Monday, February 6, 2012

Confessions of a Video Game Geek: MASS EFFECT

Okay. It's only a month before Bioware's "Mass Effect 3" is released.

I can't overstate this: I'm getting to be beside myself with anticipation. I say that as a certifiably addicted fan of the "Mass Effect" series. I've played the first two games to death, yet at the same time I haven't played them enough. I'm fully ready to do the same with #3. Why do I say such things? Why have I been so hooked to "Mass Effect" since the first day I started it up and began that fateful mission to Eden Prime? What is it about these games, and why am I beyond ready to play the third and final(?) installment of what has been universally called one of the best video game series ever made? And why am I not the only one who feels that way?

If you haven't played "Mass Effect" or its sequel, it's hard to's even harder if you never played video games.

I've grown up with the evolution of video games...I've been there with "Pong", "Space Invaders", "Pac Man" and "Donkey Kong". I never really thought of myself as a gamer, though, until the age of the Sony PlayStation came along. I've loved to watch a good movie or read a good book, and that love became an aspiration to write myself. As story became more and more important in the process of making games, my attraction to games could only increase. I couldn't get enough of games that defined the PSOne like "Resident Evil", "Metal Gear Solid", and the seventh and eighth installments of "Final Fantasy", games that not only told a good story but immersed the gamer in alternate virutal worlds.

As much as I love action games -- especially first person shooters -- and adventure games, role playing video games always had a certain call to me. The RPG is often one of the most time-sucking experiences you can find, but when a game is made by the best in the business like "Final Fantasy", the loss of those hours is worth it. You get used to living under new rules in a fantastic new setting, while getting to know truly interesting and cool characters and building experience and strength from many battles against many different kinds of enemies as you work toward the game's conclusion. But all the time, there was one thing getting in the way of having a truly immersive experience: the fact that what you were doing didn't involve a whole lot of choice. Playing an RPG meant playing through a linear storyline with one set path and one possible conclusion at the end.

As video games have evolved, however, the freedom of deciding what one can do and when has been a desire game makers have done their best to answer. At first, games like "Grand Theft Auto" offered an experience like playing in a big sandbox, where you can do what you want when you want it. Still, that didn't put a whole lot of impact on the story. Then the RPG-FPS hybrid "Deus Ex" was created for the PC in 2000, and its quality and innovation brought it as close to the Choose Your Adventure form of storytelling as one could imagine, including giving the gamer the chance to choose the ending of the story. The game went so far as to give a wealth of options for fighting adversaries or avoiding them altogether...many gamers have gotten through "Deus Ex" without firing a single shot!

But then, a group of respected game developers from Canada took the most popular American science fiction mythos of the 20th Century and made something truly special.

The company of game developers, Bioware, created "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic" in 2003 for the Xbox and PC, and spared little effort in making an astounding action-RPG. It didn't just take the fictional mythology created by George Lucas (with his approval and the assistance of Lucasarts) to make Star Wars fun again for the first time since the original trilogy, it took role playing to an addicitve new level of immersion. Set four thousand years before the films to a time at the height of both the Old Republic and the Sith Empire and their conflict, the experience went surprisingly deeper than choosing your own path, and even how the game came to a close. You could not only choose what kind of character you could play, male or female, rogue or soldier or what have you, your ability to choose even included how you could interact with NPCs (non playable characters) and therefore not only drive the story along, determine your alignment with good (Light Side) or evil (Dark Side). When having a conversation with another character, you could choose from a menu list of noble, neutral or selfish responses, which would lead to an appropriately fitting reaction. At key moments, if you wanted to be REALLY evil, you can even kill supporting characters who are in your way, no longer of use, or just plain annoy you. God, if only audiences had that ability while watching "The Phantom Menace", Jar Jar Binks would have been SO dead before he even had the chance to take Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon to Gungan City! As a dramatic side effect of making decisions that lean to the Dark Side, the appearance of the player's character gradually changes to look more evil, as well. The storytelling was impressive enough, including one of the most jaw-dropping twists you'll ever see in a story in any medium, but the overall freedom of choice made the experience all the sweeter. How can you not love a game where you could play a female Jedi and have a lesbian relationship with an alien cat girl -- no sex scenes, though, sorry! -- if you wanted? The fact this game won many Game of the Year accolades is testament enough to the love gamers felt.

The sequel to "KOTOR", "The Sith Lords", was created two years later, developed not by Bioware but by Obsidian Entertainment with Lucasarts for the Xbox and PC. Unfortunately, the second game wasn't as good as the first...the developer's need to rush the game to release made the experience incomplete, coupled with a story that just wasn't as good as the original's. Still, I liked the fact that the player's choices this time can not only visually change their character's appearance, but also the looks of the supporting characters. Why wasn't Bioware involved with "The Sith Lords"? Because they were focused on an original action-RPG, "Jade Empire", which arrived on the Xbox in 2005 and the PC in 2006. Set in a fictonal-mythical world inspired by ancient legends and lore of China, this game also used the tried and true gameplay and dialogue menu systems of the "KOTOR" games. The difference here was that instead of Light and Dark Side, a player could follow the in-game philosophies of either the Open Palm or the Closed Fist to decide what path they would take in the story. The game was given high praise, but some criticized its lack of depth.

In 2005, also, the Xbox 360 was brought to gamers as part of the next generation of consoles. It's appropriate to mention that because two years later, Bioware took everything they learned and devised from "KOTOR" and "Jade Empire" to create a new and original creation for the 360. As a result, they raised the bar of quality for video games in general.

The result was Bioware's "Mass Effect", a space opera in the tradition of "Star Wars".


Where? Check out my new fan blog, "Mass Effect Universe"!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Women Warriors, Part Four: MICHIKO NISHIWAKI

(It's about damn time I restarted this!)

It's without question that each of the actresses forever identified with the 'Girls With Guns' movement of Hong Kong action films were each unique in a given way. Take the screen personas of those I've described so far. Yukari Oshima is as hard-edged and pure in her fighting ability and presence as a katana blade. Moon Lee embodies the cute girl next door you couldn't help but like...but don't get on her bad side! Michelle Yeoh, thanks in part to her background in dance, is grace personified, even in the eye of a storm of bullets or facing a room full of bad guys.

The lady I'm about to describe made her own mark, too, a beauty who seems to be built battleship-tough.

No one could have predicted the life direction that Michiko Nishiwaki took, but then she was a trailblazer in a truly unique way. In part to improve her self-image, she worked hard and long at bodybuilding, something most women in her native Japan wouldn't even have given a thought to. Michiko didn't just excel: she became her country's first bodybuilding and powerlifting champion! In the process, she got the attention of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, two fast-rising stars in Hong Kong cinema. Her one-of-a-kind combination of beauty and muscular strength helped her get cast in a truly memorable role as a Yakuza heavy in the 1985 comedy-actioner, "My Lucky Stars".

I've seen the film, and "My Lucky Stars" won't leave anyone feeling lucky to have watched most of it! The comedy can get tedious and doesn't translate well, even dubbed into English. But then the last half hour of the film hits, and the action that Jackie and Sammo are legendary for hits...and then we see Michiko, a quiet image in a floral kimono. Then she takes it off to fight a lady cop, and if you're a guy, if your jaw DOESN'T drop seeing this bodybuilding beauty in a one-piece swimsuit, then you're severely gay.

Michiko's options were limited, unfortunately, but not because of a lack of martial arts or ability to speak Cantonese, the prevailing language HK films used. (She got better with both over time, though.) Like Yukari Oshima, Michiko almost consistently was typecast as a villain because she was Japanese. She still made a truly memorable mark in most of her films, especially "In the Line of Duty 3", "God of Gamblers" and "Magic Cop". Michiko then broadened her horizons and moved to Hollywood, and has been seen on the silver screen doing stunts in films from "Blade" to "Mission: Impossible 3"...she has slowed down since to focus on family life with her husband and son in California.

Whatever we'll see Michiko in next, I've got faith she'll leave an unforgettable she usually does! :)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Better living through technology! Or...not!

Who doesn't remember "The Jetsons"? That's right, that old Hanna-Barbera toon set in a far-off future of flying bubble-cars, mile-high apartment buildings, and such centered on a suburban family led by George Jetson, his wife Jane, their boy Elroy and daughter Judy, and their big but lovable dog Astro. It was a humorous take on 'utopian' visions of the future, where every need can literally be satisfied by the push of a button, but the simple push of a button can be exhausting for the super-pampered! Think "Star Trek", but where Captain Kirk can't get out of bed with his Orion slave woman because whatever futuristic sex toys and equipment they're using is making him too damn lazy to fight Klingons.

Yeah, there's a dark side to the wonders of progress, and I don't just mean world-breaking stuff like nuclear bombs and genetic experimentation, the kind of shit where just because we can go there doesn't mean we should. But how do we know when we shouldn't? How high can technology go before we yell, "JANE, STOP THIS CRAZY THING!" Surprise, there's a sign we may already BE there, and without the benefit of robo-maids.

The British Psychological Society has just determined through a study that smartphones cause stress. Why? Because those who use smartphones are plugged into most everything digital online, and a 'helpful-stressful' cycle happens. The device manages the workload fine, but the user increasingly needs the connections he/she has access to until they depend on it, until they can't live without it.

The study went further to show that those who were apart from their smartphones eventually felt relief and happiness not being 'plugged in'. But I had always thought that progress would make things BETTER, not harder! (For the record, though, I don't own any of that iPod, smartphone, tablet, or whatever stuff. And I've saved myself some stress because of it!) In this case, though, we're learning when to say when...

"Jane, I'm suffering withdrawal from my iPhone!"

Monday, January 9, 2012

Wishes do come true, don't they!

2012 is definitely a year that's already looking up, and I'm not saying that for myself. (Wish I could, dammit!) I'm saying things are great for Sydney Spies, an 18-year-old girl just about to break out of high school. Anybody who's been in high school knows things can only get better from there. I sure as hell know it.

Anyhow. Sydney, who has aspirations to be a model, wanted to do something special for her yearbook pic. The picture you see below is that something special. It's actually one of two glamour shots she did, but both were rejected by the yearbook staff, which was made up of fellow students. (I know something about that, since at my high school I was part of the yearbook staff.) Why the rejection? Because Sydney was being too risque.

Wait, what?

Look at the pic below. Now maybe it's just me, a guy who lives in a world of Hooters and Playboy and proud of it (except that Playboy's cable channel is going WAY into x-rated smut...the magazine and its owner/creator, Hugh Hefner, did have more class back in the day), but I don't see much that's objectionable about Sydney's photo! She's a beautiful girl in a glamour shot looking at the camera with a babydoll glance. And this girl -- 18 and legal! -- isn't showing much skin; the only way she could is by downsizing to a bikini! In short, I didn't see much for anyone to get twisted into knots about. Sydney's peers on the yearbook staff felt differently, which is their right, but I'm surprised they saw something objectionable or inappropriate.

Funny Fact One: Sydney's gonna get her photo in the yearbook anyway, by way of PAYING for it. It'll cost her $300, which damned well sucks. It also shows how hypocritical those involved with the yearbook staff are. "No, you CAN'T have a model pic in our yearbook! It's tasteless and...! Oh wait, you'll pay for it if we put it in our ad space? Cool!" Those jerks are as bad as the Harper Valley PTA. (Who remembers that song? Or how much Barbara Eden rocked in the movie? At least that was fictional!)

Funny Fact Two: Sydney and her mom, Miki, protested the yearbook's decision, and that's how it became national news. The story is something for those who believe in freedom of expression and those who argue about what's appropriate and what isn't to talk about and...

Oh, who the hell am I kidding? Freedom of expression and moral correctness are footnotes to this story. Bottom line, Sydney's getting what she wanted in spades...she's a beautiful young lady who is being given exposure from sea to shining sea, and for someone who wants to be a model that means more than a simple yearbook photo. I hope this exposure leads Sydney to good things, truly. The moral of this story? If you want to make molehills into mountains -- that is, be too finicky about how someone looks for a yearbook photo -- don't be surprised if you still attract attention!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2011...not the best of years.

A lot of things make me hopeful that 2012 will be a good year, and that's mostly because of how sucky the year before was.

I wish I could say the crappiness of 2011 was just from the strange, idiotic ways of my fellow humans, embodied glaringly by the Occupy movements here, there and every-damn-where, trying to make living like a bum look fashionable while not having a damn clue what their goals were. I can't kid about that...most of those bush-league activists didn't even know what they wanted, or how to get it outside of sitting in public places with a pout. We lost those who one way or the other made our lives brighter, or at least more entertaining, and I don't just mean Elizabeth Taylor; James Arness, Matt Dillon himself from "Gunsmoke", and Susannah York, who played the one true love of a rascal in "Tom Jones" (perhaps the best comedy ever made) and the mother of Kal-El in Richard Donner's first two "Superman" films, were among many who left our mortal coil feeling a little emptier. It was a year of highs and lows, too...from my Cardinals winning the World Series to Albert Pujols leaving for an offer in the HUNDREDS of millions of dollars. I could make a blog about how possessive sports fans are, but I'd only get some folks mad. I could also make one about how absolutely ludicrous the business of sports has become that team owners would shell out so much for a friggin' BASEBALL PLAYER, but then my head would hurt from the idiocy...

Yeah, 2011 was sucky...but it could have been a lot worse.

In the Spring in my area, a tornado passed through my neighborhood and St. Louis County. Power was lost to many areas for weeks and homes were heavily damaged in the storm's violent path. It could have been a lot home could have been one of those damaged or destroyed. My family was without power for a mere few days, but it could have been for a lot longer.

But my heart and soul keeps thinking of Japan, a country I've always wanted to visit and explore, and how much worse it could have been there.

No one expected the merciless one-two punch of both an earthquake and tsunami hitting Japan, one after the other. In spite of the best safety restrictions, several nuclear reactors in the country were heavily damaged and radiation leaked out. Human ingenuity and a massive groundswell of international support kept the situation from getting into the realm of a disaster like Chernobyl, but the cleanup is still a very long way from being done, and entire communites had been displaced or evacuated.

That's why I'm hopeful for a happier new year, for Japan and everyone.