Friday, June 26, 2009

Mirror's Edge: The In-Depth Game Autopsy (Part One)

As Mr. Keeley recently pointed out to me, my optimism in last summer's pre-release post about Mirror's Edge is a bit cringe-inducing. As I noted at the time, expectations were remarkably high for this, a game that clearly sought to break new ground in numerous ways. When the final product turned out to be, at times, disappointing and, at other times, downright infuriating, he and I quickly turned to assessing the game's successes and failures. I do not think, however, that either of our enthusiasm for the franchise has waned, as the potential for something great lives on with the promise of a sequel. For this reason, we have decided to collaborate on an in-depth, level-by-level analysis of what went right in Mirror's Edge... and what went horribly wrong.

Mr. Keeley's contributions will be presented in italics and mine in traditional font.

Prologue: The Edge

I must begin by pointing out that before I even set foot in the level, one of the game's great hypocrisies reared its head: those damn loading screens. For once, loading screens' length or frequency are not the subject of my disdain; their visual design is the irksome quality. The game's loading screens, you see, are used to provide "helpful" tips to gamers, presented under a looping animation that supposedly depicts this hint in action. The problem is, there are countless animations that show Faith, the protagonist, performing stunts whose fluidity and style surpass anything the player can ever do in-game and that, furthermore, seem to fit the game's style far better. The main area this applies to is the disarming of enemies – an area we will undoubtedly address later on in this post. So, simply keep in mind that many of the gripes we have below are repeatedly highlighted by their solutions' presence within the game's very own loading screens.


Put simply, this level is everything that is good about Mirror's Edge. The overwhelmingly affecting visual and aural style of the game washes over you from the first moment you peer into the washed out, white landscape of the city. It's an aesthetic that has not lost its novelty in the past months, as most developers still proudly tout the "subtle hints of color" their drab, uninspired shooters feature. The computer-controlled opening sequence highlights these strengths, as Faith peers into the distance and the game's striking music blends with the city's ambient sounds. Watching Faith leap across the steel canyons of the city does not only provide the enticing promise of excitement to come, but it displays the fluidity of movement that makes Mirror's Edge brim with potential.

Once control moves to the player, we meet one of the best designed areas in the game. Being able to move across these rooftop landscapes quickly and adeptly really hits home the idea of "flow" that is touted in the game's cutscenes. At this early moment, Faith is able to achieve a seamless unity with the space around her, as the objects become less like obstacles and more like tools for the art of freerunning. It is not literal freedom (why should it be?), but there is an indelible sense of freedom that comes with traversing these first few rooftops with skill. This feeling, I believe, comes from a balance that is struck in the level design: there are many obstacles, but none of them have to stop you in your tracks; many will hinder the inexperienced player at first, but none will always force you to stop.

What follows this segment is a small taste of the many hinderances that the game will use to stonewall you in later levels: doors, sealed hallways and (of course) armed guards. The reason that they do not do serious damage to the prologue is that they are fleeting and, often, avoidable. The first platforming puzzle is brief and clearly explained. The first enemies that you encounter are unprepared and can only give chase. The stumbling blocks the game throws at you here are appropriately small in dosage and add texture to the game's pacing. They also give way to a memorable climax, where Faith makes a dramatic escape hanging from a helicopter – a wonderful expression of the limitless potential that Faith's abilities hold.

Chapter One: Flight

Mr. Hollis-Lima addressed the feeling of freedom in the prologue level of Mirror’s Edge. There are very quick ways to get through the level, but first-time players may end up taking slower, more obvious routes. The game doesn’t have a “sandbox game” level of freedom, but you can run about more or less according to your style.

This fine style of play carries over to the first part of level one, but it’s also here that we begin to see some of the game’s weaknesses. After a nice invigorating rooftop jaunt, Faith finds herself inside. She runs through a few empty (as ever) corridors and hops into the first of the many elevators she will encounter in the course of her story. Surely the developers could have developed a nicer, more interesting way to load the coming portion of the level and get Faith to higher ground? You’re not able to jump or punch or otherwise do interesting things inside the elevator, so all you can do is run about, watch, your shadow, and wait. There’s some plot-related text scrolling down a computer screen in the elevator wall, but a) the plot isn’t terribly interesting and b) the text tends to repeat. Oh joy.

After the elevator ride, you get a first-person cutscene with some pretentious dialogue (“There are no accidents in this city”) before you get to flee the cops invading the building you’re in. The “runner vision” that is supposed to tell you where, generally, to go makes the first of its many disappearances here. You’ll likely die a few times just figuring out where to go. Runner vision works well enough outside, but it seems to vanish once you go indoors. Indeed, much of the game’s fun seems to go elsewhere once you step off the roofs and into buildings, ships, subways, and other such structures. Ventilation ducts too. You spend altogether too much time in the convenient runner-sized ducts that honeycomb the city. Imagine what the city's evil government could do if they cut the police budget and introduced a stipend for creating smaller ducts... Poor Faith would be screwed.

Once you get out of the ducts and on to the roofs again, you encounter one of Mirror’s Edge’s finest and most cinematic moments. As you jump onto a slanted glass roof and start sliding down, you see that a helicopter is coming in to take potshots at you. The chase continues across several rooftops, and it’s absolutely brilliant. The copter lends urgency to your parkour feats, but its attacks aren’t accurate enough that it will kill you easily. It may not be realistic, but it makes for a lot of fun.

The next building you enter features a police attack, but the game actually permits you to avoid fighting them – you sneak around them and enter the building’s elevator while their backs are turned. The level ends with an enjoyable ground-level chase – Though there are cops after you, they’re not terribly well-armed, they’re not terribly many of them, and fleeing them is a viable strategy. It’s a satisfying end to a level with some truly great moments. If only the game could have continued in this vein…

Chapter Two: Jacknife

Here begins the game's downward trend. The level picks up with Faith enjoying a momentary respite from the relentless chase – and do I ever mean momentary. After one climb over a tall fence, she is once again forced to flee from the helicopters that were omnipresent in the previous level. If the bottom of the developers' bag of tricks is already becoming visible to you, you're not alone. Repetitive and trite commands from city cops mixed with the sound of gunfire hitting metal will remain the game's primary means for creating urgency from this point forward.

This holds true as a helicopter (whose gunners have positively horrible aim) follows you most of the way down a massive vertical tunnel, after a brief bout of hallway/vent crawling. Little more than a series of pipes and platforms, this tunnel quickly grows tiresome and occasionally leaves you wondering if you are going in circles. The "runner vision" feature, however, does its job well enough here. It illustrates how these bare-bones platforming segments are mundane, but hardly the most grating aspect of the game. Besides, these are easily the most beautifully lit municipal sewage tunnels you will ever see. It really lets you know where the current regime's priorities lie.

The tunnel leads Faith to a massive... room, laden with catwalks and snipers. This area is surprisingly enjoyable, with a mostly linear design that allows you to progress quickly. One or two face-to-face encounters with snipers feel a bit cheap, as the troops' ability to beat you with their rifle is generally unhindered by your attacks. Here, Faith also encounters the true danger of the cops' perfect aim for the first time. Nothing is more comical than Faith slipping off of a fifty foot-high platform and watching two laser sights follow her the entire way down, never losing their lock.

These absurdities, however, pale in comparison to what follows your traversal back up to the surface (by way of a second, identical vertical tunnel). As the bloom effect kicks in and Faith's view is overwhelmed by white light, in creeps a tinge of red. As she stands on the rising platform that takes her on the final stretch to the surface, she is a trapped target for what can only be called the first clusterfuck of the game. (Worry not; it will not be the last.) Surrounding the mouth of this giant tunnel, in addition to armed guards, is a small enclosure of freight containers, trucks and barbed wire fences – three apparent favorites from the absurdly short list of assets (pieces of set dressing) this game features. With very little indication of where to go and very little time to figure it out before Faith is perforated, this area is the quintessential example of the level designers' unabashed disdain for the player. Searching for the exit while under fire is out of the question, so Faith is forced to stand and fight for the first time.

Here is where the game falls to pieces.

The fine folks over at EA DICE seem to believe that, while being bold in just about every respect, they had earned the right to rip parts of the level design from any old first person shooter. In other words, Faith is a square peg in this game's round hole. She is designed to run, not to fight. Hell, the loading screens even entreat you to avoid combat at all costs. Here, however, in the first of many similar monuments to non-cohesion, Faith is left with little choice.

How bad is the combat? The shotgun provides a perfect example. When in enemy hands, the it is a strong argument for Faith to run away. When in Faith's hands, it is a strong argument for the enemies to purchase firmer hair gel. Despite the sound it makes, the shotgun seems to emit a weak blast within a very narrow range of space, invariably allowing enemies to return fire and land the one or two blows needed to defeat her. Hand to hand combat is farce of equally high audacity. Defeating a single, armed enemy is fairly simple with the application of a few kicks and punches, but enemies generally travel in packs from this point on, making those few attacks impossible to execute safely (and rendering their inclusion in the game pointless). Faith's only other recourse when faced with unavoidable enemies is the exasperating disarm mechanic. Whenever she gets within a foot or two of an enemy, Faith is able to take away an enemy's firearm and incapacitate him with the precisely timed press of a button. This means forcing her to run up to the most intimidating foes and stand there, as they wind up their melee attack (in what must be slow motion) and swing their gun into the precise position needed to allow for a disarm. More often than not, Faith will get her face beaten in. More often than not, trying the same tactic again will be her only recourse. It essentially degrades all of the game's combat mechanics to a single, timed button press.

What follows this section could never compete in terms of sheer first-time frustration. (I add "first-time" because once the player is able to drag the level designers' intentions out into the light of day, the game becomes an absolute push-over. I spent most of my first playthrough in a prolonged state of rage, but I beat the game a second time in a speedy three hours.) It, however, does little to improve relations between player and game. Immediately upon exiting an elevator, Faith faces Jacknife, an ex-runner with a serious lack of humility. What this boils down to is Jacknife smugly waving to Faith at every turn, as she tries to chase him down. He's purportedly a talented runner. In reality, the game visibly warps him forward to prevent Faith from catching him. About a minute after she finds him, she chases him into an elevator where he (surprise!) smugly waves at her and the doors close a second too soon. Faith is forced to take an adjacent elevator down. (Do real freerunners make so much use of elevators?) The developers, in a bout of sheer delusion, seemed to believe that the player would be ready for a cute inside joke here, so there is muzak playing in the elevator as you stare at a blank wall for the umpteenth 30 second stretch.

Faith finally catches up to Jacknife when he knocks himself out. She must, however, traverse another rooftop playground first – one that proves that the game's grasp on the concept of "flow," even in its most basic form, is fading. Perhaps most taxing of all is swallowing the dialogue that concludes the level. Case in point: Jacknife ends each line with the knickname, "Faithy."

Chapter Three: Heat

Before I get to chapter three proper, I’d like to expand upon Matt’s comments on this game’s, um, memorable writing. Mirror’s Edge's writer is Rhianna Pratchett, the daughter of Sir Terry Pratchett, knight and author of the very fine Discworld novels. Alas, she is unlikely to receive a peerage for her writing anytime soon – The characters in the game don’t actually do much, and most of them are more or less interchangeable. In the course of Mirror’s Edge, two different runners betray Faith. I didn’t care, I wasn’t surprised, I just couldn’t remember who the second traitor was supposed to be. One hopes that future efforts from Ms. Pratchett will be better – her father wrote a few mediocre novels before he got to the really good stuff…

“Heat” gets off to a good enough start – there are dramatic jumps across rooftops, some satisfying wallrunning, and a merciful lack of police pursuit. One wishes that there were a bit more variety to the cityscape – Yes, I know the Forces of Evil want a clean and shiny city, but couldn’t we have a little more variety?

Speaking of variety, the interiors of chapter three once again feature some ventilation duct action. Are you a runner or a crawler? Sometimes I think the developers weren’t sure. Honestly, I’m pretty sure you spend more time in ducts in Mirror’s Edge than you do in the first Metal Gear Solid. Of course, duct crawling in Metal Gear helped you avoid guards, find items, and plan stealth attacks. Here, it’s just another sign of lazy design. Since I've already ranted about ducts twice, I'll try and avoid any more long discussions of them. Be assured, however, that they are present. Later in the game there are even duct mazes.

When the level’s titular “heat” appears, you don’t actually have to defeat all the cops who are chasing you. The game, in other words, works like the developers said it should.

At one point in her flight from the cops, Faith comes across a broken elevator – the elevator doors open onto the shaft, so Faith has to slide down a pipe to reach the next level of the building she’s in. It’s almost as if the developers know how annoying the elevators are… Shame they show up several more times throughout the game. Later on, there are even elevators that do not open until Faith has defeated all the (heavily-armed) enemies in the area. The game is full of other such cheap ways of making you stand and fight. Indeed, later in this level we find an area where the only way to advance is by climbing a series of pipes. As Faith climbs really slowly, the only way to survive the climb is to… kill all the enemies. As usual.

Speaking of enemies – Why are all the cops men? The plot of the game revolves around Faith’s attempt to save her sister, the cop, but I don’t believe we ever see any other female cops. Perhaps Faith’s city relegates all the other women officers to traffic control? And what does Kate’s sister think of Faith’s mass murder of cops? While you can complete the game without killing anyone, it’s rather an exercise in masochism. Faith, trying to clear her sister of a murder charge, murders dozen of police officers. Oh well…

Once you’ve killed your share of cops and climbed your share of pipes, you find an elevator. Yes! At least you get some fun parkour after it. You also get the game’s single most satisfying bit of combat – a cop runs up to you, but happens to stand to close to the edge of some scaffolding. You can knock him off the building before he even gets a chance to pistol-whip you. If only more enemies were so easily disposed of. Surely parkour offers all kinds of opportunities for entertaining environmental kills? Speaking of the environment, Faith never really gets to change anything in it - You can break the odd pane of glass, but you're never going to make any scaffolding collapse on your pursuers, nor will you be able to dislodge the most precariously-placed jump ramp. There's one exception to this rule late in the game - It comes as quite a surprise...

“Heat” ends with some more vintage Mirror’s Edge combat, though it’s theoretically possible to avoid combat here, provided you don’t mind getting shot in the back a few times. The crane-to-crane jump is pretty awesome though – If only there were more scenes like that and fewer shootouts with over-armed cops, Mirror’s Edge might be a good game.

Chapter Four: Ropeburn

Chapter four hits the ground stumbling with another misfire of the "runner vision" system. Faith is seemingly enclosed on a rooftop, surrounded by unscalable electric fences. The hint system points her to (!) the other side of the fence. The solution to this quandary is one of head-slapping simplicity, but I have yet to see a single person figure this out without spending five to ten minutes struggling with other solutions. The blame lies (apart from the obvious ineptitude of the level designers) with the broken "runner vision" system. It is more trouble than it is worth. There were at least two instances of objects turning red as Faith walked within one foot of them in this level, meaning she only received the hint once it was clear that she no longer needed it.

Upon reaching the half-finished building that is her destination (who knows why at this point), Faith is in for more hall crawling. The puzzles here are actually decent, except for one infuriating red herring that crops up shortly after entering the building. It is a narrow room that is about two stories tall. Faith is forced to drop into the bottom of it and, as she is doing so, three vertical pipes high up on the wall flicker red. To any player, this would suggest that these pipes are the key to exiting this apparent trap. A press of the circle (i.e. the hint) button, however, points Faith to a corner of the room. After close inspection (read: minutes of aimless attempts at scaling the walls), this corner has an extremely narrow opening that leads to the exit. This raises two concerns: 1) Why THE HELL did those pipes turn red? They bore no significance whatsoever. 2) Why make the exit a narrow slit in the wall? Were the developers so unsatisfied by their first attempt at artificially increasing the game's difficulty that they felt the need to make merely walking out of a room more complicated? Maybe they finally realized that it is a bit of a stretch to make every door in the city identical in appearance, so they chose to cut back on their usage of doors.

Who is up for quicktime events? Faith is! Another helping of obnoxious exposition and, suddenly, she is getting thrown off of a building by a man with poor dental hygiene. These first person cutscenes have always seemed a bit incongruous to begin with. There are already those contrived anime-style cutscenes that play between each level and Merc's incessant babbling over the radio to provide all of the lifeless dialogue one could ever want. Why do we need first person conversation, as well? I digress, however, because very little conversation takes place here. Faith is too busy repeatedly dying over another misdirecting flash of the color red. Having played this sequence countless times, I still have absolutely no idea when the button should be pressed, because hitting the it when the game says to invariably fails.

If, by some stroke of luck, one manages to rescue Faith from her cycle of death, she gets to escape by slipping past some guards who seem to prioritize taking their scripted positions over killing you. After a ride on top of an elevator (I know!) and another bizarre attempt at comedy involving a mentally handicapped janitor, Faith reaches the subways. Ah, the subways... I have to say: This game is memorable if only for its idiosyncrasies. The interior lighting here is, once again, worth noting. This is what Swedish subways must look like. In terms of gameplay, Faith begins this section with a take on Frogger for the HD era. Enemies are more likely to run into a train's path than land a shot on Faith in this segment, so she need not pay them any mind. It is all pleasant enough but, after a somewhat unintuitive puzzle involving fans, things begin to heat up.

Faith bursts onto a catwalk overlooking another train tunnel and Merc commands her to "take the train." It is a rare moment where the developers' wishes correspond perfectly with the player's. Rocketing through the mood-lit subway tunnels at fifty miles per hour is a thrill. It goes untainted by the inclusion of obstacles, too, because Faith seems to take a high speed metal bar to the face with nothing more than a grunt. After a harrowing transfer between stations, Faith's train stops dead and she is forced to run back up the tracks to a very well labeled exit, lest she become a small piece of meat in a large steel sandwich. It is an incredibly thrilling moment and it damn near makes up for the level's many deficiencies.

This feature will be continued in Part Two.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abbadon

Thus far, game discussion on this site has focused solely on Playstation 3 games. Alas, I do not yet have a Playstation 3, so I begin my game-reviweing tenure at Me and Matt on Media with a discussion of a recent PS2 game.

The other Matt often derides Japanese games for being needlessly retrograde, archaic, and generally behind the times. When one looks at the portrayal of Africans in Resident Evil 5 or the fourteen years Capcom went without updating a major character's graphics, my arguments for the continued vitality of Japanese game development start to look pretty weak. Role-playing games often suffer from this kind of stagnation; when Square-Enix announced that Dragon Quest IX would have an action-based battle system instead of the same battle system, more or less, that the original Dragon Quest had in 1986, fans protested so much that Square returned to the old battle system. At least they got rid of random battles - In most Dragon Quest games, you'll walk around an area until, without warning, you find yourself facing monsters on the battle screen. So they got rid of that old design crutch. After twenty-three years.

Given the state of Japanese game development and the bad tendencies of RPG developers, it’s somewhat surprising that some of the best and freshest games I’ve played in the past few years have belonged to one of the oldest and most popular Japanese RPG series, Shin Megami Tensei. I’ll summarize by saying that SMT games generally involve recruiting, summoning, and fusing various “devils” based off figures (not always malign) from various world myths, literatures, and religions. The interpretations of these characters are often a bit strange, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the infamous bondage Angels or the phallic Mara offended someone. And while I may claim that the Meagami Tensei games are fresh, the games often reuse assets, including 3D renders and artwork, from previous games in the series. The demon Leann Sidhe (Gaelic scholars will tell you "Sidhe" sounds something like "Sithi"), for example, has the same character model in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, and the subject of this review, the epically-named Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abbadon.

Unlike most of the SMT games, the Devil Summoner games are action RPGs, meaning that the games mix skill- and reflex-based gameplay elements with more some more leisurely-paced business involving strategy and screens full of Important Numbers. The RPG genre isn't for everyone, and an RPG is much more fun to play than to watch. A "girlfriend game" Devil Summoner 2 is not.

The first Devil Summoner game, Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army, was apparently fairly mediocre, despite the fact that it involved using demons to fight a robotic, time-traveling version of the Russian monk Rasputin in early-twentieth-century Japan. The plot also involves rocketing a talking cat into outer space to destroy a satellite that controls a Soulless God. Doubtless it all makes sense if you play the game. Devil Summoner 2 doesn’t assume you’ve played the first game, which was neither a critical nor a popular success. The plot of King Abbadon is less baroque than Soulless Army’s, but it still has its share of bizarre moments. Once again you play as the devil-summoning detective Raidou Kuzunoha, who wanders about nineteen-twenties’ Tokyo solving supernatural crimes. Though there are scenes of deduction and investigation, this game isn’t really about solving a mystery. It’s about hitting things with swords and magic, not establishing who shot whom in the dining room.

Though Raidou is a silent protagonist, other characters are often overly talkative – There are several plot-recapping “Investigative Meeting” scenes that are quite frustrating, as Our Hero’s companions seem to assume he has zero long-term memory. I was surprised to find that Devil Summoner 2 has no voice acting; it’s been years since I’ve played a console RPG without it. The cutscenes aren’t terribly attractive either; this was not a big-budget game.

Devil Summoner 2, unlike the last two Persona games, includes random battles. Normally I would spend whole paragraphs complaining about this antiquated design choice, this crime against responsible game design, but they actually work well here. The battles load quickly and the “battlefield” you fight in has more room to maneuver in than the areas you explore. I still don’t believe random battles are ideal for any game, but they work well enough here. If anything, the battlefield is too big – the player doesn’t control the battle camera, and your enemies (and allies) will often be off the screen. Still, it's not too much of a problem. For one thing, the game isn't terribly hard, so one doesn't need to always have a perfect grasp of everything happening around Raidou...

The game’s battle system is fairly simple – Raidou can shoot a gun, perform strong or weak sword attacks, use items, block, and roll. The variety in combat comes from your demon allies. You can have two demons “out” and fighting with you at any given time, but there are 158 demons in the game, though you cannot gain all of them in a single playthrough. I would say that the demon acquisition methods are unique, but they’re actually fairly typical for a Megami Tensei game. You can either negotiate with the demons you encounter in battle – almost everything outside of boss fights is recruitable – or fuse two of your older demons together to create something new. While one could theoretically beat the game without fusion, many of the strongest demons are available only to cunning fusers. Plus, fused demons gain skills from their “parent” demons – With a little skill, you can create demons much more powerful and useful than the ones you might find in the “wild.”

I haven’t touched on every aspect of Devil Summoner 2 – I find few things more tedious than the sort of exhaustive, multi-page review IGN specializes in. I’ve barely discussed the plot, nor have I described the wide variety of side quests in the game. Devil Summoner 2 may not be the greatest game ever made, but it’s worth your time if you have an interest in the Action RPG genre. It’s fun, somewhat addictive, and decently long – over twenty hours provided you don’t rush through the game.

While Devil Summoner 2 is a very good game, I’d recommend that anyone who wants to try Shin Megami Tensei and doesn’t mind a turn-based battle system try Persona 3: FES. A reissue with added content, FES is one of the best games on the Playstation 2. It features a long and compelling story (with voice acting), a deep and fast-paced battle system, and great art design. Unlike Devil Summoner 2, FES is an extremely polished game. While it may not have the mass appeal of a GTA, a Metal Gear, or even a Final Fantasy, I think there’s a case to be made that Persona 3: FES is the best game on the PS2.

Because American gamers have no taste, FES did not sell as well as it should have. It’s currently available for $15 on Gamestop clearance. It’s a wonderful game, even if it doesn’t have Rasputin or cats in space. It does have a knife-wielding dog though, and that's something.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Eulogy for Analog TV (or, Me Preaching to an Empty Church)

It's funny. Analog TV has been dead and gone to a lot of us for some time now. Yet, I have to admit that I feel a bit wistful when I realize that, within the next 48 hours or so, it will cease to exist. It is perfectly possible that you do not even know what analog TV is or why it's going away. It suffices to say that it was what mom and dad watched as kids – it was all they could watch. For decades, in fact, all a television could do was tune into analog, over-the-air broadcasts. Analog TV was what made TV as ubiquitous as it is today, even if it is about to become a mere memory.

As a predictably nerdy kid, I occasionally enjoyed experimenting with TV sets. I would grab the old 13 inch TV from the kitchen, and a dusty set of rabbit ears from the basement, then proceed to tilt them in every conceivable configuration. I was looking for something – signs of life – in the thick haze of the static that pervaded most channels. I knew where I could go for my local, New York City stations – those came in pretty clearly – but I was more interested in the stations I was not supposed to see. I would go where I knew I would not easily find anything, in hopes of getting a glimpse of some bizarre, alien station from places like Connecticut or upstate New York. There was something thrilling about staring into the frantic black and white dots, trying to discern a face, a car or perhaps even a logo that would inform me of the missive's origin.

Little did I know that I was partaking in a well-established hobby, called "DXing." Serious DXers use slightly better equipment and take into account atmospheric conditions that allow them to attain surprising results. (One of the oldest examples of television DXing supposedly came in the 1930's when a group of Long Island broadcast engineers mistakenly got ahold of a British TV signal.) YouTube is full of more contemporary examples, like this one, where a DXer in Springfield, Massachusetts found an Oklahoman signal.

The switch to digital will hardly be the end of TV DXing but it will, in my opinion, take some of the romanticism out of it. Digital TVs do not have static; you simply get the signal or you do not. Cryptic figures amid static will be replaced with a plain, black screen and a blunt "No Signal" notification. Our children, if they ever come into contact with an image of TV static, will have absolutely no idea what it is.

For my entire childhood, my family relied on our house's rooftop antenna for television. It worked well, even if I became more and more bent on getting cable as I grew up. Even when I convinced my dad to pay up for satellite, we still used the antenna for local channels. We only gave up on it when the September 11th attacks obliterated the area's primary broadcasting tower atop the Twin Towers, permanently degrading broadcast reception in the region.

In fact, September 11th must be one of my memories that has the strongest bond to analog TV. For thousands, possibly millions, of New Yorkers, local news reported the first stages of the attack, then fell into horrifying silence as the towers collapsed, bringing all of the major TV stations' signals down with them. For those without cable, it prompted a frantic scramble for smaller stations that were not originating from downtown Manhattan. By the evening, the major stations were leasing time on these smaller stations, in order to get their news reports out to cable-less New Yorkers.

As a fourteen year-old, mere days into my high school career, I once again pulled out my rabbit ears and found myself reaching into the expanding void of static. This time, I was searching for something far more immediate. Vague images of frantic news reporters attempting to describe surreal landscapes of destruction and panic played across my screen. The fascination that I had once enjoyed as a child now gained a marked sense of urgency. Yet, while I had the option of turning to CNN and our recently installed satellite system, I did not prefer it. I did not want the glossed digest of the news that cable provided; I wanted to experience it in all of its grittiness, as I struggled to find a signal and our local reporters struggled through the most harrowing moments of their careers.

It has been eight years since then, and probably just as long since I last experimented with an antenna. Ironically, however, a step up in technology has brought my back to my rabbit ears. Having recently bought an HDTV and all but renounced pay TV (a rant for another day), I now search the skies for digital signals. Amateur DXing hardly remains a hobby for me, but I recently discovered that I can still see those old analog signals. I have left a number of them programmed into my TV, too. In these final hours of life for the connections that were once so vital to Americans, I feel that someone should be seeing them off.

Another set of static-laden videos fill YouTube: Footage of stations' final, analog sign-offs. I find these moments wrenching. I know that it is only TV and I know that the digital signal is one press of the remote away, but as those fuzzy images lurch into thick, unquestionably dead static, I cannot help but feel a sense of loss. Nevertheless, out of a sense of duty, I will be watching on Friday – I will be watching as the faces and voices disappear into the static one, final time.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Yes, Dammit, I Liked the Movie: "Taken"

Taken may be the best bad movie that I have ever seen. This may take some explaining. The script and acting are generally mediocre, the plotline is pandering and the violence meaningless. And did I mention how many clichés the film evokes? Despite being shot in Paris by a Frenchman, the filmmakers managed to work in a gutless Frenchman out of an anti-Vichy propaganda film.

And yet Taken is one of the most satisfying films I have seen in years. The plot is simple: Ex-CIA “preventer” of bad things Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) has moved back to the United States to get back in touch with his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who lives with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). Kim goes on a trip to Paris. Kim gets kidnapped. Mills has ninety-six hours in which to shoot, throttle, torture, and beat various Very Bad People to get his daughter back from the sex slavers who have taken her.

The most famous scene in Taken occurs near the beginning of the film. Liam Neeson’s character is talking on the phone to his daughter, who hides under a Parisian bed as a group of kidnappers look for her. The kidnappers find her, and Neeson gives a stirring speech into the phone, a speech that ends with a vow that “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.” For the rest of the movie, he does exactly that. Thankfully, Neeson’s speech, featured in all the film’s trailers and on the movie’s poster, is not the coolest portion of the film. Bryan Mills’ vengeance lives up to his vow – In the next seventy minutes, dozens of heartless and nameless criminals get hit by trucks, electrocuted, knifed, shot, and otherwise liquidated.

Taken was not a particularly expensive film to make; the budget was apparently less than $30 million. I think this actually works to the film’s advantage; director Pierre Morel couldn’t go overboard with the explosions and set pieces – though Our Hero at one point claims he would “tear down the Eiffel Tower” (!) to get his daughter back, there aren’t too many buildings collapsing in our hero’s wake. Indeed, I only recall one or two explosions in the entire film, and even those fireworks are fairly small. Instead of burning down half the city with CGI, Taken emphasizes brutal fist- and gun-fights. Though there’s not too much blood, Taken nevertheless feels like a “hard” PG-13. The movie, after all, features, amongst other things, sex slavers, prostitution, drug abuse, torture, and quite a few bullets to heads.

Liam Neeson really makes Taken. He’s lean and gruff enough to be believable as the cunning and brutal killer Bryan Mills, but he’s also a good enough actor to be believable – and even endearing – as a father trying to get back into his daughter’s life. He makes us wince at the faux-pas he makes in civilian life and cheer when he dispatches the bad guys.

A lot has been made of Taken’s resemblance to the TV series 24. Both Taken and 24 feature US government operatives forced to torture, maim, and kill to save their pretty daughters named Kim. Yet Taken’s departures from the 24 formula are what make it so much more enjoyable than the TV show. For one thing, Taken is fast-paced and focused; the film has no equivalent of 24’s tedious side plots (Taken’s Kim never runs into a mountain lion). I don’t think Neeson ever utters that irritating 24 catchphrase “within the hour.” Bryan Mills is also much more efficient than poor Jack Bauer, who never really seems to resolve anything until the last episode of the season. Jack’s enemies tend to escape and initiate new plans; once someone ends up in Mills’ clutches, they are generally as good as dead.

Perhaps the biggest departure from 24, however, is Taken’s lack of moral ambiguity. Mills does some nasty things, to be sure, but he never seems to feel guilt or ambivalence about what he does. He even makes a few morbid jokes as he’s about to torture one of his daughter’s kidnappers. The audience gets to cheer for the violence without ever considering the morality of that violence. There’s one scene where Mills hurts an innocent, it’s true, but the film makes it clear that such injury was a necessary evil and that the person in question will suffer no long-term physical damage.

Spoilers coming up.

I know some critics have praised Taken for its “traditional” values, but there are a few aspects of the movie I think one really must take exception to. For one thing, the hero of the film, though generally likable, is disturbingly cold-hearted at times, most notably when he tortures one of the slavers with electric shocks. Once he gets the information he needs, he turns the electricity back on and walks out of the room while his victim screams. On some level, all revenge movies are built on the audience’s sadistic and vindictive tendencies, but this particular scene was particularly unpleasant.

The other issue I have with Taken involves the hero’s daughter Kim and her ill-fated traveling companion. The daughter, the script reminds us at least twice, is a virgin. Given this is a wish-fulfillment film, Kim stays that way to the end of the film. The daughter’s traveling companion Amanda seems fairly promiscuous; she ends up a dead of a drug overdose. If they hadn’t spent so much time establishing Kim’s virginity, perhaps Amanda’s death wouldn’t have played like an eighties’ slasher film, where anyone horny must die. The whole “Kim, Amanda, and Sex” subplot is by far the most awkward part of the script.

End of spoilers.

As I hope my review has made clear, I had some major issues with Taken. But for all its flaws, I still really liked the movie. It may not change the way you look at cinema or even reinvent action movies, but it is a lot of fun. It’s not an enduring work of art, but it’s a fine piece of craftsmanship.

So, should you see Taken? My advice: Watch the trailer. If it gets you at all pumped, put it at the top of your Netflix queue. There’s a lot more awesome where that came from.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Boldly Going Nowhere Particularly Interesting

Oh, J. J. Abrams. If the sci-fi world is a battlefield, you're packing the biggest Nerf gun in your platoon. Travelling at "warp speed" and "reinvigorating the franchise" with "slam-bang, kick your mother in the face" action, J. J. Abrams' new "Star Trek" is tearing up the box office these days.

I have no idea why.

Do not misunderstand me: The film holds a special place in my heart. Never before has a movie allowed my mind to wander during its climactic final battle. J. J. Abrams has pretty much mastered the mediocre. I found myself caring almost as little in his last attempt, "Mission Impossible III." The man does not patently suck like, say, Michael Bay does but he certainly draws from the same bag of tricks. "Star Trek" is rife with ridiculously elaborate special effects, melodramatic close ups and slick, "How many lens flares can we fit in one shot?" cinematography. Given the popularity of this movie with critics, however, it may be more insidious than Michael Bay's typical shenanigans.

Blame the screenwriters for that. For, where J. J. Abrams is mediocre, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are plain dumb. The only real achievement these two have made with "Star Trek" is the impressive feat of convolution that prevents the film from stepping all over the original "Star Trek" universe. Who, though, really gives a shit? If the movie was any good, trekkers would not be in any place to bitch about changing things and, the way things turned out, it seems like the entirety of the plot centers on explaining this continuity loophole. This could explain why the movie felt like little more than a first act. The first two hours are all set up, then (oh yeah) the bad guy falls down a giant tube. That's not a movie; it's a really long commercial for the sequel... that you pay to watch.

The note about the giant tube brings me to my next point: Is this really "Star Trek?" As I was watching a smug pretty-boy getting chased around an ice planet by a giant monster, I genuinely believed that, instead of a "Star Trek" reboot, I was watching the best "Star Wars" prequel yet. As a continuation of the "Star Trek" franchise, however, this movie is as limp as they come. There is not a shred of science to be found here (lots of sparkly production design, but no science). The new Starfleet is not convincing as a military organization for a second, with recruits constantly mouthing off to superiors and hooking up with each other in the elevators. More importantly, there are not any real ideas fueling the film; the writers clearly find hormonal idiocy more interesting than real drama.

The original "Star Trek" series was rife with social commentary. The casting itself made a bold statement about the type of ideas the franchise pursued. The introduction of color television gained a bit of symbolic value as the Enterprise's unabashedly multicultural crew changed the way TV looked. "Star Trek" presented an Earth where our cultures had fully accepted one another, but faced a new challenge: relating to people from other worlds. It was potent stuff and it made the series great. So, what did Kurtzman and Orci do with it? They made Chekov's Russian accent a punchline and they made Sulu do flips while fighting with a ninja sword. Critics seem to love how Uhura has been developed. She used to do little more than look pretty and answer the phones. What about the new and improved Uhura? She runs around in her bra and has heightened "oral sensitivity." My, how far we've come.

That is not to take away from the quality of the cast. Chris Pine makes the snotty, new Captain Kirk far more likable than expected. Zachary Quinto does Spock justice, even if the writers fail to develop him in any compelling way. The rest of the crew admirably emulates their predecessors, despite getting little opportunity to do more. Perhaps they are the reason Paramount has gotten so lucky with this one. (The special effects may have something to do with it, as well.) If Abrams and his lazy writers are replaced for the inevitable sequel (highly unlikely), it may be a worthwhile film. Until then, I think I will wait for the "I Love Lucy" reboot. I hear they are getting Roland Emmerich to do it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Me and Matt on Media has been your one-stop source for entertainment media criticism for months now, but we have realized that we are not reaching the same audience we had hoped. To help this wonderful blog grow, we have brought in a new writer: my good friend, Matt Keeley. He will provide what I consider to be a fresh viewpoint that is much more in tune with what the hip, modern, tech-savvy, 18-24 year old male wants to hear about. He will be reporting on topics that we believe you, our readers, truly care about, such as sports, drinking games and celebrity nipple slips.

Faithful readers, however, need not fear! These topics will be tackled with the same critical, dry wit that you have come love. I can assure you that MaMoM will only become bigger and better with the addition of Matt to our team. So, I invite you all to welcome him and embrace the next incarnation of this wonderful blog.

Peace Out,