31 December 2012

#2LR Civilization Retrospective Gala - Civilization II

Thanks to Reddit, Civilization II hit the news in June of 2012, almost twenty years after it was released.  It was entirely due to this longevity that it managed to hit the news in June of 2012, because one intrepid Redditor decided to play a game lasting literally ten years in real life, picking up the same save-game and transferring it to different computers when necessary.

As I watch my son play a game of Wii bowling that is over in five minutes tops and forgotten in six, that strikes me as quite a bit of commitment.  People grasped onto the story, and major media outlets grasped onto the story because it just could be plausible... after all, the game situation consisted of three major powers that faced off against each other in a wasteland of multiple nukes and no real arable land... which mirrored George Orwell's 1984 at least partially, and in some situations it serves as a cautionary tale to what may happen if humanity stagnates at 2020 technology and decides to fight each other for the next two thousand years.

But... seriously, this is Civilization II.  This isn't the Mayan calendar or anything.  In a year dominated by Mayan calendar jokes, I suppose it made some people happy to know that we may still live to the year 3991, even if it was as a stalemated semi-existence.

I had heard the story, even saw the challenge that the Redditor posted ("Win my game through conquest and save the world through transformation!").  That still didn't inspire me to try to resurrect my copy of Civilization II though, his situation matched situations that I've dealt with in Civilization II as well.  However, doing these retrospectives gave me the inspiration to unearth each and every Civ game I own, which all happen to still be on CD-ROM.  Installing this game was extremely difficult, but I managed to accomplish it... for you guys!

To get the "good stuff" out of the way, Civilization II improves on the original more than a bit.  More civilizations are available, more governmental types are available as well.  The game makes the first acknowledgement that settlers aren't exactly equipped to build massive irrigation projects, providing a late-game upgrade to "engineers" (though engineers are still the unit that builds new cities in the late-game stages).  There are more Wonders in the game too, and the game gives some ability to upgrading sea tiles with the harbor and offshore platform buildings.  There are penalties for changing your project, though only if it is not the same type (going from building to building is fine, but building to unit is not).

However, the big failing and issues with this game remain the zones of control and the diplomacy.  Going through another playthrough, I remembered how frustrating Civilization II was because cities could be built anywhere by any country... which resulted in too many occurrences of the computer players putting cities in places that I already had a city next to, and because of the city's zone of control that meant that my roads/railroads were instantly ruined.  Additionally, there's no real limit to the computer players working together against you and breaking agreement upon agreement, as well as no real way for you to tell another country to get their caravan out of your railway except through military action.

Last note, I have a special shout-out to the adviser screen in Civilization II, which has become the source of more than a few jokes and a meme.  I know that everyone likes the Entertainment advisor Elvis, but my favorite was the Kevin James-ish military adviser.

As far as the ten-year Civilization II game, don't ask me to even try.  Megane 6.7 and I still write MSTings, we've been doing this for twelve years.  I've had the blog for seven... but the happy part is that things change.  While we'll still trot out our A-Team references, thankfully there's been all sorts of media since 2000 (Harry Potter, Twilight, Lady Gaga, etc.) that allows us to keep our references at least semi-fresh, and new fiction all the time to find out where it goes.  I tried to play a Civ II game from start to finish for the article, and I managed to make it through the Apollo Project, built somewhere around 1840.  (Note: I love Civ time, it's so funny to start building your railroad in 1745)  However, the diplomacy and the zones of control issues are both too much for me to overlook, and handled admirably in later versions of Civilization.  Civilization II, for me, belongs in the same category as Civ I -- fun for retrospective reasons, fun to reminisce for old games and times spent playing what was then a revolutionary game... but overall, not replayable to the point of a ten-year consuming game.

29 December 2012

#2LR - Civilization Retrospective -- Colonization

And you thought I'd go on to Civilization 2 first?  Not hardly!  At the time, as I recall, Colonization was billed as the sequel to Civilization, long before the Roman numerals became a part of the series, and was Sid Meier's follow-up to Civilization... which is why it gets to go before Civilization 2.

Colonization included a lot of the aspects of Civilization, where settlers build cities, are transported on ships, and there are military units involved.  However, it was a departure in some regards from usual sequels because there were so many different aspects between Colonization and Civilization too.  For instance, in Civilization, you could assign a citizen to produce from a plot of land, but that citizen would produce exactly x number of shields, x number of food, and x trade arrows every time.  There was no change.  However, in Colonization, if you directed a colonist to produce on a forest square, they could produce lumber, or they could produce furs, or they could produce food, or they could produce cash crops (tobacco/sugar/cotton).

Production was handled far differently too.  Civilization had shields automatically generate which turned into buildings.  In Colonization, basic buildings could be built by cutting timber from forest, then having a colonist spend time in the carpenter's shop, generating hammers.  More advanced buildings required tools, which took ore and time spent in a blacksmith's shop.

The interesting part with Colonization was that you could ship raw materials (ore, furs, sugar, etc) or you could have a colonist process them into finished goods (tools, coats, rum).  It was a balance to figure out how to make money, whether to put in the extra work to get presumably more money for the goods.

Unlike Civilization, there is no tech tree and there are no Wonders of the World.  There are different units, ranging from inexperienced soldiers to veteran soldiers, mounted soldiers (and veteran mounted soldiers), and cannons.  Taking an established city is far harder than it used to be, especially as the cost to outfit an army becomes higher and higher.  The tech tree and the Wonders were replaced by Founding Fathers, historical figures that you could obtain through making a colonist into a statesman, similar to a politician.  Each Founding Father would have a benefit, such as extra ship movement, free city defenses, etc.

The biggest change is the start position.  In all other Civilization games, you start with a land unit and have to build a city nearby.  In Colonization, you start with a transport ship and two settlers; you have to first explore to find a good starting position.  Exploration is an extremely important part of Civilization in all incarnations, but paramount for Colonization if you want to give yourself the best chance.

It's almost as if the programmers (Sid Meier & company) decided to challenge themselves to make a new game.  It took me quite a while to get to the point of having a good enough strategy to win on moderate difficulty; for the longest time, I worked at easiest level and still had problems.  I have since figured out a few tactics and strategies that work fairly well, and can beat Colonization on medium most of the time.

It could be because I managed to find a good balance, or just that the dynamics of the game are so different, but Colonization is a game that I can pull out and enjoy almost twenty years after it was first published.  The biggest problem I've had is to find ways to continue to play Colonization long after Microsoft has determined that old software shouldn't be run on new computers.  Unlike Civilization, I still quite enjoy playing Colonization for more than just nostalgia's sake, and even though an update to this game was published using the Civilization 4 engine, I am more than happy to continue to play the original.  If you happen to find a good copy of Colonization, I suggest DosBox for running it.

The series will continue with Civilization 2, both the challenges in installing the game as well as the ways that the Civilization series was made better, along with the challenges that the programmers continued to face.

27 December 2012

#2LR - Retrospective of "Civilization" -- Civ I.

For Christmas, I received the expansion pack for Civilization V, "Gods and Kings".  I am still going through it, and I am sure that I will have some comments about it when I get to that point.  It made me realize, though, that the Civilization series has been a large part of my computer-gaming life ever since the first one popped up in the early-90s.  So, I thought that I would go through the series with some reminisces and whether or not the game holds up.

Firstly, my memories of the series are inextricably tied to Windows.  The first computer that I cut my teeth on was an old Apple II+.  It ran on floppy disk, and it was a big flipping deal when my dad got a chip that expanded the Apple II+ to... 64.  Dang, I can't even remember what.  Good ol' Wikipedia tells me that it was 64KB of RAM.  Wow.  Anyway, the floppy disks -- 5.25 inchers that were really floppy -- all had games on them, and I learned how to program in BASIC on the Apple.  I had friends that had an IBM, with the 3.5 "floppy" disks that were really hard, and the graphics were just as bad... and the games just as texty.

In middle school, my parents bought our first IBM-type PC, and we had Windows 3.1 installed on it.  It was wild, having to use this new "mouse".  I knew of Sim City from disks at school that we would install on our brand-new Macintosh computers (1992 FTW!)  As a result, Sim City was one of the first games I played that had actual graphics.  Game #2 was "Darklands"... and that thing was WELL ahead of its time.  That will get its own blog post at some point, I'm sure.

With all that intro though, I wanted to make it extremely clear that when I played the Windows version of Civilization... I was floored.  This was the perfect thing for a budding anti-social nerd in the 90s, a board game that you didn't have to ask someone else to play!  And it had actual graphics.  The DOS version has... well, DOS graphics, but the Windows version was a clean version that worked well at the time.

This was a game that took a learning curve.  You had different units, like the settler to build new cities, the soldiers, the boats, and the planes.  Technology trees filled with advances to help your army and new buildings for your cities.  All of the esoteric concepts like corruption, government styles, Zones of Control... it was a lot to absorb, but if you have the time it's possible.

I spent many hours starting and sometimes finishing games of Civilization in my teens.  There were quite a few concepts in the original Civilization that lasted many years through the series, including boat bombardment and the treatment of airplanes (fly out one turn to attack, must return in the next turn to refuel).  Cities, to this day, still develop the land around them and each person you have in your city works one square of land.

But there are so many things that have changed about the series for the better that it is just so difficult to go backward.  Civilization treated every single soldier as a travesty, if the soldier was away from his home city the home city would get mad, and you had to provide entertainment for the city.  In order to get away from this issue, there was a fun and extremely amusing strategy.  I would get one of my port cities to spit out two or three battleships, worth a ton of attack power.  Another town would spit out transport boats and settlers. You could bombard the cities with the battleships, typically taking out really weak units -- the equivalent to men holding spears and shields.  Once you finished defeating all those spear-and-shield guys with your advanced battleship, you could land a settler unit into the town, and voila!  Instant takeover.  The way that the maps were back in the day, it wasn't very hard to get a majority of cities on the water.

To be honest, I wouldn't play a game of Civilization I except for nostalgia's sake nowadays.  But I wanted to at least show my affection for a game that I played through many a weekend, which encouraged me to make small, local decisions with an eye on the bigger picture.  The game was revolutionary, being made and balanced so well so early.   The tweaks and changes that various programmers and companies have made the game so much better with each successive sequel, as well as all of the advanced hardware, but they all had something gigantic to stand on.  While its newer changes have made Civ I obsolete, it was absolutely a 4 out of 4 game for so many years in the 90s.

I wanted to share memories of the other Civ games, as well as pointing out two sequels that get almost zero love nowadays that I still drag out and play more than a decade later.  Please keep an eye on this space for the articles, as I hope to publish at least once a week going forward.

I know that this is coming late, but Megane 6.7 and I would like to wish everyone a warm and festive holiday season, whether it is Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year's Day, or the Emperor's Birthday that is being celebrated.  Have a safe and happy holiday, and I hope to have better news for myself waiting for everyone when the New Year arrives.

11 December 2012

#2LR - Too Late Reviews: Game Review, "Final Fantasy XIII" Part 2:

One of the reasons I enjoy playing Bethesda's "Elder Scrolls" series is that the world is extremely immersive. You can imagine yourself partaking in all of the quests, going down to the minutae of squeezing out an extra three points of carrying capacity from enchanting, or possibly bartering to the very singular percent for all of your weapons and armor.  Or, you can just cast all reason to the winds, get your archmage robes on and start causing explosions of fire and ice all over the place, pausing every once in a while to heal.

Having a world at your fingertips, intensely connected to your controller, and so dynamic that people who are killed in dragon attacks sometimes end up staying that way, means that your mind is being engaged to its fullest... after all, you get to choose what you do next, and the game reacts and changes to your choices.

As intimated before, Final Fantasy is NOT that game.

Final Fantasy is more like taking part in a movie.  It's absolutely scripted.  The director will tell you where to go and what to do at all times, and the best you can do to change things in Final Fantasy is either to use up your potions/Phoenix Downs and go without a tightrope, or to use all your crafting materials on your weapons immediately.  You'll end up with a level 8 something, and it will be different if you reset before saving... but only in that situation.

On the other hand, the game throws its chips towards the plot and character squares.  Unfortunately, for Final Fantasy XIII, there have been similar plots in the past.  Final Fantasy seems to go all-in for the "young people starting a revolution" plot, because that allows the characters to basically be against the world.  After thinking about it a few times, the only Final Fantasy game that I can think of that I played that didn't try that plot was Final Fantasy X-2.  (Disclosure: have never played 8 nor 9, nor have I played the Japan-only 3 or 5).  It's not as if I'm asking for a political-thriller-type plot, I don't need to revisit The Phantom Menace, but this really feels like ground that's been packed flat by millions of footsteps.

This leaves the characters.  Through hour ten or so, there's five main playable characters.  Like in the beginning, they're STILL split into three teams (though they were brought together very briefly around Hour Four, and remained two teams for roughly another hour).  There are tons of cutscenes to flesh out the characters, and plenty of time is used to flash back, around, and through The Days Before It Started.  Final Fantasy thoughtfully provides a "datalog", but that requires lots of reading... not something I'll spend an extra two hours on a game that may last more than thirty.  You can immerse yourself in this plot if you care to, but whether or not you do is really personal preference.

So... if it seems that I'm so negative about the game, why am I still playing around Hour Ten?  Well, I wanted to get to the sixth and last character, though I'm starting to lose some hope for that.  (Hope... HA!)  The level-up system has proven to be at least somewhat interesting, as you have the FF10-flavored discs with status or ability upgrades.  But the real reason is listed below.

The battle system is tweaked from previous games, and in my mind it does show an old gamer like me a new challenge.  In FF13, it's all about getting the enemy "staggered".  This is served by putting together the correct attacks in the correct order... if you go blasting magic at it immediately, it won't work.  You have to soften it up with either attacks or status weakening spells first.  It's extremely fast-paced, and you have to manipulate at least two menus with some deftness.

This battle system will NOT be for everyone.  As it is, I had to take some time to get used to it myself.  However, if there was one thing that I enjoyed about Final Fantasy, it is fighting around and levelling up... and for the battle system to be revamped into a bit more of a logic puzzle that takes some thinking and strategizing, that suits me right to the ground.  There's a million ways to dispatch people in Skyrim or Oblivion, but most gamers will gravitate to one method... have I ever told you how I can take down giants in Skyrim with one arrow due to all the status buffed armor and archery skills bought?

For the time being, FF13 remains my main television video game of choice, and as long as that is the case I will continue to blog about it.  Just be prepared, if for any reason FF13's battles get tedious or the plot sinks any further, you'll get a five-word blog post about me giving up on it going forward.

09 December 2012

#2LR - "Soul Eater" Review:

No change in status, though thankfully I am receiving some small amounts of feedback on my resume.  One interview is scheduled for next week at least, considering it's been only a week I will take that as a good sign.

It's a mixed bag... this gives me the time to watch more anime as well as to play more video games, but it's not exactly under the circumstances that I wanted... being able to play is one thing, but having motivation past the job search itself has been trying.

So, I'm summoning what I have left to give a review of "Soul Eater".

Through the first three episodes, we're introduced to the main characters, who comprise three rather odd teams.  See, there are "weapon meisters", people who wield the weapons.. and there are the weapons, which happen to be other people.  I know, sounds odd, but at the very least we're not subjected to massively long transformation sequences.

The main protagonists are Maka Albarn, your prototypical scythe-wielding high-school sophomore, and Soul Eater, your prototypical high-school sophomore that turns into a scythe.  One of the other two teams consists of Black Star (assassin who can't stay silent) and his weapon Tsubaki.  The other gets odder... the weapon meister is Death the Kid, which happens to be the Grim Reaper's kid.  His two weapons are a pair of sisters from Brooklyn, NY, who happen to turn into guns.  Heh.  And oh, by the way, Death is really a good guy.

So, you can probably tell that this series is half-comedy.  There are quite a few other characters to add to the mix, teachers Sid and Franken Stein, who both happen to be weapon meisters.  Maka's father, which is also a weapon himself.  Excalibur makes mulitple appearances as one of the most annoying characters you'll find almost anywhere... Excalibur's shtick is that while any meister can wield him, he has 1000 rules for being handled.  You can likely guess how arbitrary the rules are.

The other half is actually fairly decent action... even if sometimes it trends into the cliche slow-motion cuts and Death the Kid's massive attack, which typically gets shown three times each instance it's shown.  While the first battle between new participants usually throws a surprise attack or two at you, when they do the next battle it flows fairly decently.

They did a very good job of showing the characters at their worst as well as at their best.  All three characters had their weaknesses... Black Star's braggadocio and Kid's compulsiveness work against them at quite a few times.  Maka, for her part, loses her share of duels, to the point that even though the show doesn't physically mention it too many times, you wonder exactly why she's lead because it's not exactly a given that she'll win any duel.

If there is one other thing that this show does well, it's opening and closing theme songs.  I particularly enjoyed the songs in the second season, especially the funky-fresh ED3 as well as the rock song OP4.  The animations accompanying the theme songs were pretty cool too, to the point that I wouldn't automatically skip the opening or closing sequences.

Fair warning, not to ruin the whole show, but the epilogue is like ten seconds long... there's closure, but not like scads of it.

Overall rating: 3.2  I will watch this one again, and I will think of this show each time I groove out on the theme music in the future on one of my mix CDs.

Thanks again for your patience, I hope to have more reviews up through the next few days.

01 December 2012

Not quiet anymore...

Well, that was fun while it lasted...

On Friday (30 November), I found out that I have been let go from my position, so I am now on the employment market again --  more urgently than I was two years ago.  I am unsure how this will shake out for my current posting schedule.  I thank you for your patience and your continued support of the blog and I hope to keep providing content as my schedule (and my mood) permits.

28 November 2012

#2LR - Game Review, "Final Fantasy XIII"

If anyone has been wondering where I've been for the most part, it's been a cocktail of "busy at work" plus "packing and cleaning for holiday" plus "five-day holiday visiting family including 18 hours of driving".  I am back though, and on tap is a few favorites including the Lord of the Rings trilogy plus The Muppet Christmas Carol.  I have also been watching "Soul Eater" recently through episode 10, though I'm not really able to collect enough thoughts for a blog post as of yet.  There's also a possible review in the offing of the latest "Pixar Shorts" collection, though I may put as much effort into the review as they put into the collection -- namely, very little.  However, I figured I'd take a page from Megane 6.7's book and delve into video game reviews.

While shopping at GameStop over the weekend, I scored one of the games that I've played through rentals and library lending... "Fortune Street", for Wii.  For a mini-review, it's quite like Monopoly except you have the Mario people and the characters from Dragon Quests from the NES years through DQ8 (Jessica, Angelo, young(??) Yangus).  There are a few differences between "Fortune Street" and Monopoly, namely that you can "buy houses" immediately, that anyone can buy you out for five times the current value of the property (including the value of the houses), and that you can now purchase stock which is computed via the values of the properties and the number of times players buy in / sell out stock in the same set of properties.  The other key to this game is that you have to get to certain spots on the board to "pass Go, collect $200", but the board is not an absolute straight line, it gives you options to go in different directions.  This game is a very good game for people who are into the "Tycoon"-type games and/or enjoy Monopoly.

But, you probably didn't click on this to find out my opinions of "Fortune Street".  At the same Gamestop, there was a sale on used games, buy two get one free.  After picking up "Fortune Street" and my wife finding a cheap copy of "Assassin's Creed", I also found a rather cheap copy of "Final Fantasy XIII".

I have a love-hate relationship with the series.  It stretches all the way back to the very first Final Fantasy, with my balanced team of Fighter, White Mage, Red Mage, and Black Mage.  Yes, I have exceedingly fond memories of the Bonk Branch.  I played Final Fantasy IV and VI, otherwise known here as FF2 and FF3 on Super Nintendo, and managed to beat them both.  Final Fantasy 3 was the game that I would rate as the best on SNES, with Crono Trigger coming in at a very close second.  Final Fantasy 7 was the whole reason that I purchased a Playstation.  FF7 also doubled as the last Final Fantasy game that I finished.  I played 10, 10-2, and 12 as well, bringing 10 all the way to the end but just not keeping enough interest in the game to finish it.

So, that's what brings me to Final Fantasy XIII.  I have only completed two hours of the game as of yet, and it happens to be the prologue... and it seems that I'm still in it.


What to say about the plot so far?  It's almost as if they took The Fugitive, crossed it with Saving Private Ryan, and even threw in young comic relief to boot, evoking a very vague and tenuous connection with the immortal Pauly Shore vehicle, In the Army Now.  The other thing that this has a tenuous connection to?  Itself.  All the plots don't really even touch each other yet.  There's what looks like a funkadelic 70's team, purely based on the semi-Shaft-like afro-and-goatee-wearing sidekick to the main protagonist, who happens to be a female version of Cloud Strife -- she's a former soldier (not from SOLDIER, mind you), and carries the sword in this game.  The second plot concerns a refugee from "Street Fighter" or "King of Fighters", a kind of cross between Ken Masters and possibly Clark Still (KoF/Metal Slug/Ikari Warriors).  Better yet, the dude fights with his fists and the occasional hand grenade.

The final set though is what sends it over the top.  In the middle of battle, we manage to find the last oblivious valley girl, Vanille.  She and "Hope" (Hope??) make up the final third of the plot for the time being.  Better yet, they take off and get lost -- just like In the Army Now!  Despite being oblivious to both the fighting all around them and having Hope force-feed her plot because of her denseness, Vanille happens to be the longest-charging but definitely most damage-inducing character.  She can bring down some of the tougher enemies all by herself in two turns, more than even Afro-dude can claim.

They managed to all find a floating temple.  What it is... I dunno.  What it does... I also dunno.  Plot is VERY thin in here, though the spot that I managed to find myself in (Ken-Clark "Terry" Bogard going through the temple) points to a very heavy Harry Potter-type influence, when the stairs and platforms all flop down at the flip of a switch.

[[Spoiler space closed.]]

The "Final Fantasy" series has been a long meditation on the ability of youth to overcome people wanting to gain power.  Youth, you see, has the ability to ignore their station in life and dares to change things that older people take as given.  In this series, it is very little different... there is always a slot for an older character (the various Cids, including from 4, 6, and 7, Auron, Balthier, all the way up to my buddy Strago,) but in this situation, it seems so far that this spot is Sazh's, and he needs a long way to go to live up to this lineage.

It'll be nice to get to the plot at some point too.  I feel almost as if I'm on the third prologue of a Clive Cussler book, where nothing really relates to anything else I've read up until now.  It's not as if I won't be joining a separatist movement though, that's a fairly familiar ground they've stamped out as well.

In the next installment, when I have much more studio space to explore, the topic will be how Final Fantasy occupies the opposite side of the spectrum from "The Elder Scrolls".  If one is like going to a new playground for the first time, the other is like living out the inside of an intricately-plotted movie.  You will bounce off a wall or two in Final Fantasy, but you know (or HOPE) that the writers within will make the journey worthwhile.

17 November 2012

Kind of quiet...

but there's a reason behind it.  Thanksgiving will be on 22 November, and we will be travelling about 500 miles to visit family for the season.  So, we've been busy getting the house into order prior to our departure, cleaning our vehicle, packing, and as for myself, fixing the back bicycle tire that was popped a couple days ago.

As a result, while there's a lot to get through and into, nothing's actually been accomplished.  I am unsure if the schedule will open up at all over the holidays either, but I will definitely get back into the reviewing swing soon.  Thanks for your patience!

13 November 2012

Assassin's Creed 3 & Series Review

Before I played Assassin's Creed 3, I decided to replay the first two games and speak of my experience with the entire series as a whole. I can't speak for the quality of any internet online play as I don't play online. (Warning: Some spoilers for all Assassin's Creed games follow...)

- ASSASSIN'S CREED: Okay, I admit the side quests in this game are repetitive but a good story and interesting visuals carries it through and the mechanics of leaping from rooftop to rooftop and up the walls was a whole lot of fun for me. Despite its repetitiveness, I still enjoyed replaying this.

- ASSASSIN'S CREED 2: Improves on the original in almost every way, great environment for a game, interesting to look at and explore, and it features a very strong and likeable protagonist and support cast for Desmond. Speaking of which, Desmond doesn't get a lot of story in this one but that's okay because Ezio Auditore's story is far more interesting anyway. The ending does tend to dismiss Ezio a bit as the story's focus goes back to Desmond for the final scenes but still this is overall, my favourite of the series and definitely worth checking out even if you haven't played the first game.

- ASSASSIN'S CREED: BROTHERHOOD: Now, unlike the first two installments, I didn't replay this or Revelations before playing Assassin's Creed 3, partly because I didn't want to be burned out too soon. But I have played Brotherhood through a couple of times before and I can say that I didn't enjoy it as much as 2. One of the main reasons for this was the introduction of the Full Synchronization gameplay mechanic... let's just say I HATE IT, HATE IT, HATE IT, HATE IT, HATE IT!!!

From this game on in the series, with every mission you do, you receive a score depending on whether you did certain things in a certain way or within a certain time limit, etc. You can complete these optional requests or ignore them, but if you ignore them, you are subjected to an obnoxious red coloured 'FAILED FULL SYNCHRONIZATION' message that made me feel like I failed the entire mission even when I succeeded.

I wouldn't have had as much of an issue with it if you could turn the mechanic off but since you CAN'T, it's extremely annoying to me and rather demoralizing after beating a tough mission only to get that 'FAILED FULL SYNCHRONIZATION' because I didn't finish the mission exactly the way the game wanted me to.

The second reason I hate this mechanic is because it hurts my overall immersion when I'm constantly reminded that I am, in fact, playing a game. Finally, one thing I admired about previous Assassin's Creed games was that how you went about completing an assassination was entirely left up to you with a variety of methods and approaches to use. Forcing you to do things a certain way or be subjected to the RED TEXT OF FAILURE destroys the feeling of complete freedom I had in previous games.

"Nothing is true, everything is permitted... but if you don't do it our way, you obviously SUCK!" ^_^;

- Now there were a few new elements added to Brotherhood, but for the most part, it felt more like an expansion than a sequel, despite its length, and near the end, I just wanted it to be over and done with as opposed to 2 where I couldn't wait to replay it and discover new things.

- The new Assassin Recruit mechanic was fun for a while and it was cool to see the ceremony that make them full fledged assassins but the whole mechanic gets too repetitive after a while and got more streamlined and pointless with the next two Assassin's Creeds.

- To be fair, Desmond's story does pick up more in this one and his supporting cast continue to be entertaining. There are a few exciting sequences for Eizo such as the chase through the church roof and he finally get to use an Apple to kick some ass, but ultimately, it wasn't enough for me to replay this title again.

- ASSASSIN'S CREED: REVELATIONS: I only played through this game once and frankly, that was enough. While I appreciate the fact that Revelations brought some closure to Altaïr and Ezio's stories, and gave a little more background into Desmond, the sequences on the beach with Subject 16 were just painfully dull and Ezio's world had more than worn out it's welcome by this point. Again, it tried a few new things and this time most of them were a complete bust. The bomb making was completely pointless, the vertical Tetris sequences were just stupid and punishing. Finally, the hook mechanic just seemed out of place somehow and I'm not surprised they dropped it.

And now we come to the latest game in the series...

- ASSASSIN'S CREED 3: We have a new ancestor for Desmond and a new setting to play in. For all my griping about Ezio's story and Italy getting old and tired by Revelations, he was still an interesting character and great fun to play as so any replacement for him would have their work cut out for them.

So we're introduced to Haytham Kenway, a well-spoken yet menacing character in a similar vein to Altaïr from the first Assassin's Creed. We follow this guy for the first few chapters, which has a slow and deliberate pace, too slow at times for my personal tastes, but it serves its purpose as we get to know the character or what we think we know of him.

Then abruptly there's an admittedly cool twist with Haytham that I didn't see coming, and before you know it, we end up getting introduced to a whole new character named Connor to play for the rest of the game. You know, cause that idea worked SO WELL for Metal Gear Solid 2. ^_^;

Now granted, Connor isn't nearly as whiny or annoying as Raiden but his character is so straight and rigid, it was hard to take him seriously and it hurt the story a lot. If there's one word I could use to describe Connor, it would be STIFF. You could argue that because English isn't his first language it would make sense that his English sounds stilted and wooden but if that's the case then it still hurts the story because it makes it nearly impossible for me to get into his character when he sounds like such a tool. Some of Connor's interactions with famous historical figures makes him seems more like Forrest Gump than the assassin he's supposed to be.

I honestly wish we'd stayed with Haytham for the entire story as playing a character from his point of view instead of the Assassins would've made for a compelling story and given an interesting and fresh new twist for the series.

Desmond is almost as bland as Connor, though that's the usual MO for him, and he's outshone once again by the supporting cast, especially Shaun who is undoubtedly the funniest character in this series. We are introduced to Desmond's father, William, voiced by John de Lancie, but unfortunately he isn't given much to do with the role. After one tense argument with Desmond early on that turns physical, he apologizes and... that's pretty much it. He mostly just stands there saying stuff like 'We have to get back to work' and expressing regret for being a bad father. It might have been more noteworthy has Desmond not met the fate he did in the game. Honestly, I felt it was kind of a waste.

- One thing I've always enjoyed about the Assassin's Creed series was the historical settings they took place in and the Revolutionary War, while not quite as interesting to me as the Italian Renaissance, is still compelling. The vast amount of detail and historical content given to you is amazing, especially with Shaun's hilarious snarky editorializing and blatant pro-British bias with his descriptions of various people, places and events. However, if you're not a history buff like me, you'll probably be unimpressed if not bored to tears by all the educational content here and it may be a bit too much for some people's patience if they prefer action above all. Also, I have to say that I was disappointed by the music in this game, especially compared to Jesper Kyd's scores in previous titles.

- Another thing that I'm seeing more and more that has me concerned and disappointed is the continuing trend of dumbing down sequels to popular game series in order to appeal to the widest possible demographic. Assassin's Creed 3 dives into this trap headfirst with simplified yet awkward controls and gameplay.

One glaring example of this is the Assassination Missions. In previous Assassin's Creed titles, you were given a mission to kill someone, the reason for the killing was explained to you in detail. Once the mission starts, you first had to track the target(s) down with your Eagle vision in a yellow circle and then you usually had to overcome some extra difficulties such as getting to the target behind a row of guards or killing them without being detected and/or you had to kill them within a certain time limit. It made for challenging and enjoyable gameplay.

In Assassin's Creed 3, you're told to kill five people. No reason is given other than they're Templars. You go to each target and... you kill them. No searching an area, no guards to get past or time limit to beat. You just kill them and you win. That's it. It's easier, yes, but it nowhere near as fun.

- Another one is combat, which is smoother and more dynamic than previous AC titles but a bit too easy at the same time once you've learned the enemies patterns and it won't take long, believe me. You can easily defeat almost any enemies you face right from the get-go and there's no armour to buy and very little variety in decent weapons. I ended up buying one sword and using it for the rest of the game along with my standard assassin blade. I think I fired my musket two or three times the entire game, and one of those was during a tutorial. The interface, despite being simplified, is more clunky than previous games as well switching around several of the controls that I'd gotten used to in previous AC titles and it just seems unnecessary.

- One of the new elements introduced in Assassin's Creed 3 is hunting, although really it's been done before in games like 'GUN' and 'Red Dead Redemption', though I will give AC3 credit for letting us SKIP the skinning animation unlike RDR. You investigate clues that enable you to determine if an animal is in the area to hunt, though really if you wander around these spots, you more often than not run into these animals casually sauntering by anyway.

You can then either be methodical with your trapping or just try to run them down and through with your blade. Some of the animals fight back, resulting in a quick time sequence to defend yourself or put them down. You skin the animal and sell its various parts for cash or for a scavenger hunt mini-game. I guess it does it's job and maybe it's just I have little interest in hunting animals but I lost interest in it quickly.

- Naval Missions were one of the best new additions to Assassin's Creed and I wish more had been done with it as it was a blast commanding my own ship and having sea battles blasting ships into splinters in both calm and rough weather. I was a little confused as to why I didn't earn any money for most of the missions though but regardless, this was my favourite new addition to the series and I hope this type of mechanic can be used again in future AC titles and expanded upon, rather than dumbed down for a change.

- Homestead Missions were just sort of there, not bad but not really interesting either. The characters were too one dimensional to get attached to with the exception of Achilles. Completing their missions gives you resources which you can buy and sell for money but I couldn't figure out how to get that mechanic to work for me more than once. The in-game manual provided is sketchy at best and needed a lot more fleshing out. Apparently the historical data got top priority. ^_^;

- Assassin Recruiting Missions the same as previous two AC titles except even more streamlined with no armour or weapons to buy and no ceremony when an assassin reaches his peak. It's just busywork, like most of the side missions I found.

- Abstergo, despite us being told over and over again in previous games how powerful they are and how they virtually control the world as it is, seems so bush-league, especially here. The character of Warren Vidic has always come off as a middle management villain at best and yet he continues to be the face of Abstergo and makes them look weak and pathetic.

I realize there was a reason why they were keeping Desmond alive for a while but once it was clear that things had gone wrong, Vidic should have called in death squads with machine guns and attacked the Assassins with everything they had. Instead we get more generic useless security guards with pistols that might be able to kill Desmond if you stand still long enough, not to mention the fact that they were using these pistols against Desmond earlier in the game BEFORE Vidic gave them authorization to kill him. Oops. ^_^;

- But even more pathetic than Warren Vidic is the newly introduced character of Daniel Cross. We are told that Daniel was a former Assassin turned Templar who nearly wiped out the Assassin Order in the past. However his best days are clearly behind him as when you meet him, he's a drunk screw up and virtually no threat to you at all, even armed. This may be a more original concept for a villain but it doesn't exactly make him a compelling adversary, especially when very little is told of him overall and you kill him later in the game almost as an afterthought. Honestly, he seemed more like filler than anything else. Maybe future DLC will explain him better but I really don't care at this point.

- Getting back to Desmond, his final confrontation with Vidic, while admittedly awesome from a badass and poetic justice point of view, was just so simple in its resolution that it was ridiculous. Likewise his final fate at the end of this game was almost comical in its casualness. The conflict he is confronted with is tense and compelling, make no mistake, but his reaction to it reaches almost David Duchovny levels of blasé. All jokes aside though, I truly believe the series lost something when Lucy was killed off and it never quite recovered.

Perhaps it's best the series start fresh with a new protagonist that's hopefully a little less bland, and an ancestor to follow that's a LOT less bland in future Assassin's Creed titles.

- Before I played Assassin's Creed 3, I heard people griping about the ending and I braced myself for another Mass Effect 3 disappointment but no, the story's ending did make sense and set up the next game well enough. There was a bit of a WTF moment at the very end of the epilogue missions but it ended up being another mini-game, this time earning cheats to use in replays of the game, so I doubt it was meant to be taken seriously.

- Now that I've talked about the game's mechanics for a while, there's something I need to address that further hampered my enjoyment, and that's the bugs. And there are a LOT of them.

This is probably the buggiest game in the entire AC series and despite installing the Day One Patch (and really, having a Day One patch is pretty telling in itself) the game crashed on me several times, the sound skipped in cut scenes and sometimes didn't play either music or voices at all, I actually fell through the floor in a couple of spots and there were a few infuriating moments when a mission simply refused to trigger due to a character or object not being where it was supposed to be and I had to run away from the area and then run back until it triggered or reset, which kinda takes me out of the whole experience. ^_^;

- Horse-riding was a great deal more frustrating than previous AC titles, I was constantly getting caught on scenery in town and in the wilderness, making my horse jiggle like crazy and become unresponsive until I had to leave him behind. Levels that involved racing through the forest became a real chore and I found myself running on foot more and more often, despite taking longer, because it simply wasn't worth the aggravation. I had similar problems with riding horses in Red Dead Redemption but this game took those frustrations to a whole new level.

- So, can I recommend this game? As a rental, probably, but as a buy? No, I really can't. It didn't have much replay value for me and while I did want to see the story through to the end, I didn't want to play anymore when it was over and I don't really care about any future DLC either. There are some bright spots to be sure, the Naval missions alone make it worth a rental and if you find the Revolutionary War period interesting, you'll probably get a big kick out of it and Shaun's snarky descriptions. Overall though, I feel there's simply too much wrong with this game to be something I want to add to my permanent collection.

10 November 2012

#2LR - The Hunger Games Plus Rifftrax

"Of course it's the Hunger Games, Woody Harrelson's got the munchies."

So, tonight's Too Late Review is of The Hunger Games, which was one of the movies that was the most highly anticipated of 2012.  (See, I can be semi-recent!)  As a bonus, tonight's entertainment was accompanied by the Rifftrax treatment of this film.  Warning, spoiler space IS below.

In the beginning, there was Artemis.  Oh, wait, wrong mythology.  In the beginning, there is Katniss.  She's already a crack shot with a bow, failing on a headshot to a deer but managing to nab a pigeon before the Empire of Panem's huge dirigible comes flying overhead.  We get to meet Gale, her mother, and Primrose through the next couple scenes, and then comes the Reaping.

The Reaping is really a big national lottery for contestants to play "The Hunger Games", a reality show that has nothing, really, on The Challenge.  As the literal sacrifices submit to nationwide DNA sequencing and likely fingerprinting (one of the few good ideas that this show produced, if that's what was in the book), they all stand in the town square in their Sunday best to see if their names get picked out of a fishbowl.  If they do, they get to participate in this reality show, where the winner is the one that remains alive.  Subsequently, you find out that the fishbowls can allow for choices ranging from eight-year-old girls to twenty-something men, which makes for really awesome battles n' stuff.  (This was *all the kids* from the *entire district*?  There'll be like a population of about 500 people in a couple short decades.  This is NOT how to grow your labor force.)

Anyway, Katniss' younger sister Primrose is pulled from the fishbowl on her very first chance.  That's when we find out that they actually do allow for volunteers, and that "Katniss is the first" from District Twelve.  Really?  In seventy-four years, there's not been one psychopathic teenage boy that was told that if he volunteered he'd get food AND the chance to kill other people?  Afterward, Peeta ('cause, see, he makes bread.  Peeta... bread... whoo) gets chosen as well, but as near as I could tell I hadn't even seen him up through now.

They clamber aboard the Shinkansen where they meet up with Foppish Lizzie Banks and Woody Harrelson, method acting because... well, I really imagine Woody acts just like this in real life, so I suppose it's not really acting.  Woody's now Peeta and Katniss' mentor because at some point in the past he won the Hunger Games, as near as I can tell.  He's pretty clearly self-medicating, though the movie thankfully skips his backstory for the time being.

When the get to the capital.... ehh, it was boring until they found Lenny Kravitz hanging out being a fashion designer.  Kravitz manages to get Katniss and Peeta into a couple spare X-Men black jumpsuits (or perhaps the one Scarlett wore for The Avengers after hosing the Jeremy Renner stench from it).  The movie CGIs in some false flames behind them, while the crowd oohs and ahhs.  As if they hadn't tried this fashion before... it looked like Whoville exploded in there as it was.

The contestants are whisked around for interviews with Katniss busting out the false flames again, this time next to flammable furniture as well as what looked like a highly flammable television presenter.  I couldn't quite figure out if the movie intended for the viewers to think that those were real or an effect of the clothes themselves.  Afterward, the contestants all have to impress a bunch of nattering rubes.  The contestants had a bunch of training dummies set up in front of them, and the chatty bunch were up above on a sort of balcony-type apparatus.  The very instant that it was shown that there were no windows, you could tell what was going to happen next... Katniss, the bird-killer, would definitely wow them by shooting a target in amongst all the people.  When the stereotypical pig with apple showed up... it was almost like staring deeply into a screenwriter's soul.  See, I was almost wishing that there was a dude with a cigarette, almost like the "Whip It" video, but with arrows instead of a whip.

As Woody keeps harping to Katniss about sponsors, before you know it... or, really, sixty-five minutes into the movie... they actually get ready to *have* The Hunger Games.  Everyone's flown out to the Killin' Woods, they all man a Jetsons tube, and finally we get to see them cull the cast.  Within the Games themselves, about half the contestants die within ten minutes.  Then the Games completely lose all that momentum as all the contestants either band together in alliances of convenience or go completely to ground to hide from everyone.

So, with that being said, what does everyone DO during this time?  If this thing is in a kill-dome as they intimated, where do the wild animals for them to cook come in from?  Is this all being carried live, or is this shown highly edited on tape delay?  So, about ten minutes into the Hunger Games part of The Hunger Games, people with highly advanced computers create fireballs to shoot at everyone, and Katniss ends up getting hit.  After about two seconds of sucking on her lip to pretend-hurt and developing a less than half-assed limp, she gets found by the main alliance of do-baddies and gets treed just as surely as Santa Claus did.

In the meantime, there's cameras everywhere and Woody finally decides to get undrunk enough to want to help Katniss.  (Didn't she have sponsors though?)  He manages to get One-Day Majic Burn Salve parachuted directly to her tree.  After Katniss' thigh heals, for some reason the eight-year-old girl who got chosen from one of the other districts is in a nearby birch.  What are the odds?  (And why the HELL did she show up right next to the camp of do-baddies?)  The girl points out the Death Wasps <TM> on a higher limb and Katniss cuts them down, getting stung in the process.  The do-baddies are routed and the ones left alive run.

Katniss hallucinates another flashback (they're everywhere in this film) and comes back to hear the eight-year-old tell her that she's been out for two days (?!?!).  This prompts that question above... if the Hunger Games are televised live, they must SUCK, and I can't imagine how the play-by-play guy and the color announcer fill all that dead time.  Additionally, I reject that they'd let her lie there for two days instead of sending more fireballs, AND I reject that the girl managed to hide herself AND a comatose Katniss from the do-baddies for such a long time too, especially since there weren't that many people left.

Katniss and the girl hatch a cockamamie plan to blow up the supply depot that the do-baddies are guarding and Katniss allows the girl to decoy everyone with a series of bonfires.  If you knew there were explosives around the supplies, why not just try to decoy the do-baddies into running into the minefield?  Absent that, why not just try to activate the minefield while the do-baddies were nearby, so they'd get just as shaken from the explosion as you got?  (Did you know, by the way, that when one mine goes off that they ALL go off at the same time?  After all, why bother trying to demine a field anymore because if you hit one, they all explode shortly afterward?)

After the girl gets speared in the gut and Katniss shoots the spearer dead, she ends up next to another stream and manages to find Peeta... how is a mystery, just like it's a mystery how he managed to find both camouflage netting and a good enough mirror to do a full makeup job on his face to blend in perfectly with the rock right next to him.  It turns out that he got injured something fierce too... and Katniss manages to find the best cave in the whole forest, right next to the water, where a pair of lovebirds can snuggle while everyone up top fights for supremacy.  But she ends up leaving anyway to get more magic salve for Peeta's leg, almost dying in the process.

Toward the end, Woody Harrelson's changing as many of the rules as he can while Katniss and Peeta run away from bulldog panthers that the computers can create.  So, WHOA.  If your computers can create bulldog panthers that end up taking out Ivan Drago's illegitimate son at the end with their very real teeth, why can they not mine in District Twelve, do the farming everywhere, etc.?  Only by reading the Wikipedia article do I get the idea that these mutated animals are real, just released in strategic points in the forest.  That begs another question, why didn't this country just do human experimenting with their mutation skills to get workers that they needed?  It's not as if they have that many more scruples.  Once Drago Ivanovich gets eated up by the bulldog panthers, the bulldog panthers saunter off peaceably, and Katniss and Peeta are left to commit double suicide.  The games get called with two winners, everyone goes home, the end.

--spoiler space over, review below--

Whew.  The Hunger Games won, and my suspension of disbelief has been speared through, knifed, burned, and left for dead.  I know that the movie does not equal the book, but I can unquestionably say that The Hunger Games series of books is not one that I will be reading anytime soon based on... well, this.  I try my hardest to try to pull a message, thoughts, or anything else from what I see and hear in movies and anime... and while I can see the author saying, "See?  This is what happens when you get too callous!", it's just... well, non-effectual.  There's just too many holes for me to get lost in.  I need a tighter narrative, one where things aren't getting telegraphed and where I'm not getting sidetracked wondering why the holy hell the do-baddies didn't set a watch for Katniss while she was up the tree, nor why they didn't attempt to just smoke her out (or burn the tree), or so many other unexplained things.

My rating for this movie is a dismal 1.4.  If the screenwriters are this lazy in many regards, I'm not going to go out of my way to do their work for them.  I suppose someone could accuse me of missing spots due to the Rifftrax, but I was not exactly emotionally invested in this movie regardless.

The rifftrax, though, was good.  Mike, Bill, and Tom did a good job of filling in the dead time with riffs, and they had more than a couple good zingers.  It's not my all-time favorite Rifftrax, but I would get the movie based solely on being able to see the Rifftrax again.

My rating for the Rifftrax version of the movie is 2.7

08 November 2012

#2LR - Too Late Reviews - "Working'!!" Season 2

  In the first series of "Working!!", the regional manager of the Wagnaria restaurant, Otoo, enters the scene every few episodes or so.  There's actually two reasons that he's out and about so often.  One is that, well, he's a regional manager for what is presumably a franchise restaurant, so he's probably at the other franchises inspecting their books as well.  As a reason, this works perfectly fine... but the show operates on two levels, so there's another reason he's in view occasionally.  The other reason is that Otoo's searching for his lost wife.

  After watching this whole series, I feel that Otoo's character and motivations do a very good job of summing up the two-pronged approach of the whole series.

  The first prong is that there is a mundane reason and a wacky reason to everything in the show.  The manager Kyoko can't work because she's lazy... but she's also a glutton that manages to suck down ice-cream sundaes pretty much four-an-hour yet it's never reflected in her figure (nor, for that matter, does her face ever get dirty).  The floor manager Yachiyo is pretty much the sweetest person in the show, excepting possibly Popura... but carries a katana on her at all times and manages to scare the customers.  Souta, the head chef, is aloof and maintains an extremely cool exterior, but in one of the more relatable "wacky" reasons, pines after Yachiyo and is not collected enough to ask her out.  The other cook, Souma, always has a smile on his face yet manipulates people and delights in their misery.

  The trick to all of this is to be able to balance the mundane and the wacky so that there's enough wacky to balance out the mundane, but that there's not too much wacky to make it non-relatable.  I really do believe that the show does a terrific job in this balance, and I felt that it delivered at least one or two laughs per episode for me.  I quite enjoyed the relationship between Souta and Popura, and despite the fact that Takanashi's "quirk" is a bit on the skeevy side (which many of the characters comment on), he's still sympathetic enough to be a good protagonist.

  Which brings me to the second prong of the show's approach.  Otoo's search for his wife in season one of "Working!!" is paralleled by another introduced character in season two of "Working'!!".  The character's name is Yamada, which happens to be the same surname chosen by the new character alluded to in the second review of season one.  The new Yamada is looking for his sister, and one of the episodes details Souma's travels with the female Yamada in trying to throw the male Yamada off of her scent.

  I bring this up because the show is continually searching for family.  There are already families depicted, Takanashi's specifically, and in a couple of appearances, Inami's family as well.  However, the blood family relationships are not all smooth; Inami's wacky reason, her androphobia, is caused by her father specifically. Takanashi's older sister Kozue creates the most strife for him outside the house, as she will come to the Wagnaria restaurant in order to drink alcohol and embarrass Takanashi (and make him pay for it).  This isn't to say that Takanashi and Inami hate their family, but just that the most friction for them comes from these sources.

  However, and possibly unlike "The Office", the employees of the Wagnaria restaurant seem to coalesce into a family.  Takanashi risks life and limb to help Inami with her challenges, Popura bears the brunt of the teasing with exceedingly good cheer, which helps the other employees with their stresses, and the restaurant continues to run with older brother Souta as the anchor in the kitchen.  It's almost as if the show is saying that while you may be looking for pieces of your family elsewhere, you never know where you might find more of your family... such as in the "family restaurant" Wagnaria.

  This show was absolutely in my sweet spot, and I will give it a 3.8.  As stated above, "Working!!" has enough of real life in it to be relatable but enough humor in it to be really funny.  It's also got soul in the under-the-surface family struggles and triumphs.  The best part is that when I go to rewatch episodes of "Working!!", no matter which season, I could pick any episode and I would be able to enjoy it immensely, rather than rewatching two or three really good episodes without watching the rest of the so-so episodes.

  A couple last notes, one on-topic and the other not.

  --Matsumoto, the silent waitress, gets lines in the finale of season two.  It makes me wonder if this show goes to a season three whether or not this will be a running joke, that she'll only be seen until the last show and then heard only on the finale.

  --In the course of the past couple days, I've had my back bicycle tire go flat (my main transportation to work, even now in November) and my email hacked by someone who sent virus links to my contacts and deleted the contacts shortly afterward.  I thought that I'd finally escaped the majority of my recent stress because a major project that'd been running since August had been completed last week... but the project resurfaced again on Wednesday.  My sincerest apologies if you happened to get an email from the person in Peru with the bogus links, and thank you for your patience as I try to get things back to an even keel.

03 November 2012

#2LR - "Working!!'" Season 2, episodes 1-6

Stories, in any medium, run on conflict.  After all, there can be no resolution to a story that doesn't have something to resolve.  Since stories and television shows only have a limited amount of "studio space", this means that the characters pretty much have to bring the conflict to the table.

This means that there are only a couple different characters that pretty much act as blank slates.  The first type, practiced for millennia, are the straight men.  The straight man is a blank slate mostly because he or she has to be normal in order to show the vast gulf of difference between a random person and the madcap zany main character (say, your Jim Carreys or your Jerry Lewises).  Giving the straight man any quirks not only takes away from the camera time of the zany half of the duo, but it lessens the gulf between them and gradually normalizes the zany main character.

Another type of blank-slate character has been practiced for ages, but has shot up in popularity quite a bit in recent times.  Having the main protagonist as the blank slate allows the protagonist to be humanized in much the same way as the straight man, and allows your readers to connect to the story easier, almost being able to subsume their characteristics into the main character and therefore live out the story.  The Harry Potter series does a very good job of this, introducing a main character that's so hard put upon by his family that in the beginning, the character is pretty much "different from everyone else" and "not at all like the loathsome people around him", and oh by the way "has a secret talent that no one knows about".  If that doesn't describe more than 90% of humanity, I'm shocked.

Today's ode isn't about either one of them.

Today, I want to sing the praises of the ignored background characters.  The ones who chew up eight minutes of screentime shooting at Captain America, keeping him pinned down and unable to help Iron Man.  The ones who get sent on away missions purely to act as cannon fodder, to allow the stakes to rise for Captain Kirk to come up with a more dramatic decision later.  The ones who are surprised when the Nazgul ride up and end up knocking down the walls of their village.

There's a variant at work here in the second season of "Working!!'"  To begin, the characters are arrayed with two primarily running the food prep in the kitchen, and four (Takanashi, Poplar, Inami, and Todoroki) running the floor.  A fifth character is added, Yamada -- this was alluded to in the previous review -- who also works the floor.  A *sixth* character, Takanashi's younger sister Nazuna, even pitches in on occasion.

The problem though is that there's conflict to be had, and while Takanashi is the primary protagonist of the show, he has his own quirks and hangups and definitely does not qualify as a blank-slate character.  As a result, the show introduced another character in Ep. 13 of the first season and gave her a couple quick lines. Matsumoto desperately wanted to be "normal" (a new one, a yearning to *be* a blank slate?) but was given a quirk anyway, of being clumsy.  Even with the quirk and even with the lines, through six episodes she can be seen only when the animators wanted to show the restaurant running "as normal", and for some reason one of the other six characters just can't be bothered to go out on the floor.

The oddest thing is that the floor is the only way you see her.  She does not show up even a second in any of the character conversations, not even as scenery.  She's not even anywhere near the kitchen window to pick up food, or drying dishes, cleaning the back rooms, on break... nothing.

I don't quite think that it's boredom on my part that I really enjoy seeing these random characters... on the contrary, I can only imagine how much richer the show could be if these random characters were allowed to grow their own quirks and idiosyncrasies.  After all, if not for characters who start as new but gain familiarity, how would stories in that specific setting even take place?  (Such as Lord of the Rings generating from a character that didn't even exist in The Hobbit?)  In Matsumoto's case, is this significant in that we see people "at work" all the time but without the connection of work, they wouldn't exist otherwise?  Or should I even attempt to read so much into it?

With all that said, I quite enjoyed the first half of the second season of "Working!!".  They pumped up Takanashi's quirks to put more conflict into the show, and that definitely helped the proceedings.  They gave more screen time to the manager, who evidently runs a gang on the side, as well as Takanashi's sisters.  Takanashi gets his foot into his mouth far more as well, and while it's sometimes really jarring to see him act so differently in five minutes than he acted in the previous twelve episodes, it does help a viewer to realize that he's not head-and-shoulders above the fray, he's an active participant in the scrum.

The final seven episodes await, and so far I have not been disappointed... except, I suppose, in meeting Matsumoto and figuring out how she enters into the equation.  (Null set, I'd guess.)

30 October 2012

Sleeping Dogs: Functional Edition PC Review

Okay, I finally got this game to work, with no help whatsoever from United Front or Square-Enix. I downloaded Catalyst 12.11 Beta 4 and now the game works fine. So if you have a ATI 7700 series video card and haven't been able to get the game to work, that may provide a solution but I make no guarantees.

Anyway, now for the review: This game was originally supposed to be the third game in the 'True Crime' series, well known for being a Grand Theft Auto clone, which isn't necessarily a bad thing if done well. The first two games were... okay, IMHO, not terrible but nothing really special. Rental fare at best. Then the third game was dumped by Activision/Blizzard and seemingly dead in the water but it was resurrected by Square Enix and retitled Sleeping Dogs.

As with the previous True Crime games you play a cop, this time undercover cop Wei Shen, who is attempting to infiltrate the Triad Sun On Yee and cripple it from within. This game's plot basically features every cliché from every cop movie ever made, including several Hong Kong movie stables as well. They even blow up a gas station at one point. Not to say the story is bad, just very predictable and well-worn. Perhaps I've been spoiled by Bioware's games where I have more control over the direction of my character and story, but I found myself wishing more than once that I could make different decisions that some of the ones made in this game.

As for Wei Shen himself, he seems to flip-flop between showing hints of genuine complexity only to resort to tired, foul mouthed, angry cop on the edge clichés whenever he meets with his police handler. Don't get me wrong, he's a far more interesting and likeable character than Nick Kang, thank god for that, I just think more could have been done with him and that his internal torment seemed more rehearsed than genuine at times.

The interface of the game was a bit clunky for me, though part of that may be because I used a keyboard/mouse and perhaps it's a little less so with a joystick. Still, there were some aspects of the interface that could've been a bit smoother for my tastes. For example, your phone periodically sends you updates about people you're investigating, and while there's a icon that appears next to 'Reports' when a new one shows up, when you click on it, you have to search carefully through the report to find the newest file because there is no icon in that menu. There are other little annoyances like that that I wish could've been made more user friendly.

This game borrowed a lot from previous games as well, though again a lot of it is implemented well. The combat takes a cue from Rocksteady's excellent Batman games, There's a few action sequences taking cues from a Uncharted game, and so on. To be fair, Sleeping Dogs has a few new tricks of its own and some of them are good in concept but underdeveloped in execution. The whole spot the drug dealer minigame, as Yahtzee already pointed out in his review, is ridiculously easy and could've been so much more interesting. You can also sing karaoke and thankfully, it's not a quicktime event so the interface was comfortable enough that you could sing as well or as badly as you like.

The graphics in this game are very nice indeed, especially the rain effects with the high-res patch. Hong Kong is exaggerated, of course, but that's pretty much the case with any Hollywood medium and it was very pretty to look at. It wasn't as much fun to explore as Stilwater or Liberty City, mind you, but it was still pretty. The music was good too with a surprising amount of Chinese content but I was disappointed there was no custom radio station option, as blazing down the streets of Hong Kong while playing the theme song from 'Police Story' would've made my day. ;P

Finally, it must be said, that the ending credits are one of the most boring credit sequences I've ever seen, to the point where they added a fast forward button and it STILL took me ten minutes to get through them all AND there was no bonus epilogue when it was all said and done. Just sayin'. ^_^;

And now, here's a few things I learned playing this game:

1) A man who has never eaten a pork bun is never a whole man.

2) Killing civilians is perfectly okay unless you're on a mission, in which case you get... DEMERITS!

3) Stopping illegal prostitution is important but engaging in illegal massages is cool, especially if you're a cop.

4) Are your clothes soaked with dirt, blood and possible brain matter? Just take a nap and when you wake up, they'll be crisp and clean again.

Overall, I did have fun with this and enjoyed playing it. It could've been better and more polished but I've definitely played worse. I'm glad I got it for half price though. Assuming there's no bugs on the XBOX 360/PS3 versions I'm unaware of, it's definitely worth a rental.

27 October 2012

#2LR - Too Late Reviews: The Avengers

There's always something about a second act.  In the second act, the characters are already familiar and since they are known quantities, a screenwriter can start working on the unknown quantities, like the surrounding characters as well as the plot.  The second act also gets the opportunity to build on the first act, to take the best parts of what works and use that as the basis for a new vista.

I know that there's been a ton of ink spilled on The Avengers, and that I'm pretty darned late to the party compared to everyone else.  That's really why this is called "Too Late Reviews" though, and hopefully I can take this as my own second act and build on the first.  Before we go on, I can't possibly imagine anyone would need this, but consider yourself warned of the extensive spoiler space below.  (If you haven't watched this movie yet, go do it like NOW.  The review will still be here, promise.)

The movie starts with the HX-368 cube that was carelessly dropped in the review posted below.  It turns out that this little blue MacGuffin cube is everything that Gallagher promised and more.  When we come to see the cute little dollhouse that they build for the cube, we also find Samuel L. Jackson being Samuel L. Jackson.  That's not only okay though, but as you watch the movie, you find out that Joss Whedon WANTED Samuel L. Jackson to be Samuel L. Jackson.

As the prologue keeps unwinding, we see the cube going haywire and summoning... well, he isn't even really Chris O'Donnell, but since he was in the first Thor movie and wasn't doing anything else, he'll do for the time being.  When Loki shows up, Samuel L. starts Jacksoning at a hyper-frenzy pace.  When a movie begins with this many explosions and ends up with a huge sucking hole pulling in all the local scenery, you know of what it will deliver.

At this point, we go into a sort of hybrid "prologue-2" / "Chapter One" kind of deal where the band's getting together.  And they may as well be the Beatles, with Captain America playing the Paul McCartney steady organizer role and Iron Man/Tony Stark filling admirably as a more tempestuous John Lennon.  They grab Bruce Banner from the mean streets of Slumdog Millionaire, though he's certainly not at his Ringo potential as of yet.  They're still missing a fourth though...

Because, y'see, as Samuel L. Jackson is pulling Captain America from his flashback punching bags (I *want* one of those bags, I don't even know what I'd flash back to!), he ends up turning around and sending Captain America on his very first mission... right back to Germany.  My very first thought was, "In the continuity, Captain America woke up like three days ago, and prior to waking up he was fighting Nazis over a period of years... good choice to go to Germany!"  What was the weirdest thing though was that in the ensuing scene, where the guy who plays Loki desperately wants you to think of him as a ham on wry, they end up calling attention to that very point through Captain America's dialogue... Joss Whedon has him remark what I was already thinking about the scene.

Between the Jacksoning and the references back to source material, I feel very at-ease.  Through these, I got the sense that Joss Whedon not only just wanted to make things as fun as possible, he wanted to invite his audience in as well.  And the movie, in my imagination, just gets better from there.  A scant half-hour or so into the movie, the main villain gets captured... just like that.  Not that it hasn't happened before, but the point here is that it hasn't exactly happened often, and that's good enough for me.  In the immediate scene afterward, we get more cultural references, including Captain America happy that he caught the reference to The Wizard of Oz.

There's already a pile of happy going on, and we haven't even met the (tortured metaphor) George Harrison of the group yet.  Thor shows up as Captain America and Iron Man are flying a surprisingly docile Loki back to the really super-awesome flying carrier... oh, wait, I didn't mention the super-awesome completely unrealistic but super-awesome anyway flying carrier?

Side-track for about two minutes here... THIS is what the Captain America film was missing.  Remember my complaint about reality being five percent different?  I'm not sure how they could have accomplished it in that movie, but I personally liked that when Joss Whedon tweaked reality, he went all-in on it.  Why give me things that are really kind of commonplace (like television cameras and B&W monitors and vague zappy rifles) when you can go all-in and fly me up a carrier?  I don't care that Joss cranked up the 'slightly different' volume to 'really different' with the Stark building looking *down* on the Chrysler building, or the flying carrier, or even the huge sucking hole... just make it AWESOME!  </Jack Blacking>

An-ee-way, next up is an actual fight.  Again, just a few minutes after Loki fought.  But this time, it's between the putative heroes.  Iron Man, in all his tempestuousness, takes exception at the fact that Thor wants to deal with Loki personally, because Iron Man was already dealing with Loki personally.  So, the villain gets completely ignored, George Harrison decides to test John Lennon's chops, and Captain America breaks up the whole fight.

The very next scene... Loki's still caught.  Huh?!  This movie is really pressing against those conventions, because if there ever was a time that the villain would escape, it would be when the heroes were occupied elsewhere.  On the flying carrier is a Hannibal Lecter cell where they cram Loki in, and we get everyone bringing out the worst in everyone else, where Iron Man's ego rubs Captain America raw while Nick Fury explains that weapons were being built which incites Thor because the cube is being used while at the same time Bruce Banner is getting more and more unhappy that he's been thrown into this mix and Scarlett Johannson continues to be in the scene.

Just after, all hell breaks loose.  AGAIN.  If there's one thing that filmmakers should learn from this, it's to keep using those superheroes, give the audience a breather for plot, make the plot darned good if possible, but get those superheroes back out there!  In this situation, the William Tell currently-evil Avenger shows up to strafe the carrier in his plane, Hulk starts going after Scarlett Johansson to complete the "superheroes fighting each other" trifecta, Captain America and Iron Man set their squabble aside to fix the flying carrier, Loki manages to escape as we find out that he just wanted Banner to Hulk out the whole time and screw the carrier up.  Loki traps Thor in the Lecter cage, but that's not the real news of this fight...

Throughout the movies, it's pretty much a given that you have to match up heroes with equally-powerful villains.  There's really no way to allow for a fair fight to have suspense otherwise, as the superhero should mop the floor with the Muggle.  One of the best sequences though was the one between Captain America and Random Dude With A Machine Gun.  It was a fun sequence because Iron Man could've cleaned Random Dude's clock in a second... but Iron Man was not only busy saving the flying carrier, but *depending* on Captain America to save his butt after getting the carrier going again.  But, unfortunately, Captain America's shield is out of commission and Random Guy can pretty much shoot his gun at the only superhero that would be vulnerable to such a weapon at that time... and Random Guy was really pinning two superheroes down, as he was effectively keeping Captain America from helping Iron Man.  I know that Random Guy With A Machine Gun was inherently evil, but man was he awesome.

So!  All that's going on, and this was supposed to be the "lowest moment" part of the plot!  The carrier is saved enough for it to limp back out to sea, Loki and most of the crew escape but Scarlett manages to bonk the other pseudo-hero on the head enough to clear his mind from takeover by Loki.  Hopefully the dude has some Advil, though it is shown later in the movie that all that bonking in the head didn't affect his super-eyesight.

Loki ends up accomplishing his goals by bringing an army of ID4 aliens to New York, and the Hulk finally shows up as the Ringo to the remaining three Beatles.  I keep using this tortured analogy because it really fit three of the four characters very well... Hulk was kind of the emotional center to the group in that all he wanted to do was smash, while the other three characters were kind of tiptoeing around it as much as possible.  Now that the Avengers have their rhythm section, it's time to bang heads.  With all of the aliens, about a quarter of Manhattan becomes rubble while all of the superheroes (even the mediocre Scarlett / Arrow Dude duo) get to flex all of their powers in what ends up being a pretty awesome final fight.  

There were so many good things to point out with regards to this movie.  Over-the-top, by definition, is a place where things can boil over and become a mess.  On other occasions though, over-the-top makes something so much more fun, as long as it's controlled.  With Samuel L. doing his Snakes on a Plane routine, Robert Downey doing what had to be a parody of three quarters of Hollywood, Chris Evans doing a parody of the other quarter--the producers trying to keep the talent in line long enough to complete a scene -- and the Hulk just being a lovable force of nature... all Joss Whedon had to do was to build a script that played each of the characters to their strengths and let everyone in on the jokes.  He did.  In spades.

Which brings me to another part of over-the-top, and what is one of the messages that I grabbed from this movie.  Being human can sometimes be really messy.  When some people rub up against other people or even just new situations, there's a wide range of what happens.  Love, hate, kindness, anger, envy, violence... and that's just the political process.  (Zing?)  I know that there's all sorts of glowing reviews about this movie, so if there's one thing to take away from this review, it's that humans can be simultaneously struck down to the lowest common denominator or raised to the highest heights possible all due to the ways that the heart connects itself to the brain.

In some regards, I know that it was somewhat cliche to have "the girl", Black Widow (Scarlett), be the one who "compromised herself" by being attached to another character... but in this movie, it didn't feel as cliche because each and every one of the characters had flaws somewhere, and it humanized them.  Iron Man maintained that he was a playboy, but was kissing Pepper Potts and seemed genuinely in love with her, which made it less of a stretch to have one of the other characters show similar emotion in the movie.  Captain America was sanctimonious (and, mentioned above, was vulnerable to Random Guy), Thor has a god's power but couldn't even control his little brother, and Bruce Banner came to grips with the fact that he couldn't control himself... all additional sides to the same coin.  They're strong, but still human.

The fractiousness of the beginning was needed in order to juxtapose the growth of the characters into the cooperative team of heroes at the end.  The only way that they did anything heroic was one-on-one (keep in mind, Loki pasted Captain America before Iron Man stepped in) until the last scene, when Captain America acted as the field commander we saw in the previous review.  It will likely take a similar threat to the world to get these characters working together again, but Heaven help the idiot that causes this to happen.

The movie's score gets bonus points because while it has Scarlett Johansson in a skintight suit for the majority of the film, it's not as if it's overtly sexual; she's fully covered in it, (with the exception in Scarlett's introductory scene).  As above though, sensuality is not treated as something front-and-center, and the only relationships pictured seem to really have a level of respect built in rather than being just pure lust. Additionally, even though there's a lot of explosions and things breaking, the gore is really minimized.   The violence is mainly limited to things breaking.  While there are certainly more than a few aliens that end up dying and metric tons of bullets fired, there's not a huge body count of bloody humans -- except for the gawking idiots who can't get out of their offices in time to avoid a charging Hulk and just kinda get run over for their troubles.

This movie is absolutely a 4 on my four-point scale, and I remain a huge fan of Joss Whedon.  

26 October 2012

Widescreen or Bust?

Lately when I've been checking my mail, I keep getting this annoying popup:

"There is a screen resolution problem

Your screen resolution is set below our minimum recommendation of 1024 x 600 pixels. You can continue with your current settings, but the newest version of Mail may not display properly.

Try increasing your screen's resolution (In Windows or Mac OS Help, search for "screen resolution"). If you're using most versions of Windows, here's how:"

And so on. Am I the only one who sets their desktop at 800x600 resolution because it's too small for me to read text comfortably otherwise? Not all of us have the best eyesight, young and old included, and there are people with far worse eyesight than me.

I realize computer monitors sold nowadays are widescreen standard and I plan to keep using my old CRT monitor until it dies, but it still urks me when I'm basically told that my resolution must be wrong as opposed to having it that way for a legitimate reason.

Now Firefox has a plugin option where you can increase the size of the text in your browser so you can adjust it as you like. Of course this does tend to get a bit annoying when you have to do it for EVERY website you visit, hence why I prefer to stay at 800x600 and even then, I still have to adjust it sometimes because half the webpage is missing otherwise.

My big worry is that one day I'll start getting messages that say 'This website CANNOT be displayed at 800x600' and I'll have no choice but to get used to squinting. I'd like to think that not spending years squinting at the computer screen is a major reason why my eyes aren't worse than they are now. But maybe I'm in the minority on this, I dunno...

22 October 2012

#2LR Too Late Reviews - Final Review, "Working!!" Season 1

By episode 13 of "Working!!", the narrative arc is firmly established.  The main narrator of the series is Takanashi, and while he may not be involved in every plot that goes on around him, it does seem as if he is the straight man to everyone's neuroses.  However, when there are an additional eight characters--each making at least one appearance through the end of this set of episodes--you can imagine that there is more than enough humor and conflict for all.

I do have more than my share of praises to offer the show, starting first and foremost with the pacing.  I enjoyed the fact that this was not in any way, shape, or form a bunch of one-off jokes with everyone returning to status quo by the end of the episode.  To be truthful, if there ever was a setting that this format would match best to, it would be a restaurant... any Gordon Ramsay show can demonstrate this very easily, or even Iron Chef.  The grand majority of food in one's life is only remembered as long as it takes to get to the next meal.  There are plot elements that followed this format, such as the aforementioned hot springs episode, or the episode where Takanashi's younger sister comes to work an internship.  Part of the joke surrounding the episode is the fact that his younger sister is possibly two inches shorter despite being between three to four years younger, and she pretty much towers over the remaining female cast.

The one reason that I continued to watch anime, though, was that the majority of the shows have a narrative arc to them.  The main conflict of the show is an issue that has both a very local dimension as well as a universal one, in that one of the other waitresses (Inami) has a fear of men, and when confronted with one typically hits him quite violently.  The remaining male cast has more than happily accepted Takanashi as he is now Inami's personal whipping boy, and the show focuses on how he tries to help her get through these issues.

The universal dimension to this is an issue that is as old as (communal) work itself... how do you deal with a coworker who is unable to adapt or cope?  Takanashi certainly has his share of options, and ends up picking the most difficult yet most rewarding... he tries to help her through it.  It certainly helps the series and the comedy that this is the solution that leads to the most humor, as long as one follows the "comedy equals tragedy plus distance" formulation.  Of course, the other thing that the series tried to do is to not show blood after the first time, as this isn't exactly supposed to be Mortal Kombat (or even "South Park".)  It would be so easy to follow the path that Takanashi's manager laid out, which was to schedule them opposite... but Takanashi, like many other people, doesn't mind a challenge.

Of course, the other issue is local in that these same two people are together and facing adversity.  The writers of this first series seem very careful (yet very gleeful) in not resolving any of the possible romances that they are trying to set up among the characters.  It would be very easy for me to conclude this review much like the writers are concluding Season One, by giving it an incomplete.  However, I'm going to swerve you a bit too, and give you a ceiling and a floor and the reasons why.

Ceiling for this series -- a solid 3.5.  I want a bit more humor, and I want more characters bumping up against other characters.  Workplaces are some of the most unpredictable places and outside conflict, just as much as inside conflict, can be used in very interesting ways.

Floor for this series -- 1.8.  Yeah, it's highly volatile, and that's because I see some of the possible pitfalls forming. One is that almost everything is inside conflict between all of the established characters.  This gives the show more of a soap opera feel to it, and I hope that it doesn't bog the show down.  Takanashi's losing his quirks, which is a sad thing in my mind... I don't want him to be a completely impartial narrator, and I would love to see the other characters act as the straight man even occasionally.  I can navel-gaze with the best of them (you should've seen my first two rather pretentious starts to this review), and I hope that this series doesn't get too much deeper into its own navel itself.

If I were to give an overall current rating, I would say it's a 2.7.  It had a great start, and hopefully it will recapture some of its momentum.

21 October 2012

#2LR Too Late Reviews - "Working!!", section 2

When a show is struggling, there are a couple things that Hollywood usually tries in order to bolster its ratings without having to sever contracts to everyone else.  One is the "new character" route, the best example being "Full House", adding more and more infants to the lineup in order to squeeze out as many viewer shares as the kids' cuteness could manage.  I would hazard that they were most successful due to the fact that they literally built that show on as much kids' cuteness they could, so all they were really doing was just giving the audience more of what they want.

The other method that writers will use, especially in ensemble casts, is to throw a romance into the works.  This works because the romance almost becomes its own character, and ends up throwing conflict and humor in its own right.  The one major example I can think of is "Friends" with Rachel and Ross and Chandler and Monica, though television is littered with times that not only were romances introduced, but they even added another character (hey, it's Courtney Cox again!) to the show purely to put up a romance.

I say this because, as weird as it sounds, episodes five through nine of "Working!!" did both.

It's weird to see something that shakes up the core of a show happen so quickly, but it seems that there is happy news afoot.  "Working!!" is currently soft-pedaling the introduction of the new character Yamada (a young waitress), who has no background and lives in the restaurant's attic.  That's good news, because I think that if you try to make the new character the immediate focus then you've lost the focus you had on the characters.  So far, this doesn't have the same smell of desperation that other new characters have given off in the past.  Having this new character be present but not overly active is almost like hiding a time bomb in a basement.  At some point, some of the foundation will give way.  I would like to give extra points to "Working!!" for giving the new character a full part in the opening and closing credits... it was shoehorned, but not painfully so.

The only downside is that it seems painfully obvious exactly how the new character's conflict gets presented and even seems obvious exactly who will help resolve it... so I will watch, hoping to be pleasantly surprised that the writers will have some skill in completing the story arc.

The "throw a romance into the works" part comes from the main protagonist Takanashi, who is doing his level best to help Inami, one of the waitresses he works with, to overcome her fears and natural tendencies.  The show seems to be playing this off as an ersatz romance, which almost makes me wonder if this show is going into love triangle mode.  It's an easy way to generate conflict, but man it makes me feel slightly cheap because you know that the writers are doing their level best to try to play on your emotions ("I want X to win!") just to keep their viewers.  The worst part is when "love triangle" ends up turning into "harem", or goes full Ranma 1/2 and instead of lines between characters, there's scribbles.

The other characters introduced include Takanashi's family of sisters, who get more screen time in one of these episodes.  Much to the show's credit, they didn't go all fanservicey on the obligatory hot springs episode, there was pretty much no fanservice to speak of, though there is just a bit of a hint when the series focuses on one of Takanashi's sisters... she's just missing a Patsy Stone for full comedic drunken rampage.

It is quite impressive that there's so little restaurant-ing going on in the show so far...