Archive for June, 2013

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Video Game Review: Marvel Heroes

In theory, Marvel Heroes is the sort of game that is impossible to screw up. Overlay the proven formula of Marvel Ultimate Alliance onto a game engine that resembles Diablo 3 and the rest writes itself. Seems simple, right? Yet somehow Gazillion Entertainment has managed to make a hash out of an MMO experience that is positively dripping with wasted potential.

After installing all twelve gigs of Marvel Heroes I couldn’t wait to create my own hero, or maybe even inhabit someone famous from the Marvel universe. I dared to let myself hope that I could play as the Sentinel of the Spaceways himself, the Silver Surfer. Instead this free-to-play MMO presented me with these choices for a starter character.

Ladies and gentlemen, your Marvel Heroes starting lineup

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thing, Daredevil, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and Storm. I can’t say that this cross section of the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and X-Men really did much for me. Naturally, getting access to any of the A-Listers from the aforementioned teams required an in-game purchase with real world money; though the game’s various and frequent load screens do promise that there is a way to unlock every character for free. After about five hours of play testing I’ve yet to find a chit to unlock anybody other than Daredevil. Maybe I’m not using a big enough grind stone.

The real problem with this very limited choice of starter heroes is that it’s paired with a non-instanced game environment. There’s no sense of specialness to being the Thing when at a moment’s notice four or five other Things and two Storms can walk onto the screen and mix it up with a group of bad guys. Where’s the sense of plausible atmosphere and immersion when five Hawkeyes go running down the street in a line abreast formation?

Similarly disappointing is the game’s overall appearance. Even with the graphics turned up, Marvel Heroes falls well short of the visual benchmark set by Marvel Ultimate Alliance. In fact, I’m not certain if it gives X-Men Legends a run for its dated money. Even if we make the most generous concessions to the visual limits of an MMO, its hard to rationalize away the fact that the Thing looks less like a rock monster and more like a passable Clayface – assuming the DC universe managed to work its way into this game. This begs another question: are the “Ultimate” visages of the Marvel heroes still under licence to Activision? Because at the risk of sounding too shallow, it is hard to take Hawkeye seriously when he is dressed in his Silver Age archer get up.

There's a reason why Clint got stuck minding the shop during the Kree-Skrull war

Yeah, I said it. Hawkeye’s costume looks stupid. Frankly, I think it has always looked stupid. I thought it looked like a joke when I read my first Avengers comic. It looked no better when I saw it again on the 90s Iron Man cartoon, and I think it looks like the last thing any self-respecting super hero would wear when going to fight urban crime in Hell’s Kitchen. So that’s that bell rung. Anybody want to fight about it?

Marvel Heroes also manages to miss the mark in terms of a challenging game experience. Half of this problem is due to the open world, non-instanced design which never puts a limit on the number of heroes that can be in once place at one time. During a battle against Electro, and yes he was wearing the absurd yellow and green costume while daring to pass himself off as the boss for the game’s first act, there were no less than 20 heroes slogging it out against him. Mind you, this wasn’t a raiding group, either. Most of us involved in the battle were just passing by and decided, “Hey, might be fun to punch a twenty-foot-tall Electro.” This was great for the loot, but it also speaks to what I said before about crafting an individual experience. I should only be fighting Electro when I have triggered him, not because I blundered past where his event happens to take place.

The other half of the difficulty problem is that all of the rank and file goons are hilariously easy to kill. Two regular punches from the Thing, or one power punch, were enough to kill 90% of the street toughs I encountered in Hell’s Kitchen. When I took Storm, an AoE character, out for a test drive I found little in the way of an actual PvE challenge. Even mini-boss super villains, like Shocker, seemed hilariously under powered. There is something to be said for soloing a quest, but what’s the point in making an MMO if there’s no real motivation to party up? When playing as Storm or Hawkeye there should be some parts of the environment that necessitate finding a Thing or Daredevil to act as a meat shield. Instead, every character feels equally capable of handling things on their own. Thus do the character classes emerge as rather lack luster.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will say that I’d be willing to forgive all of these problems if Marvel Heroes looked to be doing anything to create the illusion of a personalized experience. Though it is impossible to craft a truly exclusive narrative in an MMO, there are ways to present the appearance of the player being the star of their own show. Instances, hero/class based quests, and even NPC dialogue personalized to the individual player are just a few of the things that make a gamer feel immersed in an MMO; they are also painfully absent from this game.

Despite its best efforts, Marvel Heroes’ attempt to hybridize a formula established in previous beat-em-up RPGs with the likes of City of Heroes does not work. Gazillion’s attempt to bring together the best of both single and multiplayer gaming has produced a final product that is inferior to either. Hardcore and casual gamers alike will likely find their interest wanes in direct proportion to shelf life of their chosen character’s half dozen in-game one-liners. I get it, it’s clobberin’ time, again.


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Movie Review: So Dark

My regular readers know that I’m not usually the biggest fan of vampire stories. This is for the simple reason that I don’t see a lot of genuine creativity emerging out of the post-modern vampire tale. Nine times out of ten the vampire in question is pining for their lost humanity, rather than embracing what they are. And gods help you if you try to sell me on a star crossed romance between a human and a vampire. However, I’ve lately read a handful of very good vampire short stories in addition to witnessing Stakeland go a long way in redeeming the vampire sub-genre. Bearing that in mind, I approached So Dark, a vampire vigilante short film, and the sequel to the “anti-Twilight” film So Pretty, with a cautious optimism.

As I peeled back the layers on So Dark I was immediately struck by its ability to craft a fully formed story within a twenty minute runtime. Therein we see Sean (Jermey Palko), a two-hundred year old vampire, in police custody after murdering a mortal. In the aftermath of his arrest, Sean is interrogated by the ruthless FBI Agent Wilburn (Keri Maletto). The sequence between Wilburn and Sean forms the basis for the film’s core conflict while also shading the back story of this particular bit of vampire mythos. Because of this clever writing the film stands quite well on its own while also serving as a chapter in what is clearly a much larger story.

If we drill down on Sean as a character, it’s clear that So Dark’s writer, James Williams, has done his homework in crafting an original but suitably familiar anti-hero. Though Sean’s actions are informed by personal motivations, his black and white view of the world echoes that of Frank “The Punisher” Castle were he embodied in Forever Knight’s Nicholas Knight. When the film goes on to position Sean’s moral certainty against the ethically dubious and somewhat incompetent Miami PD, it skillfully tempts the audience into making a moral compromise of their own. Do you rationalize what Sean is doing for the greater good? Or do you reject his unilateral actions even in the face of the atrocities the government visits upon vampires in the name of protecting humanity. More importantly, how often do we see this caliber of conflict in a vampire story?

It’s also clear that the actors are engaging with So Dark’s story and setting in a meaningful way. Despite playing a genuinely awful human being, there’s a veneer of ‘ends justifying the means’ righteousness conveyed through Keri Maletto’s performance. This strength, combined with an interesting FBI vs Vampire back story, makes me hope that we haven’t quite seen the last of Agent Wilburn, despite the symbolism of the film’s final scene. For his part, Jermey Palko presents Sean without the requisite ennui that burdens so many other vampire characters. We certainly see him as driven, perhaps even obsessed, but the performance isn’t one that’s singularly informed by self-guilt and recrimination.

In terms of technical merit, So Dark is brilliant in its execution. Transitions from medium to tight shots create an uncomfortable but appropriate intimacy between Sean and Agent Wilburn. When the camera moves, following actors through scenes with all the skill of The West Wing’s walking camera, it does so without invoking the low-budget pox that is shaky cam. The use of physical sets and a minimum amount of visual effects work to reinforce a sense of place where fantasy is layered over top of mundane reality. The only minor flaws that I noticed happen toward the end of the film when the background music seems just a hair too loud in comparison to the dialogue. Fortunately, this imbalance is short lived and quickly resolves as the story moves to the next scene.

Regardless of if So Dark continues as a short film series on Stage Five TV’s youtube channel, The Continuum, or if it gets adapted into something larger – because it’s obvious that So Dark works as a proof of concept piece for a feature length film – I know I would continue to watch it. Director and Co-Producer Al Lougher, as well as the entire cast and crew, prove that they can pull off urban fantasy with all the grit and grime of contemporary drama.

Want to check it out? Here’s the entire movie embedded for your viewing pleasure

 

So Dark

Directed by: Al Lougher

Written by: James Williams

Starring: Jermey Palko, Keri Maletto, Julie Kendall, Todd Bruno, and Wil Jackson


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TV Review: House of Cards

That’s right, I’m reviewing House of Cards. Even I like to take the odd break from genre in favour of something a little more mainstream. Though I wonder if mainstream is the right word when this high stakes political drama has been adapted from a BBC series and novel of the same name and is distributed exclusively on Netflix. Perhaps this is an ontological debate best saved for another day.

I suppose the easiest place to start with House of Cards is that it made me break my own rules for television reviews. Unless I’m reviewing a program on a week-to-week basis, I like to write a television review after watching three hours of the series in question. By my count, three hours is more than enough time to figure out everything required, save for the finer points of plot, for putting together a thoughtful ‘yea’ or ‘nay’. In this instance, I wanted to see everything there was before committing myself to a review if only because House of Cards demonstrates a majestic ability to turn on a dime.

A review-in-progress also seemed askance given that there’s little about House of Cards that makes it seem like television as we’ve come to understand the medium. In terms of storytelling and cinematic artistry, each episode of the series feels like its own feature film. Once again, I don’t want to open this review up to a huge tangent on what Netflix, HBO, and the like are doing for the way we use pictures and sound to convey a story, but from Kevin Spacey’s first soliloquy it’s clear that House of Cards is playing on a level often reserved for capital “F” Film.

For example, one of the series go-to camera tricks is to use static objects and ancillary characters to physically frame a more important character thus symbolizing their prominence within the episode and the broad story arc. Kevin Spacey as Congressman Frank Underwood, a loyal majority whip within a Democrat controlled House of Representatives, is almost always framed in a shot. Corey Stoll as Representative Peter Russo, a freshman congressman from Pennsylvania, is often found as part of a frame for other characters within a scene. When Russo, who never quite comes to understand that he is a pawn in Underwood’s game of political chess, thinks he has made it across the board, so to speak, the cinematography changes such that we see other people framing him. How often do we see television using camera work to build subtext and offer foreshadowing?

Despite the subject matter and technical prowess of the production, House of Cards is anything but pretentious in its delivery. Underwood’s soliloquies and asides create an instant rapport between character and audience. In so much as Frank’s story is one of power politics at its zenith, it is underwritten by more accessible narratives on substance abuse, the glass ceiling, labour rights, and urban poverty. For every scene depicting power and privilege, the writers are adroit enough to offer another that shows the cost of that prestige. The title, which is an apt and enduring commentary on the stability of the power bases that various characters build, is also a continual reminder that those on top only get there on the backs of others.

Though the first season is quite satisfying when viewed as one complete narrative, there are some moments when obvious flaws emerge. On that note I would submit that the first episode, while a powerhouse of a premiere, is something of a red herring in terms of setting a tone for the series. When the President passes Frank over for promotion to Secretary of State, thus precipitating the season’s long term conflict, the audience is led to believe that Frank is going to set himself on knocking down the President’s house of cards. Perhaps this is another reason why I didn’t write about the series after the first three episodes; I thought I was witnessing the initial movements of a long con against the establishment. What follows the first episode is not the active sabotage and subversion of the BBC series, but a more subtle shift toward motivated self-interest on Frank’s part. By the time I fully appreciated that the underlying message of the first episode is simply that Frank Underwood is no longer content to be the good soldier, I was too enraptured with the shifting narrative to really care. In retrospect, I can see it as a slight overplay of the part of the writers to hook the audience, but I remain more than willing to forgive it after the fact.

What I’m less certain about is Robin Wright’s role in the series. As Claire Underwood, NGO director/philanthropist and wife to Frank Underwood, I was expecting Wright to emerge as the power behind the throne: Livia to Frank’s Augustus. As the series moved forward her importance became more opaque, her plot points less relevant, up to and including her flight from Washington to New York for a fling with an ex-lover, and Wright’s acting more stiff and taciturn. In the end, Claire is little more than a liability to Frank’s political ambitions; her NGO, for all the good work it does, appears as little more than a hobby shop compared to Frank’s much more lofty aspirations for the presidency. Set against the likes of Kate Mara, who plays the ruthless upstart journalist Zoe Barnes, Wright’s character and performance are two-dimensional and somewhat unremarkable.

By the time the credits roll on the season’s final episode these shortcomings do little to distract from what is an outstanding piece of long-from political story telling. The pace of the meta-story may ebb and flow from episode to episode, but each entry’s individual offerings always work to build deep character motivations while layering another level on the ongoing house of cards that is House of Cards. For those still uncertain of if there’s anything on Netflix worth watching, I humbly suggest that this may be the series which settles the question once and for all.


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Book Review: Zombie versus Fairy featuring Albinos

Last summer I read and reviewed the first entry in James Marshall’s How to End Human Suffering series. Upon finishing the book I thought to myself, “Where does he go from here?” How does a sequel keep the momentum and tone of Ninja versus Pirate Featuring Zombies when the original already turns it up to eleven in terms of a no-holds-barred allegorical experience? Thus it was with some level of reservation that I cracked the spine on Zombie versus Fairy featuring Albinos; it would either be the Empire Strikes Back of book sequels or the Highlander 2. Oh me of little faith, but I’ll get to that.

Before I continue, a word or two on context. When I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Marshall last summer I incorrectly cited his series as horror for want of any other easily named genre. James instead offered that the How to End Human Suffering series is more aptly described as “Geek literary.” When I pressed him for a definition of the term, he responded with this,

Literary is synonymous with quality. Unfortunately, it’s also synonymous with boring. “Geek literary” combines everything you expect from high quality writing with everything you expect from pop culture entertainment. For example, a lot of times, especially in Canadian lit, you get a bored lonely woman remarking on how the fields in winter are not unlike her soul. In “geek lit,” you’d have the same bored lonely woman remarking on how the fields in winter are not unlike her soul, but then a ninja would drop down from the ceiling and cut off her head. Everybody is happy.

So if NvPfZ was an experiment in geek lit, and a highly successful one at that, then ZvFfA is proof positive of what can emerge out of this fully realized approach to high concept genre writing.

Rather than focusing on Guy Boy Man, the eponymous Pirate of the first novel, ZvFfA’s protagonist is a zombie named Buck Burger. Unlike most of the other zombies in the world, who are content to revel in the consumption of human flesh and generally make a mess of the planet, Buck is depressed. It’s a deeply rooted existential malaise that sees Buck longing for something grander as he gradually comes to understand his depression is the result of the world being very depressing, and not a chemical imbalance in his head. Naturally, this makes Buck well suited for senior management within the Zombie hierarchy.

Where Mr. Marshall drew heavily upon Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in NvPfZ, this installment draws upon modern sources for its controlling metaphors. When Buck is promoted to Zombie senior management, my thoughts turned to Mustapha Mond explaining to Bernard Marx that those who truly understand the world must either live apart from it or embrace a role in managing it. Moreover, the rampant consumerism which personifies Zombie culture rings quite true as both an allusion to Huxley’s “Fordism” and a critique of our own society.

The true strength of Marshall’s style, as witnessed in this novel, is that he doesn’t limit himself to a single realm of exploration. It would be enough if ZvFfA was simply a commentary on a knowing individual’s relationship with an alienating society. Instead the story is as artistic as it is efficient in its ability to peel back the layers on Zombie/contemporary Human culture. Through Buck’s depression it then explores what it means to be a part of the metaphorical undead/great unwashed. This includes a scathing criticism of the entertainment industry, as personified by the novel’s Albinos, and a surprisingly honest examination of modern marriage that blends together the ideas of Franz Kafka and Woody Allen.

Perhaps this commitment to the reality of the setting is one of the great improvements of this book over its predecessor. NvPfZ, for all its brilliance, is bat shit crazy – and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. The central question of said book emerges as, “Is this really happening?” Is Guy Boy Man actually a pirate who stole the Pope’s hat and trillions of dollars thus precipitating a global economic meltdown? Or is he just a very disturbed teenager who has constructed a fallacy as an attempt to reclaim agency in a cruel and unfair world? ZvFfA only ever flirts with this first question. After a mere three or four chapters I took it for granted that the world, as told by Buck, is how it is. After all, why would a depressed Zombie lie about the world? If Buck was capable of dissembling on an internal level, he wouldn’t be depressed. And because the Zombie world is layered over of our world, hidden from everyday sight by magical creatures, ZvFfA invites the reader to ask not if the events of the story are true to the internal narrative, but how they as an observer would place themselves within this world. Are you contributing, like Guy Boy Man and the other devotees of Awesomeism, or you consuming, like a Zombie?

With Buck’s story, and all the subtext therein, framed by the decline and fall of his Zombie marriage, ZvFfA is wholly effective as both a stand-alone novel and the second entry in what is rapidly becoming my favourite subversively literary series. Zombie versus Fairy featuring Albinos proves that James Marshall doesn’t turn it up to 11, 11 is where he lives.

Zombie versus Fairy Featuring Albinos

Written by: James Marshall

Published by: ChiZine Publications


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Movie Review: Man of Steel

I approached Man of Steel under the mistaken impression that director Zach Snyder had set himself on a course for reinventing the Superman mythology. I expected a story where Kal-El was a refugee from a still surviving Krypton; a story where he would have to choose between his adopted home or his ancestral one. Choice is the operative part of that description. Choice is the thing which gave me hope for hero who, in my estimation, is shallow and boring. And choice is the one thing that’s missing from Man of Steel.

If anybody could pull off a few effective retcons with Supes’ back story, as well as redefining the sort of conflicts he has to face, I thought it would be David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan. And while they seem to have given it the old college try, especially in terms of making Krypton seem like a genuinely alien place, there’s little in the story to overcome the typical Zach Snyder formula of movies that are big, loud, pretty, and dumb. Any changes to the Superman mythos are shallow and mostly slavish to established canon. Case in point: attempts to move away from gimmicks like Kryptonite are replaced with Kryptonite of a different name cribbed from War of the Worlds. Seriously, guys, there are still people who read. You can’t get away with bullshit like that without some of us noticing.

However, if this mess of a story does anything, it is to effectively divorce Superman on film from the legacy of Richard Donner. Which, if you enjoyed Superman Returns, man not necessarily be a good thing. Then again, Man of Steel isn’t so terrible that it precludes a sequel helmed by someone of a better directing pedigree, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Man of Steel’s plot presents itself as an amalgam of Smallville’s maudlin “Who am I? What am I?” hand wringing, mixed with elements of the first two Donner-era Superman films. After Jor-El (Russell Crowe) announces that Krypton is doomed, General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a military takeover to ensure Krypton’s survival in the wake of perceived incompetence from its existing leadership. Amid the chaos of Zod’s rebellion, Jor-El sends his natural born son, Kal-El, to Earth. Following that, Jor-El gets shanked by Zod, Zod gets banished to the Phantom Zone, albeit inside a pointlessly powerful starship, and Krypton blows up. Skip ahead 33 years and Clark Kent, after spending his life trying to hide what he is, finds a crashed Kryptonian scout ship. Using a magic key he is able to download an AI of Jor-El into the ship and trigger about five minutes of exposition/half-hearted attempts to build character motivations.

Since I have no particular loyalty to Superman’s story, I don’t really mind Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan turning Krypton into some decadent empire built upon qusai-religious controlled breeding and selective genetic engineering. In fact, it is kind of interesting in and of itself. But don’t forcibly exposit on all these details only to do nothing with them. Kal-El’s natural birth, as opposed to popping out of a “genesis tank” like every other Kryptonian, takes a back seat to powers bequeathed by the Earth’s yellow sun in almost every sequence of the film. The movie tells us Superman is special in this one way, but shows us why he is special for very different reasons. Would that this wasted potential is merely a one-off. The writing constantly introduces interesting ideas, developing them to some extent, but never letting them sink in as concepts to carry the narrative. It’s as if Snyder et al wanted the movie to be something grand and iconic, but forgot the more pressing need to give it a meaningful story. Thus the Kryptonian mythos, the farm flashbacks, anything with Lois, and anything that explores Zod’s paper thin motivations, contribute to inflating a 95 minute story up to a bloated 155 minute runtime.

Taken as a whole these missed opportunities are symptomatic of Man of Steel’s broader and much more manic need to make the audience FEEL everything that is happening. Seemingly every scene of note is designed to appeal to emotions rather than intellect. This begins with the destruction of Krypton. Then there are the excessive flashbacks of Clark’s life growing up in Kansas. This emotional freight train hits full steam when Zod’s attempt to restore Krypton on Earth comes with the iconic gusto of a dozen 9/11 attacks. To the movie’s credit, it did make me feel something, at least until the end of the first act. By the time we get to Metropolis’ skyscrapers collapsing amid Superman’s brawling with Zod and his goons (and Perry White trying to free people from rubble while covered in enough ash and debris to make me wonder “Is Lawrence Fishburn in whiteface?) I was just out of feelings to feel. Pathos is supposed to be used sparingly as a means of highlighting the importance of a single scene. Goyer and Nolan’s screenplay is so frequent and clumsy in its emotional groping that one would think it was sired on a Japanese commuter train.

Forgive me for saying it, but I like movies because of the medium’s inherent capacity to make me think. Man of Steel does not want you to do this. I’m not talking about critical thinking, either. Even the most simple interrogatives will evoke an entire laundry list of broken motivations and plot holes. Despite this, I know a pathos driven story will work for some people. In fact, I’m sure a lot of people will love doing nothing but feeling for two and a half hours. I’m just not wired that way.

Man of Steel was an opportunity to fix Superman, to make him more than a happy feeling associated with a symbol which has come to represent an innocent desire for an utterly righteous hero. And contrary to what the wags will tell you, making these changes would not have necessitated turning Superman into Batman. This movie ultimately goes wrong in presenting Superman with a non-choice between Krypton and Earth while attempting to pass it off as an actual choice. Offer Superman a living, instead of holographic, Jor-El as Zod’s thrall and instantly there is a meaningful choice for Kal-El. Instead, Man of Steel is just another big, dumb, pretty, and loud summer blockbuster, for whatever that is worth. What’s worse is that given that this movie isn’t overtly hostile to women, though it does reduce Lois to a bit part, it’s actually a step-up for Zach Snyder after the atrocity that was Sucker Punch. Let that one sit with you for a while and tell me how it tastes.

Man of Steel

Directed by: Zach Snyder

Written by: David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, and Russell Crowe


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The Console Wars: The Only Way to Win is Not to Play

Many years ago I was a kid without a game console. I begged. I pleaded. I cajoled. I negotiated. I even attempted to save my own money to buy a bare bones Nintendo Entertainment System. No matter what I did my father always vetoed my console desire with the exact same rebuttal.

“You have a computer. There is nothing a Nintendo or a Sega can do that your computer can’t do.”

And when I would extol the virtues of Super Mario Brothers 3, or any other console exclusive title, my dad would drop some PC exclusive in my lap. Case in point, I was the first kid in my elementary school to ever play Jill of the Jungle, Duke Nukem, and Wolfenstien 3D. Consequentially, I was also the first kid to get sent to the principal’s office for regaling my friends with Nazi killing adventures.

Now, after reading the highlights and watching various clips of Sony and Microsoft’s E3 presentations, I’m inclined to agree with Peter Molyneux’s recent sentiments. The console wars have devolved into a frat boy pissing contest between Sony and Microsoft. There’s nothing genuinely next generation about either of these consoles-who-would-be-king. They seem like little more than content delivery devices for AAAA franchise titles. Whooo Metal Gear Solid 5 you say? This time with less David Hayter? Well I’m sure to jump on that and hump it all the way to the bank. An always on Kinect and games which require a constant internet connection for no reason other than Microsoft’s clumsy attempt at DRM? Nah. I’ll pass.

So you know what, Sony and Microsoft, I’m out. I’m taking my PS2, my Xbox 360 and I’m going home. Twenty some years later you guys have proven that my dad was right. Anything I could ever want to play I can now play on a PC. From both a financial and gaming ideology point of view, it makes no sense to keep picking sides in this pointless heavyweight slug fest.

On cost, allow me to illustrate with an example from six years ago. Back then I wasn’t sure if I wanted a new gaming PC or an Xbox 360. The decision ultimately came down to the fact that in the mid-2000s a game’s development cycle began on the consoles before being half-heartedly ported to PCs. Even a game as brainless as Guitar Hero demanded a top of the line PC because lazy porting from the then powerful Xbox and imposed upon most Pentium 4 systems. Absent today’s vibrant indie and middleweight studio renaissance, and cheap multi-core processors, it seemed stupid to spend $1000 on a new gaming rig when I could drop less than half of that on an Xbox. In retrospect, that initial $400 investment plus six years of Xbox Live Gold fees balances out to what it would now cost me for a decent mid-range system. If we assume the PS4 and Xbox One will share a lifespan similar to their predecessors, either console plus five years of their premium online service puts would-be gamers in the ballpark of spending as much on a console as they would on a PC. Thus does the argument that console gaming is cheaper than PC gaming die.

In terms of digital rights management, which since the announcement of the Xbox One’s always online requirement has become an in-vogue discussion among even the most pedestrian of CoD players, it’s hard to make a case for the PC being second fiddle. Yes, EA’s Origin service sucks the devil’s ass. But Valve’s counterpart, Steam, more than makes up for Origin’s shortcomings in terms of ease of use, a deep game library, an indie friendly distribution model, and an offline play feature.

Superior to both Steam and Origin, and arguably the next big thing even though it has been around for a while, is gog.com. No longer just a vault for Dos Box enhanced versions of old games, which in and of itself is pretty fantastic, there are indie and medium scale publishers that now release directly to Gog.com. And all of the games on there are DRM free.

This means there are publishers out there who actually want gamers to feel a sense of ownership when they buy a game. Though I’m not sure from which magic land of faeries and pixies they hail. Possibly, Seattle?

Even in the darkest days of safedisc showing up on seemingly every PC title, there were always the digital libertarians distributing cracks to work around those control measures. Good luck finding a similar software analogue for the PS4.

From my point of view, the only thing Sony and Microsoft accomplished at E3 is to demonstrate how the biggest parts of the console market are attempting to rebrand themselves as the RIAA: locking down content whenever possible, reminding customers they own nothing but a licence, and generally acting as the gatekeeper through which all fun must flow. Meanwhile PC developers, in spite of stupid things like Windows 8, generally seem more apt to embrace a philosophy of letting end users use the content as they like, knowing full well that if they try to be overly-officious dicks about DRM, they will just drive paying customers to piracy. Granted there are always going to be exceptions to the rule. For example, Blizzard never really gave us a satisfactory reason for Diablo 3’s always online requirements.

It’s time for Microsoft and Sony to stop treating the console wars as a struggle between super powers. They are not the Soviet Union and United States of America, fighting for the hearts and minds of proxy players within their respective spheres of influence. They might be the biggest kids on the block, but the time of their unchallenged hegemony is over. The PC has endured marginalization and now presents itself as a viable third way. For those who still want a controller based experience, the OUYA is branding itself as the people’s console, promising a $100 retail price and games in the $10-$15 range. If Microsoft and Sony don’t react to these developments in a meaningful way, then they will spend the next year alienating more and more people whose first loyalty is to the content, not the console.


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Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Fair warning: this review will spoil the hell out of the movie’s “big” secret, though it’s not really that much of a secret. In fact, it’s exactly what you think it is. You have been warned.

Where to start on Star Trek Into Darkness…I didn’t hate it. Of course, a lack of hate on my part should not suggest any sort of tacit approval, either. STID is a pastiche of various Trek stories all thrown into a blender, set to frappe. Despite inconsistent writing, god-awful pacing, and dialogue which made me laugh when I was supposed to be sad, STID manages to stick the landing as a low-consequence piece of fluff befitting a (possibly drunk) Sunday afternoon matinee. Now if you’re the sort of person who goes into a Star Trek movie expecting a TOS-style Cold War parable or a morality play a la TNG, then you’re shit out of luck.

There’s no single problem which prevents STID from being a strong entry into the Trek franchise. All of the elements of a good Star Trek story are in play, but they never seem to coalesce into something meaningful. This problem begins with the writing alliance of Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof choosing terrorism as the thing to catalyze the story, specifically a bomb in underground London.

Hey guys, that already happened.

It’s not speculative writing to take a historical fact and project it into the future. Whatever cultural resonance John Harrison’s attack is meant to have fell flat with this critic. Perhaps North Americans have lived under the “shadow” of “real” terrorism for long enough that it’s lost its impact when projected on screen. Or maybe I was just underwhelmed by the brainlessness of starting the conflict with a dressed up bit of Enterprise meets Deep Space 9 fan service.

Fan service, there’s a lot of that in this movie. I don’t understand the point of fan service. Making an offhand reference to Harry Mudd, Section 31, Orion females, or Praxis’ explosion, is hardly inspired writing. This sort of story telling puts me in the mind of a dart board, ringed by Star Trek personalities and tropes. Therein, after writing five pages of script, the writers chuck a dart over their shoulder and whatever it lands closest to is the thing rammed into the story as a one-off nod to start the fans drooling. Incidentally, I suspect such a system is how Ron Moore decided who would be a Cylon on Battlestar Galactica.

Also on the subject of drooling fans, let’s talk about Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch. Yeah yeah, settle down, ladies and gay men. Do you know what works for me? The most English Englishman, ever, playing an English guy named John Harrison. Do you know what I object to? The self-same Englishman trying to pass himself off as a guy named Khan. I don’t know what made me laugh harder, Zachary Quntio trying to channel William Shatner with an obligatory “KHAAAAAAAAAN” shout in the third act, or Cumberbatch taking a break from scenery chewing to announce his true name as Khan. Hey, remember when the 60s were progressive in casting a Mexican gentleman named Ricardo Montalban as a character of East Indian descent? Those were the days.

Whitewashing aside, Harrison-Khan’s part of the story still manages to get a pass. Not a great pass, mind you, but at least a C-. This is mostly due to the fact that I don’t see STID as a remake of The Wrath of Khan. By default, this movie has to be a reboot of TOS’s Space Seed. STID may steal elements of the Wrath of Khan, such as Carol Marcus – for seemingly no reason at all other than to put her in some sexy underwear – and magic torpedoes. But consider that the Wrath of Khan is very much a protracted duel between the ostensibly superior Khan and an underdog Kirk on the cusp of retirement. Alternatively, Space Seed introduces Khan only to see Kirk blundering his way through the first contact and eventually settling Khan on Ceti Alpha V. Though alternate-Khan has a grudge with Star Fleet, there’s little in the way of wrath directed at Kirk or the Enterprise. Any other starship with any other captain would have had the exact same interchange with Khan as Kirk did. Therefore STIDSpace Seed, not Wrath of Khan. QED.

What really hobbles the movie is its inability to find one theme and stick with it. The first act begins with Kirk stripped of his command after violating the prime directive and lying about the incident. “Finally,” I thought to myself. The alternate timeline is going to address Kirk’s endless capacity for flouting regulations. However, the education of Kirk quickly falls to the background. The second act, as if recognizing the first was neither brave enough to be a meaningful exploration of terror nor smart enough to sell Kirk as character with sufficient depth to justify an entire movie, changes course toward the Trek trope of an Admiral gone bad. All the while there are flashes of the original “Kirk has no business in command” thread, but it never lasts very long and it’s always delivered as obvious exposition. Meanwhile, some of the Enterprise’s bridge crew complain about the ethics of a military mission to hunt down and kill John Harrison/Khan, which for some reason includes picking a fight with the Klingons. These objections only ever manage to manifest as lip service to Federation doctrine rather than an attempt to tell a morally driven tale.

Time out for nerd rage: the Klingon homeworld is Qo’noS. Kronos is the titan who sired Zeus; get it right or go back to television, JJ.

Okay, game on.

By the time we get to the third act, any attempt at telling a story with substance has wholly fallen apart. The movie is little more than lens flare, fist fights on 23rd century garbage trucks, and starships in Lunar orbit falling toward the Earth instead of Luna. Crap, there I go thinking again. Best not think too much about this movie or you might find yourself wondering how a man put into cryogenic suspension in the 20th century manages to be a successful starship engineer in the 23rd. I mean for fuck’s sake, selling somebody on that idea is about as intuitive as framing a temporally transported Isaac Newton as a Manhattan Project engineer.

The only, and I mean only, thing which saves STID is the cast. There’s no better person to play a shifty Star Fleet Admiral than Peter Weller. He’s almost as glorious a green screen nosher as Cumberbatch. Simon Pegg’s role as Scotty manages to get fleshed out a bit more, despite his seemingly chronic absence from the Enterprise. Quinto and Urban play Spock and McCoy to the hilt, but much like Pegg, they’re acting talents are wasted on one-offs and bon mots.

And that’s really all there is to Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s a shallow, brainless, slightly misogynistic, romp into a universe filled with wasted potential. It’s pretty telling when my theories about the movie prove to be more interesting than the plot which actually unfolds. For the record, I thought Cumberbatch was a mirror universe version of Picard at the helm of some Terran Empire ship of badassdom. At least that might justify the “into darkness” part of the title.

You mad, bro?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Star Trek fans, anemic for a new series, will find the film a suitable short-term palliative. Newcomers to the franchise will probably walk away wondering if all Trek is so shallow. And where the original reboot might have been the thing to reinvigorate the franchise on the small screen, STID comes up well short of such a benchmark.


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TV Review: Doctor Who – The Name of the Doctor

Oh, Moffat. You just can’t resist the temptation to mess with the universe itself in a season finale, can you? Granted, RTD loved to put a gun to the head of creation with his finales as well. Nevertheless, it has become something of a fixture in Moffat-era Doctor Who to watch the stars winking out of existence as a means of telegraphing the stakes of the conflict at hand. And to be perfectly blunt, it has become a lazy and tired routine. I like it not.

An ongoing story reaches a point of diminishing returns when it keeps going to the well of nullifying the cosmos. Perhaps it is time to roll things back to the scope we saw during the Battle of Canary Wharf. The consequences there were big, but the danger was real enough that it threatened individuals rather than abstractions of life. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Despite my misgivings, The Name of the Doctor does offer all the elements of a Moffat finale, if you are into that sort of thing:  a magic place, Trenzalore, a magic doodad, The Doctor’s grave, and a magic bad guy, The Great Intelligence. Said Intelligence wants to break into the Doctor’s grave so that he might “find peace” by dispersing himself into the entirety of the Doctor’s time stream. Apparently Time Lords have THE WORST and most problematic decomposition. It’s typical to what I’ve come to expect from recent Doctor Who; the ideas are very fascinating and high concept, but they never quite manage to be as meaningful in their execution. Temporal instability as a unique consequence of the Doctor’s death would have been fine as a plot device. As presented, it’s means to a retcon as well as a waste of third act on a villain who has presumably been behind everything for the last three years.

Would that the Great Intelligence had some motivations akin to what we saw in The Bells of St. John or even The Snowmen. Also, does anybody else remember when the TARDIS got hijacked without explanation? Instead of using this foe to unify the last three seasons of long-arc storytelling, he is reduced to a banal desire to kill the Doctor. Then it’s all Matt Smith writhing about amid the usual “Oh god the whole of the universe is going to die because the Doctor is just that important” exposition. When the actual conflict does lurch into motion, it does so seemingly as a convenience to exploring who Clara is as the impossible girl.

The answer to this season’s (un)question further left me annoyed. Over the course of this year modern Earth Clara has had zero character development. She is as bland as a baked potato absent fixings, always doing what the Doctor says. She is oddly sensible in the face of terror. She is quite flawless in that she never seems to precipitate any conflict whatsoever. For example, Clara would never create a big ass paradox a la Rose in Father’s Day. After half a season I would kill for her to channel some of Adric’s twerpishness or Leela’s stab-now talk-later attitude. All Clara does is bring out the compulsive side to the Doctor, thus facilitating some really questionable ethical decisions on the part of Eleven. Keeping all this in mind, I am not going to be receptive to Clara being retroactively installed as the most important part of the Doctor’s life, arguably more important than the TARDIS itself. It might work for some, but for me she’s just another Mary-Sue.

In terms of a cool factor though, watching Jenna Louise Coleman interacting with William Hartnell buries the needle. In fact, it’s almost a little too cool. Because when we witness Time Lord Clara recommending the TARDIS to One it further accentuates how bland prime-Clara is as a character. Dalek Clara, Barmaid/Governess Clara, and Time Lord Clara all have more story to them than babysitter Clara. Should I really be caring more about the Claras scattered throughout space-time than I do the one in the box?

On that very practical note, The Name of the Doctor should invite a conversation on the limits of a showrunner’s power. By what right does Moffat insert himself into the series pre-existing history? Certainly I could make a case for this gambit as clever big-arc story-telling, but I could just as easily make a case for Moffat being a narcissist who overplayed his contribution to the series. The series one rule of time travel, never crossing over your own timeline, should be more than an answer to temporal paradoxes. Keeping the Doctor far from his own history ensures that current showrunners aren’t elevating their tenure beyond its place within Doctor Who’s canon.

Amid all this disappointment, some elements of the episode proved quite smart. In so much as the last two years have built toward the looming dread of the Doctor’s name said aloud, the Name of the Doctor reminds the audience of the dangers in taking things literally. It’s not the name that has power, it is the actions committed in the name of the Doctor which prove to be of significant consequence. Enter John Hurt as the Doctor.

John Hurt as the Doctor, not the Valeyard, the Beast, or the Oncoming Storm. The Doctor, who did what he did in the name of peace and sanity, but not the name of the Doctor. Remember when Tennant talked about the Face of Boe as being textbook enigmatic? I think Hurt and Smith, along with some help from Moffat’s pen, just set a new high watermark.

Set aside the liquid awesome that will be Tennant and Smith vs Hurt (likely as a stand-in for what should have been Christopher Eccleston), this pending battle could actually be a meaningful conflict for the Doctor and Doctor Who. The Doctor’s MO is to run. He doesn’t do endings (thank you River Song for once again showing up to remind us of that), and he can’t handle mortality in himself or others. If Hurt is indeed Nine, or some lost 8.5 regeneration of the Doctor, the one who fought the Time War before regenerating into Eccleston, then it puts the series in a place where the Doctor will have to stop running and confront himself. This doesn’t preclude a big conflict, but it demands resolution on a personal level. The Doctor will have to grow from whatever happens during the story with John Hurt as the Doctor. How often have we seen that in recent years? More often than not the meta-story has been to reboot the universe as a means of maintaining the status quo.

In the end, The Name of the Doctor counts less a bookend to a season and more as a tease of things to come. A weakly written, if well performed, main conflict writes River Song out of the series, seemingly for good this time, but quickly fills the Mary Sue gap in taking Clara from zero to infinity. The episode only shines as a vehicle for introducing the next big thing. John Hurt’s reveal, and the potential for teasing out more of the Time War – assuming the history text in the TARDIS was a Chekhov’s book – has me genuinely excited to see what comes next. For the record, Doctor Who hasn’t got me excited for its future since RTD was running things. In the meantime we can start the debate on why Strax, Jenny, and Vastra need a spinoff that is somewhere between the Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood.

Yeah, I said Torchwood. You want to make something of it?


0

The Iconography of Robocop

No, seriously, this is happening.

I imagine the sort of people who frequent my website are the same kind of folk who already know about Detroit’s Robocop statue. If you don’t, where the hell have you been? Seriously, this is a phenomenally cool story that blends together fan culture, high art, nerd rage, and fighting city hall. Here’s a link. You’re welcome.

While there is little finer than a story about people mobilizing to stick it to the man in the most public way possible, the historian in me is hard pressed to ignore the fact that the people who funded the Robocop statue are doing more than immortalizing a science fiction character in bronze. In their own way, they are contributing to a potentially fascinating discussion on material history.

* Warning history nerd discourse to follow *

Monuments are fun things to build historical narratives upon, particularly when the context of the monument hinges upon a contemporary consciousness. Let me illustrate an example. Ages ago when I was doing a study tour in Rome, I saw the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, both the real one and the replica currently on display in the Piazza del Campidoglio. When the Catholic Church set itself to melting down imperial-era statues – something to do with god being an insecure art critic – Marcus Aurelius’ statue survived. Somewhere between the dawn of  Western Europe’s dark ages and its subsequent renaissance, the statue’s narrative changed. It was no longer a statue of Marcus Aurelius, but Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, and no longer subject to the highly subjective rules of idolatry.

Commodus' pap or the guy who made Rome less fun, you decide.

The lesson in this example is that human memory is a frail thing. This is why literate civilizations write books and sometimes set themselves to recording objective logs of relevant events. These things, as well as other parts of material culture, have a memory that transcends the individual human’s lifespan. Bearing this in mind, it’s quite likely that Detroit’s 10-foot bronze statue of Peter Weller as Officer Alex Murphy may out last its creators and patrons. When you, me, and the city of Detroit are gone, Robocop may still stand vigil over a forgotten city. So what happens in 2000 years when future archeologists, be they Terran or extraterrestrial, recover a statue of Omni Consumer Products’ Crime Prevention Unit 001?

If the popular culture of Robocop, as preserved on VHS, DVDs, and the yet unforeseen mediums of the future, don’t survive in tandem with this new piece of Robocop material culture, future historians and anthropologists are going to end up just like those Church officials who named Marcus Aurelius as Constantine. Imagine the theories a scholar working with only half of the Robocop equation might produce.

They might look at Alex Murphy and draw faulty inferences on our culture’s relationship with cybernetics. Since so much of Robocop’s story is bound to Reagonomics, the nuance of the character as a populist hero in the face of gentrification might be lost. In a worst case scenario, the absence of Robocop’s back story might lead the future to view us as a people who celebrated law enforcement as idols – which in the case of recent events in Boston might not be far off the mark.

On the other hand, if the historians of the future recover the statue and the narrative that goes with it, it will do more than memorialize a writer, director, actor, and costume designer in a way usually reserved for heads of state or war heroes. Robocop will become a symbol of how the 21st century ushered in a cultural movement where people empowered themselves through grass roots social planning and small scale fundraising. The Robocop statue will become a meta-story of fighting city hall and winning, which is ironically enough, the plot to the worst of the three Robocop movies.

Thus, I would give one piece of advice to the powers that be concerning this statue; take steps to ensure that both the story of Alex Murphy, as well as the statute itself, are preserved in a lasting way. There’s no point in casting a modern folk hero in bronze while trusting the significance of the figure to the fleeting memory of popular culture.


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Book Review: River of Stars

It has been my experience that historical fiction falls into two readily discernible categories. The first subset adds some element of fiction or liberty taking to real people, places, or events. Alternatively, historical fiction can look to history as an inspiration for an original world. The latter of these two approaches has always struck me as the more difficult proposition. If an author draws too much upon a history that is known to a reader, then they risk losing the uniqueness of their fictionalized setting. In such a situation, inspiration can often be perceived as appropriation, which is arguably an anti-creative activity. While I wouldn’t make a case for a lack of creativity within River of Stars, I did find the novel representative of a conflict between these two competing artistic impulses.

On the one hand, Mr. Kay has shaped the pre-modern civilization of Kitai with the hands of a master. No stone is unturned as he details the art, cuisine, flora, politics, tea, social anxieties, and internal history of twelfth dynasty of Kitai. Within this world, the respective stories of Ren Daiyan, the second son of an office clerk from the fringes of the empire, and Lin Shan, the educated daughter of a court gentlemen, should run in parallel to the prose’s desire to shape a setting. Yet, they do not. It takes two hundred pages before Daiyan and Shan even begin to feel like the main characters of this story. In the interim they, and almost the entirety of the Dramatis Personae, function as component parts of a larger machine whose sole purpose is to illustrate the decadence of Kitai. Robust as the characters eventually prove to be, they never feel equally important to the narration’s attempt to convey a sense of place.

Splendid as Kitai may be as an artistic creation, Mr. Kay does little to let his fictional empire stand out as unique when compared to the actual history of Imperial China. Kitai is situated as a large nation with its Eastern flank to the sea. The North of Kitai boasts a “long wall”, built during Kitai’s glory days though since ruined, as a means of separating the civilized nation from the barbarian horsemen who populate the bordering steppe. In finer points, Kitai mirrors China right down to its volatile and highly nuanced civil service. Fascinating as these details may be, I do question why the author would devote such time to reinventing the wheel in terms of setting. Why not just set the story in China? What is gained by spending so much time building a world that, to varying degrees, already exists within the reader’s mind? As much as I can appreciate the labour which went into crafting an archaeology for Kitai, there are moments when the prose seems to exist simply to justify the vast research which went into it. For a PhD dissertation this is well and good, in a novel my interests are more focused upon the originality of the conflict.

In the novel’s afterward Mr. Kay states that, “River of Stars is a work shaped by themes, characters, and events associated with China’s Northern Song Dynasty before and after the fall of Kaifeng.” On characters, the author further says, “I am significantly more at home shaping thoughts and desire for Lin Shan and Ren Daiyan…than I would be imposing needs and reflections on their inspirations.” What then emerges out of this mandate is an attempt to use an imagined place to convey a fictionalized history of real people, albeit people whose whole history has been lost to time. As a result, the narrative voice takes on the tone of a chronicler, keen to record everything and let the future decide what is noteworthy. Such a chronological method is a double edged sword. It allows Mr. Kay to create a fully realized world in River of Stars, but it is the worst offender in terms of subordinating the characters to Kitai’s broader history. Perhaps then I am somewhat disadvantaged for not having read Under Heaven, the spiritual predecessor to River of Stars. Because, I simply don’t care enough about Kitai to watch it overpower the people who live within it.

Nowhere is this reality better seen than in an ending which effectively nullifies the hero’s quest, leaving him an utter failure in his own eyes. The tragedy of Ren Daiyan becomes anti-legendary in its telling. Where traditional legends witness society elevating great individuals, River of Stars does the opposite. Mr. Kay subjects Ren Daiyan to the state demonstrating that there is no room for greatness within an officious bureaucracy. This is an interesting message in and of itself. The fact that it is filtered through the lens of Kitai, and not the reality of Song China, somewhat diminishes, rather than accentuates, the value of the subtext in my eyes.

We can see something similar in the author’s treatment of Lin Shan. As an educated woman, Shan is the consummate outsider to Katai’s polite society. She is literate, artistic, and abhors the physical and social treatment her gender receives at the hands of courtly etiquette – for example Kitai, like China, embraces the practice of foot binding. By the end of the story Shan dies under the shadow of the nation in which she lives, not as an agent of change, but as a primary source/poet. Like Daiyan, Shan never sees the world as she would want it to be made. Kitai is a monolith, and the internal legacy of Shan’s works are a monument not to herself but to Kitai. Emerging out of this point is an interesting discussion on the role of a great individual within society. Can people of note live and die as individuals, regardless of the era in which they dwell, or will some political entity always appropriate them as a symbol of collective majesty?

Bearing in mind the novel’s themes, I would suggest that Mr. Kay’s answer to the above question is a clear negative. In that light, River of Stars, though meticulously crafted, is something of a fatalistic read. Kitai’s Emperor receives his mandate from heaven and that mandate is to survive from epoch to epoch, nothing more. Though the novel features great people, their works are secondary to Kitai. Kay is certainly thorough in using fiction as a lens to view the past, yet a tendency toward exposition leaves the novel feeling somewhat uneven in its pacing. It is atypical of what I expect from historical fiction, but compelling as a tragedy if nothing else.