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Why Assassin’s Creed IV is the Best Exploration Game in Years: In Defense of the Abstraction of the World Map

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on November 3, 2013 by uzumerid

As I type this, the Jackdaw’s slowly sailing towards the Cayman, and I’ve got 2300 nautical miles to type this.

One of the best parts of games like Ultima VII or the Might & Magic series was the feeling of exploration. There was a vast world, and while there were a series of actions you needed to perform to progress the story, you could dick around, collect treasure and solve as many sidequests as you wanted for hours and hours and hours. While I really enjoy the Bioware RPG model, the fact is that there’s no way to go down a fun little side road and discover a small town with a little mystery or anything like that. Every location in the game is helpfully noted on a big map where you select your route, be it of Ferelden or the Milky Way, and what used to be a huge, majestic viewscape became yet another menu in a genre that, other than majestic viewscapes, is basically made up of menus.

But Electronic Arts assassinated the Ultima series, Bioware’s putting out fun story-based games with essentially linear series of events, and lord knows Square Enix seems terrified of putting a navigable world map in a Final Fantasy game. The fact of the matter is, for some reason, the abstraction of the navigable world map is dead.

It was always my favorite part of any RPG; leaving a town and seeing the gigantic scale of the world, crossing rivers, mountains and oceans, never mind the elated “fuck you” rush of finally getting a car, or boat, or airship, and giving the middle finger from on high to geological formations that had stymied me for hours and hours. As you play, the world gets smaller as your transportation options increase in number — but there’s no taking away that initial “wow” factor. However, as demand for verisimilitude grew, it seems developers became increasingly reluctant to embrace a world map that’s on a different scale factor from dungeons, towns, etc. Even in Ultima VI onward, the wilderness was on the same scale as more in-depth areas, which led to ridiculous bullshit like it taking as long to get from one side of Britain to the other as it did to get from Britain to, I dunno, Yew or Trinsic. But videogames aren’t about replicating reality, they’re about simulating just enough reality to make a metaphor clear, and using it to allow you to explore something you can’t explore in real life. At least to me.

I think that’s why I hate sewer levels and dark spaceships and bland office buildings: I mean, look, Call of Duty series, if I wanted to hang out in a war-torn hellscape city I don’t need to play a videogame, I can just drive to Detroit. I think my favorite part of a videogame is exploration, and I want to explore flying racist cities and underground temples and fields of purple grass with two suns in the sky, not shit I see every damn day. It seems to me like the games that give you the most exotic, breathtaking locations are the ones where you run on rails the most, with the notable exception of Xenoblade Chronicles, which featured some of the most brilliant art direction and world design I’ve ever seen, horribly muddied through a blurry-ass 480p Wii resolution limitation. But even that game is a series of connected areas; imagine how much more awesome it would have been if every area of the Bionis’s body had been fully mapped out, and you were able to fly around the damn thing in an airship.

In any case, I haven’t played a game in a very long time that gave me that feeling, that rush of a gigantic, beautiful, painstakingly created world where A) I know what the next thing to do is but B) I can decide not to do it and just explore and fuck around for hours and hours and hours, and in every nook and cranny is a fully detailed quest or set of characters or treasure or whatever.

Until Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

(I’ve reached Cayman by now, obviously, but the pause button is hit.)

The series flirted with open worlds with III’s Frontier between Boston and New York, but that was just a vast empty expanse of wilderness with huge expanses of woods with jack shit in them. Additionally, III totally ruined the series’ viewpoint mechanic, requiring you to actually run around this gigantic empty area in hope that you might find a chest you missed so you can try to perform that game’s dumb lockpicking minigame while redcoats are bayoneting the shit out of you.

IV hits just the perfect balance. There’s a gigantic world, yes, and you can explore wherever you want, but the game gives you just enough information that you’re not wandering around aimless without holding your hand. Unknown locations are designated with question marks, and you can find chests and ships while sailing to them. Sometimes you’ll take a detour to blow up a ship with some sweet booty, sometimes you’ll find a smuggler’s cove or a warehouse and line your pockets. If you blow up a fort in an area, it exposes the entire area on the map, so you can find all the stuff you’ve missed without having to comb over every square nautical mile of area in the game. There’s grinding to an extent, yes, but the reward structure is tiered so that you never have to grind too much before you get a tangible upgrade. It’s a hamster wheel like Cookie Clicker, yeah, but it’s one with an endpoint that leads to more and more fun shit like boarding gigantic ships or solving Mayan puzzles or letting you live out your Ahab fantasy as you harpoon a white whale. There’s ALWAYS something new to do, and it’s never far away; the very well-implemented fast travel mechanism allows you to get where you’ve already been without taking away the excitement of finding new places to go.

I don’t usually 100% games, but this one, I think, is going to be the exception. I don’t want to leave a single quest unsolved or endangered species slaughtered. Every single mechanic in this game is fun, from hunting to sailing to taking over forts to, especially, boarding other pirate vessels. I’ve been running around the game world finding collectibles, and unlike, well, almost every game mechanic in III, I’m not finding it even remotely tedious.

I feel pretty confident in saying this is the best Assassin’s Creed game since Brotherhood. It’d probably be the greatest in the series if you combined this game’s incredibly polished, well-balanced, fun gameplay with the far more mature and thought-provoking narrative of III. Then again, that was a game about Pyrrhic victories and winning the battle while losing the war, while this is a game about pirates being totally awesome and colonialism being for chumps, so maybe it better suits the gameplay. I dunno.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go explore the Caymans and hunt down a Templar key.


Iron Man, Court of Owls and the Baby Swap (Spoilerz for IM17 obvs)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on October 24, 2013 by uzumerid

I ain’t talked about comics in a while, so c’mon, y’all, let’s rap about COMICS.

Kieron Gillen and Carlo Pagulayan wrapped up the “Secret Origin of Tony Stark” arc in Iron Man yesterday, and when I closed the proverbial cover/touched “Back” on my iPad, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the work Snyder, Tynion and Albuquerque did in the flashback backups near the end of their Court of Owls megastory in Batman.

In those backups, I was dead positive that the child Martha was pregnant with was Bruce, and that the older child we’d seen in the flashbacks was actually Thomas all along. Instead, Snyder used the New 52 to have Bruce remember his mother having a failed pregnancy when he was a kid, with the eventual revelation that Thomas actually was born, was kept in a hospital and eventually got taken in by the Court of Owls, all under Li’l Brucie’s li’l nose, which is fair because he was more concerned about Tonka trucks, experimental Waynetech 3D mapping technologies and spelunking at that age than trying to figure out what was going on with his psychopathic, sinister bro. It was a reveal that worked well, with the arc finally ending with a question mark over whether Lincoln March was actually Thomas Wayne Jr. or just a dude the Court of Owls selected and tricked into thinking he was TW2. (This, by the way, should be his new supervillain name since Owlman is taken by his Earth-3 counterpart.)

But meanwhile, over in Iron Man, Gillen’s been pulling the wool over my eyes for months. We’ve had flashback after flashback of Howard and Maria Stark during a pregnancy, and the entire goddamn time the idea that the kid wasn’t Tony never even crossed my mind. I almost wonder if I wouldn’t have been more suspicious if I hadn’t just gotten burned a year ago with that suspicion in Batman. Either way, the moment of realization was beautifully delivered, and was all the more agreeable because Gillen very cleverly posited us with a far more upsetting change a few issues earlier: the idea that Tony Stark was himself a biological robot, a deterministic machine rather than a self-made, free-thinking human. Now, the record’s been flipped to the total other side: not only is Tony completely self-made, he’s self-made to the point where all he inherited from the Starks was their money and memes, NOT their genes. He’s got social privilege, there’s no question about that, but he wasn’t a missile pointed at his path by a consequentialist space robot, he’s a man who chose it freely given the opportunities available to him. He’s even more self-made than he was before.

(I’d pay money for a story of Li’l Genius Tony fucking around at the orphanage or wherever the Starks got him, manipulating people and events and making sure he gets adopted by them so he can have access to their resources.)

Anyway: while Lincoln March/TW2/New Earth Owlman/Crazy Zombie Motherfucker has, for now, slipped off the map, I’m really looking forward to the upcoming adventures of the Super Stark Brothers, who, I can only hope, will soon have a riotous, head-block-busting time against some Hammer Brothers.

David Tries to Talk About Music: “Black Skinhead.”

Posted in Uncategorized on May 23, 2013 by uzumerid

It’s 1996. I’ve finally broken past the parental wall (actually self-inflicted due to having nightmares from other stuff by the same dude) and gotten a copy of The Downward Spiral. “Hurt” ends for the first time. A painted wire-mesh shelf, simultaneous with the final chords of that song, collapses from my wall, leaving open screw-bore holes in the wall.

It’s 2013. I like Kanye a lot.

Actually, “like” might be too weak a word. I’m the dude who oh-shitted himself when Love Lockdown premiered at the MTV Music Awards; I’m the dude who spent his univeristy career DJing parties with Kanye songs; from College Dropout to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, this is one of those arenas of pop culture where I will utterly, unapologetically, declare myself a “fan.”

So. “Black Skinhead.”

One of the things I love about Kanye’s music is the sense of momentum. A lot of RZA beats, for instance, while incredibly clever, are by their very nature laconic (notable exceptions: Triumph, for one), but something I love about Kanye’s production style is that everything is leading towards a crescendo. It’s one of the reasons “Devil in a New Dress” was by far my least favorite song on MBDTF; there was an… overbearing, repetitive consistency to it that wasn’t shared by tracks like “Monster” or “Gorgeous,” and it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason why “DiaND” bored me where those two tracks didn’t. It’s totally possible it was due to the seeping knowledge that Kanye didn’t produce the track, but even if he didn’t, he chose that production, so it’s equally part of his artistic statement.

In the parlance of American comics, an album like Jay-Z’s Black Album is a bunch of oneshots with different artists — Timbaland ‘draws’ “Dirt Off your Shoulder,” Rick Rubin ‘draws’ “99 Problems.” The tracks aren’t Jay-Z, but Jay-Z writing rhymes for the world’s best producers, and it’s very, very good.

Kanye, though — the dude is Frank Miller, or Dave Sim, or whoever you feel like throwing into the “talented writer/artist” paradigm. And “Black Skinhead,” the first time I saw it during the first time I ever downloaded an SNL episode to watch the musical bits instead of the skits, that shit is exemplary.

When it comes to my taste in music, everything boils down to shades of Trent Reznor and Billy Corgan, the progenitors of my adolescent love for the medium. One of them is a forward-thinking elder statesman; the other is a hysterical, delusional laughingstock. Pretty clear where I throw my allegiance. From the rapidly-flickering black-and-white stage show, to the hard-edged production that Spin would have called “industrial” in 1998 (which is accurate because it’s the drumbeat to Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” a song produced by Trent Reznor, sampled and filtered through KanyeWest(x)), to Kanye holding the microphone stand rather than just dropping that son of a bitch and walking around on stage with the mic in his hand — that shit was a musical performance designed to make me sit up and listen; one of my favorite musical artists (MBDTF is my most listened-to album of the ’10s so far, I’m pretty sure) embracing an aesthetic I’ve adored since before I developed a scrotum.

And why? Momentum. Listen to that song — listen to the increasing crescendo in Kanye’s anger and frustration, the almost-sexual tension-and-release, the overwhelming passion that comes across is incalculable. I fucking love it. I can’t explain why lyrics that are far more clever — from dudes like GZA/Genius to, I dunno, like anything by Biggie — leave a scant echo of the mark that tracks like “Black Skinhead,” or Outkast’s “Gasoline Dreams,” or Tyler, the Creator’s “Yonkers” get me utterly revved-up and excited about. Maybe I’m just more attracted, musically, to anger than chillness, and this is why I’m the only dude alive willing to admit that he still listens to U2.

Basically, I’m fucking clueless and dumb about music, and I’m actually tone-deaf, as any poor asshole who’s ever had to witness me performing karaoke can attest, at least after ear surgery. But there’s something about “Black Skinhead” that makes me want to go be active, DO something. For my own dumbass self, that’s the best quality music can have.

Yeezus Forever.

Star Trek Into Darkness: Spoilers and Shit Below This Fold, So Watch Out

Posted in Uncategorized on May 16, 2013 by uzumerid

I’m gonna leave a gigantic wall space here since i don’t want to spoil anybody, but I really can’t talk about this movie — and how it is the absolute perfect model of commercial fanservice in 2013 — without them. So here we go.


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Get Back, Kangarat; Better Get Back To The Net

Posted in Uncategorized on August 30, 2011 by doctorcasino

Hey, folks! This is a holdover post to insist that, no, we have not wandered off into Blog Heaven and yes, we will be returning soon (possibly with some bionic limbs and new, mysteriously upgraded powers) with our first look at Morrison/Millar/Paul Ryan Flash!  IT WILL HAPPEN!

In the meantime, here’s a few treats from the 2011 ZINGS AND BRILLIANT IDEAS FILE! Because YOU THINK WE’RE HILARIOUS!  And because we hope that the Powers that Be will see some of our great story ideas and hire us on the spot.  We’ve got a phone, Marvel.  In fact, we’ve got two of them.

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A Short Post About a Bar

Posted in Uncategorized on February 4, 2011 by uzumerid

Just a quick blurb to get the word out: last night I was at Grace O’Malley’s in downtown Toronto. While on my way to the bathroom, I got accosted by two huge bouncers who said they needed to talk to me. I’d just gotten there from the Ballroom, so when they asked me where my friends were, I accidentally said “upstairs” – I was a bit freaked out at the time, so I forgot we’d moved. I was informed there was no upstairs and that I should go home, since I was clearly lying. When I asked why I’d been removed and couldn’t get back in, I was told it was because I didn’t “have boobs.” With no way to contact my friends outside, I had to leave my phone and laptop bag there, since they wouldn’t let me retrieve them. I had to just go home and email everybody and tell them to hold on to my phone and laptop so I could get them at work tomorrow.

So, uh, anything I can do to hurt their business is fine with me. Be warned.

New Shit for 3/29/2010

Posted in Uncategorized on March 30, 2010 by uzumerid

Two new bits up at Comics Alliance:

Mark Millar is editing an issue of Wizard Magazine (seriously)

A piece about Blackest Night and DC’s fan relations that I’m kinda proud of

I know I’m behind on Batman and Robin annotations, you can crucify me for it here in the comments if you so desire.