Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Old Friends, Waseda, and Other Stuff

So, my good friend Narubeku is now in Japan. Being far more intelligent than I am, instead of working his ass off at a low-paying eikaiwa job, he’s only gone and got a scholarship to go to (the ridiculously prestigious) Waseda University. Today I took the tram over there to meet him, get some coffee, and catch up.
Errant bikes and ongoing work aside, Waseda Campus is pretty nice
General conclusion from today? It’s already way too hot in Tokyo. A return visit to Sapporo, the wonderful, frigid north, is sounding better and better every day.

The Return of Max Payne

Continuing the recent retro theme where I replayed Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Invisible War, I picked up the Max Payne bundle on Steam recently and decided to give the first game a go. After some sound issues which a community tool fortunately fixed, it was back to the classic, tremendously over-the-top hard-boiled game I remembered. Max Payne 2 was definitely the far superior game, but everything has to start somewhere. There’s a definite temptation to review it, once I reach the end of it. Being an old shooter, though, I suspect it’s rather long – sadly, a fact I can’t actually remember.

I also finished Portal 2 the other day, on both single-player and co-operative. I may give that the review treatment, too.

An Admission

So, the thing is, one of my big interests is writing. I have to admit that I don’t talk about it too much because, unsurprisingly, I’ve never had anything published. Not that there’s anything wrong, I guess, with enjoying writing for its own sake, but I’d rather not be lumped in with every other student or recent graduate who insists that one day, they’ll be a writer. On the other hand, I’ve just finished up a short story, and once I’ve finished editing it, I hope to submit it to some genre magazines and see if I can’t get myself in print. Or in e-ink, at least. In other words, in addition to part-time travelogue and infrequent, geeky reviews, there may be some mentions of my attempts to get published, and the inevitable trial-and-error process that entails.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, June 2011

Continuing my goal of reviewing the science fiction short stories coming my way recently, I’m now going to look at Analog Science Fiction and Fact. First off, there’s a big difference between this and the first issue of Asimov’s that I covered a few days ago: the opening story is the first part of a serial (thinking about it, I really lucked out starting my subscription when I did: a month later, and I’d be looking, stumped at the second instalment).

As mentioned, we open with a serial: Part I of IV of Edward M. Lerner’s Energized. This is the first time I’ve tackled a serial in any format, and it creates a bit of an interesting situation. Obviously, it’s too soon to judge the work as a whole, so I’m tackling it the only way I can, as the first part of a series. Given I watch so much TV, it’s not hard to think of it as a pilot episode, almost. There was definitely an interesting hook. The entire plot – as the title quickly makes clear – revolves around energy. Earth is running out of it. Peak Oil has nothing on the situation that we’re facing as the plot gets going, and there’s a lot of time devoted to potential replacements, from mundane hybrid cars, the last dregs of crude oil, solar, wind and wave power, OTEC, satellite-based solar arrays – and the latter gets perhaps the most air time of all. On top of that hook as a setting, Lerner quickly introduces hints of… something. Perhaps a conspiracy. Perhaps a terrorist plot. The problem is, after 25,000 words, I don’t really feel any closer to knowing what it actually is. Things take off at a good pace, but then slow down considerably, introducing a wide range of characters all with competing interests. We get looks at their lives that are both conventional and fantastical. Part of my criticism may simply be that, after a few days reading nothing but shorter, punchier novelettes and short stories, I’m suddenly being confronted with the slow-burn of a novel-length serial. However, I can’t help but feel the pace could have done with being picked up towards the end of this first quarter. Maybe Lerner never intended to publish as a serial originally, and in a longer piece, read right through, these issues wouldn’t crop up. As a pilot episode, though, it left me wanting more… but only because I wasn’t given enough already.

Following that serial, we’ve got two novelettes. First up: Citizen-Astronaut by David D. Levine. Okay, I’m incredibly picky when it comes to my Mars stories. I’ve been forever spoiled by Kim Stanley Robinson. I went into Citizen-Astronaut thinking ‘man, what a way to skip over the all-important journey to the Red Planet’, which is obviously not something you can really do justice to in a short story, unless perhaps it’s also the point of the short story. However, this grew on me, and resulted in an interesting little adventure that, I suppose, sheds some light on the waning industry – endeavour? – of space exploration. Quite relevant, considering the shuttles are now grounded. It makes getting to Mars look more and more far-fetched.

After that was a story I loved. Oh yeah, a review. Kawataro by Alec Nevala-Lee. As someone with a long-standing interest in Japan currently being paid off by living there, I’m always interested in – and a little worried by – stories set here. The worry comes from someone aiming for Japan, and missing. I’ve no idea what Nevala-Lee’s connection to the place is, but the result is a story that is believably set in a small town someone in the middle of Nowhere, Japan, and touches on Japanese folklore, discrimination, and an interesting touch of Lovecraftian horror. It’s delightfully creepy.

Take One for the Road, by Jamie Todd Rubin, is an intriguing short story about the first and only manned mission to Mercury. While I couldn’t help but wonder about some of the science involved, the actual plot was interesting, marred only by the final sentiment – echoed in the title – that simply grates on me as a concept. Ignoring that, though, it presents a nice little interconnected set of mysteries, elucidated slowly.

Last up is Alastair Mayer’s Stone Age, which confused me greatly. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to take away from it. It feels like it should be part of a larger tale – perhaps, as many short stories should – but instead of suggesting a larger world, it mostly seems to beg the question “…So what happens next?” Not in the sense that I’m dying to know, but that without knowing that, this fragment of the story has no purpose. Other than that, it reads like Indiana Jones meets Stargate. Or give the last movie, just Indiana Jones, I guess. I’d be kind of intrigued if there was a longer version of this, or a sequel, or if I discovered that the characters involved were actually featured in something else entirely – but as a standalone, it just doesn’t work for me.

Actually, I kind of lied. On top of all the science fiction, there’s the titular science fact. This issue: Nanoparticles for Drug Delivery. An intriguing topic, sure, but not one I’m going to review. At least it doesn’t feature a surreal sci-fi poetry section, a la Asimov’s. Just not my cup of tea, sadly.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

On Power Saving, Election Season, and Other Ills

As I’m rapidly approaching the end of my sixth month in Tokyo (that would be on May the 6th, I believe, though I’d have to actually find my passport and check when my entry permit was stamped to be sure), I figured it would be a good time to do a round-up of the situation in Tokyo, where I’m at in my life here, and a look at why I never update this blog.

Six months in, things are looking rather more tropical in the neighbourhood

First – that point. I think the simple fact is that my life here isn’t all that interesting. I go to work, I come home, I go shopping, I play some videogames – quite frankly, I’m leading a life very similar to one I could be leading back in England, or anywhere else in the world. As such, it’s often difficult to imagine what sort of things I could blog about that would make for an interesting post. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would just enjoy a slice of life in Tokyo – after all, I was one of those people, before I came here. I used to follow the now-defunct Hunkabutta photoblog religiously. I think I had designs on doing something similar: taking my camera everywhere with me, cataloguing the crazy things I see here oh so often. To be honest, my camera sucks, and half of the really crazy stuff happens during my job, which I’m not supposed to talk about.

One of the things I did when I first started this blog, before I arrived in Japan, was talk about videogames and television shows, posting quasi-reviews. Recently, I’ve tried to get back into that, taking a nostalgic (and less nostalgic…) look back at Deus Ex and its sequel, Invisible War. As I’m trying to find out what kind of science fiction short stories get published, I’m also reading Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Scence Fiction and Fact. My review of the June ’11 issue of Asimov’s is below, and I’m hoping to keep that up as a regular thing. The Analog review should follow shortly, once I’ve actually finished reading it.

I’m also going to make an effort to find things to talk about. Not invent things, mind you, but yeah – I’m in Japan. I’m living in Tokyo after a devastating earthquake and tsunami wiped out huge portions of northern Japan, and the city is still affected by power-saving measures and scheduled blackouts. Even under normal circumstances there should be things to talk about, but now, there should be even more. For example: as you probably know, the tsunami heavily damaged a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Aside from all the sensational international news this resulted in, the biggest effect here in Japan has been the loss in power generation. I don’t have the actual figures with me, but it’s a huge drop in generation versus demand. The initial effects were widespread fears of unexpected blackouts, which TEPCO (the electricity company who owns the plant, and seems to be the monolith in charge of power generation for most of Japan or at least all of eastern Japan) countered by scheduling blackouts. I live in Ikebukuro, which fortunately isn’t in a ‘blackout zone’, by wit of being in the central core of Tokyo. You have to remember that Tokyo, in terms of the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area, is an unfathomably huge city. There are 23 ‘special wards’ in the heart of the city, then many more cities that stretch out to the west. Then there are the heavily urbanised areas in neighbouring Saitama, Chiba, and elsewhere. This city is huge and interconnected, and must consume an insane amount of electricity. In addition to blackouts during peak hours to try and cut demand, the trains are running less (though still reliably, and on a far better schedule than anything I ever experienced in the UK), escalators are frequently disabled, shops, restaurants and businesses are closing early, lighting in public places is either dimmed or out altogether… you get used to it, but it’s a frequent reminder that all is not as it should be.

The big question, though, is what is going to happen when summer comes along. Initially, the problem with power consumption was that it was still kind of cold in Tokyo, and certainly much colder in the affected areas in the north. That meant a lot of power going towards air conditioners, electric and oil heaters, and other forms of heating (the Japanese basically don’t do central heating, from what I understand. Insanely, they also don’t seem to do insulation, making all their heating efforts even more wasteful). As time passed and things warmed up with spring (and have now gone right through spring into a humid proto-summer), the demand for power fell, and some of the power-saving measures appear to have been lifted. The problem is that Tokyo summers are gruelling, hot, humid affairs the likes of which no one in Japan wants to endure without some serious cooling assistance. There have been efforts in recent years to mitigate this: one is ‘Cool Biz’, the concept of cutting back on the enforcement of highly conservative, and extremely hot, dress codes in the summer so that office workers don’t need as much aircon. The idea is that instead of cranking the temperature all the way down to, say, 16 or 18 degrees C, you can leave it a little higher (I think I read the aim was about 26 degrees – that alone should start suggesting how unbearable it is in uncooled areas). Unfortunately, not every business adopts Cool Biz, and I strongly suspect even those that do are going to still crank that aircon. Hell, I probably would, in the same situation. All that airconditioning has a knock on effect, of course: it puts out a lot of heat, making the city even hotter than it should be.

But – back to those power-saving measures, and the lack of power generation. The nuclear plant is irreparably damaged. TEPCO is still struggling to get the thing into permanent cold shutdown, and there’s been too much damage to it from the tsunami itself, from hydrogen explosions, from their own short-sightedness in piping sea water through it (instead of repairing the power supply to, and switching back on, the freshwater cooling systems right away) for most of the reactors to ever be used again. Even if there are undamaged reactors left, it’s not clear whether anyone would trust their use after all this. There’s also no way to build another power plant to meet demand before summer comes along. So: it gets to summer, and then what? Are people really going to forego their aircon in a show of solidarity with the ruined north? Well, it’s possible. However, pachinko gambling halls were still operating at deafening levels right after the quake, so I’m thinking no; most people are too selfish and short-sighted for that. It’s a thing people aren’t really talking about, though, so being a foreigner and not knowing sufficient Japanese to investigate it myself, I’m left in the dark.

One possibility I have seen mooted is a massive public works project to finally, properly link the two halves of Japan’s electrical grid. For inexplicable historical reasons, Tokyo and the east are on 50hz, and Osaka and the west are on 60hz (or is the other way around?) due to who helped them develop the grid – I believe one side is due to the Americans, the other, to Germany. Basically, the two grids are incompatible, and there’s little the west can do to ‘give’ electricity to the eastern grid. There would need to be far more uplinks or downlinks or whatever. Actually, perhaps it isn’t even possible, at least in the short term – I can’t remember where I saw the idea, but it certainly wasn’t an official one. The more obvious answer is going to be more power cuts, perhaps covering more of Tokyo, including the wards. Seeing as those first two weeks of cuts were incredibly disruptive before things stabilised, I dread to think what will happen to the city if widespread cuts return (or worse, the fear of unscheduled cuts, which had people rushing home to avoid being trapped without transport, or near-enough fleeing skyscrapers that would have no power for elevators).

For now, though, things are pretty stable here in Ikebukuro. Oh, except for one thing.

It’s election season.

I shall try to refrain from writing too much on this, lest the urge to murder the next politician I see grow too strong. You see, in Japan – and as I have recently learned, in Taiwan, and perhaps the rest of Asia – a primary mode of election campaigning seems to be driving up and down, very slowly, in a van covered in megaphones, announcing the name of a candidate. Oh, and saying thank you, as if the ear-splitting repetition of someone’s name is a guaranteed vote-winner. Actually, considering Tokyo just re-elected governor Shintaro Ishihara, xenophobic jackass extraordinaire, immediately following his declaration that the tsunami was divine punishment, for a fourth term, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if shouting loudly at the Japanese electorate was enough to win. These election vans were something that drove me mad the first time I was here, and that was living out in the Styx – this time I’m in the middle of Ikebukuro, and they’re far more frequent, cruising around from early morning till nearly nine at freaking night. There’s even a troupe of them on foot who seem to circle around the block, waving flags and announcing their name over and over, as if begging to have things hurled off the balcony at them. Water bombs, buckets of ice water, airconditioning units – you name it.

The best part? Apparently these tactics are restrained compared to Taiwan. I quote ‘at least there aren’t any firecrackers’.

Science Fiction - Reviewed! (Asimov's Science Fiction, June 2011)

One of the benefits of having a Kindle is that you can do impulsive things like subscribe to science fiction and fantasy magazines at the drop of a hat. That’s why, for the current low price of nothing, and the later, reasonably low price of £1.99, I’m now getting Analog Science Fiction and Fact and Asimov’s Science Fiction. On a related note, I also received a sample copy, just this morning, of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I will give them credit: it’s a nice little book, and I look forward to reading it, but I do wish it was simply available on my Kindle.

Having finished reading the June issue of Asimov’s, I’m struck by a desire to review the contents. I don’t think I’m going to go into too much detail. Quite simply, many of the stories are so short – it being a collection of short stories – that getting too into the nitty-gritty would either spoil them or just not be worth the effort. Which isn’t to say the shorter stories are bad – just there’s less to get to grips with, and the result is more of a ‘this pushed my buttons’ or ‘I didn’t get this’. The other thing to mention is that I don’t generally read a lot of short fiction. There are exceptions: Pretty much anything by HP Lovecraft, for example. Other candidates might include some of Neil Gaiman’s short story anthologies, Murakami Haruki’s… then the list starts to peter out. I’ve also never read anything in this form, collected in a magazine, rather than sitting in an anthology or collection like the authors above. So, in other words, my take on things may be a little different, as I’m unused to both the style and the conventions.

But without further ado…

The issue kicks off with Mary Robinette Kowal’s Kiss Me Twice. I didn’t actually read this first, as at 25,000 words it’s rather enormous compared to the rest of the magazine’s contents, but it’s definitely worth the time, and the price of admission. It's set in a near-future where artificial intelligences are, if not quite ubiquitous, then certainly commonplace enough that they’ve had serious effects on society. The focus is on Metta, an AI working with the Portland Police Department, and her (definitely her, not its) relationship with Detective Huang as he investigates a homicide case. Then things take a far more interesting turn – not that the initial investigation itself wasn’t compelling – and the nature of AIs in this world gets thoroughly explored. I’m basically a sucker for any good story about AI or otherwise non-human intelligences (e.g. The Ship Who Sang, though it’s been like a decade since I read that and I may have an inaccurate recollection of it), and the connections they have with their human or physical counterparts.

There are, I guess, two strands to Kiss Me Twice that both worked brilliantly for me. The first is the ‘speculative fiction’ angle focusing more on the technical or social aspects of having the AIs in place: how have the police been affected? How do people judge AIs? What was their history, what laws govern them? And so on. Kowal also gets points for discussing another point I always find interesting – if AIs like Metta are, essentially, artificial persons, what about less intelligent AIs? Artificial intelligence as we have it now, rather than in scifi? That’s where artificial savants (AS) come in, representing, perhaps, something like the future of Google’s various search engines and other clever functionality without a personality being overlaid on top of that.

The second strand is the aforementioned relationship between Huang and Metta. Both are great characters in their own right, but it’s the banter between them that really sells the professional (and less professional) relationship. I don’t want to get into it any further, really, as getting an insight into how Huang works is part of the whole point of the story.

The pacing was good, though I felt the ending could have been a little less abrupt – perhaps, though, I just want to see the setting continued in a longer work, or a sequel novella. It’s been interesting comparing the structure of this, at around 25k words, with some of the shorter works, and also the first part of a serial I’ve been reading in Analog. It feels maybe the most ‘complete’ of everything I’ve read in this context. It isn’t novel length, no, but I never felt like there was some aspect that was being brushed over or some character who was being omitted or only half-drawn-in due to space or time constraints.

Oh, and when I tweeted that I’d enjoyed reading it, the author replied saying thanks. So, that was awesome, too.

Following Kiss Me Twice was Ian R. MacLeod’s The Cold Step Beyond. A novelette (I’m learning all sorts of distinctions. I’m also learning that frequently a novelette is just something marginally longer than a short story, and appearing in a different category), The Cold Step Beyond never caught me in the same way KMT did. There’s an interesting sort of hook: we’re following a kind of warrior-monk (warrior-nun?) named Bess, who is no longer quite… human, as she prepares to face some dire threat. Inevitably, the threat isn’t quite what one would expect. I was reminded heavily of Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher, that is, a character who has been not only trained but altered in order to hunt monsters (not that the Witcher books are the only thing that deals with this, by far, but there was something about the particular style of it that struck me). One thing MacLeod’s novelette does well, and is always something I enjoy, is mixing a kind of fantasy setting with hints of higher technology – the idea that, perhaps, the people involved aren’t entirely clear on why everything works, or what happened in the past, but there is some heavy technological basis for why they are who they are, or why there are where they are.

One thing that frustrated me though was that, in the same vein, everything was veiled and hinted at. I was never 100% sure what was happening or why, and in particular found the conclusion quite baffling. I left it thinking – I sort of understand what was going on, but I’m not sure why the result was what it was, or what I’m supposed to take away from that. It’s possible that that was the point, given the nature of the setting, given the interesting why of the monsters that I don’t wish to spoil. However, I can’t help but feel it was meant to be more meaningful, perhaps more poignant, and it went a little over my head instead.

Side note: Taking a quick glance at the Asimov’s site, I notice that this novelette is set in the same setting as MacLeod’s Breathmoss which I haven’t read. I don’t think that knowing the setting any better would necessarily have improved my understanding, but it’s going to be on my list of things to check out.

Novellas and novelettes disposed of, we go now to the short story section. I’m going to try and tackle these a little faster, a little punchier, because as I mentioned in the abstract I don’t think there’s necessarily enough meat to talk about without ruining the experience of reading it anyway. First up is All The News That’s Fit by Carol Emshwiller. When a small, mountain village stops receiving the news brought by a travelling storyteller or newsbearer, one woman sets out to find out what happened to him. In the process, she realises that she’s gathering news herself, and that the world beyond the village isn’t quite what she expected. It’s a strange little story, told from a slightly simple perspective; that is, the main character’s naiveté grated on me a bit. There’s an interesting ‘oh, I see’ as things are explained, but overall, this one wasn’t for me.

Next, Walking Stick Fires by Alan DeNiro. Acknowledgement: this was completely mental. Confession: I think I liked it. It might be hypocritical to say that I enjoyed it despite not always having an idea of what was going on, given my criticism of The Cold Step Beyond, but here it kind of worked. To say anything about it would be to spoil it – sort of – except to hint that it’s a kind of phantasmagorical road trip that reminded me of something like Heavy Metal (you know, the terrible ‘80s animation… or the South Park semi-parody of it), with insane creatures, motorcycles, old Camaros, elder gods, stick insects and human slaves racing across America. Worth reading just for the madness.

Apocalypse Daily by Felicity Shoulders was a kind of interesting concept that I felt, in the end, lacked a significant enough storyline. Actually, I really liked the concept: the titular Apocalypse Daily, or AD, is a massively-multiplayer online… RPG? Apocalypse Simulator? Every in-game day, players are tasked with surviving some new world-ending calamity, like global floods, pandemics, zombies (I think someone mentioned zombies, anyway), alien invasions… and so on. The next day, everything resets, and there’s a new disaster, and players score points based on how long they survive, necessitating teamwork and interaction. It sounds like a game I’d enjoy. Anyway, the main character is a designer on the game, who must both play it as part of company policy, and think up new disasters to keep the managers happy and the subscriptions maintained. It’s an interesting premise, but I guess I was disappointed that the bulk of the drama was between the protagonist and her development team, in a way only loosely connected to the AD backdrop. I guess the point is meant to be the parallel between what she does in the real world and the effects this has on the game’s development – which may sound a little abstract, without reading it – but I didn’t find these parallels particularly compelling. Maybe I was just too distracted by wanting to play the game, so really, points for that idea if nothing else.

Last up is Colin P. Davies’ The Fighter. The shortest of the short stories, there really is only enough here to evoke a certain ‘flavour’, if you will. I think it’s kind of an interesting flavour, though, and worth the very brief time one would spend reading it.

So – my first science fiction magazine read, considered, and reviewed. I enjoyed the experience. The reading of it, that is, not the reviewing, although since I love hearing myself talk, this was great too. I’m currently reading the June issue of Analog and once I’m done with that, I’ll tackle it in a similar format. After that, I may look at the sample F&SF issue I have, but as its a double-issue, much older, and in a non-electronic format, it may be forced to wait.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Deus Ex: Invisible War – Reviewed

A little while ago I posted a (I suppose, retro) review of the original Deus Ex, and noted that I had just started Invisible War. Now that I’ve finished DX:IW, I want to give it the review treatment too.

A brief recap, touching on what I mentioned towards the end of my Deus Ex comments. The sequel came out during the time of the original Xbox, and, for whatever reason, was aimed squarely at a console market. Where Deus Ex represented some of the very best of PC gaming, Invisible War manages to embody some of the worst things about the early days of – if you will forgive me – modern consoles. I’m kind of studiously ignoring the PS2 here – it simply didn’t have the relative power that the Xbox had, which was really leaps and bounds ahead of things, a tiny PC in a box. For the first time, console ports of PC games were kind of feasible. The console actually had the power to run them, albeit, not as well as a PC of the same time could. It’s that last part that’s important in regards to Invisible War: the Xbox could run it, but nowhere near as well as a PC could. Similarly, due to being designed for a now elderly-console, where the ancient Deus Ex runs incredibly smoothly, Invisible War runs like ass. It doesn’t matter how high a spec of a computer you throw at it – the architecture just isn’t there. It was built with the limitations of a console in mind, and anything ‘better’ than that doesn’t really seem to have any effect.

A Less Realised World

So, you get things like small environments separated by long load times, low-resolution textures, hilariously enormous fonts and limited amounts of text per ‘screen’. Some of the things that made DX great, the little bits of world-building that really made it shine, are simply gone. Throughout the original game you could click on newspapers, books, personal computers and datacubes and read reams and reams of information. A newspaper wouldn’t just have a headline – there’d be an extract from the story, hinting at the socio-political nature of the world; stories about how Congress was reacting to the waning power of the United States vs. the secretive influence of the conspiracies in play, stories about the warring triads in Hong Kong, stories that had nothing to do with the plot at all, but helped build up the image of the future, like the mention of mining operations on the moon slinging payloads back to Earth by mass driver. Datacubes often couched ‘useful’ information like computer logins or access codes in with other bits of information that might be interesting or just humorous. Books held extracts from G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, a wholly fictional book called Jacob’s Shadow, and half a dozen other sources – as well as fragments of diaries and research logs by the characters. Computers held a wealth of background information in the form of personal emails, spam, secret orders and easter eggs. In Invisible War, the standard definition televisions of the time would have meant that including this stuff would have been wasted, impossible to read. Sure, there are some books, but instead of a nice, crisp font all on one ‘page’, you have to click interminably through three screens just to read four or five lines. That might have been a necessary evil on the Xbox, but there was no excuse for keeping the restriction on the PC. Emails and newspapers are wholly absent, books and datacubes rare – a sorry state of affairs indeed.

Technical Limitations

In addition to these technical limitations leading to the loss of books and other in-game sources, the menus also suffered. In DX the notes and goals page kept a detailed log of virtually everything you picked up, with an additional ability to make your own notes, if you found a code or login through emails or books (oddly, information found on datacubes – useful or not – was always recorded, other stuff wasn’t). There was also a repository for images and conversations you’d had. Again, this returns in IW, but with far less detail and utility.

On top of that, the very handling of the game itself suffers terribly. I’m not sure if this was something endemic at the time or is representative of a badly done port, but compared to DX, I never really felt in control of my character in IW. I was always skidding around, getting stuck in the floor (buggy as hell, seriously), or just feeling incredibly clumsy. It’s been interesting to compare it to the old, but still perfectly serviceable, and highly crisp controls of Deus Ex itself, and the brand new Portal 2, which handles deliciously. IW is like stealth gaming with mittens on.

Not Everything is a Negative

So, what does Invisible War actually do well? Quite a lot, actually. I’m still of two minds about the actual setting – it’s harder to relate to, for starters. Where Deus Ex, despite being set in 2052, showed a grim but recognisable cyberpunk-influenced future, Invisible War deals with the aftermath of a global social, economic and technological collapse. It’s actually quite amazing how the developers managed to reconcile the three disparate endings of the original game into IW’s storyline, but they pulled it off quite well. Humanity is living in scattered enclaves and city-states, generally pulled between the Order – a weird, syncretic, all-encompassing religion – and the WTO – an organised, regulated, capitalistic entity. As the game progresses, three other factions come into play: the Templars, who are religiously opposed to the now-widespread nanoaugmentation pioneered in the original game; the Omar, post-human Russian cyborgs and blackmarketeers, and the legacy of JC Denton’s rebellion, twenty years on.

There are familiar faces, strange repercussions from the first game, and a lot of tough choices, especially towards the end when you once again have to pick sides. There’s some big stuff going on – questions about whether humans should be modified, whether a benevolent dictatorship is better than chaos, whether humanity should move towards a singularity. Whether you should screw all that and embrace a trans-human future.

An analogy I sometimes make is to compare it to the two Ghost in the Shell films. The first movie is a world that kind of looks like the future might look. Cyberisation is a big thing, there are AIs, there are androids, and there’s lots of other strange technology – but it still looks recognisable. In Ghost in the Shell 2, the future isn’t recognisable: VTOL aircraft with feathered wings, endless industrial fields, strange brain hacking, a complete lack of states, and a kind of stylised world of old-fashioned automobiles and high-technology. It’s a world after all the advances of the first film, as IW is a world after the advances – and setbacks – of Deus Ex. Sometimes, I wonder if I would have preferred a somewhat bleaker but less futuristic game, perhaps continuing to play as JC Denton after choosing to implement an Information Dark Age, not the heavy themes of Invisible War itself, riding on the back of AI integration and shadow governments.

Fingers Crossed

There is basically one big, lingering question: would it have been a better game if it had not been so technologically limited by the era of its release? It’s a question Deus Ex: Human Revolution may answer. Modern consoles and HDTV basically means there’s little difference between a PC game and a console game beyond the method of input, and developers keep ringing more and more complexity out of a standard controller anyway. There’s nothing stopping the reimplementation of computers with emails, books with reams of information, larger environments, higher resolution textures, and an interface less hobbled by having to be compressed onto an SDTV by inferior hardware. Already there are suggestions in previews and gameplay videos that emails are present, that the DX-style ‘inventory Tetris’ has returned, that weapons have separate ammunition – and various kinds, too, such as loading fragmentary rounds into a revolver – and that both augmentations and experience points are making a comeback, although it looks like the skill system is once again built into the augmentation system – not something I have a problem with, so long as it runs deeper than in Invisible War. On top of that, there is the simple fact that, set in 2027 as a prequel to the original Deus Ex, Human Revolution once again treads more familiar, more relevant territory. The first game set a high bar. The second game aimed high, discussed lofty ideas, but was ultimately crippled by the unfortunate circumstances of its birth. Human Revolution has a lot to live up to, but I’ve got my fingers crossed.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Deus Ex: Reviewed

A month after Japan's massive earthquake, and life in the capital continues more or less as normal. I go to work, I go shopping, I generally ignore the chatter about the nuclear situation in the north - we've had periods of contaminated water, discussions of hoarding, leaks into the ocean, and thousands of aftershocks and a handful of tsunami warnings.

Deus Ex

Instead, I've been playing Deus Ex. It's one of my all-time favourite games, up there with the Baldur's Gate series, the Ocarina of Time, and the original Halo. With the exception of hammering through the latter cooperatively dozens of times, it's probably the game I've replayed the most over the years. It came out in 2000, a PC shooter-RPG hybrid in a (roughly) near-future sci-fi and cyberpunk setting. As such, it has a lot to answer for in terms of shaping my impressionable young mind, in both the themes it explored and the gameplay it presented. Though not strictly unique - the combination of RPG-style experience gain and distribution of skillpoints, an inventory screen where you're forced to play Tetris in order to keep all the stuff you want handy, and the sort of explorative game design always reminds me of System Shock 2, which I sadly never played all that much of, and of course there have been later games that take fragments of the same ideas - it does a lot of things so well, and some things that have rarely been re-attempted or at least never pulled off as successfully (including in its own sequel, Invisible War, but we'll get to that later) that it has always stuck with me as one of the greatest PC games of all time. In some ways - and going back again to its sequel again for a moment - it also represents to me the beautiful endtimes of PC gaming, where the level of complexity had reached stratospheric levels that just left consoles in the dust. It was from an era of flight, space and mech sims that required whole keyboards full of input, from a time when a first-person shooter could still be ridiculously long. It arguably pioneered the idea of emergent gameplay - that is, the kind of game where you can find creative to solutions to a problem far beyond just 'kill the guard' or 'sneak by him'. Even that represents a choice you don't always have in games, but in Deus Ex there was often hidden option number 3, 4, or 5 - take him out with a sniper rifle, hack the security system and have an automated turret do the job for you, break into the ventilation ducts and go an entirely different direction, render him unconscious with a riot prod or tranquiliser dart...

Human Augmentation

And oh, the augmentations. The central conceit of Deus Ex is that in the future, human augmentation - the improvement of human abilities with advanced prosthetics and implants - has come, and gone. The player, JC Denton, is a prototype for the next phase: nano-augmentation using nanotechnology to change the human body and allow it to do incredible things. As far as the emergent gameplay goes, that could mean being able to lift incredible weights and therefore build yourself some makeshift stairs to an out of reach location - or enhanced leg muscles, so you could simply leap up there. Nightvision and sonar vision to see through walls (an interesting thought - I believe the upcoming prequel, Human Revolution, is introducing millimetre-wave scanners for the see-through-walls aspect). Cloaking and radar masking, regenerating health, toxin resistance, a built-in aqualung, an enhanced HUD... every augmentation comes with a quasi-believable bit of scientific blurb about how the nanotech could achieve such results, modifying muscle structures or implanting new substances in the lungs.

Player Choice

Running through the augmentation system, like the rest of the game, is the concept of player choice. In Deus Ex this was always two-fold: first, the fact that there's often no right way to do something, second, that the options are frequently mutually exclusive. Do you take a lethal or non-lethal approach? In the opening mission of the game, where you're supposed to report for duty to UNATCO, an anti-terrorist coalition under the UN banner, you meet your brother and fellow agent Paul. He wants you to act like the law enforcement representative you are: non-lethal takedowns, rendering the terrorists unconscious so they can be arrested. On the other hand, many of the basic soldiers you work alongside want you to be a little less forgiving. "I thought you nano-augs were all stone-cold killers", comments one such grunt. Do you pour experience points into weapon skills - improving the accuracy and damage dealt with pistols, rifles, and 'low-tech' weaponry like batons and stun prods - or into the ability to hack computers, pick locks, and override keypads? For every augmentation canister you receive, you are able to choose between one of two options: in upgrading your legs, do you earn the ability to move and eventually run silently, or run faster and leap farther? For your arms, will you lift heavier and heavier weights, or inflict more damage with melee attacks - essentially, choosing between the ability to maneuvre objects and open up hidden paths, or potentially knock out victims faster or eventually even carve robots to pieces with Chinese swords. There are other, subtler, sometimes less obvious choices, most of which have repercussions later in the game, small and large - will you get involved in the family disputes of the Rentons? Do you follow orders blindly? Will you aid the mysterious Smuggler of Hell's Kitchen, NYC? Do you risk your life to save hostages, or contain situations faster - and more dangerously?

Like a Fine Wine

For all my praise, it's not a perfect game. Eleven years on its more than showing its age - which shouldn't be a discouraging factor, of course - but still manages to run smoothly, even coping with widescreen and high-resolutions on my current laptop: something Invisible War, a product of the last-gen console age, spectacularly fails to do. Set in 2052, there are sometimes baffling lacks of foresight on behalf of the designers and art direction teams - televisions are all 4:3 CRTs, landline phones are ubiquitous, and other already-outdated technological quirks have led to a situation where the upcoming prequel, set in 2027, sometimes seems more advanced than the game it precedes. Reality has already moved on. On the other hand, some aspects of the game are surprisingly prescient - newspapers littered around the levels refer to problems like the 'century flu', echoing the myriad scares of SARS, bird flu, and swine flu. Following escalated terrorist attacks, much of the game debates the degree to which freedom has been reduced in order to maintain safety - long before the introduction of the PATRIOT act or the deployment of other civil liberties infringing laws in the US and abroad. Great swathes of the game are devoted to discussions of the surveillance and intelligence gathering agencies. Other things are accidental - due to memory limitations, the Twin Towers are missing from the New York skyline. The game's most grievous sin must be the voice acting though. Yes, every line is voiced - that's wonderful. Unfortunately, every line delivered by a side character can be expected to be quite heinous. Sometimes even the main characters leave a bit to be desired, JC included, though you could make arguments for a kind of 'wooden', stoic, cyberpunk-esque delivery. Still, there are gems in there - I shall never forget Gunther Hermann and his lemon-lime conspiracy.

So, What's Next?

After finishing Deus Ex again - and experimenting with the three different endings, something I haven't done for a long time as this is the first time in a while that I've played the game to completion. It's interesting looking at the endings, and their implications, through a slightly more mature lens - I immediately moved on to Invisible War. The prequel is yet to come out, due in August, but from the trailers and previews its certainly looking like IW will always be the sad middle child of the trilogy. A lot of this has to do with when it came out, during the early days of the original Xbox. Or maybe they weren't such early days - it's hard to remember. Regardless, the result was a game sometimes crippled by the limitations of the system. Compared to Deus Ex, the environments are smaller. Load times are longer. Textures were incredibly low-resolution, something that has been fixed, to some extent, by a community-developed patch (it certainly casts the game world in a new light, but it makes load times even worse). Many aspects of the game have been simplified or streamlined, depending on the spin you want to put on it, and I think it may have been the origin of the idea that games were being 'dumbed down' for consoles and/or the console generation. It was an accusation lobbed recently at Mass Effect 2, that failed to stick - but even more recently, clung to the much more PC-oriented Dragon Age 2 with abandon.  Separate skill and augmentations are gone, replaced by a unified system of biomods: for example, instead of a hacking skill, breaking into computers requires a black market neural interface mod (an ability so necessary as to make the other options for that augmentation slot rather wasteful...). Where in DX there existed both security computers and personal computers that could be broken into, full of emails and other tidbits, there are only security consoles in IW. Ammunition is - explicably from a story standpoint, inexplicably from a gameplay one - combined into a nanotechnology-based universal ammunition system. In DX, not only did you have different ammunition for different weapons - each gun might have different loads! Buckshot or sabot shells, rockets or white phosphorus, regular darts or tranquilisers... On every front, the amount of player choice seems to have been reduced, whilst the technology hobbles along, not quite sure of itself. Where DX runs smooth as butter, IW still manages to feel both clunky and floaty, a sure sign of a poorly-executed PC port (to say nothing of the menu systems that had to be patched, due to being aimed solely at a console experience). Many of the controls present in the original game have gone AWOL, lost due to their inability to be mapped to a console controller - leaning left and right, hotkeys to trigger or disable all augmentations, intuitive uses of the keyboard to mimic in-game actions like entering computer passwords and keypad codes. This is not to say the game has no merits: the storyline is interesting, taking the three disparate endings to Deus Ex and weaving them into one coherent narrative, and the opportunity for emergent gameplay remains strong. It's just that sometimes, you have to fight to find it.

It's interesting, then, that I'm looking forward so much to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Of course, it may still be a disaster, though the videos have me hopeful. It seems to combine positive points from both of the earlier games, wrapped in a truly beautiful vision of the future. The saturated amber/gold colour palette really reminds me of Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, and the design of the mechanical augmentations is amazing. I guess, though, that the really interesting thing - after this discussion - is that the thing I'm least worried about is its release on the Xbox 360. Consoles have come so far since Invisible War. Of course, there are some things that a PC still excels at - giving you dozens more buttons for one, improved graphics (if you have the hardware) for another - but the 360 and PS3 are easily comparable now. More than that, there are years of gaming being wholly console-oriented now - years in the post-Halo world, where all shooters tend to share the same, rather wonderful control scheme, and the same, sometimes less wonderful, regenerating health. One wonders what Invisible War would have become if it had been released a few years later. I'm hoping Human Revolution gives us a glimpse.