Monday, December 27, 2004

Christmas in the heartland

I went to Kansas for a week to visit my in-laws. I would like to make a few observations.

I live in a very red state, but Austin is a blue county, so we're a community of those people who don't have, you know, "moral values".

As we drove across Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, I couldn't help noticing some things about the heartland. First, no piddly little run-down town is so small that they don't have a big church as the main attraction, and usually several. If the church isn't easily visible from the road, you can still see a big sign saying "Church of Christ" or some such. In many cases, towns with populations under 2000 have churches that are just as enormous and lavish as those in the big city, even if most of the other buildings in the immediate area are pathetic shells with broken windows that have clearly been abandoned for years. The Baptist churches are always the biggest and gaudiest.

What I'm trying to convey here is that you enter the more "red" areas, the amount of church space per capita increases a lot. And not only that, so do the number of bars and strip clubs per capita. We kept passing areas where there would be two or even three bars in the same shopping center block.

More churches, more bars and strip clubs. Hmmmm, interesting. Kinda gets you thinking about where the values connection to moral values really comes in.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Sports games

EA signs exclusive football license deal - Dec. 13, 2004
"LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Video game publisher Electronic Arts Inc. said Monday it had signed an exclusive agreement with the National Football League and the marketing arm of its players' union, giving EA the sole rights to put NFL players, stadiums and teams in its games.

The exclusive license was a coup for EA in its ongoing battle with the joint venture of Sega Sammy Holdings Inc. and Take-Two Interactive Software Inc."

And all I can say is, I feel fortunate to be someone who hates sports games.

I've never been a pro-sports fan, which makes me not a True Guy(TM) to a lot of people, especially here in the south. I can mostly understand the appeal of it; when I was into Warcraft, I watched a lot of replays from the top players like Tillerman, who played the game exceptionally well. It was fun to watch their techniques.

Many people have reacted to this news by saying that this will most likely hurt the quality of future NFL-based games, and I agree. Other people say that it's hard to fault EA for taking this action, and I agree with them too. They are out to make money, and one way you make money is by killing the competition.

An analogy in nature: If you were to go to an ecosystem and kill off all of a certain kind of predator, in the long run you'll probably have a less robust ecosystem; but it would be hard to convince the prey that they should care about this. You could say: "But look here, Mr. Gazelle, in a few million years you will be less evolved because you won't have any cheetahs to thin the herd." And the gazelle would say, "Yeah, but I probably won't get killed by cheetahs now, will I?"

I also don't think you can really blame the NFL. They got a big bag of money that they wouldn't have had otherwise. In all likelihood, this big bag of money will be worth more than the smaller bags of money from multiple companies over the next five years. If they didn't expect this to be true, they wouldn't have signed the deal.

I think the problem was bound to come up sooner or later, because so many gamers hold the paradigm that they *have to* buy a game that features NFL players. As far as I know, this has no parallel in any other type of game. If I want to play a First Person Shooter right now, I can play Doom, or Half-Life, or Deus Ex, or whatever. If I want a massive online game, I can buy Everquest, WoW, or Camelot. The details of the story and characters will matter to me, but not so much that I will only accept a game that has one specific cast of characters. I mostly care what kind of a game it is and how well it is executed.

It is pretty much conventional wisdom that, with just a few exceptions, most games based on movie or TV licenses are junk. I don't think this is just bad luck. It's because the game is handicapped right from the start. The company is spending a bunch of money up front to acquire the license to the characters instead of spending an equivalent amount of money on development. If you feel that you absolutely HAVE TO play a game based on, say, Daffy Duck, you have a very limited set of choices because few companies would go to the trouble and expense of acquiring a Daffy Duck license. A few people must really need to play a game based on Daffy Duck, or else they wouldn't make any of those games. But for most gamers, while they might regard the presence of Daffy Duck as a slight point in the game's favor, they would almost certainly give a lot more weight to what kind of reviews the game got, or how it stacked up to a similar game with different characters.

This is not how sports games work. If you want to make a really good game that captures the feel of playing football, you could just as easily do it by making a game about college football, or urban neighborhood football. The resulting game could be just as fun. In fact, I would imagine that this is the sort of thing Take-Two will probably do, instead of giving up their football franchise altogether. But that's not really the point. The point is that for whatever reason, the majority of football gaming fans feel like they have to buy games with professional, big-name players. And there's only one game in town: the NFL has a monopoly on big-name players and they're certainly not going to give it up. (Well, not unless the XFL makes a big comeback.)

So I think maybe this situation was bound to come up sooner or later, because some people will only buy a game that features NFL players as characters, and there's only one NFL. Just imagine what it would be like if I declared: "From now on I will only buy Real-Time Strategy games that prominently feature Tillerman. Tillerman must put his stamp of approval on the game, and there must be AI characters in the game who behave in a manner that is similar to Tillerman."

Well, I'll tell you what would happen. There wouldn't be a market for me and I couldn't play any more RTS games, so the analogy to NFL sort of doesn't work anymore. But if there was a big enough market to support this kind of ultimatum, and Tillerman started selling the rights to his likeness in games, and no more games stood a chance without Tillerman's blessing, I bet RTS games would get a lot worse.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Why World of Warcraft is evil

6:30 AM
Must play Warcraft. No, sleep. Ugh, went to bed at 2. Warcraft. Sleep. Sleep. Warcraft.

Hey, listen. Last night you had THREE quests that were marked "Completed". All you have to do is take a short walk to some nearby towns, collect your rewards.

No. Sleep.

Easy experience, man.

OKAY! A little bit of Warcraft. And then, quit. Get ready for work early.

Let's see, here's your classic "travelling salesman" puzzle. What's the quickest way for me to hit these three zones, get my rewards, and quit?

Zone #1. Easy experience. Thank you.

Hey, I just remembered I got THREE new spells last night. I'd better see how well they work. Die, monster! Hey, that was fun. You die too!

Zone #2. Whoops! I left my quest items in the bank. Oh well, I have a delivery to make near the bank.

Hit bank. Make delivery.


I shouldn't take this quest. I should just decline and ignore him. Hmmm, but then I might forget that this guy offered a quest and I won't be able to do it later. Better take it.

Gee, that looks easy. I could do that quest real quick...


Oh look, I have four bolts of cloth. I wonder if I qualify to learn any new tailoring recipes. Guard, where's the tailor?

Oh yeah, new robes. Stylin'.

Okay, I need to collect on this last quest in town and that's IT. I'm logging off.

Don't give me another quest. Don't give me another quest.

Damn, he did.

It's just another delivery. All I need to do is take a short walk...

Okay, I'm walking. Walking. Straight to the delivery point.

You know, if I veered off the road just a little bit, I could fill in my map and get a quick exploration bonus.

Okay, back on the path. This guy on the roadside wants me to take another quest. Fine. Oh, not you too?!? Okay, I'll take yours. And yours. What the hell.

Okay I've arrived. Here you go. Oh goody, I'm right near the gryphon master. I can fly back to my home town.


Hey, I have a quick quest here too.

Uh oh, the kid's awake. What time is it?

I have 30 minutes to get ready and I haven't showered.



You know you want to.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Classic game review: A Mind Forever Voyaging

Written in 1985 by Steve Meretzky (author of many other Infocom classics such as Sorcerer, Hitchhiker's Guide, and Zork Zero), this was Infocom's big attempt at doing serious science fiction in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World. Like those stories, Meretzky imagines a future where the world has gone horribly wrong and spends lots of time carefully examining the details of that future society.

The game suffers from many flaws, including an interface that is difficult to understand at first and fairly skimpy interactions with most NPCs. Ultimately where it succeeds is by presenting big ideas through a very large and lavishly described game world that changes over time.

There is a gimmick to this game. You are PRISM, the world's first truly intelligent computer. The manual explains some of your origin story. The year is 2031. Years ago, PRISM's creator, Dr. Abe Perelman, decided to raise the computer under the illusion that he was really a human. PRISM inhabits a Matrix-like virtual reality for most of his life. Believing himself to be "Perry Simm", he experiences a human childhood, growing up from a baby, experiencing bad breakups and the death of loved ones and typical human existence. When PRISM is a young man, Perelman wakes him up and tells him his true identity.

PRISM was created with a purpose. Not only can he simulate a life in the past and present, but he can also extrapolate life in the future. The world is in a political crisis, and a charismatic senator has stepped up with the Orwellian-titled "Plan for Renewed National Purpose". Your job is to simulate a world ten years in the future where this plan has been implemented, and see how things turn out. Based on the recordings you make in your simulations, the Plan might be put into effect by Congress. This is where the game begins.

Part of the reason the interface is difficult is that you are expected to act as a computer in multiple roles. In communications mode, you can "turn on" your own interface outlets and instantly visit different parts of the lab where you live. You can enter interface mode and talk to other "dumb" computers that manage the facility. There is library mode where you can review your assignment, read up on current events, learn about your creator, and study the bullet points and popularity polls of "The Plan".

Once you enter simulation mode, the game becomes a fairly standard "walk around and look at stuff" adventure game. However, your goal is not to collect treasures, but to collect recordings of interesting sights in the future. In part one, when you are getting the hang of your identity and the point of the game, you are given specific events to record (i.e., talk to a church official, visit your house, eat in a restaurant).

BEGIN BIG SPOILERS (skip ahead to end spoilers if you want)

Once you win part 1, things get more interesting and fun. Your processors gradually collect enough data to simulate the future in 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, and finally 50 years. It is then up to you to use your judgment about what to record. As you travel to the future, you watch society gradually crumble and fall around you. The government becomes more and more totalitarian. Weird religious cults sprout up as the decades pass. The people in the world become more close minded and cruel. This is where the game really shines. You get to explore the same map in each time zone, and the changes that occur are subtle at first, but start accelerating. For instance, in 2041 and 2051, you can visit an ordinary supermarket and buy groceries. In 2061 you notice that the shelves are sparsely stocked with unappetizing canned goods. By 2071, you can only buy a crummy soy patty and you have to show your "ration card" to get food once every three days. The library pops up a list of banned books. The zoo holds "monkey taunting" events. The courthouse hosts increasingly sinister trials for more pitiful criminals each decade.

The final year, 2081, is very creepy. No matter where you go you can experience a different violent death, and if you simply wait around, you'll die of starvation.

In part 3 you engage in a fairly short and slightly anti-climactic political struggle in the real world to stop the senator from passing the Plan. The game ends on a fairly up note as you skip ahead to the far future of a world where the Plan was never implemented.


From a political standpoint, the game has a definite liberal slant, even more so now than it must have looked during the Reagan years. Some have called it "preachy", so factor that in to whether you would enjoy playing it. Richard Ryder is clearly a right winger, and religion and hyper-patriotism are two of the big boogeymen that the game presents for the future. Still, the game does get a little balance from the implication that the Plan is an almost understandable reaction to a recession caused by high taxes and liberalism run amok.

The future that is presented is clearly a bit of a caricature, but then again, so was 1984. The best part of this game is not seeing the author's idea of a dystopia, but in watching the logical procession of a healthy society toward that dystopia. On the whole, the game is one of the best attempts I've ever seen to introduce serious ideas into interactive fiction, and it remains one of my favorite game stories ever.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

One seriously divided nation

The mood of this election scares me. Kerry may win, Bush may win, but the problem is still going to be there. The problem is that the nation will continue to be divided up into a "faith based community" and a "reality based community", as Ron Suskind put it. (If you haven't read this article from the New Yorker, go back and read it. I insist.)

Let's pretend, just for a minute, that Kerry will win AND he'll turn out to be the dream president for the reality based community. He fights for science, bases his policies on evidence, and actively seeks advice from true experts in the relevant fields before doing anything potential stupid. And the economy rises, people start getting jobs and raises again, the stock market goes back up, etc. The Supreme Court gets a few more guys who believe in civil rights and free speech. Iraq is saved and becomes a utopia. (Just remember, this is my fantasy, not my prediction.)

Even in this rosy scenario, you still have a lot of faith based people who are angry at Kerry for deposing the guy they see as "God's man". Facts are inconvenient but meaningless trifles and will continue to be so. The economy? It's Bush's doing. Iraq? Bet you libs are GLAD we invaded now, look how grateful they are!

And still they're going to be angry about everything, because God's man is gone, church leaders will whip them into a frenzy about gay marriage, stem cells, abortion, evolution in schools, etc.

It's time to own up to the fact that the non-reality based community is not some fringe group of wackos; they are half our country. And they really want a fight. I have a strict "live and let live as long as you don't bug me with your craziness" philosophy, but they HATE me. They have signs and web sites saying they hate me. They've declared a "culture war" on me. I didn't declare that war, but apparently I'm in it now.

What do I do? Well, I have no idea.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

An unfair and unbalanced media rant

I've been reading a book called "The Republican Noise Machine" by David Brock, who formerly worked for an affiliate of the Washington Times and is now a regular on the Al Franken Show. The subject of this book is the so-called "echo chamber effect" that occurs in the right wing media. To quote the book's introduction:

Because technological advances and the race for ratings and sales have made the wall between right-wing media and the rest of the media permeable, the America media as a whole has become a powerful conveyor belt for conservative-generated "news," commentary, story lines, jargon, and spin. It is now possible to watch a lie move from a disreputable right-wing Web site onto the afternoon talk radio shows, to several cable chat shows throughout the evening, and into the next morning's Washington Post -- all in twenty-four hours. This media food chain moves phony information and GOP talking points -- manufactured by and for conservatives, often bought and paid for by conservative political interests, and disseminated through an unabashedly biased right-wing media apparatus that follow no rules or professional norms -- into every family dining room, every workplace, and every Internet chat room in America.

As I may have mentioned, I have a morbid fascination with the creationist movement. I'm not very far into the book, only 60 pages or so, but I see a pattern being outlined that looks very similar to the way modern creationism is trying to worm its way into our education system.

It seems that in the late 60's, some of the best and brightest in the Nixon administration decided that the press was being unreasonably hostile towards them. Those annoying reporters were always running stories claiming that Vietnam was a disaster (which it was) or that Nixon authorized illegal activities to get himself reelected (which he did). So they started to form think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation that would try to push their way into the public consciousness and demand that the conservative side of every story be heard on every possible occasion. The charge that the media is liberal didn't just come from nowhere; it was a meme that was intentionally dreamed up and pushed out there.

Fox News uses the slogans "fair and balanced" and "We report, you decide." It seems that they are trying to appeal to some mythical gold standard of journalism whereby you report both sides of every story, with no comment or bias whatever, and then let the audience decide for themselves who is right. Not only does Fox (obviously) fail to achieve this lofty goal, but in my opinion, the goal itself is crap.

You can't inform the public by just presenting everything that could possibly be presented and then saying "Well, decide for yourself." When presenting a blatant lie, journalistic integrity would imply that you should state that it's a lie. The media isn't there to post non-judgmental stories like "Adolph Hitler: was he right?" If George Bush and Karl Rove issue a press release stating that the earth is flat, it's not the media's responsibility to run a "fair and balanced" headline screaming "Shape of earth in question! Is it really a globe? Our studies reveal that many people disagree." Of course that would be dumb. People can disagree all they want, but the shape of the earth is an irregular sphere.

As Dan Rather recently demonstrated, it's really important that the media check their sources and decide whether a story is credible BEFORE they run with it, rather than just reporting "We heard that blah blah blah". But there is a major double standard at work, because CBS has a reputation for having journalistic ethics, while Fox does not. When Fox runs a picture of John Kerry at a podium with Jane Fonda, which later turns out to be an extremely clumsy Photoshop job, people say "Oh, that's just Fox." When Matt Drudge breaks the story that someone is having an affair with an intern, and we learn that he pulled the story completely out of his butt, nobody cares. When Rush Limbaugh cites "statistics" that he totally made up, he pleads "I'm not a news show! It's just entertainment!"

But the line between entertainment and news has really gotten blurred, and I think it's at least partly due to this very deliberate effort that the Republicans have made since the 70's to demand that the media show no "bias", not even a bias towards being correct. (I think it's very revealing that Fox News' slogan is NOT "Fair, balanced, and accurate.") All that matters is that it be "balanced", meaning that if you have one person on TV saying that we really landed on the moon, you must have a crackpot appear at his side claiming that it was all a government conspiracy. And furthermore, the program must not identify this guy as a crackpot, because that would be biased.

This reminds me of what I witnessed at the textbook hearings in here in Texas last year. Creationists go from state to state, demanding what? That we teach creationism? No no no, that is so eight years ago. What they want us to do is "teach the controversy." They want us to teach our students that SOME people disagree with the theory of evolution, and the jury is still out. Never mind that the "jury" are not scientists who do research; they're ideologues who are openly pushing a religious agenda. But to point that out would not be "fair" and "balanced" because it's passing a value judgment.

But that's bull, because science is all about passing value judgments. It's important and necessary for scientists to come up with crazy ideas that MIGHT be true, but then those explanations have to be tempered by reality and experiment. This is the part where you filter out the ideas that are crazy because they're innovative from the ideas that are crazy because they're ridiculous. Science will always be beset by crackpots who believe that they've invented a perpetual motion machine or "proven" the existence of ESP that mysteriously vanishes when somebody tries to measure it. But because science is a selective process, ideally the enormous number of crazy ideas are supposed to get winnowed down to the ones that are true. Same thing that evolution does in selecting for traits that have survival value.

That's how science is supposed to work, and in my opinion, that's also how journalism should work. Journalism is not, and should not be, about being a mouthpiece for every lie, every slander, every conspiracy theory that happens to be in the public consciousness. It should be about wading through the marketplace of ideas and selecting the ones which appear, to the best of our investigative understanding, to be accurate. Journalists should NOT be fair to con artists and hucksters. They should NOT be balanced by giving an interview to one liar for every truth teller.

What journalism should be doing is the science of information. It should find out the truth and report it. This is obviously an idealistic goal. Science doesn't always "work" the way it's supposed to because you have bickering and internal politics and desire for personal glory among scientists. And also because human knowledge is always going to be limited, so what we regard as "true" will only be the best guess given the available evidence. Likewise, I don't expect journalists to be infallible; only that they do more than pay lip service to reporting on real stories.

Journalists need to quit worrying about being fair and worry more about being right.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

What does Kerry stand for?

A lot of people are saying that they don't plan to vote, and they justify their decision this way: "I don't like George Bush, but I don't know what John Kerry stands for. I can't identify anything that he believes in. I don't know what his guiding principles are."

This charge come straight out of the Bush camp, to be echoed word for word by not only rank and file Republicans, but also self-proclaimed "undecided" voters. It's often spoken in wise tones, as if the opiner is staying above the fray, and as if it's actually some kind of opinion.

But in my ever-so-humble opinion, this whole line of complaint just smacks of intellectual laziness. I mean, come on, this is the information age. All you have to do in order to find something out is to go and look for it. A quick trip to explains the platform, but I've gotten messages dismissing the entire thing by saying, essentially, "It's long." What that means is, "Not only do I not understand the choices involved, but I can't be bothered to read about them." What else do Democrats need to do, strap you to a chair and read the platform through a bullhorn?

Refusing to vote, or voting for a write-in, does not make you politically savvy and it does not make any statement of any sort whatever. Whether you like them or not, either George Bush or John Kerry is going to be sworn in on January 20. If you choose not to decide, that's still a choice. If you think that you're going to regret a Kerry, vote for Bush. Otherwise, the outcome IS your fault, no matter who winds up in office. If you think about voting for Kerry, but don't, and then Bush wins, and it turns out badly, then you should regret that.

By abstaining from participation in the process, you forfeit your right to bitch about the result. So unless you feel that you honestly don't care who runs the country and it makes no difference at all to you what kind of policies will be passed in the next four years, maybe it would behoove you to actually take it upon YOURSELF to go read about where both candidates stand on the issues, and then figure out which one would be better -- or less bad, if you wish. Democracy only works if there is an educated electorate, and when you say "I don't know where he stands" all I hear is "I'm not educated about the candidates and I don't even care."

Sunday, September 05, 2004

World of Warcraft (PC, *****)

This is an early review. I did not get in the WoW beta, but for this week only they accepted a massive number of new participants to see how their servers handle it. I get to play until the week is up and no more, until the retail version comes out, or until another round of beta keys get sent and I get lucky.

Full disclosure: I am very, very biased in favor of anything Blizzard puts out. For further disclaimers and apologies about that, you can see the beginning of my Warcraft III review.

More disclosure: I haven't played Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, or any of the other "new" crop of massively multiplayer online games. Until City of Heroes came out and I personally convinced a bunch of Fools to buy it. Lately people have started dropping out of CoH, and I understand why. While the game is very fun in the early and middle stages -- designing a hero concept and costume, exploring the first few skills, and so forth -- the mid to late game is lacking in variety. Lots of repetition in the types of enemies and indoor quests; way too much gameplay emphasis given to fighting wandering monsters, so it's not too important to experience the game's story or content. Once you hit level 14, it takes a very long time to gain additional levels and there's not much variety to look forward to.

I started the game by creating a fighter, figuring this character would have the easiest time advancing as quickly as possible in a week. I decided a dwarf would be the most appropriate race. I started off in a dwarf village, surrounded by other newbie dwarves and gnomes. At first I was struck by the game's similarity to Diablo. As you walk around, some people have exclamation marks pop up over their heads; you go to them and get a quest. Some tell you to kill monsters; some tell you to visit new places. Each quest has a lengthy and well-written block of text which you can read or not read, depending on whether you care about story or not. Power gamers can easily ignore the flavor text -- the objectives are clearly summarized at the top, and the reward you will get for finishing it is noted on the bottom. However, the content of the game is interesting, and if you enjoyed reading the history of the Warcraft universe in the manuals of other games, which I did, then you will want to pay attention to this as well.

Unlike Diablo, there are no attribute points to distribute. As in Warcraft III, your heroes automatically get boosts of strength, dexterity, mind, etc that is appropriate to their class. This is fine with me, as I hate having to figure out exactly how many hit points I'm going to need in exchange for attacking accuracy. This is also the case with City of Heroes.

Unlike City of Heroes, questing is important. I've spent periods of time both fighting wandering monsters and running errands, and I definitely feel like I gain experience much faster when I complete quests. And there are tons of quests to be had all the time. In just about every building of every city you find, you'll meet someone with an exclamation point. I have around five quests in my log most of the time, and they are conveniently sorted and color-coded to let me know if I will take a beating when I attempt to do the quest. Questing is a full-time job in World of Warcraft. You can certainly choose to fight wandering monsters, but mostly what you'll want to do is identify particular monsters that tend to give you stuff you want and fight them until you have all the stuff you need.

For example, I'm a novice cook, and I only know a couple of recipes. One of them is cooked boar meat. To practice my cooking in the early stages, I pretty much have to fight a lot of boars. I don't do it for the experience, I do it for practice.

See, in WoW, trade skills and the level treadmill are kind of like two separate games. Trade skills are the traditionally "boring" MMORPG activities such as cooking, sewing, smithing, and so on. As you gain experience and level up, you will get skill points to spend, but you can go to any trainer in town and learn whichever skill you want. The earliest levels of each skill cost relatively few points, so it doesn't hurt much to dabble in different skill trees before deciding to build one up to high levels. The online manual even gives helpful hints about which skill trees are likely to be useful to each class, but these are guidelines only.

But training a skill only gives you the ability to practice it. Once you train cooking, you will get a couple of recipes (cook boar meat, cook wolf meat, cook eggs) and a proficiency that is somewhere around zero. To improve your skill, you simply cook a lot of these meals, which you can then sell or use to boost your health later. Once your skill is high enough, you can buy more recipes from the trainer. So basically, you only need to practice the skills you actually find useful at the time; you don't have to waste a ton of time practicing skills just to get them to the level where they can do anything useful at all.

The really nice part is that you can't destroy resources by practicing with a low skill. If you have the right objects (such as meat) to practice with, you will succeed. The reward for improving your skill is not to improve your odds of not screwing up; it's to make better stuff at higher levels.

Let me recall my experience with being a blacksmith in Ultima Online many years ago. First I had to spend hours mining ore and, more often than not, not finding any. Then when I had a bunch of ore, I had to smelt it. If I failed my skill roll, I didn't make any metal bars AND I lost the metal. Then once I had a stack of metal, I had to decide what to make. If I failed to make it properly, I didn't make any armor AND I lost the metal. So frequently I put in a whole lot of work and had nothing to show for it.

In World of Warcraft, the emphasis is always on exploring, not sitting around clicking one thing over and over again. As a miner you get a skill called "find ore". This skill is always on if you want it to be, and the effect is that ore deposits which spawn randomly will be visible on the minimap. If you find an ore deposit, you just walk up to it and right click, and you hack out some copper ore. Guaranteed. Then you go back to the forge, smelt the ore, and you get copper bars. Guaranteed. Then you open your blacksmithing skill, choose a "recipe", and make it. Guaranteed. In the process, your blacksmithing and mining skills both go up.

That may sound like it's too easy, because you can't lose your materials. Blizzard decided (I think correctly) that it's not fun to watch an hour of work go down the drain because your skill is not high enough to craft anything without destroying your stuff. But, you can't get experience forever by making the basic stuff. At first you can craft copper bracers for the cost of two copper bars. But you only improve your smith skill for a little while doing that. Once it starts to drop off, you need to start buying higher level recipes, such as copper chainmail vests. That will cost you six copper bars, and some "flux", which you buy to remove impurities in the metal, and some linen cloth, which you get by fighting certain monsters. As you improve, you rely on more elaborate materials, and that requires you to go out and fight or explore. The emphasis is never on repetitive tasks; it's always on going through the world and discovering things.

There are really three kinds of points you get. Standard experience points get your character to higher levels, which improves your stats and allows you to train new fighting skills. Trade points allow you the POTENTIAL to learn any trade skill you wish, but you only get good at these trades by finding materials and practicing. (Note added later: This is no longer accurate in the retail version. Trade skill points were removed and a cap of two skills was implemented. Learning trade skills costs money, but not points.) Then when you get to level 10, you start getting talent points. These work in a manner similar to the skill tree on Diablo 2; you get three talent trees where you must acquire some abilities to acquire others.

For instance, my warrior has offense, defense, and fury. But in practice, it looks like I'll only be able to effectively choose ONE tree to develop. This is because the items in the offense tree all work in harmony with each other; to get the higher offense talents, the requirement is "Must have at least 20 talent points in offense". So if you divide up your points among the three trees, you'll be unable to get the really good skills.

This forces you to specialize your character. You can have a powerful offense fighter or defense fighter, but not both. Fury, I think, is the tree that allows you to buff your party with warcries and things like that. I don't know what talents are for the other classes because I'm not level 10 yet.

One thing I find smart about the game design is that you aren't offered choices until you know what you're doing. As I said, craft skills are cheap at low levels, so you can experiment without permanently nerfing your character. And because the talent points don't come until level 10, you should already have a feeling for what kind of abilities you can get, which means you probably won't make a big mistake picking talents for things that don't interest you.

Finally, the architecture is impressive. All the races start in their own training town, but as you get out into the world you see gradually larger towns until you finally get to your race's big city. When I played a human mage, I found Stormwind Keep for the first time. This may sound cheesy, but it was literally awe inspiring. I was like "Oh my God, that is an enormous friggin' castle!!!" Then you get inside and there's an entire city inside the walls. Guards are posted everywhere, and you can ask them for directions to anything you might be looking for (trainers, merchants, inns, etc). And believe me, you'll need them.

For the dwarves, there is Ironforge, a tremendous subterranean city with a giant anvil in the center for blacksmiths, stores and classes arranged in a ring all around the edges, and an enormous moat of lava dividing the inner and outer rings. I have played an orc character, but I haven't seen their city of Orgrimmar yet.

So far in the game, there's so many things to try that I often can't decide what to do. My quest log is always full -- you not only get quests specific to each map region, but you also get class-specific quests (warrior, mage, etc) and quests that are based on your trade skills ("We need to supply the war front with six copper axes and six copper bracers, pronto!") You can run around practicing skills, collecting resources, and levelling up without questing. You can even join large parties who are running to raid the nearby orc cities. I went with a team of about 30 characters and we beat off several high level guards before I gave up and went back to town. Tip: if you're going to attack a city, bring lots of characters with resurrect abilities.

I probably have only a few days left to play, and the game's not out until around Christmas time. It's going to be a frustrating wait. The game has a lot of minor bugs right now. Sometimes a monster will be standing around but won't attack anyone and can't be attacked. I fell through a crack in the polygon ground once while mining in a quarry. I fell for a few hundred feet, got to see the underside of the landscape, and then when I went below a certain point, I was instantly teleported to my home town. Still, apart from the regular server crashes (this *is* a stress test after all) the game was remarkably stable and smooth, and I could go about my business for long periods of time without noticing any major problems. Someone who joined my party said, "If this were Everquest, this would be the retail version."

Final score: ***** out of 5

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Playing to win

In all this wall to wall coverage of Ronald Reagan's death, one clear message is coming through: he might not have known what was going on most of the time, but boy was he lovable. I saw a replay of a speech he gave, and I have to admit that it makes me downright nostalgic to have a president who can actually string an entire sentence together and deliver it without sounding like he's a second grader being put on the spot by his teacher.

I have always felt that there are two divergent elements to politics: there is the "passing good policies" aspect, and there is an aspect that is more like a game. The game is getting elected, and our political system is set up so that the winner of the game gets to run the country.

So these skills are connected to each other, but only in the sense that one is a prerequisite of the other. Other than that, there is a little overlap between the two skills, but not as much as we'd like there to be. Someone can be the greatest policy maker in the world, but they'll never get a chance to prove it if they run a boring campaign.

I have gradually become convinced that the far right wing have become incredibly skilled at playing the election game. About thirty years ago, they realized they were starting to lose the hearts and minds of the people, and they threw all their energy and money into figuring out the best way to play the game. And by and large, they've done it, while Democrats have been doing a crappy job of playing.

Whatever you think of Republican policies, you have to admit that they've done a masterful job of making a lot of people THINK that they can do a good job. This is what playing the game is all about. And it's time the other side realized that having good ideas and intelligent policies isn't enough. As distasteful as it is, they have to be prepared to play the game and win, against an opponent who plays the game as a full time profession.

I wish that everyone would read and understand this article, entitled "Playing to Win". It is about playing games competitively, which I understand may not fascinate everyone as much as me, but it is really friggin brilliant.

For those of you who don't want to read about video games, I'll sum it up:

There is no such thing as a "cheap" victory. A win is a win, as long as you play within the rules of the game. People who play competitive games and get beaten over and over again by the same tactic often complain that their opponent is being "cheap" because his strategy never changes. What they don't realize is that the opponent isn't being cheap; he's being smart. His play never changes because THEIR play never changes, and his play works.

Players who complain about cheapness -- whom the article refers to as "scrubs" -- claim that the game is better or "more fun" if you try different tactics every time. But ruthless and/or smart players, who only care about winning the game, exploit this attitude because those who play only "for fun" play badly.

If your opponent is really a one-trick pony, you should be able to beat him easily. I mean, if you're playing rock-paper-scissors, and your opponent's strategy is to choose scissors every time, then you know what to do. You choose rock. Every time. Until your opponent wises up. You do not choose paper occasionally because it's "more fun" or "more fair." You do the thing that beats your opponent.

The Democrats lost in 2000, in large part because the Republicans know how to game the system. But the fact of the matter is, the Republicans won, and they did so without getting arrested; hence it was legal within the rules of the game. Some of the tactics they used seemed sneaky, unfair or "cheap". These tactics may have included, but are not limited to:

* Purging law-abiding voters from the rolls as felons.
* The use of media demagoguery persuade people to vote for things that aren't in their best interests.
* Stopping the recount.
* Using an arguably stacked Supreme Court.
* Getting groups of "protestors" bussed in to stop the recount in progress.

Future tactics may include all that, plus:

* Using rigged computerized voting machines.
* Redistricting key states in order to smoosh largely Democratic districts into largely Republican districts.

Assuming that these points are even true, many of them not only seem unfair, but OUGHT to be illegal. However, they're either not currently illegal, or they are technically illegal but our justice system isn't interested in going after them. But here's the hell of it: the more they win, the more they get to change or bend the rules in their favor. And that's not fair! It's cheap! But it's the way they play the game, and they're winning because we keep on playing nice.

Democrats don't have a problem with idealism; they have a problem with winning the game. The first step that needs to be taken is recognizing they have a problem. The problem is that they NEED TO WIN. Part of winning, in the changed landscape of this game, is that people respond to stuff like patriotism and war veterans and the image of being "strong on defense." These issues are mostly very low priorities for me, but they matter in winning over the electorate. The fact is that John Kerry is actually generally on the right side of issues that I do care about, such the rights of private citizens, the lack of interest in gigantic tax cuts only for the super-rich, and separation of church and state.

Does John Kerry "inspire" me? Is he my perfect candidate? No. I actually think Al Gore would have made better policies. I voted for Howard Dean in the primaries. As far as I know, I might even like president Ralph Nader more than I'd like president Kerry -- but I can't definitely say that, because I haven't paid that much attention to Nader's platform. The fact is, Nader won't be president. Nader pisses some people off because everyone knows that no matter how good his ideas may be, he's willingly altering the rules of the game to swing it in favor of Bush. It sucks that our political system is like that, but the only way to change our political system is to first WIN THE DAMN GAME.

Having said that, I do not believe that it's a waste of time to complain about the injustices of the 2000 election. The fact is, complaining is a legitimate game strategy. If you complain about something loudly enough, and convince enough people, those people will put pressure on those currently holding office; and they, in turn, may feel that they have to do something about it in order to make their jobs more secure.

But the bitching has to be constructive. It can't be just a smug little assertion that "Well, Gore really won that election, Bush is not my president." It has to be used as one weapon in an arsenal of strategies for playing the game better next time.

So am I saying that Democrats must become as ruthless and underhanded as Republicans? No. I don't believe that's necessary. I believe that the Democrats are capable of becoming just as skillful game players as the Republicans, and still retaining the core of what they stand for. I think the skill of governing and the skill of winning are totally separate from each other. The Democrats need to learn to use populism and mass media, they need to block every attempt the Republicans make to cheat or game the system... AND they need to hold on to a set of core beliefs that would lead to intelligent and successful government.

But for now, I think their crucial weakness is in the former, and they need to concentrate real hard on correcting that weakness by November.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Zelda: Windwaker (GameCube, ***)

Legend of Zelda: Windwaker is over a year old now. Recently, Ben has frequently been badgering me to play so he can watch, so I've played through it and I'm almost done. It's only the second time I've played through it, and I relied heavily on a walkthrough this time so I could find most of the secrets.

I think there are some very serious problems with the game, many of which don't show up until you've played over half of the game. No, I don't have a problem with the cartoony graphics or the childish themes. What bothers me is that there are a lot of gameplay elements that are not only not fun, but actively annoying.

Many of the elements that I loved about previous Zelda games are present through most of the game, and I will list them here:
  • Starting out with a relatively weak character and gradually growing into an unstoppable badass (even if it's a badass with adorable puppy-dog eyes).
  • Getting a growing arsenal of toys that you can use in various situations.
  • Lots of puzzle filled dungeons, filled regularly with rewards in the shape of maps, hearts, and new toys.
The last one, I think, is extremely important. I know the dungeons were the best part of the game for me. The first time through, I would often have my older stepkids watching and giving me advice on what to do next. But whereas most previous installments (especially Ocarina of Time and the SNES game) had eight or nine major dungeons, this one only had five or six. So while there is still lots of puzzle solving to do in the game, an awful lot of the game is done in non-dungeony activities. Which brings me to the horrible, HORRIBLE overworld navigation system.

As a novelty, it was fun for a while. The world you live in is a giant ocean dotted here and there by islands. You get a boat, you sail between them. Eventually, you get warping capabilities that jump you to selected islands around the map. You use the wind waker, a conductor's baton with a small skill game attached to it, mainly to warp around the map and change the direction of the wind.

But travelling between the islands is tedious and should be kept to a minimum. It should have been more like a mini-game, not THE ENTIRE GAME. Travelling from one grid on the map to another takes around 3-5 minutes. Each time you use the windwaker, it takes another 30 seconds of fumbling around. In order to get to most locations, you must go through all of the following steps:

  1. Get on the boat.
  2. Figure out what square you're aiming for.
  3. Select the wind waker in your inventory.
  4. Play the "warp" song.
  5. Identify a square near where you want to be.
  6. Wait for the warping animation to finish.
  7. Figure out which way the wind needs to blow for you to get to your final target.
  8. Pull out the wind waker again and play the "wind" song.
  9. Wait to finish sailing to the next square.
  10. Get out of the boat.

How often are you willing to do all these actions? I reckon about once every thirty minutes is my limit.

Furthermore, at the beginning of the game, every square is unreadable on your map until you track down a fish somewhere in the area and get him to fill in your map. It is technically optional, but pretty much necessary that you visit the fish in every location. That's 7x7=49 times when you must repeat pretty much repeat the same action in a different place.

In the beginning, inter-island travel is kept to a minimum and all is fine. As you approach the end, you have to island hop more and more. After you do a surprisingly small number of dungeons, the game switches over completely into full-time travel mode, and the amount of time you spend doing this is roughly the same as the amount of time you've spent on the entire game before.

There are eight triforce pieces, NOT hidden in dungeons, but hidden under the water. To find each triforce piece, you:

  1. Travel to a location on the map, using all the previously mentioned steps.
  2. Solve a few easy puzzles to get a new treasure map.
  3. Go to the island where your maps get deciphered.
  4. Figure out which square the treasure map points you to.
  5. Sail to that square, using all the previously mentioned steps.
  6. Use the map to get you to the new location.
  7. Look for the precise location of the triforce piece, and get it.
These steps are the same every single time, for all eight triforce pieces. For those of you keeping score, that's three trips for each of eight pieces, for a total of 24 island trips. Each trip has ten steps, but the deciphering island is located on a warp square, so let's cut one of those tens in half... 25 steps times 8 squares is still 200 mostly uninteresting steps you need to take -- and of course, that's after you visit the fish 50 times.

But wait, there's more.

Deciphering a map (step 2) costs 400 rupees, which is incredibly expensive. Once you've tapped out all the money you had, the only efficient way to get more is to use still more treasure maps to find still more underwater chests -- some of which contain heart pieces, and some of which contain 200 rupees, so you need to locate 400*8/200 = 16 more chests in 16 other squares, plus more maps if you want all the hearts, or if you were looking for money and got the hearts anyway.

I'm just READING what I wrote, and my God I'm bored.

I cannot emphasize enough the fact that using the wind waker itself is a dreadfully tedious experience once you've figured out how it works; I'm betting (without exaggeration) that you have to use it at least 500 times throughout the course of the game, if not more. Not only to get around the map, but to shift the wind so you can float in the right direction; to control your friends' actions inside dungeons; and to change the cycle of day and night.

And then, of course, every single island has some kind of hidden secret (the usual stuff -- hearts, extra bottles, a seemingly endless number of treasure maps, and other trinkets that have limited use in the game). So if you're going for completeness -- which I thought I would, but I've changed my mind -- you have to visit all of the 49 squares, often multiple times. And that means two uses of the wind waker and some sailing each time.

Previous Zeldas didn't do this to you. In Ocarina of Time you can use the ocarina to warp to many different areas, but you can usually find a shortcut from where you are that will jump you around the map in about a minute or two. And then there was the horse, which was an awesome way to travel. More importantly, there was a much more limited number of important locations, say 10-15, where you could find most of the things you could ever be looking for.

I finally got the triforce together this morning. On balance, given the choice between the completed triforce and the time I spent getting it, I wish I had the time back.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Doom 3 (PC, ***)

Playing games like Doom 3 makes me feel like I'm on a ride at Disneyland or Universal Studios.

Now I'm not saying that's a bad thing -- I happen to really like Disneyland. Last time I went there was with my wife, about seven years ago, and I'm really looking forward to my toddler being old enough to enjoy the experience of going back. When you spend a day on the rides at Disneyland, it doesn't take very long to figure out what the formula is.

The rides that have been created in the last 15 years or so -- let's say since "Star Tours" was created -- have a fun but predictable design pattern to them. They're trying to make a cinematic experience that sucks you in as much as possible. So they talk directly to you, the guest, and make you feel that you are somehow involved. When you get in the stationary car that jiggles around a lot, they tell you it's a spaceship, they cut off your view of the real world, and have a little animatronic robot pilot tells you "Hey, you guys are the first people I've flown with since they gave back my license!" Indiana Jones appears on a video screen to let you know that, while you're on your pleasure safari in the jungle, you should keep an eye out for the lost artifact of Wambooza, or whatever. When you go to a 3D movie, an attendant hands you "safety goggles" that must be worn during the presentation for your protection.

Then, as the formula dictates, Something Goes Wrong. Tie Fighters are attacking the ship! You looked at the idol of Zamafu and now you're cursed! Ladies and gentlemen, we've had a catastrophic failure in the core and aliens are loose in the theater!

A bunch of stuff happens to the audience. The ship shakes. A giant rock starts rolling after your car. Water is sprayed on the audience at just the right moment, or a little mechanical thing embedded under the seat touches you on the leg or something. Of course, the audience is never really in any danger -- imagine the liability costs. In fact, the same sequence of events happens to every single customer who gets on the ride, in the same order. You're on rails and can't control where you go; the movie playing is pre-recorded. But it FEELS LIKE something is happening to you, as long as you can willfully suspend your disbelief.

Now I can certainly do that. I like fiction. But I'm not a kid, and most of my brain is telling me that there's nothing to worry about. I focus on the way the experience is designed. Where a kid might be thinking "How does this event make me feel?" I'm thinking "How did the developers want me to feel when they created this event?" Then I just roll with it and have fun.

So that's Doom 3 for you. Technically it's very interactive. You decide how fast to move through the corridors, what weapons to use, how much time to devote to searching for hidden ammo and health. But you're STILL on rails. There is still a predetermined sequence of events that will happen in a certain order. You can get through the game most effectively if you're approaching it with a mindset of "What do the developers *want me* to do now?"

Rarely are there any kind of serious decisions to be made. You go from point A to point B, monster spawn to monster spawn. See that locked door? Let's see if there's a security panel to click nearby. If not, it's not important and there's nothing behind it. Otherwise, there's a key or a code somewhere later on, and we'll be coming back here in a minute. There are "puzzles," certainly, but only of the "Read this note to learn the security code" variety. In fact, surprisingly often, the note is placed practically right next to the door. That's ridiculous. It makes me wonder why they bothered having a locked door at all. More than anything else in the game, this jars the suspension of disbelief and reminds you that you're not really there; you're on a thrill ride and it's time for this door to open so something scary can jump out at you.

Also contributing to the feeling of being on rails is the regulated placement of items and its ratio to monster spawns. I found a big cache of plasma gun ammo, so I KNOW that some high hit point monster is about to rush me. What to do, what to do? Oh I know, I'll use the plasma gun. If I've just had the tar beaten out of me in a room where 5 imps spawned simultaneously, I just smile and keep going, knowing that there is a full cache of health and armor just around the corner. After all, I'm not a terrible gamer; surely SOME people handled that fight worse than I did, which means they're at lower health than I am, which means they need some extra help to keep having fun. I can think this way because I know that the experience is designed to happen roughly the same way to everyone.

There are times when I don't know what to do, but usually that's because I'm running through corridors to find the next door. Most of the time, that means I'm running through empty halls. When a monster appears from a dark corner while I wander around, I think "Aha! I'm going the right way!" instead of "Oh my Asmodeus, I'm gonna die!"

Now all of the above may make it seem like I don't like the game. Certainly a good online game of Warcraft 3 against a human opponent contains many more surprises. But I do like fiction. I like somebody taking the time to tell a story that they thought I would enjoy (and incidentally, pay $50 plus tax to hear). As cinema (if that's not too pompous), there are moments in the game that work. Somebody had to say "You know know what would be cool here? If you hear noises and see spooky shadows in front of you... and then something jumps you from behind." When you meet a really ugly new monster, there's often a cut scene to introduce it. For instance, you see one of those big pink chomping gorilla demons roar at you from behind a window... it charges the glass, can't break it... then it goes away for a second... then suddenly the door bursts off its hinges. That's fun.

Of course, the game certainly does startle me many times, but that's not the same as scaring me, as any Alfred Hitchcock fan will explain to you for hours if you let them. Tip: DO NOT play this game in a house with cats who like to jump on your lap. Also, there is a general feeling that things in the story are getting worse as time goes on. I took a playwriting class in college once, so I know this technique is known as "raising the stakes." Whereas in a game of Warcraft, if things are getting worse for you instead of better, 4 out of 5 times it probably means that you're going to lose, which I don't enjoy.

Still, I'd like to think that there's a way to improve on the formula, so I don't have to feel like somebody else has planned my every move. I don't have a way in mind; I'm all talk. If you were to get off your ride at Disneyland and walk around behind the trees, of course you wouldn't find yourself in uncharted jungle; you'd find a bunch of gears and stuff, and the back of the sets. What's behind that unopenable locked door in Doom 3? Well, I don't have to guess, because I can activate the "noclip" cheat. Then I know that behind the door is the outside of the model. It's a whole lot of nothin' at all.

Score: *** out of 5.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

A kinder, gentler RPG

Jeff (aka Captain Liberal) mentioned -- and I agree -- that people in general are friendlier to each other in City of Heroes than I've come to expect from online games in general, and I'm starting to see what makes this game so different from a lot of others.

The fact that there's no player-killing in the game is certainly one aspect of it; the only way you can interact with other people is in a positive way. You can join their team, or you can heal them, or help them fight monsters. But there's more to it than that. The paradigm of this game is different.

In other MMORPG's, like in RPG's in general, the object of the game can best be described as "kill others and take their stuff." I mean, sure, in theory all the things you're killing are evil, but if you think about it that's just your assumption when you play the game. You walk around in the woods, you see an orc. It's just minding its own business, doesn't say a word to you. What do you think to yourself? Hey, I bet that orc has money! Kill it! Once you're outside of town, you can pretty much assume that you want to indiscriminately destroy anything that moves.

From that point, player killing is actually a logical extension of how the game works. I mean, who's going to be richer than another player? Why waste your time killing hundreds of orcs for a few dozen gold a pop, when you can kill one player and earn thousands of gold pieces plus a full set of armor and equipment to boot?

City of Heroes is different in a couple of ways. First of all, the bad guys that you kill are actually doing something wrong to warrant killing. You walk around the city and you see those little word balloons that say things like "Help! I'm being mugged!" Then you run to help the people, and what's your reward? Do they pay you? Do you loot the bodies? No... they THANK YOU, and that's what you get. An ego boost. Or alternatively, if you're playing an indoor mission, you are there because your contact said that there is some kind of illicit activity going on. Again, you're doing it for some kind of societal benefit.

Well sure, you get experience and "influence", which is basically equivalent to money. And sometimes some inspirations or enhancements magically appear in your inventory. But that's the other interesting thing: you get those things automatically. You don't have to scramble to get them before the other players do. There's no competition over limited resources; if you fight for good and cooperate with others, you get rewarded. Period.

In fact, every aspect of this game seems carefully designed to make friendliness not mandatory, but desirable. I can't help thinking that this is a very positive step in the world of RPG design. Your character is not just a wandering cutthroat or a thief. Okay, so he's a vigilante, and that's normally frowned on in polite society. But it's still a step up.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

City of Heroes (PC, *****)

I'm recovering from staying up till 12:30 AM playing City of Heroes, then got up to play it again from 7:00 to 8:30. What can I say? I'm hooked.

I hooked up with my friend Jeff, who was in the beta and plays "Captain Liberal". (Basically his origin story is nearly identical to that of Captain America, except that he was created in the 50's to fight McCarthyism rather than Nazis in the 40's.) As the newly created character "Seculo", I spent a tremendous amount of time designing my cosume, then went through the tutorial, and finally hooked up with Captain Liberal to fight bad guys in the neo-Nazi district.

If you have the chance, it's definitely a good idea to start playing the game with a higher level friend who can show you the ropes. Your first few levels will probably go more smoothly.

Costume creation

Before you start playing, you get to build your character, starting with height and build (a slider from "burly" to "athletic" - meaning "skinny"). You will also be choosing what kind of origin your powers have: magic, mutation, science, technology, or natural. Seculo is recovering from being an evil lawyer, so I chose a natural origin -- meaning he wasn't born or mutated into powers, but trained himself up like Batman. I made him kind of short and wiry, with glasses and a goatee. Then I gave him a blue and gray themed costume, with a "scales of justice" symbol on the front. The only major flourish I put on his costume was a striping style on his boots that the game described as "tiger", but since they're mostly gray, they just look like slightly funky boots.

My future heroes may have a wilder style, and there's lots of variation to choose from. You can be enormous and lumbering, like the Hulk. You can be bare chested, or your clothes can have all sorts of crazy patterns on them, or fins, or whatever. Your skin can be any color; and it can have blood veins all over, or robotic circuitry, etc. Your face can have features like a cat, or goth eye makeup, or even clown makeup. (Super Gene Simmons to the rescue!) I even saw some superheroes running around who looked like nebulous glowy things. Think of, I don't know, Electro after he lights up.

You can make all kinds of changes to your costume and body, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that you can be absolutely anything you can imagine. The logos are chosen from a list, and although there are a whole lot of them, I was disappointed that you can't design and import your own from Photoshop or something. Also, there didn't seem to be very much variation between face styles, though of course you can customize your hair (mohawks! bald guys!), facial hair, helmets, and glasses or visors. You can also choose to have a permanent grin or grimace plastered on you.


I'll describe how the power and levelling systems work after I tell you about how my game went.

After finishing a quick tutorial and customizing my character's powers (more about that later) I left the training area and went to meet my first "contact". This guy is your Commissioner Gordon, if you will. He says "Hi Seculo, can you go beat up five 5th Column bad guys?" or "Seculo! We need you to investigate this old abandoned warehouse and get some information off the computers!"

Your contact and your preferred enemies depends on which origin you chose. As a "natural", I met with a plainclothes crimefighter who is most interested in having me fight the 5th Column, which I mentioned is a neo-Nazi group. There is one gang of villains for each origin, so magic heroes will be fighting "hellions", which are a demon gang, and science heroes will be fighting robots, etc. At least at first, the contact will usually tell you to go to an area where there are a lot of enemies to match your origin, although you are also free to go wherever you want.

But before I even talked to my guy, I messaged Captain Liberal to let him know I was ready to join him. He said "I'm on a mission, I'll be with you in a few minutes." I waited and familiarized myself with the area. Then he messaged me: "I'm out... I'll come join you." I wondered how, so I right clicked on his name and I got a menu that included the command "follow". Even though CL was halfway across the map, when I clicked follow my guy started running in the right direction and a little arrow appeared indicating that CL is 800 feet in the direction I'm going.

The homing interface is really handy. You can pick your own target on the city map and the target will always be shown on the main screen, and so will the current mission. The game has many different zones where you can go, and you'll only see a target or friend if it's on the same map as you.

Anyway, meeting up with CL was really easy, and we immediately joined up to form a team. Then he led me to meet my contact and get a mission. This then became the team's mission, and he could see my current mission as well as his own. The mission led us to another area of the city, so the Cap'n showed me the way to a subway system. All you have to do is click the subway, choose which zone you want to go to, and your character will hop on the next available train and poof, you're there.

Because there are lots of different servers and many zones within the server, you usually won't randomly meet a lot of other players unless you're specifically trying to find them. Champion City is populated with tons of NPCs, most of them just walking down the street going about their business. But as we travelled toward the mission, we would occasionally see little word balloons appear near us saying things like "Help! I'm being mugged!" or "Quick, finish da job before some heroes show up!" Helping out is optional. You can run toward the sound and fight the bad guys. When you start attacking, the victim will run away. But once you finish off all the guys in a group, the victim will return and say "Thanks!" or "Wow, you saved me!" or "Nice costume!" When that happens, you win influence points, which I'll talk about later.

When you fight somebody, the game automatically targets one of the bad guys and all your attacks are directed at him. You can switch targets by clicking on someone or hit tab to cycle through nearby baddies. Once you have targeted someone, you press number keys to throw a punch or use a superpower. Every action takes some time, and also has a cooldown time, so after you punch somebody you can't punch again for a couple of seconds, but you CAN use a different power right away.

Seculo specializes in mentally blasting people. Currently I have two types of mental attacks, so I switch back and forth between them when I fight, or occasionally punch people if both my blasts are in cooldown. Captain Liberal is a melee brawler and Seculo is mostly a long range supporter, so we complement each other pretty well in a fight.

When you target a bad guy, you can see what level they are. They also have have color coded names, so you can usually tell how you'll do in a fight. A green name means you will beat them handily; red means don't bother fighting them without a huge team.

The Mission

We get to the mission site and go inside. It's some kind of office building, and we're the only ones inside except for lots of bad guys. The game automatically creates a private area for you and your team when you go inside, so you won't be getting in the way of other players to "camp" spots where monsters are supposed to be. The building was a small maze with generous helpings of enemies, some tough and some not. As I've read, the game automatically customizes the enemies in a private zone so that they'll be an appropriate challenge for the level of your team.

I got some levels and items, and then we met the objective and I had to go back to my contact and get credit for winning the mission.

Character building continued

After you create a costume for yourself, the next thing you'll do is choose 1. origin, 2. hero type, 3. skill sets.

The origin does not affect what kind of powers you have, only what kinds of enemies and contacts you tend to meet. The hero type is everything.

There are five classes of hero:
* Scrappers are for players who like to go solo; they have a decent balance of attack, defense, and crowd control. If you made a hero based on Jackie Chan, you would be a scrapper.
* Blasters are ranged, high damage, low defense powerhouses. They can dish it out but can't take it. Guys with guns or energy blasts are blasters.
* Tankers are high defense, high power, but slow. The Hulk would be a tanker. Captain Liberal is a tanker.
* Defenders are your support team. They give buffs and healing to your party, and debuff enemies. In a more traditional game, defenders would be paladins. Seculo is a defender.
* Controllers are heroes who mess with people's minds. Professor X is a controller.

But wait, there's more. Each hero type has six, count 'em, six categories of PRIMARY powers, and six categories of SECONDARY powers. You choose one primary category and one secondary category, and you're stuck with that set of powers for the entire game. Each category has different levels of powers which you can buy after you level up. Presumably no category is useless, or so you'd hope.

A defender's primary powers are mostly about boosting their teammates, and secondary powers are for attacking and debuffing the enemy. Seculo specializes in healing (primary) and psychic powers (secondary). Within each category, there are something like ten powers. So that's five hero types, times six categories, times 10 powers, so I think that's 300 powers in the game, although it's probably a bit less because some types have overlapping skill trees.

Equipment and character advancement
The terminology used in the game is a little bit unusual, but once you get used to it you'll easily see how to make analogies to other RPGs. Here's a quick glossary.

Security level <=> level
Super powers <=> skill points
Super power enhancements <=> equipment (armor, weapons, etc)
Insights <=> potions and scrolls
Influence <=> gold

So here's how it works. By fighting enemies you get experience and influence (money). Get enough experience, and you can level up. On even numbered levels, new powers will be available to you from your primary and secondary trees. On odd numbered levels, you will get enhancement slots for those powers.

Each power has a number of little bubbles below it, like sockets where you can stick enhancements. When you fight, enhancement items will also occasionally pop into your inventory, usually after winning a tough battle. They aren't actually used until you "spend" them by popping them into a socket. Your enhancements can go into any appropriate power; an enhancement that increases flight speed only affects the flight power, and an enhancement that increases healing can only be used on a healing power. There are also all-purpose enhancements that do things like increase a power's damage, decrease cooldown, reduce the amount of energy it takes, and so on. The higher your level, the more powerful are the enhancements you can use.

You can also obtain or buy a limited number of "insights" such as rage, luck, energy recovery, and so forth. They act as potions which give you short term boosts. You can quickly consume them using the F1-F4 keys.

Production quality

As I always point out, this is the very first MMORPG I have played since I quit Ultima Online. So I don't know how this compares to Everquest or Dark Age of Camelot, but I really like the interface and visuals. The game takes place in a fully rendered 3D city, but it isn't a big network of generic identical streets and alleys. The map is very carefully designed and most of the places I've been so far stand out on their own. A short little riff of ambient music will play when you enter a new area, but otherwise there is no background music, just background noises.

There are also gigantic statues of legendary heroes throughout the city. I mean, like, statue of liberty sized. You walk up close to one and you're at eye level with the feet. And they're everywhere.

Sorry, I just have to digress and note something amusing. When you rescue a citizens from being mugged, one of their stock phrases is "Wow thanks, I've never met a real superhero before!" I want to smack them and say "What? The place is called Paragon City, the whole economy seems to revolve around heroes, there are giant freakin' statues of one on every block, there's an entire plaza full of heroes just two streets away, and you've NEVER MET ONE?"

Okay, got that off my chest.

Here's another cool thing: lots of preprogrammed animations you can go through. Bow, cheer, laugh, grovel, sit down and do yoga exercises, flex. There is also a "decision" menu which includes options like rock, paper, scissors, roll dice, flip coin.

Anyhow, I tried going solo a bit in the morning and didn't do so well. I think the game is definitely designed to make it easy on teams and tough on individuals. They give you lots of ways to hook up with people, in fact you can ask the game to automatically search for teammates and then other people who are near your level can find you. So far I'm only playing with Captain Liberal or alone. But this morning I was fighting some tough villains, and suddenly another blast of mind-rays came from behind me. Some midget girl came running up and joined the fight with me. Then I said thanks and healed her. That was neat. I know some people have complained that there isn't any PVP action, but the result of that is that everyone is really friendly and helpful to each other. I can see that it won't be much trouble to hook up with other players just to go for a short spin around the city.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Goblin Commander (GameCube, ****)

On a whim, I rented Goblin Commander this weekend. I played many hours, which is basically a positive review for me.

Goblin Commander is a real-time strategy game that has put in a heroic effort to overcome the inherent problems of controlling an RTS with a joystick. Unlike Starcraft 64, which used a PC interface and simply used the joystick as a substitute mouse, Goblin Commander is meant to be played on a console and the gameplay was designed to minimize unit micro-management and fast clicking.

Instead of controlling individual units, you can control up to three "clans" which can contain ten units each. Clans always move together in a group, and they operate on a one button interface. You use the joystick to zoom a cursor anywhere on the map (nice fast scrolling, you can cross a typical map in a second or two) and then you press A, B, or X to move the clan of your choice. Clans automatically "attack move", so they will fight anything that gets in their way.

You can also take direct control of any clan with the Y button, which allows you to move a group of units as you would control any other console character. While in direct control, you can also order other clans to follow you, and they will automatically help fight anything you choose to attack. This is a handy feature, because it allows you to run away. A clan that is fighting will ignore movement orders unless it is under direct control or following another clan that is under direct control.

There are two kinds of resources in the game: gold and "souls". Basically, souls are used to get troops and gold is used to upgrade them. Like Warcraft III with its greatly reduced unit limits, upgrades are extremely important because you want to keeping small numbers of troops alive for a long period of time. To get souls, you capture a soul well on the map by standing next to it with no enemies nearby. Wells provide you with a steady supply of souls as long as you own them, but the rate they give you decreases over time, so you need to capture more wells to keep troop production up, but you don't need to manage them.

Gold, however, requires lots of management. You get gold by smashing rocks and machines lying around the map. This is, of course fun. (Among the most important rules in gaming: smashing stuff is cool.) It does, however, require a lot of work. Your goblins will not automatically target smashable objects, so you need to spend some time clicking on objects or attacking them while a clan is under your control. Of course, the time you spend collecting money is time you are not attacking your opponent or managing your base, so there is a constant tradeoff between searching for money to buy upgrades and just making do with what you've got.

Luckily, base management is also very minimal. There are no build times, there are no research times, and there is no tech tree to speak of. Each clan has five unit types, but only two -- generally one ranged and one melee troop -- are available at the beginning of a game. The rest are locked away, and you can only access them by making an initial gold investment. After that, you can buy up as many available units as you can afford (in souls) and they join your army instantly.

The five clans specialize in different attributes, and their units and upgrades are tailored for that attribute. For instance, the rockcrusher clan has only one weak ranged troop, but it has three types of melee troops -- basic, medium, and heavy. They also have three levels of armor upgrades (bought with gold). On the other hand, the hellfire clan has one useless melee troop and basic, medium, and heavy ranged troops. They have no armor upgrade, but they have range upgrades. So if you have both clans under your control, you'll want to make heavily armored melee troops with the rockcrushers and long ranged, high damage shooters from the hellfires, and keep the two clans together for support. One clan has speed upgrades, another has a lot of spellcasting units that get health upgrades.

In addition, each clan has one type of support unit that provides additional benefits, such as scouting vision, healing, or armor bonuses. You can only have one support unit per clan at any time, and the supporters usually last a long time, so they don't get targeted.

Finally, some levels allow you to purchase "titan" units. Titans are extremely expensive but very powerful and generally have some kind of area attack ability that decimates weaker enemy armies. The catch is that you can ONLY move your titan via direct control. In other words, if you have a titan, you must micro-manage it all the time. If you stop controlling the titan, he flops down like a discarded puppet and takes a couple of seconds to get moving again when you come back. This means that going back to your base to purchase additional upgrades and troops is quite risky unless you are not under attack, or you have lots of armies guarding the titan. It is also a pain to get the titan from one area to another. Unlike regular armies, you can't just click a spot and then go do something else; you have no choice but to very slowly walk your titan from one place to another.

On the whole, the gameplay works pretty well. Because there is no building time, you can lose your entire army and still be in the game -- as long as you have enough souls to buy more, you can pop out a full set of reinforcements in seconds. However, you need SOME troops just to protect any soul wells that might fall to the enemy, because if you lose soul income then you're really in trouble. Gameplay alternates between battling the enemy and seeking out breakable objects to get gold from. However, fighting the opponent carries additional benefits. You also get gold for smashing enemy bases, and you get a portion of the enemy's souls when you kill their troops. So if you have a strong attacking force, it's definitely a good idea to press your advantage.

A few minor gripes I have about the game mainly involve the fact that it's hard to figure out what's what on the landscape. Searching for breakables can be frustrating on an unfamiliar type of map, because some of them just blend in with the landscape. Often the best thing to do is take control of one ranged clan and wander around the map pressing "attack" until they see something they want to target.

Also, the mission objectives in the campaigns are not always clear. For instance, they'll tell you to capture four soul wells, but finding them all is arduous. Even after the fog of war is lifted, it can be hard to see where the wells are without manually inspecting every inch of the map yourself. In one level, the object is to destroy all the trees in a certain area. There are a lot of them, and they can be easy to miss.

I don't know how multiplayer looks, since none of my local friends play this sort of game. I believe there is a split screen skirmish mode, and the X-Box version likely has an online game. The computer is very friendly to you in the campaigns; it does not break objects in your area or steal powerups that you leave lying around. As is standard practice in many strategy games, the computer makes up for weak AI by getting a large head start in army power for most missions.

Goblin Commander isn't the best game I ever played, but it is on the whole a positive step in proving that you don't absolutely need a mouse to have addictive RTS action.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Air America Radio

I've been listening to Air America Radio at various times since it began. In case you hadn't heard Air America is the new privately funded liberal radio network that is meant to compete with all the right wing talk shows. It's on radio stations in five cities, as well as XM radio. I live in Austin, TX, which is not in one of the sweet spots, so I have to go listen to it via RealAudio on their web site. Al Franken, former Saturday Night Live Veteran and author of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, is host of "The O'Franken Factor" at 11:00 (noon eastern time), a title intended solely to piss of arch-rival Bill O'Reilly. I try never to miss an episode of O'Franken when I'm at work, and I occasionally catch bit of other shows, particularly The Majority Report with my favorite underrated movie babe, Janeane Garofalo.

Quite honestly I think Al started a bit weak but ramped up very quickly. On day 1 he felt a lot like he was relying too much on rehearsed material and an awfully large percentage of his jokes fell flat. (Except when he brought in Bebe Neuwirth -- "Lilith" from the show Cheers -- to play Ann Coulter. That was a riot.) But each day has been exponentially better than the last, and I know that Al will make a great host in the long run.

I'm happy to have a real liberal media for a change. I hope a station will open in Austin soon. Years ago when I first moved here, there was a fun, witty, slightly left of center host named Shannon Burke (a guy) on one of the local AM stations, sandwiched between Dr. Laura and G. Gordon Liddy. One day without warning, the whole station got shut down and changed overnight into a crummy oldies station. As far as I know, the poor guy just showed up for work one day and they told him, "This station doesn't exist. Go home."

One thing that has been a real downer for me is trying to find a place to discuss the show. When I like something, I want to get together with like minded people and just chat about it. However, finding a place to discuss the show on the net has been tricky, because every conversation quickly gets loudly commandeered by conservatives presenting such deep and well-thought out arguments as:

  1. He sucks.
  2. He's not funny.
  3. Ha ha, liberals don't get it.
  4. I give it six months, tops.
  5. It will be so sweet when George Soros loses all his money.
  6. U suck.

Of course I expect a certain amount of discussion on this level. It's the internet. But in this case, the focus of right wingers is so strident that you'd think it was the Second Coming of Clinton or something.

I'm a long time member of the Motley Fool message boards. The main place where people talk about Air America is on the appropriately named "Political Asylum" board, where half the contributors are screaming raving Bushies to begin with. And a quick search for "o'franken" on Google Groups will quickly reveal that the place where Al discussions are MOST popular is Nuff said, right?

I know this is how modern conservatives operate. As Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, the Dixie Chicks, and Valerie Plame will be the first to tell you, ever since Bush took office the first order of business for dissenters is to shout them down. It's not "I respectfully disagree with your opinions," it's "HOW DARE YOU talk back to me when I'm telling you the way things are?!?"

The comical thing about all this is that after years of angry blowhards on talk radio, the number one comment you hear about Air America hosts is "They're SO NEGATIVE!"

A close second is "What these lefties just don't get is that you can't just have a popular radio show for your agenda... you have to be ENTERTAINING." This bit of brilliant advice is usually delivered by competing radio hosts in a wise tone of voice that indicates they've just revealed to you the meaning of life. Yeah guys, no shit!!! And here I thought that Air America just got on the air so they could broadcast policy discussions on tobacco imports from Zimbabwe.

There's actually two funny things about this claim when it comes from conservative talk show hosts. The first is that people like Limbaugh, Hannity, and O'Reilly are RARELY funny to anyone who doesn't already agree with them. Their idea of highbrow humor is "liberals suck", followed closely by pointing out that some liberal woman is not terribly attractive, if you know what I mean. Most consistently unfunny comic strip? Mallard Fillmore. When you think of the comedy greats, who generally pops to mind first? Monty Python? Lenny Bruce? George Carlin? One key element of comedy is a certain irreverence for society's sacred cows. That DEFINITELY does not mesh well with right wing ideology.

The other silly thing about the claim that "You can't set up a radio network just because you have an agenda" is that this is EXACTLY what conservatives did when they set up their media empire. Rupert Murdoch didn't just wake up one day and say "Hey, I'll start buying up a whole lot of TV and radio stations and newspapers, and maybe a few of them will just happen to promote a right wing message." Limbaugh was nothing before he started getting backing from political groups like Capital Cities and ex-Bush adviser Roger Ailes. So I just don't buy it.

Nevertheless, it's hard to listen to all the slams on Al and Air America and not get a little pessimistic. I want this station to do well. I want to be able to turn on my radio and be able to hear something that is neither Rush nor a RushClone. It worries me that this effort will actually fizzle for whatever reason, and it will be even harder for anyone else to ever attempt such a thing again.

And finally, I don't believe any of the other stereotypes about liberals that are suddenly popping up in the wake of Air America's launch. You know... liberals are too policy oriented, and they don't care about entertainment. Liberals are a bad target market. Liberals don't listen to talk radio.

If I myself am any indication, liberals like to laugh. And we DO have an interest in talk radio. It's just that we've been listening to Limbaugh and Hannity for years -- in small doses -- because there's NOTHING ELSE ON. Sometimes I do, in fact, listen to the above just to get myself irritated. But don't think for a moment that this means I wouldn't rather listen to somebody who's right. Nevertheless, I will not be at all surprised to find that a large part of Air America's demographic is conservatives, for the same reason that I listen to Limbaugh (when I can stand it).

Saturday, February 28, 2004

The Passion of the Christ (movie, **)

I saw The Passion with my Ginny and some friends, Jeff and Ashley. Going into the movie, we speculated that maybe the claims about how violent it is might be a little overblown. After all, it's a Christian movie, people probably don't expect much violence at all, so their perceptions are amplified a bit.

Having seen it, I can confirm: this is a very, very graphic movie. And I'm someone who really doesn't mind the occasional violent flick. This movie is practically a celebration of torture. I mean, it covers every detail of Jesus' wounds in loving slow motion. The most brutal scene is when Jesus gets scourged. As you may be aware, a scourge is like a cat o' nine tails with nice big spikes on the end. James Caviezel is turned into hamburger meat in this scene, over an excruciatingly long period of time. Or, as Ginny observed, his latex suit is turned into hamburger meat. But this is not some indie Christmas special done by your local Baptist chapter. This is a professional movie done by big time Hollywood talent, and the special effects are impressive, to put it kindly. Several people in the theater audibly gasped and moaned at the lashing. Me, I may have winced a few times.

In my opinion, if there is one overriding theme in Mel Gibson's Passion, it is "Yes, you'd better believe that this REALLY FUCKING HURTS." As Christ, Caviezel conveys one powerful overriding emotion, and that emotion is: "Ouch."

And on this level, the movie succeeds. I did my best to go into the Passion with an open mind, appreciating it as a dramatization of a famous work of fiction. And boy, does it work hard at being faithful to the book. Some people have criticized the Harry Potter movies for being slavishly devoted to the source material, just going down a checklist of scenes and making sure to include them all. That is definitely the philosophy here.

"Judas, here are your thirty pieces of silver."
"Ah, thank you for my thirty pieces of silver."
"Yes, your thirty pieces of silver for betraying Jesus."
"Yep, that's why I betrayed Jesus, to get my thirty pieces of silver."

Jesus getting scourged... check.
Crown of thorns... check.
Jewish mob spares the life of Barrabas rather than Jesus... check. (Or for you Monty Python fans out there: "I shall... welease... Wodewick!")
Jesus says "Forgive them for they know not what they do"... check.
Mean guards give thirsty Jesus a sponge full of vinegar... check.
"It is finished"... check.

Not that this is necessarily a criticism. Anything less than scene-for-scene perfection, and I would expect Mel to be crucified (haw haw) by hordes of angry apologists.

However, there's another problem. I believe the original story of Jesus' betrayal and execution takes up only a few dozen pages -- even taking into account that there are four different retellings. To fill a two hour movie, there's got to be a little foot dragging thrown in. There are, of course, a few flashbacks to earlier scenes. (Jesus washes disciples' feet... check. Sermon on the mount... check. And so on.) But even these don't come close to adequate time filler. There is also a little side story thrown in about the devil, who looks like either a very effeminate man or a very butch woman, keeping tabs on Jesus. I'm pretty sure this subplot is a deviation from the text, although the devil gets almost no speaking lines. But this too is quite short.

What I'm trying to say is that this is not a fast paced movie. Ginny was positively bored. Most of what I would consider filler is just more effort to convince you that Jesus is seriously in pain. There's only so many minutes when you can effectively watch the camera linger on a lash mark, or establish that the cross he's carrying while half dead is REALLY REALLY REALLY HEAVY. Like, even a perfectly healthy guy thinks it's quite impressively heavy.

So I agree that Mel and Jim both did fine jobs of conveying the impression of a guy in pain. Do I feel bad about how little I appreciate him for taking on my sins? Not really. Do I wish I could help him out? Yeah sure. I would take Jesus off that cross in a second, but I presume that wouldn't be a good idea because then all of humanity would have to suffer the eternity of torment we so richly deserve.

There is one bit of comic relief in the entire movie. Barrabas. I think we were the only people laughing, but I am pretty sure that scene was meant to be funny. When the crowd demands to let Barrabas off the hook because they hate Jesus, Barrabas grins and postures and struts around. Then the camera goes over to Jesus and his raw hamburger skin, and it's not as funny anymore. But the moment was there.

Okay, let's move on to the big controversy surrounding the movie: is it anti-semitic? Well, I'm a non-observant Jew, so my opinion is only semi-relevant. My opinion is that yes, it's kind of anti-semitic. There are some good Jews in the movie, to be sure. The guy who helps carry Jesus' cross is very deliberately identified as Jewish. ("Help him with that cross, Jew!") But every single character who is a powerful Jew, such as Caiaphas and a whole bunch of Jewish temple guys, are portrayed in the worst possible light. This is definitely the version where the Jews have the famous words put in their mouths: "His blood be on us, and on our children."

(Sidebar: According to some secondhand information -- see news story -- that line was actually spoken in the movie, but the translation from Aramaic was not included in the subtitles. Receiving flack from Jewish groups, Gibson claimed he took it out, but only removed the caption. Even if this line hadn't been in there, however, the intent was pretty clear)

By contrast, every character who is a powerful Roman, particularly Pontius Pilate, is portrayed as being flawed but basically decent. Pontius doesn't want to kill Jesus, but he has no choice because of the demands of bloodthirsty Jews. There are some extremely horrible Roman characters in the movie, especially the lashers who take an obscene amount of pride in their work, but as often as not they are reprimanded by superior officers who tell them to crank it down a notch.

So the lesson is: Romans neutral; Jews not necessarily bad; Judaism definitely bad. It's okay to be Jewish as long as you aren't involved in promoting the religious part. All clear?

Here's another angle that Jeff argued. Two of the really bad characters were gender ambiguous. The devil's got this whole "It's Pat!" dynamic going on where you can't really tell what s/he is. And Caiaphas wears eye makeup and froofy outfits, and kind of minces around. According to my friend, it's a very Catholic thing to imply that gender ambiguity is so very evil.

At the end of the movie, there was a conspicuous lack of applause, even though the last scene of the movie strongly indicates that Jesus' skin got all better and then he went on to save humanity. Interesting. I'm not sure whether a passion play should be an "upper" to a largely Christian audience, but the yuckiness of the images before the end obviously lingered. I suppose a few people may have cried at the end, but I didn't hear much of it.

On the whole, I would recommend seeing this movie only if you have a certain mindset, and with a whole bunch of caveats. Do not bring your kids: the R rating is there for a reason. Expect there to be some boring bits, actually lots of them. Don't watch if you're squeamish. On the whole, though, regardless of what your personal feelings about the Bible may be, it IS an enduring piece of literature and this IS a well produced facsimile. You can at least watch it in the spirit of having some Cliff Notes(TM) on the Bible if you don't want to read the whole thing.

By the way in case you wondered: Judas hangs himself. He does not throw himself off a cliff, so obviously that version is not divinely inspired. Glad the movie could clear that up for us.

Score: ** out of 5.