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.