Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lady Gaga

Just got back from the Lady Gaga show. She is something.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii

A simultaneous multiplayer version of Super Mario Bros. is something I'd long dreamed of. Given the very title of the game, it just seemed so obvious, yet Luigi hadn't truly mattered since the original Mario Bros. Alternating multiplayer is no multiplayer at all, and Super was clearly a one-man show, leaving perhaps mechanically inferior games to brave the multiplayer platformer frontier. I think it's accurate to say that my interest in LittleBigPlanet, despite all its other advertised features and innovations, was primarily due to it having support for four simultaneous players. The entire time I was playing it, however, I would be thinking how much better the original Super Mario Bros. felt, and that only made me wish all the more that I could have been playing a four-player Mario game instead. Little did I suspect that the real thing would be coming so soon after. So is New Super Mario Bros. Wii everything I dreamed it would be?

Not quite, but it's still the most fun I've ever had with a Mario game.

Even as a child, I recognized that a cooperative mode would have been difficult to implement on account of the fast pace of the game. It might have been too impractical a challenge to ask two players to keep together on the same screen while making huge running jumps and dealing with enemies that could kill them in one hit. Super Mario Galaxy introduced the inspired option to have a second player take on a subordinate role, providing minor assistance as a detached pointer, and before New Super Mario Bros. Wii was announced, I might have thought that was as much as I could have expected. It looks like Nintendo finally got my letters, however, and NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits this is not. Surprisingly, instead of taking all these years to devise the perfect solution to the potential power struggle scenario, NSMB Wii almost seems to embrace the idea of partners as burdens as a way to encourage coordination in a multiplayer mode that otherwise feels largely tacked-on, even as it was the advertised revolution of this installment.

Reading coverage of the game, it sounded like a lot of previewers got off on deliberately sabotaging their friends in multiplayer, only really attempting to progress through the game in single-player. I don't personally see the fun in that sort of griefing in a non-competitive game (and unlike The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure, the story mode here contains no competitive aspects), nor did I have any interest in playing by myself. Playing with my two siblings, we were in it to beat the game, and the "friendly fire" of being able to bump into and jump on top of one another was our most consistent obstacle.

As a player who traditionally likes to proceed at a quick pace, I found it frustrating constantly running into someone's back, or having to slow my own pace to wait for a straggler. Midair collisions also happened frequently due to breakdowns in communication, usually resulting in death for at least one of us. Additionally, with three or more players, whether I'm using a Mario brother or a Toad, there is a high probability that, due to the frenzied pace and regular switching of outfits, I will at some point forget which character I am controlling, and however brief that moment of uncertainty is, it will be enough to result in a needless death.

I had heard some reports that this was an extremely challenging game--maybe even Contra 4 hard. That was surely hyperbole in any case, but I suspect the multiplayer is actually more forgiving than going solo, with the bosses feeling particularly neutered when outnumbered. Yes, despite the more frustrating elements of multiplayer, the chaos of bumping into your buddies is more than balanced out by the extra chances you get by being allowed to respawn on the spot, so long as you do not run out of lives or happen to die at the same time as all your allies. Playing with two players of comparable skill levels, as often as we blamed the partner collision for screwing us, the reality is that we each had our share of deaths that did not involve anyone else. The idea of having to restart from the last checkpoint after each such sudden occasion is almost too horrible to contemplate, even though we've all faced it before. Playing solo, I'm sure I would have lost interest the instant a stage forced me to restart five times. That was exactly when I got bored with and gave up on the original New Super Mario Bros. I suppose that is one of the reasons Miyamoto came up with the "Super Guide" feature, but I haven't experienced it yet for myself (because it isn't available in multiplayer).

Speaking of respawning, the bubble mechanic is, as part of the multiplayer design, one of the most brilliant ideas in the game, although, armchair game designer that I am, I feel it could have been handled better.

Not only do you arrive powerless within a drifting bubble upon respawn, but you can also enter the bubble at will at any time, thereby rendering yourself invincible. For advanced players, this introduces entirely new tactics--you can jump to reach a coin suspended above the abyss, then bubble up just before you fall to your doom--and it also becomes addictive as a way to save yourself after careless missteps (which will likely become more frequent as a consequence).

More significantly, in my opinion, the bubble presents a way for younger or less skilled players to enjoy a game that might otherwise be too challenging for them. Playing alongside more veteran players, they could simply enter the bubble during difficult sections and allow their partners to carry the team through. At least, that's the promise I see. The problem is that, while you can enter the bubble on your own, to a large extent you cannot choose when or where you pop out of it. You cannot control where you drift, except by shaking the remote to move closer to a live player, so that they can break you out on contact. But in precisely the delicate situations where the bubble would be fine refuge, it becomes just another hazard. I know there were moments when I died because a bubble flew unexpectedly into my jump arc and dumped another player on me. Personally, I don't see why they couldn't have let you control where the bubble moved. So long as you were still dependent on your friends to burst you out, it's not like there would have been any way to cheat.

Given all the promotional focus on the four-player aspect, and with casual being the key demographic for the Wii, I expected a more lightweight Mario game that, like Four Swords Adventure, might have felt compromised when played alone. To my surprise, it actually feels very much like a traditional single-player installment that then had the multiplayer thrown in later. Not only is the game as fast-paced as ever, but many of the timing-specific sprints or jumps clearly only accommodate, at most, two single-file acrobats proceeding with a never-look-back mentality, before a ledge recedes or a gap closes on the third. When presented with an unbroken series of such obstacles, I don't see how more than two players can possibly be expected to all survive. And aside from the bubble mechanic, the only other technical advantage that having multiple players adds is the ability to perform the combined ground pound, which is powerful but difficult to pull off under pressure. At least the game probably changes drastically with each added player, so one could potentially get four different experiences out of it, albeit some would be considerably more broken than others.

The game is visually underwhelming and looks virtually identical to the DS New Super Mario Bros. I speak not only of the technology but also the concepts. It's all very functional and not ugly, but it's sad to see that, in what has been positioned as Nintendo's prestige title of the year, there is nothing even so impressive as the Mode 7 effects from Super Mario World, nor as original as Giant Land from Super Mario Bros. 3. Truly, the most disappointing thing about NSMB Wii is the sense that Nintendo just doesn't try as hard as it used to. The adventure takes players through a series of overly familiar locales, including a desert world, an ice world, an aquatic world, and a fire world. Yoshi appears rarely and with no fanfare, perhaps because he is completely extraneous to the experience. The new penguin suit, while cool, is sadly underutilized, and the mini mushroom is largely useless. The most offensively stupid thing about the game is its omission of the princess as a playable character, instead offering two playable Toad characters that are distinguished only by their colors. Miyamoto has offered a few different explanations for this, none of which are valid, in my opinion, nor as funny as he seems to think.

That about covers my complaints with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The game still excels other 2-D platformers in the ways that Super Mario Bros. always has. The physics and level design are, of course, perfect, and even the motion controls work quite well. That's all the good stuff that should be expected of the series. Yet as I grew older, none of that was enough to keep me engaged. Playing New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, I became quickly bored without any meaningful context or sense of purpose to motivate me. But those are non-issues when you have other people to play with, which is why, for all its frustrations, I do feel that the multiplayer is a transformative addition to the series. Thus is NSMB Wii only the second Super Mario Bros. game that I've played all the way through (and considering that Super Mario Land was, in its entirety, only about as long as maybe two of NSMB Wii's eight worlds, it barely counts).

It is, at the very least, the best E-rated game of the year and probably the best co-op experience of the year. Now let's have a four-player sequel to Super Mario Bros. 2!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Heaven or Hell

With console shooters really having come into their own this generation, more traditional third-person action games have seemingly become a little less relevant. 2008 gave us Devil May Cry 4 and Ninja Gaiden II, but reception for those entries was less warm than for their immediate predecessors, and the general opinion seemed to be that the hardcore combat action genre had grown stagnant. This year's best combat action game was Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2--really a rather sad comment on the state of the genre. Next year, however, we will be getting three major new releases by the end of March. I tried out the demos for all three recently. Here are my impressions:


Based on the gameplay footage I had seen previously, I was expecting just a faster version of Devil May Cry, and that is essentially what the demo feels like, though I wasn't quite prepared for just how fast the game really is. That blistering speed, combined with some crazily over-the-top effects, makes the action pretty hard to follow, but I suppose it will just take some adjusting to.

Like Dante, Bayonetta fights with a combination of melee attacks and guns. She is able to switch weapons in real time, and with the added ability to pick up enemy weapons, the impressive branching combo system eclipses even Capcom's recent entries in approaching the depth of a fighting game. Some vaguely God of War-esque prompts for execution sequences adds some cinematic flair.

Right now, I just have two major concerns.

First is the art. Bayonetta herself is certainly one of the more original designs in a long while, but I can't say I'm particularly a fan. She's not cool like Dante, and her looks and speech are too overtly freaky to be attractive. Enemies and locations, meanwhile, seem much more generic in that Japanese CG way, and the angelic motif seems a little too close to Devil May Cry 4, which is comparatively more elegant. Looking at DMC4, Ninja Gaiden II, and now Bayonetta, I'm beginning to think, more than anything else, it's really the stylized art that is growing stale in this HD generation where more realistic aesthetics are in vogue.

I'm more anxious about the camera, though it may well prove to be the most evolutionary aspect of Bayonetta. Unlike Devil May Cry and every other top tier entry in this genre, Bayonetta utilizes a user-controlled camera. With the action being so intense in these games, I think most developers have concluded that it's asking a bit much to have the player operate the camera in addition to their character.

I'm not sure Bayonetta offers any new solution, but the more dynamic camera seems justified once into the final stage of the PS3 demo, which introduces the "Witch Walk" mechanic. As characters walk on walls, it is the entire room that seems to rotate. Transitioning from floor to wall feels surprisingly natural, yet the visual effect, highly evocative of a stage from The Legend of the Mystical Ninja for SNES, keeps the concept as exciting as it should be.

God of War III

My only previous experience with the God of War series was my having played the demo for the first game. My impression of it was that it was a more mainstream version of Devil May Cry, and that more or less describes the God of War III demo as well.

It's fun, but the combat does feel much simpler compared to Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. It trades the deeper combo systems of those games for the variety of more immediately gratifying gimmicks like being able to ride and command a giant. Both of the melee weapons in the demo seem designed for flailing around in all directions, and I don't think there is even a way to target a specific enemy, but most of them arrive and die as packs anyway. It almost feels more like Dynasty Warriors than Devil May Cry, but it avoids feeling repetitive by mixing in some non-combat gameplay moments.

The demo ends with a flying sequence that plays out very much like the Death Star trench run from Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, where you just constantly progress forward at high speed while steering clear of oncoming obstructions. That was a technically problematic sequence back on the GameCube, and the more powerful PS3 hardware can't really fix the inherent difficulty with that design. Kratos at least doesn't explode immediately on impact, but the close, behind-the-back angle presents serious depth perception issues--it's very difficult to gauge the distance to the nearest oncoming object, as well as the distance between that and the next closest object. This is one mechanic that I think could work beautifully, however, with that future 3-D (I mean the glasses, not polygons).

Dante's Inferno

EA's series of questionable marketing stunts has barely kept on the radar what has otherwise largely been dismissed as a shameless God of War ripoff.

Dante's Inferno wears its inspiration on its sleeve, sporting familiar combat and enemies, a similar grab maneuver, dodging with the right analog stick, the same style of cinematic QTE executions, and even a sequence in the demo that has you riding a giant enemy. I also find it hard to believe that, when this game was pitched, nobody stopped to point out that there was another well-known, mechanically similar title starring a popular character by the name of Dante.

So Dante's Inferno offers nothing new or better, and its hero may not be winning any "best new character" awards, but, based on the demos, I would not exactly consider Bayonetta or God of War III revolutionary either. Clone though it may be, EA's game is at least well-produced and very convincing in its exhibited understanding of the formula. As one more title to occupy the most ravenous of action fans, it won't have much of a lead against God of War III next year, but it will have a huge advantage in being a multiplatform title.

My concern is that it may be just another Rygar: The Legendary Adventure.

The first really accomplished Devil May Cry clone, Rygar had high production values, rock-solid frame rate, and the same perfectly responsive controls as its obvious inspiration. It was a very fine game, but I bet it made for a great demo. At first glance, Tecmo had almost flawlessly replicated the basic mechanics of Capcom's seminal hit, but the difference between an original and a knockoff became apparent as you got further into the game. As you whaled on the same caterpillar enemy over and over again for the adventure's meager five-hour duration, it was clear that the developers, driven by the motivation just to ape an existing title, had gotten only the skeleton but lacked the vision to layer on meaty substance. Hopefully the Dante's Inferno team can do better.

No, not one of these games actually seems any better than Devil May Cry 4, which wasn't much different from Devil May Cry 3. I'm still waiting for one of these games to include a full-on co-op mode, which would constitute real progress in my opinion. I mean, in the 2-D era, a one-man beat 'em up would have been considered worthless.

Nevertheless, playing these demos reminded me how much I personally still enjoy this formula. I came away feeling very good about all three games, and it's just a shame that they are all being released in such close proximity to one another. I don't know that even my interest will last through all three of them.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The long-awaited return of . . . Spec Ops?!

I can't believe I'm saying this now, but I think the new Spec Ops may be the game that I've been waiting for.

Unveiled during the Spike Video Game Awards, the debut trailer for Spec Ops: The Line is astonishingly awesome. The gameplay footage is nothing too mind-blowing--it's just another Kill Switch derivative--but some stunningly brutal images (more in a second trailer) and chilling mad snippets of dialogue gripped me right off as few triple-A video game trailers ever have. Indeed, it was the only exciting thing to come out of the VGAs. Whereas EA has answered the call by rather shamelessly ripping off the rival franchise that its own Medal of Honor effectively begot and then was rendered obsolete by, 2K Games seems determined to entirely reshape Spec Ops into something newly respectable.

It begs the question, though, why is this a Spec Ops title at all? Really, is there some cachet to the Spec Ops brand that I'm unaware of? I admit I've never played a Spec Ops game, but that was because they were, by all accounts, terrible pieces of junk.

I guess the series started out on PCs, where the original developer maybe still had a bit of ambition and self-respect, but it was last seen in action as an unashamedly low-budget shooter released during that desolate transition period--after real developers had abandoned the PS1, but still before the PS2 was deserving of the average consumer's money. For that short, dark period in gaming history, the Spec Ops series of budget-priced PS1 titles tore up the sales charts simply by being cheap games for a cheap platform. Then Grand Theft Auto III truly ushered in the next generation, and mercifully the Spec Ops brand seemed to die away.

Now, two generations later, 2K Games has decided to dig up the Spec Ops name for reasons I cannot fathom. Successful though they may have been for what they were, I find it hard to believe that even the people who somehow ended up with copies of those PS1 Spec Ops games have retained much reverence for the franchise after all these years. For the rest of us, it was never anything but a joke, and that too is scarcely remembered now. Still, I would think that any association with the name would be more a drag than a boost for a future release such as The Line.

Then again, what can we really tell from such an early trailer? Spec Ops: The Line may yet prove to be a work worthy of the name.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


I had a dream that I was at the theater watching a new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

"I'm so glad they got Johnny Depp back as Jack Sparrow," said the guy next to me.

"That's Orlando Bloom," I corrected him.

Not only was this guy unable to tell the difference between Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, but he had somehow missed the biggest news of the decade--after Depp had, for whatever reason, walked out on the series, leading to the most drawn-out and heavily scrutinized recasting call of all time, the studio had ultimately determined that the best actor for the part was none other than Orlando Bloom.

Despite some early naysayers, as it turned out, Depp's Oscar-nominated performance was all in the makeup all along (although, in my dream, Bloom looked and acted more like Zorro than Jack Sparrow).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Steven Seagal: Lawman

"For twenty years, Steven Seagal has been a deputy in the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, a job he's kept out of the limelight... until now."

Nothing much for me to add, except to say that this is pretty freaking amazing. Much better than Shaq Vs.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Army of Two

Somalia. 1993. What the hell were we doing there?

Oh, right--our government had hired Philip Clyde, top contractor with the SSC private military company, to "take down" a local warlord. I, Tyson Rios, and my fellow US Army Ranger, Elliot Salem, were there to make sure Clyde fulfilled his contract. Things got complicated, as they usually do in Somalia.

Seriously, what the hell were we doing there?

Clyde turned out to be nothing more than a well-trained, well-paid thug. As we walked right into the warlord's trap, this "best of the best" mercenary just parkoured away across rooftops, leaving Salem and I to carry out the assassination ourselves. Only the dreaded back-to-back formation that had earned us our reputation as a "two-man army" kept us alive as the enemy surrounded us from all sides. But this mission was a tall order even for us. We were still only two, and this was Somalia. The hostile locals made up in numbers and suicidal fearlessness for any deficiencies of training or equipment.

Following another hectic gunfight, I found myself pinned between a wrecked car and a stone wall. After interminable minutes of my partner and I struggling in vain to get me loose, we both knew what had to be done.

"Finish the mission," I told him. "Just don't leave me for these animals."

He was not going to be able to free me. I could not self-terminate. Delaying the grim inevitable would only increase the likelihood of us both getting killed there.

As my partner gripped his gun, his finger hovering intensely over the trigger for what felt like forever, I don't know whose agony was worse.

It might have been the gutsiest, most brutal co-op gaming moment since the ending to the original arcade Double Dragon.

Too bad it was actually the product of a heinous bug, rather than any design of the developer.

What had actually happened was that my character had become hopelessly snagged on or in a tile of wonky collision. The area was clear, and I was merely searching for ammo. I had slipped into a narrow space between a car and a wall, and when I tried to turn back after finding nothing, I found that my character was stuck and would only move in place, even as my partner ran back and forth across the same strip of map several times without difficulty. After I gave him a turn at my controller to prove that I really was caught, we concluded that there was absolutely no prying me loose. The game would not allow my partner to progress to the next area without me, however, so it looked like we were screwed. It was then that I had an idea.

I suggested that my partner shoot my character. Although I could not be moved while standing, perhaps once I ran out of health and collapsed to a downed state, my partner would be able to drag me out and then revive me. It was perverse, but it was our only option.

For the live human player controlling my partner, there was no pained hesitation. Rather, it was too good an opportunity for him to act like a jerk and know that the other guy had literally asked for it. After wasting several rounds on my crotch instead of simply aiming for my head, there was actual fear on my part that he would run out of ammo before I died, thereby really locking us in that awful situation. Fortunately he had barely enough, and from there my plan worked just as I had hoped.

Despite that outrageous bug experienced during the Xbox 360 demo for EA's Army of Two (which would not be the last time the game broke itself with a progression-halting glitch), the game still showed promise, and I was looking for another good co-op campaign after having completed both Gears of War titles.

The full game did not turn out to be the great Gears of War clone that I might originally have hoped for, but it is a surprisingly decent title that actually distinguishes itself quite admirably from the other cover-based shooters on the market. Simply put, Army of Two is the most co-op game I have ever played.

Contrary to my fictionalized account, the real Army of Two is insistent that under no circumstances do you ever leave a man behind, because if you can't make it through together, then you won't make it through at all. From Contra to Gears of War, most co-op modes merely double the destruction by adding a second gun to a game that could be played and beaten with just one. Some games may include short sections where two players must split up, or where both must activate buttons simultaneously, but for the most part, there is little actual teamwork required, and even in co-op there is often the sense that a single player could do it on their own. In contrast, I don't think there is a single battle in Army of Two that can be won without both characters working together.

The basic shooting and cover mechanics are merely passable, but the core of the game is the "Aggro" system. An "Aggrometer" measures the player characters' aggressiveness, swinging back and forth between the two according to who is dealing more damage or carrying the flashier weapon. When the Aggrometer is solidly on one character's side, he will turn red and attract most of the enemy's attention, allowing the other player enough breathing room to line up clean shots or get into flanking position. Aggro is much more than a gimmick; nearly every battle in the game takes place in a wide-open space where eagle-eyed foes can approach and fire from all sides, so the only way for one character to get anywhere is for the other to momentarily draw the enemy's focus by going Aggro. The game's easiest difficulty level allows a bit more leeway in strategy, but there is still a great deal of tactical interdependency to the ebb and flow of the Aggro, with both players constantly alternating roles to systematically dismantle enemy formations. You can even feign death when low on health, at which point all the Aggro will transfer to the other player, leaving them to survive on their own for as long as possible while you slowly recover your health on the ground.

Army of Two is serious about providing a two-man experience, and it includes several other novel co-op mechanics, although most are not ultimately very successful.

In Gears of War, when a character runs out of health, he becomes just a helpless lump, which an ally can then revive with a simple tap on the shoulder. Army of Two favors a far more visceral system, leaving a wounded character unable to move but still able to shoot. Meanwhile it is up to their partner to dash into the fray and drag them to relative safety before administering first aid. It should have been the most thrilling mechanic of the game, but it's totally busted in practice. For the downed player, the very partner that you need to cover as he drags or heals you usually ends up completely obscuring your camera view, leaving you more likely to shoot him than any enemy gunmen. The back-to-back sequences are similarly flawed, as your screen is regularly obstructed by the massive sparks emitting from your partner's gun barrel.

Co-op snipe is a nifty idea in theory, but as its own dedicated mechanic it is kind of pointless. Activating it switches both players to scope view and starts a countdown, allowing you to snipe two targets at the same time. For example, you might need to stealthily take out two guards in unison, so that neither's death alerts the other. I suspect that it exists only to allow you to coordinate with the AI partner in single-player. In two-player, there's no reason, aside from the dearth of sniper rounds, that you couldn't both manually equip your sniper rifles and count it down out loud.

The less said about the back-to-front tandem parachute sequences, the better.

Honestly, the most successful co-op maneuver is actually giving kudos. When standing next to your partner, you can press a button to gimme five or duo air guitar. This is accompanied always by a funny audio clip. It may not have a lot of practical purpose, but at least it does what it's supposed to by easing the tension. The best part is that you can continue to do it even while characters are receiving orders or having grim scripted conversations.

The campaign's six missions are loosely tied together with some vague conspiracy plot. Far from playing out like an episode of 24, however, the game spans years. Following the first Somalia mission, Salem and Rios follow their CO in becoming contractors with SSC. The next mission takes place eight years later in Afghanistan, mere hours after the attacks on 9/11. Then, from when Rios first voices his suspicions about his PMC higher-ups, it takes another eight years before he and Salem actually get around to doing anything about it, with the game concluding in the then future of 2009.

As it skips years at a time, what little story there is is hard to follow, and I repeatedly found myself wondering what we were even fighting for. Then a pop-up upon reaching a checkpoint would display the funds in my virtual bank account, and I would realize that perhaps that was the point, because Salem and Rios are, after all, soldiers of fortune. Rios at least occasionally shares the player's ethical concerns, but when you stop and pay attention to his partner's whining about credit card debt, you realize that there is virtually nothing separating the materialistic Salem from the completely amoral villains of the piece. Salem and Rios aren't heroes, and it is only our predisposition to identify ourselves as the good guys in these games that might blind us to this reality. Perhaps Big Boss had some things to say about mercenaries, but I think Army of Two gets closer to the truth of it. Neither romanticizing nor entirely condemning PMCs, the game rather soberly captures that, for these contractors, war is just a job, and that's what's scary. Ultimately the game finishes with mercs engaging mercs in true warfare sans ideology.

Weaving its story across historic events, the campaign, not only includes stages set in Somalia and Afghanistan, but also sends Salem and Rios to Iraq and even references Hurricane Katrina. It doesn't dwell in polemics at the expense of playability, but it is at least a little more relevant than the sci-fi of Gears of War. As much as those may have been superior games that I greatly enjoyed, it was refreshing to find an experience that more closely resembled the real world.

On the other hand, while the campaign features some of the hairiest scenarios in any shooter I've played, there are no epic boss fights and few spectacles to be had, and that overall lack of variety is really what hurts the game most. Unless you count the occasional suicide bomber or rocket launcher guy, the only non-standard enemy type is the heavily armored soldier. Completely invincible from the front, and with enough awareness and artillery to stop dead any direct approach, these mini-bosses are ostensibly the ultimate test of your mastery of the co-op gameplay, as they can only be felled by somehow slipping behind them to deliver a kill shot to the back. Later on, we learned that a big enough gun could knock them to the ground, after which one player could simply run behind them and shoot them in the back as they got up. In fact, that was how the game ended, as the final battle is nothing more than a series of three of these nameless, faceless, identical-looking heavy armor dudes. Meanwhile the story's two name antagonists are both taken out in consecutive non-interactive cut scenes that last about two minutes total.

I suspect that EA received quite a bit of warranted negative feedback about that ending, because a free, post-release DLC pack included an alternate ending that, sure enough, allowed players to have that showdown with the main villain. Of course, his appearance--the entire scenario, in fact--is so aggressively clownish that, as you play, you can almost hear the developer saying, "Here's your damn boss fight, since nobody got what we were going for in the original ending!"

The horrible ending, mediocre gunplay, and poorly balanced and repetitive levels keep Army of Two from being a great game, but its unique mechanics make it still one of the better co-op shooters out there, especially if you have a PS3 instead of a 360. I am happy to see it getting a sequel, which will hopefully refine some of those ideas into a more functional and well-rounded experience.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Henry in Real Time

Woman A: Okay, so you're an Aquarius? And what's your boyfriend's sign?

Woman B: Virgo.

Woman A: Ooh, that's trouble! Is he a real homebody?

Woman B: Actually, yeah, he is. So that guide is pretty right-on, huh?

Astrology. Utter trash. It is nothing more than the power of suggestion. Woman A's magazine tells her that Virgos are homebodies, and then she goes looking for examples among the Virgos she knows. The problem is that, while she may think she's testing the theory, in pursuing the possibility of any connection between an individual and one specific zodiacal symbol, she has actually already fallen into the trap. Because when you're determined to spot patterns, you're liable to interpret them even where none exist.

While real people tend to be complexes of many and sometimes contradictory aspects, most astrological profiles are brief and one-dimensional yet also deceptively generic. A normal person is most likely a combination of the collective traits describing all the signs. So, really, most individuals could probably be described by any of the sign profiles. After all, they're more like moods that we all go through than fully fleshed-out personality types.

Woman A: Yeah, I've dated a lot of Virgos before. They never like to go out or do anything. I'm a Leo, so I'm really active, and I need a guy who can keep up.

Maybe her Virgo ex-boyfriend was too tired to go out on one occasion, but because that example is all she'll be looking for, that's all she'll see. If I were to shuffle all the profiles around without her knowing it, Woman A would probably still manage to find evidence supporting those manufactured connections.

Woman B: Ha, I think you're right. My sister's a Leo and she's the same way.

Woman A: Yeah, Leos and Virgos just don't work. Virgos are real homebodies. They never go anywhere with you.

Okay, this is getting downright offensive. Time to set the record straight.

Me: I don't think that's true.

Woman A: Oh? You don't believe in astrology?

Me: No, I think it's just the power of suggestion.

Woman A: What does that mean?

Here we go . . .

Me: The problem is that those descriptions don't really say anything. People are too complex to be summarized like that. I mean, those are more like moods than personalities. Probably, you could find an example in anybody's life to support a profile of them as a homebody. The whole trick is that any of the profiles can match any of us. If I switched them all around without telling you, you would probably still think they made sense.

Woman B: Yeah, I see what you mean.

I rest my case. Right?

Woman A: So what's your sign, Henry?

Hmm, this could be a good chance to shatter her preconceptions about Leos and Virgos, while also proving my point about the power of suggestion.

Me: I'm a Leo.

Ha! She'd be the first to insist that we two Leos are nothing alike. So what does she have to say about this?

Woman A: Really? Me too! When's your birthday?

Crap! I'm actually a Virgo. And maybe a bit of a homebody.

Me: I don't know.

Woman A: You don't know your own--

Me: I was adopted.

Argh! This is not going the way I planned. Now my thoughts are lagging behind my rapidly deteriorating speech. Dare I continue down this course and attempt to keep up with my own lies? This cannot possibly end well.

Woman A: So, wait, you don't have a birthday?

Me: No, that's a lie. I'm actually a Virgo.

Damn it all! I should have made her use her stupid guide to guess my sign!

Woman A: Aha! I thought so. Yep, you are definitely the Virgo type.

That's what you think! But what if I just change my sign again with another lie? So much for my being a "Virgo type" then.

Me: Maybe.

Alas. You win this round, pseudoscience.

Woman B: Haha, that was funny.