have much time so I opted for the dungeon as a way of experiencing the broadest range of gameplay in a short time.

The dungeon turned out to be a large circular room with a tower in the center of it and doors around the outside perimeter. Typical Zelda stuff.

Wanting to try out the combat, I looked around an enemy. Quickly I found a Skulltula (a spider, for the uninitiated) which swooped down from the ceiling on a web. I tried to fight it while it was hanging there. I swung the remote a few times. My swings did no damage at all. Oh, yeah. They have hard shells. It's been awhile since my last Zelda game.

I had a bit of a hard time with this my first enemy encounter. A single Skulltula kicked my butt. It was bad.

After that I figured out a few things. I decided to take on a ground-borne enemy. I found a goblin-type thing (don't know the "official" name) and engaged it.

Swinging the remote swings the sword. You're supposed to be able to swing it in eight directions for different angles, but I didn't feel like it was always very accurate about that. Thrusting it forward causes Link to stab. Shaking the nunchuck raises your shield.

Despite the motion control changes, the combat still feels distinctly Zelda. You find an enemy, Z-target it, and attack using the A-button and a direction to strafe around your target while you wait for the appropriate moment to strike. It's a proven, solid system. Lots of fun.

I had a lot more luck with the goblin. I killed it pretty easily. Other enemies in the level included plant-like Deku Babas, Keese (bats), and a Stalfos (skeleton) mini-boss. Fighting the Stalfos was fairly fun. Enemies with swords can not only attack but also block with them. In order to hit them, you have to perform the proper swing. In fairness, I think the controls worked reasonably well. I think it's system I could get used to with practice.

The motion controls also worked well with some of Link's other gadgets: a bow, bombs, and a new item which I'll come to in a moment. I was pleasantly surprised that the archery worked fairly well. The WiiMotionPlus attachment has markedly improved accuracy. I felt like I was bad at archery because I needed practice and not merely because the Wii control was holding me back.

The new item is called the beetle which is a flying drone-like device. You launch it and take control of its flight using the remote. It can hit switches and grab items Link can't reach otherwise. It works quite well and seems like it adds a lot of gameplay potential. After I beat the Stalfos I got a chest with an upgrade for the beetle which gave it a claw for grasping things.

One place I didn't like the motion control was in walking across a tightrope. You have to hold the remote upright and keep Link balanced on the rope to move. It's needless and not any fun. I'm guessing there are a few other areas where needless motion control is employed. Hopefully I'm wrong.

I have one more really, really petty complaint. The famous Zelda puzzle-solve chime sounds super lame in this game. Seriously, guys. It's a cool sound. How could you mess that up?

My brief time with the game left me wanting more. Even though this is a Zelda game we're talking about here, this is a somewhat surprising statement given my prejudice against the Wii and all things motion-controlled. It's not quite as good as I was hoping for. It still doesn't feel like you have full control over Link's sword. There are still minor annoyances with controls and the camera. But overall I was pleasantly surprised.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is definitely a game I'll be playing at some point in the future, though no game can eclipse my currently level of excitement for Skyrim which, due to school, I still have yet to play. Maybe after I've played them both I'll do a joint review called "Skyrim Sword" or something corny like that.

11.14.2011

Why The Alloy of Law is Awesome



Right, so I'm sorry for the rather scatter-brained review last week. I realize I was all over the place with the praise and the criticism and you might not have been able to follow my internal logic (it sometimes moves too fast for even myself to keep up). As I explained, the self-imposed deadline kind of snuck up on me. While that's not a very professional excuse, at least it's an explanation.

This post, if I say so myself, is much better thought-out. So I hope you appreciate it (or at least understand it).

Now, onwards with the review!

The Alloy of Law, by Brandon Sanderson

A few of my friends have a saying when it comes to describing types of books -- it's a saying I'm somewhat hesitant to share here, but I'm going to nevertheless.

"Jim Butcher is like a gourmet cheeseburger, while George Martin is a five-course meal."

Now, I don't know about you, but I like food. I enjoy eating and I appreciate a well-made meal. But I definitely have cravings for different types of food at different times, and I definitely would not want to eat the same food or even the same category of food all the time.

The same is true for books.

11.07.2011

Why Portal 2 is Awesome


Goodness, look at that, Monday again already? And it's Monday night at that. Yeesh, I need to start making a weekly to-do list or something if I'm going to remember all of these personal blogging goals that I haven't made public yet.

Oh, wait. I did that. Last week. It worked pretty well.

Huh, okay. New item on the nonexistent to-do list for this week: "Write to-do list for next week."

Okay, on with the review.

So I finished Portal over the weekend. (Yes, I know I'm late, that's going to be a theme of this series.) Then I went straight into playing Portal 2 because the ending of the first game was so flipping fantastic.

The near-seamless transition into the second game was beautiful, though there was a slight disconnect in the immersion at first because some of the controls and effects felt ever so slightly different (movement was a bit too responsive, the portal gun no longer fires "bullets" but instead opens the portals with a near-invisible projectile, etc). Regardless, I was very impressed.

*ahem*

Pause for dramatic effect and topical disassociation.

...

So I finished Portal 2 this afternoon.

Yeah, it kind of grabbed hold of me.

11.02.2011

November is Insanity

Well, it's been awhile. As usual, I didn't intend to fall off the face of the earth... or blog as it were. It's been a busy semester and continues to be.

Speaking of busy, my buddy Joshua Kehe convinced me over the weekend against my better judgement to participate in National Novel Writing Month. For those unaware, National Novel Writing Month (abbreviated NaNoWriMo, yes really) is an event wherein participants attempt to write a novel of at least 50,000 words during the month of November.

For students (like me) November is not always a great month for this. My schedule was already hectic with work, school, and the maintenance of a social life to keep me sane. With the semester drawing to a close, it's time to seriously work on final projects and make sure other class requirements are finished. Moreover, the holidays are approaching which can take a few days away from writing. This puts the daily required word count at 1,786 per day assuming I only miss two days for Thanksgiving and Black Friday. This is almost certainly an incorrect assumption.

I have been trying to write a novel for years and have attempted NaNo a few times in the past. But this year I feel a bit more dedicated. Maybe it's because it's crazier. Hey, the Cardinals just won the World Series and they were underdogs all the way. The odds are against me, but I don't care. I'm going for it.

You can follow my progress here. Any words of encouragement or advice are most welcome. So is prayer. It's gonna be a crazy month.

Bring it on.

10.31.2011

Batman: Arkham Asylum Impressions/Review



I. Love. This. Game.

So, I'm only about halfway through the game right now, but I could have told you at the 20% mark why I love this game.

Also, I realize I'm a bit late to this party, but three things justify my thoughts on this game:

1. It's Halloween, and who's scarier than Batman?
2. Arkham City just came out on the consoles, and it comes out on PC in a couple weeks, so I thought it'd be good to reflect a bit on this game.
3. I freaking love this game!

Ahem.

So, why is this such a great game?

Wow. Where do I begin?

7.24.2011

Broken

"I don't care if it hurts
I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul"

- Radiohead, "Creep"


My closest friends know that I've been though an absolute roller coaster of emotions over the past year. It's been a year of joy mixed with pain mixed with fear and uncertainty. There have been times when, given the chance, I might have taken everything back - the joy and pain alike. I know enough now to say that that would be a grave error. God doesn't make mistakes when he shakes up our lives. Though my actions and the actions of others have caused great pain, to take it all back would be to rob God of the trust his sovereign hand warrants.

In all of this I have found myself wishing along the lines of the song above. I could do without the body, honestly. I just want a perfect soul. I don't want to do wrong by anyone. I don't want to cause hurt or pain or be a participant in evil. But even that wish is poisoned.

My wish to be perfect and blameless is, at its core, incredibly selfish. If I am honest with myself 100% then I know that I wish to be prefect not for the well-being of others, but for me. Think of all the benefits of a perfect soul for a moral man! My conscious would never plague me with those nasty feelings of guilt. People would like me, trust me; look up to me. Best of all: I would be the master of my own fate for no God is needed.

That's what's at the heart of my seemingly good desire. Ouch.

What I do need and don't wish is to be broken and humbled. And not just once. Over and over again.

My pastor said something to me a few weeks ago that I hope I'll never forget. "Biblical Christianity is a series of new beginnings. A series." And just when I think I've used up my last new beginning... well, I haven't. It's as simple as that, really. The difficult part is the balance of belief.

On the one hand, I have to believe that my sin is great. If I minimize my sin - if I overlook it, I run the risk of falling into a pattern. No. My sin is great. Fortunately, my Saviour is greater. That's the other half of the equation. If my view of God is disproportional to the view of my own sin, then there's a real problem. At that point I begin to wallow in despair. Again, I do not give God his due. The equation is balanced by a proper view of God (so many things are solved by that) which is far, far easier said than done.

So what am I supposed to get out of a year of intense joy and pain culminating in a sense of loss? That's asking the wrong question. It's a selfish question. The real question is: what am I going to do now? I have no idea.

For now I pray I don't forget the lessons I've been taught. I don't need a perfect soul. God will grant me that when I can handle it - not on this earth. I need to continue on with my imperfect soul depending of God to work though my deficiencies. What I need is a broken heart and contrite spirit.


"I cannot look you in the eye
So I check the knots on my disguise
‘cause I fell in love with fashion in the dark
and now I want a broken heart"

- Derek Webb, "I Want a Broken Heart"

7.17.2011

Afraid to Lose Endurance

"If I could have it back
All the time that we wasted
I'd only waste it again
You know I'd love to waste it again
Waste it again and again and again..."
- Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs (continued)"


I am a consummate time waster. I have wasted hours, days, weeks, and months of my life. I've even felt as though I've wasted years. It is easy to blame distractions around me. It was toys when I was a child. It is movies and video games now. And while much has been said about how those things can be time wasters and how there is some benefit to them as well, that is beside the point here.

What I have to realize is that, if I'm honest with myself, I am my own biggest obstacle. My problem is a lack of endurance. For a while I know what is right and do it. And slowly, over time, I lose resolve. I get lazy and everything reverts back to its original state. The original state of a human being is not a good place to be.

This lack of resolve has led to a lot of waste in my life. There's a lot of ground I might have covered, a lot of things I might have done or learned if not for my own lack of endurance - a lack of endurance in my work, in my behaviour, and in my faith.

I used to think there was no point to this line of thinking. Why think about where I might be if I had done things differently? What's the point when I can't change anything? The point is to be haunted.

Mistakes only count for something if we learn from them. Whether it is curiosity, pride or a combination thereof, I am the kind of person who often needs to learn things the hard way. Understanding something by experience is more effective than taking a "trust me" from someone else. Childlike faith is difficult for me.

I have been taught difficult lessons and I am certain I will continue to be taught them as long as I live. I need to be a bit haunted by what I've done. I need that incentive to not fail in the ways I a can prevent failure. I need the reminder of the pain. That's the only way to redeem the time that I've wasted and the wrongs I have done.

When we fall we bruise, but the bruises heal... all but the most serious. I pray it will not take a permanent scar for me to remember the hard lessons.

I need to be afraid to lose endurance. I need to be afraid of what that loss will bring. I need to be afraid of waste and wrongdoing. Most of all I need to be confident that God is fully capable of bringing about the change I need in my life. He can make this all have been worthwhile.


"Wasted hours before we knew
Where to go and what to do
Wasted hours that you make new
And turn into a life that we can live..."

- Arcade Fire, "Wasted Hours"

6.28.2011

Crysis 2 Review

After three months, Crytek has finally upgraded Crysis 2 to proper DirectX11 standards on the PC. Now, as promised, my review...

Escape from New York, anyone?

The original Crysis was one of many memorable games to come out in the fateful year of 2007 which some call the best year in gaming ever. Remember what came out that year? Bioshock, The Orange Box (Portal, Team Fortress 2, Half-Life 2: Episode 2), Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Super Mario Galaxy and Mass Effect. Those were all great or at least very good games, but the game I had the most fun with was Crysis.

Crysis is distinguished among these for its video-card-crushing graphics from the future. Only recently has it been supplanted as the high-end PC benchmarking standard (that's impressive). Amazing graphics are only half of the story, however. The other half is the Nanosuit.

On-the-fly weapons modding makes a welcome return. More shooters should have this.

In Crysis you weren't just told you were a super-soldier: you felt like you were a super-soldier. Your character's high-tech Nanosuit came with a variety of abilities such as extra armor, temporary invisibility, super-strength, and super-speed. Whether you want to play like Rambo with guns blazing or be a sneaky ninja, Crysis let you do that very effectively. And you got to do it all with the game's gorgeous visuals. The Nanosuit gameplay combined with lovely scenery and destructible environments made it much more than an average shooter. I'll never forget the first time I tossed a grenade in a building and it blew apart dynamically. That was a gleeful moment: like playing with fireworks, only safer.

My personal expectations were very, very high for Crysis 2. I insist that my high expectations are not what ruined this game for me. Crysis 2 makes a lot of missteps, none of them fatal, but all contribute to making this just an average game instead of the amazing game it might have been.

To me, Crysis 2 is a tragedy. But it's more the pathetic kind of sad. Basically, Crysis 2 neglects the strengths of the previous game while utterly failing to improve upon the weaknesses despite trying very hard.

It's okay to blow up New York in again as long as you don't touch the Freedom Tower.

First, a word about the graphics. Many in the PC gaming community (of which I am a member) asserted that Crysis 2's graphics were hampered by the fact that the game had to run on consoles as well as PCs this time around. While it's certainly true that a PC-exclusive might have looked better, my personal opinion is that the sequel outdoes the original in graphical prowess... barely.

They're just different, I think. Decide for yourself. (Click for full size)

I'd let this point go if had it not been for Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli shooting his mouth off about the graphics being wildly better than the original game's. Wrong. At best, even with the DirectX11 upgrade (by the way, all of the pictures I'm showing you are with that upgrade and the high-res texture pack on the game's highest setting) the game looks a little better than the original. It's difficult to tell, of course, because Long Island is a far different setting than the fictional pacific Lingshan Islands so a one-to-one comparison is impossible. The graphics are certainly different. There seem to be a lot more post-processing effects in 2 which I personally could do without. They just make things generally blurrier. I appreciate some post-processing, but it's way overboard here. Also, even with high-res texture pack, there are still plenty of noticeable low-res textures. The character models look better. The animation seems improved.

Characters look really good in this game. Too bad none of them are likable.

Obviously, I'm being nitpicky. The point is, this is a sequel to a game known for its amazing graphics. The developer played on that in their marketing for this game and promised to blow away the original. I was underwhelmed, but that's mainly due to hype. It's a fine looking game and will challenge your PC or console's hardware.

More significantly, the Nanosuit gameplay has changed, mostly for the worst. On the bright side, the controls have been streamlined, the suit powers have been streamlined, and the experience of actually playing feels a bit tighter. Unfortunately the suit also feels a lot weaker than the first game. This is supposed to be Nanosuit 2! Even though you face tougher enemies, it should give comparable performance or at least offer some new features, right? Eh, there are a few new abilities. None of them excite or help to restore that lost feeling of being in control of the battlefield which the weakened Nanosuit causes.

Speaking of the battlefield, Crysis featured rather large, open levels. Even though the objectives were quite linear in actuality, the openness lent an air of freedom to the game that is sorely lacking in the sequel. For obvious reasons, the game can't let you loose in the whole of New York city. Your computer would explode. It would have taken Crytek like 15 years to model all that - we're talking Duke Nukem Forever development time here (without all that screwing around doing nothing.) I thought, however, a good compromise would have been to make levels encompassing several city blocks and allow the player to go anywhere inside that perimeter - that means into all the buildings too. But no. The levels make a half-hearted attempt at sprawling and rarely let you inside any buildings other than mission-specific ones. Fail.

I'm not sure how much of the game is spent trying to figure out where enemies are behind all the post-processing effects, but it's a lot.

Possibly worse: gone is most of the destructible scenery. Everything but the small-to-medium sized props are glued in place with only small amounts of cosmetic damage possible. Destructible scenery was one of my favourite features in the original. It added a lot of enjoyment and helped make the Nanosuit feel powerful.

The original game was weak on story and character development. It a fairly generic alien plot with nearly all military characters, most of them jerks. The two most likable people get banished to somewhere else for most of the game. In the standalone expansion Crysis Warhead, Crytek vastly improved the story and gave us an interesting, likable protagonist with real, genuine character development. I was stunned.

It is obvious Crytek was really trying to boost the story in this game. They made a big to-do about hiring British sci-fi author Richard Morgan to write for them. Never heard of him. Either his talents were wasted or he doesn't have much because the story in Crysis 2 is a convoluted mess. Worst of all I didn't even care. This time around there are no likable characters. Everyone is military, corporate, or conspiracy nut. Blah. For some reason your character, Alcatraz, is silent protagonist even though Nomad from the first game wasn't and Pyscho from Warhead definitely didn't keep his mouth shut. Most of the story is told not shown. And as far as a sci-fi story goes, there are two, maybe three interesting concepts. I'll spare you: one of them is the idea that your character is almost dead except for the suit which has grown into the damaged parts of his body. But the suit is one of the main problems in the story. It's basically a magic plot device for the writers to do with anything they like.

Prophet's in the game for about 2.5 seconds. And that's about how long I cared about the story.

The best part of the story is Prophet's (one of the likable characters from the first game) very brief appearance. And guess what? He kills himself not five minutes into the game! Thanks guys. Glad you decided to kill off one of your two good characters and not mention the other one for the whole bloody game.

So what does the game do right?

Uh, well...

It's a solid shooter, but not spectacular in any way. Toward the end it really gets going with some giant fights and finally you begin to feel like war machine you are meant to be. There are a few good battles with alien walkers known as "Pingers" which are by far the most fun enemy in the game. A few of the scripted sequences work well (although most of them are annoying or only serve to remind you how powerless you are) and provide some cool moments.

Honestly, it's not a bad game. It's just an okay game.

As a member of the PC gamer master race, I naturally blame the blandness on the game coming to consoles. Crytek made sacrifices to fit within console hardware budgets which limited the graphics, destructible environments, and size of the levels. The company focused heavily on developing a Modern Warfare-style multiplayer as well. The lame story has nothing to do with consoles whatsoever. That's squarely Crytek's fault.

Having failed to tell me a good story or even give me something fun to play with, Crytek's going to have to double-down and make Crysis 3 really compelling before I'm sold on the final chapter in this apparent trilogy.

And that was my most anticipated game of the year. Boy, did I bet on the wrong horse. Bring me Skyrim!

6.12.2011

Vulgarity, Gaming, and Art

This post is inspired by an article in PC Gamer with one of the developers of Far Cry 3 which briefly discussed how games handle mature content.
"A lot of games flirt with vulgarity. And I think if done incorrectly, vulgarity becomes pornography. I’m not here to make pornography. I’m here to make an entertaining, mature experience."
- Jason Vandernberghe of Ubisoft Montreal
I thought this was an interesting quote particularly because the clip of Far Cry 3 was the most edgy thing I posted here during my E3 reactions. There was a lot of visceral violence and some fairly strong language in it.

On the other hand, I very consciously did not post any new footage of Batman: Arkham City. Even though that game was a lot tamer in most respects and contained no abrasive language (not in the preview videos anyway) there was a whole lot of footage of the overtly sexualized Catwoman traipsing around in tight leather.

I'm guessing most people would consider the Far Cry 3 video more offensive and yet it's the one I decided to post. Why? There are two reasons for this. One is personal, one is, I think, what Mr. Vandernberghe is talking about.

Personally, I am far less affected by depictions of violence and profanity than I am by sexual temptation. I'm a man after all. As a Christian who struggles to properly control his God-given sexual desires and urges, I find childish sexual titillation such as Catwoman's appearance to be annoying at best and a catalyst for vice at worst.

But more than that, Catwoman's appearance is gratuitous. I think this is the key. Gratuitous violence, sex, and profanity is just unhealthy. Even Mr. Vandernberghe recognizes that to some extent.

I think this is one of the things that separates art from entertainment. Art is trying desperately to find truth and beauty in this fallen world we inhabit. It doesn't always find it. It doesn't always look obviously or externally beautiful. It's trying though. It's focusing on verity even though it often gets there in roundabout ways.

Entertainment asks "how can we make money?" Sex sells. Violence sells. Profanity sells. Humour, innovation, and good writing sell too, but those are hard. It's so much easier to find a hot girl and somehow get her to strip down to her skivvies for no good reason.

Why does Catwoman wear a tight leather cleavage-bearing outfit? Is that practical? Does it help her somehow?

No. The obvious real reason is because sex sells. It's titillation; it's fan service; it's gratuitous.

Vulgarity is easy because it is base. Have you ever noticed how much humour these days is blue? How much is about cursing loudly? Even children's films are filled with base humour.

While vulgarity itself is bad, portrayals of vulgarity are not. Vulgarity - sin - is very much a part of life and consequently must exist in our fiction and in our art in order to seek after truth.

There is no Gospel without the Fall. There is no story without conflict. Sometimes that conflict can be pretty ugly.

When I talk about proper use of "vulgarity" in fiction I always go back to my favourite war film Saving Private Ryan. Despite its R rating, I think the film is appropriate for everyone past a certain level of maturity. That's because the elements that warrant the R rating - the violence, the gore, the swearing - are not gratuitous. Why is all that stuff there? For the sake of realism. We are made to feel the plight of the soldiers. We sympathize with their plight. We feel it. And in the back of our minds we know that real people went through things very much like what we are seeing on screen.

Properly applied, "vulgarity" can transcend offense (with mature viewing audiences) and be employed in the service of good and of truth.

Now I'm not trying to say that Far Cry 3 is art and Arkham City is not. That's not my point. Neither game is out yet so I cannot judge. What I can say is that the philosophy espoused by Mr. Vandernberghe is encouraging although not completely on the mark. It's refreshing in an industry that's been historically criticized for reveling in depictions of violence, gore, and the objectification of women that at least one guy seems to be aiming a bit higher.

I have long believed that games are art or, at least, they have the capacity to be art. In fact, as an interactive medium, games have the potential to affect us more personally and more deeply in some ways than film or books ever can. Unfortunately artistic works like the Fallout series or Silent Hill 2, for example, are often overshadowed by games with gratuitous content like Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto, or Duke Nukem Forever (although that's news for a completely different reason).

Most proponents of the idea that games are art believe that games are still in their infancy as an artform. That is absolutely true. We have barely begun to scratch the surface of how affecting games can be.

In a recent interview John Carmack, the famed game designer and engineer behind Doom, made the point that the gaming industry has been concentrated on providing better and better graphics for a long time, but if that same effort was applied toward making games more creative then perhaps we would be better off. At some point graphics technology is going to hit a plateau where most people won't notice or care about the improvements anymore. Perhaps then there will be less excuse for a lazy lack of innovation and quality in other aspects.

Too long has the video game industry relied on vulgarity to sell its goods while neglecting the true power of the medium to affect people in a real artistic way. I am hopeful that increasingly we will see this trend reigned in and replaced by quality storytelling, character development, and thematic presentations. Although I love games as entertainment, they can and should be so much more.

6.09.2011

Geek Week: Day 3 & 4 - It's All About the Games, Baby

Missed a beat yesterday. Life called, y'know?

As a gamer for much of my childhood until now, I'm always interested, however mildly, in what the industry is doing in general. However, as I stated at the beginning of the week, I am now and have been for years a solid PC gamer. Thus developments like the Wii U, PlayStation Vita, and Kinect, while somewhat fascinating, are probably things I won't personally own or use very often. For me, it's all about the games.

There are some huge titles being shown off this year. Here are some that I've found most interesting.


Far Cry 3
While not one of the aforementioned huge titles, I'm kind of excited about this. I didn't even know they were making a sequel.

Far Cry has an interesting history. The first game came out in 2004 as the first release from developer CryTek (makers of Crysis). This established the developer's penchant for gorgeous graphics, tropical island settings, and putting "cry" into their game titles.

Far Cry 2 was really a sequel in name only. It came from a different developer (Ubisoft), with a completely different setting, different characters (including the protagonist), and different tone to the story. They were both great-looking first person shooters and that's about all you could say.

I bought Far Cry 2 under the mistaken assumption that it was from CryTek and would be much like Crysis. It wasn't. That disappointed me a lot at first. And while the game did have some glaring flaws, it was a solid, open-world shooter in most respects and quite a lot of fun once you unlocked the game's vast variety of weapons.

Far Cry 3 takes the series back to a tropical island setting... an island full of insane people and you have to escape it. Sounds fun. The following gameplay trailer shows a little bit of character, action, and the game's thematic emphasis. Looks interesting. In a developer interview, one Ubisoft employee admits they were "taken to school" with some of the flaws of the previous game. It sounds like the game will remain open-world but with some significant improvements over last time. If they've learned from their mistakes, Far Cry 3 could be a whole lot of unfettered, insane fun.

Content advisory: some strong language and violence.

Batman: Arkham City
I'm somewhat confused by the premise of this game. So there's a whole section of Gotham City where criminals run loose? Hey, mayor! Bomb the place. Watch your crime rate drop like crazy.

I'm somewhat excited and somewhat annoyed about what I've been seeing with Arkham City. The exciting bits are the enhanced "Detective Mode," the new setting, and the seemingly open-world feel of the game. Arkham Asylum's environments were fairly large, but Arkham City, naturally, seems even more expansive. It'll be fun to fly around it all as the Dark Knight swooping down and taking bad guys out.

Here's what I don't like: Catwoman. I've never liked the character. The idea of having someone who's like Batman but morally ambiguous is a potentially interesting idea, but Catwoman's design, mannerisms, and actions are all about one thing: sex appeal. *groan*

There was a trailer entirely featuring her which really made me not want to play this game. Did she really have to look like that, Rocksteady? C'mon.

At least Christopher Nolan will almost certainly treat the character with more dignity in The Dark Knight Rises next year. Until then, we have Arkham City.


Metro: Last Light
Most of the gaming press and people who played it refer to Metro: 2033 as an underrated game no one played. That may be true. I picked it up on a Steam sale early this year to test out my new graphics card's Direct X11 capabilities.

Despite being set firmly within the post-apocalyptic genre, Metro had a unique feel to it mostly due to Ukrainian developer 4A Games. You spent much of the game traveling through the old Moscow metro system inhabited by humans and mutants alike.

Some of the most fun parts of the game where stealthily sneaking through enemy metros by taking out their sources of light and knocking them off one by one. Looks like there'll be a lot of that going on in the sequel which is reportedly about civil war between humans rather than the external threat of mutants like the first game. It also seems to feature destructible environments which is always a good time. Plus the trailer features a Portishead song. Marks for that.


Mass Effect 3
Awwww yeaaaah. I'm already sold on Mass Effect 3. I am going to buy this game. It's getting increasingly rare to see something truly new and excited in video games. The Mass Effect series is a first. It is the first modern RPG series to present you with hundreds, maybe thousands of choices large and small allowing you to carry those choices and their consequences on the story from game to game.

Bioware claims this has always been a planned trilogy. I guess so. Like a lot of trilogies parts 2 & 3 seem to have more in common with each other than part 1. My concerns are mostly of the nitpick variety. Although Mass Effect 2 was a great game, it was a giant character fetch quest when you got right down to it. But it was also one of the most personal games I've ever played. It was great to see so many callbacks to the choices I'd made in the first game.

I'm really hoping for a lot of interesting and cool stuff to happen in the conclusion. Since Bioware doesn't have to consider how your choices in ME3 carry over to a sequel, they should be free to make a huge variety of endings. Check out the awesomeness below.


The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I wasn't that excited about Skyrim in my most anticipated games list at the beginning of the year. I am now.

Skyrim promises a massive open world with exploration of diverse locations, fights with dragons, numerous weapons and skills, and the best bang for your buck in gaming. Most of the gameplay I've seen is combat-oriented. I'd prefer to see some more footage of the towns and settlements. I've always loved exploring those and working my way into various factions and guilds and, of course, breaking in and stealing things.

I did have a lot of of fun with Oblivion, but the flaws prevented me from playing that much of it. Fallout 3 became one of my favourite games of all time. Bethesda has a great track record for making game worlds that invite you in and Skyrim looks like the best yet.

6.07.2011

Geek Week: Day 2 - Of Press Conferences

E3 kicks off with the big three gaming companies (Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony) giving giant, overblown press conferences. My goodness are they unbearable. I forget that every year. This year I only suffered through a few minutes of each before simply hitting the highlights.

Microsoft, by all accounts, had a pretty run-of-the-mill conference announcing some kind of TV partnership, stupid tacked-on Kinect features in high-profile games like Mass Effect 3, and the final surprise announcement of *gasp* Halo 4. What? You mean Microsoft wanted to once again milk its most well-known and lucrative original franchise? What a shock.

*snore*

Sony began its show with a long, loud promo video and then a necessary apology for the lengthy outage of the PlayStation Network. Then it was games, games, games all except for the announcement of the company's new handheld console: the PlayStation Vita.

I hadn't heard any rumors about Sony releasing a new console handheld or otherwise so this came as a bit of a surprise to me. Sony's last few iterations of the PSP haven't been stellar successes. Despite having better specs and more features, the PSP has never been in the same ballpark as the Nintendo DS when it comes to sales numbers.

The Vita is Sony's response to the 3DS and I have to say it looks like the more compelling platform for the serious gamer. It's essentially a revamped PSP with better specs and a capacitive touch screen. Nice. If I didn't hate Sony's guts, I might be interested.

Here's why I think it's compelling. Rather than trying to do horrible, eye-straining 3D, Sony has integrated the best feature of iDevices and Android phones along with six-axis motion control and traditional analog joystick and buttons. It's all of the current ideas of how to interact with your games all in one nice neat package. It seems like a good platform for hardcore and casual games alike. I wonder how long it will be before the insufferable and ubiquitous Angry Birds is ported to the bloody thing.

Finally, Nintendo's press conference revolved around the reveal of the recently-rumored Wii 2... which is called the WiiU.


Yes, really. Reggie was serious. He's a serious man. Who works for Nintendo. It's really called the WiiU.
Believe me, I wouldn't make fun of the name so much if the product didn't look like this.

Are you kidding me? Did Fischer-Price make a game system?


Now before I lay into this thing, I'd like to say there are a few cool things about it. It's kind of cool tech. The console can stream the game you're playing directly to the controller's screen meaning you can play a game even if the attached TV is in use. It can also be used with a stylus to draw Wacom-table-style. Nice.

It's good to see some real innovation. However, just because it's new and different doesn't mean it's any good. I submit the Wii as an example of that.

As a controller, this thing looks bulky, possibly heavy after awhile, and unnecessarily distracting. A video showed off some potential uses for the new controller the last of which was a Legend of Zelda demo. Please do not ruin Zelda with this tacky gimmick, Nintendo. Remember what happened with Twilight Princess? Most people I talked to preferred the non-motion controlled GameCube version of that game.


Admittedly, the WiiU looks friendlier to hardcore gamers like myself. This is underscored by a substantial graphical upgrade with HD output (finally) as well as a lineup of M-Rated titles from third party developers. Still, according to reports from reports from the show, the graphical improvement is only comparable to the six-year-old Xbox 360. That's not particularly impressive, but maybe the Wii will stopped getting passed over by hardcore game developers.

Right now the new controller and all the comes with it are gimmicks. Motion control is still a huge gimmick (along with 3D, I'll add). They don't add any more essential fun because half the time you're wrestling with the system trying to get the controls to work. However, I think the technology will eventually catch up. Whether the gimmicks, once perfected, will prove actually worthwhile is anyone's guess. I'm thinking yes and no.


Tomorrow: games, games, games!

6.06.2011

Geek Week: Day 1 - Apple Plays Catch Up and Maybe Leap Frog

And with a vengeance Apple unleashes another long keynote upon the world that's received undue attention and press coverage.

Wait a second, you say. Why am I talking about it then? Well I'm stuck with the iPhone (I refuse to drop the definite article before Apple products like they want people to) for at least another year since I got suckered into the iPhone 4 last year.

I'll say this: it's a good phone with a decent operating system. However, Apple's iOS software is woefully behind Google's Android and has been for some time. I really think Apple needs to do major iOS revs every 6 months to keep up, but that seems unlikely.

As it is, Apple is behind. Last year they previewed iOS 4 in April and released it in June along with the iPhone 4. If the rumors are true (and they often are with Apple) then we'll probably see iOS 5's release along with the iPhone 5 or 4s or whatever it'll be called in September when new iPods are normally announced. I don't know quite why Apple is delayed 2-3 months with this. Probably because of iCloud, but we'll get to that.

iOS 5

Apple touted several new main features for the mobile operating system powering the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. I'll hit the highlights, the actually interesting stuff:
  • Notification Center
It's about freaking time. By far the worst thing about my iPhone that the notification system seems designed to systematically get in my way and help me forget about whatever it was that was so blasted important as to completely interrupt whatever I was doing. It's horrible.

Although they won't admit it, Apple has totally copied Android's pull-down notification system - plus notifications also appear on the lock screen. This is a very good thing. That's a great system and I'm really excited to finally have it... in the bloody Fall, I mean.

iPad and iPod touch people probably won't understand how important this is, but when iOS is your phone's operating system, notifications become a lot more important. I count on my phone as a calendar, email client, and messaging system. Having all this stuff as well as app notifications laid out in a nice way rather than a bunch of apps with number badges scattered across pages will be a very welcome change.

  • Reminders
I can't tell if this will be a useful feature or not. I like the idea of using my iPhone as a to-do list. I've tried a bunch of apps for it but none of them seem to quite do it for me. I think the improved notification system will help more than Apple building in a do-to list app, but I'll give it a try anyhow.
  • Twitter
Last year there was a rumor going around that Apple was going to build Facebook into the iPhone. I never gave any credence to that particular rumor. Similarly, I would have been skeptical of any rumor saying that Twitter was going to be baked into iOS 5. This is a surprising feature, though again, not one I feel strongly about. I have a Twitter account, but I am continually baffled as to why I continue to use the service. That said, the integration looks cool for those who are power Twitter users.
  • Camera & Photos
There are some minor enhancements to the default photo app. I generally use Camera+ unless I feel the need to use HDR. Speaking of Camera+, one new feature is the ability to use the volume-up button as a shutter button. Camera+ was infamously banned from the App Store last summer for trying to sneak that feature into their app. I wonder how the folks at Camera+ developer TapTapTap feel about this?

iOS 5 also adds some basic photo editing abilities like cropping, red-eye removal, and an auto enhance button. I generally use Camera+ for editing as well so there's nothing here that looks exciting.
  • Safari
Safari's getting a much-needed improved feature set. Finally the browser has tabs. A new feature called Safari Reader looks very compelling. Basically, when you're reading an article, you can tap the Reader button and Safari will reformat a web page to remove all the clutter and just focus on the article with nice formatting and everything. Great idea. Hope it works as well as demoed. That's a hugely practical feature. You can also save articles for later in a "Reading List."
  • PC Free
Finally! Over-the-air updates and wireless syncing! Y'know, that feature that Android has had for years. The Zune has had wireless syncing since 2006. You're a little behind, Apple. Nevertheless, it is a welcome update.

I hate syncing with iTunes. It is an arduous process to have to plug in my iPhone, load up clunky, bloated iTunes, and hope the sync decides to work. Often I run into some kind of issue. At the very least, it takes forever. Last week I was updating and I spend about 3 hours of my morning trying to get the sync to work. That should never happen.

Hopefully these cord-cutting features will help make syncing my iPhone a better experience. We'll see.


iCloud

I'm not sure I quite understand how iCloud's going to work practically. It sounds wonderful if you live entirely in Apple's walled garden. But then, if you live there I'd imagine you're a lemming who believes the world's a wonderful place as long as Apple tells you so. You probably believe Macs can't get malware too.

Anyway, iCloud seems like it might be a leap ahead of all of Apple's competitors. Of note, Google and Amazon recently rolled out cloud-based music services (although Google's is still an invite-only beta). iCloud is more than just a music service, however. iCloud sounds like Dropbox with some Apple pizzazz thrown in and closer integration with apps and its mobile devices.

It's free which sounds nice at first until you consider that Apple is getting far more out of the deal than you realize. iCloud will likely be very limited when you step outside of Apple-approved territory. 3rd party API were announced, but we'll just have to wait and see what developers are allowed to do with them.

There are two features I like a lot about iCloud: photos and re-downloading.

As someone who probably should have gotten the 32GB iPhone but didn't, I'm constantly running up against my phone's storage capacity. iCloud means I don't have to worry as much. If I delete apps and music worry-free because, I can always download it again free-of-charge. That, combined with wireless syncing sounds very freeing.


I've recently gotten into iPhone photography. Steve Jobs himself admitted in the keynote that getting your photos off the iPhone can be a hassle and he's right. Apple only admits their faults when they've got a fix. iCloud will solve the problem (hopefully) of me having to worry about deleting a photo that's not backed-up.

Even for those of us who just dip our feet in the Apple ocean, iCloud seems like it will offer some solutions to our 21st century, first-world problems.

I do have to rant a bit about the iTunes Match feature which goes through your media library, identifies songs you've ripped from CDs, and allows you to use iCloud with these songs just as you would with songs purchased from iTunes. Apple acquired this technology from Lala, a wonderful music site they bought last year and abruptly shut down. I still resent Apple for this. They might have made it up to me with this feature, but no. They've decided to charge $25 a year for it while Lala did it for free. That really burns me up. Still.

iOS 5 is definitely playing catch up with Android, however iCloud seems like a much better thought-out and more mature cloud offering than anyone else yet offers. We have to wait until Fall (whenever that means) to see for ourselves.


Okay, E3 starts tomorrow! Bring on the games!

The blog

I expect, as my schooling has concluded for the near future, that I will be a more frequent contributor to the blog than I have been for the past year and a half.

Almost every time I sat down to write a post, I experienced an unease. The format of “the blog” as a cultural phenomenon seems imbued with a certain sense of narcissism with which I am uncomfortable. Most interactive social media has this attitude and indeed, Facebook and Twitter are constructed entirely about the premise that not only is what people think important but additionally, that it is in some way integral to other people’s lives. Why does what I have to say matter? How am I not participating in the greater culture of self-indulgence I so despise when I tweet, or update my status, or compose a post on blogger? The reason blogging seems more sinister is that the medium possesses a very real weight that does not necessarily exist in other forms of social media. A Facebook status can be composed flippantly. Tweets are hardly works of literature. People in some way expect that and the nature of those services promotes rapid-fire exchanges that are sometimes informative but more often meaningless. I tolerate Twitter and Facebook, not because I like the services, but because it is by partaking in the services that I feel connected to my friends and peers. I tried the whole “no Facebook” thing for a year and found that interaction with friends with whom I was not in immediate physical proximity fell dramatically. I therefore tolerate the flaws of the social sites because interacting with people is my drug and those sites provide my fix.

On the other hand, a blog post involves more thought, more writing, all while generating less expectation of response (perhaps this is a problem unique to this site), which makes it seem more self-indulgent. What purpose does composing a well thought out string of characters on a given subject serve, especially if only I am going to read it? I don’t want to shout into the void and add to the echoing cacophony. I want action to be meaningful. Meandering on a topic somehow related to current events, pop culture, or some particular policy issue simply because I find interesting and because I want the world to be able to know what I think doesn’t seem meaningful, at least not in the same way a private discussion on those same topics would.

Despite all my misgivings and my rather broad definition of narcissism—selfishness is an incorrigible aspect of the human condition and avoiding communication simply because I find it in some way self-centred is a bit puerile—I will still contribute, because despite all my misgiving and my rather broad definition of narcissism I think that the practice as a whole is a net good. Writing for a (potentially) large audience engenders a depth and breadth of thought that may not be present in private colloquy. Writing itself is something I enjoy doing and a blog format provides an outlet for doing that.

So here I’ll be, sharing incisive articles of my own device or perhaps shouting into the void. Either way, I’ll enjoy myself, and that’s all that matters to me, really.

Geek Week

Two big events in the tech world are going down this week: Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) and the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). So yeah, for a geek like me, it's a big week full of interesting news.

Hopefully.


Apple is showing off the latest versions of its OSX and iOS operating systems as well as iCloud, a new service while many, many games will be showcased at E3 and we might possibly see Nintendo's new console.

I'll be blogging my reactions to the news all week as it comes out starting with my WWDC reactions later today. I must admit my biases and interests up front: I am an iPhone 4 owner and a PC gamer thus I have stock in news pertaining to those two things. That means I probably won't pay much heed to console exclusive titles or the OSX Lion update. I just don't care about those things. But I'm sure there will be plenty of interesting news besides.

Alright. I'm ready for Geek Week!

5.21.2011

On Stranger Tides Review


When Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl was released in 2003, it surprised everyone who (understandably) didn't except much from a movie based on a theme park ride. I mean, that's a weaker concept than a video game movie and we all know how well those usually turn out. But Pirates proved a giant success with audiences myself included.

And then, of course, we got sequels.

Similar to the Matrix franchise, most agree that the first film was great, but the sequels were rather dividing affairs.

I really enjoyed Dead Man's Chest for it's inventive use of sea-monster mythology and still in-tact humor. By the third movie the franchise had become too bloated and wrapped-up in itself. At World's End, seemed to jettison most of the humor and lighthearted fun of the first film in favour of setting up a giant good-vs-evil battle between the evil, money-grubbing British and the nasty, money-grubbing pirates. Wait - who were the good guys again? Also there was a goddess who turned into a bunch of crabs or something... that was bizarre.

When I heard that Disney planned to continue the series after the disappointing third act, I had mixed feelings. By far the best decision they made with On Stranger Tides was to make it a standalone story like Curse of the Black Pearl. That's a really good thing since that's how adventures movies tend to work best (see Indiana Jones) and it means we shouldn't have as much plot baggage to carry over from one movie to the next.

Speaking of baggage, another welcome change in the fourth installment is the absence of Will and Elizabeth Turner since their story was one of many that was concluded in At World's End.

Blackbeard's ship the dreaded Queen Anne's Revenge.
On Stranger Tides follows Jack Sparrow, Barbossa, and Gibbs, along with some new characters on a quest for the Fountain of Youth. The new characters are a mixed bag.

Penelope Cruz plays Angelica, a love interest for Jack Sparrow. Let me just say this: Jack Sparrow should not have a love interest. He's a bloody pirate - a scalawag. That kind of commitment even to another pirate seems very out-of-character. But then we're constantly being told that Jack is somehow an ethical pirate. We never see him kill anyone who's not far worse than he is. Angelica's main problem is that she's kind of annoying. I never understood why Jack would find her more appealing than any of the other women he might have run into on his adventures. Why does Jack have genuine feelings for this women? Because the script says so.

Ian McShane, on the other hand, plays an absolutely fantastic Blackbeard. He's intimidating without acting over-the-top evil which makes him far less likable than say, Barbossa, who's theatrical on purpose. Blackbeard feels appropriately commanding and sinister - a real, genuine antagonist for the film. What I didn't care for [slight spoiler warning] was how the script characterized him as some wizard of the sea. His ship somehow has quite a few magical abilities. Magic is an established force in Pirates lore, but we are never told why Blackbeard has command of it. It made sense for a character like Davy Jones who was clearly dealt with the supernatural. I would have preferred Blackbeard to have just been an ordinary human with extraordinary talents for piracy. [end of spoilers]

A fun sequence in London that drags on for a bit too long.
My favourite new character was a missionary named Philip who was one of the most positive portrayals of a Christian on film that I've seen in a long time. Was not expecting that. Philip stands strong in face of Blackbeard's obvious evil and Jack's hedonism alike. As much as we are supposed to like and root for Jack, I found myself rooting for Philip just as much if not more. I won't spoil Philip's subplot, but I will say it's left open-ended making me wonder if he might return in possible sequels.

All the returning characters are a welcome sight although Barbossa and Gibbs don't get as much screentime as their characters (and actors) warrant. Jack is probably better written in On Stranger Tides than he has been since the first film. He's a real character again, not the walking punchline he had become in the last movie. Like in Pearl, he runs into the plot rather than inducing it or being at its center. That's a very good place for Jack to be as it turns out. It strikes the right balance as did the first film.

After a trilogy of Pirates films I wasn't expecting to be surprised. I actually was at several points in the film. The set pieces are fun. The mythological elements including mermaids and old school voodoo-created zombies are realized in interesting ways.

Blackbeard is very well acted by Ian McShane though
strangely characterized by the writers.
There are, unfortunately, several problems that keep it from being as good as the first or second films. It felt long to me which is never a good thing to think in a movie. That's probably because the film starts off with far too much action before getting to the plot. The pacing is better in the second half of the movie. However, I still felt like I was watching film that was close to three hours when in reality the runtime is was less than Pearl.

I don't think the film will hold up to repeat viewings like the original. There's just something a little fatiguing about it. It's a shame too. With a little trimming of the script here and there (or better yet: removing some unnecessary actions sequences) it might have been a much stronger movie. Still, a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean could have been much worse than On Stranger Tides.

I am looking forward to another film. As long as they keep this standalone serial formula going I think there's more life left in this franchise. Pirates 4 brings us the welcome return of Jack Sparrow. It is a more-than-satisfying summer popcorn movie. What else do you want from a Pirates movie?

5.02.2011

That's the end of that...

Happy May, everybody. I wish it looked more like Spring in my neck of the woods, but at least the end of the school semester is right around the corner.


So the big news right now is, of course, the death of Osama bin Laden. Am I happy he's dead? At first I was somewhat gladdened by the news, to be honest. I know that's not a very Christian response.

The truth is Osama bin Laden was made in God's (Yahweh, not Allah) image. He needed to know Christ just like anybody else. But I do believe that God is a God of justice. Whether we as fallen creatures ought to extract justice from each other through means of capital punishment is something we can debate (there is disagreement between the contributers to this blog). One thing's for certain: Osama bin Laden was a very lost soul who believed that he was doing good when, in fact, he was doing great evil.

Did Osama get what he deserved? Yeah, he did.

What saddens me is how this has once again brought to mind the tragedy that befell the country almost 10 years ago. While my patriotism has waxed and waned in the years since then, 9/11 nevertheless will always remain a formative part of my childhood. To me, this event gives that one some closure.

Another saddening thing: Twitter along with the internet in general seems predisposed to do nothing but make unfunny jokes about it. I hate to sound like a killjoy, but... this is such a sad and predictable response.

I've been through the #osama trending topic. While some people are merely reporting the news to their collective circles, about 2/3 of the comments are jokes, flippant comments, or otherwise irreverent chatter.

The best Tweet I found one the issue (and one of the few mature ones) was this:
"I'm not going to be happy about  being dead. Evil or just doing things the wrong way, God still loved him"
from @Erinsoap
I can't say I blame people for making deriding comments about bin Laden. I get that. But to I feel that it's making light of something that we probably shouldn't in this case.

I am someone who likes to make light of a lot of things because, to me, it's a good way of putting things in perspective. I treat a lot of things irreverently because I truly don't think they're that significant or worthy. Most of what the 24 hour news media likes to drum up as "news" is utterly ridiculous. We focus on absurdly stupid things and that makes us cynical or just bored so that when something like this comes around that genuinely matters we don't have any other response than irreverence.

One man is dead. Let us be thankful he can do no more harm. I, for one, am not thankful he is suffering eternally for serving the wrong god.


Whatever you believe about the issue, is it really too much to ask that we be adults about this? What are your thoughts on the death of Osama bin Laden? Is it a truly significant event or no big deal?

4.23.2011

Science Still Alive: Portal 2 Review

I have tried my absolute best to keep this review spoiler-free. Although I discuss the new elements of the game, I do not disclose any plot. I may have a spoiler-riddled discussion of Portal 2 at some point in the future, but for now you're safe if you haven't played the game yet.

There's a very good reason Portal 2 was my second most anticipated game this year. Actually, there are many good reasons. Foremost is the quality of the original game. It's not very often a game comes along that makes the kind of tidal waves in the gaming world that Portal did.

It was innovative. It was fun. It was hysterical. And the cake was a lie.

I was a bit surprised when they announcement for Portal 2 came along. I must admit I was skeptical whether the concept would work beyond a brief standalone game. I thought honestly that Valve had shot their wad with portal-based puzzles and passive-aggressive artificial intelligence. But, hey, it's Valve. They sure take a long time developing games, but it generally pays off.
Just one example of the immense set pieces in Portal 2.

Portal 2 is considerably longer than the first game. Most people report 8-10 hours of gameplay for the single player. That's about right. I'd say it's more like 7-9 for seasoned Portal veterans. In either case, it's at least twice as long as the original game which ran about 3 hours tops.

The increased length means there's a lot more time for developing an involved plot and more intricate puzzles. Without giving anything away, we meet a few new characters and, of course, experience the return of GLaDOS, who is indeed still alive.

In true Valve fashion, as much of the story is told through dialog and actions as through the setting itself. Aperture Laboratories look quite a bit different this time around. Let's just say the complex is more vast than the original game ever suggested. The diverse scenery helps relieve the fatigue of testing in those grayscale antiseptic chambers that make up the entirety of the first game.

The tests themselves are kept fresh and new by the addition of several new elements given hilariously silly titles such as "Thermal Discouragement Beams" (lasers), "Arial Faith Plates" (basically spring-loaded panels), and several liquid gels with various helpful properties such as portal conductivity or speed enhancement.

The new test elements are fantastic additions to the game.
The test chambers are the most fun part from a gameplay perspective. Despite the addition of these new testing elements, the game isn't overwhelmingly difficult. It's been incredibly well-designed with tests just difficult enough to make you feel smart when you solve them, but not so difficult that you give up.

Most of the times I got stuck were during the transitional portions of the game when you're going from one series of tests from another. These portions are the weakest part of the game. I was sometimes unsure where I was supposed to go next. When I finally figured out that I could portal over to that tiny little panel and then to fling myself up to that ledge, I felt kinda dumb for missing it. But in the chambers themselves I never felt this kind of frustration.

Writing was a huge part of the original game. No one expected it to be as funny as it was. Portal 2 is still very much a comedic experience. Again, the comedy is just as much derived from the environment as the characters' dialog. Both are well-crafted and generally work well. Only very occasionally did I feel the writers were trying too hard or that a joke fell flat. I wish I could put some of my favourite lines from the game here, but I don't want to ruin them.

Portal 2's a solid gaming experience that lives up to its unique predecessor in almost every way. Of course it isn't as fresh. By nature, a sequel can't be. My only real disappointment is that the game doesn't give any insights into what's going on in the Half-Life storyline. But it would be wrong to fault a game for lack of information about another game even one so anticipated as Episode 3.

In the end, the game plays great, it looks as good as any Source engine game has so far (which is to say dated, but with good art direction all the same.) The ending is fun, funny, and satisfying. That's about all any reasonable gamer could ask for. The replay value might be somewhat limited, but co-op mode is decently fun if you have a buddy ready and willing to play. Worth $50? Depends on how big a fan you are. If you haven't gotten it already you might consider waiting for a Steam sale.


Now let's hear something about Episode 3, Valve!


P.S.
I don't think it's giving anything away to say that, like the original game, Portal 2 has a Jonathan Coulton penned ending song and, in my opinion, it's just as good as the famed "Still Alive."