Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Comes in Threes

Dropships suck. I can’t decide whether it’s the cramped conditions, the oppressive heat or the fact that most of the time all that separates you from the cold embrace of space is about two inches of reinforced battle-plate. They say it’s thick enough to deflect artillery rounds, but first hand experiences tells you that no matter how much time and money is put into upgrading and retrofitting protective systems, you can be damn sure that the other side has put twice as much into figuring out how to beat it.

Here I am, sitting in the pitch-black interior of a bird, jostling shoulder-to-shoulder with three other members of my squad. On the other side of the dropship’s troop bay sits the Lieutenant (we call him “Loot”) and the three other unlucky SOBs. On a normal deployment, we sit in the bay until the dropship hits atmosphere, at which point the side doors open and we get to watch as the pilot weaves us through anti-aircraft fire. If we make it to the ground, then we either fast-rope out of the sides or hop down depending on the circumstances. The amount of times we’ve had a “normal” deployment have been few and far between, though.

The heat inside the dropship rockets upwards and the bird starts shaking like we’re being thrown around inside of hurricane. Over the sound of metal rivets popping, I hear Loot break onto the squad’s battle-net, which had been mostly silent since we left the orbiting fleet.

“All right, men, we’ve hit atmosphere. Time on target is t-minus fifteen minutes. Intel says to expect light resistance until we hit the ground, but be ready for anything.”

My helmet’s integrated display brings up a little timer which begins counting down from fifteen minutes. All around me I can hear the sounds of weapons being loaded, from the small click of an assault rifle magazine sliding home to the double clank of the squad’s heavy weapons expert loading his light machine gun. I slide a mag out of my belt pouch and jam it into the receiver. In the small amount of space I have, I work the charging handle and feed a round into the chamber. Peterson, the machine gunner, turns to look at me with a big grin on his face.

“Man, I hope we get to ground soon.”

“Why’s that Peterson? Are you still afraid of flying?”

Peterson’s idiot grin widens even further, stretching the scar that tugs at his lower lip.

“Nah, man, I farted. Just one of the benefits of a high-protein diet.”

I roll my eyes and turn to face the dropship’s doors which have begun to slide open. Before the doors retract, I spot the other dropships making the decent with us onto the planet’s surface. Our whole company has been deployed to assault the target, a fairly small operation by this war’s standards. One of the other vessels slides in close to ours, and I see a solider wave at us. Holding onto my crash webbing, I give a friendly wave back.

Just as the soldier in the other ship turns to tap his seat-mate on the shoulder, his ship explodes and flings shrapnel everywhere. The shockwave rumbles out from the expanding fireball and shards of metal ping off our ship. One particularly huge chunk flings itself into our bay and misses me by two inches. I turn to tell Peterson how lucky I am when I notice that the flak has lodged itself into the wall where his head once was. His decapitated corpse limps forwards and falls out of the troop bay, taking his machine gun with it.

“God dammit,” Loot curses over the net “I told that moron a million times to secure his crash webbing! Now we have no light machine gun.”

One of my other squad-mates, probably Carter, our sniper, begins to make a smart ass remark when the entire ship shudders and drops a good twenty feet. I hear someone throw up on the other side of the bay as the co-pilot breaks into our frequency.

“Bad news boys: that last blast killed the pilot and we’re losing fuel. I’m going to try to keep this thing gliding as long as I can, but I think your time on my ship is done. Get prepped for an emergency bail-out and...Good luck.”

The Lieutenant doesn’t even need to give an order; we’re all double checking the parachutes that we strapped to ourselves before making the drop. They seem redundant in space, but if you ever need to bail out of a dropship in atmosphere, you’re thanking your lucky starts that you’re carrying the extra fifteen pounds.

We throw ourselves out of the dropship and watch as the whole hulking black mass spirals away, the co-pilot giving up the last few minutes of his life to make sure we’re clear of the space craft. I turn and orient myself towards the planet’s surface, watching as red and yellow tracers of anti-aircraft fire streaks towards the heavens accompanied by giant bursts of light that can only be ground-based cannon defences.

The world we’re going to was once a tropical paradise, a loose collection of islands that used to feature white sand beaches, beautiful girls and mixed drinks. Now, after a couple nuclear bombardments, ash streaks from the sky and the one-time resort cities are hollowed out husks of their former selves.

My helmet recorder absorbs all of this, and I try to angle it to get the best view of the defensive emplacements, just in case they need to send someone else down. The wind is whipping past me as I fall through a layer of clouds, my camouflaged gear-encumbered body breaking up the gentle zephyrs.

I’m getting close to the ground so I pop my chute, and try to point myself towards the designated landing zone. The AA fire, which looked so mesmerizing off in the distance, is now getting too close for comfort. I instinctively tuck myself into a ball and throw off my aerodynamics sending my body into a tight spin. Before I try to uncurl my legs, machine gun fire rips through my arm and my chute, tearing a chunk of fabric and sending a geyser of blood splashing onto my face.

As I choke through my own fluids, I key my microphone and hope that someone can hear me.

“Loot! Carter! Anyone! I’ve been hit by machine gun fire, and I’ve lost some of my parachute! I’m heading down into a residential zone near the west coast!”

I’m getting very, very close to the ground now. Carter comes in over the net, his voice concerned. “That area’s got the highest concentration of pre-war refugees, man. You know what they say about bad luck, it comes in threes.”

“This is four, Carter. Peterson lost his head, remember?”

I can almost picture the smirk forcing itself onto Carter’s face, “Yeah, but that didn’t happen to you.”

That’s the last thing I hear before I slam through a wall.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Ok, so I haven't exactly been posting here diligently. Still looking for a job, damn this economy. Anyways, this is a little something I've been sitting on for a while. Kind of a "pilot" if you will. The names are place-holders, and I haven't quite gotten the setting nailed down, but I feel it could lead somewhere interesting. Take a look.

The echo of automatic weapons fire reached Dan’s ears as he was jogging up the entrance tunnel from the below ground habitat. As Dan emerged onto the duty plain of the settlement, he noticed a member of his crew standing over a very expensive-looking robot, calmly changing the magazine on his rifle.

“God dammit, Sleck, what happened?” Dan demanded as he made his way over to his teammate.

“Nothing much, Ares”, Sleck said, addressing Dan by his last name “The robot made a run for it, so I filled his chassis with bullets.”

Dan slapped his forehead in exasperation. “Sleck, you void-brained good for nothing...Look, this was an L-Model Robot. Do you know what the L stands for? Fucking Luxury! A re-programmed L-Model could have paid for a lot of ammunition and supplies.”

Sleck smiled, baring his perfect white teeth which stood in contrast to his grimy face. Even though Sleck’s eyes were hidden by tactical goggles, Dan knew that his expression didn’t carry to his eyes.

“Comon, boss, this has been the most boring smash-and-grab job we’ve ever pulled. You have to at least let me have a little fun. Besides, we’ve grabbed more than enough assets from the colony.”

Dan poked an agitated finger into Sleck’s combat vest, and twisted it a bit. “I don’t give a shit if you’re bored, Sleck. Money comes first, not your warped sense of amusement.” Dan reached into his own vest and pulled out a short blue-black rod. “Next time, use this. This little EMP-wand will stun the suckers long enough to have Tekkie reprogram him. Solve problems with your head, not with your lead.”

Before Sleck could reply, Dan heard the clang of boots hitting metal as the other two members of his ground team came back up the staircase, bringing with them the last bit of loot from the colony’s stores.

One member of Dan’s team, wearing a stolen military combat helm, placed his burden beside the stockpile that they had assembled, and sauntered over to Dan and Sleck.

The visor on the helmet receded, revealing the stark grey eyes of Dan’s robotics expert, Tekkie. Although it was normally hard to tell, Tekkie’s eyes looked a bit crestfallen as he sized up the damaged L-Model.

“Aw, I had my eye on that thing the entire time. Well, at least some of its parts will fetch a good price at some chop-shops.”

Sleck smiled again, and turned to walk away and summon the team’s dropship. “See, not an entire loss.”

Dan gave his partner the middle finger, and then pivoted around to peer back down the stair-way into the colony. This whole raid had started when Dan received a tip from one of his contacts that the Russian military was going to be pulling a rotation of the marines guarding the colony, leaving a window of a day when it would be perfect for a quick looting.

When Dan and his team arrived, they had found the place completely deserted. They had expected at least a little resistance from the colony’s internal police agency, but even the local authorities were absent. It wasn’t the first time that Dan’s team had been late to the party, but it was extremely odd that an entire’s colony’s worth of plunder had just been left behind, ripe for the plucking.

The sound of the approaching dropship stirred Dan out of his thoughts, and he began scanning the sky for the craft. Finally it appeared low over the horizon, coming in fast. The team’s pilot liked to show off, and backed the ship quickly, reversing the direction the turbo-fan jets housed in the wings were pointing, and came to a smooth vertical landing directly beside the pile of goods.

The entrance ramp at the back of the ship slowly lowered to the ground, and Dan’s pilot hopped out of the cockpit hatch to give them a hand.

A sudden clanking sound from deeper in the colony reverberated up the stairs. Dan whipped around and pointed the scope of his rifle down the cavernous entrance, and activated the night vision integrated into the optics. The hallway sprung to life in a vibrant green shade, the small lights strung up along the walls giving off a bright white glow.

Dan stared down the scope for another few moments before lowering the rifle. Dan was just getting jumpy. He backed away from the entrance as the dropship’s pilot called out to him.

“Hey Dan, you gonna help us with the haul?”

Dan shook his head and gave his crew a smug grin.

“No, I think I’ll take a little break. Let me know when you’re done.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Red Faction: Guerrilla

Clean and Righteous!

If Battlefield: Bad Company taught me one thing, it’s that blowing stuff up is awesome. I’m not just talking about your standard video game explosions where only vehicles and infantry are damaged like a Halo game; I’m talking deforming terrain, destroying buildings, all that good stuff. Volition, makers of Saint’s Row 2, seems to have taken a page from Bad Company (and their earlier Red Faction games), and realized that you can have some minor deficiencies with the game as long as the core mechanic is solid.

Well, they nailed it. The destructible environments in Red Faction: Guerrilla, powered by the GeoMod 2.0 engine, are really entertaining, and being able to take down a huge building with nothing but a sledgehammer and some perseverance is nothing short of extremely cathartic. Sure, the controls are floaty, and the story is nothing to write home about, but the main element of the game is so much fun that you won’t really care.

The jist of the story is that you’re playing a recent immigrant to the red planet named Alec Mason, who arrives only to find that the Earth Defense Force, the good guys in the first two games, have basically become space Nazis, and have forced the entire population of Mars to perform slave labor to bump up the struggling Earth economy. Nobody is really happy about that, and the mantle of the Red Faction has been taken up again, and your brother is a member. Of course, the EDF knows this, so they whack him, and set out to arrest you before a guerrilla strike team shows up and rescues you. Naturally, you’re pissed off, so you hook up with the Red Faction, and set out to make life miserable for a number of cookie-cutter military types. There’s some sort of intelligent Tusken Raider faction, and a nano-machine forge, but you’ll find all that out by playing through the story.

To push the EDF off of Mars, you’re given a bunch of ways to become a thorn in their side. You can do raids, free wrongfully-arrested civilians, ride shot-gun in a Marauder vehicle and destroy EDF property, or just take down high-value targets. When you complete any of these “Guerrilla Actions”, the population’s morale is raised in that sector, which gives you more allies and additional ammo in supply caches around the world. If a civilian is killed during your rampages, morale takes a hit, but it’s quite easy to raise it back up.

To really make an impact on the EDF, you’ll need to lower their control of a certain sector through Guerrilla Actions until you unlock a story mission. The number of story missions differ for each sector, but the main goal is to cause enough trouble to make the EDF pull up stakes.

Single player has a lot going for it, but you’ll also find yourself spending a good chunk of time in multiplayer. The GeoMod engine makes for some really dynamic games, even if they removed sprinting and the cover mechanic. Besides your basic Death Match and CTF games, you also have the Siege game type, where you defend your structures against the other team, and then rotate to see who can get the highest score. To help you out in multiplayer, you also get access to some pretty interesting backpacks that are not available in single player. These backpacks will make you a medic, a juggernaut, and many things in between. You can also use a Reconstructor, which serves to make those valuable Siege buildings last a bit longer.

It feels as if Volition weren’t quite sure that they packed enough content into their game, so they decided to go overboard on everything. You have enough distractions in single player to keep you romping around Mars for what seems like forever, and the multiplayer has enough unlocks to rival Call of Duty 4. Red Faction: Guerrilla is the surprise hit of the summer, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least rent it.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Transformers: Renege of the Fanatic

Does anyone know where I can get some crow pie, because I apparently need to eat a whole lot of it for defending Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen both on my blog and elsewhere.

I’ll admit that I got caught up in the pre-release hype for TF, and got legitimately upset at some of the reviews. While some of the reviews are incredibly inflammatory towards the perceived audience for this cinematic travesty, the vitriol being spouted by critics are absolutely spot on.

Having had a good night (week) to sleep on the celluloid cudgel that is Michael Bay’s latest robo-opus, I can say with certainty that the movie is bad. Whether it’s the dog-humping, the drug humor, the racist stereotypes, the misogyny or the giant clanging robot balls, Michael Bay has proved that if he doesn’t have an adult with him to keep him in check, his movies can go terribly awry.

To the film’s defence, it does deliver on one thing, which is that giant robots kick the shit out of each other and they do so with gusto. The action scenes are beautifully choreographed, and Bay has taken the camera out of the robot’s tailpipes and put it where the action can actually be seen. Whenever time slows down and we’re treated to Optimus Prime flipping Starscream into the air and kicking him in the face while he’s upside down, it’s a genuine treat. The forest battle stands out as the crown moment of the film, even topping the final battle in a random Egyptian ruin town. Optimus single-handily takes on three Decepticons, and even manages to kill one of them before he’s brutally beaten down. It’s a great scene, and for one brief shining moment in the film, you’re actually rooting for somebody. The Optimus Prime people fell in love with from the cartoon series finally comes out, and he gives his life in a gallant, heroic moment to protect Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf).

But that’s it. For the rest of the film, all the robots are treated as dispensable, whether it’s the faceless legions of Decepticons or the Autobots, who show up, shoot something, and then disappear. Even though the Transformers have more screen time in this film, and there’s some actual Megatron/Starscream bickering this time around, the robots are just as cheap as before, brought in only when there’s something huge that needs to be blown up, or some random exposition is needed.

The main bad-guy of the film, the Fallen, is sort of a letdown as well. He spends most of the movie in a creepy throne, hooked up to millions of embryonic sacs filled with fledgling Decepticons on some random planet. And what exactly is his reason for being a giant wuss? He can only be killed by a Prime, which is a pretty flimsy excuse given that Optimus got beat down by Megatron and company. Once the Fallen shows up on the actual battlefield, he spends about two minutes being terrifying until Optimus gets a jetpack and tears his face off. A good fight, but considering the titular character isn’t all that frightening it sort of leaves the climax feeling a bit empty.

All grumblings about the robots aside, the human cast of Transformers performs admirably given the ham-handedness of the script. John Turturro’s character is less grating this time around, and Shia LaBeouf has some actual funny moments outside of the forced humor that permeates the script. Series newcomer Ramon Rodriguez is the biggest let down, and his form of comic relief is even more awkward than Mudflap and Skids, the aforementioned stereotyped robots.

All in all, I suppose I’m being too harsh on the movie. It’s simply the first Transformers writ large, taking everything that was awesome about the first one and expanding it while simultaneously taking the weaker parts and transforming them into huge glaring flaws. By the time TF3 rolls around, hopefully Spielberg will be back with a firmer guiding hand, because lord knows that I’ve seen enough leg humping and pot jokes to last me a lifetime.

Friday, June 19, 2009

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Prime

You know, I’m not one to generally get offended by review, be they for movies, games, books or what have you. I realize that reviewers are basically being paid to render their opinion on a public forum, to give those of us who are on the fence a bit more of an informed choice when it comes to choosing what we want to do with our money.

That being said, the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen reviews coming out of Rotten Tomatoes have really not been helping my mood. If it’s not getting trashed for being tedious and full of explosions, it’s being lambasted for being simplistic by even the “Fresh” reviews! Of course it’s simplistic, you high-handed jack-asses! It’s freaking Transformers!

Now, I don’t know if most reviewers ever watched the original TV series, or were even aware of its existence until Michael Bay modernized the franchise for the current consumer two years ago, but apparently “giant robot fighting” does not a good action movie make. Really, what else do you want out of Transformers? There is never going to be anything overly cerebral about it.

I love Prime, Megatron and company as much as the next guy, but I watch Transformers to be entertained and blown away by the visuals, not to have my mind teased. What boggles me is that Star Trek (co-written by two of the TF writers) got a 95% Fresh rating, while TF currently sits at below 50%. What?! Star Trek was great, but it sits in the same company as Transformers: a beloved sci-fi series rebooted to be made slicker and easier to digest for the theatre crowd.

I just don’t get movie critics sometimes. Of all the reviewers in the world, they are the least objective, and the most biased. For them, a movie is not “entertainment”. It needs to be a period piece, it needs to make you cry, it needs to do a lot of things that I frankly don’t go and watch things blowing up for.

When they’re not hacking down the movie for doing exactly what it’s trying to do, they’re insulting the audience. Here are a few samples of the “opinions” being selected for Rotten Tomatoes:

Allan Hunter, Daily Express: Director Michael Bay has always had a passion for big, noisy spectacles and Revenge of the Fallen is a bravura display of his ability to mastermind global destruction. What it lacks is the human touch, decent dialogue, novelty and restraint. (It is a movie about fighting robots, good sir.)

Matthew Tuner, View London: Bigger, louder and more annoying, this won't disappoint fans of the first film, but the deficiencies in script and character are even more apparent this time round and Bay's contempt for his audience is almost palpable. (If you use the phrase “fans of the series” or something similar, it always seems like a cop-out. Yes, I’m guilty of it too.)

Victor Olliver, Teletext: Is there anything in this for anyone other than a zit-faced video gamer? No.

Ok, that last one really jostled my flaps so much that I made an account on RT specifically to call this guy out on his bullshit. One would wonder how such an unprofessional review (and it is unprofessional, basically a point form rip on the movie on its fans) would makes its way on to Rotten Tomatoes. I know that RT is an aggregate site, but one would think they have some control over what they feature on their site. Such a slanderous review doesn’t lend a lot of credibility to Rotten Tomatoes.

I’m probably not helping by writing a whole rant about reviewers and their bullshit, but whatever. This whole fiasco has got me pissed off so much that I’m going to go watch Spider-Man 3 out of spite.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Cole Becomes Electric

Welcome to Empire City, a place where disease-ridden gangsters and psychic hobos rule the streets. You’re Cole McGrath, bike courier cum electric dynamo, and you have the power to save the city or bend to your will.

InFamous is a game that opens with a bang (literally), and never stops coming at you, a relentless assault of lightning and open-world free running. In a story heavily inspired by the comic book genre (Batman: No Man’s Land in particular), you play the aforementioned Cole McGrath, who develops electricity based super powers after being caught at the center of a massive explosion that wipes out six city blocks and plunges Empire City back to the stone ages. Armed gangs roam the streets, and the government has locked the place down, basically leaving the city to collapse upon itself.

As a natural consequence of having super powers, you are forced into the middle of the situation by a shadowy FBI agent named Moya, who turns you into a glorified errand boy. She tasks you with two main goals: finding her husband, John, who was deep undercover with a group known as the First Sons, and locating the Ray Sphere, the device that gave you your powers.

To that end, you’re given free reign over three separate districts of the city, which open up consecutively as you progress along the story mode. In each section of Empire, you can go where you please, jumping over rooftops and scampering along power lines. The platforming in inFamous is incredibly intuitive. You never question whether or not you’re going to make a jump; unless you do something boneheaded like leap into the river, Cole will always find his feet planted on firm ground. Scaling buildings is effortless and later in the game Cole will gain the ability to grind along power lines and train rails, and hold himself aloft for a short time with a hovering ability. Cole doesn’t take fall damage, either, so feel free to hurl him off every building you can see.

In addition to being a skilled urban explorer, Cole can also hold his own against the myriad gangs fighting for control of Empire. Starting with a basic lightning shot from his hand, Cole can develop more and more impressive techniques as the game goes on. These powers are gained by restoring electricity to sections of Empire, and can be leveled up by using the exp you gain from defeating enemies. Cole’s lighting powers develop along two lines, which is in keeping with the moral choice system of this game. Good players will find that their powers are more precise and even restore some of your electric charge, while Infamous players will experience “Unlimited Power!” as a certain creepy galactic emperor would say.

But power doesn’t come without temptation. At several points in the game, you will be confronted with the option of either having Cole take the moral high road and use his powers for good, or to indulge in his baser instincts. The karmic choice system in this game is very black and white, and basically serves as a mechanism for making you play inFamous twice through, once good and once evil. Whichever path you go down gives you a different set of perks, as mentioned above. While the game will occasionally break flow and make you tackle a moral quandary, you can also perform acts for good or ill while you're running about Empire City. If you heal pedestrians with your defibrillator ability or restrain enemies with lightning manacles, you gain exp and good karma points. Conversely, if you kill downed opponents and suck the bio-energy from pedestrians and villains alike (a nasty looking but effective way to refill you juice meter), you’ll be well on your way to being universally reviled. The karmic choice mechanism is central to the game’s story, but it will feel a bit silly on occasion. As long as you’re willing to take it tongue-in-cheek, it shouldn’t disrupt your experience too much.

InFamous is a very well put together product, and the team at Sucker Punch should be proud of themselves. Solid controls, a good gameplay hook and fun combat all combine to make inFamous a sure-fire winner. A must buy for any PS3 owner, inFamous will give you the guaranteed shock-and-awe of a summer blockbuster.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Microsoft Part 2: Technological Transgressions

Aside from a metric ass-tonne of game announcements, Microsoft also strutted their software integration stuff and revealed a whole bunch of new innovations for the LIVE interface ranging from Twitter to a full body motion sensor.

In addition to Net Flix, Microsoft announced that they are proud to present the incorporation of Facebook and Twitter to X Box LIVE, adding unique social networking to those who aren’t that socially adept anyways. Adding the ability to Tweet and check your Facebook is a natural evolution for Microsoft’s online service; most people are already Tweeting to their LIVE friends anyways. If only the Zune had something to do with all this on the go status extravaganza.

Last.fm and SKY were also announced as partners in the newest LIVE venture, so you can listen to music through your X Box, and catch football matches with SKY in the UK. Neat stuff that comes packaged for Gold users, so you won’t have to pay an additional fee.

Finally, Microsoft brought out the proverbial big guns for their final announcement. Venerable director Steven Spielberg to the stage to talk about Project Natal, Microsoft’s answer to motion control; but this isn’t about waving a dongle around, oh no. Natal is a full-body motion detector with included voice and facial recognition software. Much like Tony Hawk’s ride board will let you translate your body movements into on-screen action, Natal does much the same thing without the need for any peripheral besides a small-ish sensor that gets attached to your X Box.

This thing is seriously impressive. Like I mentioned above, Natal appears to need nothing more than a sensor mounted in front of your TV. It reads your body movements, and translates them smoothly onto the screen. This will have a lot of interesting applications for games that require a bit more physicality than your standard video game fare. Games usually require an extra peripheral for things beyond button inputs, like Tony Hawk Ride or Wii Fit. If Natal is a success, then not only will the number of plastic play-things in your average gamer’s house reduce, but it may bring additional customers into the fold, those who are intimidated by the average gamepad.

I’m sure that Natal is a while away from being a fully realised product, but it seems to be heading in the right direction. Only time will tell for this new innovation, but for now, I’ll stick with my controller.