October 2009


Still addictive enough that the awesome TF2 Halloween update takes second place.  As the screenshot shows, I learned a) how to make screenshots, and b) how to play in third person mode.

borderlands scooter

Scooter, one of the few characters you don't kill.

Playing a mixture of single-player and co-op games is weird… you end up playing the same area several times, the first time in a fog of confusion as you help someone else with quests you haven’t got yet.  You can have a fair mixture of levels, but once it gets too wide it’s less fun– I was in a game with someone 10 levels higher and it wasn’t that fun– he just swept up all the enemies.  I created a second character when a friend was just starting out.

There’s an appealing punk feel to the game… no appeals to your better nature, no saving the galaxy– it’s a rough and ugly planet and you’re in it for the money.  And if you have several players and are fighting a horde of enemies, it can be really intense, chaotic fun. 

The loot system is compelling, as it was designed to be, but I’m not sure it marries well to co-op.  I don’t know why you’re limited so much in inventory (you start with just 12 slots)– it forces you to make decisions constantlyon what weapons to keep, and in co-op you don’t want to hold everybody up while you ponder.  Doubling the slots or more would only improve the game.  You want to try out all these weapons, or be able to save one or two for a friend.  It’s annoying to pass over drops because you have no slots or can’t easily evaluate if they’re better than what you have.

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So Borderlands came out yesterday, and I’ve been playing it madly– last night in single-player, tonight mostly in co-op. 

It’s kind of a genre mashup– FPS plus MMO plus L4D.  It’s big shtick is an endless variety of weapons drops– there are said to be a million possible weapons.  You start out with 12 inventory slots, so you’ll spend a lot of time deciding between similar weapons.  (The color-code rarity and the price may help you decide.)

borderlands coop

Co-op allows up to 4 players, and it’s a lot of fun– it’s nowhere near as hard as Left 4 Dead, so you mostly run around finding things to shoot and loot.  The quests can be a bit confusing in multi-player… if you return to single-player, you keep loot and skills you acquired in co-op, but also quest progress, which is good and bad.  It’s nice that you don’t have to repeat, but it can mean that you run quests out of order and in a bit of a rush.  You can play with people of different levels, which is nice.

They’ve come up with an interesting rendering scheme that puts black outlines round anything above a certain size.  It’s pretty and distinctive, and makes the game look like European comics.

In general it feels a lot like a four-player Fallout 3.  The world looks and feels similar.  There’s no save-the-world plot though; instead you’re basically a scavenger/mercenary, and the plot revolves around the ultimate haul: finding advanced alien technology.  It’s kind of refreshing not being the Chosen One of Legend, but rather an honest rogue with an itchy trigger finger. 

There are four playable classes; you can have any mixture in a group.  I’ve been playing Lilith so far; she gets to be quite a lot of fun once she starts doing mega-damage with her Phase Walk.

On the whole the UI is good– you don’t have to read the manual or find walkthroughs.  There are minor annoyances with loot gathering– it’d be nice if ammo you can’t pick up was highlighted in a different color.  And major annoyances with the friends system; it’s not integrated with Steam, it’s not easy to get groups of friends together, voice is a bit wonky (to solve those issues my gaming group has been using Steam to hustle up players and set up voice chat), and to host a game you have to use a highly arcane process. 

More later, no doubt…

Partly based on the rec of alert reader Andrew, I picked up Assassin’s Creed, not to be confused with Apollo of that ilk.  It was on sale for just $5, though it’s back to $20 now.

So, you’re this assassin, Altair, and you wander all over the 12th century Middle East assassinatin’.  You’re a member of an order of assassins, presumably a nod to the original assassins of Alamut, but much nicer.  No hashish, and apparently we work for justice ‘n stuff.  Also no screenshots, because I couldn’t get them to work.  It’s a really gorgeous game, though– huge beautiful cities, great animations.

I’m just one assassination in, out of nine.  Most of the game you spend riding to cities, climbing up vantage points, rescuing citizens from guards, and doing reconnaissance (eavesdropping, pickpocketing, chasing informants, and more– you somehow sense where they all are, though).  You get additional weapons and skills as you go… my latest is Counter-Kill, a fancy counter-attack that generally brings a gruesome kill.

Perhaps the best part is the parkour.  In some ways it’s more fun than Mirror’s Edge, and that’s saying a lot: you are not restricted to a more or less linear path, but can go anywhere.  It’s a lot more vertically oriented, too– you can climb straight up a wall, though maybe Faith could too if she had this many handholds.  Running over the rooftops is not only fun but is generally the easiest way to get around, especially as the game has the concept of high and low profile actions.  High profile actions can attract guards, who must be killed or evaded with special, rather cute actions– e.g. blending in with passing scholars, or hiding in a haystack.  Just walking down the street can be tricky– people will get upset if you knock them down.  Fortunately you can gently shove them aside. 

There also isn’t ME’s emphasis on falling to your death, which is good.  Altair will usually recoil from a jump that’s too far for him.  It’s possible to hurt yourself anyway, but correct timing isn’t nearly as important.

There’s some grinding involved– e.g. there are reasons to save every hassled citizen in a town– but the reward, really, is the excuse to use more parkour.  Instead of running races or replaying chapters, as in Mirror’s Edge, you just fulfill all these in-game side missions.

The emphasis on stealth is fun, though it requires some suspension of disbelief.  You’re not exactly a master of stealth when every mission requires slaying loads of guards and running acrobatically over the rooftops.  (A nice touch, though, is that passersby who see you will comment on how crazy you must be.)

There is a framing device, set in the present, which I’m not even going to get into.  It allows a few neat ideas during the actual gameplay, but I’m not convinced it was a good idea.

The Middle Eastern atmosphere is well done, complete with accents and references to historical figures… though it somehow feels decultured.  Presumably Altair is Muslim, but there’s no exploration of this so far.  Everything looks right, but it doesn’t give a feeling of being in Arabic culture– not even a fantasy version of it, like Jade Empire’s version of China.

Also see my friend Chris’s review.  He makes some entirely justified criticisms, especially about the absurd exit sequence.  It’s also dumb that you can’t simply save a game.  As a result you may end up replaying some bits when you start up again.

After reading the synopsis, I read Fareed Zakaria’s book, The Post-American World.  It’s good, but it’s typical of a certain modern type of book that read like forced expansions of the original magazine article.  He goes into more depth, but not that much more; the major chapters are on China, India, America, and America.  I wish he’d gone into more depth on South Africa, Brazil, and other rising powers.

He’s obviously well connected, but this isn’t always a virtue, especially when it comes to history.  It’s nice that he can get an interview with Lee Kwan Yew, but sometimes the argument seems to be based on a few brisk interviews and visits to burgeoning cities rather than on broader academic research.  (This can be felt especially in his discussion of Chinese and Indian mentality.  It sounds reasonable enough, but no nation can really be reduced to its mentality.  E.g. is Japan an isolated despotism as in 1830, a rising power as in 1910, a grandiose empire as in 1940, or a pacifist economic powerhouse as in 1980?  Even if all of these could be related to some theory of the Japanese soul, they can hardly predict what Japan will be in 2050.)

Still, he has a good story to tell.  He makes a good case that the rise of China and India means a lot for the world, and is essentially a Good Thing for most everyone.  Neither power is likely to repeat the trouble caused by (say) the rise of Germany or Japan– so long as the US doesn’t act like an imperial hegemon.  Our own economic power isn’t going to go away anytime soon.  He makes some illuminating comparisons with imperial Britain, which enjoyed a long period of political dominance (say 1815 to 1945) but only a short period of economic dominance (from about 1845, when its industrial output surpassed France’s, to the 1880s, when it was surpassed by the US).  The US has been much spottier as a political leader, only rarely finding a good balance between isolation and arrogance.  In some ways we do best when we shut up and let our values (democracy and economic opportunity) do their magic.

Zakaria has a strange relationship to the Bush administration and the Republicans in general.  Most of what he has to say is highly critical, but he bows in their direction a few times, as if they’re, you know, just a little misinformed and could be set straight by some pointed reminders.  He was also a supporter of the Iraq war.  The book was written before the election, but more recent columns show that he’s hugely relieved that we now have a president who acts much more in accordance with his views.

Perhaps because of his own experience as an immigrant who’s made good, he’s essentially an optimist– a rare thing these days.  He’s excited by the huge reduction in the world’s poverty, by the vibrancy of newly energized economies, by the fact that the prevailing models are essentially variations of Anglo-American liberal capitalism.  He mentions the many ways we could fall off the rails (global warming, Taiwan, nuclear weapons), but his mind just doesn’t dwell on them.

I tend to be an optimist too; I think we can solve our problems if we want to.  But that’s a huge if.  The next century could look like the 19th– a time of generally rising prosperity and globalism– or like the 20th, when that global order collapsed into war and brutality.  Zakaria himself points out that perhaps the US’s worst failing is our political quagmire.  Britain seemed to do OK whether Liberals or Conservatives were in charge.  We have to fear the disasters that another Republican interlude could bring.

I just finished Imperial China: 900-1800, by F.W. Mote, which not only comprehensively covers a tasty swath of Chinese history but could stun a small mammal.  One thousand pages to cover a period that a general history of China would cover in a tenth of that.

Not surprisingly, its chief virtue is its inclusiveness.  Mote considers not just the dynasties but covers each emperor in depth, plus sketches of the chief intellectual and economic currents. 

Mote believes that China’s relationship with Inner Asia was key, and accordingly devotes quite a lot of attention to the Khitans, Jurchens, Mongols, and Manchus.  Much of this was new to me, and fascinating.  On the nomads’ side, the problem was how to govern an ancient and obstinate sedentary civilization while retaining steppe cred: the ruler must appear as a proper Son of Heaven in Beijing and as an able riding warrior up north.  Curiously it was the first of these, the Khitans, that managed the balance the best.  The Mongols did about the worst– Khubilai Khan was a competent ruler but his successors were all puppets of various factions, and the dynasty didn’t long survive his death.  The Chinese dilemma was, ideally, how to keep the nomads divided and keep their own military strong but not too strong (both emperors and officials had a justified horror of generals becoming rebels).

A factoid for fantasy writers out there: nomadic peoples are likely to be less sexist, not more so than agriculturalists.  Khitan women were very strong; Yingtian, the widow of the first Khitan emperor Abaoji, led her own forces in war and imposed her choice of heir over Abaoji’s wishes.  Queens were expected to sacrifice themselves when their husbands died; when she was reminded of this she pointed out that her children were too young and the nation was leaderless; still, she insisted that her right hand be cut off to be placed in her husband’s grave.  This silenced her critics, did nothing to reduce her powers– and ended the custom of sacrificing queens.

The Manchus, by the way, turn out to be the Jurchens renamed.  They were able to come out from under the shadow of the Mongols and co-opt them, and indeed co-opted many Chinese leaders as well. 

Mote emphasizes many times that the Chinese empire was the most populous in the world, the most prosperous, and for much of his period the most technologically advanced.  It had no aristocracy; it was an open society in which talent could and did move upward; it had a fairly efficient bureaucracy, and it was little affected by religious zealotry.  During times of crisis it could devolve into bandiry or warlordism, but it’s always had a remarkable ability to regain its unity, and at most times it was stable and safe enough that cities didn’t need to build walls. 

So why did it fall behind the West?  In a sense, it was too blessed.  Though it was conquered several times, there was a certain protocol to this– Chinese civilization was never threatened.  Its focus was always on the nomadic threat, to the point that the central government was uninterested in or actively hostile to maritime trade.  It didn’t have many early encounters with the West, and it didn’t find a single Western product it needed– rather, it exported manufactures (e.g. porcelain) in return for silver.

It’s hard not to look at the examination system and the scholar elite without comparing them favorably to European aristocrats.  Yet their scholarship was always based on the study of ancient literary classics; it didn’t prepare them for modern science nor give them a good framework for political analysis.  The system was constantly degraded by lazy monarchs, corruption, or dictatorial factions.  Both emperors and scholars tended to first appeal to morality or ancient writings, then resort to violence.  Only a few rare figures attempted what we’d call political reform. 

The last imperial dynasty was also hobbled by the fact that it was run by foreigners– the Manchus– who were obsessed with rooting out anti-Manchu sentiment.  (One of their projects was to re-publish all earlier literature with all offensive statements about the nomads removed.)  It led the rulers to a great conservativism that was also ill preparation for encountering the raucous Westerners.

Mote, whose name is after all an anagram for tome, can be dry, and he doesn’t always know how to bring a political movement to life, much less everyday life.  (For a more lively approach, jumping with visual details, try John King Fairbank’s The Great Chinese Revolution 1800-1985.)  But much of the dryness isn’t his fault, but ours.  Most of us are so ignorant of Asian history that it’s a mass of odd names and unfamiliar figures.  If you want to get well beyond that and tell your Ming from your Qing, this book’s for you.

I’m playing The Longest Journey, the predecessor game to Dreamfall.  (It’s interesting, in fact, to see the first appearance of a lot of elements from Dreamfall.)

It has a very high reputation among adventure games.  It’s certainly very pretty, the acting is top notch, and there are some great moments of humor.   Ragnar Tørnquist likes female characters and April Ryan is fun; she’ll offer sarcastic comments about the scenery and express a good deal of Frodo-like reluctance to get on with saving the world.  Still, she’s ready for most everything.

lj moles

April saves the Ewoks

It’s from 1999, which definitely shows.  The character models are primitive, and though the game seems to be 3-d-modelled, the action takes place in static scenes, which is unattractively retro and leads to a lot of time spent watching tiny figures of April Ryan running.

You have to save the world… two worlds, actually.  I have to say I don’t care much for Tørnquist’s cosmology.  Magic vs. Science is better than the usual dark lords, but it feels wrong to me somehow, perhaps because “magic” isn’t something we can actually believe in, which makes all the stuff people say about it a little too artificial.  Plus, I dunno, does every fantasy plot have to make the heroine the One Spoken Of In The Prophecies? 

Beyond that, I think the basic format of the adventure game needs some jazzing up.  It’s mostly watching talking heads, alternating with trying out your inventory of miscellaneous junk on the obstinate devices on the screen.  It’s a pretty limited repertoire for storytelling.  Beyond Good & Evil managed to get beyond this by keeping the cutscenes very short and piling on a diversity of types of gameplay.   

Anyway, sorry to be cranky about it.  I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes games fun to play or not.  On that note, in fact, this interview with the developer of Borderlands is interesting.  I like the bits about guiding gameplay without making it feel like you’re doing so, and about making the player’s motivation match the character’s; also about whether the player feels like going along with the developer’s ideas or not.  Some games encourage non-linear exploration, but it’s probably a bad thing if what the game is offering you is not that exciting.  Maybe I’ll go design the perfect video game… back later.

What do you take of this hoopla over the Iranian nuclear program? More specifically, what do you make of the opinions that Iran is secretly, or intending to, enrich weapons-grade uranium has any merit, or is a response to some US insecurity? (Notwithstanding the Bush administration’s attempt to garner a free pass to make a “pre-emptive” strike against Iran with nuclear weapons.)

—Nikolai

After Iraq, any such speculation needs a huge damn disclaimer: EXPERT OPINION MAY BE TALKING OUT OF ITS ASS.  Hussein was just as cagey as the Iranians about international inspections, well past the point where he was obviously undermining his own survival— all to protect, in fact, nothing.  It seems irrational, but not so much if we consider that a) he couldn’t be seen as weak domestically, as would happen if he showed that his nuclear threat was nonexistent; and b) dictators and enemies of the US hate the idea of UN inspectors running all over their territory.

So, if the experts don’t know for sure, I sure don’t, sitting here in my living room.

Of course, where there’s smoke, there is sometimes fire— North Korea, Pakistan, and India, despite years of denial, really were developing nukes.  In some ways the question is why the Iranians haven’t got them yet— are they having trouble with the differential equations or something?

What do we do about it?  There’s an old philosophical maxim that no argument can turn an is into a should.  We might add, no amount of punditry can turn a should into a will.  Take this article by Lee Smith at Slate, for instance, which warns that nothing less than American hegemony over Arabian oil is at stake.  Fine, Lee, what should we do?  He warns against leaving it to Israel on the grounds that “there are some things that need to be done by the alpha dog”, but he neglects to say what those things are.

Few things are more pathetic that bellicosity without follow-through.  The Right always wants us to be a badass, but the days are over when this could be done by landing a couple thousand Marines.  Maybe negotiation will work; it’s worth a try.  Let’s be honest: the alternative is going to war with Iran.  Is the country ready to do that?  (Quick factoid: Iran is double the population and four times the size of Iraq.  Do we have the few hundred thousand troops on hand that would be needed?  Since we’re still far from having stable allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, what makes us think we’d have one in Iran?)

If we’re not going to go to war, there’s precious little deterrence gained by threatening to do it.  It’s not like the Iranians can’t figure this out.

What about letting Israel do it?  It’s mounted such attacks before, on Iraq and Syria, with astonishing impunity.  The Iranians know this too, and it probably has more deterrence effect than the disapproval of the West.  But it’s a huge gamble as it could easily set off a larger war.  Iran’s obvious counter-move would be to attack not Israel but us, in Iraq.

Could we deal with Iran having the bomb?  Probably.  Nukes are better defensive than offensive weapons— actually using them means that someone will use them back at you, and the Iranians don’t want to lose Tehran, or Qom, or their oil fields.  Especially after the Iraq war, nukes add security to rogue states.   No one is more convinced by Kim Jong-il’s rhetoric than before he had them, but he’s that much more safe from invasion.

The irony here is that inside Iran, much more than inside Iraq, there’s an ally waiting to be born.  The Iranians have had a generation to get thoroughly tired of Islamic fundamentalism, and many have bravely taken to the streets to defy it.  It’s hard to say how we could encourage this domestic opposition; but I think it’s clear that trying to be a badass is the best way to strengthen the regime.  We might have learned that from our own experience after 9/11, or from our asinine Cuba policy: nothing helps authoritarians more against their internal enemies than an external threat.

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