Monday, July 29, 2013

I finished Shadowrun Returns... here's what I think sucks about it

This game is awesome. If you're interested in it at all you should pick it up. The following is just nitpicking, but prospective buyers should know this stuff anyway.


The game play is extremely linear

This may be because I didn't research what I was buying (promotional materials and video walk-throughs spoil too much of the fun), but I expected more exploration. I expected dialogue decisions to have consequences. I expected to be able to approach goals in multiple ways. Once you're in a mission there's very little in the way of variety. Harebrained Studios promises the next official campaign will be more open-world, but it just seems unlikely unless the core engine is revamped. So expect puzzles to be more like an old school adventure game.

The save system... or lack thereof

I didn't think the checkpoint system was an issue until I got to the extremely difficult last stage of the game (two of my team were dead and the surviving member was a very bad choice from the get-go). Holy shit the game got frustrating quickly. I still think that, overall, the checkpoint system isn't as bad as some people are saying, but it could definitely use some tweaks. I don't mind restarting a chunk of combat, but whenever I have to go through the same dialogue tree multiple times I wonder why there wasn't a checkpoint after the conversation.

The matrix is pretty bland

When you jack into cyberspace your avatar's avatar is just a neon wireframe. Combat in the matrix is nearly identical to combat in meat space. Want to know how to hack a server? Drum-roll please: you click on it. That's it. How exciting, right? However, once the disappointment wears off it is fun to simultaneously fight in meat space and the matrix.

At the end of the day I've played plenty of AAA titles with a lot more bugs and a lot less sophistication. Aside from a little bit of stuttering and a frame-drop here and there, the game is super sleek and super cool. The more you like cyberpunk (or Shadowrun) the more you should like this. I'm eager to try user-generated content for the game out, but I doubt there will be much to choose from for a few weeks.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Someone paid to see House Party 5 (yes, with real money)

The other day I was browsing the Playstation store and discovered there's a new House Party movie. Curiosity got the better of me and I watched the trailer. There are bad movies, there are really bad movies, and then there's House Party 5 which, believe it or not, costs like ten bucks to watch. You don't need to see the movie to make that assumption. Hell, you don't even have to see the trailer to know it's likely the worst movie of 2013.


There was one user review. The rater gave it one star. This means:

1. Someone actually paid to see House Party 5.
2. They hated it.

What were they expecting? Did they see the trailer and think, "That might be good"? Did they accidentally rent it? Did a toddler get a hold of their remote and find his way to the checkout screen?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Shadowrun Returns: First Impressions

If you read my post on Cypher, you know I'm a fan of cyberpunk in general, but particularly cyberpunk games. I never played the tabletop version of Shadowrun (always wanted to; I own the first edition, in fact), but I did have an obsession with the Genesis version as a kid.

 reminds you of the old Blade Runner adventure game, doesn't it?

I just played 70 minutes of Shadowrun Returns and I think it's safe to say that if you're a fan of anything Shadowrun you'll probably like it. The roleplaying is heavy, there's a ton of reading (no voice acting, but you really won't miss it), and the writing is quite good. The turn-based combat is, unexpectedly, a lot like XCOM: Enemy Unknown (the newer one). In some ways it's better. I haven't found myself nearly as frustrated with SR as I did XCOM.

With hand-painted backgrounds and 3D character models that fit in, Shadowrun Returns is a lot slicker than I expected. Not just the way it looks, either.

I think you should play the storyline for yourself, but I'll fill you in just in case you're still trying to decide if you want to buy. After a fairly short character customization screen you begin in an rundown apartment with very little in the way of tutorials and hints. Eventually you get a call from an old acquaintance who wants you to investigate a death: his own. Writing cyberpunk is harder than most sub-genres because you gotta keep the flavor without borrowing too much from the writers of the eighties. It's a fine line to walk, but so far Shadowrun Returns delivers.

I can't wait to play more later this weekend.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

F6s, Sharknados, and computing during Oklahoma weather

Two nights ago a hell of a storm hit Tulsa. Here are some pictures of the devastation:


I used to have my own classification for storms:

F1: No visible damage.
F2: Trashcan lids flipped.
F3: Trashcans knocked over.
F4: Porch chairs moved.
F5: Chairs off porch. 

Recently I had to add a newer classification, F6: Chairs and trashcans moved across driveway. You can see two chairs in the picture above. The third one is in the trashcan. I've also heard rumors of an F7, which is when a tornado contains living, vicious sharks, but these are more probable in Los Angeles.

my mother raved about how stupidly entertaining this movie was

The only thing left on the porch was the towel you can see beside our dog, Napoleon. That towel wasn't there when the storm began. More destruction came in the form of downed limbs:


my poor bbq grill

The real damage was done to my computer. Yes, it was on a surge protector. Yes, most of the important information was backed up. In fact, when the power returned in the morning, the first thing I did was make sure my computer was okay. It was. Feeling like I dodged a bullet, I decided to install a spare hard drive to copy over a bunch of newer files for safekeeping. While I was rebooting after the hardware installation, another power outage struck. This time when the power returned, my computer was stuck in a boot cycle that even Hiren's BootCD couldn't fix. 

My hard drive was a goner.

Now, I'm used to hard drive failures because for some silly reason I bought an HP tower (which has since been Frankensteined into a fairly bad ass machine, not including the somewhat sketchy mobo that has no English documentation anywhere on the web). I was on my third hard drive when technical support asked me to renew my warranty. I kindly told the Indian on the phone no, I would rather just buy a new internal hard drive rather than continually receiving the model that's known to be a faulty piece of shit. (HP knows it's a piece of shit and yet they keep sending it to customers, although I've read rumors it's actually the mobo that fucks up the HDD.) 

I prepared for the inevitable HDD crash by buying the new hard drive during an Amazon sale a year and a half ago: 3 terabytes of awesome goodness. It was a mechanical drive, sure, but at seventy-something bucks it wasn't a bad purchase by any means.

Problem is, my BIOS and motherboard don't like 3tb drives and refused to install Windows to the HDD I bought. Sure, it'll work fine as a storage drive, but not as a boot drive. So I grabbed a solid state drive, which I love. It took around ten minutes to install Windows, ten more to go fetch my drivers and preferred browsing apps. Now, less than an hour later, I'm writing this post.

Which reminds me about my luck with computers. When I was in high school I had a Gateway computer. I kept that piece of shit running for years through frequent maintenance and replacing of parts. One time I asked for help in an online technical support forum and one of the replies accused me of lying. He said, and I quote, "There's no way you have that model and it's still running." In fact, I'm sure it'll still run today; it's in my computer nursing home at the back of my office closet.

Anyway, if I have enough time (I probably won't) I plan to get Shadowrun Returns sometime tonight and review it here. So keep an eye out for that; I'm sure I'll get my hands on it and write about it sometime before Monday. Although I actually own vintage Shadowrun books, I've never played the tabletop game... or any tabletop game for that matter. I did have a childhood obsession with the Sega Genesis version and I'm no stranger to the SNES version, either. We'll see how it holds up, but I should warn you I kind of liked the FPS that came out not too long ago. You know the one that everybody hates? So hey, what do I know?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Here's the cover for Under The Bed, which features one of my stories

Hey, look whose name is on the cover of this kick-ass magazine:


That's right. Coming soon to a reading device near you.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

10 Things that suck about Marvel Unlimited's Android app

UPDATE: The night after I posted this there was a storm that knocked out my power and Internet. Below I tell you that Marvel Unlimited's Android app sucks because it limits you to six offline comics. That night I couldn't access a single one. After my power and internet were restored I decided to go back to the app. Now I get an error that won't even let me launch it. Like I say below, it's a huge pain in the ass.

Marvel Unlimited really is the Netflix of Marvel comics. So far I've averaged more time per day using MU than I've ever used Netflix in a single day. Just to be clear (because there's a lot of confusion about this), Marvel employs the term "Unlimited" the way cellular phone providers and cable services do—it's just a marketing word now, all pillow talk. Some people think that, for ten dollars a month, you're going to get all the new comics delivered directly to your tablet. You're not. I'm not sure if you've looked at the price tag on a modern comic lately, but there's no way Marvel is going to let you have all the stuff they release each week for a measly $60/year.

or WHAT goddamn it?!

This is where the comparison to Netflix makes the most sense: if you want brand new stuff you're going to have to pay for it separately. With a few exceptions, I'm not the biggest fan of modern comics anyway. If you're anything like me the service will pay for itself in as little as a day. I'm a guy who gets sick of things pretty quickly. Yet I've gotten hours of enjoyment from MU.

Don't sign up just yet, however. The Android app for Marvel Unlimited is bad. And I mean really, really bad. If you're used to reading comics on Comixology and CBreaders like ComicRack, you're going to get frustrated quickly. Even if you haven't been spoiled by the slickness of these standards you're prone to toss your tablet at the window anyway. As usual, developers decided to focus on the Apple version while throwing Android's together with little to no thought put into it.

I want to point out that the app, if the comments on Play are any indication, is actually improving. It apparently went from diarrhea to slightly solid turds, but hopefully the trend will continue. As it is, the MU app is the shittiest app I actually use. For all the downfalls, there just isn't a legitimate deal anywhere else quite as good as Marvel Unlimited.

Things that suck about the Marvel Unlimited app:

1. Zoom sucks. They didn't have zoom at all to begin with. When you spread your fingers on the screen you expect the interface to know that's the position where you want to zoom. The MU app doesn't know this. It always zooms to the center of the comic regardless of where your fingers are placed. Then you have to then drag your finger across the screen (always more than once) to find the rough location of what you were looking for in the first place. I've spent a lifetime training myself not to look at panels ahead of the one I'm on (a huge accomplishment for an impatient child, mind you) and this kind of defeats that training.

2. Resolution sucks. Once you zoom in to a detail you can't quite make out, you'll wonder why you tried to zoom at all. 

3. The MU app doesn't care if your tablet's rotation is locked, it'll rotate all damn day until the cows come home. When I'm reading in bed, I do a lot of turning, which inevitably makes the app rotate the page. This normally wouldn't be such a big deal if A) I could turn off the feature in the app's settings and B) the view would return to portrait mode. See, once the app decides to go widescreen it ain't going back. I used to have to back out of the app altogether, reload the comic, and flip through the pages again to find where I left off. That's a major pain in the ass. I found that if you return the tablet to its upright position, go back a page and go forward again, the problem corrects itself. This "solution" is still a pain in the ass, just not as major. Which reminds me...

4. No bookmarks. If you leave the comic you're reading for any reason, you had better leave the app running in the background. Otherwise it doesn't give a shit about continuity and it'll make you hunt for where you left off. That's a major oversight in design.

5. Page turning isn't as responsive as it should be. The only exception is when you accidentally turn the page. Then it seems as if it's trying to set a world record.

6. Entire word balloons don't load. So far, reloading the comic does not fix this issue. I assume this means MU isn't just sending us simple JPEG scans, but two or more layers per each image. But if you think it's easy reading a comic without a word balloon you're crazy. Although it's kind of neat to see the art unblocked, more than half the time that this happens you can't read the black lettering because there isn't any white there to contrast it. Good luck trying to figure out who's saying what, too. I checked: I don't have the same problem with disappearing balloons when I'm reading on the desktop. But imagine being on a long bus ride with no internet access and finding the six comics you chose for offline viewing are unreadable. Worse, those six comics are a tight run so you don't want to read the next one in line until you can read the first one. Oh yeah, and...

7. The limit of six comics (again, "Unlimited" is just a buzz word these days) for offline reading was obviously implemented by someone who doesn't use the service, never would use the service, and doesn't give a shit about anyone who does. I can connect my tablet to the internet when I'm on the prowl in town, sure, but it's a pain in the ass and I usually choose not to do it. But my job takes me out of town weekly and podunks aren't exactly known for amazing cellular reception anyway.

8. Lack of settings. Going back to point 3, I really wanted to turn rotate off. No problem, I thought. I'll just check the settings. Funny thing about that: there aren't any.

9. The app really looks like something designed by an amateur. The online desktop version looks pretty shitty, too.

10. Smart panel view isn't nearly as smart as Comixology.

I have a few issues with the service itself, too. As seen in the picture near the top of this post, there are frequent bugs here and there. There are also gaps in series continuity that'll leave you scratching your head. For instance, if you want to read Wolverine's first appearance in Incredible Hulk #180, no problem. But if you want to read the conclusion in #181 then you're shit out of luck 'cause it ain't there.

But back to the tune I was singing when I began this post: I love the service. I'm reading stuff I never thought I'd get to read and sometimes stuff I never thought I wanted to read. Bugs and shitty apps aside, it is a wonderfully convenient service. In my mind, it's easily worth the price. I read a lot more than ten dollars worth of stuff in the first night alone.

Monday, July 22, 2013

My story Phantasmagoria will be published in Under The Bed

Under the Bed (formerly eHorror) is publishing my short story Phantasmagoria in its August 2013 issue, which should be available here for four bucks. I'll post a reminder when it's out.


Phantasmagoria is a dark fantasy story about a couple of teens who get on a haunted house ride at their local amusement park. The ride hangs a right where it normally takes a left and, well, the boy gets lucky... then extremely unlucky.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

GTA V gameplay trailer... looks like I'm taking a vacation on the 17th of September



The lack of a PC version for this is just criminal. Still, I knew I was getting this game before it was even announced. Sometime between the character-switching demo and the scuba diving in the video above, I decided harder... if that makes sense.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Lawnmower Man... from the imagination -- ------- ---- comes the story of a man

A /r/printsf user points out how terrible Lawnmower Man was by pointing out the following:

It was such a departure from the story that Stephen King demanded they remove his name from the abomination - but the studio had already shown trailers which said "From the imagination of Stephen King comes a tale..."
Rather than re-edit the trailers or record a new voiceover, they just muted the narration for the words "of Stephen King," resulting in a weird pause. "From the imagination -- comes a tale..." 
It was kind of awkward.

You'll find some of the original trailers on YouTube, but here's one that demonstrates the awkward pause:


Stephen King usually doesn't seem too upset when Hollywood adapts his works into shitty movies. If he of all people asks you to remove his name from your adaptation you know you've created something so spectacularly shitty you deserve some kind of award—preferably the kind of award that makes a Razzie seem like an honor.

If you're no stranger to high-concept ideas and you've never seen Lawnmower Man, you might be tempted to watch it. I won't stop you even though it is very bad. Virtual reality was like the 90s version of flying cars and personal jet packs, although with products like Oculus Rift on the horizon it looks like we're finally going to get it in a practical and functional way. Even so, Lawnmower Man is a time capsule, not containing history so much as an era's naive idea of what the future would be. For that alone it's worth watching with a group of wise-cracking friends and a ton of sugary snacks.

As a faithful reader of Flux Magazine in the 90's, my friends and I were all convinced that, by the year 2000, we would all be jacked into the matrix, absorbing Lawnmower Man visuals directly into our brains. The boob- and comic-obsessed Flux (which seems to be a distant relative of today's 4Chan) reviewed a pricey pair of stereoscopic goggles and suggested that its adolescent readers order a pair so their moms wouldn't know they were watching The Playboy Channel. Not that the goggles could in anyway unscramble the channel's DRM, but hey, it was wishful thinking that got us all dreaming about the future.

Virtual reality was a dead dream of mine for a very long time; at an Ultimate Electronics I got to try a pair of the goggles reviewed in Flux and found the experience too much like staring at a pair of screens, each about as big as a coin... because that's exactly what the experience was. Now that the dream has been resurrected, something I never would have predicted would happen, I wonder if attempts at augmented reality (such as Google Glass) is today's version of VR. I have to say I'm much more interested in the Oculus than I am Google Glass. For one, the existing prototypes are a lot cheaper and, honestly, a hell of a lot cooler. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Tears of Steel is a fantastic short film that gives Hollywood a run for its money


When Spielberg and Lucas warn us about an inevitable implosion of Hollywood, it's kind of hard to imagine a world in which Tom Hanks' latest project won't release in theaters only. Then you see an independent film like the one above that manages to do what a $250 million dollar picture does. I'm sure I'm not the only one who enjoys this film more than Man of Steel.

Consider the costs of guerrilla filmmaking these days: you can get a decent DSLR that records at 1080p and 24 frames per second for around $800, including a wide angle lens that replicates the look of film better than a prosumer camcorder that cost more than twice as much only a few years ago. Adobe After Effects (in which you composite your special effects) is surprisingly simple to use and can be had for under a thousand bucks. Need a flying saucer? Model it in Blender, which is 100% free and a lot more powerful than the CGI programs Hollywood used in the beginning. After that, a decent movie can be made on sweat equity alone just as long as you're good at educating yourself... and who isn't in the Google era?

So how cheap is all this going to be in ten years? Twenty? How much will a 4k resolution camera be in a decade if it isn't standard in our phones? I have a feeling the next generation of kids will be making high school movies entirely in mobile apps and devices. When your neighbor's kid—someone you actually know in person as opposed to an inaccessible celebrity—releases his latest homage to Leone, there's a pretty good chance you're going to see it. Granted, there will always be professionals in the industry, but I can't even remember the last time I paid to see Tom Cruise on the big screen.

There are a lot of analysts who will tell you Hollywood isn't going to implode anytime soon. I, too, think Spielberg and Lucas may be jumping the gun a little, but its days are certainly numbered. We've been hearing a lot about rising ticket prices, the annoying television commercials that play before the movie you paid money for, and the insanely high turnover for executives in Hollywood. Movie theaters have responded by ripping out the clunky old seats we all remember from our childhood and replacing them with leather, electronic reclining chairs. Does new furniture really make anyone want to go see a movie? 

I kind of prefer the old days before multiplexes, when armrests didn't raise and the film was actually film. (Not long ago I got duped into paying for a DVD projected at the drive-in.) When movies are projected at 48 frames per second, which makes them look more like a soap opera than an actual film, you can see where the theaters are going wrong: they think we want an experience more like the one we get at home. We don't. Unfortunately for them, it looks like more and more people don't want the traditional experience either. I do want that traditional experience, but everyday it gets easier to replicate at home where the popcorn tastes a hell of a lot better, no kids are allowed, and if I catch you texting I'm not going to be polite about it.

Soon, the only place the traditional theater experience will exist is in homes. It's incredibly sad to see it go—I love movies and the fact they haven't changed all that much in over a hundred years—but you have to admit change is pretty exciting.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Man of Steel begins (or was that Independence Day 2?)

In The Avengers, Captain America asks Nick Fury if he thinks his uniform is a little too old-fashioned. Fury replies, "People might need a little old-fashioned." Fury's right. Oh man, is he right.

a fantastic trailer mashup

Man of Steel is what happens when you're not confident enough with a legend older than anyone reading this. Give me old-fashioned Spandex and bright red underwear any day of the week. Old-fashioned, as far as comic books are concerned, is often timeless. Twenty years from now we'll laugh at this Superman a lot more than we'll laugh at the old one, believe you me. In due time this near-sighted optimism in our current tastes is going to be as silly as jean jackets and fanny packs.

The old trailers for Richard Donner's Superman promised, "You'll believe a man can fly!" We did. There was so much energy and love wrapped up in the original Superman film it was bursting at the seams with magic. They made no attempt to modernize and thereby dilute the very thing we all wanted to see. In Man of Steel the ingredients are all present, however all but one of the ingredients—the overblown action—is too weak. Considering its many flashbacks and the tiny length of its scenes, MOS is more like listening to Superman's greatest hits album, but finding the songs are all thirty-second samples. And it doesn't have the songs you really wanted to hear anyway. Maybe they'll be in volume II.

a quick reminder of what Man of Steel is missing

Don't get me wrong. It's not a terrible movie. It's pretty good for a summer film, but not as good as this year's Iron Man 3, which also took some liberties fans of the comic were rightfully unhappy about. If you really want to enjoy Man of Steel you have to forget everything you knew about the comics and everything you knew about Christopher Reeve's maiden voyage. I'll do the same for this review in a moment, but there's a few more comparisons to knock out. Indulge me—after this I'll try not to mention the fact that Amy Adams somehow makes a worse Lois Lane than Kate Bosworth, that the film looks and feels more like a Wolverine wannabe than a proper DC adaptation, and that unlike Christopher Reeve you never really believe this man can fly. It's a shame, too, because Christopher Nolan's Batman drew its strength from the comic. Man of Steel seems more interested in duplicating modern Batman than its own source material. That is to say before the halfway mark when it becomes a redux of Independence Day. (I'm happy to say this film is much better than ID4, but that's not much of a compliment, is it?)

And before we begin judging the movie as a standalone, let's just stop for a moment to consider one disturbing fact. There will be a movie in which the current Batman and this Superman meet. Can you imagine how disappointing that's going to be in light of all the dynamic relationships in The Avengers? I loved the fact that Tony Stark and Bruce Banner instantly hit it off while Steve Rogers instantly disliked Tony Stark despite (or maybe because) of his friendship with Howard Stark. That was interesting. When we get the current Batman and Superman together it's going to be more like Butch Cassidy and Butch Cassidy. They're too much alike. Superman should have been The Sundance Kid. 

One final comparison: Zach Snyder's Watchmen, which was also a disappointment for fans of the comics, will give you a good idea of what to expect from MOS. In that film, too, the best part is the opening. Here, Krypton is a fantastic setting and you won't see anything nearly as exciting for the rest of the movie. The special effects and the action in that sequence are downright breathtaking. The entire movie could have been set on Krypton—that's how good it is. I happen to think that alone is worth the price of admission. If you really have nothing better to do, go see the movie and then finish reading this post. I'm just getting cranky because I expected a lot more and wasn't even that hyped up in the first place.

After an action sequence like the destruction of Krypton you need a bit of a break. Instead, Snyder throws more carnage and destruction at us about two minutes later. I'm not exaggerating that time frame. Here's how it goes: Krypton blows up, then Kal-El is an adult. He's working on a fishing boat. A cage falls off a crane and almost squashes him (or so his coworker thinks) and then an oil rig explodes and a helicopter swoops in and... I mean seriously, what kind of pacing is that? In the first half of the movie we'll be reminded time and time again that Kal-El likes to save people. Who would have guessed? And after we see him save so many people there's a flashback to one of the quietest tornadoes you'll ever see. In that scene he literally saves nobody.

Why? Because the script said so. There really isn't a good reason other than a cheap grab at drama. He just kind of shrugs and lets it happen. If anything, the scene is a good indicator that if you want to survive a disaster in a Hollywood movie, strap yourself to a dog because that dog's more invincible than Superman himself. (See: ID4.)

We'll also be reminded, way too many times, that humanity maybe isn't ready to meet Kal-El. Seriously, they have one character after another put it as bluntly as that. Hell, they never even needed a character to put it into words to begin with. We all got it when we saw the scene in the school, the scene in the bar, and the scene after the school bus. You'll roll your eyes when Perry White (Laurence Fishburne... yeah) breaks character to say it, too. 

Sometime later Lois Lane and Kal-El simultaneously discover the ship that stands in for the Fortress of Solitude. It seems less like fate and more like unbelievable screenwriting. That's how compressed this movie is. It just doesn't take its time. It doesn't ever let us get to know who these characters are on our own. Instead it just tells us who they are in dialogue. And that's just boring.

This is all to say the movie is full of shit. At the end of the day it's still Superman and it's not the worst Superman movie, either. I liked it better than Superman Returns even though I think that guy was a better choice. You just can't kill Superman. Try as the numerous flashbacks might, you'd have a hard time keeping this character from making an entertaining movie. But better Superman movies (all two of them) suspended our disbelief much better than this one does. You end up asking yourself questions that wouldn't have even made you bat an eye in the original film.

For instance, how does Superman and Jor-El hold a conversation in the vacuum of space? Why does the military's computer simulation have ready-to-go graphics depicting the intricacies of General Zod's superweapon? Just how many innocent people died in that 7/11? How many people died in the IHOP and the Sears? And how much did those companies pay to get their products placed in the movie? Did Lexcorp have to pay to get their logo in there, too?

I think the biggest question of all is: Why is this film so goddamn dark? That's Batman's territory. Superman's supposed to save everyone, he's supposed to make us forget about 9/11 and war and all the other injustices of the world. Superman's supposed to be a goddamn beacon of light in the darkest of times. It's a good time for Superman, but it feels like this one is an impostor.

You've got jets and alien invasions and all too many shots of people running away from CGI destruction (again, see: ID4). Nothing about it feels like a Superman movie. But this is the direction they chose and, frankly, it's pretty good if that's all they're willing to give us. Future Superman movies really ought to focus on Martha and Lois a little bit more. There's a ton of untapped resources there. And it sucks that Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner are dispensed of so early, although I'm sure we'll see them in the sequel, no doubt about it.