Monday, February 28, 2011

This Blog Post is On Strike

It's a sympathy strike with the unions in Wisconsin. Governor Walker's being, like, a total toolbag over this collective bargaining thing, and I figure I should show solidarity to, y'know, drive up my page hits a little bit...


Okay, the truth is this has been a pretty long and irritating week. I've had to deal with my taxes (Protip: Never sell stock if you don't have an accountant handy), deadlines at work, botched deadlines at the writing desk, a crazed Corgi, and most recently a garbage disposal that doesn't work except to leak water all over the inside of my kitchen cabinet. My TMJ keeps acting up, I'm overdue for a new pair of glasses so I'm straining my eyes every day, and I'm probably killing my liver with a combination of Ibuprofen and strong liquor. The weather keeps alternating between beautiful spring days and frostbite, and that is because it is February and February is the month of hate.

Well. It's March tomorrow, and that means better weather, (hopefully) better blogging, and my birthday somewhere in the middle. It's a friendlier month overall.

Hey, have you heard about Writing Excuses? It's a podcast where some pretty good writers chat about some aspect of the craft for fifteen minutes at a time. Last week's episode talked about writing in somebody else's intellectual property, which is a subject near and dear to my heart and well worth checking out.</plug>

Okay, back to unpaid overtime. I'll try to be more substantial next week, or sooner if at all possible.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: Marvel vs Capcom 3

Well, I've flubbed my attempt at posting two blog updates per week, and it's only been... six weeks? Hell, that's not too bad. Never mind.

So here's my review of Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

Story - You're joking, right? It's a fighting game. Well, I guess they can have stories if they really want...

In Marvel vs. Capcom 3, the villains of the Marvel universe (Dr. Doom, Dormammu, M.O.D.O.K., Magneto, etc.) and the villains of every Capcom game ever made (really just Albert Wesker, although Akuma turns up later) join forces to merge their respective Earths together so they can team up and take over. As in every great villain plan, this falls flat on its face when the heroes of the two Earths team up to beat down the villains. And then Galactus turns up and threatens to eat everyone.

Honestly, there's just enough story here to justify a single-player Arcade mode, and that's it. The endings don't tie together; most of them are just "if this happened, what would X do?" sequences, and with only two illustrations per ending there's not a lot to look forward to. So let's move on.

Gameplay - Now we're talking. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is a fast-paced cheesefest par excellence. Each player gets to pick out a team of three characters from a roster of thirty-eight (thirty-six of whom are now available). Despite the title, you don't have to pick just Marvel characters or just Capcom characters - mix and match to your heart's content. A fight takes place in one round where the goal is to defeat all three of your opponent's characters in a specified time limit.

The fighting style works best when you focus on setting up and executing devastating combos on your opponent. For example, you might jump in, punch somebody in the face with three quick hits, then uppercut them thirty feet in the air, jump up after them, and start beating on them again until you get tired, call in a friend to keep up the beating, then call in your third teammate to finish things off and smash your hapless foe back into the dirt. When the poor unfortunate soul lands, you're ready with an attack called a Hyper Combo that takes up the entire screen and does massive amounts of damage. And that could be the first ten seconds of a match.

The cast of thirty-eight characters is smaller than Marvel vs. Capcom 2 had, but you'd hardly notice. Because you pick three fighters for every match, the game has a lot of built-in replay value just from trying to assemble the ultimate fighting team. That's not to mention that all of the characters are great fun to watch and listen to: Iron Man sounds and acts like Robert Downey Jr. is reading his lines, M.O.D.O.K. makes giant heads look threatening, and Deadpool will grab the camera and shake the stuffing out of you after every match.

It does take some time to get used to the controls, and Capcom doesn't do a damn thing to help in this regard, besides providing a robust must-read game manual. But once you know what you're doing, the game is a lot of fun.

Online Play - This is one of the big deficiencies of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, so I have to call it out. Capcom's last fighting game, Super Street Fighter IV, had a robust online matchmaking system - you could search for opponents in a ranked or unranked match and link up easily. You could set up a tournament where you watched each fight real-time, while waiting for your turn to battle. You could save your best fights as replay videos to watch or share with the gaming community.

Marvel vs. Capcom 3 junks most of that. You can still search for ranked or unranked matches, but odds are about 50/50 that you'll be kicked out of whatever match you find. This wouldn't be too bad - Street Fighter had the same problem - but for some reason the game then kicks you back to the main menu, wasting your time as you navigate down to search for another fight.

Tournament play is still there, but you can no longer watch any fight other than the one you're participating in. For every other fight, you see two game cards duke it out (read: bounce off each other) as lifebars for the respective fighters slowly diminish. The only real use for tournament play is to set up a game between friends - random gamers will not be interested, other than to get the Achievement for participating in an eight-player game.

And replay videos? Gone completely, with no explanation. I assume there were too many technical challenges to overcome, and given the amount of stuff happening on camera in a given fight, I can understand why; but it's still a little disappointing.

I've heard rumors that Capcom will slowly patch in some fixes for these issues, and I hope they do. Thankfully, the annoyance involved in finding a pickup game online doesn't detract from the fun once you actually get into a match.

Verdict - Despite its flaws, I think Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is a superior fighting game to the last few Street Fighter games. The fights are quick, insanely beautiful to look at, and rewarding when you grind your opponent into the dirt. None of the characters seem badly unbalanced, and with six of them fighting in any given match there's always a way to bring down even the nastiest character combinations. As long as Capcom delivers on fixing a few of the weaker features, this game is sure to be a classic. 9 review points out of 10.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Defatmentation Begins

340 / 1000 words. 34% done!

I don't know if that's my final word count for tonight, but it's what I've gotten to now, and I want to get this blog post up before midnight. On the bright side, I broke 1,000 words yesterday, so I was over my quota for the weekend.

I wrote those 340 words while I was walking on a treadmill at my office today. I did 30 minutes at a brisk walk, trying to keep my notepad steady while I scribbled some damn near illegible words down. And I think it worked for me! Once I got the trick of writing and walking down, I got onto a productive run for at least 25 minutes.

I got on the treadmill today because I need to exercise. I'm overweight: not morbidly obese, but fat enough that I'm uncomfortable with it. I run out of breath faster than I should, even taking my seasonal sinus troubles into account. My shirts are starting not to fit. It sucks.

Also, I'm supposed to see my doctor in April. I don't much care for my doctor. She's the kind of doctor who smiles a lot, but says things in a tone that makes me think she's thinking "Aww, does tubby feel bad? Do you not feel healthy there fattie?" So, not a pleasant experience. I suspect she's trying to shame me into losing weight, but all I really want to do is put off my appointment for as long as possible.

But even if I skip the appointment I'm going to keep feeling like crap until I drop weight. So I'm back on exercise, I'm not eating out as much, and I'm done with regular soda. Further action as required until I feel healthy again.

I'm also going to be keeping an eye out for new exercises I can try. @gymratbeth online is a good resource, written by a licensed personal trainer. Beth also happens to be a friend of mine, so I trust her not to recommend anything that's going to wind up with me in traction. Take a peek if you feel like adding to your exercise repertoire.

Okay then, back to writing. Or sleep. Sleep might be good...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Just a Good Day

1500 / 1000 words. 150% done!

A quick word count update to make me feel good about myself. I generally aim for a daily word count of 1,000 words, and I generally wind up disappointed at the end of the day. Today was an exception, so I'm going to brag a bit. Even though most of the professional writers I've seen share their word counts surpass mine over breakfast, I will feel good about myself. Today, I won.

Now that the affirmation's out of the way...

I know that there's absolutely no reason that I can't hit the 1,000 word mark every day of the week. None. Even on a packed work day, I can guarantee I've got half an hour at lunch and two hours in the evening when I can write without screwing up my sleep schedule, failing at my job or offending my wife. Even the dog will generally not be a factor at these times.

I know this, but I let other things get in the way. The television isn't usually a problem, but the computer is. I have tweets to check, or some funny web video to watch. My antivirus definitions are out of date, and Microsoft just released a new patch cluster, and isn't that version of Java a bit old?

My best friend just asked if I could jump on the XBox for awhile - he lives in Cincinnati and I haven't seen him in months, how can I refuse? It really is time I did the dishes/threw in some laundry/picked up the dog poop in the backyard. I have a book I've been itching to finish. Or I just finished a book, and a brand new one's waiting in the wings.

And if none of that applies... If I sit down at my computer or flip open my notepad (I have a nice one I carry everywhere. I am at least trying)... Even if all lights are green and I'm cleared for takeoff...

Maybe I don't know what to write next. Maybe I don't know how to write the next thing well. Maybe the last scene, on reflection, is a lot like a broken leg on a horse. Maybe the next scene needs a horse with a broken leg and I haven't set it up properly.

So I sit, and I think. And maybe I get distracted and start the whole thing over again.

It's a shame, and it's all my fault. I confess! I'm a sinner!

But on a day like today, when the stars line up and I get that determined set in my jaw and I finally start typing...

That's just a good day.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Writing Exercise: Describe Your Character

I didn't come up with this writing exercise, so before I get started I've got to do a plug. Red Letter Media is an independent film site with all sorts of weird, wild stuff on it that I haven't fully explored yet. What I have looked at are the film reviews of Harry Plinkett, who pretends (I hope) to be a crotchety old man who reviews movies, mails out pizza rolls to his commenters, and kills prostitutes in his creepy basement.

Okay, there's a certain sick sense of humor in these reviews, but Plinkett really does do an excellent job reviewing movies like Star Wars and Star Trek. He's got a cinematographer's eye for detail. Did you ever wonder if the camera angles in Revenge of the Sith were part of the problem with that movie? Well, Harry Plinkett is here to tell you, yes, they were part of the problem, and explain exactly why.

And he also came up with a nice exercise that you, too, can do when you're writing. In Harry's own words:

Describe the following Star Wars character WITHOUT saying what they looked like, what kind of costume they wore, or what their profession or role in the movie was. Describe this character to your friends like they ain't never seen Star Wars.

Just substitute the name of your novel/short story/whatever for Star Wars. The idea is that the more descriptive you can be, the stronger the character is.

For example, Samwise Gamgee is an honest, simple guy. Not stupid simple; he just doesn't complicate things by worrying or overthinking a problem. He's got this amazing sense of wonder about the world, and he's always excited to see new things. He's very loyal and very protective of his friends. He's always ready to do a bit more work, even if he's already got the most on his plate. He's the steadfast friend, the loyal companion, the guy who's surprised at his own courage.

Or how about GlaDOS? She acts calm and professional, but secretly she enjoys watching you try to do things and fail. In fact, she wants you to fail. She'll be encouraging, but always with a subtle little dig or bit of sarcasm. You get the sense that she's not all there, that something's messed up in her head. If you mess with her, she can be scary, even dangerous. She wants to be the puppet master, the subtle manipulator, but she's not entirely in control of herself.

You can read those two paragraphs and get a pretty good sense of the characters without knowing anything else about them. You don't need to have read The Lord of the Rings to understand Sam; you can get a feel for GlasDOS without even knowing she's an AI from a videogame.

Now, try to describe Lara Croft. You know, Tomb Raider.

In case you didn't play any of the games.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

I don't know about you, but I had some trouble here. My mind leapt to Indiana Jones, but Lara's not a passionate adventurer who believes in doing the right thing, no matter how much she gets beat up for it. She's not prone to romantic entanglements with strangers in dangerous situations, she's not plagued by bad luck (no matter how many times you fall off a tall object playing the game), and as far as I know she doesn't mouth off when she'd be better off keeping quiet.

So, not Indy. She's aristocratic, self-confident and she's got a dry sense of humor. She seems to have no connection with anyone who isn't dead or soon to be dead.

Lara Croft's been in ten plus games, two movies and a few comic book series, and I still think GlaDOS, a tin can who has been in one very short game, is a stronger character. GlaDOS is insane and interesting beyond her role as an antagonist, but Lara Croft is just an action hero without much else going for her. Sure, she's wildly popular and arguably the first electronic sex symbol; but what's her favorite color? Her favorite book? Could you even take a guess? Can you imagine her standing at the entrance to some lost realm with an honest sense of awe, or do you think she's going to jump through a crumbling window with guns blazing?

I hope I'm making my point: If all you know about your character is what he looks like, what his job is and what he does in the story, he may not be a very strong character. Give this exercise a shot, and see if it helps you round your cast members out a little bit more. And if it works, drop Harry Plinkett a line sometime and thank him.

You might even get a pizza roll.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Quick Writing Link Post

This SHINE online blog challenge requires two posts a week, and I really have no excuse not to manage that, despite the ministrations of Grandfather Nurgle. So, some links:

The latest gaggle of writing links from Sterling Editing. Really, you should be tracking these regardless of what I say. This week's links include some writing on distribution, the meaning of distribution, and what makes a great first paragraph.

How NOT to pitch a book. ProTip: The hospital is pretty much never appropriate.

Your very own Grant Morrison Guide to Writing. (If anyone finds a less tongue-in-cheek form of this in the wild, please let me know.)

Writing and the Mixed Blessing of a Day Job. I admit, not having to scramble to put something to paper to get my next meal is a solid reason to hang onto my day job.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Deaths of the Fantastic Four

I'll be doing some random musings on comics today, and I'm using the Fantastic Four as my example. If you haven't read the latest issue yet, consider yourself fairly warned that spoilers abound below the break.