Monday, September 28, 2009

Some Thoughts on Harry Potter # 7

Let me preface this review by saying that I enjoyed all the books, and enjoyed the ride. That being said, here's what I thought about the 7th volume of Harry Potter, which I finally got around to reading (yeah, slowpoke.jpg, I know). There are spoilers here.

The book was quite a bit longer than it needed to be, mostly because the main characters have no initiative whatsoever. None. They literally spent months sitting in tents in the woods. Instead of looking for horcruxes, they talk about where they might be. How amazingly useless. Instead of trying to gather some information, or doing some research, they sit in tents and waste amazing amounts of time. The plot always has to come and find them, never the other way around. In fact, the reason it was so easy for Dumbledore to keep running things after his death, was the main characters never do anything unless they're beaten into it by the plot-bat.

Voldemort and Snape were both right when they said there was nothing special about Harry. He sucks at magic, and even in the face of actual necessity, he doesn't try to improve. None of their time in that infernal tent was spent trying to learn new things, just rehashing old information. He's pretty damn useless.

Harry has some damn useful friends, though. The supporting cast are the ones I actually want to know about. Their stories would be really interesting. I want to know what Bill and Arthur Weasley have been doing. Tell me about Neville and Ginny, tell me more about the rest of the Order. They are the ones that take initiative, they are the ones who move the plot, who fight the battles.

And seriously, did I miss something, or why do our dear three dense drop-outs have to wear the necklace, instead of just keeping it in the bag? Must we really rip off Lord of the Rings that much? If we know that it makes us irritable, don't wear the damn thing. Seriously.

The whole captured by the death-eaters event felt very contrived. It made me think of running an RPG, when the GM thinks “Well crap, they're getting nowhere on their own. Time to bring out the rail-road tracks!” I really enjoyed the break-ins at the Ministry and Gringots, because our dear main characters were actually doing something. And hey, an exit on a dragon is stylish.

I was a little perplexed by the casual use of the unforgiveable curses. They were not arbitrarily unforgiveable. Total control over someone, magical torture, and instant murder are horrific things. In a non-magical setting, the imperius curse is the equivalent of holding someone’s children hostage, and forcing them to do your bidding. What, suddenly because there’s no law against it, it’s ok to use it liberally to get your way?

The ending, however, was awesomesauce. That is how a showdown should go. Again, I more admire the supporting cast than the main characters. Neville, the Weasleys, Lupin and Tonks, and the Hogwarts teachers are properly badass.

But here’s a question? Why is the killing curse outlawed? Surely, killing is what should be outlawed not the curse itself. Shooting, stabbing, or cursing, the person is still dead. This is something of a gun control question, but here it’s slightly different. Anyone with a wand can perform the killing curse. Making it unforgiveable just ensures that criminals are the ones who will use it. It’s like giving someone a gun and saying “if you shoot anyone with it, that’s a life sentence, but its less evil to club them to death with it.” And if it’s arbitrarily ok to use the imperius curse now, we may as well pull out all the stops. These things only popped into my mind while I was thinking a bit more in depth about them. I didn’t consider the hypocrisy until I started writing this.

They may as well rename this book “Just as Planned.” For my appreciation for the supporting cast, I do not like Dumbledore, or what Rowling did with him. I don’t mind having him die, but I do mind him still running the show. He’s arrogant and presumptuous, acting as though he believes he’s the only one with a brain in his head. Unfortunately, he is right, but it’s mostly his own fault. Rather than teach people to be self-sufficient, and to think for themselves, he teaches them that they are incapable of acting without him. Then, he moves them around like pieces on a chessboard.

All that being said, however, I enjoyed it as a whole, despite my complaints. It was a pleasure to see the characters grow up, and the whole thing was well put-together. Good stuff, I suppose.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Favorite Games 5-1

5. Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines

This game is an underrated gem. When it came out, it was quite buggy, and had issues with some computer hardware. My buddy Gene, who originally showed me this game, was playing it on what at the time was a graphics card that resembled the monolith from 2001, and yet he could hardly break 20fps. The game also was released right around the same time Half-Life 2 was released, and it got very little press.

This game is a prime example of a western rpg title at its finest. Under the hood, the game uses White Wolf's world of darkness system, and the game is set in the same kind of world. This game also has one of my favorite portrayals of vampires. Although they are as varied and as humans in terms of personality, they all have one thing in common: the beast inside that demands blood. And while it may have been ok to chow down all the time a few hundred years ago, now humans have things like napalm, and shotguns, and so forth. Enter the Camarilla, a government which claims every vampire as a member whether they want to be or not, with strict penalties for anyone who violates "The Masquerade."

The best thing about this game...well, one of the best things about this game is the voice acting and the character design. Jack, Nines, Jeanette and Therese, they're all some of the most memorable video game characters ever. They move, they gesture, their faces change with their emotions, and when Jack howls with laughter, you believe it. The strange thing is, since the characters are so memorable, it makes the world more alive. The world seems more open than a lot of modern "open world" games. Play this. You can get it off steam pretty cheap.

4. F.E.A.R.

I never was a fan of most horror movies, mostly because in most of them, everyone is so terribly, terribly stupid. I like to be scared a little bit, though. I'm also an action movie junkie. I love gunfights, and explosions, and manly things like that. F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) is a quite enjoyable mix of action and horror. There's a creepy little girl who psychically murders people, there's a crazy psychic guy commanding a battalion of super soldiers who likes to eat people, and there's you, who's job it is to go right into the middle of it all.

When you're not scaling the walls in fright, the firefights are spectacular. The enemy A.I. is actually good. The soldiers will move to flank you, and don't miss a whole lot. The encounters are well put together, and while the environments get a bit stale at times, the combat happens in enough different ways to keep you interested. The horror sections are very well done, with classic bleeding walls, excellent sound design, flickering lights, etc. The game does look a bit dated, though, so for a pretty new look, check out F.E.A.R. 2. It's pretty much the same, gameplaywise.

3. Resident Evil 4

I literally cannot count the number of playthroughs this game got in our dorm at college. We picked it up for the gamecube about halfway through Freshman year, and played it through so many times, I'm surprised the disc hasn't worn away to nothing. Not only did this game show off the graphical potential of the gamecube, it was pretty much perfect. I've never played the other Resident Evil games, as they came out in an era where I did not own a console, but oh man, is this game awesome.

You play as Leon S. Kennedy, a survivor of the Raccoon City incident, and you carve a bloody swath through a bunch of tentacle-monster-infested Spanish peasants, the attached evil cult that's kidnapped the President's daughter, and some giant tentacled monsters. I literally do not have any criticisms for this game. A lot of people whine that it made a mockery of the survival-horror genre, but they can go die in a fire. This game is frantic, frightening, and most of all, fun. Get this game. If possible, for the Wii. The controls are actually really good.

2. Anything by Valve

If I wasn't allowed to make a blanket statement like this, this list would have a lot less variety. These guys have yet to make a less than stellar game. Half-life, HL2, Portal, all fantastic. This company is doing it right. I could go on forever on how much I love these games, but other people have already done it, and anyone who says any different is a fool.

These guys really know how to make games. Not just how to make a game, these guys know how to make an epic experience. Valve, do not change a thing. Except your slow release schedule. But I'm willing to endure that as long as you keep up the good work.

1. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

I made it pretty clear in one of my earlier posts how much I love this game. I've never been able to be as completely immersed and invested in a video game as I am in this game. Seriously, play it. Do it. Now.

If you have trouble with the dated look, download Better Heads, Better Bodies, and get Morrowind Graphics Extender. Seriously, It's the best game I've played, and to this day, I often find myself with a desire to wander Vvardenfell.

There you go. Top 10 list done.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Favorite Games 10-6

I said I might do one of these, and right now, I can't think of anything else to write, so here you go. Disclaimer: These are single-player games. This is not intended to be a list of the best games ever, it is a list of the ones that are most memorable and enjoyable to me.

10. The SSI Gold Box Series

Let's start at the beginning, back when my family had just gotten our first computer. It was a Packard Bell computer, with about 2 megs of ram, and about 125 megs of hard disk space. It ran Windows 3.1, and mostly existed for my dad's work, and the adult Sunday school lessons he taught. I loved everything about it. I loved Gorillas, the BASIC game similar to scorched earth. But this game was my first PC title, even though it was given to my dad one Christmas.

I mostly refer to Pool of Radiance, the first game in the series. The game was about a group of adventurers (you) who arrive in a town called Phlan. The town is a small settlement on the outskirts of a ruined city, and the start of your adventure is clearing out the ruined areas of the city. The game is still worth a look, even if you don't get a nostalgia trip out of it. It's a great AD&D sim, if nothing else. Hell, when I started it, I had no idea what 1d20 or THAC0 meant. To be fair, I'm still hazy on THAC0.

9. Heroes of Might and Magic

In particular, numbers 2 and 3. My friend Rich and I would play these games for hours. The general Idea of the game is you are a hero in command of an army. You capture various cities, and recruit troops for your army, and then go take over the rest of the world. HoMM is one of those "just one more turn" games, after which you look at the clock, and 3 hours have gone by.

Number one was good, but I missed it the first time around. Number two was awesome. Number 3 was the best. I like to pretend that they never made a HoMM 4. HoMM 5 was pretty, but just not as awesome as 3. That may be the Nostalgia Goggles talking, though.

In number 2, the map of choice was easily The Great War, a massive 6-player slugfest. Rich and I played that in Hotseat mode for hours on end. It's one of those childhood memories that I look back on quite fondly.

8. Battlezone II

This was the first game I got for our "new" Pentium II 450 mhz computer. It was at the same time, my first real FPS and RTS (I played things in a strange order). I often point to this game as a great example of genre-stretching. Back then, I often described this game as "Command and Conquer, except you get to drive." You play a soldier in the International Space Defense Force, fighting a conflict with the Scions, an alien race.

While the plot is certainly passable, it was the gameplay that really gave me the warm fuzzies. The game seamlessly blends FPS and RTS. You command the construction of buildings and units, all while piloting a vehicle of your choice in order to combat the scion forces. Brb, reinstalling.

7. Star Fox 64

Admittedly, there arent very many console games on my list, mostly because I didn't own a lot of consoles, and especially not in the eras they came out in. I got my first NES in a rummage sale for 3 dollars, and my N64 when it cost 25 bucks. But that's where friend's houses come in to the picture. Andy, Rich, and Drew, you know who you are if you actually click on links I send you, were more fortunate than I in the console department. Rich's N64 in particular saw a lot of use, between various 007 games, and spectator Ocarina of Time, and this game.

I loved this game, and it's still very playable today, thanks to its arcade-style gameplay. You can burn through the campaign in no time if you know what you're doing, but for some reason, it's always fun. There are multiple pathways you can take, adding to the replay value. For all the games that are serious business, this one has a kind of classic charm that is irresistible.

6. Chrono Trigger

I debated for a while between this game and Final Fantasy VI, but finally landed on this one. While FFVI is my favorite Final Fantasy game, this game trumps it fairly easily. It's the best JRPG I've ever seen, which is a bit worrisome, because it came out in 1995.

Where to begin? The story follows Crono, who is technically the protagonist, and 6 other unique characters, on a journey across the world and through several time periods, in order to stop a great evil, Lavos, from destroying the world. The game features multiple endings, and actions taken in the past will affect the future.

The battle system is something I continue to hold up as innovative and awesome. Gone are the random encounters with monsters when traversing the world map. You can see, and potentially avoid every encounter, meaning when all you want to do is go from point A to point B, you won't be interrupted by a random encounter. Environments are clever, the time travel and connections between the eras are well presented, and the whole game is pure awesome in a genre that has since lost its way.

Anyway, there's 10-6. 5-1 coming eventually.