Friday, April 22, 2011

Dragon Age: Origins - Full Review

Without a shadow of a doubt, Bioware are the masters of the RPG. They’ve proved many times over that it’s not just meaty combat, powerful weapons, amazing spells and exciting enemies that make an RPG, but also a well crafted dramatic and emotionally gripping storyline worthy of the greatest fantasy novels and films ever created. These tales also contain a wealth of varied interpersonal relationships with both friend and foe characters you encounter on your epic journey. Bioware almost guarantee you will become lost in their original gameworlds. Not lost as in having no map or path, but a loss of the perception of time and even a loss from reality. Isn’t that the main reason why one plays? Well I’m pleased to say that Dragon Age: Origins is another prime example of Bioware’s unquestionable domination of the genre.

While Dragon Age is a fantasy RPG, Bioware released themselves from the constrictions of the Dungeons & Dragons licence they so faithfully represented in the past and have crafted an entirely new IP, creating a new gameworld and working with their own roleplaying mechanics. While for some this may be a turn off, being severed from the cosy familiarity of the D20 system and a wealth of lore you’re familiar with; the leap between D&D to Dragon Age is not as great as the leap between say Knights Of The Old Republic and Mass Effect which would be far more difficult to compare to each other. No, Dragon Age is much lighter on mechanics and options than D&D but it’s actually all the better for it because it’s an easy system to learn and should draw in newer players to the genre than say Oblivion, widely regarded as having a flawed learning curve.

Bioware created the land of Ferelden, where you encounter memorable characters and take up arms for a cause you believe in. Dragon Age: Origins is more than a well-told story, however: It's an epic, intricate, and thoroughly entertaining adventure that's easy to become enamoured with. The basic plot premise seems simplistic; an invasion of a demonic horde known as The Darkspawn expanding with a plague upon the land known as The Blight. Add to that, a bitter civil war and you have the making of a superior high-fantasy experience. But it’s the shocks, the joys, and the anguish that stem from your compatriots or hidden in books of lore and the moments where your dialog choices change the very future of the word is where the real story lies. Ferelden is as tangible and familiar a land as those created by the fantasy greats but is unique enough to feel truly original.

Dragon Age's initial moments, in contrast to many RPGs present very important decisions that completely affect how your adventure plays out. You'll do the normal customisation of your own avatar and abilities with a wealth of options that Bioware are famous for but by choosing a race and class you will set in motion a very different tale from someone who chooses a different combination of race and class. They not only define your abilities but also determine how you experience one of six different "origins” that follow the events that lead you to the elite company of the Grey Wardens [basically the Jedi of the gameworld]. Each origin story leads to the same place eventually, but the events you began in your origin story continue to resonate right until the end of the epic tale.

You learn much from the extraordinary companions who join you on your quest, and you'll even grow to care about them as much as you have for other Bioware characters. I kept my team to a core group balancing the three companion slots between martial power, the magical arts and the skills of a sneaky ranged attacker. I had Alistair, a Grey Warden warrior and the joker of the bunch whom you may lead to a higher purpose, Leliana, a stealthy ranger who is dangerous as she is endearing ["I am a woman and I reserve the right to be inconsistent! "] and Morrigan, a wild witch in control of powerful magics who follows your cause for her own nefarious purpose. Bioware have developed impressive backstorys, dialogue and the impressive voice acting which makes them seem almost real and their constant interaction even among themselves [a mechanic not seen properly since Baldur’s Gate] adds an air of authenticity to your adventure. You have full control over your companions inventories and can upgrade all their weapons and armour as you see fit. Don’t worry about the expense of upgrading all the characters in your party camp, you can easily afford it by game’s end. You must keep them happy in order to retain their services. Making choices they agree with will impress them and gain their favour [as will presenting them with gifts] but ignore their complaints for too long and have them leave you for good! You can recruit three companions to take along on any quest with the frequent option of swapping them out for another of a pool of about a dozen in total. They’re not just AI’s either; you can take full control of any party member at any time. You can zoom in to a close third-person view when exploring and conversing with non-player characters, or pull the camera back to a tactical view, which makes it a breeze to quickly and easily micromanage every spell and attack, in true Baldur's Gate tradition.

Speaking of Baldur’s Gate, if you've played any Bioware fantasy RPG in the past, you'll feel right at home with the combat system. By clicking on your target or pressing “attack”, you don't just swing a sword, but you approach your target and queue up your assault. Eventually in time the battle will be illuminated with power and spell effects as you and your companions gain more knowledge. Enemies are diverse enough to remain interesting and you must often change combat tactics on the fly in order to maximise your effectiveness against different foes. NPC allies will eventually join you in the largest battles, and the greatest of these, particularly those at the climax, are exceptionally rewarding.

The games’ pacing is much quicker than it’s D&D predecessors and it seems that you’re almost in constant motion, gaining loot and levels as you go. You do not even have to rest to regenerate – once a battle or encounter is over, you and your companions slowly regenerate health and mana. If a party member “dies” during battle, they are but incapacitated and will automatically resuscitate once all enemies in the area are vanquished. Due to this it’s quite possible to play for hours without retiring back to camp.

So why didn’t Bioware just shoehorn this into the D&D licence though? Well much like they created a more mature sci-fi scenario in Mass Effect, free from the sex & violence restrictions of the Star Wars franchise; Dragon Age is the adult themed answer to Dungeons & Dragons and would never be sanctioned by Wizards of the Coast considering the fact that you can engage in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, suggestions of bestiality and take part in orgies – oh and then there’s the blood! Yeeeeesssss the blooood!!! The blood is truly magnificent. Every single swing of the sword that connects with a foe is rewarded by a satisfying splatter of liquid crimson that covers you and your companions. Every subsequent thrust and slice further releases torrents of blood until by the end of an encounter you look like you’ve been working in a abattoir for a month. Kills and critical hits are given special animations and often involve the removal of heads – delicious! It’s doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the BBFC slapped an big red 18 certificate on this!

Sound plays an important part in Bioware’s games and it’s something they’ve never scrimped on. The sounds of battle and death fill the air during combat, distant voices adding to the whole atmospheric experience. Characters are expertly voiced by some familiar names Tim It Curry, Claudia Stargate: SG-1 Black, Mark V Hildrith, Graham Rambo McTavish as well as Kate Mulgrew, Tim Russ, Domnic Keating and Dwight Schultz from Star Trek shows to name but a few. One of the highlights of the aural Dragon Age: Origins experience is an impressive score from Icewind Dale’s composer Inon Zur, one of the most prolific video game score composers out there. Zur worked with Aubrey Ashburn who provided vocals for a score that stands on it’s own delivering haunting melodies and hard percussion where required.

Now is there anything bad? I guess you shouldn’t expect to see anything visually that you’ve not seen before albeit in a different form. The architecture, the settings, the look and feel of everything is everything you know from D&D or Tolkien and things don’t deviate much from that staple. Everything here looks a bit washed and bleak which is an interesting style choice but it’s bleakness may not be to everyone’s liking. The engine itself is not up there with the highest standard of RPG graphics engines either and does not appear as powerful as you’d expect from a game of it’s calibre. The Mass Effect engine which is technically older seems to handle textures and models far better which seems strange to me. Still a good thing is that PCs older than last years models should run the game extra smoothly even on high settings. Another niggling issue is that while there is an impressive array of customisable in-game AI scripting, it doesn’t always work and your elite tem of adventures can quickly turn into the most impressive idiots in the history of RPG henchmen. Every so often a character will disregard your commands and make basic actions instead of their skills and abilities. Even with AI commands set up, companions frequently act on their own idiotic accord – choosing to enter combat with enemies you don't want them to or running blindly into traps that they should be able to see, let alone disarm. They’re also not the best pathfinders you’ll ever see, so be prepared to take a lot of control over most situations yourself using the pause command.

This is an extraordinarily ambitious game in comparison to most. Few other than Bioware can follow up that ambition with realised entertainment on this epic scale. If you spend time tracking down every quest you could easily spend over 90 hours to complete the game [my endgame save reads 96 hours], but then you may want to craft a new character with a new origin and I’ll bet you’ll find subsequent adventures quite different.

Final Verdict: One of Bioware’s greatest achievements, a high fantasy epic for a mature audience with a genuine hook for replay value filled with danger, humour, intrigue, betrayal and adventure.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

From a Moon to a Code. Jones delivers again!

Despite stiff competition from Star Trek and District 9, Moon was the best science fiction movie of 2009 proving that no matter how much flash, lasers, special effects, explosions and aliens you have in a sci-fi movie it can still be bested by a well written, well acted tale that hearkened back to the days of hard-core sci-fi even on a 10th of the blockbuster budget. Duncan Jones, the man to accomplish this has just brought us his next movie, Source Code and I’m pleased to say he’s still on form.

Jones has taken something as rudimentary as time-travel and wrapped a suitably interesting plot around it in many layers much as he did with cloning in Moon. There is a revelation in the movie but no world-breaking mind-fuck like The Matrix or Inception here. It is a very simple concept that once again follows the human rather than super-human angle too prevalent in modern sci-fi. Jones is a true explorer of the human condition and through the central protagonist Captain Colter Stevens he makes the audience think what we would do rather than show us.

Without delving too much into the plot, Stevens [Jake Gyllenhaal] is being sent back through time in a computer simulation to occupy the body and experience 8 minutes of the life of Sean Fentress, a train passenger before the train is destroyed by terrorists. He must find clues as to who was responsible and can't do it on one run so he constantly has to go back into the simulation to experience the same time period but do things differently with what he learns each previous time. Jones' pacing of the films action as well as both slightly and radically altering the way each 8 minute period plays out is what keeps you glued to this.

Gyllenhaal has come a long way from being the moody weirdo Donnie Darko some 10 years ago now. He was the twerp in The Day After Tomorrow, he made a name for himself in such dogshit as Brokeback Mountain and caught my ire when he portrayed the “blight on the Corps” the whining bitch Cpl. Anthony Swafford in Jarhead. He put in a good turn in the sprawling adventure and longest videogame cutscene ever The Prince Of Persia last year and recently had the enviable pleasure of spending much of his last movie in bed with a naked Anne Hathaway [No I don't know what that was called I just read it had a naked Anne Hathaway]. Source Code is by far his greatest performance to date and he deserves any and all the accolades he recives for his protrayal of Stevens.

Two-time Whopper Award winner Michelle M:I-3 Monaghan is Christina, a friend to Sean Fentress whose body Stevens is occupying and whom he gets to know due to the fact that she's always sitting on the train with him when the simulation resets. Vera The Departed Farmiga is Capt. Goodwin, Stevens' only link to reality while he's "in the machine". Jeffery Casino Royale Wright rounds off the cast with a truly bizarre performance as the laughably effeminate scientist in charge of the Source Code project.

One unkind reviewer elsewhere has slated the movie comparing it to a blatant and horrendous rip off of a modern-day Quantum Leap episode. But the joke is on him as Jones actually cast Scott Bakula himself to cameo-voice Captain Stevens’ father whom we only hear through a phone call which Bakula answers with “Oh God!”… classic! Jones has made no secret of reading British sci-fi comic book 2000AD which is filled with vignettes that explore every theme that sci-fi writers have been imagining since the time of Jules Verne. The basic premise of Source Code may remind you of what you’re read there or perhaps even have seen in Quantum Leap or something like The Outer Limits but it’s not enough to call foul and scream plagiarism. Jones took a script by Ben Ripley [known only for straight to video sequels of the Species franchise] and reworked it to make it his own. He's competent enough to use materiel he’s read to form the genesis of an idea and flesh it out in his own completely unique style and obviously did this with Ripley's script to make it real.

Final Verdict: This is the way science fiction should be made, entertaining and focus on the people not technology with a thought provoking and morally ambiguous ending. So why is there only one person in all of Hollywood doing it?

Colonel Creedon Rating: *****

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Second test flight for Black Silk takes place.

The Chinese showed off their new stealth fighter to SECDEF Gates during his visit to China in January. It was first public account of a flight of the new aircraft, the J-20 dubbed "Black Silk". Flying the prototype during Gates' visit didn't strike me as a very peaceful welcome. Had China’s realistic approach to joint defense relations with the U.S. turned into a hard line? Was Beijing’s growing self confidence in its military and economical power going to facilitate the narrowing of its military gap with the Western superpower? Well those questions won't get answered until the J-20 is deployed somewhere outside the People's Republic airspace sometime.

Yesterday a Chinese newspaper reported a second test-flight on Sunday of the J-20, showing a photograph of "an alleged J-20 prototype" preparing to take off from an airfield in Chengdu in Sichuan province on Sunday. There was no confirmation from the PLA Air Force or Defence Ministry.

Analysts have suggested from studying information that China may be making faster-than-expected progress in developing an aircraft to rival the F-22 Raptor, designed to evade radar detection. Coupled with the possible deployment of their first aircraft carrier this year and a new anti-ship ballistic missile, the Chinese have caused some concern.

UNETIDA Air Operations Commander Senior Colonel “BesraHu is an officer of the PLA Air Force and he was confident that the J-20 trials were a positive step toward world peace as well as China's increased willingness to support the global effort to destroy aliens. He did however make it clear that this was conjecture on his part as he claimed to know nothing about the J-20 or would even confirm it's existence.

Sources: FOX News / Wired /Time

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Forced into Twittery

Afghan & coalition forces killed four militants & detained two suspects in a Wardak Province operation targeting an IED-network commander

That was a 140-character "tweet" sent officially to the masses of individuals including news sites following them on June 1st 2009, hours before a formal traditional announcement to the media. It was one of the first examples of the U.S. Military embracing this new instant Web 2.0 tech that is changing the world.

While like Facebook, Twitter is banned from all U.S. Military workstations [which makes sense as it's not like servicemen should be tweeting or updating their profiles on "company time"] some select groups have waivers. One group are the respective military personnel in the intelligence departments [who learned about events in Egypt and Libya through FB updates and tweets quicker than any asset in the region] and the other group are the relatively new military social media departments like those responsible for the USMC Twitter account and the one belonging to the CJCS Adm. Mike Mullen.

It didn't take too long for the military to also realise that as well as getting their side of the story out as quickly as possible in an effort to prevent misinformation, that overall public perception of the them was now more favourable with this level of apparent transparency and communication being increased through social media outlets.

However, recently some clown told UNETIDA's director, Air Vice Marshal Davenport that it would be a great idea to get someone engaged in operations to get on the Twitter and tweet about anything and everything since public perception of an organisation that operates globally with almost unprecedented autonomy using technology acquired from "strange sources" and has been responsible for the "disappearance" of people who get too close to the truth was at an all-time low.

When I concluded my weekly report to the director on Friday he told me he was very happy with this blog but voiced concern that I was not able to take the time to update it as often as I had been due to the time constraints of ongoing operations, additional commitments to the Corps and studying for my TLS examinations. So I couldn't blog about everything that needed attention drawn to it and he asked if that concerned me. I told the director that while it didn't concern me so much that I didn't get a chance to blog about things, it did on the other hand worry me that people were watching events or reading the news without having my opinion to guide them through the proper way of thinking about something.

The end result of that conversation was a direct order to open a Twitter account and make sure people are not left in the dark about anything again even if they only benefit from 140 characters of my wisdom - is it not better than nothing at all?

Follow me @whoppercreedon

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Marines to issue armoured underwear to protect their privates [and other ranks]!

Marine Cops Systems Command [MARCORSYSCOM] will soon issue specially designed combat underwear to protect U.S. Marines in Afghanistan from Improvised Explosive Devices.

Constructed of lightweight silk, they look like bicycle shorts and the British Army is already sporting them. While they fall short of completely protecting against fragmentation, they do provide added defense to mitigate wounds to the genitals and femoral arteries especially in the form of sand and debris that can cause "dirty wounds" and infection. "The loss of forces due to these types of injuries has a significant impact on the unit's combat effectiveness and their ability to sustain operations. Based on analysis in theater, ballistic underwear will drastically improve casualty recovery and reduce secondary infections" read a USMC solicitation.

Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, who was until recently, commander of Marine forces in Afghanistan is at the forefront of a major push to get the garments to Marines in country when he saw first hand the kinds of injuries his men were suffering from. Initially the underwear will be commissioned from the Northern Irish company Cooneen Watts & Stone of Co. Tyrone. But the Corps is looking beyond the initial $2m order already and will seek other vendors in order to issue the garments to all Marines within the next number of months.

Colonel "Whopper" Creedon of U.N.E.T.I.D.A. who himself suffered a leg injury from fragmentation in the first Gulf War welcomed MARCORSYSCOM's new initiative. "The Marine Corps is the service that sees the most action in the battlefield; as the bodies we leave in our wake will attest to." said the Marine officer. "But we need to protect 'vital operating equipment' as the Marine Corps is the service that sees the most action when not on the battlefield as many a satisfied lady will attest to - Oorah!"

Source: Yahoo / MSNBC

Friday, April 15, 2011

Somali Pirates will soon find themselves in hot water!

The Office of Naval Research has conducted a successful test using a High-Energy Laser [HEL] to disable and ignite a small craft in water off the coast of California.

While similar systems had tested successfully on land, moist sea air presented an additional problem as it reduces a later beam's power. Now the U.S. Navy think that ship-borne lasers could eventually be used to protect vessels from small attack boats.

Scientists have recently developed solid state lasers that combine large numbers of compact beam generators, similar to LEDs which have replace the outmoded technology of chemical-based weapons that expend toxic gasses.

Until now, much of the development of HELs has focused on shooting down missiles or hitting land-based targets but according to the ONR's Peter Morrison "This test provides an important data point as we move toward putting directed energy on warships but there is still much work to do to make sure it's done safely and efficiently."

The presence of UNETIDA's Director of Research and Development Dr. "Quantum" Pataal was noted at the test. Dr. Pataal was asked if UNETIDA may have contributed to solving the Navy's problem of using lasers at sea by offering advanced technology "acquired" from "elsewhere". The scientist dismissed the notion as "preposterous" before vanishing in a flash of light moments later while muttering to himself in Hindu.

The laser test was carried out by the Navy and Northrop Grumman as part of a $98 million contract.

Read more at FOX

Sources: Alro / BBC News /FOX News

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Colonel's Bullets - April 7th 2011

Glenn Beck the demented bigot that made Bill O'Reilly look like a wussy liberal and Charlie Sheen seem like a perfectly well-adjusted human being; will finally end his programme on FOX News. It was becoming a problem for a fair and balanced news service [that some may regard as slightly right leaning] to give airtime to a man who accused President Obama of being a racist against Caucasians. Advertisers stopped buying space during his broadcast and that, coupled with Beck's increasing insane accusations and conspiracy theories which angered everyone from Jews to charitable organisations are believed to have contributed to his "decision to leave".

Tron: Legacy stayed in theaters long enough to establish Joseph Kosinski as the highest-grossing first-time director of a live-action film in Hollywood history. Legacy's almost $400m global gross eclipsed the record the great J.J. Abrams set for M:I-3 a while back. While the movie's high marketing budget and premium 3D pricing mean Disney won't need to buy an entire bank to hold all the profits; the net gross and high DVD/BD pre-sales have secured a continuation to the franchise which Kosinski was fairly certain would happen anyway what with all the threads being set up. The record-breaking director is now constructing a new sequel with original writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz.

Leonard Nimoy is not apparently retiring from acting like Connery did. This year he voices Sentinel Prime on Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I approve of this. His turn as Galvatron, the successor to Megatron in the 1986 animated Transformers movie was pitch perfect and is an excellent choice to voice this oft-mentioned but rarely seen character. Nimoy is also speculated to return as William Bell in Fringe now that the show has been renewed for a 4th season.

The Expendables 2 will hit theaters on August 17th, 2012. Most of the cast from 2009’s original is expected to return but Sylvester Stallone is still in search for someone to replace him as director. Sly also wants Bruce Willis to be a “super villain”. Interestingly The Expendables 2 will be duking it out with G.I. Joe 2, slated for an August 10th release from Paramount.

Sources: Collider / AICN /IGN /Deadline / Irish Times

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The necessity to militarise space

The Pentagon recently released plans that outlined the needs to better protect military satellites and improve its ability to use them as weapons as the battle-lines become drawn in the increasingly crowded and dangerous environment of space.

A new strategy for space calls for greater cooperation with other nations on space-based programs to improve America’s ability to deter enemies. “It’s a domain, like air land and sea,” said Gen. Kevin Chilton, USAF Ret. former STRATCOM Commander. “Space is not just a convenience. It’s become a critical part in every other [battlefield] domain.” Chilton said that the U.S. needs to be sure that it protects and maintains the battlefield capabilities it gets from space-based assets, including GPS data, missile warnings and communications with aircraft and drones drones for surveillance or missile combat.

Chilton warned however that as the U.S. and allies depend more on satellite technology; it becomes a greater enemy target. He anticipates that the U.S. will not enter a future conflict with a technological enemy without expecting to be challenged in space and the U.S. military needs be thinking about how they can tip the balance of the battlefield in their favour.

VCJCS General James Cartwright, USMC also a former STRATCOM Commander said that countries need to have guidelines that govern approximately 22,000 man made objects orbiting earth, including over 1000 active satellites. He also outlined that there's no right of way if two objects are on a collision course and something needs to be done to ensure that their signals do not also conflict.

While the strategy offers little detail about offensive operations in space; The DOD says that China, Iran and others have demonstrated their abilities to take action in space such as in 2007, when China destroyed a defunct weather satellite with a ballistic missile. This was alarming as previously only the U.S. and Russia had performed that action with an air-launched missile and a hunter satellite respectively.

The U.S. also needs to make it clear that even if someone attacks an American satellite, the military response wouldn’t be limited to space-based action.

Lt. Colonel “Stargazer” Smith, USAF, Deputy Orbital Operations Commander for UNETIDA also urged the necessity for global co-operation in space suggesting that when extra-terrestrial aggressors approach we may need the combined space-based military resources of the planet to "blow them out of the sky."

Source: AP