Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Syndicate Review (Xbox 360 / Single-player)

The inner sleeve art for the 'Executive Edition' of Syndicate

A little way into Starbreeze’s Syndicate, I happened upon Tycho’s dark words regarding its single-player campaign:

An earlier iteration of myself might have called the single player campaign “retarded.”

In 2012, an era of diplomacy and grace, I might call it concussed.  This is more robust, anyway: it describes a state of such profound head trauma that confusion and even unconsciousness are the result.

He goes on to reference last year’s Deus Ex Human Revolution and I mistakenly thought that his issue was that the game did not do enough to dig deep into the transhumanist, cyberpunk themes evoked by giant corporations and cybernetic chips that allow you to hack other people’s brains on the fly. At that point in the game, I hadn’t yet been exposed to the train wreck that is the end of the Syndicate campaign. I was just experiencing a fairly generic, pretty uninvolved story that mostly seemed to serve as a catalyst for shooting lots of dudes. I was not prepared.

Before that, though, I want to say that shooting dudes is fun. Starbreeze put out both The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (and its enhanced port/pseudo-sequel, Assault on Dark Athena) and the original The Darkness. Both games featured well-developed storylines,  excellent gunplay, a real sense of weight and movement to your first-person characters, and remarkably chatty protagonists with great voice acting. Syndicate at least meets the studio’s pedigree when it comes to gunplay.

A Kusanagi rifle, demonstrating the versatile dual sights. Switch between the two using the d-pad.
Pretty much every weapon feels weighty and useful, right down to the humble pistol (which has a fire-selector that switches it to burst mode). Many, if not all, of the weapons have a remarkable if slightly unbelievable habit of dismembering the bodies of the corporate goons thrown in your way, and apparently, the corporations of the future have a lot of goons. There’s a secondary or alternate fire on pretty much all of the weapons – I think the exceptions are the two revolvers, a beefy flamethrower, and the swarm-based rocket launcher – and some of them are a real treat. There’s a Modern Warfare 3-like secondary scope mounted at 45 degrees to the main scope on both the sniper rifle and its fully automatic cousin, giving both of them far more versatility than in most games. Another gun packs an underbarrel grenade launcher, the submachinegun can toggle a silencer on and off (though I wasn’t convinced that actually had any useful effect), and so on.
Rifle good, minigun better. Every time this beauty is in your hands it has unlimited ammo. Fair? No. Fun? Yes.
Then there’s the hacking, which through the power of the mighty left shoulder button allows you to persuade enemies to fight on your side, cause them to commit grenade-based suicide, triggers a misfire in their weapons that leaves them momentarily vulnerable, breaks down their advanced armour so they’re not invulnerable, breaches locked doors, steals data, drops the shields on drones, detonates EMP mines... literally every hack, deployed by the chip in your head, is activated by the same button press (though when it comes to the first three ‘special attack’ hacks you have to select which to use with the d-pad). Because it’s so simple, it means you can fire them off pretty much constantly, without worrying too much about using the right ability at the right time or messing about with menus – though having said that, utilising the special attacks tactically can be powerful. Most of the time, though, you can be blazing away with the minigun while using your hacking skills – called breaching in-game – to raise up cover, open doors in your way, drops the shields on your current opponents, and otherwise augment your attacks extremely naturally. Hacking also takes a central role in boss fights, with most bosses having some special ability that needs to be hacked on the fly in order to defeat them. In one fight you’re even unarmed, left to defend yourself with only your hacking skills and good timing.

Those two complementary gameplay mechanics – the gunplay and the hacking – are mostly excellent. There’s also a fairly arbitrary, but useful, bullet time analogue that allows you to see enemies through walls or behind cover, regenerate health, and do more damage. It’s actually kind of a shame that you’re so much more powerful when in this mode because the game is far more graphically impressive under normal circumstances. The architecture and ‘set dressing’ is particularly effective. Going back to that earlier reference to Human Revolution, Syndicate shares the former’s interest in augmented reality. Basically everything in the game, everything in the world, is tagged in some way by your chip. Not only does a weapon’s ammunition counter hover ethereally next to the weapon in your field of view, but enemies and civilians alike are tagged with little vital signs monitors, objects and doorways are marked, even pizza boxes and little pieces of scenery are recognised by the chip and highlighted with a little grey indicator and description. It’s mostly a fairly subtle effect – outside of things that affect gameplay, like the ammo counter – but it’s so ubiquitous and so probable that I found it more impressive than DX:HR’s orange outlines and floating waypoints.
The chip-enhanced overlay. The darker shading indicates a portion of the enemy obscured by cover.
Take all that – the gunplay, the hacking, the graphics – and you have a lot of potential. The co-operative demo, as I mentioned in my earlier round-up, seemed like it could go far. I haven’t had chance to play co-op in the full game yet, however, so what follows will focus solely on the single-player portion.

And boy, did they screw it up.

If not for the core gameplay itself, I wouldn’t believe it was a Starbreeze game. It doesn’t so much seem bad as perplexing. You play Miles Kilo (my girlfriend: “Ugh! Why does his name mix imperial and metric?”), agent of Eurocorp. He’s an utterly silent protagonist, which is a marked and unwelcome departure from Starbreeze’s previous games. As a corporate drone, your first few missions basically revolve around following Brian Cox’s orders and violently dealing with competitors, then flowing from that, into keeping a potential leak under surveillance. When that scientist is kidnapped by yet another rival corporation, the game really begins to get going, and the story really begins to unravel.

Normally when I review something I hesitate to spoil it. There are exceptions. I didn’t have many qualms about spoiling Deadspace: Martyr, for example, because I thought that only by warning someone how bad it was would they be sufficiently dissuaded from reading it. I don’t think Syndicate is that bad – at no point are you armed with a spoon and left to fight for your life, while villains cackle villainously and clink champagne -  but it is... bad. And confusing. Especially confusing. After spending more or less three quarters of the game as an amoral, personality-free drone, merrily fragging rival Syndicate employees (unarmed civilians and armed security alike) you’re suddenly thrown into a moral dilemma and assaulted with unexplained flashbacks about kidnapping children. Ironically, one of the in-game CEOs states “You can’t retrofit a morality”, which is precisely what the game attempts to do. You can’t spend so long with no commentary on your actions, and absolutely no character progression or ‘role-playing’, and then suddenly introduce that kind of personal narrative. What’s worse is that there’s a truly inexplicable moment where the story suddenly leaps from A to B and you’re then working towards a completely different goal. Given the nature of the story and setting, it’s a switcharoo that it would be almost criminal to call a “twist”, but it still manages to come out of nowhere and feel poorly implemented. From that moment on, right up until the final, trying-so-hard-to-be-profound closing line of dialogue, it’s a complete narrative mess.
L to R: Rosario Dawson as scientist Lily Drawl, Michael Wincott as Agent Merit, and Brian Cox as Eurocorp CEO Jack Denham
Tycho speculates that perhaps the single-player was tacked on after the fact, and the real game lies in the four-player co-op with its MMO trappings and myriad progression trees. Maybe so. It’s particularly surreal that this comes out so close to The Darkness II, a sequel Starbreeze were unavailable for due to working on Syndicate. That game carried on the first's single-player legacy with aplomb, and even threw in a four-player co-op mode with skill trees. The real irony here is that Digital Extremes, the people behind The Darkness II, had a terrible track record before it. Actually, their earlier Dark Sector was a game I kept getting mixed up with the original Darkness before it was released, and my lack of interest in it almost prevented me from playing The Darkness. To see Starbreeze struck low and Digital Extremes more or less hit it out of the park is a strange continuation of that saga indeed.

Campaign finished, I was dumbstruck with frustration. The final boss fight had left a sour taste in my mouth – a particularly irritating, unintuitive mechanic complicated what should have been an interesting fight – and that was followed by the nonsensical finale. Were it not for the potential offered by the co-op side of things, I think Syndicate would have been the first game in a long time that I traded in rather than keeping it in my collection – and I basically only sell on a game when I really, really dislike it. Scrolling back through my Live achievements, I can see the last game to fit that bill was the disastrous sequel to Mercenaries, way back in 2008 (though I can also see that I played Crysis 2 and didn’t sell or otherwise get rid of it, which I’m going to have to call an unfortunate oversight).

In co-op, as in the campaign, ripping chips out of enemies allows you to advance your character
There is one last stone left to overturn, of course; that elephant in the room that comes up whenever this 2012 edition of Syndicate is mentioned: the original. I mentioned in my demo review that I had a hard time seeing the fuss, though I don't think what has resulted here is going to sway anyone into thinking this remake, reboot, or re-imagining was a good idea. I'm really not sure how much cachet the original has with gamers now, and no matter how much it's said that the four-player co-op mode evokes the old isometric tactical game, it's hard to feel that this version is much more than an homage or a Syndicate skin wrapped around a Starbreeze shooter. I guess it's one of those particularly odd marketing choices where it seems like gamers old enough to remember the original are unlikely to be impressed by a pure shooter, and gamers young enough (I feel old) to have missed out on the original are unlikely to be impressed by references to a game developed before they were born. I find myself fortunate in that I had no attachment to the original, no legacy of memories for this game to destroy. I suppose it will be interesting to see how successfully this performs. Maybe, just maybe, a second chance - whether its Starbreeze at the helm, or some other studio - will inject the single-player with some more life and coherency, and actually make something of this resurrected franchise.

In closing, when I get around to the co-op mode, I’ll try and review that, too. In the meantime, Syndicate is going to leave me looking back on Starbreeze’s earlier work fondly and regretfully.

Developer: Starbreeze Studios / Publisher: EA
Played on Xbox 360. Solo campaign completed on normal difficulty. Achievement status: stingy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Recent Demo Round-Up

Normally after the ridiculous gaming release schedule that occurs in the last few months of every year things quiet down a bit. Sure, there are a few releases in the first few months, but it’s usually a calmer time until the next big, inexplicable rush to release everything before “the holidays”. This year sees things like Mass Effect 3, Starbreeze’s Syndicate reboot, the PAL release of Catherine, the Western localisation of Ryuu ga Gotoku: OF THE END / Yakuza: Dead Souls, The Darkness II, Ryuu ga Gotoku studio’s second foray into third-person shooters, Binary Domain, and of course the release of Sony’s bizarre new handheld, the PlayStation Vita, and its accompanying launch titles. All before the end of March. And I’m pretty sure I’m missing a few things.

With new releases often come new demos, and recently we’ve been blessed with the Mass Effect 3 demo, a co-op only demo of Syndicate, a taster for Binary Domain, and the first level, roughly, of The Darkness II. The Darkness II demo was enough to assuage my fears that, without Starbreeze’s excellent direction, the second game in the series wouldn’t nearly be as good. Ultimately I don’t think it’s quite as good as its predecessor, but Digital Extremes have created some wonderfully visceral first-person combat mechanics and a well-crafted story to follow-up the original. It also does some interesting things in terms of staying true to the first game whilst also incorporating much more from The Darkness comics themselves – having Paul Jenkins, a writer for the comic, on-board probably contributed there.

But enough about The Darkness. What about the other demos?

Binary Domain (360/PS3 [English] / PS3 [Japanese])

One of several wild-cards where I wasn’t sure what to expect, going in. I was originally introduced to Binary Domain with a lacklustre trailer that made it seem like a poor man’s Japanese Gears clone, complete with slightly offensive copy of The Cole Train. I later learned that Ryu ga Gotoku Studio, the people behind the Yakuza series, were developing it, and I decided to give it a second look. The Yakuza games have long suffered from poor marketing, and while they remain deeply flawed, they’re also quite unique. I wanted to see if I was dismissing Binary Domain too soon.

I’m still not 100% sure what the plot of the game is, but here goes: It’s set in Tokyo, 2080, where a team called the “Rust Crew” have been sent in to investigate advanced robots that are indistinguishable from humans (Replicants and human-model Cylons, anyone?). I think that some time before the game is set, robots have taken over the Japanese archipelago, but frankly, I’m not certain. The demo levels consist of some fairly straightforward “advance through these areas shooting robots and taking cover”. The comparison to Gears of War is somewhat inescapable though slightly unfair, as Binary Domain appears to owe just as much to other cover-based shooters since Gears, and it’s really only the presence of the humorously named “Big Bo” in your squad – the aforementioned Cole-wannabe – that really makes you think they wanted to draw heavily on Epic’s franchise.

Considering this is from the same studio that just put out OF THE END, an interesting if bizarre and sometimes clunky attempt to marry the Yakuza franchise with third-person zombie shooting action, I was impressed with how Binary Domain handled. It’s a smooth game to play, and I often find Japanese games don’t handle smoothly at all – just look at the tank-like controls of even the modern Resident Evil games, OF THE END, Capcom’s Dead Rising and Lost Planet games to name a few. It also has a few nice animation touches, something Japanese studios are, I guess, meant to be famous for paying more attention to than their Western counterparts. Player character Dan takes cover realistically, dropping down low with his back to the wall when not firing. When he is firing, he props his gun on the wall to steady it. They’re little touches, but actually do quite a lot to differentiate it from the hyper-machismo of, say, Marcus Fenix, who slams into cover like a freight train and never seems to relax, always poised to shoot. It reminds me of little details from Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, like the way Sam Fisher used to pause mid-step if you stopped moving, and then slowly, silently, drop into a relaxed crouch instead of abruptly changing animations.

One of the most interesting features of the game, to me, is the voice command system. It’s tied into a “trust and consequence” system that I guess I’ll explain first, though it has much less bearing on the demo. Basically, your squad members seem to have some sort of “relationship” meter, perhaps like Dragon Age’s companions, and how you interact with them affects that meter and informs how likely they are to respond to your orders. I’ve no idea how that will play out in the full game, but in the demo, you can at least experiment with the interaction side of things. Accidentally shoot your teammates – something that happens with disturbing frequency due to their AI’s habit of running into your field of fire – and they’ll complain, losing trust. Here come the voice commands: wearing a headset, you can just say “sorry” or “my bad”. The game has quite an impressive list of commands and natural variations on those commands, so you can respond to instructions with everything from “roger” to “roger that” to “copy that” or “acknowledged”. You can throw out compliments like “nice work” or berate foolish actions. You can even yell “fuck” and have the game understand you.

Initially, I was incredibly impressed with this. In the demo your squad frequently asks for input, and it’s usually a binary (ha) choice – “Is he always like this?” asks a new team member when Big Bo’s banter gets unbearable. You can say “yes” or “no” and they respond accordingly. That worked fine. Later I gave the order to charge instead of holding back, and agreed to go on point when asked to. All these commands were, however, also available by holding down a shoulder button and selecting from the menu that popped up. I was speaking them, but the game was expecting a response there anyway. The big test came when my sniper announced she was going to take out an enemy sniper and promptly did so. I popped open the menu to see if there was a compliment, but I only had the standard “go”, “regroup”, “take cover”, etc., commands. So I said “nice work”.

“Thanks,” said my sniper.

I was impressed. That was when I went into the options and discovered the list of words, and started to experiment. What else could I say? There are various calibration settings you can alter to theoretically improve the accuracy of the voice recognition, and I started playing around with those, too. Unfortunately, this was where things started going pear shaped. Repeatedly trying the voice command test, I uncovered more and more phrases that the game simply didn’t recognise – especially longer phrases. Single words like character names (You can say “Bo”, for example, to get his attention before issuing an order to him directly) or short commands worked better than longer lines like “Hang in there” (a perfectly reasonable translation of the “頑張れ!” found in the Japanese version of the demo).
Some things, though, just refused to work despite their brevity. One was “Cheers”, that is, the alternative to “Thanks” or “Thank you” for those of you who don’t speak British English. The big problem? Neither does the game. I’m fairly certain the issue was with my accent (for the record, I don’t have a strong accent. If anything, my accent has been diluted by spending years in a diverse university town and living in Japan speaking as neutral a version of English as possible). When I tried it in a more stereotypical American accent or, even worse, a hackneyed Cockney accent, it actually accepted “Cheers”. On the Xbox 360, Microsoft has been pushing its Kinect hardware for voice recognition, and games like Mass Effect 3 – or perhaps the hardware itself – includes options for different dialects. I’m not sure to what degree that’s an effective solution, but the recognition in Binary Domain certainly has its problems as it currently stands.

In fact, when I played the demo again later, trying out the voice commands in both languages on the PS3 - I didn't have my headset hooked up the first time round - I discovered that although there's no real difference in the level of recognition between 360 and PS3, there's a surprising difference when it comes to the Japanese vs. English commands. Basically, when running tests on the word lists, the game gives you a score based on its recognition of the phrase you used, from 1 - 200. In English, even when it recognised what I was saying, it struggled to get a score over 100. Most of the time it hovered in the 40 - 80 range. However, when it recognised what I was saying in Japanese, it was much more confident: 120 - 150 in some cases. Now, again, my Japanese is imperfect, and I had problems with some commands - heck, I couldn't even read some of the commands, and had to do a little dictionary digging (Japanese military lingo is evidently something I need to brush up on). In some cases I had to practice my pronunciation a little bit to get it right. The point is, though, the game was more adept at recognising my bad Japanese than it was at recognising my native English - something that should probably concern the developers, and players.

As mentioned above, I played the demo in both Japanese and English. I didn’t make a great effort to pay attention to the Japanese version as I was mostly interested in learning how it handled than learning about the story or the characters, especially as by the time I’d messed around downloading it I’d learned an English-language version would shortly be coming out. That lack of attention means I can’t really comment on some of the differences between the two versions. One of my worries based on the early trailers, though, was that the dialogue in English would not be... great. The English dub of the original Yakuza was a complete travesty, but so far Binary Domain seems to be avoiding that. I would not say the dialogue or translation is great but it’s certainly not painful. There was one truly inexplicable discovery, though.

In the second demo level, your team includes a robot named Cain. In Japanese, I found him quite hard to understand as he has a sort of robotic filter over his voice acting. In English, however, he’s French.

Syndicate (360)

Starbreeze and EA have been much-maligned for “daring” to reinvent this long-dead franchise, rebooting 1993’s original isometric Syndicate as an FPS that draws more than a few comparisons to the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I have to wonder how many of the gamers vociferously complaining actually played the original, and how many are just jumping on the latest bandwagon. Even being a PC gamer myself in the ‘90s, and now being 26, I never actually played Syndicate. I have, on the other hand, played and loved Starbreeze’s prior work on Riddick and the original Darkness, both of which had an incredible sense of being in the character. Not so much in a role-playing (or –inhabiting) sense, but in the physicality of the player model, despite them being first-person games.

The Syndicate demos features only one level of the co-op mode, but it seems to retain a similar level of physicality and brutality. There’s just something extremely satisfying about the way it plays, with little touches like sliding into cover after sprinting or the way enemies take bullets. Plus, the game just seems hard. Although after a few tries my friend and I were able to beat it, and on subsequent playthroughs had far less trouble, the initial experience was one of being shot to pieces, violently and repeatedly. There’s a fairly reasonable checkpointing system at work though that stopped it from getting too frustrating. There’s also a wealth of unlocks, research, weapon pick-ups and character upgrades that seem like they could take a lot of playing to get through, which bodes well for replayability in the finished product. My main interest now is in how the singleplayer is going to turn out, but based on Starbreeze’s other games, I’ve got my hopes set pretty high.

Mass Effect 3 (360)

The big one.  I’m a huge, shameless Bioware fan, and the Mass Effect series has only grown on me over time. I think Mass Effect 2 was a fantastic way of building on the work they did with the original. Some systems certainly suffered, with less customisation in a few parts of the game, less “deep” RPG progression elements, but I think overall what was gained in cinematic storytelling and refinements to the third-person combat made the transition between ME and ME2 more than worthwhile. With ME3, Bioware basically just have to wrap up the storyline of the trilogy in a satisfactory fashion whilst not breaking any of the mechanics they worked on in ME2. Manage that, and I’ll be happy. Improve on the formula and I’ll be ecstatic.

The demo doesn’t really offer enough insight to be able to say whether or not they’ve been successful. First impressions are basically that they’ve retained an almost identical interface to ME2, though there are some welcome improvements. A new “social” suite of options brings much-asked for features like the ability to hide helmets during dialogue where appropriate (presumably, “where not in a vacuum”), as well as the controversial setting that makes story and dialogue decisions for you. Bioware has suggested this option is in response to players who have complained of opportunity paralysis, who just want to focus on playing the game and not worrying whether making the “wrong” decision will deny them some part of it. As long as this kind of thing is purely optional – which the demo (mostly) suggests it is – I have no problem with it at all, even though it’s been decried as yet another example of Bioware “dumbing down” their games. A brief investigation of the character creation tools suggests very little has changed, but as promised, hair has been improved – I’m looking forward to seeing my original Shepards looking like they have hair instead of moulded plastic wigs. There’s also the much-vaunted default FemShep, which is cool I guess, but for my female Shepard I already have my own custom character so it isn’t something that directly affects me. It’s an interesting example of how Bioware interacts with its fans, though.

From here on out I’m going to (circumspectly) discuss the campaign side of the demo, so there will be minor spoilers, but nothing you wouldn’t get from, you know, playing the demo the developers have themselves put out there. The two mission campaign taster kicks off with the opening sequence of the game, seeing Shepard on Earth, presumably suffering the consequences of Mass Effect 2’s Arrival DLC. The demo actually doesn’t go into too much detail of what’s happening there, and I’m curious as to whether the full game will either discuss that retroactively, later in the story, or if the demo has cut out certain information or scenes – a query that pops up repeatedly as we move forward.

My Syndicate co-op buddy was wondering whether Bioware can make the last game sufficiently epic, considering the stakes that were at play in ME and ME2. Considering the game starts with the Reaper invasion, mysteriously centred on Earth, I’m thinking “yes”. I am, however, hoping that the focus on Earth is shown to make sense rather than being needlessly exploitative, somehow trying to tie the mission directly to the player. I, and I expect other fans, already care enough about the universe within the series to want to save it. I don’t have to be told Earth is directly at stake as a motivational tool. I also hope that – because the situation seems so ridiculously, almost hilariously dire – that the game finds a way to beat the Reapers without resorting to some magical McGuffin. If the story is “Shepard, go to a planet we haven’t mentioned previously and get an artefact we didn’t know about and use it as a secret weapon”, I shall be highly disappointed. I don’t mind if that’s a facet of the story, but I hope there’s no magic button to save the universe.

Back to the demo itself, though, and I started to notice some strange things. Combat feels very similar to ME2, despite the improvements previews have discussed – it’s not that there aren’t improvements, it’s just that they’re very minor, or frankly things that should have been in ME2 anyway. Things like moving around corners in cover, some more agile rolls, and so on. There’s also a new “heavy melee” ability that utilises the omniblade. I’d kind of hoped this would get at least some explanation, but maybe in the full game there’s a Codex entry on it; ME2, after all, introduced the idea of “thermal clips” (basically, guns that needed reloading instead of heat management) and explained it away with in-game lore. I hope the omniblade gets a similar treatment, as it’s otherwise too new and weird. The bypass matching minigame from ME2 appears to have gone, and bypassing now seems to be an entirely automated affair, which is a little strange. I wasn’t all that attached to it in 2 but I’m surprised it has no replacement.

The real kicker, though, was the dialogue. I have to preface this by saying maybe I’m being too picky, and maybe I’m misremembering things from the previous games, but two things struck me. First and most obviously, I think every single dialogue choice I encountered was a binary choice between a Paragon and a Renegade response. Sometimes that was true in previous games, but far more often, there was a neutral option and/or questions that could be asked to get further information about a situation. It is possible that those “further info” questions were missing because this was the demo, but the limit to paragon and renegade answers was really quite disturbing. I didn’t notice it too much at first because I remembered there being limited responses during, say, the opening sequence of ME2 when the Normandy was attacked. The limited options continued in the second demo sequence which seemed to be later in the game, which was of greater concern.

The second thing that struck me actually worries me far more. I’m hoping the “lack of choice” I was perceiving was limited to either those conversations that happened to be included or was down to a lack of options in the demo build, not the final game. What surprised me though was how often Shepard “spoke for me”. Moments where I’d have expected some input on matters were completely scripted. As I said before, it’s possible I’m simply misremembering the previous games. Certainly, Shepard doesn’t wait for your input on every single utterance in the other games, but in the ME3 demo, I often felt like the dialogue was out of my hands – and that’s not what the series has been about. And, unlike the “lack of choice” above, actually adding in decision moments seems far less likely than adding extra choices in.

Perhaps my fears are unfounded. I’d be shocked if after two games riddled with dialogue choices, Bioware suddenly threw all of that away in the final game of the series. On the other hand, one of the big criticisms of the Arrival DLC – the DLC released to lead into the ME3 story – was that a hugely important moment was a taken out of your hands and Shepard proceeded without your input. At the time, I argued that it was a necessary moment, something that had to happen, both for ME3 to occur and for because if Shepard acted otherwise the universe would be doomed. You didn’t really have a choice, so the game made it for you anyway. I hope, however, that Mass Effect 3 doesn’t take a similar line with the majority of its decision-making.

Oh, and the multiplayer? I haven’t tried it yet. Soon, though, soon.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

2012 - The Year Ahead

Last year was a strange year. I spent half of it working as an English teacher, living in Tokyo and going to work in a building attached to the second busiest train station in the world. For part of it, I was commuting to the high-rise office building of the Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation and, for some reason I’m still not quite sure of, entrusted with teaching their employees how to use English and therefore work internationally. I ‘survived’ the Great Tohoku Earthquake of last March by whit of being nowhere near the epicentre, only having to suffer the indignity of the hyperbolic news and the constant aftershocks. I got a half-sleeve tattoo from an exceptional Japanese artist. I quit my job, visa waning, and returned to the UK. I started learning German through the Open University and visited Berlin to see Rammstein, my favourite band, play their hometown live as part of their Made in Germany tour. I got a job working at the local Asda as a stock person, replenishing shelves and dealing with harried customers during the rush up to Christmas. On Christmas Eve I, like every other temp, was let go. I spent some time in the Great Mild North lamenting the lack of snow.

And now it’s 2012.

I’ve come into this year with a kind of blank slate. No job, no plans, no idea what I’m going to do with myself. Well, I have some ideas. I’m going to be doing the Goodreads challenge again, but this time, I’ve set myself a much lower goal. I’m sure I’ll be playing plenty of videogames, watching a lot of movies – I may set myself a ‘goal’ there too – and even more television. On more serious notes, I’m considering applying to do an MA. Towards the end of the year when the applications come up again, I may even apply to the JET Programme, seeing as it wouldn’t take me abroad again until more than halfway through 2013.

And I think I’ll be spending a lot of time marvelling over it being 2012, which sounds wonderfully science-fictional.

Oh, and the person responsible for this has decided to set me a series of challenges, the first of which is to learn all the American states and their capitals. For some reason.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 - My Year in Books

Way back at the start of the year, probably in February or March, I happened upon the “reading challenge” hosted by Goodreads. I’d been using the site before, sporadically, to catalogue my books (it turns out I have too many books, and especially, too many comics), but it was only with the reading challenge that I started to get really into it. I set myself a target: fifty-two books for the year, so in other words, one new book per week.

I was a bit arbitrary with what would count and what wouldn’t. For starters, it had to be a “new” book, one that I hadn’t read before, so re-reading the first two Mass Effect novels didn’t count, but my first time through the third did. On the other hand, I cut myself some slack when it came to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Although I’ve read all but the most recent ones from the last few years, I read many of them when I was very, very young and when it came to re-reading The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, amongst others, I found I could barely recall them. So, rediscovering those early Discworld novels counted as “new”. I neglected to count individual comics or trade paperback collections thereof, except in the case of maxi-series like Batman’s The Long Halloween, Dark Victory, and Hush (two of which I read in their stupendous Absolute format). I also didn’t, and couldn’t, count all the stories I read in the digital pages of Analog and Asimov’s, since I could only add things contained within Goodreads’ database – even though I did count a couple of shorter stories elsewhere, like Phillip K. Dick’s Minority Report and Will Wheaton’s Hunter.

So, how did I do? In the end I fell short by five ‘books’. I’m currently reading Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque and finding it quite the uphill battle, partly due to the length (somewhat dwarfing the shorter novels I’d been consuming recently) and partly due to the content (another multi-perspective venture into the Japanese psyche, as is her oeuvre). I don’t think I did too badly all things considered, taking into account the many stories I read, even full length serialised novels, in the SF magazines I subscribe to. I’d also have been a couple of books up if I’d counted some re-reads, though on the other hand if I subtracted anything I’d read before, able to recollect it or not, I’d have been some ten or twelve books further behind.

As for what I actually read...? In more-or-less the order consumed, since Goodreads is a little inconsistent in portraying that:

The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett
The Light Fantastic – Terry Pratchett
Hunter – Wil Wheaton
The Last Wish – Andrzej Sapkowski
Equal Rites – Terry Pratchett
Mort – Terry Pratchett
Deus Ex: Icarus Effect – James Swallow
Sourcery – Terry Pratchett
Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
Minority Report – Phillip K. Dick
Neuromancer – William Gibson
Burning Chrome – William Gibson
Count Zero – William Gibson
Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett
Halo: Contact Harvest – Joseph Staten
Pyramids – Terry Pratchett
Guards! Guards! – Terry Pratchett
Eric – Terry Pratchett
Moving Pictures – Terry Pratchett
Reaper Man – Terry Pratchett
Adrian Mole: From Minor to Major,
Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years,
Adrian Mole: The Cappucino Years,
Adrian Mole: The Lost Diaries 1999 – 2002,
Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, &
Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years – Sue Townsend
A Scanner Darkly – Phillip K. Dick
Icehenge – Kim Stanley Robinson
Mona Lisa Overdrive – William Gibson
Real World – Natsuo Kirino
Witches Abroad – Terry Pratchett
Dead Space: Martyr – B. K. Evenson
Batman: Dark Victory – Jeph Loeb et al
All Tomorrow’s Parties – William Gibson
Absolute Batman: Hush – Jeph Loeb et al.


Robert Reed's "A Billion Eves" was one of my favourites from this year...
I find it interesting looking back on that list and being surprised, seeing titles on there that I’d completely forgotten about. I saw a tweet, recently, from someone noting that the books they’d read on Kindle had stayed with them less than the books they’d read physically, and I was wondering how that added up for me. Unfortunately I’ve rather skewed the results, as I got back from Japan in the middle of the year and promptly switched back to reading far more physical books than digital, meaning the more recent books are the physical ones and thus fresher in my mind anyway. To confuse matters even more, I read far more books earlier in the year, devouring them during my commutes or during downtime at work, and so a few have inevitably been lost in the glut of all that reading. Having said that, I think what’s interesting, looking back, is that many of the stories that have stuck with me the most are short stories. This is the year that I ‘discovered’ William Gibson, amongst others, but it was his short story collection Burning Chrome that I think I enjoyed the most out of everything of his that I read. Similarly, a few stories from Asimov’s and Analog – and that Asimov’s collection, ­Enter a Future – are amongst my favourites for the year as a whole. The thing that links them all, Gibson and magazines alike? I read them all on my Kindle.

Incidentally, if some of the best stories I read this year were shorter things from collections and elsewhere, then undoubtedly the worst was the frankly embarrassing Dead Space: Martyr – but I’ve already said as much elsewhere.
... as was Gibson's unnerving "Hinterlands"

Next year, I think I’m going to set myself a more reasonable goal. Perhaps twenty-six books, or one every two weeks. I think I managed to strike a good balance this year, encouraging myself to read more without reading for the sake of the challenge alone. Certainly it made good use of my free time when I was living in Japan and seemed to spend endless amounts of time on the train, going back and forth. Now that I’m in the UK and any commute I have is in the car, I have a lot less downtime where I could just read – instead I’m most likely at home, where my consoles or television demand equal attention. As a goal, it also acknowledges the amount of time I spend reading my subscriptions, which I’m currently a little behind on having been focusing on finishing Gibson’s Bridge trilogy and slogging my way through a second Kirino.

So, 2012. Twenty-six books. Go!

(P.S. When I finally finish it, I’m already planning on counting Grotesque for 2012. Twenty-five books. Go!)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

William Gibson's Idoru

IdoruIdoru by William Gibson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the William Gibson book I'd been dreading, where the amount of Japanese flavour he weaves into almost every story leaps into the foreground and the whole thing is set in Tokyo, and everything from the title to the time it was written suggested it would be too much of a book by a Japanophile, for Japanophiles. As I read more and more of Gibson's work, though, I had the growing impression that he really did 'get' Japan, or at least see it in a way similar to the way I do, and actually, Idoru is laced with little observations that tie into that. There's a moment where a girl in the bathroom in the back room of a nightclub sees a poster for an American white supremacist rock band and wonders what it's doing in Japan, but then notes that 'her father had said you could never tell what the Japanese would make of anything', and I think that pretty much sums it up.

I still don't actually know why it's called "Idoru" instead of "Idol" or "Aidoru", though, which is something that will bug me forever because I'm a pedant.

Idoru actually seems particularly interesting now, in 2011 (several years after it is set, if I'm not mistaken, though I'm not sure when exactly the Bridge trilogy takes place beyond "just after the Millennium") in that it concerns a virtual singer, the titular idol, and only last year - or was it this year? - Japan's AKB48 was found to have a new, virtual member; a synthetic singer whose public face was pieced together from other members of the band. The idol in Idoru is a little more complex, perhaps owing more to the artificial intelligence in Gibson's earlier Sprawl trilogy than to AKB48, but it struck me as an interesting moment of life imitating art.

As for the actual story, as you peel away the Tokyo flavour, I was a little less enthralled. Things start well, with the typical multi-perspective mess of Gibson characters, and over the course of the book all those threads get pulled in together, but by the end I was left more confused than anything else. There is a denouement, of a kind, but not one that felt satisfying - unless, perhaps, the story is going to be picked up in All Tomorrow's Parties. Idoru, though it contains some of the same characters, feels less connected to Virtual Light than the various books in the Sprawl trilogy did, though, so I'm not sure what to expect of this final part. I think part of the problem here was that, as in Mona Lisa Overdrive, one of the primary perspective characters has little idea or understanding of what is going on. Gibson is actually great at writing these characters, colouring the world with their viewpoint, but in this case I couldn't help but feel it detracted from my understanding of events.
In the end, this was an interesting foray into how Gibson sees Tokyo, or saw Tokyo, back in the early or mid '90s, with a curious story that may have further repercussions in the final part of the trilogy. There are a lot of interesting ideas in here, things that reminded me in part of Snow Crash and Stephenson's thoughts on the early internet - things like the Walled City, of the kind of computers people use, of people learning in school of a time when there wasn't an internet. In the Sprawl trilogy, Gibson predicted a cyberspace quite unlike the one we ended up with. In the Bridge trilogy, as he closes with the present, we see a world like ours, but distorted. I'm extremely curious to see where he goes next.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

B.K. Evenson's Dead Space: Martyr - Review

Dead Space: MartyrDead Space: Martyr by B.K. Evenson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[Warning! This review contains major story spoilers. For the review with spoilers hidden, click here.]

I'm a big fan of the Dead Space franchise and the backstory that the games have set up in Dead Space, Dead Space 2 and Dead Space: Extraction. There's a wealth of other media, too - a comic series, a graphic novel, two animated movies, an iOS game, and a Live Arcade/PSN downloadable game. The quality really lurches all over the place when it comes to the 'extended universe'. I really enjoyed the original comic, but hate both animated features with a passion, for example.

I was intrigued, then, by Dead Space: Martyr. It promised to go into the origins of the Church of Unitology, the religion at the heart of much of what goes on in the Dead Space games. The Unitologists worship divine "Markers", relics they belief can grant them eternal life, together - the unity in their name. In the games, Michael Altman is viewed as the founder of their Church, with "Praise Altman" being a familiar refrain. Martyr shows he wasn't exactly a willing prophet, looking at how he was one of the researchers who discovered the original Black Marker's signal at the centre of a crater in South America.

What you get is a story that, while interesting, often seems poorly or just carelessly written. It's hard to feel Brian Evenson had any investment in the franchise or its characters, even though at times he manages to pull together some compelling sequences - particularly when looking at the effects of the Marker on the psyches of the researchers and military personnel working with it. More than one character succumbs to madness and hallucinations, and he usually handles those sections with aplomb. Other parts of the book seem perfunctory at best, with one chapter describing the secret half-underwater floating research facility they bring in to raise the Marker from the bottom of its sunken crater being particularly bad. Even hanging a lantern on it as being like a 'sci-fi novel' doesn't really excuse it.

Going back to the characters, well, it's a really mixed bag - but nothing in the bag is very good. Altman himself is neither likeable nor offensive, being something of a non-entity going through the motions of researching the Marker and dealing with the consequences of interacting with it. Other characters are generally quite shallow, either being killed off soon after their introduction, or lingering on to demonstrate just how bad they are - the cartoonishly villainous Markoff and his torture-happy subordinates are the worst example of this. It's one thing to suggest that the military or a corporation might seek to exploit the Marker - it's a sci-fi trope that always makes me think of the Weyland-Yutani representative in Aliens, if nothing else - but typically there's a motive, or a rationalisation, beyond the characters apparently being evil for evil's sake. I did wonder if the Marker was meant to be influencing their personalities, as it does drive many to madness, suicide, or murder, but even before interacting with it Markoff is hardly an angel.

Ultimately, I think there's very little here for anyone who isn't a fan of the game, and a pretty dedicated fan at that. If you can overlook some of the writing and characters, you do get a look at the origins of Unitology and how Altman becomes their prophet - a reasonably convincing arc (for the most part - but I'll get to that) as he realises he can exploit the early Unitologists' belief in him as a prophet to prevent further disaster. We also get some insights into what the Marker is, and what it does, though it isn't presented in the clearest of ways. You get the impression that the developers/EA want the meat of the story to come out in the games, not any tie-in media, which is fair enough - but the insights you do get become a bit thin on the ground, and there's not really enough 'novel' here to be an enjoyable read even without learning anything new.

Unfortunately, much of what is achieved with Altman's arc is tossed out in the last few pages, with what has to be the worst ending I've come across for quite some time. In a baffling move, Evenson tosses out the relatively subtle legacy Altman would have left behind by pretending to be a true prophet when he was really just exploiting the Unitologists to get their help. Instead, Markoff and his evil psychiatrist buddy Stevens imprison Altman for a period of time before literally sitting him down at a table and doing their best Bond villain impression as they explain how they are going to invent the legend of Altman as the founder of the Church. As if that wasn't ham-fisted enough, Markoff then has Altman tossed into a chamber with a Necromorph while he and his cronies drink champagne and watch. And as if that wasn't bizarre enough, they make a tremendous point of arming Altman with a spoon. I really wish I was making any of that up.

Aside from the hilariously bad ending and the mediocre-with-moments-of-intrigue earlier on, it's also worth noting that the book doesn't seem to have been edited particularly well. There are typos here and there, including a few lines that simply don't make any sense - the villain at one point points out to a man he's about to have killed "I warned you, you aren't expendable." Sorry, what's that? Don't you mean he is expendable? Finally, in what seemed like a wonderful face-palm moment after that terrible ending (I really can't get over it), Evenson has an acknowledgement section - in which he thanks EA and Visceral for their 'first-person dismemberment' game. I'm not really sure what to take from that. Dead Space is a third-person game (Extraction aside, but that's an outlier), so one gets the impression that either Evenson hasn't played it or simply doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to videogames. That's fair enough, to a point, but I also can't believe no one in EA's marketing department caught it. It just seems emblematic of the lack of thought that went into the book.

Two stars. Read at your own risk. It's not the worst story in the world, especially in the genre of videogame tie-in media, but other companies have put out increasingly high quality works - Karen Traviss's Gears of War books are particularly outstanding, adding depth to the universe whilst being great stories in their own right. Martyr, sadly, doesn't even come close.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Walking Dead - What Lies Ahead (S02EO1) Recap & Review

The Walking Dead S02E01 – What Lies Ahead

“Last season on AMC’s The Walking Dead...” is how the show comes back, and my first thought was just ‘Really?’ Not ‘Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead’ or even ‘Frank Darabont’s...’, but oh yeah, AMC sort of lost its famous show runner between the seasons. I’m not yet sure how losing Darabont is going to play out. A lot has been made in the TV-watching media about how he’s been replaced with someone much worse, but frankly I wasn’t all that impressed with what they did with season one.

So how does season two kick off?

With a bad, bad monologue; Rick on his radio again trying to contact Morgan. Or just getting his troubles off his chest, if you think it might be an impossible task. The monologue is obviously meant to serve in part as a recap of season one’s peculiar finale. In case you forgot, the series took a serious detour from anything the comics have ever depicted, and the gang found a CDC facility with one lone, suicidal scientist. It wasn’t an interesting story, and it wasn’t handled well, so I’m glad they seem to have moved on from it pretty quick. Still, the monologue is clunky, and seems extra clunky after following that ‘previously’ recap.

In S2, the gang has finally departed from Atlanta, and we catch up with them rolling down the highway, apparently on their way to Fort Benning. Dale in his RV pulls up short with an “Aw jeez” as he apparently fails to notice an enormous, lane-spanning roadblock of wrecked cars until he’s right on top of it in broad daylight. They decide to try to worm their way through the blockade – how exactly did it end up like that, anyway? Did people just floor it into the back of standing cars, flipping over? Are zombies meant to have done it? – whilst scavenging supplies.

First, though, Lori has to utter the dreadful line “It’s a graveyard”, presumably referring to the bodies no doubt contained in the cars. So... this is a graveyard, but all your looting of Atlanta was just fine? Lori is a terrible, terrible character in the series, lurching between strange proclamations like that to a bizarre gotta-have-it-both-ways love triangle with Rick and Shane. Her berating Shane for not acting like Carl’s dad was just bizarre.

That roll of Gerber tools that Carl found though? Nice.

Dale, Master Lookout.
Before long, however, Dale on lookout duty spots a walker (did they call them walkers in the comics? I can’t remember). Like the roadblock, he’s a little slow on the uptake – when Rick sights in on the first zombie, considering taking a shot (I was ready to go ballistic if he took it, even with just one zombie, considering what they’d learned in season one about gunfire attracting hordes), it quickly becomes clear there are dozens of zombies coming.

A herd.

Now that's a herd
Herds become a bigger part of the comics later in the run, so its interesting that we’re seeing them in season two of the series, well before a lot of other interesting things have happened. I’d say it was a nice reference to the mythos of the comic, but it’s not really handled too threateningly. A herd in the comic is something terrifying, unstoppable, a seemingly endless wave of zombies rolling over everything in their meandering path. This herd wanders by, mostly fooled by our intrepid heroes... hiding beneath their cars.

What? Did the zombies lose their sense of smell, or something? I know we’re not dealing with walking geniuses, here, but the zombies have proved adept at hunting in pitch darkness and have previously been fooled by the living draping themselves in the stinking entrails of the dead – so why exactly does hiding under a car stop them noticing where folks are?

It’s almost a perfect plan, anyway, except no one remembered to shut Andrea in the RV, and... er... T-Dog (I had to go look his name up on Wikipedia. I only know him as ‘stereotype they included so someone would have an antagonistic relationship with the white supremacist’) manages to go fumbling around the car wrecks, slices his arm up real good, and nearly gets himself killed. Fortunately, Daryl, the resident redneck extraordinaire, turns out to be some kind of zombie hunting Sam Fisher, sneaking up behind the walker after T-Dog and taking him down, hand-to-hand, with one of his crossbow bolts.

Did I mention Daryl is the only character I like from the series? That they added, I mean. Glenn and Dale are also kind of okay, and not too far from their comic counterparts, but Daryl is the only ‘invented’ character I’m at all fond of.

As for Andrea... In the comic, Andrea is a bad-ass. I’m assuming there was a time when she wasn’t a bad ass, but she very quickly manned up (so to speak) and dealt with the zombie apocalypse by becoming a scarred, sharpshooting ass kicker. In the series, she’s a gloomy, ranting, possibly suicidal, easily scared wet sock. She manages to dispatch the zombie hunting her after being handed a screwdriver, but then spends the rest of the episode badgering Dale for her gun – something Dale is understandably a little reluctant to hand over, considering he had to drag her out of the exploding CDC building against her will. I suppose they might be taking the long run with Andrea, building her up into something more impressive, but they’re really taking their time about it.

A disaster is nearly averted, but thankfully, the little girl Sofia manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In a series of pitch perfect how-to-fuck-everyone-over moves, she crawls out from under her wreck too early, runs screaming off into the woods when pursued by two slow-moving walkers, nearly pulls Rick’s gun on them when he catches up to her, fails to heed Rick’s instructions to stay put whilst he takes care of aforementioned walkers, and proceeds to lose herself in the woods. What follows is a long, long search – the bulk of the episode, really – with perhaps the only highlight being Rick and Daryl’s hilarious gutting of a dead walker to check its diet didn’t include small children.

“How many things you gutted, anyway?” Daryl smirks, before proceeding to bludgeon his prey to re-death with a knife. Well Daryl, I’ve gutted none, and I know how to open up a zombie better than that.

They have a brief detour to a church with an automated bell ringing out over loudspeaker, during which a few unsatisfying conversations are hashed out – Lori vs. Shane, Shane vs. Andrea, Lori vs. everyone in the group (did I mention I hate Lori? I did? Oh good). There’s no sign of Sofia, though, leaving Shane, Rick and Carl to continue the search.

Deep in the woods, they come across a deer, and the way the scene is set up had me anticipating quite a different denouement – one I wasn’t expecting at that point, as it hadn’t really been set up at all, but that does feature in the comics. Instead, Shane is about to take down the deer, but Carl has a manic grin on his face and starts walking towards it so Rick waves his buddy/cuckold down. Then there’s a gunshot, and both deer and Carl are dropped. Kind of shocking, but then, it’s not like Carl isn’t put through the ringer in the comic – I just didn’t expect it so soon. Or, wait, did this actually happen? I’m getting all mixed up now.

As the credits prep to roll, there’s a “This season on...” flashforward, which does some nice spoilering. It looks like we’ll be seeing the farm from early arcs of the comic, or something approximating it, so perhaps the survivors will be picking up a few new... er... survivors. It looks like Andrea is going to continue flip-flopping on the whole life or death business instead of learning to be awesome. It looks like there are going to be military helicopters, further pushing the series far, far away from the comic that spawned it.

It’s hard to gauge exactly how this does as a second season. I’m going to keep watching it, but it irks me that there’s a lot of potential here – not just potential from the comics, which aren’t always perfect either, but just the sheer potential of a long-running zombie TV show which has never been done before. It’s such a shame to waste that potential on hammy acting, bad monologues, and melodrama. I think it is a bit of an improvement on season one, though, so let’s see what happens. There’s plenty of room for it to improve, as well as plenty of room to spiral down even further.