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Tuesday
Feb032009

Geek Mafia: Black Hat Blues Available for Pre-Order NOW

Well, it's Shmoocon time, and sadly I couldn't make it this year due to scheduling conflicts, but I'll be letting some of my words represent me at the con. So if you're there, look in your bags for a special goody from PM Press. And as you can see, there's also a title and a cover to go with the new Geek Mafia book, which is available for pre-order for its April release. Digital version will come shortly after the print release. Go Get it! Pre-Orders get a limited time discount of $5 off the cover price!

Black_hat_blues_web cover.jpg

Monday
Jan262009

Media Glutton: Mirror's Edge

In one of my many never-to-be-realized daydreams, I start training really hard, hours a day, and become a parkour expert. I run around Southwest Florida rooftops, leaping from building roof to palm tree, doing flips and running along walls defying gravity. The truth is, I never quite work my way up to that part with the running, let alone all the jumping and grabbing and sliding. This lack of follow through on my part is of course why we have video games. And while running, jumping, and generally defying gravity in interesting ways have been a staple of great games since Super Mario Brothers, Mirror's Edge is the first video game to focus entirely on the parkour (or free running) experience from a first person perspective. And if you love or even just kind of like games, then it's a game you have to play. But there are some caveats...

In Mirror's Edge you take on the role of Faith, a young, athletic woman who works as a secret courier delivering packages via rooftop-run routes rather than the traditional old-fashioned UPS method. Why the hand-held, personal touch? Because it's the near future and government/corporations are watching our every move, intercepting our every call, and generally keeping the people down. Why they don't listen in on the radio communications that Faith's guide/boss uses to give you directions is a question best left unasked. All that matter is, you gotta get across those rooftops, and a lot of times there are guys with guns trying to stop you.

The set-up and story are bland, generic, and forgettable, but also innocuous enough that they don't get in the way of what the game's really about: the movement. When Mirror's Edge works, it's as fun and thrilling a game play experience as I've ever had. The bright whites, blues, and reds of the world stand in stark contrast to your typical browns, grays, and brownish-grays of most first person games. Everything's razor sharp and crisp and clear, under a bright blue sky as you start off by hurtling yourself from one skyscraper to the next, landing in rolls, leaping over obstacles and slamming through doors in swift, fluid motions. The game offers a wide variety of options, from slides and rolls to tip of your fingers catches on the edge of the abyss below, that combine into a kind of truly eye-widening, muscle-tensing game. Which means it sucks all the more when it comes crashing to a halt in utter frustration.

Make no mistake, Mirror's Edge is a frustrating game. The combat in particular is pretty awful. Faith can disarm cops and take their guns, but she's not very good with them and she loses much of her mobility when she's got a weapon in hand. I see the logic here, and I'm fine with it in theory. The running and jumping is the fun part after all. But there are too many times where you have to take on the cops in a fight or where, even with the wonky, annoying combat, it's still easier than some incredibly difficult maneuver that might let you avoid them. Speaking of which, there are also some sequences without guns that are just as frustrating, where you'll fall early and often before getting the hang of it. In one of the later levels I died around 80 times over the course of a single level, trying to make my way to the top. That wasn't fun. Games should always be fun.

Even with these caveats, I have to say that I really do believe everyone who has even the slightest interest in the game should play it. It's new, it's unique, and the thrills that reward proficiency in Mirror's Edge do outweigh the frustrations. Plus, these are the days of gamer videos on YouTube, so if you ever get stuck trying to figure out a jump, just go online and watch how someone else did it. I referenced YouTube three times while playing the game through and I'm telling you, there's no shame in it. Now, run right out, jumping over anything in your way, and get a copy. You might need to do a wall jump, twist, jump, then roll to get there, but it's worth the effort.

Wednesday
Jan212009

Gaming is For Lovers

Gamers get a bad rap – we're all about ultra-violence and bloody constraint. The more spines ripped from bodies the better. Well, I'm here to tell you that's just a stereotype, a nasty, vicious one to boot. We're fully rounded (sometimes really rounded) people too. We laugh, we cry, we sometimes even read books, but most of all we appreciate a quality gaming experience over a pure gore. Don't take my word for it; some real, live scientists did a study and proved it's true. All right, I know one study does not make a proven fact, but this definitely jibes with what I know and like. The blood can be fun sometimes, but it's novelty only lasts a few minutes. For a game to be good, you've got to keep on playing and playing it, and no way you're going to do that unless the game play is fun. Unless maybe there are boobs too... Which brings me to Game 4 a Date, a personals site for game players. In other words, the world wide web's bestest site evah! Oh, but wait, there's a catch: it's for the UK. Why, oh why do the Brits always get everything great like Dr. Who and Top Gear and we get nothing but crap like Heroes and American Top Gear! Why does God hate America like that? Maybe Obama will fix this too. I wonder if Vivienne from Leicstershire is open to long distance relationships? We can have regular dates playing Left 4 Dead. In fact, I suspect this Game 4 a Date thing is just a front end to a bigger personals site over there in the UK, which is to say, it might be a bit of a scam. But it's a scam someone here in the US might really, really want to consider replicating. Here's one Single White Male who loves Call of Duty and Katamari Damaci who'd appreciate it. (h/t to Giantbomb.com)
Friday
Jan162009

Media Glutton: Gaming the Recession with Bioshock

In these hard economic times, it's nice to sometimes look around and see just how much worse things could be. Then again, if you're at all human, looking at other people's misery probably just makes you even more depressed. That's why I prefer to get my schadenfreude from the virtual world – all of the gloating and none of the guilt. And when it comes to visions of extreme capitalism run amok, there's no better game out there than last year's Game of the Year, Bioshock. I replayed the game over the past weekend (mmmm, achievement points), and it made me feel better. Bioshock is a superb first person shooter set in 1960, but not a part of any 1960 you'll recognize (although it might seem familiar to some of you Objectivists out there). The game begins with a plane crash that leads you to a vast, underwater, art-deco metropolis known as Rapture. Created by Andrew Ryan as a libertarian paradise, this vision of Utopia clearly takes its inspiration from Ayn Rand's nasty, bloated behemoth of a novel, Atlas Shrugged. And just as you might imagine would happen in a world where capitalism operates without restraint, the housing bubble bursts, the markets crash, the leader for the past 8 years goes power mad and starts imprisoning citizens without trials, and people start injecting themselves with sea-slug extract filtered through genetically modified little girls so they can shoot bees from their hands and blast each other with lightning bolts. Under the caring tutelage of rebel leader Atlas, players journey through Rapture, discovering one horror after the next, piecing together both the story of how Rapture fell apart and learning a thing or two about life along the way (like how shooting bees from your hands is AWESOME). This is, in all honesty, as good a game as there has ever been. It offers a storytelling experience that literally only a video game can. Plus, it's well over a year old, so you can totally pick up a copy on the cheap. Then a good 12 to 16 hours of pure, unencumbered “well, at least I'm not in an underwater when I'm getting evicted” pleasure is there to help ease the pain. Now would you kindly play some Bioshock?
Wednesday
Jan072009

Lessons from Lovecraft, January 8, 2009

So this week I'm digging back into my Lovecraft-related novel, for what I think will be the final revision before I start putting it out there later this year. I've got a number of plans for this book, including doing a podcast version, The book itself is not what you'd maybe expect - I'm not trying to write a story Lovecraft would write. The fact is, I don't think he'd like my book much - too many dirty words and sexual situations and women. The story's about being obsessed with Lovecraft and his stories and ideas. Well, I started out sort of obsessed with them already, and let's just say, writing this book didn't lessen my interest level. There's a lot to love (if you're me) in Lovecraft. Although our sensibilities, personalities, and lifestyles differ dramatically, on certain core aspects of world view, we synch up exactly. And so I begin what might become a series of posts highlighting some lessons Lovecraft offers on life that I think are worth passing along. At first it'll be stuff I mention in the upcoming novel, and then going forward I'll dive back in and find some other goodies. Here's the Lovecraft quote for the day, from the story, "He." "What we want we may make about us; and what we don't want we may sweep away." Sure, it's the villain saying it if memory serves, but I love that quote. Each one of us must take responsibility for creating and shaping the world around us to best fit our desires and eliminate that which causes discomfort of any kind. Seems simple and straight forward enough, but it's the two verbs he uses that I love. "Make," implies work and effort on our part that we focus through the prism of thoughtful desire and planning. It's a creative act, one that requires thinking and deliberation. "Sweep away" is the opposite. Just sweep that crap away with a slashing swipe of your arm. Discard the detritus that's getting in the way of making. I suggest you start with sweeping away God and working down from there. I think Lovecraft might agree.
Saturday
Jan032009

New Year, More Games

Yesterday I sent off the latest and hopefully final draft of the new Geek Mafia book to PM Press and started doing things like talking covers and blurbs and all that fun "book is done" stuff. Always a nice feeling. Hoping we'll have it out by April (Notacon!). I've also, surprise surprise, been playing a lot of games. The biggest time sink of late was Fable 2, as mentioned previously. It's a really fun game, an inventive game, and I recommend it. There is one reservation though: the ending is awful. OK, story-wise, the ending is fine. Makes sense, is appropriately dramatic, wraps things up, gives you some choices. But from a game play point of view, there's nothing to it. Really. There's basically nothing to it. There's no epic final battle, no massive siege of the enemy's fortress. I won't give you any spoilers, but really, there's just no game here at the end, and it's a sore disappointment. On the plus side, the story was never the big draw for this game, it was everything else: the details, the voice acting, the world, the interaction with the villagers, etc. All that stuff's great. And heck, I'm still playing it, because unlike, say, Fallout 3, Fable 2 lets you keep going after the big finale, which I really appreciate. Then there's Mirror's Edge, which is an amazing game that's also incredibly frustrating. I know that's what most people are saying about it, and most of those people are right. The game offers some real thrills with the free running sections. The jumps are thrilling, the experience is unlike anything I've had in any other game, and when you're moving just right it's as much fun as I've had playing a game. Then there's everything else, but mostly the combat. The combat is crazy frustrating, which would be OK if you could avoid it all the time. But you can't. Sometimes you have to fight. Other times, there's probably a way to beat the level without fighting, but it's actually harder than using the shitty combat system to shoot down the cops. And then there's the occasional learn-by-dying sequence and some pretty inscrutable level design in a few places. I continue to get really angry at this game and then forgive all its sins when things start falling into place again. So give it a try, that's my advice, but go in knowing it's a flawed but brilliant game. Also poking around a little at Call of Duty: World at War, about which I'll have more to say later. I also just put in Far Cry 2, which looks to be great, although I've completed just 1% of Act I, so it's a little early to say. Work wise, I'm digging back into my Lovecraft-related novel, about which there will be much more to come in coming weeks.
Monday
Dec222008

Fable 2 In Progress

So I'm watching Speed Racer as I typ this, taking a break from the hard work of playing Fable 2. I'm only 15 minutes in, and the movie looks like a video game. It also tells its story like a video game: in small chunks of stilted exposition strung together by action scenes. Lots of pretty colors though. I'll withhold verdict until I see the whole thing (if I make it through). I am, however, prepared to render a verdict on Fable 2. I judge it Fablerific! Like any game, it's not perfect by any means. It's got it rough spots, but really, who cares. It's a lot of fun, and not only because my character made 30,000 gold bar tending while wearing leather hotpants with a flintlock rifle strapped to her back. But I'm a good sorta person, and I used to money to buy up all the caravans in the gypsy camp that raised me so I could lower their rents. There's a lot of this kinda Sims-like stuff in the game, and I like almost all of it. Of course the meat of the game is running around completing quests, just like any other fantasy action-RPG. There's magic and swords and zombies and a dog that finds hidden treasure. Good stuff. The story itself is pretty straightforward fantasy fare - a wronged youth seeks vengeance under the guidance of a mysterious mentor who helps you assemble a team of misfit heroes to take down the big bad. There are some interesting and surprising adjustments to the theme - a section where 10 years passes stands out as unusual and compelling. More enticing are the characters, who have fun and well-executed dialog pieces that make Fable 2 less like your typical fantasy experience (albeit only a little bit less like 'em). Here's the thing about Fable 2. The reputation system, the Sims-lite property acquisition, and the social interaction all work as designed to make the player identify more than normal with your character. That's the part of Fable 2 that works best. By necessity, all of this stuff is kind of separate from the main story line (aside from reputation). I'd like to see some way of closer integrating the two, but I don't know if that's really feasible. The story pushes you along from moment to moment rather than drawing you in. You care not because of the plot so much as because of the time you've put into your character's individuality and achievements. Plus you wanna kill more bad guys... OK, this Speed Racer movie is insane and I'm pretty sure I hate it. We'll see if I can make it through to the end...
Thursday
Dec182008

Cardinal Sin of Gaming: Theft by God

There are a lot of little things that bug me in games. Gear of War 2, which is on balance a fine, entertaining game, does several of them. Just this very moment it did two of them back to back, and made me want to throw my controller across the room. Instead I shut my xbox down and came upstairs to bitch about it on the internet. Both sins involve depriving the player of choices and abilities that they've grown used to having. I won't go into any spoilers or specific details, but there's a scene towards what I think must be the end of the game where you confront an enemy you've been searching for over the last few levels. Instead of just shooting said foe, the game goes into a cut scene with overblown dialog and then the enemy sort of casually saunters off stage left, leaving you to fight a powerful lackey/bodyguard. This is stupid. Give me something, some excuse, like a force field or bullet proof glass (see Dead Space for egregious use of these techniques) - anything to let me ignore the fact that I should just shoot a rocket into the enemy's head. So instead I have to shoot my rocket into the bodyguard's head. Except, no, I can't. My rocket launcher is mysteriously gone, along with a third of the ammo for my rifle. For no reason that makes any sense at all, my weapons have suddenly changed from the moment before the cut scene began to now. I'd been hording rockets, waiting to fight some big bad. Now I magically have a shotgun instead, a weapon I haven't used all game. What the fuck? Really. What. The Fuck. I like that Gears of War forces you to make choices - I like that you can only carry two weapons plus one pistol at a time. You have to think and plan and make do with what you've got. I got screwed more than once by sticking with the flame thrower instead of the sniper rifle and then going into levels full of far away locust. But I was fine getting screwed like that - it was my decision. Here though, here the game designers just take all that decision making away from me, making my careful hording of ammo seem like a total waste. This is a classic, stupid, callous mistake on the game's part. Anytime you break the game's own internal rules, you need to have a very good reason. Even the classic scene in games where you're captured without any chance of avoiding it pisses me off, but at least when that happens you're usually given some explanation (see Fallout 3). Here, nothing. Just, "now you have to play this way," presumably because otherwise I might have found some way to beat their boss fight too easily. Screw. That. I loved that in Fallout 3 I beat the big bad guy with one shot from the alien blaster, because I'd worked hard to get to the level and have the gear to pull that off. I assume I'll go back and finish Gear of War 2 at some point, and probably have a good time doing it, but it's shit like this that makes me know that I'll never love the game. It just doesn't treat me right.
Monday
Dec152008

Media Glutton: Dead Space

Work proceeds apace on revising Geek Mafia 3. I'm thinking I should be done with this draft next week, so hopefully the real, live finished book will be out in the Spring. The rest of the time I've been working hard on catching up with my core X-Box 360 game playing. Last week I finished up Dead Space, which was a game I'd been looking forward to dipping into for months. Reviews and podcast discussions had sung the game's praises and it sounded like the things I like most in a game: first person shooter, solid story elements, some nice horror bits, and a new world, all wrapped around a gameplay innovation or two. The game lives up to the hype. It does not, however, exceed it. On balance, Dead Space is a really solid FPS experience. The story itself is nothing spectacular, and the few twists and turns aren't especially surprising or thrilling, but none of it detracts either. A few weeks back on the Joystiq podcast they Justin was talking about how he thought the main job of story and writing in games was to move the player comfortably from one fun game play experience to the next. I don't think I really agree with this as an iron-clad law. Some of my favorite games, like Bioshock, use story and writing for much more than that. Deadspace on the other hand, uses it just like Justin suggests. There's a solid, well-executed, fairly typical sci-fi story that moves you right along through the stages up until the end. It mostly makes sense, has nice texture and detail to the back story, and doesn't drop any plot threads. If I never quite care too much about any of the characters, I never dislike any of them either. It's not a tale that will stick with me, and already the details begin to fade, but I'm not complaining. Now for a complaint. Turrets. There are two scenes in the game where you take control of a gun turret and have to shoot down incoming rocks or alien thingies. These segments suck. The first one sucks a whole lot. I've found it's almost always a bad idea for a game to break out and have you do something that's totally different from the regular game play. Almost always these segments are not as well executed as the rest of the game. In this case the turret controls are frustratingly imprecise and unpleasant. On top of that, it's usually annoying that you're not allowed to use the skills and weapons you've developed playing the game. It's just dumb. Also, a nitpick. The zero-g segments in the game are a lot of fun and are that cool new gameplay element that this game adds. I've got no complaints and lots of praise. However, there's a zero-g level towards the end of the game - the last one you play in fact - that doesn't make any sense. Indeed, it can't be zero-g in that level. It's like they weren't even thinking about the game world they'd set up. Still, it was fun to play. So that's my final word on Dead Space - worth the full price of admission. Check it out.
Friday
Dec122008

Media Glutton: The Day The Earth Stood Still

I went out and saw the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still this afternoon. It is awful. The end. . . . Well, OK, since I'm here. It started off just mediocre. I don't remember much of anything besides the robot and the line that got quotes in Army of Darkness from the 50's flick, so I went in mostly blank slate to this pic. I hadn't read any reviews or seen much about it and for some reason I was looking forward to it (advertising works!). I was there, ready to be entertained, as ideal an audience as you're going to get. From early on I found the film to be a little cheap and rough around the edges. It starts off with a long sequence on a snowy mountaintop that was actually shot in a soundstage. Fake, soundstage snow never, ever, ever looks like snow. It is, at best, a stand in for the idea of snow. Using it makes your scene look fake. Fine, forgivable, not a big thing. A little thing, but the little things added up. CGI glowy spheres? Never visually interesting or even intriguing. Again, they're a simple stand-in for something mysterious. Blech. The little things kept adding up. Why were all the important scientists in the helicopter right above where they thought an asteroid was going to crash? Because the plot needed them to be. Why did someone order soldiers to shoot (just one bullet!) into the alien? Because the plot needed him shot. Why did they not try to talk to him in some normal way but instead tried to interrogate him? Because then the movie would've been over in 15 minutes. The movie is just one plot device after another, and what start as little problems transform into enormous gaping holes in logic, action scenes that happen for no reason other than to break up the dialog, and then more crappy dialog. It just gets worse and worse and worse and worse. SPOILERS! REALLY! And then it ends. Instead of Keanu killing all the humans, he sees their capacity for love and altruism and decides to give them a second chance. But they have to pay a price. What price? As far as I could tell, and the movie has a long, round the world sequence showing it happen everywhere, the aliens shut down all technology. Anything with power. I guess it's better than being eaten by little robot locusts (really, robot locust!), but I'm pretty sure it means a few billion people will still die. That's actually kinda interesting I guess, except it doesn't really make that point. I don't know what point it is making. Also, is it possible for there to be a sunset/sunrise in Sydney and it also be light in both London and Manhattan? I don't think so, but I'm not sure. One more little thing...