March 2017

Movies

Fiction

Fantastic Beasts and where to find them

I never really got into the whole “Harry Potter” series. I tried reading the books but didn’t get too far. There wasn’t really a lot that caught my imagination. There was just too much other stuff that appealed to me more. Having said that, I did enjoy the movies. Not because they were unusual / awesome, but because they were entertaining.

So now Rawling’s newest has hit the theatres, originally intended as a trilogy it’s already been expanded to a five film series.

It is, in a way, the continuation of the Harry Potter series. It is set in the same / similar universe, new, adult, characters. The cynic in me says that this is Rawling cashing in on the now adult fans of the Harry Potter series.

There is not really anything wrong with the approach, much like there wasn’t anything wrong with the Potter films when they came out, but the question always is: As a non-fan of the books, can it stand on it’s own merits?

In a “fantastic movie” like this, a lot is down not only to the actors but also to the effects and how “lifelike” it comes across. In the case of “Fantastic Beasts” I would have to say they have mostly succeeded. There is an interesting approach to the colour grading that reinforces the 1920s setting of the story and the creature effects are well executed. Some of the digital sets look a bit “off” but overall it isn’t too distracting.

So if you have two hours and want to get whisked away into a magical world with unusual and weird creatures, there are many worse ways to spend that time.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

So I got finally around to watch it and.... well, as I said back in January when I wrote about the book I just don't really care.

The movie has excellent special effects, the world, planets and ships look splendid. Tarkin on the other hand is just this side of uncanny valley. I get why they wanted him, he was, as little as he was in the original movie, memorable. But much like the last Star Wars movie I cannot help but feel that the whole thing is more fan service than anything else, and that's a shame.

It's supposed to be dark when everybody dies in the end, but that would require me to be involved in the characters and I just wasn't. It is a technical competent, absolutely boring and pointless movie.

The thing that made the books entertaining, finding out how the design fault was put into the Death Star, is completely absent from the movie itself, as expected.

So what do you have at the end of it? I guess more merchandising option for Lucasfilm and Disney and I guess some fanboys who happily tuck themselves in with their Star Wars bed ware.

At this point, I do not really have a lot of hope for the series and I really shouldn't be surprised. It became clear in the 1990s when Lucas "redid" the original trilogy that it had turned into a money making adventure / vanity project.

It's a shame, but I guess at the end of the day that's what you get when you never outgrow your childhood.

And I'll leave that here to once again make my point:

Non-Fiction

Fursonas

If you don’t know what Furries are you are probably new to the internet or stay to the more “mainstream” parts of the internet. In short, a furry is a person who identifies with an animal and tries to “live” part time at least as one. This does not have to be sexual and is most often expressed by wearing a costume of their animal.

Fursona is a documentary by a furry for furries, or at least that how it feels at time. But it also gives an interesting insight into the furry subculture which has long left the internet and entered the real world via Furry Cons and similar events.

The documentary is an interesting look into the subculture that Wiki describes as follows:

The furry fandom is a subculture interested in fictional anthropomorphic animal characters with human personalities and characteristics. Examples of anthropomorphic attributes include exhibiting human intelligence and facial expressions, the ability to speak, walk on two legs, and wear clothes. Furry fandom is also used to refer to the community of people who gather on the Internet and at furry conventions.

Books

Non-Fiction

Age of Anger — A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra

If there is one interesting thing that has come to the forefront since Trump got elected it is that finally people realize that a lot of people are angry, disenfranchise and seeking a way to let other people know.

What isn't clear to many is that this isn't a new anger, rather we are in yet another cycle where disenfranchised people try to vent their anger via elections and "popular uprisings".

Pankaj Mishra's book tries to explain how we got to now and how this now isn't really new. It is a repeat of previous histories, with new actors, minor changes in the plot but in general following the same paradigm.

The greatest value that the book provides is that it looks beyond the rim that is the western self-image and also manages to look to Asia and what is going on there (e.g. India's Modi and the Philippines Duarte).

Where the book disappoints a bit and is, on some level a product of it's time, is that he equates what is happening with Misogyny, but it seems that this term is used these days for "something bad happened and I am one of the good guys" shorthands.

What the book does not do, and is not intending to do though, is to provide answers to the questions. It is, as the title implies, a history of the now, not a "how do we fix this". After the reading the book one comes to the conclusion that in the end things will have to play out as they have before, and rebuild from the ashes.

So, history repeating, as many times before.

None the less, a good read and recommended.

Rogue Heroes — The History of the SAS

Special Forces have captured people's imagination not only since Seal Team Six took out Bin Ladin. The idea of the rough guys behind the enemy lines has been with modern pop culture at least since the 1970s, from the cheesy "Delta Force" Movies of the 80s.

Trailer for Delta Force Movie

To their role in "Black Hawk Down"

TRAILER FOR BLACK HAWK DOWN

Or the recent series SIX (discussed in the TV section)

But most of these movies, although sometimes based on real time events, they aren't really history books. "Rogue Heroes" is an authorized history of the SAS, the first special forces, the one that "invented it all".

The book is written in a very conversational style, it is set almost entirely in WWII and manages to showcase a bunch of guys that literally made it up as they went along. "Who dares wins", which is the official SAS motto, clearly applies to not only the military exploits of the early SAS but also of the people involved in it when they boot strapped the operation.

In a lot of ways the books subtitle could also have been "Stiff upper lip" as many of the exploiters, stories and characters seem to be quintessentially British in their approach to the tasks and challenges they were facing.

It is an entertaining read and something that provides and excellent insight into what drives people who join these organizations who do things most of us only read about or play in video games.

Fiction

Frontlines — Book 5 — Fields of Fire by Mark Kloos

Another one of the really more or less pointless Sci-Fi books I read for “relaxation”.

It’s the 5th book in a series of an alien invasion and human kind’s attempt to push back the “Lankys”, giant creatures that are truly alien.

In book 5, mankind tries to to retake Mars which was lost to a Lanky assault earlier in the series. While the initial attack seems to succeed, the tide soon turns as the Lankys show that they are way smarter than humans thought so far.

At best, by the end of the book, mankind has won a Pyrrhic victory, but our hero and his wife are still alive.

Overall if you like face paced military Sci-Fi it is entertaining enough. Just don’t expect a giant space opera with complex themes.

Rebel Fleet — Book 2 — Orion Fleet by B. V. Larson

Larson is one of those people who seem to get paid by the word. It seems there isn’t a month where he doesn’t have a new book out. Having said that, he is an easy read and a nice way to distract yourself.

The Rebel Fleet series does follow his usual patterns. Military guy somehow ends up in Space and quickly discovered that humanity has some unique, often brutal, skills that “saves the day” for the underdog.

In Orion Fleet the US Government have built itself a ship after re-engineering the ship that our hero managed to steal from the Rebels in the first book. Of course only being a lowly soldier the higher-ups have different ideas.

But our hero wouldn’t be the hero if he wouldn’t outsmart not only his own Government but also the rebel brass who do not like him much either.

In the end, the day is being saved and we are left with a cliffhanger hinting at much much bigger things to come in the next book.

Will save the Galaxy for Food — By Yathzee Crowshaw

Space travel just isn't what it used to be. With the invention of Quantum Teleportation, space heroes aren't needed anymore. When one particularly unlucky ex-adventurer masquerades as famous pilot and hate figure Jacques McKeown, he's sucked into an ever-deepening corporate and political intrigue. Between space pirates, adorable deadly creatures, and a missing fortune in royalties, saving the universe was never this difficult!

Risen from the Jam (see below) Yathzee has taken off to space, following, in some aspects, in the exhaust fumes of Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker. Not quite as clever and epic it manages to entertain in it’s own right.

Life is absurd, and that’s even more true in the somewhat distant future where flying in a space ship is only something for people stuck in the past, but a man gotta make a living so why not sell this as an adventure to tourists? What could possibly go wrong?

It’s fast paced and if you enjoy space pirates, ultra rich people and conspiracies then Yathzee has the thing for you.

Jam — By Yathzee Crowshaw

We were prepared for an earthquake. We had a flood plan in place. We could even have dealt with zombies. Probably.

But no one expected the end to be quite so . . . sticky . . . or strawberry scented.

Another book in the long line of great British humour writing. Yathee’s “Jam” reminds me a lot of Tom Holds books, where reality is bend just enough to make it completely crazy and bizarre. With the protagonist often trying to understand the new reality and falling back on tropes and “things of the past” to make sense of it.

In this case something seems to have gone horribly wrong as our hero Travis wakes up in the morning and finds his Australian city covered in three feet of what appears to be Strawberry Jam. Only, it really really likes to eat people…. and anything else organic.

What follows now is a mixture of conspiracy theory and “Lord of the Flies”, with a giant tarantula in a tupperware container to tag along.

It’s funny and entertaining if you like dark humour.

Human++ by Dima Zales

Near future SciFi is always interesting because it gives you an idea as to what the author knows about current technology, or maybe gives you some ideas on what is in the works. In Human++ Dina Zales goes down the nano-trail.

What if we can use nano robots to enhance / restore brain functionality, called “brainocytes”? The “hook” in the story is that our hero’s mother suffers from a mental diseases and so he uses his Silicon Valley made fortune into finding a technical cure. The story quickly turns into a thriller when his mother and other test patients get abducted by some Russians and dragged half way around the world.

The story itself is pretty cookie cutter, it’s an action movie in book form, including the evil Russians and the underdog son who finds love along the way. But it is entertaining and the author at least understands enough of the technology to not give me a headache. If you some near future action thriller this book is for you.

Games

Replay — GTA IV — Rockstar Games

With Rockstar releasing GTA IV as a backward compatibility title I thought it would be fun to go back and see how a game I had fond memories of from almost a decade ago would hold up.

The good stuff first:

It’s still a fun game, the graphics even are surprisingly good, albeit low-res. From decent looking water, functioning mirrors and really nice lighting the game has surprisingly well up. So has the writing, with some of it in hindsight being even more hilarious.

The not so good stuff:

Vehicles

It’s not so much the models, they are destructible, they look decent and sound nice as well.

what’s not so nice is how they control. From brakes that really only work like you’re suggesting they should be doing something, to general physics that have you feel like you’re driving on ice all the time. In comparison to GTA V it’s staggering just how challenging this is. “Rubberball physics” come to mind, which are especially pronounced if you’re on a motorcycle.

This also carries forward to the helicopters who are surprisingly hard to control. Maybe I am getting old, but I am not remembering it being that touchy when I first played the game.

Boats on the other hand seem to not have changed much between the GTA games.

Controls

Oh dear. It’s hard to remember how standardized controls have become for FPS. I have done a few stupid things because I am no longer used to the “old style”. Getting into and out of cover is really irritating and more than once got me mailed because I got stock in the cover. Even when in cover selecting a side, say around a pillar, is a challenge.

So, down the nostalgia trip and it is still fun, but I don’t think I have also been as frustrated by a game in quite a while, purely due to the controls.

Rainbow Six — Ghost Recon — Wildlands

Open world games have a two main problems:

  1. The world needs to seem alive.
  2. There needs to be something to do for the player.

The first one is often down how well the world is designed. I have never encountered an open world game that lets you actually interacting in a lifelike way with a lot of the “inhabitants” of that world. Often they are just window dressing. How well that works is really down to the artistry of the game studio. I always thought that Ubisoft was at the top of their game there, while EA often created pretty dollhouses that didn’t really provide a lot of engagement.

The second one is a much bigger issue though. How many different types of “quests” or “side missions” can you create? In the early days of open world most of these were pretty cookie cutter and even today they often get reduced to “fetch quests”, with the only variety being in the local and enemies you may encounter.

Wildlands, as beautiful as it looks, suffers from the “rinse, dry, repeat” problem as well. I think until we get much more powerful machines that can really simulate a real world we will be stuck with these kinds of game plays.

Having said that, Wildlands is a bit of a departure from previous Ubisoft games in that the missions, although in approach similar, aren’t quite as cookie cutter as in the past. This in no small part lies in the variety of the local. Climate, territory etc. all are changing with each province you move into and even each individual province shows some variety. But don’t be too excited, as a lot of the strategies are still the same. Taking over a base? You probably want to get rid of the snipers, then find the generator and disable it so that there is no alarm (or to turn out all the lights if you’re approaching at night).

Some metrics are still very arbitrary as well. For example: “Don’t get detected” means you need to kill any enemy before they can set of the alarm (for example by firing their unsilenced gun), which seems a bit counter intuitive, if I try to infiltrate a base to steal / copy documents that I don’t want them to know I have indiscriminately killing guards is sort of a dead give away that someone was there, pardon the pun.

At the end of the day, Wildlands is a more serious version of the “Just Cause” game series. Ubisoft calls Wildlands a “tactical shooter” but that’s a bit too much. The ability to “upgrade” your character to be more resilient to enemy fire for example doesn’t quite jive with it. Sure, if you’re unlucky you take a bullet to the head and are down in one go, but at the same time you can be revived by your comrades. That vehicles and support “drop out of thin” air is also more of a “Just Cause” kind of approach than a realistic military tactical shooter.

Overall it is a fun experience, with a gorgeous world, but it’s also trapped between being too serious to be all fun and not serious enough to really be a challenge in the classic tactical shooter sense.

It will be interesting to see what Ubisoft does with the concept though. There is enough meat there to make something nice out of it, if they will go there though remains to be seen.

Finally, I leave you with Yathzee's review:

Playtest -- Mass Effect: Andromeda

I admit it, after the end of Mass Effect 3 I was pretty much done with it. Bioware and EA gave the fan community a giant finger with that ending:

Having said that, curiosity got the better of me as EA was offering a test play on the XBOX and so I bit.

To be clear, none of the graphics glitches that people have spoken about online I have actually seen, well, almost none. Characters popping in and out I do see, but I have seen similar bugs in other games, so it is not really a deal or game breaker for me, though considering the doll house like world building by Bioware it isn't really a sign of quality craftsmanship.

Which brings me to my first major point of critique with the game. Like it's previous games, and pretty much any other Bioware game, the world really is set up like a doll house. You have a few areas you can go in, the rest is often blocked off. The NPCs seem to be glued in places with very few animations. It is a far cry from what Ubisoft regularly creates in their worlds who always come off as more lifelike. One of my favourite video game moments is the Carnival in Venice in Assassin's Creed II, a game that was released in 2009 and does a better job of building the world than Bioware manages in 2017.

So what about the game play?

In the hours that I was able to play the demo I can say that it seems to have a variety of world and their claim that they are more about "exploring" than previous games seems to hold true, yet, there are still hard boundaries, at least during the initial phase. It would be interesting to know just how open the planets really are.

The story is.... well, it seems to have some legs, but I cannot really judge yet how well it actually is written. I know there is a certain subset of gamers that think Bioware's writing is one of the best in the industry, I never belonged to that. It wasn't always painting by numbers, but it clearly also wasn't Pulitzer or Nebula award worthy material.

At best my impression is that it's a Bioware/EA game, nothing more, nothing less. I am sure the glitches will be fixed, the ugly characters on the other hand, probably not.

To quote one of my favourite books: So it goes.

Expanded Verdict

Okay, I am a sucker for punishment. After reflecting on the bit I could play I had some hope that it may actually be a decent game. They talked about exploration and discovery and less about being “rushed towards the end”. Sounded good and although, see above, a lot of the stuff had me a bit weary, I decided to buy it.

Let’s just say that I regret having made the purchase now. My gripes are pretty much as follows (all for the XBONE version).

  1. The character models are just ugly, not only the animation but also details. My character’s hair have lego like qualities for example.
  2. Bugs bugs bugs, no kidding. I have fallen through the map a few times, my favourite one being after fast travelling, because it just went into a loop. Could only get out after I killed the game and then restarted. Lighting is whack, at times scenes are so dark you cannot make out the faces of the people speaking, and at other times it looks like this:

    Other bugs I have encountered quite regularly in no particular order:

    1. NPCs sound like they are standing far far away or sound tinny.
      1. Characters popping in and out of the scene, especially when those are characters you can interact with.
      2. Textures going missing, maybe eventually they’ll pop in.
      3. Entire scenes seems to hail from the ‘90s, lighting wise.
      4. Characters talk but their mouths don’t move or vice versa.
      5. Random “freezes”. To be “fair” here, the game isn’t actually freezing, I can still control the camera, but either my character or vehicle are just frozen for a second or so.
      6. My character can’t walk stairs. More than once I tried to go up stairs and my character seems to “hit a wall”, bounces back, then can walk up the stairs.
      7. The game doesn’t know what you have already done and what you haven’t. In dialogs characters are totally unaware of what you have already done for example, but even worse even in some of the graphics the changes aren’t reflected (e.g. I did find one of the other arks and it docked at the Nexus, only it never shows in any of the approach sequences). Even your own character isn’t immune from this amnesia. I activated a Remnant vault and my SAM unit tells me that temperatures are now “normalized” and rapidly dropping, yet my character still kept complaining about the heat.
      8. Looping dialog from your companions. They occasionally get into a loop with regards to warning / comments. They just play three, four or more times in a row, often without any reason to.
  3. We can just call the game “Mass Effect: Relationship Simulator”. The ability to have romantic relationships was always there, it was, in a lot of ways, a draw for many people. Thing tough was: You had to actually figure out what to say and when in order to “get the person”. Now? Now they give you a little icon that denotes the “romance” option and the game is remarkably pushy with it. In one case almost every single interaction with the character I was given a romance option. To be “fair”, it seems they wanted to create an emotional bond for a twist later on. But…. well, it’s just hamfisted.

  4. The writing. Oh god the writing. I have read fan fiction by teenage girls that was better. I played out one of the romance dialog options out of curiosity and the writing is just cringe worthy. But alas, not only there, the overall writing seems to barely rise above the level of fan fiction. Often things get ignored or the dialog sounds like “tough guy wannabe”. You get the idea. How someone could get paid for that is beyond me. I have read a lot of schlocky Sci-Fi, but rarely have I ever encountered something that badly written.
  5. So. Much. Hand. Holding. I am not kidding, the game does not stop to tell you what to do. Every time you get into the vehicle it props you up with information as to how accelerate, slow down etc. Every time you are in an area you can mine, SAM will explain to you that you can use the mining interface to mine for minerals etc. It’s just frustrating.
  6. Online components are broken. There is a “subgame” you can play where you can either send a crack team of spec ops to do operations that give you extra loot / benefits or, on certain missions, you can play them yourself on line. Only problem is, not even the “send away on mission” missions work if you’re not online with the EA servers, and the only way to connect is to leave the game and reconnect from the start screen. Way to go EA.

Here is a bit of a highlight reel during my play of ME: Andromeda:

Conclusion

This was the last Bioware game I am going to buy. ME:3 should have been the final warning, but I guess I really wanted to play a great space opera and somehow believed that EA and Bioware had learned their lessons. The answer to that of course is: No, they have not.

So, if you liked “Dragon Age: Inquisition” go for it, but otherwise stay far far away from it. Your wallet will thank you.

Music

FROM DEEWEE — Soulwax

It has been more than a decade since the last Soulwax album and so it was a bit of a surprise when this suddenly popped up, a very positive surprise though. It isn’t really “the old” Soulwax but also not completely new. Not a time capsule, but not a complete re-invention either.

I found it surprisingly engaging and a pleasant surprise on a rainy day here in Vancouver.

Kevätjuhla — Tomutonttu

This is another one of those albums I only discovered by digging around within AppleMusic, neither the artist nor the album was really on my radar, mostly because I knew of neither. It is a sort of minimalist / relaxed sound to it and I will def. keep an eye out on what else they produce. It’s ideal after a long, stressful day or if you try to do some reading for work (which in my case often involves very boring technical texts).

Going Going Going — Tosca

I have been a fan of Tosca for at least a decade, it comes down to my love for Kruder & Dorfmeister’s mixes / music (there is a nice double mix linked below). Unfortunately K&D themselves don’t really do a whole lot in as far as releasing albums goes.

But then there was the other surprise, next to Soulwax, this month with Tosca releasing a new album. To be fair, I am sure that was already announced but as I tend not to read a whole lot of music related news I wasn’t aware of it.

If you liked the previous albums you will like this as well. I can’t help but think that as with the Soulwax album it is a nice evolution and in a lot of ways it reminds me of the last Daft Punk album in that they are less focussed, more over the map and, the only way I can think of describing it, open than previous releases.

Worth a listen for sure.

No Future — Moire

Another new discovery, again a more minimalistic, yet layered approach to electronic music. A wonderful backdrop to the end of the day or concentrated work.

_ # Mixes