Thursday, October 18, 2012

Don't be that Guy: Ray Muzyka Retreats

So I shared a freezer-burned post with you just a few days ago that acerbically responded to a blog post of BioWare's General Manager, Ray Muzyka. Well, now, it turns out that Ray is leaving the Mass Effect franchise, his company, and the entire frakkin' gaming industry behind. He's going into charity social entrepreneurship, whatever that means. Well, I'll tell you what that means, he's beating a hasty retreat in response to the tide of nerd-hate falling down around his ears. There's no other explanation for it. If you had just taken your own company's flagship product and dropped a lazy dump on its very existence and internal consistency, and then lied through your teeth to fans about being directly responsible and cognizant about its unpopularity, wouldn't you run with your tail between your legs?

Now, this will always be speculation, because as long as Mass Effect is a vibrant franchise, it's exceptionally unlikely anyone will confirm a correlation between Mass Effect 3's lousy resolution and Muzyka leaving, probably saying that Ray had been planning this for sometime, that he's wanting to branch out, help the poor social networking sites...blah blah blah. Mass Effect 3 was a huge financial success, he'd had the most direct creative influence over it, and it was clearly supposed to pave the way for even more in-universe games to branch out--probably to other genres and platforms. Who walks away in the middle of all that, except for someone who's either ashamed or being asked by EA to resign in order to ameliorate relations with Mass Effect fans.

I wish I could take some responsibility for this turn of events. If I'd been a good blogger and posted my previous article 5 months ago as intended, perhaps I could happily delude myself with the assurance that I had helped punish the man who dealt Commander Shepard the unkindest cut of all--a stupid ending. Instead, I'm happy with the fact that I'm convinced that the disgruntled collective of Mass Effect fans have responded with enough clamor that someone--either Ray himself or someone at EA--decided that he was no longer good for the franchise. In either case, I feel like this change can only be good for Dragon Age 3, which is in development and hopefully will be purged of any of Ray Muzyka's nutty ideas.

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Letter to Dr. Ray Muzyka, from some Mass Effect 3 Players

In mid-March, Ray Muzyka, the co-founder and GM of BioWare, used his own blog to reply to some of the overwhelming fan dismay at the ending of Mass Effect 3. This post, which will be spoilerific (unlike my spoiler-free Mass Effect 3 review), is a response to Dr. Muzyka and the rest of the creative team responsible for Mass Effect 3 and any upcoming changes to the game.

No really, the spoilers shall flow.

First of all, Ray, that blog post sends irate fans like me a mixed message. I understand that you're obliged to save a certain amount of face with this sort of public appeal. You can't outright apologize for a product you're selling. I get that. A lot of fans get that. But opening and closing a letter meant to assuage wounded fans with attestations to the critical receipt of the product is self-defeating, incendiary, and vain.  It's like book-ending an apology to your girlfriend with "I was right, and you were wrong. And simple-minded." We know Mass effect 3 is a mechanically beautiful game. The combat is crisp and precise, but the combat isn't what drives the hardcore Mass Effect fan. We thrive on the story, and that's imperiled by a sloppy ending that flies in the face of narrative elegance, ethics, and logic.

To recap, Mass Effect 3's final moments begin with Shepard and two squadmates charging towards a supply beacon in war-torn London. The beacon will beam Shepard into the heart of the ancient structure called the Citadel, where he hopes to activate a mysterious super-weapon called the Crucible to defeat the Reapers once and for all. The Crucible is based on the compounded designs of previous ages' greatest species, each of whom added to the concept of this anti-Reaper weapon before being extinguished by the race of genocidal machines. Under Shepard's banner, an alliance of all races have assembled a massive fleet and pooled their resources to finish the designs and construct this weapon without knowing anything about its function other than it needs to link to the Citadel to work. And so Shepard charges that one final hill in a mad foot-chase to destroy the enemies of all organic life--of all life, really, since they seem to be poised to destroy or enslave the robotic geth as well.

"It's like book-ending an apology to your girlfriend with 'I was right, and you were wrong. And simple-minded.'"

Just short of the objective, Shepard is hit by a secondary blast from a Reaper weapon, leaving him a bloodied, shuffling mess as he plods into the beam--apparently the only survivor of his part of the assault wave. This is where things start to go sideways, plot-wise, but nothing too bad. He finds himself transported into the heart of the Citadel, where he meets up with former CO, mentor, and all-round old-school butt-kicker David Anderson (voiced by Keith David), who is being held at gunpoint by the Illusive Man (Martin Sheen), the Benedict Arnold of the future. Though a cybernetic and psychic puppet of the Reapers, the alleged big bad guy still tries to convince Shepard how his plan to control the Reapers is feasible and imminent, now that he has access to the Crucible. The conversation is well-played between the three characters, but we're stepping on some old ground here--this is pretty similar to talks with Saren in the first game in this trilogy. And, as with Saren, it even comes down to you either shooting the Illusive Man yourself or talking him into committing suicide to snub the Reapers' control. Talking a bad guy into offing himself is a pretty cool proposition, but it shouldn't be made stale by getting repeat performances.

Still, the ending is decent-but-depressing at this point. And quite railroaded, too. But it's only after Shepard and Anderson sit down to bleed to death together that the plot nose-dives into something off of an inebrious cocktail napkin. Shepard is upraised on a lift to another chamber and greeted by a ghostly, child-like apparition. The apparition gives Shepard very little chance to get a word in edge-wise, but he has a lot to say though it makes little sense. The boy/ghost-thingie is the Catalyst--the last part needed to activate the Crucible. He's also the creator and controller of the Reapers, whom he created millions of years prior as a mechanism to manage organic-synthetic conflict. Apparently, little boy Catalyst decided that the best way to prevent the violent cycle of organics making synthetics and then killing each other is to make the biggest, baddest synthetic race imaginable--the Reapers--and set them loose on the galaxy, periodically wiping out all organic life when it gets too advanced. How does that end the cycle of violence? Furthermore, he goes on to offer 'options' which revolve around the concept of synthesis--a third faction, completely separate and superior to the synthetic/organic divide. Which makes no sense. Also, all of his choices amount to personal suicide for you and social suicide for all civilization in the galaxy, since it involves the exhaustive destruction of the interstellar transit network called mass relays.

The dumb and the stupid just pile up on each other faster than red hatchbacks piling up in the middle of a Wisconsin death-fog in late winter. There's no punch-line, no recognition of how bad the plot has turned. Just a blind careening of blanket, unfeasible statements and wild philosophical tripe.

Now, the Mass Effect series has more than enough homages to indicate that at least a handful of you guys are Serenity fans. So let me spell things out for you. If we apply the same principles of storytelling used in Mass Effect 3 to the climax of Serenity, this might have been what dedicated browncoats would have gotten in theater years ago:

I mean, really look at the elements. They're all there--all pure Mass Effect 3 in both the beautiful, heart-rending, ball-grabbingly awesome setup and the teeth-kicking so-called payoff. And the inclusion of the Catalyst boy is just as jarring as taking the worst element from another sci-fi property and shoe-horning it into the most emotionally charged part of the story.

Now, I originally wrote this article at the end of March, but I'd held onto it because Bioware had promised to release an 'extended ending' DLC to address fans' concerns with the crap ending. So I waited to see what the DLC's ending was, whether it at least shone some light on the rationale of the twist or revealed a bit more clarity on behalf of the writers when it comes to the odious implications of their opus' closing note. It didn't.

As you can imagine, I have more I could say on this topic. But, in the interest of diluting the nerd-rage, I'll save that for later. Right now, I'm going to watch The Avengers or maybe console myself with a ninety-ninth viewing of Firefly.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Almost 6 months!? OMGWTFBBQ!!!

Alright, this is not even funny anymore.

Nothing since April, really?

That's just wrong on so many levels.

So as you well know, I haven't posted on the blog here in nigh-on six months. Flippin' ridiculous. I haven't even logged on to Blogger in like four months, so early this morning I found a couple of comments with three inches of dust on them, still patiently awaiting approval. That ain't right, folks, that ain't right. Let's run down a few of the essential nerd-rants you've missed out on over the past 180 days or so.

A follow up on the Fire and Ice Convention. Geez, pal, go for the balls why don't ya? This was one of those 'next week' promises that I made that is now officially closer to 'next year' than 'next week'. And what hurts most is that I loved the con and want to be a cheerleader for it in the future.

About 30+ Movie Web Monday installments. Alright, if we want to get technical, those had lapsed from being a weekly feature long before the Great Gap of 2012. And for that, I blame Morgan Freeman. Enough said, for now.

Reviews of Snow White and the Huntsman, Underwhelming Spider-Man, and the Dark Knight Rises Falls Rises Falls, nope definitely Rises. I have a bit to say about these films. I saw them all on either the midnight showing or within the first weekend, and I can just kick myself for missing the opportunity to scam a few hits by dropping the names of more blockbusters on my poor, neglected blog.

Myth holidays. Apparently, I'm not the only one with a little enthusiasm for Bungie's long-past impeccable entry into the fantasy genre. People like that stuff, and by golly I've passed on the opportunity to cover the summer Myth holidays and their early harvest ones as well.

Kickstarter promotions. I've been bitten by the Kickstarter bug. Then it burrowed its head beneath my skin and wormed a long proboscis into my marrow, suffusing my entire being with a constant need to keep abreast of cool projects being presented directly to us, the nerd public. I wanted to talk about a couple of different Kickstarter projects that really got me excited, maybe getting you revved for them too while generating some slim cross-traffic. Well, there will always be more, but the ones that have already gone through weigh heavily on my blog-conscience.

So that's the butcher's bill. Pretty dang infuriating, isn't it? Ok, well, let's put things in proper order. This is the apology post, where I lay out excuses for those past lapses of blog activity and make a case for why you should have faith that this will be the last 30+ day delay in updates. But I'm not going to do that, because I'm cool, proud, and totally original that way.

I could blame the fact that my job in an unspecified tech field involving 3D printing has been progressively more draining on my creativity reserves, but that's BS--my creativity burns with the fire of a thousand suns with Joanne Whalley hues of auburn red hair and pouty lips...hmmm Sorsha...where was I? Oh, right, I'm an unflappable nerd. Seriously, I'm so nerdy that I've used it as a personal virtue in my last two jobs' interview processes. And even though my unspecified contract position is ramping up into an actual, in-company ID salaried job, there's no way it can be blamed for the malaise that has nuked this blogroll for the past half-year.

I could blame it on the house--since, you know, living in even a modest home like ours is a cursed burden on the owner in terms of housework, yard work, and generally deleterious ability to walk away from a problem project for months at a time without looking at it. But that's a load: I've been using my computer everyday for non-bloggy activities in the interim.

I could blame it on family--both immediate and extended. I've taken a trip to Canada, attended four weddings in this posting gap, and my wife and son don't exactly sit me in front of the computer to type a new blog post when I come home from work, now do they? But I'm not blaming them, because all of that stuff was awesome, fun, or eminently necessary. Or, in the case of my first visit to the socialist north, at least novelly eye-opening and a fun opportunity to share my unimpeachable Gollum impression with distantly related in-laws.

Or, if we wanted to look at really negative impulses from the past year, we could blame it on Mass Effect 3. I've been sitting on a 90% completed article about how much Bioware narratively junk-punched its fan-base over 6 months ago now. At first I was waiting for a token update after Bioware's release of the 'extended ending' of the game, which then turned out to be a much more dastardly and nuanced betrayal of the fans with a big obvious middle finger to critical gamers as the jerk-off cherry on top of one of the most half-assed game moments in industry history. But I won't blame them, because being pissed off can, in fact, be a great motivator for writing. As you will see in the future.

But I will level the blame somewhere this time. Really. I blame it on The Avengers. Because, as the polar opposite of Mass Effect 3, The Avengers was a pristine, polished, thoroughly researched and realized culmination of a fantastic series of movies. Sublime, in every glistening nerd-drooling moment. And I blame my long absence from blogging on it for being far and away the best movie in the genre and truly a great movie by any standard. So why blame it? Because The Avengers, hot on the heels on the loin-girding disappointment of Mass Effect 3, was the irresistible nerd-enthusiasm hitting my immovable nerd-rage. And it resulted in a full stop of my ability to rant (usually the outpouring of nerd-rage) or rave (the precipitant of nerd-enthusiasm) on my usual blog topics.

So then, what tipped the scale back towards writing on this blog? Guilt, of course. Guilt, which--like a social diarrhea--is the truest human motivator, that which separates us from the animals. Just last night I was at wedding number four of the year and speaking with family. Because my son was off running around and couldn't be my social shield at the time. Now, I'd just told my wife and my father (who feels it is his mission to serve as a human shot-clock for my blog updates) that I worried that people were still discovering my blog during my absence--that I was failing to hook new readers with fresh content while I dallied in the quandary of opposing forces of nerd motivators. Not ten minutes later, one of my aunts and a cousin began talking to me about my blog, and I felt the urge to purge myself of that guilt.

"...what tipped the scale back towards writing on this blog? Guilt, of course."

So here you have it: a fresh, toasty blog post, leavened with a triple-helping of guilt and left to warm itself on a slab of overly wordy dissertation. In pledge of new and exciting content, here's an overview of things I've done over the past six months that will be appearing in future posts.

Crying way too many nerd-tears and gnashing teeth in nerd-rage over Mass Effect 3. Over the past half-year, I've learned that I can't complain enough about Mass Effect 3's wretched plot turn. In addition to having a nearly prepared post on my first thoughts on the topic, I've been plotting a more thorough deconstruction that involves a complete critical rubric of the abject denouement to the sci-fi epic.

Watching a butt-load of Avengers. First I had three in-theater viewings of the movie over the course of its blockbuster release. Then I've also watched it about eight times on blu-ray since it has come out, including several partial viewings at work while pulling late night hours. And now my boy has gotten addicted to the cartoon version of The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, to the point that when he woke up this morning he ran over to the Xbox, turned it on, and started chanting "I'n Man! I'n Man!" I'll definitely be posting a proper odor-beef-gravy-cheese review of The Avengers.

Playing in a frakkin' Tesla pod, tools! During an out-of-state wedding for one of my wife's cousins, I got to make an epic update on my bucket list by gaming in a Mechwarrior Tesla Pod. That's huge nerd points added to my lifetime total, and ended up being a sweet chance to share the moment with eight or nine family members, too.

Being immensely proud of my son for leaping years ahead in his development of advanced warfare skills. This is another one that is going to get a full breakdown later on, so look forward to an awestruck daddy post in the near future. But the skinny is that my son established a counter-intelligence routine to setup an ambush from an entrenched position and overcome superior opposition through guerrilla tactics, shock and awe, and biological warfare. Daddy so proud.

Actually shooting zombies. That's actually shooting, as in using live-fire weapons, not shooting actual zombies, which, you know, is impossible outside of the Chinese rural countryside. Just last weekend I knocked off another item from my bucket list by schlepping out to a shooting range in central Illinois and firing some real-life guns. Not too nerdy, you say? Well what if I told you it was a zombie-themed event in which I ran four courses firing at zombie-styled targets to help prepare me for holding off hordes of the undead? Yes, that's what I thought. Some cool video of one of the courses below:

Planning on throwing a slammin' Outbreak Party. With our first house bought and moved into, Missus Nerdery and I are planning a zombie-themed costume party at the end of this month. It's going to be an awesome time, and I'll probably post an article about some of the ideas, games, and prep before the party as well as some after-party coverage, as well.

Well, that's it for now. I'd like to get another post up and scheduled for sometime over the next couple of days, so please watch. Oh, and don't be shy about commenting. Getting comment notifications congratulating me on my wit and awesome is a great way to leverage both pride and guilt to keep me blogging faithfully. Filmatleven.

At least I didn't give any excuses, right?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Nerdery Assemble!

Another dead month on the blog, during which time I've been subjected to one of the more dispiriting and humiliating tortures with which a nerd can be afflicted: moving into a new house. Granted, it's fun moving the family into our first house, banishing the guilt of raising a one year-old in an apartment and giving him a yard, his own room, and scoring myself a truly dedicated game room. (My apartment 'game room' doesn't count, because my wife put a Robin McKinley-dominated bookcase in there.) But that glory is cut by the agony of sorting through fifteen years of collections of comics, models, movies, and games--pulling out a beloved piece of nerd-obsession, sighing in exhaustion and exasperation, and then wondering whether selective arson would be a more humane solution to the task at hand. It turns out that I have accrued a lot of crap. Some of which has indeed been binned with a certain amount of apathetic disdain over the past weeks. Others are awaiting the modern slave block of eBay. The rest just accuses me of months and years of neglect.

Sigh. One day, nerd-hoard, one day...

In other business, the movie The Avengers is coming out next week. As any of you should be aware after reading a few of my articles in the past, I'm excited for the advent of this long-awaited super-team film. I've already posted on Captain AmericaAvengers that might have been, and Thor, but if you want a refresher, you can check them out again. Don't worry, I'll wait.

As a way of getting our house broken in and of spreading the nerd love for all things Marvel, my wife and I have decided to embrace the next week as Avengers Week. Starting on this Sunday, we'll be watching a different Avengers tie-in movie until we go to the midnight release of The Avengers. Sunday is Iron Man, then The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America will finish off the buildup on Thursday evening before we all parade over to the movie theater. Each night I'll spread out a selection of my Marvel library and related games for friends to peruse and play with as we have a fun time being social enablers of our shared dorkdom. It's going to be a fun nerd-invigorating experience, and I encourage all of you to take part in your own Avengers Week. If not, I hope to blog at least a bit about each movie and its impact as part of a greater whole in the coming week.

So expect more super-powered posts in the next week. Until then, true believers: excelsior!

Friday, March 30, 2012

Fatherhood, Year One

A Day in the Nerdery: Being a nerd is fun. There's a peculiar level of joy that can only be enjoyed by someone who knows how to properly visualize 'power armor-shattering pelvic thrusts', 'brace-for-impact bathroom breaks', or 'thing-foot'. I'm here to share that joy, whether you like it or not.

This past month my son celebrated his first birthday. And by celebrated, I mean toddled around and pounded the wall below where I have my gladius mounted with angry anticipation of feeling its heft. After a while, he got wasted on this sort of activity and pulled a stack of a dozen or so DVDs onto his head. Good times. Now, beginning with the day of my son's birth, I am making it a tradition to write my little sidekick a letter. What I write in that letter is not for you, so you don't get it unless I publish a memoir or something--in which case I'll expect you to snatch it off the shelves like a certain pale juniorized Running Man series.

What I do feel like sharing, though, are a few thoughts on the first year of being a poppa-bear. Something which is entirely different and cooler than being a Paw Paw bear.

1985 was such a long time ago, wasn't it?

(Marvelously unsettling to PC sensibilities, no?)

First of all, being a dad is easy. Before my son was born, I worried about coping with feeding, puking, pooping, peeing, and other foul minutia I was too blissfully ignorant to dread. I'm a youngest child--never babysat any babies or toddlers--and thus I was befrighted by my inexperience. Most of these hangups were gone by the end of the first week, when my wife was still recovering from being used like an overstuffed manilla envelope.

I'll let that image sit for a while.

We got home and in one week super-dad arose like a billionaire from a terrorist's cave, sporting a cobbled-together-but-still-awesome power suit which was remarkably adequate to handle everything. More or less. Audumbla still got to do her thing, you know, but otherwise it was ruling the galaxy as father and son for that first week, and I picked up all the tricks I needed. Diapers (unfortunately) quickly lost their inscrutable, sphinx-like quality as I quickly schooled all the women in my life on the art of changing a wrasslin' nerd-baby in record time. Waking up repeatedly every night felt somehow normal and sleeping for six or more hours at a time has started to feel like a suspicious setup for some terrible stinking surprise--mostly because it usually is. And whatever hangups survived that first week were obliterated by the end of the first month--there are only so many times that you can be defecated upon before you're no longer cowed by the dolorous smell of a steamy diaper load. So yeah, there are a lot of new things to pick up as one becomes a dad, but I found that I was constantly surprised by how easily I adjusted to them with just a little cooperation and dependence from my family.

"After a while, he got wasted on this sort of activity and pulled a stack of a dozen or so DVDs onto his head. Good times."

Secondly, being a dad is tough. So what if lesson one and two contradict each other? Deal with it, pops. You've got to cope with a constant sense of paranoia that is a polar opposite of the dumb spirit of invulnerability that possessed you in your high school and college years. You go from feeling invincible to feeling powerlessly frail. Now the possibility of death means failure and heartache--who's going to take care of my little guy? Who's going to raise him on ExoSquad and Gargoyles? Who will teach him right from wrong in terms of quality genre analysis? What if he gets raised to be the next generation's equivalent of a Twilight fan? Pow! Welcome to fatherhood, chump. You've slept your last peaceful night, MacGregor. Similarly, it's easy to be overwhelmed with fear at how frail your child is. Every fall--especially at night--becomes a wrathful, tear-inducing experience in which you play over only the worst case scenarios. Constantly. Every little eccentricity you pick up on now might be the foundation of a debilitating social problem or evil streak. Am I raising Damien? How'd he get that knife? And so on.

But it's really tough because you really aren't prepared for the timing of anything--which is happens to be everything marvelous happened last week. He likes to laugh when he sees his shadow? That's so cute; he just stopped doing that last week. That sound he makes when he wants your attention that sounds like the hound puppy from The Fox and The Hound? Adorable; and haven't heard it for more than a week. Everybody says that kids grow up so fast, which is true enough, but that overused proverb easily becomes just meaningless white noise that disarms you for the startling truth. You see, what you aren't prepared for is how quickly that first year, with all its divers moments, goes by. As your baby gets older, you become preoccupied with sleeping through the night, having that tooth finally break through so he'll stop crying all day long, or that he'll stop drooling so much. You're so focused on getting past these annoying milestones that, while you may appreciate them, you don't spend enough time savoring the concurrent wonderful stuff. I would be so busy trying to keep Bucky asleep and comfortable that I only half appreciated that we were watching our first science fiction film together--Battle: Los Angeles. I'm so anxious for him to talk that I never bothered to film him making those wheezing hound-dog sounds. I'm not sure I ever got a picture of him in his homemade Serenity onesie. And so the litany of being a dad goes: you wish you had a camera; you wish you'd paid attention; you didn't know how hard it was being a dad.

"...there are only so many times that you can be defecated upon before you're no longer cowed by the dolorous smell of a steamy diaper load."

Thirdly, I learned how very different I am from my wife. Not in a bad way, but just the fact that the parenting experience can so polarize one's perceptions and opinions. My waifu might see Bucky chewing on her cell phone with peculiar diligence and dub it cute: he's trying to talk. I see that and label it expensive: that phone is going to get wrecked. He stands up straight, pulls his shoulders back, and sticks his tummy out. Is he cute? Certainly. Also probably going to sprint for dad's pile o' RPG stuff? Most definitely. That dimple-on-dimpled grin and askance look isn't just a cute photo op, mom. It's also a setup to headbutt you in the face for the thirtieth time this year. But dad sees the setup for the melee combo--and the little bugger never gets to headbutt daddy. And when I'm tossing him around and wooshing him across the apartment with a fairly accurate Newtonian physics engine, he's not crying because he's too full or sleepy for such play: he's crying because mommy made me stop. And so forth.

Even though she's a quaint Canadian-German alien bride with no exposure to quality sci-fi before we met, I'd never felt all that different until we both sat down, watched our son, and started interpreting his little thoughts and actions. Is he cranky or is he being a turd? Is he watching you with sleepy eyes, or is he calculating something while you're lulled into a false sense of security? Is he holding that spoon against the back of his head to brush his hair, or is he luring you into range for a crack across the nose? Did he mean to wake me up with a chubby knee in the groin, or did he forget I was there? Mars vs Venus has nothing on mommies vs daddies.

It's been a wonderful first year of beginning my nerd dynasty. My son got all eight of his teeth before he was eight months old. He's walking and stomp-sprinting at will--which means he rarely sprints except when he thinks my game stuff is unguarded. He's learned the lamentable Art of the Boneless Way--useful for foiling subduction attempts and punishing me for keeping him away from said gaming stuff. The little earthman has taken to doffing his cloth diapers with epic verve--standing proudly and tearing them off like a pair of track pants, then posing with a triumphant grin before bounding off into the kitchen as naked as a Mamet script. He also developed a taste for salt and vinegar chips, too--honestly, I thought giving him a piece would make him stop grabbing at my plate.

Also, I think he recognizes (and likes) the Firefly theme song, so that means he's developing along nicely and I'm doing my job.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

John Carter (of Mars!) Review

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

Expectations 'Odor': As indicated by my Nerd Year 2012 post, I've been looking forward to John Carter of Mars. Even when Disney changed the advertized title to just John Carter, I was excited. There's not much in the way of true Planetary Romance genre on film, and certainly nothing that I've had the chance to see on the big screen, so this should be a refreshing breath into a long undeveloped genre (sub-genre, really) of cinema. It's based mainly on the 1912 book A Princess of Mars, which has at the core of the story a profoundly romantic and noble concept. Unfortunately, that idea would be a huge spoiler to any of you who don't know the source material and haven't seen the film, so I won't share what it is and ruin a big chunk of the movie for you. And with Willem Dafoe as one of the lead protagonists, and Mark Strong as a lead antagonist, this should be an interesting flick. Willem Dafoe, who voiced alien chieftain and all-around-badass Tars Tarkas, is an inspired choice as he has a voice that can fluctuate between sage and creep really well. And Mark Strong portrays excellent villains that are sinister without too much mustache-twirling, that can rant at being foiled without becoming impotent, and can plot without breaching the constraints of the character. Also on the baddies' roster is Dominic West, who can pull off ancient epics adroitly and has some experience playing turkey-buzzard bad-guys as well.

Going into the theater I wanted John Carter to be a fun adventure that spanned a lot of space and depth--something like Indiana Jones with aliens (those ones don't count!) and more swordplay. Stargate with more heart and thrilling moments and less brooding. Jurassic Park with more curb-stomping the monsters and kicking Dennis Nedry in the gonads. Star Wars with confidence in your muscles and heart rather than an ephemeral superpower which undulates between sublime Zen mastery and smug philosophical d-bagging. Star Trek with hotter everything and more face-punching. In short, I wanted John Carter to be genuine popcorn-fare with a nostalgic innocence and charm from a poorly represented sub-genre.

Appreciation 'Beef': And that's pretty much what I got. John Carter is a fun, fairly light-hearted movie that is totally appropriate for the family but still has an appeal that makes it geared toward older audiences. The story takes its cues from the source material--a series of 11 books written by Tarzan's scribe Edgar Rice Burroughs--in a respectful manner, although it doesn't concern itself overmuch with detailed accuracy. The special effects are at that happy story-telling middle-ground where they advance the plot but don't steal scenes, despite some really awesome visuals. And the actors all feel well-suited to their roles: the ones you might expect to do well do shine, but even the unseasoned younger stars do quite well.

"Mark Strong portrays excellent villains that are sinister without too much mustache-twirling, that can rant at being foiled without becoming impotent, and can plot without breaching the constraints of the character."

John Carter is a man old beyond his years when the film starts. He's healthy and renowned as a Confederate cavalryman, but he's also a wreck, obsessed with a cave of gold and with fighting for no one but himself. This becomes problematic when he finds his gold, kills a strange pale man with a glowing pendant, and then wakes up in a desolate placed called Barsoom. Barsoom is Mars, and being an earthman on Mars gives the star of our story stupendous strength and the ability to jump great distances--physics need not apply, this is pulp sci-fi at its genesis. The real issue for John Carter on Mars, however, is that everyone is looking for a hero to fight for them. Especially the hottie-princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, who is set to be married to the Martian Dick Dastardly (Dominic West) if no one rescues her. Also vying for John Carter's assistance is Tars Tarkas, who leads a tribe of four-armed, green-skinned Tarks like a pirate captain with a heart of...well, sterling silver, if not gold. This is pretty respectful to the themes of the source material, but with a little bit more subdued brooding on John Carter's behalf and a bit more physical ability on behalf of the princess. The nature of the villains and their toys are tweaked somewhat, as well, but they still feel in tune with the pulp era sensibilities that A Princess of Mars helped launch.

I saw John Carter in 3D, which if you'll recall in my Captain America post, makes for two 3D movies in the past year. Or two in the past 20 years, depending on how you want to distribute your data sample. The 3D in this movie was much more subtle than Captain America, though. There are no moments where the director wants you to duck as a weaponized tire iron flies at the screen, or lurch as the shark looks like it's going to eat you, or reach out in vain hope for that twelve foot-tall candy bar hovering over your Regal Cinemas roller coaster. No, here the 3D experience is a mere enhancement to some of the crazy aerial photography and incredible acrobatics performed by the super-powered protagonist. Its subtlety was reassuring to me, as I tire of the canned shots and jump-cinematography of standard 3D experiences, but others have called it gimmicky to have 3D that you aren't reminded of constantly. The special effects, though, are great. One of the singular features of the film is the way it creatively realizes some truly grotesque creatures in a way that is both expressive and, at times, cute. For instance, John Carter picks up an alien dog companion named Woola early on in the film. Woola's a typical faithful furry friend, except that he has no fur, six legs, is about the size of an obese horse, and has a nose-less pug face. In other words, he should look horrific in just about any light. The character with which he's animated however, gives him a playful energy that mimics the indomitable affection of your family's favorite pet, and he manages to be a cute little critter regardless. The Tharks, similarly, are given quite alien anatomy--not just in that they have four arms, but their physiques are fundamentally inhuman, and possibly the best realization of their race yet--and are refreshingly different to nerds who have had Frank Frazetta and Frank Cho's art dominate their visualization of Barsoom and its people. But they are still unique and distinct enough as individuals that I had no trouble distinguishing between four different Green Martians over the course of the movie. Of course, I can tell the difference between Cho's illustrations of women in black and white, so maybe I am better at this subset of perception than others. My beloved waifu, however, is absolute rubbish at such observations, and she could still tell them apart easily (the movie Tharks--I don't know if she can differentiate Cho women) so maybe those who claim the aliens all look alike have their fuddy-duddy goggles on.

Stupid fuddy-duddies, with their whole "I can't tell the aliens apart!" "Why's he jumping so high?" and so forth.

"In short, I wanted John Carter to be genuine popcorn-fare with a nostalgic innocence and charm from a poorly represented sub-genre."

The actors in John Carter are a capable bunch. There were a few surprises in the casting, with comedy staples Bryan Cranston and Don Stark as Army Colonel Powell and Dix the storekeeper, respectively, serving in serious bit roles in the first act of the movie. Later, James Purefoy showed up for a little chuckle as a Heliumite general. The biggest shock, however, was seeing Daryl Sabara--the little Spy Kid himself--as a young Edgar Rice Burroughs. The rest of the cast, however, was appropriately adroit with the diverse parts. Thomas Haden Church played Tal Hajus, the Green Martian malcontent vying for Tars Tarkas' throne, and he lent his gravelly malice to the small role admirably--making Tal a compelling-if-minor villain. Mark Strong was probably my favorite casting--something about his sincerely diabolical performances always grips me--as Matai Shang, a supernatural Thern who undulates between scheming grand-master and micro-managing monologue-er. Taylor Kitsch as John Carter was a decent casting choice--he's young enough to play a heroic, musclebound lord of Mars, but he was also subdued enough to portray a young man old before his time. Lynn Collins, as leading lady Dejah Thoris, is confident and commanding in her role--which is good for playing Dejah-the-princess, but a little less useful for playing Dejah-holding-out-for-an-earthman-hero. Still, she does a good job playing a clothed Dejah (yes, in the books, Barsoom's people rarely wore anything more than jewelry), which is one of those mixed blessings of the family-friendly flick. At least John Carter is wearing more than a holster and a bracelet.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': I enjoyed John Carter as a romp on another world that didn't have to be saddled with baggage of reactionary politics or cynical analysis of the world we live. Critics seem to enjoy riffing on John Carter for not being something entirely different, as if they expected Ellen Ripley to show up on Barsoom and start alternating between mass violence and riffing on all symbols of corporate capitalism. As if he's not supposed to wander a bit, find his stride, and then be awesome in trans-Harrison Ford degrees. While John has a little bit of a (hilarious) learning curve before adjusting to his Barsoomian excellence, I loved both the build up to and the payoff on the leading man becoming a world-striding hero of the downtrodden.

"At least John Carter is wearing more than a holster and a bracelet."

You can call me a post-Star Wars nerd, but I couldn't help thinking throughout the movie how much more I was enjoying it than the supposed ultimate in science fiction cinema series. The art direction of the flying transports, the airships, and the walking city Zodanga itself were all realized in a much more interesting manner than the comparable elements in Star Wars. Zodanga is particularly cool, and the shots of it are massive, evocative, and make for a perfect home for the antagonists of the story. Woola, in his ghoulish cuteness, is probably one of the most fun mute companions in the genre. And we're not even getting into the Tharks yet.

The Tharks are just plain cool. They make for an interesting realization that John is in fact on another world, what with their extra manipulators, tusks, and nine foot-tall physiques. But they also help to illustrate the harsh values that the dying Barsoom has engendered: they live by Machiavellian principles, raising their eggs en masse to hide identities (and presumably defusing sentiment) and then have the women compete over who gets to raise Tharklings. It's fun and bizarre, and it sets things up so that it's no surprise to learn that Thark leaders can assume their position by personal challenge of combat. It makes perfect sense, as does a number of the details about this neat race. Even down to the detail that they posture differently than humans, the Tharks are well fleshed out. This is particularly admirably done when you consider that the original Star Wars trilogy had three installments with Chewbacca as a representative to flesh out Wookies, and yet we never learn more about his character than that he's a supposedly loyal d-bag and wise-acre. The prequels do no more for fleshing out the race as a society or as individuals. Yet John Carter crafts an interesting alien culture and gives distinct individual examples of that species.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': It's important to note that this film, like certain others I've reviewed, has received a harsher critical reception than a popular reception. That is, the average reviewer will give it a moderately negative rating, while most theater-goers give it a much higher rating coming out of a screening. Take that for what you will, but I have noticed two general types of critics of this fun, fresh film: those who are antagonistic to the sub-genre and John Carter's legacy, or those who slavishly require the movie to be a 'faithful' adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' work. The first type call the movie tedious, complain that they got too much special effects and not enough 3D (I don't get that one, either), and that the stars are unremarkable or unrecognizable in their roles. These reviewers also like to point at any similarities to Star Wars or Avatar--a strange pair to hold up as genre paragons--and say that this film is a cheap knockoff of those works, even though the century-old source material inspired both of those highly derivative works, and the points of similarity pale in comparison. The die-hard fans of the original works, on the other hand, seldom see fit to actually review the movie, instead spending their word-counts bemoaning things like the Therns being inaccurately represented by themselves (it doesn't occur to them that the arch-villains could be lying about their origins, apparently), or the way Dejah Thoris is presented as a more capable character than the swarthy shoulder-candy damsel-in-distress she is for much of the original books. I can commiserate with the second complaint, since it makes John Carter fall in line with all other action movies of the past fifteen years rather than making it a more unique throwback to Planetary Romance's trappings--and let's face it, the scientist-princess-warrior combo is a bit of a stretch. The fans will also complain, furthermore, that John Carter himself is not cast as enough of a charismatic Southern Gentleman(tm) and that his backstory is a complete fabrication. The fact that John Carter's back-story makes for an excellent way to flesh out the warrior-turned-pacifist and give him depth without making him conform to the racist overtones of a post-Civil War slave-owner who still resists the US government at every turn just because he's a dixie-doodle-dandy is completely secondary to them. Wow, that last sentence almost got away with me.

"Woola, in his ghoulish cuteness, is probably one of the most fun mute companions in the genre."

So what do people who enjoy the movie come out saying? Well, I've read a disproportionate number of reviews (my own included) that report it was a fun date movie with the spouse. As an action film, it gives a nice representation of sweet moments, light romance, and loyal friendship alongside fun battle sequences and masculine, punchy-but-wry humor. It has a very emotional undercurrent for those looking for it, but at the same time it has giant monsters and sword-fights. It manages to combine most of these elements seamlessly, which I think is part of what makes it such a great movie for couples. The special effects are well done, and there's some really neat fantasy design going on in the creatures, the scenery, and the costumes if you watch the details, but never anything that overpowers you or steals the show as is common in most visual effects-heavy science fiction. And, if you're not too hung up about things outside the movie, you'll find that John Carter is a more cogent sci-fantasy epic than most alternatives--telling a complete story that, while open for a sequel, is very satisfying on its own.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Review (Spoiler-free)

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

It took a bit longer than I'd anticipated (as least partly due to a round of RSV for the wife, my sidekick, and I), but after less than a week with Mass Effect 3, I have beaten it. Not just completed it, but excelled to beat it on the hardest difficulty: Insanity. It's become a tradition of mine with BioWare's games to make sure that my first playthrough with them is on the highest difficulty. And no lowering the difficulty in tough spots--like I've said before: I don't believe in lowering the bar. So, here is my Nerdview on Mass Effect 3.

Expectations 'Odor': As you might have gleaned from some of my previous posts, I've been anticipating this game for quite some time. Mass Effect's debut was a breath of fresh air--a space epic that revolved around relationships and choices, as I played it, and culminated in a sweeping battle across multiple fronts against an eldritch foe. It was Battlestar Galactica and Serenity and Star Wars with a double-vente shot of adrenaline that could only come from an action game experience. Mass Effect 2 hit all the right buttons for me and, while different in tone and execution, was an essentially perfect sequel and followed the themes of Mass Effect perfectly. So what was I looking forward to with Mass Effect 3? Well, in addition to the points I've talked about at-length in the past, I'd been eagerly looking forward to a battle with the Reapers that was exhausting and exhaustive, stretching across the galaxy and giving the player a feeling of being trapped by his enemies. In the first two installments, this was not the case, as I generally felt a pretty significant aesthetic distance from the Reapers and their minions, and only a few brief moments of loss and chaotic response were there to anchor oneself in that feeling of heroic helplessness. With Mass Effect 3 beginning with the effective end of the world, I expected there to be a lot more urgency in the story-telling.

I also wanted to get closure with the relationships developed throughout the series. Not just the romantic interests--though if there wasn't an option to grow old and read poetry with Ashley Williams, I'd be somewhere between disappointed and pissed. I also wanted my bromance with Garrus to end with us sharing war stories in a bar: "Remember when we went up against that huge plant?" "We shot it and shot it, and it just wouldn't die..." I wanted to have closure with the races and the huge decisions I'd made over the course of the trilogy--there's too many massive decisions not to have a Return of the King-sized epilogue, right? In the first two games, you really get the chance to absolutely roll over several civilizations, profoundly affecting their direction. I deserve to see the fruits of my megalomania--so tell me what really happens.

"With Mass Effect 3 beginning with the effective end of the world, I expected there to be a lot more urgency in the story-telling."

So going in, I had to be honest and say that I was expecting--requiring, really--Mass Effect 3 to be the third home-run hit in a row. Not exactly fair, but that's how things go in the Nerdery. And, with how much goodwill and resources BioWare has gathered in the past five years, I don't think it's that unreasonable of an expectation.

Appreciation 'Beef': Boy, after spending about 50 hours of gameplay (plus 6 or so playing multiplayer) I have finally beaten Mass Effect 3 on Insanity difficulty, which was a reassuringly difficult feat. I'm exhausted. Truly. I think I'll be taking a week or two off of (video) gaming out of sheer gaming and emotional fatigue--including maybe a little frothing rage, too, but filmatleven for that. Overall, I have to say that BioWare made a slick game. They took a lot of the complaints about Mass Effect 2 and dialed in the gameplay to something more elegant than the first one but less action-streamlined than the second. The graphics were awesome, and the characters graphically rendered better than ever. The score was much more profoundly affecting than its excellent precedent in the first two games, and the plot hit the highest, noblest, best notes of the series amidst a bit of a cacophony of story-telling.

One of the dominating--and totally justified--complaints about the gameplay with Mass Effect was that the inventory system was an unrewarding mess. You'd scroll through dozens of upgrades, which had ten iterations based on your level, and in the end the actual change to weapon and gameplay performance was negligible. The cover system was really under-utilized, too, as firing on-the-move in the open was often a better or more natural tactical choice in most firefights. Mass Effect 2 over-compensated for this. The upgrades and inventory system got completely binned, and they added heavy weapons and slight ammo limitations to the game ('thermal clips'--please, call a magazine a magazine). Your weapon selection was restricted to a handful of very different weapons in each gun class, and the heavy weapons were incredibly different and could really reflect your style through load-out selection. And cover became critical and a bit more nuanced, as it served to help stabilize weapon aim while also adding to your survivability. In Mass Effect 3, they did a good job of compromising between the two games. Cover is ever more critical than before, but every battle's opposition has a couple of grenade throwers, so you have to be ready to change position quickly.

"I deserve to see the fruits of my megalomania--so tell me what really happens."

The weapon selection is similar to Mass Effect 2, but with the addition of being able to add two upgrades to a weapon--like Mass Effect, but with a lot more combat-impact based on the mods chosen. You can even mess around with what weapon types and how many you'll bring to the fight regardless of character class, distinguishing itself from both games. Want to have an Engineer with a shotgun and sniper rifle? Do it. Or an Adept who goes to battle with an assault rifle? Kit it out. Or a Vanguard with the full armory on his back? It's yours. The only limitation is that the weight of your arsenal now affects your abilities' cool-down rates, so it may very well be worth it to carry only an SMG and count on using your class powers twice as often. Lamentably, though, these changes do come with the omission of heavy weapons from the armory--you can only equip the occasional heavy weapon, normally with severely limited ammo, in the middle of pitched missions. Lame, I say.

The combatants themselves are mostly straightforward iterations and familiar from the previous games, although the BioWare guys decided that the Reapers' groundside forces needed more variety than just the infected-human Husk chumps. Unfortunately, they went with making each harvested race tend to churn out a vastly different Reaper-ized baddie in old-school gaming fashion. Batarian space-turds become Cannibals--grenade-spammy and corpse-armored. Turian too-cool-for-school's become shield-buffing Marauders. Asari interstellar-floozies become super-cheap and annoying Banshees. And krogan better-than-Klingons-and-Wookies become dumb tank/apes called Brutes. The numbers and proportions of these foes, however, are dictated by gameplay and balance, and so they really frak with your sense of disbelief. Asari, for instance, are long-lived and make up a huge wedge of the galactic population, but you only see Banshees one or two at a time in big battles--thankfully, as they are the most annoying unnamed enemies of the series. Also, the fact that human prisoners get Reaper-ized into the dumb rage-zombie Husks makes me feel like the Reapers shouldn't focus so much on Earth anyways. You want a super army of toadies? Blender the asari--they'd make an unstoppable force of cheap attacks and disturbing imagery no one would want to oppose. Also, there's a lot less synthetic-stomping fun, as Geth aren't major players and the mechs of Mass Effect 2 stay home altogether.

The Mass Effect series is based on the Unreal game engine, which is well-suited to cover-based gunplay, but it is also a very elegant engine for rendering beautiful textures. That was maybe a little less well-known until recently, when Batman: Arkham City was released using the same engine to great effect for its great character design. Mass Effect 3 also makes great use of the engine, doing a lot more with lighting and shadow than we've seen in the previous games. Many a time, I found myself watching the game during a conversation and commenting "wow, my Shepard looks awesome." Of course, part of this is visual direction, too. The BioWare folks really tightened up the screws on trying to cinematically make you feel the tragic loss and impending doom of the game, and so you get a lot of great angles with hard shadows drawn across faces that make the game really sing. The space battles and other epic scenes follow the form for Mass Effect 2, with a lot of really well pre-rendered cutscenes that are just gorgeous. Of course, I usually prefer to have in-engine cutscenes--it shows off the tech and saves space on the disc for more action and longer sequences. But, in any case, Mass Effect 3 performs wonderfully in the visual field, with a bit more setting and environment diversity, too. Heck, even being on war-torn earth in the opening mission and war-torn Palaven's moon later on feel worlds apart in terms of terrain, pace, and execution.

You saw what I did there with "worlds apart", right? Good.

"Blender the asari--they'd make an unstoppable force of cheap attacks and disturbing imagery no one would want to oppose."

The music in the latest Mass Effect game has lived up to and surpassed its predecessors, propelling the story-telling to a whole new level. Eerie and suspenseful in all the right parts, Clint Mansell has built on established series cues to create something that is especially affecting for fans. Several highly emotional moments are really sold on the weight of the musical score perfectly stepping in time with the plot, and there was even a couple of times where I recognized a particular theme and started to feel more worried about a beloved NPC, who ended up surviving despite the sonorous bait-and-switch. Without Mansell's fabulous soundtrack, Mass Effect 3 would have a much harder time getting its emotional themes across. In fact, it might even be impossible.

Oh, what to say about the plot? Again, without spoilers of any kind, I can tell you I cried out loud at one point. Then I loaded a save, made a different decision... and I bawled. Mass Effect 3 has some very poignant moments with some of my favorite characters in the genre, and they are solid gold tragic, noble, and sentimental in turn. Of course, that's not all of the story. In the end, the game tended to fall into the same side-quest grind that I found difficult to get through in subsequent playthroughs of the first Mass Effect game. This isn't a necessary pitfall for the player, as like Mass Effect you can bypass huge portions of secondary content, but the War Assets dynamic--a listing of allied forces aligned against the Reapers that updates with every little mission--made me feel like even if I wasn't missing out on great potential moments with my crew, I might be missing out on essential resources for the final battle. The War Assets, as it turns out, is little more than a gimmick with no ultimate point, which makes the side-quest grind feel like an especially bad shot to the nuts in hind-sight. Amidst the awesome character development, shining set-pieces, and the secondary mission grind, the story also tends to lose a sense of itself. Cerberus is an exaggerated and massive threat in this game, which feels contradictory to its covert, small-scale operations presented in previous games. They use it to introduce a lame space-ninja foil, who is as annoying to fight as ninjas always are: be warned, Fai Leng is unwarranted, frustrating, and cheap both as a character and as an opponent. Meanwhile, the Reapers are a faceless boogeyman for the first time in the series. While Mass Effect had Saren and Sovereign as representatives for the Reapers and Mass Effect 2 had the Collector General/Harbinger, Mass Effect 3 has no face or voice for the end of all known life in the galaxy. They mention Harbinger a couple of times, but there's nothing like the creepy cyclopean smack-talk you have with the two kilometer dreadnought Sovereign in the first game. Not even the creepy, deep-throated taunting and ill-omens of Harbinger in the second game. It contributed to the listing feel I got towards the middle of the game, and seemed just a bit sloppy.

"The War Assets, as it turns out, is little more than a gimmick with no ultimate point, which makes the side-quest grind feel like an especially bad shot to the nuts in hind-sight."

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': This game had so much going for it. While I've teared up during other games--I may or may not have teared up and sputtered a bit at the end of Red Dead Redemption--I've never outright cried or felt so emotionally invested as I did in this game. For over 50 hours of gameplay, I slogged through this game's titanic plots and deep decisions with wide-eyed resolve to beat it best and hardest on the first try. I thrilled through the combat, took a few curse-breaks after repeatedly dying at the hands of an occasional Banshee or space-ninja, and I felt like this was going to be the game I always knew it would be. And then the last twenty minutes came along and dumped on me, on the setting, and on every lauded decision I had made in the series.

Seriously, no spoilers in this post. I'm saving all of that for an upcoming rant.

If I believed in giving games objective ratings, I would say that Mass Effect 3 maintained a 95 or 100 percent throughout most of the game and well into the third act. In fact, the emotional stakes and story-telling ante of the game reach a fevered brilliance as you near the ultimate goal of defeating the Reapers. I was misty-eyed and charged, voice raw from cheering through battle cutscenes and in-game combat alike. I was ready to do this. And then, from that dizzying precipice of sympathetic fervor, I crashed into one of the worst plot-twists--and I use the term loosely: it's only a twist because it's inconceivably dumb--in the entire science-fiction genre. My hypothetical rating for the game probably dropped down to 70 or 75 percent in a matter of minutes. I felt sick. Whereas the game had previously played with my emotions in a cooperative way, nudging me towards despair, sorrow, hope, and vengeance in turn, now the story was stooping to a puerile McGuffin that made me feel like I'd been betrayed by everything the game stood for. The quality of the moment and story itself had dropped as well, but mostly I was just pissed. I made Shepard, gorram it. He wasn't a Bioware character--he was mine. I'd lent him to them so I could see him go through some tough choices, fight hordes of bad dudes (and maybe a couple of good ones, too), and come out of it with scars and glorious stories. I don't want to tell this story BioWare made Mass Effect become, regardless of the token decisions at the end. I want to retconn it for my own. BioWare screwed up my character, and I'm going to fix it.

"...the emotional stakes and story-telling ante of the game reach a fevered brilliance as you near the ultimate goal of defeating the Reapers."

Warning: the following list will have some light, abstract references to game occurrences that might be mistaken for spoilers. But I said there are no spoilers in this post, so they aren't.

I must outline, briefly (or not so briefly, by now), which of the items from my list they actually included in Mass Effect 3:

I want to kill the frakkin' geth dead: Possible, but they really try hard to make you look and feel like a baboon-butt for doing it.

I want to see more of the aliens: They get partial credit on this. You get to interact with one krogan female, but she's so covered in a shawl and headdress combo that you might as well be conversing with Sharon Stone rolled up in a rug. You can get a very tiny glimpse of Tali's face, though, so that's cool.

I want to fight against some hanar: Technically, I got this one, too. Though it's only a single hanar, and you gun him down in a conversation, but his reasoning for supporting the Reapers was exactly what I said in my post last year, so yay me.

I want every romanceable character to make a full return: They hardly get any credit on this one. All of the romance options make an appearance, but some of them are so brief and insubstantial they might as well be Stan Lee in a Marvel movie.

I want one-and-a-half butt-loads of potential party members: Big fat fail. You have to really struggle to get the roster up to seven, and even then only four of them are past party members. Very disappointing.

I want the romance to be more nuanced, and to explore getting completely spurned or rejected: Another big fail. The romance system is basically the same in this game as in Mass Effect 2, only the craptastic ending in this game makes your romantic overtures especially vain and juvenile.

I want character death to be possible outside specific plot-points: Fail. Just plain fail. Though several NPCs pretty carelessly throw themselves into suicidal hero moments--some more pointless than others--they only die in the specific plot-points designated.

I want party dynamics to include teamwork in combat, not just how they snark back and forth: Another big fail, the party banter feels drastically reduced in this game, too. After 50 hours, I have no sense of how any of the new team members feel about each other, and that's simply un-immersive.

I want a time-management dynamic: Although the early parts of the game made me feel like I was under a time limit, you in fact have all the time in the world to scour the galaxy for lost puppies. Fail.

I want more mutually exclusive choices: Partial credit on this one. There are a lot of new, terrible choices in Mass Effect 3, but I'm docking them their credit because the cloaca-dwelling ending invalidates virtually every choice you might really labor over in the game.

I want to have some direct sway over the inevitable epic space battle's action: Total fail. While there are several awesome space battles in the game, Shepard gets no say in any of them. In fact, the Normandy itself plays only passive part in these battles. Hull breach, BioWare.

I want more spaceship porn: Epic win. Even the load screens are 80 percent spaceship porn. I liked it. I liked a lot.

" the story was stooping to a puerile McGuffin that made me feel like I'd been betrayed by everything the game stood for."

So as I'm sitting here, now, I have to say that Mass Effect 3 has been a truly moving experience. It actually delivered on a couple points from my list of things I thought they wouldn't do. But they failed in the one way I never even feared they might not deliver: a decent sense of closure. Maybe that's shame on me and the other Mass Effect 3 fanboys-and-girls, but I really didn't want a Final Fantasy-type ending of illogical platitudes, sweeping generalities, and blithe acceptance of terrible choices. It's like frakkin' Deus Ex: Human Revolution infected my Mass Effect series--only Deus Ex had the decency to be more mediocre throughout the rest of the game, instead of making you think that something honorable and decent was coming when all that awaited you in return for your blood, sweat, and tears was a hypervelocity round to the scrotum.

So a mixed bag, I'd have to say. Heheh, "bag"... get it? Good.

" might as well be conversing with Sharon Stone rolled up in a rug."

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': Since you shouldn't be considering buying this game unless you've played through the first two, I'll assume interested readers are contemplating finishing the trilogy. Here I must warn you. Maybe even warn you off. Most fans of the series, like me, fell in love with the storytelling of the first two games. The combat is good, but the ability to tweak and interact with a compelling world and deep characters is the real draw of the Mass Effect trilogy. Or was. With Mass Effect 3 you get great combat and some few shining moments of character spotlight, but in the end the game will destroy your love of the decision-tree you grew over a hundred or more hours of series-play, and it will make you feel like mourning the disrespect done to Shepard and his magnificent companions.

If you're playing it for the combat and experience of some cool fight scenes, Mass Effect 3 has you covered. But if having a lousy ending to a great story taints your experience, beware: Mass Effect 3 is the worst offender I can currently think of in this infamous field.

" will make you feel like mourning the disrespect done to Shepard and his magnificent companions."

Friday, March 9, 2012

Nerd Pic: Watch it in order

So this week has been a little slow in the Nerdery. I've logged over 30 hours of game time into Mass Effect 3 on the hardest difficulty, and I'm proud to report that it's awesome. I'll give a detailed blow-by-blow after I beat the game--as well as crank out another outstanding blog post, too--but for now suffice it to say that if you played the first two games, you should already be playing this one.

And if you haven't played the precursor installments, you ask? Could you enjoy Mass Effect 3 on its own? Frak you, Fox execs! Watching things out of order killed Firefly. Watching things out of order leads to ignoramuses complaining about how slow the Battlestar Galactica mini-series was. Watching things out of order make Space: Above and Beyond, Babylon 5, and Tolkien's Middle Earth literature feel cheap and anti-climactic. Don't do it.

Sure, Mass Effect 3 covers all the setting, still introduces you to the content anew even while dropping you into the middle of the end of everything in the galaxy. But the choices you make, the friends you assemble, and the moments you experience in the first two games are what makes the final adventures of Commander Shepard frakkin' awesome. So pick up the series from the start, or just stick to reading about it.

Just do the right thing: watch it in order.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

N7 Nerdiness

Soldiers of the Earth Systems Alliance. Tonight is the night of nights. Today, as you read this, the invasion of Earth at the hands of the Reapers, for which you have trained these five long years, has begun. And as Earth and her allies make a final stand, we know that one man will stand up and stop the tide of eldritch horrors ravaging our worlds. One man will pool his resources, his friends, and his own vitality to match them against the limitless technology and terrible existence of the ancient world-eaters. One man will fight to his last for you, for us, and for all we believe...

...Ben of the gorram Nerdery.

Mass Effect 3 is out, and I'm playing it now. On the hardest difficulty, of course. Expect to see a report on the game's quality, on a scale of awesomeness ranging from 'you can do that?' to 'you shall not pass!' In the meantime: peace, love, and kill those giant metal space-crabs.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Happy Vandal's Day!

GURPS Myth: Now that I've introduced you all to GURPS and Myth in previous posts, I think I'll start sharing some of the setting that I've fleshed out for my players. Those of you playing other RPGs might take direct or indirect inspiration from it, and the rest of you can simply enjoy it as I share a bit of the story of our Myth campaign.

My approach to world-setting for the Myth campaign is exhaustive and ongoing. I already showed you a peek of the Myth map that I've broadened and deepened, which also represents a significant addition of population distributions, political boundaries, and ethnicities. Oh, and I also dubbed the world in the setting 'ceorth', since there's no reference to the actual name of the world in the official literature. What I've done to the official Myth map, I've also done to the Myth calendar by adding holidays and related histories, traditions, and festivals throughout the year of the setting.

The official canon for Myth didn't offer a lot of guidance for the calendar. The journal entries from the game were all dated with familiar days and months. The flavor text for the Journeymen and members of the Heron Guard also make mention that their names--Nine Skull Crocodile, for example--are taken from the year in an ancient Cath Bruig calendar. Finally, the thousand-year ages that define the Myth series take somewhat whimsical names--such as the Wind Age, Wolf Age, and Sword Age.

So, as I fleshed out the calendar with holidays, I had a lot of room for creativity. I began by looking at medieval holidays for inspiration, and so a lot of holidays that revolved around agriculture were set up to define the planting and harvesting seasons. I liked the idea of taking the old-style Day of Fools and making it a late winter holiday at the end of February--a time for the free peoples of ceorth to cut loose and enjoy themselves before spring duties and the potential of military action could begin. But there was one anomaly to consider: leap year. Based on the cyclical nature of the Myth setting, I decided that leap year would be a fun parallel to the fatalism of the cycle of Light and Dark. Specifically, it's a time for people to indulge in acts they view as aligned with the Dark and lose their stuff in wanton acts of medieval tea-bagging. So here's a sample of the descriptive text for today's holiday. In the course of our game, as the march of time reaches a specific holiday, I normally present the players with note cards with info on the pertinent holiday and their specific culture's traditions. There's currently three cultures represented by the players' characters, which will consist of something like the following:

Fool's Day (February 28) and Vandal's Day (February 29)

A day of revelrie, outlandish costumes, and the Fool’s Parade. Fool’s Day is a throwback to a festival of violence, said to pre-date the Cath Bruig, which held that the world needed a day of excess vice to minimize that of the rest of the year. It is thought that the Dark Gods require a certain amount of chaos to exist in ceorth, and so the people seek to placate the gods and maintain balance with outrageous acts of frivolity, pranks, and minor violence upon their neighborhoods. It is considered especially bad luck to discourage or refuse fools on this day, as though doing so dares the forces of chaos to visit their wrath upon them. The leap-year extension is even more raucous, with the fools resorting to mass pranks and acts of vandalism, and so it is called Vandal's Day.

Cath Bruig: The people of The Realm are especially stoic and worship the meritocratic elements of their society. And since the Church of Wyrdras, their patron deity, is especially devoted to service, order, and excellence, local temples of Wyrd receive particularly bad treatment on Fool's Day. The Fool's Parade in any town or city normally features a march of revelers in ghoulish garb circumscribing the city and then moving into the settlement and ending at the Temple of Wyrd. Along the way, the participating fools release crows, get raucously inebriated, and splash paint over windows. On Vandal's Day, marked windows get kicked in, all alcohol is taken outdoors and left in the street to be drunk by revelers, and fights swell throughout the settlement. These excesses are normally followed by ritually killing boars as part of a penitent meal sometime on March 1, embracing the values of discipline once more. 

The Province: In The Province, Fool's Day is in particular about the commoner's relationship with the local nobility. The Fool's Parade is more gluttonous than elsewhere, with revelers inviting themselves into noble kitchens--kicking down doors if necessary--and feasting in the streets. Wise nobles will usually leave the doors open to their kitchens, or even lay out a feast in advance of the parade. On Vandal's Day, however, the participants often strip down to their small clothes in and around the lord's home. Servants of the lord are known to be beaten in proxy on this day, and many nobles take to dressing in rags on Vandal's Day in order to embrace the chaos of the day and mitigate any violent urges towards them specifically. Still, most commoners know that being a conspicuous Fool or Vandal, while ostensibly protected by the traditions of the day, is a good way to find one's dues inexplicably increased.

Gower: Fool's Day in Gower is especially grim. Participants dress in funerary garments, act out scenes of death, and leave grisly totems and talismans at the doors of homes. It's a rather more serious, close to home, observance than those in the rest of the Empire, in which Gowern embrace death and chaos in a more sober manner. The Fool's Parade will normally employ at least one Doom-sayer, a soothsayer employed specifically to cast dire predictions as part of the public spectacle. Fool's Day dinner will normally be especially opulent and decadent--symbolizing one's last meal. Vandal's Day, on the other hand, will see a fantastic amount of creativity as participants dress up as ghosts and spirits and haunt local burial sites, even going so far as to eat, drink, fight and otherwise indulge themselves over their future resting places.

Hope you've all enjoyed your Vandal's Day, and be sure to split a boar tomorrow to pay for it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

First Blog Anniversary: State of the Nerdery

It's now been one year since this blog started. In that time, I've posted 79 articles, which amounts to one article about once every five days. That rate is certainly better than a lot of blogs out there on the inter-web, but it's not good enough for me. The last few months have been unacceptably sparse on the blog, and the backlog of posts-in-process has swelled to a dozen. But the pace of posts is increasing, and my goal for 2012 is to have at least 100 articles for the year. Of course, much of this goal is supported by the fact that the line of nerd topics is stretching around the hangar bay and halfway to engineering, so here's a few tidbits on what the second year of the Nerdery should bring.

The coming months should be a rich bounty for gamers. In the next week or two I'm going to relate more details about the games I played at Fire and Ice, which will serve as dual reviews for the games and the convention itself. Also, there is a bevy of small and independent games that I've been meaning to plug for some time--expect to see those soon, too.

In seven days, Mass Effect 3 will be coming out. In no more than ten days, I'll be posting my review, replete with fan-boy conniptions and streams of sci-fi ardor. So there, you have a hard date for my Mass Effect 3 review: March 9.

There's a half-dozen long-term gaming projects under-weigh right now that will be featured on the blog here. The first of them is the ongoing GURPS Centurion examples that I started last year. That project hasn't been forgotten, just abandoned during a strategic reallocation of support assets. Secondly, I have been working on a fleet of Battlestar Galactica miniatures for some time. Those will be revealed piecemeal as I paint them, but the first reveals will coincide with my review of a space fleet strategy game to use with them. And thirdly, I have three special projects for 28mm miniature gaming that will be occupying a great deal of my time throughout the next year and will therefore be big on the blog, too.

The articles and reviews will be supplemented by Nerd Bread and Butter articles to help set the table for this feast of fantastic gaming, so hopefully none of you will be left in the lurch about these games, either.

Don't worry, though. The Nerdery is about more than just gaming. The next few months promise to be frakkin' awesome for nerd cinema, and I hope to be able to get a few opening-weekend reviews posted for some of them.

The Movie Web has been tangled lately, due to a persistent fly buzzing around my brain getting the whole thing messed up. I'm untangling it--in fact, I really already have--but the initial miscalculation of the Movie Web's progression made me think I'd made a mistake previously. I hadn't, though, so things should be getting kick-started there soon.

More Rants
There's still a whole cast of essential rants sitting out there, and don't think I've forgotten about them. "Don't Be That Guy", "Dumbasscience", and "Stolen from the Editor's Desk" are all fat and juicy topics that won't be neglected for too much longer. And "The Time for Dick Measuring" has been neglected for too long, so expect to see something in that field within the next month or less.

A Surprise
In addition to the announced projects above, I've been working on a special project that will be revealed within the next week or so. I won't name it right now, but it's something I'm sure excited to finally see happen and something I hope will help spread the word about my little not-so-humble blog.

In the meantime, filmatleven.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Budget-Nerdery: Fire and Ice Convention

Budget Nerdery: I've often said that nerdery is about enthusiasm. And let's face it: enthusiasm can be expensive. Fortunately, experience is often a good way to help curtail expense and find great ways to enjoy yourself, indulge a lot, and still spend only a little. So let me share some experience so you too can enjoy similar hobbies without spending too much. That is, without spending more than is still might spend a good deal, but that's not my fault.

This past weekend, the wife and my sidekick joined me on our first family vacation. I've always been a homebody when it comes to the typical beach/resort/clubbing vacation. I enjoy doing different things with my time off. Such as writing, painting, and fleshing out the fantasy medieval economy of my current RPG campaign. Nerdy things. So we treated ourselves to something special--our kind of special. A nerd smorgasbord, with sprinklings of several new experiences cemented by some of our favorite hobby game types. This was found at the Fire and Ice Convention in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. It was awesome, friendly, and full of all sorts of activities and games that we utterly devoured like a pair of ravenous wolves tearing into a defenseless Cheese-head granny.

I'll be enumerating many things that I enjoyed about this trip, but one of them that really struck me was just how much enjoyment the three of us were getting out of our weekend for such a good deal. So here's a quick-but-total itemization of our expenses for the weekend, so you can appreciate similar opportunities in your own area. Heck, if you're anywhere near northern Wisconsin this time next year, you should definitely consider joining us.

2 Weekend passes: $50
A weekend pass gives you six raffle tickets for the daily door prizes and access to all of the weekend's game events. There's about two dozen tables devoted to board games of various types and lengths, a dozen for miniature games and card tables, and a handful of booths for role-playing games all interspersed with some vendor tables for several local hobby shops. I'll detail things more later, but for now here's a list of the games I played over the weekend: GURPS: Thundercats; Eclipse the board game; Mechwarrior the miniature game; a Dawn of the Dead miniature skirmish game; the SPANC card game; a session of the Deadlands RPG; a session of GURPS: Justice League; an epic game of Memoir '44 Overlord; and a soon-to-be-published RPG called Mistrunner. And that was with sleeping in and a big lunch on Saturday and leaving at four on Sunday.

2 Night stay, Super 8: $107.35
The Manitowoc Super 8 is ridiculously close to the venue site, clean, and well-maintained. The front-desk staff were nice and friendly, and tolerated the wife and I playing a late night game of SPANC in the lobby so our hellion offspring could terror-ass around the dining chairs and into the lobby and cook off a little Con-infused hyperactivity before bed.

Gas: $43.29
This is included for completion's sake, but we really only used about two-fifths of a tank of gas, as the trip was only about a hundred and ten miles for us. A word of warning for anyone traveling through Milwaukee to the Con, though: that vaguely urban center is actually a driving proficiency anomaly for the entire state of Wisconsin. While you can trust Cheesers to drive a good 10 miles over the speed limit on most rustic roads and cruise in the fast lane at 75-85 miles-per-hour, those who congest Milwaukee's arteries clot at no more than 60 mph--65 if you're lucky--in the fast lane. Practice your G-rated curse-words before leaving.

Pizza Ranch: $17.83
This place was great. It's a small chain of Midwest pizza buffets with great food, wonderful service, and a wonderful atmosphere that's rustic but still bright and clean. In addition to buffet staples and your typical basic topping pizzas (fresh and piping hot), they make specialty pizzas that have haunted the last ten meals I have had since trying them. Chicken and broccoli alfredo pizza, complete with creamy sauce that completely transforms the pizza slice. A tomato-basil pizza with actual whole slices of spiced tomato nuzzled beneath the cheese layer. And those were just the ones I could pack in three slices at a time before my gorram stomach and gaming schedule demanded we head to the Con and register. If you're ever within a twenty-mile radius of a Pizza Ranch, you owe it to yourself to swing by and give it a try.

My son, perfectly imitating my cheese-induced mania at Pizza Ranch

Taco Bell: $9.42
This requires almost no explanation. Gamers love the Bell of Taco. I love the Bell of Taco. In fact, I noticed that of the major fast food chains near the convention venue, Taco Bell's was the most busy throughout the weekend. Hmmm...nachos.

Wal-mart: $10.37
Mostly, this was to snag some last minute Imodium and Gas-X. Apparently, my beloved thought that my fellow gamers might appreciate these OTC stop-gaps after I spent two hours in the car, followed by a pizza buffet. To my credit, I hardly needed the latter, and the former was completely unnecessary. Really. And don't think it's gross--I'm really a companionably hygienic gamer. I just have trouble over-sharing.

Food bought at the Con: $9.75
This was for two or three quick meals between games over the weekend. The small-but-essential concessions menu consists of things like nachos, grilled cheese, burgers, hot dogs, and a bunch of sweets. They're all good and priced reasonably--which is to say, a bit more than what you'd pay in a grocery store, but less than what you'd get saddled with at a high-school or college sporting event.

Auction board games and books: $40
Gamers can bring their own games to Fire and Ice and put them up for auction, with each day serving as a separate round of bidding. It's a great way to quickly get exposed a broad range of new and old gaming gems, with a chance to peak at the components, too. For forty papyrus notes, we went home with games normally worth a total of $90 that we'd never have noticed otherwise. I'll let you know what I think of two of them--SPANC and Red Dragon Inn--in the coming weeks.

One-page sketch by Kurt Wilcken: $25
Kurt led the GURPS games I'd played in, and as a cartoonist he'd sketched out some character illustrations on 3x5 cards for us to use. After our GURPS Thundercats game he gave Abi and I the cards for our characters--Panthro and Liono, respectively--and I just had to see more. They'll doubtless all get posted up here on the blog when I get the full-page illustration, too.

Culver's: $13.63
Culver's chains are a staple of Wisconsin--they're frakkin' everywhere here. So it was only a matter of time before our weekend saw us at a Culver's location. Plus, I'd forgotten to get some fried cheese curds, so I guess we'll be hitting up a local Culver's this week or next.

Buffalo Wild Wings: $20.55
At the end of a long, full weekend, we decided to splurge one last time and get some "tatonka" as I like to mumble whenever we pass by. It seems like every time we want to get some beedubs to-go, however, it falls on a Sunday evening and we have to deal with crowding and a longer wait than usual. Oh well, epic weekend anyways.

Total: $347.19
After this inaugural weekend, we've decided to make Fire and Ice (and Pizza Ranch!) an annual family outing. It's fun, special, and quite cost effective for a family to do. Kids five to twelve get into the convention for just ten or fifteen dollars a head, as I recall, and the food at the convention is a convenient way to save hassle and money. We probably could quarter our food expenditure by eating at the Con more, and certainly will in the future.

In any case, I hope you've appreciated this purely mercenary break down of the experience. Later in the week I'll post more about the games and my experiences and impressions of them. But for now: I'm pooped.