Sunday, June 30, 2013

My Thoughts on "Spec Ops: The Line"

            "Spec Ops: The Line" is a video game I had 70% spoiled before I played it, I knew there were going to be instances in which I would face a hard decision and then another, and nothing gets better from that point on.  I heard about the symbolism and the complex nature of the problem.  I heard about depth and how the game goes meta, changing how the player visualizes and experiences what is going on.

Spoilers for this game are sort of everywhere online.
            The art looks good.  Each character suffers degrade from the injuries they have taken, making the damage done to you and the crew very visible reminders of the violence done to an by the player.  The music is classic and evokes that anti-war protest tradition that was not as popular in its heyday as the country has been lead to believe.

            I typically do not play shooters, I know when the controls are a little too loose but while I have been told that "Spec Ops" is not an ideal shooter gameplay experience I liked it a lot, there are very few points in which I felt the gameplay was too difficult or sticky for what I had to work with.  I like that the ammo was not pouring out of every vending machine and that the limited weapon selection meant that I had to work on my aim a bit, a big departure from "Saints Row the Third" which had me spraying bullets like mad to take down any one target.

            Overall this game really delivered, while the gameplay is fun I really appreciated the dark subject matter and the condemnation of war and the glorification of war that has become so prevalent in our culture.  Violence has weight.  Violence has visible effect.  Shit goes down.

            If you haven't played this and you have any disposition to play a violent game that ridicules violent games it is shockingly cheap to pick up and well worth the time to play.  I would go so far as to make sure you play it first, then watch the videos I linked to in my first paragraph to make sure you get everything you can out of it.
Also, gorgeous setting in Dubai.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

My Thoughts on "Superman vs. The Elite"

            This is a fun movie with a clever philosophy clash that elevates it above most action pieces.  In it Superman is confronted by a team of young superheroes who grew up idolizing him.  At first Superman works with them, helping to lead and educate them on how to handle disastrous situations.  After several encounters a difference of methodology begins to take shape.  Superman, being them most powerful hero on Earth does not kill human opponents, he does not think he has the moral authority to do so being that he is an alien at that if he did, then he would just be a tyrant rather than a good Samaritan.  The Elite do not have such restrictions on themselves.  They see terrorists and dictators and violent criminals as targets for violent dispatching.  When the Elite begin pushing this further and further Superman tries to stop them and ends up in a full on showdown.

The movie is based on this comic from the 90's, which in turn was written as a reaction to the very adult "The Authority"
            This is one of the best Bruce Timm animated productions made since the end of the Justice League series, the animation has a modified style, the characters each have their own look and distinct abilities allowing for very diverse and easy to follow action.  The voice acting hits the same super high standard all of the productions reach, and most importantly it does try to have the discussion of whether might makes right.  And I really think it holds together right up until the final confrontation and the resolution.

            I did not really get what prompted the Elite to have a showdown in Metropolis.  They could have just said, "Superman, we respect you a great deal, and if you want to go on saving lives and averting disasters, please do.  But we are not as powerful as you, we feel we have to get down and dirty in order to force the world to be better.  If you don't agree that is fine, but if you try and stop us, you will actually be helping terrorists and third world dictators to continue their crimes against humanity.  Even if you think our measures are extreme, you should just step aside.  If you think we are about to turn into the monsters that we hunt, then go ahead and stop us, but right now all we have done is taken out permanently those who were definitively and demonstrably evil."

            What spurs the main conflict in the movie is a war between two countries, both of which have been developing super weapons (giant bug monsters and ray guns) instead of developing their countries' infrastructure.  They go to war and the civilian casualties are so horrific Superman steps in to try and halt the violence.  Superman is nearly killed by the highly advanced weapons and the Elite save him by killing a large number of troops (who had it coming, seriously they tried to kill Superman).  The Elite get admonished by Kal-El but then go beyond that, the Elite attack and kill the leadership of both countries and force peaceful capitulation.  Superman is horrified, but the world looks up to the Elite for the actions they took.  Then for no real reason, the Elite and Superman decide to fight each other to prove who is right.

            And, up until they started fighting Superman for no real reason, the Elite were right with what they were doing.  You don't win wars through delaying action and hoping for peace talks, you typically win by inflicting a measure of harm that keeps the other side from continuing, and in this instance neither side could do that without costing millions of people their lives.

            The battle is actually really cool too, they teleport to and from the moon, cars are flying, Superman appears to go crazy and start killing all the Elite.  Truth is Superman was illustrating his point, the whole battle was a big publicity stunt in a way.  Superman had complete control of the situation the whole time, with robots and fail safes so that it could appear that he was killing the Elite and disregarding the safety of the public so he could show the world of a superhero just using his powers to dominate (ruthlessly protect) the world rather than just trying to be helpful.  Unfortunately Superman's reasoning is wrong.

He goes a little nuts.
            Superman ultimately only wins the argument because he is so powerful that he can prove his point without actually killing anybody, and that is a luxury that no one else has.  I understand his reasoning, that in general "might makes right" is a poor philosophy that the Elite are perpetuating, but even Superman has met beings he would willingly kill:  Darksied, Brainiac, and General Zod are all examples of that.  Hell, in Superman/Batman #5 Batman nearly talks Clark into vaporizing Luthor in the Oval Office.  In other words, might makes right is still the philosophy at work, its just a more soft power approach than what the Elite ascribed to.

            There is also another point: Superman takes away the Elite's powers at the end of the movie.  I also very much disagree with Superman taking away the Elite's powers.  There was no trial for their actions.  Superman just decides to take their powers.  That isn't okay by his own logic.  That is the same as the government taking away people's freedom to travel or work certain jobs without trial.

            What is more, the movie kind of knows that Superman is wrong, and goes out of its way to show the Elite as all very Hedonistic loose canons.  One of the team members drinks too much, another is a jealous and temperamental, another is very lusty.  The team leader, Manchester is portrayed very unevenly.  As a child Manchester was homeless and lived with his little sister under a bridge and stole to survive, when one day they are caught by the police and his sister falls into the path of an oncoming train Manchester uses his powers for the first time to stop the train from killing his sister.  The accidental catastrophe which follows is tragic and really informs the character, who lies to Superman telling him what happened, but not that people were killed on the train by the untrained force of Manchester's powers.  In context of trying to save his sister those actions are justifiable, but are shown in the movie as indicative of future villainy, which is really unfair considering he is a child at the time, and probably only told Superman the lie because he was ashamed of what happened.

            So, yeah... Good movie, I liked it alot, but its message gets really foggy toward the end as it continued to shave of the depth and complexity of the argument in favor of a very paternalistic Superman being right because he is so powerful you can't disagree with him.  I give it a 7 out of 10.

(This review was spurned into existence mostly in reaction to this video, by Solkir, on the Agony Booth)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sleeping Medication

            (I wrote this when I first started taking Ambien to help with my lifelong inability to fall asleep in a timely and restful manner, it most definitely changed my life for the better and if you have problems falling asleep go get medication.  Sleep is one of the most important things in your life to finding happiness, productivity, and is itself one of life's great pleasures.  That being said, taking a new drug, even one that is considered kind of 'meh' as far as side effects are concerned I was caught in between a pill helping me want to go to sleep and my natural mindset which vastly prefers sleeping from 4am to noon.  So things got surreal.)
            You want an experience?  Take sleeping pills as prescribed.

            I doubt that this is what stoners think of as "High".  If I had to describe the loopy and sticky world my mind takes affection to manipulating that I would call it "In".  Not "High".  Just "In".

            Your dreams start to appear in flashes around you but the real issue is that your keyboard buttons start to feel like soap, then like scrabble tiles without the charm of once being living wood.

            Vision goes too.  Images goo together then the halos of light that everyone seems the see and doesn't see fit to mention.  Like each person is half of Jacob's Ladder that needs someone to share the coiling (sometimes almost fiery) electrical field that appears between them.  An energy unknown, unseen, and undiscussed.

            When you take sleep medication you are outside your mind, but starting to dream... Just know that when you do decide to go back in, be careful of what follows you back in, those things will follow you the rest of the night. 

            Things with painted faces that speak in clicks.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Thoughts on "Red Dead Redemption", End

(Continued from Part 3...)

Cause Avenging an Asshole is Cathartic
            You are now playing as John's son, who much like the dead uncle is a boring and annoying character who is defined mostly as being a wimp and a fool.  The game fast forwards to him being a weary and angry adult.  John's wife then dies off camera years after John's death, and the Son now goes out for vengeance.
            The Son finds and murders the Government Agent which tasked John with finding the gang.  The government agent who ultimately betrayed and killed John.  Here is the problem: that agent was totally right in what he did and was acting with legal authority.
            The Son is just a murderer, plain and simple.  This is not a good message to go out on.  It is basically saying that Justice is a lie and that violence is the ultimate authority.  If the Son had instead talked with and ultimately forgiven the Agent for doing what he did, in so doing bringing an end to the cycle of violence then the ending would have been more hopeful though sad and hard.  Instead the game wraps on the weakest and darkest of all three possible endings.
Also, the Son is just not as interesting.
Final Thoughts
            I don't really like this game, and by the end felt like I was doing a chore.  It doesn't help that Redemption is incredibly long and linear.  Its length is not in gameplay either but in padded world crossing.  You will ride a horse for hours and hours from one map marker to the next and deciding which to do first or last will have little if any impact on how the story unfolds.  It is spread so wide and thin.
            You have a series of missions which run you across vast empty expanses on a slow moving horse, back and forth.  Once you finish the missions in an area you are shuffled to a new area, in which you go back and forth completing missions, going from place to place on a slow moving horse.  At a point I just wanted to go from mission to mission and finish the game, I dreaded having to cross the Mexican desert AGAIN, for the sake of doing a mission that I thought was stupid to help a group of people I disliked on what seemed like an entirely unnecessary side quest.
            Here is a crazy thought, why didn't they just have three protagonists.  John hunts Bill.  Another guy (there is a perfect candidate for this in the game too, a retired gunfighter who teaches John how to perfect his quick draw technique, an event which happens so far into the game it is insulting) fights the Mexican Revolution.  And a third guy is a government agent (again, there are candidates in the game) fights Dutch and the Indians.  You wouldn't have to shoehorn in John into a bunch of places he has no business being, and he doesn't have to interact with people he has no business suffering.
            I imagine this thought occurred to Rockstar studios, the makers of the game.  Their latest soon to be out game, "Grand Theft Auto V" has three different protagonists in it, with stories that weave in and out of each other.  That sounds like a good fix.

Also driving through a city is just more interesting than riding a horse through a desert.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

My Thoughts on "Red Dead Redemption", pt3

            Anyway, at the end of the Mexican Revolution you capture Javier, kill Bill, and help the revolution win at the expense of itself.  Hooray for John.  You are then told the leader of your gang has shown up and you need to get him if you want to go back to your family.  And this is the part when I started hating John.  The Government officials who are forcing him to do this are completely in the right, and John is a monster.
            John is a mass murderer and criminal.  Regardless of his current motivation and whatever else he has done since his days of younger-man-violence doesn't make up for what he has done.  What is more it isn't just me saying that.  Satan (the literal Satan) tells John as much.  But the government agents are sticks in the mud and douches so you as the player are not supposed to like them.  I guess?
            So you head out to catch the leader of your old gang, Dutch.  You have numerous opportunities to do so, are given hosts of reasons to do so, but for some goddamn reason John doesn't.  John has been shown as able to shoot the wings off a fly but can't bring himself to shoot a mass murderer like Dutch even when Dutch blows an innocent woman's head off in front of John.
            Turns out Dutch is some sort of anarchic primitivist marauder, justifying his violence by allying himself with Indians who had their land taken away.  You are shown to be on the side of assholes when they have John escort and assist a racist, drug abusing, Yale phrenology professor around.  Because civilization is clearly the breeder of limp wristed assholes, not like the frontier, which breed real (murderous) men like John.  This message is stupid, and turns a middle finger up at the player who has grown up in the relative comfort and luxury of civilization.  I resent this.
Mostly because both I, and the game itself are products of this civilization.

            Ultimately the end(s) of the game is unquestionably what I have the most problems with.  After Dutch is dead John is allowed to return to his family.  In an ideal happy ending John would ride up to his house, the camera would pan far back and you would watch him walk into his home and the credits would roll.  The journey would be at an end.  The message being that monsters like John get to live and be happy so long as they are monsters for the civilization they would otherwise be a terror to.  It is a complex and damning message to society that glorifies violence with happy endings.  It keeps going.
            Much like the assault on the Fort in Act I, this ending does not happen.  Instead you meet John's wife, uncle, son, and dog.  You do boring missions like killing birds before they eat your corn, herding cattle, and hunting caribou.  Wonderful.  I will admit that I like the character of the wife.  She is flawed and sassy.  There was some legitimate heart put into the writing and performance of the character.
            Then the next ending happens.  Turns out the government are not going to let John go.  He has killed too many people to not face justice.  An army attacks your farm.  This only adds to the game vs story issues because I have a pardon letter in my inventory which would absolve me of any unlawful murder or massacre I might have committed during the game.  This game mechanic can get me out of a $10,000 bounty for the burning of a nunnery, orphanage, and village of retired veterinarians, but it does not function in this scripted event.
            Anyway... there is a shoot out.  John's uncle dies, I think this is supposed to make you sad, I did not like the character so it got a "meh" from me.  John's wife and son escape on horseback.  And ultimately John is gunned down by about half a million rounds of ammunition.  This is again a section which demands the credits should roll.
            Your character has died.  The message of the game is one of justice unyielding.  You cannot escape the wages of sin.  Second chances won't be earned in a civilized society.  Bit of a downer message but I would have been okay with that.  THEN THE GAME KEEPS GOING.

Also, he's been in worse situations in the game, another scenario in which the story and the gameplay are at odds.
(Continued in the End...)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

My Thoughts on "Red Dead Redemption", pt2

The Dubious Honor of Good Samaritan
            This is also a part of the game that I notice a real flaw in the "player is part of the story".  The game has a moral choice element, when you kill people without reason you earn a reputation of being an asshole, when you help those in need you are seen as the Lone Ranger.  To keep with this there are little adventures you can have, occasionally you will see a guy trying to kidnap/rape/murder a woman, and you can chose to stop them, I frequently do.  There are also things called "Strangers", tiny stories that take you on a short story in the wild west.  I saw the start of a Stranger mission, a guy beating up a woman behind a brothel, so I shot him and instantly failed the mission.  At this point I have shot dozens of men beating up women and have gotten nothing but honor so this was surprising, so I reloaded the mission.
            When I reloaded I walked up and found out she was a prostitute/slave of the guy beating her up.  The pimp/slave-owner offered to sell me her.  I shot him... Cause seriously: fuck that guy.  Instant fail for the mission.  So I reloaded the mission again.
            This time I bought the girl and freed her from slavery so that she could go to a convent and take better care of herself.  I went to check up on her and it turns out she had been kidnapped and then murdered by her former pimp/owner.  I then shot him in a duel, winning the mission.  WHAT?  So, the point of the mission was to fail at saving a girl because you chose to negotiate with a slaver?  That is stupid, I shot him even before I knew what was going on because I judged the situation totally right... but instead of instantly winning the mission I was told, "WRONG" .  I shot him when I knew what was going on, and was reprimanded again.  I shoot him after the girl is dead and somehow VICTORY.  No.  Fail.

You're no player, you're an audience.

Endangered Species
            That was one of the stories in Mexico, but there are other issues, like the hunting mini-games.  You can kill mountain lions or deer in certain parts of the map, or gather plant life, and then sell all that junk to buy bullets (there is a certain area that if you stand around every mountain lion in North America will find you over the course of an hour and each one will nearly kill you).
            At one point I find a Stranger who needs some plants to make a glue and some skins to make a glider wing, I have collected and sold somewhere around 10,000 pelts while playing the game so I go to the general store to buy some pelts to help the glider Stranger out.  NO PELTS FOR SALE.  Why?  I want to buy some pelts, I can't be the only guy selling, so why can't I buy some?  No reason.  The game seems to have wanted a survival mechanism to it, the ability to buy cheap and sell for a profit, the ability to find rare things and make use of them in creative ways, instead it is just a straight up "junk for cash" system.  That isn't all that fun.

10,000 ninjas living in about 4 square miles.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

My Thoughts on "Red Dead Redemption", pt1

            "Red Dead Redemption" is an odd game.  It has glitches which detract, its controls are ass for many situations but can be mastered if you are of the temperament to master video game controls.  Simply put: it is playable.
            BUT, I have some issues with the story.

Once Upon a Time in the West
            You are John Marsden, an ex-criminal who has been found by government men.  You have been taken into custody and your wife and son have been shipped off to somewhere safe.  The government men make you a deal, "Help us catch/kill your old gang and you get to go back to your family.  Refuse to help and we will just hang you for the murders you committed."  Honestly, it is a pretty good deal when you think about it, especially when you consider what would have happened if Django and Schultz had found him first.

            John then gets shot immediately.  Mostly this wound is born of stupidity having approached the situation with all the tactical wit of a drunken Santa Anna.  He is then helped by the kindness of strangers and has to set into motion a posse to take out the psycho who shot him.  And the psycho has a fort and an army.

            The first third of the game is excellent.  Everything builds toward one goal: attacking the fort, and killing Bill, the goon whose reign of terror you have been sent to end.  You meet a series of strong and interesting characters, you talk straight with people, and in the end gather up a collection of lawmen, rogues, and criminals to raid the fort that Bill is hold up in.  If the game had ended with the raid on the fort I would have thought, "That was a very well paced game.  Bit short I guess."  But I would have been happy with the ultimate conclusion.
            It doesn't end there.

Not exactly the Justice League.  But each is good in their own way and they make the Fort siege interesting .
I Have Sand in my Everywhere
            No, instead Bill escapes to Mexico and hook ups with a previously unnamed fellow member of the gang, Javier.  This is clunky.  I had up to this point thought Bill was the only guy I was after, now there is another, and they allude to a third.  I  mostly just roll with it.  They did a good job of building the first act, so I anticipated the second act moving at the same strong clip.

            Then a Mexican Revolution happens, and the pacing turns to molasses.

            I'm not kidding.  John gets dragged into political horse shit in Mexico, a war between a hedonistic governor and a hedonistic revolutionary.  I imagine this was to illustrate the old phrase, "meet the new boss, same as the old boss," but in the end it mostly just had me feeling tired and frustrated.  I just could not understand why John would have gotten involved at all, but he ends up working for both sides and kills more people than the rest of the revolution combined.  John's in game body count must be in triple digits at this point.  And the fact that John has no substantive remorse about this, seeing the end goal of getting his family back as a clear and justifiable goal makes him into an absolute monster when you get down to it.

"But, it's so pretty.  Just look at those graphics."  I am not wowed by graphics.  it I wanted to look at something pretty there are better uses for my eyes.

Continued in Part 2...