Elf Reads Books: March, 2009

Because man cannot live on videogames alone, here are some quick thoughts on a few of the books I’ve read lately.

Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold
This novel takes place in the same world as — and stars some of the minor characters from — Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (which is the best fantasy novel I’ve read in the last four or five years). Many authors are good at writing interesting supporting characters. But, judging by the two books I’ve read, Bujold’s specialty is making her protagonists the most compelling and likable characters in her books. I loved everything about Paladin of Souls: the characters, the dialogue, the mythology, and the story.

Matter, by Iain M. Banks
I’d heard good things about Banks, and I’m a sucker for space opera, so I picked up this book to read on vacation. The first 500 pages (of over 600) were mediocre, but I kept reading, in hopes that things would get better. They didn’t. The last act falls apart completely. (Spoilers ahead…)

Banks spends hundreds of pages introducing us to about a dozen major characters, only to kill them off unceremoniously — and often “offscreen”! — near the end. And the main antagonist is a kind of planet-destroying deus ex machina who appears only as a plot device. Some of the book’s otherwise unlikable protagonists are supposedly redeemed by their decision to sacrifice themselves in order to stop the big bad guy. Whatever. They also would’ve died if they hadn’t done anything at all, so what they did wasn’t all that brave.

KOP, by Warren Hammond
KOP is a sci-fi noir story that stars a miserable, corrupt cop on a planet of miserable, corrupt citizens. Despite its dumb title, it’s a good, fast-paced read. It’s more of a mystery novel than a sci-fi book, and the mystery is very well-crafted. It was like reading a Michael Connelly or George Pelecanos book that just happens to be set in a bleak future world. It was the perfect junk food reading for a cross-country flight.

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
I’m so glad I finally got around to reading this 1974 sci-fi classic. Just like KOP is really a mystery novel, The Forever War is really a novel about Vietnam. In fact, it may have supplanted Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato as my favorite Vietnam book. Like Bujold, Haldeman does a great job of making his protagonist the best character in the book. The Forever War is funny, horrific, philosophical, and touching. I don’t want to say too much about it and spoil anything; if you haven’t read it, do so!

Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
I hadn’t read this since I was a teenager. And I was a little scared to re-read it, just because I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to how I remembered it. I didn’t need to worry. It’s still great. I was amazed at how well its aged. In fact, it seems pretty obvious that current genre TV shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica are just now trying to emulate the mature storytelling style of this 1980s graphic novel — probably because the young readers of Watchmen are now old enough to be the writers of those shows.

Show Me the Money!

I have to admit, I’m a bit surprised by many PS3 game developers’ lack of business acumen.

For instance, I play Resistance 2 co-op.  A lot.  They are making no money on me for monthly fees, but they must be incurring significant server costs to host an ever-expanding (hopefully) player base.  So sure, they are making money off new sales (though not secondary sales), but they could be making more.

So why aren’t they selling the advanced weapons/upgrades in the Playstation Store?  You could still let others earn them through experience, but gamers w/ disposable income and limited time like myself aren’t that impressed with “earning” things.  I’m too old for that shit.  I like to buy things I want and have them now.  That’s why I went to law school

Dead Space took advantage of this by allowing you to purchase, for a nominal fee, some great suits of armor and upgraded weapons.  It was a win-win-win.  1st, purists could choose not to buy this stuff and earn similar weapons/armor through their superior gameplay (and their superiour time-commitment).    2nd, people like me could get their rocks off by paying for it and fast-tracking ourselves through gameplay, thus maximizing our gameplay efficiency while concurrently keeping our wives happy by minimizing playing time (a joyous paradox).

Little Big Planet has made an art form of these minor add-on costs with their ever-growing catalog of outfits.  And you know what?  People buy them.  In droves.

If I were an investor at Insomniac (Resistance 2), I’d actually be pretty pissed.  Why aren’t they offering (and charging for) additional co-op player uniforms/clothing (or allowing you to buy the numerous physical/clothing character upgrades that you can earn through competitive)?

Why aren’t they selling specialized weapons, even if the alteration is merely cosmetic (e.g. a cooler looking Wraith, Marksman)?   These are simple to program and offer.

I’m sure they are busy building new maps that will be for sale (I can’t wait), but still, why aren’t they making even MORE money in the meantime?

There will be a lot of gamers out there who will think I’m an a-hole for suggesting this, but the more these companies make on these games, the more money they have to make more updates/levels for a specific game and more games in general (at least that’s what I’d hope).  Not to mention, it’s just bad business to not be creatively thinking about ways to maximize profits.

Demo Daze

I’ve been loving these free PS3 demos if only because they tend more often to convince me NOT to spend $60 on a game that in concept seems perfect for me, but in execution, fails.

Resident Evil 5:

There is just too much going on in this game.  RE has slowly been evolving from a suspense-based series to an action-based series.  Unfortunately, it isn’t working for me.  The designers of RE5 have not changed the gameplay mechanics much, but they have thrown more enemies at you.  This makes the game more difficult and challenging, but not better.

The anachronistic controls can’t compensate for this type of gameplay.  To aim and shoot your gun, you must be stationary (ridiculous).  There is no shooting on the fly/strafing while firing.  Secondly, the targeting is clunky.  If you want to make RE5 competitive as a shooter (e.g. Metal Gear Solid 4, Resistance 2, CoD World at War) you have to update the mechanics.  Making characters in an action-based game stand on a stationary vertical axis to shoot in this day and age is not just unacceptable, it’s lazy game design.

Thanks Rez Evil 5 developers!  You saved me $60 but ruined my all-time favorite franchise by refusing to modernize!

Lord of the Rings: Conquest:

This game is awesome–if it was meant for the PS2.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t measure up to the PS3 platform.  Another great concept that fails in execution.  The fighting is clunky and confusing.  The pixelated characters can’t stand up against the great graphics of the great games on PS3 (MGS4, CoD World at War, Fallout, Heavenly Sword).

It’s too bad, as the character classes (warrior, mage, scout, archer, and unlockable “heroes”) would make for interesting gameplay, if the gameplay itself didn’t suck.

The Demo doesn’t allow for it, but you can play as good guys (elves, men, ents, dwarves) or the bad guys (Sauron, Ring-Wraiths, Orcs).  Again, good concept.  I think I’ll replay Heavenly Sword instead of buying this.

*Note to developers:  Stop Releasing Half-Baked Games.  Take the time to make a good, polished, finished product.

Supernatural: Flowers Under the Deliverance Stairs

The following is an exchange about the Supernatural (one of our favorite shows) episode 4.11, “Family Remains.”

—–Original Message—–

From: Gregor
To:Eugene
Sent: Sat, 17 Jan 2009 5:56 pm
Subject: Re: Flowers Under the Deliverance Stairs

I thought it was really bad. Except for the very beginning and the end, it didn’t even matter that the main characters were Dean and Sam. They were so generically written that it could have been any crappy horror movie or TV show.

The plot was so predictable. Of course the uncle was going to die, and of course the father would have to kill one of the baddies to be a hero to his family. And some of the crap just made no sense. How do these grown-up animal kids know how to spell, and why would they know to search and empty the trunk of the car of all weapons (but not the flashlights)?

All in all, a very sloppily written episode. And I also think the retconning of Dean — “I didn’t just torture because I had to; I liked it!” — is a lame, lazy direction to take the character. It felt like an outside writer wrote this episode, so I hope it’s quickly forgotten and ignored by the rest of the writing staff.

I heard Smallville was actually pretty good. Guess it was opposite night on Thursday.

Tonight’s BSG night. Last night’s episode is at OnDemand for free, so we’ll be checking it out.

From: Eugene

To: Gregor

Subject: Re: Flowers Under the Deliverance Stairs

I found it to be tense, but stupid.  It was like a low budget slasher flick.  And how come those kids could move without making any noise (when the uncle was killed) through narrow crawlspaces–they didn’t have supernatural (pun intended) stalking powers, they were just human tunnel rats.
The trunk weapon theft pissed me off too.  First off, they had only a few minutes to steal everything, right?  That’s a lot of stuff to take.  And Sam and Dean’s stash is in a hidden compartment in the trunk…how’d feral tunnel rat(s) know that?!?!  Good catch on the spelling…what school did those freaks go to?

And the family seemed particularly blase at the end of the episode.  They were just hanging out at the house where their brother/uncle was MURDERED a few hours before.  Any other family would have been like, “Let’s get the F out of here now!”  It seemed the episode implied they were going to stay at that house…are you kidding me?!?!  And how were they going to explain the dead uncle to the authorities?

Throwaway episode.  I too hated Dean’s “I loved torturing” line.  What was that?  Totally out of character and unnecessary, especially considering he already opened up about Hell.  Are we going to have a new revelation every week?