Tag: cyberpunk (page 2 of 2)

Game Review: Deus Ex

Shooters can be curious beasts. Any game that pours you directly into the perspective of someone holding a gun empowers you to make choices, even if it’s just the choice of which weapon to pick up to fill one of your two precious slots in Halo. The more choices the player is called upon to make, the more a game from the first person perspective resembles a game centered around character and story instead of bullets and bloodshed. Balancing shooting action with role-playing can be difficult, and the urtext for it comes to us from an older game entitled Deus Ex.

Courtesy Ion Storm
Yeah, I sang the theme song with Yahtzee’s lyrics, who hasn’t?

Welcome to the future, where New York’s been attacked by terrorists and cybernetic enhancement is quickly becoming normal, even fashionable. Our hero is JC Denton, a man employed by the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition and blessed with a variety of nanotech augmentations that aren’t just for show but let him punch bad guys in incredibly efficient ways. While taking the battle to streets it quickly becomes obvious that JC’s being manipulated, and we slowly realize that there’s a vast global conspiracy going on and it’s up to us to put a stop to it. Or, perhaps, decide how to take it in a better direction than these bozos are.

Deus Ex joined the pantheon of PC gaming back in 2000, and was quickly elevated to one of the highest seats there thanks to a game engine that actually supports balanced character building instead of just gluing new bits onto your guns. Modern games may spoon out achievements when you reach milestones but Deus Ex provides in-game rewards known as ‘skill points’ which are used to raise skills such as rifles, electronics and swimming. Which is a good thing, because without these point JC wouldn’t be able to hit the broad side of an oil tanker with an assault rifle, acts perplexed when looking at an electronic keypad and only holds his breath underwater for about 90 seconds. The last one isn’t quite so bad and considering how much swimming you’re likely to do, you’re much better off teaching yourself to pick locks more efficiently and keeping your rifle scope steady.

Courtesy Ion Storm
It was a dark and stormy night in New York…

The way the game supports your character-building is by presenting you with options for dealing with obstacles, from locked doors to boss fights. There’s almost always a way past a sealed entryway, be it a vent or a different door with a different locking mechanism, and most of the time if you’re not up for fighting a boss character you can just run your ass away. It’s also the sort of game where there really aren’t any invisible walls, and your health only regenerates if you choose to make it at the expense of your bio-electric energy reserves. It’s entirely possible to lose one or all of your limbs and to need to wiggle your way to a nearby health kit without being spotted by the cops.

Player choice also becomes a factor in conversations you choose to have. JC can be generous and make attempts to be personable, or he can be the sort of withdrawn, terse individual that just guns down the bad guys like many modern shooters show their heroes to be. I say “make attempts” because the voice acting and dialog in Deus Ex isn’t out to win any awards. JC sounds like he’s been gargling gravel for the last year or two and most of the other characters have hysterically stereotypical accents. The way the characters speak to one another is the first in a pair of pretty major flaws.

Courtesy Ion Storm
He’s a ladies’ man.

The other is the graphics. It’s an older game, so of course it’s not going to have the glitz and polish of something created last year, but Deus Ex looks bad even for a game from 2000. The designs of the levels and characters alike are blocky and rigid. There are a limited number of character skins and mouth animations are incredibly stilted. While I’d like to think there’s more to games (and people) than their looks, processing the visuals in the game can sometimes be a real chore.

However, under the horrendous appearance and occasionally terrible dialog is a plot that not only tries to influence the player but allows them to make an empowered decision. While quoting philosophy and whatnot is part of the dialog, when it works it shows a world where invisible powers are struggling to control mankind, and all of them want JC to operate as their scion in the conflict. But JC, and the player, are their own creature and will only obey the tenets of their own will. When we arrive in the endgame, JC does make the occasional quip intended to be clever, but also debates the pros and cons of his decisions with intelligence. How the game ends is entirely up to us.

Thus, from start to finish, Deus Ex puts the onus upon the player instead of taking them by the hand and pulling them through the plot. Instead of relying upon the fiction trope for which the game is partially named, we are given a set of options that allow us to become, for the would-be rulers of the world, a deus ex machina ourselves, appearing from the machine to give one of the powers exactly what they want. And that notion is more empowering than just about any firearm you’d care to name.

Stuff I Liked: Decent soundtrack, actual RPG structure, multiple approaches to obstacles and a near-future setting only slightly far-fetched.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Even with modern texture updates the game’s a bit of an eyesore in places. A good portion of the dialog’s hard to swallow and I saw a couple plot twists coming a mile away.
Stuff I Loved: A decent amount of non-linearity calling upon the player to decide how to proceed, from the very first level on Liberty Island to the final decision to determine the ending of the game and, by extension, the fate of the world.

Bottom Line: For those nostalgic for the likes of System Shock 2 and for shooter fans looking for a game with a bit more depth than Halo or Modern Warfare, Deus Ex delivers. If you go in prepared for some of the dated material in the game, you won’t be disappointed.

Flash Fiction: Walking After Midnight

Courtesy some ministry in Tampa

For the Terribleminds flash fiction challenge Sub-Genre Tango Part II, here’s a mix of cyberpunk and sword & sorcery.

“Man, I don’t know about this. We’re static if we get caught.”

Van looked over his shoulder at Anton. The shorter youth’s outburst had been no louder than a hiss, but it sounded a bullhorn at this hour. It was after curfew and the Street Sweepers would be on patrol, ready to stasis-bolt anybody wandering the city. If you were really lucky, you’d awaken in a cozy cell with no lights and a bucket in the corner. Anton had been there before, one of the reasons he was so nervous.

“We won’t.” Van grabbed Anton to yank him close. “Not if you keep your taco-hole shut.”

Anton nodded, nearly dislodging the rig attached to his temples. He’d been locked up before due to his propensity for jacking into civil government relays through innocent public kiosks. He was brilliant, but about as calm as a ferret high on sugar and amphetamines. Van brushed dark hair out of his vision and held a finger to his lips.

Anton obeyed, stepping closer to Van in the shadows of the alley. A Street Sweeper hummed softly as it floated by, held aloft on its hover-fans, the men manning the cannons inscrutable behind their dark helmets. To serve and protect was emblazoned on the vehicle. Van waited until it turned the corner to pull Anton back into the street with him.

“Look. I know those bastards scare you. They give me bad tingles, too. But you want to get Sarah out, right?”

“More than anything. I know I was in a bad place, but hers is even worse.” Anton blinked. “Are you sure this is going to work?”

Van shook his head. “Nope. But we’ve already tried remote unlocks and direct runs on their bulwark servers. We gotta go seriously old-school to get in there.”

Anton and Van resumed their quiet walk down the street, on the lookout for Street Sweepers or night cops on foot. Every time he looked south, Van saw the Grand Citadel. It had started life as just another skyscraper. Now the glass gave way around the 50th floor to bright white marble, reaching up to spires and wind-snapped banners. The whole thing had a glow around it, making it even harder to see the stars. The media pundits loved to talk about its warmth and promise of peace, but Van knew the glow was as cold as the corridors in its sub-basements.

“We gotta get her out of there, man.”

“We will.” Anton managed a smile. Van put an arm around Anton’s shoulders and kept him closer as they walked. Finally, after another couple close calls with Sweepers, they came to the address Van had written down.

Anton wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Don’t look like much.”

The row of brownstones were all run down. The one they’d stopped at had boarded-up windows, the first floor featuring bars on top of the boards. The box next to the front door looked like it hadn’t been touched in about a century. There was only one name on it, barely legible: Crystal.

Van exchanged a look with Anton and pushed the button. A burst of static made both youths cringe.

“It’s after curfew, you fool! What in the Hells do you want?”

The voice sounded shrill, at war with the static. Van cleared his throat.

“We’ve come to see Crystal.”

“Oh! Come to point and laugh at the witch, have you? Piss off. Readings happen during normal business hours. And no, I don’t care that my reading lead you to ruin, you‘re the one who interpreted the cards.”

Anton glanced around the street in wide-eyed terror. Van took a deep breath.

“We’re not here about a reading. We’re here about a rescue.”

“I beg your pardon, young man?”

“My sister is held by the Citadel as one of their workers. We need to get her out.”

“Van…” Anton tugged Van’s jacket. Feeling the pull on the leather, Van looked over his shoulder. A Street Sweeper swung into view.

“Oh, frak.

The door clicked open. Van pushed Anton inside, reaching under his jacket for his gun. It was an old autoloader, a crime in and of itself since all non-Citadel arms were heavily regulated. Van aimed at the door.

“She’s on the third floor. Keep moving.”

Anton scrambled up the steps, Van close behind, as the door came open. The night cops were carrying man-portable stasis rifles, shouting for them to stop. Van fired a couple rounds to keep the cops’ heads down and turned to follow Anton. They made it to the stairs outside the door to the third floor space before the cops opened fire.

Van’s hand went numb and the gun fell from his fingers. It was a glancing shot but it’d deprived them of their defense. Anton was putting his hands up when the third floor door came open.

Standing in it was a woman as tall as Van, but full-bodied where he was gangly. Ringlets of red hair fell around her face and blue eyes blazed with fury. A silver sword was in her hand and she pointed it at the boys.

“Get down.”

They did. Lightning snapped through the air over their heads and caught the lead cop in the chest, knocking him and his friends down the stairs. Anton scrambled inside, and the woman grabbed Van to pull him past the threshold. The door closed.

“Van, is it?” Her voice was far less shrill in person, more like dark velvet. She lifted his chin to get a look at his face. “Not bad for growing up hard on the streets. Is it your sister in there?”

“And my girlfriend.”

She lifted an eyebrow at Anton. “Good for you, then.” She straightened, resting her hands on the pommel of the sword as it rested point-down against the floorboards. “We’re safe for now, boys, but if you want to head back out after the girl, we’ll have to make a deal.”

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Ghost in the Shell

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.


Back in the days of the late 80s and early 90s, when the excess of the previous decade were giving way to the ‘edgy’ goth culture that emerged to dominate a lot of the media in the next – The Crow, Spawn, A Nightmare Before Christmas, etc – America was getting its first real dose of animé. The Sci-Fi Channel, back when it was called ‘The Sci-Fi Channel’ and didn’t worry about its Google page rank because, well, Google didn’t really exist yet, ran a few animé features every year or so just to whet our whistles for what lay in store for us on the other side of the Pacific. The first round included Lensman, Casshan Robot Hunter and Vampire Hunter D, which while visually stunning and unique in their aesthetics, amounted to pretty standard but well-done action flicks. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that we were introduced to the truly introspective and headspace-violating works such as Akira and this week’s review fodder, Ghost in the Shell.

There’s also the fact that none of those three ‘early’ animé features are available on Netflix, which is a shame because Lensman is a great reworking of E.E. Smith’s novels, Casshan is one of the best treatments of a Mega Man-style protagonist I’ve ever seen, and Vampire Hunter D is… hmm? Oh, right, Ghost in the Shell, sorry about that.

Courtesy Production I.G.

The year is 2029. The world is connected by a global information network that is to the Internet what a Peterbilt 378 is to last year’s Ford pick-up. In Tokyo, the government has divided its various responsibilities into sections, and Section 9 is their covert operations and network security division. Top badass amongst the ranks of Section 9 is Major Motoko Kusanagi, who along with being a crack shot, an expert martial artist and pretty damn smart in terms of both brain and mouth, is also a full conversion cyborg, meaning that other than her brain and most of her spinal column, her body is entirely robotic. A case involving a hacker called ‘the Puppet Master’ falls into Section 9’s lap, and the investigation leads Motoko to question the nature of her own existence even as she tries to unravel the mystery as to who this hacker is and what they’re after.

Ghost in the Shell, like a great deal of animé, is based upon the manga of the same name. The manga was crafted by a guy named Shirow Masamune, and in the interest of full disclosure, I need to make the following statement: I love Shirow Masamune. This is the guy who brought us Black Magic, Appleseed and Dominion, which might be better known by the animé feature called Tank Police. His work is, in my opinion, best described as ‘camp cyberpunk’, a marriage of the mentality behind such works as Blade Runner and Snow Crash with balls-to-the-wall action and genuinely funny humor that has mechanized characters like Briareos from Appleseed acting far more human than some humans do in similar works, even his own. There’s plenty of philosophy, sociological commentary and bits of political satire woven into his stories, and they’re told and drawn well enough that you’re having just as good a time contemplating what he’s trying to say as you do watching cops with tanks blast their way through the bad guys. Ghost in the Shell is exemplary of this style, with discussions on the nature of human existence occurring almost simultaneously with cybernetic supercops doing battle against advanced walking tanks.

Courtesy Production I.G.
The big guy’s Battou. He’s awesome.
He gives us the phrase ‘standard-issue big gun’ among other things.

The action from the manga exists almost intact in the animé feature. Instead of trying to wow an audience with laser guns or giant fighting robots, Ghost in the Shell keeps the action, for the most part, on the human level. While the Major is super-strong, very fast and well-experienced in combat, when the action takes place it happens on a scale to which an audience can relate. I mean, seeing a space battle happen in, say, Star Blazers or Robotech is exciting, but a great deal of that comes from our relationship with the pilots of those fantastic vehicles. Without characters that we like and can relate to, it’d just be so much sound and fury like the opening of Revenge of the Sith. The grounding of Tokyo 2029 in reality, coupled with the interesting characters involved in the combat, lends it weight and makes it more exciting, ramping up the tension as the stakes get higher.

Unfortunately Ghost in the Shell doesn’t have the pace or the occasional tongue-in-cheek aside of its manga source material. Some bits of the film just drag, especially when it comes to Motoko’s navel-gazing. It’s like watching a tense episode of Law & Order: SVU only to have Stabler & Benson stop in the middle of tracking down a serial rapist to discuss the sustainability of the world in general and New York City in particular. It’s interesting, sure, but we didn’t come here for moral philosophy, get the hell on with the detective work. Instead of weaving these questions into the narrative, director Oshii Mamoru stops the action dead to have us ruminate on the nature of human existence.

There’s also the fact that the Major inexplicably gets naked any time she needs to use her cloaking device. “Therm-optic camouflage” didn’t require nudity in the manga, and even in the film a guy is able to use therm-optics just by pulling up the hood of his jumper – he didn’t have to whip out his junk to turn invisible. I don’t object to the idea of seeing Motoko in her skivvies, even if she is a cyborg, but the gratuity and lack of necessity for it in context kind of bugs me.

Courtesy Production I.G.
Sad cyborg is sad.

Ghost in the Shell was ground-breaking for its time. Now, “ground-breaking” is not entirely synonymous with “good”. It’s also a phrase that can get abused by people in the marketing world. Sonic Unleashed, for example, could be described as ground-breaking in that video game series because never before as a hedgehog that runs fast turned into a hulking fur-covered pile of rage and sharp bits that’d be called a ‘werewolf’ if it weren’t a complete misnomer. The DaVinci Code broke new ground for anti-Church conspiracy theorists, but the book is at its best when it’s wedged under a piece of furniture to keep it from wobbling. Twilight was ground-breaking in both its existence as genre fiction aimed at young female readers and the psychological and sexual implications of its characters, but it seemed like the flat characterizations and plodding story pace were set to drain vampires of all of their menace and mystique until the advent of Daybreakers. Incidentally, one has to wonder the fun that could be had if the aforementioned vampire hunter D came across the Cullen household. Hilarity would ensue, I’m sure.

Anyway, Ghost in the Shell is not only a ground-breaking work in terms of cyberpunk animé and post-modern information-age personal philosophy but also pretty damn good as a story. Long treatises and monologues aside, this is a seminal work of the genre and definitely worth seeing if you have any interest in well-done hand-crafted animation that isn’t afraid to be violent, sexy or intellectually interesting for adults. The thing about the film which ultimately works against it is, as good as Shirow’s work is, it tends to be dense, with layers of philosophical and socio-political commentary layered between the character development and action sequences. It’s a similar problem that we have with the recent adaptation of Appleseed, and I suspect that if Black Magic or Dominion were to be revisited as films, it’d be no different. Trying to cram everything Shirow does in his works into a two hour film without a careful hand in the editing process can leave the final result feeling disjointed and lead to some problems with pace. Ghost in the Shell is pretty much the best example of this, but it’s also a fantastic example of the counterpoint to the problem with adapting Shirow’s work to film.

Courtesy Production I.G.
Even today, scenes like this are gorgeous.

Even when there isn’t anything going on, it’s extremely well-drawn or well-rendered nothing. Even if you’re not an animé fan and just have a passing interest in things like cyberpunk action, artificial intelligence that doesn’t want to destroy the world or just characters that are both intelligent and badass, you can do a hell of a lot worse than Ghost in the Shell. And if you like it as a feature, go read the manga or, better yet, check out Stand-Alone Complex, an animé television series that stays a lot closer to Shirow’s original vision. You can expand on a lot of the themes and subjects in those inner layers when you have a dozen hour-long episodes to work with instead of a feature with a ninety minute running time. I mean, imagine if you tried to take one of the many, many themes from a tv series like Star Trek: The Next Generation, let’s say relocating a native population for the sake of governmental whims, and condense it into a feature film that’s accessible to the masses as well as diehard fans. The result would probably be a total disaster! I mean, who would be so stupid as to…

Courtesy Paramount Pictures


Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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