Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Shadowrun Returns (2013) Harebrained Schemes

How do one begin a review of a game that one has been waiting two decades for?  Where does nostalgia stop and reality set in?  Does the good outweigh the bad?  How many characters are you going to make before settling on one and finishing the damned game?  And when all is said and done, "Is Shadowrun Returns a good game?"

These are all questions I've been struggling with when not worrying about bills or thinking about how to min/max stats for yet another character.  It's been making a review of this game difficult.  I've played through the first half/two-thirds of the game several times with several different character builds.  Tried different tactics, different conversation selections, difficulty levels, so on and so forth.  So does my love of Shadowrun (1993) SNES add or detract from my impressions of Returns?  Well, yes and no.

Returns is certainly a worthy successor to that old classic and I think it was well worth the wait.  The story and dialogue are great, with some particularly brilliant characters and exchanges.  It's very much a classic cyberpunk noir story but done by those led by the man who created the pen and paper game so of course it's on point.  The game is oozing with inside jokes, cameos, references that your average bear wouldn't get, and some pretty dark humor.  The score has cues from the SNES version (which made me giggle like a fat kid given free rein at a cake shop).  The graphics aren't the main focus of the experience but there's a rainy, neon-soaked familiarity and high level of detail to areas that makes me feel at home in my imagination.  It struck me as strange the other day when I was in the middle of a marathon session that I was using my imagination and playing each character slightly differently.  Instead of watching a cut scene, I saw it in my head.  In one early part of the game; my character poked a thug in the chest daring him to make a move as a feral grin played across my lips.  Another section; a tense multi-part fire fight erupted, I was covering a decker, running low on ammo as the other runners lay down suppressing fire and joking with one another.  I kept hiring the same runners for jobs, felt a rapport with them.  One mission I only brought one runner with me, a person I had developed respect and a sense of friendship for.  She asked me, "We really gonna do this?  Just us?"  I replied, "You got the nuyen to hire anyone, else go for it?"  Two runners I hired angrily whispered at one another, debating who was going to breach the door.  I said, "I'm gonna shoot the both of you if you chummers don't open that fragging door.  You want that?"

This is all coming from hours of solo play and having fun (okay, there were one or two parts where I wanted to say very very very bad words) and being surprised I'm roleplaying my characters.  Here are some of my favorites so far:

  • Puncharella: Female Troll Unarmed Combat Specialist who is dumb but has solid Charisma and is a sucker for a sob story.
  • Frank: Dwarven Technomage who might be the wimpiest Dwarf around
  • "Swingin" Johnny Shotgun:  Orc shotgun master who is just a dick and when not shotgunning people, Louisville Sluggers them.
  • La Chinga:  Sniper and drone specialist, not very charming but effective.
  • Boudreux:  Male Orc Shaman, he use swamp magic and de machete.  Nice to women, don't cotton to authority or bullies.
  • Betty:  Elven female who uses a combination of Mage and Shaman skills.
  • The Artful Dodger:  Human decker, drone specialist who is utterly useless at anything else except avoiding damage.
  • Doc-H:  Elven gunslinger with high Charisma.  Smarmy fucker who can shoot a weapon out of an enemy's hand.
  • Moxie:  Human female, Jack-of-all-trades.  Prefers avoiding conflict but uses a shotgun effectively when pushed.  Has light healing and support skills.  Uses a smoker drone for defense.  Cagey and looking for the next payday.
  • Smitty:  Elven moron with a nasty mean streak who only attacks and never asks questions.  I actually don't like him, I just made him as a lark.  Stupid knife-ears amuse me.
I don't roleplay in most RPGs or video games anymore.  With most of the big games (Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Dragon's Dogma, Final Fantasy etc etc etc) I know how the system works and know how to game it.  Stealth sniper/ranger = got it.  Or characters are "developed" so I don't have to imagine what they are like (though I really like some characters - e.g. Boone and Cass from Fallout:New Vegas, HK-47 KOTOR II, etc etc).  I'm playing a preset role, which basically comes down to am I nice or am I a dick? Shadowrun Returns has jump started my imagination and though I love the game for nostalgia reasons (along with some modern game play fun times) it's nice to be using my imagination again.

It's been almost a week since the game has come out and I've put quite a many hours into it so here comes the (I don't want to say downsides or be negative), perhaps the right term is, "short-comings" of Shadowrun Returns:

  • Outside of roleplay, dialogue decisions and points spent into Charisma don't necessarily to be influential in the rest of the campaign (at least up until where I've played).  Sure, with three Charisma Etiquette skills you can get a better price for runs and goods (and make me feel like a slick motherfucker) and Charisma is the main skill that unlocks deeper Shaman abilities.  Overall, though, it seems like my dialogue choices don't make much of a difference.  Which is a shame because I really hate Lumpy and want to stomp on his head.
  • It is difficult to really get a handle on - without looking at the forums and doing math - as to how certain skills work on dps/crits.  Certainly, the higher the skill you better you are (better gear, etc) but I haven't been able to figure out why Betty, with high Willpower and Mage skills, does fuck all for damage, even with high end magic, if she manages to hit her target.  No, I'm not dumb and know that there are many factors that math all over the place but a mage with Willpower 9 should be able to hit a target for some decent dmg.
  • There seems to be a randomness to enemy difficulty, even when replaying a mission for the umpteenth time.  This is not so much a complaint because I like being kept on my toes.  However, in one mission I whomped a Troll and then got stomped by an Elf.  In the replay, it was vice versa.
  • Shadowrun Returns will be a difficult game for "modern" players to get into.  I've read some forum posts and noticed some complaints about lack of tutorial, linear gameplay, 2LDR (Too Long, Didn't Read), hell, I imagine someone out there will be whingeing about the lack of cut scenes.  These don't factor into my enjoyment of game but from a review point I should bring it up.  Not that I really give a shit about these gamers.  I just don't want them to fuck up a good thing.

I've read all the major reviews of this game and I realized two things:
  1. This is a brilliant independent effort, created by and for fans, and the quality of the game reflects that.
  2. This is only the beginning campaign.  We've gotten used to being able to nerf the fuck out of characters pretty easily (almost without thinking).   I'm not going to whine about entering the end game without an ubermensch (actually I hate going into the end fight and just Alabama ass-kicking the boss *cough* I'm looking at you Final Fantasy VII *cough*)I have no idea what campaigns - Harebrained or user created - will bring.  And I'm excited.  This is the first time I've been interested in generating my own work.  Harebrained also included a level/campaign editor so we all can get in on the action, start our own campaigns, make the game our own.  Granted, I took one stab at the editor and went, "DERRRR, I like Baysplosions!" so it'll be a long time coming until you play a HYR campaign.
So, Shadowrun Returns.  A game of immense possibilities, with a hell of a story, might not be to the taste of some gamers but is accessible to new fans with a little bit of patience (put the game on Easy so you can enjoy the story).  It's available for PC/Mac/Tablet and doesn't require a lot of juice to run.  It's currently $20 on Steam and that's less than what you pay to go see whatever crap you're going to go see in 3D at the local multi-plex.

Well done, Harebrained, well done.  Now where the hell is my datajack?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Inspired by a fellow movie buff...

and former co-worker and a man who has a great website: Frank the Movie Watcher.  The man knows his stuff but I have to admit I'm stealing one of his ideas:  My Favorite 100 Movies.  However, I think I might have to shift it a bit because I categorize things into genres, subgenres, decades, and themes.  I'm considering twenty categories of top five or perhaps top ten of ten decades (which seems more likely).  Or perhaps I might just use a free list methodology...not sure yet.  Mr. Campbell used the EW template but I'm a sucker for footnotes and asides (aka justifications).  In any case thanks to him I have an idea to play with and write about.

Here's a trial run:

Top 10 Movies I Watch the Most:
  1. Big Trouble in Little China
  2. Master and Commander
  3. Blade 2
  4. The Wild Bunch
  5. LOTR - Director's Cut
  6. The 'Burbs
  7. Jump Tomorrow
  8. Aliens - Director's Cut
  9. Tropic Thunder
  10. Burning Paradise

Yeah, needs work...

Shadowrun Returns (2013) Harebrained Schemes: Pre-release jitters and nostalgia

Once upon a time, there was a young man growing up in a small town on the New York State edge of the Berkshires who loved few things in his world: his Sony Walkman, the "Back to the Future" soundtrack, Nintendo, military modelling, film noir, Max Headroom, Games Workshop, action movies, sci-fi, and cyberpunk.  He had been introduced to Warhammer 40,000 in 1988 and cyberpunk very soon there after, in the form of Blade Runner (the version with the narration and no stupid unicorn dream sequence).  He spent many hours reading and rereading what little he could get his hands on from the hobby shops or going through catalogs and writing dream lists of miniatures and modelling terrain.  He read Dungeon and White Dwarf religiously (when he could find copies or have enough allowance to buy one).

Then one day he saw a poster in a hobby shop, done by an artist the young man was proud to easily recognize - Larry Elmore:

It broke his fragile little mind.  Was that elf hacking a computer, via wetware?  Shotgun and magic (tee hee boobies) and DUAL WIELDING UZIS!?!  Battling in a big city, not some stupid fantasy realm.  And it was called Shadowrun.  It made perfect sense to him, the way Lionel Ritchie's "Running Through the Night" made sense.

Sadly the young man never got the opportunity to play the pen and paper version of Shaowrun.  Then when he was in high school, tearing through dystopian fiction in all its forms, learning about new music from friends a game was released for the Super Nintendo.  A Shadowrun game.  And he played the wheels off the game. Over and over again (when he wasn't making mixtapes or painting miniatures or getting into trouble) he would run through the game, experimenting, perfecting, obsessing.

Then, for a time (after the young man graduated high school and moved to a big city) he focused on various forms of bad behavior and debauchery.  While he didn't forget that which he had loved so dearly, he was distracted by wine, women, and song (to put it as politely and mildly as possible).

Following another move, this time to the Lone Star State, he slowly began to paint miniatures again, start playing more video games and visit hobby shops.  In the early 00s he was working at a bookstore and a co-worker was playing a game on his laptop in the breakroom.  The young man heard a very familiar piece of music, a cut from the SNES Shadowrun score.  It was a bizarre moment and the young man and the co-worker were soon completely nerding out about the game.

Fast forward over a decade and that young man ended up as me: 36, living in East Texas, trying to re-boot my life again.  Correction, I'm trying to re-boot my adult life.  My desktop is a HD screen cap from Blade Runner.  I've been rereading the cyberpunk classics (or in some cases re-rereading) over the last year.  I've even busted out my paints and a mini or two when the light is good.  Last year (April 2012) Jordan Weisman, the man behind the original Shadowrun released this Kickstarter video:

"Maybe you've heard of these games, or maybe your Dad has..."  sigh

Yeah, I didn't pee myself.  It was more of like when Gollum gets the Ring again and capers to his doom in...uh...Mount Doom.

Fast forward to today (07/24/2013)

If I hadn't replaced my eyes with mirrorshades I might get all misty.  

Really, a game company releases this kind of video the day before release.  A release date that was delayed because they wanted to release a quality product for their fans and supporters (and themselves).  This is the first game that I have preordered in a long time.

Almost twenty years, I've been waiting for this game.

Now if only the could be a proper Warhammer 40K movie that centered on Imperial Guard and not the damned Ultramarines.

Holy rusted metal, Batman! Reviews! On a review site!

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know.

It's just that most of the movies I've watched in the last few months haven't really rung my bell.  So here's a rundown and mini-review of some of what I've watched recently:

John Dies at the End (2012)  Was interesting but while watching it I realized something.  I'm not in my early 20s any more.  Conceptually and visually interesting with some decent performances I was reminded of a bit of Cronenberg and some stuff I read in the late 90s, early 00s.  Again, it wasn't bad but, like the whole Scott Pilgrim craze, I'm just not part of that target demographic.  I'm sure if I was ten years younger I would have loved it.

Crawlspace (2012)  A sci-fi thriller from Down Under that turned out to be a lot better than I thought it was going to be - mainly because though it starts as oddly derivative, it ended up going in a direction I was not expecting in the least.  Worth a watch, not going to win any awards or special place in my collection but time well spent.

Barrio Tales (2012)  A Chicano Creepshow.  I went into this expecting to turn it off after five minutes like a good deal of the total garbage horror on netflix streaming.  I watched the whole thing and had a good time too.  Don't expect anything except for what it is and it'll be just fine.  I really enjoyed the second segment and that alone made the entire watching experience worth it.  It's Summer, time for junk horror.

Silent Hill: Revelation (2012)  Pretty much completely forgettable, like a Papa John's pizza.

Last Kind Words (2012)  I don't want to say much about this movie other than it was a solid, enjoyable Southern Gothic.  Solid performances and while not staggeringly original - a well done little movie.

Come Out and Play (2012)  Another movie I don't want to say anything about because I really enjoyed it but I think I enjoyed it more knowing nothing about it.  Not for the squeemish but not a splatter flick either.  This is one of those that I want to talk to someone about.

and my favorite of this bunch:

Elfie Hopkins (2012) starring Jaime Winstone (the excellent Ray Winstone's daughter).  You can definitely tell she's Ray Winstone's kid, in a good way both physically and presence.  I really dug this British teen scream.  It was predictable in a way (thanks for the shit spoiler title American release!  dicks) but all in all was really satisfying.  If you like teen screams or have teenagers who dig horror, give this one a shot.  It's a nice change of pace from the standard hey bros and tit's'lip gloss slashers - put it this way - I liked the teenagers in this movie.  Now that's saying something.  

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Pa pa Wady: First Impressions

A few months ago an Asian grocery store opened here in Nacogdoches.  I thought I had imagined it when I went past it coming back from a work event out of town back in April and only in the last month or two have I heard more and more about it via word of mouth.

I had been thinking that it was surprising that there wasn't an Asian grocery store in Nac considering the influx of Burmese employed at one of the local factories and two of the Asian places I eat at would have to drive to Houston once a week to buy ingredients.

Amazonbutterfly had been a few times in the last month or so and finally she took me over there this afternoon.  Now it's a running joke among some of my friends that I really don't do anything for fun.  I have to respond, "I love going to non-American grocery stores.  That is fun."  I love being slightly out of my element but also having a pretty decent knowledge of ingredients and this and that just from experimenting, spending time in markets, and teaching myself what is what.

Pa Pa Wady is an excellent little market that manages to have a startlingly broad selection in a space the size of a 7-11.  Ingredients range from the Subcontinent to the Philippines with a focus on Burmese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Thai cuisines.  The fresh produce is inspiring and a reminder that there is more out there than what you'll find in a typical American or Mexican grocery.  There's a wide range of fresh mushrooms all priced less than what you'd find elsewhere.  Seriously, I'm not even much of mushroom fan and I'm thrilled to get some next visit.

There's a selection of fresh meats along with three large coolers chock full of frozen meat, seafood, and that good old fashioned stuff that makes one realize that one's palette has limits (e.g. cow spleen, yeah, I'll eat it if I go to someone's house and they serve it but normally I avoid the waste removal organs - and brains).  I didn't pick up any of the seafood but I'm definitely going to on a future visit.

Then we get to one my favorite sections: spices, sauces, condiments, and assorted goodies.  I picked up some "super hot" fried chile paste (Dragonfly brand which I haven't tried - normally I buy Bell & Flower), some Pearl River Bridge sweet dark vinegar (I love this company's Superior Light soy sauce, I buy it by the half-gallon), and a "sweet" chile sauce from Malaysia - Yeo's (very thick and very citrus-y, I plan to add it to my al pastor).

An excellent experience, I feel inspired again.  Plus, I'm going to youtube how to speak foodie tourist Burmese.  If these folks are nice enough to open a proper grocery store, the least I can do is learn a little bit of their language.

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