Thursday, February 11, 2016

In the Days of the Comet - Jules Verne

It's been years since I read any Jules Verne. In fact, if you don't count the Illustrated Classics, I think the only actual book of his I might have read is the sequel he did to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island, which was, junior high, maybe? For a dollar, this seemed worth a try.

A comet heads right towards Earth, and strikes the planet. The Earth is not destroyed, because the comet just spreads a greenish mist over the world, and everyone collapses for a few hours (so some people die because they fall facefirst into soup, or they were driving at the time, or in surgery). When people wake up, they're different. They still have a lot of the same ideas and feelings, but they can recognize all their more toxic impulses that were holding them back. Resentment, selfishness, greed, hate, fear, all that stuff. And since everyone can see this now, everyone agrees to work together and they make a better, freer, world, or something to that effect.

I think I was expecting something different, more akin to 20,000 Leagues or Journey to the Center of the Earth, where the comet would hit, and the world would be changed in very obvious physical ways. Strange new animals and plants, stuff like that. Not that the world would become some utopian, free love paradise. Because Verne focuses a fair amount on that. How in this new world, it is perfectly fine to love more than one person romantically, and to be open in your feelings about one person you love to another, and everyone is cool with that, and just want each other to be happy, so everybody just loves each other. He doesn't really address what happens if it only runs one way, though.

Also, he spends the first 60% of the book on the world prior to the arrival of the comet, mostly on the life of the main character Willie Leadford, who is mostly obsessed with the fact a young woman he was in love with, and who had agreed to marry him (though neither had discussed this with their families), had fallen for another man. A man of property and social status, and Willie is already bitter and angry about his lot in life and the income disparity that exists in their world. He spends a significant portion of the book hunting down the two lovers so as to kill them. That got extremely tedious after a very short time.

I'm not so sure about this great new world the author describes, either. He talks about how everyone just agrees to tear basically all the homes, all the factories, the railway lines, and then essentially start over. And people will mostly live in tents until then. And everyone decides there's a lot of junk cluttering things up, so they just burn it all. Burn leather boots, burn furniture, smashed marble statues into useful lime, burned paintings, burned books. Because it's all just useless trash, right? Generally speaking, when your society decides burning books is a good idea, I'm inclined to think it's a stupid, shitty society (he says they saved a few things, the classics, however that's defined, but there was probably some good stuff unappreciated in its time they destroyed). The basic idea seems to be, people will never go back to being like they were when they created those things, so we don't need them. There's nothing to learn from history, because the comet's put something in the air that will always keep people in this honest, open state. Which seems a dubious line of reasoning to me.

And I wonder what would happen to someone who was content to be alone, in their own place. Because certainly there should be some people like that. Before the change, Willie loved Nettie, and he still did after the change. The difference was, after he could see how he was trying to possess her all to himself (as he says society teaches men to try and do), and he couldn't get over that and his own hang-ups and bitterness about his lot in life. Now he can, and he still loves her, but he realizes that it's fine if she or he love other people, too. So there must be some people that were content alone before, and find after the comet they're still content alone. maybe it was originally motivated by fear, but they find they like it. Are they left alone? What if the great new society decides they need the land where that person lives? Are they right back to kicking people out for some "the greater good"?

There are some very nice ideas in the book, and it's more than a little depressing that the societal ills and class issues Verne talks about are, if anything, even more pronounced today than they were 110 years ago when this was originally published. But there are some aspects of his vision I can't quite go with, perhaps because they get a relatively short shrift so he can focus overmuch on Willie's issues.

'I perceive that I was an evil-tempered, ill-disposed youth with a great capacity for hatred, but -

There was an excuse for hate.

It was wrong of me to hate individuals, to be rude, harsh, or vindictive to this person or that, but indeed it would have been equally wrong to have taken the manifest offer life made me, without resentment.'

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Fight For Your Right To Have Cybernetic Parts. Or Not.

I bought this triple pack of stealth games a few weeks back. I figured three games for 20 bucks was worth a try. It was mostly for Thief, but I'd heard enough things to suggest the game wasn't very good I needed something else to encourage me, and two extra games must have been enough. I didn't start with Thief though, I started with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It was the game on top of the stack of discs.

So in Deus Ex, there's been progress in augmenting humans with cybernetic enhancements, though there is much protest and argument about this on a number of different grounds. Adam Jensen works as security officer for a top company in the field, their research division headed by his ex, Megan Reed. A group of augmented people attack their labs, appear to kill Megan and her team, and nearly kill Adam. And he may not have read his contract closely enough, because his boss goes ahead and rebuilds him and Adam's back as security officer, dealing with continued attacks on the company, which lead him down a trail as to who was behind the first attack, and what they were after.

In any given level, the game is pretty good about giving you options on how to proceed. You can try sneaking from one piece of cover to another, you can knock or kill guards, either silently or loudly (I like that one version of a silent takedown is Adam grabbing the target by the shoulder to turn them, then punching their lights out. If I had metal fists, I would punch stuff a lot, too, not sure why silent takedowns use up energy the same as the cloak, it's a real disincentive to use them). You can hack computer terminals or look around for pocket secretaries with relevant passwords stored on them. Crawl through vents, creep along girders up in the shadows. There are a tone of different directions you can go with upgrading yourself. Make it so you can hack more difficult systems, or reduce the chance you'll be detected. Be able to see through walls, or fall from any height unharmed. There's a cloaking device, or the ability to breathe toxic fumes and remain unharmed.

All of this seems pretty good, and then you get to the boss fights. The first one, it's this big guy who has a hand that retracts and is replaced with a mini-gun. I had put all my upgrade points thus far into hacking, and the cloak, and was packing a 9mm silenced pistol and a stun gun (a lot of office workers have stun darts in their desks for some reason). I tried cloaking myself and sneaking up on the guy for a stealth Takedown. He very casually turned around, grabbed me by the throat, and punched have my life off. Then I had to sit there and watch while my character staggered to his feet as the boss' fist retracted and the mini-gun came out, and he opened fire at point blank range. That was frustrating.

The boss fights are all just you shooting the hell out of your enemies until they die (that's not an image of a boss fight, fyi, just a "got spotted and decided to shoot it out rather than run" moment). You can't hack them, avoid them, or knock them unconscious. Just kill them. There's an Achievement for going through the entire game without killing anyone, and it specifically says bosses don't count towards it, which seems like kind of a design flaw. What's strange is it feels at times like the game is going to give you the option, but it doesn't. At the end of the second boss battle, another character asks if you'll save the boss as she bleeds out, and Adam says he'll think about. I expected this meant the game would let me choose. It ended up meaning I sat and watched a cut scene discussion, then it ends and whoops, the boss has finished bleeding out. Oh well, guess I'm not saving her. So the game gives you options on how to play, until it doesn't, at which point you're forced into one particular approach, that largely runs counter to the rest of the game.

It's also a little odd that you can read all sorts of random notes and e-mails on computers you hack, many of which give you strong hints about plot developments, but Adam never reacts to them. SPOILER: It was pretty obvious Megan wasn't actually dead, just based on how it was presented and how the characters discussed it. But even ignoring that, during my playthrough I read a ton of things that really strongly pointed to, if not outright said, Megan wasn't dead. But Adam never seems to have read these things as the story progresses. Though he doesn't seem terribly bright. There were at least two or three occasions he would be talking with someone, and it was incredibly obvious they were putting him on, and he was caught flat-footed every time. If this guy was a cop, he definitely wasn't one of the ones with that honed ability to read people.

In general, the story didn't succeed in making me care about the things I think it wanted me to. I think I'm supposed to care about what happened to Megan, and I was curious about what made her a target specifically, in the sense of wanting to know what I'd be fighting. But I'd spent about 5 minutes in game with her prior to her removal, so I didn't care about her the way presumably Adam was meant to. You know who I cared about? Faridah Malik, the pilot that ferried me around. We chatted a bit, I bounced some ideas off her, got up to speed on things I'd missed, and helped her out with something personal at one point. Her I liked. When she got killed, that really bothered me, because the game took the time to actually establish her as a character. Shocking, I know.

It bothered me even more when I went online and realized if I'd been more aggressive in fighting our attackers I could have saved her, but I'd been opting for an avoid conflict approach up to then, and kind of defaulted to it. If I do a replay at some point, I intend to rectify that mistake.

Overall, it's a frustrating game. There's some solid stealth gameplay, and a few characters and storylines that get fleshed out sufficiently to find engaging. But the game seems to struggle with how much freedom of movement it wants to give the player. Sometimes there are lots of options, but then they'll restrict your choices, and it feels off compared to the rest of the game.

Oh, one last complaint. It is incredibly stupid that Adam can't hack a computer without standing up. There were so many times I crept up to a computer to turn off security measures, and ended up getting shot because Adam stands up like a fucking moron to type when there are guards around. All the computers have monitors that are adjustable, there's no reason he couldn't turn the screen to face down towards him while he stays hidden behind the desk. It's either lack of thought by the game designers, or they did it purposefully to screw the player. The old "dopes or jerks?" conundrum.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Say Hello to the Hit Man - Jay Bennett

The result of my finding yet another used bookstore in the general area, along with some other books I'm sure we'll get to eventually. Fred Morgan is estranged from his successful and powerful father, on account of how his father became successful and powerful. Then he receives a call from someone calling themselves the Hit Man, who say they're going to kill Fred sometime, soon. They want him to sweat first. Which has the effect of driving Fred to seek his father's help, or perhaps just to berate him for this being his fault. Fred meets a lovely young lady from the West Coast, and they hit things off, but it seems as though even his father's power can't save him.

The book is about 130 pages, so it goes fast. The solution to who is behind the whole thing isn't terribly difficult. It was apparent to me from the first moment the character entered the book, though I misjudged their reasons. I didn't really buy the relationship between Fred and Callie, on basically any level. I thought Bennett was going somewhere with a comment one of the characters made about Fred being a loner, but I don't think it really materializes. Which happens quite a bit. Characters get introduced early that seem like they might be important, but they hardly appear after. Also, Fred has this tendency when someone says something about what he's said or done, to respond with, "So it's {Whatever they just said}." He does it a lot, and even if he's supposed to be under a lot of stress, it's such a stupid, odd response to it that it really annoys me. I didn't like Fred very much.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Sometimes There Are More Important Things Than Catchy Branding

I noticed in Ms. Marvel #3 that the name of the 3-D printer in their lab - courtesy of Tony Stark! - is Beastron. This strikes me as a tremendously bad decision.

I know that "-tron" is a long accepted suffix, frequently applied to various scientific disciplines. Still, in a universe where Ultron is exists, and has killed entire countries (and conquered entire worlds in futures that might never come to be, if Richards was smart enough to make sure Franklin left that out of any of their new universes*), it strikes me as asking for trouble.

Though, really, with a name like Beastron, I'd expect the trouble to be something more demonic. Or Hank McCoy, which given some of his recent stupidity, wouldn't be much different. But I wouldn't mind seeing Dormammu, or maybe even some second-rate demon like Deadpool's one-time nemesis Vetis, possess the thing, and then create a bunch of Mindless Ones. Using the power of technology!, which seems like it could have some interesting side effects. Demons created from man-made components. Would they even register by whatever conventional approaches someone like Dr. Strange would use to detect such activity?

That could be a challenge for Ms. Marvel, a little different mystical problem from Loki's fairly benign crashing of her prom last year.

* I'm gradually coming to realize that literally any shitty thing that exists in the new Marvel Universe can be blamed on Reed Richards not doing a better job on quality control checking his son's work, and this makes me very happy.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Zorro 2.13 - Amnesty for Zorro

Plot: The story opens at the inn, with Sergeant Garcia singing about how indispensable sergeants are to the army, while Corporal Reyes looks on sourly. Just then, a messenger comes in looking for Diego and his father. He's exhausted from riding all night, and is barely able to tell them their hacienda was burned down by Indians who stampeded their cattle. Which means the Monterey adventure is over, because they have to go home and pick up the pieces. First, Diego must visit Anna-Maria to let her know, but as he prepares to leave he sees the messenger again. Receiving money from Ricardo, and Anna tells him that man came from San Francisco yesterday to tell Ricardo it's time for him to come home. Diego is furious, and Ricardo even seems a little ashamed, but only because he'd forgotten Alejandro was also around to hear the news. Diego leaves, and Ricardo makes yet another play for Anna's affections, only to be reminded her heart is set on Zorro, a man she barely knows. Yet she is sure she does know him, and the fact he's an outlaw and can't ever unmask bothers her not at all.

Then Ricardo gets an idea. A terrible, awful idea. He pitches the governor the idea of granting Zorro amnesty, if he will ride into town at the hour of Angelus and unmask, he will be pardoned and the reward on his head dropped. Soon Garcia and Reyes are posting notices all over town, but Ricardo is certain Zorro won't do it. The bartender (a different one from that untrustworthy old man who was around at the start of the season) is sure he will. Diego thinks Zorro might take the opportunity to be able to pursue his own happiness, while Alejandro is sure Zorro would not put his own desires ahead of the people's welfare. Sergeant Garcia and the corporal are certain he will, and are despondent, since they will never be able to collect the reward now. Their fears start to gnaw at Ricardo, so he approaches his messenger friend, and concocts a scheme within a scheme. The messenger's sister will come to town, and if Zorro arrives and unmasks, throw her arms around him and proclaim him to be her husband. If Zorro doesn't arrive, Ricardo expects Diego to escort Anna, while carrying some chocolates he bought for her, and the woman should proclaim him her husband instead.

Truly he has a dizzying intellect.

Diego goes to visit Anna, and finds her singing wistfully of Zorro riding up to sweep her into his arms. She is also certain Zorro will unmask, and is equally certain that Diego is a friend to her, but that's as far as it goes. And so, Diego is also certain Zorro will accept the offer of amnesty. So it's off to that hidden stable, but here's Bernardo, tied up, and a hooded figure hits Diego from behind. When he awakens he finds his wrists bound, but is able to seize an opportunity to fight by asking for some water. He's able to first break his captor's sword, then use it to free himself, and easily overpowers his foe, ripping off the mask and finding - Alejandro. Turns out dad has known Diego was Zorro for some time, and doesn't want him to do something now he'll regret later. And the bell starts tolling, so there's no time. Ricardo is left holding the box of chocolates, and here comes his messenger's sister, claiming he's her husband, to Anna's considerable amusement. It's about then Zorro rides up, sweeps Anna up onto the horse with him, and rides off, a gleeful Garcia in hot pursuit. Well, as hot a pursuit as he can manage, considering Zorro had time to set Anna down, and ask her if she can understand why he didn't arrive sooner. She takes it pretty well, and he rides off, lancers still in futile pursuit.

Quote of the Episode: Ricardo - 'I'll bet my life on that.' Diego - 'Would you care to wager something of value?'

Times Zorro Marks a "Z": 0 (5 overall).

Other: We did get one "baboso" early on, when Garcia told Reyes to get some wine for the messenger.

So when do we think Alejandro knew? He says he's known for a long time, which is pretty vague. Does that mean all those times he made disparaging comments about Diego, it was part of an act? Because those really didn't help much, and were pretty hurtful things to say. There was that one about how, for a moment that night, he'd thought his son had become a man he could be proud of, or something like that. That was completely unnecessary.

I'm not sure I agree with Alejandro's decision to intervene to keep Diego from making the choice to unmask if he truly wanted to. I know that if he did, that'd be the end of the show, but Diego had always entered into this life willingly. It was his decision to play the wimpy scholar by day, and be the masked defender of the helpless by night. Doesn't that mean it's his decision when it's time to stop? But I get it. Alejandro knows, as Diego knows, that there's still corruption out there, and if Zorro unmasks now, it's going to be pretty hard for him to come back later if there's a need for him. Although I feel as though everyone knowing Diego de la Vega was the notorious outlaw could lend him a certain cachet in handling things publicly. A little credibility with the working class, maybe some intimidation factor with the politicians and officers.

Mostly I don't like Alejandro butting in and making decisions about other people's lives. I might have been more kindly disposed to him if he'd taken Ricardo over his knee as he contemplated. I will not be sorry to see the end of Ricardo. One week after he gets outraged over Zorro swiping some flipping chocolates, he pays a guy to tell Diego his house burned down, so that Diego will travel hundreds of miles to find out nothing's wrong. What a sack of crap.

It's funny, we got seemingly everyone's opinion on whether Zorro would unmask but Bernardo's. I thought we'd at least see Diego ask him at some point in the proceedings what he thought. I think Bernardo would have supported Diego's urge to hang it up. He knows how smitten the guy is with Anna-Maria, and for all that he enjoys Diego's adventures, I doubt he enjoys worrying his best friend might die some night.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Abra - *Fizzles* Damn It!

I had this idea randomly last weekend. In the DCU, there's Black Alice, who can basically swipe the powers of any one character with magic-based powers at any given moment, up to and including the Spectre. For a variety of reasons - being on teams, dealing with people trying to take advantage of her powers, the generally questionable decision-making that can come with being a teenager - she uses this ability fairly often.

So I thought it might have been interesting if, in other books, you saw characters with magic abilities losing them at random times. Obviously there's a potential for abuse there, with the writers opting to always take the powers away at times that are dramatically convenient. But on average, that wouldn't happen that often (and really, every so often it should work out for the heroes. Wonder Woman's fighting Giganta, and suddenly she's not giant any more). More like Zatanna's performing and whoops, she can't turn pigeons into pterodactyls right at this moment. Or heck, the JSA are having a BBQ and suddenly Dr. Fate's got no powers. It's mildly inconvenient, in the sense that it probably feels quite unusual when you're accustomed to having the powers, but not a catastrophe.

Everyone knows what's happening and why, and they probably worry for a moment about what exactly Alice is up to - and it's likely the person whose powers she borrowed would look into it once their powers are back - but at this point, it's become one of those things you kind of expect. Like that neighbor who always mows their lawn way too early in the morning, and you just have to roll with it.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Everyone's Always Leaving

This Is Where I Leave You is about a family coming together in the aftermath of their father's death, and various hijinks and psychological hang-ups get dealt with. Judd's (Jason Bateman) dealing with the fallout from finding out his wife was cheating on him with his boss. He was also his older brother Paul's wife Annie's first boyfriend, and she and Paul are having trouble conceiving a child. Wendy (Tina Fey) is in a loveless marriage with two kids, and coming home brought her into contact with her old boyfriend, played by Timothy Olyphant.

Hey it's Timothy Olyphant in a role where, for once, I find it believable when he expresses sincere emotion! All it took was him playing a character with literal brain damage!

There's a lot of attempted jokes about the fact their mom (played by Jane Fonda) is sexually liberated and all the kids are really embarrassed by how openly she discusses her sex life, as well as their issues with puberty. None of it struck me as funny, but points for effort, maybe.

I'd say it was one of those movies where people find themselves at crossroads, and solve their problems with trite statements about taking chances (most of them directed towards Judd). But they don't really solve any of their problems, they either put them off, or make peace with them. Getting back together with one's high school sweetheart does not magically fix everything dissatisfying with their lives.

I'm not sure why I watch movies like this. Maybe I find it interesting to see families that handle everything by big demonstrations of yelling and stupidity, but they actually resolve their problems. There's enough various plots and characters at least a few of them are bound to be interesting. In this case, it was mostly just to have some noise going.