Thursday, April 26, 2012


It's been a REALLY long time since I've done one of these, but... here's an even-more-random-than-usual post about things that I think are cool!

First, on a time-sensitive note: WOO-HOO, Shadowrun just passed the $1.5 million mark! That's really incredible; they're on track to raise quadruple their original budget. I think they're being very smart about how they approach this windfall. After some early speculation about significantly expanding the scope of the project (adding multiplayer, etc.), they decided to stick with a game that's achievable within the timeframe they've declared, and just making that game as awesome as possible. "We" have already gotten great music (they're bringing in the composers from the SNES and Genesis games!!!!), a lot more content (including an initially-backer-exclusive mission that ties together Jake's and Harlequin's stories), a better mission editor, etc. Any more money they raise will translate into more and better content.

I eventually decided to chip in at the $60 level, which is about the going price for a AAA game these days. Shadowrun Returns will NOT be a AAA game, and I imagine it will retail for around the $15 cost of the smallest reward tier, but I have a history of getting a lot of mileage out of these sorts of games. I agonized for almost a week before settling on that tier; I do love T-Shirts, and the digital exclusives and Doc Wagon card are nice bonuses. That said, I was mightily tempted by each of the next tiers. $100 puts your name in the credits, and I do like the idea of that kind of immortality (I'm one of those immortal geeks whose names are in the final credits to the Lord of the Rings Extended Edition movies). The newer $125 tier brings in an awesome-looking Deluxe Box Edition; Jordan borrowed this idea from Tim Schafer's wildly successful Doublefine Kickstarter, and I have a ton of fond memories of cracking open a box and finding goodies inside - a thick manual, a map, perhaps a Moonstone if I was lucky. The dogtags they're creating seem awesome. That said, I don't have the same box fetish for Shadowrun as I do for other series, so I could let that one slide. If I was REALLY crazy, I would have sprung the $250 for early access to the level/mission editor; I haven't really done much game modding since my Civ II days, but with this setting and this energized of a community, I could definitely get behind it.

ANYWAYS. There are about two days left in the fundraiser, so if you've been on the fence, now is a great time to contribute! Even the basic $15 pledge will, in addition to the items listed on the front page, give you access to a backer-exclusive mission. It's Shadowrun! Come on, chummers!

In other sci-fi news: I just beat Mass Effect! No, not Mass Effect 3. Mass Effect 1. I know, I know, I can hear you groaning. In my defense, I'm always way behind on the games I'm playing. Now that the series has ended, I'm finally going to go through and play the whole thing, not unlike how I experienced The Wire. And actually, that's not a horrible analogy. ME's cast of characters is much smaller, of course, and more heroic / less ensemble-ish, but it's an emphatically story-based experience that goes through many arcs and immerses you in a fully realized environment.

The story was what drew me most to ME, and I was not disappointed. ME is famous for giving a real story that has important choices with profound consequences; it isn't a story like Final Fantasy that runs on rails, or even like Baldur's Gate that tends to offer the same actions with varying motivations. You'll be deciding who lives and who dies, and those people will affect the course of this and future games.

ME also deserves massive props (heh) for its morality system. I've often railed in this blog about how much I dislike the Manichean ethics of games like Fallout and Bioshock. ME is one of the best systems I've ever encountered. Instead of the boring and reductive "good" and "evil" categories - really, how many people actually think that they're doing evil in the real world? - ME uses "Paragon" and "Renegade". These aren't intrinsic properties of your character; rather, they're how your character is perceived by the world. You might choose to execute a criminal in order to protect the lives they may threaten in the future; that's a "good" action that you're taken for noble reasons, but it will also cause people to fear you. These are two separate axes that your character can move on, fairly independently of one another. I came to think of Machiavelli, with Paragon roughly equating "Love" and Renegade standing in for "Fear". It is better to be both loved and feared, but you can choose to be only one. I tended to hew pretty closely to the Paragon path, and had maxed out those points by the end of the game, but did take the Renegade path at a few points, and really appreciated being able to do that; it made my character more nuanced, and didn't penalize my gameplay. (In contrast, for example, in SW:TOR, once you max out your Light Side, you need to be really careful to not take any Dark Side actions at all, or else it will gimp your character.)

The gameplay itself was... fine. There were a few things that I really liked; the level designs were pretty logical and fun, and only the Citadel occasionally overwhelmed because of its sprawl. I actually came to appreciate not being able to jump. It's such as common thing in first-person games, even ones that don't really need it, but you would NEVER see a team of heavily-armed soldiers bouncing up and down while on a mission. On the few occasions where vertical movement is required (like mounting a low ledge), it's simply an action your character can take. Combat was fun; I played as an Engineer, and mostly focused on my tech abilities while letting my squad shoot bad guys down, but near the end I got better at using my pistol and had fun with that.

My complaints: first and foremost, inventory management was a huge pain. You get an obscene amount of weapons and armor and equipment in the game. You'll use only a fraction of it; most gets converted to omni-gel or sold for cash. They really should have just given you that gel or cash to begin with. There's a limit to how much you can carry before you need to recycle items; that's usually just an annoyance, but on Feros I was forced to convert a bunch of equipment I would have much rather sold, since there were no shopkeepers there. It's really, really hard to figure out whether a given piece of equipment is better than another; they're ranked by numbers, but it's often the case that, say, a certain level III pistol will be better than another level V pistol. To make matters worse, when you're buying or selling equipment on your ship, you can't tell if any item is better or worse than what a squad member currently has equipped.

Also: the Mako was cool at first, but got really annoying by the end of the game. I loved doing it, but I hated spending so much time trying to climb up steep mountains. I found out too late that combat from within the Mako also gives you a 40% XP penalty, which really annoys me; if I had known that earlier, I would have reached level 50 by the end of the game, instead of my measly 49.

Anyways. I know that Bioware radically reworked ME for the second and third installments, and I'm guessing/hoping that it will improve on those aspects.

There's a bunch more I could say about ME, but I may save it for a future post that covers more of the series, maybe behind spoiler tags. In the meantime: jumping around a bit, but in between my ME sessions, I've been playing the old Shadowrun Genesis game on an emulator. It's a lot of fun; I'd never even seen this game before, and it's quite charming. It shares many of the trappings of the SNES game, but the story is completely different, and in particular the Matrix seems to be a lot more complex than I remember. The Genesis version is also way more squad-based. I'm currently playing as a Decker with a permanent Troll Samurai and an Elf Mage as fellow-runners. There's a ton of stuff to do, and a lot of interesting strategy in planning out how to upgrade my characters. Oh, and I think this game actually has one of the best economies of any game I've played recently. Money is scarce and useful, and I think carefully about each major purchase, and each purchase has a drastic impact on my effectiveness.

After I finished reading the Sandman Companion, I realized that for the first time in nearly six months, I didn't have another book immediately available to start reading. So, I went looking for another book. I must have blinked, because now I suddenly have seven books to read: an assortment from the library, plus a few from Amazon (which I often hit up to research books but rarely actually purchase from), plus a few used ones plus the new Chris Moore book from Kepler's (about which more later). I finished a quick read of a comic: the graphic novelization of "Neverwhere". It was very cool, though I kind of wish that I'd been able to get ahold of the original Neil Gaiman novel before reading the comic. Still, it was a great book: weird and dramatic and fun. I find it interesting that Gaiman does so much mythically-tinged work, and yet it all feels so different from one another; Sandman and American Gods and Marvel 1602 and Neverwhere don't have any direct overlap at all, even though each is filled to bursting with mythology, either real or created.

Oh, yeah, Moore! I'm on Kepler's email list, and always enjoy hearing about what that shop is up to, but I rarely make it all the way down to Menlo Park. That said, when I heard that Chris Moore would be coming there to promote his new book, "Sacre Bleu", I knew I had to go. Moore is incredibly funny in person; he's self-deprecating, but quite smart and knows his audience really well. He didn't read from the book, but riffed for a while on Rastafarianism, the "rent-a-friends" that escort him to book-signings, why he doesn't go to Kansas, and the wonders of medical-marijuana delivery. He talked for a while about writing the book, and the cool stuff he learned about art while doing research. Moore had an extended question-and-answer session that covered a lot of fascinating stuff; among other things, he described the painful and drawn-out, year-long battle with his publisher over the production of Sacre Bleu. If you get a chance to pick it up, I highly recommend it; as a work of art, the book is remarkable, with blue ink, gorgeous reproductions of 1800's paintings, and a striking front cover. You'd think that, in an age when publishers were panicking about e-books, they would want to support a book that made such a strong argument for the printed word, but apparently not. (He also revealed that he started work on this book four years ago; he quickly wrote "Bite Me" because he had a mortgage payment due, he claims.) I was most delighted to hear of his upcoming projects: he's currently working on a book in which Pocket (from "Fool") travels to Venice, and encounters events associated with "The Merchant of Venice" and... I think "Othello". (In the signing line, he mentioned that he wrote the invocation to the book in iambic pentameter. "At the rate I was writing, if I wrote the whole book that way, it would take twelve years to finish.") He also said that he won't be writing another vampire book... but he does want to write a sequel to A Dirty Job, and hinted that Abby Normal may find her way into that story.

Oh, yeah, public service announcement: I haven't finished the book yet, but Chris said (justifiably annoyed) that almost every single review of the book that he's seen has given away a crucial piece of the story in the very first paragraph. Sometimes in the very first sentence. So, if you want to be surprised, be like me and avoid all reviews until you're done. (Feel free to peek at the star ratings or letter grades if you like, just don't read the prose.)

I hung around afterwards for the book-signing. Moore was very gracious and cool, and engaged with everyone who came through; that meant that the line moved slowly, but nobody seemed to mind. I've gotten better at these things, and actually try to think a little about what I might want to say (not because I want to take up time, just to make things less awkward). I eventually decided that I could mention that I had lived in Kansas and 100% agreed with his assessment; however, I overheard him chatting with the ladies in front of me about iambic pentameter, so my brain went "Oooh! Shakespeare!" and so I asked him about that instead.

Fun fact: Moore says that his readership is about 70% female. I wouldn't have expected that, but from looking around the room, that seemed totally accurate. In fact, I think I may have been one of the only males my age there; I saw a few older gentlemen, but not many younger. Which seems a bit odd; I think pretty much all of his books that I've read feature males in their 20s or 30s as protagonists. Plus I tend to assume that males are more into horror books than females; then again, I guess women tend to enjoy vampires more, so maybe that's where that disparity comes from. Eh. Anyways, I thought it was interesting.

Phew! I think that's it from me for now. I'm heading out very soon for the lovely environs of Big Sur (not to be confused with Pine Cove), where, for the third year in a row, I'll be walking down Highway 1 for the gorgeous 21-Miler portion of the Big Sur Marathon. For the first time, I'll be doing it in the company of a group of friends. The weather looks to be gorgeous, the company should be fine. I will see you all on the flip side!

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