Monday, May 23, 2016

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare review

    This game sucks. That's pretty much my opinion on the subject in a nutshell. It's not even that it does anything particularly wrong, though it does quite a bit wrong, it's that it is painfully generic in many places and outright boring in others. I thought Ghosts was a tremendously flawed game and an inferior successor to the Black Ops. games but this is worse.

    Have I been harsh enough yet?

    It's a shame too because I really had high hopes for this game. Kevin Spacey is a better quality of actor than is typically found in video games and actually has enough meat to act in. I also am a big fan of cybernetics, megacorporations, PMCs, and other pseudo-cyberpunk elements. Instead, the game seems actively averse to any sort of actual storytelling and the gameplay is marred down by gimmicks which take away from the gameplay rather than give.

The war against North Korea was an interesting level and could have lasted the entire game.
    The premise is it's the near-future and exo-skeletons have been added to most modern militaries. After North Korea has apparently rebuilt its economy enough to launch a full-scale invasion of South Korea, our protagonist Jack Mitchell (Troy Baker) and his best friend Will Irons are sent in to deal with it. Will is KIA while Jack loses his arm in the process. Unofficially adopted by Will's father, Jonathan Irons (Kevin Spacey), he joins Iron's company Atlas in order to get a cybernetic replacement for his arm.

    Jack is soon hooked up with a new team and sent after a Chechan Luddite terrorist group called the KVA. Atlas grows in power as the KVA brings the rest of the world to its knees. Shockingly, to anyone who hadn't seen the trailers which spoiled this fact, Jonathan Irons turns out to have been the main villain all along. The rest of the game is spent attempting to take down Atlas as it shows itself capable of fighting the entire world at once.

"Press X to pay respects" is pretty much this game in a nutshell.
    The plot is, in simple terms, dumb. It's a straightforward Black and White Morality tale with the big revelation (i.e. Atlas is evil) being so blindingly obvious I'm not sure why they bothered to pretend otherwise. It's also a story with few major deaths, pathos, or any real storytelling logic. I had a hard enough time buying Russia was capable of invading the entire world in Modern Warfare but the idea of a megacorporation being able to do it, no matter how powerful, is just silly.

    Indeed, a large part of the story is undermined by just how safe it wants to play it. We have enough generic white male protagonist who is facing a fictional evil corporation plus a bunch of terrorists who hate technology (which is not an ideology many video game players are likely to get behind). As bad as Call of Duty: Ghosts was, it had a couple of moments where I cared (mostly related to the dog).

Honestly, I'd work for Atlas. Evil or not, they can't do a worse job than the current administrations of the world.
    The worst part of the game is, sadly, they've managed to make one of the most solid of all gameplay styles in video games into something frustrating. None of the "Advanced Warfare" gadgets like the enemy identifying grenades, power-suits, or other super-technology gadgets are very enjoyable to use. The combat just doesn't feel any fun half-the-time and the other time it's like the game is annoyed it has to interrupt its cinematic action sequences with gameplay.

    Kevin Spacey delivers a passable performance as Johnathan Irons but his character is mostly lacking depth, being a dime-store megalomaniac who never really shows all that much in the way of emotion. His subdued performance is exactly the wrong sort of thing for a man who rules Neo-Babylon and controls an army of mind-controlled soldiers. Troy Baker gives a somewhat uninspiring performance as the lead, who treats everything with a minimum amount of emotion. He's prone to narrating what he feels, which is just terrible.

Frank Underwood, err Jonathan Irons, for World Dictator.
     The supporting characters are a mixture of cliches with Gideon (Gideon Emery) being a poor man's Jason Statham impersonation, Iona (Angela Gots) being an action girl with no mode other than tough, and  Hades (Sharif Ibraham) being a collection of gravely Slavic growls. It's really bizarre that the Zombie mode for this game with Rose McGowan, John Malkovich, Bill Paxton, and Bruce Campbell is arguably a better story for the game with deeper personalities. That doesn't change the gameplay still stinks, though.

    In conclusion, I think this is a bad game. Modern Warfare is a hard act to follow, admittedly, but Black Ops was able to live up to its standards. Here, it just felt like they were half-assing it throughout. It is a hundred million dollar video game movie without an ounce of soul. The irony is the game charges forth with complete confidence it will get a sequel when this is very obviously a one and done deal.


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 review

This review will contain spoilers for Modern Warfare 3.

    This is something of an annoyed review as I could have sworn I'd done a review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 when I was reviewing the series from beginning to end, starting with my review of Call of Duty 4, continuing with Modern Warfare 2, and then my essay about its social satire. But no, honestly, it completely slipped my mind to do the final game in the series. So, those who actually are interested in my opinion of Call of Duty (why?) can have my deepest most sincere apologies.

    Or just an apology.

Occupy Wallstreet.
    Modern Warfare 3 is really just an expansion of the events of Modern Warfare 2. While Call of Duty 4 functions as an independent work, this is more a continuation of what happened before. This isn't a complaint, quite the opposite, but helps to know it's something which should be played immediately after the previous game.

    The premise is Captain Price's EMP detonation has crippled the Russian army in the United States, resulting in the USAAF being able to drive them back to New York City. Captain Price and company are still disavowed for their actions in killing General Shepard. However, things go from bad to worse with the Russian President kidnapped by Makarov and him ordering not a retreat but full-scale invasion of Europe instead. Captain Price and the disavowed soldiers of Task Force-141 must try to prevent nerve gas attacks from killing millions and, if they fail, they must avenge the destruction from WW3.

The naval battle is one of the most exciting parts of the game. Which is a shame as it's like the second mission.
    There's a lot of great moments in Modern Warfare 3: the attack on New York, the nerve-gas attacks on Europe, the kidnapping of the Russian President, the rescue of his daughter, and the final hunt for Makarov at the end on the game. Even so, I'm going to have to say I think the game is not quite as enjoyable as Modern Warfare 2. I think Modern Warfare 2 had the benefit of being a "homefront" for many Americans so seeing the Russians landing in the middle of familiar-seeming locations like fast food restaurants, the White House, and so on makes it difficult for its sequel to compare. While there's some good moments like fighting in New York City Harbor, there's nothing comparable like a battle on the Statue of Liberty.

    The Eiffel Tower attack coming close.

    There's also a few levels which feel too removed from the rest of the narrative. When World War 3 is happening between the Russians, Europe, and America then I don't really think you should take a detour into fighting African warlords or South American street gangs. The latter is particularly egregious as I felt like a crazed serial killer shooting up a slum versus a military commando trying to do a job.

Makarov remains an engaging antagonist throughout.
    One thing I give Modern Warfare 3 credit for is the fact they manage to build on what came before in a very good way. Makarov was already a truly-hated character because of his actions in the second game. Here, we get even more Kick the DogTM moments from our antagonist. He goes from being the second-rate terrorist to becoming the leader of the Unfree World. The fact he continues to remain a dire threat until the very end is something other game developers could learn from.

    Call of Duty: Modern Warfare remains committed to letting major characters be killed, a fact later games suffered for, with perhaps too many slain. Characters which have survived since the very beginning of the series don't make it out this time. This adds a level of realism and many of the more gut-wrenching moments of the game.

The Russian President will have difficulty explaining why his military murdered half of Europe.
    There's another level to the game ala "No Russian" where you have a choice to see the contents of or not. Honestly, I think this is exaggerated hype because the actual content is nowhere near as offensive. While we see some innocents killed in the effect, it's nothing like actually being a potential participant in the slaughter or witnessing wholesale droves of people being gunned down. I think the moment felt rather cheap to be honest, at least compared to how bad it could have gone.

    Overall, Modern Warfare 3 illustrates how to do a trilogy of games right. It doesn't burn itself out before things hit their climax and everything weaves into itself. It may be ridiculous in places from a realism POV but that isn't why we play the games to begin with. More games could learn from this classic of the shooter genre.


Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Cold Commands review

    A Land Fit for Heroes is one of the "Holy Quartet" of grimdark which I ascribe to be George R.R. Martin, Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie. In short, if you want to know what the grimdark genre is like then you could do far worse than picking up any of their signature series. The premise of the series is there has been a big epic fantasy war like the kind you usually see in these series only for it to be over before the first page and everyone trying to pick up the pieces thereafter.

    The Cold Commands picks up some months later after the events of The Steel Remains. Ringil Eskiath has forsaken his title and home to become a would-be John Brown in a world which could not give less of a **** about slavery. Egar Dragonsbane has abandoned his tribal homeland for one of soft living as a rich woman's lover while living in dread of her husband's return. Archeth Indamaninarnal continues to support Emperor Jhiral despite being a transparent stand-in for Caligula because she hates the Citadel (the setting's ersatz Catholic Church) that much more.

    Richard K. Morgan regularly breaks the sacred cows of fantasy which have been mocked for decades by literary snobs with varying degrees of justification. It's a series which stars a sexualized gay man as its badass protagonist, a woman of color non-sexualized lesbian, and a more traditional barbarian hero who is usually the butt monkey of events. If Richard K. Morgan somehow became a female fantasy author then he'd sufficiently burn all of the expectations of heroic fantasy.

    The Cold Commands is an excellent book and I have to give credit for the fact I could have probably read it first and enjoyed it every bit as much as the first book. It's the best kind of sequel which doesn't lend itself heavily onto what came before but tells its own story while enriching the pre-established lore. Indeed, part of what makes the book so good is it's an anti-epic. Instead of rising action, it's largely a series of unrelated events in our heroes' lives which should lead to a big enormous quest but somehow never manages to get off the ground.

    Indeed, it feels like this novel is made as a deliberate send-up of many other fantasy novels. One large storyline in the middle of the book deals with a quest to rescue a slave-girl from the evil priests holding her captive. From the start to finish, not a damn thing goes right and it turns the traditional Conan the Barbarian pastiche story into complete farce. Another tale has a reasonable decent Citadel priest reach out to Archeth in hopes of developing a friendship with her despite their differences, only to be rebuffed completely with no hope of reconciliation.

    Part of what I like about this book is even if the antiheroes are trying to make the world a better place, they may well not be. Ringil's resorting to banditry to defeat slavery wins him no support to end the institution, Egar's aforementioned farce is embarrassing rather than heroic, and Archeth's belief the Emperor is better than the Citadel is based on severely twisted logic which amounts to the fact she is hated by them personally so they must be worse.

    I can't think of any complaints about this book save a few minor nitpicks. For example, the character Ishgrim is a trophy rather than a person. Archeth defines her morality by not taking advantage of the slave given to her by the Emperor but never bothers to actually talk to her and we never get any insight into her character until the very end of the book. Even then, this is somewhat questionable as we have no idea what her motivations for it is. Likewise, I felt a sympathetic Citadel character's death was a waste.

    A warning for those of sensitive stomachs or who simply don't want a dark and depressing read. The Cold Commands, like its predecessor, is a gritty and visceral book. There's a lot of awful going on here and none of it is satisfactorily resolved. In simple terms, this is a hard R sort of book and even then I'd argue it'd probably be unrated because it crosses lines Hollywood (like mainstream fantasy) wouldn't be comfortable with.

    Our antiheroes do some truly appalling **** in this book and the narrative is stronger for not shying away from it. It's not that the protagonists don't want to do good things, it's just the world warps and twists these things so it's all but impossible. How does one save a society which gorges itself on slavery, bigotry, fanaticism, greed, and depravity? Richard K. Morgan's answer? You don't. You just muddle through.

    Just like in history.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Wraith Knight paperback now available for pre-order!

Hey folks,

I have excellent news for you! The paperback version of Wraith Knight, my Dark Fantasy novel starring Jacob Riverson the last of the titular undead warriors, is now available from Pre-Order from Ragnarok Publications.

The King Below, Enemy of the World, is dead. Will his successor save the world...or rule it?

Jacob Riverson was once the greatest hero of an age. Cut down during what should have been the final battle against the King Below, he was condemned to centuries of torment as a Wraith Knight in the service of said monster. With the destruction of his master, Jacob finds his free will returning and discovers he is in a world torn by civil war between the King Below's former slaves and the heroes who "saved" them.

Joining forces with the overly-idealistic but brilliant warrior Regina Whitetremor, Jacob must determine whether he has any place in the new world and whether his destiny is as a hero or monster. 

 Or both.

The electronic version isn't available for pre-order yet but if you want  the beautiful paperback version the good folk at Ragnarok Publications have prepared then it's good to get your copy ordered today.

Get your copy ordered now.

Golgo 13: The Professional review

    Golgo 13: The Professional is the first anime I ever watched. I've always been a fan of spy fiction as anyone who has followed my blog (or read my books) will know. Thus, I was intrigued by the prospect of the anime based on Japan's answer to James Bond. I picked up my VHS copy in a video store in Huntington, VA where it was sitting on a shelf full of other classics like Akira, Bubblegum Crisis, and other works which I familiarized myself with.

    My memories of the movie were positive as it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. It was a mature-rated movie with nudity, violence, nihilistic themes, and a thoroughly disturbing ending. Re-watching it this month, I'm of slightly more mixed feelings. I'm seeing a lot of things which I have a new appreciation for but am also aware of the anime's transhier elements. It's a mix of high-art and grindhouse fun which doesn't always gel well.

Duke's expression never changes but he emotes surprisingly well.
    The premise is Golgo 13 alias Duke Togo is the world's best professional killer. The Hand of God and a sniper shot without peer, he takes on a contract to kill the son of a rich oil baron, Leonard Dawson, then moves on. Unknown to Golgo 13, though, Leonard is not going to take this lying down and marshals his billions to hire the United States government's agencies to kill our antihero.

    Leonard Dawson's government allies get some of the most depraved, monstrous, and sick murderers in the world to assist them in what is probably Golgo 13's most difficult adventure yet. I can say so because I've read the manga, which basically consists of showing how awesome Golgo 13 is for X number of pages. Let's talk about the positives of this movie first.

Some really good fight scenes throughout.
    This is a stylish, beautiful, and engaging movie for roughly three-quarters of its running time. There's a faux sixties and seventies feel to the piece which works wonderfully in evoking a film noir-meets-comic book mood. We see events from multiple angles and everything is super-stylized. The score is an eighties synthesizer score with a really memorable theme song in "Pray for You."

    The moral ambiguity and bleak black versus black morality of the piece is also amazing. I'm a big fan of antiheroes and pitch black villains. Here, Golgo 13 does not a single heroic thing but simply continues his job while the victim of his activities, Leonard, sinks to ever and worse depraved depths in order to get his revenge. By the end, even Leonard seems to realize he's allowed himself to become a far worse monster than Golgo 13 ever was.

Laura Dawson's story is grimdark and I think could have ended better in a non-franchise movie.

    I've often stated the best grimdark fiction has the antiheroes against things which are pure evil. This movie has some truly monstrous ones with Snake, the Twins, and Professor Z. Characters which should be silly in an otherwise realistic thriller like a genetically-enhanced animal-human hybrid and cyborgs work because the characters are so bizarrely nightmarish.

    I also responded well to the character of Laura Dawson, the widow of Golgo's victim, who is the sole voice of sanity in the storyline. Unfortunately, her story arc is one which doesn't really come to a satisfying conclusion as we'll discuss later. Now for the negatives. The first is the movie's opening forty minutes are a complete mess. Golgo 13 takes on two unrelated missions to the main narrative against a mafia don and an ex-Nazi which end in him being attacked by Dawson's mercenaries. These leave the plot completely disjointed and while entertaining, completely screw up the pacing.

If you like your fiction dark and aren't easily offended. You may like this.
    Next is the issue of sex and misogyny in the movie. Weirdly, I don't have that much of a problem with the infamous treatment of Laura Dawson in the film or what happens to her from a storytelling standpoint (other than she never gets a satisfactory resolution to her story). It's instead there's like three or four unrelated sex scenes with Duke Togo and nameless women which confuse the plot even more in those opening forty minutes. There is also a scene of sexual violence in the movie which is shown in the middle of the film and eroticized.

    In conclusion, this is an enjoyable movie for two-thirds and a mess for one-third of its run-time. I recommend it for anime fans who like their fiction darker than a black cup of coffee. Still, it's an enjoyable stylized noir and I liked it a lot. Golgo 13 may not be the most nuanced or emotional character but he certainly works well in his role.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Call of Duty: Ghosts review

    If you were going to buy this game, you probably have and if you haven't, you probably won't. Still, I'm going to talk about it anyway. Since finishing the Modern Warfare trilogy, I've been attempting to find a good replacement and have had mixed reactions. Advanced Warfare was just boring while Black Ops sullied itself by association with Oliver North.

    Call of Duty: Ghosts is a very frustrating game because it feels strongly like it's half of a very good game with several extremely annoying aspects. If they'd managed to show a bit more tonal awareness, this could have been every bit as enjoyable as the Modern Warfare franchise but instead it comes off as a disjointed half-finished mass of contradictions with a side-order of racism.

    Which isn't good.

I enjoyed the rappelling section.
    The premise is the Middle East has been destroyed in a nuclear war, only for this to somehow cause the rise of South America as a superpower underneath a ruthless evil military dictatorship. Already, the game has completely lost me as I have a dozen questions about this, none of which are going to be answered. It reminds me of when Tom Clancy had the Japanese attack the United States in his Jack Ryan novels.

    This only gets worse as "The Federation" proceeds to take over the United States satellite weapon, Odin, and uses it to destroy Los Angeles, San Diego, and a half-dozen other cities. We never really get a sense of why South America wants to eradicate the United States but that's a consistent theme throughout the storyline. The Federation possesses a furious hatred of America and will not rest until all Americans are dead.

The underwater mission is the best part of the game.
    In any case, this already extremely questionable scenario isn't what the game wants to talk about. Unlike Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which had at least the barest plausibility of realism until its Red Dawn-inspired second act, the game isn't interested in telling a story about geopolitics or international relations. Instead, it is far more interested in the fictional "Ghost" Special Forces unit. These fifteen survivors of a 300 man unit are, apparently, the only people in the world who can actually do anything against the Federation.

    The Ghosts are a group of super-soldiers who blow up battleships, super-oil refineries, seize particle satellites, and generally do all manner of awesome stuff because they're the protagonist's group. Hell, it turns out the two brothers who join the military at the beginning are the child of the Ghosts' leader and their archenemy is a former Ghost. The narrative bends around the heroes of the story even more so than usual in these sorts of games.

    Call of Duty: Ghosts wants to be an uncomplicated G.I. Joe-esque piece of fluff with the Good Americans vs. The Bad Federation. They even have a level where you travel down an (underwater) trench to launch a missile into the "thermal exhaust port" (actually called that) of a Federation battleship.

Riley is the best thing about this game.
    The problem is their desire to not have politics in their game is not equivalent to there actually no politics in the game. Suddenly making all of South America evil and out to slaughter all America is a political decision, no matter how they choose to frame it. Advanced Warfare may be an uninspired game but at least it's just an evil corporation trying to take over the world, no matter how ludicrous that may be.

    Despite this, Call of Duty: Ghosts is actually really fun to play. Indeed, much more fun than Advanced Warfare which got bogged down in ludicrous gadgets. It's a simple shoot, run, and get to cover game of fun. The missions are entertaining, varied, and there's a lot of enjoyable moments throughout. Even this marred, however, by the fact the story ends after roughly four-to-six hours of gameplay. It also ends on a anticlimax which doesn't provide a satisfying narrative ending despite the fact no one really wants a sequel to this game.

Maybe the next Call of Duty.
    I'm not a big multiplayer fan so I'm only speaking about the single-player but Ghosts really drops the ball throughout. The best part of the game is the addition of, I kid you not, a dog named Riley who has more charisma than the entirety of the other characters. I think they should somehow carry the dog into future installments of the game even as there's nothing else really worth saving here.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Fae: The Sins of the Wyrde review

    I've talked about Graham Austin-King's Riven Wyrde trilogy before and it's a book series which deserves a good amount of attention. It's a bit schizophrenic, verging from Young Adult adventurism to grimdark brutality, but that's part of the reason I love it.

    No one ever said fantasy had to be one thing and it's ability to be many is what guarantees it will always exist. The Riven Wyrde series began in The Wild Hunt, continued in The Realm of Twilight, and ends here. Is it as good as the others and does it end in a satisfying conclusion? Mostly, yes. Having created a fascinating and entertaining world with a reasonably large cast, Graham Austin-King was bound to leave some questions unanswered.

    I suspect some of these have to do with the fact I was really interested in the Church of New Days plotline when it was, nevertheless, nothing but a sideshow to the existing plot. I was interested in the fate of religious peasant Tia, other believers who resisted the Fae, how they would cope with the fact their religion was created by the Fae, and whether or not it was something the enemy had created wholesale or adopted for their own purposes. None of this is addressed in the book.

    There's other questions unanswered like the fate of the lands conquered by the Bjornmen, the reign of certain characters, and more but all of this was never going to be as central as the plotline of the Fae's return. In that respect, Fae: The Sins of the Wyrde delivers on what was promised by the title. We get a satisfying and complete resolution to their story arc with the major characters related to them getting their tales told.

    The premise for this volume is simple: the Bjornmen and Anglish are both under siege by the Fae. The Fae have stopped holding back and have begun wholesale depopulation of regions thanks to the deranged dreams of their extremist leader. This gives the basis for an unlikely alliance that may be brokered by a character I never expected to see again in Book 1#'s Miriam. When last we saw her, she was being carried off by the fae to a horrific fate. Now an old woman, she has the potential to bridge the gap between two otherwise irreconcilable factions.

    Overall, I'm quite pleased with the way the book ended. Aside from my issues with uninterested questions, my only real complaints are how some things came a little too easy. At one point, a character says that killing a monarch is easier than imprisoning him and that martyrs are easier to deal with than a living problem. This is such a dumb statement it dramatically undercut my respect for the character's intelligence since it was pretty much historically the exact opposite. Everyone hated Charles the First but his death made him a martyr for absolute monarchs for centuries to come.

    On the other hand, I really liked the return of Miriam. She had a fascinating introduction in the first book and seeing her carried off felt like an anticlimax to her story. While wildly unlikely she would survive with her sanity intact through all the Fae's activities, I felt she remained the strong character of the original novel. Likewise, I enjoyed how the characters weren't able to achieve total victories over their enemies but had to make accommodations in the name of peace.

    Indeed, I also applaud some of the plotlines not ending in a traditionally satisfying manner. One major character has done everything in her power to find her child and then, ultimately, discovers there's nothing she can do to find them. It's respective of life there's sometimes no good answers and the world will kick you in the guts. Putting that into his story rather than a dramatic reunion worked for me.

    In conclusion, you should definitely buy this if you're a fan of the previous volumes. I didn't take to it quite as well as the others but I do think it's a great little story. I cared about the characters, where they went, and how their plotlines resolved so that was probably the best endorsement I could give them.