Monday, April 30, 2012

Three things about Prototype 2.

There are three points I ended up not making in the Prototype 2 review.  


THING THE FIRST
Y'know how fans bitched about the simplification of RPG elements in Mass Effect 2?

I feel rather the same way about my entitled bitching, when it comes to Prototype 2.  One of the first things I say in the review is that "To understand how far Prototype 2 separates itself from its origins, you need to have appreciated Radical Entertainment's Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction back on the PS2/Xbox/GC."


I then go on to detail the dramatic differences between player choice in the two games, and while I don't implicitly state that Prototype 2's simplifications are a disappointment, it's heavily implied.  That is, I suppose, because I do feel that nerdy, geeky entitlement - and because it is disappointing to me.

That said, it's important to note that, in this way, Prototype 2 does separate itself from its origins.  This may be Prototype's way of sloughing off the expectations of fans and striking out in its own direction, taking with it only what the developers feel is necessary to provide the experience they have in mind.

Perhaps the problem with Prototype is that fans like me can't help but compare it to the sublime Hulk, and by distancing itself from that title, Radical is endeavoring to establish Prototype as a wholly separate experience.


THING THE SECOND
Change isn't necessarily bad.

Prototype 2, to me, asks what a player might think of it if they'd never laid hands on Radical's last two games.  It's a gamer and geek's default state to rage against anything that fucks with our nostalgia - anything that's seen as taking away instead of adding - which Prototype 2 definitely does.

It may be, however, that Prototype 2's streamlining of mechanics and simplifications of strategy make it a better Prototype than the original, which hewed closer to Hulk's philosophy of more is better.

It's a much easier game to pick up and play.  The mechanics are "(almost) faultless at translating player intention to onscreen action" - and that's one of the greatest things you can ask of any action game.

It's easier - more inviting, more comfortable - to just wallow around in Prototype 2's world, pissing off the military and getting into tussles with tanks.

After each mission, it's very hard to not hold down the jump button and go soaring off into the city, to see what trouble you can scrounge up.

So yes, it's simplified - but it totally maintains the fun factor.



THING THE THIRD
What the fuck, Radnet?

Radnet is Prototype 2's asynchronous multiplayer component.  In Prototype there were a bunch of optional challenges in the game, which grant 'evolution points' to be spent on upgrading Alex Mercer.  In Prototype 2, participating in these challenge ultimately unlocks in-game rewards in the form of mutations, abilities and skins.  It also compares your best times and scores against your friends list, and advises you when a friend beats your time or vice-versa.

I have one largeish problem with Radnet's implementation.  You can't just - as of today - go out and try your hand at all the challenges.  They unlock in-game on a staggered calendar, with more challenges opening up between the game's release and E3 in June.

...what...  ...why?  What's the point of that?  I just paid full price for your game, at release, and you've got part of the content locked off for the next six weeks.

Content, I might add, which was part in parcel with Prototype.  These challenges are identical to the type you'll find in their last game - and the absence of ninety per cent of them at launch further suggests that Prototype 2 is a game with less to do than the last one.

Doubleyou tee eff.  I don't get it.

Diablo III TV commercial.



Blizzard: masters of prerendered footage.  Man, I wish my PC could run it.

Another weird and cheap-looking Metal Gear Rising teaser.



Y'know what would get folks excited for the game, Konami?  Gameplay.

News!


And its stills look slick.

...in which Todd Papy totally fails to sell me on Ascension.

/vadernooo...

Just kidding.


It's like, c'mon - Microsoft has other characters!  There's Alan Wake and the dog from Fable and... The Kid from Bastion!  Really, you could probably populate a brawler with the characters from their exclusive XBLA games alone.  

Sunday, April 29, 2012

REVIEW - Prototype 2.

"If you're not having fun with [Prototype], I have to posit it's because you've decided you're not going to." 
-from the Prototype review-
Okay, so you're a super-powered ultra-mutant who jumps seventy-five feet, runs like a Lamborghini and can shape-shift your limbs into various implements of death.

Let's talk.


To understand how far Prototype 2 separates itself from its origins, you need to have appreciated Radical Entertainment's Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction back on the PS2/Xbox/GC.  Fans have been waiting since 2005 for a return to that glorious exercise, and I'm afraid we're waiting still.

As an action game, Prototype 2 is fine.  Great even.  As a fun gamePrototype 2 is above-par.  As a game that, like Hulk, you will want to replay over and over, mastering its systems and gleefully throwing the sand around the box, it is... less successful.

There are, perhaps, two different formula for open-world games.  One sees the world itself populated with unique and random events, dense in artificial intelligence and narrative (Bethesda titles, GTA/RDR) while the other paints the game world in broader strokes, but offers the player higher heights of craziness in how we interact with it (Prototype, inFamous, Just CauseSaints Row and, well, Bethesda titles).

Prototype 2 remains one of the latter, but feels in many ways to be a step back from what came before, despite - and perhaps due to - how much they've refined its systems and streamlined its move list, in the name of better presentation and greater accessibility.

Forever in Hulk's shadow.

I played a game in 2005 where I was on the run from a strike team of attack choppers and exosuit-wearing soldiers.  I dashed through the city streets, snatching up telephone poles.  Targeting a twelve-foot enemy behind me, from a run, I could fire the telephone pole like a javelin through my target's chest, throwing them back fifty yards and stapling them to a wall beyond.

When the choppers began raining thunder on me, I could catch their rockets out of the air to throw back at them.  I could leap on to the cockpit of one, bashing my face into its windscreen before targeting another nearby heli and drop-kicking the chopper I was riding into it.

I could uppercut an enemy into the air, jump into them and perform a combo which ended in an airborne volleyball-style spike that drove them into the ground.  I could smash my hands together so hard it created a shockwave that would obliterate anything within two hundred yards.  I could flatten out a city bus to use it as a surfboard.

I had options.

Well, it's 2012 now, and things have been streamlined.

Grab a helicopter, press triangle.

Even compared to 2009's Prototype, things have been severely simplified.  James Heller has been gifted with (almost) the exact same body-morphing weapons as original antihero Alex Mercer - a blade arm, a whip arm, a claw arm, a hammer arm - but instead of each mutation changing your move list significantly with unique combos, two at a time can be mapped to your face buttons.  You can have claws on square and the whip on triangle, for example.

This is each mutation's move list:

Tap (on ground) = combo.
Hold (on ground) = power move.
Tap (in air) = combo/air move.
Hold (in air) = power air move.

That's it.  Now, let it be said that the power moves are super useful, and this is still a system of far greater depth for melee combat than you'll find in any modern open-world game.  Counter-intuitively, its simplification provides a nice boost of pace to the combat as you dodge a foe, use the hammer fist's ground pound to float them, charge a claw pounce and leap thirty yards to scratch them from the sky.

Keep in mind, this is three button presses.  This is tapping X, holding square, then holding triangle.

Each offensive mutation has its own properties, suited it to particular enemies, and while the simplification makes it very accessible - very reliable - it also limits the player, in terms of what we're allowed to do.

When you land on a chopper in Prototype 2, four button prompts appear - you can jump off, you can hijack it, rip off its missile pod or kill it in a single blow - the finisher animation changing based on which mutation you have equipped.  It's so prescribed.

It's like they forgot about all the other cool shit you can do to a helicopter, once you've grabbed hold of one.

Hold the attack button when airborn.

This is a tradeoff.

The upside to limiting your options is that what options you have are always perfectly clear - and Prototype 2 still gives you more than you're used to, if this is your first visit to Radical's entertainment.  It remains very cool to jump onto a tank and rip off its missile pod for personal use, or throwing a solider into his friend so hard it kills both of them, or running up a building while carrying an ambulance so you can throw it into a helicopter.

That's still cool - and it's all so accessible that pulling off awesome stuff is a breeze.

Locomotion is still one of the star players, here.  Racing along at street level, you can leap to the wall of a nearby building - dashing across it at a forty-five degree angle - before springing off its side to go soaring into the night, your arms spread in a glide.  While you're up there, you can air-dash three times, each time gliding a bit higher.  Now soaring a half-mile above the city, you send out a Hunting Pulse, and detect your target 400 yards below.  Plummeting towards him, you tap circle at the last moment and crash into him with a rolling grab before consuming his puny human form and stealing his memories.

Simply moving around the city is a thrilling, comfortable spectacle.

Anyone who tells you that the platforming in this game - which essentially turns skyscraper rooftops into a big 'ol Mario level - is loose or unwieldy, is wrong.  This is a game where you can fly for six blocks and land on a glowing two-foot-wide marker without breaking a sweat.

Again, simplifications are made in the name of accessibility.  In tutorials, it makes perfect sense to tell someone that tapping X will allow you to do a combat dodge - jump is X, so dodge-jump is also X.  Sure!

In practice, it's frustrating to hop limply to the side when you want to jump thirty feet in another direction, in the same way having your air dash also mapped to X creates a few unintentional leaps.  Getting around the city is still a ton of fun - a glorious fantasy of freedom and power - but it feels a bit less perfected than it was in Prototype.

Puny human.

You feel wholly badass while playing Prototype 2, and gone are the difficulty spikes and occasional frustration which seasoned Radical's last two games - but this, too, is a tradeoff.

It's too easy.

On Insane difficulty - in which one would hope to find a bit of a challenge - I have yet to face any stiff opposition.  Having familiarized myself with the game's mechanics and tactics, I breezed through this hardest of difficulty levels with the same amount of effort required to properly fry an egg.  If you simply pay attention to what's going on, you'll have no problems.

That may be why Prototype 2 is much easier than its predecessor - there's relatively less going on in any given fight than there was, before.  Enemies have fewer attacks, and fewer foes need to be simultaneously dealt with at any given time.

Radical was always excellent at throwing an insane amount of stuff at the player at once, and I'm sure at this point you'll know that when I say they've made their action a bit less busy - and so, less challenging - there is a tradeoff.


By not pushing as many polygons, they were able to make their game much better-looking.

The game's graphics, and overall presentation, while somewhat below-par for a triple-A open-world game, are a massive improvement over Radical's 2009 outing.  The story is still a yawner, but the moment-to-moment writing and voice work are all tons of fun.

A sergeant shrieking that you just ate the VIP he was supposed to be protecting, or protesting to his commander that he won't be able to follow you and the monstrosities you're chasing because "they're like fucking cheetahs!" goes a long way to reminding the player just how incredible their actions are.

While graphics and writing may not seem like such a big deal in a B-movie action game, it has a huge impact on what Radical has always reveled in offering - spectacle.

Camera angles will dynamically change to frame your Wolverine-esque Claw Pounce, your glorious chopper finishers, your brutal consumes.  Everything looks much, much better.

But.

Of course.

There is a tradeoff.


The camera is now unlocked from your current target.  If you're attempting to deal with a helicopter, for example, you're holding down L2 to lock the camera on it as you attempt to find a car (or civilian) to throw at it.  As soon as the chopper passes overhead, the camera will stop following it - and now you have no idea where your enemy is, what its health bar looks like, and if that car you just tossed did any damage to it.

Prototype 2 is a laundry list of such choices made, on the part of the developer.  It takes one step back for every step forward, and is ultimately a game of similar overall quality to Prototype, even as improvements are made.

Having said all this, let me make one thing very, very clear.

It's fun.  

It is so much fun.  If I didn't have to switch back to The Witcher 2 for review purposes, I would be finishing my Insane difficulty playthrough and heading right back in, in search of a platinum trophy.


This is a game where you just play and play and play and play.  A game you start playing at 11pm and have trouble tearing yourself away from at 5am.

Yes, the combat mechanics have been pared down, but they're (almost) faultless at translating player intention to onscreen action.  Yes, much of your abilities are very prescribed, but they look fabulous.  Yes, there's less going on onscreen, but what occurs there never feels arbitrary or unfair.

I love the different and distinct boroughs of New York Zero.  I love the new enemy types, taking advantage of Prototype's (interesting, from a sci-fi perspective) lore.  I love the way collectibles will ping on a map, removing the need for tracking down a .png on GameFAQs.  I love springing from the side of this skyscraper to the side of that one before launching myself into the air, soaring over a target, and plummeting towards it hammer-fist first, obliterating everything within fifteen yards on impact.

I haven't been so in love with a game with so many flaws since Dead Island.

Perfect?  No.  Better than the last one?  Sorta'.  Fun?

Yes. Fun.  So much fun.



THE GOOD
  • a fantasy of freedom and violence
  • significantly improved graphics and overall presentation
  • they swear like, a lot.  And y'know what?  It's fun. The writing is very cheeky and often pretty damned hilarious.
  • side missions will always add a bit of insight or foreshadowing to story missions. 
  • Cornell Womack does a great job as Heller - he drops f-bombs beautifully, and transitions well to more serious dialogue
  • all your powers and mutations look way more stylish than they did in 2009
  • the locomotion/platforming is still a ton of fun
  • far better melee combat than you'll find in any other modern open-world action game
  • streamlined combat options and controls make turning intention into action rather effortless
  • no more difficulty spikes!
  • new enemies are all successful creations
  • the different offensive mutations all feel necessary, and useful
  • the three boroughs of NYZ all feel distinct, and the Red Zone is glorious
  • much better boss fights than those in Prototype
  • I love the way it instantly transitions into the game from the start menu when you continue your latest save.  It's kind of amazing.  You'll load up the game, and here's the menu, and behind it is a scene of the city.  As soon as you press start, you realize the game has already loaded your latest save.  The menu disappears and the camera pans over to where Heller is standing.  It's like, whoah.  Nice touch on that one, Radical.
  • it's a game you just play and play and play and play

THE BAD
  • graphics remain below the triple-A standard
  • the simplification of the combat removes a ton of options from your arsenal
  • Heller is a rather paint-by-numbers protagonist
  • the simplification of the locomotion means you sometimes dodge when you want to jump, and sometimes jump when you want to dash - it's not as good as it was in Prototype
  • the writing is fine, but the story's another yawner
  • takes no advantage of the interesting sci-fi questions from Prototype
  • so wait, what was the Dead Zone?
  • samey mission design
  • allowing the camera to stray from your lock-on target was a seriously bad idea
  • battles are less dense and chaotic
  • the hardest difficulty is way too easy
  • it makes me wish I was playing a high-def Hulk

THE VERDICT
There are a lot of tradeoffs, here - it's far from perfect - but it is so much fun.

Raspy-Voiced Video Game Hero Theatre.

Frickin' awesome.  David Hayter (Solid Snake - Metal Gear Solid), Elias Toufexis (Adam Jensen - Deus Ex: Human Revolution) and Eric Laden (Cole McGrath - inFamous 2) team up at the Canadian Video Game Awards for Raspy-Voiced Video Game Hero Theatre.



I love everything about this.  I can't not get The Nerdy Giggles when Hayter does his Snake, of course I'm deeply in love with inFamous, and it's Canada-centric.

Woo! Thanks to Jonathan Jacques-BelletĂȘte for uploading it!  Caution: a lot of his Tumblr is NSFW.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Game diary - absorbing.


You've likely noticed a distinct lack of larger posts this week.  It's been a lot of movies and comics - and the reason is Prototype 2.  Which is weird, in a way.

I've only checked out a review or two, but folks aren't wrong when they tell you this is a 7/10 game.  I haven't even checked its Metascore and I'm gonna' call that right now at 75%... let's go peek... Hey, who called it? Strange - the PS3 version is 6 points higher.  Oh - less reviews - that's why.

Anyway - it's far from perfect.

Prototype 2 makes a few improvements over the original - particularly in presentation (which is still somewhat below-par for modern open-world games) - but much of it is so streamlined that in terms of mechanics and construction it feels like a step backwards.

So here's what's weird about it: I can't stop playing it.  I'm writing this post, and all I want to do is go back to my New Game+ on Insane difficulty.  When I'm playing a game prior to review, I'll always spend at least an hour or two on it every night - but I've discovered I'm unable to tear myself away from Prototype 2 after a reasonable period of time.

I just keep playing until it's way-too-late and I should have been asleep three hours ago.

I cannot call that a bad game.  I cannot call that less than a great game - but the part of me that qualifies and measures gaming aspects is screaming against it.  This game shouldn't be as fun as it is, but it's... a phenomenally addictive action experience.

I'm gonna' go keep playing it, and hope to get a review up shortly.  

Visit Tamriel!


Friday, April 27, 2012

Ten minutes of Lollipop Chainsaw.



It's pretty striking, here, how similar the artistic sensibilities are to Shadows of the Damned.  If you want a heads-up on what sorta' stuff you'll be doing in LC, give it a look - I don't want to watch too much.  I'm sure thar be spoilers!

Rayman: Legends Wii U trailer.



Ooh.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is an official thing. Looks like Smash Bros.

And I mean a lot like Smash Bros.




Confirmed fighters so far are Kratos, Sly Cooper, Sweet Tooth and Parappa The Rapper (natch).  Somewhat more surprising are the Fat Princess from Fat Princess and Colonel Radec from Killzone.  That's... an odd choice.

At the moment, all footage of the game is exclusive to GameTrailers, so you'll have to watch their latest episode to get a feel for how the game plays - but if you want the short version, this is it:  It's like Smash Bros.  They are certainly mixing it up a bit with the levels.  One sees Hades from God of War III pounding on the scenery in the foreground while Patapons behind him launch arrows and work themselves up to fever mode.

Another (pictured above) LBP-themed level begins as a flat expanse, but is slowly built - with obstacles and devices being placed in the foreground - over the course of the round.  Eventually Buzz from those trivia games shows up and you have to answer a skill-testing PlayStation-themed question to earn a power-up.

That's sorta' cool.


I was chatting with Blue about the game the other day, and admitted that I'd be less interested in a game with a ton of Sony characters than a game featuring the best characters in third-party gaming.

Let's see the new Lara Croft throw down with Isaac Clarke.  Let's see Alice Liddel and Faith face off against Commander Shepard and Dante.  I want to see Alex Mercer fighting Cole McGrath.  I would play that game.



Now... that may be more likely than you'd think - 'cause the dude GameTrailers was interviewing for the episode said, when Geoff asked if such third-party pairings were possible,
"Absolutely. Third party is a huge part of PlayStation, and we're definitely going to feature some of those characters in our game."
Here's my concern.  If you look at all the above characters - fan-favorite Parappa aside - they're all from very-recent properties, or IPs which you know Sony intends to exploit long-term.  Killzone, God of War, Sly - and that's good.  That's great.

You'd damn well better have Sly and Kratos in this thing - but if you don't have Cole McGrath (inFamous),  Nariko (Heavenly Sword) or Ratchet and Clank (as a single fighter), I'll be a very sad panda.

The SuperBot Games rep - called only Chan in the GameTrailers piece - is entirely accurate when he says third party is a huge part of PlayStation.  There are third-party franchises that we associate almost exclusively with Sony, despite their later (or earlier) appearance on other companies' consoles.

I simply cannot picture a PlayStation platform without Solid Snake on it, for example.  With the advent of Final Fantasy VII, the franchise became synonymous with Sony platforms.

It's unfortunate that PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is doomed to be known as Sony's Smash Bros. clone - but if word of the amount of talent gathered at SuperGiant is to be believed, it may be a very good one.

We'll hear more about it, come E3.  Which is like, five weeks away!  Eee!

Portal 2's perpetual testing initiative trailer.

The map editor is finally on its way - coming to Mac and PC on May 8th. What about us poor console-only savages?

No word.

The trailer is currently exclusive to GameTrailers, so head on over there or negotiate this embedment.




Slightly less jealous, now.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Metal Gear Rising live-action torture trailer.

Bleugh.


Annnd I'm still more interested in Prototype 2 than anything else, so - g'night! Again!


Oh, and this article about the folks working on Sly 4 makes for an encouraging read. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Personal note.


The super-awesome Shinji Mikami (Vanquish, God Hand, Resident Evil, Resident Evil 4) is making a new horror game.

That's all I got.  Well, that and a fresh copy of Prototype 2 begging for some playtime.  So, g'night!

Crysis 3 trailer.



Hm. Makes me want to go grab a cheap copy of Crysis 2.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Oh, VG Cats - I wish there were more of you.


Man, I wish he'd do up comics more often.

Game Diary - The Witcher 2.


A month or so ago, I was repeatedly pouring over reviews of Ys Seven and Oath in Felghana. I was really in a place where I wanted an exploratory, wand'ring RPG where I could set off into a world, poke around and learn its secrets - divine its mysteries.

I quickly recognized this craving, arrested the need to spend my cash money on a game I really don't need, and started up a new save in Resonance of Fate - which I adore.  But it... wasn't quite what I wanted.  I'd already learned the secrets of the ancient tower of Basel, I'd already mastered its combat system - and much as RoF satisfied the need to tool around a richly-realized world and get into awesome fights, I knew it wasn't quite what I needed.

Enter The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition for the Xbox 360.

Like a romance you don't see coming, The Witcher 2 makes a... somewhat frustrating first impression.


At first, it lays so much on you. "You have to gather herbs for potions," it says.  "Here's how you mix them.  You can't drink too many potions or it'll kill you.  Here's how you swing your sword.  Here's how you parry blows, here's how you riposte - not that you'll actually be able to riposte once you start.  This is a trap - here's how you lay them.  Here's your magic spells.  Here's throwing knives - you won't be able to use those either.  Here's some bombs.

Got it?  Good - now I'm just going to send wave after wave of enemies at you, and I'll set the difficulty based on how many you kill."

The Witcher 2's eyes narrow with expected disappointment.

"...yeah, easy mode for you."

"Wait!  I can do better," I protested.  "Show me through that tutorial again, and then let's try your gauntlet."

"Okay... there's this and this and that and the other annnnd fight!


Mmhm.  Easy mode."

"Man, fuck you, Witcher 2!"

I am not alone in this.

-penny arcade-

Where Witcher 2 makes a fabulous first impression is the writing.  Reviews comparing it to the currently-hip A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) are not near mistaken.

When you walk into a tavern in The Witcher 2, you can smell the rancid belches and the shit caked on the corner.  The inn's basement reeks of the sweat and blood of men locked in a bare-knuckle brawl.  Your skin almost crawls with the stink.

It's so alive and feels so... rich in human detail.  It's packed with intimate moments and sprawling political intrigue. The dialogue and voice work, here, are spectacular.  Everything is so matter-of-fact, relationships are so well-drawn - it's nothing short of stunning.

So - yeah.  The localization is phenomenal, and the constructive of the narrative is far smarter than we're accustomed to.  The Witcher 2 does a fantastic job of setting us up for later payoffs, and drawing you in with its incredibly deliberate, practiced writing.


But, I'll be honest, aside from the narrative, I didn't like The Witcher 2 at first.

Its systems are so strange, its methods so obtuse that it's deeply off-putting.  At first, I didn't want to write a word about it - which is why this is my first post on the subject.

After knocking Alan Wake around for its few foibles, I didn't want to go after another well-received 360 game and tell you what sucks about it.  I didn't want to be the PS3 fanboy who can't like a 360 game.

People were repeatedly asking me, over those first few days, what I thought of it.  "Ehh," was all I could manage, before clarifying that "with any RPG, Stockholm Syndrome will begin to set in.  You spend enough time with anything, and you learn to love it.

I think I just need to spend enough time with it to understand why it makes the choices it does.  Why it's so damned hard to find the NPC to talk to at the end of a quest line, why it almost never marks shit on your map.  I see what it's doing - I just don't see why it's doing it, yet."


I finished Act I last night, and I see the why, now. I get it.  I think.

And I'll tell you, come review time.

For now, I'm going to put another hour or two into it tonight and then - sadly - set it aside for Prototype 2, which I've little doubt I'll be able to clear within a week.

G'night everybody!

Batman: Arkham City gets a GotY edition.

Which makes sense.  It was one of the best games of 2011.



...wish the trailer gave us any idea what the Harley's Revenge DLC was, though.  A challenge room?  A new quest line that opens up after the campaign?

Well.  At least Catwoman's content will be on the disc.

Ooh, press release!
"The Harley Quinn's Revenge mission sends players back into Arkham City to face their final challenge as they interchange between playing as both Batman and Robin. Gamers must utilize each of the characters' unique combat and investigative skills to uncover Harley's vengeful plan and shut the gates on the urban mega-prison forever. In addition to experiencing a new storyline, fans can explore new environments and face-off against Harley's all new gang of thugs."

Christopher Nolan's Batman doesn't do the Bat-two shuffle.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

FEATURE - Lollipop Chainsaw - should I hate this?

So in the upcoming Lollipop Chainsaw, there's a trophy for peeking up protagonist Juliet's skirt. 

Let's talk.


A while ago I did up a post about inequality in character design.  I'm pretty happy with it - but ever since I wrote it, the conclusions I came to have been gnawing at the back of my head.  I find myself rather annoyed, here and there, seeing examples of sexualizing one gender while glorifying the other as a source of power -  and now I see it so regularly that I'm in danger of normalizing it again.  

Luckily, other folks get just as annoyed at this crap.  Take, for example, the above promotional image for the upcoming Avengers movie.  Everyone's lookin' so buff and badass!  Except Scarlett Johansson, of course, who's presenting her ass for our approval.  

Artist Kevin Bolk took it upon himself to remind us what this image may look like if we treated our male heroes as we treat the ladies.  


That's right, Hulk.  Bend over and spread 'em.  

At the end of December's discussion on the subject, I concluded that the problem here is we tend to present heroic women as sexual objects, while male heroes are exclusively male power fantasies.  I reckoned that the answer is - in opposition to Japanese RPG's tack of offering both genders as sexual fantasies - to make both genders a power fantasy that represents that gender. 

The problem being, I have no idea what a female power fantasy looks like.  Is it this?

Anya from Gears of War 3.

It could be.

My knee-jerk reaction is that that's a woman shoehorned in to a male power fantasy - which seems counter-intuitive - there are female soldiers, after all.  Lots of 'em - but they don't much look like Anya, there.  

Soliders in New Zealand .

Perhaps it seems a bit off because of traditional gender lines.  When I was a kid and when you were a kid we didn't go to movies and watch badass ladies waging war and losing lives in defense of the personal freedoms we enjoy.  Those weren't our heroes.

Traditionally, strong women represented in popular media are... rarely role models - or outright villains.

Glenn Close as the evil, manipulative Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons.

More often than not, when women are given power in a movie or book or game - unless they are the protagonist - it is at the cost of their sexuality, or at least their moral compass. Popular culture and media repeatedly hammer home that women can sell their sexuality to gain success...

Britney Spears (popular)
...and makes no bones about what's really important.  Remember how popular Britney was when she became less photogenic?

Britney Spears (unpopular)

Popular culture repeatedly tells us that if a woman is to be powerful and successful without capitalizing on their sexuality, the only other option is to be a hateful, sour creature.  Bitter ladies, prone to frowning, who achieve success by rejecting accepted norms of behavior and social values.  

Hillary Clinton

Her husband was the most powerful man in the world - holding an office we attribute moral authority to - and that moral authority decreed that youth and a tight dress were of greater value than age and wisdom. Hillary Clinton, famously capable, strong and intelligent, will forever be the wife Bill cheated on with a younger woman - and is regularly vilified in popular culture as a masculine, angry, sexless bitch.   

The word 'bitch' is bandied about so regularly when applied to strong women - or simply women who refuse to accept popular standards of behavior - that some have even embraced it as a symbol of those willing to break from the norms and claim for themselves the same degree of entitlement and respect men enjoy.  

Tina Fey & Amy Poehler - Saturday Night Live
"You know what? Bitches get stuff done. That’s why Catholic schools use nuns as teachers and not priests. Those nuns are mean old clams and they sleep on cots and they’re allowed to hit you. And at the end of the school year you hated those bitches but you knew the capital of Vermont."
-Tina Fey-
Ah, Tina Fey.  Now there's something we can all agree on, yes?  Everyone loves Tina Fey.  She's ballsy, intelligent, hilarious and - yes - attractive.  I would love to go out to dinner with Tina Fey, listen to all her stories, go back to her luxurious Manhattan penthouse and make out 'till dawn.  

I don't feel the same way about Britney Spears or Hillary Clinton - and perhaps it's that mix that allows Fey to be a modern female role model while lacking all the negative stereotypes we attach to strong or successful women.  Perhaps being attractive really is a necessary ingredient, when mixing together a new hero.

Indiana Jones.  Mrowr.

With male protagonists - Nathan Drake in Uncharted, Kratos in God of War, Indiana Jones in... um... Indiana Jones - there's never a question of whether or not they have any sexual power, in addition to their physical or mental prowess.  Of course Elena loves Nate.  Of course Kratos gets busy with Aphrodite, and it's only natural for all the women Jones gets naked with to want to get naked with Jones.  He's a Doctor.  

We all have heroes in our day-to-day life who don't fit such molds.  Ian Ross will never grace the cover of Gentleman's Quarterly magazine (though he did sport Armani suits for a while), and my parents aren't exactly sex symbols, but they're heroes to me - but if we are creating heroes, as we do for popular culture, we must find the norms.  Find the standards.  Find the heroes that an audience will have no difficulty rooting for.  

And they are a good-looking bunch.  Or at least better looking than I am, as a general rule - and come to think of it, so are all the heroic dudes I enjoy playing as in video games. 

Isaac Clarke (Dead Space), Batman (Batman) and Cole McGrath (inFamous)
...okay, I might be better looking than Isaac Clarke.  But let's be honest, when you were in high school, did you hope and dream you could be more like the less-popular, unattractive kids? 

I didn't.  

Now, having established that being easy on the eyes seems to be a required ingredient for male and female heroes, let us reiterate that there remains a big difference between the popular hero on the left and the popular hero on the right, below.

Mai Shiranui (King of Fighters) and Kratos (God of War)
Let us not forget that popular culture has provided us, here and there, with excellent female heroes.  Science fiction can be quite good at this. 

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley (Aliens) and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)
Note that Ripley was on the Nostromo as a warrant officer - she was military.  Sarah Connor, on the other hand, was a waitress in a diner before the hand of fate guided her to become a somewhat psychotic badass.  

Where our heroes begin - be that a job that conflicts with traditional gender roles (Ripley) or does not (Connor) - has less impact on our perception of them as a whole than where they end up, and how they rise to the challenges their narratives present them with. 

Let us not forget that video games can regularly provide us with similarly positive protagonists.  I'm not talking about great sidekicks like Elena Fischer or Alyx Vance - I'm talking about heroes.  

Alice Liddel (Alice: Madness Returns)
Jade (Beyond Good & Evil)
Rubi Malone (WET)
...interesting that Jade here and Ripley above are both carrying a child, isn't it?  The mother as a hero - or even a divine being - is hardly new.  But it speaks to our predilection for established gender roles.  

Something feels... wholesome and righteous about it.  

As Rubi (the ex-black ops mercenary for hire) and Alice (the violent, angry girl with mental issues) show, heroes can easily spring from roles we don't traditionally accept as feminine and heroic, Ripley, Connor and Jade remind us that there is an inherent strength in symbolic roles we traditionally associate with women - in this case, motherhood.  

Let's get back to the first sentence of this article.  

In the upcoming Lollipop Chainsaw, there's a trophy for peeking up protagonist Juliet's skirt. 


If you've seen any media for Lollipop Chainsaw, you've already peeked up Juliet's skirt.  It's a significant challenge to locate a screenshot for the game where you can't see up Juliet's skirt. 


Juliet Starling is a super-perky, cheerful cheerleader in a high school named after famed horror director John Romero which becomes overrun with the living dead.  Like anyone with true school spirit, she takes it upon herself to defend those still-living students within the school, by way of an oversized chainsaw with a heart motif on the blade.  

Let's watch the debut trailer, shall we?


What... what can you say about that?

It gets its foot in the door by way of titillating footage of Juliet licking a lollipop, watching her bum shwish to and fro, jumping up and down with a big gleeful smile on her face.  It introduces her as a sexual object.  

Now here's the thing... 

I don't hate Lollipop Chainsaw. Hear me out, I got some reasonings.  

#1: Cheerleaders are totally a real thing, that happens. 

Totally a real thing.
#2: Cheerleaders and the undead have gone together like peas and carrots since Buffy the Vampire Slayer - and I'm not talking about the Sarah Michelle Gellar one, I'm talking about the original Buffy

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and Clueless (1995)

#3: It's not a bad thing to make a "valley girl" into a hero. Clueless was such a success because it took our prejudices about the "y'know, like, whatever" girl and presented her as a genuine, caring, emotionally strong and believable hero.  

Let us never deny anything the chance to challenge our preconceptions.  

#4: Cheerleaders are, I'm afraid, traditional heroes - traditional protagonists.  

When I was in high school, I ended up with a reputation as someone "who was good to talk to about stuff," and kids I'd never met before would often approach me in the halls - and yes, once or twice they were cheerleaders. 

They'd tell me that so-and-so had told them I was really good at talking stuff out and helping people with their problems, and was I busy for lunch?  So I would make up some instant cappuccinos and we'd sit down and talk for an hour about whatever was bothering them - and if there's anything I learned about cheerleaders, it's that they're just as insecure and neurotic and fucked-up as the rest of us - and equally capable of kindness and bravery.

As a dude, I never felt any great jealousy towards the cheerleaders in my high school.  I can tell you that, when in high school, I longed to be one of the jocks.  Or at least valued as much, by the opposite sex.  

I've little doubt that millions of teenage girls looked at the cheerleaders or star athletes in their school and wished they, too, could be just like them.  There's a built-in envy factor - a built-in I-wish-that-was-me factor with the cheerleader.  

So let us not count Juliet Starling out of the could-be-awesome race simply because she wears a sports bra and a miniskirt.  

The other question is one of all those lingering shots up her backside.  Is her super-hot body being exploited to arouse male players?  

Yes.  Yes it is.  

Could there be another side to it? 

Sure.

Bayonetta (2010)

2010's Bayonetta is the most technically accomplished, well-designed brawler (on a mechanical level) ever created.  It remains, to this day, peerless, and features a busty, leggy, deeply sexual protagonist.  
"Bayonetta gets naked-er as she uses more powerful attacks. She spends most of the game with a lollipop in her mouth, and the camera spends ample time examining her curves and posterior - but after getting my hands on the game, I find I agree with Leigh Alexander's appraisal [note: Leigh Alexander's article entitled Bayonetta: Empowering or Exploitive? has since been removed from GamePro.com]. 
Neatly ensconcing a game of madhouse action and glorious violence, Bayonetta is perhaps the first game I've ever played that quite intentionally - consciously - celebrates womanhood. From the lips that serve as your lock-on indicator to the lilting voice of a lady singing Fly Me To The Moon, the game allows the unique power of femininity (and so, uniquely feminine sexuality) to inform everything from the way Bayonetta throws a switch to her ostensively maternal relationship with the tiny, adorable Cereza. 
Never until Bayonetta have I beaten the hell out of enemies to cries of "Yay, Mummy!," and I have to admit - for some reason I cannot explain - I really liked it."
-from the review-
Back to Juliet Starling.


Writer James Gunn has always enjoyed attacking and blurring the traditional, and has a rich history with the horror genre.  He penned 2006's Slither, which was the liveliest mainstream horror movie in years.  He satirized and condemned Hollywood violence in 2010's Super.  He went after bullshit solutions to real problems with mocumentary LolliLove and even the porn industry in James Gunn's PG Porn

Even the oft-ridiculous-and-little-else Suda 51 did interesting things with the traditional video game hero's motivation and traditional damsel-in-distress in last year's Shadows of the Damned.  

It's entirely possible that Juliet may end up as confident and badass as Rubi Malone, as kind and well-intentioned as Jade, as brave and self-reliant as Alice.  

Can I say, with certainty, that Juliet Starling will be more than a bit of T and A?  I cannot.  The game hasn't released yet.

But neither can I assure you that that's all she'll be - and it's entirely possible that this impossible-to-not-get  trophy may prove more of a winking condemnation of folks who would write her off, or objectify her just because of her uniform - without taking the time to sit down with her over a cup of instant cappuccino.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Max Payne 3 TV spot.

MUSIC/MOVIE - it's the Muppet show!



When, last year, trailers began cropping up for The Muppets, I ignored them.

When popular media began covering it, and the director and writer and Kermit were chatting about how this was, in fact, a new and interesting and special movie, I ignored it.

We've heard that shit before.  I didn't believe it was actually going to be different, this time around.

-joe loves crappy movies-

It's not like I hated the old Muppet movies.  Muppets Take Manhattan and A Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppets From Space were all... fine.  They were fine.  They were a reasonable way to spend an evening on the couch when you've got the sniffles - but nothing... vital.  Nothing inspired or particularly valuable to me.

Nothing I needed to own.

Before moving on, let me assure you I absolutely loved The Muppet Show as a kid (and own all the seasons they've released on DVD).  I adored watching these respectable-looking humans coming to work for an evening with a collection of colorful puppets, and putting on a show.  I loved Pigs In Space and the fake news with the eagle guy and the one-off jokes in the waltzing skits.

I loved it all - and nothing (save my time in the theater industry, when I was younger) has ever recaptured that.

So, last year, The Muppets drops in theaters and I crack open my local newspaper to the entertainment section.  There's the review, and... what, seriously?  ...four stars?  For The Muppets?


This paper gives four stars to The Lion King and The Movie That Wins The Oscar This Year and, as a general rule, nothing else.  They don't give four stars to... well, anything.  So I called Kayla, and we saw The Muppets.

And yes.  Yes it was.  It was a sweet and funny and winking and wise and emotional hundred minutes.  It was a four-star movie, starring hand puppets and Jason Segel. I cried during The Muppets.

But I'd only had like, three or four hours of sleep the night before.  I was feeling emotional - that's all.

Last month The Muppets dropped on Bluray, and Kayla - sweet and kind thing that she is - bought me the 'Wakka wakka value pack,' with the digital soundtrack.  I slapped the soundtrack on my iPod and went to work.

As I was headed down the hallway into the office, a pair of co-workers were coming out, and saw my face.

"David!  What happened? Are you okay?"

I wiped the wet from my eyes and pointed to my earphones.  "It's The Muppets soundtrack.  This song just really gets to me."

It had nothing to do with the amount of sleep I'd had.  The song, somehow, really resonates with me on some deep level.  Before we move on, let's enjoy another Muppets strip from Joe Dunn.

-joe loves crappy movies-

And, without further ado, here's the song that makes me well up every time I hear it.

...damn.  This thing is hard to find.

Well, here it is - a fine version that I can't embed of Pictures in my Head - it's got all the video and audio.

I can't seem to find a decent, embeddable version of it - so just click the above link to see and hear what I've been crying over for the past year.

The Muppets actually won Best Original Song at the 2012 Oscars for Man or Muppet.  Having the soundtrack on my iPod is a great conversation-starter.  I have yet to turn to someone, say "would you like to hear the Muppets singing a barbershop quarter arrangement of Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana?" and have them say no.



The video sucks, but it's the best version of the audio I can find.

The movie starts out with Life's a Happy Song - your quintessential, upbeat movie musical song-and-dance number that manages to both achieve the purpose of such a song, and occasionally riffs original laughs out of it.



Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame was the music supervisor for the movie.  I don't know if that means he had a hand in the penning of any songs, but a lot of them certainly smack of the Conchords' lyrical style and familiarity with a variety of genres.

The Conchords, if you're unaware, are a comedy-folk duo from New Zealand who are absolutely awesome.



So, yeah.  The Muppets.  Check it out.