Wallpaper of the Week: Team Fortress 2

July 11, 2009

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FROM JASON’S WALLPAPER FOLDER — Admission time: I am not good at first-person shooters. I’m just not. My synapses are better suited to slightly slower-moving games. And I get irked by insta-deaths that I couldn’t see coming.

That happens a lot in Team Fortress 2.

So I resisted picking up Valve’s update of the classic MMOFPS for the longest time, at least until Steam lowered the price for a weekend deal to a paltry $9.99 a month or so back.

Since then, I’ve spent the better part of 40 hours getting fragged in every way imaginable: flamed, riddled by shotgun shells, darted to death, mowed by machine gun fire, rocketed, proximity bombed, caught unawares by a sentry, napalmed, arrow through the head — you name it.

I’ve took a few lives myself.

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The engineer is my man. There’s nothing more satisfying than putting a sentry gun just out of sight around a high-traffic corner and watching it take out four or five opponents before it’s demoed.

I do have some complaints, though. The engineer needs more traps. What about pitfalls, tripwires, and logjams? For that matter, why can’t he build energy shields or barricades? And he’s not the only one who’s under-powered. C’mon, Valve, the medic deserves a better gun — one that doesn’t take 400 direct headshots to bring down a scout

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I’ve spent more time playing those two classes than all the others combined, and I’m all thumbs when it comes to the spy (average lifespan there is about 12 seconds). And I’m just getting into the groove with the demoman, who I believed at first to be completely useless and now understand to be the perfect anti-engineer character.

I’m also coming into my own with the sniper, as long as there is sufficient cover to be had; he’s almost as good with a submachine gun as a rifle scope.

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So I went looking for TF2 wallpapers and found a lot of very lame ones, sporting poorly-doneĀ  fan art and little charisma. What I decided is that expertly-timed screen caps of in-game action make for the best desktops — especially when they show imminent doom for our players. Enjoy these 1024×768 beauties, and as always, click to embiggen.

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Left 4 Dead’s got great strategic scope, but hopefully modders will add even more

February 21, 2009

FROM JASON’S APOCALYPTIC ARSENAL — Despite initially cheerleading for the game, some critics said Left 4 Dead was destined to sparkle and fade in a matter of a month.

Well, two months after install I am still happily slaying hordes of the infected in the sewers under Mercy Hospital and under the shadows of trees in Pennsylvania state parks. True, there are plenty of things I’d love to see added to the game: the ability to build barricades, turrets, trip wires or razor wire, lay land mines, use flame-throwers, bazookas, place oil slicks, plant dynamite, string barbed wire fencing, use rivers and streams tactically, use chainsaws, axes, and baseball bats, set up stakes….

All that may well come when Valve releases its Source Development Kit this spring, along with additional free levels in which to go-a-zombie-slayin’. I’m hoping that some clever fan-boys with coding skills will dream up some brilliant maps with ample opportunities to lay ambush sites and take to snipers’ nests.

In the meantime, Left 4 Dead is still holding my attention quite well. As Tinker-Toy-ish as the game is in its simplicity, it still offers a wide strategical array if you’re willing to communicate with other survivors. For instance, I recently discovered how overlooked and powerful the hunting rifle actually is (see YouTube video above).

Every n00b starts with the machine guns — as was evidenced last weekend when waves of squeaky-voiced 12-year-olds inundated the servers as Steam ran a half-off sale. Those pimply newcomers made all the rookie mistakes. They shot alarmed cars, nailed boomers at close range, and walked through metal detectors. Worst of all, they all went straight for the uzis and assault rifles.

Now the automatics aren’t all bad, but they suffer for a lack of precision and punch. Most seasoned players stick to the auto shotgun, but I’ve found the rifle has enough stopping power to punch through multiple zombies with a single shot, and the versatility to pull one-shot-one-kill from afar with the sniping scope.

Now, the rifle’s not going to do much against a tank (unless you get far enough away to put several clips in him), but it’s perfect for picking off un-alert infected while sitting high above, or zeroing in on smokers and boomers before they can get in range to do harm. It’s even perfect (refer once more to my video) for dropping slugs into a witch while sitting safe and sound across open ground.

So this is the second time I’ve gone all fanboy over Left 4 Dead. The first time, I mentioned that it sports enough strategic nuances to make Sun Tzu proud; at the time, it was a throw-away joke, but since then I’ve taken the time to actually read The Art of War — something I’ve always wanted to do. You should read it, too. It’s short.

Anyway, the bulk of the work focuses on command decisions, understanding your enemy, marshaling troops, and managing them on the field. But in reading the translation, there were several tactical truisms I couldn’t help but apply to Left 4 Dead:

“In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack – the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers. The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn.”

This is true. In game, you can run around shooting the undead until your ammo is gone, or you can lure them into fire, draw them in crowds to pipe bombs, or push them from ledges to their deaths on the pavement or ravines below.

“Should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.”

Remember how Hitler (and Napoleon before him) tried to march into the Eastern and Western fields of battle at the same time, and his forces were ground to hamburger? Waging a multi-front war is a bad idea, and my blood turns to ice when brash young players want to “each take a window and hold them off” instead of bottlenecking. Speaking of which:

“With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy.”

Dead ends are your friend. Get your back against a wall, load your weapon, and let the zombies pour through the narrow openings like Persians onto the waiting swords of Spartans. If Leonidas taught you just one thing, it’s that a very few can hold off millions if the correct terrain is chosen to make a stand.

“With regard to precipitous heights, if you are beforehand with your adversary, you should occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up.”

Seek high ground. It takes time for infected to climb the sides of a truck, or a perch, or a stairwell, or a building. And they can’t attack while climbing, either. It’s true in both swordplay and gunplay — take the high road, and the advancing enemy below will fall into your hands.

“…Those who use fire as an aid to the attack show intelligence…”

This is so elementary: Set up gasoline cans in key zombie rush lanes, wait for them to pour into the gap in numbers, and then ignite the fuel with a single shot. Watch one bullet and a little hydrocarbon wipe out two-dozen infected. Arm a molotov and repeat.

These are all tremendously simple tactics, but the wonderful thing about Left 4 Dead is that the designers left a rich and varied topography where they can be applied in many ways. After all, the game is fairly limited in scope when you strip it down to the essentials — a few select weapons, health packs, and fire. But it’s the combination with the environment that keeps me going back, and I don’t expect my fascination with the game to run dry anytime soon.


Forumites: Election ’08 for Morons #2

June 3, 2008

Sadly, Hillary Clinton has been judged during this election on her personality. Everyone I talk to goes the route of, “She’s such a bitch. I can’t imagine her being president.”

There’s something to be said for presidential dignity and reserve, but not at the cost of ignoring a candidate’s platform. I think a lot of die-hard righters would be surprised how conservative Clinton is on many issues — even those big social ones — even though she manages to stay extremely leftist on others. It surprised me to no end when she voted to support the gay marriage amendment. She’s also famously refused to apologize for her vote authorizing the Iraq War.

The result, I suppose, is that she has a wishy-washy, “I’m trying to appeal to every demographic” image, and it’s not doing her much good. She really wants to regain ground with that Protestant base playing the middle, and her values-based pandering to the middle class shows it.

As a note, I came within a hair’s-breadth of voting for Clinton in the primary, until about a five-hour research session (mostly at On The Issues) swayed me away from her platform.

Again, for clarification, all of the quotes are real. Nothing is made up. She said these things.


Forumites: Election ’08 for Morons #1

June 2, 2008

Too many of my politically unmotivated friends and family members still don’t know the difference between the 2008 presidential candidates. Oh, sure, they might be able to toss around the names, and some of them think Obama “sure is cute,” but that’s not enough.

So using my newfound fun over at Bitstrips.com, I decided to paint a picture (or WYSIWYG a comic) that quotes candidates on important issues. Slap them together in a few panels, and — ta-da! — you have an election summary that even an idiot could understand.

I’m going to make this as clear as possible: All of the quotes are real. There’s no out-of-context nonsense going on. John McCain, the venerated champion of the religious right, really did drop the GD when talking about the border fence. For the record, he and Clinton both have pretty flagrant mouths, even in public session.


Music Monday: Edwin Starr and The Tragically Hip

May 26, 2008

Edwin Starr — War

The Iraq War. Huh. Good god, y’all. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

It’s Memorial Day in the United States and we’re all busy “honoring” veterans by watching parades and grilling hamburgers. This holiday has officially been watered down to the point where it means nothing and honors no one. It glorifies America’s overrated involvement on the international stage and conflates patriotism with military service.

I’m not entirely sure how Andrew feels about this, but the older I get the more opposed I am to any kind of deployment abroad. During the first Persian Gulf war, I was too young to see through the gloss of flag-waving. Now that I’m older, I can only see tremendous waste. Is it too late to trash the Monroe Doctrine and seek another period of popular non-intervention?

War is more than just a protest song. Starr’s guttural delivery puts an almost terrified plea behind the lyrics. It’s a plea to reason that is self-consciously falling on deaf ears.

Space.


Space.

The Tragically Hip — Nautical Disaster

Too many people think of veterans as proud old men. I’ve talked to too many, though, who are shells of men, haunted by the things they saw years ago. Nautical Disaster is about a veteran of the Battle of Dieppe, a naval battle launched by Canadians (the Hip are Canadian) against German fortifications on the French coast.

The Germans knew they were coming and slaughtered almost everyone. It was one of the bloodiest routs suffered by Allied forces in all of World War II.

The veteran, now an old man, sees the battle over and over in flashbacks — but he says only a fool would complain about surviving the battle, even though he must live with the memory of basically murdering his crewmates by leaving them behind during the retreat.

That’s what war is, I think: Making the best of murder by attrition. Happy Memorial Day, America.


Pew report shows Republicans are fleeing sinking ship

April 3, 2008

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Click to embiggen.

FROM JASON’S BALLOT CARD — After several posts about my indecision, I don’t think I told you all that I voted for Obama in the Ohio primary last month. I was pretty proud. In my pokings around the Intarweb this week, I’m discovering just how not-unique that makes me.

For years, I’ve self-identified as a Republican because I believe markets should be free, government should be small, and that defense should be strong. I’ve disavowed myself in the last few years because under Republican leadership markets have been controlled, government has grown at its fastest rate in 30 years, and we’ve waged another offensive (and expensive) war.

And that’s not even taking into account my distaste for the Republicans’ continuing retreat into the folds of homophobia, xenophobia, and religious zeal.

I’m not the only one drifting. The Pew Research Center released a study March 20 saying that since 2004, six percent fewer people are calling themselves Republicans. And since the start of 2008, 36 percent of those surveyed say they are Democrats while 27 percent say they are Republicans. That’s a 16-year low for the Grand Ol’ Party.

Even swing voters aren’t swinging so far to the right anymore. Four years ago, a roughly equal number of undecideds were leaning toward each party. Now, though, the Dems hold a 14-point advantage among swing voters, Pew said (51 percent are leaning toward voting Democrat while 37 percent are learning toward Republican).

The numbers are pretty clear: In battleground states like Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — where margins were extremely close in the 2004 presidential vote — electors now favor Democrats by enough to be declared blue states in November.

That means the Democratic nominee (it will be Obama) will become president.


What M*A*S*H teaches us about Iraq

November 13, 2007

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FROM THE DISTANT SHORES OF JASON’S CHILDHOOD — I’m not sure the cable and satellite generations can understand exactly how pervasive M*A*S*H was in the antennae days.

Set in Korea — America’s original “forgotten war” — the show ran from 1972 to 1983, and ranked in the top 10 shows on television for nine of those years. But what is more impressive is that when the series finale aired in February 1983 it captured 77 percent of the market share, with 55 million families (105 million viewers total) tuning in to watch, according to Nielsen ratings.

It remains the single highest-rated prime-time show in American history, topping the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas, the mini-series finale of Roots, all SuperBowls, and even the legendary 1976 telecast of Gone With the Wind.

Even modern broadcasts haven’t been able to surpass M*A*S*H despite the fact that the U.S. population has grown by more than 60 million in the past 20 years. SuperBowl XLI (2007), with 91 million viewers total, is the most-watched show since 2000, and still didn’t exceed M*A*S*H‘s market share by a long-shot.

In 90s context (for Andrew and others), let’s run down the list of other finales: Cheers (1993), 80 million viewers; Seinfeld (1998), 76 million viewers; Friends (2004, 52.5 million viewers.

Skipping a little: Home Improvement (1999), 35.5 million viewers; Will and Grace (2006), 18 million viewers; Monday Night Football (2005), 14.5 million viewers; The Sopranos (2007), 12 million viewers.

My point: Where shows like Lost and Heroes get lots of water cooler play today, everybody — and I mean everybody — in the 70s and 80s had tuned in to M*A*S*H the night before. It’s a phenomenon the scale of which we’d never seen before and haven’t seen since.

Then there’s the theme — “Suicide Is Painless” — which was penned by director Robert Altman when he was 14. For my money, it’s the most recognizable television opener in all of history and the most poignant, rivaled only by the Cheers theme, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.”

The movie version is far superior:

I remember lying close to my grandparents’ woodgrain-paneled console television in the mid-80s, getting nasty orange shag rugburns on my elbows as I watched M*A*S*H reruns. More often than not, I would be shuffled to bed because the show’s themes were not accessible or appropriate for a 6- or 7-year-old boy.

I wanted to understand, and to some degree I did. I got a few of the punch-lines, though most of the sex jokes passed right over my spiky-haired head. More importantly, though (and just like Star Trek: The Next Generation would some few years later), M*A*S*H gave me a concrete ethical compass.

I said an ethical one, not a moral one. There’s an important difference.

But it’s only now, watching the show again in the Sunday afternoon scheduling lull or late-nights on TV Land, that I realize exactly how soulful, how comically tragic, how rueful of the past, and how horribly prescient the scripts were.

Against the cultural context of the Iraq War, these lines seem to be screaming across the decades:

Frank Burns: “I’m sick of hearing about the wounded. What about all the thousands of wonderful guys who are fighting this war without any of the credit or the glory that always goes to those lucky few who just happen to get shot.”

Father Mulcahy (singing): “There’s no one singing war songs now, like people used to do
No ‘Over There’, no ‘Praise the Lord’, no ‘Glory Hallelu’
Perhaps at last we’ve asked ourselves what we should have asked before
With the pain and death this madness brings, what were we ever singing for?”

Col. Potter: “Every month there’s a new procedure we have to learn because somebody’s come up with an even better way to mutilate the human body! Tell me this, captain: How the hell am I supposed to keep up with it? If they can invent better ways to kill each other, why can’t they invent a way to end this stupid war?”

Nothing’s gotten easier since the 80s, though we seem to be more culturally isolated from actually overseas conflicts than ever.

I’ve spoken with soldiers who’ve returned from tours in Iraq. Combat is far more clinical today, but is still laced with the inherent futility of fighting an insurgent enemy. They suffer the same delicate psychological trauma as Hawkeye and Hunnicutt — they might as well be prisoners of war, because they can’t go home, and they can’t forget what they’ve seen.

They also wrestle today with feelings of pettiness and sexual frustration — the two main mechanics of the television show’s weekly plot. And while medicine has advanced significantly in the past 50 years, it hasn’t found a cure for the doctors who feel helpless as they heal soldiers so they can be marched again like puppets straight back to the front.

What M*A*S*H did for an entire generation and more was teach very subtly (and with a laugh track) how nobody benefits from martial conflict, especially those who have pledged to first do no harm.

It’s a lesson I think we could all do well to hear again as a nation, if only we could get behind one source as prevalent and trustworthy as the 4077th.