argurotoxos: a scene from System Shock 2 with a ghost crewmember (System Shock 2 | by plant_boy)
In late 2003, Ion Storm released Deus Ex: Invisible War, the sequel to 2000's highly lauded Deus Ex. Five months later, Ion Storm released Thief: Deadly Shadows, the third entry in the Thief series. Both games were built on the same engine and were the first in their respective series to be released for console as well as PC. And both games have a reputation of not being very good among fans (or at least on TTLG, which is where I go for my gaming needs).

I played Deadly Shadows back in 2008. You can read my initial thoughts on it here, though I don't like it as much now; it's the only Thief game I don't have installed. I think Deadly Shadows is worth a play, but it's definitely the weakest in the series for me and the only reason I even keep my copy is if I have the urge to play the Shalebridge Cradle again. (The Shalebridge Cradle is indeed a fantastic level, but I think the effect is lessened once you know what's going to happen next and you realise it's essentially a glorified fetch quest. [So is "Return to the Haunted Cathedral" from Thief: The Dark Project, but Lauryl (Deadly Shadows) is much more tolerable than Brother Murus (The Dark Project).])

Due to some confusion on my part, I ended up buying Deus Ex: Invisible War before the first Deus Ex. It didn't matter in the end, though, as Invisible War refused to run on my older laptop despite it meeting the system requirements and Deadly Shadows running fine. I've only played Deus Ex through once - which is a bit odd as I've played The Nameless Mod (a Deus Ex game-length mod) twice - but I spent over 50 hours on my run and had an absolutely fantastic time. Together with Thief and System Shock, Deus Ex is in my personal top three games and I believe I've played every long-ish fan mission there is (The Nameless Mod, ZODIAC, 2027, Red Sun, The Cassandra Project, Burden of 80 Proof, Hotel Carone) except the most recent (Nihilum).

So much has been written about Deus Ex, including Kieron Gillen's excellent review that captures a lot of Deus Ex's strengths, that I don't feel I can add much. So, moving on to Invisible War.

I started playing Invisible War back in August when S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl's focus on shooting was driving me crazy. (I'll review Shadow of Chernobyl once I finish it, though I've been playing on and off since January, so . . . it may be a while. In short, great atmosphere and visuals, not half as much focus on exploration as what I wanted.) What a contrast that was. Moving from Shadow of Chernobyl's lack of hand-holding and difficulty (I play on the easiest setting and it still kicks my ass at times) to Invisible War's, well, we'll get to that below, was like night and day.

It took me 12 hours to play through Invisible War. 12 hours, over the course of three months, when the original took me over 50 hours over the course of less than a month. (I had more free time and was much more engaged in the game.) And yet, I feel like Invisible War overstayed its welcome by at least three hours.

Invisible War has some of the same problems Deadly Shadows, likely influenced by being released on the first-generation Xbox. Maps are relatively small and there are plentiful loading zones. No swimmable water, although Invisible War at least never draws attention to it. (Going to jail for falling in the water was one of the stupidest ideas in Deadly Shadows.) On the other hand, I thought both the player character and NPC movement was less stiff and smoother in Invisible War, though jumping and crate stacking are worse.

I started off Invisible War with the idea of playing a stealthy hacker, which, ever since Thief, tends to be my default character. The interface provoked much irritation and was clearly designed for a gamepad -- 'yes/no' prompts you have to use the mouse for; no keyboard support for custom-naming saved games, manually typing in passcodes, or writing notes in-game; no quick-save or load; no screenshot key (which is why there are no screenshots in this review, because Invisible War isn't worth the effort of using a second program); the minimum HUD is still rather invasive, and inventory management is a mess. Skill points were eliminated, as were different ammo types (yes, all firearms in the game use the same ammo, just in different amounts), the conversation log, and location-based health management. In short, the only ways to customise you character besides your play style are through your appearance, the weapons you use, and your biomods (augmentations). (I barely include dialogue choices, since there aren't very many and most don't seem to matter.) However, you can now choose to play as either a male or female.

Much more under cut. )

In summary: Deadly Shadows may be my least favourite Thief game, but it is at the minimum a decent game and a far, far better game than Invisible War. I don't think Invisible War is completely irredeemable - I did finish playing it instead of throwing my hands up in disgust after all - but there's not much to recommend it, especially compared to its predecessor.

So, what's good about Invisible War? The voice acting's not bad. There's a good mix of male and female NPCs. Invisible War actually does reward exploration, or at least what you can do in the small maps; as in Deus Ex, you can find ammo, equipment, etc., in somewhat out of the way places (under desks, behind pipes, and so on). Trier has a surprising number of readables that are actually decent. The ApostleCorp lab was somewhat neat, except that Invisible War cannot do horror or atmosphere. The Antarctic Versalife facility was better, and even had a nice ambient track!

If anyone wants to play Deus Ex: Invisible War on the PC, I will give you my copy for only the cost of shipping. (If the shipping's less than $6, I'll even pay that, too.) I have the CDs, both in very good condition, plus the manual, hardcover box, shiny slipcase, and even the kidneythieves card. I bought it second-hand, but there are hardly any signs of wear. The edges of the slipcase are the worst part, but still in good condition. There are a few photos below.

Deus Ex: Invisible War photos, up for sale. )
argurotoxos: fanart of Lady Loki amused (Lady Loki - snerk | by etrangere)
I went to a matinee showing of Thor: The Dark World with my parents the Saturday of opening weekend. (The only other film I think I've seen opening weekend was The Avengers with my aunt.) Other than various trailers and photos from Tumblr, I'd only been spoiled about one particular plot point, so didn't know what to expect. Overall, though my parents and I all agreed that the first Thor was better, I still really liked The Dark World. I think I enjoyed it even more than Avengers as I felt The Dark World gave me more of what I really craved -- deeper looks at the characters (Loki in particular was back to being more ambiguous) and a more personal approach.

I also re-watched the first Thor with my dad this past weekend; I still love it and am impressed by it, my favourite of all the Marvel films.

More thoughts on Thor and The Dark World, no spoilers. )


Additional thoughts with spoilers. )


One of the seven trailers that was shown was for the next Captain America movie; despite Black Widow and Nick Fury, it didn't pique my interest at all.


(Edited for tense and a few additional thoughts on 20 November 2013.)
argurotoxos: Cillian Murphy as Kitty from Breakfast on Pluto (Breakfast on Pluto)
I recently finished After School Nightmare, a 10-volume manga by Mizushiro Setona. I originally thought this recommendation came from Kun, but it must have been from browsing TVTropes. After School Nightmare is a very psychological series; all of the main characters are junior high students who must deal with internal struggles ranging from gender identity, rape, depression, domineering parents, and mental disorders. In order to graduate, the students have weekly shared dreams (or, more properly, nightmares) and cannot keep from exposing their true forms to each other. In each nightmare, a key that can be used to graduate is hidden inside one of the student's bodies.

One sequence from the nightmares that really stayed with me featured a high-achieving girl who felt she gave so much of herself she was only a shell and didn't have her own identity. Her appearance in the nightmare world was her regular self, but with a gaping hole where her face should be. After much despair, she throws herself off a roof in the nightmare. Instead of dying, however, she lands on the earth and feels the wind, and the grass, and breathes. She realises in that quiet moment that she is alive. Her face appears where the gaping hole used to be. The moment is beautifully understated and powerful, portrayed more through the art than words. She graduates shortly after, apparently at peace for the first time in many months.

Mizushiro's art is appealing, and she is adept at telling one experience from different characters' points of view, with all viewpoints feeling understandable. Her characters are multifaceted and their interpersonal relationships are complex.

Ichijo Mashiro, the main character and our guide to this world, is intersex -- he presents himself* as male and has a flat chest, but female genitals. Most of the series focuses on his initial shame over not being 'fully male' and his struggle over whether he is, or wants to identify as, male or female. 'I'd always thought I wanted to be a guy. I looked up to them. Watched them from afar. I thought the world guys lived in was far more beautiful. More expansive. Stronger. I thought it was full of opportunities. I was dreaming. But dreams have no substance . . . So, it felt beautiful to me. I never wanted to be a girl. There was nothing to admire about it. I saw nothing but problems and hurt. I didn't want to have that dream. Maybe because, somewhere in my heart . . . I knew I was a girl. I blamed everything I didn't like about myself . . . on that.' [from volume 8, chapter 29] Ichijo's perspective changes several times over the series** as he grows in self-knowledge and confidence.

There are a few things about the ways gender is treated that make me cringe, but are completely believable. 'You do X, and only girls do X, so you must really be a girl.' Ichijo has two romantic interests over the course of the series, one male and one female; both have many nuances and are complicated on both sides, but Ichijo tends to identify more male with his female partner and more female with his male partner. It's not that I don't find that plausible, but there's no discussion of homosexuality or bisexuality. (His female partner makes the claim that Ichijo's using her to feel male.) Overall, though, I was pleased with the characters and thought their reactions and struggles rang true.

I was going to give After School Nightmare a glowing recommendation, but the last two volumes - particularly the twist ending - curtailed my enthusiasm somewhat. It's still an enjoyable series and so refreshing to see these types of characters in manga (or any medium, for that matter -- there can always be more transgender, intersex, or psychologically complex characters), but I didn't feel the story paid off quite as much, or in the ways, that I'd hoped. Still, this is the first manga I've read to the end and really liked in several years.

Kudos to my local library and the interlibrary loan system for having all the volumes available.


*I'm using male pronouns as that's what the manga - or at least the English translation - uses.

Spoilers under the cut. )
argurotoxos: Midnighter holding balloons, waiting for his husband (Thor - front)
. . . it's been a while, hasn't it? I'm mostly fine. I hope you are fine as well.

A couple photos under the cut.

Photos. )



Unrelated, I recently read Thor's Wedding Day by Bruce Coville, an adaptation of Þrymskviða [Thrymskvitha), the poem in which Thor must dress up as the goddess Freyja (with Loki as his handmaiden) and reclaim his stolen hammer from the Jǫtunn [giant] Thrym. Coville expands what is only a four or so page poem into about 130 pages and changes the narrator to Thialfi, Thor's human goat boy who entered his service during another adventure (Útgarða-Loki [Utgarda]), but the story remains fun and fast-paced. Despite being aimed at a younger audience, Coville retains a number of Norse names and terms and includes some of the more unusual aspects of Norse mythology, as well as making references to other Norse myths. If there's a downside, both Thor and the Jötnar [Giants] are portrayed as not very bright and the Jötnar aren't as multi-dimensional as in Neil Gaiman's Odd and the Frost Giants.

This is by far my favourite paragraph: "They were dressing Loki at the same time, but being decked out as a woman didn't bother him at all. If anything, he seemed to enjoy it. But then, according to Gat-Tooth [one of Thor's goats], Loki had once turned himself into a pretty little mare and was the mother of Odin's horse, Sleipnir. So I suppose dressing up as a bridesmaid wasn't such a stretch for him." [p. 51-2]
argurotoxos: Midnighter holding balloons, waiting for his husband (Default)
Thoughts/reviews of the books I took with me to Maine and Ohio. They are listed alphabetically by title and divided into two categories: graphic novels and regular fiction/non-fiction.

The graphic novels: DMZ volume 3, Ex Machina volume 2, and Sleeper (all). )

The novels: A Canticle for Leibowitz, Diaspora, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Stealing Fire. )
argurotoxos: Midnighter holding balloons, waiting for his husband (Default)
Stalker is a loose adaptation Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's science-fiction novella Roadside Picnic (which you can read here) filmed in 1974 by Andrei Tarkovsky. Both stories, along with the similarly loosely inspired S.T.A.L.K.E.R. computer game series, share a few basic elements: There is a mysterious area called the Zone, inside which is rumoured to exist an object that can grant wishes; however, the Zone is a very dangerous place and only a few, called Stalkers, know how to navigate through it and survive. From there, the three mediums break off into vastly different entities.

I didn't know what to expect going into Stalker, but it was not what I got, for better or for worse. Even though the Strugatsky brothers have screenplay credit, the departure from the novel is apparent from the very first scene. Roughly the first third of Roadside Picnic focuses on the scientific exploration of the Zone and recovery of strange alien artifacts with the main character, a Stalker nicknamed Red, working as a lab assistant. None of this appears in the film, nor do any of the musings on the extraterrestrial life thought to have created the Zones. One of the ideas that fascinates me in Roadside Picnic is that the aliens are almost beyond human comprehension -- no humans interact with them at any point and all we have are the items they left behind, perhaps just as a family on a picnic might leave wrappers, apple cores, and so on behind without thought, hence the novella's title. In contrast, the only hint of alien life or the origin of the Zone in the film is a brief conversation along the lines of, "They say it was a meteorite." Period. Very disappointing.

The Zone itself is also markedly altered. My impression from the novella is of a wide, abandoned landscape that may be superficially peaceful but never looks quite right. There are strange webs in dark corners, discoloured skies, invisible gravity wells that can crush you and much, much worse. It's a place where you should always be on edge, unnerved, and terrified of making one wrong move. The film shows the abandoned cars, telephone lines, and a few of the bodies, but overall it look like a beautiful - if too quiet - countryside. It's said in dialogue that there are traps throughout the Zone and the Stalker gives warnings to his two traveling companions, but very little happens and no one is ever killed or injured to the point that I'm not sure I'd have thought the Zone remotely ominous if I hadn't had the novel version constantly in the back of my mind.

Finally, the structure. Roadside Picnic is told in four sections with a pretty even balance between dialogue and narration. This might be the English translation and less true of the Russian, but the Strugatskies' writing style is simultaneously direct and highly evocative; the descriptions are effective through an economy of words. Stalker, on the other hand, is drawn out, with many shots of the characters' faces sometimes lasting for minutes on end. The dialogue is sparse, until one of the characters begins to philosophize and will speak about themselves for several minutes, bringing up points that are neither addressed by nor resolved by anyone else before settling back into mostly silence.

There are a number of other points that were lost or altered in the transition from novella to film, but the above paragraphs cover the major ones. Would I recommend Stalker? No, but I suppose it is interesting for comparison purposes if you're already interested in either Roadside Picnic (which I do highly recommend) or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (a.k.a. T.O.O.M.A.N.Y.D.O.T.S [thank you, TTLG]).


[I haven't said much about the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. computer games, largely because I haven't played any of them yet. Besides being a non-linear first person shooter/RPG/horror game, the major storyline departure from the rest of the Strugatsky-inspired media comes in making a second disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant responsible for the creation of the Zone.

Also, I have no idea why the Russian is displaying correctly from my journal page and editing mode, but not in single entry view. The Russian title should be: Сталкер.]
argurotoxos: Midnighter holding balloons, waiting for his husband (Default)
Welcome to the last Midnighter post! This entry covers the final two story arcs, "Anthem" (#10-15) and "Assassin8" (#16-20), both written by Keith Giffen. Instead of scans with running commentary, I'll be presenting plot summaries with overall thoughts for these issues.

The creative team on the "Anthem" issues is composed of Chris Sprouse (#10), Chriscross (#11), Rafael Sandoval (#12), and Jon Buran (#13-15) on pencils; Karl Story (#10, 12), Troy Hubbs with Criscross (#11), and Rick Burchett (#13-15) on inks; Randy Mayor (#10-11), Mayor with Darlene Royer (#12, 14), just Royer (#13), and Pete Pantazis (#15) on colors; Travis Lanham (#10, 14), Pat Brosseau (#11), and Steve Wands (#12-13, 15) on letters; Chris Sprouse and Karl Story with Randy Mayor (#10-12, 14-15) and Sprouse with Brian Stelfreeze (#13) on cover art; and Scott Dunbier Scott Peterson on editing with Kristy Quinn as assistant editor. I actually have the trade for this story arc, which I bought when I just getting into The Authority and its related series. (For those not familiar with American comic book lingo, a trade is a collection of individual issues published with more durable binding.)

The "Assassin8" story arc is a different matter as I only have the first two issues; the eBay seller I bought my comics from didn't have #18-20. In any case, the creative team on the first two issues is Lee Garbett on pencils, Rick Burchett on inks, Randy Mayor with Darlene Royer (#16) and WildstormFX (#17) on colors, and Steve Wands on letters, with Scott Peterson as editor, Kristy Quinn as assistant editor, and covers by Garbett, Trevor Scott, and Mayor.

Midnighter #10-17. )




I'm ending this post on some holiday cheer with The Authority vs Lobo #1, "Jingle Hell!" The creative team on this issue features "Da Giff" on plot, "Da Biz" on art, "Da Grant" on dialog, "Da Ballsy" on letters, "Da Baron" on colors, and "Da Ben & Da Joan" on editing "with seasonal thanks to our spiritual and weapons advisors [sic]." As you might surmise from the credits, the mood of this issue is very irreverent, over the top, and tongue-in-cheek. I'm not very familiar with Lobo, an alien mercenary created by Giffen who, at least in Superman: The Animated Series, killed everyone on his planet for his school science project (he gave himself an 'A').

My thoughts on this issue were 'meh' as the writing and art are both too far out there for my tastes, but behold! I did scan part of one page because I'm a sucker for parental Apollo and it's a nice way to end this pre-Christmas entry.

Happy holidays!

The Authority vs Lobo #1. )
argurotoxos: Midnighter holding balloons, waiting for his husband (Default)
On average, I buy one, maybe two, new computer games per year. My computers are never at the high end of current technology, so these games are almost always four-plus year old and purchased used.

After completing my Thief collection with Thief Gold earlier this year, though, I realized there weren't any other games left that I was eager to play, with a few exceptions. I've yet to finish either of the System Shock games and there are hundreds of Thief and a handful of Deus Ex fan missions I haven't tried. There are also two games I'm half-interested in that require something more powerful than my current system -- S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl*, of which I've read mixed reviews (I'm a fan of the book it's based on), and Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Nevertheless, in a mood to try something new, I scoured several websites and forums for computer game recommendations and compiled a list of 13 demos, all of which I played roughly a month ago.

Ideally, a game demo should be a perfect microcosm of the game itself while also providing a feel for the interface and engine. Unfortunately, demos sometimes end up presenting a skewed view of the game; the last time I relied on demos to decide between games, the one I liked least (Deus Ex) ended up becoming one of my all time favourites. In short, I knew going in that demos can't be used to make definitive call on games, but they're still valuable for experimentation with controls and graphics, especially for games not native to the PC.

Out of the 13 game demos, I played six to completion, two of which I was sufficiently engrossed in to finish in one sitting. The length of my reviews/reactions vary from one paragraph to over ten per demo, making this post a rather long read; I suggest that if any of you are interested, you skim over the titles and ratings and then only read the reviews for games you're familiar with or interested in. The demos, presented in alphabetical order, are: American McGee's Alice, Beyond Good and Evil, Call of Duty, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, Doom 3, Fahrenheit [a.k.a. Indigo Prophecy], Far Cry, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, Hitman Contracts [Hitman 3, reviewed with Hitman 2], Max Payne, Metal Gear Solid, Psychonauts, and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.

Escape From Butcher Bay, the Hitman games, and Splinter Cell were chosen specifically for their stealth elements, Beyond Good and Evil was a recommendation from an old TTLG thread, Metal Gear Solid was inspired by Sarah, Doom 3 was influenced by The Dark Mod, and the rest I picked up from various sources. Some of these are PC ports of console games and, sadly, it usually shows.

Each demo review is below its own cut and includes the type of game, point of view used, developer, year, demo playthrough status, and original console if applicable. The ratings at the end of each review are out of 5 with 5 as the best and 1 as the worst and no half marks. These represent how much I personally enjoyed each demo, not how good the game is; there are genres and gameplay mechanics I enjoy more than others and some of the things I take off points for may be a non-issue for other players. Several of my gameplay pet peeves that I rediscovered over the course of playing these demos include: (1) inability to control the camera (tends to be more common in ports), (2) no manual or quick saves, (3) unskippable cutscenes and dialogue, (4) 3D games that are otherwise somewhat realistic with no jump button, (5) 3D games that only support shooting in third person, (6) inability to remap controls, and (7) no or limited leaning, especially in first person.

Regarding (5), even since I played the Thief games, I've preferred first person point of view for 3D environments. In my experience, it's easier to become immersed in a game when I'm interacting with the game world through the eyes of the player character and am more immediately connected to the environment. As such, I'm usually a bit awkward with 3D third person games, though the most cumbersome aspect by far for me is gunplay. Perhaps I'm simply not used to maneuvering the camera for it, but there were numerous times in several different demos where I couldn't tell exactly where I was aiming because part of the player character's body was blocking my view. (Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines has a nice compromise -- a first/third person toggle with all gunplay switching to first person and all melee in third.)


*Technically, my system does meet the minimum requirements for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, but there is no demo to confirm that it will run well. I've read the game is buggy and is best played at the highest settings, which my computer wouldn't support. In addition, during and after the time I was testing demos, I was trying to install Deus Ex: Invisible War, which absolutely would not run on my computer despite being below my specs, so I'm a bit dubious of games playing properly without being able to try them first.


American McGee's Alice. )

Beyond Good and Evil. )

Call of Duty. )

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. )

Doom 3. )

Fahrenheit [a.k.a. Indigo Prophecy]. )

Far Cry. )

Hitman 2: Silent Assassin and Hitman: Contracts [Hitman 3]. )

Max Payne. )

Metal Gear Solid. )

Psychonauts. )

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. )

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argurotoxos: Midnighter holding balloons, waiting for his husband (Default)
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