Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January After-Action Report and February's Monthly List

Well, the monthly list idea went... ...so-so. I was doing well for the beginning part of the month, but then I remembered that Mass Effect 3 is coming out in March and Mass Effect 1 and 2 have swallowed a huge amount of my free time as I've played through them in preparation for that. Here's the results for January:

Short Games: Bastion (cleared), Rage (cleared), Homefront (cleared) - made it through all of these.
Long Game: Dungeons of Dredmor (cleared) - Made it through all of that.
Nonfiction Book: The art of Manliness: Manvotionals - Not cleared. I'm about halfway through and am enjoying taking it slower. Because it's a collection of shorter things, its not really suited to plowing through, at least if I'm going to get any sort of real value out of it.
Fiction Book: The Alloy of Law (cleared) - Made it through in just a half-dozen sittings, I think. But Sanderson is one of my favorite authors.
Movies: Midnight Chronicles (cleared), Seraphim Falls - didn't clear Seraphim Falls, but I may watch that in February.
TV Season: The Walking Dead: Season 1 - I completely fell down on this. I just didn't watch it, or rather didn't watch beyond episode 1. I don't think I'm going to, either, despite how much I keep getting told I should. This has been on and off the list a lot, but I just can't get into it. I'm kind of tapped out on gruesome and depressing, no matter how well it's executed.

For February, I polled the Fear the Boot community and came up with some interesting results. This list is not entirely based on the polling results, but most of it is. In particular, the non-fiction book is based on my wife repeatedly asking me nicely to finish it and seeming a little hurt that I put that one to a poll, so I'm going to go with her preference there.

Short Games: Orcs Must Die!, Portal 2, and Bioshock 2
Long Game: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (Secondary long game: Avadon: The Black Fortress. I'm going to attempt to get through both of these, because I mentioned to someone I'd try to get them an impression of Avadon at some point in the near future.)
Nonfiction Book: A Theology of Inclusivism
Fiction Book: American Gods
Movies: Cowboys & Aliens and Salt
TV Season: Jericho, Season 1

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Off the List: Haywire

I got a chance to see this today with a buddy of mine that also likes action films. For years, the two of us have been catching movies together that our significant others would be less likely to be interested in, and this action-espionage movie was definitely something that appealed to us more than our significant others. The movie is surprisingly good. And not in the "I was expecting it to be bad, but it wasn't" sort of way. No, it was a bona-fide piece of real craftsmanship. The movie is very spare and minimalist and not terribly original. It's a standard "betrayed fugitive spy" plot that film viewers have seen dozens of times before. However, it really shines in its hand-to-hand combat scenes, which are some of the best I have ever seen. Let me elaborate on this a bit. First, the fights are not close-in quick-cutting things. The camera pulls back and shows all of what's going on, including the background, which is occasionally important and sometimes not. Things get broken, people push off of walls and furniture with limbs to get extra leverage, and the characters generally exchange a few blows and then move to grappling, just like a real fight. Absolutely everybody is a combat pragmatist. It's all incredibly visceral and very satisfying, and it's all very weighty feeling. The movie conveys a real feeling that getting hit sucks. I think one of the reasons this all works so well is that the lead actress, Gina Carano, is an MMA fighter of considerable skill. I'd never seen her in anything before and in fact didn't even know her name. While she's certainly as pretty as any other actress I've seen, she did a much better job of making me believe that she's actually as dangerous as she's supposed to be based on the script than any female action star I've ever seen. Curious, when I got home I looked her up on imdb.com and all of a sudden everything clicked. The authenticity of the fights, however, would be useless if the other actors, script, and/or directing weren't good, and I'm happy to report that they were all at least serviceable. Ewan MacGregor is never, ever bad, and Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton, and Antonio Banderas have pretty solid records themselves. Also deserving of special mention: despite its somewhat violent subject material, the movie shows considerable restraint. There's very little gore, very little foul language, and while the lead is stunning, there's nary a gratuitous T&A shot to be seen, which is refreshing. The movie was a lot slower-paced than I'd expected, but it was smart and even genuinely funny in a couple of places. Highly recommended and will probably wind up in my library. I'd like to watch this a couple more times, as it seems like the sort of film that would benefit from repeated viewings.

RPG notes: As usual, this will contain spoilers. Spoilery, spoileriffic spoilers. So stop reading if you haven't seen the film. First, anyone planning on playing any sort of unarmed warrior character should watch this film twice and take notes. The coffee ambush from the film's opening scene in particular stands out as the sort of combat ruthlessness that would make a Krav Maga instructor proud. The plot is fairly standard, so there's not much to pull from there, but I did like the idea that not all black ops types are ruthless, amoral, and disinterested in the safety of innocents around them. Mallory did a pretty good job of splitting combatants into groups of those who were genuine bad guys (like the ex-MI6 guy sent to kill her) and people who didn't deserve to be killed or maimed (like the SWAT team sent after her) and fighting appropriately. There's also an excellent case for characters trained in hand-to-hand combat even in these days of automatic weapons in this film.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cleared: The Alloy of Law

It's been entirely too long since I finished a book, but at least that changed last night. The book in question was, as I'm sure the reader has discerned, The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson. I've previously read his original Mistborn trilogy, so when I heard that he had a new book in the setting, I was pretty excited. The book takes place about 300 years after the events of The Hero of Ages, and the world has transformed from a quasi-medieval setting to a quasi-Victorian one. All of the stuff that makes Sanderson's work so good is very much there. His characters are likable and interesting, his story has some great twists and turns in it, and his action scenes are phenomenal. The one thing that was a bit less present this time around was the whole sense of epic struggle - the story here was tighter and more personal, which was fine, just different. Sanderson has also left himself very much open for a follow-up novel. It's hard to go much more into the book's contents without going into spoiler territory, but I will say this: the setting has definitely grown and changed, but it's obviously the same world, which was a nice little bit of authorial craftsmanship. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who has read the original series, and I'd recommend that someone who has read neither start with the original series, for two reasons: first, the original series is utterly brilliant. It's one of the best works of fantasy I have ever read, and second: there are a lot of little nods back to those three books in this one, which make the experience richer and more fun. I do find myself wishing that Vin and Kelsier had been using Bendalloy back in the original trilogy after having read this. In any case, highly recommended. Sanderson's work is very solid, as always, and as always he does a great job of handling things with intelligence and good taste without getting pretentious or pulling his punches.

RPG notes: Well, it bears mentioning at the outset that there is an official, licensed Mistborn RPG out there, though I have yet to see an actual copy of it, so I can't comment other than to say I'm glad someone got the Mistborn license and made a game out of it. Anyhow, as usual, there's an excellent chance that I'll spoil something you'd rather not have spoiled in here, so if you haven't read the book yourself, be aware that this is a potential likely virtually guaranteed source of spoiler content. The Alloy of Law does a couple of things useful to GMs: it makes an excellent case for how much you can change a setting and still have it be recognizable, and it also shows the value of having your players know their setting history. Having Marsh show up in the epilogue, especially since he is now the setting's equivalent of The Grim Reaper, was a very powerful and cool moment - IF you've read the first three books. Otherwise, half the impact of that scene will sail right over the reader's head. Likewise, the naming of the city after the characters from the first series, some of the house names carrying through, etc. add extra weight and continuity to the story. Interestingly, though, the world itself is a radically different place. The original series took place in a bleak, scorched world with red skies and black ash falling from the sky. The world in The Alloy of Law is the one Sazed created at the end when he set things right again, and yet, with Allomancy and Feruchemy (and I assume Hemalurgy - my money's on that being the real purpose of the kidnap victims) still around, albeit in a diminished form. But the magic system and a few proper nouns, albeit both used judiciously, are enough to make the setting recognizable. That's huge. And that's also something useful to remember when doing multiple campaigns in a common setting: a world can change, and change a lot, and still be the same world. Look at how much the map of Europe has changed in 300 years, and also how much technology has advanced. And yet Earth is still Earth. The same can be true of your homebrew setting. Don't be afraid to change it between campaigns.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cleared: Bastion

Well, that was amazing. And I have a feeling it's not done showing me cool stuff yet. Bastion, according to many, was one of the two best indie games of 2011. The other was Orcs Must Die (spoiler: guess what's going to be one of the short games for February?) anyway, it's an action RPG with fairly basic, simple (though not easy!) gameplay, but with one truly amazing twist: a reactive narrator that narrates your actions in the context of the larger story. Just hearing that description makes it sound like it could be obnoxious if it were poorly implemented. It's not. The narrator never repeats himself, doesn't babble incessantly, and speaks with a great economy of words. It also helps that the voice actor portraying the narrator is great at what he does, the story he's telling is fascinating, and the narrator never, ever repeats the same lines as you're working through an area. If you get stuck in an area, or take too long to do something, instead of jabbering away with the same old dialog, the narrator actually shuts up and lets you focus. It's wonderful, it's polished, and it adds more to the experience than I could ever have imagined it would before I played the game. The music is almost as important to the total experience as the narration is, and I'm very glad I have the version of the game with the soundtrack bundled in. I'm listening to the soundtrack as I type this out. Some great acoustic guitar music - it sort of reminds me of Firefly at times. And anything that reminds me of Firefly is great. The art direction is similarly excellent, and also unique - I don't think I've ever seen anything that feels quite like Bastion. It's got a little bit of a JRPG style to the art, but the story and characters, and world, really, are all very Western feeling. And it bears mentioning that while it's a post-apocalyptic story, the color palette is not just gray and brown. It's colorful, vividly and beautifully so. The game itself is interesting, too - it keeps unlocking new stuff all the way up to the end, which I thought was really cool. While it's doesn't have the smoothest control or the most in-depth combat system I've ever seen, both are well within the range of playably good. And once you finish the game, it opens up a "new game+" mode where you can start again with all of your XP and weapons. And while I won't get into spoilers, the game really makes you want to do that. This is an excellent argument for the case of video games as art, and not in a pretentious way. Highly recommended, and I'd even recommend paying full price. It really is quite amazing.

RPG notes: If you play video games, are reading this, and haven't played the game - GET OUT OF HERE. Why? Because the RPG notes are also the spoiler section, that's why! This is one story you don't want spoiled at all. So just to be clear: if you haven't finished Bastion, go play the game and come back. These posts are stored in the cloud by Google forever.  My "brilliant" thoughts on the game's spoil-able elements will still be here when you get back. TL;DR: SPOILER WARNING. Anyway, the game's world is unique and interesting. It's a fantasy setting, certainly, but there's no direct mention of magic. Technology is high enough for some fairly advanced firearms, but bows and melee weapons are still in use. I'd really like to see a prequel set in pre-Calamity Caelondia. Then there's the monsters: windbags, gasfellas, squirts, lunkheads, ankle gators, the list goes on. Nowhere is there a plain ol' dragon, or even something as easy to take for granted as a horse.  There's also the Calamity itself, the Bastion, and all the space-time warping inferred therein. But all that aside, there's still some great inspiration to be had. Rucks, The Kid, and Zulf are all deep, nuanced characters that would make fantastic NPCs. The post-Calamity world with its floating sky-islands is almost a character unto itself, and the plot of the endgame, with Rucks trying to fix the Calamity and Zulf trying to hold him to account over it could easily be used as the basis for an entire campaign.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Cleared: Midnight Chronicles

Netflix added Midnight Chronicles at some point, which saved me from buying it on RPGnow.com. I might still, though - it's part of a good bundle pack. Anyway, Midnight Chronicles is set in Fantasy Flight Games' Midnight universe, which is probably about the bleakest fantasy setting ever made. Imagine, if you will, what Middle Earth would have looked like if Sauron had won and then had a century to consolidate his power and you have some idea of what the Midnight setting looks like. Anyway, it's in this cheery place that Midnight Chronicles is set. Interestingly, this is obviously supposed to be the first in a series, and it only released in 2010, so there may be sequels coming - I hope so, for the sake of the very unfinished plot. The movie ends on a complete cliffhanger. All in all, the movie did surprisingly well for a) being very low-budget and b) consequently having no known talent whatsoever. The acting was serviceable, the plot was appropriate to the setting, and it was light years ahead of the terrible D&D movie. It still wasn't great, however. Directing and plotting could both have been tighter, and the film wasted a number of opportunities to show the nature of the setting to its fullest, but it still had a certain hard-to-pin-down charm. Unlike other movies based off of fantasy RPGs, this one wasn't campy, mocking, and/or exploitative, it was just a little slow-moving. That by itself makes it something special. It treated its subject material like something worth spending effort on, and that was great to see. I realize that this is sort of damning with faint praise, but this isn't the sort of thing I can recommend to everybody. However, if you're a die-hard gamer and want to see a movie based on an RPG setting that gives you some hope for the future of RPG movies, this is definitely one to see.

RPG notes: Well, considering that entire movie is based on an RPG setting, I suppose it's its own RPG notes on some level. But that's a cop-out. The one bit that I really did like was that the legate that much of the story revolves around seems to be some sort of destined hero. This is kind of an interesting problem, considering that he's on the bad guy's side. And that concept, all by itself, should be enough to get any GM worth their salt thinking. When the person you need to defeat the Big Bad is a loyal servant of said Big Bad, then what?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cleared: Homefront

Well, that's another one down. It only took me five hours to play through Homefront, and that's with a couple of incredibly frustrating spots where I kept dying or failing mission objectives for some other reason. I'm a bit conflicted about Homefront, because on the one hand, the IP is solid. You could set some really fantastic games in the setting, and indeed, I have some faith that may indeed happen, but this was not that game. The scripting was so dominant and so rigid that I felt like I was playing an arcade rail shooter like Time Crisis, but more frustrating. Things like opening doors and the like always fell to my squadmates, but yet I attracted bullets like a huge magnet every time I popped my head up. This is actually even (unintentionally?) lampshaded late in the game when an attack helicopter ignores an entire armored column up on top of a bridge to come after the player down in the underscaffolding after getting blown off the bridge and landing on a catwalk. So the game is short and gives the player basically no agency, but I'm still kind of looking forward to the next sequel. Why? Two reasons. Reason one: Crytek. THQ has contracted Crytek, arguably one of the top 3 FPS developers out there today (the other two being Valve and Id) to make the sequel. Since Crytek also likes emergent gameplay and open world, one hopes the new game will actually be good. For the second reason, you'll have to read the spoiler-filled RPG notes section.

RPG notes: Spoiler warning, as usual. Okay, so here's the thing: I'd really like to see a Fallout (or even S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) style open RPG in the Homefront setting. The world is fairly consistent and plausible enough, the Korean army are vicious, murderous monsters (mass graves, killing parents in front of toddler-aged children, etc.) that are easy to hate. The various crazy survivalists, resistance cells, and others in the game would make a great patchwork world of shifting allegiances and battle lines that it would be great to travel through through as a lone wanderer of some kind. I could easily envision setting a really fantastic tabletop RPG campaign in the setting as well. My only real setting gripe is that weapons technology hasn't advanced at all in 2027? Really? Everybody's using the same exact rifles and accessories they do today? Some fun near-future stuff like caseless assault rifles, an OICW-style weapon of some sort, and so forth would be a welcome addition, but could be easily hacked in by an enterprising GM.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Cleared: Dungeons of Dredmor

I'm not sure I have ever felt such a sense of triumph after beating a game on easy. It took me 64 hours and I don't know how many times I died, but I finally made it to the bottom of the dungeon and took down Lord Dremor. (Then I deliberately died to him a few minutes later to get the achievement.) Anyway, I think this game probably gets the cost-to-enjoyment ratio award for the last 12 years. (I can't go back to '99, however, because that's when Jagged Alliance 2 was released.) I got this game as part of a humble bundle, and fired it up on a completely random whim. And then it hooked me. It hooked me bad. Getting to the bottom of the dungeon, even without permadeath, was quite the achievement, but it was fun, for several reasons. First and most importantly, the game has a sense of humor, and every bit as important - that sense of humor is clean. (Well, mostly. There's a few double entendres about wands and staves in there, and one monster, but the overwhelming majority of the game's humor comes from wit and ridiculousness. This would be worthless if the game itself wasn't any fun to play, however, and this game was a very satisfying experience. The skill trees always had something cool to offer, the loot was peppered with all sorts of cool things, including literary and media references. And the combat was surprisingly satisfying, given how simple it is. The game rewards cleverness and punishes carelessness, and especially towards the end, I felt like I'd gotten a lot better at playing it. Oh, and did I mention it's turn-based? Interestingly, I'm not sure this is going to get me into the roguelike genre, per se, but I'll happily snatch up any additional content the creators put out for this. It's well worth the full price of the game and its expansion, which, by the way, is only $7.49 on Steam. This is one of those "just go get it already" recommendations. I don't think I've seen a better value in gaming in ten years.

RPG notes: The anachronisms of the setting (vending machines in the dungeon, etc.) would be fun to play with, and the bolt council and its implied machinations are some fun lightweight inspiration for how a morally-ambiguous fantasy guild might operate. Not sure how many of the monsters I'd want to swipe, although a few of the ones on the lowest levels might be cool.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Cleared: Rage

Well, I must admit, I wasn't expecting to knock something off the list quite that quickly! As it turns out, I'd played up until pretty close to the end of Rage before I got around to adding it to the list. The game took me about 14 hours to complete, according to Steam. With a duration that short, I'm glad I got it on sale. That's not to say I didn't like it, though - far from it. In fact, I'd say it's one of the best shooters I've played in a long time. The controls are nice and tight, the weapons are very satisfying (particularly the wingsticks - oh how I love those things) and there's just enough RPG stirred in to enhance the game without bogging it down too much. Even the driving portions are fun. One of the things I also find myself liking was how optimistic the setting was for a post-apocalyptic world. Unlike the Fallout games, it really feels like people are not only trying to rebuild, but enjoying some measure of real success - there are a number of small settlements that seem to be doing fairly well in a small area, and three of them seem like decent places to live. The story itself is also fairly optimistic, which I enjoyed. My biggest gripe was that Id did some technical stuff to lock the frame rate at 60FPS, and my PC didn't always like that. I experienced weird freezes and some tearing (and turning v-synch on fixed the problem, but it wasn't sticky between play sessions - I had to re-enable it every time I fired up the game) but it's worth noting that the game never crashed, and most of the time, it was buttery-smooth.

RPG notes: Rage's setting is a good place to start if you want to make a post-apocalyptic game that isn't too bleak. There are also some fun ideas for weapons and gadgets in the game. Lock grinders, RC bomb cars, and of course, wingsticks could all be dropped into  multitude of modern and/or near-future settings.

Monthly list replacement: since I polished the game off on day 2, I'm going to drop Homefront into the other short game slot.

The Unfinished: Need For Speed: Undercover

Okay, so here's the deal: I am apparently terrible at PC racing games. I have thrown 8 hours into this game, and I have yet to even finish one of the first two missions from the open city part of the game. And not for lack of trying, either. So I've come to a realization: I can either spend an inordinate amount of time getting good at PC driving games... ...or I can stick a fork in trying to finish this and move on. That's not to say it's a bad game, though. I have a lot of fun driving around the open city, doing races and evading the cops, but the missions put you in cars that handle poorly, give you a tight timetable, and army on your tail, and the admonition that the car be in good shape at the end. Uh, no thanks.I think I'll just drive around town in my indestructo-car and run from the law. But here's the thing: that's a lot of fun to do. The game's good, I'm just not. So onto The Unfinished pile with this one, and on to other stuff for me.

RPG notes: Well, on the upside, there will be no spoilers in this, 'cause darned if I can advance the plot in this game! Anyway, the basic premise behind the game (doing wheelman jobs in a modern city and tuning up your car as you are successful) could make for a fun, if somewhat stereotypical game, but imagine porting it to another setting. In a post-apocalyptic game, being a wasteland courier would, frankly, rock. Take a little of The Postman, a little of Id software's Rage, and some Fallout and you've got a world dotted with isolated settlements that need reliable service between them. Also, in a fantasy game, the player could be a an extraction specialist for some Robin Hood style outlaws or a thieves' guild, and instead of a car, could use a magic carpet or even some unusually fast draft animals to get people and things around without being grabbed by the authorities.

The New Idea: Monthly Lists

So now that my Backlog has grown to an absolutely TITANIC size, I'm looking at it for this year and thinking: "What can I do to get this pared down?" Here's what I thought of. Each month, I'll pick 2 short games, a long game, a fiction book, a nonfiction book, two movies, and a TV season. Those items will become the focus of my efforts for that month. We'll see if this bears fruit or not, but here's my set of picks for January. Long games may take multiple months of hammering on to get through - some RPGs are LOOONG, so I'll pick a new one when I finish one. If I punch something off the list for the month, I may replace it with something, or I might just focus on other stuff - If I've learned anything doing this blog, it's that I need to keep it somewhat informal if I'm going to have any success.

Short games: Bastion, Rage
Long game: Dungeons of Dredmor
Nonfiction book: The Art of Manliness: Manvotionals
Fiction book: The Alloy of Law
Movies: Midnight Chronicles, Seraphim Falls
TV Season: The Walking Dead: Season 1

The List, 2012 additions, subtractions, and a new idea to help remove stuff.

Additions: The Steam Sale, some recommendations from friends, and spotting some interesting new stuff at work has increased the size of my list of stuff to consume.

PC Games: I bought some stuff in the Steam Sale, picked up some bundle packs, and dug some old physical media up during some recent cleaning. Here's what's getting added to the list:

AAAaaaaAAA: A reckless Disregard for Gravity
Avadon: The Black Fortress
Gothic II
Gothic III
Gothic III: Forsaken Gods
ArcaniA: Gothic 4
Arcania: Fall of Setariff
Mount and Blade: With Fire and Sword
Portal 2
X: Beyond the Frontier
X2: The Threat
X3: Terran Conflict
X3: Reunion
X3: Albion Prelude

And here's what's coming off of it:

Blocks that Matter
Breath of Death VII
Cthulhu Saves the World
E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy
Hellgate: London
Need for Speed: Undercover (this is getting a "The Unfinished" entry, however)
Night Sky

TV Shows:  Nothing new to add or remove at this point.

Fiction Books: One addition: The Alloy of Law, by Brandon Sanderson.

Nonfiction Books: An addition: The Brick Bible, by Brendan Powell Smith

Movies: No change to the list.

In addition, starting this month, I'm going to pick something from each category to focus on throughout the month and see if I can use that to pare things down a bit. Watch for the first of those posts immediately following this one.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to anyone reading this. I hope 2011 was good for you, and I hope 2012 is even better. In the next couple of days, I'll put together a New Year's list of stuff for the backlog, prune out things that I've lost interest in, and so forth. But for now, I'm just happy 2011 is over. That was a rough year.

Steam Holiday Sale: Day 14: Reruns

Steam, as they usually do on the last day of one of their big sales, is running a second round of some of their better stuff. Pretty much everything's good, so rather than cut and paste, I'm just going to trust that you know what you still have on your list, if anything, and get it.