Tuesday, November 24, 2009

DragonArt: Review

Available at DriveThruComics.com

DragonArt: How to Draw Fantastic Dragons and Fantasy Creatures.
By Jessica “NeonDragon” Peffer.
2009 PDF Version (Advance Review Copy)
130 Pages.

Since my day-job is that of an illustrator I have a lot of “How to Draw…” books. Some of my favorites are Impact Books. Mechanicka (Doug Chang), John Howe: Fantasy Art Workshop and Bold Visions, the Digital Painting Bible by Gary Tonge. Impact has a good lineup of art books available. Some better than others: I thought the art in Fantastic Realms was horrid, and in general I’m not a fan of the heavily stylized Manga-style art (artbooks). For people in to the Manga style, Impact certainly has it covered.

DragonArt is geared for the young adult reader/ artist. That’s ok. Just because it is a “young adult” book doesn’t mean an adult like me couldn’t get good use of it. Actually I find some of the young adult art books do a wonderful job at breaking things down in a manner anyone can understand. Trust me, while I love my more adult Doug Chang/ Mechanika…it’s far FAR more complicated. The young adult books aren’t “for dummies” but they certainly can work that way which is awesome.If you have ever read/ used How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (which as an illustrator it has a permanent place on my reference shelf. It’s where I started back in the 80’s) some bits will look familiar.

DragonArt covers all the nuts and bolts of basic critter illustration from what is functionally a stick figure, to basic shapes like cylinders/ tubes, boxes, etc. It gets in to anatomy in comparison to real animals (which is crucial in “selling” the image to viewers) as well as perspective and scale. Basic shading (stippling, hatching, cross-hatching, etc) as well as Ink and Color are touched on.

Not only is the basic “western dragon” covered from almost every angle, but so are other varieties. A sizeable portion is given to “other fantasy creatures” such as gargoyles, gryphons, pegasi and unicorns, etc. All of the foundations used previously apply here as well…stick figures, shapes, detailing, pencils, ink, and color.

Overall it’s a fun book with a wealth of good info for new as well as experienced illustrators who are interested in drawing fantasy critters. It definitely has a place on my shelf. The writing is solid and clear. Layout nice and crisp. Artwork is also good.

This isn’t Todd Lockwood-style illustration…it’s not that sort of book. I say the word “Basic” here a lot and it applies. This is a basic book geared for the young adult and beginner artist…and as such it does a perfect job at nailing down the subject matter in a clear, concise manner.

Overall I give it 5 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Twilight: a review

In recent months there has been an uproar over sparkly vampires and teen angst in Twilight and the rest of the series by Stephanie Meyer. Since I'm a reviewer and have a pretty good rep for making my own decisions as well as reading/ seeing the whole thing through instead of basing an opinion/ review on less than the whole picture, I decided to tackle this one.

This is regarding the film only. I haven't read the book, so I can't/ won't give an opinion on something I'm not educated on. I have however seen the film and am ready to render my opinionated judgment.

It's a vampire movie.

Yep, no shit. The story is of a teenage girl who toddles off to the Pacific Northwest to give her mom and Step-dad a break at some privacy and a life together by staying with Dad (who is Town Sheriff up in the PNW). Sounds feasible. She's a bit of a martyr about it, but hey, whatever, she's a teen.

Getting to the beautiful and disproportionately gray/wet PNW (I'm sorry, I lived in Washington State for most of my adult life, it's not THAT gray/ wet, but it works as far as stereotypes go. People everywhere believe Seattle and the sound are rainy almost all year anyhow, so might as well roll with it...right? My guess is that this is supposed to be set NW of Port Angeles, up in the Olympics somewhere. Gorgeous country and admittedly the wettest part of the state.

The camera work is good. The scenery beautiful.

Getting to the little town in the woods, life is pretty good. You have some weirdness between Bela and Dad. Dad tries but it's clear he's got some emotional comfort issues to work through. Pretty typical really. I bought it. He's trying. He got her a hooptie truck so she has a set of wheels. So far all is pretty well. Bela is still riding the angst wave but it's okay.

So she goes to school. It's High School. High School sucks. Amazingly, largely because Bela is fit, and unbelieveably hot, everyone and their hamster is falling over themselves to be friends with her. Boys drool all over themselves, girls want to be pals, it's disgusting. No problem, it's a movie, not reality. Bela's response is to be aloof and angsty about it. "Oh woe is me". It's starting to get old at this point.

There is one elite clique at the school. The Cullen's. A family with money and they stick to themselves. There are two "couples" and one "badboy loner-type...Edward. All of them are absolutely beautiful, but everyone stays away from them because they have a bit of an air of weird standoffishness about them.

As part of the plot, Bela is of course smitten by Edward from the start. Of course, he's in her Biology class. There's a neat scene where she comes in to class for the first time, walking by the rotating fan, blowing her hair and looking all "voila" like something out of a movie, slo-mo style. Of course, Edward apparently gets a whiff of her and his inner beast is obviously raging. Totally good. Add to this he's trying so hard to remain calm, but really comes off as loathing Bela, eventually looking nauseated and storming out...and not coming back for several days. I though Edward's performance there was spot on. I can't imagine the resolve necessary to endure that, but the actor pulled it off nicely.

Bela, being smitten gets really pissed at Edward's performance. I can imagine that. You got the hots for a beautiful person and they act out, seeming nauseated at your presence? Yeah, I'd be pissed.

The movie rolls on, and there are furtive glances back and forth. Enter the SUV losing control screwing around in the parking lot and suddenly Edward is between the vehicles, protecting Bela from becoming Teen-Jelly. OOOH! Hrm, that was FAST! How'd he stop the SUV? He plays it off nicely, adrenaline and all that, not seeing what she thought, fuzzy memory and all that. Good stuff.

Bela doesn't buy it, and goes on doing some research on the Cullen family. Around the same time Bela hangs out with friends at the beach, including her Native American buddy and some light is shown on the Cullen's. All of this is pretty well done. It's not fast paced, but it works. It's all building up nicely. I think it was a bit easy for her to jump to the conclusions she did, but overall it worked.

So Bela is dreaming about Edward, Edward is following around Bela, she's researching his family, eventually she corners him on what he is: a Vampire. Now you have to realize that so far Edward, is protective of her, but standoffish. Why?

Edward can read minds, but not hers. She's unique. Add to this the obvious...she's hot and she's obsessed with him. He REALLY wants to keep her away, because he realizes that she is functionally FOOD. She likes her, doesn't want to hurt her, but as any Vampire story goes, he has a beast inside him that he keeps chained up via willpower. One slip and she's an entree. He knows this and portrays it admirably.

Bela will not be put off by this. No, even though he explains this in detail, she won't be denied. She wants some Edward steak! He's the bad boy, and the good guy...all wrapped in one. Again, a pretty typical desire for anyone. On one hand, everyone wants that hot hunkalicious bad boy/ girl but they also know deep down that they need the loving caretaker too and usually it's hard to get both. Flirting with danger is a common premise in teen stories.

I think the only difference is that Bela is SO angsty, and SO emo it is distracting, and her willingness to throw herself at someone who can't really make it any clearer that she's petting a viper is just awkward. It's beyond any sort of reason and firmly in the realm of obsession.

Eventually she "meets the family" which is a bit weird but cool. It works. Neat to meet the characters that will be a part of the saga. They have an outing and meet other Vampires, including a super-hunter/ tracker guy who decides he wants Bela. No problem. This all turns nasty and ends up with the family secreting Bela away and trying to cover her trail. All this culminates in the capture of Bela and a big climactic fight between Edward and the hunter. Great fight. Awesome effects. Great vampire stuff.

While I would have preferred a stronger female lead or that lead acting more strongly...she's a teen. Actually as a teen she embodies everything I loathe about emo, wailing martyr teenagers. Sweet Zombie Jesus, shut up about how bad you have it. Serious. All the character Bela did was keep me from relating to her character at all. I hated her from the get-go. I really tried not too. I wanted to like the characters. Edward was understandable, I think his character was portrayed nicely. Totally worked. Bela I wanted to get crushed by an SUV...repeatedly.

Who cares about glitter? It worked. It fit the story as portrayed. Vampires are in every single way designed to look desirable. It's a trap. It works.

Yes, I see parallels to Mormonism. Who cares? I mean really. Who gives a shit. It was far less obvious than Neo-Jesus in The Matrix films...by FAR. People need to get over themselves.

I don't like a female character who needs a man to save her. I don't like a female character or any character who is so obsessed that she is drawn in to danger and it is shown as a positive thing. That's not good. Obsession=Bad. I can see teenagers getting Bela. I'm not a teen, but I can certainly see teens understanding and relating to Bela, which is fine. Teens don't have the experience to balance obsession with reality. When I see grown adults "totally relating" to Bela...I see people who need to check in with a Psych STAT!

It's a Vampire film, with money behind it and good effects. The story isn't bad. Everyone is played admirably (except for Bela). It's a good film.

I think if obsession was seen in a negative light instead of rewarded I would have enjoyed it more. If I could have related to Bela's excessively emo portrayal I wouldn't have wanted her to die...repeatedly.

Overall though, I enjoyed the film. It had some serious negatives, so I give it 3 stars out of 5.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Online Forums, opinions and time.

People who know me in person tend to acknowledge that I am the same in-person as online. Personally I count that as a blessing and a compliment. Working in the gaming industry for the past eight years I've been to a number of conventions all over the US and many of my "online friends" have become more like "real friends" because of it.

That said, I have met a great number of people online and in-person that drive me absolutely batty.

A bit of background.
I grew up in a very strict household in Texas. There was no such thing as arguments, excuses, debates, explanations or anything of the sort. Not for me. Between parents maybe...while they were married...but never with me. Speak when spoken to and "No excuses" was it. There was never a good explanation...those were just excuses.

When I grew older I rebelled and went my own way. Honestly I don't know how I still have any friends from the 80's and 90's. I was an argumentative asshole. After two tours in the military (two separate branches) I learned to handle things a bit better...but I was still very much not a person who would be silenced. By GOD I WILL be heard! Nobody will shut me up! I also learned an appreciation for other people that I didn't have before.

While I had been silenced and now refused to be set aside, shut up or dismissed...I wouldn't allow it to happen to others either...least of all by my doing.

Opinions became more and less important. Good conversation, good debate with people with open minds or at least not entirely closed ones became important.

In the gaming industry there are a number of forums. Online you can find a forum for everything. Several usually. I used to subscribe to several and fought battles with trolls regularly. Now I don't.

I guess at some point I just ran out of interest. Not in my hobbies, work or things I'm interested in (I still have difficulty admitting any "fandom" as it has such a negative connotation.)

I'm a busy guy. I'm also a selfish motherfucker when it comes to my time. I work a lot. Freelancers usually do. At least the ones that do it full-time. I work a regular work day on contracted work, and squeeze in additional work for nights and weekends. That leaves me little time for what I love: games. I try and get in a weekly RPG session and maybe play on the Xbox360 a couple nights a week after work. My weekends are usually tied up with either work or X360 or painting miniatures. That's about it.

What I have little time for is online forums.

Often the forums are filled to the brim with eager fans with strong opinions who have no other venue to be heard. Forums are a haven for Trolls, who have nothing better to do than make trouble and argue. They have sad little lives with no personal power, so they take it from others by being a cockbag to others online. In "the old days" you would simply come home, holler at the wife and kids, kick the dog and drink a beer and watch Monday Night Football. In the internet era, they go online and beat up on other fans.

You get these people who have shitty jobs where they are told what to do and they have no say-so, no power and they chafe at it. Their lives are going nowhere and they can't get away with arguing with their boss/ spouse/ kids or people in-person...so they go to the internet where they are anonymous and act like a complete twat to whoever crosses their path. Sad really.

This of course is a complete over-generalization.
You also have people with an agenda to push, or an opinion to validate. You also have what I call the silent majority who come and go who I think just come along to see what's up, get some info, and are never heard from again. If you look at any forum the ratio of "members" to "active members" is almost always skewed. I always feel bad for the poor bastard who comes online to ask a question or post an opinion on something he's excited about...to be curb-stomped by some "active member" asshole who needed someone new to shit on. I digress.

To be honest, most people don't want to have to think. Especially they don't want to have to RE-think a position/ opinion/ agenda. They want validation. A pat on the head and an agreement. Yes-men. Oh they rarely admit it, but in this age of doing more with less, budget crunches, stress, short attention spans, as well as a changing culture of political correctness and social softness...people are still getting chewed out but not able to handle it.


20 years ago it was far more common to get an ass-chewing at work and we were inured to it. Now we have this feeling of oppression. "They can't talk to me like that, I'll call HR and complain. This is a Hostile Work Environment!" What happens? People come home and pass their feelings of oppression on to others.

It's human nature to complain. I was an Infantryman. I don't think anyone bitches as much about their job as Infantrymen. There is this deep seated need to vent. Your job/ marriage/ life sucks...you want to vent. Many people feel hurt by how their days (lives) have turned out. Unfortunately many pass this on to others. Not only to they complain, but they form defensive opinions and theories to justify themselves. Misery loves company. Misery creates many bullies...especially online.

You know what? I'm not that kind of guy. I love my job. I'm not oppressed. I go (well...went) on forums to chit chat with other fans and be helpful. On forums such as RPGnet...I have no place. Honestly it is SO overflowing with loud opinionated assholes with no interest other than giving grief, arguing, pushing an agenda or otherwise spreading negative shite that I really just don't have the time for it. Same is true with many RPG sites.

Hobby sites (minis stuff) tend to be a little better as long as you stick to hobby-related stuff. Stay the hell away from any sort of rules discussion (where the rules lawyers reign supreme and can argue to their black little heart's content) or fluff discussion (where everyone has a set opinion and will never flex from it).

Pretty slim pickens, huh?

I'm an opinionated guy, just like anyone else. I think what sets me apart is that I try exceedingly hard to be objective, listen as much as I speak and remain respectful of the opinions of others. What sets me on fire is the guys who are completely disrespectful of the opinions of others. I have a happy life and I like to share it. I get tired of miserable people and their negative crap...and their willingness to spread it in order to make themselves feel better.

Opinions are like assholes...everyone has one and they are all equally stinky.
When it comes down to it, your opinion is no more, or no less important and or valid than mine (and vice versa).

Facts are different, but most folks seem to pose their opinions like facts. Blegh. Whatever.

Like I said, I'm a busy guy. My time is limited and I'm very selfish about it. I simply have no time or patience for online tom-foolery. RPG forums just have little to offer. Occasionally some good material comes up (like on RPGnet regarding stolen/ "used without permission" artwork for publications. Very important for someone like me! Unfortunately I had to dig through 20+ pages of ranty arguments and legalese over whether the subject could be brought up and arguing over who can tell whom to shut up.

Yes, I read the whole thing. I'm also a reviewer. I ALWAYS read the whole thing. I can't stand the idea of writing or even worse...commenting about something I haven't fully absorbed.

The point is, 20+ pages of thread for maybe one page of real data. The meat. I got one page of good material, one headache, and an urge for whiskey and cola...at 6:30 AM.

Now tell me that is worth it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2- Review

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Activision/ Infinity Ward
Basic/ Hardened Edition for the Xbox360

This version of the COD franchise picks up where Modern Warfare left off. Five years after the events of COD4 we see the next batch of elite soldiers hunting the uber-terrorist for hire Makarov. "Soap" McTavish returns in the mentor role that Captain Price held in COD4.

The single player campaign is as before...simply brilliant. Infinity Ward really pulled out all the stops on it. My only complaint is that it is so short. The SP Campaign is well written. It has a few plot twists that I didn't see coming, which always counts as a win in my book.

At the beginning of the game there is a disclaimer and warning about one of the scenes and you are given the option to skip the questionable scene with no negative repercussions. The scene in question gave me a moment of pause, but it certainly fit the story. I had no real problem with its inclusion, though I'm sure some will.

Moving on to what the COD series is all about: Multiplayer!
Things have been tuned up for MW2 in a way that I wholly approve of.
First off...it's lethal. I've always preferred Hardcore play and thought Core play on COD4 was a bit silly: you could hose on people and they could shrug it off, ESPECIALLY with perks like Juggernaut. Now it seems that the Core game is fast and lethal. The weapons hit pretty hard, and Hardcore isn't all that different from Core (excepting friendly fire and lack of HUD).

Weapons: Wow, what a stunning array of glorious killy death. Available at the beginning of the game even! There are a lot more guns available in this version and nifty ways to upgrade them, including "Bling" versions with multiple (2) add-ons. I'm fining some weapons and scopes in this version considerably easier to use effectively. For example the ACOG scope in COD4 was always a pain for me. I always got tunnel vision and lost peripheral awareness. Not so now, very nice. Add to this thermal sights and heartbeat sensors. GEEKGASM!

Perks: This system has many of the old standby goodies we're used to, and many MANY more. It's not simply overload (as I feared). They really revamped how the perk system works. Perks now become enhanced with play and affect multiple things when enhanced. For example "Stopping Power" is one I usually use (as I'm a horrible shot...I need each one to count). Stopping Power when enhanced gives a bonus against vehicles. This is just the tip of the iceberg kids!

Maps: Good solid maps. None are seemingly "broken" in the respect for favoring one style of play overwhelmingly. That rat bastard sniper may have some advantages in "Quarry" but there are always several ways to skin that cat. Of course they are all beautiful. There are several good maps to choose from and so far the rotation seems excellent. Even after playing for days now I get on a map and say "have we played this one before".

I think the best descriptor for MW2 is simply "More". More goodness. More weapons, more perks, more killstreaks (and deathstreaks), more player options (callsign, symbol, banners). Drones, UAVs that can be shot down, Harrier Jump Jets, Sentry Guns, more, More, MORE!

Thing is, it's not just more...it's BETTER! They were really smart about how things were added. They took their time, and really playtested the hell out of this. I'll be the first to admit that while I LOVE FPS games, I suck at them. MW2 has helped me bring up my game through smooth gameplay, deathstreaks and just an enhanced way of getting in the fight and being effective. For example when you get a killstreak, and call in say a C-130 Gunship (shudder) those kills don't count towards your next streak (something in COD4 that was certainly unbalancing. The guys who were better got more and more powerful and it was almost impossible to catch up to them. )

Overall it's a very exciting game. It stands up easily next to the rest of the COD series and as far as gameplay goes, it's unparalleled. It's really that good. Unlike some releases this year, this game is worth the pricetag. You will most certainly get hours of entertainment out of this and see a good return on the $60 you drop to get it.

Get the basic version. I got the Hardened edition and you get a cheap metal DVD/ CD case and a $5 thin book; totally not worth the extra $20.

Awesome gameplay, great story, tremendous value are all a big plus.
Short story (campaign was only 5 hrs of play) and chintzy goodies in the Hardened edition are a small minus.
4 out of 5 Stars for the Hardened Edition.
5 out of 5 Stars for the Basic Edtion.