Saturday, March 30, 2013

Gears of War: Judgment

wait a minute, I thought the Locust were gone!

Didn't Marcus Fenix finish off the locust threat at the end of Gears of War 3? What's going on here? How can there be more Gears of War? No, your memory isn't failing you. Gears of War: Judgment is a prequel to Microsoft's bestselling third-person shooter franchise. The events of the game take place in the period right after Emergence Day, when the Locust Hordes came out of hiding and started to wipe out all human life on the planet.

Unfortunately, John DiMaggio (also the voice of Bender Bending Rodriguez on Futurama) has not returned to voice Marcus Fenix, the protagonist of the last three Gears games. However, the inclusion of two of my favorite characters in Damon Baird and Augustus Cole "Train" mostly made up for the missing Mr. Fenix. Marcus didn't provide much humor to the game, but Baird's smart-ass attitude and Cole's corny one-liners returned to keep much of the familiarity that Gears fans have developed with the characters over the years intact.

No marcus fenix? How did that work out? 

Even without the series' main protagonist, it manages to be a very enjoyable experience. Your squad is made up of the Cole Train, Sofia, Paduk, and Lieutenant Baird. Augustus Cole and Damon Baird have been two of my favorite characters since the first game, so if it had to continue without Marcus, this is probably the best alternative they could have chosen. Baird's smarmy mouth is legitimately funny and the Cole Train, while often over-the-top in his use of cornball one-liners, is probably the most "lovable" character in the series (if there can be such a thing in a post-apocalyptic, violent shooter). Kilo Squad is filled out by Sofia Hendrik, a green cadet who is torn between following COG command orders and helping her loose cannon squad mates. The final member is Garun Paduk. Paduk used to fight against the COG before Emergence Day for an outfit called the Union of Independent Republics. He has a Russian accent so it has all the feel of a former communist soldier working with US Special Ops forces. He still holds considerable animosity for the COG, despite the fact that he's fighting on their side in order to get revenge against the Locust. 

The story takes place in a sort of re-telling by the four characters as they face a court martial led by Colonel Loomis. As you go, you learn that Baird and Kilo Squad disobeyed direct orders in an attempt to kill Karn, a Locust monster that destroyed Paduk's hometown and is currently attacking a COG stronghold called Halvo Bay. Colonel Loomis' insistence on finishing the court martial, despite the fact that the building in which it is being held is under Locust attack and literally falling apart around you, is dedication bordering on idiocy. Loomis is an extremely unlikable character and I found myself really hoping I would get to watch him die before the end of the game. I won't go too in-depth into the plot so I don't get spoiler complaints. I just want to add that I was impressed by the way they switch point of view as the story unfolds. You play as Baird, Cole, Paduk, and Sofia as each is interrogated by Col. Loomis. It had a nice George R. R. Martin feel as you learned each character's motivations in their telling of the game's events. 

gameplay and mechanics

The gameplay is pretty much the same as in previous Gears games with a few big differences. The controls are all the same. There are still collectible COG dogtags hidden around corners near COG logo spray painted tags. One of the new types of play they've added is essentially the popular multiplayer Horde Mode from Gears of War 3 peppered throughout the game. When defending Jack or waiting for a squad member to open the next areas, the game sends wave after wave of enemies at Kilo Squad. Horde Mode was one of the most popular multiplayer modes in Gears 3. While at first it seemed like they might be trying to squeeze too much into the campaign, the in-game Horde wave attacks were actually a lot of fun. There weren't so many that it became annoying, just enough to change things up a bit. Personally I thought it was a great decision to include it. The programmers added just the right amount to switch up the action without it becoming too big a part of the overall gameplay. 

Declassified Missions

The biggest change to the game is the declassified missions. I'll admit to being a bit confused by these at the beginning of the game. At first I thought they were some sort of side mission. However, I quickly realized they are optional challenges that you can do on most levels if you so choose. They usually consisted of some sort of weapon limitation, environmental obstacle, time constraint, or more/stronger enemies. Here are a few examples:

  • Locust use OneShot
  • Heavy Locust and Rager offensive
  • Use Boltoks and LongShots only
  • Finish before Reaver barrage in 3:30
  • Locust smoke grenades reduce visibility
  • Use Boomshields and sawed-offs only
You get the idea. I decided to do them all and found they didn't make the game too difficult, but rather added another dimension to an already enjoyable experience. In order to start the declassified missions, you had to approach the light pink COG emblem at the beginning of every scene (see picture below). Press 'X' and it tells you what limitations the mission offers. You can still decide against accepting the mission after you've seen what the challenge has to offer. Each level awards 1-3 stars for varying amounts of completion. These stars go toward leveling up your multiplayer character. By accepting the declassified missions, you greatly increase your chances of earning all three stars. If you only plan to play this game for the campaign then this doesn't really do much for you. However, if you plan to get online and mix it up with some real players, it's worth it to take the missions in order to help improve your chances of survival in online multiplayer maps. 

bang bangs

There are some new weapons in the game that compliment the familiar crop of the Lancer, LongShot, Boltok pistol, Gnasher shotgun, and the rest. Several of the new guns come from Paduk's former army, the UIR. The Booshka (pictured above) is a semi-accurate grenade launcher. The Marzka is a sniper rifle with some models featuring a scope and others without. They also added a healing stim-grenade that raises the squad's health when standing within a short distance from the thrown device. This came in handy, especially during the Horde Mode-ish waves of enemies. One other addition is auto-turrets. They're really worth looking for any time you see that clock appear at the top of the screen that says the first Horde wave is coming in 1:29. They weren't available every time Kilo Squad faced waves of enemies, but they were there most of the time. After fighting my way through three or four waves of enemies, then finding a turret around the corner, I swore to always take time to run around the area to see if there were any I could set up in the time allotted to prepare. I suggest you do the same. 

One change I really appreciated was the programmers taking out the previous game's tendency to give you random weapons at the beginning of each level. In the first three Gears games, it often didn't matter what guns you ended a level carrying. You started the next level with a Gnasher shotgun whether you wanted it or not. In Gears: Judgment, when you finish a level with a LongShot and a Torque Bow, you start the next level with a LongShot and a Torque Bow. Not only does this help with continuity, it kept me from screaming, "Where's my #@&%ing LongShot?!" at my television. The obvious exception to this was weapon limitations in the declassified missions. However, that is a choice you make, not one that is made for you by lazy programming. A big thank you to Epic Games for finally taking care of this annoying glitch!

the aftermath

The Aftermath is not only the name of my summary section, it's also the name of a short additional story line that you unlock by playing the main campaign. It takes place during the events of Gears 3. Baird, Cole, and one of the Carmine brothers (who I can only assume is there to die like the rest of his family) meet up with Paduk and attempt to find a seaworthy vessel to take the fight to the Locust. This was a nice plus at the end of an already satisfying campaign. It was like getting DLC you didn't have to shell out ten bucks to play. Very cool.

While this game definitely had a different feel than previous Gears of War games, due both to the lack of Marcus Fenix and the addition of the various gameplay options like declassified missions, it was just as much fun. If anything, it lacked the sense of urgency that came with other Gears games. When the outcome is certain, you're not so stressed out about saving mankind. However, I think fans of the franchise will have as much fun as I did with this newest entry in the Gears universe. It probably isn't the place to start playing Gears because so much backstory would be necessary to catch you up to the previous (future) events, but if you've already played the first three, there is no reason not to pick up Gears: Judgment for your collection. Happy Locust hunting!

the math

Objective score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for being fearless in experimenting with this bestselling behemoth of a series. 

Penalties: -1 for not including Marcus Fenix. I don't know if John DiMaggio declined to take part or they just wrote him out, but it feels a bit weird having a Gears game without him. 

Nerd coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Microreview [book]: Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

The Meat

With his First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold, Joe Abercrombie turned inside out my expectations for character development in novels. Instead of character development, one witnesses character regression. People are downright bad. Vile. But upward gazing... until they give up and become morally decrepit once more. In each of his stories, the main characters try to become better people. And just as the reader becomes convinced that the protagonists might actually redeem themselves, BAM!, they recognize the futility in doing so and return to their previous lives as pond scum. People cannot escape their true selves, their dirty and sludge-filled nature, no matter how much they try. Needless to say, this particular formula, with all its grit and blood, made me an instant fan. 

With Red Country, his sixth novel (and the fifth that I have read), Abercrombie offers a particularly skillful iteration of this formula, bringing back characters we know and love alongside fun and new protagonists. In fact, he even lays out this formula early in the book, in a conversation between Temple and our old friend, the Northman Caul Shivers: 
"More so with," muttered Temple, looking into the fire. "He never cared much, but he used to care a little. He's got worse."
"That's what men do." 
"Not all of them."
"Ah." Shivers showed his teeth. "You're one of them optimists I've heard about."
"No, no, not me," said Temple. "I always take the easy way."
"Very wise. I find hoping for a thing tends to bring the opposite." The Northman slowly turned the ring on his little finger round and around, the stone glittering the colour of blood. "I had my dreams of being a better man, once upon a time."
"What happened?"
Shivers stretched out beside the fire, boots up on his saddle, and started to shake a blanket over himself. "I woke up." 
But after setting up these rules, Abercrombie hints that he may be ready to break them. Can people change after all? Or are we all stuck in the mud, merely contenting ourselves to gaze up at the sky?


Red Country is a dark fantasy novel with a pinch of the old American West. It follows the story of Shy South, a woman with a bloody past. When her younger brother and sister (Pit and Ro) are stolen by a band of thieves, Shy sets off on an adventure to retrieve them with her old stepfather, Lamb. Although she lets Lamb accompany her, Shy suspects that this scarred old Northman is nothing but a career coward. Little does Shy know that he too has a bloody past, a past from which he has a hard time escaping. The journey to save their family takes these two unlikely heroes from a small holding outside Squaredeal to the gold rush town of Crease, nestled deep in the Far Country. They find themselves confronted with fierce Ghosts, involved in bloody politics, and forging an alliance with the infamous mercenary leader, Nicomo Cosca, and his ne'er-do-well lawyer, Temple. In the process, a river of blood is spilt throughout the Far Country. 

In many ways, Abercrombie has really come into his own with this book. He has crafted a fantastic character-driven fantasy that engages the reader on multiple levels. The story is engaging and the prose crisp, infectious, and, at times, powerful. The battles are vivid and intense. Abercrombie is careful to balance willful and strong characters with their feckless and weak (but no less compelling) counterparts. I found myself deeply caring about what happened to the most despicable people, and laughing at the delicate absurdity of it all. That is, when I wasn't laughing out loud at the wonderful black humor peppered throughout this black tale.          

Abercrombie is at his best in creating wonderfully complex antagonists. Take, for instance, Nicomo Cosca. Not only is Cosca a fantastic character, one who moves from thoughtless and hilarious to pensive and poignant. Abercrombie also uses him as a lens through which he explores evil and all its depravity in his world of bad. Cosca's own biographer, Sworbreck, comes to look at him as the face of evil.
Sworbreck had come to see the face of heroism and instead he had seen evil. Seen it, spoken with it, been pressed up against it. Evil turned out not to be a grand thing. Not sneering Emperors with world-conquering designs. Not cackling demons plotting in the darkness beyond the world. It was small men with their small acts and their small reasons. It was selfishness and carelessness and waste. It was bad luck, incompetence and stupidity. It was violence divorced from conscience or consequence. It was high ideals, even, and low methods.    
But at least Cosca remained aware of his own depravity. And this self-awareness is his saving grace. True evil, as Abercrombie tells it, is dark actions in the service of higher ideals. Fanatical utopians, those willing to sacrifice many in the service of good, are far worse than those morally corrupt who will do anything in the service of self-interest. Morality, Cosca notes to his Inquisitor boss, is the lie people tell themselves while perpetrating unspeakable acts.
The Inquisitor waited for silence. "Do you believe in anything?"
"Not if I can help it. Belief alone is nothing to be proud of, Inquisitor. Belief without evidence is the very hallmark of the savage."
Lorsen shook his head in amazement. "You are truly disgusting."
"I would be the last to disagree, but you fail to see that you are worse. No man [is] capable of greater evil than the one who thinks himself in the right. No purpose more evil than higher purpose. I freely admit that I am a villain. That's why you hired me. But I am no hypocrite... I have mouths to feed. You could just go home. If you are set on doing good, make something to be proud of. Open a bakery. Fresh bread every morning, there's a noble cause!"
Red Country also features equally complex protagonists. Lamb and Temple, for instance, are no less dark and broken than any other character in the book. But they are also mirror reflections of each other. Both are driven by an underlying cowardice, but for very different reasons. Lamb uses his cowardice to mask his inner villain (or to shackle him in the dark recesses of his mind); through cowardice, Lamb attempts to become a better man. Temple's cowardice, on the other hand, consistently prevents him from becoming a better man. Despite being driven by the same underlying cowardice, when the proverbial excrement hits the proverbial fan, both characters thus react in very different ways. The reader finds himself/herself cheering for them nonetheless, no matter how bad they become. Both are  only human, after all.

The only issue I had with Red Country was its formulaic sense of character development and character regression, something that Abercrombie has hashed out time and time again. At times, I found myself wishing that Abercrombie would step out of his comfort zone and try something new. He certainly has the talent to do so. Abercrombie, after all, is one of the shining stars of the dark turn in fantasy. Of course, one could interpret Red Country as Abercrombie's first attempt as breaking his own rules (albeit in a very ambiguous way). Do his characters in fact become better people? Or, upon deeper reflection, are they not simply teetering upon a giant precipice, waiting for a gentle push to fall back into the morass of lies, cowardice, brutality, and depravity? Read Red Country to find out. You won't be disappointed.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for Abercrombie's wonderful sense of humor. 

Penalties: -1 for feeling like I have read the same (granted, very engaging) Abercrombie story over and over again.

Final Verdict: 8/10 "Well worth your time and attention"

[Think our scores are too low? Read about our scoring process here, and learn why we say "no" to grade inflation.]

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

The first "season" of Morning Glories came to a beautiful finale in a double-size issue that answered a fair number of questions and painted a scenario in which Morning Glory Academy may actually be vulnerable in "season" two.  Add to that issue #3 of Age of Ultron, the 2nd in the Sixth Gun spin-off Sons of the Gun, and issue #1 of Savage Skullkickers, part 2 of issue #1 of Uncanny Skullkickers and I am left with a difficult choice in selecting a pick of the week.  Without further ado.

Pick of the Week:
The Sixth Gun: Sons of the Gun #2 - I can't get enough of the world that Cullen Bunn has created and am both excited and terrified of the fact that they are currently shooting a pilot based on the series.  I am excited because Bunn deserves this type of recognition and it has amazing potential, but terrified because it will be compared to the comic which wouldn't be fair.  This five issue spin-off examines what happened to General Hume's henchmen after his downfall.  In this issue we see what happened to Ben, who wielded the gun that inflicted horrible disease onto its victims.  What made this book such a success to me, is that we see a completely different side of Ben and begin to sympathize with an individual who was one-dimensional (pure evil) in the Sixth Gun.  I don't want that to sound of a criticism of his character in the Sixth Gun, because in no way is that the intent.  It is just that by creating this spin-off we are able to learn more about the universe Bunn has created and can further explore the complex cast of characters that he has created.  Even if you haven't read the Sixth Gun, you should give the world a try by picking up this spin-off.  You won't be disappointed.

The Rest:
Morning Glories #25- Stunning end to the first season of one of my favorite ongoing series that will cause me to begin the reread from issue #1 and I couldn't be more excited to take the journey again.

Age of Ultron #3 - Brian Michael Bendis is doing an amazing job in the only Marvel title I am currently reading that can compete with Mark Waid's Daredevil.

Savage Skullkickers #1 or Skullkickers #20 - A genuinely funny book that has lead me to the decision that I should have been reading this title since issue #1 and you can check out for free here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

3024AD: Cover & Preview

Hey all, Dean here- I've been writing the Adventures in Indie Publishing column these last few months. As you may (or may not) be aware, I have a book of my own coming out- A collection of short stories set in a universe called 3024AD (I'll let you guess what the time frame is there).

It will be out on all major e-retailers on April 23rd. Here is an excerpt from it; the flash piece "The Voice":

The Voice

The Voice echoed throughout the hull of the colony ship Jade. It comforted Wayne McFadden as he went about his duties. He had a nagging feeling that there was something else he was supposed to remember, but never forgot his duties.

He caught a glimpse of himself as he washed one of the portholes, but his eyes did not comprehend. He had been good-looking, once. His once-bright eyes were now dull and sunken, and his thick beard and long hair hung in a scraggly heap. He ignored the reflection and continued with his duties.

The Voice was there for him; a soft and soothing female voice. Sometimes he became angry at it, at night, when she wouldn’t leave him alone. His nerves were raw enough from his duties; he didn’t need her to keep him up as well. But then, she was always there for him in the morning, warm and welcoming, and he always forgave her.

He smiled as she spoke again while he moved to the lower decks. He passed into the engine room, the fuel conduits did not give off their ordinary green glow, but he didn't notice. He whistled to himself, content to make sure all was clean. Those were his duties, and he never forgot his duties.

Days passed, but McFadden didn't notice. The Voice greeted him every morning and he went to his obligations. He wished the rest of the crew would do the same, but he never criticized. The captain would see to that, except he seemed derelict in his duties of late. But McFadden never complained.
** *
Michael Lawler, clad in space suit and maneuvering unit, approached the hatch of the Jade as she drifted slowly in space. As he coupled himself to the derelict ship, the recovery ship hailed him.
"Mike, it looks like someone is in there." He turned around to look at the clunky ship that would tow the Jade back, shooting a quizzical look towards the operator’s canopy. "I thought all survivors were accounted for."

"Looks like we thought wrong. I'm sending Glass over." Another scrapper soon appeared from the belly of the ship, following Lawler's tether over. He handed the other man a pistol. "Just in case." Mike laughed. Glass was the 'just in case', a hulk of a man who had never been bested in any fight he had been in. Mike took the gun and turned his attention back to the hatch. It swung open and then floated into the airlock.

"Wonder where the bugger is at," Mike asked as the airlock pressurized. They exited, but did not take the suits off. They made their way to the bridge, a simple two-seated affair. "Has that been on the whole time?" Mike tilted his head to listen.

A computerized female voice repeated: "Engine failure. Abandon ship. Abandon ship. Engine failure..."

"Can you turn that off?" He said to Glass. Glass moved over to the comm station, and smashed it with a gauntleted fist. The voice stopped, and Mike went about to prepare the Jade for docking.  Suddenly, a man appeared behind them. Wild eyed, his long beard and hair spoke to the amount of time he had been alone on the ship.

"What did you do to her?" He shouted, voice hoarse and unaccustomed to speech, and launched himself at the two scrappers.

Mike fumbled with the pistol, but managed to lift it as the castaway reached him. He pulled the trigger at point-blank range; the laser charge burned a hole in the man’s chest. He went limp and his body hung in space like a marionette without a puppeteer.

Eyes wide, Mike looked at Glass. Glass shrugged. "Long time to be alone."

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

First Impressions: Lego City: Undercover

I don't think many would argue that the Wii U has not been a runaway success. Initially excited to purchase the system when it launched, my Wii U has been dormant for over a month. Mario U and Nintendoland were quite enjoyable, but the gamepad hasn't been properly used and there hasn't been a must have title. Then last week Traveler's Tales dropped the Wii U exclusive, Lego City: Undercover. The Wii U may have a killer app on its hands.

The story puts you in the shoes of Chase McCain, famed cop of Lego City out to stop his nemesis Rex Fury.  In order to accomplish this task Chase must unlock various disguises that have unique abilities, train in a dojo, and as the title suggests, go undercover.

With a Traveler's Tales Lego game you know a couple of things right away. The game is a combination of platforming fun, breaking stuff and brick collecting.The platforming has drastically improved from the early Lego Games and the introduction of super bricks adds a new element of collecting tens of thousands of Lego pieces.

I am happy to report that Lego City: Undercover provides genuinely humorous moments, that had both myself and my son laughing out loud.  Traveler's Tales has been hit or miss with the humor in my opinion, but have done a nice job of parody with this title.  Numerous references to pop culture are included that I appreciated, and then simple sight gags and physical comedy entertained my son. The voice acting was spot on and the soundtrack sounded as if it were ripped straight out of Starsky and Hutch. 

At its core, Lego City: Undercover is Grand Theft Auto for kids. Lego City is vast with many areas to explore and minigames to play. You can hijack any car, wreck people's property, and spend hours running around the city. Thankfully there are no prostitutes and the Lego people do a nice job of getting out of the way of fast moving cars.

As with other Lego titles, the controls are relatively simple (my 5-year old had some troubles with the gamepad elements, but was content to roam around the city exploring) and a little loose.  There were numerous platforming elements that I had to repeat due to falls.  The cars all handled differently like other games of this genre, but could stand to be fine tuned.  As you learned more skills the fighting element provided much more depth than most other Lego games.  But the real question is, as a Wii U exclusive, how does it handle Nintendo's tablet controller.

I am pleased to report is that the Wii U gamepad has been integrated well. Some of the tasks feel like a little bit of a gimmick (scanning a building), but it really allows for a new level of immersion in the Lego City universe. I felt this the most when using the gamepad as a communication device back with headquarters. The face of who I was speaking to was only on the gamepad and the audio was only coming from the gamepad's speakers. The element of holding onto a device that is speaking to you while you are playing really did add a new element that I have not experienced in a game before.

At the time of this review I am approximately 50% finished with the main story, but have barely scratched the surface of unlocking all of the characters, finding all of the secrets, and truly seeing all what this title has to offer. This is a game that hopefully will feel fresh at the end and provide some incentive for completing one of the many side quests and returning to old levels.  So far that seems to be the case.

My only real complaint at this time is the load times. At each new level and before each cut scene you are left with a load time that feels reminiscent of the original Playstation. Some of the load times are in excess of over one minute (which in gaming terms is quite long).  It can get very tedious.

The Math

Objective Quality: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for being genuinely humorous; +1 allowing me to play a GTA style game with my 5-year old

Penalties: -1 for tedious load times

Videogame Coefficient: 9/10. "very high quality/standout in its category."

[For an explanation of our scoring system, head on over here.]

Monday, March 25, 2013

Scalzi, The Human Division Eps 8-10

Welcome to the latest installment of reviews for John Scalzi's serialized novel The Human Division. In case you are just getting on board, here are my reviews for Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3Episode 4 and Episodes 5-8. To summarize, "book good/interludes growing on me/generally quite funny but with occasional snark overload." Through eight chapters, the book has a cumulative score of 7.57/10. So how are the next three?

The Meats and the Maths

Episode 8: The Sound of Rebellion

Episodes 6 and 7 sort of inverted my prior feeling that stories featuring the central characters are inherently better than the interludes in which they don't figure, and The Sound of Rebellion continues that trend. True, there's no Harry Wilson, Ambassador Abumwe, Captain Coloma or Hart Schmidt here, but there is a very interesting story about kidnapped CDF soldiers suffering "enhanced interrogation techniques," to use the Cheneyspeak euphamism for torture. Regular readers of this blog will know by now how I feel about excessive cruelty in SF/F, and may wonder if a story about torture can manage to be compelling without falling into the grimdark pattern of moar moar blood plz. So let's all give Scalzi a hand for proving that it can be done, and done well. Plus we get some cool insights into the things that make CDF soldiers special without the dreaded infodumps most genre writers can't seem to live without, and some hints about the conspiracy at the heart of The Human Division while we're at it. Top shelf stuff, if ebooks could be put on shelves.

[INPUT 8/10 (+1 for doing torture without the bloodporn; +1 for showing not telling; -1 for it's another interlude, and even if they are getting better, there are a whole lot of them) OUTPUT 9/10]

Episode 9: The Observers

Of course, on the flipside of the interlude episodes' improving fortunes lie diminishing returns for the chapters featuring the flagship characters. The Observers, in which the Clarke plays host to a set of dignitaries from Earth only to find some black ops at play, isn't bad--far from it. But we have kinda sorta already been down this road in Episode 5, and for my money, that one did it better. Plus the scenes in which Wilson interacts with his potential love interest Danielle Lowen are too zippy by half. Though Scalzi is generally great with dialogue, at times he veers into the kind of excess quotability Charlie Jane Anders warned us about

[INPUT 7/10 (+1 for returning to the main story; -1 for being at least 40% retread; -1 for excess zip and snark) OUTPUT 6/10]

Episode 10: This Must Be The Place

This Must Be The Place focuses on Hart Schmidt, who to date has primarily served as Ambassador Abumwe's affable assistant and Harry Wilson's only real friend on the Clarke. Now we find out he's the wayward scion of the major political family on the Phoenix colony. Dad wants Hart to come home and follow in his footsteps, only Hart prefers making his own way in the CU's Department of State. You'll recognize this plot from a lot of TV shows, but it's generally well done, if still relatively light filler material. Did I enjoy reading this one? Sure. Did I love it? No. Scalzi, for the record, seems to have anticipated this kind of reaction. Who knows--maybe this one ends up more vital to the plot than it seems like it is right now?

[INPUT 6/10 (+1 for focusing on Schmidt, a very likable character; -1 for being filler material that doesn't seem to advance the plot much) OUTPUT 6/10]

Cumulative Score - Episodes 1-10: 7.40

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Guest Microreview [book]: The Passage, by Justin Cronin

We are excited to present a fantastic guest microreview by SF/F aficionado Zhaoyun. Today he reviews Justin Cronin's apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novel, The Passage.

The Meat

First things first—if the word 'vampire' makes you swoon in teenage love angst, then you might want to skip this genre-shaker. But for those tired of the recent Edward/Stefan, love-will-overcome dynamic in depictions of the supernatural, find yourself a copy of The Passage and watch helplessly as it sucks you in, leaving you drained and feverish for more. Despite being almost 900 pages long, it's truly a page-turner, and summoning the mental effort required to put it down before one is finished is surprisingly difficult. 

There is a romance of sorts, but no absurd vampire-human liaisons; instead, The Passage is science fiction at its most intriguing, an exploration of what might happen to human civilization if the thymus gland, which atrophies in adults, were re-activated via a weird virus taken from a certain flying mammal in South America (spoiler alert: things don't end well). With many post-apocalyptic stories, for example The Walking Dead, it's hard to imagine such listless, easily dispatched foes really overrunning the world; fortunately, The Passage doesn't have that problem. The creatures of The Passage are truly terrifying, with only two real weaknesses, and don't make nice with the enticing blood bags they see all around them. That whole Babcock thing, in particular, chills the blood. 

In a rarity for a book on vampires, it's exceptionally well-written, combining moments of almost lyrical beauty in its descriptions with an appealing, Hemingway-esque minimalism in the dialogue, which saves it from descending into melodrama. The first part of the book, in which the human world is a frog sitting placidly in a pot just seconds from full boil, is the best—indeed, it's one of the most compelling descriptions of the beginning of the end in any apocalyptic fiction I've read. 

Yes, Cronin begins The Passage in spectacular fashion, succeeding in drawing the reader all the way in to this doomed world, and making us feel powerfully connected to the characters he has described so well...and then he pulls a Battlestar Galactica. Just as we are fully engaged with this world he's created, he decides to skip ahead, to a very different situation in space, time and vibe, with largely new characters and new challenges. Cronin's decision to skip ahead will probably be just as controversial as BG's 'let's skip ahead a year and let Lee Adama get married and fat (not necessarily in that order) and slap a mustache on Olmos' dice-roll. 

As a consequence of said time-leap, for hundreds of pages after the end of part one I kept reading mostly out of almost clinical curiosity over how Cronin was going to suture these two very different stories together. Yet along the way, I found myself becoming immersed in Cronin's second "world" just as I had with the first, pre-apocalypse human world. Gradually I began to realize that the only way to manage such a splice was—you guessed it—to pull much the same trick again, and drag the reader kicking and screaming out of that second world, a fascinating post-apocalypse setting, and into a third world—basically consisting of everywhere not in the second setting. It was this third environment that proved a bit disappointing, reminding me of J.K. Rowling's ill-advised venture away from her winning Hogwarts formula in HP and the Deathly Hallows (there's even camping in the woods). 

Some might be put off a bit by a certain key female character (you'll see who and what I mean when you read it), as though the only way girls can be cool is via uber-empathy a la the lame "Heart" power from the ancient American animated series Captain Planet. This is a book Cronin has said was inspired by his daughter's request for a book where a girl saves the world, and although said girl certainly has an interesting role to play, she's no Sarah Connor. 

Nonetheless, Cronin brings it all together in quite a satisfactory way, and any who continue reading past the book's stellar first section will ultimately find their faith rewarded. In short, I laughed, I cried—it was way better than Cats and also better than the vast majority of either vampire or post-apocalyptic fiction. 

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for excellent character development, +1 for its intricate construction of not one but two fully realized settings, +1 for Babcock

Penalties: -1 for pulling a Battlestar Galactica time-skip, -1 for Amy's 'Heart' vibe

Final Verdict: 9/10 "Standout in its category"

[Think our scores are too low? Read about our scoring process here, and learn why we say "no" to grade inflation.]

Friday, March 22, 2013

Bejeweled Blitz

Addictive mobile goodness!

I've decided to change tack a bit today and go with a mobile gem (pardon the pun). I thought I should write about something that less hardcore gamers are likely to have played and enjoy. I've gotten a lot of "I had no idea what you were talking about but I really enjoyed your writing" responses from friends and family with regard to my reviews. Hopefully a few more people have played Bejeweled Blitz than beat Dead Space 3.

Bejeweled Blitz is a relatively new version of PopCap's breakout hit Bejeweled and its sequels, Bejewewled 2 and 3. If you aren't familiar with Bejeweled, it's a game where you match gems of similar color in order to score points. There is an eight-by-eight grid of gems. You can match strings of three, four, or five gems, which give increasing rewards as you up the count. If you match three gems, they disappear and your score rises as more gems fall in to replace them. If you match four gems, a gem of the same color is created that, when matched later, explodes and destroys a 3x3 patch of gems. If you are lucky enough to match five gems of the same color, a gem will be created that takes out an entire row and column going out from the gem when matched. 

looks like tetris

Bejeweled Blitz definitely pays homage to the greatest of all grid games, that Russian classic Tetris. However, Blitz adds several levels of depth when compared to Tetris' perfect simplicity. For one thing, there are purchasable power-ups that can help you along the way. You can buy the power-ups using money you've won while playing the game itself, in a slot machine that you get a free play on each day, or by buying extra tokens and winning more in-game money in the slot machine. With the tokens, you can buy:
  • Mystery Gem - Start the game with a random gem
  • Detonator - Detonates all special gems once per game
  • Scrambler - Scrambles all gems on the board twice per game
  • +5 Seconds - Adds five seconds to the end of the game
  • x2 Multiplier - Start the game with a x2 multiplier gem

There are also REALLY expensive power-ups that don't require much skill. They just wipe out large portions of gems at the end of the game. The Phoenix Prism (above) is the most expensive and most powerful, but it feels a bit unfair to use it. For 75,000 coins, you're essentially buying around a quarter million points. I usually save my coins for the smaller power-ups that I can control unless I've recently hit a huge jackpot on the slot machine. In that case, I'll occasionally blow way too much cash on one of the overpowered "cheater" attacks. 

why is it so fun?

Blitz is a change from its predecessors in that the game sessions only last one minute instead of three, thus the name and its implied time rush. It boasts Facebook compatibility so you can compare scores with friends. Don't worry, you can turn off the app's ability to post on your wall. I'm a bit of a Facebook freak when it comes to limiting the content of my posts. I heard dozens of social media horror stories when I was working on my master's in communication and they scared me to the point I don't put anything up there besides family photos and occasional concert or sporting event attendance pics. 

The previous games were hectic, but this one is downright anxiety-inducing. I still find myself freezing up when I can't find a match and I've been playing this game for close to a year. It's got that perfect mix of replay-ability and simplicity that make for a best-selling puzzle game. Add to that the quick, one-minute time limit and you can literally squeeze a quick game in anywhere. If you haven't tried any of the Bejeweled games, I highly recommend you give one a look. Blitz is the fastest and most helter skelter by far, so be warned. You should also be aware that it is highly addictive. If you're a fan of puzzle games, or just want to try something other than Angry Birds on your mobile device, give this one a look. It's free and it's fun!

the math

Objective Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for its simplistic yet addictive design.

Penalties: -1 for making me feel like an idiot when staring blankly at the screen, unable to see the next set of matching gems even though they're right in front of me!

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

One of my friends has been giving me a hard time because I rarely pick a superhero comic as my pick of the week despite the title of this feature.  It looks like he is going to win again because another issue of Saga dropped.  In addition to that, Brian K. Vaughan, author of Saga, partnered with Marcus Martin to release The Private Eye, an online only, pay what you want, title.  You can pick up the first issue for whatever you are willing to pay here.  Set in the U.S. in a future that has no internet, Martin thought an online only distribution made the most sense.  I like his style.

As for superhero titles, I currently don't like the direction that Marvel is taking with the Avengers or Captain America, but love Daredevil, Hawkeye, Deadpool, and have been really enjoying Age of Ultron.  From the other big publisher, the Batman titles are quite strong, but I honestly didn't have the budget to try as many of the New 52 titles as I would have preferred.  I enjoyed where Swamp Thing was headed and Animal Man, but had to make tough cuts to keep the weekly costs down.  I also feel that the lack of superheroes taking the top spot speaks to how the industry has grown creatively in recent years.  On to the pick of the week!

Pick of the Week:
Saga #11 -  While I absolutely love the pacing, the plot, and the characters, I am starting to think that the art of Fiona Staples makes this title.  The language is vulgar, some of the scenes are disgusting, large alien creatures are often fully nude, yet Staples has produced the best looking book on the market.  This issue featured more pages void of dialogue than previous entries, but maintained the same level of humor, emotion, drama, and further connected the reader to the characters.

Another element that makes this title so successful, is that clearly the reader cares about the star crossed lovers and their child, but even the individuals that are seeking the bounty on their heads are complex and quite likable.  I feel like this title exists almost exclusively in the grey and that is what makes it so intriguing.  The comic medium also feels like the perfect fit for the world and characters that Vaughan and Staples have created.

The Rest:
The Private Eye #1 - Fast paced first issue for a series that feels reminiscent to Frank Miller's Hard Boiled and was a pure joy to read.

Deadpool #6 - The Deadpool vs. Zombie Presidents mini-series comes to a humorous and gory finale that was quite satisfying.

Daredevil #24 -  Daredevil is dealing with heavy issues in addition to trying to solve the mystery of who is trying to replicate his powers in what is my favorite superhero title on the market today.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

International TableTop Day

Time to check your calendars nerds, because in t-minus 10 days International TableTop day will be upon us!  International TableTop Day is a holiday to celebrate everything that involves gaming.  Announced on February 27 by Geek and Sundry, Felicia Day's hit YouTube channel, International Table Top day has gathered momentum and new events are popping up daily on their map.  In fact, new events have been showing up so fast that the map went down shortly after the announcement.  No event near you?  Then create one!

The gaming community is already on board with Asmodee Editions, Steve Jackson Games, Days of Wonder, and many other publishers are providing promotional items to support local events.  It is a great excuse to break out some old and new games and socialize with fellow human beings.

As I mentioned, the Geek and Sundry show TableTop inspired International TableTop Day.  The show is hosted by the lovable Wil Wheaton and features a new game and different celebrity guests each episode.  The show has taken a toll on my wallet, as I have ordered many games seen on TableTop.

If you are like me and plan on hosting an event then you need some good games to entertain.  Here are five games you should consider as featured on TableTop.

For the nerds who like to screw over his or her friends:
Munchkin by Steve Jackson Games

For the cartography nerd:
Ticket to Ride by Days of Wonder

For the hypochondriac nerd:
Pandemic by Z-Man Games

For the resourceful nerd:
Settlers of Catan

For the nerd with a short attention span:
Zombie Dice

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Microreview [film]: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

The Meat

Let's be honest, even the best horror movie is only millimeters away from being a comedy. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, after a lunatic murders all of her friends, the lone, teenaged survivor is made to, you know, sit down to dinner with the killer's family. In Rosemary's Baby, a New York social climber sublets his wife's uterus to Satan. Suspiria is about a coven of witches that run a dance academy, for Pete's sake. So I like it when filmmakers are able to smartly foreground the humor -- gallows humor, to be sure, but humor -- inherent in the horror genre. That's a big, dumb, pretentious way of saying I like me a good horror-comedy.

But good ones are hard to find. I made one, which was far more comedy than horror, so I know how hard it is to strike the right balance. But Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is just such a rare bird. In it, a group of rich kids head out to the woods for a fun party weekend, and encounter two "scary-looking" blue-collar guys at a gas station on the edge of town. These two are Tucker and Dale, who are themselves heading out to the woods to start renovations on the vacation home Tucker just bought. In their rush to cast Tucker and Dale as the murderous hillbillies of so many horror movies, the kids misinterpret the situation when Tucker and Dale rescue one of the friends from drowning. They quickly decide that the hillbillies must have kidnapped, killed, and likely eaten their friend. Hilarity ensues. Bloody, bloody hilarity.

Seemingly every horror movie with a teenager in it involves a series of increasingly poor decisions that result in increasingly violent deaths at the hands of whatever evil entity is on hand -- serial killer, resurrected hockey player, etc. But in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil the only evil entities on hand are stupidity and unfair stereotyping. Part of the fun, then, is watching how the kids' increasingly poor decisions result in their increasingly violent deaths at their own hands. As these kids start dropping all around them, Tucker and Dale believe they've stumbled upon some type of college suicide cult, and that the kids are also trying to kill their own friend Allison, the girl Tucker and Dale saved from drowning and who is mostly unconscious inside the vacation home.

The leads are uniformly great. Tucker is the awesome-in-everything Alan Tudyk (of Firefly fame), Dale is played by Tyler Labine (from the under-appreciated and short-lived Reaper), and Allison is Katrina Bowden (the hyper-vacant Cerie from 30 Rock). The three of them bring a surprising amount of credibility to the actual emotional storyline.

The Math

Objective Quality: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for actually having an emotional storyline; +1 for the cast; +1 for the line "I should've known if a guy like me tried to talk to a girl like you somebody would wind up dead."

Penalties: -1 for a third act that goes a little too over the top; -1 for an odd pre-credits sequence that confuses me.

Cult Film Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."

[For an explanation of our scoring system, head on over here.]

Monday, March 18, 2013

Microreview [book]: The Twenty Year Death by Ariel S. Winter

The New Pulp landscape is littered with tributes to the dead masters of the genre. But banking the fame of classic source material is a difficult trick to pull off. After all, why would I want to read a second-rate Chandler when I can just read Playback for the ninth time? And as far as paeans to Jim Thompson are concerned, well, you can just ask Philippe how those are going.

Fortunately, Ariel Winter's The Twenty Year Death [2012, Hard Case Crime] isn't just an homage to the classics--it's three. "Malvineau Prison" is straight Simenon. While Winter's prose lacks the architectural minimalism of the original Maigret novels, pretty much everything else is spot on. The second novel, "Falling Star," is Philippe Marlowe reimagined. Paradoxically, this was both my favorite and least favorite of the three. That is, I enjoyed it the most, because Chandler is my favorite crime fiction author (and arguably the best writer genre fiction has ever produced), but it was also the least successful at capturing the magic of the original source material. I guess reading it felt a bit like watching a really fucking good Joy Division cover band: for a while you can almost pretend it's really Ian Curtis up there on stage, but then the little things remind you that it's not, and instead it's some other dude who sounds like him but lacks that certain something that made him so special in the first place. But of course, who does?

"Police at the Funeral," by contrast, is a remarkably successful rendering of Jim Thompson. Hell, Philippe might even appreciate it. Of course, I'm not as big a Jim Thompson fan as he is, but this one did make me feel tense and grimy and flipped out just like The Killer Inside Me.

If that was all there was to it, I'd rate the three novels that make up The Twenty Year Death as solid, enjoyable books suitable for most noir fans. But Winter ties these three homages together with a meta-narrative that serves as both commentary on perspectivity in crime fiction and on the evolution of the genre across the three decades of its golden age. American writer Shem Rosenkrantz serves as the linchpin, and we watch his role evolve from witness to victim to perpetrator. The effect is subtle enough  not to take away from enjoyment of any of the book's constituent parts, but provides significant rewards for the reader when all is said and done.

...and kudos to Winter for demonstrating that experimental fiction can still be accessible.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for getting so many things right about the source material; +1 for the meta-narrative, which ties everything together in such a nifty and original way.

Penalties: -1 for the unavoidable "why am I not just reading The Big Sleep again moments."

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."

[To learn more about our non-inflated scoring system, in which the average is a 5/10, click here.]

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Microreview [film]: Spirited Away by Miyazaki Hayao

The Meat

Spirited Away, by famous Japanese animator Miyazaki Hayao, is a fantastic feature-length film that focuses a sullen, willful, and spoiled 10-year old girl named Chihiro. The story opens with her in the back seat of her father's car, moping while they are moving to a new town. On the way, her father gets lost in a dark forest, and winds up at the gate of what appears to be an old amusement park, abandoned after Japan's bubble era. Although apparently abandoned, as evening falls, some of the food shops appear to open, and Chihiro's family find that they are lined with exotic, tasty delights. Chihiro's parents pig out on the food, scaring their young daughter, who just wants to leave. Within moments, Chihiro's gluttonous parents literally turn into pigs. Making matters worse, as twilight sets in, Chihiro finds the way back to home blocked by a vast lake. 

As night sets in, a boy named Haku appears as Chihiro's guide, and leads her to a towering bathhouse. Haku informs Chihiro that to survive in this new world and to save her parents, she first has to work. Haku thus sends Chihiro to Kamaji, an intriguing, bearded eight-limbed creature who works in the boiler room deep in the innards of the boathouse. After seeing Chihiro's guts firsthand, Kamaji tells Chihiro that she must make it to the top of the bathhouse and demand a job from the proprietor and sorceress, Yubaba. From this point on, Chihiro ventures in to the bathhouse, only to get a first glimpse into a wondrous new world. In the process, her name is stolen by Yubaba; she is renamed Sen. And Chihiro/Sen begins a magical and extraordinary adventure to save her parents and to find a way back home.  

Yubaba and Chihiro
Chihiro is different from the heroic figures that populate some of Miyazaki's and many other animated films. In her spoiled and sullen way, Chihiro is a unique antihero. To save her parents, this antihero engages in a number of what a willful 10-year old girl might be consider Herculean tasks: exploring an old bathhouse; demanding a job from the proprietor; cleaning dirty baths; helping her friends; and riding the train alone. These seemingly ordinary acts are imbued with a magical quality, and allow Chihiro to guide the viewer through a world teeming with endless imagination. The adventures she has, the friends she makes, and the love she experiences ironically make this willful 10-year old at times feel much more adult than her own parents.  

True to form, Miyazaki's also creates a subtle and layered antagonist, one who is not exactly the poster girl for evil. Yubaba is a complex character. Although overbearing, intimidating, and driven almost wholly by greed, Yubaba has a softer side that she reveals sporadically throughout the movie. Whether  by her motherly softness, her praise for Chihiro, or through the occasional soft-hearted decision, Yubaba defies the simple caricature of evil incarnate. Yubaba's twin sister, Zeniba, is equally complex. She would not hesitate to kill to protect her magical properties, but at the same time she is kind-hearted and more than willing to take care of Kaonashi (No Face). The movie thus effectively blurs the lines between good and evil, presenting at times more realistic picture of life.

Miyazaki also uses Spirited Away as a vehicle to promote an environmentalist message in a surprisingly effective manner. After joining the bathhouse, Chihiro's first client is Okutaresama, a river god whose body had absorbed all the putrid sludge, stinking junk, and discarded objects that people threw in over the years. In this funny and delightful scene, Chihiro finds herself helping the river god discard all the junk it accumulated over the years. And Haku, her love interest, also has a an eco-unfriendly back story. Perhaps because these messages are told in a subtle manner (through side stories), the environmentalist critique in Spirited Away is more powerful than any other Miyazaki movie since his early masterpiece, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

Spirited Away shows off Miyazaki's boundless imagination, enthusiasm, and endless creativity, both in its animation and in its overall story line. The animation stands apart from most other animated movies (especially Disney) because it is hand drawn with a degree of care that is rarely found in feature-length films. And the design is equally beautiful. I have never seen in one movie so many different types of plants, monsters, gods, and other beings.

In the end, Spirited Away weaves a simple fairy tail of a young girl trying to save her family and return home. In doing so, it tells, in a surprisingly effective way, straightforward messages of the harmful nature of greed, the negative human environmental impact, the difficulties of growing up, and the importance of believing in yourself. Although not my personal favorite Studio Ghibli film (that honor goes to Porco Rosso), Spirited Away deserves lavish praise as Miyazaki Hayao's best, most complete movie. It never fails to put a smile on my face or a laugh to my day. This film is fit and fun for any age, from young child to adult. Run, don't walk, to your nearest computer to download or buy this movie. Spirited Away is without a doubt the finest animated film ever made.

The Math

No Nerd Coefficient necessary. This movie rocks on all accounts.

Total Score: 10/10 "Mind-blowing, Life-changing, Best. Animated. Movie. Evar!"