Space Hamster

Almost 8000 credits? Do I have to feed it? I don't want to come back after a long mission and find the thing dead and rotting in its space hamster wheel.


First Impressions

Okay, I've finally been able to affect some mass. My first impressions are rather positive. One thing I thought was especially weak about the first Mass Effect was the beginning, which just dumps you in the boonies of an (admittedly very pretty) alien planet and then leaves you to wander around for a few minutes. Number 2 starts all guns blazing, with your lovely spaceship from the first game getting blown to bits with you inside it, then dropping you in the middle of a battle at the shadowy research project that has resurrected your ruined body.

The process of importing your character from the first game has possibly been a bit oversold - I can certainly see all the hooks where you can fill in the backstory of a brand new character. But it's possible that my previous good deeds with respect to Wrex and Tali may yet have some effect that I couldn't have got otherwise.

Speaking of which, I'm already satisfied when it comes to two of the main reasons I bought the thing: Martin Sheen's 'Illusive Man' casts a sardonically voiced shadow over events, and the very first character you bump into on your first proper mission is none other than Tali (which seems like a bit of a coincidence, but I'm the last person to complain).

I can also see quite a few improvements on the things I didn't like so much about the first game - the dialogue (at least so far) is focused more on the personal than on broad exposition, the cover system has been improved, your comrades seem more dynamic and useful in combat, and I also like the fact that the weapons feel a lot meatier - the guns in Mass Effect 1 just didn't feel like they had any punch to them.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have renegade robots to shoot.


Friday So Near Yet So Far Blogging

Mass Effect 2 was released in the UK today. Bought it in HMV during my lunch break. Get home, ready to play...

Guy at the till didn't remove the red security doodad. Can't - according to the Internet - remove it without possibly damaging the disk or the case.


I'm sure HMV will remove the thing if I take it back with the receipt, but I didn't buy the game on release day just to gaze longingly at the cover.


Thursday Comic

Birds of Prey: Perfect Pitch - Gail Simone et al.

When one of Helena Bertinelli's students gets in trouble with a gang, she does what any inner-city teacher would: use her secret vigilante identity, her family ties to the Gotham City mob and her newfound friendship with superhero information broker Oracle to enact a complex sting operation that will put everyone involved behind bars. Meanwhile, shadowy forces are conspiring to attack Oracle's operation at its most vulnerable points - her friends.

This volume begins with some rather nice artwork by Bruce Timm and David Lopez (above), before passing the paintbrush through a few different hands and wavering around the weakest point I've seen the artwork reach on this series. On the writing side, the most interesting thing here is the One Year Later event that DC Comics pulled across all its series, which seems like it was kind of intended as a chance for non-regulars to hop onto some superhero comics. But Simone uses the device purely as a writing, rather than marketing device. If anything, after the story leaps ahead, it's even more entangled in previous Birds of Prey storylines and even more affected by wider events in the DC Universe.

As always, though, Simone's writing - and in particular her characterisations - keep me hooked in spite of all the DC baggage, even if this is the point that Creote and Savant, two of my favourite members of the team, get left by the wayside.


Spirit is not Dead, but...

"Spirit is not dead; it has just entered another phase of its long life," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We told the world last year that attempts to set the beloved robot free may not be successful. It looks like Spirit's current location on Mars will be its final resting place."

Read the rest.

As always, Emily Lakdawalla has an insightful analysis.


"Favour... returned." *Dies*

Continuing in the vein of previous on-rails shooter The Umbrella Chronicles, which related the downfall of Umbrella in re-imagined sequences from Resident Evils 0, 1 and 3, The Darkside Chonicles fills in the remaining gaps, covering the events of Resident Evil 2, RE: Code Veronica and leading up to RE4. Although, following on from The Umbrella Chronicles (henceforth just 'UC'), and what many people saw as the far superior Dead Space: Extraction (I wouldn't know, Extraction gave me motion sickness) it seems like DSC (that's Darkside Chronicles, let's keep with the acronyms) may well fall through the cracks. Which is a shame, because it's an altogether, slicker, tighter, classier affair than UC, featuring some of the series' most memorable major and minor characters and recounting its most character-driven stories. Where UC gave us Jill Valentine snapping a zombie's neck with her bare thighs, DSC shows us Annette Birkin shedding a single perfect tear for the neglect she's shown her daughter. Where UC is full of characters uttering weird non-sequiturs and humourless observations of the obvious, DSC has a dry sense of humour and some lively banter.

It's also, it must be said, a huge technical improvement over UC. It looks a lot better, properly portraying the atmospheric environs of RE2 and RECV, and lending the characters an appearance that's both slightly more realistic and a lot more stylish. The finicky headshots have been improved, becoming much easier to pull off on lower difficulty settings. And replaying the chapters to improve your score is made more palatable by their being shorter and more numerous, and with less protracted boss fights. It's also now possible to focus on improving your score in different areas at a time, so, for example, you don't have to try and juggle blasting huge numbers of enemies with lining up headshots. And the rewards and archives you get are more interesting as well, including character models, voice recordings, and bonus costumes.

But I'm always the first person to complain about the exaltation of the technical when it comes to video games. There's one reason I was so keen to get DSC, and that's my enormous love for Resident Evil 2, which, as you may remember me mentioning about a million times, is one of my all-time favourite games.

The transition to rail shooter naturally distorts the storyline and the atmosphere of the original - and destroys the sense of exploration and strategy. But it's also clear that this transition has been handled by people who genuinely care about the story, and who are interested in trying to draw out its strengths. So, although Leon and Ada now only spend just a little time with one another, their few scenes together are more touching, and their attraction is depicted in a more low-key, less melodramatic fashion. In the same way, without giving anything away, the original “Killed the boss! Fuck yeah!” ending is morphed into something more measured, almost understated (at least by Resident Evil standards), which focuses on the emotional fallout for Sherry Birkin.

I've noted before that RE2 has probably one of the best supporting casts in the RE franchise, and that's kind of acknowledged here by the way a lot of them seem to just turn up for a cameo death scene. Still, Chief Irons is suitably deranged, and Marvin Branagh's fate might potentially make you jump the first time you play through that chapter. And if these guys seem to get a bit of a short shrift, it's more than made up for by the skilful way the game handles the bigger players. Annette Birkin, in particular, is portrayed as less of a two-note maniac and more of a conflicted and tragic figure (even if her introductory monologue does meander into complete gibberish).

It's harder for me to gauge the Code Veronica chapters, because that's now the only mainline Resi game I've never played. Still, Claire is one of my favourite characters in the series, and these chapters are made a lot of fun by her alternately exasperated and flirtatious banter with irrepressible, wise-cracking Steve Burnside; by a delightfully ostentatious and playful villain; and by some truly engaging environments ranging from a ruined prison camp to an Antarctic base.

The weakest part of the game, for me, was the third set of chapters, relating Leon's first and last mission with Krauser (both of whom reappear, this time on opposing sides, in RE4). Although this part of the game at first seems kind of clever, given how it's actually presented as the framing narrative for the other two stories, it's also pretty light on storytelling and character, quite tedious at times, and seems to end rather abruptly - unceremoniously jumping from one boss fight straight to the climactic one. (I've also got to mention that I found the 'losing' ending that you can get for this sequence to be somewhat stronger than the 'winning' one, which makes me wonder why they included both.)

By focusing on the stories of Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield, Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles presents a tighter, more focused game than The Umbrella Chronicles, while also improving on many of that game's flaws. The standard of writing is relatively high, and I found the action to be fun and challenging while avoiding becoming repetitive or tedious (at least in the RE2 and RECV chapters). If you're a fan, I think you'll find this to be a classy, good-looking re-imagining of the originals. And if you just want to shoot zombies and monsters with your Wii-mote, there's that too.


Ho Hum

I have so much to do right now, and I'm not actually doing any of it.


The Last Lovecraft

"This is fucking crazy, man, there's no such thing as fish people, dude!"

Hat tip Twitch, as usual.


Thursday Book

Predator's Gold - Philip Reeve

When it came to the first book in Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series, the thing I liked best was the awkward, distrustful romance that blossomed - hesitantly - between naive townie Tom and vengeful, disfigured Hester. And the thing I liked least was the half of the book set in (mobile, predatory) London - a needless side-story that seemed to drag.

The good news is that this first sequel stays focused and keeps along at a fair clip. And if the first book seemed to revolve around just two or three clever ideas, Reeve pulls out the stops here, with imaginative contraptions and diabolical villains galore.

What I didn't appreciate so much was the way the relationship between Tom and Hester progressed. It's a huge and unnecessary cliche that sequels always feel the need to break up a couple and get them back together (because, after all, what else can the writer do with them?), and here it feels especially contrived and tiresome. After seeing these two face the gravest dangers together, nurturing unexpected trust and affection, I was kind of looking forward to seeing them face up to new dangers together, and in that respect I found this book a bit disappointing.

But I'll still be picking up the next one when I've got a bit further through my pile of reading material...


So I guess I'm kind of taking this month off to actually relax in my free time - working through the stack of books and games that have piled up recently.

But things are afoot, my friends. As always.


Butterfly Fantasy 2

I thought some of you might like this online spot-the-difference game, Butterfly Fantasy. It's casual to the max - the gameplay pretty much an arbitrary layer over the artwork - but the images tell a modern fantasy story that rather grabbed me.

I've linked to episode 2, because I found the first episode to be a bit downbeat and dreary, and the third is just a drawn-out deus ex machina - but the second shows some great, imaginative storytelling in its wordless images. By turns uplifting, dramatic and sad.

(Although one thing that bugs me is that these are clearly moths, not butterflies.)


Thursday Comic

Birds of Prey: Between Dark and Dawn - Gail Simone, Ed Benes, et al.

Still reading through this lot (I mentioned a previous book in the same series here). Simone's writing is still strong, and super anti-heroes Savant and Creote made me laugh out loud at times. But the art seems to be suffering from passing between a wide variety of artists. The book doesn't credit who's drawing each chapter, but there's a definite transition from the clean, bold artwork of the first book to a scrappier, looser style by the end of this one, and it's not a change I liked too much.

It also seems to suffer a bit from being a part of the DC Comics monopoly. Something extremely important happens to the Birds of Prey in this book - but the event itself seems to take place in a higher ranking series in the superhero canon, and we're just left with the aftermath. Still, Simone tells a snappy, confident story, even if the art may waiver.


Dwarves and Giants

Image source
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This rather elegant Cassini image lends something of a sense of scale to Saturn as we see it dwarfing 1500km wide Rhea.


Monday Movie: Ghost in the Shell

In a future in which brains are connected directly to the Internet, the notorious hacker 'Puppet Master' manipulates memories and motives in the service of his shadowy aims. When Motoko Kusanagi, a military cyborg working for Public Security Section 9, is brought onto the case, the Puppet Master turns out to be strangely entangled with her life - and her doubts.

Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell draws inspiration from William Gibson and Ridley Scott to present a city where gleaming skyscrapers tower over flooded, advertisement-strewn streets. There's an evocative, measured atmosphere throughout, with largely ambient scenes flowing seamlessly into flourishes of explosive ultraviolence. If Oshii is occasionally heavy-handed with his dialogue, it only makes it all the more remarkable to see the deliberate way in which he builds mood.


There are snows EVERYWHERE

The last lot of snow that I complained about thawed before Christmas, but it started snowing again Tuesday night and it's kept snowing every so often since. Everything's white and covered in snow and ice.

It's very unbecoming. Whatever happened to good old rain?


Thursday Book

Fighter Heroes of WWI - by Joshua Levine

Originally published under the less jingoistic title of 'On a Wing and a Prayer', this book explores the experiences of British (and, to a much lesser extent, German) fighter pilots in the First World War, in their own words. This focus on British forces seems strange given the often quite personal nature of air combat in this era, and it's definitely at odds with the subtitle of 'The extraordinary story of the pioneering airmen of the Great War'. As Levine has to admit, it was frequently Germans like Anthony Fokker, Oswald Boelcke and Manfred von Richthofen who did a lot of the pioneering.

Still, even if the book seems to be trying to sell itself on a nationalistic angle, Levine is a very effective documentarian. In the first couple of chapters he may overdo the quotations a bit (with more than enough lengthy stories of what random people were doing before joining the Royal Flying Corps), but that's just because he seems much more interested in conveying the lived experiences of WW1 flyers than trying to build any kind of wider narrative or theory.

In fact, Levine is so happy to relate these stories that he'll frequently support a tangential aside with accounts that pre-suppose the answers to the wider question he's supposed to be addressing. Still, he's nothing if not enthusiastic, and the book does, on the whole, take us through the development of aerial warfare from the bare-knuckle hops of early civilian planes to the organised attacks of Richthofen's brightly painted Flying Circus.

You won't be surprised by now to hear that this is a part of history that interests me greatly, and although it may not convey the same (subjective) high-level view of the conflict you'll find in, say, Peter Hart's Aces Falling, this is a very worthy addition to the genre.


Sheen, Tali, Spaceships

I haven't really mentioned the first Mass Effect game pretty much... at all here, but I did rather like it.  I guess my opinion of it was kind of soured because I didn't find out the extent of the DRM Electronic Arts had included until I was hooked on the game - and then it felt a bit like discovering a book that you can't put down has spring-loaded hinges that'll snap shut and lock if the book decides you're up to no good.  It kind of killed my buzz for the thing.

It also embodies something that I notice quite often with 'epic, cinematic' games, in that it seems to include a lot of lengthy, humourless, not especially interesting conversations because, I suspect, the developers have got quantity and quality confused when it comes to dialogue (interestingly, I think Bioware's other epic role player, Dragon Age: Origins, does a better job with its dialogue, for reasons I may go into at some point).

Still, any game that lets you fly a space ship around, explore distant planets and accumulate a motley crew of slightly retro-style aliens is going to tick a lot of boxes for me, and I find that all of a sudden I've become very excited about Mass Effect 2. It started when I first heard that Martin Sheen was doing one of the voices, and now the mini-trailer for Tali (an IGN link is as good as any, I suppose) has reminded me how much I liked her character.

I'll admit that I was one of the many nerds disappointed that Mass Effect included possible romances between the player character and several different love interests - not including the mysterious member of a dying and marginalised race who gets swept up in your adventure and never removes her tinted space helmet. There's hints that maybe Bioware are giving in to the fans in this case (a good thing, I'd say, at least when I'm one of them), but even if romance is kept off the table, I'm hoping that Tali may get a little more of the spotlight this time.

Also, Martin Sheen.


Monday Movie: Paths of Glory

Before the Great War, Colonel Dax was a renowned defence attorney. Now he finds himself ordered to take an impregnable enemy position. When half his men are unable even to leave the trenches, his superiors order a number of scapegoats to be tried for cowardice under pain of death. And Dax resolves to see them acquitted - even as the military stacks the odds against him.

An early, but frequently favoured offering from Stanley Kubrick, Paths of Glory is an effective anti-war film with a carefully realised texture. Kubrick provokes pity and anger at futile struggles both on the battlefield and in the courtroom, without spilling over into excess; while Kirk Douglas, in the lead role, wisely reins in Dax's simmering outrage.



What do you mean I was late with my annual round-up post? The date clearly says it was posted on the 31st December!

Only two comics made it onto the list, possibly related to the fact that my unread stack of comics, mangas and graphic novels actually got taller over the year. My first new year's resolution is to not buy any new books until I've read a considerable fraction of the enormous pile beside my bed.

My other new year's resolutions are the same they are every year: to read more and do more creative stuff.

And every year I do do a little more, so it seems like good resolutions to keep repeating.