Friday, May 27, 2011

An Anecdote on Formatting

A couple of years ago, back when I was still in university, I had a bizarre mentoring role that the department referred to as a ‘proctor’. As is my habit, I quickly Wiki’d that to see if there was some explanation for just why the university decided to call it that, but it’s a fairly tenuous connection at best. Anyway, my job was to sit in on groups of first year undergraduate philosophy students as they discussed the topics found in their courses – things like an introduction to ethics and morality, questions about properties and colour theory, all the stuff that gets thrown at you as a freshman philosophy student. The idea was not that I’d be teaching these people anything – that was forbidden! – but that I’d be there to keep the discussions on track and away from philosophical dead ends, what happened last night on Eastenders, or comparisons of how drunk they had been/still were.

This in mind, my role could be a fairly dull one. Typically, I’d only get involved when it was time to move on to a new topic or to get them to shut up about something irrelevant or to try and get someone in the back to speak up if they hadn’t already. My group was, generally, fairly good – except that one tosser who stole my copy of Descartes’ Meditations and promptly vanished – but nevertheless a few interesting moments emerged from the general confusion. You see, the main point of these discussion groups was meant to be that since most people never study any philosophy before university and/or don’t study it in the discussion- or argument-heavy environment the university prefers, it would be necessary to gently introduce students to “how we do things”. That meant things like reminding people that there isn’t necessarily one right answer (but also, that there may well be some right answers, and just spouting irrelevancies for forty minutes because your friend says his friend says that’s all you do in philosophy classes isn’t going to get you anywhere), or getting them used to the idea that they’re meant to provide evidence and arguments for why they’ve chosen that answer, instead of merely providing references.

This sometimes leads to really bizarre moments, like when you find out half the group doesn’t know how the perception of colour works, or times when they really get the wrong end of the stick about properties or moral arguments. As mentioned, though, I wasn’t allowed to actually correct any of this, lest I accidentally teach them something incorrect or – just as bad – suggest that my point of view was the only correct one. A sort of ethical grey area, however, was when it came to essays and exams. Questions like ‘What should I be revising?’ or ‘Is this essay okay?’ cropped up frequently, and the rules were much less clear on how to deal with them. It was the eve of one such essay deadline that the following situation occurred.

A girl, who shall remain forever nameless, not least because I’ve long since forgotten her name, hung around at the end of the session with her essay, looking really quite worried. Again, the essay was due in the following day, or later that afternoon, or something, so it was no surprise she was looking a bit harassed. I said sure, I’ll take a look at it. She was bright enough in the discussions, and seemed to ‘get’ the course, so I wasn’t too concerned. I figured I could have a quick glance, check she had referenced things properly, maybe suggest she check one of the other texts associated with the course.

I was wrong.

I honestly can’t speak for the content of her essay. She may later have gone on to become a PhD candidate, marking out revolutions in modern philosophy in her extensive and well-researched thesis. What I was looking at, though, was a multi-coloured atrocity. Inexplicably, her essay was written in several different fonts, and several different colours, with random bits of indentation where an obviously quoted bit of text had run on into the main body of her essay. There was no title, spacing leapt between single and double, and the whole thing looked like it should have been on an early GeoCities page, all blinking text and revolving paths of glitter. I seem to remember letting out a strangled noise, sitting down on the nearest desk, and strongly suggesting that she go see her actual supervisor immediately because I (genuinely) had to run to another proctorial and dealing with that essay would take more than the ten minute window between lecture slots.

To this day, the formatting of that essay haunts me.

The reason I bring this up is because I am, at present, attempting to edit a short story with an eye to publication. This morning I was poring over William Shunn’s guide to properly formatting a manuscript, as linked from Asimov’s Science Fiction’s submission guidelines, and it contains this line: 
'No one knows for certain how many good short stories are passed over because the manuscripts containing them are formatted poorly, but it is certain that a properly formatted manuscript will be more eagerly read by an editor than a poorly formatted one.'
That was when the memory of the world’s sparkliest essay popped into my mind, reminding me that no matter what you may have actually written, if it’s utterly illegible then it isn’t going to get you anywhere.

I always wonder how she fared come the deadline.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Cyberpunk, Snow Crash, William Gibson, and Japan

A little while ago, partially inspired by my return to the Deus Ex franchise, I decided I wanted to sit down and read some cyberpunk. I’ve noted before that, despite my interest in science fiction, despite my enjoyment of settings like those found in Deus Ex or Ghost in the Shell, I’d never actually read any William Gibson or Neal Stephenson – none of the big names generally associated with the genre. Since I was (and still am) enamoured with my Kindle and put off by the mild difficulty of finding English language books in Japan, I started with Stephenson’s Snow Crash, as Gibson’s early work was unavailable.

Snow Crash

Snow Crash was, to put it bluntly, not at all what I’d expected. I’d had dozens of people recommend it to me over the years, but no one had prepared me for what was inside. I found those first few dozen pages, perhaps the first few chapters, somewhat excruciating. A Deliverator? These ridiculously-named franchised nations – what are we talking about, here? I tend to have a problem when something is more than a little satirical or is simply done for comedy value: the humour I don’t mind, but I struggle with worlds that don’t add up. It bothers me in, say, Futurama when something is introduced as a one-off gag that nevertheless destabilises the fragile reality of the setting. I’m the kind of person who frowns at American Dad when it’s revealed Stan’s hair is a toupee – a fact never mentioned before, or after. So, to be introduced to this crazy world, this world so aggressively written to be strange and different and humorous and wrong, was almost too much for me to deal with. I didn’t like it.

Later, I loved it. Either I got used to Stephenson’s style or things start to smooth out after the initial turbulence, I’m not sure which it is, but pretty quickly you start getting grand tours of the Metaverse and that’s where I really started to enjoy things. Not just for the actual content of the book, but for the (if you’ll excuse the unfortunate, coincidental timing of the phrase) meta-content, the fact that I’m reading it and thinking, “Why has he suddenly broken off a discussion of Mafia franchisees to describe, in great depth, how a massively-multiplayer social game would work – oh.” It’s that moment when you realise that the world he’s describing didn’t exist, at least in any recognisable form, back when the story was written, that he’s essentially predicting something akin to Second Life (except frankly, his Metaverse sounds way more interesting and successful than Second Life).

I continued to love the story right up until the end – rat-things, Reason, the Raft, Raven – a succession of increasingly outlandish characters, technologies and situations that strangely reminded me of Gears of War. There’s a certain hypermasculinity to some of it, a kind of bro-ish yet nerdy predilection for high-tech weaponry, nuclear one-upmanship, samurai swords and motorcycles. At times it feels like the same kind of mindset that says, “Why have a bayonet, when you can have a chainsaw bayonet?” and gives the world astonishingly muscle-bound protagonists like Marcus Fenix. Not that Snow Crash’s protagonist, Hiro Protagonist (there’s that element of parody or satire that I initially struggled with again), fits into the same category as, say, Fenix. He is nevertheless a kind of geek fantasy: a hacker, a pizza delivery guy, and the world’s greatest swordsman. Possibly I put those in the wrong order of merit.

Moving away from Snow Crash though – I think I’ve recommended it highly enough, or perhaps cast it in a strange enough light that one would be encouraged to see for themselves if I’d gone mad in the reading of it – I do think it’s interesting how much Japan permeates cyberpunk works. Aside from being the crest of a wave of early ‘90s Cool Japan, Hiro and his skills with a katana and Stephenson’s dropping of references to salarymen in navy suits and high-end Japanese technology hark back to William Gibson’s earlier, genre-founding stuff. It’s that strange fascination with Japan – and how the future seems to have curved away from those predictions – that I want to talk about soon.


I mentioned already that I couldn’t get Neuromancer on my Kindle. I could get Virtual Light and the rest of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, but I couldn’t get Neuromancer or the other novels in the Sprawl trilogy, or Burning Chrome, his collection of short fiction. As if to spite me and my purchase of hard copies, (where I shop for my Kindle stuff – I don’t use the American store) now carries Burning Chrome, Neuromancer, and… Mona Lisa Overdrive. Uh, guys? What happened to Count Zero? Anyway, I picked up a cheap hardcover copy from that turned out to be a 20th Anniversary Edition, had it shipped to my local Lawson convenience store, and proceeded to read it with all due haste.

One of the things that interests me most about Neuromancer, or the Sprawl setting in general, is that unlike, say, Ghost in the Shell, the future that Gibson is envisioning is far more multi-faceted. GitS, in the films and in the Stand Alone Complex series, focuses on two technologies and their effects upon people and society: prostheses and artificial intelligence. Both these technologies feature in Gibson’s cyberpunk, but alongside gene therapy, unimaginable plastic surgery, cities encased in geodesic domes, space hotels, point-to-point suborbital flights, high-tech designer drugs, and visions of what the internet could become. It’s a future writ wholesale. Perhaps part of it is simply that Ghost in the Shell is set – at least in the first film, and in the series – in some kind of vaguely recognisable near future, a future only a few decades away. Neuromancer is never explicit about when it takes place, but good money would be on it being a long, long time after the ‘80s in which Gibson was writing. A very long time indeed.

It’s curious, then, looking at some of the things that he extrapolated. In his foreword – the benefit of that Anniversary Edition – he notes that where things hold up to the test of time, it’s because he was vague, or merely imagining what it might be like. Where he relied on his own knowledge – discussing the unmistakeable sound of a dot-matrix printer, talking about the colour of static on TV, or describing information on disks and cassettes – things get a little shaky, technology-wise. He also notes that he completely failed to predict the fall of the Soviet Union – yet, throughout Neuromancer, there’s never any mention of an entity called the United States. There’s a pattern here, a future of cosmonauts that’s echoed in his earlier stories in Burning Chrome, but I’ll get to that later. I think more interesting right now, and something I don’t believe he mentioned in that foreword, is his future in which Japan remains technologically and economically ascendant.

Both predictions or expectations make a certain kind of sense. The future of Russian space supremacy actually feels just as relevant now, as the US once again winds down its space program, putting the shuttles into retirement without a clear successor. Russian and private launches will keep the ISS resupplied, while China continues to work on its own space efforts. Japan, though, was a somewhat different prospect. Japan of the 1980s was heading towards its ultimate economic heights, the Bubble Years. After World War Two, in which the country was levelled not just with the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but the equally devastating but far-less-known firebombing of Tokyo and other cities, Japan emerged as an economic and technological powerhouse. Part of the reason for that was the same way Japan went into the 1800s as a medieval feudal society and came out as an industrial, colonial power capable of defeating contemporary Russia. Another part is that as part of its surrender to the Allies, Japan had adopted a pacifist role, unable to form armed forces under its own laws. Ultimately, the United States would take up the primary role in Japan’s defence, even when, later, the Self Defence Forces were formed. Despite American pressure to re-arm and thus become a bulwark against Asian Communism, Japan devoted its resources not to defence, as it had in the past, but to its own economy.

One of the actions taken in the aftermath of the war was to break up the zaibatsus, the massive business entities. Looking at Japan now, with companies like Mitsubishi that have tendrils in everything from banking to pencil-making, it’s occasionally hard to see what effect that break up had. The point, though, was to remove that ‘top down’ infrastructure, where a limited number of individuals made all the decisions. Of course, you might wonder at that, too, considering there’s still a Toyoda high up in Toyota. In Gibson’s future, the zaibatsus are back. It isn’t clear if he wasn’t aware they’d been broken up, or if he foresaw their inexorable return as companies merge and become enormous conglomerates once more, but they’re back. They’re representative of the tremendous economic power Japan had in the ‘80s, but lost abruptly in the ‘90s, and never regained. It’s worth remembering, though, that Japan for a long time remained one of the world’s largest economies – a position it has vied for, over the last several years, with China – and that even as a stagnant economy, it’s a powerhouse. Living here, though, it’s hard to imagine a time when it could return to its former glory. Japan is too structurally set in its ways, too much of an old boy’s club, to pull itself together and catch up with the future. The future may remain one filled with Japanese electronics – the March 11th earthquake, that halted production of devices from Japan’s famous digital cameras to components for the iPad, shows just how important Japan’s lingering technological prowess is – but it’s much more difficult to see a future where a Japanese influence is felt at every turn. There’s a reason they speak Chinese, not Japanese, in Firefly. American robotics have already gone to war, while Japanese robotics continue to wave and dance, or sit unused in research departments.

There’s a line, early on, in Neuromancer. A guy in a bar talks about Chinese neurosurgery, and the protagonist silently retorts that the Japanese have already forgotten more about it than the Chinese will ever know. Yet China is the one building the mag-levs, while Japan’s plans for a mag-lev line from Tokyo to Kyoto remain murky. It’s a Scottish firm that developed the i-LIMB, not Chiba City surgeons.

Burning Chrome

I finished reading the Burning Chrome collection last night, and its interesting watching Gibson’s style evolve in reverse. There are three stories in Burning Chrome that take place in the same world as Neuromancer and its Sprawl trilogy – “Johnny Mnemonic”, “New Rose Hotel”, and the titular “Burning Chrome”. Each is pretty good – I particularly liked Johnny Mnemonic, and not just because it links into a character and a backstory featured in Neuromancer – but it’s actually his other works that I found more interesting. My two favourite stories from the collection are probably “Hinterlands” and “Red Star, Winter Orbit”, which he wrote with Bruce Sterling, and really makes me want to read The Difference Engine that they also co-authored. “Hinterlands” deals with – well, I’d never heard of it before reading the story and briefly checking something on Wikipedia now, but it’s apparently ‘a fable about the ‘cargo cult’ mentality’. “Red Star, Winter Orbit” takes place aboard a decaying Soviet space station – again, the Soviets won the space race. In “Hinterland”, too, the onus is primarily on Soviet space exploration. The other nationalities only get involved later. “Red Star” and “Hinterlands”, though, evoke two almost opposite kinds of emotions: the former longs for space exploration, needs it, and laments the abandonment of it. The latter evokes fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of some terrible, half-revealed grandeur that Gibson manages to suggest so well. In Neuromancer, that fear is in the form of artificial intelligences. In “Hinterlands”, it’s something altogether more alien, something even more unknowable.

Let’s go back to those Sprawl stories, though. I find them inexplicably fascinating because I don’t know why Gibson so heavily involved Japan. I read somewhere that he didn’t actually visit the country until the ‘90s, yet although he was writing before the internet, before a Wikipedia where you could fact-check things at the drop of a hat or a web full of photographic evidence, the Japan he describes – Chiba’s Night City in Neuromancer, which comes across as a mix of foreigner-hedonist Roppongi and Shinjuku’s Golden Gai alley of tiny bars; recycled capsule hotels (“coffins”, in Gibson’s parlance); a work culture not unlike indentured servitude filled with morning callisthenics and company songs – sounds strangely authentic. A little dated now, at times, but authentic. It forces me to wonder both why he chose Japan – was it merely a logical choice, given the above discussion of Japan’s economic power at the time? – or was it a personal interest? Where and how did he gather the information that makes Neuromancer and those earlier Sprawl stories so interesting, so readable?

The Future

I’ve heard, from the same guy who recommended Snow Crash, that Gibson’s later works don’t live up to his earlier promise, that he comes a kind of parody of himself, doomed to repeat the same themes while name-dropping pop culture. I have no idea whether that’s the case. As yet I’m unaware of any of his novels – sadly, aside from those ten stories in Burning Chrome, his short fiction remains uncollected, and he later seemed to abandon writing any more – going into the areas explored by stories like “Hinterlands”, which is a shame. I’m intrigued and mildly afraid of Idoru (which, tangentially, I always think should be spelt either “Idol” or “Aidoru”, depending on whether you want readability or authenticity, rather than Idoru, which is only halfway there – enough to suggest a hint of Japan, enough to be readable, but nevertheless wrong. But I’m a dick when it comes to katakana). As the era Gibson was writing in closes with the present – Idoru emerged from the ‘90s, during the heyday of Cool Japan – there’s that fear I carry of it being too on the nose, too influenced by things now cringe-worthy. Yet Gibson seemed to writing about an artificial pop star, and that’s exactly what has emerged most recently from Japan.

I plan to find out, though. I’ve still got Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive to read before I’ve even finished his Sprawl, and at the moment I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters (again), so it may be some time before I’m thumbing through Idoru or Spook Country. Plenty of time to read this his output, and see what trajectory Gibson’s writing actually takes.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

LA Noire: Review

Before I discuss Rockstar’s latest opus [360 / PS3], I feel that I should mention a pet hate that I have in videogaming: I strongly dislike games that feature something – a level, a boss fight, a mechanic – that doesn’t fit with the rest of the game, that the engine can’t seem to support. It’s that moment in a first-person shooter where you’re suddenly required to use stealth, failing the mission automatically if you’re detected. It’s the part of a stealth game where you’re stuck in a room with a number of enemies, and you aren’t allowed to sneak by. It’s the boss fight where all those skills you’ve been honing since the start of the game become useless because you need to rely on some new gimmick, a feature that you’ve never used before (and if it isn’t the end boss) will never use again.

The stealth/action mechanic is a particularly apt example, though fortunately it isn’t one that applies to LA Noire. There’s an established stealth genre now, whole series of games that rely on it – Metal Gear Solid, Splinter Cell, Hitman, Deus Ex, Thief, Riddick – and the key thing is that in each case, the whole game is built around the fine art of sneaking. Enemy AI needs to cope with different states of alert, the lighting engine – or something else – needs to show where you can safely progress in the shadows or in cover, and the sound engine needs to be suggestive of where your pursuers (or victims) are walking or searching (Splinter Cell: Conviction’s mindless goons yelling “Where are you, Fisher?!” notwithstanding). Most FPS games where stealth isn’t meant to be on the table all the time – as in, say, Deus Ex or Crysis – don’t cope well with sneaking segments. Your HUD isn’t set up to support it, your toolset doesn’t feature silent or non-lethal weaponry, and the enemy AI is basically a psychic warrior who can discern your presence through the dead of night or the most solid of walls (Call of Juarez leaps out of some distant pocket of memory, though there are plenty of other examples – fortunately in recent years, the numbers have greatly diminished, though not disappeared entirely). Trying to deal with stealth against those stacked odds is frequently the opposite of fun.

The reason I’m bringing this up is not because LA Noire forces you to use stealth inappropriately – actually, there is a fairly reasonable sneaking mechanic for tailing suspects on foot, as well as in a vehicle – but because it has a similar kind of multiple personality disorder. On the one hand, you have LA Noire the detective game, the game that is being praised all over the gaming press and to a mildly surprising extent the mainstream press. On the other, you have LA Noire the anti-Grand Theft Auto, noodling around 1947 Los Angeles in cars that, as PennyArcade’s Tycho puts it, “drive like aircraft carriers”, gunning down half the city’s criminal population as you respond to ‘dispatch’ side quests, hunting collectible film reels and city landmarks like some deranged historical magpie.

Cole Phelps, hat connoisseur
There’s a certain psychic dissonance at work when you’re working those early cases, methodically cataloguing evidence in what has rightly been compared to a modern point-and-click adventure, preparing for interviews with recalcitrant suspects and unhelpful witnesses, listening to your character and his partner discuss the need to charge the right guy or comment on their shaky nerves after someone reaches for a pistol and you’re forced to return fire – only to answer a dispatch call over your car’s radio, and arrive on the scene of an armed robbery where you’re tasked with killing everyone involved. Moments later, your man, freshly minted detective Cole Phelps, calmly radios back to dispatch that the situation has been resolved – oh, and he’ll need a coroner.

The Good

LA Noire is a compelling game, though, and I don’t want to just dwell on the flaws. You’ll spend the majority of the game with the investigative aspect, collecting evidence and interrogating witnesses and suspects. Evidence collection is initially daunting, but it quickly becomes clear that Cole is almost psychic in his ability to discern whether something is relevant to the case or not. Controller vibration indicates when you can interact with something, and Cole mutters dry lines about items being ‘not relevant’ or that ‘it’d take a smarter man than me to connect this’ when you’ve picked up yet another useless beer bottle or crumpled packet of cigarettes. Find something useful, though, and you can turn it over in your hands until you spot something key – the serial number on the barrel of a gun, ligature marks on the neck of a victim, or a salient detail in a ledger full of records. There are a couple of pieces of evidence that require a bit more thought, that are puzzles of sorts: unlocking a puzzle box, or reassembling a rudimentary explosive during an arson case, for example. Sadly, though, these more puzzle-like elements aren’t especially common.

The other half of investigation is the interview. This is where the game really shines, where all that hype about motion-captured acting comes into play. Everyone in the game appears to be played by a real actor, including (apparently, since I haven’t actually watched it) half the cast of Mad Men. It’s actually quite astonishing – for a while, I failed to recognise anyone, then gradually familiar faces started popping out of the woodwork in witnesses, suspects, villains and heroes. Greg Grunberg (from… well, everything JJ Abrams gets involved with, and Heroes), Carl the bartender from How I Met Your Mother once again playing a bartender, Fringe’s John Noble: and those are just the faces I could put names to. There were plenty of people I recognised but couldn’t quite place, through the filter of 1940s hairstyles and the slightly peculiar texturing of the mo-cap. The big selling point – the refrain that is constantly brought up in previews, reviews, and commentary from the developers – is that thanks to these actors and that mo-cap, you can actually see when people are lying. Well, it’s a half-truth at best, of course: you’re dependent on these actors delivering a compelling performance, in really selling that they’ve got something to hide or that they’re confident their story is airtight. And their performances are at the mercy of some strange circumstances, their lines and facial movements being recorded in a bizarre white box encircled by 3D cameras, further distorted by the need to fit gameplay mechanics like early cases being easier to break and later villains being stone-cold liars and hucksters.

The thing is, though, it works. Sometimes people are comedically shifty, a pantomime of guilt, eyes darting to the side. Whether it was purely intentional or whether it was down to the rigours of acting in that white room – like early green-screen productions with CGI environments or characters, where the actors had nothing to act against and performances were frequently more than a little stilted – the result is not always perfect, but it gets the job done. Time and again you’ll be biting your lip, watching a suspect’s face, trying to decide whether they’re concealing something or outright lying. Painfully rarely, they might actually be telling the truth. The technology is of course impressive, but it feels like people have been selling the actors themselves short: the reason you can tell when someone is lying is not just the technology, but the person behind it, actually giving the performance that lets the motion-capture record and replicate the lie.

The Bad

Putting police sketch artists out of work
Continuing the thread of discussing the interviews, let’s talk about how they actually work. Basically, you ask a question from your notebook (incidentally, Cole is one hell of a police sketch artist, doodling photorealistic portraits of characters and clues) and the suspect delivers a response. You then have three choices: Truth, Doubt, Lie. Think they’re telling the truth? Hit Truth. Think you can catch them in an outright lie? Hit Lie, then select a piece of evidence that proves the lie: “I don’t have anything to do with drugs!” “Oh really? Then why did I find this dope in your apartment?” and so on. You choose Doubt when you think they’re concealing something, but you can’t prove it with evidence, or you think they’re just not telling you everything.

The problem is that the Lie/Evidence mechanic is in no way transparent. You’ll ask a question that appears to be about one thing, eliciting an obvious lie, but then be stumped as to what clue you’ve discovered can prove that it’s a lie. Slightly fictionalised example: I think a suspect has tampered with a device, but he denies having the ability to do so. I have records showing he repaired the device, and it seems logical that if he can repair it, he can tamper with it. I also have in my bag of evidence an example of the device itself, the actual tampered component, and testimony from the suspect’s boss. It seems like any one of these clues might be relevant: maybe not all those clues are solid proof, but they should at least elicit a relevant response: show him the tampered component without proof he worked on it, and he could deny knowledge of how it came to be that way, for example. Yet instead, if you roll out a seemingly relevant clue that isn’t the perfect match the game wants, the suspect will dismiss it out of hand – and you don’t get a second chance. Even though it’s a police interrogation, even though your partners frequently deploy violence (out of hand or to get what they want) during cutscenes, even though Cole talks a big talk when you get a question right ­– should you fail in your estimation of a clue’s relevance, Cole meekly backs away from that line of questioning, letting the whole thing slide. I’m not suggesting that you simply be allowed to slam your evidence bag on the table and root through it until you find something that’ll stick, but the complete lack of logic at times is immensely frustrating, especially when paired with the finality of all these choices. Botch a question, pick the wrong piece of evidence to back up an accusation, and you may just have thrown a few hours of investigation down the toilet, because there’s no going back.

The Ugly

This finality is especially strange when you consider some other things about LA Noire. Team Bondi, in developing the game, evidently decided to aim for a particularly strange audience. Perhaps they guessed – rightly, it appears, based on mainstream reactions and all those Twitter comments of spouses playing the game in the “gamer’s” absence – that it wouldn’t just be hardcore gamers sitting at the controls, gamers well-versed in the driving and shooting mechanics of Rockstar’s other, superficially similar games – Grand Theft Auto IV and its expansions, Red Dead Redemption. It would be people who might struggle with an action sequence and who, really, just wanted to play the investigation aspects, treating the game like an interactive movie. Thus, driving can mostly be skipped: you can ask your partner to do it for you (a real godsend because LA traffic is a nightmare, the city is huge, and any costs you rack up from fenderbenders or knocking over trash cans and street lights can negatively affect your end-of-case rating – not to mention there’s no in-car radio you can control, and listening to the same handful of audio tracks over and over while driving from Hollywood to the concrete-lined LA river is hardly fun). Action sequences, too, can be skipped after three failed attempts – but only from cases, not from the dispatch side quests. To be clear: I don’t mind these options to skip. As I said, skipping driving is fantastic, and skipping the action is not a feature I took advantage of, but I don’t see it as a problem.

However, like the investigation/open-world dichotomy I mentioned above, it’s another symptom of the game’s strange split personality. Is it aimed at a casual market, or a hardcore one? Why design those carefully structured police cases where investigation and arrests are key, then throw you at waves of bad guys during dispatch missions? The sad thing is, the driving and shooting controls – whilst not abysmal – are far from polished, and it’s clear that they were never meant to be the focus of the game: the flagship gameplay element was always going to be the mo-capped conversations, followed by the crime scene investigation that supports them. Why, then, does the denouement of the game involve so much of that floaty driving and janky shooting?

Another odd element is how the game weaves together stand-alone cases and the long arc. Initially, it appears that there is no arc, at least not in the present. You are presented with brief flashbacks that elaborate on Cole’s time in the war, his relationship with other Marines during officer’s training, his role in the Pacific Theatre and just how he became the war hero he is so often mentioned to be. In your very first case as a patrolman, you’re also introduced to the other backstory mechanic – newspapers that allow you to see glimpses of what’s going on behind the scenes with characters who only become relevant much later in the game. When you reach Homicide, though, things start to change. Cases stop being necessarily stand-alone, and larger arcs come into play. By the time you’re in Vice it stops being entirely clear where one ‘case’ ends and another begins, and then in Arson, your progression through LA Noire has clearly become story-driven rather than case-driven. I don’t want to talk about the story – I think it’s an interesting story, fairly compelling, and full of connective threads that tie back in to all those newspapers you read, all those flashbacks, all those cases you worked. Characters from your past pop up out of the woodwork as friends and enemies.

It’s interesting, but it feels like a different game. A story-driven narrative, a noir thriller, that happens to take place in an open-world sandbox simply because it’s the most expedient way of presenting a realistic 1947 Los Angeles. It reminds me of the commentary when Mafia 2 came out: people asked why is it a sandbox game if there’s nothing to do but play the story missions? If there’s nothing to do but follow the narrative? In LA Noire, it feels like they couldn’t decide what they wanted: a film noir in videogame form, a tight narrative about a man coming back from the war with a lot of baggage, about corruption in the city during the time of murders like the Black Dahlia; a detective game, where you gather evidence and close cases, working your way through the ranks of a realistic 1947 police department; or a sandbox game, where you pick up story missions and side missions at will, where you can ‘borrow’ cars and add them to your collection, where you can search every nook and cranny for hidden collectibles or work on achievements like ‘Public Menace’ (rack up $47,000 dollars of damage during a single case). In trying to have all these things in the same game, LA Noire suffers from being a jack of all trades and master of none.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Forthcoming Holidays, New Cameras, and Ridiculously Tall Buildings

Shinjuku Station, Kabukicho Exit (2008)
For a long time I've been shooting with a Canon Ixy, which is basically the Japanese version of a Canon Ixus (which is apparently the PowerShot in the US - I really don't understand why Canon renames things in every market), that I picked up in 2008 during one of my trips back and forth from Tokyo. The reason I bought it - despite the strength of the yen, at the time, presenting a truly crippling exchange rate - was that I didn't really have a camera at that point. I'd actually spent an entire year living in Tokyo without having a working camera. I'd had a Minolta DiMAGE of some description before then, which had served me well urbexing and in Paris, but at some point it just seemed to cease working. Actually, trying to process the timeline here, it possibly stopped working when I was leaving Paris - I seem to remember blaming the security machines for damaging a camera when I left, but was it that one?

Sunrise over Tokyo Bay (2007
The point is, I felt like I'd missed tons of great photo opportunities. On my Flickr, there are little snatches here and there, where my Minolta deigned to work for a little while, someone else took a photo at the same time, or I used the remarkably powerful camera on my phone - but for most situations, I have either very few, or no, photos of some potentially astonishing scenes. I visited temples across Kyoto, climbed Mt. Takao, watched the first sunrise of 2007 over Tokyo Bay from a skyscraper in Odaiba, explored the Fuji Five Lakes in Yamanashi (well, a couple of them), attended a Dir en grey gig, went to live house after live house to see bands like Quaff and Gebiru... and that doesn't include just the general, day-to-day stuff that I'd have liked to have kept, hanging around on campus with my fellow foreigners, exploring Tokyo, or going drinking with the so-called 'Circle of Corn' (a collection of graduates, musicians and 'creative types' who gathered to share ghost stories. And alcohol).

Susukino, Sapporo (2011)
With my Ixy in hand, I populated my Flickr with shots of Tokyo and Sapporo, as well as bits and pieces from back in the UK. I've always enjoyed photography, both for a kind of artistic sake, and for just cataloguing the things that happen to me. I love being able to show people something I've experienced and ask, "So, what do you think?" It's the same reason I blog about the games I play and the books I read: I'm interested in other peoples' interpretations of the same experience. The stuff on my photostream is kind of split between the two camps - things I want to just record, which may not exactly be the best photo ever taken, and things I want to share because I hope it's actually a good photograph. One thing that has always hampered my exploits, though, is taking photos in low-light. That, and wanting to play around with things like depth of field and length of exposure, made me want to get a DSLR. Perspicacity has one, an older Canon, that intrigued me... and also put me off, due to appearing both complex and temperamental, often refusing to shoot for no obvious reason (I'm sure a real DSLR user could explain the problem to me, but it's currently beyond my reckoning).

Canon Kiss X5 (600D/T3i)
The urge to pick one up grew when I realised, hey, I've only got about six more months in Japan. I'm sure I can find uses for a DSLR in the UK (or on future travels), but what better time to get one than now? I started mulling over different options, focusing on the kind of 'high low end'. I have neither the money nor the madness to get a pro camera, but I didn't want to get in at the bottom rung and then eventually spend more if and when I decided to upgrade. My choices revolved around Canon's 60D and 600D, and Nikon's D7000 and... D... something. I forget (Spoiler: I didn't get that Nikon). Ultimately I leant towards the Canons: I liked the viewfinder just a little more, they're somewhat cheaper than their Nikon counterparts, and as mentioned above, I already have a Canon digital camera so I felt like I knew what I was getting into. I decided to head out into Ikebukuro and purchase a Canon 60D.


This being Japan, I should have realised it wouldn't be as simple as going into the store and buying one, no doubt handing over great handfuls of notes (that cash-based economy thing again: I'm fairly sure Bic Camera, a large electronics chain here, takes Visa, but not Mastercard. Why? Who knows. Maybe they actually do, but neglect to display the logo to state that they do). My initial visit to the Bic Camera Camera Branch (not a typo: Ikebukuro has several stores, as that Wikipedia link will attest, including one that only sells cameras and camera accessories. There's a whole floor devoted to tripods, laid out in a weird little Krummholz forest, with jungle sounds playing over the speakers) did not go so well. I said, "My good sir, I would like to purchase one of your Canon 60Ds." The sales assistant replied, "We don't have any." I looked around, checking I was in fact in the Camera Branch and staring at the display model. "If you order one now, it will take about two months to arrive from the factory," he added helpfully. Perplexed and frustrated, for he'd babbled on almost incomprehensibly in fawning but impossible-to-understand Japanese, I left Bic Camera and wandered over to their competitor, LABI1, which I think is part of Yamada Denki. I've just attempted to quickly wiki the facts and come up mildly confused - it's not really important, though (though it does suggest I've been calling it "LAB1" in error). What matters is that I walked in, went to the camera section, and proceeded to have a pleasant and productive chat with the sales assistant who explained - in perfectly crisp, clear Japanese - that due to the March 11th earthquake, camera production had basically stopped. I believe he said that the issue was the sensors, but I can't confirm that. A lot of other high-tech production has been affected by the Tohoku quake, so once he explained the situation, I wasn't surprised. Bravo to Yamada Denki for having competent, verbose staff (boo to Bic Camera for having babbling morons, and people who can't work out how to put things into carrier bags. No, really). I tried a few other stores, but it was the same story across Tokyo: everyone was out of stock when it came to DSLRs.

The view from my apartment, tilt-shifted using the 600D's creative filters
Somewhat stumped, I turned back to, and looked at my options again. Eventually, I decided to get the slightly lesser Canon 600D (or as it's known here, the Kiss X5. In America, the Rebel T3i. See what I mean about Canon's naming conventions?). I say lesser, but now that I actually have the thing - and comparing a lot of the literature, since I was handed half a dozen brochures by LABI1 staff - the major differences between the 60D and the 600D appear to be in controls not in abilities. The 60D can shoot continuously for a bit longer, but that seems to be one of the few practical differences. So far, I've been extremely happy with my new companion.

Higher Vantage Points

Sunshine 60
Since getting the X5, I've been constantly looking for things to take photos of. My Flickr is once again filling up with photos, but this time in the sense of 'Will this look good with a DSLR?' After a disappointing visit to Gokokuji Temple, I went up the Sunshine 60, the monolithic skyscraper crowning the Sunshine City mall that replaces Sugamo Prison. You know, the one where they hung the war criminals they didn't just release. It's worth mentioning that I'm not a big fan of heights, so a serious problem with any photography from the observation deck might be ridiculously shaky hands. Fortunately, the Canon do seem to have rather good image stabilisation technology - far better in the DSLR than they ever managed in my increasingly venerable Ixy, at least.

The Tokyo Sky Tree
Ikebukuro Station
I had debated whether or not to get the 'Double Zoom Kit' when I bought my X5. I'm glad I did; it came with a telephoto lens that, for someone who is used to using a basic digital camera, is mind-blowing. About half the shots in this set, from the 60's observation deck, were taken using that longer range lens. I've also been going mad with the 'creative filters' on it. I love tilt-shifted photography, where a forced perspective is used to make everything appear miniatured, like a model. I first saw it used in this Uniqlo campaign (which I could frankly stare at for hours, as it also has music by Fantastic Plastic Machine). I've already got a set that I can see growing considerably as I find more things to miniaturise.

And, having braved the 60th floor of the Sunshine 60, I'm hoping to visit a few other observation decks around Tokyo - maybe get some photos of the city at night, or even just the city when it isn't bathed in grey twilight.

Forthcoming Holidays

I had hoped to spin this month out very cleverly: work during the Golden Week holiday, then take some time off at the end of May, fat upon my earnings. Well, it didn't quite work out that way, because hardly any clients came in, but I'm still planning on taking time off. June is going to be. When my May paycheck comes in at the end of June, July is going to be lean. Tomorrow, I'm heading to Yokohama for the day, then I've got a couple of days of work - assuming the office ceases jerking me around, but that might be a story for another post - and then about two weeks of freedom. I haven't decided if I'm going to try going anywhere or just chill out in the apartment, trying to clear up all the kipple before the summer really hits and I can't be bothered keeping things tidy. I'm also hoping to finish editing a short story before submitting it to the great wide world of magazine publishing, read more William Gibson, play some backlogged videogames (Fallout: New Vegas, I'm looking at you) and some new ones (Crysis 2 and LA Noire). I've also got Max Payne 2 to finish and review, as well as the latest issues of Analog and Asimov's - I've finished the July Asimov's, which was sadly not all that great (though I did love Paul Cornell's The Copenhagen Interpretation), and am reading Analog now.

Next time I'll probably be either putting up a new review, or talking about Yokohama. Or the weather, since a huge thunderstorm exploded over Tokyo as I was preparing this blog.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

An Asimov's Review Special: Enter a Future

Later this month – or at least, when I finish reading them – I will be reviewing the July issues of Asimov’s and Analog. Before then, though, I’ve got a kind of special edition: Enter A Future: Fantastic Tales from Asimov's Science Fiction. It’s apparently Asimov’s first Kindle-based collection, and as such, the introductory commentary notes that unlike physical collections, it isn’t limited by page counts or forced to choose stories that fit the structure. It also means it has a hilariously bad cover that looks like it was automatically generated using Calibre, the ebook managing software I use to shift things on and off my Kindle. Back to that talk of structure, though: Enter a Future is chock full of novellas, novelettes and short stories. The editor, Sheila Williams, notes that unlike some collections – which have to be pruned due to the above limitations, forcing her to choose a short story over a novella, or forcing her to leave it out altogether – everything included here is exactly what she wanted. Most of the stories are from the mid-2000s, with a couple of slight outliers and Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another from 1989 that gives the collection its name.

Fantastic Tales Indeed

The resultant collection is mostly very, very good. There are a couple of stories that I just didn’t take to, but the majority are either good or in one or two cases excellent. Like the first issue of Asimov’s that I read, that featured Mary Robinette Kowal’s Kiss Me Twice, I would argue that the presence of Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moon’s Blues and A Billion Eves alone are worth reading the whole thing for. That there are a couple of other worthwhile stories is only icing on the cake.

As with my other reviews of short fiction, I’m not going to delve too deeply into each story. I still feel that much of the point of a lot of these stories is actually in the reading, in discovering what exactly it is – crudely, what gimmick, or what hook – that the story is designed around. With that in mind, let’s break things down.

After the introduction – which accurately notes several of the stories revolve around alternate histories or historical figures – we jump right in with a story about a historical figure. I won’t say who, although I think the introduction might actually have spoilt it anyway, and at any rate I’d never actually heard of the person – which is a shame, because Connie Willis’ Inside Job makes them sound fascinating. It has to be said that this first tale seems to really push the boundaries of what exactly ‘counts’ as science fiction. It is certainly worlds apart from the interplanetary stories found later in the collection, focusing on a pair of professional sceptics who investigate and debunk the lies, stage shows and general flim-flam of psychics, séances and other scam artists. There’s quite a bit of comedy here, and some history, and a less pleasant undercurrent of awkward romance, but the pay-off is an amusing insight into a particularly strange case.

Next is The Days Between by Allen M. Steele. I really wanted to like this one, and large portions of it are likeable, but where it goes in the final stages baffled me. Backtracking, though, you’re immediately introduced to a character aboard an interstellar ship – the first of its kind, headed out into the void beyond our solar system. The character should be spending the journey asleep in stasis, but he has been woken up. Why – and what happens afterwards – is a mystery I’ll leave to the story to tell, but the time he spends aboard the ship is variably fascinating, haunting, and melancholy. Then things – well, his time-killing solution is dealt with in a surreal fashion that I just couldn’t get behind.

The third story is Shoes-to-Run by Sara Genge, a post-apocalyptic coming of age tale meshed with gender – and gender identity – issues on the outskirts of a future Paris. Shorter than many of the other stories in the collection, it’s just long enough to paint a sufficient picture, and after some initial apprehension I got quite into it. I do enjoy it when technology, civilisation or science fiction is viewed through the eyes of ‘less advanced’ characters. It’s not quite attributing the world and its technology to strange gods or magic – Shaman aside – but its still an interesting viewpoint.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Recovering Apollo 8 is up next, which is interesting because I just finished reading one of her more recent stories in the latest Asimov’s. One of the alternative histories within the collection, Recovering Apollo 8 is a fascinating and peculiar look into one man’s obsession over the course of decades. In addition to the story itself being quite compelling – though a little flawed at times – it’s also interesting because, by wit of both its alternately historical beginnings and the time of its writing, it’s a look at not just an alternate past but an alternate present and future. Like the viewpoint in Shoes-to-Run, I also enjoy reading alternative takes on ‘now’, comparing what someone might have realistically expected to see – even if it is a present altered by decisions made in a fictional past.

In my opinion, the second or third best story in the collection – vying with it for the top three spots are A Billion Eves and Second Person, Present Tense – is the astonishingly different Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moon’s Blues by Gord Sellar. Also in my humble opinion is why this represents something perfect for short fiction. It’s an idea and a style that, carried into a longer work, might have failed. Here, though, is a look at another alternate history, an alternate post-Second World War with a heavy alien influence. The world presented is insane, as are the aliens themselves, and the first person narration from the jazz playing main character is pitch perfect as he journeys through it and with them. There’s a lot about jazz, here, and I can only assume Sellar is a fan, aficionado, or a musician himself. Maybe not, maybe he’s just got a very good imagination and a real jazz enthusiast would find endless details to pick apart here, but I loved this one.

On the other hand, I didn’t love Breeze from the Stars from Mary Rosenblum. It’s not that it’s bad, exactly, it just didn’t capture me. I didn’t like the central conceit, I didn’t find the future contained within it sufficiently compelling, and ultimately I found the clash between the world-building necessary to create the story and the sudden introduction of an antagonist to give it plot completely jarring. On the other hand, it did give me cause to look up Ophiucus, a so-called thirteenth star sign, where I learned to my dismay but not shock that it apparently has quite a following in Japan. You know, along with believing blood types define your personality. It’s been done before, but one day I may write a post about that particular madness.

After Breeze comes Safeguard by Nancy Kress. Somewhat disturbing and intriguing, Safeguard seems to be much more near future than far-flung scifi, looking at how the United States deals with a lingering biological weapon and a small collection of abnormal children. Like Shoes-to-Run, much of it is from the perspective of those children, and being given clues on how to decipher how the world is arranged from their vantage point is handled very well. Perhaps most interesting to me, after I’d finished with it, was speculating on exactly who – or what country – the US had been at war with. Or if that even matters.

The clear winner, for me, is A Billion Eves by Robert Reed. I have to admit a certain degree of surprise, looking back on the table of contents currently open on my Kindle as I refresh my memory as to titles, names and sequencing, that Eves was written by a male writer. It’s one of the longest stories in the collection, and in some ways feels the most complete. Everything you want from it can be found within its electronic pages. Nothing feels like it has been omitted for the benefit of a word count, or glossed over because there simply wasn’t time. It’s also the story that’s most difficult to explain without giving away huge chunks of the plot – which is a little odd, given that it’s usually the much shorter stories that suffer from that – but suffice it to say that gradually unfolding the manner in which this world has been created is well worth the effort of going in blind. Did I mention that A Billion Eves is also utterly horrifying, perhaps representing the darkest version of humanity and its creations found in any of these tales? Well, it is.

Perhaps as a palette cleanser after Eves has sufficiently blown your mind, the penultimate story is one of the collection’s shortest, sandwiched between two weightier texts. Second Person, Present Tense by Daryl Gregory does clever things with language and narrative – as its title might suggest – in order to tell a story all about consciousness and the nature of identity or the self that is in some ways as disturbing in its implications as Eves was in its world-building. It also has, perhaps, one of the most likeable protagonists.

The final story is the one that gave the collection its title, and the one that the editor, Williams, had to fight to bring in. First appearing in 1989, it predated the electronic submissions that the digital collection was supposed to rely upon, and had to be reacquired from the author himself. So, was it worth the effort, and does it deserve to be the centrepiece of the collection? As I mentioned, I think Eves is stronger, and there are other titles like Lester Young’s and Second Person, Present Tense that for me worked better. Having said that, Robert Silverberg’s Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another is both an interesting idea and a good way to close out the collection. It follows an attempt to simulate a mind from another era, an artificial intelligence based on historical figures, by feeding in all kinds of data and letting the computer do the rest. There’s a vague, almost supernatural suggestion that there’s a little more going on than can be explained by mere software, which didn’t quite sit with me, but what follows is a meeting of the minds between two disparate figures – one of whom is an extremely interesting choice, not least because I never figure him for a soldier, and I imagine most don’t either – separated by centuries of history. As an aside, since it doesn’t impact heavily upon the story, it’s again intriguing to see a kind of alternate future at play. Harking back to an era when the Soviet Union still existed, it’s interesting seeing the little touches and references that suggest a very different world from the one that has actually come about.

Getting Your Feet Wet

While not every story in the collection is some astounding piece of science fiction – after all, though it may be the first digital collection, Asimov’s has released plenty of traditional ones over the years, and one might worry the landscape is becoming a little barren for un-collected works – the majority are good, and some are great. Of course, someone else’s opinions on the works within might differ greatly, and you might find you love all the stories – or none of them. It’s definitely a good way to get a taste of what Asimov’s publishes, though, especially if you’re wanting to get hold of some longer stories. The average issue only contains a couple of stories over 10,000 or so words, whereas almost everything found here is much longer. On the other hand, if you really do just want a taste of Asimov’s then it might be worth remembering that you can get a free trial of it through the Kindle, and the monthly subscription is only £1.99 or something hilariously cheap, so it might be better to try that first instead of springing for the collection right away. Of course, then you risk happening upon a particularly boring issue, instead of the pick of the litter in Enter a Future…

A Crysis Doubleheader

Continuing a recent spate of playing games that feature in Steam’s frequent sales – seriously, Valve are engaged in a long-term dissolution of my finances, three or four dollars at a time – after I wrapped up playing Max Payne I turned my attentions to Crysis, and its (sort of) stand-alone expansion, Crysis: Warhead. I also picked up the second Payne, so I think I’ll do a sort of joint retrospective on those later, but for now I’m going to talk about Crytek and their weaponized graphics.

Also, Microsoft Word doesn’t recognise weaponized*. What is the world coming to.

Abnormally Good Visuals

Any discussion of the Crysis series can’t really go without talking about the graphics. Back when it was released in 2007, I more or less completely ignored the game because there was simply no way my computer at the time could run it. I remember trying the demo and watching my desktop, that I had pieced together from across Akihabara, chug along with an unplayable framerate. It seemed like it might have been an interesting game, continuing the style of wide open gameplay seen in Crytek’s earlier Far Cry, stomping through a tropical paradise and shooting at guys with preternatural aim. It’s now four years later, and it turns out that my reasonably new laptop – not one really built for gaming, but that’s dealt reasonably well with things like Starcraft 2 – can run it. It can even run it mostly set to High, though I ended up toning down the motion blur, water effects, and shadows to get a smoother framerate. Even with those mildly reduced settings, the graphics are just… ridiculous. It’s obscene. It’s just far too good.

Now, generally speaking, I don’t like to put too much store in graphics. I kind of consider them the same way I consider art in comics: good art can make a great comic even better, but bad art will not necessarily ruin a good storyline. Now, Crysis doesn’t exactly have an award-winning storyline, but the gameplay and the events that unfold have enough meat that, when combined with those visuals, is something truly extraordinary. It’s the myriad minor details that really sell it: the leaves falling gently through the jungle, trees being cut down by hails of bullets, water slipping over the visor of your high-tech nanosuit during heavy rain or occasional pratfalls into the nearest river. You can fit your weapons with a variety of attachments like scopes and silencers, but the most amazing thing might be that the holographic reflex sight freezes in low temperatures, becoming almost impossible to use.

When things – is it a spoiler to say that things go crazy, considering Crysis 2 has been released now and is about an alien siege of New York? – anyway, when things go absolutely insane towards the end of the game, the visuals become even more impressive. There’s a sequence inside an alien habitat, floating in zero gravity, drifting along twisting passageways of organic, crystalline nightmares whilst being hunted by electric blue creatures that’s unlike anything I’ve seen in another game. It makes Dead Space 2’s zero gravity sequences seem rather dull in comparison, though I yet to see them in anything other than crappy Japanese SDTV-vision. After that, large portions of the island are flash-frozen to 200 degrees below zero and frost collects on everything, including your own suit. It seems to build up on your visor if you hold still too long to snipe.

The Actual Far Cry 2

A little while ago, Ubisoft released the inexplicable (and inexplicably bad) Far Cry 2. The reason it fails to make any sense is that it has absolutely no relation to the original Far Cry, or even the increasingly bad console ports/adaptations of it. The original Far Cry, whilst no long-lost gem, was about a guy on a tropical island who thinks he’s fighting a bunch of dudes and later discovers that there’s a whole science fiction thing going on that’s completely insane, and quite horrifying, resulting in battles against weird transgenic creatures run amok. Transgenics are wont to do that. Just think Jurassic Park with genetically modified monkeys, and you get the idea. Far Cry 2 on the other was about a dude in a fictional African failed state, hunting an arms dealer through a series of interminable, repetitive missions, with weapons that constantly broke down, perhaps the world’s only hilarious case of malaria, and a tremendously huge map that you would in no way wish to explore. It wasn’t made by the same team, it doesn’t feature the same setting, and aside from a few passing similarities – the use of vehicles, and semi-realistic weaponry – bears zero resemblance to the original.

Crysis on the other hand feels like a kind of spiritual sequel to Far Cry, in that you’re once again thrown at an island full of bad guys only to discover there’s something far, far worse lurking at its heart. Nanosuit aside, the gameplay is almost identical, with you picking your way through large, semi-open world levels towards distant objectives. You can fight over long distances with sniper rifles, take cars, trucks, boats, helicopters and even supremely awesome VTOL aircraft to get about more quickly – although like Far Cry, you’re often stuck alone in the driver’s seat of a multi-passenger vehicle, slightly confused as to why you never have back up to sit in the gunner’s seat or frankly just hang out the side of the vehicle, popping away Halo-style. This brings up an interesting point about the way the game handles its difficulty settings. As far as I can tell, enemies don’t appear to get any tougher – smarter, more dangerous, whatever – on higher settings. The world, however, gets more ‘realistic’. On lower difficulties, enemies are picked out with a kind of augmented reality red highlighting, you have crosshairs when not using iron sights, and the bad guys speak English (instead of Korean). On higher settings, you lose those ‘perks’, as well as the ability to control the mounted guns of vehicles from the driver’s seat – tanks excepted, I think. That means you’ll do a lot more swinging from the wheel to the gunner position, where you can be a lot more accurate, though the mounted guns are always excruciatingly, painfully slow to manoeuvre even if they are quite deadly. Oh, the Korean language thing? Considering I never heard an enemy say anything helpful, like ‘I’ve spotted that guy over by the plants, let’s flank him but shh, don’t tell him’, I’m not sure it’s really ‘harder’. It would’ve been nice if you could simply toggle these various options on and off, really – choosing, say, the more immersive Korean language and lack of driverside gun controls, but maintaining crosshairs and the augmented reality.

Guns, Guns, and More Guns. And Explosives.

Crysis is one of those games that does something that I almost always love: it’s too detailed for its own good. From the aforementioned Korean-speaking opponents to how you can use your nanotechnology-enhanced armour to adjust your abilities, everything seems to have been thought out quite carefully, with lots of little hidden details and consequences. Your suit, for example, has four modes: armour [the default, with which your regenerating energy levels act as a kind of shield, shrugging off bullets and explosions], speed [allowing you to run faster, and sprint much faster – and, I think, reload a little faster too], strength [letting you jump higher, and throw things further] and cloaking [which, you know, makes you invisible]. So, strength? Sure, it lets you jump higher. It also allows you to throw grenades further, punch harder, and aim more steadily, a fact I didn’t actually notice until Warhead politely pointed it out to me. Having mentioned all this, though, it’s worth noting that the commands to switch between modes are not exactly easy to use on the fly – it’s possible, for instance, to abruptly switch between speed and strength to give yourself a hell of a run up and a bounding leap, but seems almost impossible to actually pull off.

The weaponry is the other aspect of that ‘too much detail’ area. There are a lot of guns, and almost all of them can be customised in some way. As you pick up the enemy’s leftovers, you acquire various scopes and other add-ons. For much of the game, I was using a slightly futuristic version of an AK-101 fitted with a silencer, laser aiming module, underbarrel grenade launcher and an adjustable scope. There’re also a tranquiliser dart launching add-on, holographic sights, shorter range scopes, and attachable flashlights. Most of the weaponry feels useful, too, although some of it only comes into its own towards the end of the game when you encounter the ‘real’ opponents – things like the slow-firing but extremely powerful magnetically accelerated gauss rifle suddenly find far more purpose when you’re not just shooting North Koreans who fall to a handful of bullets, though surprisingly it was actually the shotgun that I found myself relying on to take out the new ground forces. Like many of the weapons, you can hit a key to switch between firing modes – for most rifles, this means between single shot and full auto, but on the shotgun it (inexplicably) shifts between a wide spread of buckshot or a more narrow cone. For squid huntin’. The only gun I never really had any time for was the default rifle, whose ammunition is somewhat scarce and that seems somewhat less powerful than the NK’s main gun. I ditched it and started carrying the AK-wannabe and a sniper rifle instead, until bigger and better toys started showing up.

My Talking Props

Where Crysis falls down is in two areas: firstly, the voice acting and/or dialogue is… not great. Though there are some outliers, positively and negatively, it just never manages to be much more than a B-movie analogue, slogging its way from start to finish with a band of clichéd heroes and villains. There’s the quiet (though not actually mute) hero, who like the rest of his squad goes by a callsign, in his case Nomad. The gung-ho, “I told you what you needed to know!” leader of the squad, Prophet, and the baffling presence of British SAS man Psycho, who initially comes across as truly grating but by the end is sort of likeable. He does, after all, call a North Korean villain a muppet. Repeatedly. There are mad scientists, heroic daughters of mad scientists, set-in-their-ways commanding officers, even madder North Koreans, and a cavalcade of stereotypes who get killed off quite quickly in a slightly misguided attempt to up the tension – everyone from other squadmembers, who have names like Aztec (he’s Central American!) and Jester (he’s funny!) to the stalwart men and, well, men of the United States' armed forces. Besides Helena, and the disembodied voice of Emerson in Warhead, there are no women in Crysis. And everyone delivers their lines like they were prepping for a Starship Troopers sequel.

The second problem is the plot itself. Populated by the above characters, you might guess it’s not very good. Well, it is kind of good. It’s not original, but what Crytek does with it is pretty interesting anyway, and what they do with it visually is amazing. It doesn’t matter that you’ve seen quote-unquote archaeologists uncovering the ruins of a technologically advanced civilisation that turns out to be something more before, you haven’t seen it like this. When things really hit the fan, and the reality of what is happening unfolds, things get kicked up to a seriously intense level with a massive fallback operation against a completely overwhelming foe – all while a completely impossible ice storm and whorls of tornadoes bear down on the retreating US military. There are last stands, heroic sacrifices, and everything else you’d expect, but it’s all done with aplomb and unmatched – well, if it was a movie, you’d say cinematography, but it’s not. It’s just unmatched graphics.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. The game’s final act is a huge let down. The initial fights against your new foe are great, but you’re eventually shuttled into a confrontation with a series of boss-type enemies that don’t really fit with the rest of the gameplay – you’re just wailing on them with whatever weaponry you can scrounge up by that point. Worse, after defeating the boss of bosses, you’re treated to an ending worthy of stealing Halo 2’s crown for worst cliffhanger. And, like Halo 3, it doesn’t seem that Crysis 2 is necessarily going to tell the story of what happens next – merely what happens after.

In the end, the souring finale shouldn’t be enough to put you off the rest of the game. It’s almost worth playing for the visual rush alone, especially when you finally reach the heart of the island and everything inside it, but the combat is also a gratifyingly well made experience. It’s easy to dismiss the game as little more than a tech demo, but actually fighting your way through its jungles, habitats, icescapes and aircraft carriers is as rewarding as any good shooter should be.

Warhead, or: How I Learned to Love the Limey

So, about that other game. Crysis: Warhead is the stand alone expansion to the original. It takes place during the same time period, following Psycho – the abrasive SAS guy mentioned above – in between his major appearances in Crysis itself. You spend most of the plot following two things: a North Korean major, and a container full of something the US military wants to get its hands on. Clocking in at a blisteringly short four hours, it’s less than half the length of Crysis, but considering it’s available off Steam for like $7 dollars or something I can’t really complain. What you get is a slightly refined version of Crysis. There are some new weapons, like a revolving grenade launcher, claymores and anti-tank mines, and a replacement for the pistol based on the H&K MP7 that can be dual-wielded. There are also at least two new vehicles, including a hovercraft you get to use during one brief sequence, and a sort of armoured personal carrier-type thing with either a mounted minigun or autocannon that’s pretty devastating.

Unlike Crysis, which unfolded with a sense of wonder and openness, Warhead always feels a lot more traditional. You’re shepherded from one set piece to the next: hurtling along jungle roads in a commandeered jeep, assaulting an NK harbour with VTOL air support overhead, racing across the freshly frozen island on a hovercraft in pursuit of another hovercraft, working with a second team of nanosuit-soldiers, fighting through a mine, and my personal favourite, hounding an automated train through jungles and swamps. A lot more of the game takes place in the winter wonderland that you only experience briefly in Crysis itself, and you also get to see a lot more of other nano-soldiers in action, creating some new combat dynamics.

A couple of tweaks leave a bit to be desired, though – the difficulty settings still reflect minor changes in ‘realism’ or automation, and on most settings picking up ammunition has been made automatic rather than forcing you to look at a weapon and grab it. Whilst often handy, it does make it harder to acquire the extra gadgets you need to improve your load out. If your ammunition is full, it won’t let you pick up a gun any more just to steal its scope or whathaveyou. It also seems like some of the enemies have been rebalanced, and you face them in very different numbers, making a once implacable threat seem a bit more manageable – nothing too devastating to the atmosphere, but nevertheless noticeable. As Psycho, you start wondering what exactly Nomad’s problem was.

It’s a neat enough side story, and there are some character moments that actually build up Psycho into a person rather than a blank FPS guy, but it doesn’t really advance anything. You do get a different perspective on the events unfolding during Crysis, though, and once again, some of those visuals are ridiculous – especially during the final battles across a ravaged airfield. If you’re going to spring the seven bucks for Crysis, you may as well part with a few more for Warhead.

*It turns out that there doesn't appear to be such a word as weaponised, with a British S, only weaponized, with an American Z. Unfortunately, neither Blogger nor Word recognises that, either.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Cashless? Not Quite

A Suica Card
In my previous post, I mentioned how Japan is a heavily cash-based economy. In this BBC News article, the author lays out a description of a cash­less Japan. It’s a slight difference, and I thought it bore some elucidation. Yes, smart cards and phones with similar (and even better) technology are fairly ubiquitous in Japan. Since my first stay in Japan back in 2006, I’ve been using the same Suica smart card (Exhibit A, to the right - apologies for the strange rotation but Blogger is refusing to cooperate) to get around Tokyo’s train and rail network, and occasionally buy things from convenience stores or vending machines that have associated readers. The card stays active for several years after last use, so I’ve been using the original, now rather battered card over a couple of holidays and this most recent stint.

While things are changing, though, it seems like a big stretch to suggest Japan has suddenly gone cashless. I think there’s definitely a trend towards electronic wallets, using the ‘near field communication’ the article describes (incidentally, not a term I’ve ever heard before, but one that sounds awesome. Mostly the Japanese talk about IC, or integrated circuit, cards – it’s where the SuICa name comes from – but I’m not sure how they describe what’s in a phone). A lot of the things I do on a daily basis appear to either require cash, or at least, I’ve never seen anyone using an alternative. While some vending machines* have touch panels for Suica or other cards, and phones with e-wallets, vast numbers of them still need coins. Going into a Yoshinoya, a native fast-food chain, I always pay with cash, and I’ve never seen anyone do otherwise. A lot of people still buy regular train tickets, though I think things may be leaning further and further in the direction of smart cards – at least in Tokyo. After all, it was only relatively recently that both Suica and the city’s other major card, Pasmo, were integrated and their use became interchangeable (there’s a third card, for the Tokyo Metro, but it has never seemed to have much fanfare – but it may just be that I rarely take the Metro where it’s heavily advertised). Likewise, Japan Rail’s other networks – Tokyo is serviced by JR East – are in the process of making their other cards interchangeable too. For example, when I visited Sapporo this February, the local card was the Kitaca, or ‘north card’. There were signs announcing that very soon it would be interchangeable with the Suica and others, but not yet.

In fact, Sapporo, like Tokyo, seemed to have multiple, competing smart cards and other travel solutions. I spent a lot of time using a strange, multiple-use subway ticket that had a glossy foil panel telling me how much fare was left on it, reprinted every time it went through a ticket machine. As in many other ways, Sapporo seemed to be slightly behind the Tokyo curve, with those transportation options being just one part of the issue. Not that I’m complaining, by the way: I think Sapporo is infinitely superior to Tokyo, and not least because it has human temperatures, friendlier people, and better food. It also has giant animatronic crabs.
Biggest crab you ever saw? Check the top of the building
The article focuses a little on Kyoto, one of the two major cities in western Japan and a massive tourist attraction. Given the Japanese impression of it, I’m fairly sure they visit it far more often and in greater numbers than any foreign tourists, so it’s no surprise that they’re integrating the cutting edge when it comes to augmented reality applications for tourist info, near field communication for payment, and so on. Get outside of the big cities, though, and I wouldn’t be shocked to discover such future comforts fall away fast. Maybe this is a bit of a given, but I think it bears mentioning: what happens in Tokyo, Kyoto, and maybe Osaka is in no way representative of the rest of Japan, even major cities like Sapporo. Even in Tokyo, it doesn’t take much to get out of the hub cities that have all kinds of futuristic conveniences and find yourself in an old, traditional shop with no modern technology. My local supermarket, in Ikebukuro, doesn’t seem to have any card or phone based payment options – but it does have the kind of cash register that’s very common here, that automatically counts notes and coins and spits out the right change, which is then handed over with exacting ritual.

As I keep saying, Japan really doesn’t support credit and debit cards very well. I think they’re only now becoming more widely acceptable due to foreign influences and tourists bringing them in. Back in 2006/7, I was with a Japanese bank, and was issued with a debit card and a bank book. Said bank book was a sort of quasi-digital thing, capable of being inserted into ATMs for transactions and account histories and so on. Like a lot of things in Japan, it was a strange solution to a problem most places have bypassed. Why have a high-tech bank book when you can just have online banking? This time I’m actually with a foreign bank operating in Japan and don’t even have a debit card – I just have an ATM card, that can only be used to withdraw cash. It’s incapable of making payments. It bears mentioning that the banking system in Japan is peculiar and ancient, with myriad incompatibilities between domestic banks as well as between domestic and international banking. When gearing up to move out here again, I was repeatedly met with comments from my aforementioned, very international bank that, well, Japan was just weird. Transferring money out here is difficult and expensive, and even transferring money around in country can prove costly and time-consuming. It’s no small wonder that more and more things are leaning towards e-wallets and similar devices, then, when other methods are so backwards.

Moving on, I wanted to quickly talk about the SKiP program ANA is talked about running. I have a kind of first-hand experience of this system, having flown ANA to Sapporo, and the thing is… you don’t need it. I’m sure it’s incredibly convenient, if you have it, but the fact is I turned up at the airport without even having printed my ticket and I progressed no faster than anyone using the SKiP program would have. Japan’s domestic air travel is just very well-organised and fairly bullshit free, at least from outbound from Narita, though I recall returning from New Chitose near Sapporo was a bit more problematic if only because I’d acquired too much baggage (it was mainly beer glasses). There’s little waiting, and I didn’t even have to show any ID – passport included. I highly recommend it, as it’s also highly competitively priced when compared to Japan’s trains, which are basically priced per kilometre and hard or impossible to discount.

There’s also the capsule hotel mentioned. Any long term Japanophile is likely to have heard of capsule hotels; they’re nothing new – William Gibson references them in 1983’s Neuromancer. Cheap boxes to sleep in overnight, probably having missed the last train. The general impression I get from people is that, while they’re pretty novel, they’re definitely not upscale. More a safe box to doze the night out in, and one that’s generally unavailable if you’re female or tattooed. The 9h discussed sounds quite like the opposite of that, and perhaps worth checking out, especially as the price – at 4,000 yen – doesn’t seem that much higher than the local, decidedly suspect hotel at Otsuka that costs about 2,500 yen. At least the 9h sounds less cyberpunk and more Fifth Element.

Lastly, the article notes that the phones you can rent in the airport don’t support a lot of this stuff. The same goes for basic prepaid phones like the one I have, and the one a lot of foreigners are going to have if they can’t persuade the phone companies otherwise. It seems that foreigners have gained an increasingly bad rep over the last few years in terms of bailing out on expensive contracts, taking their extremely expensive, high-end phones back to their home countries for a pittance. As such, it’s hard as hell to get a phone company to let you sign up for a contract, requiring things like proof your visa covers the required duration (which can be a pain if, say, you want a high-end phone and your initial work visa only lasts one year, but the contract is for two, and so on – you’re almost shit out of luck if you’re on a working holiday visa, though there are ways). These prepaids aren’t just for foreigners though, at least not in the usual ‘western gaijin’ terms. I’ve seen a lot of builders and other labourers with them. It’s possible they’re foreigners, from Asia, but given they’re a much cheaper option I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d become popular. The phone has a few features that aren’t even available to a prepaid user, like internet access, indicating that it’s an inexpensive phone that might be available on a cheap contract to visitors who are less short term. Another spanner in the works is the amazing prevalence of the iPhone here – as the article notes, western smartphones lack of a lot of these high-end Japanese features, but that hasn’t stopped the iPhone being incredibly popular. Other Japanese mobile companies are bringing out their own iPhone competitors now, Samsung being a major manufacturer (despite being Korean), but I’m not sure if they’ll have e-wallets and near field communication if they’re global models. If such models continue to gain popularity, usurping the higher-tech local devices, it could really postpone truly widespread adoption of wireless cash.

*Vending Machines

Okay, one more small rant – Japanese vending machines. It’s apparently one of Perspicacity’s pet peeves that they’re described in the article as ‘ubiquitous’. I kind of see the point. The thing is, Japanese vending machines are everywhere, but they only sell drinks. Yes, there are all kinds of novelty or gimmicky machines that sell weird crap, but even machines selling food are extremely rare and usually only found in offices or stations. Maybe this is something else that varies with city, like maybe Osaka is stuffed full of takoyaki vendors or something, but in Tokyo you get drinks. Hot drinks, cold drinks, occasionally weird jelly drinks – but drinks. Okay, drinks and cigarettes, but in the last few years they made it harder to buy cigarettes from them – you need what they call a Taspo card to prove you’re of age (20 years old, here).

Oh – you don’t need a similar card to buy beer, though. Apparently they’ve really scaled back the number of alcoholic vending machines, but they’re still around, and I’ve been known to pick up a can on the walk back from work. The machine sits in front of an off-licence type place in a nice, quiet residential area, free of both yobs and salarymen who don’t know their limits. Now that’s the kind of thing I find incomparable to England.