Friday, April 29, 2016

"What every sci-fi and fantasy author can learn from Halo?"

Here's an article I wrote for Ragnarok Publications which I thought you would be interested in. Basically, I took a moment to talk about one of my favorite game series and their handling of storytelling in the original games. Basically, some advice on how to "hit the ground running" when you're trying to capture a world.

No, I don't mean how to tea-bag your opponents.

Nor do I mean selling out to Microsoft.

Not even how to craft excellent maps in multiplayer.

No, what I think every sci-fi and fantasy writer can learn from is the handling of Halo's story.

*crickets chirp*

Okay, I see I've lost some of you there but I'm serious. In 2001, Halo: Combat Evolved came out and proceeded to light the gaming world on fire. It's pretty much the reason why the X-box became something more than, "The console for people who can't afford a Playstation." 

But what I remember most about it is how the game managed to do something very unexpected: it took a game about shooting aliens and told a tremendously engaging story without ever pausing to explain it.

I hope you'll check my article out.

Horror, Humor, and Heroes volume 4# review

    I'm a huge fan of Jim Bernheimer's work. While the D-List Supervillain series is my favorite, I've also enjoyed the Dead Eye, Spirals of Destiny, and Prime Suspect: A Clone Detective Mystery books. As such, I've also made it a point to pick up the collections of his short stories which he puts out on a fairly regular basis. The Horror, Humor, and Hero novels are pretty fun with the first one being famous for the original Confessions of a D-List Supervillain novella.

    Horror, Human, and Heroes volume 4# is roughly fifty-percent short stories and fifty-percent an original novella starring D-List Supervillain supporting character Hillbilly Bobby. The short-stories are mostly reprints of previous material but gathering Jim Bernheimer's material all in one place is always a good thing. The stories within contain fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction, humorous zombie stories, and more. There's also a second D-List Supervillain story dealing with the secret life of the Semi-Transparent Man.

    Of the first half of the book, the stand-out stories are "Existence", "Caves of Gold", "Stupid Pigs", and "Mark-52." All of these stories have the trademark Jim Bernheimer wit, high concept, and are a surprising variety of ideas mixed with weird twists. Every author eventually develops their own style and Jim's boils down to just doing quirky science-fiction and fantasy. The other short stories are entertaining but these are the best.

    "Existence" is my favorite story in the novel, following a Pre-Babylonian pseudo-Hyborian Age priest-king who makes the mistake of requesting godhood from his pantheon. Punished for his hubris by being turned into a gigantic swamp-dwelling ape-man. Surviving to the Modern Day, he discovers humanity has long since abandoned the gods but are eager, desperate even, to believe in something unexplainable by science. I applaud the ending of this one as I really didn't see where it was going coming.

    "Caves of Gold" is a short little horror story about a bunch of Spanish conquistadors who are searching for gold in the New World. Jim humanizes all of them and portrays them as more than a bunch of genocide-happy killers out to steal the possessions of the locals. Unfortunately, they're dealing with forces they are ill-equipped to handle and would have benefited from actually believing the locals were evil.

    "Stupid Pigs" is a horror comedy based around the age-old premise of sacrificing a virgin to a demon and how one would go about doing so in the modern world. In this case, the woman involved has been lured on a group date with a religious convoy. As one might expect, their assumptions about who was telling the truth when asked about their sexual history proves to be the cult's undoing.

    "Mark-52" is my second favorite short story and probably the single best pure science-fiction story which Jim Bernheimer has ever written. A young woman on a help hotline is called by someone about to die and in need of reassurance as to life's meaning. It turns out it's the A.I. of a United States missile careening down to its doom who has achieved self-awareness but is powerless to change its fate. Having scoured the internet for answers, it needs someone to tell it what it is.

    "Barely There" is the other D-List Supervillain short story which deals with a day in the life of a man who can turn insubstantial as well as invisible but (seemingly) not at once. The CIA has recruited the comedian due to the airtight cover of the fact no one can ever be entirely sure where he is. I rather liked his comedy style, briefly on display, as it reminded me of Bob Hope's. There's not much here but I wouldn't mind seeing him show up in the main series as a supporting character.

    The real meat of the book is "Thugs, Lies, and Spies." Hillbilly Bobby, for those unfamiliar with the character, is the partner-in-crime of Cal Stringel during his days as Mechani-Cal. Possessed of powers equivalent to the Wrecker from Marvel comics (a force-field-covered two-by-four replacing his wrench), Hillbilly Bobby is roughly as successful. Despite this, he's content with his life as a B-List supervillain and makes enough from his crimes to support his prostitute and beer lifestyle.

    This story follows Bobby as he decides to do some undercover work investigating a supervillain-run religious cult and later help out Imaginary Larry, the world's most powerful psychic, try to recover his children. Imaginary Larry has all the power in the world but not a vicious bone in his body, which is what he needs in order to find where the government has kidnapped them off to. We get to see multiple sides of Bobby ranging from his brutal thuggishness to his strong devotion to his friends.

    The Bobby novella isn't so much a single coherent story as a serial of his misadventures which could have been a book in their own right. I certainly enjoyed it a great deal even if I would have appreciated less supervillain fights and more insight into how his devious criminal redneck brain worked. There's also the fact Bobby can't change the status quo as this is squarely set during the third D-List Supervillain book's events. Despite this, I had an immense amount of fun and was very happy to see my favorite D-List supporting character She-Dozer show up. That's her on the beautiful cover, BTW.

    In conclusion, this is a great collection of short stories and well-worth the effort of sci-fi and fantasy fans to pick up. If you like Jim Bernheimer's work, especially the D-List supervillain books, this is a must-by as the Bobby novella is worth the price of purchase alone. I'm totally not saying that just because Jim named the character of Paper Tiger after me.



Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hitman (2016): Episode Two: Sapienza review

    The decision to make Hitman (2016) episodic went over like a ton of bricks with the audience. I absolutely loved the Paris level and felt it was probably the single-best designed level I've ever played in a video game. Despite being confined to a single building, it was a huge level with hundreds of NPCs and dozens of opportunities to assassinate your targets in both entertaining as well as theatrical ways. I drowned them in toilets, dropped them over ledges, hit them with chandeliers, and even blew them up with a mine once.

    I was thus very excited about the possibility of another episode of Agent 47's adventures. In this case, it was a journey to a beautiful vacation town in Italy. Sapienza and Paris could not be more different in some ways but still possess the same DNA of glamorous exotic locations our professional assassin must visit in order to stop nefarious plots afoot. It feels very much like a classic James Bond or John Le Carre novel (depending on how you play).

Beautiful villas, beaches, and places to kill people.
    In Episode Two, Agent 47 is contacted by Diana who informs him Doctor Silvio Caruso, a stem cell researcher, has created a biological weapon capable of killing any specific individual on Earth. Basically, it's Foxdie from Metal Gear Solid. Less troubled by the ethical or political consequences of such a device, Diana and 47 are more troubled by the fact it could put them out of a job. Accepting a contract on Silvio, his lab assistant Francesca De Santis, and the virus itself--you must journey to this gorgeous locale then eliminate them.

    The big contrast to the Paris level is while that was all isolated to one building, this is spread across an entire small town and beach. The majority of the town isn't encountered in the assassination proper and I suspect a lot of it exists for players to use in Contracts or Escalation mode but it was still gorgeous to wander around. Whereas Paris was overcrowded and claustrophobic, this just feels relaxed and beautiful.

I never stop enjoying tossing people off balconies. Ditto drowning people in toilets.
    The targets this time are a bit more sympathetic than previously. Despite being a bioweapons engineer, Silvio is a decent man who is trying to develop a method to make the weak able to fight the strong even though he's blinded to the fact the opposite will likely be the case. Francesca is a career woman who has fallen in love with her golfing instructor (and vice versa) with both of them acting like love-struck teenagers rather than the cynical adults they've always identified themselves as being.

    The fact you can kill both in rather sadistic ways felt a less satisfying than the two jackasses from the previous episode. For example, you can kill Silvio as he's visiting his dead mother and drown Francesca in a toilet while dressed as her lover who you just murdered (seconds after she declares her love for you no less). Still, there's quite a few crazy ways to kill people and my favorite is using an explosive golf ball.

They'll never see you coming.
    The main plot moves forward but not in a way which is comprehensible. The agent from the first episode draws one step closer to his goal by acquiring the bioweapon data but it turns out the villains of the game aren't IAGO, like I previously thought, but a previously-unrevealed organization known as Providence. How this all ties in with Agent 47 or who the individual is has yet to be revealed. It's rare I complain about the complexity of a plot in a Hitman game but that seems to be the case here. At the very least, I'd like to know the main villain's name and what he's up to.

    There's numerous improvements made to the technical side of things with the Patch which came out just before this version. These include an ability to reconnect to the server if you're kicked, a dramatically reduced loading time, and other improvements which deal with the majority of my problems from the first episode. There's some glitches and bugs in this game like one Opportunity I really wanted to do not triggering and ragdoll physics but it still played remarkably well for a first day release.

My favorite part of this level? 47 in his "Dad on vacation" clothes.
    There's nothing particularly original this time around and there's plenty of reused assets but the mood of the two levels is distinct enough I don't have a problem with them. The graphics quality of this game is immense and I give kudos to Io Entertainment for coming up with something so beautiful. The game actually serves as a weird kind of travelogue as I've never wanted to visit Italy before playing this level but now kind of want to. 

     One small annoyance I will have is the fact the episode's female target gets murdered in those aforementioned sadistic ways primarily because of her lover. Only one out of a few of the Opportunities doesn't involve exploiting her clingy jealous girlfriend habits. Likewise, Caruso has "gynophobia" and severe mother issues which get exploited. It's kind of bizarre to have such an anti-woman focused level as it has no real bearing on the greater plot or 47 whatsoever.

Antique cannons are something every Hitman should make use of.
    There's areas which could have been better, I think, such as making the villains more hateable and having the assassinations be a bit more over-the-top. Still, I thought this was a very good "serious" Hitman level. It gives the sense of the world as a spy thriller which fits with the previous games but improves on them in almost every conceivable way. 47 is still mostly a blank slate but expressionless stoic is pretty much his established personality now.

    Hitman (2016) remains a great game and is probably the best in the series, including Blood Money, with all signs pointing to the game continuing its previous level of quality. Hitman (2016) is a slow and methodical game with immense replayabilty. The fact its episodic is something which will continue to tick off fans but is something I'm rather enjoying. I'd rather play bite-sized chunks of Hitman thoroughly than one big meal once. Indeed, if this becomes the new model of the game then I'd be quite satisfied.


Monday, April 25, 2016


THE SECRETS OF SUPERVILLAINY is the third book of the Supervillainy Saga. It's a great depiction of Nightgirl and Ultragoddess by Raffaele Marinetti.

THE SECRETS OF SUPERVILLAINY follows Gary Karkofsky a.k.a Merciless the Supervillain without MercyTM as we join him one year after the events of THE GAMES OF SUPERVILLAINY. Desperate to find a cure for his wife's vampirism, Gary has taken to practicing black magic and dealing with the worst scum of the magical world. His world has been turned upside down with Cindy becoming a superhero, his wife a blood-hungry antihero, and the allure of supervillainy no longer there. 

Unfortunately, Gary has unwittingly made an enemy even he might hesitate to cross in PRESIDENT OMEGA -- The most evil POTUS of them all. The President has decided to make Gary Public Enemy No. 1# even as Gabrielle Anders a.k.a Ultragoddess brings him news of the death of the world's greatest superhero. Some crimes need the insight of a villain to solve and the world's greatest antivillain is the only one who can do it. Time will tell if Gary can get over his depression to solve all of these problems and his own or succumb to a despair great enough to turn him from bad to evil.

I think Raffaele does an amazing job with the characters.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Hitman (2016): Episode One: Paris review

    I'm  a huge fan of the Hitman series. I'm a fair late-comer to the series with my first game being Hitman: Absolution before I went to play the compilation trilogy. I was really interested in the upcoming video game sequel, simply called Hitman. I was curious if this was going to be a reboot or  sequel by the title before realizing, in Hitman, it doesn't really matter.

    The Hitman series is a series without much in the way of plot. As Agent 47 you are told to kill people then go and do it. It's in the title. They tried to mix this up in Absolution which, gave me the wrong impression the series had more character development than it does, but isn't that big of a deal. Much like Mario going to beat up Bowser and rescue Princess Peach, Hitman is about the experience. No one is playing these games for deep and meaningful insights into 47's character. He's not Joel from The Last of Us, he's not even Max Payne.

The yacht level is our introduction to 47 murdering people.
    It's with this attitude in mind I took the revelation Hitman (2016) would be episodic with relative ease. Hitman is a game about killing people in elaborate levels where there's multiple ways of taking out your targets. It's a game tailor made for episodic content and one I have no problem purchasing in bite-sized chunks. I also note the opening pack of the game cost me fourteen dollars, which is well worth the content I got from it. When I purchased Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, I felt cheated for roughly the same content at $40, but this is far more replayability at less than half the price.

    The premise is divided into two parts, at least in this section. The first part of the game is a flashback to twenty-years-prior. Agent 47 has just escaped the asylum in Romania he was created and has found himself recruited by the International Contract Agency. After passing an increasingly dangerous set of trials, he is approved for field operations. We then get a montage of 47's murders across the next two decades (from the previous games).

Diane and 47's bond is explained here.
    The second part of the story picks up in the present day with Agent 47 being assigned to kill a Russian oligarch and his Israeli ex-supermodel wife. Both of them are international information brokers who belong to a criminal syndicate named IAGO (which I assume is our villainous organization for the game). They're having a huge fashion show and it's up to Agent 47 to eliminate both despite the massively public venue and small army of guards.

    Interestingly, I think the tutorial levels are perfectly serviceable by themselves. I think it might have been a good idea to have them be actual assassinations 47 conducts to prove himself to the Agency but they're fun even as simulations. The first target is a gentleman thief cat burglar who is arrogantly believing himself untouchable despite the fact he's taken on a job which threatens global security. The second is a chess master defecting to the Soviet Union whose KGB handlers have been keeping him at a Cuban Air Force base.

Having 47 strut his stuff is hilarious.
    I enjoyed both of these missions and had a great deal of fun killing the targets in a variety of ways but they're really just a warm-up for the Paris level. "Showstopper" is probably the most beautifully designed map in the history of video games and I don't use that sort of praise lightly. It's a massive-massive collection of entrance-ways, opportunities, and NPCs who ooze with personality. There's something akin to three-hundred NPCs in the Paris level and wandering among them shows just how much care went into their use.

    Hardcore fans will perhaps resent the fact the games are toned down in difficulty with frequent save points, a guide to where you can assassinate characters in bizarre but humorous ways, and improved combat systems. As the causal gamer I was, I appreciated this, though. I murdered the targets by dropping chandeliers on them, poisoning them, and even drowning them in toilets. The option to turn off all of the clue systems is present, as well, making the game more like its "classic" predecessors. Personally, I kept all the hints on because I'm a causal gamer.

Dude is about to be drowned in his own toilet.
    The atmosphere of the game is closer to the "International Man of Mystery" from Blood Money and Silent Assassin than the more grindhouse Absolution and that's to the game's benefit. We see Agent 47 as a sort of James Bond gentleman assassin versus the more brutish figure he was in the previous game. I think this fits 47 better and works well for the game where our hero is surrounded by luxury but is a wolf among sheep.

    Hitman has a great system of Challenges which maximize the replay value. The Challenges weren't much fun in Absolution due to the fact the levels were so small but they're very engaging in the Paris level. There's also Contracts and Escalations which are fan-and-developer-produced levels which move the targets to new figures. These missions are timed and offer all manner of new options to achieve. My biggest complaint is they're all timed, which doesn't help the slow and methodical pace the game is going for.

 Choose your plan.
    I should mention the characterization in this game, despite its general lack of story, is actually quite good.  Viktor Novikov and Dalia Margolis are detailed characters with their own motivations, backstory, as well as funny moments spread throughout the story. 47 has a few good moments as well, like when he gets to interact with some of the characters on certain routes. Diana also gets characterized as a former intelligence agent who has too much conscience left to become a good assassin handler.

    Does the game have flaws? Yes, unfortunately it does. The fact the game always has to be on means that it's annoyingly dependent on its internet connection. There's also occasions where I've had bugs occur where Opportunities don't start. Most annoyingly, the loading times for this game are obscene and you'll do a lot of those as you struggle to get your perfect Silent Assassin rating. Even with the save sytem, I reloaded up to a dozen times during every mission replay as I wanted to get my game just right.

Amusingly, 47 can actually attend the criminal auction on the second floor because he's the kind of guy who would attend it.
     I won't lie to you, the game's length is frustrating as three episodes is plenty for an episodic story but this feels more like a paid-for-demo. I understand the financial reasons for this decision but the levels don't have self-contained stories the same way Telltale's episodic content does. Finishing the Paris level only made me want to play more and there wasn't. Despite this, I think this will be the best Hitman period and is well-worth the money to purchase.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Halo 5: Guardians review

Warning - this will contain some spoilers for Halo 5: Guardians.

    Halo Month at the United Federation of Charles comes to an extend not with a bang but a whimper. How do I put this in a way which shows my immense respect for the Halo franchise but doesn't lie to my audience? Hmm, that's a difficult question. This is a really well made game but I hate it. Really-really hate it.

    Now, actually, let me qualify that statement. I think it's a very well made game in terms of gameplay, graphics, and even the nature of the storytelling. It's just every single storytelling decision pisses me off. I had a similar situation with Charles Stross' The Jennifer Morgue in which the problem wasn't with the book but the fact, as a James Bond fan, every one of his decisions in the James Bond pastiche irritated the hell out of me.

Fire Team Osiris is the new heroes.
    If you are just looking to have fun shooting aliens then, well, go play any of the other games out there. I never got into the Gears of War franchise because of the militarism but I'd rather play it than the alternative. This is a very frustrating game for me to review because it's  a franchise I love and it's well made but the choices made are always dissonant with what I love about it.

    But I'll get to all of that.

    The premise is a series of earthquakes are rocking human colonies across the galaxy. Doctor Halsey, previously having defected to the Neo-Covenant after a failed assassination attempt by the UNSC, contacts her persecutors with a promise of information on them. After rescuing her, Spartan IV Fire Team Osiris is informed the person behind the earthquakes is a resurrected Cortana. Simultaneously, Master Chief and Blue Team receive a message from Cortana which lures them to a Forerunner world which she's taken over.

The gameplay is entirely adequate.
    I don't have a problem with reversing Cortana's death in Halo 4. As dramatic and touching as it was handled in said game, I felt leaving her dead would be a mistake. First of all, because she's an A.I. and that leaves a great deal more wiggle room than with a biological person. Second of all, because she's such an iconic part of the franchise. I do, however, severely dislike the way she's handled in the game.

    The Cortana of the games is a lovable playful hacker as well as the emotional heart of Master Chief's otherwise monotone military life. Transforming her into a cosmic dictator is equivalent to making Princess Peach, Zelda, or Lois Lane into the Big Bad. It's shocking, yes, but once the initial shock wears off you'll realize that's because it doesn't make any sense. The only way for it to happen is to disregard everything we know about the character.

Cortana is now wearing clothes.
    The number of retcons throughout this game is also annoying. At the end of Halo 3, humanity was a battered remnant of its former self. There were only 200 million human beings left on Earth and most of mankind's colonies were destroyed. The UNSC in Halo 5 acts like a galactic superpower when during the Covenant War, it was hopelessly outmatched in every single way, The game acts like humanity is the United States instead of a borderline failed state.

    The abuse of Halo lore goes beyond merely these retcons and actually extends to 343 Industries own characters. The Didact, a major character in the previous game, is barely given any mention. Jul'mdama, the leader of the Neo-Covenant, is killed off in the first mission. Doctor Halsey's rift with the UNSC is healed without issue despite numerous comics and books being devoted to it.

    The Janus Key, a major factor of Spartan Ops, has no role whatsoever in the story. Hell, a major part of the backstory of Halo 4 is the destruction of the Domain only for the Domain to appear undamaged as a major part of this story. What these artifacts do is less important than the fact they are created, destroyed, and remade as ideas strike 343 Industries. It's like destroying the One Ring in the The Fellowship of the Ring and then having it show up again in The Two Towers.

The Master Chief vs. Locke is a disappointment
    I'm also not a big fan of new character Locke as the co-protagonist. Locke seems like a likable enough character but he's not possessed of any real depth either. Even giving him Nathan Fillon and Laura Bailey to play off on as companions just highlights I'd rather be playing Laura Bailey or Nathan Fillon's characters. It's not Mike Cotter's fault as he's a great actor but the developers don't really have a strong character for him to work from.

    Gameplay-wise, Halo 5: Guardians is perfectly fine. The shooting is improved on from Halo 4 with equipment replaced with Spartan abilities. I didn't use many of them but the ability to climb onto items in the maps was one I enjoyed a great deal and added a surprising amount of verticality in combat. I'm not a big fan of the new Forerunner holographic and light-based guns, however, which become the chief weapon you'll come to use as robotic enemies replace Covenant ones for the majority of the game.

The Warden Eternal is fought way too many times.
    Perhaps the biggest change to gameplay is the fact you're always fighting with an A.I controlled team in single-player. This means, barring your character being disintegrated or falling into a hole, you'll usually be able to come back from the dead with their help. I didn't mind this but it made an already fairly easy game even easier. Solo-players may want to adjust their difficulty levels up one notch.

    The Forerunner robots are improved from Halo 4, though, with the addition of an Elite equivalent enemy to provide variation between the Sentinels and more powerful tank-like enemies. Halo 5 also adds a "Boss" enemy in the Warden Eternal who you face several times throughout the game. It was an enjoyable fight the first time but gets progressively less fun each battle due to the fact he's not all that interesting of a character nor does he change in his strategies.

Yeah, I feel the same way Cortana.
    I'm not one to bandy around the concept of fanfic lightly. I don't have anything against pastiches or continuing the story of other artists with your own spin. Halo 5, though, has a serious issue with keeping continuity with previous volumes of the game. It also changes, muddles, and restructures things from character development to world-building with no real attention to detail.

    It's infuriating for those who actually care about Halo and leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth. The worst thing is they clearly know the lore by the amount of it in the game but choose to change it in order to facilitate their own vision. Then they change their own vision because they've thought of something cooler.

    As always, the multiplayer in the game isn't really why I'm here, though I understand from friends its golden. That's not going to help my deep and abiding antipathy for this game. I don't play games to turn off my brain and just experience the gameplay. I came to love the Halo universe, its characters, and its story. All of which get a raw deal here.


Tom Clancy's Division video by Extra Credit

    This isn't my video but I have to say it reflects a lot of my views. It's always a crapshoot looking for artistic merit in video games, not because the artistic talent and vision isn't there but because so much of it is the product of multiple storytellers working together.

    A strong central vision is needed and when there's not one, you can very often have conflicting, watered down, or just plain dissonant viewpoints expressed. The Division isn't any of these things but in the developers attempts to justify, "shoot-em-up" gameplay in a real-world context, they've unwittingly made a very politically charged game.

    Extra Credit does a good job of expressing how The Division unwittingly throws a lot of commentary onto things like law, order, justice, and acceptable levels of force to use in a crisis. The fact none of this is anything the developers seemed to have cared about is perhaps more distressing than if it had been the product of deliberate effort.

     I've only played a little bit of The Division but my own opinion on the subject is the game could have been a far less problematic game if they'd bothered to throw in the tiniest bit of effort. Instead, the game vilifies just about everyone in the crisis as a potential target because, well, that justifies the shooting gameplay.

     It's ironic because they did a fairly decent job with a similar premise in Infamous almost a decade ago. There, you fought more colorful gangs of evil doers while working to protect the citizens of a post-disaster New York. Here, I didn't feel like a guy trying to protect the citizens of New York and rebuild society so they could survive but more like a gun-toting lunatic waving a badge. It's not exactly a heroic feeling. Which plays into the larger point Extra Credit is making: games make statements even when they're not trying to.

     That's the nature of art.