Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Two MMOs

This past summer DC Universe Online went on sale so I couldn't resist giving it a try.  The first surprise (and a disappointment) is that it's largely a fighting game even down to using combos.  Maybe this works better on a console but I have trouble doing quick-right, two quick-lefts then hold right down even out of combat so mostly I gave up doing anything but the most rudimentary combos.  DCUO also lacks much of the non-combat stuff that fill most MMOs and while some might see that as a plus it eventually means the game becomes more grinding than it really should.  Admittedly it's hard to see how a superhero game could support much in the way of crafting, gathering, exploring, collecting, etc though there are token efforts made in all those areas.  City of Heroes had the same problem and seems to have resolved it partly due to allowing user-created content that fills the game with so much other stuff that you don't miss the crafting etc (though I played the free CoH for only a couple of weeks and don't really know if that worked). 

DCUO also has problems with balance and PVP/instances.  The latter might be the easiest to fix since the issue is really just one of delays - it's not uncommon to wait 30 minutes to an hour just for a routine instance.  I never got to do enough of them for a good feel but the instances worked ok if a bit too complicated while the PVP never seemed as structured as say a WoW battleground.  The balance problem, though, is really something I'd think would have come up in the beta.  Most of the quests are chains that eventually lead to a boss instance.  The chains are often fairly easy (though at least twice I got trapped in some that were almost impossible to do at my level but there was no other way to level up) but the real catch comes in the instances where bosses can be ridiculously hard even when they're supposedly below your level.  I'm not sure if we're supposed to group for these and silly me is soloing them but there's no warning in the quest info.  I typically do the chain until the end then go level a few times before coming back to finish, almost certainly not how it should be done.  Then again maybe if I could learn those combos.....

Still the appeal of DCUO is pretty clear:  you're in the freakin' DC Universe!  Zipping around an abandoned Gotham fairground taking out Joker thugs or flying through Metropolis hunting renegade Atlanteans is pretty cool.  The real big guns like Batman or Superman appear mostly on radio but it's nice to see all sorts of second and third tier characters like Zatanna, Booster Gold, Swamp Thing, a swarm of Green Lanterns and so forth.  And of course it's now free.  There were glitches when it went live but mostly those have been resolved and the limits it places on free accounts are much less severe than other games.

For instance Everquest II.  Free players only have access to four races (out of twenty) and eight classes (out of twenty-five).  You can't sell on the auction house, have limited bag space and so forth.  The reasoning is most likely to tempt players to shell out cash for the full experience but I wonder if that works to any significant degree.  People like me who just want something entertaining that's also free may wish for some of the off-limits combinations but don't care enough to spend real money for them.  The auction restriction is just annoying but then there's a cap on how much money you can have so maybe it's just as well.

Overall EQ2 works pretty well though it definitely suffers compared to WoW.  Crafting for instance is basically a mini-game and one that's so involved that I just gave up on doing any of it.  The graphics are overly detailed so that it's not at all uncommon to have trouble figuring out what you're looking at - the maps in particular are difficult to use.  Quests too often send you back and forth from the same location (admittedly also a problem with early WoW but one mostly gone now).  There are some control issues such as trying to retreat from a fight but the game keeps turning you back around to face the mob.  The lack of aggro is almost laughable - several times I attacked a mob who's right next to another without aggroing the second.

Still if I played it more some of this would probably work itself out and hey free is free.  EQ2 is mostly pretty effective and for some reason the backstory sank in with me more than WoW (where I still know almost none of the "lore").  But it rarely has that "just five more minutes" catch of WoW - to the extent that I'm not sure if I'll ever play it again especially with free time on WoW that a friend just gave me (haven't played in eight months) and Guild Wars 2 coming up and a free trial of EVE Online and.....

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Interpretation x 3

It's hardly news that the various technical and genre requirements mainly serve to make interpretation easier or at least focused. And "interpretation" to some degree means "communication" but it's better to avoid the latter term with art because art rarely communicates anything in the sense that word is generally used. But there are some works that for whatever reason confound standard interpretation - it could be anything from a misjudged line that breaks the illusion to a full-out rethinking of aesthetic convention. Here are three:

Four Lions (Christopher Morris 2010) - This might be the easiest example to consider since it's simply a shift of tone but it's such a major shift that it makes the film feel unstable in some sense. The first part could almost be considered It's Always Sunny in London as it details the comic exploits of four wannabe terrorists as they attempt to train and plan despite clearly being nowhere near as smart or focused as they think. Dark comedy certainly but it's quite effective with a perfectly timed sight gag at a training site and a sitcom-ish character determined to bomb his own mosque based on stark logic that could have come from a bitter Python sketch. Towards the ending the comedy starts to dissolve until the film is pretty much a tragedy by its end (and oddly a tragedy in very nearly a classical sense). One scene where the most aware character visits his wife at her job to say goodbye but can't because two cops are standing right there is a tipping point. When the film moves this decisively from comic to tragic I can't help but wonder when this was planned. Did the filmmakers feel the plotters needed to suffer for their plans (though they hadn't actually hurt anybody)? Did they need a decisive ending? Did they work backwards and feel that comedy would simply make a more marketable film? I don't know of course and mostly don't particularly care though I think that Four Lions is a stronger film for this genre mix.

YellowBrickRoad (Jesse Holland & Andy Mitton 2010) - I'm as firm an advocate of the intentional fallacy as anybody but at some point applying it constantly just turns it into dogma, in short into a technique to avoid thinking. With YellowBrickRoad some of its strongest moments are things that I'm not sure anybody intended but it's also accomplished enough that it's hard to be sure. Basically the film is on the pattern of The Blair Witch Project. In 1940 the population of an entire New Hampshire town walked up a nearby mountain and were mostly never seen again. Almost seventy years later a group of people head off to find out what happened. They get lost, wander around the woods, experience weird things and then we have an inconclusive ending - y'know Blair Witch stuff though at least this isn't a found-footage film. This is one film that I'm glad to have not seen in a theatre because there's a sequence in the middle that I think would have made me physically quite queasy - not what's shown on screen but a technical full assault on the senses that may be more disorienting than anything I've ever seen. Now this was clearly intentional and is in fact part of the story but I'm not sure about other elements. Some of the characters, for instance, suddenly act in unexpected ways and I've seen reviews that criticized this inappropriate build-up. But isn't the whole movie about sudden and irrational changes? I'm not really sure this is a defect as it might be another strategy of the filmmakers. I also don't get the feeling that there is an "answer" to the film's premise but rather just a lot of weirdness. Viewers know for sure that there is something/somebody in the woods because a body is moved and mutilated and because towards the end we see a walking foot (the rest of the body is offscreen) that can't belong to any of the characters. And the ending is just a real headscratcher that I'm not even sure was meant to be taken seriously (even viewing it as a character's hallucination doesn't seem to take you anywhere). The most violent scene involves a guy pulling somebody's leg off with his bare hands and again I wonder whether the filmmakers knew this is impossible and meant it to illustrate what's happening out in the woods or if they simply made a mistake. Or the psychologist who asks strange questions that for all I know are genuine real-life ones but in the film I can't tell if they're slips or intended to also indicate something odd about him. Yes, to some degree none of this matters but in this case that degree is a bit smaller than I'd like. Even if YellowBrickRoad is the work of fully conscious artists who intended absolutely everything on screen (and in this case also definitely on the soundtrack) it still doesn't completely hang together. Then again I possibly admire them even more if they weren't able to accomplish everything they set out to do because they still managed a more memorable film than many.

Noroît (Jacques Rivette 1976) - If nothing else I think it's safe to say that this film was completely intentional though it's one of the most cryptic I've ever seen. Ostensibly it's an adaptation of The Revenger's Tragedy but apart from the basic premise, a few bits of scenes and some English-language dialogue there's almost nothing I can match to the supposed original. The film is periodically interrupted by a black screen with numbers like "II.iv" that appear to be act and scene designations so I do wonder if it's closer to the play than it appears but have a feeling not. There's certainly no soliloquy to a skull at the opening of the film. Very little in the film really connects. It's about a group of female pirates but they're dressed like fashion-conscious society women. The time appears to be roughly 18th century but they attack a diesel-driven boat. One character is seeking revenge for the death of her brother but then he appears alive for no reason at all later in the film (and in fact during the opening death scene is so visibly breathing that this had to have been intentionally left in). We hear an underscore only to see in a pan that it's an on-screen ensemble which the first time reminded me of nothing so much as the Basie band appearing in Blazing Saddles. Out of nowhere we see a dance, there's a practice sword duel that becomes serious or does it, camera movements at times seem arbitrary and I'm not even sure that the characters are even meant to be separate since the dialogue sometimes feels like it could have been spoken by anyone. In short, nothing quite fits. And so far this could almost be describing some Ed Wood-esque b-atrocity but the thing is that Noroît doesn't feel that way. Perhaps it's best to call it an abstract narrative so that just as a painting isn't required to resolve into recognizable images then this film has story and story-like elements that don't resolve into a patterned narrative. It's often quite stunning to see (cinematographer William Lubtchansky worked on numerous other Rivette and Godard features) and makes the most of its ruined-castle setting. In fact I half want to see this again even though I know it won't make any more sense than before. Jonathan Rosenbaum pretty much nailed it when he wrote it "contains the most beautiful images and sounds of any Rivette film, and the fewest indications of what a spectator is meant to do with them, apart from look and listen."