Sunday, 20 June 2010

Father's day

Having the luxury of having a dad myself, it seems a little churlish to have a go at something like father's day, but really it's emotional blackmail. I call my dad once a week. We send each other texts and emails constantly taking the piss, and at the end of every text, visit and email I remind him I love him. You see, my dad's my hero. Sod off if that seems flowery, but a man who worked from the age of 20 to 50 to provide for his kids is a real man. Getting up day after day and week after week; doing it not because he wanted to, but because he had to. THAT is tenacity. It makes me ashamed that I lack the same brass and get away with the life I do. Compared to his life it's a fucking doss, and half the time I still can't be arsed with it. So when I wander into a card shop and look at a rack of people browsing the 3 quid bits of folded paper and picking the first one that catches their eye so they can pop it in the post to some guy they never see anymore, it makes me a little resentful. I don't want to send a card. People who don't care send cards. So to me, sending a card puts me on the same level as the people who can't be arsed - placating a complaining relative with a shitty, overpriced piece of card and a quick scribble on the way to the postbox. So I got him a mug instead.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

A personal reflection on wankers

The Grauniad leads on my Facebook newsfeed today with the news that the north is going to have to shoulder the burden of the recession. Which annoys me mostly because I remember the other side of the 80s. Most of you seem to live under the impression that the 80s was all new romantics and flash cars and mobile phones you could kill a child with. I remember it differently. I remember growing up around angry people struggling daily against a system which welcomed each grey morning with a new cut to services, factory closure or privatisation; all of which would end up spewing more angry people out onto the streets. I remember watching those people destroy themselves and each other in their anger with things like the Meadowell riots - I was at the college just round the corner at the time. And to rub it in, we were fed images of Thatcher and co living large down south. Life sucked. I was taught from books ten years past their sell-by date in a school full of teachers who weren't paid enough to care. Careers advice revolved around which shop or factory you wanted to work in, and entertainment revolved around where you could get drunk enough to forget yourself for the evening. Maybe I'm being unnecessarily negative but that's my memory of the 80s. And I watched it all get better in the 90s. I'm not saying that Labour were a godsend, but to be ruled by ANYONE other than the conservatives felt blissful, and it showed. Nationwide employment went down. Having a PM with a modicum of charisma meant that people worldwide started getting interested in this grey little island and threw money at our film and music industries. So how does it feel to have a government voted in who are privatising everything, screwing the north over, shedding ministers to sleaze and almost literally taking the piss? It feels like deja-fucking-vu, that's what it feels like. True, I live down south now, but my parents don't. People I grew up with don't. And neither do thousands of kids who are going to wade through the same shit I did just to get half the education a southerner does. And we're marching helplessly back towards it. Everyone I know is just shrugging their shoulders and not even having an opinion on the fact that half the fucking country is going to be miserable, likely for more than a decade. Have we really come to this? To the point where we can just shrug our shoulders and ignore half our own country?

Friday, 4 June 2010

Mass Effect 2: Thoughts

I'm going to start off by saying that Mass Effect 2 is one of those games which is like looking at a trompe d'oeil painted on an extremely thin canvas. Also, it has a big fold down the middle and occasionally sets fire to the other paintings if you don't move on to the next picture quick enough. It's a lovely painting, don't get me wrong; it's just that all these issues make repeated viewings of it incredibly annoying. Still at least it's an improvement on the first one, which tried to show you the same five paintings for sixteen fucking hours. I should probably move on from the painting metaphor. The number one problem with this game is the amount of times that it inadvertently reminds you that it IS a game, when it would have been so much easier to have realised it as a film, or a book, or possibly even an engraving on a brick which you then sling through Drew Karpyshyn's big self-promoting window. I mean who puts copies of their books in one of their own works? I'm fairly sure that at no point in A Christmas Carol can Marley be seen kicking back and reading Oliver Twist, but there they are on sale in the citadel; two of Drew's spin-offs novels about the Mass Effect series. There are a lot of problems with ME2, but also a lot of good things. To talk you through some of them, let's look at an example side mission - Thane's loyalty quest, in which a member of your team tracks down his son. His son has started to go off the rails by becoming an assassin, which kind of makes bottles of white lightning in the park at 3am seem quite tame in comparison. But then again as Drew Karpyshyn keeps reminding us, this is THE FUTURE, so maybe he became an assassin after drinking too much LAZER cider. On the moon. Or something (See, this is why I don't write SciFi). Anyway, the police officer who helps you all the way through the quest seems to be bending a lot of rules in your favour, and one of the conversation options asks why he IS helping you out, and he answers "Do you think your friend is the only guy who messed up raising his son?" And then looks away sadly. Or would do, if the facial animation system looked anything less than terrifying, especially the smiles. People in ME2 grin like rapists invited to a sleepover, and I can only assume that in the future, botox is mandatory. Regardless, it was a nice surprise to see a background NPC acting like anything but the one-function sock-puppets ME1 was peopled with. Questioning motivations is a common theme in ME2, where the main character (Shephard) gets roped into doing things by dodgy people and then blithely accepts a tiny soundbite that essentially boils down to "Because I'm evil, but FUCK, look at THOSE guys." Which is all well and good, except for the fact that Shephard only seems to call people on it when it's convenient for the plotting. In fact you can pretty much tell a double-cross is coming by the fact that Shephard follows someone's orders WITHOUT questioning them beforehand. The other problem is that it really makes fuck all difference to the narrative. In the main quests Shepherd's reasons for working for Cerberus (the organisation that spent most of the side quests in ME1 trying to kill him) are rattled off without your consent in various cutscenes. Thankfully you can skip them with the X button, which - thanks to ME2 - might as well be renamed the clitoris for the amount of teenagers who'll be frustratedly bashing away at it. And the only time you can refuse to work for someone on moral grounds is during side quests, in which case you don't get to do that mission, you don't get the experience and you don't get the boxes of minerals lying around suspiciously. Oh Christ, the minerals. I'm sorry but this is yet another quality Bioware product ground right down by annoying grinding bollocks. I think I've worked it out. It's elves. It has to be. Bioware work incredibly hard during the day to craft an intuitive and natural interface and then seamlessly weave a narrative around it, going home at the end of the day proud of their good work. Then somewhere around midnight, a bunch of elves show up and decide to spot-weld an incredibly annoying upgrade system to it that revolves around scanning planets for minerals. I'm sorry, I know EVE online is very big at the moment but if I wanted to play manic miner I'd dig out my sodding spectrum. The thing is, you HAVE to use the scanner if you want to upgrade your character, otherwise you really start to suffer as the difficulty curve rises. But if you thought driving round a lazily generated fractal landscape was bad in ME1, just wait until you get to the end game and need to scrape through entire systems just to get enough minerals to survive the final encounter. Which is probably the biggest problem with ME2. I'm fairly sure that everyone playing it knows that halfway through the game you get sucked into a suicide mission to save the galaxy, and that pretty much anyone who isn't flagged as loyal by that point will die at the end. My first issue with this is that it crops up after a certain mission, so everyone knows right off the bat to avoid doing the IFF mission. Which is somewhat breaking the realism a little if you can bugger around in space for months mining and beating up pirates, and then all of a sudden you've got the space of about five minutes to stop the entire universe from ending. I kind of liked the way Oblivion did it, with more and more random demons popping up about the place until it gets annoying enough to sort out, but since in ME2 the enemies are all stuck behind one relay and pretty much stay behind it until you invade their space, it kind of makes me feel like I'm the one starting the war. Which again, leads us to an immersion-breaking background problem. Halfway through the game, two of my team decided to have a massive barney in front of me and put me on the spot, asking me which one of them was right. Now normally when I'm faced with this sort of question from a woman, I take the only logical option: set fire to myself and leap through the nearest window. However since this wasn't a speech option, I had to choose; and after several save / reload attempts, it became apparent that one of them will always become pissed off and disloyal to you. Which is fine in a normal game, but not in one that makes it clear in almost all of it's advertising that you have to get the ENTIRE party out alive, and disloyal party members are very likely to be killed unpleasantly. Fantastic. Even worse, the only way you can talk them round is by having a 100% good or evil score, which means that EVERY conversation after that point, you're not doing what you want. You can't disagree with the black and white morality system if you want everyone out alive, so you end up hunting through every dialogue trying to work out which speech options will give you +good or +bad points. And because of this, it highlights the weirdly skewed sense of morality the game has. Example: The Krogan are a race who are dying out because of a genetic plague that causes only 1/1000 to survive childbirth, but Shephard is evil if he keeps research on a cure because it was acquired using live testing. It hypes up the debate on killing being wrong in the name of testing on live subjects; yet it ignores the attatched debate on whether abortion is murder by simply not mentioning it, and assuming that stillbirth is OK. Even the Krogan don't seem terribly upset about it anymore. Now I want to state absolutely that i'm not condoning either viewpoint, but for fuck's sake, you don't package an issue like that in a five minute conversation that boils down to a yes / no answer that brands you as good or evil. One the one hand the game clearly WANTS to be morally complex, but on the other hand it just isn't thought through well enough to really pull it off. And there are other inconsistencies. Your pilot, Joker's legs are one - In the first game it was explained that the bones in his legs are basically hollow and he needs to walk with crutches. To start with, this makes the sequence where you're running through the ship as Joker all the more tense because you don't want the poor bastard to break like glass. Except he's able to limp along without crutches now. But I mean, in the first game they explained he was OK as long as he was caref- oh, he's crawling through ducts. Well, maybe his knees aren't brittle? Oh shit he fell over, Jeff, noo- wait, he's fine, what the crap? Now he's firing an assault rifle on full auto. Wait, I'M firing an assault rifle, when I haven't been carrying or able to fire one all game. It's just that it tries so hard to be an immersive world and narrative but it just keeps falling down because of technical issues that just bring you back to the fact that it's a game, so all your actions HAVE to be moral absolutes if you want to succeed. And you can't force people to make moral choices in a black or white axis, unless you work for Fox News. No seriously, I checked it out, they've got a patent and everything.