Sports Fan

You know, I could never imagine buying Sunday Ticket. When I lived near Chicago, the only thing I cared about was the Bears, and so football was a sport that only engaged me for about 3 hours a week during the season. A great game here and there might capture my attention, but I didn’t really love the sport so much as I loved my team. That’s how I used to approach most sports. Ferrari and Michael Schumacher, not F1. Jordan, Pippen, and the Bulls, but not basketball. I think one reason I never got into baseball is that the Chicago teams were mediocre to disappointing throughout my childhood.

Yet MK and I just paid DirecTV over $300 without hesitation, because football has become such a part of our lives that we can easily, happily spend nine hours on Sunday watching the games. Fantasy football has certainly changed my relationship to the sport (I’m in two leagues now, and have to track about forty players), but it’s deeper than that. Sports can surprise us in ways that few things can anymore. There’s no script to anticipate. Watching Tony Romo melt-down against the Jets in the 4th quarter is dramatic, but not inevitable. He might be redeemed someday, or perhaps the NFL will turn its back on him as a talented but fatally flawed player. I don’t know what will happen, but it’s become one of the league’s ongoing storylines.

Cam Newton had a career game against the Cardinals on Sunday, but I will remember how angry and solitary he was on the sidelines near the end of the game. You’d think a man would be thrilled to have silenced his doubters and secured his position in a single game, but I got the sense that Newton didn’t care about that. He seemed like someone who had merely affirmed what he already knew: he was a good quarterback and the right person for the job. That decided, he lives and dies with his team’s fortunes. On Sunday, people kept patting him on the back and he accepted their praise uneasily, his body-language screaming, “But we still lost.”

I think it is the reality of sports, and the beauty of the contest, that draws me to them. Careers are at stake. People are living out their life’s ambition, or still trying to realize it. Along the way they push themselves closer to the realm of the superhuman. Jenson Button driving at the Canadian GP, coming from last place to take the victory away from Sebastian Vettel in the last, rainy laps of the race. Tom Brady’s savage dismantling of the Dolphins on Monday as he passed for over 500 yards, working in perfect harmony with his receivers and linemen. Devin Hester breaking the NFL record for touchdowns on kick-returns with two of them in a single game. The Blackhawks almost willing themselves back into championship contention as they took three straight games from the Canucks.

I suppose I am just a bit tired of being told stories, either through filmmaking or writing. I know the tools, I know they usually adhere to formula, and even “twists” follow their own set of traditions. With sports, the stories emerge from earnest contests where the outcomes are never certain, and the process is the payoff. Years later, documentarians might arrive and tell a story that everyone can understand, and people might say, “I had no idea there was this great drama behind the scenes.” But those of us who follow sports know exactly that, and our lives and memories are richer for having watched it happen.

Upgrades and Changes

I’ll be updating the blog here in a few minutes to fix an ongoing issue with WordPress. Hopefully it goes smoothly and the issue is resolves. But in my experience with WordPress, hope is the first step on the road to disappointment.

So this site might be FUBAR for a bit. Sorry in advance if it goes that way.

Happy Hour – September 9

OK, I lied. It’s actually the wee small hours of the 10th right now. I’m up late waiting for Windows 7 to install for a second time. The first time it didn’t clear away the hard drive, and I really didn’t feel like rooting out all the old files from the previous installation.

Tomorrow is likely to be grim, but hopefully I’ll be going into it with a vastly superior gaming rig. Some great friends spotted me a new power supply and a GTX 560 video card, and I just bought myself an ASUS 27-inch monitor, along with 8 gigs of RAM, and the 64-bit version of Windows 7. This should get me through to next year, at least. Longer, if consoles keep acting as an anchor on hardware requirements.

This is probably the only weekend where I could fit this in. For the rest of the month, I’m on reviews duty, with no end in sight. This upgrade needed to happen now or never, and it’s a load off my mind knowing I’ll be hitting the major releases with the great hardware. But before I get to reviews, I think I’ll have to install Crysis. Crysis, Sengoku, and Age of Empires Onlines should occupy my weekend quite nicely.

But what about my weeks? I haven’t done a great job of explaining what I’ve been up to lately, but the truth is I’ve kind of been everywhere of late. For instance, you can find me on the last couple Gamers With Jobs Conference Calls, talking about Deus Ex: Human Revolution and other things.

We’ve also been going great guns over on Three Moves Ahead, what with Soren Johnson killing some lazy summer days by spending time talking strategy games with us. It’s been impressive to see the spike in listeners. We do a good show over at 3MA, but a guy like Soren packs the house when he’s headlining. It’s great to count him among 3MA’s fans and recurring panelists.

I also made an appearance over at the mighty Rock, Paper, Shotgun, writing a review of the surprisingly good (yet still somewhat unfulfilling) Tropico 4. It’s thrilling to find myself writing at a place that was such a huge influence on me when I was starting out as a freelancer. To my relief, the RPS readership seems to think I fit in pretty well over there. Some of them didn’t even guess I was a Yank.

I’ll be popping up in some other unusual places over the coming weeks, and I’ve got some projects I’m really excited about. Hopefully tomorrow (today) I’ll be working on one of them with my pal JP Grant. Preferably with some brews in hand.

The Real Conspiracy Is Color

There’s a lot to like about Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It has the style and mood of Christopher Nolan’s post-Insomnia work: a moody action epic with brains, one that’s as interested in characters as it is in firefights and explosions. From the opening titles, Michael McCann’s score evokes Hans Zimmer’s work on films like Inception and Dark Knight, shot through with strains of Vangelis.

But there is one area where Human Revolution starts to look like a second-rate blockbuster: it’s gaudy, exhausting visuals and two-tone color visual scheme. This is an exhausting game to look at for 20 or so hours, and the tragically limited palette annihilates any hope of setting one location apart from another.

To see what’s going on here, and it’s worth reading this great piece on digital color-grading in modern films. You’ll learn all about teal and orange, and why filmmakers distort their images toward those extremes.

Now the funny thing about Human Revolution is that it wouldn’t seem like this should be a problem. Unlike film, game developers don’t have to work with real actors or lighting. With film you can understand how a hack director might want his movie to look “better”, for actors to stand out more. A competent cinematographer and sense of visual style could also suffice for those purposes but, hey, Hollywood is Hollywood.

Good thing every TV screen in the world is literally teal and orange.

But, as in so many other things, games follow Hollywood straight over a cliff. So we get Human Revolution: a very good game with some legitimately great touches, undercut by visuals that bend over backwards to emulate the same kind of visual drama we see in theaters every summer. Now the orange is obvious in Human Revolution, but if you look closely, you’ll see that every other shade of gray or green is slightly bent toward teal. Look at these pictures that showcase Human Revolution’s visual diversity.

In isolation, this all looks cool. But this is nearly every scene in DE:HR.

The subway has been redone in teal and orange, and the cardboard is nicely fluorescent.

Notice that even the grays are greenish. And even the Illuminati can't resist orange lighting.

A more desaturated scene, mercifully muting the palette, but it's still recognizable.

The detectives' bureau at the police station appears to have been moved to Rapture.

Happy Hour – August 20

When my time is evenly divided between reading, writing, gaming, and cooking / dining, I am happy and productive. You would not think that should be difficult, considering my occupation and how much I enjoy all of those activities. Still, it seems like every couple months I find myself in need of a mental tune-up, usually after struggling for a couple weeks.

I’m in the middle of that process right now, after a near-meltdown on Friday. I lost sight of the simple things that comprise my job and give me such pleasure. I always do, the moment I start to worry. Worry, self-doubt, and guilt are all old friends of mine, and like the dwarves at the start of The Hobbit, when the first knocks on the door, the rest are soon to follow.

But at least this time I headed things off. I cancelled a project, requested a deadline extension, and took the night off with some Bad Company 2 and Farscape. Today I finds me playing an awful lot of Combat Mission: Battle For Normandy as I wrap up a review for PC Gamer. I’m very happy to report that I’m enjoying the game a lot more now, after a very rocky start, than I ever thought I would.

Tonight we’ll be making some ratatouille and hopefully watching Fort Apache. Tomorrow I have a date with my D&D group, although I wonder if this is the right group for me. The group is very large, and our first session seem very combat-focused. I expect we’ll have fun tomorrow, as it is a terrific group of people, but I still hope for more of a narrative payoff in this session.

Next week, Deus Ex: Human Revolution comes out. I wish I could say I’ll be playing it on day one, but I think I’m going to start putting games off until after I make some upgrades to my PC. It’s still a fine gaming machine, and the aging PS3 and 360 ensure that it’s still capable of running modern games, but it’s not able to keep up with all the high-end options that games have today. I suspect after my upgrades, I’m going to have some catching-up to do in the fall and winter.

Cutting Room Floor – Age of Empires Online

My early review of Age of Empires Online went up at GamePro today, but there were a few things I didn’t have space to bring up in the main body. Here are a couple other moments from my review process.

“It Looks Like Fucking FarmVille!”

MK does not like the AoEO art style. She watched over my shoulder while I played it, and that’s when she delivered her verdict on what the graphics are communicating. I tend to agree. It’s too cute by half, all bright colors, and foreshortened models with adorably askew roof lines and frames. It’s so desperate to appear non-threatening that it’s grating.  It further underlines the WoW / FarmVille aesthetic to which AoEO is so slavishly devoted. Again, free-to-play is a business model, not a style, so why must the formerly resplendent AoEO dress-up like a casual browser game? It’s patronizing, it’s conventional, and it’s just kind of ugly.

Winning by Default

I finally started doing some serious PvP in my waning hours with the game before filing my review. I focused on other issues in the review, but I’m noticing major problems. I’ve beaten a number of people not by playing better than they have, but because I have siege weapons and they don’t.

It makes a huge difference. Taking down fortifications with infantry and cavalry takes forever, and in the meantime guard towers will slaughter the enemy in droves. The only practical way to deal with fortifications is to use siege weapons. That’s nothing new to AoEO and it’s part of good balance.

The problem is, siege weapons don’t become available until level 10, and not everyone picks them right away. So I have had a number of games where I was able to turtle up behind guard towers, and then go shatter the enemy base once he’d exhausted himself against my defenses. That’s not fair, and it’s not fun for either party. But that’s what happens when you take a holistically-designed RTS and chop it into a fine dice.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Because you only get to play with AoEO’s various pieces depending on your level, you would want to make sure that character are matched appropriately, right? Well, I’ve had a number of games where I’m fighting four levels down, which means my opponent is at a severe disadvantage.

The real kicker is, you only get XP for winning. So it’s a rich-get-richer situation, as high level players pound the daylights out of low-level players, then level up faster.

Community Spirit

The chat window in the lower left corner of the screen is full of the stupidest, most vile people I’ve ever encountered in a strategy game. There are new players who holler questions into the general chat, questions that could be answered with a few seconds of thought or experiment. There are trolls, who flood the chat with racist invective, or just random keystrokes, breaking up any conversation. There are veterans who endlessly complain about the new people who have showed up to play “their” game.

It’s a noise, unpleasant environment. Again, I think I would rather pay for a game that puts a wall between most of these people and me.