Wednesday, June 15, 2016

London Has Fallen

London Has Fallen

There are just enough over-the-top Americanisms in the London Has Fallen for my brain to struggle with Poe's Law.

The casual disregard with which a wedding is blown up by a barely-teenaged pilot half a world away, orders given based on intelligence gathered by a different country. Gerard Butler's now-infamous "go back to Fuckheadistan or wherever you come from" line, which in more capable directorial hands would be a deliberate indictment of the US military's indifference to the targets of its drones. US president Benjamin Asher's chest-puffing delivery of Agent Smith's "the sound of inevitability" line from The Matrix, where the approaching subway train is instead Butler's unstoppable Secret Service agent Mike Banning, a brick shithouse who fires profane one-liners almost as often as bullets but whose face washes blank with every kill. Morgan Freeman's closing speech which is so on-the-nose that its horrifying justification for US interventionism is "do it for our children", delivered atop a patriotic orchestral swell.

The terrorist leader is ultimately executed in a drone strike almost identical to the one which opened the film, which he escaped and which served as his entire motivation, suggesting that the United States has learned nothing from the experience.

Despite the constant culling of sidekicks (anybody who spends more than a minute and a half with Banning and Asher seems to end up dead) and enemies, there is no tension to the film. When the President is captured by the terrorists (who have, in two short years managed to plan and organise a large-scale infiltration of the Metropolitan Police and Queen's Guard, plan and carry out a secret assassination on the British Prime Minister and orchestrate the simultaneous assassinations of every world leader attending his funeral), the film places a ticking clock on his head, counting down to his supposed execution but obvious rescue.

Banning is never in the slightest danger. The most ambitious action scene in the movie, an alleyway shootout faked into a single long take, features easily a half dozen deaths of SAS soldiers on Banning's side, gunned down by enemy fire while Banning himself saunters unscathed from cover to cover. The American is impervious to bullets while his allies are bullet-sponge sacrifices to be made in his unceasing mission to save one man - and when he manages to free the President from his captors Banning gives a speech about how the United States is greater than a single man.

This is a sick, brutal sociopath of a movie, an oddly clinical parade of gunshots and stabbings that seems more curious about violence and its effects on the human head than excited by it. It's a snuff film made for the audience to revel in, but London Has Fallen itself isn't getting anything out of this exercise - there's no… joy in it.

It has no clear politics, it has no message or lesson or even point to its violence. I cannot see any reason for this film to have been made.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Watch Dogs 2

Watch Dogs 2

Watch Dogs 2 doesn't look like they've learned a fucking thing.

"Stick a black guy in as protagonist," says a fool in a plaid shirt with a beard stolen from an early 20th century lumberjack, "and give him a backstory where he was falsely accused of a crime after evidence was planted. What additional hacking abilities should he have?" "I know," a moron drools, incapable of processing irony. "Let him plant evidence on innocent people! And drones were cool when we started this project, so they're bound to still be relevant when the game is released three years later."

It's ridiculous enough that Star Hacker Extraordinaire Marcus Whateverthefuck runs around with the name of his secret hacking collective on his own bright purple hat, but it's fucking Mr Emoji Eyes that really gets me. Sure, in some kind of William Gibson cyberpunk dystopia that shit would fly, but come the fuck on - that's gonna stick out in suburban San Francisco, especially when it's paired with the world's least subtle iconic studded jacket.

Maybe come the third game the licensing team'll get their shit in gear and we'll actually be hacking around late-21st-century BAMA with the Panther Moderns, rather than this sub-Doctorow power trip masquerading as political commentary.

Discomfort

This tweet makes me deeply uncomfortable.

In the wake of Orlando, the idea of fantasising about being a self-appointed vigilante, righting perceived personal wrongs, seems especially horrifying. The staggering lack of empathy - even momentarily, in a twitter joke - just does not, can not, sit right with me.

With Donald Trump ready to assume control of the button in American and David Cameron's cronies already taking crowbars to the most lucrative parts of our public services here in the UK, we should be striving for more empathy, rejecting the violence that society has, somehow, allowed to become so common that we daydream about causing it.

I remember when violence in videogames was an escape, an over-the-top cathartic release to escape from the tedium and mundanity of reality. But violent media is no longer an escape - it's what we already see in headlines every other fucking day.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

No Man's Delay

In every interview about, or demo of, No Man's Sky that I've seen, lead developer Sean Murray looks terrified.

Nobody in the world is more worried that this astonishingly ambitious game might not live up to the hype. He is nervous and proud and desperate for people to love Hello Games' next release as much as he does.

I have no doubt that he wants (needs?) No Man's Sky to be as close to perfect as humanly possible, if for no other reason than to justify the hype that's been poured onto the team since E3 2013.

So if Sean Murray thinks it needs another six weeks to be as good as it can be, then I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But some "fans" - how you can be a fan of an unreleased game is one thing, but the behaviour of these people is entirely another - have taken umbrage with the delay, and sent death threats to Murray.

Leaving aside the logical issue (how is killing the lead developer supposed to expedite the game's release?), the idea that anybody looking forward to No Man's Sky could bear any ill will towards this man blows my mind.

These are people who have attached some part of their personal identity (and self worth) to this game, as ill-advised as that is. Why wouldn't they want it to be the best it can be?

This lack of perspective stuns me every time it appears in gamers (really, I should expect it by now). I felt the pangs of disappointment when I read those first reports of the delay, and the regretful acceptance when it was confirmed.

But Jesus - we've been waiting years for the game to come out. What's six more weeks?

(I'm still of the opinion that Sony should never have announced a date for the game at all, and just sent out a press release saying, "by the way, No Man's Sky is out - happy exploring!".)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Rogue One

The Rogue One trailer's AT-AT sequence

I want to talk about AT-ATs.

There are a lot of other things I love about the trailer for Gareth Edwards' upcoming Star Wars spin-off Rogue One: the grounded aesthetic that harkens back to the original film's "lived-in" universe; the shots of Jyn that bookend the trailer, one in cuffs on a Rebel Base, one disguised in the Death Star cell blocks; the use of handheld cameras that give it a more personal feeling than we're used to from the series; Mon Mothma's smirk at Jyn's "I rebel" joke.

But I want to talk about AT-ATs, because the way Edwards uses them in this one brief shot at the end of the Rogue One trailer says a lot about why I'm excited for his take on this universe.

The best film in the Star Wars saga (so far) is The Empire Strikes Back, which is also the first place we saw Imperial Walkers.

During the Battle of Hoth, a number of these barely-mobile artillery platforms attacked the rebel base on Hoth, targeting it's shield generators. Impressive in scale but lumbering, they didn't seem to pose much of a threat to troops on the ground, and were eventually defeated using ropes.

It's difficult to see them as scary, mostly because of the way they're shot.

Gareth Edwards, for my money, made the best Godzilla movie since the 1954 original (this is a hill I'm prepared to die on - fight me, scrubs).

Few other directors are as good at communicating scale as effectively as Edwards; even as blockbusters ramp up the "disaster porn", they get more and more clinical about it. We're watching cities being ruined, but it all lacks dramatic weight because the scale isn't relatable.

Edwards always puts his camera ona very human level; the kaiju in Godzilla are almost always shown with known objects in the foreground or through a bus window, which tells you immediately just how terrifyingly huge these things are. He avoids putting you on Godzilla's eye level because that makes the buildings look small rather than making the monsters look big, which would diminish the awe.

Sorry, I'm supposed to be taking about AT-ATs.

It's a very short part of the Rogue One trailer - Jyn and her band of rogues are running across an open battlefield; at first we can only see the lower legs of the Imperial Walkers, but the camera pans up just in time to show the lead AT-AT turn towards (and open fire on) the ground troops.

That's exciting, in a way the AT-ATs never were before. They're a threat to infantry, not just infrastructure. Instead of walking slowly towards a target on auto-fire, waiting to trip, these machines are reactive - and they react fast.

Rogue One has taken these walking punchlines - big, slow, expensive and easily-defeated - and done something unexpected: it's made them dangerous.

Monday, March 07, 2016

The Player of Games

The Player of Games

I finished The Player of Games today, the first Iain M. Banks I've ever read. (It was recommended to me as the first Culture novel, and I'd bought it on Kindle before the error was corrected.)

I don't really know what to make of it. I think it's accurate to say it was not enjoyable to read; impenetrably complex names and vague descriptions of everything from geography to characters' appearances to their actions had me re-reading pages to make sure I'd not accidentally skipped a sentence - and that's not going into the more disturbing scenes (which were, I suppose, important examples of the imperial society, but still not light reading).

And it's not like William Gibson's torrent of slang and colloquialisms, which can be similarly disorienting but always has a clear, propulsive flow. Banks' prose seemed to start and stop in strange places, almost like it was getting caught on the scenery. The action could be heating up and then would be diverted for a couple of paragraphs of slow introspection. The Player of Games seemed to be be toying with Gibson-style sketches of technology and locations but wouldn't fully commit, leaving it in a strange uncanny valley where things were almost properly described but not satisfactorily.

There's something intriguing about the Culture as a setting, though - even if it frequently felt deliberately (albeit lazily) provocative in its liberalness. It makes sense as a counterpoint to the Azadian Empire, but both are such exaggerated extremes that the conflict in ideologies is a foregone conclusion and the handful of revelations - not even twists - in the closing chapters made little difference to my perception of events and motives up to that point.

But I can't help but wonder how much of my indifferent reaction is due to unfamiliarity; this is the fourth book I've finished this year, but only the first I've not read before. By now I'm so familiar with Neuromancer, The Forever War and Watchmen that I can just soak in their atmospheres, enjoying their grammatical (and in one case graphical) construction.

Maybe in a few months or years I'll be able to revisit The Player of Games and, no longer worrying about following a story, I'll find that same comfort in Banks' writing.

In the meantime, I'll probably pick up Consider Pheblas.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

$60 Man's Sky

No Man's Sky

A post on the official US Playstation Blog this morning had, briefly, the preorder date and price listed for Hello Games' upcoming space exploration game No Man's Sky. To whit: preorders open on March 3rd (tomorrow) for $60.

It's still unclear who is actually outraged about the price, but the lack of a scandal won't stop Twitter from kicking off about it. Dozens of furious tweets poured onto the internet, decrying the (very possibly non-existent) idiots who thought $60 was too much to pay for No Man's Sky, based on one blog post that suggested that the small development team size might be one reason that customers might see the price tag as excessive.

Of course, people will complain about the price and team size will undoubtedly enter the conversation now (albeit only because of the Twitterstorm). But nobody justifies Battlefield's price tag by pointing out how many people worked on it, in the face of complaints about a campaign lasting "only" four hours or a lack of multiplayer maps. And with billions of planets to explore, it'll be difficult to argue that Hello Games haven't provided enough content despite their small team.

I happen to think that the price tag on No Man's Sky is going to hurt sales - simply because nobody seems entirely sure, yet, of what the game is. It's still a big question mark, and $60 is a not-inconsiderable amount of money to drop on an unknown quantity.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Division, part three.

The Division

It's because I'm not American, I decide. That's what's missing from The Division.

This is my second foray into the ruins of Madison Square Garden, now with backup. Having someone to talk to has changed the experience, and I'm not sure it's for the better. It just gives me someone to complain to.

It's when we shoot our way through the repurposed stadium that I decide that The Division's problem is my own lack of knowledge of, or fondness for, the New York landmarks it uses. This could be any hastily-assembled field hospital we're spraying with lead and blood; I have no appreciation of the original location.

The second thing I accept is the unforgiving shooting. Another member has joined our squad, and we repeat the power station mission I completed yesterday. My carbine has come back into fashion against the flamethrowers, but there's no slack to help land headshots. I wish my controller was as precise as the fictional scope on my rifle; another shot passes a pixel to the left of its intended target without aim assist to pull it back on course.

We accept a bounty mission that tasks us with eliminating a murderer who, disappointingly, turns out to be just a gang member with a larger health bar and better drops. The target is, I'm told, a woman, which very well might be the first female enemy I've seen. I don't get close enough to see a difference with her character model.

Later, The Division makes a strong statement in the Dark Zone, where every figure in the distance must be regarded with suspicion. Compared to the desolate streets outside its walls, the Dark Zone is densely populated and thick with danger.

We get greedy with our looting and pay for it when the underground car park we've just cleared is invaded. I lose half my haul to the hooligans but accept it as a necessary lesson.

Extracting the remaining items from the Zone proves to be a tense affair; as we wait for the helicopter to collect our packages, several other players approach the extraction point. There is no way to tell, for anyone, whether the intentions of any other player at the table are nefarious.

My automatic turret is deployed in the final seconds before the helicopter arrives, one of several insurance policies intended to avenge their owners should someone get greedy.

The extraction goes smoothly in the end, my anxiety unfounded and my turrent unnecessary.

Afterwards, we go on the offensive: attempting to murder a player who assisted in fending off a spontaneous attack from NPCs. The plan backfires and we are quickly gunned down by the rest of the district. I lose nearly everything I collected, legitimately, before our ill-advised assassination attempt.

I notice I'm making a lot of comparisons between The Division and Destiny, none of which are yet going in Ubisoft's favour. With more forgiving and satisfying gunplay, Bungie's online shooter/RPG hybrid is more immediately fun. Its loot notifications celebrate each piece of gear you collect in a way that The Division's augmented reality-inspired labels don't - several times I pick up loot without being able to clearly see what the label says, or even before I can identify the icon telling me what kind of armour it is.

I carried no more love for the Cosmodrome into Destiny's early days than I do for New York in this beta, but the grandeur of the Mothyard's bright, wide spaces contrast against the dark claustrophobia of Lunar Complex in a way that the various streets of Manhattan cannot, weather system or not (although a shootout against rogue agents in a Dark Zone blizzard is thrilling in a way no Destiny fight has ever been).

The grid system of the streets constantly keeps me separated from events happening just a few yards away and gives me the overpowering sense that I'm running down corridors, being kept from seeing the landmarks that would reduce my reliance on the map.

It's hardly fair given the hundred hours I've dedicated to my Guardian, but there's a sense of ownership of the character, her weapons and her armour that I don't even feel the roots of with The Division. Maybe it's because I couldn't customise her, because this character is only temporary. Maybe it's because the real-world loot is so drab and samey; I've collected a dozen jackets and can't see any major differences between them. Destiny combined the functional and aesthetic elements of equipment, making the choice of boots a balancing act between being slightly more powerful and looking awesome. The Division lets me change my character's jumper, but I can barely see it and it makes no difference anyway.

I die for the last time, in flames, while exploring a contaminated checkpoint. I decide to return to my base, using fast travel from outside the Dark Zone, but don't make it through the door. The beta is ending soon; I will not benefit from any more upgrades. I don't even bother checking the stats on the equipment I salvaged from the Dark Zone.

I log out.

The Division, part two.

The Division

I'm outside my newly-liberated HQ, but all the quest markers for activating its subsections are still there. I log into the three laptops again and on my way outside I get a cutscene, which I skip.

I pick a mission because I like its bright yellow lightning bolt icon the best: I'm going a few blocks east and clearing out a power substation. I also have to rescue a man called Rhodes, but because I'm not paying attention to the subtitles, for most of the mission I'll think it's someone called Rose and will be surprised when she has a man's voice.

The omnipotent voice in my character's headset tells me - us? - to avoid confronting the cleaners. When I notice that they're carrying flamethrowers, I decide to ignore this advice. A lucky shot ignites a man's fuel tank and he explodes, spectacularly announcing my arrival to his nearby allies. This gang do not appear to use radio communications however, as I am able to use this same explosive sneak-attack at least four more times across the duration of the mission.

I descend through the facility's waist-high forest of crates and construction equipment and die for the first time, burned alive by a sociopath performing an over-enthusiastic homage to Bradbury. My reincarnation is quick and most of my equipment seems to have restocked itself, which removes the sting from the experience; the enemies have also reset themselves, but my tactical advantage of knowing where they're coming from - and how they're armed - proves too much for them to succeed in a second encounter.

I die twice more before reaching an obvious boss arena, where I kill waves of opponents long enough for their larger, better-armoured champion to arrive. He is defeated in an uncontrolled explosion when my missed headshot instead nicks his fuel tank.

Returning to the surface by elevator, I am informed that the engineer I left behind in the power plant has already beaten me to my headquarters and am instructed to meet him there. Since he's no longer in danger I decide to take a scenic route.

I find no fewer than three more military squads being badly outgunned by amateur militias, but only help one.

When I arrive at the base I talk to the engineer and unlock an ability which feels like it's been shanghaied from a different game: to deploy an automatic machine gun turret.

A hostage rescue mission catches my eye and I assist two soldiers in rescuing a third, by running ahead of them and killing fifteen men who have the temerity not to be in the army. Perhaps with military training they would have known better than to stream out of their fortified position and into the waiting crosshairs of my new carbine and ridiculous sci-fi turret.

I decide to take a less combat-oriented task next, searching for a missing person. The science fiction quotient increases when I find an area that recreates, in garish orange hologram, an event from long ago. This historical record does not appear to offer any clues to the woman's location, but my HUD nevertheless informs me that clues have been found and offers a new objective marker to continue the search.

I log out.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Division, part one.

The Division

My beta experience with The Division, Ubisoft's third person RPG/shooter hybrid, is not off to a great start, and I've still not actually played any of it. Building my own character is what I was most looking forward to when I started the game and seeing the tabs greyed out is equal parts puzzling, disappointing and distressing.

Eventually, unable to generate even a remote facsimile of myself, I settle on a randomised, vaguely Asian woman; I'd just kept requesting a new face until I found one who looks like she's been through some shit.

But I'm still not allowed into the ravaged ruins of The Division's New York - there's a multi-minute video tutorial to watch, narrated by an Australian who sounds unable to decide if he's excited or not. I get brief instructions on using cover, special skills and grenades, which will shortly be explained by in-game prompts anyway, but am left to figure out how to sprint, shoot and climb obstacles on my own.

A brief cutscene ends with my character deposited in a safe zone; my HUD lights up with vendor and mission board locations, which I ignore.

I accidentally stumble out into the deserted, allegedly mean streets and make for the nearest non-main quest, a firefight between several heavily-armed soldiers and a trio of under-equipped rioters.

I manage to turn the tide of the battle in the military's favour, by single-handedly killing all three assailants and their two backup shooters.

This is the first of several fairly satisfying combat encounters; I am routinely outnumbered, but my use of cover, special skills and grenades suggests I paid much closer attention to that tutorial video than my AI opponents. It feels much more like an RPG than its obvious main rival Destiny, with damage numbers springing from bullet impacts, but it lacks the punchy satisfaction of Bungie's headshots.

After circling the block twice searching for a door, I enter a building and am tasked, via radio transmission, with activating a number of scanners; the building is uninhabited and filled with lootable containers, so at first I don't even notice the countdown timer. I find and activate the final objective with minutes to spare. I go to the roof to transmit the scan results and kill five more men.

Eventually I find myself at the objective for the primary mission, a besieged museum. Once again the military is being overwhelmed by an opposing force with inferior numbers, inferior training and inferior weapons; once again the deciding factor in the brief battle's outcome is my lone agent.

It strikes me that my equipment and weapons, at this point, are mostly what I've scavenged from fallen enemies. My tactical approach, too, has more in common with the rioters, given that I actually kill the people who shoot at me.

How do the soldiers know I'm not a bad guy?

I go into the museum, another safe zone; my HUD lights up with vendor and mission board locations, which I ignore.

I log out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tiny Noise

Levi Weaver

My favourite musician has announced that he's retiring from music to become a full-time baseball reporter, and released a 22-track album of unfinished songs and demos as a farewell.

It seems weird to describe what I'm feeling as "loss" or "grief", but Levi Weaver has had a profound impact on me in the short few years I've been aware of him. Being based in America and terminally indie, European performances were incredibly rare; I'm so glad we made the effort to get down to London last year and I got to meet him, to thank him in person. We'd had a couple of Twitter conversations and I wrote a long, personal blog post about how his lyrics made me re-examine my belief system; it sounds maybe selfish to say that I think he knew who I was when we were talking in Finsbury a year ago, but I felt like he was aware of our interactions - but I've been surprised before with "famous" people remembering individual fans.

I sing Kansas, I Decline to my son because he loves the chorus; from his changing table he ends up looking at the star-covered curtains in the nursery. We're Tornadoes When We Dance was the song for our first dance at our wedding. My hands automatically play Levi Weaver songs when I pick up my guitar; I only know how to play Spirit First because he was kind enough to show me on a livestream.

Today I'm going to be listening to a lot of Levi Weaver's songs.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Valkyrie Drive - Mermaid

Valkyrie Drive - Mermaid is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most offensively tasteless anime I have ever seen.

It is aggressively misogynist softcore pornography, in which women are sexually subjugated in order to turn them into literal objects.

There's fanservice, and then there's… whatever this is.

How does something like this get created? Who comes up with this sick bullshit, and how the hell do they find other people that like it enough to fund its production?

I'm finding it difficult to put into words how enthusiastically horrible this show is. Its closest relative, in my viewing history at least, would be Ikkitousen, a similar "sexy battle" show where female characters were the subject of simultaneous physical violence and lecherous sexualisation - though I'm not sure if it's better or worse that Ikkitousen "only" had the camera participate in the violation. Valkyrie Drive's constant insistence that the characters are willing(-ish) participants somehow feels more sickening.

I've tried to think of something - anything - positive about Valkyrie Drive, but every aspect of it from character design to the music is cheap and nasty. The only things keeping it from being instantly forgotten are how dreadfully it treats its characters and how spectacularly low an opinion it has of its audience.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The World

Tsukasa

The first show I watched as it was broadcast in Japan, .hack//SIGN was part of a multimedia experiment spanning TV anime, OVAs, manga and videogames with a shared universe - a fictional MMO named The World - and long-form stories that fed into each other to varying degrees. .hack//SIGN was the first part of the franchise, although the PS2 games (offline single-player JRPGs, rather than actual online games) are probably more well-known in the UK.

I remember sitting up until two or three in the morning, waiting for the torrents to finish so I could see the newly-fansubbed episode. I wasn't even engaging with any other fans on forums, reading and sharing theories about what was happening in the show. I was just obsessed with it, desperate to find out how it ended. Now, 13 years later, I can't even remember the ending.

I've never managed to rewatch it though, until now. I tried, when the UK DVD release first came out, but I couldn't even finish the first disc. What had somehow been so engaging in 2002 just seemed tedious and boring. The show is stubbornly paced, dripping character and plot information over the first several episodes.

I'm now six or seven episodes into my second proper viewing and the glacial progression of plot isn't as frustrating as I found it a few years ago - I'm appreciating the importance of showing how The World operates and how its players approach their time there, but a few things are sticking out as bizarre.

There appears to be zero administrator presence in the game. The closest thing to a moderation team would be the Crimson Knights, a hardcore RP guild inexplicably led by low-level axe-wielding mage Subaru. They appear to have contact with the game's operator and even mention getting access to server logs for their investigations, but appear to have no enforceable power over players.

Of course, since there seem to be next to no players anyway, maybe they just make up enough of a majority to do as they please. Most of the game's areas seen in the show appear to be abandoned; you'll occasionally see a couple of players walk past a main character, but it's rare even at what look to be spawn points. The "Aqua Capital", the only urban area shown, is sparsely populated, and at least some of the people you see must be NPCs anyway.

Something I've noticed recently is my tendency to reimagine shows I'm watching - trying to figure out what the core idea or theme of the series is, and how you'd reshape the rest of it to work as a live-action film or TV show, that might appeal to someone who's not interested in the animated version. These thought experiments have varied results, from realising that Evangelion is basically unadaptable, to wondering how a mainstream audience would react to a GATE series that's basically Game of Thrones meets Generation Kill.

But it's also resulted in my trying to come up with a back story for The World; how it would end up in a place where the company running the game appears broadly uninterested in what's happening to its players, and why there are so few of them anyway.

My headcanon, as it stands, is that the game's been running for years and its popularity is fading. The only people left are high-level players with established friendships, and solo players like Tsukasa using it to escape real life and be alone. The developer has all but abandoned development and moderation, allowing the Crimson Knights to police the userbase. Rumours of hidden items and players unable to log out are being dismissed as forum jokes or creepypasta.

I'm hoping to get all the way through .hack//SIGN again, but I'm already feeling the fatigue starting to set in. Fingers crossed my curiosity about the ending keeps me going, even if we never find out why The World is still running.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Volume

I want to like Volume, but it's making that so difficult.

The new game from Thomas Was Alone designer Mike Bithell, Volume is a top-down(ish) time-attack stealth game, where you creep around levels avoiding and distracting guards, stealing diamonds and (eventually) attempting to overthrow a corrupt dictator.

Mechanically it's solid; you can see enemy vision cones, duck into cover and distract guards with a variety of gadgets. Levels are short and varied, in colour as well as challenge, and if the 100 "campaign" levels aren't enough there's a level editor and a huge list of maps created by other players. It also looks great, with levels deforming and rebuilding themselves out of flat triangles at the start and end of each mission.

The missions are just a little too short, however - and you don't carry equipment over between them, so you'll pick up a gadget in one level and then not see it again for three. Progression feels stilted and uneven; there's no sense that you're getting more powerful, and no excuse for the loss of tech between levels (or the restriction to a single gadget at a time). You're dumped back to the Level Select menu after every map, breaking up the flow even more. Some levels are grouped together with the implication that they're all in a single location, but aside from the portrait indicating whose house it is there's no consistent theme between them - and you're back at the menu after every one anyway.

But where Volume really falls apart is the story - or more accurately, the way the story is told. Voiceovers play constantly, either distracting you from the game itself or being ignored as you figure out your approach to the next section. The conversations seem designed to span multiple levels, but restarts (either due to failure or manual resets) will reset to the start of the current dialogue. Lines are accompanied by an on-screen subtitle box which covers a huge chunk of the bottom of the screen, blocking your view of anything to the south, which you won't read anyway because you'll either be listening to the dialogue or paying attention to guard patrol patterns.

The end result is occasionally brilliant, but frequently annoying. Constantly stop-starting between missions and with a story it doesn't seem to know how to fit between such short bursts of action, Volume is ambitious but deeply flawed.

And it corrupted my save data when I completed a user-generated level earlier. I don't know if I can force myself through those opening sections again.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Charlotte

I don't know when chuunibyou became such a big deal in anime, but it seems to have exploded from nowhere. All of a sudden, every high-school anime seems to have a character with delusions of grandeur based around their (maybe genuine?) belief that they have supernatural powers or a long line of historically-significant past lives. The term is apparently a genuine "middle-school second-year syndrome" where young teenagers act out elaborate fantasies to varying degress in an attempt to... I'm not sure.

The most visible example of this in anime is Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai! - an insipid moe show about a guy indulging a younger student's delusions until she falls in love with him - but these characters seem to be popping up all over the place these days.

In most anime cases, the afflicted character doesn't actually have supernatural abilities; they just pretend or imagine that they do. What makes Charlotte a bit different is that not only do its characters actually have powers, it explains why the chuunibyou phenomenon is so short-lived.

Similar to mutant powers in X-Men, abilities in Charlotte emerge during adolescence, but disappear by adulthood. So the various characters' superpowers - which range from mind control to telekinesis - will only be usable for a few years.

The other great thing about Charlotte's superpowers is that each one has a ridiculous limitation that makes it practically worthless.

Otosaka can take control of someone else's body - but only for five seconds at a time, and his own body is catatonic (usually having faceplanted in the street) for the duration. Takajou can "teleport" - but in practice just moves imperceptibility fast in a straight line until he's stopped by an impact. Tomori can turn invisible - but only from one person at a time, remaining in plain sight to everyone else.

The three of them make up the core of the student council at their school, which is specially set up to find and gather children with powers, protecting them from discovery and experimentation until they're old enough for their powers to disappear.

For the first six weeks the show has been pretty lighthearted, focusing on the ways powers can backfire or be misused for comedic effect (and profit). It's had some serious moments - Tomori's back story and her behaviour when revealing it to the protagonist are at odds with her usually-carefree personality, which is jarring - but the final moments of the most recent episode have taken a turn towards a darker tone that will hopefully drive the story with a bit more force.