Saturday, October 24, 2015

Square-Enix @ NYCC - Deus Ex Mankind Divided

[Originally published on Sub Cultured as Square-Enix @ NYCC - Deus Ex Mankind Divided]

Last week at New York Comic Con, Square-Enix was one of the major gaming presences in the city. Among the previews and demos they offered was the upcoming Deus Ex: Mankind DividedMankind Divided picks up where the story left off, with our favorite augmented human Adam Jensen rocking a few new upgrades from past titles in the series. I will say this - the game looks really good, and adds a new formula for gameplay that makes this the most attractive entry into the series yet.

Eidos Montreal has the player reprise the role of Jensen, following the Aug Incident of 2027, when a malicious signal broadcast by Hugh Darrow to all augmented humans caused them to glitch and go insane, forcing them to violently attack anyone around them. After the death of millions, augmented humans (Augs) are viewed worldwide as a threat to humanity, forcing Augs underground into slums and squalor, while Aug manufacturers shut down around them. This environment - that of repressed Augs in a Apartheid-style world of forced segregation - is where the game begins.

Jensen is still working as a covert operative, whose job it is to help find the people responsible for the events of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. While the series has been known to offer players some choice in gameplay, the options in the new title go beyond that, giving the player complete control over how they want Jensen to act, and thus augmenting how the story unfolds.With his various new upgrades, Jensen can be played a number of different ways. As this is a Deus Ex game, the combat option is there, allowing the player to progress through the game through running, gunning, and dispatching their foes with extreme prejudice. There's also a non-lethal option, giving players the opportunity to progress through levels without killing - for example choosing to knock someone out with a takedown after sneaking up on them instead of a ferocious aug-based attack. Also available is the ability to stealth through  the entire game, forgoing violence altogether and focusing instead on not being seen. This might be a great plus for gamers who love stealth games like Thief Assassin's Creed. 

Of course, then there's the tech! Jensen's new upgrades would make any IT department on earth jealous (mine included). New skills include the Icarus Dash and Icarus Ram, some of the skills that are helpful in a non-lethal play option. The coolest upgrade, in my opinion, is the Titan Shield. This baller-as-hell aug upgrade lets Jensen encase himself in a sweet shield, rendering him impervious to damage as he handles business. Also visually probably one of the most satisfying things from the demos.

Mankind Divided also provides an upgraded hacking system as well as smart vision, allowing Jensen to see loot that would normally not be seen by the player's naked eyes.

But there's a bit more to it than that. Even though this was a big demo at NYCC, I recall a conversation I had with Stéphane Roy, Executive Producer on the project back at E3 this summer about some major themes in the game. I asked him about some of the details of this separatist society portrayed in the game evoking player emotions, and whether or not there was any social commentary involved in that aspect. His response:

"It's complex. It's complex because we work on that type of details for guys like you, you know? We want to make sure that if you play and pay attention you will notice all these small things and you're going to start really being in this universe. Nothing is black and white in real life so we want to make sure that the subtleties are around you and you truly believe in this. So it's a lot of work for us because if we decide to change something here there are ripple effects and it could mean that we have to change something in this mission by changing something here. So it's demanding for the team, but at the same time at the end when everything is like this, I really want to suck you into the story and you're trapped. And to be able to do that, we have to have this kind of details."

He went on with some more commentary on choice in games:

"We want to make sure that choices and consequences are really important. I want to make sure when you're faced with choice, it won't be easy. 'What should I do? Who am I? What are my values?' So like you just said because you saw this guy and think it's unfair, when it will be time to make a decision, I guarantee it's going to affect your judgement, and I think this is where the richness of the product will flourish. You can see it."

Mankind Divided so far looks like way more than than just a shooter or an action game. Eidos Montreal has really used the medium to try to deliver something that's more than pure basic fun. Want to see what we did at the last couple of shows? Check out the gameplay trailer below complete with commentary.

Look for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided to release on February 23, 2016.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Adult Swim @ NYCC: Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter

[Originally published at Sub Cultured as Adult Swim @ NYCC: Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter]

Imagine, if you will, a small peaceful town in Vermont, land of the Bed & Breakfast. Now mash it up with werewolves and a neon-clad savior intent on stopping them. Now envision that whole strange and twisted scenario in the hands of Adult Swim. That is Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter, and it's coming soon to a television near you.

This past week at New York Comic Con I got the chance to talk to some of the folks that are a part of this project to see more on what this show is all about. The show stars Jon Glaser (you know him from Parks and Recreation, Girls, and Delocated) as the titular Neon Joe, who makes it his life's work to battle lycanthropy in this tiny B&B-laden Vermont town. Also featured are Scott Adsit(30 Rock, Big Hero 6) as a colorful local who wants to be Joe's BFF and Stephanie March (Law & Order: SVU) who plays, in her words, the "randy lesbian mayor" of the town.

The show was recorded as "the craziest miniseries of all time," being chunked into five 30 minute episodes with a continuous storyline, which is a bit of a departure from the deliciously random 15 minute episodes on Adult Swim that we're used to enjoying. "It's just like Roots," Adsit joked about the miniseries format. "With werewolves, definitely no vampires, we can be very specific about that" March added.

But the real fun is how the show even came to be in the first place.

"I was on Jimmy Fallon's show I think it was 3 years ago maybe to promote the finale of Delocated, another show I made for Adult Swim," said star and creator Jon Glaser. "And I wanted to do something just dumb to amuse myself for the segment and not have a straight interview, so I took the two articles of clothing that I own and that I use for live comedy shows in New York, one of which was a neon yellow hoodie and a knit cap from American Apparel and another of which was a pair of Coors Light sweatpants. And I just paired them arbitrarily and went on the show and I just said 'I'm really sad Delocated is over but I'm really excited about my new project it's called Neon Joe,Werewolf Hunter and I'm dressed as the character right now. And that's really all we have right now but we're excited to kind of figure out the rest.' And that was 100% made up, it was a fake idea. It was not a real idea for a TV show I had, and I kinda thought at the time I could see Adult Swim knowing it's a joke and saying it still sounds funny, could that be a show? And I said sure, and that's what happened. So we had a meeting and they said why don't you write a pilot and see if it's something."

Yes kids. This show was born from an arbitrary joke Jon Glaser made to Jimmy Fallon. That joke became a meeting, that meeting led to a character, and now we'll be able to see the final product on Adult Swim.

"It's really treated like a super dramatic show - it's a stupid comedy" he said about Neon Joe.

That one joke and idea with a crazy set of characters was enough to draw a great cast of actors for the project, all of whom were trying pretty hard to tell us things without really telling us too much of the plot. Within a twenty minute timeframe, the show was described as being an epic miniseries with tones of Don Quixote and a little bit of Batman. "I would say it's about our hero's epic journey to himself. To return to himself as we follow his plights and his struggles" was what Stephanie March could tell us about the character of Neon Joe. As for the plot, "By the end you will know definitively whether there's werewolves in this universe or not" from Scott Adsit.

That comment later on sparked a bit of hilarious tension between Glaser and Adsit to the delight of everyone at the table.

"It's Glaser sensibilities," Adsit said about the show's humor, "and Glaser is a brilliant original voice in comedy as far as I can see. Everything filters through him and he's so incredibly funny in this role he's created for himself. It's really really a pleasure just to be on the set and watch him work through this script that's really funny, and he's really good at it."

I also got to speak with Steve Cirbus (DelocatedGotham) and Steve Little (The Heart She HollerAdventure Time, Eastbound and Down), who play the town's sheriff and janitor. The sheriff has almost a buddy cop relation with Neon Joe, with Cirbus agreeing with me (one sec while I praise my own ballerdom) that their relationship is akin to Commissioner Gordon and Batman. Steve Little had his own fun story on why he joined the cast:

"I had a good time on The Heart, She Holler, then I got an email about this and then I forwarded it to my manager because sometimes like you get something called Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter and you don't know how to even process that. And then my manager was like 'Oh! I love this!' - you know, a testament to her." He'd never worked with Glaser before so he wanted a second opinion, watched Delocated and jumped in.

Do yourselves a favor and watch this amazing trailer from Adult Swim:

Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter starts on December 7 and will play one episode per night through the 11th at midnight. Seeing a cast that has this much fun together with a plot as wonderfully twisted as this is, I can't wait to start watching.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Konami Sells Insurance For Your Metal Gear Solid Base

[Originally published on Sub Cultured as Konami Sells Insurance For Your Metal Gear Solid Base]

Yesterday I read about a... well we'll call it a questionable microstransaction opportunity from Metal Gear Solid V, specifically targeted towards multiplayer action. In multiplayer mode, players operate FOB's (short for forward operating bases). And much of the play relies on infiltrating other players' bases and causing as much havoc as possible through event FOB missions. Of course when a FOB gets raided, there's going to be some damage. There's going to be a loss to the player that got raided that has to be replaced. So what can a concerned FOB operator do to gain some peace of mind during these troubling raid events? They can spend real money for fake money to insure their precious bases.

In digital software, especially in gaming, we've all begun to grow accustomed to the now-standard revenue scheme called the microtransaction. For the sake of the uninitiated: A microtransaction is any kind of purchase a player makes for an in-game benefit, from cosmetic changes like costumes and skins to game-changing items like powerful weaponry or even an expansion pack.

Yes, it's a fancy word for DLC with less emphasis in the C.

Even on the surface it smells like bullshit, and we've all gone for it. I've paid for character unlocks and costumes and skins and a number of other things for the games in my collection, feeling both dirty and satisfied at some sort of perceived value simultaneously. See that's how they get you - they set the price low enough so that it doesn't seem so bad to pay it, and makes you forget that you probably already spent upwards of $50 on the game you're playing. And if the game is free to play up front, you're even more inclined to purchase DLC because "hey, I didn't actually pay for this game to begin with."

Microtransaction riddled freemium games... have a special place of scorn in my heart, but this post isn't about that particular scourge right now.
I'm not saying it's all bad. Anyone who paid for Burial at Sea for BioShock Infinite for example is not complaining about the money the spent for that particular nugget of DLC. It got rave reviews across the board. But then there are others that fall far short of that mark - hell, fall short of anything positive at all. Remember World of Tanks' custom paint job that you could buy as premium, content? And remember when that premium content expired?
So it's easy for us to traverse from the good to the bad. But then there's the outright strange. So where was I again? Right...

FOB Insurance.

I kid you not my friends, you can now sign up for an insurance policy with Konami to compensate you for any losses during a raid on your base. It insures your base from theft. The player doing the raiding still keeps all of their spoils, but you, the hapless victim, are entitled to compensation. See details right from the MGS:The Phantom Pain website.

It's actually a fairly original idea as far as player services in multiplayer games go, but here's the issue - insurance is paid for with MB coins, a resource that is sporadically given out for free as bonuses, but has a very real exchange rate with real world currency. I couldn't find anything on the US PSN Store, but the South African PSN Store charges R 14.00, which is a little over $1 US. Here's official word from Konami:

Your FOBs are always at risk of coming under attack. Now, you can rest easy with FOB insurance (paid service). If you sign up for insurance, then during the insurance period you will be compensated for any materials and staff lost due to rival infiltrations.
* Staff/materials stolen by the rival will in fact remain on your base, and an identical amount of staff/materials will be handed over to the rival instead.
* MB Coins are purchased with real money, but free MB Coins are also distributed periodically as login bonuses, etc.
* The following are not covered by FOB insurance:
Staff/items that are not fully your property, such as abducted staff being held in your Brig (FOB)
Wounded staff (staff lost due to death or extraction will be compensated)
Staff used by you to deploy in defense of the FOB (neither death nor extraction will be compensated)
Nuclear weapons

Well hell, my nuclear weapons aren't covered? Lame. So you kids take that in, and let us know what you think about this next level in microtransactions in the comments below. How would the pitch go when the insurance salesperson comes to your house? "Do you ever worry that all your base are not belong to you? I'm selling peace of mind."

But how important is that piece of mind? I'm not sure how many people would take part in this insurance program, especially at the cost of real money. Granted, it's only about a buck or so for 100 coins but there's no word on how many coins a insurance policy would be. The risk of any loss at the base is part of the multiplayer experience though, and I'm fairly certain that those playing Metal Gear Solid V already accept that as part of the mechanic. Whenever a base does get hit a player is still only feeling a... Phantom Pain. It's a weird safety net addition to the game, and as all safety nets do, in my opinion it'll result in slightly more reckless play. Maybe that was the plan to begin with?

In the meantime I will be contemplating using real money for virtual money to protect virtual things from thievery. Maybe my insurance company could bundle this with my house and car? 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

14 Year Old Irving, TX Technology Student Arrested for NWB (Nerding While Brown)

So I haven't put anything up here in a good long while. Sorry kids, I've just been busy. You know, life and everything. So you can imagine it's something fairly noteworthy that would make me pull out the keyboard and put some digital pen to paper without delay.

See late last night there was something I saw on my social feeds that took my mind through a number of degrees of pure fire. I only had the energy to pen a handful of tweets as a preliminary rant but this is something I still woke up mad about in the morning. A 14 year old student was arrested for bringing a homemade clock into school to impress his teachers.

OK. So on its face, regardless of any additional facts this is an absolutely ridiculous headline. Now let's add some details - the student's name is Ahmed Mohamed and the school district is Irving Independent School District in Irving, Texas.

Ahmed is a budding technologist and tinkerer and the clock in question is a basic circuit with 4 seven-segment displays - 2 for the hours and 2 for the minutes. Anyone that has even seen anything similar can tell you it is a pretty basic circuit that executes the simple function of counting. However when he showed the clock to his engineering teacher (his engineering teacher), Ahmed was advised not to show it to anyone else. When it beeped in English class, he took his invention to show his teacher afterwards. Her response? That it "it looks like a bomb." The clock was confiscated and later he was pulled from class to a room where officers were waiting to interrogate and search him.

One even remarked "Yup. That's who I thought it was."

"...Yup. That's who I thought it was."

The officers weren't there to tell him his clock was cool. they were there to accuse him of trying to build a bomb while the school threatened him with expulsion. Soon afterward he was escorted out of the school in handcuffs by police, taken to a juvenile detention center, fingerprinted and had mugshots taken.

Ahmed tinkers and creates a number of inventions at home, and was part of his school's robotics club in middle school and was looking for ways to continue that interest as the high school year began. Watch his video interview below from the Dallas Morning News:

In the interview he states that he wasn't able to talk to his parents until after the interrogation and they could collect him from the juvenile detention facility. "I went home and talked to my parents about it because I couldn't call my parents during the interrogation," he says before he explains his digital clock - you know, since this incident tells us that some people don't know what digital clocks are, and every timed seven-segment display is wired like a "movie bomb." He goes on to detail the demoralizing and dehumanizing process he then went through as authorities tried to trump up his basic tech project into an act of terror.

We're living in an era now where young students across the country are being encouraged to pursue projects and knowledge in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math). And that's exactly what this was. It was a kid with a lean for technology. And while it should have been fostered and encouraged, the elements of a stereotype attached to a name and a shade of skin color are what made this different. Lets's be honest now - if this was about a stereotypical-looking American kid named Billy and not a brown kid named Ahmed, it would have been a gold star and a "way to go" instead of cuffs and fingerprints.

That's right kids, Texas. Where you can arm your kids with assault rifles, but God forbid a brown student interested in technology conducts a technology project in a school district that brags about their "top digital district" award.

This isn't the first case of educational authority criminalizing minority curiosity. A 16-year old Florida honor student was expelled in 2013 for an outdoor science experiment, and in addition to that arrested and charged by the Assistant State Attorney with possessing or discharging weapons or firearms at a school and possessing destructive devices. Both are felony counts where she would have been tried as an adult. The criminal charges were dismissed, but the felony arrest takes five years to clear from a record, according to her lawyer.

Curiosity should be for everyone, especially America's young people. These are our future scientists and engineers that will push American ingenuity and technology forward. In addition to that, what Ahmed had to go through is the nightmare for brown people across the country. It's incidents like this that erode the trust of American minorities in authority - harmless and innocuous events being picked up by people in power and puffed up to make it look like they're fighting the good fight for the security of our country against the dangerous scourge that is a 14 year old kid. Congratulations Texas, you made him say this: "It made me feel like I wasn't human. It made me feel like a criminal."

No kid should have to shoulder that.

The engineering teacher should have been able to tell authorities that it was in fact just a clock and there was nothing nefarious about his project.

And to preemptively counter arguments on "well maybe it's not about being brown," let me stop you right there and explain something. Everyone that looks like Ahmed has gone through several incidents or experiences in the last 15 years that change how they see the world and the society, by making us very aware of our name, and the tone of our skin, and the immediate fear of that difference leading to ill consequence. How do I know? Because I've been there. Thank the universe that it was nothing as severe as what Ahmed had to go through this week, but these kind of events change a person, and I say that as an adult. I cannot imagine how it would possibly impact a child.

Here's to me the worst part about it - how will this story affect other young minority makers, tinkerers, scientists and engineers in their comfort level and perceived ability to share and work on something with their teacher or the world without threat of consequence? the country's nerd hearts must have simultaneously broke when they read "he's vowed never to take another invention to school again."

I wonder how me and my tech loving cohorts would have fared in life if teachers called cops whenever we had physics lab?

If this is a case of a prohibited item being brought into school then ok, I get it. But I get it proportionally. Punish him accordingly if that's the case. Maybe detention maybe for not following the student handbook? 1 day suspension at worst? Definitely not suspicions and accusations of a bomb or hoax bomb.

See more of how people around the country stand with Ahmed with the twitter hashtag #IStandWithAhmed.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Nintendo's Satoru Iwata Dies at 55

[Originally published at Sub Cultured as Nintendo's Satoru Iwata Dies at 55]

Nintendo Co., Ltd. deeply regrets to announce that President Satoru Iwata passed away on July 11, 2015 due to a bile duct growth.

The gaming flag flies at half mast today, as that was the long and the short of it in an official press release from Nintendo yesterday marking the death of President Satoru Iwata, one of the titans of the game industry in recent history. Due to his medical condition he had to skip this year's E3 under direction of his physician and shortly after underwent surgery to try and remove the growth as he revealed in a letter to shareholders on June 24.

The loss of Iwata isn't isolated just to Nintendo but rather to the entire gaming industry. This was the man who took the reins from Hiroshi Yamauchi, the revolutionary that took Nintendo from a playing card company to a household name in video games. During his tenure as President of the company (and the first person to be so outside of the Yamauchi family), Iwata continued the legacy and oversaw the development and overwhelming success of the Nintendo DS line of handheld consoles as well as the Nintendo Wii. That's not to say that during his time we didn't also see the underperforming GameCube and Wii U, but through all of the company's ups and downs, Iwata was still an icon and loved by the industry and fans.

Part of this can probably be attributed to his start as a developer, working on games like EarthBound and the Kirby games while at HAL Laboratory and ending up creating Super Smash Bros for Nintendo. It was that technical background that helped him to jump Nintendo from the Game Boy to the DS line of handheld devices, as well as the Wii on the home console side. For those keeping score, the Wii was one of the first consoles to offer games played using motion control as opposed to a traditional controller or gamepad, beating (and/or inspiring) Xbox's Kinect and PlayStation's PS Move by 3-4 years. It's not overly common to see someone who started as a programmer end up as a CEO, but for Iwata it was one of the drivers for his success.

He always strived to keep the spirit and original core of Nintendo alive - to make games for everyone from children to adults. Something we could easily see by games like Brain Age for the DS that target folks outside of the stereotypical gamer demographic. He also unabashedly was a developer and kid that loved games at heart, and loved the fans that loved him back. We saw that in things like Iwata Asks, where he gave gamers and fans behind the scenes looks at games by interviewing developers himself on franchises like Zelda, Mario and other games across Nintendo platforms. And here's another bit from his 2005 keynote at GDC that speaks to the kind of leader he was:

If you don't mind, I will finish today with memories from one more franchise in my development career - Super Smash Bros. At the time it was being developed for Nintendo GameCube, I was already working full time for Nintendo. But my heart told me I was still a developer. So, as president, I assigned myself to HAL to rejoin the team finishing the game. Once again, I was living on the developer's diet of chips, pizza and rice balls, and working through the night.

For all he's done for Nintendo, for all he's done for the gaming industry, and for all he's done for the fans - Thank You, Mr. Iwata.

Friday, June 12, 2015

10 Years of Zenescope - a Q&A with Ralph Tedesco

[originally published at Sub Cultured as 10 Years of Zenescope - a Q&A with Ralph Tedesco]

A few weeks ago I met with some of the folks at Zenescope Entertainment at Wizard World Philadelphia. You may know them from their core titles in the Grimm Fairy Tales universe. They've been a mainstay here in the Philly area for 10 years now, and you can't really talk comics in Philadelphia without including Horsham-based publisher Zenescope. I got a chance to speak with co-founder Ralph Tedesco about their 10th anniversary and how the company's come up over the last decade.

Tushar Nene: First off, congratulations, 10 years is a huge milestone. So now 10 years in, if you look back at what your mission or your idea was back then and look at that versus where you're at now - how do you match that up?

Ralph Tedesco: "Hm... Different! Wow that's a good question, you stumped me early! We didn't really know I don't think, we first just set out to make a comic book series, we were never going to make more than a couple titles initially. And we had also thought about doing creator owned and finding a publisher such as Image - at the time I think there were other creator owned typed labels out as well back then that we considered going through. Then it kind of just took on a life of its own and started to evolve into more of a publishing company and doing more titles, and we realized after a year or two we had something special going on. And we decided to expand and try to compete in this market. And 10 years later, I can't complain. Of course you want to be competitive and being a top 3 publisher is hard, I mean you have Marvel or DC and other great publishers out there. So I guess we're happy but never satisfied."

TN: A lot of your success over the last decade has come from the Grimm Fairy Tales universe, which has a lot of popular titles drawn from a lot of familiar Grimm characters. What is it about that universe that makes it work for you - or where that draw comes from?

RT: "It just seemed like it made sense - when we first decided to publish Grimm Fairy Tales the first series, we just had a simple idea. The original fairy tales are dark and twisted, wouldn't it be cool if we went back to the roots of the originals and added our modern twist to it and make it different, you know? It was simple - it was The Twilight Zone meets fairy tales. But then once we did that and had a positive reaction and started selling copies right away we thought hey this was something we could do with other public domain characters, and public domain stories like Wonderland. It kind of made sense to say since we're going this way with a lot of our titles, let's just create a universe that's interwoven like Marvel has their universe and DC has their universe, right? So I think again, it was initially not planned, then a couple years in we started realizing it made sense, and it just became very... I guess natural, it was a natural evolution. And then we said hey this fits like Robyn Hood - let's reinvent her as a badass archer and she's female. Let's reinvent Sinbad - and then it became really fun. Let's reinvent all these characters that people know and then add new characters to these worlds that we invented, and it became our world."

TN: I was here last year talking to Pat Shand about BAR Maid. You have a couple of titles like that are completely outside of the Wonderland universe - you guys have any plans for more stories that aren't a part of that core?

RT: "We do that now and we've done that for a while - not every story we want to tell fits inside the Grim universe so we always expand outside of that. For example we've done stuff like Monster Hunter Survival Guide, The Waking, Fly."
"I think a few titles a year we like to just kind of say hey, not everything needs to fit into this universe - only if it makes sense and it works. Of course Grimm fans and the fans of the universe want to see more universe stuff, so it's a harder sell I think sometimes - I think sometimes it takes a bit more marketing and a little bit more hey, if you like our main titles in the Grimm universe take a chance on this stuff outside the universe."

TN: You're also known for a lot of racy art on your covers, and you have a lot of racy variants. So when you bring back a character like Robyn Hood in your universe as a badass archer and there's these sexy variants of her, how do you feel about that and what kind of reaction do you get from readers?

 "One thing we realized early on, if you read our books the interiors are not really sexualized, there's not a l
ot of risque going on inside of the books. The covers - we will do variants that are sexy. I mean it sells books - unfortunately that's what the market said.  What we started doing was doing some variants and we'll have some sexy variants and non-sexy variants - I mean I think the people that complain about some of the covers don't read the books a lot of times, because we have made an effort to really make sure - our titles have never been about anything to do with sex or being over the top for the sake of being over the top. They're about telling good stories. So the people complaining about the covers probably are the people that don't read the books. Fair enough, but at the same time we feel it's a minority that are up in arms about it, so we don't worry about it too much."
TN: So literally, you're saying don't judge a book by its cover?

RT: "Haha right, don't judge a book by its variant cover. That's the best I can say it. I mean we have a ton of female readers so that's what's cool, we have a lot more than I think some other companies do - I'm not saying it's a majority of readers - I don't think there's a majority of female readers in comics unfortunately, but it's growing. A lot of female readers have come to us and said Hey my boyfriend took me to a comic book store and I didn't want to be there, and I saw your titles on the shelf and I love your stuff. Most of our characters are female leads and they take care of themselves. Yeah there's variant covers that have a sexier vibe to them, nothing pornographic that I feel is overly suggestive - especially now as we've evolved we've been more conscious about that. And then we have covers that are just plain badass and cool, so there's something for everyone."

For their 10th anniversary they're publishing 6 10th anniversary one-shots based on their titles, from Snow White to Van Helsing. Tedesco said these are meant to be new reader friendly oversized double issues that someone new can jump immediately into, and are coming out with new titles later this year's at SDCC. Some of the new titles? One for one of their newer more popular characters, Baba Yaga, and Aliens vs Zombies, described as just a mash up of different genres.

So in the Philly Area, Zenescope continues to grow both their company and their core Wonderland universe with more titles on the horizon. You can check out more of what's going on at Zenescope at their blog here.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Diablo III's 3rd Birthday Party? Totally NOT the Cow Level

Happy Birthday Diablo III!

Blizzard’s latest installment in the demon-slaying action RPG series turned 3 this past weekend, and they decided to do something a little special for D3 players by addressing all things bovine and the secret cow level.

The cow level was mostly a running gag by Blizzard that began back in the first game in the Diablo series. If you clicked one of the cows in Tristram enough times, instead of the requisite “moo” the player’s character would break the fourth wall and talk to the player – telling us either “Yup that’s a cow alright!” and reminding us that “Hey, I am no milkmaid!”  As we clicked more, the game cycled through more of these quips from our character. This little easter egg was what prompted the rumor of a secret cow level, which as legend has it, stated a portal to it could be opened if a player clicked a cow enough times. It’s alright, I clicked the hell out of those cows too – it was such a ridiculous thing that I had to see for myself.

Of course while taking the official stance that there is no cow level, they fed the rumor machine by making “thereisnocowlevel” a cheat code in Starcraft.

Diablo II took that rumor and ran with it, creating a cow level that could be accessed combining a tome of town portal and Wirt’s leg in your Horadric cube. It eventually became a popular place for players to grind experience and culminated in a battle with the Cow King.

Diablo III, I suppose sort of in that vein, replaced some treasure goblins with treasure bovines instead. And much like the rainbow goblins open up a portal to Whimsyshire, these treasure cows open up a red portal described as the following:

"Leads to a place that does not exist. The Burning Hells are not responsible for events that transpire there. If you claim to have been to this place, you will be called a liar. Void where prohibited."

The cow level  NOT the cow level is filled with shrines that you will need because of the mad quantity of mad cows coming to get you.  I was playing on Master difficulty with a 40-something monk and those shrines and sweeping wind were my best friends for the next few minutes. Scattered around are farmers, no doubt slain by the new bovine masters, dropping tons of gold on top of the already ridiculous number of chests on the map. I had to make 2 trips to town for salvage to actually collect all the loot.

There are gags harkening back to Diablo II, like a quest from the ghost of the then-slain Cow King, who wryly quips that these cows must have some sort of beef with you on a quest called “Tipping Point.” And if you take a look at the pictures, that’s right, some health globes are actually steaks.

I will close by saying this – this place is difficult. On Master difficulty rare spawns showed up with multiple packs of elites (seriously always with fire chains) and my first time through while dealing with them I stumbled upon the map boss, the Cow Queen. She throws so much lightning that I would rank her as more difficult than many of the bosses in the game just based on the sheer damage output she hurls at you, and in my case my gear wasn’t exactly dripping with resistances. This is one of the rare times I died playing with this character so far – she takes very little damage, and there were times when both potions and breath of heaven were on cooldown, leaving my to my doom. But when you’re done with her you do get 4 radiant chests.

Unfortunately no, there were no bovine-themed legendaries, at least none that dropped for me.

The cow level was over on May 21st, but who knows? From the minds of those that came up with both the cow level and Whimsyshire, you never know what’s next in the realms of Sanctuary. Check out some more images below:

Friday, April 3, 2015

April Fool's Double-Cross: Amazon Dash

So it may be Game of Thrones month for the upcoming season 5 premiere in a lot of internet sites devoted to nerddom, but there was another important day this week that for the last few years has made the internet come alive in the name of comedy and foolishness.

That means shenanigans and hijinx.  April Fool’s day, to be precise.

Every year a lot of companies in the nerd space assail us with pranks for new games or new products or just weird stuff in general – and with each passing year we’ve come to expect it. Google reversed everything with and let you play Pac-Man in your Google maps.  ThinkGeek advertised a Game of Thrones based edition of Clue taking place in Westeros, as well as a steam-powered Steam Box you could enjoy while drinking your Groot Beer.  Microsoft went old school and “launched” MS-DOS Mobile for Lumia devices. And Blizzard, with their tried and true pranks, introduced the T.I.N.D.R. Box as an in-game item.

(Sorry kids, the link for Game of Thrones Clue was taken down.  I’m hoping it’s because they’re going to MAKE IT REAL.  You hear me, ThinkGeek?  MAKE IT HAPPEN!)

But there was one trick I couldn’t figure out – and it was being played on me by Amazon.  You see, they introduced Amazon Dash on April Fool’s day, a series of push-buttons you can affix anywhere in your home so that you will never (ever) run out of stuff.  Stick a button marked “Tide” on your washer.  Press the button when you need more.  And more is bought for you.  And delivered with Prime shipping.  Check out the video below:

So clearly, this was just a joke, right?  There’s no way I’m putting buttons all around my kitchen for Amazon shipment so I don’t have to go to the store to buy things, is there? Crap.  I might.  It’s possible highly probable that I’m just that lazy.

So I gave it a couple days and let it sink in.  I figured maybe it would be a double cross and the reveal that it’s fake would be April 2nd.  Or maybe they were bucking the trend and trying to hit me with a slow roll prank.  Days passed and it didn’t go away.  It just got more fleshed out.  And it was then that it struck me – this is legit. I’ve signed up and I’m waiting for an invitation.  Amazon Dash is part of their Amazon Fresh service, and you can sign up for it here.  My address isn’t in the delivery area, but those April Fool’s buttons were just the start and I’m eagerly awaiting an expansion.  If nothing else, I’ll have something to review for you kids, right? Now it looks like there’s a barcode scanner, with voice, that will scan and link anything you swipe with your Amazon Prime account, setting up an order.  So in the wake of the confirmed legitness of Dash, to Amazon I have one thing to say:

You are absolutely brilliant.

From every aspect, Amazon is using the new “Internet of Things” craze to help people shop – and though these buttons are a bit weird, they might just save the day for people and families that are legitimately too busy.  Doubly true for routine things we buy on a regular basis, like laundry detergent, coffee, and razors for shaving.  What’s more is that big brands are getting in line to partner with them and be part of the program – after all, it’s their stuff we’re buying.

And how about debuting the program on April Fool’s day?  If nothing else, they made Dash a household name within 24 hours of internet exposure – they made sure that regardless of whether we thought it was a prank or not that we at least knew the name.  And whatever you truly believed, we were all scratching our heads on the 1st wondering if it was real.

So is this new IoT buying experience going to help streamline our busy lives, or is it taking us one step closer to what some would call our inevitable WALL-E future?  I guess time will tell as Dash rolls out to more markets, and makes its way to a home near you.  Here’s the latest from Amazon:

So let's see how this goes.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD

Since the initial inception of Final Fantasy on the NES in 1987, Square-Enix (previously Squaresoft) has developed a pretty consistent formula in the release of all their titles.  And for the most part, it’s worked – now I’ve got some perspective on this, as I’ve played every (non-MMO) edition since I was a wee brown lad.  Go ahead, I’ll pause a moment so you can marvel at my advanced age, kids.

Granted the formula will always have some tweaks to the core to freshen the mechanic from time to time – summons were added, job roles and classes in V, items like materia in VII, that annoying draw system from VIII, then grids and maps for skills and upgrades in X and beyond.  And this all revolved around a two pronged attack of a massive world to explore along with a tried and true turn-based combat system. And the gaming and RPG gods did smile, as they saw that it was good.

Then Final Fantasy XIII happened.

Much the like the compendium of Final Fantasy VII, which included a multimedia immersion into that universe, XIII was supposed to have gone a similar (read: NOT identical) route.  These games were all to share a mythology in a series calledFabula Nova Crystallis, and in addition to the core XIII titles, there were two additional games that were going to be thrown into the mix – Final Fantasy Agito XIII an Final Fantasy Versus XIII.  Agito was released for mobile platforms but we never really saw much of it in the US, and Versus basically vanished into vaporware.  It was a real shame at the time because they looked like a different take on the traditional title. Lightning’s adventures in XIII as the core were pretty polarizing though, leading most people into a love it or hate it scenario about S-E’s most recent entry to the franchise.  True, XIII was a lot more interactive story than game, and the exploration piece of a traditional Final Fantasy game didn’t appear with as much gusto, but I for one still enjoyed it.

Well, after playing halfway through then giving up then starting over and having far more appreciation for it as well as Lightning herself.

To distance them from the XIII universe, these two games were split off into separate entities.  What we knew as Versus XIII became Final Fantasy XV (the demo Episode Duscae of which was reviewed by Colby here), and from the ashes of Agito XIII rose Final Fantasy Type-0.  And you know what? I can only describe Final Fantasy Type-0 as the greatest documentary I’ve ever played.

In most RPG’s you’ll find that there’s three types of movies.  One is full motion video.  The second is dialogue and animation using the game engine. This one has a third – History Channel style explanations of battalion movements and war maps with dates and voiceovers so the player can understand the meta of the war at hand instead of just what they’re playing through.  It gives it a very strange but satisfying documentary feel, and these types of clips to me work very well in tying everything together and keeping me immersed in the lore and world events. This game becomes, in fact, an interactive retelling of the accounts of the war between the Crystal States of Orience, and it pulls it off very well.

That aside, the gameplay is a stark departure from what we know from most of the Final Fantasy games.  It’s full-on action where skills are thrown on the fly – there’s no waiting for a turn, there’s no running to escape a battle encounter or random encounters like in previous games of the series (think kind of like Crisis Core). The four buttons at your disposal on the controller map to 4 commands – generally one standard attack, a special, a magic, and a defensive skill.  These can all be changed out with different skills and spells as your characters level up and gain ability points.  Much like X and titles beyond it there are three party members that can be deployed at once – one that you directly control while the other two work on AI.  You can freely switch which character you control if ever you need a different skillset for a certain enemy or you’re just running low on health.  It’s a fun system that allows on-the-fly style change in how you attack the game.

To add more customization, there are twelve characters (there’s two add-ons too but they don’t fit the theme) from which to pick your team, each one with a different weapon and style that fits different scenarios.  Each character is named after a playing card rank (Deuce through Ace with no “Ten”) and have their own equipment and spells, all of which you have control over.  Ace himself uses playing cards as a weapon at range, while the other two characters you begin with, Nine and Queen, use a spear and a sword for more melee-oriented combat.  In addition to their own offense each character has their own defensive style that can help you out in a jam.  Ace’s “Wall” for example helps when taking ranged attack without cover.  Fast switching between each character to utilize their skills becomes as much of a skill to learn itself, but when you do, boy does this game get fun in a hurry.

The story is a fairly simple tale of power and struggle between kingdoms in a different age – in this case starting in year 842 in the world of Orience. The Militesi Empire invades the dominion of Rubrum (our characters) unprovoked, using technology to snuff out the magic Rubrum relies on for its military using their White Tiger Crystal, destroying much of the countryside in its assault. Rubrum’s crystal, the Vermillion Bird, grants them the power of magic and Eidolons to defend themselves. Militesi and Rubrum are two of the four Crystal States, with Concordia Kingdom and the Lorican Alliance rounding out the other two.  And thus war begins, with you controlling the Rubrum Akademia’s legendary Zero class, hoping that one of them will become the fabled Agito to bring balance to the end time, or tempus finis. So yes, there are four crystals in the game as is always somewhat expected.  Where this ties in with Fabula Nova Crystallis is that the crystals are sentient, and create l’Cie to do their bidding, serving the same role the Fal’cie did in XIII.

Square-Enix also went through some effort to add a lot of familiar elements to the game, softening a bit of the shock of being this different to previous games in the franchise – not only within the Final Fantasy universes, but more specifically from within Fabula Nova Crystallis.  Summons are called Eidolons and there are branded magic users called l’Cie like in XIII. There’s Magitek armor like in VI.  There’s four crystals (for the purists fine, yes, back then they were “orbs”) like there have been since day 1. And possibly the greatest homage to a previous game in the series, twelve people genetically enhanced to serve a greater purpose, all referring to the scientist that created them as “Mother.” Final Fantasy VII? Feel a little bit like Sephiroth clones and Jenova anyone?  It helps give you a familiarity with the game even though it’s a brand new environment.

In all, good fun, and a different flavor of the Final Fantasy universe that’s a a breath of fresh air.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Life Is Strange Episode 2 Preview

“So a lot of people ask us ‘If you can rewind the game, doesn’t that mean that you can cheat? Isn’t that the same as reloading the save?’ It would be if it was badly designed.”

That was what Square-Enix’s Adam Phillips had to say about the luxury of choice in their current series Life is Strange. And that statement is 100% correct.  I’m in my second playthrough now of episode 1, Chrysalis and am not having any less fun trying different choices I take with Max in her exploration of her newly found powers over time.  The beauty of it is that there’s no correct answers in the game, and even though the short term results of the decisions made are simple enough to see, the long term and meta effects aren’t so easy to spot.

Just like life. Strange… right?

I was able to sit down with Square-Enix and DONTNOD Entertainment at PAX East last week to get a preview of Life is Strange episode 2, Out of Time to see some spoiler-free gameplay.  We were able to see some of the longer-than-short-term consequences of one of the pivotal decisions from Chrysalis – whether or not to take the blame for Chloe’s stepfather finding her smoking weed, resulting in being in hot water yourself or Chloe taking an angry backhand.

The game picks up on the day after Max finds discovers her gift (1 episode, 1 day) and the scene we got to play through was Max meeting Joyce, Chloe’s mother, at the diner where she has been working for years.  You have the choice of telling Joyce or not that Chloe’s stepfather struck her, but not every playthrough has that option.  We were playing episode 2 using the input from episode 1 that Chloe hid in the closet and watched Chloe get struck, and that’s why this and other choices are available to us now. The game keeps track of every decision you’ve made, and offers shifts in the storyline accordingly, guaranteeing a number of playthroughs which are all different. “It really is a network,” was how the choice system in the game was explained to us. “There are in this game some binary switches, like if you do this that happens, but in this game there are actually combination switches as well.” This won’t affect the overall story of the game but it will affect the way the game progresses. “More like branches they’re vines going up a tree, so they all go in the same direction, each one is just slightly different.”

To get used to the “keep your knowledge and stuff” part of the time rewind mechanic, you’re forced to guess everything that happens within 10 seconds at the diner and everything that’s in Chloe’s pockets.  Of course you’re not a mind reader so the only option is to guess wrong, see the real answer, rewind and prove the Chloe your “superpowers” are real. It works as this game’s take on quick time button events, where you have to get the whole sequence right or rewind time and start over.

I’m really looking forward to see how my different savegames affect my playthrough for episode 2, and the way this is set up we’ll be getting increasing levels of meta consequences for seemingly small choices we made earlier on.

The soundtrack which thoroughly impressed me in Chrysalis maintains its deliciously modern indie feel, with artists like José Gonzaléz, Syd Matters and alt-J on the score for both background music and the tracks Max listens to.  “It was really important when Max put her earbuds in that you heard the sound dull down as she pressed play. What happens when you hear a licensed track? It grounds you in reality.” It’s true, and goes a long way in helping continue to set the tone and emotion of Max and Chloe’s adventures in Arcadia Bay.

I asked creators Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch from DONTNOD about why episodic games are finding so much success next to huge triple-A 80-90 hour behemoths. “It’s the way we’re playing games nowadays.  We have less time I think, and a short experience is something you can really enjoy between two stations of one really huge game.  Sometimes those short experiences of  an episode of a game or a short game like Journey can be interesting to play because you can play it in one session.”

Of course they mentioned that also inherent in episodic games is the anticipation and expectation for the next one to come out to see what happens.  And that part is working.

Thankfully we don’t have too much longer to wait. Life is Strange episode 2, Out of Time will be released this month on March 24th, and I’ve got my season pass ready to pull it down and see what happens to Max and Chloe next.

[Oh, and P.S., I asked about porting this to tablets because I think it would work great with the UI and control scheme - and I can officially say it hasn't been ruled out]

Hey Tushar, Where's My PAX East Coverage?

I know many of you are wondering why the hell Technical Fowl hasn't had ANY PAX East 2015 coverage after the show last month in Boston. My man Colby Sites and I have a series of posts over at Sub Cultured chronicling the whole affair.  Here's a list of stuff we hit and links to reviews and thoughts:

A preview of Life is Strange episode 2 is available at Sub Cultured and also right here at Technical Fowl!

That's fifteen games for you kids to sink your teeth into.  Enjoy!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Life is Strange Episode 1: Chrysalis

Before I get into it let me just start by saying this – I don’t generally do formal game reviews.  But titles like this are why I will always have love for video games.

Back in October at New York Comic Con I had the pleasure of attending Square-Enix’s press party, where they graciously fed me and kept me on a steady stream of vodka cranberries as I made the rounds to check out their new wares.  There were things I expected to see like the new editions of their mainstays Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider, but there was an interesting demo they had over in the corner.  The demo was down at the time, but they have me some links to the demo online.  And a few minutes of demo was all it took to sell me on Life is Strange.  Check out the release preview just below:

What you just saw?  This is what the game feels like while playing it.

Released in late January, Life is Strange represents S-E’s first foray into episodic adventure games, a genre that his been picking up steam since 2012 saw Telltale’s The Walking Dead hit consoles.  Since then they’ve exploded with titles, and this style of game found continued success with the formula, with Telltale having just released opening episodes of Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones late last year, with episode 2 of the latter being just released on February 3rd.

But this is altogether different.

Life is Strange puts you in the shoes of 18 year old Max Caulfield, a high school student in the photography program at Blackwell Academy, having returned to her home town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon after five years.  A shy and introverted young woman, she can always be found toting her vintage polaroid camera while avoiding the race of being one of the cool kids.  It’s while hiding in the bathroom to get herself together after a particularly rough morning that she witnesses a violent crime – and learns that she can rewind time in the process.

This mechanic is available at every juncture in the game where Max has to make a decision, informing the player each time that their selected action has consequences.  The twist to it, however, is that even after rewinding time, Max retains the knowledge and any inventory she picked up.  In this way the player can choose an action, find that it has horrible consequences, and with that knowledge rewind time to change their path.

As an example, in one scene Max is taking folders from a high shelf to rummage for information.  When she gets the files they fall into an oil slick on the floor.  So do you read the files and leave them, as well as evidence of your snooping?  Rewind time to not take them at all?  Or read the information then rewind time to hide the evidence?  And that theme is what fuels the game.  Are you happy with the choices you’ve made in life?  What would you do if you could go back?

Throughout the narrative Max is challenged with obstacles that we’re not used to seeing in a lot of other games.  There’s her classmate Kate who has more secrets than she lets on, teenage drama with the school’s “mean girls,” the school security guard that never seems to cut her any slack, and the entitled trust fund babies that can buy life on easy street at the expense of others (Max included).  We’re not knights of the realm, we’re not hiding from dragons or trying to scavenge for another night running from zombies.  This is an ordinary high school kid that has discovered something extraordinary about herself.  And it’s that aspect of the game that makes it easy to buy into.  Everyone has memories of rough times in high school – whether it be fitting in, finding one’s own way, dealing with being an outcast or problems with authority.  Everyone at least once has imagined they were invisible or that they could take back the things they’ve done.  Regardless of when your graduation was, there’s a simple nostalgia to Life is Strange, almost dark and sweet at the same, that gives players a connection to Max and the story.  Max also keeps a diary recounting all of her exploits and decisions as they are made.  The diary itself serves as a great vehicle for developing Max, putting her thoughts to the page and giving the player a bit more insight into the character. 

As the plot progresses, we find Max reunited with her former best friend Chloe who she can barely recognize, the mystery behind the disappearance of Blackwell student Rachel, and what can only be described as blackout premonitions of impending doom.  This first episode gave us a small taste of Max’s life in Arcadia Bay and I’m hoping sets us up well for Episode 2 in March.

The game itself is painted on a beautiful hand drawn backdrop depicting the Pacific Northwest in a way that’s colorful and dark at the same time. That’s accompanied with songs by Syd Matters, Mogwai, and alt-J as part of a soundtrack that sets the mood of every scene on every level.  The whole experience makes it nearly impossible not to be drawn into it all.  And I’m hoping for more of the same in Episode 2 in March.

Square-Enix and Dontnod deliver an enthralling title with a deliciously indie feel that leaves players with questions and the desire to play more to find the answers.