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

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Fear Fortiscule!

Fortiscule has a new face in Rainbow Six Vegas.

It is the face of your DOOM!

You can't hide from him. And when you see him, you will feel the sting of his bullets!

Fear him! EEEAHHHH!

Xbox returned!

This week I cuddled up with this curvaceous beauty, caressed her pale white skin, and plugged her in ... to play Medal of Honor Airborne.

Our Xbox 360 is back!

It arrived Wednesday, arisen from the three rings of death. It took the minions of Microsoft only about 22 days (Aug. 21 to Sept. 12) from the time I shipped it to the day it returned. Actually, they sent us a replacement unit, so I suspect that as soon as they got mine, they sent out one they had already fixed. They might be fixing my original box right now, to send to somebody else down the line. If that's how it works, I salute them, because it means I got my machine back in plenty of time for Halo 3!

I just picked up Two Worlds at Top Games in Gardendale, so I'm about to try that out, too.

Anyone for some online sword fighting?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Bow before your God of Thunder

While we're discussing superheroes, I must remark on the rumors about casting for a Thor movie. The rumor, repeated by the authoritative, is that Kevin McKidd is to play the god of thunder, although Marvel is rumored to prefer wrestler Triple H. I've been a fan of Thor since I was a kid, when I was known to dress up in a red cape and run around in the back yard waving a tack hammer over my head, doing my best little-kid impression of the Odin-son with Mjolnir. Here's my take on the casting issue:

Kevin McKidd would be superb as Thor. I watched the entire HBO series "Rome," in which McKidd played Lucius Vorenus. Anyone who saw that series would have no doubt whatsoever that McKidd is capable of the angst, intensity and ferocity of Thor. Who can forget the terrifying look in his eyes when Vorenus confronted the gangster who boasted that he'd murdered Vorenus' children? Or the murderous frenzy that possessed him in the arena when he fought side-by-side with his friend Titus Pullo? Not to mention the savage swordplay he performed in that scene.

Combine the fierce, brooding character he played in "Rome" with his deep, resonate voice, and his physical appearance, and you practically have Thor incarnate. Look at him in Roman armor. He wears the breastplate and helmet like he stepped out of history. And remember the character he played in another sword epic, "Kingdom of Heaven"? Another perfect fit.

He has the blond hair of a Norseman. His sharp nose and cheekbones makes it seem like he could even have been the model for the classic Marvel depiction of Thor, if that were possible.

On the other hand, Marvel is rumored to prefer Triple H. Now, I'm a fan of Triple H. You can ask my friend, Flying Monkey Joe, and he will confirm that I have long held the belief that Triple H should be in a movie depicting a sword-wielding character. But the character Triple H should play is a barbarian. The ideal role for him would be Kane from the Karl Edward Wagner series of books about the cursed, immortal son of Adam and Eve, the first murderer. That character is a movie gold-mine waiting to be discovered. But if nobody comes through with that, Triple H could be an awesome Conan.

Triple H could project the rough-hewn power and sinew of a barbarian anti-hero. The man is a tank. What wrestling fan can forget the way he continued a match after his quadriceps muscle TORE, even allowing himself to be placed in Chris Jericho's signature leg-wrenching hold despite the injury? Talk about Conan's mighty thews!

And speaking of Chris Jericho, I've long thought he could play a terrific Viking, too. Could he be Thor's sidekick, Baldur? That, too, might be a perfect fit.

So that's my assessment. Can there be any doubt that Kevin McKidd is destined to be Thor? I say thee, Nay! McKidd should go ahead and start growing his hair long.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Now the time is here, for IRON MAN to appear ...

If you haven't seen the new trailer for "Iron Man," go see it. Now. I'll wait ...

Seen it? Have you quit shouting and waving your arms yet?

I got goose bumps. When he breaks through the door, and the old Black Sabbath "Iron Man" guitar riff starts, I had to use the utmost force of will to restrain myself at work to keep from jumping up and hollering "WOOOOOO," like Rick Flair.

Iron Man is one of my favorite superheroes, the other being Thor. Iron Man is a very complex character, and I'm expecting this movie to be fantastic. Finally, a new "event" movie to look forward to!

What do you think of the trailer and the forthcoming "Iron Man" movie?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Halo reflects struggles of the real world

By Fortiscule
Sythbane Squadron charter member

I was playing Halo 2 not long ago, and I noticed some modern day traits of evil in the Covenant. They are like two evil entities that exist in this world: the Nazis, and the terrorists of the middle east.

The three "prophets," which are basically powerful alien preachers, are like the Axis, the Prophet of Truth being a Hitler figure. He uses false promises of glory and salvation in the "Great Journey" to motivate the Covenant to help him activate the rings. The rings, however, are weapons capable of wiping out life in a galactic scale.

The honor-guard elites are fanatically devoted to serving the prophets as the SS troops served Hitler. There is a point in the game when one of the prophets is displeased with an elite, and he says, "You let the humans land on the sacred rings and desecrate it with their filthy footsteps." This is sort of like the Nazi view toward the Jews. The Covenant wants to wipe out the humans as the Nazis wanted to wipe out the Jews.

There is another point in the game where the Prophet of Truth says, "The council planned to have you hung by your entrails and your corpse paraded through the city." This is like what the Romans would do after a victory -- parade their fallen enemy through the city in a chair to disrespect him.

The way the Covenant are like terrorists is like when the Arbiter character is introduced. A Covenant Arbiter is a disgraced Covenant that has failed in some way but is given another chance for "glory" by being sent on a suicide mission. This is like the suicide bombers who are told they will be rewarded for blowing themselves up. Their other trait is their fanatical dedication to killing "infidels," which in this case are humans.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Give us video game action figures

Here's an idea: More action figures based on video games.

Hasbro, are you listening? Buy the license from Electronic Arts to make "Army of Two" (seen at right) and "Call of Duty 4" 12-inch action figures on a G.I. Joe chassis. Use that highly-articulted body design you were using when you quit making the 12-inch Joes a few years ago, except for the stupid hinged hands that wouldn't' hold anything; use the Kung-Fu grip-style hands already.

Enough with the "statue" figurines that have no real articulation. Those aren't action figures! And enough with making action figures all different scales. Make the video game hero series in 1/6 scale like classic G.I. Joes to increase their play value, so kids and collectors could throw them all together into a pitched battle! The little kids who play and the big kids who collect like customization and interchangeable parts, and 1/6 scale is the way to go.

Buy the license from Ubisoft to make "Rainbow Six Vegas" 12-inch action figures the same way. And "America's Army: True Soldier" would be a given. Hasbro could have a whole series of video game heroes, and the series would continually renew itself as new games became popular. Your market is guaranteed, because you wait until the game is successful before you produce a run of toys. Price them reasonably -- say between $10 and $20 -- and they would be wildly successful.

And here's a salute to Hasbro for coming out with copies of their classic old, basic, 12-inch G.I. Joe "Action Team" figures. They're at Wal-Mart, in a little box for $9. There are land, sea and air adventure guys with the fuzzy hair and beards, just like there were when I was a kid. Now bring back some costumes for these guys, and we're in business. After all, is anybody really buying those Sigma 6 figures in earnest? They keep ending up on the clearance aisle. Better to go with a proven winner. I gave one of the retro-12-inch Joes to my nephew yesterday, and he loved it.

And while I'm on a rant, why did you quit making 1/6 scale Star Wars figures? The little Star Wars action figures are great, but who can afford $60 for those 12-inch Sideshow figures? Soon there will be Star Wars: The Force Unleashed on Xbox 360, and then you can add some Star Wars figures to the video game heroes line, too!

Monday, September 3, 2007

They're fixing it

I was delighted to get this e-mail today:

Dear Xbox Customer,
We have received your Xbox console at our Service Center ...
You will receive e-mail notification when your repair has been completed. We appreciate your patience in this matter.
Thank you for your business.

What a relief to know that the minions of Microsoft are on the job!

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Put on the uniform

My friends Shane and Joe are at DragonCon in Atlanta this weekend. Shane runs a cool, funny web site called, and Joe is like his chief flying monkey. Although I can't be there this time, my favorite part of sci-fi conventions is the costumes. I've dabbled in costuming myself. I always dress up as something for Halloween, but my most notable venture into costuming was Star Wars-related.

Here you see Sythbane, originally "Dirk Sithbane," the X-wing fighter pilot character I created. He's a rebel who took part in the Battle of Yavin, in the assault on the first Death Star. The proud name of Sythbane dates back to dim years of the Old Republic; Sith or Syth is a reference to Dark Jedi, and "bane" means a cause of death, destruction or ruin. Therefore, Sythbane means a cause of ruin for the Sith. (Another notable "bane" was Durin's Bane, the balrog of Khazad-dum, so called because of the murder of the dwarf lord Durin, as described in "The Lord of the Rings." So the name is like a double-dose of geek trivia.)

I created the costume to wear to the premiere of "Star Wars, The Special Edition" in January 1997. I was so excited about the movie that I figured a lot of people would dress up. As it turned out, the fans might have dressed up in Los Angeles, but they didn't in Birmingham.

Nobody but me, that is.

I was the ONLY person dressed up at the theater, winning the prize for supergeek of the day. Some of other Star Wars fans seemed to envy me, though. A couple of guys acted like they wished they'd dressed up, too, after they saw me. I felt conspicuous, but I marched in anyway, proudly carrying my toddler son on my shoulders. The theater manager was so impressed that he let me and my family in for free.

Other costume ideas have not been so successful. One year I tired of my X-wing attire and decided to be a little more subtle. I dressed my son as a Predator, which looked pretty darned cool. But for myself, I cobbled together a costume to look like the A-wing fighter pilot who gets shot in the face and then does the kamikaze dive into the bridge of the Executor in "Return of the Jedi," which sends the ship plunging into the second Death Star.

I thought it was obvious that I was the doomed A-wing pilot, but walking around the block in the dark, escorting a trick-or-treater, it was hopeless. Nobody knew who I was except for a 10-year-old in a little clone-trooper costume. Over and over, I had to explain the scene, but when you have to explain a costume, it's like deconstructing a joke. It just kills it.

This is one I should have saved for DragonCon. I bet they would have known who I was!