Thursday, December 27, 2007

Dio, can you hear me?

Fortiscule is ready to be the next guitar hero with the ultimate controller, courtesy of Santa: a real Fender Stratocaster HSS in "midnight wine." As soon as he gets some lessons under his belt, he'll be well on his way to becoming a jukebox hero (with stars in his eyes).

Santa also brought him Guitar Hero III, but both Fortiscule and Santa were dismayed to discover that the Rock Band "Stratocaster" controller that we already have doesn't work with GH3. How stupid is that?

Merry Christmas to everybody from Sythbane Squadron!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A poignant moment in COD4

Every now and then, a video game brushes up against reality with the emotion it stirs. One of those rare moments occurred this morning while I was practicing my banjo and Fortiscule was playing a campaign mission in Call of Duty 4.

Fortiscule was playing the mission in which Marine Sgt. Paul Jackson is helping to rescue the downed Cobra pilot. As he fought his way to her, I played "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," because it seemed appropriate for a rescue. As he carried her aboard the helicopter and they began to fly away, the scene shifted, and we all know what was coming.

I started playing "Amazing Grace" in a very gentle, sotto voice in a slow 4-4 time. As the nuke detonated and swept away all the life before it. I kept playing, and the song began to seem very poignant as Jackson staggered out of the crashed helicopter and looked around at the devastation in his last moments. As his vision faded to white light, it felt awfully sad, and Fortiscule and I were very quiet.

The images and music together evoked a feeling like the solemn sadness I feel when I see a picture such as the one above. Here are some real Marines, honoring a fallen comrade in Iraq. I found the picture at the Third Army site, which says the photo was taken by Marine Sgt. Jason L. Jensen in Barwanah, Iraq, on Oct. 25, 2006. I certainly don't mean to trivialize this dignified event by comparing it to a video game. The game did provide a reminder, though, of who the real heroes are who answer the call of duty.

Bumbling with buttons

On a lighter note, last night I played several rounds of Halo 3 multiplayer with Batsak. It was the first time I've played Halo in more than a month, because I've mostly played Call of Duty 4 in recent weeks.

Consequently, my Halo man provided some slapstick comedy for Batsak's amusement as I was doing melee attacks when I tried to aim, reloading when I tried to throw grenades, throwing grenades when I tried to kneel, and zooming my scope when I tried to melee attack.

I starting remembering the Halo controls after a few rounds -- my controls are set to "Boxer" configuration because I have such a hard time making timely melee attacks in Halo. But overall, it was a sad night for the Sythbane Squadron in the Halo multiplayer madness.

And here's a mighty Sythbane Squadron Sun Crow Clan salute to Batsak for doing well on his exams!

Recent reviews

If you're interested, my official reviews of Mass Effect, Call of Duty 4 , and the video game gift guide compiled by some other Sythbane Squadron members and me are now published on's Techcetera. Please leave comments if you visit, so my bosses will think somebody on the planet reads my reviews!

My thanks to Fartknockker for his recent generous comments about my blog and reviews. Fartknockker is a good comrade and worthy adversary in COD4 and Rainbow Six Vegas, and a member of the no-frags cadre that plays with Big Daddy Ogre. Sythbane Squadron salutes you, noble Ogrerrati.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Hod Rod is funniest movie of 2007

All great men have mustaches, and Hot Rod is the funniest movie of this year.

It brought back for me the death defying stunts of elementary school, jumping my bicycle off a 4-inch-tall wooden ramp. I was going for distance, not height. It was pretty darned impressive.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Ray Park will be Snake Eyes!

Ray Park, who energized "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" as Darth Maul, and made a frog-guy cool as Toad in the X-Men films, has been cast as Snake Eyes in the new live-action G.I. Joe movie. I saw the news on G4's "Attack of the Show," and now it's all over the Net.

This is fantastic news! What a cool choice. Ray Park's martial arts skill, athletic ability and physical grace will make him a superb Snake Eyes. Mark Wahlberg is supposed to be Duke, which is also excellent casting.

I hope the movie will be a realistic, gritty take on the whole G.I. Joe story, to the extent that they can make it realistic since it's based on a toy line and kids will be watching. I supposed by "gritty," I actually mean "not campy." An example of what I mean is in "Transformers," another movie ostensibly for kids (and their dads). The soldiers in "Transformers," while not the main characters, are depicted very well as real people who are also brave, determined and professional soldiers. They react intelligently to the incredible situations they face and are never silly or stupid. Let's hope G.I. Joe takes the same approach to storytelling, so the movie will appeal to be kids and adults.

In today's world, the G.I. Joe characters could take on a whole new dimension: They represent the courageous men and women who are, at this moment, putting their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan. The G.I. Joe characters should be idealized versions of these real heroes. For the G.I. Joe characters to even catch our attention against the backdrop of real soldiers' exploits in the news every day, they'll have to really be spectacular -- both believable and heroic. If the characters are too cartoony, the movie will just be a joke that even kids will dismiss.

The flip side of the coin, and perhaps the greater challenge to the filmmakers, will be to make Cobra Commander and his henchmen into believable, scary villains. How can an evil genius bent on world domination and his mercenary henchmen even hold a candle to the bonfire of hatred cast by today's terrorists and religious fanatics, who torture and murder their own neighbors in the name of God? Cobra Commander will have to step it up to be that awful and evil.

Hasbro hasn't produced any of the cool 12-inch G.I. Joe toys like the Snake Eyes pictured above for a long time now. I expect the forthcoming movie means they'll blitz us with a mighty wave of merchandising, which is good news to me as a collector.

Ray Park already has been immortalized as a toy in a multitude of scales and poses as Darth Maul. Pictured below are Darth Maul and Fortiscule, when Fortiscule defended our home from a Sith attack.

Who else do you think would make a good character for G.I. Joe? Post your ideas for casting in the comments field below!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Wasting time in strange new worlds

I have been remiss in posting about gaming because I have been gaming. Seriously gaming. The kind of Serious Gaming where I keep staying up until 5 a.m., several nights in a row.

As I've been playing Mass Effect, I've been inhabiting new worlds, exploring them, meeting characters and getting to know them, seeing through the eyes of a character myself ...

And as I've played, it's struck me that it's like I'm reading a novel. When I read "The Lord of the Rings," I was doing the same things: Exploring a new world, meeting characters, and seeing through their eyes.

How many of us who enjoy video games have heard other people dismiss our hobby as a waste of time?

But how is engaging your mind with a game you enjoy different from spending the same amount of time passively watching a football game or baseball game? Is it wasted time? Is any time you spend doing something just because you enjoy it the same as wasting the time?

What about the time spent watching TV or movies? Why do so many people who think nothing of spending passive hours enjoying television dismiss video games? I enjoy TV, too, but TV is passive. I can't go to sleep playing a video game, because it wakes up my brain.

Mass Effect elevates the whole "wasted time" debate to a new level of challenge. Many of the people who sniff at video games would never dismiss reading a great book as a waste of time. What they fail to understand is that Mass Effect is like reading a good book.

What Mass Effect makes ever clearer is that video games are an emerging art form. Like movies, they are a multimedia form of storytelling. You aren't just witnessing the story. You are in the story. You live it. Instead of witnessing a character make choices and have experiences that teach him lessons and shape his life, you enact those experiences yourself. You live through those life-altering events, and maybe you learn something, if the game makers have spent much thought on the story.

Was "Beowulf," written sometime around the 900s, considered a waste of time by many during its day? Or was it considered a new art form? What about novels, as a dawning form of literature? What did people think about them? Movies made the transition from technological curiosity to art form in only a few decades in the early 20th century.

Rather than being a pinnacle in gamemaking, Mass Effect suggests the great promise of video games. It makes clear the potential of video games as a medium for storytelling. In future years, in literature classes, will there be a mention of Mass Effect in the evolution of video games as they ascended to respectability? When will the J.R.R. Tolkien of video games emerge with a masterpiece?

In the lifetime of my great grandparents, airplanes went from the Wright brother's dune-hopping powered kite to the technological marvels that fly at Mach 5, and to the rockets that carried men to the moon. Video games consisted of Pong when I was kid, and look at them now. And yet we're still in the barnstorming biplane days of video games.

I look forward to when video games transcend the stigma of "time-wasters" and children's toys and come to be regarded like movies. Sure, there are popcorn movies that just blow up good. Most video games do that, and that has its place. But there are also movies that compel you to think, that move you emotionally or that paint a picture of some truth in life. Games need to become respected as a place for grown-up storytelling. Like movies, games must have a venue for children's fare and a place for mature drama, with cursing and violence and nudity and love and sex and God and compassion and death all being parts of the story, because those are the things that life is about.

But right now, Mass Effect is like a sail on the horizon for what games will become.

Tonight, as I step again onto the Normandy's deck, I'm hoping to make the beautiful blue asari Liara fall in love with me. I had to make a choice between Ashley and Liara, and I chose Liara. I'm eager to find out if I made the right choice.

My reviews of Ace Combat, COD4 and Conan

My official reviews of Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation, Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat and Conan are all posted on the Techcetera blog on now. Take a look at the links and let me know what you think.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Duty calls, and we answer

The invasion of Call of Duty 4 has decimated my gaming time. All other games have fallen back before its unstoppable onslaught. I have lost sleep this week, staying up to ungodly hours trying to get a few more kills for weapon upgrades.

I've added the ACOG scope to my M16 and red dot sight to my M4, ranking up so far to gunnery sergeant in multiplayer. Fortiscule, as usual, is showing up his old man in kill streaks, but I'm the cunning one.

All of us who enjoy shooters will want this game. I've seen the crowd I played Rainbow Six with shift to Halo 3, and now the tide has shifted powerfully to COD4.

It pleases Crom ...

I have traveled through time.

In the future, I fought as an armored Spartan, fighting alongside my new friend Batsak against Covenant monsters.

Then I traveled the distant past, the age of the sword. I rescued the maidens you see here from pain and death. I slew the giant squid and began the final assault on the dark tower.

Next I arrived in the present day.

I flew among the clouds at Mach 2, firing missiles to chase enemy fighters and raining death on tanks and howitzers.

Now I shoulder an M16 and fight for freedom.

Soon, I will leap forward into the future and face a threat such as the galaxy has never seen.

I am spastic in time, like the hero of "Slaughterhouse Five." Can you guess what the five are in this story?

... Conan, Halo 3, Ace Combat 6, Call of Duty 4 and Mass Effect.

See you on the battlefield.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sending dogs to Crom

Prepare to meet Crom, dog. It is I, Conan, the Cimmerian. Crom sits in his mountain thirsting for blood, and I shall send him yours!

I have rescued many maidens, which gives me great joy. They are very beautiful.

Right now, I'm stuck trying to kill this demon elephant. May his tusks need root canals!

Let me get done with this stupid elephant, Crom, and I'll get right back on that blood thing for you. Sit tight.

... There. I did it, you big elephant ... dog ... demon thing. Report to Crom to be laughed at when you flunk the Riddle of Steel.

And I burned down the misbegotten ships, too, so Crom can play boats in his Mighty Bathtub of Steel beneath his Mountain. Meanwhile, I will enjoy the company of these fine wenches I found chained to the docks!

Who's laughing now? Crom is!


Rally to my banner

I finally figured out what my Halo 3 emblem should be.

I've tried several things. I first used a skull in a cowboy hat, but it just looked ridiculous. I've used a Spartan helmet for a long time because I like "300" so much, but it just didn't seem original.

Then I came up with this abstract image to represent what inspires me. The banner of the Bosom Brigade is very nice and I still like it, but I was concerned that it might not play well in mixed company. I reserve the right to come back to this one, though.

Today I remembered what would be perfect.

It resembles an original family crest that I created many years ago. I painted an emblem very much like this on hats for my dad, my brother and me. It's a crow silhouetted against the sun. Black and yellow are nature's danger signal: bees, poison tree frogs, etc. That's why we respond to that color scheme and they use it for highway danger signs. Danger, danger danger, as Steve Irwin used to say. And a bird in flight in a bright sky is always a glorious thing to see.

I hope that my brother and my cousins will join me in adopting this noble Sun Crow emblem. We'll be a perilous posse indeed!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Awaiting something completely different

My apologies, to all both of you who read my blog, for my laziness in posting during the past week or so. I've just about run out of things to say about Halo 3, and I think we're all tired of talking about it for now. I was holding out, thinking I would have something new to say because two new games I've been looking forward to were due out Tuesday this week: Conan, and America's Army: True Soldiers.

But thus far, I have been unable to get my hands on the Conan game, and America's Army has been pushed back to a mid-November release! So I'm still stewing, with little to say on the subject of games for now.

So, returning to this horse carcass to kick it a few more times: I did rank up to captain this week in Halo 3 multiplayer, which was by far the hardest rank I've yet achieved. But to my dismay, the rank unlocked no new Spartan armor components. I couldn't believe it.

I've also been tempted to vent about my frustration at people staging stunts to get achievements in Lone Wolf slayer matches. While this is not cheating in the glitching, hardware-thwarting sense of cheating, it definitely violates the spirit of the game. How can you consider this an "achievement" if you're not really earning it?

These guys basically call off the match and stand in a circle, taking turns shooting each other in various ways to fulfill the terms of this achievement or that. It's like an Elbonian firing squad. It cheapens the whole notion of achievements in Xbox Live, and I've lost almost all my enthusiasm for building my gamerscore after witnessing this silly phenomenon. If this is how you're building your gamerscore, it means nothing.

But, thank goodness, I have resisted the urge to say anything about this, because I know nobody wants to hear it. So I'll keep it to myself.

I have also started playing multiplayer without my headset most of the time. I've been concerned that I tend to cuss too much, and the best way I've found to avoid cursing online is to not put a microphone in front of my mouth when people are shooting me.

Witchy woman

A new Best Buy opened near my home, and the first thing I bought there is a DVD of the first season of a "Witchblade" anime series that I had never heard of. The artwork is very nice. In researching Witchblade art, I discovered an artist I admire greatly, Frank Cho.

I hope he will forgive me for posting this one image of his artwork, because I want to show you how brilliant the guy is and direct your to his web site. This Witchblade image is absolutely gorgeous.

Mass Effect book report

I finished reading "Mass Effect: Revelation" last weekend. I highly recommend you read it if you plan to play the game. I already feel comfortable in the Mass Effect universe, and I have a sense of some of the alien cultures and their personalities. So, without revealing any spoilers for the book or the game, here is a brief synopsis of what I learned in the book:

The novel takes place maybe 20 years or so before the game. A human officer named Anderson is the hero of the novel, and it appears he is your boss in the game, a good deal later in his career. The character is voiced by David Keith.

You're also introduced to Saren (sounds a lot like Sauron, doesn't it?), the turian on the cover of the book. Turians, who are described as a rather birdlike, dinosaurlike velociraptorish species, may be OK folks on the whole, but Saren is not a very nice person. That's all I'll say about him.

Krogans are like Klingons, warlike and strong. They're also described like dinosaurs, but not the birdlike ones. They're more like the squat, armor-plated tanklike dinosaurs.

My favorite alien species is the asari. These are the sexy blue-skinned women with tentacle things on their heads. They had me at "blue-skinned" (notice Cortana's pigmentation above), but tentacles on the head really clinch it. I loved Twi'leks already, especially Aayla Secura, and apparently the guys at BioWare do, too. What is it about the blue-skinned tentacle babe archetype that is so alluring? It's one of the great mysteries of sci-fi. As I always say, "Once you go blue, nothing else will do."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Friday frag frenzy

Say hello to my little fre'. This appears to be a "P-40" flamethrower. I have learned, to my dismay, that the P-40 is a treacherous friend. I'm almost as likely to incinerate myself with it as the enemy. It sure is fun, though, when you light 'em up!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Massively interested

Not content to wait until Mass Effect comes out on the Xbox 360 on Nov. 20, today I bought the novel that's supposed to lead into the game. I think I should score some geek points for reading a book about a video game that's not even out yet. I would have bought the novel sooner, except I haven't found it until today. I've been watching the book aisle at Wal-Mart for months, but I finally found it today at Books-A-Million. I had to ask the clerk if they had it, and they had only one copy. BioWare should prod their merchandisers a bit. Will they have Mass Effect action figures, too? It remains to be seen.

I've read only one chapter so far, but so far so good. I'm enjoying it. The author, Drew Karpyshyn, wrote "Star Wars: Darth Bane," and it was pretty good.

I also bought a Star Wars Insider magazine, a Heavy Metal magazine, and a collection of original Robert E. Howard Conan stories called "The Bloody Crown of Conan." I felt like falling back on the classics.

Speaking of Conan, I played the new Conan game demo that's a free download on Xbox Live. It's definitely worth a look. The game is an obvious "salute" to David Jaffe's God of War, but it's Conan. And it's fun, judging from the demo. I found the most screen shots for it at the THQ site for the game. The artwork is reminiscent of Frank Frazetta, who is my favorite artist, so that's a great big plus. Note that the Mature rating includes nudity, which is entirely appropriate for a Conan story, as any fan of Frank Frazetta's art knows.

And I recognized two actors' voices. Ron Perlman is doing the voice of Conan, and he's a great actor, but the way he's playing Conan, he sounds just like Hellboy. (Perlman is also in production doing the voice of Conan in an animated feature called "Conan: Red Nails," which looks promising. It has Clancy Brown in it, too, aka the Kurgan and Mr. Krabs.) I imagined Conan to be a little less snarky than Hellboy and more heavy and dark, but I've got to read the original Robert E. Howard before I form a firmer opinion. In the meantime, I respect Ron Perlman's interpretation. The guy played a really good caveman in 1981's "Quest for Fire" long before the Geico caveman, for crying out loud.

Furthermore, the woman from Farscape, Claudia Black, does the voice of the hot barbarian babe warrior queen. That's her character in the screen shot above, courtesy of THQ, God bless 'em. Could she be the cause of the nudity rating?

Life just gets better and better.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Spartan officer's helmet

The helmet I unlocked when I was promoted to lieutenant yesterday is the coolest one yet. It's reminiscent of a Greek helmet with its eye slits and cheek pieces. Compare those features on my new helmet, above, and King Leonidas' helm in "300."

I also learned an interesting tidbit about Spartans: they wore red cloaks so enemies would never see them bleed. The Spartan red was adopted by the Romans and later the British redcoats. I'm not sure if that's true, but it sounds plausible.

I've discovered a knack in Halo for splattering enemies with the Ghost. Look at this poor guy's neck and right elbow as I splatter him against a rock in Snowbound.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Cleared for takeoff

This is the reason video games were invented, as far as I'm concerned. Look at this picture from Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation, due out Oct. 23. I would not have believed it possible for this to be gameplay had I not already played the demo.

I bought my first serious computer to play X-Wing and Falcon 3.0, which came out in 1991 (see image at right). Up to that point, all I had was a floppy-disc churning box that was good for nothing but word processing -- a glorified typewriter. X-Wing was fantastic fun, because it played better than the old booth-style arcade Star Wars game that let you fly a wire-frame X-Wing with a yoke control. But Falcon 3.0 had realistic flight characteristics, with freedom to look around the sky and "padlock" the view of your foe, so you could maneuver onto his "six," the 6 o'clock position on his tail.

As computers and flight sims got better, I advanced to Jane's U.S. Navy Fighters, Jane's WWII Fighters and others. But flight sims seem to have fallen out of favor in recent years. I got tired of the endless rat race of upgrading my PC to play games, and I got tired of sitting in front a PC to play when I'd already been sitting in front of a PC to work all day. I've migrated to consoles for play, but there haven't been any flight games for console that really pulled together the best traits of the genre, such as realistic flight controls, and lots of padlock and view options.

Ace Combat 6 for Xbox 360 might finally be the game I've been waiting for. Judging from the demo on Xbox Live, the flight characteristics are sufficiently realistic, it has good view options, and the graphics ... See the picture at the top. It's absolutely incredible. It just looks real.

I've been telling people, if only they'd come out with a flight controller for a good flight sim on the console. A real joystick, not just a gamepad thumbstick. And here it is, Ace Combat Six: Fires of Liberation with Flightstick Bundle.

We'll be able to dogfight over Xbox Live with this. I really, really hope this game lives up to my high hopes and expectations. I'd hate to have to eject.

Halo 3 highs and lows

I've hit Halo 3 hard lately, playing for an hour or two after work most nights this week. Then Saturday, I played most of the day. Late Saturday afternoon I got into a huge team battle with a bunch of my online friends. It was great fun. The big team battle slayers are super, but I discovered that I don't particular care for one game mode that many of the others seemed to enjoy, Infection. More power to you if you like it. It just seemed pointless to me, because eventually everyone gets infected. It's a depressing little demonstration of how a pandemic could wipe out civilization. Everybody loses.

In other game news, my padawan learner, Fortiscule, just beat a big boss battle in Stranglehold that brought a big triumphant whoop from the den and a earned him 25 gamer points. That game looks dizzying. Congratulations, Fortiscule!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Now THAT'S an action figure!

I must petition the Imperial Academy to permit more female humanoid applicants to enter training. Female stormtroopers will doubtless be an effective fighting force.

If you agree, please add your name to the petition in the comments section.

This would also make a mighty fine action figure, I must say. To the lady who assembled this inspiring uniform: I don't know who you are, but I salute you!

Not such a stronnnng tactical player yet

My apologies to Relvik for my dismal showing in a Team Tactical match this morning. I hope to get better with some target practice. Yikes.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Spartanhood achieved

Yesterday I ranked up to sergeant, and with it came an achievement for becoming a Spartan. So you're not a Spartan until you're a sergeant. That seems a bit odd, but there it is. Above you see the other guy's view of Sythbane's ruthless golden Orbital Drop Shock Trooper visor. There was some discussion online last night about how to rank up, and "ranked" matches seem to pile on more experience points toward ranking up faster than social matches.

When I ranked up, I unlocked the helmet at right, the original Halo Spartan helmet.

Yes, I know we might be getting a bit tired of the Halo 3 stuff after a week straight of it, but the Halo frenzy will subside eventually, and then we'll be on to THE NEXT BIG THING (Ace Combat 6 is waiting in the wings for its turn onstage). But for now, everybody on my friends list is playing Halo 3, and they probably will be for a while. So it's still the main topic of interest.

Our fellow Sythbane Squadron members show a wide range of choices for customizing, reflecting their own personalities and taste. My wingman, Fortiscule, chooses to be a red elite, as seen here in his profile shot.

Squadron contributor HZG is something of a purist, as you see from his selection of traditional green Mark VI armor.

And our friend ANT Pogo is garbed in his traditional Halo white armor with blue trim, but with the Close Quarters combat helmet. This helmet is popular because it is the only choice besides the regular Mark VI helmet when you start out, but also because it looks very cool.

Notice how Pogo's CQ helmet has a "T" visor, which echoes the design of a famous Mandalorian bounty hunter's helmet.

I couldn't even finish writing this post before some of these guys changed their helmets (including me). ANT Pogo just now donned a Scout helmet, Fortiscule has Combat armor, and I changed mine last night, too. It just goes to show you, gamemakers: EVERYBODY LOVES CUSTOMIZATION. Games that don't allow it miss the boat.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Crush enemies, drive them before you ...

Here is Sythbane, wading into a King of the Pit match with gatling gun blazing. This is so cool I had to show you. Halo 3 lets you replay film of recent matches and capture screen shots -- freeze the action, adjust the camera angle and then snap it. You can also capture film clips. I was experimenting with this tonight and grabbed these screen shots. You can access your account on to find your screen shots, once you've saved them on your 360. Try it! We need more action shots of Sythbane Squadron members in action.

The next picture is me dual-wielding spiker pistols in a slayer match in the snowbound map. I'm wearing the Scout helmet in this one.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Rise of a Spartan

Now that Halo 3 has finally arrived, we can start mixing it up on Xbox Live. You can read my official review of the game here.

On the first night of online play, I ascended to Apprentice Grade 2 rank. I won a couple of slayer matches in the Guardian map, but I got pasted in the Snowbound map. I recommend everyone try logging in to You log in with your Xbox Live ID, just like you do on, and bungie gives you a detailed record of every match you've played online, your achievements, lists your screen shots and video clips, and shows your profile. One of my favorite features is that it shows your custom armor on your profile, too. When you log in, check out my profile on your friends list, or search for Sythbane. It even shows all the games you played on Halo 2!

I like collecting and customizing armor, like you do in an RPG. Above you see my Halo 3 Sythbane character wearing my favorite tan-and-purple armor, with the gold-dome "EVA" helmet that I unlocked when I finished the campaign. It's cool, in a spaceman kind of way.

Playing online, I also unlocked the Scout helmet and then the ODST helmet. I was surprised that you don't to unlock all the pieces of the armor type at once. I've unlocked the helmets for those two types, but I haven't unlocked any chest or shoulder pieces for them. I've equipped the ODST helmet, but must be overloaded because it hasn't yet displayed my new equipment.

I'm looking forward to seeing everyone online!

Monday, September 24, 2007

I played Halo 3 and you didn't!

Sythbane Squadron charter member

Thanks to the miracle of modern advance review copies, HZG Jr and I put in a solid couple of hours of Halo 3 fragging at the home of Sythbane and Fortiscule yesterday. Sythbane and Fortiscule finished the whole damn campaign in co-op mode in 12 hours Saturday. We didn't have that kind of time to kill, but Jr and I got to play the first level in co-op mode and then we played four-way split-screen Slayer matches until it was time to load up and take the family Warthog back to home base.

Some fun highlights: The two-player campaign starts with Master Chief and the alien Arbiter together with a squad of marines in a rocky jungle, where Brute-led Covenant forces have landed on Earth. The first mission has you attacking a base that's been taken over by the aliens. Here you meet the Brute leaders' Big-Ass Alien Gravity Hammer for the first time. It's a giant two-handed stick with a big thing on the end that squashes you, to paraphrase the immortal Mr. Miyagi, "flat like bug."

Then a marine airship takes you to another, non-invaded base, where you get a big cutscene that establishes the story if you're paying attention, which we weren't. I'll listen more closely when I get the game for myself.

The multiplayer "Slayer" maps are lots of fun. It's still Halo, so it's still a lot of running around and shooting like shotgun-toting headless chickens, and everybody else was a lot better at that than me, but the map designs are great. Some are small and narrow for small groups, and some of them are huge, sprawling affairs tailored to groups of up to 16 players at a time. We particularly liked the one called Sandtrap, a big base in the middle of sand dunes, with gigantic troop transports called Elephants that you can steer slowly around the perimeter (and that you can board and hijack if the other team is having too much fun on one).

Halo 3 comes out tomorrow night at midnight.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Will Mass Effect effect change?

By Bryan Crowson
Sept. 20, 2007

Mass Effect, the upcoming sci-fi role-playing game for Xbox 360, is causing some controversy in Britain over a sex scene with partial nudity that may involve a human or alien woman, "Attack of the Show" reports.

This is the best news I've heard all week! Mass Effect is one of the most anticipated games of the year, and the one I'm personally looking forward to the most. It's made by BioWare, the developer that gave us Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. That means it's sure to be a money-maker, a profitable powerhouse that might be strong enough to challenge the perversely prudish attitude that prevails about "mature" content in video games.

Here's the thing: With the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating system that the game industry uses now, "prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity" can earn a game an Adults Only, AO, rating. However, the console makers and major retailers say they won't allow AO games to be played on their systems, nor will they sell them. Uh-oh, say the developers, that pretty much censors and bans all AO-rated games, because no money can be made from them.

The reality is, though, that conflict and violence are central to almost all video games. Rather than kill the goose that lays the golden egg, both console makers and retailers turn a blind eye to graphic violence, or they wouldn't have any games to sell. Games are granted a more palatable "mature" rating despite scenes of decapitations, chainsaw evisceration and flayed corpses hanging on meat hooks, but the sight of bare flesh like we all see when we get out of the shower is the BAD THING that tips the scale to the unacceptable zone. And heaven forbid any naked people are depicted as being very friendly to each other! Depictions of heavy petting or life-giving procreation would surely taint our impressionable youths, but if the characters are disemboweling each other with garden tools -- well, that's perfectly fine.

So, since violence is effectively dismissed as a reason to ratchet a rating up to AO, nudity and sexuality become the content scapegoats for the "AO" rating charade that prevails. If it weren't for sexuality or nudity, there would practically no risk of snagging the AO rating's scarlet letters. That means that when I, a 44-year-old adult, am playing a "mature" game for grown-ups and the storyline leads to a love scene, I'm treated like I'm an 8-year-old. Either the camera cuts away, or the scene is completely blacked out as it is in Fable when you get cozy with your "wife." Even audacious designer David Jaffe's God of War games -- which laudably stretch the boundaries of "mature" games with some limited nudity -- cuts the camera away when Kratos gets chummy with some Greek nymphs.

Game developers claim they want to be taken seriously as an entertainment medium. Yet they go along with the patronizing assumption that all video games are for children, and all video games that are rated for adults will nevertheless be played by children. Game content that would be analogous to an R-rated movie and not given a second thought on the movie aisle at Wal-Mart or on cable television is BANNED from video games that are ostensibly created for adults. Forget that kids can watch R-rated movies just as easily as they can play M-rated games. We want to excuse parents from any responsibility for monitoring what their children watch or play, don't we?

And here's the crux of the hypocrisy: The same retailers that condescend to tell me what I'm not allowed to see in video games will rake in the money by selling R-rated movies with sadistically horrific violence. Wal-Mart had a cardboard kiosk near the entrance where they were selling "Saw II," which is widely considered to be the epitome of the "torture porn" genre of horror films that is inexplicably popular nowadays. In the bizarro-world we live in, the torture, amputations and murder in "Saw II" and its like are embraced, while a glimpse of naked human beings in a loving embrace is reviled.

To echo my point, Electronic Gaming Monthly has quoted Gears of War developer "Cliffy B" Bleszinski as saying, "Funny thing is, I’ve heard more complaints about the language than about the violence. Some people are OK with the fact that you’re shooting and chain-sawing them, but they don’t want to hear the words “s***” or “g*****n.” It’s such a funny standard of where your average American gamer is. ... I find it incredibly amusing. You can cut people’s heads off all day long as long as you don’t show a breast or say a dirty word."

This brings me to why I'm so delighted to hear that Mass Effect, which already is billed as including "partial nudity," will have an envelope-pushing love scene. It will take a the financial muscle of hit games to force change in the landscape of game content, and to usurp the perverse, warped-priority sensibilities that preside over it.

Not until games can include the full spectrum of "mature" R-rated content like you might see in HBO's "Rome" or "Tombstone" will video games ever be taken seriously as a grown-up entertainment medium. If Mass Effect helps to throw off the yoke of the ridiculous ESRB rating system, while revealing the outright hypocrisy of game publishers and retailers regarding the forbidden "AO" rating, more power to it. That's the only way things will ever begin to change.

Is the solution to adopt the movie-rating system for video games? That makes sense to me, since the console-makers and retailers have drawn a line in the sand about AO-rated game content and will want to save face over that, but they ALREADY accommodate R-rated movies to be played on their machines and sold in their stores.

Or, the rating letters could be dispensed with entirely, since the letters reflect a judgment call. Simply list what type of content the game includes (which they already do, to some extent), and let the consumer decide if the content is objectionable. I don't take offense to "prolonged nudity" in some contexts, or to confrontational violence such as in Halo or historical war games, but I surely do object to scenes of torture and victimization. That's where I draw the line personally, but my line is not reflected in the ratings system. The system recognizes no difference between the violence of warfare and the violence of murder, no difference between the nudity of a love scene and the nudity in a rape scene.

Of course, the only force they'll listen to is money. That's the reality. Nobody in business really gives a rip about the so-called standards, because they're playing politics in order to make as much money as possible. That's where we come in. Our dollars must drown out the voices of the hysterical crowd that freaked out when Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction occurred.

All grown-up gamers should buy Mass Effect when it comes out, voting with our wallets to prove that there is money to be made with video games that don't talk down to an adult audience. And as parents, we should take an interest in what our children are watching or playing, because that's our responsibility.

It's not just about me being able to see a beautiful, blue-skinned alien woman nude in an RPG. It's the principle of the thing. Really.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Another actor for the toy stage

Good news to follow up on a previous post about 12-inch action figures: the new issue of ToyFare magazine reports that the forthcoming Indiana Jones movie will see Hasbro bring back their 12-inch action figures.

This picture suggests that the new toys will have the gripping hands rather than hinged hands.

All the parts except for the fedora and the head sculpt look like they were off-the-shelf, cobbled together from previous G.I. Joe characters. It will be easy to get an extra one of these guys and put him up in a Star Wars outfit, and bang, you have an older, more grizzled Han Solo, too.

This is great because more characters can be thrown together in the spontaneous, miniature drama that kids produce when they play. Toys are just actors in a story that kids make up as they go. They're little plastic thespians on a stage of imagination.

Can you remember making up stories like that? Adults do the same thing -- make up a story -- when they play role-playing games, either the D&D tabletop variety or video games like Oblivion or Knights of the Old Republic. Grown-ups often need a little help to invigorate our imaginations, so we have structure for our storytelling: Rules and grids on the tabletop impose some order on the chaos of tiny toys and ideas, and a story emerges.

But I can remember when I was a boy with a nimble imagination, and I didn't need any rules to come up with story on the fly with my friends. Whether it was with plastic dinosaurs in a creek, or Matchbox cars driving in roads laced around the roots of a shade tree, or a G.I. Joe about to skydive off a roof, the stories just happened. I find myself collecting toys because they tend to remind me of my childhood when the stories came easily.

When I survey a collection of action figures on the shelf, I see them as a cast of characters. They're the foot soldiers of creativity. Put a few of those characters together, and maybe they'll inspire a new plot that takes shape in the theater of my mind. That's what happened here, when I customized some Star Wars toys to suit a story idea. As long as the kid inside me is still alive and having fun, he'll keep playing with characters and stories.

Maybe one day I'll write something really important. But most of the time, these toys just seem to make up their own stories, and usually they make me laugh ...

I Say Thee Nay

Click the preview, and you can see the full-resolution comic pages in my photo gallery. With the larger view, you can read the writing.

Jango Fett toy review