Wednesday, 18 November 2015

No wonder he's pissed

Someday, the parodies of Adolf Hitler completely losing his sh*t will cease to be hilarious.

This is still not that day.

Wow. Who knew that Der Fuhrer was such a rabid Rousey fanboy? Or that MMA was a thing back during the final hours of the siege of Berlin, eh?

Still and all, it's important to understand just what exactly it is he's so cheesed off about. And to see that, you have to watch the full fight- all 6 minutes of it- from UFC 193. (At least, until the UFC forces a copyright-violation takedown of the footage again...)

Every time I watch video footage of that fight, I find something else to appreciate. Even though that terrific head-kick at the end was the highlight, the whole thing was actually a very technical fight.

Watch how Ms. Holm moves, how she sets up her strikes, and, perhaps most impressively of all, how she escapes Ronda Rousey's clinches and takedowns while preserving her own "tank". If you watch how she responds to Ms. Rousey's takedown attempts, you will see that she practiced those defences very carefully. Observe how her posture stays strong and upright, how her hips generally stay lower than Ms. Rousey's- and how these two things combine to make it very, very hard for Ms. Rousey to throw her. Watch how she keeps her elbows tucked in close to her ribs, thereby making it extremely difficult for Ms. Rousey to isolate an arm and attempt an armbar.

Watch, as well, Ms. Holm's excellent footwork when working through her stand-up game. It's superb. She's constantly moving, never putting too much weight on one foot, rarely off balance except when she actually gets hit, and generally doing a great job of staying elusive, light, and yet in the pocket.

Most importantly, though, what you will see is a fighter who was calm, prepared, methodical, conditioned, and ready to execute a carefully thought-out and well-understood game plan, up against a bull-rushing brawler who had precisely none of those attributes.

And then there is the exemplary way in which Ms. Holm conducts herself. Take a look at her post-fight interview, where living legends within the MMA community like Rashad Evans, Frank Mir, and Daniel Cormier are all asking her about how her fight went. She is a model of charm, grace, and humility even though she just took out the biggest star in her field:

It goes without saying that her demeanour and her grace under pressure are head and shoulders above that of the former champion. If you go back up and watch the fight again, you'll see that right at the end of Round 1, when the horn blew, Ms. Rousey threw a punch a full second after the round had ended, and landed it. That was a blatant foul, and I'm astonished that referee Herb Dean didn't penalise her for it.

Even so, beyond Holly Holm and maybe Paige Van Zant, I can't say I think particularly highly of women's MMA even now- and in PVZ's case, most guys (and girls) like her because... well, see for yourself:

Notice how a law firm has a sponsorship logo across the crotch of her shorts? Draw your own conclusions from that...
These girls are rough, tough, and in some cases at least, quite pretty. But one very good thing about Holly Holm's victory on Saturday night is that it finally puts paid to this utter bilge about the best women being able to take on any man in their weight class. That flew right out to wherever Ronda Rousey's consciousness did the moment that perfectly timed and set-up head-kick landed on her throat and jaw.

To be clear, most of these women- trained, professional, highly skilled athletes- could take on the average man and win in a one-on-one no-holds-barred fight. That is because the average man doesn't really know how to punch, kick, grapple, or defend himself- our ever-so-"civilised" society has bred all such instincts out of us for the last fifty years or so.

But against a trained opponent, those same women would suddenly find themselves in a world of trouble.

I think the best lesson to take away from Der Fuhrer's epic blowup is that fortune ultimately favours the bold and prepared. Holly Holm saw her chances, was ready to take them, and then moved in and did what she evidently does very, very well indeed: setting up and executing solid kicks and punches.

Say what you will about the "Preacher's Daughter", but you can't deny that she has some game.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Sometimes all you can do is laugh

Unless you've been living under a very large rock, you will undoubtedly know what happened in Paris last Friday. Nearly 130 people are dead; more than 300 are injured. And make no mistake- these people were casualties of a war between Islam, and the rest of civilisation. As Katie Hopkins points out, acerbically but truthfully, don't tell me this isn't about Islam.

Don't insult my intelligence, and don't spit on the memories of those who died, by pretending that the sick, twisted, repugnant political ideology masquerading as a religion that is Islam, somehow has nothing to do with what happened.

Much has been written about what happened. More is to come. Hell, I have my own thoughts on the subject, which I'll try to get around to posting at some point this week. But in the meantime, we need to take a lesson from a man who understood the nature of evil better than most.

That man would be Clive Staples Lewis.

The author of The Screwtape Letters pointed out in that book that the one thing that evil absolutely cannot stand is to be laughed at. That is why the loving, benevolent, righteous Creator of our Universe plainly has a sense of humour; that is why we have the capacity to laugh. That is why the greatest and most effective satire reduces the tyranny and stupidity of those without humility and wisdom to simple acts of comic idiocy.

And that is why Islam, in which- by the admissions of its own most fanatical adherents- there is no such thing as "fun", absolutely cannot abide being mocked.

With that in mind, let me tell you a joke that, if you were to tell it in an Arab city, would cause pretty much everyone's inner jihadist to get "triggered"- with, one can only hope, spontaneous combustion taking place immediately thereafter. I'm not going to tell you who told me this first, but suffice to say, it's gloriously non-PC- as long as you ignore the fact that the first part couldn't actually happen in real life, anyway:

A Muslim dies and goes to Paradise, where he is greeted at the Gates of St. Peter by an imposing, white-bearded man in a beautifully embroidered robe. He immediately prostrates himself before this man and says, "The noble prophet Mohammed! How I have longed to meet you in the afterlife!"

But the bearded man replies, "My friend, I am not Mohammed. I am merely St. Peter, the keeper of these gates. If you wish to find Mohammed, go around the corner, climb up that ladder there to the very top, and you will eventually find what you seek."

The Muslim bows and hurries away, then scrambles up the ladder. He climbs and climbs seemingly without end, until at last he reaches the top. At the end of his journey he meets an even larger, more imposing, more magnificently robed man with an immense beard and a staff. Falling to his knees, he proclaims loudly, "Noble prophet Mohammed! How I have longed to meet you!"

But the man in the splendid robe with the staff replies, "My brother, thou art mistaken. I am not Mohammed. I am Moses. If thou wishest to meet Mohammed, go thou to that ladder over hither, climb to the very top, and there shalt thou find what thou seekest."

Our friend bows and hurries away, and once again climbs all the way up to the top. There, he meets a man in a stunning robe of white and gold, with the bearing of a king and a halo arrayed over his head. He falls to his knees and once again exclaims, "Mohammed!"

But the man responds, "My son, I am not Mohammed. I am Jesus Christ. That which you seek is farther beyond yet. Climb these steps behind me, and you will find it."

At the top of those steps, the now exhausted Muslim comes across a vast table, richly laden with wonderful food and drink of all kinds. At the head of the table sits a man of vast stature, whose very visage is awesome yet terrible to behold, around whom angels dance and sing melodies of unearthly beauty.

The Muslim, at the end of his patience, asks the man, "Are you Mohammed?!"

But the man, in a voice as deep as thunder yet gentle and soothing as honey, responds, "My child, I am the LORD. I know where the man is that you seek. But you have journeyed far to reach this point. Will you not sit, rest yourself, and partake of some food and drink? Perhaps some pastries and coffee?"

Well, one can hardly refuse the LORD's hospitality, can one? So the Muslim responds, "Yes, o Lord, some coffee would indeed be most welcome."

The LORD promptly turns around and snaps his fingers briskly at someone behind him, and in a voice filled with immeasurable authority, thunders: "MOHAMMED! Two cups of coffee and a bran muffin, right away!"

Sunday, 15 November 2015

That was quite a statement

The last thing that I expected to see when I woke up this morning was that Ronda Rousey just got her ass beat by a challenger for her bantamweight title. But that, as it happens, is precisely what took place yesterday.

Skip the first two minutes, it's just boring nonsense backed by a terrible electronica track. The real fun begins the moment the two women step into the Octagon:

I don't normally pay any attention to women's MMA- or to female sports in general, for that matter. I have trained and currently train with women on a regular basis, and as much as I like the girls that I spar with, I find them useful in general for one thing: getting in a bit of a breather between sparring with taller, stronger, faster, harder-hitting and far more skillful men.

Therefore I cannot say I have any sympathy for Ms. Rousey. She's a bit younger than me, but she lacks all sense of humility and has gotten to where she is in very large part because of her very big mouth. It would appear that, in Holly Holm, her mouth met an opponent (and more specifically, an opponent's fist) that it couldn't match. She does not conduct herself according to the martial code, which states very plainly that ALL opponents are worthy of respect, regardless of size, gender, or skill level- and that the most merciful way to handle an overmatched opponent is to dispatch him or her as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

What interested me most about the fight- at least, based on what I have seen of it, anyway- is the stark differences between the two women in terms of their striking.

Watch Holly Holm's footwork. It is a thing of beauty to behold- a classical (southpaw) boxer striking stance combined with a remarkable lightness of foot that makes it possible for this rather tall woman to strike from most angles. (Not all, though; both the orthodox and southpaw boxing stances have some real limitations when it comes to defending against strikes from all sides, which is why some really good natural strikers and counter-punchers can, and do, switch between stances as required.)

(On a side note- there is a very funny section in Jonathan Gotschall's book, The Professor in the Cage, where he writes about the reasons why fighters with orthodox stances- i.e. the vast majority of boxers- absolutely hate fighting lefties. As the head coach at the MMA gym where Mr. Gotschall trains says, "all southpaws should be drowned at birth". And judging by the way Ronda Rousey absolutely got her (oversized) arse handed to her, I think he may have a point. Hell, I hate fighting against lefties, and I'm not even very good.)

Pay particularly close attention to that beautiful slip-and-weave that comes up late in the highlights reel- right about at the 2:55 mark. As Ms. Rousey throws a particularly clumsy punch, Ms. Holm sees it coming miles away and simply ducks and bobs out of the way; Ms. Rousey, already exhausted after absorbing considerable punishment during the first round, practically collapses to one knee and drops her hands. Meanwhile, Ms. Holm looks almost completely unruffled.

And then, of course, there is that beautiful head kick that Ms. Holm sets up after getting behind Ms. Rousey and then turning her around. That was clinical, and a truly spectacular display of skill from a woman who has clearly worked hard on her striking game.

After watching those highlights, my opinion of women's MMA generally remains unchanged; I see it largely as a waste of time. However, I am more than willing to make a specific exception in the case of one Holly Holm, who has proven to be worthy of both respect and admiration for the way she conducted herself in the biggest fight of her career and the biggest upset seen since Anderson Silva lost his title to Chris Weidman.

That comparison is not, by the way, a facile one. Mr. Weidman was considered to be a long shot by most punters when he was given a title shot against "The Spider"- yet, MMA pros who had trained and sparred with him knew full well that he was the real deal. Georges St. Pierre said as much when he pointed out that Mr. Weidman's strengths were perfectly designed to exploit Mr. Silva's flaws- and that is precisely what happened at UFC 162. Mr. Weidman simply neutralised Mr. Silva's much-feared striking skills- and Mr. Silva, in his cosmic arrogance, spent the entire fight dancing around his opponent. He paid the price for it by getting his clock cleaned, and by losing his title.

Something similar happened here with Ms. Rousey. She didn't respect her opponent, and she paid a terrible price for it- her aura of invincibility is shattered, her goal of retiring undefeated forever denied, and her greatly overhyped appeal as some sort of female "role model" is now exposed for the world to see.

It is important to bring in some perspective to understand how and where she went wrong. I spar, using hands and legs, roughly three times a week, and I can tell you from (rather painful) personal experience that when you're up against someone with superior boxing skills, reach, and footwork, and you simply insist on walking into everything that he (or in this case, she) throws, then you've only got yourself to blame. And indeed, that is precisely what took place.

Look at Ms. Rousey's footwork. It is virtually non-existent. There is no attempt to defend against Ms. Holm's vicious jab left cross. Ms. Rousey's hands barely move to provide protection against the blows coming her way. There is no attempt to do anything other than move forward.

The head of my school, who is himself a supremely talented martial artist who has cross-trained extensively in boxing, muay thai, jiu jitsu, and a number of other arts, keeps telling us very plainly: you can stand up and bang all you like when you're wearing massive 14oz boxing gloves and a mouthguard and a groin cup, but take off the hand wraps and the gloves and the protection, and then try to fight that way, and you'll realise just how stupid such an approach is.

Ms. Rousey found out exactly why it is such a bad idea to just move forward with no defensive strategy against a highly skilled striker last night. If she is smart, she will learn the lesson and improve. If she is not, she will be beaten, again, and very badly, the next time she steps into the Octagon with Ms. Holm.

Two other important issues come to mind when looking at the fight itself.

First, I have stated in the past that when you match up a grappler against a striker, most of the time, the grappler wins. There was some rather lively discussion over at Vox's blog on this subject following Ms. Rousey's defeat, and Vox himself has asserted that the notion that grapplers generally win against strikers is more theory than fact. He does have a point; if you put someone who has only ever grappled against someone who has only ever done stand-up striking, there are indeed ways for the stand-up guy to avoid getting taken down and knocked out.

It just isn't as easy as most people think.

The equation becomes considerably more complicated when you are up against skilled grapplers who are also trained in striking. That's when things become significantly harder to predict. Generally speaking, though, in a one-on-one fight in a setting like the Octagon, a skilled grappler who can absorb damage and stay out of the way of really heavy blows, can wear down and outmanoeuvre his opponent to great effect- see for example what Chris Weidman did to Vitor Belfort in his last title fight.

Second, one is forced to ask: how is it that a relatively low-ranking contender in the women's bantamweight division was able to succeed, when higher-ranked challengers like Alexis Davis, Cat Zingano, Miesha Tate, and Bethe Correia failed so miserably?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that Ms. Rousey got arrogant and started to believe her own hype machine. But there is, I think, more to this than meets the eye- literally.

Ms. Rousey's "off-season" weight is reputed to be somewhere around 155lbs, while her fighting weight is 135lbs at weigh-ins. Now, my school has several amateur MMA fighters training in a separate camp to the main business, and the head of my school coaches those guys- one of whom is a current muay thai title-holder in the 125lb division and will get a title shot for the 125lb MMA title in December, and another who is now a contender for an MMA title fight next weekend. The same man pointed out a few months back that, compared to Ms. Rousey, the rest of the division simply doesn't carry around that kind of bulk, and therefore muscle mass, in the off-season. They simply don't have the physical strength and speed to compete with someone like Ms. Rousey.

And indeed, looking back at Ms. Rousey's utter demolition of Alexis Davis, I'd say there is a lot of truth to that statement. Those 20lbs of muscle and weight do make a huge difference.

Hell, Cristiano "Cyborg" Justino walks around apparently at 175lbs. (Granted, she also looks like a man- sounds like one too, actually.) Again, that differential in size and weight does result in a significant difference in strength too.

I have no idea what Holly Holm's off-season weight is. But, given the speed and footwork that she showed off in her demolition of the champion, I'd say she rarely, if ever, lets herself get out of shape.

All in all, the results of last night's fight were quite fascinating to see. If nothing else, women's MMA suddenly got a whole lot more interesting.

HALO, explained

Not perhaps entirely accurate, but still highly respectful of the best franchise in gaming:

Actually... that Honest Game Trailer is indeed quite honest. And it goes without saying that spending money on HALO is definitely a far better use of it, and of your time than, say, Destiny...

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Didact's actual, long-form (and slightly more coherent) review of HALO 5: Guardians

The most anticipated game of the year- hell, of the last three years, as far as I am concerned- finally made its way into my mitts on October 28th, and I promptly proceeded to spend the next five days blasting merrily away at Covenant and Forerunner enemies. As my last post on the subject made clear, I thought the new HALO game was REALLY DAMN GOOD.

Unfortunately, that post was just a tad incoherent, and I did put it together before I'd actually played through the entire game. So, now that I have played through it in full once already, and am well on my way to doing so again, what did I honestly think of it? (Note: I will try to avoid big spoilers concerning the plot and the gameplay, but be forewarned nonetheless that some may creep in regardless.)

Therefore, here, just in time for my 1,000th post, is what I think of HALO 5: Guardians.


Back in mid-June this year, I wrote an article for Reaxxion in which I detailed the things that I thought were going to be amazing in the new game. I also added a few things that I was on the fence about, and a few things that I was legitimately worried about.

For the most part, it would appear that I hit the mark on almost all of those points. I won't rehash what I wrote, but it's worth taking a look at my predictions against the reality, to get a sense of how good (or bad) the new game really is.

Overall, H5 is a tremendous addition to my beloved HALOverse. There are a number of brilliant new innovations that make the game feel fresh and alive, and which make it stand out compared to its peers in the same genre (such as the Call of Battlefield Honor Killzone Far Crysis games, for instance). This game promises much- and, better yet, it delivers.

There are several things that every HALO game absolutely MUST do, because these attributes are what make the series so unique relative to its peers:
  • Deep immersion into the characters that you control as the player;
  • Intense, thrilling, challenging first-person shooter combat that allows you to experience something new every time you play;
  • Vehicle-based combat, both on the ground and in the air;
  • New and unique weapons that allow you to change your tactics and style of play depending on the enemies you're facing;
  • A magnificent, epic musical soundtrack that you can enjoy on its own outside the game
The great news is that H5 does ALL of these things, brilliantly.

1. Spirit of Spartans

The single best thing about this new game has got to be the introduction of true squad-based dynamics into the gameplay itself. This is not all that surprising given that the development team included Tom Longo, the creative genius behind one of my all-time favourite FPS games, Star Wars: Republic Commando. For the first time ever in a HALO game, the NPC AI of your supporting SPARTANs is fully developed. The NPCs work as an effective unit. You can order them to do certain things which greatly increase your tactical effectiveness and make the missions easier, and which allow you to change up the gameplay depending on how you use your team.

More importantly, the voice acting, especially for Blue Team, is (for the most part) excellent. You really get the feeling that the SPARTAN-IIs that fight alongside Master Chief are family- there is even a bit toward the end where, as the Chief fights his own emotions to find and stop the source of the mayhem that is killing so many humans across the Galaxy as the Guardians awaken, each member of Blue Team vocally affirms his or her support for the Chief, as their comrade, their friend, their leader... their brother. They serve as his in-game emotional anchor after Cortana's death, and help him deal with the fallout from the plotline, and that emotional bond makes the Blue Team missions in particular a real joy to play.

2. To Crush Your Enemies...

In H5, you really feel like a 900lb harbinger of death encased in the Grim Reaper's very own party outfit.

Several of the armour abilities that came as optional customisations within HALO 4 are now part of your default MJOLNIR Gen2 toolkit. You now have unlimited sprint. There is an integrated thruster pack that is now omnidirectional, much more responsive, and which doesn't switch into the third-person when you activate it. Weapons reloading is much faster than what I remember in the previous game, and shields recharge faster too.

On top of this, new abilities have been added, such as the SPARTAN Charge (and Slide), the Ground Pound, and the Focus Fire feature. I particularly like the last one- basically, if you jump and then use the Active Scope function, you hover in mid-air for a few moments, which allows you to deliver a headshot coup de grace to any particularly irritating enemy that you might have in your sights. And of course, you can now climb over things and experience near-total freedom of movement in the process.

This game FINALLY does what every HALO game before it should have done: it makes you feel like the super-soldier that you are supposed to be.

3. Guns, Guns, Guns!

No HALO game is complete without a plethora of cool, snazzy new weaponry to play with, and in this regard H5 definitely does not disappoint. The Hydra Launcher, in particular, is a very neat little toy that I really like playing with, especially when used against Forerunner armigers.

There are new vehicles to play with as well, and old vehicles have been given some neat new toys and graphical overhauls that make them great fun to play with. One thing that any HALO game absolutely must do is deliver terrific vehicle-based combat- a HALO game without vehicle-based combat is a completely useless object. Fortunately, H5 delivers a knockout here. Fighting with Warthogs, Mantises, "Gungooses", and Scorpions is tremendous fun; the new Forerunner Phaeton is a hoot and a half to fly; and the Covie vehicles aren't half bad to use either.

4. Will You Just LOOK At That...!

This game is gorgeous.

The developers at 343i took the grandeur and magnificent landscapes that they put together in H4 and basically cranked the graphics ALL THE WAY UP TO 11 with this one. Every battlefield is rendered in spectacular detail; the backgrounds are mesmerising, especially on Genesis and Sanghelios; and the Guardians, when they actually appear, are simply stunning.

This game promised us plenty of eye-candy, and by gum, it delivered.

5. All Hail Eddie Buck!

I'm a big fan of Nathan Fillion.

Yeah, I know. Me and like 10 million other Firefly fans.

But I am especially a fan of his work within the HALO games. Eddie Buck is a fan favourite among us HALO nerds thanks to his wit, his gruff demeanour, and his outstanding combat skills. And Nathan Fillion's voice acting makes the character who he is. I have to say, in this game, he absolutely owns the role of SPARTAN Buck, career wiseass who also happens to be almost as much of an epic badass as the Master Chief himself.

6. The monks are back!!!

I am personally a very big fan of the HALO 4 OST. I thought Neil Davidge was a very solid replacement for Michael O'Donnell and Martin Salvatori. However, there were and are legitimate criticisms of the electronica-heavy music score that he composed for that game, and not all HALO fans liked his work. While I, personally, think that his score was the most listenable out of any of the games, it just didn't feel like a true HALO score- certainly not compared to the HALO: Reach OST.

This time, however, Kazuma Junnouchi took over the musical compositions completely, and in the process he created what has to be about as close to a perfect synthesis of the old O'Donnell work and the new Davidge creations as could possibly be made. He has also added his own unique work to the OST, which I am listening to as I write this. The musical score captures all of the epic feeling and drama that the scores from the older games did, yet adds promising new ideas and themes that I am sure will be expanded upon in future games.

The Subpar

Having gushed about all of the (many) things that H5 gets very right, surely there are some things that it didn't do well?

Actually, objectively speaking, there certainly are.

1. Different Helmet, Same Person

The one criticism I have of the squad-based play is the same one that I had of SWRC. The problem with it is that there is no differentiation between different SPARTANs, which is downright silly- especially when it comes to Blue Team. I mean, Fireteam Osiris is basically just a bunch of interchangeable characters (more or less), but Blue Team's members all have their own specialisations that should have been brought forth better.

For instance, Linda-058 is well established within the canon as the greatest sniper in the UNSC's armed forces. Yet you cannot assign her to take out an enemy from long range. Kelly-087's incredible foot-speed was often used by previous incarnations of Blue Team as the "bunny" that would fool enemies into chasing her straight into a trap- but you can't give her a command to do precisely that in order to lure the toughest enemies out to where you can destroy them. And Fred-104's abilities as a warrior, tactician and commander are completely inaccessible here. I really feel like more could have been done to bring forth the team dynamics and individual personalities within Blue Team, in particular.

2. That Warden is REALLY annoying

If you haven't encountered the Warden Eternal yet, don't worry, you will. And my GOD but he is irritating.

There are levels in every HALO game that just feel like a massive chore- "The Library" in HALO: CE, "The Great Journey" in HALO 2, and "Cortana" in HALO 3 come to mind as particular lowlights. But in nearly 7 years of playing HALO games repeatedly, never have I felt the level of frustration and annoyance in a HALO level as I have when battling the Warden Eternal.

He is, quite simply, the most irritating "boss" character ever encountered in the series. And you have to fight him like four freaking times! I simply don't see the point of disrupting the flow of an otherwise extraordinarily playable game with such overwhelmingly irritating boss character.

3. Some Pre-reading Required...

The biggest flaw with this game's plot has got to be the amount of expanded-universe canon that you need to know in order to understand the story. This was never an issue with the Bungie-developed games, but 343i has deliberately adopted a strategy whereby even the casual gamer has to read up on all sorts of canonical media in order to understand just what the hell is going on. They made that mistake with HALO 4, and they repeated it here, but on a much larger scale.

In order to actually understand the plot, you have to read: the Initiation AND Escalation comic book series, the novels Hunters in the Dark and Last Light, and you have to have gone through every last nook and cranny of the "Hunt the Truth" series that preceded this game's launch.


Someone at 343i wasn't thinking straight when he (more likely she) came up with something so silly as to require even casual fans to spend weeks of their lives poring over pointless canonical trivia.

4. So... What's Happening Again?

Related to the point above, the plot of this game is probably the weakest of any game in the HALO canon.

I am dead serious when I write this. In HALO 4, it took some work to figure out just what the hell was going on, but once you did, it was clear that the Didact (hey, that's me!) was in fact a gigantic and terrible threat to the human race, and the Chief's relentless, dogged quest to stop him made a lot of sense, even if the plot was considerably less epic in scale and scope than previous games and focused much more on the personal relationship between the Chief and Cortana.

But in this game, I have a very hard time figuring out what's going on- and given how much I know and have read into HALO lore, that is saying something.

Basically, there's something about recapturing Catherine Halsey... and then a missing research station gets BLOWED THE FULL CUP, and then Chief goes AWOL, and there's some massive manhunt spanning like three worlds, and meanwhile the Covenant gets its ass whooped, and then... I sort of lost the plot at that point.

Oh yeah, and Cortana gets involved somewhere too. (No, I'm not going to say how, that would be telling.)

This is not a simple, easily understandable, easily navigable plot. A HALO fan shouldn't need to spend his entire week trying to figure out what the heck happened in a video game- life is too short for that.

The worst part, though, is that it's impossible to tell who is the bad guy here- or if there even is a bad guy (or girl)- until the very end of the game. Next time, 343i, just stick to the basics of telling an epic story, the way your predecessors at Bungie were so good at doing. (Well, before they jumped the shark with Destiny, anyway.)

I will say one thing in H5's favour with respect to plot, though- it does redeem itself. The twist at the end, and the nature of that twist, has changed the HALOverse forever. It will be fascinating to see where they take it from here.

The Very, Very Ugly

Unfortunately, the flaws don't stop there. And there are a few very gaping flaws that really wrecked (small) parts of the game for me.

1. Bonnie Ross and Her Long Pointy Nose

Earlier this year, I wrote at some length about the likelihood that Bonnie Ross, the studio head of 343 Industries, would inject social justice nonsense into the HALOverse by attempting to throw in as many Strong Female Warriors as possible. I fervently prayed at the time that she would not be so stupid as to sacrifice plot, character, and gameplay for trendy SJW whims.

I was, very sadly, wrong. She cocked up, massively, in at least two separate places with this game.

First is the fact that each of the two SPARTAN fireteams in this game is half female. Now, with Blue Team, I get why this is the case; the existence of the female SPARTAN-IIs has been part of HALO canon for 15 years, and that cannot be undone. I don't even particularly mind the presence of either Linda or Kelly in the game, as they are the Chief's family and act as such. Rather than being pointless diversions, they are central to the game's plot.

But where, exactly, was the need to introduce two new female SPARTAN-IVs into Fireteam Osiris? What value did Holly Tanaka and Olympia Vale add?

Answer: ZERO.

Bonnie Ross and the entire development team at 343i need to STOP screwing around with all of these useless female characters for the sake of "balance", and start giving fans what we actually want. I am sick and tired of seeing the games that I love being warped and twisted by social justice imperatives just to satisfy some non-existent demand for "more strong empowered GIRLZZZ".

Second, there is an extremely jarring moment somewhere in the middle of the game where Fireteam Osiris is fighting their way through a Covenant stronghold, and all of a sudden a female Sangheili Shipmaster's voice comes in over the comms.

Now, to understand why this is such a WTF moment, you have to realise that the Sangheili- the Elites- are a very masculine society. The males do the fighting and hunting, the females raise the young. Sangheili society, within the canon, is the literal definition of a patriarchy.

So when a female shipmaster starts talking to you and giving you instructions, it is just bizarre. Hell, even the characters in the game comment on this- Olympia Vale basically delivers a two-minute speech on how unusual it is for a female Elite to command a ship, and how this is a positive sign of change within Sangheili society. (She doesn't exactly state the latter, it is simply strongly implied.)

What, exactly, was the point of that? Why did 343i see the need to basically stop the game right after one of its most intense combat sequences to deliver a heavy-handed and completely unnecessary lecture about gender equality to the player?

The next HALO game really needs to focus more on a strong plot with really believable characters. I would not mind in the least if Blue Team reappears, or if more of the remaining SPARTAN-IIs show up, but there is absolutely no need for more strong female characters.

2. Not ANOTHER Cliffhanger!

I'm not going to say much about the ending of the game, other than to state that 343i clearly made the exact same mistake with this game that Bungie made with HALO 2. Namely, they ended the game with several major plot points and questions completely unresolved, and now we have to wait three years to find out WHAT. THE. FRACK. HAPPENED.

Look, I get it, this is a good way of keeping interest high until the next game. But, for heaven's sake, this is HALO we're talking about! They could produce a game made up of light strobes and fart noises, and it would still sell, thanks simply to the power of the HALO brand name. Was there really any need to keep us on tenterhooks, yet again, for so long?

3. Where the HELL is the Chief?! And the Halos?!?

The absolute worst thing about this game, though, has got to be the fact that it is in many ways the least HALO-ish game in the series.

First, you spend 80% of the game playing as SPARTAN Locke. This is like taking the mistake that Bungie made with introducing the Arbiter as a playable character in HALO 2, and then doubling down on it. SPARTAN Locke just isn't a very interesting character to play. I have no vested interest in his back-story, I don't particularly care about him as a person, and his voice-acting isn't that great.

But when you end the game as SPARTAN Locke- with a message flashing on your HUD saying "FINISH THE FIGHT", no less- well, that tends to stick in my craw.

Generally speaking, when we play a HALO game that has the Master Chief on the cover, we want to play as the Master Chief- Bonnie and Frankie, I really hope you're reading this because you need to understand this message loud and clear. We DON'T want to spend most of the game playing as a charisma-free ex-ONI agent who is simply hunting the Chief down.

Second, the Halo rings themselves- the very reason the entire series is called what it is- never once make an appearance in the game. You only get to see one of the rings in the Legendary ending to the game. The games appear to be having less and less to do with the actual Halo rings with every release under 343i's aegis, which just doesn't make any sense at all. At least Bungie kept the focus on these galaxy-killing weapons of mass destruction throughout their entire run (more or less).

The Didact's Verdict

So, after all of that nattering on, where does HALO 5: Guardians stack up relative to its predecessors?

Well, for that, we need to have some reference points for comparison.

In my opinion, HALO 3 is, quite simply, the greatest FPS game ever made. No doubt many would disagree, but I can't say I care. I love everything about it, and to me, nothing beats it. So that's the bar for 100%- absolute perfection, can't be beaten.

By contrast, HALO 2 is probably the "weakest" game in the series, let down by really annoying levels, very unbalanced gameplay (a pack of five Grunts can kill you in that game, whereas in other games you could mow the damn things down by the dozens), incredibly irritating enemies (Jackals with beam rifles and Drones with plasma pistols- remember those?), and that stupid cliffhanger ending. That game, in my opinion, rates about an 85%.

HALO: CE, the game that started it all, rates about a 90%, as does HALO: Reach; HALO 4 rates in at about 93%, in my opinion, and HALO 3: ODST comes in at about an 89%. HALO Wars, which isn't an FPS game anyway and therefore cannot be compared with the others easily, ranks about at 75%.

Based on all of the above, I'm going to give HALO 5 a score of 94%- just a shade better than HALO 4. And I'm probably being generous.

Why? Well, because it could have been magnificent, brilliant, monumental, a true landmark in the history of FPS gaming. It could have been the game that took HALO 3's hallowed place as the greatest FPS ever- but it was let down, badly, by some very stupid mistakes that the developers made with respect to plot, character, and gameplay.

Don't get me wrong, I love this game. I'm having a blast going after all of the intel and skulls in my second run through it, even though this significantly slows down the gameplay. I love the new team-based features, particularly when playing the Blue Team missions- which are sadly way too few and far between.

But when I completed it the first time, I felt an almost nostalgic sense of regret. Part of that had to do with the fact that I now have to wait another three long years before finding out how this game will resolve that cliffhanger ending, and how the HALOverse's new arch-villain is going to be stopped by the Chief. Yet a lot of it also had to do with the fact that, as good as HALO 5: Guardians is- and it is fantastic in all of the places that it really needs to be- it still isn't as good as HALO 3, despite having so much talent and money being poured into it.

Put another way, if HALO 3 rates at 100%, HALO 5: Guardians absolutely should have rated in at 115%. But it didn't. It missed that mark by over 20 percentage points- and, again, I'm almost surely being very generous.

This game is still phenomenal. I love it, and I look forward to many, many more hours of playing through it again (and again, and again, and again), as I do with every HALO game. It just... isn't as good as I had expected it would be.

So what did you think of HALO 5: Guardians? Think I'm right? Completely and totally off-base? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

The Ballad of Rodger Young

Seeing as how LTC Kratman got me thinking about Starship Troopers (not like I need much prodding there, though), I figured we might as well look at the battle hymn that in some ways inspired and is woven into the book itself:
No, they’ve got no time for glory in the Infantry.

No, they’ve got no use for praises loudly sung,
But in every soldier’s heart in all the Infantry
Shines the name, shines the name of Rodger Young. 
Shines the name—Rodger Young!

Fought and died for the men he marched among.
To the everlasting glory of the Infantry
Lives the story of Private Rodger Young. 
Caught in ambush lay a company of riflemen—

Just grenades against machine guns in the gloom—
Caught in ambush till this one of twenty riflemen
Volunteered, volunteered to meet his doom. 
Volunteered, Rodger Young!

Fought and died for the men he marched among.
In the everlasting annals of the Infantry
Glows the last deed of Private Rodger Young. 
It was he who drew the fire of the enemy

That a company of men might live to fight;
And before the deadly fire of the enemy
Stood the man, stood the man we hail tonight. 
On the island of New Georgia in the Solomons,

Stands a simple wooden cross alone to tell
That beneath the silent coral of the Solomons,
Sleeps a man, sleeps a man remembered well. 
Sleeps a man, Rodger Young,

Fought and died for the men he marched among.
In the everlasting spirit of the Infantry
Breathes the spirit of Private Rodger Young. 
No, they’ve got no time for glory in the Infantry,

No, they’ve got no use for praises loudly sung,
But in every soldier’s heart in all the Infantry
Shines the name, shines the name of Rodger Young. 
Shines the name—Rodger Young!

Fought and died for the men he marched among.
To the everlasting glory of the Infantry
Lives the story of Private Rodger Young.

For the veterans

What Cap said
What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly... it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.
-- Thomas Paine 

In this consumer-driven, materialistic, selfish age, it is unfashionable in the extreme to point out that "the best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion... and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself- ultimate cost for perfect value". (Not very difficult to guess where I got that from, by the way.)

Yet it is a fact that the uniquely American system of individual freedoms did not happen by accident. Freedom is costly and painful to acquire- which, given its immense blessings, is precisely how it should be. But that cost is disproportionately borne by those who voluntarily put themselves in harm's way, to protect the rest of us. And it is to them that we owe gratitude and fidelity.

To those veterans who serve and have served- thank you.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Is anyone looking forward to it?

The new Star Wars movie, I mean.

Here, in the form of a single picture, is every reason why I am not:

Why does this poster fill me with foreboding?

Well, because this is what the poster looked like for Return of the Jedi, filmed over 30 years ago:

Notice anything familiar?

Like, say, how almost every single major motif of the last great Star Wars film is repeated in the new one?

Jedi Knights swinging around fancy laser swords? Check.

Eeeeeeeeeevil Sith Lords? Check.

The Last Black Man in the Galaxy? Check.

Ridiculously stupid comic relief in droid and/or walking teddy bear form? Check.

A superweapon made out of world-destroying assbeat? Check, check, and triple muddapuckin' check!

In other words, the new Star Wars film is going to do for that beloved and wonderful sci-fi universe almost exactly what J. J. Abrams did for the Star Trek universe.

There are differences, to be sure. With Star Trek, Mr. Abrams and his writers essentially "rebooted" the canon by essentially altering the entire timeline of the series and starting over in a "parallel universe", of sorts. With Star Wars, on the other hand, all indications are that Mr. Abrams is simply going to pick up 30 years or so after the last film left off.

Here is the problem, though: with Star Trek, Mr. Abrams had every opportunity to invent something totally new and interesting, a different and unique direction in which to take one of the greatest franchises and stories ever written. But he didn't. He simply created a pastiche of what had come before. That was true of his first Star Trek film, in which he simply scrambled a few of the characters around a bit and came up with a somewhat different take on the Vulcans and Romulans than had existed before, but kept everything else basically the same.

And it was absolutely true of his second film, Star Trek: Into Darkness. That film was basically just a pastiche of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is hands down the best ST film ever made. It even preserves much of the same dialogue- but without the emotional weight, the great chemistry between Spock and Kirk and Bones, and even dispenses entirely with the pretense that the Federation is some sort of galaxy-spanning peaceful socialist empire by getting rid of any hint of "peace" and going straight into the "empire" bit.

Don't even get me started on the plot holes in both movies, either. You could drive a Death Star through them. TWICE.

Sadly, there is every reason to believe that Mr. Abrams will commit exactly the same mistakes with the new Star Wars film:

As I've said before, I am delighted that Mr. Abrams and the Disney creative team are basically going to take nearly 40 years' worth of expanded universe canon, and put it all feet-first through a woodchipper. The amount of  awful, horrible, terrible, miserable, atrocious, stupid, ridiculous, idiotic, USELESS, EXECRABLE GARBAGE that so badly mangled the canon alone, justifies euthanasing it all- rare outstanding moments by authors like Aaron Allston and Timothy Zahn notwithstanding.

However, such an opportunity should be used to build something new and fresh and amazing. Instead, what do we get?

X-wings! TIE fighters! Star Destroyers! Superweapons! Stormtroopers! Jedi Knights and Sith Lords! An evil Galactic Empire! A plucky group of resistance fighters struggling to restore the peaceful democracy that was lost!

... Which by the way is basically a very quick rundown of the entirety of the first three films.

Look, I get it. I am in a distinct and severe minority here. EVERY NERD, EVER, wants to see this new film. Everyone wants to see what J. J. Abrams can do with fully up-to-date modern technology, real actors and not wooden manakins (see what I did there?), and NO FREAKIN' JAR JAR GODDAMN BINKS. (No pod races either... I hope. And absolutely, positively, NO WAY NO HOW NOT GONNA HAPPEN, no Jake Lloyd as a whiny stupid face-punchable Anakin Skywalker!)

But I, sadly, am not one of them.

I left the Star Wars universe behind about 7 years ago after finally waking up to the severe and repeated abuse that its creators had subjected us fans to in the form of dreadful EU fiction, silly merchandise, and absolutely terrible prequels that turned a legendary, magnificent story about a titanic, galaxy-spanning battle between good and evil into, basically, a 7-hour lecture about the perils of democracy. (Not that this is what George Lucas actually intended, but that's what it essentially came down to.)

Don't get me wrong, I'll still go see the film. But I'm going to do so with the same feeling of mild dread that I got when I went to see the third Hobbit film, which if The Master were alive to see today, would have utterly horrified him because of its cack-handed treatment of the greatest fantasy story ever told.

I would love to be proven wrong. But somehow, I seriously doubt that I will be.

Monday, 9 November 2015

"Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind..."

“But this universe consists of paired dualities. What is the converse of authority? Mr. Rico.” 
He had picked one I could answer. “Responsibility, sir.” 
“Applause. Both for practical reasons and for mathematically verifiable moral ones, to permit irresponsible authority is to sow disaster; to hold a man responsible for anything he does not control is to behave with blind idiocy. The unlimited democracies were unstable because their citizens were not responsible for the fashion in which they exerted their sovereign authority . . . other than through the tragic logic of history. The unique ‘poll tax’ that we must pay was unheard of. No attempt was made to determine whether a voter was socially responsible to the extent of his literally unlimited authority. If he voted the impossible, the disastrous possible happened instead—and responsibility was then forced on him willy-nilly and destroyed both him and his foundationless temple. 
“Superficially, our system is only slightly different; we have democracy unlimited by race, color, creed, birth, wealth, sex, or conviction, and anyone may win sovereign power by a usually short and not too arduous term of service—nothing more than a light workout to our cave-man ancestors. But that slight difference is one between a system that works, since it is constructed to match the facts, and one that is inherently unstable. Since sovereign franchise is the ultimate in human authority, we insure that all who wield it accept the ultimate in social responsibility—we require each person who wishes to exert control over the state to wager his own life—and lose it, if need be—to save the life of the state. The maximum responsibility a human can accept is thus equated to the ultimate authority a human can exert.
--Exchange between Major Reid and Juan "Johnny" Rico, excerpted from Starship Troopers

LTC Kratman's latest pair of columns over at EveryJoe address a seminal book that is near and dear to both of us:
I’ve long been surprised that our political and bureaucratic masters haven’t put their ballet-slippered feet down and demanded that the book be removed from the reading lists, removed from the shelves of the PX and BX book sections, too, for that matter, and removed from the military’s consciousness. It is, after all, suggesting that our system is deeply flawed, hence certainly doomed, and probably fully deserving of that doom. It is, after all, in opposition to unlimited democracy. It is, too, after all, a refutation of the liberal and progressive notion of easy, certain, and reliable malleability and perfectibility in mankind. It’s also a huge sneer at the Mammy Yokumesque (“good is better than evil because it’s nicer”) in modern politics. 
It’s quite revolutionary, really, not only in itself but in who it deeply appeals to, which is to say, those with the training to use force to impose political solutions they’d prefer, the military and veterans. 
Why the appeal? The very short version, for those who haven’t read the book, is that Starship Troopers proposes – or proposes by description – a political system not too different in structure from what we have, but with one huge policy change. The change is that nobody votes or is allowed to hold public office by virtue of having a body [temperature] around 98.6 [degrees Fahrenheit], an age over XY or the absence of a criminal record. Instead, the vote and the right to run for and hold public office comes from demonstrating, through honorable completion of a period of arduous, ill paid and dangerous service, that one cares about society enough that we can be relatively more confident that one will vote the common good, rather than the personal. That, at least, is the theoretical appeal. I suspect the practical appeal is that most military types utterly detest the progressive politicians who are usually their masters, and would prefer to see them hanged, even as they’d prefer serving a population and system that understood and cared for them, because it sprang from them, and vice versa. 
Another set of factors in the book that appeals to the military is the logical pairing of dualities. In the society of Starship Troopers, rights are balanced by responsibilities, responsibility and authority go hand in hand, authority is not a given, but must be paid for or wagered for at considerably cost, real or potential. 
Of course, the left – liberals, progressives and outright reds – really, truly, thoroughly and completely hate the notion. They hate it so much, and have since publication, that they’ll attack the book, the author, the fans, the theories and their defenders relentlessly, tirelessly and rarely with any obvious integrity or insight.
It is refreshing indeed to read a military man's take on a novel that, in many ways, lays out a vision of society based on facts rather than feel-good emotions.

Actually, LTC Kratman is uniquely positioned to offer such an opinion on this novel, given that his Carrera novels essentially build out a system of government based explicitly on the setup described in Heinlein's book, and since he is one of the few people anywhere- and it pains me to say this- who knows the book better than I do. (Considering how many times I have read it, and the fact that I can quote passages in it from memory, that is saying something.)

As LTC Kratman points out in his first column, there are any number of progressive and leftist objections to the society outlined in the book- but precious few such objections come from military servicemen. Why is that?

Because the entire book is one giant middle finger to the entire philosophy upon which progressive thinking is built.

Progressivism is built upon the patently false and unrealistic belief that Man's character is malleable, that it can be changed and moulded into something better through the practiced and careful hands of the Wise and the Benevolent among us. Yet progressives strangely never seem to bother attempting to come up with a rigourous system for figuring out exactly who those Wise and Benevolent Leaders should be. And inevitably- invariably- progressive systems end up electing, or permitting, leaders who are so lacking in both moral and civic virtue as to be anywhere from dangerous to outright disastrous for the very fools who gave them power.

What makes the timocracy- and that is the right word for it- described in Starship Troopers so very different, so profoundly unique, and so radical, yet so conservative, is that it starts by pointing out that Man's character simply is what it is. There is nothing we can do to rid Man of his age-old jealousies, flaws, and follies. The most we can do- the best we can do- is to build a system of governance that matches the facts of Man's nature.

And that is precisely the system outlined in Starship Troopers- where those who seek to wield the enormous power of the sovereign franchise, must first prove their fitness to do so, through arduous and difficult voluntary service.

So what, if any, are the objections that one could come up with to requiring that otherwise free men and women should earn their right to vote?

I can think of precisely one: that those who do so, will be no better, no more virtuous, no more capable of leadership in times of hardship and duress, than those who have not served.

There is much truth to this objection. The book itself, during Major Reid's beautiful speeches in the OCS course on History and Moral Philosophy, is at pains to point out that the crime rates among veterans in the Terran Federation are much the same as they are among the civilian population- and that, in fact, the average IQ among citizens is no higher than, and in some cases lower than, that of the civilians.

And yet, as Major Reid also points out, the system described in Starship Troopers endures, because it works.

Would such a system work in Western countries, which have all but forgotten what it means to truly earn the sovereign franchise, and how to wield the rights and responsibilities that come with it to good effect?

LTC Kratman addresses the objection above in all of its permutations and combinations in his second article:
I think this objection hinges on the preposterous notion that if someone has one virtue, he must be deficient in all others. Why someone should think this I cannot be sure; it may be a case of projection, which is something of a specialty for many on the left and especially for the social justice warriors. Still, are there any grounds for believing that someone with a sense of civic virtue or altruism is, say, unintelligent? I think not. Devoid of compassion or selfish? The man or woman who puts their life on the line for others is devoid of compassion or selfish? Oh, please. In short, the question is fraudulent; no one is pinning everything on one virtue; they couldn’t if they tried. Rather, presuming that the virtues are present in large chunks of the populace, they’re asking for a little bit more of one, an objective demonstration of a little bit more of one, that we have become deficient in overall.
And furthermore:
We pin our hopes on that partly because we sense that that few percentage points warping the body politic and the fabric of our civilization are a mix of the free shit army, left-wing fantasists, which is to say fantasy-obsessed, sociopathic, larval stage mass murderers, corrupt bureaucracies staffed with self-serving bureaucrats, and the corrupt and denationalized rich, few or none of whom have any civic virtue, though they may mouth the platitudes eloquently enough, and though they may wrap themselves in a threadbare cloak of false altruism. 
Indeed. That is all it takes, ultimately- a few percentage points here and there, to surrender the hard-won gains of a free and robust society in favour of the blind stupidity of progressivism.

Or, as Walter Bagehot once put it,
History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it. 
What Starship Troopers proposes, ultimately, is a system that avoids this retrogression- for that is really what progressivism comes down to, a surrender of free will and individual responsibility to a comfortable, anaesthetised world  built for us by those who presume to be our masters.

And that, among many other reasons, is why it remains such a brilliant work of civics, as well as the greatest military sci-fi novel ever published.

Oh, one other thing- LTC Kratman is perfectly correct to excoriate the movie as execrable nonsense relative to the book. It IS a horrible movie and a mortal insult to the memory of a true legend of speculative fiction. (It probably says something about my rather low tastes in film that I have seen the movie many times and consider it to be a pleasant "distraction" while doing chores, but nothing more.)

However, there is a rather good OVA directed by Shinji Aramaki, and also a children's 3D cartoon, set in the Verhoeven universe, that actually are worth watching. What Paul Verhoeven did was unforgivable, and I hope to live long enough to see someone with real brains who really understands the book make a film that is worthy of the book's incredible legacy- and if, in the process, that director ends up taking a giant steaming dump all over what Verhoeven did, well, that's just fair turnabout as far as I'm concerned...