Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Swapper’s Concept Of Self

The Swapper's Concept of Self

All of them. All of the people you see around you on any given day are not you. This sounds like a tautology but it really is just a proposition; there are no dependencies for it. It just is a part of life that you go around interacting with, avoiding, and bumping into other blobs of conscience and flesh that have just as much agency as you do. It’s weird to consider that that is just the way it is (and opens a bevy of philosophical quandaries once you crack open the door).

Truths, in that way, are the most fun to question. What if it wasn’t that way? What if somewhere there was someone just like you but…empty? Someone—or something—out there is like you in every single way from your hair to your eyes to your laugh but lacks anything resembling a human spark of emotion or soul. Until you see it and see how it works in concert, mirroring your every move, you won’t believe it. It’s a lot like a suit made of yourself.

That is kind of the basic premise of The Swapper, the debut release from Facepalm Games, a tiny little indie studio in Helsinki, Finland. Set out somewhere in the depths of the unknown parts of space, you explore a mysterious world with a single device in hand that allows you to clone yourself at will. There’s a “real” you that you can shuttle between your shells, and this is the one that matters, the on that needs to get places and survive and collect things. And it, too, opens up a bevy of philosophical quandaries (though the game so far seems to let these fall to the wayside).

There’s an opening bit where you’re introduced to the cloning/swapping mechanic that will be your primary means of puzzle-solving/locomotion. In an attempt to descend a sheer cliff, you end up with a trail of clones behind you as You Prime jaunts away with a pocket full of safety and solid ground. As you walk away, though—and this seems so perfectly designed, even if it turns out to be beneficial happenstance—you hear something behind you. And then you see it: your tumbling corpse. It’s you, save for the fact that it is a mangled pile of space suit and bones and you are still alive.

But you did just watch yourself die with a visual absurdity in which video games have a habit of portraying death but also with an unsettling aural precision. It’s stirring, despite you inability to see what your clone truly looks like under that cramped up, puffy porcelain-white suit. Or perhaps that’s what makes it work. By just seeing a helmet and some ambiguously shaped body forms, it’s easy to inject yourself into these copy-paste husks.

It seems to promote a philosophy of the value of consciousness. Any body that you don’t control has nothing to offer beyond its utility of press switches and dying in manically increasing droves and manically disturbing ways. But you see yourself die so many times, you become desensitized to the practice (and it is a practice, not an occurrence, as these are the direct result of your machinations). It’s a bit like when films like Kill Bill or 300 spill so much blood that you begin to lose your grip on what death means. Like semantic satiation hits when you type or say a word too many times in a row, watching yourself die over and over and over again begins to lose meaning. It turns death into vaudeville.

When something happens to the vessel you possess, however, everything stops. The entire world (or at least your run with interacting with it) ceases to be. And just for a moment, you are taken back into your own real world, the one where you are sitting in front of a computer playing a video game. It reminds you once more of that truth that you are one of many. All of the people you see around you—milling about, eating, drinking, having a riotous good time—are not you. Your consciousness determines the entirety of your existence, not this pink blob that you shuffle about for 16 hours a day, which invites the natural escalation of debating object permanence: what exists when you don’t? When you turn away, what remains?

Thematically, The Swapper never goes this far. As a fundamental concession in a puzzle game that wants you to see it through to the end, you can just start again, death a mere speed bump on the road to space glory. That death counter keeps ticking up and you continue to grow increasingly insensitive to the thought of shuffling off your cloned, mortal coil. A game that fully explores this concept of multiple selfs with a singular consciousness would be interesting (perhaps Infinity Blade already does?), a game that radically changes or fundamentally breaks upon death. And while that game is not The Swapper, it does still manage to leave you with that question: what does it mean to be you?

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Considerations On Fuse: What It Is, What It Isn’t

Considerations on Fuse: What It Is, What It Isn't

Reviewing games can be a tough nut to crack. There are a lot of temptations that you have to avoid to write something worthwhile and meaningful along with fun and easy to read. I’m not saying that I have it on lock, but I would like to think that I’m aware of more than a few common pitfalls. For instance, I’ve used the phrase “mixed bag” exactly once in my career and still regret it to this day. I never have (and hopefully never will) described a game as “visceral” or “cinematic” and left it at that. Those are easy ones to dodge once you’re aware of them.

The tougher ones are the abstract bits—the things that require an analysis of your analysis—but they demand vigilance all the same. Consider the worth of having a lede constructed entirely of the history of a game’s development. Does that inform the reader of how it came to be and sets the tone for the rest of the article or is it just an easy introduction? How much context is necessary to make your points stick before it becomes a documentary on game development or, worse yet, boring?

One consideration that I’ve seen come up a lot recently on Twitter and podcasts is when you talk about what a game isn’t more than what it is. Reviewing a game, by all means, should be a breakdown of entirely what it is as a final product. There are, of course, gray areas where you can muck about and dip into the out-of-bounds, but that is mostly limited to discussing broken features (which can affect the overall recommendation) and missed opportunities (which usually don’t). The zeitgeist has a localized iteration of the problem: talking about what you wish a game would be.

Let’s take a look at Fuse, the latest release from Ratchet & Clank and Resistance developers Insomniac Games. It’s a third-person shooter that centers around four agents of a special operations squad called Overstrike 9. You are set out to stop the villainous Raven Corporation from acquiring Fuse, a strange alien substance that can be used to superpower weapons and enable Raven head honcho Fable to take over/destroy/ravage/whatever the world.

If you recall, Fuse was not always called Fuse. At EA’s press conference during E3 2011, Insomniac president Ted Price came out and showed off a trailer for a game called Overstrike. It featured the same team of agents, except with a more Ratchet & Clank-y art style of cartoonish realism and instead of self-serious characters and plot, it seemed to highlight the inner misfit of the quartet and a trademark Insomniac sense of humor. Understatement, charm, and a bit of slapstick. It was all there and seemed more than anything a revitalization of the company’s handle on the shooter genre.

But then came the 2012 PAX Prime keynote with Price, in which he revealed a new IP called Fuse. Soon, outlets confirmed that this was indeed the same game as Overstrike, simply reworked. In that reworking, though, the game seemed to lose a lot of personality. Less than a week later, this teaser come out and drew ire at 0:43 where the new character designs are revealed and are decidedly less quirky and less…70s-feeling. Soon after, the official announcement trailer came out and confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions: it looked generic.

It was a problem Insomniac seemed to have overcome with Resistance 3. It was a post-apocalyptic first-person shooter with aliens and stuff, but it at least featured some inviting and vivid colors. This trailer showed a lot of brown and gray and industrial-looking places with a super serious cast of characters. What happened to the nonchalance and the wit? Even the (ostensibly) same robot dude seems to have left the Pixar hangar and drenched itself in Terminator dread. Once the box art was revealed a couple months later in all its cliché glory, it seemed to be the final nail in the coffin, hammered in by the Internet’s finest cynics.

I haven’t quite finished Fuse yet, though I have made quite the dent in it and can confirm several things: it’s really bland and really not funny. Take those two quips as you will since I have yet to complete the game (maybe it all turns around in the last third), but so far, word on the street of this being a very mediocre game is dead-on. I don’t much care for the characters, the story is generic, and the saving grace (the imaginative weapons) is too limited. Mechanically, it’s a perfectly sound shooter, but it takes a lot more than that to stand out among the crowd nowadays.

Settling in around the first hour, it became hard to not wonder what Overstrike would have been like. That reveal trailer at PAX was enough to fill my brain with so many possibilities and scenarios of what brought those agents together and how they would interact. Based on my experience of Ratchet & Clank and Resistance, I felt like I could piece together where Overstrike might have been headed and I could tell that it was going to be right up my (and many others’) alley. There would be gravitas where it was needed, sure, but it would also carry a distinct flavor of charm that only Insomniac would be able to achieve, the same one that made me like Captain Quark despite him being a blundering idiot. None of that, however, was to be found in my time with Fuse.


And that’s where talking about what a game isn’t versus what it is gets dangerous. The aesthetics are only half the battle (or somewhere thereabouts). As Overstrike, the game might have been a chore to play through and decidedly less refined mechanically as Fuse. Comparing a game that exists to one that doesn’t is unfair to both parties as the one that exists must be judged entirely on its own merits and the one that doesn’t exist should only reflect you in your latent desires to maybe one day make your own video game.

Perhaps the devil-may-care shtick simply wasn’t working in that milieu of Overstrike. Maybe marketing said it wasn’t tracking well. It’s even possible that Fuse and Overstrike were two totally different games until something (finances, personnel, etc.) forced them to consolidate. But none of that matters because Fuse is what resulted from it all. Of course I consider myself among the many that would have liked to have seen what Insomniac was going to do with that zany take on a squad shooter with Overstrike, but that game (as far as we know) doesn’t exist. It could have been just as middling or the worst game ever made or something so revolutionary that the industry grinds to a halt to marvel at its perfection, but that’s not Fuse.

When you talk about games, it’s important to realize what it means to talk about a game for what it is. Discussing wasted potential and “what could have been” is fine and, to be perfectly honest, a lot of fun, but that can’t be held against the resulting game. Critiques of any medium have to occur in the same realm as everything else, and that is the one that exists. And that means sometimes only wishing Overstrike existed.

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‘Arrested Development’ Season 4: A Cynical Charm

Arrested Development

In sophomore year of college, I watched a lot of 30 Rock. In particular, I watched a lot of the first season of 30 Rock. Why? Because the disc drive on my PS3 broke and all I had on there were ripped episodes from the DivX Stage6 website, a high quality, official repository of unregulated video. I would watch it over and over again late at night when the options were go to sleep, watch Wildboyz on MTV, or go through another round of Liz Lemon shenanigans. The choice was obvious.

In total, I must have watched that entire season no less than 40 times. (There are still a few episodes I can recite in full.) Now compare that with the fact that I’ve seen the entire three-season run of Arrested Development almost as much—and that was an entirely voluntary exercise. I completed this quiz on Vulture in under a minute and got a perfect score. My lifetime track record of quotes goes 1) Star Wars, 2) Seinfeld, and 3) Arrested Development, impressive considering how much more time I’ve had to goose up the numbers with the other two.

What I’m trying to say is I know the series rather well, and even then it felt little more than a casual acquaintance with the new streaming season on Netflix. Through the 15 episodes of this fourth, belated season, it felt an awful lot like seeing a dear old friend you’d neglected to call or text or e-mail for the past seven years; there’s a sensation of talking with a stranger at first, but you slowly settle into accepting that you’ve both changed, though the core of relationship is still there. Somewhere.

Arrested Development

The first few episodes of this fourth season were not especially encouraging. They felt a bit too cynical and too hate-filled. Every other gag was an elbow to the side reminding you that they were canceled. “Hey, remember when they unceremoniously chucked us off the air? Remember? REMEMBER?!” Well, yes, of course I remember. People who haven’t even ever seen the show remember. It’s understandable to be sour about the situation, but the Showstealer Pro Trial Edition watermark felt a bit like not just preaching to the choir but also forcing the choir to preach.

This feeling that you were being talked down to was even found among the characters. Each episode is centered around a single Bluth as they weave in and out of an increasingly complex and absurd web of deceit, and the first one is all Michael. He never was the purest of heart, but he at least was never this much of an ignorant ass. He could be vindictive at times and rather passive aggressive (as shown in an excellent sequence of phone tag with George Michael), but he seems more a mirror for the attitudes and feelings of the show’s creators at being brought back after a protracted death than anything else.

Everything you experience at the front is loaded with cynicism: Ron Howard audibly clears his froggy throat, Netflix nudges you every time that it is a “semi-original” series, and half the time is spent reminding you what happened with a show you clearly spent days at a time watching back when that sort of thing was acceptable. And among the rather somber tone of realizing that everyone’s life had gone to shit either by choice or circumstance, there wasn’t a lot to laugh at or with. My one chuckle-out-loud moment was found with a Franklin-esque moment involving some rather, um, casual racism.

Arrested Development

But then the show picks up. Like, really picks up. It starts to find its footing just after episode three and hits its stride around episodes seven and eight. All that self-aware hatred for itself and its fate turns into the good ol’ Bluth charm we know and love. We get a lot less of characters acting like selfish sinkholes of pity and scorn and more like the dysfunctional band of blissfully ignorant doofuses (doofusi?) that we know and love. We gently fold in returning characters like Mae Whitman’s Ann Veal and George Sr.’s twin brother Oscar rather than dumping them all into the batter and turning the mixer on high like with Sally Sitwell and Lucille Austero.

That is a tough balancing act, though. As much as we would like to consider this a fourth season of Arrested Development, it really does have to consider that for some, this is the first time they’ve seen these characters in seven years. Seven years! In that time, we’ve gotten four The Fast and the Furious movies and Michael Cera grew a mustache, so a slow reintroduction seems necessary, if counterproductive. Arrested Development was always about moving fast and packing in as much nonsense and humor and drama into a half-hour show as possible. If there is one word I can use to describe the first three seasons, it would be dense.

And that’s why the show begins to feel more familiar around the midpoint. Characters like Alan Tudyk’s Pastor Veal and Judy Greer’s Kitty Sanchez make meaningful appearances that go beyond cameos, but they do so within cameo-like time spans. And between bits of dialogue, in-jokes are injected in ways only Arrested Development can manage. The Banana Grabber franchise appears to be alive and well, and there is more than one subtle Mr. F reference for you to ferret out. Gob’s $3,000 suit stuttering reaches all new heights, and there is such a fantastic interpretation of the chicken dance that I felt like my smile was going to tear my head in half. Also, one character’s return is so staggering that I can’t bear to spoil it for you.

Arrested Development

There are, of course, new jokes, most of which take form in new and utterly delicious characters. The standout to me is Maria Bamford as DeBrie Bardeaux. She’s painfully adorable and acts most as a foil to the audience; she is subjected to interacting with the Bluths for real whereas we can simply watch and laugh. John Slattery is absurdly perfect as “disgraced anesthesiologist” Doctor Norman and Tommy Tune as Lucille 2’s brother Argyle Austero (who is decked in argyle) is ridiculous, graceful, and intimidating all at once. And of course there’s Mary Lynn Rajskub as Heartfire, a woman involved in one of George Sr.’s schemes who communicates by entirely thought. It is the quintessential well from which Arrested Development draws its jokes and results in one of the best gags of the season (maybe of the series) when she tries to order a drink.

Some of the new cast, however, is a bit mixed in their ability to hold their own against the Bluth onslaught. Isla Fisher’s Rebel Alley provides some fantastic fodder for Ron Howard Hollywood jokes, but she ultimately comes across as nothing more than a plot device (though a solid and convincing one, to be fair). P-Hound works well with George Michael but isn’t nearly unstable enough to fit in with the rest of the family. And Terry Crews as a very Herman Cain-ish Herbert Love just kind of falls flat as nothing more than an SNL-quality shell, though SNL alum Kristen Wiig eventually gets a hold of her Lucille Bluth impression (Seth Rogen as George Sr.? Not so much).

All of which are representative of the overarching problem with this season of the show; there’s not enough of the Bluths. For all the idiosyncrasies of having a bunch of inmates running a fiscally irresponsible asylum, they were still a family and were endearing in that respect. They stuck together and loved each other even when they didn’t love what they did to each other, and that allowed us a lot of time with them as a family.

Arrested Development

The narrative structure of the season was both a necessity due to everyone’s busy schedules and an interesting experiment in what was an experimental show for its time, but it doesn’t give us much time with everyone together. Played off of one another, everyone’s particular failings as decent people congeal to form a holistic view of a demented society. Do you know that trust exercise where everyone sits in a circle on another person’s knees? That’s what the underlying structure of the Bluths was, so when you take them out on solo adventures, it breaks down. Instead of seeing how this house of cards is held up with luck and happenstance, we just have a deranged piece of trash floating through the wind.

For all that, though, the green screening really only became an issue for me once with Tobias and Lindsay. It just could not have been more obvious that they were not on the same set at the same time. It probably would have been less distracting if they’d just left the green backdrop in.

But there’s enough there to keep the season going. Peppered with an increasingly maniacal Barry Zuckerkorn, an absolutely ridiculous interpretation of the maritime law infrastructure, and Tony Wonder and Gob’s ever worsening rivalry, we take a funny and dense (if bumpy) ride to the end. The reliance on the narrator to drop info dumps lessens (though the Next Time bumpers are a bit stilted the entire way) and the trademark absurdist escalation permeates the last third of the season. The Pulp Fiction-style timeline begins to dovetail (the owner of a pair of feet we see in the first episode, for example, is revealed) and you realize that though everything takes place in the same handful of scenes, the information we get with each visit builds on the aforementioned escalation until we get the meltdown we’ve been waiting for.

Arrested Development

What we’re left with something…strange. To appreciate most of the fun in this season, you must be well-versed in the previous three. And to get to the good stuff, you have to slog through what appears to be made for those green to the series. This creates an odd balance of appealing to the wrong people at the worst times. Either you hate the beginning and love the end or build a relationship at the front only to be confused at the back. But what this season attempts and accomplishes is what I wholeheartedly believe can only be achieved by Arrested Development after three past masterful seasons. So while this is not what I was expecting, it was also exactly what I needed it to be.

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Curiosity Killed

Curiosity Killed

Standing in a digitally pristine room composed of a corner on one end and an infinite expanse on the other is Peter Molyneux. There’s a bit too much bloom on him in a strange, mid-2000s video game-y kind of way, but he’s really not the point. Or maybe he is. He hasn’t really finished talking yet. All we know right now is that we’ve been waiting for this moment for 24 years.

This is, of course, the ending to Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube?, the first game/experiment from Molyneux’s 22Cans studio. For the past seven months, five million players have chipped away at a cube. Layers upon layers were slowly whittled away as people pecked out curse words, smiley faces, and oddly heartfelt messages to either someone in particular or just humanity as a whole, all of which was done on Molyneux’s word that at the center was something life-changing.

That isn’t an exaggeration, either. Nearly a year ago in July, Molyneux told a room full of Rezzed-goers that what the cube contained would be “so valuable, and so life-changingly important,” creating both a word and drama in one fell swoop. He summarily and jokingly dismissed the idea that a dead cat would be there, but that didn’t stop the snide and cynical remarks from flowing forth this weekend as the end to Curiosity drew undoubtedly closer. In its final moments (and especially as it was revealed that a winner was in the process of being verified), dead cats, severed heads, and lazy jokes seemed to be the soup du jour.

Curiosity: What's Inside the Cube?

Waiting to see Molyneux follow through on some lofty promise isn’t all that new to us, though. 24 years ago, the now legendary game designer created both the game Populus and the entire god game genre. Within the seminal title, you were tasked with undertaking the role of a god. Through manipulating terrain and the forces of nature, you were to increase your number of followers to destroy those set against you. It was quite the revelatory experience back in 1989.

And since then, we’ve been kind of waiting—waiting for Molyneux to recreate this magical moment of pivotal import. There was Black & White which was good but still another god game; there was Fable, a game that promised to let you craft an entire life through choices and actions but ultimately barely let you pick a pet; and there was Project Milo, the Kinect tech demo that faded away under cover of over promising and Microsoft-flavored pipe dreams. Each one of those was the product of a promise that we would get something we’d never seen before.

Technically, he was right. Technically, we’d never seen those games before, but that’s not the same as when the actual words “it’s gonna be the best game ever” come out of Molyneux’s mouth. But we’ve been waiting for him to come through ever since then. For 24 years, we’ve waited on him to fulfill his promise in one form or another because he’s always produced potential if not anything substantial. He just stores all that energy but never lets the hammer fall.

In that way, you could compare his words to that of a typical crossroads deal; the implied is never preferred to the explicit, the discrete. The “winner” of Curiosity (if you can claim a winner in an experiment; that seems like a more game-oriented notion) was 18-year-old Bryan Henderson of Edinburgh, Scotland, who actually had never touched the app until an hour before his royal crowning. As his prize, Henderson will dictate the rules and morals by which all other players will follow in Godus, the second of 22 experiments from 22Cans (hence the name). (You might recall that Dan Marshall of Size Five Games called this back in December.)

He will also earn a portion of whatever money Godus makes as a retail product, but that is infinitely less interesting than being able to play god among gods. Measured on any level, this is technically life-changing (notice the trend?) as now Henderson will partake in the financial success of a company he otherwise would have zero connection with. But consider this: he will also play a game no one else will ever get to play.

The god game has obvious limitations: you control a computer. You are putting up gates and tearing down walls within a maze that is navigated by a box of silicon and copper. But introduce the same mechanics over people and you suddenly have something very interesting. Apply the Stanford Prison Experiment on some digital inmates and you have Prison Architect, but apply it on humans and you have one of the most fundamentally telling studies on human psychology ever conducted. Similarly, if we apply the god-like constructs to a virtual world and we have a money-making genre, but once we apply it to humans, we have something else entirely.

Curiosity: What's Inside the Cube?

It will, for the most part, be the first of its kind, which is important. Conduct the prison experiment again and your results are tainted by those that expect the outcome either on the lab or the subject side. But Henderson’s experience will be raw and somewhat of a maiden voyage into the realm of human-computer interaction that somehow maps back onto humans. Henderson gets to be Deckard and all of us will be taking the Voight-Kampff test.

But of course, this is far less glamorous than we’d imagined it would be. For all the lack of details that Molyneux’s promises usually entail, we still fill the void with delusions of grandeur far more impressive than anything that could be possible. For as important as it was that he created Populus, it was still just a game that simply served to open the door to Spore and Dungeon Keeper. And we know, at this point, to understate the words of Molyneux. We know, even to the point that there is a fake Twitter account that shoots out nonsensical game designs and inspired a nonsensical game jam in its/his honor.

We know all this and we still expect the Moon. The words never leave his lips but we fill in the blanks that were never there and now we’re wondering why we’re not among the stars (though to be fair, the aforementioned words have been spoken before, but I guess some media training taught him the differences between promising and inspiring). But realistically, what could have been in the center of Curiosity‘s cube that could have satisfied everyone? World peace? Perpetual motion? How do you box up worldwide inspiration? How do you box up a dream?

Curiosity: What's Inside the Cube?

Reactions, natch, were mixed. Ian Bogost and Markus Persson both fell on the negative side of things while folks like Nathan Grayson (who also conducted this fantastic interview with Molyneux) found the experience rather enjoyable. Others, however, found it better to make jokes or point out the obvious. Coping mechanisms or standard Internet snark? Who knows.

They may, however, all be missing the point. Curiosity itself was a stripped down interaction of what the rest of Molyneux’s oeuvre has been, a study on how easily people can be manipulated and pointed into desiring and achieving something. And at the center of the cube, the core of the experiment, was the man himself, a living, breathing vessel for considerations beyond the game. Yes, Curiosity may not have been much more than a gamed-up marketing stunt for Godus and yes, Molyneux still fulfills his promises on that not-quite-but-okay technicality, but that may be because his games are not about us. That’s him, after all, at the center of that shining white room, talking as much to himself as he is to us.

Making promises.

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Xbox One: A Menagerie Of Unknowns

Xbox One: A Menagerie of Unknowns

Phil Harrison doesn’t know the answer. He has answers, sure, but he doesn’t know which one is right. From the media—and public—perspective, it feels an awful lot like we’re getting a multiple choice question in response to our queries, but each answer is accompanied by mean mugs and shoulder shrugs. (Shimmy shimmy cocoa what.)

Stephen Totilo over at Kotaku wrote up a great piece called “The Xbox One Uncertainty Principle” wherein he brings up the flurry of conflicting reports and interviews and PR responses that they and others have been getting over the past week, starting with the next-gen Microsoft event in Redmond and culminating in the confusing As we all got to our Qs. There’s a great quote in the middle of it from Totilo:

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle tells us that the more we try to observe a particle’s position, the less precise we can be about its momentum. Heisenberg, have we got a game console for you.

The uncertainty principle is a little more broad than that (it applies to any set of complementary variables), but we get the gist: the more we try to find out about the Xbox One, we discover just how little we actually know about it.

In the opening bit, Totilo relates to us an anecdote about Aaron Greenberg, chief of staff for Microsoft’s interactive division, saying that response to their new console was mostly positive. In fact, he says it was about 40% positive, 40% neutral, and 20% negative (though maybe some fact-checking is in order?). Unfortunately, we find those numbers to be less than accurate.

If we take a look at the Brandwatch blog, the musings of a company that specializes in monitoring social media reactions, we find that the online reaction isn’t as positive as Greenberg thinks it is. Brandwatch puts positive at 52% and negative at 48% (neutral isn’t tracked in this). AT Forbes, Fizziology puts the numbers in a different light as well: 32% positive, 10% negative, and a whopping 56% neutral.

Of course, these numbers only account for people able to interact with social media at the time, so those working, traveling, sleeping, or any other number of things preventing them from updating their Facebook or tweeting are not accounted for. And these analyses are never quite as accurate as you would like (intent is harder to derive from content without context), but media, by and large, also take themselves out of the immediate conversation and often opt for video recaps and written summaries to express their views. Same go for industry analysts. But there is archived evidence for my Twitter feed (and many others) being primarily negative the following day when thoughts were put into long-form articles.

Perhaps the most problematic of the cluster of misinformation disseminating among Microsoft (if Greenberg is an indication) is that always-online and used games are still up in the air. We’re likely to get answers in the coming weeks at E3, but it’s still distressing that something so fundamental to the console’s operation and the industry’s functionality is undecided. First Phil Harrison, corporate vice president of Microsoft, says that you can sell back used games at retail stores. Then he says you’ll sell them back online. Which is it? Or is it both?

And then when asked about what happens if Microsoft stops running servers for the Xbox One. Will the always-online requirement simply render all the consoles they’ve sold useless? Harrison, as Totilo puts it, “smiled and said something about not thinking that would happen.” Which should frighten you. It’s a thought we’ve been putting off for years as digital distribution channels like Steam and Origin and PSN and XBLA become more prominent. When—not if—those servers shut off, we will have nothing to show for all the money and time we put into that ecosystem.

While probably not totally unique among those that make those sorts of decisions, Harrison’s reaction should tell you a lot about priorities. There is no exit strategy for gamers like there is for the business itself. Microsoft can sell assets and patents and rights to stay afloat. Keeping around servers that do nothing but tell consoles it’s okay to play a game long after the device is relevant is basically a hole to throw money into. Microsoft—and its competitors—is a business, after all.

If it sounds ridiculous that Microsoft could ever not exist, consider Palm. Look at where Sega used to be and where it is now. Look at Nintendo’s current trajectory. There is a graveyard of dead companies that used to rule the roost, businesses that people would treat like the Titanic, like they were unsinkable. So when Microsoft goes under, which could be in five years or 20 years or 400 years, all of this…stuff, these video games of not insignificant cultural importance, will be lost. Games are archived on retails discs and carts. How do we archive encrypted servers that feed directly into proprietary technology?

Two and a half weeks and we might get some answers. We hope we’ll have answers, but Microsoft had better be ready with them. Fizziology put 24% of all negative reactions pertaining to always-online. Personally, I say that’s 90% of my concern right now. Another 2% is wondering when will Microsoft get their act together and give some straight answers. What’s left is for J Allard. Godspeed, Allard. Godspeed.

UPDATE: retail sources have told MCV that they can charge whatever they want for pre-owned Xbox One games, but Microsoft and publishers will get a cut. Sure, I guess, but why couldn’t Microsoft have told us this straight up?

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Concept Art Roundup: Iron Man 3, League of Legends, Darksiders II, and More

Concept Art Roundup: Iron Man 3, League of Legends, Darksiders II, and More

You’d better limber up because this roundup is going to be a bit of a stretch. First off, one of the artists I’ve got here doesn’t necessarily work on games nor is his work actually concept art. Secondly, another artist primarily works on 3D art pieces, so he’s not actually in the eponymous arena either. It kind of makes me want to rename this feature, but we’ve made it this far so let’s keep going! When we make mistakes, it’s a lot easier to ignore it and just plow ahead, right?

Or something like that.

Anyways, let’s start off with Josh Herman. He currently works as a character artist at Marvel. If you check out his IMDB page, you can see he’s done a lot of damage in Hollywood for such a young fellow. Herman here has worked on Iron Man 3, Total Recall, Real Steel, and a whole bunch of other Marvel movies, mostly as a digital sculptor. He’s also done art for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and pre-production work on the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy.

He also tweets in rather sporadic but rapid clumps and just started a blog about learning to draw.

Next up is Joshua Brian Smith, a bona fide concept artist at Riot Games. Riot, if you weren’t aware, develops the incredibly popular League of Legends game, the MOBA that people can’t stop playing. He graduated pretty much a year ago from the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and made the seven-mile drive up to Santa Monica soon after to work with Riot.

While his work there at the studio is impressive, some of his school stuff is also quite good, though also quite different. League of Legends has pretty much locked him in a fantasy world, but I would love to see him branch out. It’s very obvious he has a wide range of influences and passions that would benefit from his grand-scale vision and raw take on lighting scenes.

Tohan Kim works at Crytek’s Austin studio in Texas, though if you’re familiar with the fallout of the THQ bankruptcy, you’ll know that this used to be Vigil Games. Vigil was the studio behind the Darksiders series, a critically well-received but commercially disappointing franchise of games about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse dealing with said worldwide annihilation, and were in the process of making Warhammer 40,000: Dark Millennium.

Dark Millennium, however, is still under wraps seeing as how its future is mostly undecided after the THQ dismantling, but Kim’s Darksiders work is all the way out there, as are some Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning pieces. Jeez, I can’t believe how long Mythic Entertainment has been making MMOs.

Lastly we have some concept art from Herman Ng for Rift: Storm Legion. Storm Legion is an expansion from late last year for Rift, an MMO from Trion Worlds. If you’re wondering where else you may have heard that name, it’s probably from the inescapable advertising of the Defiance tie-in MMO also being developed by Trion.

Ng, though, has a bunch of cool art up from Storm Legion. He’s really good at giving his drawings a sense of life to where it looks like he actually captured these creatures and people in the middle of some action.

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A Few Thoughts on the Xbox One

A Few Thoughts on the Xbox One

The Xbox One was not made for you. Let’s just rip that Band-Aid off right now. You are reading an analysis of the announcement of a new console on a video game website that’s not called GameSpot or Joystiq, which means that the followup product to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 is not made for you. You, undoubtedly, are more than a passing hobbyist in the field and probably use your 360 and PS3 and Wii to play video games. That’s not surprising, I’m sure, but you have to understand that there are tons of people out there that own these devices and use them solely to watch Netflix or Blu-rays. This is who the Xbox One is aimed at.

Granted, it still is a more-than-capable gaming console what with 15 unannounced (but confirmed) exclusive titles that we’ll probably be seeing much more of at E3. And with a new controller that seems to address the biggest complaint—the lack of a properly functional D-pad—and integrates some new technology to push the peripheral forward, it is still very much a video game-playing thing. But yesterday was proof enough that Microsoft wants more than just gamers. So let’s get into it.

The Name

Xbox One

I actually kind of like the name, even if we’ve yet to settle on an acceptable abbreviation; the current leaders are the X1, which could be confused with the Sharp X1, and the Xbone, which has obvious, tumescent problems. It definitely reflects the emerging philosophy from Redmond that this new Xbox will be the entirety of your home entertainment setup. It will handle movies, TV, games, music, and whatever else you want. The “one” means what they’re striving for: to be your one utility for fun. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I jive with all of that, but I do like the name.

The question, of course, is the future, which can be broken down more simply into two further inquiries. First off, why not go the Apple route and just call it the Xbox? People cracking jokes about database problems obviously don’t know how databases work, but it makes sense for this to be a distillation and unification of everything the 360 wanted to be but couldn’t. Second, having such a definitive name with some serious finale subtext implies (and corroborates some things floating around out there) that this could be the last piece of Xbox hardware to come out for a long time. It could ostensibly just be firmware updates that keep it fresh, a notion that raises the point of if Microsoft has already bought into the idea that this will be the last console generation.

The Specs

Xbox One

The gist of it is this: an AMD Jaguar-based 8-core CPU, a DirectX 11-compatible AMD GPU, 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, 500 GB of internal storage, USB 3.0, HDMI in, HDMI out, and a Blu-ray drive. Wired got an exclusive look at the Xbox One and revealed that it uses a system on a chip (SoC) design that is actually quite similar to what the PS4 will be using. And the 5 billion transistor count is likely to be the total between the CPU and GPU since, as Game Front so astutely points out, “AMD’s FX-8350 eight-core desktop CPU has roughly 1.2 billion transistors, and the AMD Radeon 7970 desktop GPU has about 4.3 billion transistors.”

What’s more interesting is the RAM. You’ll notice that the 8GB matches the PS4’s 8GB, but it is DDR3 instead of DDR5. DDR5 runs at a lower voltage and higher speeds (a simplification: it’s how the GPU and CPU utilize the 32-bit memory controllers per channel) but DDR3 is way cheaper. This will likely lead to both a price and performance discrepancy between the Xbox One and the PS4 with the former being more affordable and the latter being more capable.

The Xbox One runs purely on HDMI display output, an obvious advantage over the PS4. This is because games developed for Sony’s device will have to account for the fact that some players may not be having an HD experience and UI must be adjusted accordingly. With an all-digital setup on the Xbox One, developers can count on the fact that their players will be able to consume a baseline of quality so text doesn’t have to be blown up and the like.

Also, you know what the Blu-ray drive makes me think of? HD DVDs. You know what thinking about HD DVDs makes me do? Laugh. Heartily. Forever.

The Peripherals

Xbox One

There’s the new controller, which looks pretty good. Mostly. There’s some part of me that really likes the jellybean-like face buttons of the 360’s controller as these feel a bit too…industrial. But from what I hear, the sticks are great and the D-pad actually works like a D-pad now, not to mention it feels much more like a solid product, which is great because the original Xbox and the 360’s controllers always felt a bit too plastic-y to me. The triggers also look way different. They’re much less like triggers and more akin to the pedal-like shoulder buttons of the DualShock 3. They do, however, have rumble, which sounds interesting. If it can be applied to how you press the triggers, it could have fantastic implications on input design.

What we don’t know, though, is what those two extra buttons do. They are most likely just what they’ve always been—Back and Start—but the iconography suggests that they have deeper, system-wide utility that goes beyond showing scores in Call of Duty and pausing a game. Also, notice that they moved the guide button to the top. This is probably in response to the thousands of people each day that accidentally pop up the dashboard when they just want to skip a cutscene.

Kinect 2.0

And then there’s the Kinect 2. It is, without a doubt, an upgrade over the first Kinect device. It features a 1080p camera (an incredible bump up from the current generation’s 640×480 RGB camera) and, probably, a nicer IR camera. I say probably because it is doing things that the first Kinect just wasn’t capable of doing like discerning a heartbeat and generating a night vision mode to facilitate low-light environments. It’s much more able to track fingers, facial expressions, and throngs (six) of people. From the demos shown at the announcement that include seeing actuated musculature, weight distribution, and a wider, taller view with better depth of field to accommodate closer ranges and bigger players, this seems to be the Kinect they wanted to make the first time around.

It is, however, massive. It looks like a slightly longer mishmash of a Jimmy John’s sandwich and a Subway sub. It’s big. And it’s required. And that just kind of goes along with the general oversized look of the Xbox One itself which, as shown in this video from Kotaku, is somewhat of a beast, too. And you’ll notice that it has a two-prong power connection which means a likely sizable power brick having to be tucked away in your otherwise elegant-looking entertainment system setup.

The Services

Remember when I said that the Xbox One wasn’t being made for you? This is why. If you want to get super cynical about it, here’s a handy recap video:

It’s a bit mean, but it’s also funny because it’s true. The focus is on television and sports—or at least this particular presentation was—which are both very mainstream ideals. That is not to say, however, that this stuff isn’t handy or neat. Being able to go instantly between watching TV and doing anything else on the console is pretty fantastic, though I’m not sure how much use I’ll get out of that.

But it is indicative of a larger movement in console usage. One of the reasons we like using our smartphones and iPads for everything is that they’re always ready. You don’t turn these things on and off with each use, so now the thinking for the Wii U, PS4, and Xbox One is why should consoles be any different? The Xbox One, in particular, will keep everything in a low-power state so that you can just walk into the room and say “Xbox on” and get going. To me, voice controls seem a lot like QR codes (an interesting and potentially effective use case but ultimately too much of a hitch in the usage process to feel organic), so I don’t think I’ll be using that (at least for now), but keeping things in a low-power state seems like a smart move.

Beyond that, everything seems to be related to swappable states of the console. At any point, you can just stop playing and the state of your game will be saved. Or your movie or whatever. Anything you want to pause can be paused and stored for later consumption. This plays into the “magic moments” feature of capture clips of games that can be shared on Xbox Live and YouTube, which may ring PS4 bells in terms of capabilities. In fact, just as you can play as you install games on the PS4, you can do the same on the Xbox One, though the similarities behind their actual functionality remains to be seen.

Xbox One

This is what people talk about when they mean always-on. What they mean when they say always-online, however, is drastically different. Kotaku asked during a press Q&A as to whether or not you could go for weeks without connecting to the Internet. Microsoft vice president Phil Harrison responded with, “I believe it’s 24 hours.” You have to be connected to the Internet with your Xbox One at least once every 24 hours. That much we know, but we don’t know what happens when you hit that threshold. Does the console shut down? Are you locked out? Or can you simply not access installed games and media but can still use discs? There are a lot of questions to be answered.

The interesting thing, though, is that it feels a lot like there are so many questions because Microsoft hasn’t made any concrete decisions yet. Things like the 24-hour limit are settings that can be changed at any time, so it could be turned off completely at some point. It seems that after the SimCity fiasco a while ago that Microsoft wasn’t sure what to do. They wanted to keep things based on the cloud and cloud operations (in fact, some operations and calculations for games can be offloaded for server-side processing), but I guess the question eventually became how to frame it to be palatable to the jaded mainstream.

I live in a major metropolitan area where my Internet connection is stable and reliable. Many people, in fact, live in such areas, but thinking of people who often find themselves in areas with shoddy power or Internet is distressing. What they to do when they have lingering blackouts and can no longer access their games and media? It’s a tough question to answer, but some of the always-online possibilities presented for the Xbox One seem rather intriguing. You can Skype call with people whenever you want and possibly integrate video and voice chat into dashboard and game functionality. Perhaps multiplayer simply because augmented singleplayer with constant, synchronous input from all over the world. The potential is incredible, but the roads that lead there are alienating. It’s a tough spot, for sure.

Any amount of online requirements, though, is still always-online, so make of that what you will.

The Used

Forza Motorsport 5

So being vague about always-online is understandable, if a bit unfortunate. It can all change at the drop of a hat and probably will be based on reactions to yesterday’s presentation. A little more clarity would have been nice, but I can live with this amount of ambiguity until E3. What’s unacceptable, however, is how they addressed used and shared games.

“We are designing Xbox One to enable customers to trade in and resell games. We’ll have more details to share later.” That’s the official word based on the Q&A. However, things quickly get murky. According to Wired, it will cost a fee to link games to a second account. But then, according to the @XboxSupport Twitter account, “Again, there is no fee to install the game. Your friend will not pay a fee.” So which one is true?

I guess both could be true. Maybe there’s a trial period. Or maybe @XboxSupport was confused. All games are to be installed on the hard drive, and games can be installed without the disc present. So games, obviously, are tied to specific gamer accounts, but how is the content of the disc tied to the game that is connected to the account? You can, based on the no disc requirement, sign into your account on another Xbox One and download and play your own games, so is this the no-fee sharing they’re talking about? And then there’s the whole issue of offline play. How does that affect game-account verification and used/shared games? Albert Penello, senior director of product planning at Microsoft, told Engadget that they do account for “household” sharing so that family members on the same console can play games not necessarily attached to their account.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

But how? In fact, how everything? How does it work? While the always-online functionality explanation can be understandably deferred, not addressing how used and shared games work is borderline unacceptable. It’s less than three weeks until E3, but these are pressing questions that demand immediate attention. Always-online is a gradient knob that can be turned. This is a board of switches and no one knows what any of them do.

This, of course, leads into the question of whether you own your games or if you license games. CD keys were an interesting progenitor because they simply were verified via a hashing algorithm put into the game’s bootup process. But then these keys began to require an Internet connection for server-side verification. Now, that has given way to needing to use Steam or Origin or whatever to even access your library, but the consolation in many cases was that once you started playing, you didn’t need the connection.

Diablo III and, of course, SimCity went for a different tack; an Internet connection was required the entire time you played, and now instead of individual games, this connection requirement applies across the board for an entire console. So instead of being able to pop in a disc and play, the entirety of this device’s capabilities are tied to an array of servers that, should they go down, will prevent you from using the Xbox One as anything besides a doorstop. This, of course, has an adverse effect on backwards compatibility: there is none. At least you can still put in a cartridge into your SNES or N64 and go back to play that. But once the servers go down for the Xbox One’s games, you won’t be able to play those ever again.

Licensed. Not owned.

The Presentation

Xbox One

Compared to Sony’s presentation, the Xbox One unveiling was disturbingly anemic. Jason Shreier summed it up pretty well with this tweet:

While a bit reductive and not accounting for the fact that Microsoft’s ability to show on a stage wasn’t atrocious, it is a fairly accurate representation of the knee-jerk reaction everyone had to the proceedings. We didn’t see much except for a bunch of pre-rendered footage of sports things that fed into a confusing EA partnership, something involving Remedy Games’ Quantic Break (which no one knows anything about aside from that is Professor Slater from season one of Community), and Call of Duty: Ghosts. For all the seemingly evergreen popularity of the franchise, it also appears as though most people are simply tired of hearing about first-person military shooters even if they aren’t all totally and completely tired of playing them just yet. The dog stuff was fun, but it only made a rather bland presentation at least slightly upbeat.

The Conclusion

Xbox One

So basically we got hardware, a dog, and a lot of questions that go unanswered. It would be disappointing if it wasn’t for the fact that E3 is so soon, where the 15 Xbox One-exclusive games will probably be revealed and more information will be provided regarding used games and always-online requirements. The most interesting thing to note, though, is that the Microsoft press conference is first during E3 and Sony is dead last. Will Microsoft continue this narrative and build up the supporting struts around their push of services or will Sony get the last laugh and walk away from Los Angeles the (ephemeral) champion?

Believe me when I say that I, along with everybody else in the industry, have no fucking idea. But this will be an interesting year.

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A Russian Marinade in Metro: Last Light

A Russian Marinade in Metro: Last Light

Bleak. Beautiful. Oppressive. That’s the situation in Metro: Last Light, the latest (read: second) in the Metro series by 4A Games. It is also poignant, resonant, and haunting. It follows the genesis set forth in Metro 2033, allowing the player to once again control Artyom as he sets out to the hostile surface to kill the last surviving Dark One.

Dark Ones are those that were left out in the irradiated world after a nuclear war broke out at the end of 2013. 20 years of mutating and living in an abandoned wasteland has caused them to be more than hostile. In fact, most of the world now is plenty pugnacious seeing as how everything has gone to shit, and it sets up a fantastic world through which you can explore.

Metro 2033 was known for creating an intensely and thoroughly complete world that you can wander and poke around in. Much in the vein of games like Miasmata where diegetic instruments replace things that would normally be a meta HUD element like maps and timers, it was all about steeping you in the atmosphere. If it could be avoided, you would never have to disengage from direct interactions with the virtual world. From what I’ve seen of Metro: Last Light, it seems as though that tradition is being continued.

One key aspect, in fact, has made the trip over on the development gondola: Russian audio. There are plenty of other games out there with different audio tracks you can choose from and different subtitle languages to peruse (most triple-A titles, in fact, are translated and re-recorded for other territories), but Last Light is somewhat special in that its native tongue is not English.

That adds to the atmosphere of Last Light in some very important ways. English, for all its widespread use and massive utility among some literary classics, is a rather clunky language. There’s an entire part of speech (adverbs) that most writers decry as pointless at best and evil at worst. Complex syntax generally precludes intelligibility. But most of all, English just kind of sounds weird.

Russian, on the other hand, is one of the most beautiful-sounding languages in the world (its quality as an actual morphological subject is a different topic entirely). It strikes a startling similarity to the beauty presented in the visuals of Last Light. The game puts you in a dire situation—a dying species on a dying planet with joy, food, and water on extremely short supply—but makes it look amazing. I never realized a rock could look so could, especially contrasted with the normal maps and diffuse lighting on this hard place (#jokes).

Even Russian profanity comes out smooth and effortlessly. I suppose it has to do with Russian’s reduction on unstressed vowels so it gives the mouth something to physically hang onto as it maneuvers around the language. But it can also sound overbearing and manically aggressive. Mark Twain once wrote an entire essay about the complications with learning German, but he also stated that it was impossible to come across as angry with the language. Granted, German has changed since his time, but it is in stark contrast with what Russian is able to evoke.

When members of your team or those ornery folk trying to load you up with bullets are yelling at you in Russian, it feels god damn awful. It feels so much sharper and more caustic than the general profane nonsense that comes out of English mouths. Much like how the game itself shifts from scenes of empty but objective, symmetrical beauty, the language of its native setting moves between a facilitated, easy cadence and a shot of aural pain.

Of course, there’s the fact that the Russian voice actors just sound so much better than the Slavic-tinged English of the localized audio. Which I wouldn’t say is necessarily the fault of those Eastern Bloc actors where the English coming out of their mouths feels like a thick porridge being thrown at the wall and more a fault of the conflicting subtleties of the two different languages’ phonemes. It makes the underground world feel more foreign than native, a notion in direct opposition with the established setting of the game. The surface is supposed to be alien and unnerving while the underground should be familiar but dangerous.

And as an added bonus, it becomes a lot harder to recognize when you hear the same NPC bark over and over again.

There is obviously a lot more to Metro: Last Light than a simple little language setting, but for a game so heartily dependent on establishing an atmosphere and setting you loose in its warped terrarium of mutants and gunfights, it’s an important setting. Granted, I don’t speak Russian and I have a soft spot for choosing subtitles over dubs in foreign films, but it’s very obvious 4A Games set out to create a coherent, cogent world and that being in their native language and environment is very important to that world. So play into their vision. It’s a good one, if a little bleak.

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Star Trek Into Darkness Review: A Torpedo of Fun and Nonsense

Star Trek Into Darkness

There is a Star Trek video game that came out recently. This is not a review of that. Despite looking rather interesting at last year’s E3, it apparently is not very good, but I haven’t played it yet so I won’t give any sort of definitive opinion on it. No, this is a breakdown of my thoughts on the latest Star Trek film from J. J. Abrams. However, much like its video game counterpart, Star Trek Into Darkness follows a similar arc of intrigue and potential giving way to less than stellar results.

Don’t get me wrong; I so dearly liked this followup to 2009’s franchise film reboot. It’s visually engaging, aurally impressive, and packed with some noteworthy performances. But it is also a consistent and gradual reduction in scale and stakes that should generally be avoided in films, especially in the summer blockbuster sort. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s build up to the big stuff.

(This will avoid any explicit spoilers, but there are some smaller but crucial pieces of information the more eagle-eyed or die hard Star Trek fans can extrapolate from the words below, so be careful)

The Sights

Star Trek Into Darkness

Into Darkness is perhaps one of the more visually appealing movies I’ve seen in quite some time. It opens on a tiny little planet called Nibiru that threatens the livelihood of an entire indigenous and severely primitive species due to an active (and rather anxious) volcano. You’ve seen bits of this opener in the trailers when Kirk and Bones jump off that cliff into the ocean. I bring this up because this sets the bar for the rest of the movie in terms of visuals.

The entire planet seems designed specifically to overwhelm your eyes. It is an entirely arresting experience. The entire forest that we see Kirk and Bones run through is comprised of trees that are an ashy white with leaves that are a bright but soft shade of red. The people of the planet are similarly wan but they feature muted yellow highlights. The combined effect is rather stunning, if a bit on-the-nose.

The rest of the movie is a bit more subtle and thus a bit harder to put a finger on in terms of appearances, but Into Darkness does feel like a visual step up from Star Trek. The enemy craft is intimidating without being ridiculous (though it looked cool, I’ll never be able to figure out why Nero’s mining vessel needed to have all those squid-like appendages) and instead of engineering looking like a brewery—because it was one—it looks like an actual engineering bay. I still love the idea that space is so disturbingly clean while the planets and their contents are so tangibly muddied. The warp core is especially magnificent.

Star Trek Into Darkness

A few costume quirks kind of land on the negative side of things for me, though. Namely the shirts of Star Fleet members aboard the Enterprise hang rather loose and lose some of that “fit for duty” look. And then the uniforms of the enemy ship look just like of…generic. It looks like someone yelled “SCI-FI!” at a seamstress and this is what she threw back.

And yes, there are still a plethora of lens flares, but I only distinctly remember one or two while the rest are relegated to memories of me reactively squinting at the screen. And Klingons are back, and they feature a new design. It’s a simple but pleasant reveal that builds on whatever anticipation you have for seeing what they look like (and even instills some if you have none). I won’t go any further, but I will say it is a surprisingly tasteful and effective update, much like what you get for the Klingon Birds of Prey cruisers.

I saw the movie twice; once in 3D and once in 2D. While it is most certainly post-conversion, the 3D actually kind of works. You can tell in certain places that involve glass and with characters standing at slightly varying distances from the camera that it isn’t native 3D, but there were points in the movie where I felt like it brought a little something extra. You certainly aren’t missing out from anything revelatory by just watching it in 2D, but the 3D also didn’t hurt the whole experience.

The Sounds

Star Trek Into Darkness

The 3D screening I was at utilized the Dolby Atmos system. For those unfamiliar with it, Dolby Atmos is a sound system that was first debuted with Disney’s Brave back in June of last year that features 128 discrete audio tracks, 64 speaker feeds, 200 speakers, and 13 subwoofers. It is, undoubtedly, ridiculous, but it is also immense.

In the opening and closing moments of the movie, there are scenes involving the Enterprise that very clearly utilize all 200 speakers in simultaneously subtle and overt ways. There are speakers both above you and in a wide array behind and just to the side of the screen and they all work in concert to really drive home how absurdly huge this starship is. You can actually hear all the different places where engines and thrusters are firing and you can almost feel where the water droplets are hitting the hull. If you get the chance, see this movie with Dolby Atmos.

But more generally, the sound design seems to be mostly on par with the previous film, which is to say rather good. I still maintain that the original theme by Alexander Courage is way better than the new one from Michael Giacchino, but few things reach that level of quality, so I’ll let that one go. But the new warp sound definitely has a more noticeable aural impact (as does the accompanying visual effect) and the sound of phasers going off still sounds both otherworldly and very obviously thick metal strings being whacked about, a fantastically appropriate effect for a Star Trek film.

The Acting

Star Trek Into Darkness

Let’s just get this out of the way now: Benedict Cumberbatch is stellar in this film. There is one part where he goes into a bit of a monologue and I would dare say he gets a bit cheesy, but the amount of gravitas he still manages to deliver is incredible. Cumberbatch’s ability to force his low and rumbling voice to carry across a room with distinct and unwavering clarity and command is striking. He is menacing without appearing to be uncontrolled, which results in a calculated evil you rarely see in movies.

The highlight, however, is once again Simon Pegg. Every scene that came up with him in it became my new favorite scene. I’m not sure if it’s a relative contrast of a drab, empty space to Pegg’s immaculate comedic timing, but Into Darkness has further cemented him as one of my favorite actors/people/best friends. And for as little as he is in the movie, Bruce Greenwood as Admiral Pike remains spectacular. He knows how to amicably command a room until he needs to turn nasty. The way he lands on every word as if it is the most important thing ever said but moving between them like an Olympic hurdler runs the track is without equal.

And the returning duo of Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Captain Kirk and First Officer Spock has taken a step up in terms of delivering portent. Pine no longer relies solely on his roguish charm and Quinto doesn’t lean so much on his preternatural Vulcan looks and instead manage to deliver something much more raw. Quinto’s emotional bits as Spock are truly emotional and Pine manages to actually come across as an actual starship captain. There are times when things fall a bit flat in the middle, but that has more to do with the writing than the acting.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Some of the new faces like Alice Eve as Dr. Carol Marcus and Peter Weller as Admiral Alexander Marcus do well, though Weller better than Eve. Eve does well as Carol, conveying eagerness and sincerity where they could have easily turned into cloying annoyance, but her character doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s disappointing given how often I felt like we were purposefully made to look at her character and her circumstances and wait and wait and wait and nothing happens. Weller similarly manages to turn what could have been a cutout, check-the-boxes character and created something much more interesting. He commands a room just as well as Greenwood, but with a totally different utility: intimidation. It’s striking to say the least.

The Story

Star Trek Into Darkness

Here is where the problems come in. For all the topnotch wrapping and the incredible bow put on top, the present—the actual contents of the pretty paper and heavy stock box—is wholly addled. Before I start into this, I do think that if you can get over caring about character and story development, this is a very fun film. I realize that “fun” in and of itself is a very bland term, but it is that sort of breathless sensation you get when you watch something like a circus performer walk a tightrope or strong men attempt to heave kegs over a 30-foot bar. It’s engrossing, but ultimately intellectually disengaging.

The story ultimately revolves around Kirk and his troubles. He’s brash, all right, but he’s talented, intelligent, and, most importantly, untested, which is a setup rife with possibilities. It’s a chance to address the rapid ascension we witnessed in 2009’s Star Trek where Kirk goes from cadet to captain in the span of a few interplanetary excursions. In Into Darkness, we are almost ridiculed for believing we’d get a proper resolution when we see an even tighter turnaround time that has even less reason and more Kirk being Kirk.

And everything in the movie revolves around Kirk, which wouldn’t be a problem if his story was actually fleshed out more. Spock and Uhura’s relationship ties back to Kirk, Cumberbatch’s character’s motives dovetail with Kirk’s arc, and just about every side character’s B and C stories are simply branches off of the Kirk tree. And Kirk’s story is nothing more than a muddled, confused cocktail of mentor problems, friendship problems, and leadership problems. It starts off so promising with the potential to explore the merit of being a leader versus the ability to lead and then it all gets squandered on a meandering plot.

Star Trek Into Darkness

It meanders for more than just Kirk-related reasons, though. The villains, as great as they are, come across as confused. The twist isn’t really a twist, but I’ll forgo spoiling it anyways, so I’ll just say that at a certain point, the focus shifts from watching our protagonist figuring out what to do and watching him simply react to the multiple villains cross swords. Yes, multiple villains, so for all promises made in the trailers that Cumberbatch’s character will be the focus of the movie, our attention is split between two commensurate villains only to be robbed of any sort of resolution with one and a lingering malaise with the other.

I will say, though, that for all the complaints I’ve seen about plot holes and whatnot, I didn’t find them to be much of a problem. Most of them aren’t even plot holes as they can be explained away by us simply not knowing the reason or methods behind an action, but the bigger problem is when a potential inconsistency arises and the movie very obviously and deliberately provides a device or bit of dialogue to cover it up. It sometimes comes across as if someone made a pass over the script, left some notes, and then was later fixed with a five-second bit of dialogue spackle.

The biggest problem, however, is that the entire story is a downward slope. If you recall in the first Star Trek, we get a nice if bumpy ride upwards to a big and grand finale involving the big bad guy, our favorite good guy, and their two ships mucking about an artificially induced black hole. It was quite the finale in terms of scale and stakes; Earth was about to go the way of Vulcan and the Enterprise might go down. Into Darkness, however, starts out big and gets smaller and smaller and eventually gets into a personal vendetta story that we don’t get impetus for until five minutes beforehand (the impetus is extremely well written and performed, though). We go from everything is at stake to just a few things are at stake to a couple of ships are at risk to just one life is on the line. And all of that is handled in sequence so none of it overlaps and none of our anxieties build on anything prior.

Star Trek Into Darkness

The entire movie does operate very well as a vehicle for fun, though. If you recall how much you loved watching the action-packed bit in the middle of Star Trek where Kirk, Hikaru Sulu, and a red shirt attempt to space jump onto Nero’s drill over Vulcan, you’ll love all the away mission shenanigans that the crew gets up to in Into Darkness. It feels a lot like a more traditional episode of Star Trek but with a multi-million dollar budget and a grade-A director behind the scenes.

The Conclusion

Star Trek Into Darkness

Your enjoyment of Star Trek Into Darkness is really kind of a tossup. Whether you’re a fan of the first J. J. Abrams movie or not, whether you’re a Trekkie through and through, or whether you can get into some dumb summer movie fun all plays into it. The spectacle in terms of the visual and auditory largess is so far one of the highlights of the year, but having to overlook some of the fundamental plot problems is quite the wall to climb. And somehow I managed to make it over and, while I mentally could not engage with the story except in the beginning and in a few fantastic scenes afterwards, thoroughly enjoy my time in the theatre. The question, I guess, is if you can do the same.

+ It is an utterly stupendous movie with regards to the visual aesthetic and sound design
+ Across the board, the acting is great and, in some cases, amazing
+ The beginning asks some interesting questions regarding the very nature of Kirk’s character and his command
– Much of the plot is wasted on two villains more interested in each other than our protagonist, the grounding point for most of the drama
– Many of the side characters are wasted, such as Sulu, Chekov, and Carol

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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All Along the Sanctum 2 Review

Sanctum 2

I don’t remember when I heard it first, but someone at some point years ago made the astute observation that as the video game industry matures, we’ll see more and more genre-bending games come out. It was a salient point that became more pertinent as time went on. Nowadays you see RPG elements like experience points and level-restricted gear in your first-person shooters and you see extensive combat systems in your platformers. Puzzles, even, persist through less traditional enigmatic environments, and as a result, it becomes harder and harder to describe games without writing a full treatise on their intended design: third-person point ‘n click action adventure game, real-time strategy Sudoku-inspired MOBA, etc.

Sanctum 2, however, makes it simple. Take one part tower defense and one part first-person shooter and cram them together with a nice sci-fi bow on top (there are aliens that want to destroy your oxygen supplies and you have to stop them. For humanity!). It sounds simple, but the result is much more complex and altogether better for it. It is a marked improvement over the original and manages to create a fast-paced, aggressive game that succeeds in so many more ways than it fails.

You pick from four distinct characters, each with their own expertise and specialized utility (and totally badass 90s anime-style character portrait, a milieu that persists through fantastic-looking but intrigue-lacking comic bookish cutscenes). Haigen Hawkins, for example, carries a shotgun and has above average health, so he’s perfect for getting in close and punishing mobs. SiMo, on the other hand, is a sniper rifle-wielding robot who gets bonus damage for hitting weakspots. These varying attributes combine in four-player online play to create this synergistic dependency that, should people play their parts, is rather fun.

Sanctum 2

That is should play their parts because it’s not necessary; the character differences are nearly drastic enough to require class-based play. Most of my mob control strategy resulted in getting in as close as possible and dumping ammo like it was British tea in the Boston harbor. No matter how hard I tried to keep in line with what my character was best at (sniping, bashing, fire-based crowd control), it always ended up the same.

That may just be a consequence of some rather smart game design decisions, though. The framework of the game is designed to funnel you into acting fast and shooting faster. For instance, you can only set down a limited number of towers, a fact that produces two design artifacts: 1) you find yourself more inclined to restructuring and refinancing your existing towers to optimize for the next encounter, and 2) you are forced to get down and dirty a lot more often. Enemies can also be lured away from their relentless trek by getting close, which opens up new avenues for crowd control tactics. Then combine that with how your weapons recharge and reload on their own when you switch between firearms. This means that you spend way less time running between cover and open engagements and instead just have to decide on your order of operations of death.

This does take away the old drama of reloading while aliens get uncomfortably close to the core you’re protecting, but it replaces it with the anxiety of wondering if you’re maximized output can fell a foe before it reaches your ward. Enemies like the Soaker (who, predictably, take a lot of damage to kill) seem specifically geared towards poking at this insecurity and this switch-focused design choice as each hit increases the damage take on subsequent shots. This does, however, sometimes result in your having cleared out the smaller, faster fodder enemies and are left with unloading on some slow, trundling creature. That gets kind of boring after 30 seconds of nonstop firing and zero seconds of strategic contemplation.

Sanctum 2

You can fill that time, though, with thinking about tower management, which can get quite deep. Instead of discrete upgrades, you can slowly build up towards more powerful towers one coin at a time. And then you can buy the lump-sum upgrades to drastically alter how your tower functions, like turning it into a rapid fire death node. This is especially exciting in the beginning when you are also constructing the maze that the hordes will walk through so you have to decide what is important first and where it would be not only most effective later but where it can mitigate your lack of walls now.

In between levels, you pop out to where you can view your unlocked perks and weapons and build your loadout. It’s fun to see some tangible rewards for earnest progress, but everything you choose actually has a very impact on your next encounter. You choose what weapons and towers to bring with you (yes, towers, so pick wisely because those airborne enemies can get troublesome) but also combine perks to further specialize your class. You can increase your weakspot damage or boost your movement speed. These are choices that actively change the way you experience any given level. The most trivial choice you make is perhaps your weapon loadout and even that is critical.

Which actually causes some trouble down the line. With such a dependence on pre-gaming the game, you find yourself locked in trial-and-error loops more often than you’d like and thus more frustrated than you’d want. And playing online can be fun, but a commensurate amount of effort has to be directed towards effective communication since resources are a free-for-all and one idiot can ruin the entire operation for everyone.

Sanctum 2

And while it’s understandable that the towers are rather standard tower defense fare, it’s rather disappointing that the player armaments are relegated to the standard shotgun, assault, and rifle classes. The enemies, too, find themselves disappointingly uniform, like when the larger baddies are simply, well, larger versions of the regular infantry.

Sanctum 2 has a generally rough feeling around the fringes, but the core is substantial and surprisingly refined. There are niggling problems of difficulty, occasionally game-ending glitches, and frumpy aesthetics, but the actual act of playing the game is so manic and strategic and wholly a fantastic combination of things you rarely experience together that it’s easy to look past all the small stuff. Sanctum 2 takes two simple concepts and turns them into a product greater than the sum of its parts. It just forgot to sand down the edges.

+ Creating loadouts of weapons, perks, and towers have real, tangible impact on your effectiveness
+ Combat flow is refined to allow for a much more manic pace yet strategic feel
+ Crafting the mazes that affect horde movement by hand requires thought and careful consideration of the future and the present
– You occasionally find yourself stuck testing and revising strategies that result in you pointlessly replaying levels
– For all its genre-mashing innovation, a lot of the forward-facing portions feel very generic

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Sanctum 2
Release: May 15, 2013
Genre: First-person tower defense shooter
Developer: Coffee Stain Studios
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Players: 1-4
MSRP: $14.99 (1200 Microsoft Points)
ESRB Rating: T

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