Category Archives: Reviews

PSMore

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Real creative name, guys.

The Playstation 4 was finally announced at a Sony presser on Febreuary 20th with a two house marathon of buzzwords, game reveals, and some questionable design choices. Sony’s latest push into the console arena appears to be an effort, before all else, to being the PS brand back into the majority of gaming households. The words “accessible,” “simple,” and “social” were consistently thrown about during the announcement — a sign that Sony recognizes the issues that some had with the technical behemoth that is the PS3.

All of those who had an original Playstation or Playstation 2 (for most of its life) can remember that the PS brand was always significantly different from its competition. It was the undisputed master of the high-end gaming market (Dreamcast doesn’t count, sorry). At the end of the life of the PS2, however, Microsoft created the XBOX and a healthy dose of capitalistic competition was inserted into the mix.

Unfortunately, Sony did not fare well against the ambition that Microsoft pushed out for the XBOX 360. While the PS3 is the more powerful machine, it does not have the same level of consumer infiltration that the XBOX 360 has managed to pull off. The PS3 isn’t as flashy. It didn’t have Halo. The price point was too high when it was released. It was slow to get good console exclusives. These factors, coupled with Microsoft’s aggressive marketing of the 360, left Sony too far behind to ever create a parity with Microsoft.

Now, however, the tables have turned as Sony is primed to release the PS4 before the new XBOX. They have the ability, through the mere fact of being the first to be “next-gen” (and yes, the Wii U also doesn’t count), to dominate the field. How? Take a look at the following list of system features followed by my thoughts on them for some armchair insight:

  • The Dual Shock 4: The latest Sony controller has the same form factor as previous iterations, with one notable exception — the touch pad. Although the Vita has been much maligned in the gaming press (and subsequent sales), it is a fantastic piece of hardware with truly interesting control mechanisms. Having a touch pad on the fore and rear of the Dual Shock 4 will give the standard controller a versatility that has been completely absent from a console experience. Touch pads allow nuance — they allow subtlety. Analog sticks are useful for precise control in a shooter, but what could be more precise than your actual finger?Also, the controller has a “Share” button, which leads me to …

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    A square affair.

  • The Social Angle: We live in an absolutely connected world. Love it or hate it, it is a fact of technological life. You can deny Facebook all you like. You can block it out of your life completely … but that does not change the fact that millions of people use it and will continue to use it. Smart phones are now nothing more than social hubs for your life. Like a photo? You share it to Facebook. Or Instagram. Or Flickr. Or reddit. You share songs, you share quotes, you share statuses, and you share everything in-between (“you,” here, refers to the average internet user. You who take exception to the shared and the sharing should please forgive my second-person assertion).So, in an effort to hop on the social bandwagon, Sony created a social console. You can share any screenshot or video from your time playing a game with a single press of a button on your controller. You can have a profile with your actual name through the revamped PSN. Friends can help your play through games and solve puzzles remotely. Or .. you can be a loner and turn all of that functionality off.

    By creating a social console, however, Sony wishes to create relationship of personal investment between the user and the machine. If your friends are all over your console’s feeds and menus, then (as they reason) you will be more likely to attach to the PS4 over a competitor’s product with lesser personal focus. This will probably work for the beginning of the PS4’s life, though I expect the next XBOX to have very similar social functionality.

  • Content Streaming: Sony also announced that while the PS4 will not be able to play games from previous systems (due to a 180 on technical architecture), they did create a means to get past the thorny issue of backwards-compatibility. Although there are few available details for the game streaming at the moment, the idea is simple: you can play any games you own (or have owned) through the streaming service without having to provide a disk.If this works, it will represent another step toward a physical media-less gaming culture. The questions at this moment, however, are too many for me to make a judgment about the service. How will they know which games you own for the PS3? Will the streaming cost money, perhaps through Playstation Plus? What kind of bandwidth will this consume? What about those of us with relatively poor internet connections? Time will tell.
  • The Software: Software makes systems sell. That’s probably plastered around the cubicles of Microsoft and Sony now, given their technologically-focused histories. Thankfully, the launch titles for the PS4 look promising. Killzone is making yet another beautiful appearance, although they will struggle to make anybody care. A new Infamous game was detailed and previewed, along with a racing game, an action platformer featuring a cute-ish robot, and, of course, Watch_Dogs:

 

What, then, will it take for Sony to succeed? All of the above points will have to work as they’ve advertised them. Sony will have to market the PS4 as not the PS3. There will absolutely have to be good games available with launch. And, ultimately, Microsoft will have to have a lesser offering than the PS4.

We’ll see.

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These Are Good Books — Read Them.

I had a goal to read one-hundred books in 2012. I failed. Although I only made it through about eighty-five books, I still feel accomplished to have added new entries into my library. What follows is a list of books that I read over the past year that I feel everybody should check out (click on the book covers for Amazon linkage).

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  • Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey: While there is a large crowd of people who still shun e-readers as the inception of the book-pocalypse, e-readers have been nothing but positive for struggling, independent authors. Howey is an excellent example of this. While it is difficult to discuss anything about Wool without spoiling everything about the plot, suffice it to say that it is a post-apocalyptic drama focused around an isolated group of individuals trying to survive in a harsh environment.

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  • The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher: I don’t  usually go in for very long book series. This particular series about a wise-cracking wizard who resides in Chicago has over ten entries in it now, but the quality of the writing and the story only increases with each iteration. There is a valid comparison to be made to the X-Files in that some of the books are very much monster-of-the-week episodes, while others are focused more on the over-arching mythology that ties all of the novels together. Butcher finds a success through his flawless portrayal of humanity in a character (Dresden) while managing to truly bring the “urban” setting into life for the fledgling urban fantasy genre.

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  • Solar Clipper Trader Tales by Nathan Lowell: Science fiction has always been
    a favorite or mine, but it typically tends to favor either a lot of science or a lot of fiction. (Sometimes fiction that, even for Sci-Fi, can stretch the imagination). The books from this series by Lowell feature plot-lines are refreshingly simple. There is no grand enemy. There is no hero’s journey — mono-myth be damned! The science fiction is all in the setting while the story is driven by a young protagonist trying to make his way through a new life aboard a trading vessel. 

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  • Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson: Sanderson is one of my favorite authors. While fantasy novels are popular right now because of popular media exposure (some still ride the Harry Potter train while others leech from Game of Thrones), Sanderson remains uniquely imaginative. While all of his novels feature inventive uses of magic, Warbreaker features the best combination of a unique magic system coupled with accessibility. Well-written characters? Sure. Humor? Definitely. Magic system based entirely around color? Definitely. 

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  • Airborn by Kenneth Oppel: Steampunk airships. Lost worlds. Alternate Earth biosphere. Classic adventure. This novel feels very much like a throwback to older tales such as Tin-Tin — there is an immediate sense of innocent adventure. The worst enemies are sky pirates and the greatest threats are those created by the environment. Enjoyable reading.

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Of course, my recommendations are fraught with biases toward fantasy and science. I admit that. I will assert, however, that good books are good books, regardless of genre. Even if you have not read or have not enjoyed science fiction or fantasy before, give one of the aforementioned books a shot — in the worst case, you’ll simply be supporting an author. Best case? Good book.

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Offers from Authors for Consumption

These are books that you should read! Click the book cover for relevant Amazon linkage.
And the recommendations are:

Brandon Sanderson has been one of the great new authors of the contemporary fantasy movement. While his previous novels have never broken through to the realm of mass public consumption, The Way of Kings seeks to be a true fantasy epic a la A Song of Ice and Fire. To put it simply — Sanderson succeeds. The Way of Kings is a brilliantly drawn novel that takes the best from his previous works (his ability to create truly innovative systems of magic and government) and expands them into a believable tapestry of the plausibly fantastic.

If you enjoy novels such as those from A Song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings, or Wheel of Time (Sanderson has also taken up the mantle to finish that particular series), be sure to give The Way of Kings a read.

I discovered Nathan Lowell through my Kindle. Though I know that e-readers are still considered sacrilegious to some readers, the advent of the e-reader has been an incredible boon to independent authorship. Nathan Lowell is one such author who found incredible success through independent authorship on Amazon.

Quarter Share is the first novel in a series about a man on a ship (a man whose name just happens to be Ishmael). Does it take place in space? Yes. Is it science fiction? Not really. It is the best kind of story — the kind of story that is told for no reason but to have the story exist. There is no grand quest for greatness, nor is there any great enemy. The age-old story of a boy learning how to become a man is almost always successful when written well, and Lowell succeeds magnificently.  I would recommend this book to anybody; it is wondrously accessible.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is probably the most well-known novel on this list. Although The Name of the Wind has been described as “Harry Potter for adults” by many, I feel that that statement is unfair to both Harry Potter and The Name of the Wind. Yes, The Name of the Wind does follow typical monomythic tropes. It does not, however, follow them in a usual manner. Rothfuss manages to find the spaces between the expected in order to create a fresh narrative out of a stale template.

Fans of any traditional fantasy will find much to enjoy here, while newcomers to the genre will also find an easy entry. Be warned, though, that the book seeks to break records for length. Even by my voracious standards — this is a long book.

Ah, The Lies of Locke Lamora. Does that title not just roll off of the tongue? It is beautiful. Drawn in because of the title and attractive cover art, I found myself additionally enthralled by the unique quality of the story. The Lies of Locke Lamora is a tale that is not necessarily a story of a good man against the bad world. Lynch’s novel lives in the grey. The protagonists are criminals, and their heists make the protagonists of Ocean’s 11 look like schoolyard pranksters.

Fans of mysteries and crime dramas will find much to enjoy here, while fans of classic novels from Dickens (in particular) will witness many similarities. Lynch deserves much more attention to his works — give this one a try.

Soon I Will Be Invincible is the first novel to reach success in a burgeoning genre — the superhero fiction novel. Perhaps inspired by the recent success of Marvel in the movie world, authors have begun to create their own entirely new worlds of superheroes and villains in the classic novel format. Who doesn’t love a good origin tale? Soon I Will Be Invincible provides excellent origin storytelling in spades.

Thankfully, Grossman’s novel has inspired many imitators, most of which are quite palatable. If you are interested in the world of superheroes and villains found outside of comic books and films, give Soon I Will Be Invincible the old college try.

Redshirts is a special sort of novel. Have you ever wondered what the men in the red shirts thought during Star Trek episodes? If you wore a red shirt, you died. Why did they not simply stop wearing red shirts? Did word not spread around that red was probably a bad life choice? Scalzi’s novel examines this cognitive dissonance in a refreshingly witty display of literary acumen.

Redshirts is unlike any novel you’ve read, though those who are staunch anti-Star Trekkian should look elsewhere. Those like me, however, who are only vaguely familiar with Star Trek will find much to enjoy in this lighthearted examination of a beloved and tacitly accepted science fiction trope.

Do yourself a favor and read this novel before it becomes a movie in the near future. Ready Player One is a love sonnet aimed at 80’s and video game culture. If you are not fans of either the 80’s or classic video games, you will not find much to love here.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy both of those features of this novel, you will probably find your new favorite book in Ready Player One. It is a truly brilliant examination of the way in which synthetic culture through games and media can become real through the power of the human mind (Junot Diaz has nothing on the referential nature of Ready Player One).

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Promethean Ideology

WARNING: Spoilers ahoy!

Prometheus gave fire (life) to humanity, instilling humankind with the means of its own self-production and longevity. Does that make the Greek hero the ultimate God of the human race, or just another link in the chain of creation?

The eponymous movie, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, raises much the same question in the course of its own creation myth. As Prometheus is the newest release in the ever-loved Alien franchise, it is natural (and expected) that the release of Prometheus was met with both love and derision.

As I am writing a heavy-worded blog post about Prometheus, it should be fairly clear that I am one of the crowd who genuinely enjoyed the film. While it should be noted that I am a voracious fan of science fiction in general, it should also be noted that I am not a fan (in any way) of bad science fiction.

Bad science fiction includes works like Armageddon, Deep Impact, Star Wars (though I know those films aren’t technically science fiction), and Red Mars. This list could really continue on, ad infinitum, but that list would make up the remainder of this blog post.

The notion of “good” science fiction, on the other hand, is a slippery one. Sci-Fi is a very difficult genre to nail down into one good definition, and it is this self-imposed ambiguity of science fiction that allows it to express the big ideas without taking a pause. When genres become strictly defined by what they can and cannot be, they lose their ability to create new art with new ideas.

Science fiction avoids this pitball by ensuring that it maintains a proper sense of perspective through all of its grand works. When there is an outsider watching and commenting upon an aspect of humanity, good science fiction is made. The presence of an “other” forces a shift in perspective that assures the inclusion of important questions inside the narrative.

What is humanity? Why are we here? Where do we come from? What is our future? All of these questions have been asked, through the means of an “other,” by the great minds of science fiction, including Asimov, Clarke, Herbert, Simmons, Sagan, Card, and (yes), Ridley Scott. (Of course, there are many others who should be in that list. Forgive me.)

Scott’s latest venture into modern science fiction through Prometheus upholds the true standard of what a science fiction work should be through its incessant questioning nature. While some movie-goers may be frustrated by the lack of answers provided in Prometheus, I assert that any movie which leaves the viewer with more questions than answers is a movie well worth watching.

This idea is clearly identified in the character of David, who is masterfully portrayed by Michael Fassbender. The viewer never knows where exactly the allegiances of David lie, and it is the uncertainty of David’s set of motivations that confuse and confound the audience (purposefully). How can we expect to possibly understand the thoughts and actions of a mechanical mind? We cannot. We are not meant to.

David is an enigma within the story of Prometheus who is meant to throw a literal wrench (or poison) into the gumworks. His questions of creation and parentage are absolutely central to the overall theme of Prometheus, which is a theme of choice and consequence. Does David choose to poison his crewmate, or is he ordered to? The answer doesn’t matter — only the question does. This insertion of doubt into the story further propels a tense narrative into arm-wrenching drama.

The drama in the film is well done, though there are some points where the characters fall into classic horror movie plot traps. There is some questionable logic apparent. Did the biologist really need to touch the monster worm snake thing? Was that good scientific practice? Clearly, it wasn’t.

That aside, though, the story of the film holds up very well through the course of the film. We want to know “Who, What, When, Where, and Why,” with the ever-popular “How” left by the wayside. Fortunately, the how does not matter as much as the act of questioning in and of itself.

Prometheus brilliantly illustrates humanity’s search for meaning and life in a dark and empty universe, devoid of apparent meaning. Would you have been satisfied for the true answer to a meaning for life found within a two hour movie? I doubt it.

If you have seen Prometheus, I would strongly encourage you to reflect on the questions that the movie raised in order to appreciate the incredible story-telling that took place within. If you haven’t seen it — go to!

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The “Glee” Problem

I am an unabashed fan of Glee. The music is mostly good. The acting is mostly acceptable. The show is mostly entertaining. It has, however, gotten much worse over the few seasons that it has been on television.

The pilot episode of Glee is one of the best episodes of television that I have seen. View this clip from the ending (ignore the German) as proof:

The song matches the tone of the episode perfectly. The music is clean. There is no drama! In essence, the music of the episode is what the episode is about. This is the most important factor for consideration. You see, Glee started off as a show about music. Though there was relationship drama in the series from its beginning, it was not focused around it. The show was a show about a musical group and their journey together. We were excited to go to regionals with them! We wanted to see them perform.

As the show progressed, however, it became more about the drama and relationship status of the protagonists than the music. As the latest season draws to a close, the music is barely discussed anymore. Yes, the group is preparing for the national spotlight, but what have the most recent shows been about? Pregnancy. Texting. Drama. Relationships.

Worst of all, Glee has become a show about “issues.” We are constantly barraged with topical issues for the cast of Glee to contend with that have some passing relevance to teen life. These issues have run the gamut from pregnancy, to suicide, to homosexuality, to texting while driving, to sex. Although these topics are all relevant to teens in high school, Glee uses them as cheap tools in order to create a moment of learning for the audience.

The message is transparent. While it is respectable that they are attempting to reach the teen base with a positive message, the creators of Glee have done so at the expense of my viewership, at the least. These issues have created an environment within Glee that turns it into an episodic melodrama, as opposed to a musical saga.

For shame.

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