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February 26, 2010

Haunted by Kelley Armstrong

Book coverHaunted belongs to a series of books, The Women of Otherworld, that I read sporadically and unabashedly out of order. While I did not appreciate the full background of this book, I also did not find it a problem, and I was familiar enough with the characters to appreciate much of the novelty Armstrong has woven in for dedicated readers.

In many ways, that's what this book is, a novelty for people who read her series regularly. It stems from a pre-climactic plot point in the previous Otherworld book (which I read after Haunted) in which deceased witch Eve Levine bargains with the fates to gets the main characters of that book returned to life after accidentally falling into a portal to the afterlife in pursuit of the bad guy. Now, Eve owes the fates a favor, and they are calling it in to have her track down a particularly pesky Nix who has escaped from a hell dimension and has so far eluded all efforts to bring her to justice, and meanwhile inhabits the minds of women in the real world, turning them into murderesses. With the help of her erstwhile real world lover, Kristof, and an angel with human sensibilities, Eve scours the expansive ghost-world, which very often overlays the real world, intent on hunting down the Nix.

When I looked this book up on Amazon to refresh my memory on the plot details, I was mildly surprised that it got a rather snide review from Publishers Weekly (the default editorial review). Not because it's fabulous literature, but because these generic plot-summary reviews so often praise the most mindless of books. Haunted is not a book I'd recommend to every SFF fan, but I found it entertaining. These books are written, stylistically, like a romance novel, however, they don't follow the plot formula of the romance genre. What I mean, is that the style is very pop-commercial, and the focus of the book is very much on character relationships within families, i.e. parents, children, lovers, spouses. The female character may be portrayed as strong and independent, but relationships are always very important to them, and those relationships get special attention in the book. It's a "nesting" theme that gets a lot of attention in romance novels. Here there's the nesting, but not the controlling "will they or won't they" plot that tends to drive most romances. There are some minor love-relationship conflicts, but they are, indeed, very minor. The plot of this book is, indeed, Eve's pursuit of the Nix, and I found this plot entertaining because it is well-grounded in Eve's character. Each step of the unfolding plot is driven by Eve, her character development and her decisions. Even if the Nix makes a surprising move to upset Eve's plans, Eve's reaction to it is equally active and decisive. In other words, the plot doesn't happen to Eve; Eve happens to the plot.

While this book revolves in a lot of ways around the novelty of Armstrong's constructed ghost world and the focus on known characters brought back from earlier novels, it's not necessary to have read the earlier novels to enjoy this book. It's a fun, character-driven novel that is, admittedly, something of a chick-book.     

February 19, 2010

inFamous (PS3)

CoverinFamous casts players in the role of protagonist Cole McGrath, a newly-minted superhero (or villain, your choice) who gains awesome electrical powers after unwittingly detonating a pulse bomb that wreaks havoc throughout his home, Empire City. In the wake of the blast, a mysterious epidemic sweeps the population, prompting the government to establish quarantine, while powerful gangs terrorize the city’s three districts. Intent on self-preservation and the safety of his friends, Cole is quickly recruited by rogue agents to restore order to the city while struggling to unravel the conspiracy behind the blast. The storyline is compelling enough to keep you guessing up until the conclusion slaps you with a Soul Reaver-esque time paradox that’ll keep your head spinning till the inevitable sequel breaks street. (To gain some perspective on Cole’s backstory, check out the inFamous prequel graphic novel on the developer's website.)

One of the primary hooks in inFamous is the player’s ability to develop Cole either as a reluctantly benevolent superhero or a brooding, anti-heroic supervillain. As you progress through the story, the moral choices you make will affect the game world in a variety of ways: Cole’s physical appearance will change to match his personality; citizens will respond to you with fear or adoration; and certain story events and bits of dialogue will be different depending on your alignment. The game measures your Good and Evil actions on a sliding scale, making it easy to recant your past deeds and reset Cole’s moral compass mid-game. While choosing a particular path barely affects the main story arc, inFamous encourages sticking to one side of the karmic coin by offering ability upgrades specific to each alignment. While it may be tempting to constantly try to balance your Good and Evil actions, players are ultimately rewarded for experiencing the game in its entirety under a single moral heading. This dual morality mechanic adds breadth to the story, but it also highlights the difficulties involved in attempting to incorporate tricky philosophical arguments in videogames. Where many titles try to present their choices in shades of gray, inFamous relies on stark black and white scenarios that spare little room for moral ambiguity. One story event lets you choose which poster of Cole will be plastered across the city: a heroic profile or a menacing death’s head. Another event gives you the option of disarming a bomb or carelessly letting it detonate, destroying a police station. With such transparent choices, it’s never a question in which direction your decisions are pushing the morality meter. This isn’t entirely problematic; but there’s something to be said for subtlety. A bit less contrast in the game’s moral dilemmas could have helped strengthen the overall experience by forcing gamers to make decisions more carefully.

It’s obvious developer Sucker Punch designed inFamous with a comic book aesthetic in mind. All of the major cinematics play out as moving comics, effects-enhanced still images that glide across the screen. The sprawling open world metropolis of Empire City and its inhabitants are modeled with a similar style of cartoony realism. Everything looks terrific. The game’s lighting effects are incredible: electricity leaps from Cole’s hands, tracing vibrant paths of destruction along groups of enemies, spiderwebbing across fences and pools of water, or igniting derelict automobiles into concussive blasts of flame. Animations are simply great—nothing beats watching an electrified bystander spring up stock still, then collapse on the ground rigor mortis straight. And Cole’s parkour-esque leaps and ascents, calling to mind Sucker Punch’s flagship mascot Sly Cooper, are captivating to watch. The game’s frame rate is typically smooth, but tends to chug during frantic, effects-heavy battles. A curious tendency to get stuck in invisible walls will annoy you, but should by no means ruin the experience.

While inFamous earns kudos for its intuitive visual design, the package’s real appeal lies in its tight controls and finely tuned gameplay mechanics. At its core, inFamous is an open world platformer married to a precision third person shooter. Players will spend much of the game scaling and traversing Empire City’s towering collection of high rises and landmarks ledge-by-ledge (a la Assassin’s Creed) and performing precise leaps from telephone poles, street lights, and satellite arrays. The game is awfully forgiving here, offering a “sticky” mechanic that automatically attaches Cole to nearby objects. This function can become annoying when frantically leaping away from enemy crossfires and makes it nearly impossible to execute a smooth descent from any of the city’s structures. But most of the time it’s a welcome safety net that (usually) prevents you from overshooting your target and plummeting into water traps—which, in Cole’s hyperelectric state, almost always results in an untimely death. Early in the story you’ll unlock the ability to speed grind electrified wires and subway lines, making travel between the city’s three major islands much quicker and more fun. inFamous’ brand of stylized platforming should be familiar to anyone who’s played a Sly Cooper, and is vaguely reminiscent of the better Spider-Man titles (check out Treyarch’s Ultimate Spider-Man). In fact, don’t be surprised if you find yourself pining for web-slinging action every time you send Cole hurtling off of a terrace.

As engaging as its exploration elements are, inFamous’ spot-on third person combat really shines. You begin the game proper with a basic lightning bolt attack that neatly replaces any genre-traditional firearm. As you progress through the central storyline, you’ll unlock new attacks and abilities—energy grenades, electromagnetic shockwaves, force fields and precision sniper controls—all of which can be upgraded through neutral or alignment-specific expansion trees. In order to purchase these upgrades, you’ll need to amass experience points (XP) by defeating enemies and completing missions scattered throughout the city. On higher difficulties, standard combat yields less XP; but by chaining together various attacks with bonus Stunts (headshotting an airborne enemy, knocking a baddy off a roof), you can quickly build up a reserve of currency. Upgrading along a Good or Evil ability branch requires advancement through a three-tiered Karma Meter that tracks the morality of your every action. Both branches include exclusive secondary effects that further augment your combat abilities. These residuals are comparable and ultimately offer an excuse to replay the game under the opposing morality. An energy meter at the top of your HUD keeps track of Cole’s internal power supply. While the standard lightning bolt won’t sap your reserve, more powerful attacks will. You can replenish your supply by siphoning energy from the city’s power grid or sucking the life out of downed enemies and civilians. Collecting Blast Shards – small glowing chunks of rock scattered throughout the city—expands your energy bar, but only to a certain point. Tracking down all 350 shards is addicting, recalling Crackdown’s endless search for hidden Orbs. Even though you’ve got a radar to help locate the elusive Shards, it’s little consolation when you’re left scouring the city for the last one or two fragments.

The central story arc of inFamous plays out over 40 missions, identified on the map as blue exclamation points. These missions focus mostly on combat and exploration, and range from repowering subways to scouring a park for invisible enemies. Periodically, you’ll be sent into the sewers to bring a downed substation back online, restoring power to portions of the city and unlocking new abilities. Side missions become available as you make your way through the story; these include escorting captured enemies, methodically ridding buildings of mounted surveillance equipment, and tracking down stolen medical supplies to access clinics which double as respawn points. Fifteen Good-Evil side missions dot the islands, providing substantial fuel for your Karma Meter and occasionally adding perspective to the story. But once you commit to one of these aligned missions, its sister mission disappears from the map; so choose carefully.

Enemy encounters are frequent and consistently engaging. Often, they’ll attack in groups, swarming Cole from all angles (above and below), cleverly using the environment to find cover and secure vantage points. Although each island features its own unique gang, enemy types come standard: gun-toting grunts, grenadiers, rocket launching heavies, and Conduits, special units with powers ranging from teleportation to junk monster “mech” armor. Boss battles are few but wildly chaotic. The climactic final encounter will put your reflexes (and the game’s excellent control scheme) to the test, forcing you to blast, dodge, and reorient in an exhausting, seemingly endless cycle. Featuring the type of intense, technical combat series like God of War and Ninja Gaiden have become famous for, this is easily the high point of the game.

The main storyline of inFamous won’t take long to blast through if you ignore side missions, collectibles, and grinding for experience. And if you’ve already mastered its combat mechanics in previous playthroughs, even the game’s hardest difficulty setting shouldn’t offer much of a challenge. Enemies will take more hits before going down for good; but unless you’re being swarmed by baddies, most deaths will likely be attributed to misjudged leaps and errant grenades setting off self-immolating chain reactions. The real appeal to replaying inFamous is experiencing all of the minor story and gameplay tweaks that result from following a different moral alignment. Although the city becomes re-accessible after you defeat the final boss, there isn’t much to do after endgame. Completionists can scour the map for Blast Shards, venture back into unconquered neighborhoods to complete side missions, collect XP to unlock and enable all of Cole’s abilities or complete a variety of Trophy challenges (take down 25 enemies from aboard a moving train, get 50 sticky grenade kills, etc.). Aside from cinematics and Dead Drops (audio logs) becoming available for playback, there are no unlockables. There’s no online support or local multiplayer, so be prepared to go it alone. The game’s DLC is limited to a single, free add-on ability (the Gigawatt Blades) available for download on PSN; and no further expansions appear to be in the pipeline. Basically, you’re set with what you’ve got out of the box. But for an experience this entertaining (and one so clearly in line for a sequel), that’s not much of a complaint.

Bottom line: inFamous has earned a lot of critical acclaim and industry accolades for being one of the few successful original IP’s this generation, as well as a standout PS3 exclusive and consistent “Best of” nominee for 2009. Its slick controls, spot-on gameplay mechanics and intuitive visual design make it an obvious choice for savvy gamers. Dedicated players can easily complete the modest central storyline twice (once for each alignment) over the course of a week, experiencing most of what the game has to offer in a few sittings. While inFamous presents a spectacular single-player experience, its lack of multiplayer or substantial DLC and virtual dearth of endgame content rob it of any sense of longevity. It’s a must-play; but unless you’re the type of gamer that obsesses over finding every last collectible, you’re better off renting and completing than committing to the retail price tag.

Developer: Sucker Punch
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA)
Genre: Action
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen (T)
System: Playstation 3
Other Systems: NA
Release Date: May 26, 2009

February 02, 2010

The Gathering Storm

CoverI approached this book with some small amount of trepidation. On the one hand, The Wheel of Time series is nearing its conclusion and this book had the possibility of answering a lot of questions which have been plaguing me and other readers for the past few novels. On the other hand, this is the first book in the series to be written since the death of the original author Robert Jordan. Jordan died in 2007 after a painful battle with a rare type of cancer. After a search for an author to finish off the series, Jordan's wife selected author Brandon Sanderson to complete her husband's work. At such a crucial point in the story I was worried that with the loss of Jordan the story would suffer.

My fears were quickly dispelled. The prose was nearly identical to the previous eleven novels in the series and the characters were all just as fun and interesting as ever. We rejoin Rand just after he lost his hand in his battle with the forsaken Semirhage. Rand continues to cut himself off from those around him, believing that the only way he can gain victory at Tarmon Gaidon is by making himself completely emotionless and driven. He has accepted death, and like the voice of Lews Therin Telamon in his head he longs for it all to be over. Before that can happen though he still must confront the Seanchan and forge the nations into a unified fighting force. In the midst of all this Rand discovers an enormous source of power which awakens in him a dark force that slowly begins to alter him. Perrin is stuck herding to safety all the refugees that he helped to rescue from the Shaido. To compound his problems his relationship with his wife Faile has become oddly strained. Following the initial elation which accompanied their first meeting, they have drifted apart, both knowing that events had happened during their separation which could potentially damage their marriage should they come to light. Matt Cauthon, newly married, contemplates the consequences of his unusual nuptials with Tuon. Knowing how a husband is supposed to act, Matt is determined to go on gambling and drinking as if nothing has changed. This determination leads him to make a bet with an isolated community with frightening results. Matt also must figure out how he is to help Thom Merrilin rescue Moiraine Damodred from the mysterious creatures that live in the land behind the red stone doorwayter'angreal. Meanwhile, Egwene, still a prisoner of the White Tower, continues her battle for control with Elaida. Their battle of wills is interrupted by a long foreseen yet still surprising assault on the Aes Sedai by a strange and dangerous enemy. During the attack Egwene must choose whether she will escape or help those who have imprisoned her. The book also visits other characters including Aviendha, Gawyn and Verin.

Despite the ommission of some fairly important characters this novel is as exciting a tale as any of the previous books in the series. The change of authors does not cause any major errors in continuity and no insight into the characters is lost. I would rank this book as one of the top five of the series. Brandon Sanderson has done right by Robert Jordan and continued the series in a manner much in keeping with Jordan's tradition. Even the most die-hard Jordan fan will find little to complain about in this latest instillation in The Wheel of Time series.

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