Friday, December 12, 2008

Heroes in fire and ice

My review of Call of Duty: World at War is posted. Take a look!

I hope to see some of you in my sights this weekend ...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Punisher's tragic triumph

Here's my short review of the new Punisher movie, which I saw tonight.

On one hand, "The Punisher: War Zone" is as crass a shoot-'em-up as you'll ever see, with grotesque violence and appalling bloodshed. Ray Stevenson absolutely looks the part of the comic-book anti-hero, and the movie is relentless with action. The Punisher's cold precision and deadly grace with his weapons are showcased without apology. The violence is ugly. Frank Castle knows it's ugly but he faces it, and the film doesn't turn away from it either.

On the other hand, opposite from the heavy-handed carnage, Stevenson gives a subtle and compelling performance as Frank Castle. The Punisher is a commando with a broken heart and an iron will. He lives a nightmare existence of grief and despair and anger. He doesn't revel in his revenge. He does the job that he feels God has failed to do by punishing evildoers. He knows the blood on his hands condemns him, but he accepts it as the price he must pay to get the job done.

The Punisher is perhaps the most realistic of Marvel's "superheroes," because he has no super power. You may even view the character as a metaphor for the United States, like Viggo Mortensen's character in "A History of Violence." He detests violence, but he's terribly good at it despite himself, when he's pushed to it. It also reminds me of Clint Eastwood's character in "Unforgiven," who is a terrible, clumsy farmer, but as a killer he's as graceful as the angel of death.

This film is not going to be widely embraced like a Spider-Man or Hulk or Iron Man movie, because of the horrific violence (although if the camera in those movies were pointed at the recipients of the heroes' violence, they'd look this awful, too). It's the nature of The Punisher's story, because it's so dark.

For people who might be inclined to read a Punisher comic, "The Punisher: War Zone" is awesome. Ray Stevenson makes the character real. Frank Castle is a tragic hero is scorns himself, even as others admire him.

I've been a fan of Stevenson since he played the quiet, ax-wielding knight Dagonet in "King Arthur" who broke the ice on the lake and sent the Vikings for a swim. I became an even bigger fan of his with the HBO series "Rome," in which he played Roman soldier Titus Pullo, one of the main characters.

Won't it be interesting if Marvel movies become the venue for a "Rome" reunion? With Stevenson playing The Punisher, rumors are circulating again that "Rome" co-star Kevin McKidd may play Thor. For my money (which will be spent on tickets, DVDs and collectibles), that would be fantastic. I'll be one happy geek.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

My favorite games of the year

My annual Video Game Gift Guide is posted. Check it out! Leave some comments!

Hope you're having fun this weekend. Fortiscule and I are about to head out to see "The Punisher: War Zone," but I expect I'll be on Call of Duty: World at War later tonight. I'm up to lieutenant in multiplayer, and doing pretty well thanks to some sage shooter advice from my buddy Fartknocckker. I'll post more about that advice later.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Where's the 'B' button on this thing?

This may be the most dangerous object I have ever seen, yet I am strangely drawn to it.

Kotaku reports that some gun enthusiasts created this real-life version of a Gears of War Lancer assault rifle. Its creators call it a "Firearm Mounted Anti Zombie Device." All the zombies who read Kotaku (and there are probably lots of them) are doubtless quaking in fear after seeing this.

You have to admire American ingenuity. Zombie-slayers, we salute you!

On a related note, here's my review of Gears of War 2.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Game giggles with The Guild

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all.

To celebrate, I recommend you try watching "The Guild," which is a comedy series about gamers available now on Xbox Live. Fortiscule and I discovered it in the video Marketplace last night. We kept downloading and watching one episode after another until we'd watched all of them. It's free on Xbox Live, and the second season is even available in HD. Or, you can watch it on the Web if you don't have Xbox Live.

The creator and star of the show, Felicia Day, is a gamer herself and writes all the episodes. I discovered just now while looking at her bio that she was born in Huntsville, Alabama. So was I! Perhaps that partially explains her brilliance.

We'll be following the show, and I recommend it highly.

Aspiring to Achieve

By Fartknocckker
Sythbane Squadron contributor

Having recently completed Call of Duty: World at War on veteran difficulty and gaining all 1,000 gamerscore points, I had a feeling of deja vu. It wasn't because I felt like I had played the game before, but the sense that I had just completed another game that got the achievements right.

So many times achievements simply do not match the game or require you to search around for hours looking for this do-dad or other. From a designer's point of view, these collection quests are a way of persuading the player to look at the world that they have created a little closer, and is understandable, but is sometimes downright tedious. Achievements that are difficult because they are based on the player's skill are much more rewarding and really give you a sense of accomplishment.

Other games are laughable when they clearly are not triple-A titles but require the player to get a ridiculous number of kills online, or play a certain number of online matches. Sometimes these achievements are nearly impossible to acquire simply for the fact that nobody is playing the game online. Did the developers really think their game was so good that people would play thousands of online matches? Have they played Call of Duty, Gears of War or Halo?

The redeeming quality about achievements is that if you want to unlock them from a particular title, you are forced to play the game differently (except for story progression achievements, of course). This adds a lot more value and replayability, because unless a game has multiplayer, you can drop 60 bucks and finish the main story out in two days. Even if you rent, rushing through a game in order to meet a return date offers no value.

There was a time when accomplishing something in a game was known only to yourself or maybe your little brother. Achievements not only offer a recorded recognition but add another aspect to the gaming community. Discussing strategy or offering tips to your buddies about achievements encourages friendship through something in common.

Now, some people couldn't care less about these little notifications of specific tasks performed in games. Other people will cheat, glitch and have somebody else play under their accounts to have these puppies pop and increase there gamerscore for bragging rights. I personally find the latter to be obsessive and not very healthy. I would be lying if I said no part of earning achievements, for me, was for bragging rights because that is a small percentage. I look at them as enhancements to a game that can build confidence and add value to entertainment.

I recommend at least trying Call of Duty titles on veteran difficulty. Even though, at times, you will want to throw your controller through your T.V. and the wall behind it, it is a very satisfying set of achievements.

Editor's note: The other night I joined a co-op party led by Ogre through the last level of Call of Duty: World at War. During the mayhem, Ogre mentioned that Fartknocckker had completed the game solo on veteran difficulty -- a feat which, he noted with awe, is insane. We all had to agree. Fartknocckker is the Man. He probably gives gaming tips to Chuck Norris.
-- Sythbane

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Age of the Avatari

So here's my new Xbox Live avatar. My brother jRySix says it looks like me, and his looks like him, too.

I'm frustrated that there are no cowboy boots and banjos, but perhaps that will come later. They're likely to start nickle-and-diming us for clothes and gadgets for our little people.

I hope that at least we can get the advertising stuff for free. I'm expecting we'll see avatar T-shirts and trucker hats pushing new movies, soft drinks, cars and other stuff. Maybe rock bands, too. That would be neat.

So what happened to all those gamer pictures we've downloaded -- and paid for some of them?

I like the avatars, though, and I'm eager to see what all my friends look like when you've converted yourselves into avatari. (I just made up the word "avatari" as a plural for avatar, so we'll see if it catches on. It has sort of a Tolkienish ring to it, don't you think? Remember you read it here first.)

Below is an avatari portrait of a Sythbane Squadron trio: me, Sythbane, with my son Fortiscule and brother jRySix.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A boy and his dog in Fable II

My review of Fable II ran last week in the newspaper. I've seen some of my friends roaming around Albion. I've moved on to other games in this seasonal glut, but I'll be coming back to Fable II.

This week I've mostly been playing the multiplayer in Quantum of Solace, which is excellent.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Force is strong in this one (that's what SHE said)

I know it must be The Dark Side in me talking, but I find this incredibly hot. Any of my fellow geeks feeling the Sith love, too?

Luke, I am your mother.
(from CollegeHumor)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Speed monkey

Has something ever just struck you funny? I laughed so hard at this chimpanzee hauling ass on a scooter while the trainer and cameraman chase him that I almost cried and my stomach cramped up. I know it's a little incongruous for my gaming blog, but what the heck. Everything's better with monkeys.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


I heard a lot about how bad "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" was, so I put off going to see it in the theater and waited for it to hit DVD.

Last night, my family and my brother's family all watched the DVD together. And to all you who said the movie was bad, I shoot my metaphorical pistol at you as if you are a scimitar-twirling thug. We all thoroughly enjoyed it.

Here's a spoiler alert, because I'm about to list some things I liked about the movie:

- I loved the old guy kicking ass. I'm enough of an old guy now myself that it thrills me to see an old guy open up a can of Whoop Ass Stout. It's like that new Motley Crue song says; if he's going down, he's going down swinging.

- I like the passing of the hat to his son. In a very satisfying way, those scenes bridge the old movies to whatever new ones they want to do with Shia LaBeouf, who performed superbly in the role. Indiana has his old barnstormer-style leather jacket, the second-skin of the wild adventurers of his generation, and Mutt in turn has his own generation's leather jacket. That is way cool. (So why didn't the 12-inch action figure of Mutt include that jacket?!)

- I like Mutt's sword-fighting, coached by his mom. It gives him his own oddball combat skill like Indiana's whip.

- I very much like that Roswell-style aliens were the subject of the big mystery of this film. What bigger mystery is there nowadays which would set the world on its ear if it were true? My brother, jRy6, said he'd heard people complain about the space alien story angle was too hard to believe. My little brother then keenly observed that in the previous movies, angels burst from a golden box that was a radio to God and melted the faces off Nazis, and a 1,000-year-old knight was guarding the Holy Grail, but those circumstances apparently were seen as perfectly feasible compared to space aliens. ... Riiiiight. We might refer you to Bill Maher on that one.

BIG SPOILER ALERT: - I loved the angle that the aliens were archeologists, and knowledge was the treasure they were after. Perfect! What a logic-affirming notion! It reminded me of the Predator being a big game hunter in space, which we all thought was very clever. The idea of interstellar archaeologists actually makes even more sense than trophy hunters, and we had no trouble at all with the idea of space-faring hunters using spears.

- I liked that Indiana married Marion in the end. Just as I was thinking how sad it was that they had wasted so much of their lives apart, Ox (John Hurt) echoes my own thought and remarks on it. It was a lovely bittersweet moment.

- My only minor quibbles with the film would be that the plot was a bit more disjointed than in previous movies, and the aliens would have been a little easier to believe if they had not been interdimensional, but so what. It's an Indiana Jones movie, so I went with it. It wasn't a pretentious bore like "Contact," that's for sure.

Now I wish I'd seen it in the theater.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Rock and Roll fantasy

Fortiscule and I have been playing Rock Band 2 some more, and I've figured out how to get pictures of our characters from the game. You have to log into EA's Rock Band web site, promise them your firstborn and the blood of an endangered wetlands animal or something -- there was a lot of fine print lawyerese -- and then you can link your game to your profile and the site.

I must say, this is pretty cool. You can also generate 6-inch action figures (which are really statues) based on any of your characters. The catch: it costs $60 to make the figure, but that might not be too much for a special Christmas gift or birthday present. Above you see me, in my white puffy shirt and blue parachute pants, and Fortiscule cavorting on the beach like rock stars do. At left, I point to an adoring fan in the audience so my roadies can bring her backstage for a special autograph session.

At right you see your smoking hot vocalist, Maria.

We're trying to compete in a big competition in Shanghai, and the game forces us to play Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." The problem is, I can't play the song. Fortiscule plays the guitar on "hard," and I've worked up to playing the bass on "medium." Except for this particular song starts right up with some crazy left hand fretwork that leaves me in a quivery, cursing knot. We might never finish the game at this rate. But, hey, we look cool. Maybe I'll get an action figure of myself.

Here's my official review of Rock Band 2.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

First-person shooter training

Here I am at the range getting in some FPS training with my Lee-Enfield No. 1 Mk III .303 rifle. Fortiscule and I have been playing some Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway this week, so it's got us in a World War II frame of mind. My Lee-Enfield actually dates back to World War I, but British soldiers used them in World War II as well. We might cue up the DVD box set of "Band of Brothers" later tonight.

Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway is of particular interest to me because it depicts a unit that a friend of mine served in. Capt. Wallace Swanson commanded Co. A of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (the "Five-Oh-Deuce," as you hear the unit referred to in Hell's Highway and "Band of Brothers") from D-Day, though Operation Market Garden in Holland (the subject of "A Bridge Too Far" and Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway), and on through the siege of Bastogne in The Battle of the Bulge. Wallace, whose wife Jeanne called him "Jake," passed away a few years ago and I had the honor of being one of his pallbearers. I admired him very much as one of my personal heroes. He looked like a movie hero, but he was the real thing, as you can see in this wartime portrait at right.

We're looking forward to mobilizing the entire Sythbane Squadron to play Call of Duty 5 when it comes out, because it's supposed to support four-players in co-op.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Sunday drive with Crownshend

My bother, jRy6, and my cousin Crownshend and I have developed a lively rivalry in Forza 2 on Xbox Live. My brother and I both honed our driving game skills on the PS2's Gran Turismo, but Crownshend got a late start with the genre.

Crownshend has progressed rapidly, but as he's learned to drive with a thumbstick, he's been prone to plunge off the track. Often finding himself hopelessly behind, he developed a desperate tactic to entertain himself: He'd turn around and drive to meet the race leader for a head-on surprise.

Needless to say, this was quite alarming the first few times it happened. It does, however, add an interesting element of strategy to the game. If Crownshend gets quiet for a while or disappears from the track radar, you have to start looking ahead for him. It really keeps you on your toes.

Here's a slideshow of a typical encounter with Crownshend:

I turned the tables on him at least once, at Sebring. He had fallen behind and was in missile mode. Running second, I ran off the track in a curve and found myself way behind jRy6, too. Crownshend was running third and trying to catch up to a target. I came to one of those right-angle turns at the end of a long straight-away. I turned the corner and stopped at the end of the straightaway, perpendicular to his path. I was a perfect T-bone target -- irresistible Crownshend bait.

My patience paid off. He saw me lingering in the turn, and he floored it, aiming for my driver's door. At the last moment, I eased on the gas and stepped out of his path like a matador side-stepping a charging bull, and he rammed the wall in a glorious crash of profanity and sheet metal.

Crownshend is young with fast reflexes, and he's a quick study. He's becoming a better driver, often running even with us and sometimes winning, so his desperation moves are becoming infrequent. But he still sneaks a track missile at us once in a while.

He got us again Sunday night before the Xbox Live maintenance outage shut us down. jRy6 was drafting me, trying to find a spot to pass. I saw Crownshend ahead, bearing down on me at ramming speed.

At the last instant, I jinked left to dodge the incoming kamikaze Crownshend. jRy6, on my bumper, didn't see it coming and -- at the same instant -- pulled right to pass me. I missed Crownshend by perhaps a coat of paint, but jRy6 took the impact full in the face. I heard the crash in my right surround-sound speaker, and jRy6 expressed his surprise with some impromptu longshoremen's ballad as Crownshend laughed like a crazy person.

They were still spinning as I crossed the finish line and won the race!

Well played, Crownshend. Well played.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rock of all ages

Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together and let's give a big Sythbane Squadron welcome to the new supergroup, ASGARD! (yeeeah.)

Here's my full review of Rock Band 2 on

I've been dismayed that a joke reference that I sprinkled through my review is perhaps unknown to recent generations of gamers. My friend Kenneth pointed out how long ago "This is Spinal Tap" came out, and it perturbed me. So, to educate those who missed out on this comic masterpiece, here is one of my favorite scenes from the movie, "This one goes to 11 ..."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Rocking out

I've posted a preliminary "first impressions" review of Rock Band 2 on's Techcetera blog. I'm not quite through with a full review yet, but I wanted to get something out there since it hit this week!

And thanks, as always, to my buddy Fartknockker for his keen insight and comments!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Behold, the Dark Side

Here's my review of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, posted on the Techcetera blog on Be sure to read the funny captions!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Hail Flying Monkey Joe! The Mighty Thor is read!

He did it! My good friend Flying Monkey Joe (that's his code name) has returned from DragonCon with the prize of his quest on my behalf. It is Thor issue #199. As a bonus, he also brought back #201 and an issue from the same era that has both Thor and Conan in it. Who knows what sweaty horrors he endured in Atlanta to retrieve such treasures? I shudder to contemplate it.

He has proved himself to be a mighty comic hunter indeed, and an extraordinary simian soarer! Thanks, Flying Monkey Joe!

I will savor my new/old comic books and report back here on the impressions I have upon reading them.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Thor #199 and me

Godspeed, Flying Monkey Joe.

My good friend Flying Monkey Joe (that's his code name -- d'ya hear that, ya hayseeds?) is going to DragonCon in Atlanta this weekend. He has his own reasons for going into that great weekend dungeon of geekdom, but he also goes with a quest for me: To seek the Odin-son.
Specifically, to find an original Thor comic, issue #199.

That was my comic book when I was a kid.

My parents were not backward, and they provided plenty of books for my sister and me to read, but somehow comic books got classified as candy or toys instead of literature. I almost never got to read comic books unless I was visiting a friend and got into his stash.

I did manage to claim ownership of at least one comic book, though, and that was Thor #199. If I had any other comic books of my own, I don't remember them, because they fade to oblivion in my memory in the light of Thor's might.

I still remember panels and images from the story. Pluto, in his form-fitting armor, wielding a double-bladed battle ax, his edicts called the ravings of "the mind of a god gone mad." Thor, looming above the battlefield, his red cape billowing about his shoulders as he answers Pluto's challenge: "The God of Thunder dares."

I never knew the context of the story, because I had read none of the other issues as the complex plot unfolded, but it didn't matter. He was a hero who sparked my imagination. A god with the voice of rumbling thunder who stood up against Madness.

I commissioned my grandmother to make me a red flannel cape, and I found a little tack hammer in the junk drawer to serve as mighty Mjolnir. One side of my godly weapon was magnetized to hold tacks, so you wouldn't smash your fingers hammering the tiny brads.

More recently, I've been following the newly relaunched Thor comic, buying each new issue at Double Header sports cards in Gardendale. I also bought Thor Vol. 1, the graphic-novel size compilation of the first several issues of the refurbished story, which captures some of
the brooding power of the old Thor that I remember.

The Thor who forged me in the fires of geekdom still lives.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Same old Clone and dance

I've recently written reviews on SoulCalibur IV and Too Human. If Too Human is as bad as some reviewers say it is, why can't I quit playing it? I completed the campaign in one weekend, and immediately started a second campaign, and I'm still going. My "champion" class Baldur is up to level 40 now.

Likewise, I'm dismayed by the negative reviews on "The Clone Wars." Perverse contrariness of the fanboy generation is making a lot of people think it's cool to hate George Lucas now, and for what? Making up stories for us to enjoy? (What? "The Clone Wars" wasn't as good as "The Empire Strikes Back"?! We hate him, then! Scorn him! Diss him! Freeze him in carbonite!) ... Come on, all you George haters, lighten up. He's a genius at telling stories with pictures and music, and he's given us a wonderful place for our imaginations to visit. Hating on George Lucas is like hating on Santa Claus, as far as I'm concerned.

"The Clone Wars" is a fun film, reminiscent of the 1930s Saturday morning action serials that helped to inspire "Star Wars" in the first place. It's a computer-animated cartoon. It's clearly not in the same league with one of the films of the main saga, and it's equally obvious that it wasn't meant to be. I took my 13-year-old son and one of his friends to see it, and we all enjoyed it. The vertical battle on the cliff face was a pure "Star Wars" thrill moment, as the transport walker climbed like a big beetle while Ahsoka stands on the front and bats away blaster bolts to defend it. It made us cheer.

It's also interesting to compare Anakin's first attempt at being a mentor, teaching young Ahsoka to be a Jedi, and compare that with the darker, more mature storyline in the forthcoming game The Force Unleashed, as "dark father" Darth Vader takes a Sith apprentice. The parallel of the two stories -- one light, one dark -- is bound to be deliberate.

My apologies to both of my readers for allowing Sythbane Squadron to sit idle for too long. Lately I've felt like Max, the dog in "The Grinch that Stole Christmas," when the sled gets ahead of him and he's running along and being dragged behind it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Friday, May 23, 2008

Racing with flying colors in Forza 2

When jRySix joined the Xbox Nation recently, the first game he bought for himself was Forza Motorsport 2. It's been out a year, and he found it marked down to $15. I bought it so we could race each other online.

I missed this game when it came out, and I was really missing something. It's freaking great. It's a lot like Gran Turismo 4, which jRySix and I both liked immensely, but Forza 2 is much better.

The racing is fun, but the customization features really stand out for me. I love customizing the cars. I painted some like my old Hot Wheels I had when I was a kid, in a metallic green-apple color, but then I thought of creating a theme of fighter plane paint schemes and markings on various cars. My first effort is displayed above, with a Corvette decked out in F-15 colors.

I'm starting to get the feel for some of the graphics editing features, and now I see that I can do almost anything with it. Below is a slide show of some of my cars. I'll see you at the finish line!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

I know what you have to do now ...

"THAT ... was the coolest thing I've ever seen."
-- Lt. Col. James Rhodes

"Iron Man" is fantastic. Go see it this weekend, so it will make enough money to build a dozen Mark III suits, and they'll make another movie immediately.

All Sythbane Squadron members should consider this a scramble alert. We are locked down in full geek mode.

Stay for the scene at the end of the credits.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

An inept criminal in GTA IV

It might be that I'm just terrible at Grand Theft Auto IV.

After all, I was hopeless as a "rogue" in Mass Effect. Even when I tried to play as a bad guy, I ended up making good guy decisions, so I gave up on the red meter. Nor did I have the stomach to ever play as an assassin or thief in Oblivion.

So far, as Niko Bellic, I have taken a woman on a nice date to go bowling, and later took the same girl out to a cabaret show (which was terrible). I also went to play darts with my cousin Roman.

I am, however, a terrible driver, a sure-enough menace on the road. I've "parked" by knocking over a group of pedestrians on the sidewalk like bowling pins as I fumbled for the brake button. Happily, they stood up, dusted themselves off and resumed their conversion, none the worse for wear. I was impressed by their forgiving attitude toward my appalling lack of skill at parallel parking.

I find now that I'm being forced to perform a few nefarious acts at the bidding of an odious fellow named Vlad, but it took me 15 minutes just to figure out how to throw a brick through a window. I haven't even found a gun yet.

On the bright side, I did get a polite kiss from my date after I took her to the cabaret. If I keep behaving like a gentleman, perhaps she will grow fond of me.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Welcome jRySix to the squad!

Sythbane Squadron has added an important member: my brother, jRySix. I invite all of my online friends to add him to your friends list, too, and I'm sure you'll enjoy having him aboard.

So far, he's been learning the rappel ropes of Rainbow Six Vegas 2, playing some campaign missions with me. He's also dived into Forza Motorsports 2. He was a big fan of the PS2's Gran Turismo 4, so he's an excellent virtual driver right out of the starting grid in Forza. Keep an eye out for him in your rear-view mirror!

I'm going to have to buy an Xbox 360 steering wheel controller so I can race him. I'm totally inept on driving games without a steering wheel controller, but jRySix is good at it.

He also has a peculiar talent that some of you might discover soon, when you join him for a game.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

No glory for Mandos

I just finished reading "Star Wars: Republic Commando -- True Colors" by Karen Traviss. I'm generally a fan of Traviss' writing. I admire her keen observations about the nature of clone troopers and the moral corruption of fielding a "slave army" of clones. The book is engaging and has virtues consistent with her other novels, but I found "True Colors" ultimately dissatisfying. If you intend to read the book, please note there are a few spoilers below, so you might want to skip this post until you've read the book yourself.

I forgave Traviss her tendency to skimp on battle scenes with her first foray into the Mandalorian mind in "Hard Contact," the novel that was spun off the video game "Republic Commando." Her observations were fresh, and I like how she developed Mandalorian culture. In the second Republic Commando book, "Triple Zero," I grew impatient with her for misplacing these soldiers, making them do detective work, dwelling on low-key investigations. What a waste of talent and skill! Wouldn't there be actual detectives to do detective work? Commandos should do commando work.

As much as I like Karen Traviss' writing, with "True Colors" I have to say, "Enough already." Have the Star Wars novel publishers forgotten that the Star Wars sage thrives on action? By the end of "True Colors," she has her favorite character, Kal Skirata, actually baby-sitting. All these elite commandos do is walk around and talk, walk around and talk. She has reduced the toughest, smartest, deadliest clone commandos of the Republic to introspective soap opera characters.

Besides the fact that the book is a soap opera rather than an action novel about commandos, I have problems with the soap opera plot itself: I find it completely unbelievable that Jedi Etain would give up her baby. Moreover, despite the author's consistent drumming on the theme that clone troopers should be respected as men, her own characters don't even respect Darman enough to tell him that he's a father.

It's a sad fact that fathers and mothers go off to war in Iraq and leave their children behind every day. So why do Kal, Etain and the rest patronize and disrespect Darman so horrendously to keep such an important truth from him? It's inexplicable, and the story loses authenticity on this point. It appears that they're setting up another Force user to be raised without his parents, and we've all seen how successful that is.

(Just don't even get me started on the Jedi's craven aversion to attachments, namely families -- families which could nurture balanced, mature adult Jedi who would use the Force as most of use it to the best of our ability: to protect our families. For most of us, that means our immediate families, but for some brave souls it also means the larger families of the nation and of humanity itself. But that's a whole different discussion from the one at hand ...)

I won't dwell on these difficulties in the book's plot, because they are not the real problem with "True Colors." What's missing is combat. It's a series about the two most elite commando squads in the Republic, Delta and Omega, yet we never see the teams working together in combat, which was the very essence of the video game that spawned the Republic Commando stories. We never see them doing what they were quite literally born to do, which is to fight. They are commandos, not a vice squad on a stakeout or a bunch of baby-sitters. Traviss need not have left the action out of the story in order to explore the emotional growth of the commandos, and their discovery of their place in Mandalorian culture.

After some reflection on the book, I've realized what I'm missing in reading "True Colors," besides the simple excitement of the action. It's what Traviss and her editors have forgotten, and it could have -- should have -- emerged from combat narrative.

"True Colors" has no glory moment. A glory moment is something we've all felt when watching good movies about soldiers, or reading a good book about them. It's a visceral thrill when we recognize the best and bravest in action in their defining moments. It's when we get goose bumps, shed a tear, clench our teeth or punch the air. It's when we recognize and admire the heroic self-sacrifice of protecting the weak or defending a comrade, the ferocious clash of combat itself and the deadly grace of the warrior.

"True Colors" needs an infusion of testosterone, the merest drop of Chuck Norris' sweat. Navy SEALs inspired the Republic Commando game, yet we never see the Republic commandos, nor the dangerous Null ARCs, do the kind of things that SEALs are famous for doing. Give me character development, certainly, but also give me some pages like a "Demo-Dick" Marcinko book.

Ordo, Mereel, Boss, Sev and the rest are out of their element. It's pathetic at times, like it was to watch CC DeVille on on VH1's "The Surreal Life." Walking around in that house, CC was sadly awkward, a fish out of water. But when you see him shredding his guitar onstage with Poison, the guy is swimming in his own sea and he rocks!

A song styled to be a Mandalorian hymn, "Vode An" (Brothers All) plays in the game menus in Republic Commando. That song captures the characters. The Mandalorians are like Spartans, and they would be moved by battlefield heroism, and maybe they would even admire a "good death" like the men in "300."

I started brainstorming scenes like I'm talking about -- the kind that is missing from "True Colors" -- and I started ticking off a list. These scenes are in movies and we're talking about a book, I know, but you still get this kind of moment in books. I figured most of you would remember these scenes, so they would illustrate my point. So, to suggest the kind of scene that the Republic Commando series needs, the kind of visceral response it should evoke at least once per book, I offer this list of glory moments:

- The entire film "Gladiator," especially two scenes: The prelude and battle with the barbarians, when we see Maximus charging from the forest behind the dogs of war; and then in the Arena when Maximus barks orders and points directions with his gladius from the back of a raring white horse. Those scenes, with the soundtrack, are magnificent.

- The scene in "Glory" when Private Trip (Denzel Washington) says, "... we men, ain't we?" Poignant and stirring.

- "Band of Brothers," the entire series, and especially the scenes with the Currahee suite music as they train, and the scene of the C-47s droning toward Normandy for D-Day, and then the battle for the gun emplacement when Buck Compton throws the grenade like a baseball. And also in the Battle of the Bulge when Capt. Speirs runs through the German lines and saves the day. I get goose bumps just thinking about that scene.

- The sniper, Private Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper) reciting Bible verses as he fires his Springfield in "Saving Private Ryan."

- Conan, his body streaked with black ash for camouflage, flourishing his sword as he squares off with Thulsa Doom's henchman.

- In "The Last of the Mohicans" when Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) runs through a battlefield to try to reach his woman to save her, hooking his tomahawk under the ankle of a Huron and charging through the chaos.

- "300," King Leonidas in battle, carving up Immortals with his sword and then raring back to hurl a javelin like an image from a classical Greek urn. And come to think of it, notice how the Spartan's helmet visor is shaped. Looks like a certain Mandalorian helmet, doesn't it? It also matches the Republic Commando armor.

- The charge of the Light Brigade.

- "Serenity," when River says, "My turn," and proceeds to cut the reavers to ribbons to defend her fallen brother and comrades. She's like a goddess of war incarnate.

- The armored samurai emerging from the misty forest in "The Last Samurai."

- The premiere of "Battlestar Galactica," when Starbuck bellows with impatient rage and charges alone into the teeth of the attacking Cylons to defend her tribe, with a drumbeat accenting the primordial emotion.

- "Platoon," Sgt. Elias running through forest like a deer, slaying enemies right and left as he fires his M-16 from the hip.

- Boromir's last stand defending the hobbits in "The Fellowship of the Ring." This scene of Boromir's redemption, his utter ferocity in defending his childlike companions, never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

- Eomer's cavalry plunging down the mountain in a flashing cascade of steel to smash the orcs besieging Helm's Deep in "The Two Towers."

- The host of Rohan lined abreast to charge into the Pelennor Fields at the siege of Minas Tirith, and King Theoden's ride along the line, tapping the swords and lances of his men with his own sword. "The Return of the King."

- "The Outlaw Josey Wales" gunfighting, and when he parlays with the Indian chief who says, "There is iron in your words."

I'm still a fan of Karen Traviss. I'll buy her next book and read it, because I'm really curious how her characters will respond to Order 66. But for now, I'm going to read some Robert E. Howard and eat some beef jerky.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Out on a limb about nudity in games?

After my essay "A game of double standards" ran on the commentary section front of last Sunday's newspaper, I expected some controversy. I was going to really get flamed in the letters to the editor, I figured. But what happened?


The only reaction I got was a smattering of compliments this week. My wife liked the essay. She was the one who encouraged me to submit my blog post "Severed heads, naked breasts and video games" to the newspaper in the first place. She said the staff at the restaurant where she works generally agreed with it. My mother-in-law said she liked it and agreed, and my dad liked it, too.

Thinking that the newspaper's video-game-oriented readers might have missed the essay (which ran with no pictures) in the commentary section of the web site, I reposted it on Techcetera, the newspaper's video gaming blog, with some photos, hoping to tap some more readers and maybe stir up some reactions. Still nothing.

Later in the week, MTV Multiplayer game journalist Patrick Klepek, who has been diligently tracking the issue of censorship in video games, posted an update on an ESRB edict about the ratings of downloadable content. Mandatory game downloads such as patches must keep the same rating as the original game, he reported, but optional downloadable content could carry a different rating than the core game. I couldn't resist the urge to respond, posting this comment:

"Does that mean that “Adults Only”-rated optional, downloadable content might become available on Xbox Live? Microsoft bans AO-rated games, but since the core game’s rating remains the same, the ban would still be upheld. After all, R-rated movies (and unrated director’s cuts) are already available on the Xbox Live Marketplace. And what’s to stop game makers from likewise offering “unrated” optional, downloadable content?"

Then, as you can see, a guy responded to my comment, basically dismissing my notion as pie in the sky. That torqued me up for another soapbox speech, hoping that MTV Multiplayer would reach a wider audience than my humble Sythbane Squadron blog, or even the newspaper's gaming blog. I posted my second comment:

“Dr. Proctor” might be correct in predicting how this ESRB edict will be applied. However, as an adult consumer of video games, I’m angry at being patronized by the ESRB, by Microsoft and by game makers.

The status quo will remain until sensible consumers stand up to say the emperor has no clothes: Microsoft’s AO-game ban is hypocritical in light of the R-rated and unrated movie content available for download on the Xbox Live Marketplace. The video game industry must assert itself and offer grown-up “R-rated” content if it ever wants to be taken seriously as a grown-up entertainment medium and not merely a kiddie venue. We game consumers would support more choices with our wallets, if ever given the chance. And as a parent, I don’t need the ESRB to tell me what I can and can’t allow my kid to see or play. Just describe the content, and I’ll
make that decision myself, thank you.

The key to understanding media coverage is the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Media coverage of adult content in video games has developed the way it has because sensible people too often have allowed themselves to be shouted down in public discourse. In the Mass Effect controversy, voices of truth and common sense rose up against the outright lies that were being tossed around by hysterical people, and the media coverage (led by the gaming press) dutifully shifted to hear those voices. It is possible for common sense to prevail, but the industry continues to pander the hysterical people who know nothing about games, on the assumption that they are more politically powerful. I believe the truth is that the hysterical people are simply louder, not more powerful.

Why are there are no checks on the ESRB’s apparent iron-fisted authority in controlling our entertainment choices? And why is there still no video game content rating analogous to an R? The ESRB is not a government agency with police powers, yet no one challenges its decisions. I understand the subtle role it plays in allowing the industry to regulate itself, by deflecting calls for government regulation of games, but it oversteps its role when it keeps the entire industry from growing up. Surely some way can be devised to allow adult video game consumers more choices, while maintaining suitable content labels and warnings for parents. This new ESRB stance on downloadable content could allow a way for that to happen.

This comment has yet to generate any more comments, and likely won't since the original post has descended on the blog.

All of which leaves me to wonder: What's going on here? If what I'm saying is met with widespread agreement, why are things the way they are? Why is violence accepted and nudity rejected in video games? How can the natural and beautiful image of a woman's breast -- that which nourishes us in our infancy and provides inspiration for much of the greatest art in the world -- is banned as pornographic, while the revolting sight of a butchered human being, a severed head, is socially acceptable for even children to see?

My dad suggested, "Maybe they just haven't thought it through."

So despite my efforts to help people think it through, the lack of response suggests that maybe it's just that nobody cares. Gamers must be perfectly happy with the ESRB's puritanical tyranny over game content, and the elephant-in-the-room hypocrisy of retailers, console makers and game makers about AO games.

Is everyone really content with the authenticity and realism of the Playtex-style bras and panties on the women of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion?

Was no one else frustrated by the black screen that popped up when you finally managed to bed your mate in Fable, instead of a real love scene?

Nobody else was disappointed by the absurdly tame love scene in Mass Effect, after all the hype about its inclusion in the so-called "mature" game? What you see at left is the extent of the nudity in the scene -- a side view of Liara's bare blue hip, revealing not much more than a bikini at the beach would reveal. The scene caused much ado about nothing.

Nobody else finds it outrageous that this censorship is practiced with such draconian zeal in the video game industry, yet you can download R-rated and unrated torture-porn flicks such as "Saw IV" on the very same Xbox that bans you from seeing a harmless breast or butt in a game? (The perverse illogic of this must be what drives me nearly to obsession on this issue, I think.)

Does anyone but me look forward to the day when a role-playing game is really realistic? When you can strip your character down to the flesh in the equipping screen, just as you do with the real-life "equipping screen" of the bathroom mirror? Wouldn't it be fun to tattoo your whole body like a Celtic berserker and go into battle naked in a game like Fable or Oblivion? Maybe your ancestor did that for real 1,000 years ago. Where else could you do something like that without getting arrested, except in a video game?

Does anybody else hope we'll someday see an honest-to-goodness love scene like you'd see on HBO or "Skinamax" when a love scene occurs in a video game? Not crass pornography, just something like the love scene between King Leonida and Queen Gorgo in "300."

Doesn't anybody else hope for the day when a fantasy video game will really look like a sexy, beautiful painting by Frank Frazetta, or a description in Robert E. Howard's "Conan" novels? At right is a thumbnail of "The Moon's Rapture" by Frazetta. I'd love to have a framed print of this painting. But art like this is considered way too "dirty" for video games, even the ones that only adults are allowed to buy.

Maybe other gamers really are content with the way things are. Perhaps nobody else yearns for video games that respect us as adults.

It sure is lonely out on this limb.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Naked breasts vs. severed heads, Round 2

A previous post I wrote on Sythbane Squadron called "Naked Breasts, Severed Heads and Video Games" reached a wider audience today. A shortened version of it called "A Game of Double Standards" appeared in the newspaper, in the Sunday Commentary section of today's Birmingham News and on

The essay was shortened for space and toned down a little, but the theme is intact. It is expresses my dismay at how retailers have no problem with selling movies laden with brutal violence and torture, and despite their shrill condemnation of video games that depict nudity as indecent, nobody cares that they show a grotesque decapitated head on a DVD cover at kid's-eye level on the shelf. Even though such horrific violence in movies is routine, nudity and sensuality in video games are almost completely banned, even for games that are sold only to adults.

The condescending censorship applied to video games outrages me as an adult consumer. Why are video games with content analogous to R-rated movies banned? Nobody should be able to tell me that I can't buy a video game that includes some grown-up content. I can readily purchase an R-rated movie, but content that would give a movie an "R" would earn the "Adults Only" rating for a game -- which means it would be banned from the major game consoles, and it would be banned by major retailers.

More than the censorship issue, it appalls me that our society deems a naked human body more obscene than a butchered one.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Game Hard

"Walk Hard" is a movie that speaks to me, mumbling like Elvis, leaving me confused and laughing until my stomach hurts.

To see what I'm talking about, read a few lines from Dewey Cox's song "Royal Jelly," and I know it will touch you the way it touched me:

Mailboxes drip like lampposts in the twisted birth canal of the coliseum
Rim job fairy teapots mask the temper tantrum
O' say can you see 'em
Stuffed cabbage is the darling of the Laundromat
'N the sorority mascot sat with the lumberjack
Pressing passing stinging half synthetic fabrication of his-- Time
The mouse with the overbite explained how the rabbits were ensnared
'N the skinny scanty sylph trashed the apothecary diplomat
Inside the three-eyed monkey within inches of his toaster oven life
-- Dewey Cox, "Royal Jelly"

Three-eyed monkey indeed, Dewey. Three-eyed monkey, indeed!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Darth Talon art worth framing

The new "Legacy of the Force" Star Wars Miniatures series is out now. I have only three boxes so far, and the characters are cool, especially the red-armored Imperial Knights.

The box art is incredible. The painting of Darth Talon that graces one box is worth framing as an art print. Now I'm going to be looking for a print! In the meantime, I'm going to use some of these box covers as backgrounds for shadow boxes to display my collection. The other two boxes feature Boba Fett and Luke Skywalker.

I buy all my Miniatures from Double Header Sports Cards in Gardendale, Alabama. It's a mom-and-pop shop, and my friend Greg keeps all the latest Star Wars stuff well stocked. Go buy some Star Wars stuff from them and tell them Sythbane sent you!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Jackasses hurt gaming's bottom line

My theory that being a jackass in online gaming is a bad thing is bolstered today by a new article on Gamasutra by a game developer. Bill Fulton, who worked on Shadowrun, asserts in his essay, "Fixing Online Gaming Idiocy: A Psychological Approach," that online jerks are hurting the game industry by driving new customers away.

Research shows, he says, that new players would rather not play at all than subject themselves to all the verbal abuse. Fulton advocates engineering game features to create a social environment that discourages jerkism.

Not long ago I wrote about "Gamers at their worst," where I vented my outrage at the rampant use of the "N-word" in online games. It's encouraging to see that game companies have a financial incentive to build games in such a way to discourage awful behavior.

The bottom line is the only reason companies ever do anything. If they can make more money by creating a social environment online where it's uncool to spew racist, homophobic and generally crass babble, then more power to them.

I am frustrated, though, that withdrawing from a game early is classified as jerkish behavior. Many games penalize you for leaving early, and Xbox Live gamers can "avoid" you for it. I've been subjected to people leaving the game for no apparent reason, which can be annoying, but there are MANY legitimate reasons for leaving a game. The phone rings and it's an important call. The dog has to go out. Your wife needs help with the groceries. Or, you might want to check out of a game because the room is full of jerks spouting the N-word. You leave, because you're sick of hearing it, and then some jerk labels you a quitter.

What's the answer to that dilemma? Looks like some social engineering is in order, Mr. Fulton.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

See my Rainbow Six Vegas 2 review

Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2 has the best customization features of any game I know of, including role-playing games.

That's one highlight of my newly posted review of the game, which you can read on's Techcetera blog.

I must thank several of my online friends for unknowingly contributing to my review during the course of talking or playing with me: Fortiscule, Fartknockker, TheJoeyMo, StylishFever, Daddy Rocks LV and the cryptically named IC3W01Fcp666 (Ice Wolf). I hope you'll all recognize your particular contribution.

Don't miss the cool stuff about the Barrett M-468 on the second page of the review. It was interesting to me, so I thought you fellows might find it interesting as well.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Army of Two story is good, but ...

Army of Two has a really good story, but the arcade-shooting gameplay doesn't measure up to the other shooters out there now in Call of Duty 4 and Rainbow Six Vegas 2.

That's the gist of it, but please read my full review of Army of Two here. See if you agree or disagree, and leave comments!

Thanks again to valiant Fortiscule and the stalwart Fartknockker for playing co-op missions with me on Army of Two.

Despite shortcomings in the gameplay, who can resist liking the characters in Army of Two? They sure would make great G.I. Joes. Hasbro and EA should make a deal to make 12-inch action figures of Salem and Rios, since Hasbro is bringing back the 12-inch Joes this fall.

Speaking of G.I. Joes, one of my new compatriots in the Alabama Star Wars Syndicate found a picture of Ray Park (Darth Maul) in his new role as Snake Eyes.

If only Activision would get the video game license and get Infinity Ward to build a G.I. Joe video game on the COD4 chassis. How cool would that be?

I'll be writing my review of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2 this week, so stay tuned.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Rainbow Six Alabama

A high-five to Fortiscule and my friend Fartknockker!

Fortiscule and I played the first two-thirds or so of Rainbow Six Vegas 2 together in split-screen co-op, and then last night Fartknockker and I finished up the campaign together in online co-op.

Fortiscule and I are back online, by the way, thanks to Mrs. Sythbane's generosity. As Fartknockker said, "That's my kind of wife."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Three Rings for the Xbox kings ...

I've seen this before.

Back in August, this infernal winking afflicted my first Xbox 360. I sent it off and got it back Sept. 12. In fact, the lull was when I started this blog, while I was bored while my 360 was in limbo.

Now, six months later, my Microsoft-repaired machine has the Three Rings of Death again. They tell you to check the power supply light and make sure it's green, so my little slide show reveals the holy green light shining in the shadows.

The Three Rings struck on March 16. Now I have to go through the whole hassle all over again.

It's just a good thing Microsoft doesn't build spaceships.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Syth and Fort at OmegaCon 2008

Richard Hatch, the original Capt. Apollo from "Battlestar Galactica," is a great guy.

That's one of the things I learned yesterday when Fortiscule and I attended OmegaCon, a new science fiction convention in Birmingham.

We got a late start, having missed Friday's events entirely and arriving around 11 a.m. Saturday, but we made a big day of it nonetheless.
We might have attended today as well, but I was irked that although I had not attended Friday, the convention clerk refused to prorate the weekend admission price of $40, and said I could not buy a single-day $15 ticket for Sunday at all. That's just tacky, so they got only two single-day $15 tickets out of Fortiscule and me, instead of $30 apiece that we were willing to spend. Consider that for next year, organizers.

First we hit the dealer room, which was very well stocked. We both met Peter Mayhew, shaking hands with Chewbacca and getting our pictures made with him.

Then I zeroed in on some hard-to-find collectibles: a Halo 3 die-cast battle rifle in 1/6 scale, to use with G.I. Joes; a Hasbro Titanium Classic Colonial Viper from the original BattleStar Galactica, which is never in stock on; Star Wars Miniatures of Shaak Ti and Saisee Tiin which had always eluded me; a "Serenity" window sticker for my car; and a Firefly patch like Captain Mal wore.

Next we hit the Star Wars track room for a panel discussion on Star Wars collecting.

Then we hit my friend Mark Baggett's convention party. See the slide show for some party scenes!

Next we made the rounds and check out the costumed characters at the masquerade ball. After that, we hit the tabletop gaming parlor, where we visited with our friends Shane and Rachel and Kevin of Arc Dream Publishing, who were running a game of Godlike.

While in the game room, I saw Richard Hatch, the original Captain Apollo, wearing a woodland camo coat and playing his game The Great War of Magellan at a crowded table. I hovered near the table a few times trying to figure out how to approach him and ask him to sign my new die-cast classic Viper without being rude. I finally gave up, because there was no way to do it without just butting in, and I didn't want to be obnoxious. I am still amazed at the serendipity of seeing Hatch. I just recently bought a rare collectible at a flea market, a boxed set of 12-inch Apollo and Starbuck figures from the original "Galactica," wearing their all-white uniforms. Man, I wish I'd had that with me to get him to sign!

We left and went to a panel about the activities of the local Star Wars club -- the Alabama Star Wars Syndicate -- which we've been interested in for a long time. Fortiscule and I liked the people in the group, and we plan to get involved.

As we were leaving for the night, in the lobby I saw Richard Hatch again, with his entourage as he was leaving the hotel. Seeing my last chance, I rushed up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. You must remember that I was a devoted fan of Galactica when I was a kid in about the ninth grade in the late '70s. On Sunday evenings, I'd perch myself in front of the TV with a Totino's pizza and a Coke to watch Apollo fight Cylons, and that's what is running through my brain while I nervously wait to see if he'll crush my image of him from childhood, or live up to my hopes.

"Mr. Hatch, I'm a big fan of yours," I said, and explained that I'd seen him gaming earlier and didn't want to interrupt him, and asked if he would sign my little spaceship. The guy stopped, put his bag down, smiled, shook my hand and greeted me, signed the toy, and the nice lady who was with him took my camera out of my hand and shot our picture together!

Who could imagine a nicer celebrity than that? He has earned a permanent designation of swell-guy in my book.

OmegaCon 2008 looked like a success to us. There was a good crowd, with lots of people in costume and having fun. We met some nice folks with the Alabama Star Wars Syndicate. And, we me Peter Mayhew and Richard Hatch! We hope the convention comes backs next year, and maybe it'll be even better.