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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Weird Movie of the Week
Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we looked at a horror movie featuring bunny suit wearing chainsaw murderer. This time, let's examine a movie about elephants. And Nazis.
According to IMDB's surprisingly informative user review, Elephant Fury has a rather interesting history:
Sensation director and actor Harry Piel made the film "Panik" in the period 1940-1943 that was banned by the Promi: the animals running loose from a zoo after a bombardment reminded in 1943 too much of the real bombardments and in Berlin indeed one day the animals from the zoo were running through the streets. The only copy of the film was later destroyed by a bombardment also, while after the war the negative was confiscated by the Russians. In 1951/2 Piel was able to reclaim the negative, shot some additional material and edited a new version under a new title.
By all accounts, it's not particularly good, but the entire thing is available on YouTube (embedded above) and the short description is tantalizing: "Wild Animals Escape Zoo to attack Nazis". Note that the animals do not escape the zoo and attack Nazis. They escape to attack Nazis. Motivation is important, even to animal actors.
Posted by Mark on August 31, 2011 at 08:45 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Adventures in Brewing - Beer #5: Bottling
When I finished my latest homebrew attempt, a stout, I was a little worried that the yeast would have trouble getting started. I had activated the smack pack early in the day, and it did expand a bit, but not to the extent that my previous attempts had. Fortunately, I saw activity in the airlock within about 12 hours, which is better than I was expecting. Indeed, about a day and a half later, it was bubbling furiously. It may have been the most active I've ever seen the airlock. Of course, it cut out a couple days later, and by the Wednesday after brew day, it had slowed considerably. I probably could have bottled this a few days ago, but I waited for the weekend, just to be sure. So as hurricane Irene made it's way up to my area, I was hunkered down inside, bottling my beer.

Final gravity was a little on the high side - around 1.019 or so (maybe a bit higher, adjusting for temperature). My target was around 1.017, so this was probably close enough and will probably contribute a fuller body, which might actually be a good thing here, as I prefer full bodied stouts. From the aroma and taste, it may be a bit more roasty than I was hoping for, but we'll see how the bottle conditioning affects things. It tastes good, but extrapolating how it will taste after conditioning is something I haven't really figured out just yet. That being said, I think the bitterness turned out quite well. I was a little worried that the small amount of hops wouldn't be enough, but they either were, or the natural bitterness from the dark grains is also pitching in... Anyway, given the starting gravity of 1.062-1.063 or so, this should wind up at around 5.5-6% ABV. A little lower than my goal, but given the fuller body I'm expecting, I think it will work out fine.

The appearance was very nice indeed, though I'm really curious as to what the head will look like in the final product. Stouts usually have a relatively dark head, tan or light brown in color. But I'm wondering if my use of light DME as the base will lighten the color. From the picture, you can see a little of the head, and it does seem darker than normal. I guess we'll find out. The color of the beer is a really nice dark brown color (almost black) with some lighter brown highlights. Holding up to the light, I can't see through it at all, and the highlights are minimal.
Homebrewed Stout - after fermentation, before conditioning
When I bottled my saison, I tried one a week later, and it was fantastic, so I'll probably be trying this next week, hopefully with similar results!

I think I'll be going for a Belgian-style Abbey Dubbel for my next batch. It's one of my favorite styles, so I'm going to need to make sure my recipe is good here. I found a nice clone recipe of St. Bernardus 8 that might provide a good base to work from. But given my schedule for the next couple months, I probably won't get to brew again until October, so I've got time. Not sure what I'll try after that. Perhaps an IPA of some kind. I should probably try to take advantage of the cooler temperatures inside the house during winter, which means I did things kinda backwards this past year (I brewed a Belgian tripel in winter - using a yeast that requires high temperatures, then I went and brewed this stout in summer, which requires lower temperatures). I may also be upgrading my equipment a little for these future batches. I think I've established that I really enjoy this little hobby, so some new toys are probably worthwhile...

(Cross Posted on Kaedrin Beer Blog)
Posted by Mark on August 28, 2011 at 03:35 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
It's not the worst movie ever made. In fact, it's pretty good. Much better than I expected. It has its problems, and I'm still not entirely convinced that it needed to exist in the first place, but now that it does, it's probably worth checking out. It does not start well, though.

The first scene in the movie is an ape-poaching sequence. It's not terrible, but it's also pretty pointless and doesn't really connect that solidly with the rest of the film. It's not until the second sequence in the film that the bad really gets horrible. I'm going to quote, from memory, some dialogue from the script. It's approximate, but I think you'll be able to see why it's so bad.




JAMES FRANCO: Cliché. Science cliché.


JAMES FRANCO: Cliché. Cliché!
Yeah, but from these inauspicious beginnings, the film slowly starts to reverse itself. Interestingly, and perhaps appropriately, it doesn't really right itself until Caesar (which, without getting into details, is basically James Franco's pet ape) grows up and starts to demonstrate his real intelligence. The special effects of the film are getting a lot of buzz. In particular, Andy Serkis's motion-capture performance as Caesar is even being mentioned as a potential Oscar nominee. Not all of the effects are perfect, but those folks over at Weta Digital know where their bread is buttered, and so the really important parts are done extremely well.

One of the problems with the film is that once Caesar begins to gain his independence, the human side of the story becomes less important. By the end of the film, the humans really don't have much to do. Oh sure, there are a couple human villains, but James Franco, for example, doesn't really have much to do once you get to the midpoint of the film. A lot of the human side characters are never really given much to do, even though some are played by really good actors.

The thing I like about the movie is that the film doesn't quite succumb to the traps that are set up early in the movie. For instance, without getting into specifics, the Apes and humans aren't really at war. There is one really fantastic action set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge, and there are some "villains" among the humans, but for the most part, there isn't a full scale war here. The apes aren't out for revenge and they're surprisingly restrained and reasonable.

In the end, there are some real clunkers in the dialogue, and there are some plot holes and really major, groan-inducing clichés, but the film manages to overcome them. It ends much stronger than it begins, which is actually a nice change of pace. I feel like a lot of movies start well and fall apart in the second or third act. This is a film that starts poorly, but gets better, leaving you with a good feeling at the end. It's definitely worth a watch, but maybe as a matinee or DVD. I've got some more spoilertastic comments in the extended entry, for those that have already seen it. Here be the spoilers:
  • I think a lot of Hollywood movies would get at least 13% better if they'd just cut out some of the dialogue. In this movie, there's a really fantastic sequence involving James Franco's father, played by John Lithgow. The first time we see Lithgow, we hear him attempting to play Claude Debussy's Claire De Lune on the piano. It's a great piece, and Lithgow's character is clearly having trouble playing it. It's a great way to establish that Lithgow, a musician, is suffering from the effects of Alzheimer's. Then, when the movie breaks into Cliché 34 and Franco (illegally) gives Lithgow the experimental drug treatment he's been working on, we get another great sequence where Franco wakes up and hears Lithgow playing the piano... but this time, he's not having any trouble. What a wonderful way to establish that the drug worked! Then the script goes and ruins it, as Lithgow exclaims "I'm not sick anymore!" Completely unnecessary.
  • So when Franco realizes that the experimental drug isn't aggressive enough and that his dad's sickness will return, he admits to his boss (who was understandably dismissive of the project due to an event at the beginning of the movie) that he gave the drug to his father and that he needs to make some tweaks to the formula. The boss is, again, reasonably dismissive of the idea. The project is dead, and so on. They talk for a while, Franco says something, the boss says no, but then Franco says something else, and the boss turns on a dime. No, that doesn't quite explain how quickly the boss changes tune here. The Grinch? Scrooge? Their transformations are downright slow compared to this guy. Even funnier, it's like Franco and the boss have reversed roles. The boss is now reckless and Franco is now conservative. Crazy.
  • So Malfoy is in the movie, and he's terrible. Well, I shouldn't say that. His character is terrible and poorly written. He's also given the Charlton Heston references. I'm not sure if they were just ill-advised references or if Malfoy's performance is just really bad, but they were a bad idea. I guess the "Madhouse!" one kinda works, but the "Take Your Stinkin' Paws Off Me You Damn Dirty Ape" line is really awful.
  • Not all references to the original are as ham-fisted though. In particular, I'm curious about the mission to Mars that is playing in the background of a few scenes. We see a ship launching and we hear a news clip talking about a manned mission to Mars, then we see a newspaper that says "Lost in Space". I presume this is a reference to the original Planet of the Apes - basically that Charlton Heston was on that trip to Mars and ends up in the future, etc... I haven't seen the original in a while though, so I don't remember if it exactly fits. If so, it makes for an interesting touch, but I'm not sure if this movie really fits with the continuity of the existing series, which kinda has its own prequels built in...
  • The sequence that happens after the credits start is awesome and actually kinda clever. What's really fascinating is that it fits in with a book I finished recently called Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. I have my problems with that book, but there are some really astute ideas in the book, one of which is the role germs play in conquest. Let me back up a minute. One of the things that Diamond contends is that the reason Eurasia dominated the rest of the world is because of the number of domesticated plant and animal species in Eurasia. This domestication lead to increased food production and storage, which allowed people to specialize in other things, which gave rise to cities. All of this gave rise to certain diseases as well, and when Eurasians began to expand to other continents, they brought their diseases with them. For example, North America had native peoples, but not much in the way of domesticated plants or animals, so you didn't get specialists or, more importantly diseases. When the Europeans arrived in the New World, they brought their diseases, which spread throughout North America uncontrollably. We hear a lot in America about how we mistreated the Native Americans, and we did, but the real killer was mostly unintentional. Diamond estimates that there were 20 million Native Americans and that 19 million of them were unintentionally killed by disease. The remaining 5% are all we really hear about though. This is a drastic simplification of Diamond's book, but I think you can see my point. The thing that I found interesting about the credits sequence of this movie is that it's basically doing the same thing. In this movie, the Apes aren't going to hunt down and kill all the humans, but their disease will...
And I think that just about covers it...
Posted by Mark on August 24, 2011 at 09:20 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fantastic Fest
A couple of weeks ago, I bit the bullet and booked my trip to Fantastic Fest, a movie festival focusing on genre film (mostly horror, fantasy, SF and action). It takes place in Austin, TX and is primarily held at a couple of big theaters there, notably the Alamo Drafthouse (I've never been to one, but from all reports, they're great). Everything I've heard about this festival is that it is amazing, especially for genre-hounds like myself (and this year's festival aligns pretty well with the beginning of my annual 6 Weeks of Halloween marathon).

They haven't announced the schedule yet (and they should totally get on that), but they have released a bunch of the movies that will be showing. I'm really psyched to see a bunch of these films. Many genre films and filmmakers don't get wide releases, so it will be really nice to be ahead of the game on some of these. Even more interesting is the fact that I haven't heard of the grand majority of the films announced so far, which hopefully means I'll be discovering some films that I wouldn't normally have even had the chance to see. Again, they haven't announced the schedule, but I figured I should take a look through the two blocks of released titles to see what I'm interested in. I suppose there's no real guarantee that I'll get to see all the films I want, but I'm definitely hoping to catch up with most of these films:
  • Extraterrestrial - The premise of this one sounds mildly lame - it's another alien invasion movie, this time told from the perspective of a guy with a hangover. Or something. But it's directed by Nacho Vigalondo (best director name ever?), who made Kaedrin favorite IMDb - Timecrimes a few years ago. I love that movie, so I'm hoping this one will overcome its cliched premise.
  • The Innkeepers - Basically a haunted house movie. But that subgenre seems ideally suited for writer/director Ti West, another Kaedrin favorite and director of The House of the Devil.
  • Let the Bullets Fly - Apparently a very successful Chinese film starring Chow Yun Fat. It's set in the 1920s on a train and seems to be a parody of westerns, or something.
  • Pastorela: A Christmas Play - A movie so obscure I can't find it on IMDB. I'm a sucker for Christmas horror though, and it seems like that's what this one is getting at: "When Chucho (Joaquín Cosio) loses the beloved role of Satan in the town’s Christmas play and tries to reclaim the part, all hell breaks loose and an epic battle between good and evil begins."
  • Snowman's Land - Ah, I see what they did in the title there. Another typical premise - the hit man's one final job. Still, looks interesting...
There are, of course, lots of interesting looking films that have been announced, and I'm sure I'll see a ton of films while I'm there, but I'm really looking forward to several of the above films.
Posted by Mark on August 21, 2011 at 07:33 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

More on Spoilers
I recently wrote about the unintended consequences of spoiler culture, and I just came across this post which has been making waves around the internets. That post points to a study which concluded that readers actually like to have a story "spoiled" before they start reading.
The U.C. San Diego researchers, who compiled this chart showcasing the spoiler ratings of three genres (ironic twist stories, mysteries or literary stories), posited this about their findings: "once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier - you’re more comfortable processing the information - and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story."
Jonah Lehrer apparently goes so far as to read the last 5 pages of the novels he reads, just so he has an idea where the story's headed. He clearly approves of the research's conclusions, and makes a few interesting observations, including:
Surprises are much more fun to plan than experience. The human mind is a prediction machine, which means that it registers most surprises as a cognitive failure, a mental mistake. Our first reaction is almost never “How cool! I never saw that coming!” Instead, we feel embarrassed by our gullibility, the dismay of a prediction error. While authors and screenwriters might enjoy composing those clever twists, they should know that the audience will enjoy it far less.
Interestingly, a few years ago, I posted about this conundrum from the opposite end. Author China Miéville basically thinks it's extremely difficult, maybe even impossible, to write a crime story or mystery with a good ending:
Reviews of crime novels repeatedly refer to this or that book’s slightly disappointing conclusion. This is the case even where reviewers are otherwise hugely admiring. Sometimes you can almost sense their bewilderment when, looking closely at the way threads are wrapped up and plots and sub-plots knotted, they acknowledge that nothing could be done to improve an ending, that it works, that it is ‘fair’ (a very important quality for the crime aficionado - no last-minute suspects, no evidence the reader hasn’t seen), that it is well-written, that it surprises… and yet that it disappoints.

The reason, I think, is that crime novels are impossible. Specifically, impossible to end.
There's a lot to parse out above, but I have two thoughts on the conclusions raised by the original study. First is that there may actually be something to the cognitive benefits theory of why people like this. The theory and methodology of interpretation of text is referred to as hermeneutics*. This is a useful field because language, especially figurative language, is often obscure and vague. For example, in the study of religious writings, it is often found that they are written in a certain vernacular and for a specific audience. In order to truly understand said writings, it is important to put them in their proper cultural and historical context. You can't really do that without knowing what the text says in the first place.

This is what's known as the hermenutic circle. It's kinda like the application of science to interpretation. Scientists start by identifying a problem, and they theorize the answer to that problem. In performing and observing their experiment to test the problem, they gain new insights which must then be used to revise their hypothesis. This is basically a hermeneutic circle. To apply it to the situation at hand: When reading a book, we are influenced by our overall view of the book's themes. But how are we to know the book's themes as a whole if we have not yet finished reading the parts of the book? We need to start reading the book with our own "pre-understanding", from which we hypothesize a main theme for the whole book. After we finish reading the book, we go back to each individual chapter with this main theme in mind to get a better understanding of how all the parts relate to the whole. During this process, we often end up changing our main theme. With the new information gained from this revision, we can again revise our main theme of the book, and so on, until we can see a coherent and consistent picture of the whole book. What we get out of this hermeneutic circle is not absolute and final, but it is considered to be reasonable because it has withstood the process of critical testing.

This process in itself can be fulfilling, and it's probably why folks like Jonah Lehrer don't mind spoilers - it gives them a jump start on the hermeneutic circle.

Second, the really weird thing about this study is that it sorta misses the point. As Freddie points out:
The whole point of spoilers is that they're unchosen; nobody really thinks that there's something wrong with people accessing secrets and endings about art they haven't yet consumed. What they object to is when spoilers are presented in a way that an unsuspecting person might unwittingly read them. The study suggests that people have a preference for knowing the ending, but preference involves choice. You can't deliberately act on a preference for foreknowledge of plot if you are presented the information without choosing to access it.
And that's really the point. Sometimes I don't mind knowing the twist before I start watching/reading something, but there are other times when I want to go in completely blind. Nothing says that I have to approach all movies or books (or whatever) exactly the same way, every time. And context does matter. When you see a movie without knowing anything about it, there can be something exhilarating in the discovery. That doesn't mean I have to approach all movies that way, just that the variety is somethings a good thing.

* - Yeah, I plundered that entry that I wrote for everything2 all those years ago pretty heavily. Sue me.
Posted by Mark on August 17, 2011 at 06:03 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Adventures in Brewing - Beer #5: Stout
So the past three beers I've brewed have been pale in color, and I was looking to do something a bit darker this time around. For one thing, dark beers are apparently more suitable for extract homebrew as the extract process naturally makes the malt a bit darker, and the fact that I'm doing a partial boil (I only really boil about 3-3.5 gallons of liquid, then add water later to make up the difference) also leads to a darker color. And after a summer of drinking hefeweizens, saisons, tripels, and other pale ales, I'm getting to be in the mood for something darker anyway. Stouts have never been one of my favorite styles, but I have to admit that certain variations on the style have really grown on me. One of the big advantages of doing homebrew is that you can make whatever you want, so I started trying to figure out how to make a stout that emphasized the chocolate and caramel flavors, rather than the one--dimensional roastiness that overpowers a lot of stouts. I didn't want a really dry stout, nor did I want a super-strong imperial stout. Something in the middle, with a lot of body and caramel/chocolate sweetness, but not a ton of roastiness.

I toyed with the notion of a milk stout, but none of the homebrew kits I could find online were really doing it for me. So I started playing with some online recipe calculators, and came up with a (rather lame) recipe. I probably know a lot more about beer than your typical beer drinker, but when it comes to expert homebrewer stuff, I'm still somewhat of a newb. I was unsure of my recipe, so I figured I should just take it to the local homebrew shop and ask the friendly guys there what I should do. I'm not entirely convinced that the recipe we ended up creating is exactly what I want, but it feels like it will be good.

Brew #5 - Stout
August 13, 2011

0.5 lb. Roasted Barley (Specialty Grain)
0.75 lb. British Chocolate Malt (Specialty Grain)
0.25 lb. Belgian Special B (Specialty Grain)
0.5 lb American Crystal 120L (Specialty Grain)
7 lb. Light DME
1 oz. Target Hops (bittering @ 8.6% AA)
Wyeast 1284 - Irish Ale Yeast

If you're in the know, the first thing you'll notice is that the majority of the sugars in this beer consist of light dry malt extract. But stouts are supposed to be dark! Well, it turns out that you don't need much in the way of dark, roasted malts to get that nice, dark brown/black color, and since the specialty grains were fresh (and just crushed), you can get a much better flavor out of that than you can by just selecting dark malt extracts. As such, I think this is the most complex (and largest) specialty grain bill I've brewed. And according to our calculations, it will indeed be very dark. The way brewers measure beer color is called the Standard Reference Method (SRM), and this beer should have an SRM of around 45 (anything above 30 is usually referred to as black).

The other thing that stands out about the recipe is the single, relatively-small hop addition. Most brews have a hop schedule consisting of three additions: one for bittering, one for taste, and one for aroma. But since I was looking to highlight the caramel, chocolate, and roasty flavors of my malts, those taste and aroma hops would only detract from the experience. As such, the homebrew shop guy recommended I go with a single hop addition at the beginning of the boil. I'm not entirely convinced that there's enough bitterness in what I ended up with, but again, I'm looking to make something that is sweet, chocolately/caramelly, and a little roasty. This isnt' meant to be a hop bomb like some imperial stouts (or American Black Ales, or whatever you call that style), so it makes sense that the hop presence would be a bit muted.

I steeped the specialty grains in approximately 2.5 gallons of water at around 150° F - 160° F for about 20 minutes. Sparged with some 150° F water, bringing the total volume of the pot up to a little more than 3 gallons. Let the grains drain out (careful not to squeeze the grain bag), observed the black-as-night color of the wort and the various aromas it gave off. This may end up being a bit roastier than I expected, but nothing I could do about it at that point, so I punched up the stovetop to bring the mixture to a boil. Once at the boil, added the 7 pounds of DME and the hops and boy did it create a lot of bubbly head (Not sure exactly if you would call this head, but there was a bubbly head-like substance at the top of the pot, and it took some supervision to make sure it didn't boil over). Settled in for the 60 minute boil. Once complete, I moved the pot to the ice bath in my sink. Unlike previous attempts, I came prepared with lots of ice this time, and that certainly helped cool the word down quicker... until all the ice melted. Still, it got down to around 100° F quicker than any of my previous attempts. At this point, I strained the wort into my fermenter and topped it all off with cold water, bringing the temperature down to around 75° F. Just a hint too hot, so I let it sit for a while (once I hit the cooling phase, I cranked the air conditioner, hoping to help with the cooling process), took my hydrometer reading, and pitched the yeast.

If I got one thing right with my initial recipe, it was the yeast choice (or at least, my yeast choice was exactly what the homebrew store guy said I should use). Apparently Irish Ale Yeast is really well matched with dark malts. So before I even started brewing, I had activated the wyeast smack-pack. It was dated 5/16/11, which is still somewhat recent, but unlike previous smack-packs, it didn't swell up right away and took some cajoling to get it to swell at all. About 4 hours after the initial smack, it seemed to be swelling a bit, but I'm not sure if this yeast was really ready. This represents my greatest fear in this batch - the yeast seems to be a bit old and tired. Now, the Wyeast package says that the swelling need not be extreme for the yeast to be ok, but I'm still a bit worried (note to self - learn how to make a yeast starter so that I can avoid such anxiety). I pitched it at around 70° F, so I guess we'll see how it does.

Original Gravity: 1.062 (approximate). Adjusting for temperature, maybe a tad higher. Either way, this is a little lower than my recipe implied (somewhere around 1.067), but still within the realm of what I wanted to make. Assuming solid attenuation, I'm looking at an ABV of around 6-6.5%, maybe higher.

My last batch turned out really well, so I've got high hopes for this. Even if it comes out a little roastier than expected, I'll be happy. I am a bit worried about the yeast, but I saw some activity in the airlock this morning, so that's promising. And besides, I worried a lot about the last batch, and it turned out great (first batch I've made that I really love).

Not sure what's up next. I think I'll want to get the Belgian Dubbel underway, so that I have it ready for the Holidays. After that, who knows? I was thinking about an IPA of some kind, but there are definite issues with hop utilization in extract boils, so maybe I'll hold off on that a bit. I probably won't be able to get to the next batch until October anyway, so I've got some time.

(Cross posted on Kaedrin Beer Blog)
Posted by Mark on August 14, 2011 at 04:52 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Old Podcast Episodes
I sometimes discover a podcast long after it's started, and if I like it enough, I'll head back through the archives to check out some older episodes. In honor of some of the gems I've found by doing so, here are a few really good episodes that are probably worth listening to:
  • GFW Radio - 6/26/08 (.mp3) - The now long-defunct GFW Radio podcast, AKA The Brodeo, was a pretty great podcast, but this particular episode breaks from their normally free-flowing format to present a very well produced episode chronicling a stunt they pulled outside a Gamestop. They basically posed as a marketing research firm and pitched crazy game ideas to random passers-by. If you're into video games, you will love how well they lampoon the various conventions of video game marketing. The episode almost feels like a dry run for Robert Ashley's A Life Well Wasted podcast (Ashley was a member of GFW Radio at the time and later went on to do his own podcast). It's really hysterically funny too. I could not stop laughing around the time they started pitching the Founding Fighters video game (a Street Fighter-like game featuring moves like Alexander Hamilton's Knickerbocker Shocker and the Philadelphia Filibuster).
  • /Filmcast: After Dark - Ep. 79 - An Evening with Jason Reitman - Most interviews with actors or directos feature pretty much the same canned questions and since these folks are participating in dozens of intervews a day, they pretty much have the same answers too. So when Jason Reitman logs on to the /Filmcast, things just derail almost immediately, as he becomes enamored with the live chatroom and answers all the random questions people are asking (like: What's your favorite Dinosaur? and other similarly enlightening questions). Really fun stuff, and a refreshingly non-typical interview.
  • A Conversation on Blogging Ethics and Online Film Journalism - So this isn't really a regular podcast, more of a one time conversation featuring David Chen (of the /Filmcast), C. Robert Cargill (from Ain't It Cool News), Devin Faraci (from CHUD, but now at Badass Digest), and Peter Sciretta (from /Film) as they discuss various ethical issues surrounding the reviewing of movies and how studios try to "buy" good reviews, ban publications from screenings, and the like. Really interesting stuff, and well worth a listen for anyone interested in the industry.
And that's all for now...
Posted by Mark on August 10, 2011 at 09:56 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Mass Effect 2
So I've mentioned a couple times that I've been playing Mass Effect 2. It certainly took me a while to get into it, but at some point, I turned a corner and became very enamored with it. It's not perfect, but it is interesting, and at this point, I'm very much looking forward to the third and final installment.

I never played the first Mass Effect, which was an XBox 360/PC exclusive, but this PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 was supposed to include some sort of "Interactive Backstory" that is an introduction to the universe and happenings of the first game. Strangely, it's only available as downloadable content and not really on the disc... at least, I think so. It never actually came up for me (at least, I don't think so... there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding this). In fact, what actually comes with the PS3 version of the game is strangely obscure. I believe you get the full game and some of the original DLC on the disc itself. Then there's this extra pack of content that you can download for free, which I think includes the interactive backstory thingy, but I'm not sure because the whole thing was all very confusing. I get that this is a port of a year old game that already had a bunch of DLC, but is it too much to ask to make that stuff a little clearer?

Anyway, once I got started on Mass Effect 2 proper, it took me a bit to get acclimated to all the various gameplay mechanics. It could have been that I just wasn't up for a new game at the time, or maybe it was because I had no idea what was really going on in the story at the beginning of the game, but for whatever reason, I found the beginning of the game to be a bit of a slog (I have to wonder how people who played the first game felt - were they ok with this, or does it suffer from the Video Game Sequel Problem). Once I got used to the mission structures and combat mechanics, it started to get a lot more fun.

There are basically two types of missions in the game - a main storyline concerning disappearing human settlements and a series of recruiting and loyalty missions. As previously hinted at, the main story was a bit obtuse at first (presumably due to my lack of context), but as I got used to the universe and the various things that inhabit it, it became simple enough to understand. However, I found myself much more interested in recruiting members of my team and helping them out. Perhaps because those stories are self-contained, I found them much more engaging. I became attached to most members of the team, each in their own way and for their own reasons. When it came time to launch the final "suicide mission", I found myself dreading the prospect of losing a member of my team.

As an RPG, there are a lot of dialogue sequences and decision trees. Fortunately, the Bioware writers are reasonably good at writing dialogue. It's not Shakespeare, but it's funny and engaging enough. I particularly enjoyed talking to Mordin, who has a distinctive, clipped stream of consciousness grammar, but who is very witty and funny. In terms of choices, you are forced to make many, and each seems to be split up between two directions: Paragon and Renegade (basically good and evil respectively). At first, the system seemed much more interesting and subtle than other simple good-and-evil scales shown in games. For instance, in other games, when confronted with a puppy, you will get three options: 1. Pet the puppy and give it a snack, 2. Ignore the puppy, and 3. Place the puppy in a blender and make a protein shake. In order to play the "evil" side of the scale, you have to do some pretty heinous things and while pondering your character as he sips pureed puppy may be an interesting experience, it's also pretty surreal. But in Mass Effect 2, the evil options are toned down. Sure, you still do some bad stuff, but it's at least mildly plausible that someone would act this way. I dabbled a bit with both sides of the scale before settling on Paragon for my playthrough... and I do believe that indecision cost me later in the game. From what I've heard, these decisions are supposed to have consequences, but for the most part, I didn't see much of that going on until the end of the game, but at that point, the decisions seem much more arbitrary and frustrating (more on this later). At some point, there may have been an element of implied consequences (similar to how Heavy Rain made me feel like my decisions mattered, even if replaying the game (which you're apparently not supposed to do) reveals the distinct limitations of your decisions), but by the end of the game, I was well aware of how it all worked.

The combat is basically a third-person, cover-based shooter. My understanding is that this is different from the first game and that there was some consternation about the change, but most folks seem to think it was an improvement - and fortunately, I rather enjoy this type of gameplay. There's also a system of "magic" powers, but since this is a science fiction setting, they're called Biotics. I never fully got used to these, though I found myself relying on them more and more as the game went on.

In terms of production values, the game is fantastic - great visuals, great audio, and so on. The voice actor for the male Shepard seemed a bit on the wooden side, but he was alright for the most part (I've heard that the female voice actor is actually much better). The game has a really great auto-save system (I shouldn't have to point that out, but I find that some games, even today, still have horrible save systems), but some major problems with loading screens. In most cases, this is fine, but the part that really drove me nuts was moving around on my own ship, the Normandy. It's silly in the extreme that I need to sit at the loading screen for minutes on end while I'm just trying to go down one level on my ship.

So I assembled my team, gained each of their loyalty, and proceeded to scour the galaxy of missions and campaigns. There's a lot to do, and like all RPGs, there are varying levels of satisfaction surrounding each of the missions. Still, these were, on the whole, positive. As I mentioned before, I really enjoyed the process of recruiting each member of my team, then gaining their loyalty by helping them out on another mission. It's a pretty simple process, of course, but just when I thought it was getting too simplistic, I ended up losing one of my crew's loyalty (it was Miranda, in case you're interested) at the expense of gaining another's. This was mildly frustrating, and because I had dabbled in Renegade actions earlier in the game, I wasn't able to build up enough Paragon points to rectify the situation. I'm pretty sure this was the contributing factor that let the non-loyal crew member die in the final mission.

Speaking of which, I found that final mission very frustrating. The playthrough itself isn't bad or anything - the combat is fun and the situation is actually somewhat tense - but the choices you make here generally lead to members of the crew dying. That would be fine, but the whole thing is rather arbitrary. All of the choices amount to picking specialists to do a specific job, and picking two team members to accompany you throughout the final levels. The specialists part seems straightforward enough - you pick the people who have strong tech skills (Kali and Legion), biotic skills (Samara and Jack), or leadership skills (this one is the least obvious, but Garrus and Jacob both seem to work). But who you take with you has a weirdly disproportionate effect. I played through the final level twice, with the second outcome being that one of my people died, and the first being that 4 people died. The only difference was who I brought with me on the final level. Miranda died in both scenarios (one time I brought her with me, the other time I had her stay with the others). I'm pretty sure that she died because I didn't have enough Paragon points to resolve the whole loyalty situation (though again, it's unclear what formula they used to figure this out). I think there may be a way to save her, but I'm not sure I really want to play the final level again...

This brings up another point on good/evil scales, which is that they generally work in a cumulative manner. You can't do certain things until you get far enough along on either scale... but this isn't how morality really works. People aren't just an accumulation of their good or bad deeds. There are ways for good people to succumb to evil or for bad people to redeem past mistakes. This game tries to do something like that - if you're far along on the Paragon side, some Renegade actions become unavailable. But it's still a little on the simplistic side for me.

Once I got into the game, it was a lot of fun. I was actually surprised to learn that I spent a solid 35 hours or so playing the game... but most of that didn't feel like a waste, as sometimes happens in RPGs of this nature. Oh sure, there are some dumbly repetitive elements, such as probing planets or hacking terminals, but those are relatively short experiences. Other games sometimes take those tasks to the extreme (this is generally referred to as "grinding"), or they make the main missions too long for a single play session. For instance, it was common for me to play Fallout 3 for a couple hours and not actually accomplish anything worthwhile. In Mass Effect, the missions are well delineated and substantial, but not too large or cumbersome that you couldn't finish any one task in a single sitting. This leads to a better flow effect in the game, and thus it's more fulfilling and interesting to play. Ultimately, I had a lot of fun with the game, despite its flaws, and I'm now very much looking forward to Mass Effect 3. I may even replay this game on Renegade. Who knows, maybe the interactive backstory will work this time around.
Posted by Mark on August 07, 2011 at 07:23 PM .: link :.

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