Thursday, 29 March 2012

Musings on Late Cold War Naval Aviation

You see this motherfucker right here? This is a Grumman F-14 Tomcat. This is no 21st century multirole, born of compromise and built by the lowest bidder, shit no. This is an old-school balls-out naval jet interceptor from the Cold War, back when being the baddest aircraft in the sky meant something. This is the bird that you call upon when the Russians are already in the air and think they got you- the commie bastards are already planning dinner. The Tomcat will show them, though. It says fuck manoeuvrability, fuck economy and fuck socialism, getting to wherever the enemy is as quickly as possible and sending Ivan back to Moscow with a bunch of missiles up his pinko ass. Tomcat tucks his wings in mid-flight to go faster like a Goddamn Olympic skier, and those dudes are fast as shit. F-14 goes all the way up to Mach 2.3- do you know how fucking fast that is? I don’t! I have no idea! That is unknowably fast! We carrier launched, too- your boy don’t even need an airbase because he can operate from the fucking sea. That means seventy-one percent of earth’s surface is Tomcat turf before he even takes off. This is the aircraft they flew in Top Gun, and it singlehandedly balanced that movie out into heterosexuality- it’s a street-fighting alley dwelling Tomcat, not some well groomed woman cat that sits on a cushion all fucking day. The F-14 even has two seats, so you can bring your bitch out and watch her swoon at your 28,000 pound feet of thrust- that is almost as much thrust as one of Vin Diesel’s fucking arms. Maybe you’re thinking that intercepting shit is all the F-14 is good for? Well fuck you once, because if it didn’t intercept shit you’d be wrestling your sister for dog meat in a glowing post-nuclear shithole, and fuck you twice because when they stuck a LANTIRN on it, it became an unstoppable bomb dropping ground attack monster. People in the know say that your hairy ass real man dedicated interceptor the F-14 did these missions better than lame nerdy multirole F-18 ever could, like it ain’t shit. Let me tell you this, right now- the free world was never freer than when this cat prowled its borders, but those days are gone. The last free Tomcat took off from a carrier way back in '06- now, only the Iranians still fly the F-14.

Friday, 23 March 2012

SSX Review

SSX is a game you’re probably aware of- I’m sure everyone has played at least one of the great PS2 releases. It’s a high-speed snowboarding game, with greater emphasis on crazy stunts and big air than on pure simulation. The series has been rebooted for the current generation with a new game simply titled SSX, just like the first one to make sure it’s hard to Google search. I played a lot of the older games, particularly the brilliant SSX3, so I’m pretty well placed to assess the latest; does it deserve the weighty legacy of the series? 

The core gameplay is just about what you might expect- ride a plank down a mountain. Slap the face buttons or twiddle the right stick to do tricks to earn boost fuel, which you can expend to increase your speed, somehow- max it out and you enter “Tricky” mode, temporarily giving unlimited boost and permitting even more improbable stunts than usual. Controls are smooth and responsive- ripping down the slopes looks and feels great, and the player can pull sick tricks with ease. Maybe too much ease, in fact- mashing buttons and sticks as soon as you get airborne is a sure way to a spectacular jump, without a whole lot of thought. SSX was never a simulator, but I’m pretty sure being able to do 1260 degree spins without a ramp is something only Marty McFly could dream of, and, though I can’t really remember SSX3, I think that game offered greater variety of tricks. Nevertheless, technical proficiency and strategy is required to succeed; in race events, big air slows you down but generates vital boost, so a balance must be struck between getting the right line and keeping up the boosting. There’s a level progression for each boarder from 1 to 10, and each has their own inventory of equipment bought between runs. Higher levels unlock more and better equipment items for purchase, so there is incentive to keep at it, but it does mean shut-in nerds like me will be able to outperform casual scrubs like you by merit of play time. 

SSX includes straightforward trick and race events, just as you would expect, but also a sweet survival mode. These “Deadly Descents” survival events, where players attempt to go down a completely fucking impossible run without being killed, were actually reminiscent of my efforts in real-world snowsports as a kid, perfectly capturing the technicality and slippery battle with gravity and velocity I experienced. The effortless superheroism of trick and race runs is gone- slipping and sliding, you try to inch your way to the bottom down a nightmare path. Each has some unique hazard that requires specialised equipment to traverse safely- yawning chasms that need wingsuits to cross, freezing temperatures requiring thermal suits and low oxygen environments that cause blackouts without oxygen supplies, among others. The Deadly Descents provide the best moments in the game, by my reckoning- heart stopping moments before the wingsuit opens or as the screen fades to black from oxygen starvation, and these stages provide a great counterpoint to the standard, run-of-the-mill trick and race game modes.

The singleplayer campaign, though showing promise early on, isn’t a whole lot of good. The premise is thus- a team of the world’s top snowboarders, most of whom featured in past SSX games, have united as “Team SSX” to ride the nine wildest runs on the planet- the “Deadly Descents”. One, the now-grown little twerp from SSX3, decides those guys suck shit and resolves to make the descents himself before the SSX team can- suddenly, we have a god-damn race. What this means in gameplay terms is a pretty straightforward progression from rnage to range, doing a handful of events in each locale before tackling the big scary finale. Each range has you take on a new character from the roster, and each character has a comic-book style intro sequence that theoretically gives a little background on them, but which only really serve to embarrass and confuse the player with their absurd lameness. I’m not asking for a serious-face character study in my plank riding game, but zero background would have been better than the horrible fucking caricatures the comics gave. The campaign is really just a platform to get some experience points with each character and familiarity with the core mechanics- in this role it works, but it's short and pretty simple.

It’s the “Ridernet” online functionality that makes SSX really worth looking into, though there are some puzzling design choices. Every course in the game can be raced or tricked down- Ridernet keeps track of your best times and scores and, more importantly, your friends’, in a fashion very closely mirroring the “Autolog” system in recent Need for Speed games. The rivalry this inspires is simply awesome. Drops are restarted again and again, angry messages exchanged, and equipment constantly changed up in an arms race for that top spot. Players feel hatred, true hatred, for close rivals, and awe at those tens of seconds or millions of points ahead. At bottom, this is a slick and compelling leaderboard, though, and the surprise is that SSX doesn’t have a conventional lobby multiplayer. That’s right- you can’t start a race with a couple buddies or strangers and compete with them in real time; a bewildering gap in the feature set. The closest we get is ‘Global Events’; player-created events with fixed parameters imposed on factors like buy-in cost, run time and permitted equipment, where participants compete to make it into brackets ranked from Bronze to Diamond. These can be really cool, especially with rules like “no ice axes” on runs that need ice axes to really spice up the competition, and thousands of players can take part. While you see other riders in real time while participating, it’s really just eye candy- it’s still basically a solo trial. I’d recommend ensuring you have plenty of friends to play with- I added a bunch of people from online forums to help fill out my leaderboards, and without that competition I could see the game getting pretty goddam old, and fast. 

The new SSX, then, is a pretty great game. It’s mechanically sound, very compelling and with a good balance of depth and accessibility. Visuals are crisp and sharp, and while anything with a central theme of snow has an upper limit on graphical variety each range does have its own flavour and style, a commendable feat. The online functions are critical to the experience, and though the game suffers from the omission of lobby multiplayer it is by no means crippled. SSX deftly avoids the classic reboot pitfall of completely ruining the franchise and retroactively souring past instalments- though it has definitely moved on from the old games in terms of style and gameplay, it represents more of a natural evolution than a jarring shift, preserving the raw excitement of its forebears. It’s thrilling, competitive, slick and very cool, if a little goofy in places, and comes with my recommendation as an old fan.