Sunday, November 23, 2008

Unleashed: Satisfying The Modern Gamer

This article was originally published on Pop + Politics, here.

Boy or girl, gamer or no, there are few who could deny having (in private) attempted to shift objects about their home using The Force. Just to see if it’s real and you can channel it. There is something universally kick-ass and visceral about a Jedi’s ability to choke from afar, send objects hurling towards enemies or shock people with the power of a storm. The Force is one of those daydream-inducing super powers that is almost impossible to resist (ever been caught trying to use The Force? It’s difficult to explain away…).

Finally, the couch-Jedi in us all can awaken, via Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the latest video game from LucasArts, released in September. While it’s certainly not the first simulation of the full Jedi suite—BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic bears mention, as does LucasArts’ own Jedi Knight series—the game succeeds in describing The Force with a sort of unprecedented scholarly focus. To give you an idea, LucasArts’ actual mantra for the game during development, which they chanted together at meetings, was “kicking someone’s ass with The Force” (watch a video of that here).

It’s not hard to see why a game like this shattered sales records upon its release last month - 1.5 million copies in five days. The concept alone is enough to perk almost anyone’s interest. What is significant about the game’s fiscal success, though, is how its underlying concept rendered the game almost invincible to reviews. Critics mostly frowned on the title (73% on, citing its lackluster control, technical jitters and poorly designed action sequences. It seems to have defied critique by channeling the power of the couch-Jedi: that person in us all who wants to telepathically get a beer from the fridge, or choke the boss from down the hall. These are simple, basic powers we should have been born with, now fully realized with next-gen graphics and technology. It’s sloppy in a few areas, but The Force Unleashed succeeds as a wakeup call. It highlights just how epically other superhero games have failed to unleash our most ingrained, necessary desires in a realistic and brutal playground. Because the Jedi can be unleashed, it’s all the more embarrassing that Wolverine, Batman or even Harry Potter haven’t been.

In The Force Unleashed, you play as Starkiller, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice. Vader discovers you as a young boy on the planet Kashyyyk, (spoilers..) kills your Jedi father and then lovingly adopts you and becomes a kind of Sith-grandpa. When this beginning cut-scene ends and you take control, you are a full grown bad-ass Sith alive right between Episode III and Episode IV (Princess Leia is about 16 years old for reference). Since you are Vader’s lapdog, he deploys you on a series of Jedi-assassination-missions. Through nine stages set in familiar Star Wars locales like Cloud City Bespin and the Death Star, you tear through droves of enemies—Stormtroopers and Rancors alike—and trounce them all with god-like ease. The story itself is surprisingly compelling – a rousing redemption story pushed along by great voice acting, nice cut-scene animations and some worthy side-characters like the droid Proxy and Starkiller’s pilot/girlfriend Juno. Like the films, the tension between the Dark and Light sides of the force drives the narrative, and presents Starkiller with difficult choices. One choice in particular will even allow the player to breach the “Star Wars canon,” rewriting the events before Episode IV, and is sure to keep fans of the series all a’flame on message boards for months.

The actual gameplay is quite obviously the showcase. It’s just immediately satisfying, even in the way the story sets up whom you are all allowed to hurt: everyone. Your identity as Vader’s apprentice must remain secret, even to The Emperor, so Rebel or Stormtrooper alike, they’re all dead. Between your nearly 30 Lightsaber combos and 10 Force Powers, the possibilities for violent Jedi playtime are satisfyingly varied. You can: shock people to death, throw your Lightsaber like a boomerang, throw enemies around like rag-dolls, smash open windows to suck debris and enemies into space, Force-push people absurdly far, discharge The Force in a single brutal shockwave, throw large hunks of wreckage at anything, generate a lightning shield around yourself, and of course, execute all manner of Lightsaber Kung Fu type combos. It could very well be the most violent Star Wars game ever made. My personal favorite? A combo titled “Arial Slam,” in which you slash your opponent several times, stomp the ground with The Force to delicately lift them upwards, then jump to meet them midair and throw them rather inconsiderately straight back down to the ground. You gradually gain powers over the course of the game, most of which you’ll actually need to incorporate into your repertoire to succeed, especially against some of the game’s more advanced bosses. All in all, it offers a pleasant and worthy challenge in terms of difficulty and reward.

Visually, the Star Wars universe is brought to life in vivid, exuberant detail thanks to skilled art direction. Two examples: on Raxus Prime you’ll be greeted with a huge junk yard lava pit with floating debris everywhere, and on Kashyyyk, you’ll venture down into the bowels of a Sarlacc (that pit-monster in Return of the Jedi that almost eats Han). All of this makes for impressive scenery, but the real workhorse of the game is the physics engine. It’s a new technology called Digital Molecular Matter (DMM), which is a fancy way of saying that objects shatter, dent, break and generally react as they would to real-world violence. When you throw a Stormtrooper headlong into a metal door, that door will dent according to how hard you threw him, and where you hit the door. All of this makes being a mean Jedi all the more real.

Of course, this honeymoon of Jedi bad’assery doesn’t last forever, as the game is definitely hampered with some problems. The issue most will notice immediately is the menu loading times. Every time you want to check your mission objectives, or refresh yourself on a certain button combo, you’ll be greeted by extraordinarily long load times. 90s-PlayStation-menu slow. Additionally, the frame rate can start chugging and sputtering, especially with lots of enemies on the screen at once. The game’s camera can also become something of an enemy, crowding behind you in hallways and making it tough to see opponents. Further hampering your ability to hurt enemies is the poor targeting system. When you’re facing an enemy or object, you’ll sort of auto-target them, but it’s imprecise and often misreads what you’re trying to do. You may find yourself spending way too long trying to precisely target a particular barrel, or enemy, and by the time you do you’ve been punished already. These foibles can sour the otherwise indulgent fun to be had.

In the end, though, the game is what it is: a chance to kick someone’s ass with The Force. It’s like LucasArts tried to make a video game with the mindset of an arena rock show. It itches a deep scratch that’s been in our imaginations for decades. However, the Jedi is not the only couch-hero. There are many: couch-Batman, couch-Superman, couch-Hulk, couch-Iron Man, couch-Wolverine, etc. Yes, there is an endless number superpowers we were lamentably not born with. So, why aren’t there great games representing these easy wins for game developers? In answer to that question—especially if you’re not a gamer—you might be saying, “Wait, there’s lots of great Batman video games, right?” You’re wrong. There isn’t. Superhero video games are, by and large, nauseating failures. Here are some examples. There is an argument to be made that the reason for this is that most superhero games—Harry Potter to Iron Man—are tied to big-budget films, and so the focus and the budget have been spent elsewhere. The Force Unleashed, though, suggests a simple solution: Unleash everything. Take a superhero, get a good development team together, and make them all say “kick someone’s ass with [enter superhero name],” and we might be on to something. To end this, I’ve included a few of examples of superheroes in dire need of unleashing. Enjoy.

Bad-ass takes-no-shit mutant with claws. Embarrassing this game does not exist.

Last attempt to Unleash:
X2: Wolverine’s Revenge (2003)

What it did:
X2: Wolverine’s Revenge turned an opportunity to unleash the gruff wolfman into a button-mashing yawn fest. The game never let you get good and mean, and reduced Wolverine’s most violent, satisfying combos into non-interactive animations.

What it should have done:
The player should be awarded the ability to impale-and-lift, then throw into a crowd. Slice-and-dice style kills. Dismemberment. When Wolverine gets out his claws, it needs to be loud and notable. He needs to be agile, flippy, incorporating twirling, circular crowd-control moves. He should yell a lot. The word “unleashed” keeps coming to mind.

Not a superhero, just a mean guy who works out a lot and has killer gadgets. Everyone’s favorite bad/good guy.

Last attempt to Unleash:
Batman Begins (2005)

What it did:
Made Batman look like a tool when he fights. A lumbering, kicky ogre. You could use smoke grenades and flash-bangs, and climb a lot, but it all felt rather drab. And the Batmobile allowed you to crash into things.

What it should have done:
Batman is a gadget-man. His utility belt needs to be an intricate, upgradeable, tricked out menu of joy. He needs to be able to swing from skyscrapers, cape all a’whip, throw Batman ninja stars, smoke bombs, the rebreather for underwater breathing, night vision, Bat-bolas which wrap up escapees: basically Splinter Cell, but Batman. And when he fights, if he didn’t look like a tool that would sweet.

He can beat the crap out of Balrogs, tear down Nazguls, and can come back from the dead. His powers are great, though their true depth and range is largely unknown.

Last attempt to Unleash:
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

What it did:
Though Gandalf is in fact a playable character in the game, and he appears to fight in a similar style to his filmic counterpart—sword and staff melee combos—he never really goes apeshit, and his magic abilities are reduced to a little ranged energy blast that looks like innocent fireworks.

What it should have done:
The root of the problem is that Gandalf was never properly unleashed in the films. From the books, we know that Gandalf is a master of fire. He can make things catch of fire like a bastard. Like he does with pine cones in The Hobbit. He also is a pyrotechnic expert. He can grow in size and strength during battle. He can magically lock doors. He can make himself all but invisible when he feels it’s necessary. There is a brutal game here, one that has not yet been made.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Exit Polls 2008 and Election Results 2008

We're covering the election at with a scary vigilance. Below is our complete list of exit polls and election results pages for the 2008 presidential election. Which is happening today by the way. If you want to keep up with the election tonight here is all you will need. If you haven't yet voted, check out our massive listing of where to vote. Also of note, a page on the Top 10 Political Gaffes.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Getting Hustled in Jamaica: Vampires, cops, joints, dark beaches

Jamaica08.EmsPics 105.2

We’re checking into our hotel in Negril, Jamaica, and the owner leans in and says to me, all quiet: “Friends, beware. Do not walk the beach at night.” Kind of a terrifying thing to say. Then later, we asked a random native if there was anything unsafe around. A woman, she said, “The beach,” face stone cold. “Never at night.” We joked about vampires, and the possible real-life threats. It was hustlers, turns out. Men in shorts who run up to you in the dark, beaming, shaking your hand, telling you about their family, “five kids,” how if they don’t earn enough their family goes hungry, handing you sticks of gum, bracelets, rolling papers, and then trying to make you pay extraordinary amounts for it all. The impression I got (we were politely hustled once, for about $10 U.S., didn’t let it get to me), is they’ll get aggressive and almost violent, but fall just short. They wouldn’t mug you, not on the beach, but they’ll sort of guilt trip and extort. Almost seduce, not unlike a vampire.

Anyway, our first night, we’d heard of a reggae concert at a nearby club, maybe a mile south of where we stayed. We decided to go. Heeding the locals’ warnings, we walked the street instead of the vampire-invested beach. Later, we learned that it was assumed and widely known that the street is twice as dangerous as the beach.

About halfway there, passing numerous resorts on the right—all the signs the same, wild childlike painted signs—a man yelled at us from across the street. “Hey,” he implored. He broke off from an outdoor party he was attending, waited for passing cars to cease, and ran over to accost us.

“I have to greet everyone in my neighborhood,” he explained. I didn’t like him.

“Do you work around here?” I asked.

“Ha! Business man!” he called me. “Business man,” pointing to his head repeatedly, almost to show I’d quickly flushed out his purposes as criminal. A strange way to respond, I noted.

“No, I work at my home,” he pointed. “I have girls there who work for me.” It seemed he was extending an invitation for us to return with him to his home, for various yet-undefined entertainments.

“We’re just on our way to a concert, we’ll hit you up on the way back, “ I said, trying to quickly and politely part ways with him.

“Wait,” he said. “See, I know if you leave now you won’t see me again tonight. See, I know you, business man,” beaming, and pointing to his head again. I smiled, because I didn’t know how else to respond to all this.

“Let me be honest with you,” he continued, nearly in a whisper. He had gone from jovial to a mood that seemed almost furious.

“Let me be honest with you,” pressing his thumb to my sternum. “Totally honest. My beers," he paused, "are fucking ice crystals.”

I kind of liked him now. He was funny, and he ran some sort of home with women workers and cold beer. He extended a lit joint to me, and begged me to smoke. I held it, debating my next move.

At this precise moment, everything became extremely bright, flooded, so immediate. A white van had pulled up right into our trio. The bumper almost touched my shin. It was the police, two of them. “Stay still,” Ice Crystals was saying. “Drop the joint,” Emily was saying. The cops approached us. The cops in Jamaica, they carry machine guns.

I dropped the joint on the gravel, as nondescriptly as possible, my arm flat against my side. One of the cops went immediately to Ice Crystals, grabbed his beer out of his hand and threw it to the ground in a very not nice way. The second cop, he approached me, his eyes on the gravel at my feet. He was kicking the ground, kind of swiping it slowly back and forth with his foot, casual.

He said, “What did he say?”

“He was saying we should go back and have beers at his house,” I replied.

The cop did not reply to me. He had heard enough. He turned to Ice Crystals, spoke some sort of fast rebuke in Patois, and quickly cuffed him. They pushed him into the van. It took both of them, and they were doing it slowly. Emily said, “Let’s just turn around, slowly, walk straight through this hotel, and go straight back the beach.” Balsy move that would be. I wanted it though. We turned, walked, right through a grass yard.

“Hey!” I heard from behind. Oh, God. We’re going to jail in Jamaica.

I turned. It was not a cop, it was another Jamaican man.

“Are you staying here?” He asked, somehow devouring a piece of chicken at the same time he asked this. He wore a windbreaker, baseball cap, was obviously a security guard for this particular hotel.

“No, we’re just trying to get back onto the beach.”

“Oh. It’s straight that way,” pointing. We were literally three steps from the sand. We thanked him for the directions. We calmly walked out onto to sand, the moonlit sea brighter than you’d think, like there were glowsticks everywhere under the water. We’d brave the vampires after all.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Top 10 Things to Know about Jamaica - #1


1. Jamaica is that Paradise You’ve Always Envisioned…Yah, that One

Whether you know it or not, you were in fact always envisioning Jamaica. You know when I mean. Perhaps you were drifting off at work. Or while ignoring the speech of another person—while they blabber on about something irritating, say, “social media”—there has always been that hyper-idealized paradise image during moments of intense boredom: the sun a glowing orb in Technicolor, the sky blindingly blue and electric, water see-through like glass, powdery white sand, drink in hand, all against a slow rendition of “Sleep Walkers.”

(Does the one above on the left not look like something out the classic PC game Myst?)
This, sweet friends, is
Jamaica. How you received the image, in your private daydreams—again, usually while a friend, or someone behind you on a plane, pontificates endlessly about the dual nature of Facebook—without ever having been there, is one of the shrewdest acts of tourism marketing ever deployed. This would be one way to explain the Jamaican economic hardship: all of the money goes into the research of telepathic marketing at the intensely bored. Genius. They make their money back and call it even, I’m sure. Has to be.

I must note to you my surprise, upon arriving in
Jamaica and realizing I had been there in my head so many times. It exists?!, I thought.A land of the lushest, freshest green imaginable. The kind of lush that makes you drool when you say “lush.” Near-jungle, entirely, though not quite jungle. That precarious balance between forest and jungle. A land of cops with machine guns in black, red-striped pants (where they got the name for the beer). A land of transparent waters, the ocean like one hugely heated calm pool. People everywhere sitting, lounging, swimming, leaning against everything in sight. A land of the most bountiful supply of marijuana imaginable. The fields in the countryside reeked of it, whole fields, mountains of it baking and growing strong. Men riding bicycles everywhere rolling joints. Men passing by on the beach offering jet skis, and also, if you would like it, ganja. Bartenders singing with the radio, slowly making drinks, pausing to sit on a stool to watch the Olympics and smoke a joint. Aggressively smoked and sold, though technically illegal. Illegal for Jamaicans the same way spitting in public is illegal to Americans. The most formal and silly of laws.

This amalgam of sloth, heaven, Earth and ocean, all were Jamaica. You doubted its existence. What an asshole you had been. You thought its existence was fairy like, a natural and powerful opposite created by your mind, the only beauty powerful enough to buffer the unwavering speech of internet enthusiasts when they bore you. Which is true, but I guess that’s how the Jamaican tourism board designed it. Genius.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Oblivion Blogs: #1 - Character Creation


First of all, welcome to the first Oblivion blog. In an effort to feel productive while playing a two-year old RPG, I've decided to make this into something of a column. I'm sallying forth into Cyrodiil, the setting of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The idea is to provide some sort of social commentary on a fake world. The fact that the game is a little dated actually gives me more leeway that if it was released yesterday. I can openly address what blows: the places where the assumptions of designers and gamers alike go whiffing past anything that's even remotely fun or endurable. Of course the game is beautiful, and I deep down love it. It will be like travel writing to...what's an equivalent? To maybe like a summer camp in the 90s.

E = MC shit
In the film Pi, a man tries to figure out an equation to predict the movements of the stock market. In Oblivion, you will need first that equation, a sprightly high school student from China , a telescope, and a fully charged graphing calculator on hand. I'm referring to the character creation/leveling system in the game (see above picture). I'll do my best to explain how it works in as few words as possible, which will be the gist of this first post.

When you create a character, you will need to divvy up 21 "skills" (stuff like Blade, Marksman, Destruction magic) into two main categories: Major, and Minor. Each of these skills start at a base number, down in the 20s/30s, and can go up to 100. Your Major skills level up faster than Minor skills, and you can raise the level of each individual skill simply by using it. If you want your character to have more Destruction magic power, use fire spells to fry the fuck out of some deer for about an hour. It will increase over time. Want to be a sneaky thieving bastard? Sneak into someone's house, stand in the corner while they sleep, and then creepily stay in the "Sneak" stance for hours on end while they dream. You'll get better and better bonuses for each skill as you use it. The game was hailed for this. You can essentially handcraft a character according to your whims, by simply behaving however you like.

Here's a clincher: when you gain 10 points across any of your seven Major skills, in any combination, you will "level up." You'll go from, say, Level 1 up to Level 2. Your Minor skills do not count towards this leveling up business. When you level up, you will get to raise some of the seven core Attributes tied to those 21 skills: Strength, Intelligence, Willpower, Agility, Personality, Speed and Endurance. Each Attribute is plugged into three of the 21 skills. For instance, the Attribute of "Willpower" filters down into the Destruction, Alteration and Restoration magic skills. The main idea of this is, when it's level up time, based on how you've used your skills to get to that point, you can raise any of these seven Attributes by up to 5 points each. 10 levels in one skill set = 5 points can be raised for its governing Attribute.

Here is the problem: If you make your most-used skills (Destruction, if you're a mage), your "Major" skills, you will level up too quickly for your own good. When you gain in level, so do the enemies in the game. Yah. Basically, you'll blow your load on 10 quick levels in just one skill set, and be stuck leveling up in just that one Attribute. You'll become lopsided: a mage who can freeze a witch's tits off (Destruction skill - part of the Willpower Attribute), but runs out of magika faster than Lindsay Lohan runs out of coke on new year's (tied to Intelligence Attribute - filters back down to Conjuration magic, and two others).

In this way, it's actually counterintuitive to load up your seven Major skills with things you will often use. You want to slowly level up, so that by the time you do, you've gained quite a few levels in multiple skill sets. Mage's want business up front, party in the back: Major skills of things like Heavy Armor, Mercantile, Speechcraft, shit you'll never use; Destruction, Alteration, Conjuration, all the fun stuff down in Minor, where you can level the hell out of it without fear of leveling up.

The balancing act, is in loading up the Major skills with at least one or two swift-moving skills, to keep the clip going, while you have the Minor skills full of stuff you want to max.

After pondering this equation with several well known mathematicians, I came up with this tentative division. But first, here's what's wrong with this system.

Mario could also be made more complicated and deep, if "jump" was stripped of its simplicity, and turned into an athletics simulator, where angle, velocity, wind factor, clothing, determination, all these factors were put into the control of the gamer. But that's not how Mario thinks when he needs to jump. He just jumps. Maybe he gets better at jumping, learns new jumps, etc. Similarly, a real wizard would have no interest in the balance between his major and minor skills, his attributes, the fact that his marksman level is only 15 and could be better. It's like giving someone a Ferrari, but telling them they need to manually control each pound of the pistons, each puff of exhaust and movement of gears. The goal, it seems, is to get inside the mind of the Ferrari, not turn into an invisible person who pushes all of its buttons.

Major Skills:

Destruction (willpower)

Conjuration (intelligence)

Blunt (Strength)

Heavy armor (endurance)

Hand to Hand (Strength)

Mercantile (personality)

Security (agility)

Minor Skills:

Restoration (Willpower)

Alteration (willpower)

Alchemy (intelligence)

Mysticism (Intelligence)

Blade (Strength)

Marksman (agility)

Sneak (agility)

Illusion (personality)

Speechcraft (personality)

Athletics (Speed)

Block (Endurance)

Light Armor (speed)

Acrobatics (speed)

Armorer (endurance)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

I Am 8 Bit Gallery - September '08

I went to this gallery last year here in Hollywood, and was pretty blown away. This isn't exactly fan art, it's something a little more intense. The pieces each take a certain video game--the characters, worlds and themes--and sort of slather it with resonant and meaningful imagery. It seems (to me at least) the idea is to project new meaning onto something usually perceived as static, indulgent and childish.

Some of the recurring ideas I pull from these: failure, ecstasy, determination, hubris, impotence, gluttony...some pretty intense shit for Mario, Mega Man and Pac-Man. It's a shame that all of the pieces are all pants-shittingly too expensive. Hundreds and thousands of dollars.

Imagine a future where they have entire museums of this stuff. Someone would have to theoretically be the curator of such a place, and schmooze patrons with chatter like this *schmooze voice*: "Yes, D'Flobinshaute, he has one of the finest Samus Arans, at least for a Welshman, that is."

Anyway, I'm going to try and make it in September. Below are a couple of my current favorites of these.