Space Ramblings

Watch Dogs is Assassin’s Creed With Less Cyberspace

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Like many open world games, Watch Dogs is a wonderful open world matched with a miserable game. The GTA games get around their poor gameplay and annoying mission structures by filling them up with edgy outsized characters and social commentary.

Watch Dogs tries feebly for the social commentary angle, but their ruminations on privacy and technology don’t distract from the Instafail missions, the annoying placement of saves and cutscenes, the too complicated control setup and the poor shooting.

And everything else.

As an open world, Watch Dogs has a Chicago that looks terrible in the daylight, but amazing at night. The overlays give every little NPC a story and make the world come alive in a way that GTA and Saints Row never managed to do. Most of the functions are just pickpocketting and eavesdropping with a cell phone, but picking up missions by eavesdropping on phone calls makes for a dynamic world and mission structure.

It’s too bad that the missions themselves are so miserable.

Watch Dogs is Assassin’s Creed with less cyberspace and even more awkward controls. The controls are too complicated when they don’t need to be burying the game under layer and layer of strange screens and too simple when they don’t need to be so that when you’re trying to stay in cover, your one press of a key instead alerts every bad guy in the area.

The missions are all about stealth, without the controls to make stealth workable. You have dozens of weapons, but it takes a few shots to kill you.

And that’s just the random missions.

Watch Dogs’ campaign tasks you with an annoying protagonist impossible to care about, who never develops a personality and never shuts up. And he has sidekicks who make you appreciate his lack of personality especially since they keep calling until you take their mission.

If you thought GTA 4′s social networking was annoying, try listening to the same Jordy Chin phone call a dozen times.

Watch Dogs builds a complicated and interesting open world and then jams you into a dumbed down game making the same mistake that Rockstar keeps making with the GTA games. But Watch Dogs doesn’t have enough color to compensate or enough style the way that its Assassins’ Creed games do. Once you get past the open world, there’s no reason to keep playing.

Watch Dogs is Assassin’s Creed with the amazing open world, but without any of the fun combat or platforming. Instead you’re stuck with another character who can die if he steps the wrong way outside a mission zone, but who doesn’t even offer the fun of cutting through a mob of enemies with a cutlass.

That’s what makes Watch Dogs so joyless. Its characters are bland, its combat is poor and its controls are worse. It’s a great open world that lets you go from urban to rural in a short drive, that lets you encounter a hundred different people with their own stories in a single block, but that plays like an arcade game without any of the fun.

It’s fun to occasionally raise a bridge during a chase letting you fly overhead or raise the bollards shutting down your pursuers, but more often it feels like trying to play a piano while someone is throwing bricks at your head. Stopping criminal convoys also sounds like fun, until your mission requirements tell you that your job is to knock down one driver while surviving attacks by his dozen cronies in a body that can take about three gunshots. Kill him accidentally and you also die.

It’s fun to hack a grenade that your enemy is carrying, but you’re as likely to end up inside a camera while he kills you. It’s fun to zoom through the cameras, but then you’re stuck with hacking a pipe puzzle.

The only way to have fun in Watch Dogs is to avoid its mission structures and Ubisoft’s design makes that as hard as it can to do assaulting you with phone calls and pop ups until you give in and muddle your way through another miserable mission.

And then you wonder why you’re playing Watch Dogs at all.

I Hate Your HDR Photos More Than I Can Say

I used to like looking at photos. Then Instagram and HDR came along.

Instagram just says you’re white, in your twenties, live in a city and have an iPhone. HDR says that you have a few thousand dollars worth of photography equipment and software that should be taken away from you for your own good.

HDR ruins a photo faster than peeing into coffee ruins your morning. It shoves photos down an uncanny valley somewhere between a photo and a picture without looking like either one. It’s a hideous mutant that shouldn’t exist. It ‘pops’ by turning your edges into a bad joke while keeping just enough photo realism so that everyone knows it isn’t a photo or a picture.

HDR is like beating your child so hard he gets a concussion and telling him to join the circus. Looking at them makes the part of my brain that processes images hurt. It’s like motion sickness for art.

 

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Just look at this thing. It’s been HDR’d and color corrected to within an inch of its life. There’s a potentially good picture hiding in that like a mobster in witness protection, but it will never be found.

Look there’s a reason that we like cloud photos. Clouds are intangible. They can’t be touched.

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Skies in HDR photos are congealed balls of colorized wax. They’re streaks of hardened copper. They kill the whole idea of a sky and replace it with something that looks like it should only be found under a microscope.

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Movie studios and game designers spend a lot of money trying to make 3D models look like real buildings. HDR makes real buildings look like bad 3D models.

Am I supposed to be impressed because you took a photo that looks like a video game cutscene from 2007?

That’s not evolution, it’s devolution. It’s as if you took genetic therapy to turn into a monkey.

And then there are the animals.

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Is there any reason for this cat to be in HDR? If it understood what you had done, it would be ashamed of you. I won’t even mention the HDR kids. When your son grows up, he would rather you showed baby photos of him peeing outside than the most dignified HDR photo.

Consider this an intervention. Your HDR photos suck. There are only two valid reasons for HDR photos.

1. You’re making a cover for the album of an amateur heavy metal band in Detroit.

2. You’re an idiot

Five years from now you’ll look through your HDR photos and delete all of them and wonder what you were thinking.

Is SciFi Lit Dead? The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection Review

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It took me a while to get around to reading The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection. I don’t like Gardner Dozois on principle, but the annual collections, despite the nepotism, were usually dominated by strong writing.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection stinks of nepotism and mediocrity. There are few strong stories and few bad stories. The dominant theme is mediocrity.

Most of the stories are mediocre. The same five or six writers have two stories a piece in the collection. I never saw that before and it’s telling.

There’s the foreword with its phony confidence about the health of the industry. The pathetic attempts at inclusiveness. And the stories that are congealed masses of SciFi lit genre cliches.

Third world nanotech. Forgiveness and near death experiences. That’s the dominant impression. It’s like the genre hasn’t changed in fifteen years. And it needs a bath.

There are a few ‘different’ stories like Steven Popkes’ “Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected” and “Old Paint” that feel modern, but the rest is the usual post-cyberpunk trash clogging SciFi lit. And there’s even a Steampunk entry. And at least one zombie story.

“Close Encounters” by Andy Duncan has a certain charm, but doesn’t seem like a best of anything, though it comes closer to fitting the Sudden and Old Paint template of modern Science Fiction.

“Chitai Heiki Koronbin” by David Moles circles that same template, but is too mediocre to be here.

Some stories were so boring that they’re unreadable. They’re not bad. They just sit there. Like Holmes Sherlock or Lavie Tidhar, who gets two stories to demonstrate that she can write like it’s 1995. Or Carrie Vaughn’s Astrophilia.

Nobody sums up tired 90′s post-cyberpunk better than Pat Cadigan with “The Girl-thing Who Went Out For Sushi”. Thanks, we’ve done this already. Try a time machine to when computers ran Windows 95 and this story would have been edgy and fresh.

But Alastair Reynolds has his shot with tired Third World genre cliche “The Water Thief”. A refugee camp. Remote work. It’s so timely. In 1995.

Robert Reed’s Eater of Bone is dark and good. “In The House Of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns” by Elizabeth Bear is actually decent and uses the Third World setting intelligently. It’s the exception to the rule.

Indrapramit Das’ Weep for Day is used to market the book, but it’s a mediocre cliche with occasional bursts of style and about the only reason for the hype is the new diversity quotas.

Lavie Tidhar appears to be another diversity quota entry. “Tyche and the Ants” by Hannu Rajaniemi is another diversity quota and poor story. “Vainglory” by Alastair Reynolds would have been a much better substitute.

“Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden” by Paul McAuley takes the prize for longest title and most worthlessly mediocre story.

“Nightfall On The Peak Of Eternal Light” seems like a Heinlein story. Except more mediocre. It’s a decent depiction of lunar life, but not really very interesting. Not sure why it’s even here. Ditto for “Nightside On Callisto” by Linda Nagata with a different setting.

Michael Bishop’s Twenty Lights To “the Land Of Snow has its moments of charm, but it’s too long and directionless. Again, mediocrity.

There’s “Steamgothic” by Sean Mcmullen which is every bit as awful as it sounds.

“Ruminations In An Alien Tongue” by Vandana Singh. See quotas, diversity.

“The Wreck Of The Charles Dexter Ward” by Sarah Monette And Elizabeth Bear is somewhat intriguing, but it’s a technophobic zombie story with an interesting setting and no background.

“Invisible Men” by Christopher Barzak is an “I’m so clever I’m writing about class as a metaphor” reworking of The Invisible Man. It would have been mediocre even in 1955.

The overriding theme is mediocrity. It seems as if SciFi Lit, despite being more vocal and more editorially powerful than ever, has run out of steam. It’s unable to jettison its tired cyberpunk gear and its attempts at diversity just make a bad thing worse.

24 is Back…. and It Hasn’t Learned a Thing

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After 9/11, 24 became a left winger’s idea of what a right winger might want to watch. Picture Michael Moore trying to make a show for Oliver Stone. Then throw in a lot of ADD.

And that hasn’t changed.

It’s 2014 and 24 is still the same show it was. Its producers, picking up some wind from Homeland’s popularity, have shoveled in Wikileaks, the white widow, drone strikes and moved the setting to London and yet it’s still exactly the same show.

Jack Bauer is a rogue. Jack Bauer is on the run. Jack Bauer is the only one who knows the next attack is coming. And no one believes Jack Bauer even though he’s been right a dozen times. And he once piloted in a nuke. And no one even recognizes him.

There’s another substitute CTU war room with its soap operas, another West Wing drama and it’s all the same stuff all over.

24 still has its moments. Only by its last season did it become so hopelessly miserable as to be completely unwatchable. But it’s thin stuff.

While shows like The Following and Blacklist are playing with the 24 formula, it has stayed the same. Why? If 24 had to come back, why not go back to what made its first season work. Jack as a human being, frantic and with something at stake. Or pick up more interesting villains.

It’s 2014. Does anyone really want forced dramatic debates about drone warfare? Or the least plausible Al Qaeda terrorists ever?

Why even bother moving the series to London if you’re going to act exactly like it’s Los Angeles? Why pretend that little drone friendly fire will outrage the Brits when you have a battalion of CIA people running around waving guns around London?

Why not, and here’s an absolutely ridiculous idea, have Jack deal with a British version of CTU? Because that would be playing with the 24 formula. And that golden formula is on its 9th season and ridiculously predictable.

Soon Jack will be believed. He’ll lead a team. Then he’ll go rogue again. Margot Al-Hazari will turn out to be the pawn of some secretive group that wants to discredit drones or that infected President Heller with a senility virus so they can take over everything. And they’ll turn out to be the pawns of someone else.

We’ve done this before. Why do we have to do it again?

You can’t blame the cast. Kiefer Sutherland gives every scene 110%. Yvonne Strahovski is unexpectedly good and working overtime in a generic role. Even William Devane is trying to take bland material to a West Wing level, even if his parliamentary speech is so bland and cliched that no one would even bother booing it.

24 Live Another Day could have worked. It could have justified its existence. All it needed to do was shake the formula up enough to make the show watchable. Stop clinging to old characters. Stop acting as if it had something important to say about drone warfare. Stop being a Bush soap and deal with life in a new decade.

And it doesn’t even try.

Why not dump Jack into London as a stranger without Chloe, the CIA, President Heller or any of the trimmings? Stuff him into an alien world and watch him try to navigate it with no support.

It wouldn’t have given fans nostalgia hits, but it might have been a show worth watching.

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Google Glass has Trouble with Scottish Accents

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No matter how ground breaking it’s supposed to be, like every other voice recognition system on earth, Google Glass doesn’t do Scottish well.

Not that Apple is any better at Scottish accents than Google.

Or any voice recognition really.

The Neighbors was Good… and then All the Characters Became Idiots

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I wish I could say that I feel bad about The Neighbors being canceled, but I can’t blame ABC. The show has slid so much in quality that the few times I tuned in, I couldn’t sit through an entire episode.

And that’s too bad.

The Neighbors had a great cast and debuted with fun episodes, but it worked only to the extent that it resisted becoming a conventional sitcom.

Debbie and Marty Weaver grounded the show for a while with a working class Jersey background. They felt like real people and a real family. And then Marty became Homer Simpson, an overgrown whiny baby with a 50 IQ and the kids became sitcom kids, smarter than their idiot parents.

And The Neighbors became every sitcom, a bunch of cliches pushed around a plate. And the cliches were terrible cliches. The show wasn’t a laugh machine the way that a CBS sitcom is. The Neighbors worked because of its talent cast and because the writing combined sincerity with the actually unexpected.

Season 2 seemed to be about the endless relationship between David Mamet’s daughter and “Reggie Jackson”. And the aliens went from being a little mysterious and different to becoming ordinary wacky sitcom neighbors. The show became I Love Lucy with worse writing and predictable gags.

The holiday episodes were terrible. The musical episode was unwatchable. The celebrity cameos were pointless.

It didn’t have to be this way.

3rd Rock From the Sun, a very similar show, had already gone over this territory. And its comedy stopped working when the aliens became too familiar and the sitcom cliches too overpowering. That show had John Lithgow who could keep the machine going because he could deliver a line like “Hello Family” and make it funny.

The Neighbors didn’t run that way. There was a time when it felt more like Andy Richter Controls the Universe and less like Modern Family. Wacky, strange and unpredictable, but sincere.

It would have been a shame if that show had been canceled. Instead canceling The Neighbors spares everyone from its 3rd season Christmas episode in which everyone ends up on Dancing With the Stars.

A Veronica Mars Movie Review… and the Kickstarter Nostalgia Problem

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After Veronica Mars was cancelled, Rob Thomas tried to move the show forward with a proposed next season that had her in the FBI. It wasn’t perfect, but it was plausible. It might have even been interesting. And it would have moved Veronica forward.

But fans don’t fund Kickstarters to see a story move forward. They do it to get more of the same.

And that’s what Veronica Mars is. A hit of nostalgia. It’s not really a movie. More of an extended TV episode with a more famous cast and a few more expensive shots, mostly in New York.

Kirsten Bell tries her hardest and the old cast is good, but the story is lacking. The central mystery feels like a condensed version of the first few seasons with Logan as a murder suspect, a viciously hostile sheriff and a murder involving a rich girl.

There’s nothing new here. There’s nothing that even feels new. And it’s not nearly as good in backwash form.

The dialogue is sharp and funny, witty, knowing and clever in that self-referential way that caters to its fans. But the same can’t be said of the plot which is not only derivative, but gives you few reasons to care.

The movie relies on throwing in old characters and expecting the audience to care, but the murder mystery doesn’t matter, there’s no emotional hook except Logan’s legal problems and a secondary story involving Weevil’s shooting is awkward, as Veronica Mars’ attempts at social commentary usually were, and ends unfinished.

The movie is an excuse to put everything back the way it was and it’s unconvincing. Veronica Mars as an FBI agent was plausible. Veronica Mars as a corporate lawyer in New York isn’t. It’s there to set up a pointless choice that we know she will make between her life back in Neptune and filing legal documents.

It gives Veronica Mars a reason not to move on. And it convinces the audience that she wouldn’t.

Veronica Mars once felt new and fresh. It was sharp as a knife. Trying to recreate it in this way isn’t. It’s like a reunion tour for a group that rocked in the 70s. A few of the old standards with none of the old spirit.

There are other bad choices. A portion of the movie involving James Franco. Text messages appearing on the screen. A painfully long intro chock full of exposition that should have been relayed through the characters and has no reason for existing since anyone watching this probably already knows the bare premise of the show.

But they’re not the problem. The problem is that a show that was once fresh and new has become a nostalgia product. And maybe that’s what’s wrong with Kickstarter and with funding a movie through it.

Kickstarter allows people in their twenties and thirties to pay for more of the things they liked when growing up, whether it’s games or movies. But they don’t remember that what made them like those things was their newness. The way they rocked their world.

Veronica Mars, set around a reunion, is self-consciously a reunion. The old gang is back together. Everything is the way it was. Life hasn’t moved on. And it lets the people paying for more of the same pretend that life hasn’t moved on either.

As terrible as the Buffy season comics are, they are in their own awkward stupid way trying to move forward. Rob Thomas left to his own devices might have done that with Veronica Mars. Or he might have done it despite Kickstarter. But instead he gave the people what they paid for.

A ghost of what the show used to be.

Social Justice Warrior Writes About Science Fiction, Shows How Dumb He Is

"This man, he knows nothing of my work."

“This man, he knows nothing of my work.”

If you want to see the consequences of idiots who know a lot about how to analyze everything in racial terms, but don’t know the subject, writing about anything, you could do worse than look at this Noah Berlatsky essay on Science Fiction and Colonialism in the Atlantic.

But not much worse.

The link between colonialism and science-fiction is every bit as old as the link between science-fiction and the future. John Rieder in his eye-opening book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science-Fiction notes that most scholars believe that science fiction coalesced “in the period of the most fervid imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth century.” Sci-fi “comes into visibility,” he argues, “first in those countries most heavily involved in imperialist projects—France and England” and then gradually gains a foothold in Germany and the U.S. as those countries too move to obtain colonies and gain imperial conquests.

Also toasters. And detective novels which are probably also a metaphor for Western colonialism.

Science Fiction also dates back, in various forms, thousands of years. But whatever, circle drawn. If you define the parameters your way, you can turn correlation into causation. And look, it’s a college essay.

In such stories, sci-fi is about “them” (a non-white, foreign civilization) doing to us (Western, largely white powers) as we did to them. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Into Darkness, for example, imagine a non-white antagonist who preaches the colonial ideology of eugenic culling against the less biologically perfect, Western-ish protagonists.

Wait… what?

I haven’t seen the latest Abrams Trek, but its star is a white British guy. The actual Khan viewed the Enterprise crew as inferiors, but wasn’t spending his time calling for the extermination of inferior races. He even married a biologically ordinary woman.

So Berlatsky probably isn’t familiar with the subject matter, but…

Take Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, about a totalitarian Britain conquered and occupied by Germany, in which native English people are second-class citizens.

Wait… what?

Did Berlatsky confuse Brazil with The Boys of Brazil? Did he even see the movie?

From Brazil, it’s only a brief hop to 1984, which, as I’ve pointed out here at The Atlantic, can also read as a reverse colonial parable.

Noah Berlatsky can also be read as a parable of what happens when an idiot gets a column. What does he think INGSOC stands for?

But going by his comments on Star Trek and Brazil, he’s just randomly pulling stuff together he never read or saw.

Even the Terminator films fit pretty easily into a colonial narrative.

And what about Alien? Colonization of the body. And Alf. And Jaws. The shark is a metaphor for the British Empire.

So what to make of this colonial obsession?

“Hey doc,” says the patient looking at the Rorschach inkblots, “What’s up with all the dirty pictures?”

Reverse colonial sci-fi don’t always have to be anti-imperialist, though. Ender’s Game, both film and book, use the invasion of the superior aliens not as a critique of Western expansion and genocide, but as an excuse for those things. The bugs invade human worlds, and the consequence is that the humans must utterly annihilate the alien enemy, even if Ender feels kind of bad about it. Olympus Has Fallen runs on the same script, as a North Korea with impossibly advanced weapons technology lays sci-fi siege to the White House, giving our hero the go-ahead for torture, murder, and generalized carnage.

Olympus has Fallen? It’s the best SciFi movie since Die Hard. Or Rambo. Which is a parable of colonialism.

See?

In Terminator, as well, the fact that the robots are treating us as inhumanly as we treated them doesn’t exactly create any sympathy. Instead, the paranoid fear of servants overthrowing masters just becomes a spur to uberviolence (as shown in Linda Hamilton’s transformation from naïve good girl to paramilitary extremist). The one heroic reprogrammed Terminator, who must do everything John Connor tells him even unto hopping on one leg, doesn’t inspire a broader sympathy for SkyNet. Instead, Schwarzenegger is good because he identifies with the humans totally, sacrificing himself to destroy his own people. Terminator II is, in a lot of ways, a retelling of Gunga Din.

Finally. An article sympathetic to a genocidal computer. Sarah Connor should have rethought her biological privilege.

But give Noah Berlatsky some credit. At least he actually seems to have watched Terminator 2. Unlike Star Trek or Brazil.

Also he watched Olympus has Fallen. He’s such a Science Fiction nerd.

This is what happens when you don’t know what you’re talking about, but you get by with the same college bullshittery of comparing everything to colonialism.

The Atlantic. It’s like college never ended.

Is Science Fiction Fandom Hopelessly Polarized?

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This isn’t just about Larry Correia and Vox Day. Or Jonathan Ross. Or Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Or Mick Resnick. Or all the rest of it. The bitter accusations and counter-accusations. The outrage and counter-outrage and counter-outrage-outrage.

Science Fiction, like a lot of publishing, rests on more than ever on writers marketing themselves over social media. That’s why we pretend that Scalzi is a good writer, when he’s actually a bad writer and an entertaining blogger.

It’s what he has in common with some other recent big names.

We have less of a fandom of writing now and more of a fandom of writers and causes. Followings of writers who are the best at online presence because they polarize and mobilize.

The Hugos have been worthless for a while, but the 2014 finalist list shows how easy it is to rig them. After Vox Day’s appearance on the list, I don’t see why any writer would even want to be associated with them.

But it’s all about the marketing. And the marketing is now all about the politics.

It’s easier to market yourself as a writer if you have controversial political views. It’s much harder if your views are ordinary, boring or if you don’t have any.

A bad writer with an entertaining and controversial online presence. A dramatic online presence. Beats a good writer with little online presence.

In a fractured marketplace where that same audience is buying movies, video game and a dozen other things, politics pulls people together. Fandoms built around writers with a commanding online presence have more power because fandom is a pale twisted shadow of what it once was.

Science Fiction is polarized because that’s what stands out in a crowded and mediocre marketplace. You can’t set yourself apart from the latest 40 urban fantasy series or Martin imitators who are growing out their beards, but you can set yourself apart by being loud and obnoxious.

Maybe this is what’s happening with our politics, but it is what’s happening with our Science Fiction. And then everyone is outraged and outraged by the outraged and no one can hear themselves talking because they’re screaming talking points at each other.

And you pick a side, any side, join in, because that’s fandom now.

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