Hopes, dreams and more than a few memories: On Age of Empires 4

I must have been ten years old when I was given the Age of Empires deluxe pack. I can’t remember if it was Christmas or my birthday, but I remember it was my Aunt who gave it to me. First game, second game and their respective expansions across four CD-Roms, an artbook and a manual. Goddamn, remember when there were manuals? Lotta kids don’t.

It’s what we had before wikis were a thing, children.

Anyway, I played hours and hours of those two games, especially the second. The first was and remains a classic, of course, but Age of Empires II: Age of Kings stands in my mind as the pinnacle of real time strategy games, something that I reckon a lot of people would agree with. And it wasn’t just me: my parents played almost as many hours as I did (mum, in particular, was fucking ruthless). I remember watching that opening cinematic for the first time, the excitement and joy, the exuberance at what I was going to be able to do. What I would build and what I would destroy. The theme became a key part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

After Age of Empires came Age of Mythology. Again I found myself disappearing into an epic world of Ensemble Studios’ creation for days at a time, leading armies of Centaurs, Valkyries and Anubites against the poor bloody infantry of my many, many enemies. The first time I watched a cyclops pick some unfortunate pixel bastard up and toss him across the map was pure magic. It was about this time that my brother started playing video games – too young to fight a campaign, he’d park himself on the scenario creator and put together epic battles of blue versus red. Christ, I wonder if he remembers that. He must do. I should ask him one of these days.

Finally came Age of Empires III. Fuck me dead, the base game came out in two-thousand-bloody-five. That’s twelve years ago. I’m getting old. Anyway, whereas the first three base games (and their expansions) from the franchise were instant classics, AoE III was not. Now I’m not denying a bias on my part, I was deeply disappointed by this game and its expansions, but it received mixed reviews across the board and hasn’t found its way onto any “best ever” or “most influential” lists that I’ve ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, I played through the game. I built up my home city, burned my enemies’ colonies and bought all the expansions hoping that it would get better, but it never did.

For me, I think the most disappointing thing about it was the campaign, a fucking ridiculous tale about multiple generations of a family fighting an evil secret society that wants to obtain the fountain of youth. No, really, that was what the campaign was about. Compared with the simple yet stunning campaigns of AoE II, which allowed me to follow in the footsteps of William Wallace, Atilla the Hun, Joan of Arc, Frederic Barbarossa and Saladin, it was ridiculous and riddled with cliches. Even when AoE III‘s second expansion, The Asian Dynasties, brought the story campaign back to actual history, they failed to understand that a bit of solid voice over work, a decent script and a couple of sketches will create far more emotional investment than watching a tiny rendered figure, indistinguishable from all the other tiny rendered figures around him, committing seppuku ever could. Whereas Age of Kings cemented in me a love of history and will forever stand as one of my favourite examples of the possibility of interactive education, AoE III will forever stand as one of the games that left me the most disappointed.

Regardless, that last expansion was released in 2007. Microsoft would announce the closure of Ensemble Studios a year later, and one of the greatest franchises ever (despite a disappointing younger sibling) seemed to go out with a whimper.

Then 2013 came and an HD version of Age of Kings was released through Steam, to much fanfare. Not only that but two new expansion packs, The Forgotten and The African Kingdoms, have since been released. I can tell you right now, they hold up. But they weren’t a new game, and it didn’t seem like we were going to get one.

Until now.

Ye-heh-eah you gorgeous bastards! Ten years on and being developed by a different studio, but I haven’t been this excited about an announcement trailer in I don’t know how long.

Months. Years maybe. Man, I used to get so excited about new releases. I mean, I still do, but I’m not quite the rabid fanboy I used to be. Is that another sign of aging? Shite, it probably is.

Moving on, with Ensemble Studios no longer being a thing the reins have been passed over to Relic, famous for the Dawn of War and Company of Heroes franchises. Considering that this is really the only information we have so far, we really know fuck-all about the game. I mean, yeah, we don’t know the era or the art style, but we also don’t know much about the mechanics beyond that it will be an RTS. Of sorts. Whereas you know more or less what you’re going to get with other studios (you know roughly what a Firaxis turn-based game will look like, or how a Creative Assembly grand strategy game will work), Relic constantly shake up the formula, even within the same franchise as is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the profound difference between the first Dawn of War game (which had fairly standard RTS base-building and resource collecting mechanics) and the second (which played more like an isometric action RPG). In all likelihood Relic won’t shake up the classic AoE formula that much, but we can’t be certain.

I’m excited to learn more though. To find out how the mechanics will work, what era/s the game will be set in and how the campaign and single player will work. Who will I be able to play as and who will I be able to crush.

But as excited as I am, all this is tempered by the fact that I probably won’t be able to play it, at least not soon. I’m a Mac user, y’see, and this is a Microsoft game. There is every chance that this game will not be released on my platform of choice, at least not until well after the initial release. Yes, yes, I am aware that there are emulators and Bootcamp, but the former is generally pretty shit while my computer is getting too old and fat to adequately run the latter. It might be released on the X-Bone, but my experience with Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 on the 360 was not a positive one. So yeah, bit of a mood killer that. Almost as bad as how old I’m feeling as I write this.

Anyway, I’m still happy to see one of my favourite franchises, the series that more than any other got me into gaming, is returning; I’m glad to see it given to a studio with such a fantastic pedigree; and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to add another AoE game to the ‘Best of…’ lists. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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Old School Movie Reviews: Hot Fuzz (2007)

So it was my brother’s birthday recently so we had a bit of a thing tonight to celebrate. We all gathered at the family house, mum made sushi and dumplings, and we all sat down to watch a movie together. Since it was my brother’s birthday he chose the film, and thankfully he has pretty good taste in movies, picking the second in Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright’s so-called ‘Cornetto Trilogy,’ Hot Fuzz.

Let me just come out and say that I fucking love this film, and I think everyone should watch it. It’s a masterpiece of clever ideas that are executed perfectly, and not just by the headliners. Pegg and Frost fit their roles perfectly, but so does everyone else in the cast (Timothy Dalton, in particular, is bloody excellent). Edgar Wright, who directed and co-wrote, does an excellent job at both, providing a clear vision and a brilliantly cohesive narrative out of what is a bit of a convoluted script, but I expect a lot of the credit for that should go to his DoP, Jess Hall, and Film Editor, Chris Dickens. The parallel scenes of Pegg and Frost’s characters bonding over movies while another character is murdered is perfectly cut together.

I think what really impressed me about Hot Fuzz with this most recent viewing was the way it managed to be gruesome without ever being gratuitous. Blood and gore is played for laughs, certainly. There are decapitations, stabbings, and one bloke gets his head crushed by a giant stone spike. But they never spend so long on the gore that it becomes uncomfortable, so the film is able to maintain its humorous tone despite what happens with a bear trap. If you’re making an absurd, violent black comedy, this is the standard you should look towards.

So yeah, watch Hot Fuzz if you haven’t already. Watch it again if you have.

I’d absolutely watch that: A quick thought on M*A*S*H

So I’m at the bar and staring at a few gin bottles and for some reason my mind wandered across to the show M*A*S*H (possibly because of all the recent talk about North Korea and Kim Jong-Un’s continued testing of bigger and better missiles and talk of a possible US military response, possibly because we’ve got a Korean bartender and two Korean cooks who are just awesome, and make the best fucking fried chicken you’ll ever taste). My mind goes to weird places sometimes. Anyway, I’ve had to explain to someone recently about how gin is grain alcohol that’s had juniper berries added somehow (generally infused). That without juniper berries it’s just not gin, it’s vodka. At this point I remembered Hawkeye and Trapper (later B.J Hunnicut) had a love of dry gin martinis, going so far as to keep a gin still in their tent, and a question occurred to me: where were they getting their juniper berries?

Seriously, where were they getting their juniper berries from? They’re in an army hospital a few miles from the frontlines of what was a massive fucking war, often struggling to get supplies and equipment even through the black market (in fact that was the theme of a couple of episodes if I remember correctly), and juniper berries are not native to the Korean peninsula. But they clearly say they are drinking gin martinis and, as I’ve already mentioned, without juniper it’s just not gin. It’s vodka.

What I’m getting to is that I would totally watch a show about a Korean black market juniper dealer braving snipers and shelling to ensure that US army doctors can enjoy their dry martinis without having to resort to using vodka (like peasants). We can call it SM*A*S*Hed, or something less stupid and copyright-infringing, and it can be about more than just juniper. Maybe he also smuggles peat to a Scottish tank crew? Maybe he’s struggling to fill and then transport a big order of sugarcane to an Australian warship with a monopoly over the supply of rum to the rest of the allied fleets. There’s a lot you could do with this. Give him a dark yet hilarious past and a sassy cockney lesbian business partner and I reckon you’ve got television gold.

There you go Alan Alda, I’ve done the hard work for you. Now make it happen. ‘Cause I’d watch the hell out of that.

Working through the backlog: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

Evening folks and welcome to the first in a short but hopefully enjoyable series of reviews that don’t really matter but will hopefully kickstart a creative spark past the blockage formed by six-to-thirteen day work weeks and an absolutely fucked sleep cycle, since all the cocaine and hookers don’t seem to be doing the job anymore. Speaking of expensive hobbies: video games. Aren’t they great?

Yeah, I can still segue with the best of them.

As some of you might know, I spent a while in Canada. Away from a console for approaching two years I missed some of the biggest launches for some pretty huge franchises. I also missed the rather dismal launch of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which underperformed miserably compared to its brethren (but still made tonnes of money) and to many marked an ignominious shift in the famous franchise’s fortunes (sorry, I’ve been trying to increase my alliteration lately). And that’s a shame because it’s probably the most I’ve enjoyed a Call of Duty game in a long time.

Now, I’m talking solely about the single player. Haven’t sat down for a multiplayer session since Modern Warfare 2, what, seven years ago? Something like that. I like a bit of story behind my acts of virtual violence (alliteration) and better written dialogue then what a racist, homophobic thirteen year old (they’re all racist and homophobic) will scream through their overpriced headphones. Because that’s not an outdated joke at all.

So I sat down and played through the single-player campaign and the story was, honestly, not good. The narrative is riddled with ridiculous cliches and plot-holes, with an enemy so needlessly, impossibly evil that I simply cannot think up a good metaphor for how moronic Salem Kotch and the SDF are. The best I could come up with is that their delivery boys blow their own brains out if they don’t deliver the pizza in thirty minutes or less, and I fully acknowledge how lame that is. At one point Salem (stupid fucking name by the by) just demands that the player character and his mates surrender themselves for, I shit you not, “immediate execution!” I mean, c’mon, I get it. These guys have got the whole ‘death before dishonour’ thing going, but demanding that the opposing side literally just roll over and die is just stupid – and unrealistic – writing. I’d also really like it if we took the whole “villain shoots their own men to prove to the hero how much of a villain they are” trope out behind the shed and shot it, and having your antagonists openly and verbally declare their hatred of freedom is just a little bit too on the fucking nose. But hey, this is an American game.

Anyway, that’s just my issues with the villains. Don’t get me started on the casually telegraphed named character deaths, the obvious plot twists, the clunky dialogue, the main player character being given command (because of course the grizzled white American male is) despite the game itself pointing out what an incompetent leader he is, or the fact that the entire story (about two dozen missions all told – including side operations – across the solar system) apparently takes place in one fucking day. One. Fucking. Day.

And it’s tragic because between the stark design-by-committee cliches and abject paint-by-numbers bullshit you can see the seeds of a genuinely great story with some genuinely fantastic characters.

The actual idea of a heavily militarised former colony, with a culture that has diverged sharply not least due to the enormous distance from Earth and the hardships that entails, makes for a fascinating villain if done right (like in the books and Netflix series, The Expanse). Throw in the fact that the SDF military is full of robots (whereas we only ever see E3N on the UNSA’s side) and you could have had a really interesting difference of opinion. But instead of hardened and bitter frontiersman who’ve built a culture around the machines that have helped them survive in the cold regions of space, we got Space Nazi Jon Snow telling us how much freedom sucks.

Your wingman and best friend, Nora Salter, is a Lebanese woman (voiced by an American, but you can’t have everything). She’s smart, aggressive, opinionated and loyal to a fault. But instead of playing as this well-rounded foreign woman of colour we have to play as a generic grizzled American white guy.

And for all the awful dialogue and cliches, there are some beautiful moments. E3N’s sense of humour is delightful, and, to my shock, as telegraphed as their deaths were I found my heart-strings being tugged as named members of the crew began dropping. The underlying message, that good commanders need to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, and order those under their command to do the same if it means victory, starts off clunky but ultimately works out quite nicely with a solid emotional payoff.

This is a decent game, and with a bunch of little changes and a smarter story it could have been great. What a pity.

Not always appropriate travel music

Do you love songs that you never actually listen to?

Anyone that knows me well can you that my love of Bostonian Celtic-punk rockers The Dropkick Murphys runs as long and deep as Spicy McHaggis’ famous pipes and infamous pipe. They’ve been one of my favourite bands since I was old enough to know what good music sounds like and remain one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen, not least because a Murphys’ audience is one of the best fucking mobs you can ever be a part of. Their latest album, 11 Short Stories of Pain and Glory, is another collection of epic distilled into musical form. A group of anthems and ballads telling stories of love, loss and missing hats. Take this fella right here:

Yeah, that right there? That anthem right there is everything I love about hard rock. Big, loud and proud. Strong and powerful, offering hope through the guarantee of community and support. Wind, rain, storms, violence, tragedy. Come what fucking may there’ll always be someone beside you. So stand tall and dream big. How can you resist singing along to a chorus like that?

I can’t, so nine times out of ten when it comes on through my earphones I hit the skip button.

If I’m listening to music odds are good that I’m at work (in which case I have no choice over the music being played), I’m in the car listening to the radio (in which case I also don’t have much of a choice in the playlist), or I’m on the train listening to music through a pair of headphones (where I have full control over the playlist). When a song like ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ comes on I can’t help but sing loud, sing proud, sing tunelessly. And that’s just not polite on the train.

Now I have no problem telling people that I love the Dropkick Murphys, and even less of a problem telling people I love this song. I wouldn’t be writing this if I did. But no one in a crowded train (or bus) carriage wants to listen to someone else’s music. Definitely not just the chorus sung badly without any musical accompaniment. There’s a name for people who do that, and it starts with ‘C’ and rhymes with ‘runt.’

So I never really listen to this song, but I don’t love it any less. And when I do I’m probably singing along at the top of my voice.

What about you? Any songs you love but never listen to?

The Bakery

Over in Haberfield, not far from where I live these days, is the superbly named Sunshine Bakery. In a neighbourhood known for its Italian patisseries, cafes, pizzerias, delicatessens, and, indeed, bakeries, the Sunshine is unique for the fact that it is actually Vietnamese.

At least we all seem to assume it’s Vietnamese. Now that I think about it this might actually be a case of racial stereotyping since, as any true gluten-eating Aussie can tell you, the Vietnamese are fucking awesome bakers. For the sake of brevity, and not starting an entirely different discussion, I’m going to continue assuming it’s Vietnamese, and if someone can confirm or deny the fact please let me know.

Anyway, the Sunshine Bakery is a bit of a landmark for those who’ve lived and continue to live in Haberfield. It hasn’t changed at all from what I remember of the first time I got sent there to pick up a loaf of bread fifteen-odd years ago (Christ I’m getting old). A little tacky, a nice smell, an easy place to get a cheap cheese and bacon roll or something sweet and mostly sugar. Good folk too, always very friendly, honest smiles.

Now, I want to be forthright here: they do not make the best bread and pastries in Haberfield. Honestly they don’t even make the best pastries on the block. But their meat pies mate, their meat pies are the best in a fifteen kilometre radius. The pastry’s soft without falling apart and flaky on top, with the right sized chunks of meat and fresh-as-can-be ingredients, all kept at the perfect eating temperature and sold at a very reasonable price (three-fifty for a steak and mushroom! I’m bloody laughing mate). There’s nowhere within a reasonable distance that sells as good a pie, and nowhere even further out that sells’em at a non-extortionist rate (which I will still pay, because I will do a lot for a good pie), making the Sunshine Bakery an absolute gem.

I feel like there’s a metaphor there: Asian immigrants in a primarily Anglo-Italian neighbourhood producing an iconic Australian cuisine. A good metaphor, I reckon. The kind you can staple to an Australia First Party member’s racist face.

I’ll think of it later, right now I feel like a pie.

Any good pie shops near you?

I actually enjoyed Ghost in the Shell… yeah, I know. Let me explain.

It was, of all things, a review by The Economist that finally convinced me to give the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell a chance. I mean, I make no secret of the fact that it’s one of my preferred sources of news and opinion (even when I disagree with them they always make a strong, considered and even-handed argument), but that’s generally of the political and economic nature rather than whether or not the latest sci fi blockbuster out of Hollywood is worth watching or not. I found the review refreshingly free of the moaning and biases that I usually see on the nerdier side of internet. It was the last paragraph that really got my attention though:

Not everyone is happy about the “rainbow casting”. When Ms Johansson was announced as the Major, the film was condemned online as another example of “white-washing”, that is, the Hollywood tendency to take Asian roles and hand them to white actors. You could argue, as Mr Oshii has, that the new “Ghost in the Shell” is separate from the old one, and that there is no pressing reason why an American film should be identical to a Japanese one, or why a cyborg should be Japanese in the first place. (In the manga comic that inspired the first film, Major is called Motoko Kusanagi, but has blue hair and pink eyes). And while that argument hasn’t won over the detractors, the fact is that its racial diversity is one of its most distinctive and laudable aspects. A mono-cultural city just doesn’t make sense in science fiction anymore. The “Ghost in the Shell” remake may not be as pioneering as the anime was, but its mix-and-match casting is the most truly futuristic thing about it.

Truth be told I was one of those detractors. And now that I’ve actually seen the film I can safely say that I still am. It’s hard not to cringe a little at the makeup and digital work meant to make Scarlett Johansson look more Asian, and a late movie reveal of the Major’s origins can be taken either as further evidence of white-washing or an ironic wink by a self-aware movie-maker (white male chief executive pushing his own views of physical perfection and racial identity) depending on how forgiving you’re willing to be. Probably it’s both.

There’s no denying that ScarJo does an amazing job with the role, playing the cyborg slowly reconnecting with her emotions, struggling to deal with the existential crisis and confusion that follows. I know this sounds odd, but she act like what I’d expect a cyborg to look like, small things that come off as intrinsically unnatural and veer towards the uncanny valley. Her walk most of all, a long and stiff stride without any of the sway and swagger you normally expect from movie heroines, but exactly what you’d expect from a robot. Am I saying that an Asian actress couldn’t have done just as good (maybe even better) a job? Of course I’m bloody not. Am I saying that they were right to pick Scarlett Johansson for one of the few lead roles that could be made available for an Asian actress? Again, of course I’m bloody not. But I can recognise a good performance when I see one, and that walk impressed me.

The whole cast impressed me, quite frankly. I was worried at first about Pilou Asbaek as Batou, mostly ’cause he didn’t sound like what I’m used to. His voice wasn’t deep enough and the accent was wrong. But I got over it quickly enough. In the anime Batou is this big, imposing dude who naturally fills any space he’s in, but not because he’s trying; because he just is a big, imposing dude. And Asbaek nailed it. Michael Pitt stomps about doing a fantastic cybernetic Frankenstein’s Monster, furious with the creators that rejected and left him to die (also big props to the sound editors who had him sounding like a glitching computer). I would have liked to have seen more of the rest of Public Security Section 9’s team (Ishikawa and Saito were always favourites of mine), but I liked their inclusion of new character Ladriya (played by Polish-Kurdish Danusia Samal). And then they had motherfuckin’ ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano playing Aramaki (with a perfect haircut), and that’s all I need to say about that casting choice.

The visuals are stunning, drifting over enormous concrete blocks and shining skyscrapers equally plastered with garish neon advertisements. Body modifications are common and usually gruesome, practicality regularly winning out over aesthetics. The fight scenes are violent (without being bloody, thankyou M-Rating) and range from graceful slow-motion gravity-defying shootouts, to quick, grim, gritty and frenetic room-clearing, all of it artfully shot. The special effects are a stunning mix of practical effects and CG.

And the complaints I’ve seen are often minor and ridiculous, the efforts of folk looking for something to complain about. One reviewer was annoyed that all of Aramaki’s lines are delivered in Japanese yet everyone understands him just fine, without any explanation given to the audience as to how this is possible. Mate, it’s a fucking sci fi film where people talk telepathically and you can download an entire language straight into your brain, they don’t need to explain every little goddamned detail. Another complained about the mid-movie twist being too predictable. Mate, this film is not going for subtlety (they telegraph who the real villain is in the first bloody scene). Sometimes it’s not about the audience learning the big secret, it’s about the characters learning what we already know. That’s what made Columbo so great. And anyone who reckons that this film isn’t philosophical enough, does not ask what it means to be human often enough, quite frankly doesn’t remember the original anime film. By the time we met the original Major Motoko Kusanagi she’d been going through an existential crisis so long it had gotten boring (it was the sequel that got heavy with the philosophical discussions).

This is the kind of solid scifi that delivers a message not by directly asking a question but by creating a world in which asking that question is necessary and inevitable.

I really enjoyed this film. But I can’t recommend it. The Economist is right the diverse cast was one of the cleverest parts of the world we see in the film, but the fact remains that all the characters with the most lines, except for Takeshi’s Aramaki, are played by white actors. They might have been good performances, but they were where the diversity was needed most. So I cannot recommend this film.

That’s the great tragedy of this film. It’s a good movie brought down by the poor choice of a good cast. What a shame.