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Friday, March 27, 2009

Game Play: Metal Gear Solid 4

I've only had brief encounters with the Metal Gear franchise, and I think I can safely say I've never finished a single one before last night.

And of course by "finish", I mean watching the last thirty minutes of cut scenes. Whatever you've heard about this game's lengthy cinematics, it is not hyperbole. In some ways, though, this is part of the game's charm. It's unabashedly old school in many ways. It uses long cinematics, there are checkpoints during the levels and no way to save in between, you can die quite easily and need to start all over again, there's extensive menu play to get things done - all things that many modern games frown on ... MGS4 revels in.

The saving grace for me is that the combat feels much improved, and I don't feel like I have to hide in a corner and watch enemy movements for ten minutes to progress five minutes into the game. The mechanics are tight all around, and the production values are completely off the scale good - sound effects, music, level design, textures, animation - everything.

And honestly, I feel like I only scratched the surface of what is possible with the game. I never, for instance, used a Playboy magazine to distract a guard. I only figured out late in the game that falling on someone knocks them out. I rarely used the Metal Gear sidekick. There's so much interactivity to this game that it feels very much like a realized combat world.

Which is probably why the lengthy movies are so forgivable. A lesser game might feel more like a movie, but MGS4 just feels epic all around. And that's possibly the most impressive bit. Remember that this franchise began as a pastiche of action movies, basically a tongue-in-cheek parody (and back in the 80's, these were pretty common ... go look at any of the old game covers) ... Snake himself is now an amalgamation of Mel Gibson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kurt Russell and Lee Van Cleef. Yet, the game can stand on its own as a good story (even if it's an odd and often self-referential one).

I don't know if MGS4 would be my favorite game of the year, but it is definitely up there. Highly recommend. And don't forget Metal Gear Online either...

Thursday, March 26, 2009


As of yesterday morning, I had never heard of OnLive. As of now, I've had like three conversations on it and read umpteen blog posts, several comics, etc.

Buzz like that. It's slightly intoxicating, pretty much no matter what.

So, let's preface this with the obvious: I'm not at GDC. I haven't seen this demo. I'm not in touch with OnLive. I have zero technical background information on the product. All I have is hearsay, rumors and third party reports.

It's pretty obvious as to why the world wants to believe in OnLive, but I have to say I'm not really in the excited bunch.

Course, we've been here before - the promise of a console-busting console, all downloadable data, hassle free play, so on and etc. It turned into one of the great vaporware - the wildly aptly name Phantom.

It's entirely possible that OnLive is a similar sort of shenanigans. I'm not saying they're necessarily liars and such, just that it's one thing to produce a decent looking demo based on sound theories and a completely different thing to make a market ready product. So we could easily see a year from now people still poking the burning embers of this red hot hype, but have nothing to actually buy.

Unless OnLive can prove some real world testing, I have to say this is likely. The promise of "zero lag" is something which is really, really hard to deliver because the Internet is, by design, not controlled by anything which can keep that promise.

The premise of OnLive is pretty straightforward. Virtual Network Computing is something like a decade old now and I can run it off my iPhone if needed.

The problem isn't the mechanics, it's downloading frames per second. Let's remember:

So what's not to like? For one thing, the service relies ...

... on a broadband connection with at least 1.5 megabits per second for standard-definition images, or 5 megabits per second for high definition. OnLive estimates that about 71% of U.S. homes have enough bandwidth for standard definition, and 26% have enough for high definition. But effective speeds are often less than advertised.
-- LA Times, GDC: OnLive promises near instant online access to high-end console and PC games

I just did a speed test here at it never hit 2mb/s. So, I'm certainly not playing any games in high def even by OnLive's theoretical standards.

Is there any gamer out there who is going to trade the convenience of cloud-based gaming with significantly lower graphics? I highly doubt it.

But let's play even deeper into the hype and theorize that somehow OnLive is capable of delivering liquid gold into the intertubes and high def video delivery is no longer a problem (which, as an aside, if were true they could be making a killing without bothering with games - just video aside). Would I still want it?


Look, I'm all for digital delivery, but at the end of the day I like the idea of having software installed that I can play whenever I want. I had enough troubles with Steam, and that's nowhere near this side of spectrum. OnLive would only interest me as a rental, pay as you play, kind of model - possibly a monthly subscription if could deliver the goods. But don't think for a moment that I'm paying anywhere near retail prices for software that someone keeps on the sly and allows access by online means. It took one bad experience from Valve, and I'll never go down that rabbit hole again.

If we're talking convenience, here's the convenience I get through my current means - I pay retail price, I can get access to the title on release day, if anything goes wrong with it, I can return it for a refund or at worst, go to a Best Buy and exchange for store credit.

Cloud based gaming, should it ever really take off, will still need to actually solve a problem I have, be it performance or cost or something. Otherwise it's just a clever parlor trick.

Right now the only problem I could see it solving for me is Windows based gaming on my Mac. If it offered a hassle free solution for that, we might have a deal.

Demo Play: Riddick, Wheelman, Red Alert and Wanted

I downloaded a slew of PS3 demos upon return to the states, a few thoughts (with the should-be-but-too-often-is-not disclaimer that this is based on short bits of play with demo code).

Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena
I didn't play the original, which is probably some kind of crime somewhere in gamerland, but this demo gives you a taste of why it was good. Something of a violent first person sneaker with the dark science fiction from the Riddick movies, there's at least some unique aspects to a genre generally lacking in them.

At the same time, I didn't think the sneaker elements were well portrayed. I swear at one point a guard teleported into a room and then at another point it seemed the bad guys spent way too long breaking down a door and then not entering it. The world has this oddly fake feel to it, which may be just the lack of finish on the demo. In general the demo hooked me at first, but kind of bored me by the end.

A sort of Grand Theft Auto clone with ADD, Wheelman introduces some interesting aspects of vehicular combat to fit the over-the-top action of the movie. This was the second demo with Vin Diesel in it, which felt a bit odd - especially since I'm not sure Vin makes a terribly good game voice actor. There's a disconnect between his onscreen presence and his tone that it makes it sound like he's kind phoning it in.

Diesel aside, the demo is pretty fun and offers a lot of content to try out, from the introductory chase scene, which doubles as a tutorial, to side missions from the full game. Plenty of fun and an interesting twist to the GTA set.

Command And Conquer: Red Alert 3
Is it sad that I think I'd enjoy the cutscenes more than the game itself? I think I just have some fundamental issues with RTS games, especially the more old school ones. For instance, at point in the tutorial my troops are getting shot at but don't seem to be shoot back. Because I haven't clicked on something to tell them: shoot back.


But it's Red Alert, it's a classic series in the genre and the demo includes some fun tutorial sections and, well, Tim Curry. So you have to at least try the demo.

Wanted: Weapon of Fate
The tutorial modes made me think that the Wanted game might actually outdo the movie itself, but when I got to the actual gameplay, it was a bit of a wash. There's some new concepts for cover that seem kind of interesting at first, but really get repetitive when the actual game turns into "dash, shoot, shoot, dash, curve a bullet, repeat fifty more times".

Plus, the camera work on the plane got all wonky on me, making it difficult to even do the "shoot, shoot" part, which really sort of defeats the purpose of the game.

TV Watch: Lost, He's Our You

Short version: pretty much anything with William Sanderson in it is better for it.

And now, spoilers.

This was a pretty average Lost episode, with some decent flashback into Sayid's life and character, a bit overuse of flashback material and the occasional tidbit about DHARMA to appease the fans.

And then, Sayid shot Ben. Which opens up a whole other kettle of fish. One of the very few rules laid out by the show, clearly and distinctly, is that time travel can't actually change time. You can go back into the past but well, you were already there in the past when you were in the future anyway - so whatever you did, you did.

Pretty certain Heinlein explained that better, but you get the point.

So I think we need to go back to television basics here. We didn't really see Ben die, we saw him get shot. We also see adult Ben, hence Ben doesn't die. Or more specifically he does die, but the island brings him back to life - and that's why Ben says he was "born on the island".

Whether that's just good healing or it means that Ben has been accepted into an odd club with Christian Shepherd, Locke and Alpert as members, we'll have to wait to find out. Hopefully we'll find out a bit more about what exactly does happen when you die on the island and maybe why we keep seeing Charlie, Ana-Lucia, etc.

Good episode, all in all, but especially for ending with a bang.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Movie Watch: Sharkwater

I basically rented Sharkwater to see some high def nature on the TV, which it delivers in spades for much of the movie. However, the movie itself is far more than just a screensaver - it's a documentary about conserving sharks in general, whose population is being decimated in the wake of illegal shark fin trade.

This is how insane we are as a planet: shark fins don't add taste to shark fin soup. They only add texture. If you're superstitious, you might think that it will give you long life and defeat cancer, but that just makes for an even more idiotic rationale for the mass slaughter of one of the world's oldest life forms.

The movie does much to deflate the myth of vicious predator, noting that despite having abundant opportunities to be a man eater, more people are killed by elephants every year than sharks.

It's a beautiful movie that shows a nearly invisible fight in earnest. Highly recommend. Also check out and the movie's website for more on shark conservation in general.

Seriously, why do shoelaces suck?

Can anyone explain to me how it is that I've bought two pairs of shoes in recent history with like, the worst design laces in the world? One being slick and round, which basically means that you can triple knot them and they'll just slowly untie themselves. The others being about five times longer than any person would require, thin and also slick ... which means that they flop about until something snags them and then just pull apart.

They're shoelaces. They are meant to be tied, and you know, stay tied. And we had this technology when I was a kid, I remember it quite clearly. I still have a pair of canvas sneakers with perfectly normal laces that, well, tie and stay tied.

How is it that this rather urban point of technology is evolving into something much, much worse? Is there a consumer demand I'm not aware of?

Movie Watch: Religulous

Religulous is Bill Maher's attack on religion, plain and simple. It follows a somewhat Michael Moore route of documentary, including plenty of scenes where Maher is personally speaking to the camera and some bear baiting interview techniques.

As an agnostic, I'd like to recommend the movie - but it is rather hard to do so since Maher very carefully selects his interviewees from some of the wide fringes of religion. As a introspective into said fringes, it's actually a pretty decent piece of work. The real problem, I think, is that he goes to this fringe for evidence that religion as an entirety is, as he puts it, a matter of mental illness. It's a bit like going to a Trek Convention and saying "look, people who watch Sci Fi like to dress up in funny costumes".

I'm as big of a fan of doubt as the next guy - and when someone tries to put a completely ridiculous argument as if it's scientific fact (which occurs several times in the movie), I'm more than happy to watch a guy like Maher take them to task on it. And often when he does it, it's fairly precise, on target and humorous.

Let's just not confuse the film with a serious discussion on the state of religion today, because the overall picture of people's beliefs are far more complicated than the one Bill chooses to portray. He comes down particularly hard on Islam, it seems, as he seems to adopt the stance that it's a violent religion despite who preaches it - which seems an unfair standard considering the history of most religions.

So it's entertaining in many places, and I think it's good to know just where the fringes of religion may exist, but Maher's overall argument is empty at best, dishonest at worst.

Monday, March 23, 2009

TV Watch: Battlestar Galactica Series Finale

I'm not sure it is possible to talk about this without being pretty spoiler-ific. If I had to write a summary, it would be simply that it was good, great and places, but overall the finale proved a successful cross-section of the show.

In short - there were some kick ass action scenes, some drama bordering on melodrama, some religious muck and occasionally the thing that just doesn't make any real sense, and possibly never was supposed to make any real sense.

So that said, into the spoilers.

While I thought the whole "who is a Cylon" routine was pretty neat, it was also something of a sideshow compared to the rest of show's somewhat weighty subplot - finding Earth, survival of all mankind, who Kara's sleeping with, etc. The finale intersects a lot of the action with the Opera House dream, and there's a sliding percentage of the show's metaphysics which creep in as the action goes on.

I liked the finale, but I think I could have used that percentage growing a little slower. By just slightly over half of the two hour episode, it feels like we're in epilogue mode. Much of the falling action here just feels very convenient, especially the colony's decisions about their new Earth, the destruction of the fleet and so on. It's a very tight package to prove the bigger point the show has been building, that Galactica's overall plot is based on a repeating cycle between two opposing forces.

The finale started with my favorite parts of the show - the military scifi stuff, and ends with my least favorite - a weird combination of A Space Odyssey and some bits that feel like the throwaway parts of a Heinlein novel.

But even my least favorite parts felt like they resonated well, and especially when tied with the many Caprica flashbacks we've been getting recently - the show at least ends on solid footing.

A great episode, all in all, and a great season to finish the show.