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Monday, July 11, 2011

Summer Breeze

Well, looks like my schedule slipped a little.  During this time, my first semester of college ended, I went to London, the US intervened in Libya, E3 began and ended, and I'm still not done with Shogun.  C'est la vie, except I really have no excuse for not writing anything.  Actually, that makes it sound like I'm obligated to do this: I'm not.  Luckily, since nobody actually reads this except friends and family, I can't say I feel all torn up about it.

However, since it's been so long, I have a lot that I could potentially talk about.  However, if I were to talk about everything, the post would be enormously long, and my patience would wear thin that by the time I got to the finish, I'd be at the point of saying "yeah, Eden of the East is good.  It'  Super 8 is good too.  I mean, yeah, it' too."  Nobody wants to read that, and I really don't want to write it.

A good place to start might be talking a bit about Birds of Prey, since I mentioned it last article, and I'm still playing it.  In fact, guess what's on the TV screen to my right at this very moment?  If you guessed Birds of Prey, here's an internet cookie.  That way, I'll know you read this and will be able to keep track of your preferences too (sorry, I couldn't resist ^_^).

What Am I Playing?
Yep, still Birds of Prey.  During the intervening time, I played and finished Portal 2, Crysis 2, the DLC for Mass Effect 2, Galaxy on Fire 2, and the Cold War Crisis mod for C&C Generals.  Yet, every week or so, I'll pop in Birds of Prey and shoot down some hapless Tommies over the English Channel in my Bf-109 G6 (insert your own "like a G6" joke here).  This is not because it's any better than the other games, but because of an inherent quality in the game that illustrates a dichotomy in gaming that I'm kind of surprised nobody has really talked about much before.  All games have mechanics to them, but these mechanics can be used to two ends: to creating a game (without a context), or to tell a story.  Often, the same game will have single player and multiplayer components that do this within the same game.  However, some games, like Birds of Prey, largely eschew storytelling for the game aspects.  This is why you can sit down and play some Birds of Prey without much of a commitment, while with, for instance, Crysis 2, the (single player aspect) game is not divided in such a way that one can treat it as a game.

Birds of Prey does do something kind of interesting though: due to its realistic nature as a flight simulator, its single player campaign uses its mechanics to give the player an idea of what flying sorties during World War 2 might have actually been like.  Many World War 2 games use the Ken Burns voiceover device to drive their stories, with the same goal, but Birds of Prey is different in that it actually works.  This has never happened before, like, ever.  I'm not quite certain why it works; I'd have to play through the game's campaign again (which I may do eventually anyway).

The Xbox 360 controller has two joysticks, and one might think that because of this, a flight simulator would be rather natural to have on the system.  Nope.  Well, not perfectly, anyway.  The problem with this is, for a realistic flight model, the range of motion of the sticks is such that at normal sensitivity, every twitch sends your plane into a flat spin.  Birds of Prey has multiple levels of realism, and at simulator level, you have to be extremely careful to the point of distraction.  It's like the first prototypes of the F-16 must have been like: with the joystick purely pressure sensitive, and prone to over-rotation.  You also have to have very good eyes, because the same control stick that controls your rudder and throttle also controls your view.  At simulator realism, you can't ever have your thumb off the rudder, so between those two problems, Birds of Prey's highest realism setting is rather impractical.  

Fortunately, "realistic" seems to be a nice compromise.  It has a slightly less demanding flight model, allows you to lock your view onto enemy aircraft without having to stop using the rudder for a moment, and allows you to use the 3rd person view.  While using the view from the cockpit adds a certain level of badassery, third person better allows you to enjoy the pretty scenery (which is, indeed, quite pretty).

Of course, the scenery isn't so pretty that it couldn't stand some improvement.  I think some flaming debris would look lovely on that little foothill by the Longanus river.

Incidentally, I hear there'll be another similar game by the same developers, but set in the Pacific.  I'll definitely check it out, if I'm not too busy saving the galaxy from the which I mean, studying...studiously.

Another game I seem to be playing a lot recently is the Cold War Crisis mod for Command and Conquer Generals.  I say this is a new game, even though technically it's a free mod, because even though some of the basic assets are the same, the gameplay in Cold War Crisis is so dissimilar from that of Command and Conquer Generals (or any C&C game) that to call it the same game would be grossly inaccurate.  First of all, I suppose I should mention that the game is set in the 1980s, during a conventional war between NATO and the Soviet Union.  Tanks roll back and fourth as the two powers fight for control of cities and strategic points.  This is the war we were actually prepared to fight during the 70s, 80s, and 90s that so threw off our footing during the Vietnam War and all the bushfire incidents since that the big, heavy mechanized infantry forces were all but useless during.  Here though, you get to use your tanks as tanks and not mobile cover for your infantry.

Really, I'm kind of amazed they managed to pull off what they did within the confines of the SAGE engine.  As a modder myself, I'm very aware of the capabilities of the engine, and I can usually figure out how various unit abilities work, so I understand how difficult it must have been, for instance, to script the AI to go in and out of prone.  While this may sound simple, even this basic feature is rather difficult to execute, requiring the model animations, the module parameters in the unit, and the AI scripting.  It all adds up to a very polished game with some very nice tactical gameplay.

This isn't the first game I've played with this concept.  World in Conflict has a very similar premise, and I've played the demo several times.  The difference here is, the units in World in Conflict are interchangeable and without a certain personality.  They're balanced to the point where there's little strategy.  CWC is fairly well balanced, but the abilities of each unit are distinct, and the sides significantly divergent without it becoming the inevitable slaughter for NATO a real conventional war with the Soviet Union would have been.

Really, in many ways, CWC is a better game than Generals ever was.  The only thing Generals did inarguably better was music and voice acting.  CWC's soundtrack isn't so much bad as Generals' soundtrack is extraordinary.  I still don't think it gets quite enough recognition, though oddly enough I do occasionally hear a track being used in a commercial.  I've put together a sort of unofficial soundtrack of 80s German pop-rock that fits quite a bit better.  99 Luftballons is great music to have tank battles to.  As for the voice acting, it's vital to mention that CWC was developed by a team in Germany.  Not only are none of them voice actors, but none of them speak English or Russian natively.  The American units are mostly voiced by the same guy, who seems to be trying to speak with an "American" accent.  Actually, that's not quite right, he seems to be trying to do a Jimmy Stewart impression.  Combined with the fact that units seem to like telling trivia about themselves when clicked on, this makes for some very weird radio chatter.

What I'd really like to see though, is a similar game using the GEM 2 engine that's worked so well for Men of War.  The GEM 2 engine is capable of doing all the things that the coders working on CWC had to work so hard for naturally, and can do some things that the SAGE engine simply can't, like complex damage models and fuel.  Also, if it wouldn't hurt, a mac version might be nice.

Incidentally, I still haven't gotten to reading Red Storm Rising.  That'd be a good book to read on the beach, I think.

I would not call CWC a casual game, but I do tend to play it casually, while listening to podcasts, usually about anime.

What Am I Listening To?
There are many anime podcasts, and though I can't claim to have listened to all of them, I feel that I can make the dubious blanket statement that most anime podcasts really, really suck.  Perhaps it's just me, since I really can't honestly call myself an anime fan for the sake of anime as I am a fan of good visual storytelling, but a podcast should succeed and fail on its own merits, and most mumble their way into the fail category.  The best I've come across have been Anime World Order and ANNcast, and I like both for pretty much the same reason: they're interesting.  In both cases, the hosts are knowledgeable, have strong and interesting opinions, and most importantly have very obvious chemistry.  I especially like ANNcast primarily because of its two hosts: Zac Bertschy and Justin Sevakis.  Both are not only long time survivors of the anime industry, but also film nerds in their own right: they have a strong knowledge of how films are put together and well thought out review theory, and so they both are very adept at analyzing why certain shows, in their opinion, succeed and fail.  Moreover, their experience in the industry gives them a similar depth of insight into the production side of things, which is what they spend most of their time talking about with their various guests.  What really makes them a great team though, is the fact that they're actually very interesting people, with nuanced opinions and personalities that play off of each other in fascinating ways.

Since I seem to have somewhat similar tastes to Justin and Zac (but especially Justin), they're also a very good source of recommendations.  It's come to my attention that I still have not watched a single Satoshi Kon or Mamoru Oshii film, despite that from what I hear, their bodies of work are both extensive and have a large amount of material that I'd probably like.  Ghost in the Shell is on Netflix streaming, and that's next on my list after Grave of the Fireflies (I can't remember if I put that on there, or if my mom did).  Unfortunately, it seems Netflix doesn't have the rights to Patlabor 2.  Oh well.  Paprika and Perfect Blue are both in the queue.

Their interview with engineer/amateur historian/otaku Walter Amos also led me to Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

What Am I Watching?
Legend of the Galactic Heroes isn't a great name for any show, and it's really not a great name for this show.  Legend of the Galactic Heroes sounds like a shounen fighting anime from the 80s.  While the 80s part is accurate, the shounen fighting show is way off the mark, like a trebuchet operated by blind people launching water balloons at a wing of Persian calvary.  LoGH is a show about two tactical geniuses - Yang Wenli and Reinhard von Lohengramm - and the personal and political intrigue around them as they fight a meaningless war between Space Rome and Space Prussia the Alliance and the Empire.  It's a space opera, certainly, and as of episode 23, it's one of the best I've ever seen or read.

It's often said that Legend of the Galactic Heroes was never popular in the States because its natural audience isn't the typical anime fan, but the typical literary sci-fi fan.  LoGH has a reputation for being long, dry, and filled to the brim with talking heads.  Of these, it's certainly long (at a hundred and something episodes), and there are so many characters that their names are often subtitled a la Tora, Tora, Tora, but as for being dry and boring, though the combat action sequences are far between, it is not a show lacking in action.  The action of LoGH is in the many layers of motivations and relationships between its exceptionally well explored cast of characters.  I'm tempted to draw a parallel to the works of James Michener or James Clavell (the most common analogy is to Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, but the focus and means of the two strike me as too disparate, the only commonality being the truckloads of dialog).

I initially feared the scope of the plot would swallow up any attempt at character development, what with the wide shots and the subtitles and shots of people looking contemplative at (two dimensional *facepalm*) displays of fleet formations.  At first glance, LoGH does seem to treat its characters like chess pieces rather than characters, like so many similar shows, films, and books do.  For the most part, these fears have been proven wrong.  While LoGH has more sedately plot and character development than other shows, it's quite good at layering subtext into its space that it never really wastes any time on establishing the big picture because it never quite stops developing its characters.  Similarly, though it's a good hundred episodes or so long, I haven't yet encountered a single filler episode.  Everything eventually factors into the bigger picture: not a part is out of place.  As its source material is a long running novel series, this isn't as surprising as you might think.  It does, however, point out a rather apparent flaw in most long running anime: that nobody really knows how to plan a series long arc in a way that there aren't any loose hanging threads anymore.

When I watched the first episode, LoGH immediately earned the distinction of being one of the first shows in a while at made me look at the blank screen and go "I need to watch more of this, like, right now."  If it existed on DVD in America, I'd snap it up in an instant.  Of course, nobody wants to license it.  It's a really long show with 80s animation that has exactly 582 likes on facebook.  As respected as some of those 582 people are, 582 units moved does not a profit make.  For now, fansubs from some worn-out VHS transfer in youtube 480p are all we can get.

Actually, even in these days of cheap computer animation and adobe illustrator, I think there's something to be said for the matte, hand painted style of 80s shows.  Akira is the poster child for beautiful analog animation, but Legend of the Galactic Heroes still has a certain elegance to it, aided by its exceptional character designs and art style.  With a cast as large as LoGH's, a bunch of spiky haired bishounen is going to get really confusing, really fast.  This is the problem Starship Operators had (besides having really dull characters and bad voice actors).  Not only does LoGH succeed in making its characters visually distinct in subtle ways, but everyone has really awesome uniforms.  The Alliance gets cool berets, and the Empire gets...well...Prussian military uniforms IN SPAAAACE (which is cool too).

I Can't Think Of A Good Transition Right Now
Prussian military uniforms may be in space, but you know what's not in space?  The space shuttle.  Or at least, it won't be for much longer, and...I can't say I disagree with this move.  I'm convinced that, if we don't start moving out into space, humanity will end up without the resources to maintain our current level of technology, and can almost certainly never have the amount of resources to even support the sort of population we're heading towards.  We may well end up dying back so far in population and technology that it may be literally impossible to rebuild to anything like a present day quality of life.  Yet, the space shuttle program was very expensive, and produced no real returns.  Though I hate to say it, the government has better places to put its money than the space program, like China's pockets.  I actually feel a bit better now the program is ended.  However, private ventures into space flight may be the key to saving not only the space program, but eventually mankind itself.  If this were a serious blog, and I actually knew what I was talking about, I'd explore this line of inquiry to its logical conclusions.  However, this is not a serious blog, and I haven't the faintest idea what I'm talking about, so let's talk about London a bit.

There was really good food.

Yeah, I had been planning on writing a long piece about my trip to London, but I really don't feel like recalling all my talking points right now.  Check back later.

Wow.  This blog is really, really shallow.  I'll have to think of something actually important to talk about.