Archive for September, 2013

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Did Agents of SHIELD Bite its Thumb at Cosplayers?

Since last week’s Agents of SHIELD premiere there’s been no shortage of buzz, gossip, and criticism in mainstream and social media. One issue therein that has been getting a bit of traction is the ostensibly dismissive tone the pilot episode took towards cosplayers. The offending snippet of dialogue was along the lines of “you’re worse than those sweaty cosplayers who surround Stark Tower.”

At first, I didn’t think much of this one-off bit of snark. Primarily because I’m not a cosplayer. I understand there’s a huge sense of empowerment that comes from pulling off an effective cosplay. And I appreciate the amount of time and effort that goes into constructing every last detail of a costume. Keeping that in mind, I think it’s fair to examine the offending comment as a potential dude-bro moment, inserted to make non-genre viewers feel more at home with the series.

I do, however, think the line is wholly appropriate given the context of the adapted Marvel Universe in which Agents of SHIELD it is set. The facts, as I see them, line up like so:

1 – AoS is set in a world where superheroes, supervillians, and aliens are de rigueur, and have been since before the Second World War.

2 – The Earth as presented in the Marvel universe is supposed to be a mirror image of our own, save for those things outlined in point 1.

3 – Superhero poseurs catalyzed the Marvel Civil War. I doubt the Civil War fits into Marvel: Phase 1, as written, but it is canon, and worth mentioning how fans in costumes indirectly led to the death of Captain America, a schism within the Fantastic Four, and Norman Osborne becoming one of the most powerful men on Earth.

4 – SHIELD agents, the day-to-day analysts, support personnel, and field agents, have little time for super heroes who operate above the law. A SHIELD agent puts the badge and the safety of the planet before individual actions; superheroes, by and large, do not.

When we start adding up these facts, it makes sense that a SHIELD agent would have little consideration for a cosplayer. If a person wants to feel empowered in the Marvel Universe, in turn defending the planet from Skurlls, Kree, and everything in between, they have the option to try and join SHIELD. They can put on the badge and stand with the team that does much of the heavy lifting but gets none of the glory, compared to the likes of the Avengers and their action figures.

Cosplaying in the Marvel universe would by definition be faster to cross a thin line into unhealthy obsession. Tony Stark, for example, is a real person in the Marvel universe; just as Steve Jobs was a real person in ours. The idea of people hanging out in front of Stark Tower dressed like Iron Man would be just as bizarre to a SHIELD agent as an army of people mobbing apple HQ in matching black turtleneck sweaters would be to us. We would ask, “What is wrong with that person? Don’t they have anything better to do with their time?” So to would anybody in the Marvel universe vis-a-vis cosplay.

The work-a-day SHIELD operative should quite rightly see a cosplayer as something that is unhealthy, obsessive, and childish within the context of the Marvel universe. Moreover, simply by showing up in public the cosplayer reminds the SHIELD agent of their limitations as a normal human. The cosplayer implicitly elevates the superhero above mortal men and women, and in turn makes an explicit statement that they would rather drool in admiration over exceptional individuals instead of taking personal ownership over the mundane, but necessary, duties of defending the Earth – a la Coulson – that comes with a SHIELD badge.

The dialogue was on point. It was not an attack on the fans or their hobbies.

QED.

That said, I think it is fair to say that the series is now on my radar for future violations wherein it is actively laughing at the audience.


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Afternoon Anime: Space Battleship Yamato 2199 Episode 13

Entertaining as it is to finally see the Yamato firing its guns in anger, I think the thirteenth episode of Space Battleship Yamato 2199 might have overplayed its hand just a bit. It’s not terrible, mind you. But for a series that has gone out of its way to avoid being goofy, this episode is a clear step in the wrong direction.

The Wolf From Another Dimension picks up almost exactly where the previous episode left off. The Yamato is under attack from a seemingly invisible Gamilan ship. Said ship proves to be a space submarine. That’s right, I said space submarine.

I can imagine any number of ways the writers could have brought the submarine concept into a space opera. The most sensible seems to be something along the lines of the SSV Normandy from Mass Effect. Create a ship that produces no heat signature and skin it in a non-reflective material: instant space submarine. Instead, the Gamilan space sub hides out in “the bottom of another dimension.”

Okay. . .so that time when the Yamato was stuck in a dimensional rift wasn’t a one-off? It was conceptual groundwork for the Gamilans using that layer of space as a platform for attack. Fine, whatever.

I’ll concede that even the best space opera merits a certain latitude in terms of its employed tropes. And if I’m going to gives the series a pass on its catalyst – an alien civilization sending a “bootstrap” data package capable of reinventing physics as humanity understands it – I should forgive a dimensional submarine. And I probably would if it wasn’t for the rest of the episode making me think there was a wholesale smarter way to work with this particular chapter of the story.

With the Yamato hiding Millennium Falcon-style from the Gamilan submarine, Captain Okita passes out. This leaves Lt. Commander Sanada in command while Dr. Sato performs emergency surgery on the Captain. During his stint at the conn, the XO proves painfully sentimental and morbidly stupid. To escape the sub, Sanada’s immediate underling, Lt. Niimi, recommends sending out a hyperspace ping to try and track the Gamilan ship. Kodai points out that such an action would give away the Yamato’s position. Putting the tactic in tactical officer, Kodai instead volunteers to pilot a support shuttle which would deploy a series of hyperspace probes. This would allow the Yamato to track the submarine’s torpedoes as they come out of the lower dimension. Against all military and naval logic, Sanada dismisses Kodai’s idea and orders the ping. Rather than challenging the XO, Kodai recalls Captain Okita’s words about disobeying orders for the greater good – those words we heard last episode – and goes off to deploy the beacons on his own.

In turn, Kodai’s faux-insubordinate actions let the Yamato destroy the submarine’s periscope drone. The sub then limps off to fight another day.

The problem here is two-fold.

First, Sanada is an idiot. Even if The Hunt for Red October was the limit of my knowledge of naval warfare – it’s not – I would know you never go to active sonar unless you want the enemy to know where you are. His decision would have made sense if it was part of an extra-smart plan; therein Kodai’s insubordination would have brought the ship into greater jeopardy. But no. The final scene reveals that Sanada used the ping because he was afraid to send Kodai into a dangerous situation. Apparently, there’s some history between Sanada and Kodai’s dead older brother, Mamoru.

The other half of the problem is Kodai basing his decision to drop the hyperspace buoys on Captain Okita’s “a soldier can’t put orders above his conscience” speech. Too soon, writers, too soon and too low stakes. Okita rejected orders on moral grounds when he was directed to fire unprovoked upon a heretofore unknown alien civilization. Kodai didn’t even refuse Sanada’s orders to the point of being relieved of duty. He simply rationalized an impulsive, though correct, decision based on an out of context anecdote from the captain.

At the very least, we now have some brickwork laid on getting Sanada out of the chain of command when Captain Okita falls too ill to command the Yamato. This episode clearly demonstrates that the XO, for all his Spock-like personality, doesn’t have the fortitude to order someone to their (probable) death. I imagine he will either do something self-sacrificing to keep Kodai alive long enough to take the big chair, or he’ll just meekly stand aside and let command pass to Kodai.

So there’s another episode down. It’s not the best we’ve seen from the series, but it’s not the worst either. Certainly though, The Wolf From Another Dimension offers the most squandered potential and easy-way-out writing I’ve seen from the show to date.

And if you haven’t already, make sure to check out the kickstarter for my upcoming audio project.


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Scramble All Fighters – The Wing Commander Riff Cast’s Kickstarter is Live

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. Today marks the start of our kickstarter campaign to raise $300 to produce our first riff cast. What’s a riff cast? Good question. For the long reads answer, click here.

The quick, fast, and dirty is as follows.

Riff track + podcast = riff cast.

I want to produce, with some help from recent podcast co-host Matt Leaver, a podcast that is going to be entertaining to listen to on its own, but even better if you synch it up to the hot mess that is 1999’s Wing Commander screen adaptation.

Per the rules of comedy, we’re going to be bringing in a third guy, who shall remain nameless for now. And assuming we hit our goal, so that we can get a third mic for our third man, we will undertake to offer up an homage to Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett whereby we improve a movie through merciless heckling.

That’s what we are doing; here’s why you might want to support us in this mad venture.

First and foremost, this isn’t just a one-off for us. If we meet our goal now, we can do this again without having to pass the hat around. It will also allow me to take the Page of Reviews Podcast up to the next level. I’ve always wanted my podcast to be more like The Ricky Gervais Show and with a third mic I can make that happen.

Second, we’ve built almost of the rewards around publically recognizing our contributors. Toss in a little and you can get your name read into the movie’s end credits. For a few dollars more, we’ll personalize your copy of the riff track with a custom opening. If you want to make it rain, we’ve got sponsorships of upcoming podcasts and name drops in the final product of the riff cast. Our highest level reward sees us surrendering creative control of an episode of the podcast to the contributor. I dare you to make us review 50 Shades of Grey or Atlas Shrugged. I dare you.

Third, we’re giving away the final product for free, just like every other podcast we have done or ever will do. I know some people like to monetize their podcasts, but I take my queues from the likes of Jon Oliver and Joe Rogan. Give away the content, get people talking about it, and all the rest will fall into place.

So that’s what we’re putting out there. The campaign will run until October 16th. Here’s the link which includes a custom kickstarter exclusive episode of the podcast.

You have the power.


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An Obligatory Post on Grand Theft Auto V

I have it on good authority that not enough people are writing about Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto V. As a game critic and internet yeoman, I feel it my duty to contribute something to the paper thin discussion of a game series that has, by and large, become a modern pop culture fixture.

Let’s begin with the obvious and then move on to something more interesting. GTA V, like its predecessors, has become an easy pile-on target for people who want to make themselves or their opinions look good.

Though I suppose the timing of its release is slightly less than auspicious and part of the problem therein. September 16th: a lunatic gunman murders a clutch of innocents going about their business in Washington DC. September 17th, Grand Theft Auto V, a game that enables players to embark upon all sorts of lurid and violent fantasies, does $800 million in day one sales. Later that same day, stock in Viagara tanks as every conservative journalist, blogger, and pop culture wag achieved simultaneous erections lasting more than four hours.

I spent a couple gift cards from relatives who know me well enough to know I like video games, but not well enough to know my tastes, on a copy GTA V. Since then I’ve invested about five hours on the game. Based upon this limited surface scratch, I’m content to say I like it what I’ve seen. Moreover, I don’t feel the least bit bad about liking it.

One of the on-going criticisms of the GTA series is that it’s nothing more than a juvenile male-power fantasy at the expense of women, blacks, and latinos. Fair point. But the degree to which the game is senselessly exploitative is in part weighted by the way a person plays the game.

If I was fifteen years old and unfamiliar with the advent of internet porn, I suppose I would be running straight away to one of Los Santos’ strip clubs for a topless dance. And if I was so inclined, I might drive to a seedy part of town as a prelude to going American Psycho on a hooker. But what’s the more interesting narrative in such a situation; the fact that the game creates the opportunity to explore these fantasies, or that as a player I’m choosing to deviate from the main story and engage with the environment in the most primitive way possible? To what extent does GTA manufacture deviance and to what extent is it a tounge in cheek mirror for what’s already there?

But the moral outrage at roadside blowjobs and taking a katana to a cop is old news when it comes to GTA. What’s new in GTA V that’s worth talking about? What novel and grotesque power fantasies is it pushing further into the uncanny valley? How are the designers ushering in a new era of moral degradation and decay among the world’s children?

So far GTA V has let me inhabit two of its characters, Michael, a retired bank robber with anger issues, and Franklin, an inner city youth who is beginning to see crime as the only escape from a life of urban poverty. As Michael, I’ve played Tennis with my wife – who is cheating on me with the Tennis pro – done some day trading within the game’s stock market, dealt inappropriately with a middle-age crisis, customized a car, and looked at buying property. As Franklin, I’ve repossessed cars, filled in as a tow truck driver when my friend is too cracked out to go to work, and had another friend get me involved in a gang fight.

Hey, this sounds familiar. It sounds like The Sopranos, The Shield, NYPD Blue, The Godfather, The Wire, and any other number of crime stories from the last 30 years. And in reviewing all of those pop culture touchstones we could easily make a case for them being problematic male-power fantasies, despite the Emmy, Academy, Peabody, and SAG Awards they have won. Or we could look a little deeper at these attempts to craft a vision of the world, not as we would want it to be but as a dramatic exaggeration of what it was at the time of their making. The common purpose to those interpretations was to convey a specific narrative, sometimes going so far as to offer a social commentary.

In the case of GTA V, we should mark it as a sign of our times that the power fantasies in this game include buying property, generating wealth through investments, and automobile ownership – things that 50 years ago a person could do with only a high school education. Franklin, for example, doesn’t want to be a criminal; he doesn’t revel in murder and carnage. But he does want to escape from a cycle of poverty. Like many inner city youths his tools to make said transition are somewhat limited due to institutional failures. And unlike Michael, who always seems to have disposable income to buy stocks, Franklin is perpetually poor. To me, the take away message here is quite obvious. GTA V isn’t about making my balls feel bigger through knifing a hooker, it’s a Paul Verhoeven-style satire/social commentary. And if it is indeed a power fantasy, it is one for the young and poor who will probably not be able to buy a house until they are in their 40s.

Though if I’m going to take this stance, I suppose the spirit of fairness demands I ask if the average gamer is going to engage with the GTA V on the level that I have done here. Probably not. Nevertheless, knifing old ladies in a GTA game gets old very quickly. The substance has always been in the radio chatter, the conversations between characters, and the nuance of the world at hand. And so far, Los Santos seems like a pretty compelling allegory of contemporary North America, up to and including Michael’s son complaining that modern movies are nothing more than rom-coms, super hero movies, and remakes.

Nope, no meaningful commentary at all in this game.


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On Star Trek TNG and Pulling the Trigger

I’m going to come clean on this one; the new job has been kicking my ass. Today I channeled my inner Jack Ryan before giving a presentation to a room of people situated well above my pay grade, and the majority of whom were, I suspect, much smarter than yours truly. On the up side, I didn’t get laughed out of the lecture hall, and the boss was happy with my work. Advantage: Shaftoe.

The bad news is that a few extra hours in the office cut into this week’s “to review” list. I hope you’ll find it within your heart to forgive me for doing the best I can with the material at hand.

To wit: every morning before going to work I watch the first half of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This morning I logged about twenty-seven minutes of Legacy. Legacy sees a shuttle brimming with red shirts crashing on Turkana IV, home world of the late Lt. Tasha Yar.

For those who don’t recall, Turkana IV is one of TNG’s few and fleeting attempts to add a dark underbelly to the Federation’s socialist utopia. More specifically, Turkana IV is presented as a failed nation. The world was a member of the Federation before seceding for undisclosed reasons. Canon then records the planet’s descent into a lawless hellscape. Apparently, the Federation Council was content to wash its hands of the entire situation. PS: who wants to guess how many terrible fanfics have been written about Turkana IV?

A Season One episode of TNG, captured in the above picture, gives us a flashback to Tasha’s life on Turkana. Therein, the audience is introduced to the concept of a “rape gang,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Cut to a young Lt. Yar hiding in a tunnel, cradling a mangy cat. She sets the cat free just as a hooting bunch of men with flashlights come around the corner. What follows goes without saying or showing. The scene, though almost a throwaway, is creepy as fuck with its implications that Tasha is about to get violated seven ways from Romulus.

Upon arriving at Turkana in Season Four, Picard dispatches the obligatory away team. True to Trek form, the Captain doesn’t send in twenty-five heavily armed security officers. Instead, he beams in Riker, Data, Worf, and Doctor Crusher. Worf, being the only sensible one in the bunch, reminds everybody that Turkana IV is a god forsaken shit hole. He further questions the wisdom of sending the good Doctor in the first wave, what with all the rape gangs. A “Shut up, Worf” moment ensues and off goes the episode on a wild series of loosely connected tangents.

Based upon what I saw, and what I remember, Legacy is far from a stand out episode of Trek. In my estimation, TNG was at its worst when exploring Data’s non-existent feelings. What stuck with me was the episode’s blink-and-miss-it return to the idea of rape gangs.

At first, I thought that the series missed an opportunity to pull the trigger on a much more emotionally resonant story. Legacy presents a version of Turkana IV that is a tea party compared to what Lt. Yar described. Why not show the audience what a failed future state actually looks like? Why not prove Worf correct, for once, and force Picard to send in the (space) marines?

In a post Battlestar Galactica world it’s easy to be cynical about Star Trek: TNG not pulling the trigger on rape gangs, implied as they may be. Nor should we forget that Season Six of TNG saw David Warner gracing the series for a torture porn/1984 episode. Five years after that, DS9′s The Siege of AR-558 would see  Starfleet security officers make necklaces of ketracel-white tubes plucked from dead Jem’Hadar. So I’ll put it to you, dear reader, did TNG push the envelope with its talk of rape gangs and failed nations in Legacy? Or did it run screaming from the edge of dark sci-fi and back into the comforting tropes of android-human empathy, only later poking its nose back into darker territory?


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What is Noobcamp and Why Does it Want Your Money?

The creators of Noobcamp have taken an interesting tack in presenting their web series’ kickstarter campaign. Therein, they acknowledge the novelty of web television as an emerging concept. At the same time, they pull no punches in suggesting that the web series, as a whole, is trying to find its way as a vehicle for telling an effective story.

…many web shows just follow actors around with cameras while the actors discuss their backstory.

It is in this fashion that the Mayview production team declared their goal of crafting a web series that takes full advantage of established cinematic techniques in conveying a narrative. An outside observer might be tempted to suggest that the production is inviting a special kind of hubris with their generalizations about the state of web media. I certainly don’t think any of the web series I’ve reviewed are burdened by an abundance of world building. Then again, it is a big internet out there. To borrow a phrase from Roy Batty, perhaps they’ve seen things I wouldn’t believe.

This aside, the six minute pitch video, the one minute trailer – which incidentally does a fantastic job of showing rather than telling – and a mission statement citing games and film as life affirming experiences, were enough to pique my interest in this project. Using David Mamet’s quote about illiterates inventing “backstory” may have also helped seal the deal.

So rather than summarizing, I’ll let the series speak for itself.

Noobcamp is a story about an ex-professional gamer who is forced to teach a video game camp for kids. Johnny7, as he was once known, was among the top pro gamers in the world and made millions in endorsements. The show picks up several years after his downfall. Johnny, now mid-20s, reckless and jaded from his fame and fortune, is probably the worst person for the job, but he may be exactly what they need.

Even if Noobcamp doesn’t revolutionize the medium, which would be rather challenging to do without going into art house territory, it does seem like something I would gladly watch. In fact, I may kick in four dollars if only for the executive producer credit.

As of the time of this post, Noobcamp is about 81% of the way to its $25,000 goal with 52 hours remaining on the campaign. Would you like to know more? Click here to head over to their kickstarter page for all the details.


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Some Thoughts on Adventure Time

This year marked my gaming group’s wholesale infatuation with Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. Beyond the in-jokes and references, which saw me as the consummate outsider wondering why people were laughing at nothing, the fascination has reached a point of Finn and Jake themed cupcakes on the occasion of someone’s birthday. I took this occurrence as a clear indication that the fixation was not a passing fancy for want of a new season of Breaking Bad. To that end, I decided to watch a few episodes.

My first impressions were along the lines of “What in the actual hell did I just watch?”

And the more Adventure Time I took in, the more confused I became. Even now, with perhaps a dozen episodes under my belt, I still don’t have a sense of the meta-story, assuming there is one to be found. At least Spongebob Squarepants made its intentions well known from the outset: abject stupidity for the kids paired with literary references for the adults. But with Adventure Time, I am equal parts fascinated and confused.

For example, one episode sees the Ice King, a regular antagonist I’m told, shaving his beard as a prelude to rebranding himself as the “Nice” King. Therein all the local princesses fall in love with him, despite the fact that the Nice King embodies every awful dudebro stereotype. Assuming that children are indeed the series’ target demographic, I count it as a good thing that the Ice King’s attempt to make various princesses change their bodies to suit his tastes results in a complete failure. Finn and Jake, ever the paragons of virtue, expose the Nice King’s shallow behavior, which in turn leads to his reveal as the Ice King, and everybody learns to be happy with who they are. Not a bad take-away message.

But then there’s an episode entirely focused on Finn making a sandwich. Before Finn can eat his lunch, a riddling brigand steals the culinary creation, imprisoning himself and the wayward sandwich in a molasses based, space-time anomaly. BMO, a skateboarding Japanese videogame console, and Mareceline the Vampire Queen’s attempts to liberate the absconded meal prove fruitless. Only when Jake, pained by the loss of his creation, wanders into the bubble do we learn that sadness allows time to flow at a normal rate within the molasses sphere. To maintain his ennui, the canine offspring of Bender and Marcus Fenix imagines his own death. Specifically, Jake envisions the graveside confession of a muscular cupcake man who wishes he had spent more time getting to know Jake when he was alive.

After the episode, I looked to one of my friends and asked, “Was that about the agony of creation, or alpha males expressing their emotions?”

He said, “Neither. It was about the love between a man and the perfect sandwich. Haven’t you seen Friends?” And oddly enough, I was okay with that answer. Sure, I’ve never cried over a meal. But I do remember an amazing lamb burger that I made right around the time The King’s Speech came out. And in making me salivate over that burger, the episode proves its point.

Yet this seemingly shallow love affair with lunch came after an episode which posed a serious question about living in a world of absolute truth. It is certainly a kid friendly philosophical question. Who doesn’t recall the first time learned manners came into conflict with pure honesty and the sense of internal dissonance it caused. At the same time, the query is sufficiently meaningful as to prompt an adult audience’s examination on the “necessity” of polite lies as an anchor of civil society. Or maybe it’s all a big joke at the expense of Adventure Time’s adult audience.

Perhaps Adventure Time’s tendency to offer positive, that is to say non-overtly sexist or otherwise problematic, take away messages to its younger demographic is prompting us to construct a false subtextual structure around non-sandwich themed stories. Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Finn is in a coma and the entire series is a fantasy themed Life on Mars. Either way, I’ll keep watching if only to try to intuit what Adventure Time is doing, other than making me feel stupid for not knowing what it is.


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Game Review: Space Hulk

Confession: For years I have lusted after a copy of Games Workshop’s Space Hulk. Needless to say, I was extremely excited to find out about Full Control Studios’ PC adaptation of this now classic Warhammer 40K strategy game. Furthermore, I count it as a blessing from the immortal Emperor, himself, that Full Control was kind enough to send me a review copy of the game. Since Space Hulk unlocked on Steam, I have invested about twenty hours into it and attempted to write this review three times. The delay, however, is not because I think Space Hulk is a bad game. In fact, I think it deserves high marks for making an elegant, if complex, table top game a very intuitive experience. The reason I’ve sat on this review is because it necessitated some deep thoughts to adequately figure out what Space Hulk actually is. Allow me to explain.

In practice and execution, Space Hulk is a straight-up digital port of the board game of the same name. It reproduces the missions of the source material’s “Sin of Damnation” campaign right down to the name of each individual Space Marine. Behind the scenes dice rolling governs a straight forward combat system between Terminator squads and seemingly endless hordes of alien Genestealers. Missions unfold in cramped sections of a derelict starship, making initial placement of troops of the utmost importance when Space Marines are often stuck marching in single file with obstructed lines of sight. And much like its tabletop counterpart, Space Hulk captures a Chess-like, or perhaps Chess-light, quality. That is to say, Space Hulk is never about what you are going to do in a given turn; it’s about where you want to be three or four turns later.

Space Hulk also offers all of the finer brushstrokes that I would expect form a modern Warhammer 40k experience on the PC. The art of Space Hulk conveys the grimy future-gothic aesthetic of the universe in which it is set. Mission briefings evoke fond memories of the classic Deathwing PC game. Little things, like the intentional cacophonous echoing of a storm bolter fired down a narrow hallway, reflects that a lot of care have gone into producing this title.

Yet, I still had troubles putting together this review because something almost intangible has been lost in the translation from board game to computer game. After much hand wringing I think I can boil it down to a single question: is this a tabletop game on PC, or a PC game that employs tabletop mechanics? Therein, the problem is that it lands almost dead set in the middle.

Again, I don’t think this breaks the game or makes it a bad title in any sense of the word. Granted, there were some serious multiplayer bugs at launch, but Full Control has been very vigilant in addressing those issues and listening to the community when new bugs crop up. I know some of my contemporaries see that as too little too late, but I’m inclined to recognize the effort after the fact.

What’s missing from Space Hulk is a quantifiable aspect that drives home its nature as a tabletop game on PC. For example, dice rolling. Dice rolling is at the core of Space Hulk. There are moments in both the board and digital game when the dice seem guided by the hand of the Emperor himself as one rolls an increasingly improbable number of saving throws. Then there are the darker moments. These are the times when Brother Zael is positioned to roast a clutch of Genestealers with his sanctified flame thrower so long as the player can roll greater than a one on a 1D6. When the single mark on the die comes up, it is nothing short of an acid coated knife to the heart. Watching this essential dice rolling manifest in Space Hulk as a Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights style combat log is not as satisfying as seeing actual dice, or even a digital simulacra, fall on the table. This shortcoming is especially acute in multiplayer games where there are no cuts to the vanity cam and its gory death sequences.

A simple cosmetic change in resolving dice based combat would go a long way in pulling Space Hulk out of the immaterium between physical and digital game realms. As it stands, it would be easy for hardcore PC gamers to dismiss the game as insubstantial. Similarly, table top loyalists could view it as missing the je ne c’est qua of the original game. Such presumptions would be a mistake. Space Hulk the PC game is Space Hulk the board game. The former’s only systemic sins are in treating the source material like a fully fledged RPG system, rather than a board game.

The proffered game engine would be perfect for a complete WH40K combat system. Nobody is going to complain about front end logistics automated in the back when there are fifty units on the table. But Space Hulk isn’t an RPG. It’s a board game; the inherent fun of a board game is in the minutia. Back ending those aspects certainly makes this game more approachable, but it also deprives the players of just enough agency as to make the experience feel somewhat askance.

My greater fear is that the $29.99 USD price point paired with an average result in tabletop to digital translation is keeping people away from this good but not quite on-the-money game. In turn, this cripples Space Hulk’s multiplayer experience, which is really the heart of the game now that the more serious bugs have been patched. This is to say, nobody buys a board game to play by themselves; similarly nobody should be buying Space Hulk to roll against the AI. But when it can take as long as ten minutes to find a random opponent, I can understand why other critics are writing off the multiplayer as a waste of time.

As an alternate to spending $150 on an ebay copy of Space Hulk, Full Control Studios’ Space Hulk is a good, but not necessarily urgent, investment. The game gets the job done, but a few minor changes could have really set a benchmark for producing a tabletop experience on the PC.

Stray Thoughts

- Procedurally generated maps for multiplayer would have been amazing. Failing that, there should be a way to make user generated maps. All one has to do with the board game is connect some hallways and the fun factor can go well beyond the campaign as written.

- Just like in XCOM Enemy Unknown, trust in over watch. I lost a multiplayer match in a single turn by forgetting to set it.

- Contrary to what some of my colleagues in game criticism will tell you, the game is only slow paced if you ignore the fact that you can move more than one terminator at a time.

 

 


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Afternoon Anime: Space Battleship Yamato 2199 Episode 12

Remember when I said the series is painting Kodai as a good officer en route to command? After watching episode 12, What Lies Beyond, I can’t tell if I’m right or wrong on that point.

The chapter opens with Shima and Kodai bickering during a morning briefing. Still seething from the previous episode’s revelation about the origins of the war, Shima uses Kodai’s seemingly cavalier attitude toward the mission as an excuse to rehash the Melda Ditz debate. Rather than de-escalating the situation, Kodai fully engages in Shima’s pissing contest. Captain Okita brings the spectacle to an unceremonious end, assigning both men to janitorial duty until they learn how to act like officers.

With Kodai and Shima bookending the episode, the more interesting plot threads weave together on planet Gamilas. NB: The subtitles are calling the capital of the Gamilas Empire, Baleras. The all knowing Wikipedia, in both English and Japanese, shows no record of the planet’s name being retconed in SBY 2199. For the sake of consistency within this series of posts, I’m going to keep calling the Gamilan homeworld Gamilas until somebody provides me with a compelling reason to change my ways.

General Domel, who we met in episode 12 amid a battle with ships from the Comet/Gatlantis Empire, arrives on Gamilas to receive a medal from Desler, personally. Though the ceremony itself proves nothing more than a PR stunt to masquerade a deeper plot; Desler brought Domel back from the “front lines of the empire’s defense” to destroy the Yamato. Why he couldn’t send a space-telegram is beyond my reckoning.

On a side note, I don’t recall the original series ever mentioning the Comet Empire in the first season. How interesting that they are being brought in now. I wonder if a second season is already in the works where the Earth-Gamilas war will be framed as the thing which enabled the White Comet’s invasion into the Milky Way.

Speculation aside, the episode gives a bit more shading into the state of affairs within the imperial capital. To start, there’s an obvious, and somewhat tiring, tripling down on the Nazi imagery. We get it, they’re space Nazis. The pomp and circumstance of Domel’s award ceremony would have done Joeseph Gobbels proud. More interesting is Desler’s “hotline” conversation with Iscandar, calling the world “the heart and soul of his nation.” His follow-up plans to unify the two worlds are a clear invocation of the German-Austrian Anschluss.

Thankfully, a point of real substance emerges from all the world building. This manifests as Gamilan citizens being deported to a prison planet in the aftermath of an act of domestic terrorism. Even General Domel voices concerns about the Gamilan Secret Police’s efficacy; are they exiling criminals, or just rounding up citizens ad hoc to send a message to the rest of the planet? Honestly, I’m not quite sure how to read the subtext of this event. It would be a little too on the nose to play the holocaust card at this point. Especially in light of Melda Ditz’s statement that those who surrender to the empire are allowed to serve within it. I don’t see how genocide would fit into that formula. What would prove interesting is an active internal resistance to Desler and the established Gamilan order. In that case, the Yamato could transform the dissidents from a resistance to fifth columnists.

In terms of series’ earlier tendencies toward simple dichotomies, episode 12 does work quite well to undermine the “evil empire” nature of the Gamilans. Where previously there was only politicking within the Gamilan high command, we now see unrest in the empire at large. However, this could go to a very ugly place if the Yamato turns into a full-on liberator. The original series ends with Kodai nuking Gamilas and all its poor innocent bystanders. Said war crime is sine qua non for this story. All of Yamato 2199′s hints at being a meaningful allegory go out the window if Kodai doesn’t commit his war crime and own it as exactly that.

The episode ends on the Yamato with Kodai and Shima making peace with each other. Their fist bumping reconciliation is overshadowed by some profound, if expected, wartime philosophy from the Yamato’s senior crew. Lt. Commander Tokugawa talks some sense into Shima, pointing out that regardless of who fired first, the war between Earth and Gamilas, just like the war between America and Japan, was going to happen. Meanwhile, Captain Okita has a heart-to-heart with Kodai about the need for soldiers to make humane decisions during battle. In part, the scene is Okita rationalizing his refusal to fire blindly on the Gamilans at first contact. It also strikes as necessary lip service for any war story. At some point somebody has to talk about balancing orders and ethics; it wouldn’t be space opera, otherwise. On a deeper level, this scene is Okita giving Kodai tacit approval for the way he handled things with Melda, notwithstanding the janitorial punishment for a lack of decorum on the bridge.

Only a Gamilan space submarine, presumably under General Domel’s command, torpedoing the Yamato precludes a big happy ending. Next time on Space Battleship Yamato 2199, it’s that episode of Star Trek that was based on The Enemy Below.


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Adam Versus Steam Greenlight Volume 5: USC and AuraviaL

Well so much for doing an Adam versus Steam Greenlight post as a monthly feature. Ah well. Let’s get back in the swing of things with a quick two-game edition of AvSG. For the benefit of any newcomers to this series of posts, this is where I pull a few games out of my Steam Greenlight queue and publicly decide if I would buy the game were it to appear on Steam. On that note, here’s the first contender.

Ultimate Space Commando by Creatio 49

Release Date: Q1 2014

The Developer’s Description

Ultimate Space Commando (USC) is an old-school turn-based strategy game that focuses on actual field tactics as a small group of elite commandos become engaged in a deadly conflict with a yet unknown, but rather ravenous species of aliens. Make relevant strategic choices, develop tactics and equip your soldiers as you see fit, try to survive and give the aliens hell in the single-player Campaign. Build and customize 4-man squads to play various ‘Single Missions’, Scenarios and ‘Defend the Base!’ actions alone or in a hot-seat or TCP/IP multiplayer session with up to four players, either man vs. aliens, man vs. man or even mixed, with various objectives, official scoring system, and much more. A full-fledged and truly Random Map Generator makes every mission you play unique and challenging.

Trailer

 

My Thoughts

Interesting, very interesting. Ultimate Space Commando has the look of a game inspired by X-Com while being primarily concerned with producing a deep table top role-playing game experience on the PC. From the trailer, the game engine seems to make graphical concessions in favour of dice rolling and stat management. The key question for me: is this game going to be complex or complicated.

Ultimate Space Commoando’s detailed information boasts a “plausible” combat system with 4 character properties, 9 skill attributes, and a detailed weapons system featuring 18 weapons and various ammunition types. But wait, there’s more. We’re also being promised a crafting system and RPG style unit customization. Assuming I won’t need to read a fifty page manual before I can sink my teeth into the game, this sounds very promising. But there’s a fine line between a game that gives me the freedom to tinker, and one that piles on the micromanagement as a stand-in for meaningful gameplay.

The other thing that strikes me as somewhat odd is USC’s gameplay footage running at a faster than normal speed. I hope that’s because the developer wanted to show off as much as he could. My fear is that it’s an attempt to cover up a painfully slow paced game.

The Bottom Line

My love of rich RPGs outweighs my fears that this game might prove dense for the sake of dense.

Verdict: Buy

AuraviaL by SetoZW

Release Date: January 2014

The Developer’s Description

Play in your own ways in an immersive world is all a Role-Playing Game (RPG) is about. And that is exactly what AuraviaL is trying to achieve! With its randomly generated worlds filled with secrets and wonder, and its non-player characters programmed with artificial intelligence, become a hero in your own ways in a universe of magic and spells. You will also be able to manage your wealth, reputation and friendships. Finally, recover the meaning behind “AuraviaL”, because after all, how can a RPG exist without a storyline!

Trailer

 

My Thoughts

I don’t know how much fun I’ll have in a game where one of the big selling features is setting up spell casting macros. Mechanics along those lines were fun for two hours in Magika; then I got bored of doing the same old shtick. I should also mention that I quit playing Fable because I didn’t really feel like spending my precious gaming time on managing friendships with AIs. And as much as it appealed to me, I quit playing EVE Online because I didn’t have the time to manage a fake financial empire. All of these things lead me to think that AuraviaL isn’t quite right for me, at least not from what I have seen so far.

In the proper proportions, I will admit to enjoying all of the above mentioned mechanics. I’m fairly certain one of my undergraduate girlfriends broke up with me because of my fixation with Egosoft’s X2 – The Threat. But balancing an interesting procedurally generated world, meaningful story, interactive NPCs, a free market economy, and a combat system is a tall order, especially in a one person operation. If there’s a meta-lesson to producing indie games, it’s that the best ones are truly excellent at one or two things and ignore the rest.

The Bottom Line

Much as I admire this developer for his/her ambition, I don’t know that I would roll the dice on this game without knowing a bit more about it.

Verdict: Pass, for now.

Next month, we return to the usual three game per AvSG formula. And as always, if you’re a game developer with a game on Greenlight, then send me an email so I can shed some light on your game.