Saturday, December 31, 2011

Year In Review 2011: Winning?

For the past few years, I've themed my year-in-review features after a certain quote from a movie or something.  This year's theme comes from an unlikely source you've probably forgotten about.  Charlie Sheen, who bragged about himself in interviews after getting fired from the show Two And A Half Men, threw around lines like "winning", "tiger blood", and "Adonis DNA".  Truly, this a man who has no idea when he's beat, and man is he beat.  So let's examine who and what really does or doesn't deserve these accolades.

Middle East: Winning. Almost the entire year saw the Arab Spring, a wave of protests encompassing almost the entirety of the Middle East and North Africa.  Thousands of lives have been lost in the protests, but they resulted in the removal of long-standing leaderships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and soon Yemen.  That said, I am concerned about the moderate Islamist parties that have won elections in Tunisia (Renaissance) and Egypt (Freedom and Justice), although those parties have at least stated some intent to separate mosque and state.

Syria: Weak.  Somehow, Syria was the one exception to the successes of the Arab Spring. Civilians protesting the regime of president Bashar al-Assad have found themselves fired upon by the army.  Depending on the estimates, anywhere from 3,500 to 6,000 have died - which could be more than the number of Americans killed from the Iraq war, all in less than one year.  Oh, and we're done with Iraq now.

Dictators: Weak.  "Celebrity" deaths in 2011 included Osama bin Laden, leader of the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda (killed by US forces on 1 may); Muammar Gaddafi, leader of Libya (killed by Libyan rebel forces on 20 October); and Kim Jongil (heart attack on 17 December).  Add that to the Arab presidents who had finally left after 30+ years in office, and 2011 was not a good year to rule with an iron fist.

The 99%: Winning.  Never one to be left out of international affairs, Americans kicked off the Occupy Wall Street protests, which spread across the nation and world, including one here in Philly.  You would think protesting against the financial robber barons would be out of date by now, and unlike the Arab Spring it hasn't really gotten any results yet, but dang if "We are the 99%" was a powerful slogan.

Japan: Weak.  Going into 2011, some of us were fearful of the "anti-Otaku" bill Tokyo Youth Development Ordinance passed by Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo Prefecture, which went into effect in June and honestly didn't have much of an impact.  But a different kind of "impact" made us forget about all that: the combination earthquake/tsunami/nuclear plant meltdown that struck northern Honshu on 11 March.  Witnessing a disaster that would eventually overshadow Chernobyl - on its 25th anniversary, no less - unfold was one of the most powerful and sombering scenes I remember from this year.  Oh, and Mega Man Legends 3 was cancelled.

3-D: Winning.  Like it or not (and for the record, I like it in moderation), 3-D movies and media showed no sign of slowing down in 2011.  The technology has improved as well; in March, Nintendo released the 3DS handheld, which can display 3-D images without the need for glasses.  I still think it's too early to pass judgement on the thing itself, although a US$80 price drop (three months into its lifespan, no less) seems to have helped.

Tablets: Winning.  Last year, my view on the Apple iPad was one of skepticism, but it seems to have carved out a successful market niche for itself and all its competitors.  It must be nice to run all those wonderful apps on a larger screen.  Still, wake me when you can run an honest-to-blog Windows or Mac OS.

Pop Music: Winning.  Whereas the hits from 2010 were consistently so-bad-it's-good fare, in 2011 the bad got worse and the good got better and more plentiful. The bad news: about half of the stuff on the pop charts is club bangers espousing a world of free-flowing sex, alcohol, and bad pick-up lines.  But the other half hosted far more innovative fare, with seemingly out-there acts like Adele, Foster the People, and Cee-Lo Green having hits.

My Life: Winning.  After almost a year of searching, I finally found a job.  And little did I know how much it would transform my life.  In some ways it was a drag; more than once I've gone long stretches without any work and anywhere to go.  But to be in charge of my own money and transportation makes the metamorphosis into adulthood that much sweeter.  Oh, and I was able to keep up my output on the SDP during my lunch breaks, so it's not all bad.

2012 will see the introduction of the year-end James Bond 50th anniversary celebration, plus the long-awaited(?) video spinoff!

This is IchigoRyu.

God bless America.  And everyone else.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Game Review: Ethnic Cleansing

Ethnic Cleansing
  • Publisher: Resistance Records
  • Developer: Resistance Records
  • Release: PC, 21 January 2002
  • Genre: Action, First-Person
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: Direct order / US$15 and your immortal soul

DISCLAIMER:  The following review contains discussions of race and racism.  The Strawberry Dragon Project does not advocate racial or any other form of discrimination, and as such does not share nor advocate the views of any and all persons involved in the creation of the product being reviewed, including but not limited to Resistance Records and the National Alliance.

With a disclaimer like that, you know you're in for some serious shizzle.

One thing that strikes me as odd when comparing other nations' video game ratings systems to the North American ESRB is that, unlike the ESRB, some systems have concept descriptors for portrayals of discrimination or racism in video games.  Ironically, you would think this would be of greater concern in America, where we've been struggling with the issue of civil rights over at least the past century, but then again, the Holocaust is probably still fresh in Europeans' minds as well.  Which brings me to my next point: neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.  They exist.  For people from this generation, who may be living a sheltered life in this respect, there are people who, for whatever self-professed "justification", believe in hatred of Africans, the Jewish, what-have-you.  And wouldn't you know it, someone made a computer game for these kinds of people.

Enter Resistance Records, a music label specialising in white supremacy and neo-Nazi themed punk and such, who developed and self-published the PC game Ethnic Cleansing in 2002.  Just that sentence alone should raise a red flag immediately: namely, we don't let companies that deal in music make their own video games.  What is this, 1981?  Now, I know what you're thinking, but as a journalist, I am "legally" obligated to state that everyone is entitled to have and express their own opinions, as provided by the First Amendment and all that jazz.  After all, I am sensitive about infrigements on this personal right, so I'd be a hypocrite if I denied others from doing the same, amirite?  Moving on.

The plot for this first-person shooter is thin and silly, although those select few who share the developers' *ahem* beliefs probably won't care.  Basically, you start out fighting an African-American gang in some ghetto neighbourhood somewhere, then break into the subway and encounter an alleged Jewish plot to take over the world in eight years' time - in other words, 2010.  ...Yeah, who's got the last laugh now, bub?  Note that all this is done in the span of only two levels.  And they're not long, either; if you know what you're doing, you can count the number of minutes it takes to finish this game on your fingers.  The boss of the first level, the gang leader whose name... rhymes with "Big Digz", is ridiculously easy to beat, given that he can't shoot past the two-foot table in front of him, whereas the final boss, former Israeli president Ariel Sharon, takes a frustratingly large amount of bulltes to bring down.  Plus, not only does this make the whole game seem like a bad fanfic come to life, but just a few years after the game's release, Sharon would seek more peacable relations with Palestine and his nation's other rivals.  Again, last laugh: not you.

The enemies you face can be divvied up into three categories: 1) Africans, who sometimes wear shirts with the N-word on them (Yeah, I doubt even real gang-bangers would throw around that word so casually) and make monkey noises when shot.  2) Hispanics, decked out in poncho/sombrero ensembles, who revive themselves a couple of minutes after going down because they were "only taking a siesta".  3) Jews, wearing full Hasidic regalia and saying "oy vey" upon death.  ...Now that I think about it, this game doesn't have any portrayals, insulting or otherwise, of Asians, homosexuals, Arabs... I could go on.  So not only is the content horribly debasing racism, it's not even complete racism!  ...I'm just saying.  Not that you'll hear their clips anyway, since the sound is so unbalanced that your gunshots will drown out everything else coming from your speakers.  Oh, and I hope you like that white-power-punk in all its hate-filled glory, since the volume control in the game's options doesn't work, nor does the ability to re-map the controls.  (Just for kicks, I replaced the music with the worst song I could think of - "Anime" by Soulja Boy Tell'Em.)

Eventually, the icky subject matter will get shoved to the back of your mind once you register how horribly this game runs and plays.  For one, the collision detection is simply atrocious.  You'll get snagged on walls at the slightest brush, which becomes a problem in the second level with its narrow passages.  You only get to use one gun throughout the entire game, but it hardly ever runs out of ammo (if the unintuitive HUD gauges are to be believed).  The draw distance only lets you see a few meters in front of you - despite the fact that all the character models are low-polygon toys with racist features, and have little to no animation.  And the enemies' AI only consists of "walk in a straight line towards your position and shoot", completely unable to find their way around obstacles - even the final boss.  One could look at this at one of the game's more subtle jabs at the minority groups portrayed within, in that they're too dumb to survive.  Well, that idea backfires when you consider the WASP player characters' love affairs with walls.

My dear friends, I'd like you to recall Quake.  Developed by id Software (as you know, the same team who made Wolfenstein 3D and Doom) and released in 1996, this was the first game in the first-person-shooter genre to use fully 3D-polygonal characters and environments.  And even its graphics totally outclass those of Ethnic Cleansing, released five and a half years later.  Or look at it this way: if video games like N64 Superman and Atari E.T. are like The Room in that they're so bad they're good, then Ethnic Cleansing is shockingly horrible, like A Serbian Film.  ...No, this is not like A Serbian Film, because at least that had a worthwhile message in between all the... you know.  (Newborn porn!)  Plus, as a film it's, what's the word, competent - which I certainly can't say about this game!  Maybe a more apt comparison would be something like Trash Humpers - look it up.

By now, even though America may have achieved the establishment of civil rights as a nation, racism still exists on an individual level, so there's not much we can do about that.  (Doesn't mean we shouldn't try.)  So despite how ridiculously over-the-top it is to outsiders, I'm sure the makers of Ethnic Cleansing believed in what they were creating.  Now, officially, I'm not going to condemn them for expressing said beliefs in the manner they did (or maybe that's just my lawyer talking).  One thing not subject to personal morals, however, is how much this game sucks.  Even if you replaced the enemies and settings with the most morally worthy thing you could think of, the game is still an affront to all five of your other senses (yeah, it stinks that badly).  It should come as no surprise at this point that I'm going to slap this game with a score of 0%.  No, not zero out of five, I said zero precent.  Trust me, you've really got to work to get that low.  Oh, and by the way, even the game is physically sold from Resistance Records' website (no link provided, for obvious reasons), I'm not afraid to say that I downloaded it elsewhere for free in order to review it.  That's right - I just admitted to piracy in order to avoid giving these purveyors of hatred one cent, and I am [verb]ing proud to admit it.  So if you still believe in what Ethnic Cleansing preaches, I'm not going to stop you.  I'll just be over here playing some fun games instead.

Graphics: 0 stars out of 5
Sound: 0 stars out of 5
Control: 0 stars out of 5
Design: 0 stars out of 5
The Call: 0% (What you’ve just made is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever played.  At no point in your rambling, incoherent product were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought.  Everyone in this room is now dumber for having played it.  I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.)

Next Episode: I'm gonna take it easy until the new year starts.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Manga Review: Spy Goddess vol. 2

Spy Goddess #2: The Quest for the Lance
  • Publisher: Harper Collins / Tokyopop
  • Writer: Michael P. Spradlin / Johanna Stokes
  • Artist: Yifang Ling
  • Release: 2009
One of the first reviews I ever posted on this site, and the first I'm actually satisfied with, was for the first volume of the Spy Goddess manga.  And it sucked.  Among its main problems were unlikeable main characters, choppy action flow, and plot holes you could drive the Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann through.  (And for the record, that's not just the (Japanese only!) title of that show, but also the ultimate final form of the heroic mecha.)  Even crazier, it was a continuation of a novel series - which only lasted two books.  Welp, when I snarked at the end of that review that the villain only escaped so they could make a sequel, I was right: I hold in my hands (in between unexpected bouts of typing) the sequel, The Quest for the Lance.  One thing I should point out before diving in is that the co-writer, Rachel Manjia Brown, was swapped out for a miss Johanna Stokes, who has a considerably thicker resume of comics and TV works including SyFy's Eureka, so we might get a decent plot out of this mother for once.  ...Why do I delude myself so.

I'll assume you're familiar with our cast of heroes (protagonist Rachel Buchanan, esper Pilar Jordan, tsundere Alex Scott, gadget guy Brent Christian, and boss Johnathan Kim), so if you're not, I'll wait a moment for you to read my review of the first book.  Moment over.  So the book starts off with Rachel cornering her arch-nemesis, Simon Blankenship, who believes himself to be the incarnation of Mithras, an evil Roman bull god.  Fittingly, Rachel is in turn imbued with the powers of the rival goddess Etherea, no matter how much she tries to deny it.  Rachel holds her own in what turns out to be a training session, except for the part about it being a stealth mission.

Mr. Kim calls the gang for a briefing session, where he reminds everyone of the plot... as in Simon's evil plot.  Apparently he needs seven artifacts for a resurrection ritual or something.  Pilar tells everyone that she has been doing some off-page research which points to one of the objects being hidden somewhere in Brazil.  Now, despite Brazil being the largest nation in South America, the team decides to start searching on Rio de Janeiro, because we all know that's the only city in Brazil!  False, it's not even the capital city, nor even the biggest.  And don't get me started on Buenos Aires...  Rachel's on board with the idea too, but as a vacation, not a mission.  Alex is shocked at her treating their momentous quest so lightly, so she snaps back at him and everyone else, justifying with the fact that she's risked life and limb directly fighting the Mithras faction multiple times before.  This could make a thought-provoking arguement; after all, in pretty much any other story you can think of, how much should the hero work before he or she loses it, physically or mentally?  But the arguement falls apart in this case, because she's only been in three incidents so far, and if the manga's poor action scenes are anything to go by, she's had a rather easy time of it.  Sorry, babe, wake me when you've had one of your limbs hacked off or your nether region of choice beaten for torture.  Besides, I don't know about you, readers, but Rachel comes across as more of a spoiled brat.

Rachel does her best to patch things up with her allies on the plane to Brazil and at their hotel, but rather than R&R at the beaches or markets, the team heads straight for a library to research leads on the Mithras artifacts.  Tensions flare up again as Rachel grows immaturely bored, and Pilar begrudgingly lets her leave.  She gets lost in the Carnaval looking for someone who speaks English, because as we all know, Carnaval goes on all the time in Rio!  False, it only lasts a week or two before Lent in February/March.  Then again, they do have a tendency to party it up every day of the year.  Also, I am thankful that the writers chose not to touch on the fact that Brazil doesn't speak Spanish, because it's been done.  Besides, what we did get instead (Rachel can't even speak English good well) was just as funny.  So, back on track, Rachel runs into this piece of eye candy named Renard (I call plot significance!).  They share a date at a burger restaurant, but get interrupted by Alex, who for once is not so much annoyed at Rachel dating (Alex is already going out with Pilar), but Rachel dating when she could be working.

Under the stress, Rachel breaks up her date with Renard, but not before he informs her of a ceremony taking place at a mountain called "Grito do Touro", Portugese for "Cry of the Bull".  The scene cuts to Pilar and the others struggling at the library, almost quitting over their lack of progress, until Rachel barges in and says she knows where the artifact do jour is located.  Umm... okay?  Since she doesn't tell her team where she's talking about on-panel, I have to say this knocked me for a loop.  Let's rewind: Mithras, both the god and the organisation, have a bull motif (ridiculously so, if you remember the fight scene at the end of the last book).  So, apparently she makes a connection with the first thing she hears with the word "bull" in it.  I mean, couldn't there possibly be more mountains in Brazil named after bulls, to say nothing of other types of landmarks?

So the squad goes on a little hiking trip to Grito do Touro, and sure enough they find a cave.  Cliches abound, including being faced with a branching path and Rachel falling down a hole.  But it's worth it; she encounters an ancient lance behind a barrier of light.  As she goes to take it, she suffers a brief flashback wherein the lance was first laid to rest by the Romans (I didn't know King Leonidas was Roman!) and the goddess Etherea set up the magical ward which, being her reincarnation, Rachel is more or less immune to.  As she walks out with the lance, Simon Blankenship rears his un-ugly head, shows that he has the rest of her team taken hostage and - surprise, surprise, I said in sarcasm mode - he used Renard to bait the trap.

After a bit of negotiations, Simon convinces Rachel to give him the lance in exchange for not putting a knife through Pilar's throat, but he just has his men shoot the gang with arrows anyway.  Just then, Rachel blocks the arrows with a wall of energy as she transforms into Etherea.  Now her destiny, eternally fighting with her immortal enemy Mithras will be fulfilled... with one energy blast.  Simon is down for the count, and for no reason Rachel has de-morphed and fainted.  With the villain brought into custody, the team departs Brazil and Rachel patches things up with her friends once and for all.  You are now free to close your book.

This second volume of the Spy Goddess manga is, I must admit, a marked improvement over its predecessor.  The plot holes are far less frequent, and I like their attempts at character development, even if I still didn't walk away necessarily rooting for our heroine.  The art direction is still a sore spot for this series; fight and action scenes lack decent flow, leading us to wonder if we had skipped a panel here and there.  (Let me answer that for you: you didn't.)  Even in non-action scenes, the artist relies too much on blank or pattern backgrounds, cheating us out of detail whenever possible.  Further props to the writers for not focusing on the more touristy aspects of Brazil, but I'd much rather take a vacation of my own to fill in the blanks.

Artwork: 1 lance out of 5
Plot: 2 lances out of 5
Characters: 1 lance out of 5
The Call: 50% (D)

Next Episode: It's almost the end of the year, so I thought it would be a good time to break out one of my most shocking reviews ever!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Game Review: Mercenaries 2

Mercenaries 2: World In Flames
  • Publisher: EA
  • Developer: Pandemic
  • Release: PlayStation 3, XBox 360, PC, PlayStation 2: August 2008
  • Genre: Action (3rd-person shooter)
  • Players: 1 local, 2 online
  • Rarity/Cost:
The original Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (2005, PS2 / XBox) was a rather underexposed title which nonetheless grew on me as one of my favorite games of its console generation.  Basically, it went down like this: picture a wide-open sandbox game like Grand Theft Auto III, only set in a war-torn North Korea.  You play as one of three mercenary soldiers working for a private military company, and your goal is to bring the nuclear-armed Korean generalissimo to justice.  All the while you'll have to gain intel and profits from multiple factions who have nothing in common except their desire to see the regime disappear.  And beyond the ordinary cars and guns you'd expect from its contemporaries, tanks, helicopters, explosives and airstrikes are in frequent supply.  Playground of Desctruction deserves a separate review somewhere down the line, but here's my short take on it.  It may not be as polished as the output of Rockstar North (the house that built GTAIII), but when it comes to straight-out fun, I prefer my open-world games set in a legally-defined war rather than a civilian-time life of crime.  And it's Teen-rated; I don't know about you, but that's a bonus in my book.

Fortunately, they found fit to maks a sequel: 2008's Mercenaries 2: World In Flames for PlayStation 3, XBox 360, and PC.  A port for PlayStation 2 was also released at the same time, but it departs substantially from its bigger brother and, again, merits its own review.  The plot this time around pits your PMC against Ramon Solano, an IT billionaire in Venezuela.  In the game's tutorial mission, he hires you to free a friend, General Carmona, from prison, but instead of paying you, he tries to have you killed.  In the meantime, he installs himself as the country's president with the general's help, but his days are numbered when your mercenary of choice decides to launch a campaign against the double-crosser.

If a soldier finishes reporting to HQ, your standing
with his faction will suffer.  (PS3 version shown.)
Obviously, you're not gonna do it alone.  Along the way you'll recruit a helicopter pilot, a mechanic, and a jet pilot who each provide you with valuable services, but you'll never get much done without taking on some work.  The factions you'll be making deals with include an American oil company (Universal Petroleum), a ragtag band of communist guerillas (People's Liberation Army of Venezuela), a group of Jamaican pirates, and returning from the first game, the United Allied Nations and Chinese armies.  You'll have to balance your relationships with each of the five factions.  If you destroy assets (soldiers, vehicles, etc.) from one faction, you'll improve standing with its rival (UP vs. PLAV, Allies vs. China), but if someone successfully reports you, your standing with the target faction will go down.  Or if all else fails, bring out the big bucks and just bribe 'em.  There are many side-quest activities to pursue (destroying target buildings, capturing HVTs, collecting spare parts), but if you ignore them, you'll doom yourself to a far shorter campaign than in the first game.

It wouldn't be a Mercenaries game without the ability to call in airstrikes and support whenever you need them, and World in Flames does not disappoint.  The problem lies in how you acquire them.  Unlike in the first game, where you could place orders from your PDA no matter where you were, this time around, you have to buy them directly from one of a faction's shops, and add the goods to your stockpile.  Then, you have to collect oil and spend it in order to call in your new toys.  Wait a minute...  Venezuela, oil, America against China... any more political and they'd have to use real world leaders!  (And wouldn't you know it, the "Blow It Up Again" DLC expansion does something like that.)  On the plus side, your helicopter pilot has the ability to pick up any of the frequently-found oil tankers and even airstrike ammo you find lying around, as well as airlift you directly to any outposts you've unlocked (provided you're in good standing with their owners).

Fuel tanks like these can be stolen, adding to your stockpile, or just make a big boom. (PS3 version shown.)
In a game where so many things go boom, you'd expect the physics engine to be up to snuff, and it pretty much is.  You know how you could destroy almost everything in the first game?  Well, now you can take the "almost" out of the statement.  Out of all the video games I've played in my life, it's so nice to have one where you can knock down trees instead of them staying firmly rooted in the ground!  The AI, on the other hand, has made no improvement.  In one mission where I had to call in a strike team in order to capture a building, I threw the smoke grenade on the ground only for - twice in a row - the helicopter to land on the roof of a nearby building and the soldiers to fall to their deaths.

If you've read all this and wish you could have a friend share in the fun, you're in luck... sort of.  Mercenaries 2 supports online co-op on both the PS3 and 360.  It's drop-in-drop-out, meaning that anyone can jump into your single-player game at any time and quit whenever they (or you) wish.  Unfortunately, there's no in-game support for voice or even text chat of any kind, so it gets all the more frustrating when your partner starts destroying things they're not supposed to or just stands around doing nothing forever.  "But wait," you say, "I can't get the game to run when I'm signed in, so does that mean EA shut down the game's servers?"  No, but the truth is more complicated than that, which is why I present to you an...

Important Notice:  The PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 versions may not run if you try to play whilst logged into PSN/XBox Live, because the game gets stuck at the "Connecting to server" message, and doesn't even error out over time.  Contrary to popular belief, the cause of this has something to do with the Terms and Conditions; EA must have updated them somewhere along the line, but never patched their new location into Mercenaries 2.  Fortunately, there is a way around this.  What you need to do is buy, rent, or borrow any EA-produced game released before Mercenaries 2 (August 2008) that still has online features up and running.  Compatible games as of the time of this writing (December 2011) include Need For Speed Carbon, The Orange Box, and Battlefield Bad Company.  All you need to do is accept the Terms and Conditions from one of these games, and you're all set to go back to Mercenaries 2.  Oh, and the PC version's servers have officially been shut down, and the PlayStation 2 version never had any online features to begin with.

Edit 20/Jul/2012: Rumours exist that as of earlier this year, this bug has been fixed.  I for one am not in the mood to test this for myself, at least not until I get the remaining online Trophies, but that's great to hear all the same.  Lord knows I need some good news for once.

Seeing as how I've spent exponentially more time with Mercenaries 2 than any other game on my new PS3, I'll let you guess how much I like it.  But critically, is it better than the original Mercenaries?  There's not much World in Flames adds to the formula that makes it more exciting than Playground of Destruction, and what changes have (or haven't) been made tend to fall on the side of annoyance.  At the end of the day I'd prefer more mechanics to have carried over from the first game, but what we've got is still perfectly satisfying for anyone with a hunger for open-world gameplay.  Grand Theft Auto IV may be a more well-oiled machine, but I'll be darned if Mercenaries 2 isn't more fun to drive.

Graphics: 4 airstrikes out of 5
Sound: 4 airstrikes out of 5
Control: 3 airstrikes out of 5
Design: 4 airstrikes out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

Next Episode:  You know the worst manga I've ever read and reviewed?  They made a sequel!