Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Homer's Iliad

We all know the story of the siege of Troy. It is one of the most popular myths, and the phrase ‘Trojan Horse’ has been in popular usage for an incredibly long time, and is used today to describe the sneakier pieces of Malware and viruses that attack our computers. The siege of Troy has lent itself to a great many works and parodies, and there are still variations on the myth being created today.
                On the flipside, there are a lot of things people do not know about the sacking of Troy. The reason behind the siege being one of them, and the struggles the Greeks suffered through being another. The biggest misnomer is the fact that walled city of Troy was not actually called Troy, but rather Ilium, from which we get the name of today’s subject, the Iliad, or Homer’s Iliad.
                The Iliad is one of the most famous written works in history, and is one of the pillars from which we draw our knowledge of the Greek Gods and the sacking of Ilium. Some view it as a definitive historical account of the siege, despite the inclusion of the Greek Gods waging war in purely fantastical segments, and the fact that Homer was not a witness of the war.  Whatever the case may be, it is a very, very famous piece of literature. This doesn’t mean that it has aged particularly well, though.
                The version of the Iliad that I read is the Penguin Classics edition. Well, it’s the revised edition – the original Penguin Classic edition was translated back in 1946 by E. V. Rieu – this edition has been revised by his son D. C. H. Rieu (originally revised in 1983) and Peter Jones, who lent his hand to the work in 2003 in an attempt to spruce up the language a little. So, yes, this edition of the book is fourth hand at best, meaning that it probably isn’t as reflective of the original material as Rieu senior had wanted it to be.
                Never the less, the story remains the same. The Iliad focuses on the first part of the siege of Ilium, starting with Agamemnon having to return a captured Trojan woman back to her father, a high priest of Apollo, who has attacked Agamemnon’s army with a sickness in the name of vengeance. Agamemnon decrees that, since he has lost his prize from the raids, he will take the prize of one of his generals. He chooses to take Briseis, whom Achilles has claimed, and accidentally sparks a feud that will cost the Greeks dearly.
                Achilles pleads to his mother, the Goddess Thetis, for revenge. Thetis turns to Zeus, and convinces him to lead the Greeks to slaughter until Agamemnon apologises to Achilles and returns Briseis to him. Zeus agrees, and convinces Agamemnon to lay siege to Ilium – which was Agamemnon’s goal all along, as he wished to take vengeance on Paris who had stolen Helen from Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother. I wish to note that it’s been about 19 years since that occurred. Agamemnon is quite the slow worker.
                The Greeks arrive at Ilium to find that the Trojans are already aware of their presence, thanks to the Gods. An attempt to end matter simply via a duel backfire – the duel would be between Paris and Menelaus, but Aphrodite intervenes to save Paris’ life, resulting in the Greeks attacking the Trojans.
                From here the Greek and Trojans fight bitterly, with both sides taking heavy losses as the Gods of Olympus spark more conflict to prove which side is better, with Zeus occasionally taking control and letting the Trojans kill a great many Greeks.  Eventually, the Trojans break through into the Greeks camp and start to burn their ships. The troops beg Achilles to fight for them but he refuses until Briseis is returned to him. Instead, he sends Patroclus, his adopted brother and close friend, to fight in his name. Patroclus falls in battle to Hector of Troy, angering Achilles and causing him to enter the war in the name of vengeance. Achilles single handily turns the tide of the battle, killing Hector, the book ending with Hector’s funeral.
                By this point you can gather that the Iliad does not cover the more popular part of the siege, but rather the first few battles. Even then, it could be argued that this is the least interesting part of the Trojan War, and definitely the part where you suddenly find yourself caring a lot less for the Greeks.
                One of the problems of the Iliad is that it dates so far back that it is so different from what we expect in a story. It is simply a retelling of events with scattered notes about families and great feats – there aren’t any real characters here. It could be argued that this is because it deals with real people and events, and it should be more about the facts than characters undergoing a specific emotional arc. Unfortunately, it’s hard to take this as a realistic depiction of events when the Gods of Olympus are joining the fight and teleporting people out of battles.
                This leaves us with a series of rather flat characters that exist for a specific purpose and rarely interact with people beyond fulfilling that purpose – said purpose being the act of killing their enemy. There are exceptions, of course, and oddly these tend to be on the side of the Trojans rather than the Greeks.
                Of our Greek cast, Odysseus is perhaps the depiction with the most character. Achilles, who is usually glorified, is presented as a rather petulant child, sulking that his prize was taking from him. On being offered Briseis back, he sulks that the simple returning of the girl is not enough and he demands riches – he cares not that the Greeks are dying in droves to the Trojans, just that his pride was injured.
                One the other hand, the Trojans come off far better. Hector of Troy is presented as a warlike man, but one who cares for his family and his city and passes for an actual character. The same is said of his father, Priam, and to Paris (to a degree). It is odd that the people that the Greeks demonise so heavily are more likable than the Greeks, though this may be simply due to the fact that the Trojans are given the opportunity to interact with non-warriors.
                If anything, the Gods of Olympus are the most well developed characters – they have their own feuds and alliances, favourites amongst the warriors and their own personal stake in the war. They have more motivation than the humans, more desire to conquer than the humans, and more intelligence. Homer’s depiction of the Gods is often referred to being the pint where they became more than just ethereal entities, and is considered to be the origin of their modern depiction, and we can see why. Reading about the Gods is the most interesting part of the Iliad.
                Perhaps the second most interesting part are the battles, of which there are many, all of which are the pint where they became more than just ethereal entities, and is considered to be the origin of their modern depiction, and we can see why. Reading about the Gods is the most interesting part of the Iliad.
                Perhaps the second most interesting part are the battles, of which there are many, all of which are the pint where they became more than just ethereal entities, and is considered to be the origin of their modern depiction, and we can see why. Reading about the Gods is the most interesting part of the Iliad.
                Perhaps the second most interesting part are the battles, of which there are many and all of them are gruesome. As much as people wish to criticise modern works for being overly violent, the descriptions of the many fatalities that Homer provides is almost shocking in its detail and sadistic description. Injuries and deaths seem to be something to relish here, as Homer tends to follow (or begin) the descriptions with short bursts of family and personal history for the soon to be dead. Whilst this does tend to make the battles feel like obituary columns, it also gives the audience a sense of how barbaric wars are, and on how undeserved these deaths can be.
                As a side note, there are more named Trojans killed than named Greeks. Take that as you will.
                On the flip side, Homer does have a tendency to spend a lot of time discussing matters that are rather trivial in the long run – the obituaries, for example, or the long list of generals for both armies – as well as over extended metaphors. There were points in the text where a metaphor seems to last longer than the actual event is was being used to describe, or that the metaphors seemed relatively pointless. Idle description is also taken to considerable lengths in regards to Achilles’ armour, where a great many pages are given simply to the description of his shield.
                There is also the matter of the penultimate chapter, which is a series of games played the Greeks so that they may divide their loot. It is boring, and at supreme odds with a great many chapters that are so focused on blood shed. Whilst I understand that this chapter exists to show how the Greeks acted in victory, it drags for too long and presents nothing of worth or interest.
                There are a great many more faults to be levelled at the work, but these are faults that exist only because of what our preconceptions of stories. This is as much a historical account as it is fiction, as much obituaries and remembrance as it is a story for entertainment.  This is not literature as we know it today, but something completely different.
                Homer’s Iliad is a product of its time, and this is its blessing and curse. It is a work that can be appreciated as a curiosity, or as benchmark as one of the earliest forms of fiction. As a modern novel, it is largely flawed – but only as a modern novel. It is hard to recommend, but hard not to. In the end, it is a very important text, even if it teaches us to value the progress literature has made.  

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

LEGO Marvel Superheroes

First things first – LEGO is awesome, and the Lego games are awesome. You cannot dissuade me of that, and I honestly do not care if you think different, because I’m too busy having fun playing with LEGO and trying to find ways to afford the UCS Dark Knight Tumbler kit.
                I don’t think I need to explain why I like Marvel Superheroes. That seems pretty self-explanatory to me. I will note that I personally prefer DC comics over Marvel, but that does not colour my opinion of this game.
                LEGO Marvel Superheroes is about, well, LEGO versions of Marvel’s most recognisable Superheroes as they run around doing Superhero things. To be honest, that’s basically all you need to know going into the game, but for the sake of padding word-count and providing backing information, I’ll explain the actual plot.
                Galactus (John DiMaggio), the giant planet eating entity, has run out of food and so sends the Silver Surfer (James Arnold Taylor to find a suitable snack for him. Unfortunately, this snack is our Earth (well, LEGO Marvel’s vision of Earth). Before Silver Surfer can really do anything, SHIELD and Ironman (Adrian Pasdar) hunt him down, only to be intercepted by Doctor Doom (Fred Tatasciore) who opens fire. The Surfer is hit, and his board separates into Cosmic Bricks, which Doom collects before fleeing.
                Doom, working with Loki (Troy Baker), has assembled the various villains of the Marvel world in an attempt to collect all the Cosmic Bricks so he can construct a Doom Ray of Doom (yes, it’s really called that). Naturally, the Avengers are there to counter Doom’s plan and stop Galactus before the world is consumed.
                In all honesty, the plot of the game is rather pointless and serves mostly to assemble the various Marvel Characters so the player can use them to punch the various bad guys in fun and humorous ways. This could be considered quite the step back from LEGO Batman 2: DC Superheroes, where a tighter plot focused on fewer characters, but LEGO Marvel is more focused on a larger picture than LEGO Batman.
                Not that it paints that much of a larger picture. You usually follow a small, select group of characters that are picked based on popularity so that the audience will know who their playing as. Likewise, most of the character appearances are based upon their film counterparts and not the comic designs (which tend to be unlockable). Of course, this is only for those characters that have appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so Spiderman (James Arnold Taylor), the Fantastic Four and the X-men are based on the comic designs for rights issues. This makes for a slight visual contrast between the bright colours of the comic designs are the more muted appearance of the cinematic designs.
                The regular roster of characters are Ironman, Hulk (Fred Tatasciore), Spiderman, Captain America (Roger Craig Smith), Wolverine (Steve Blum), Thor (Travis Willingham), Mr Fantastic (Dee Bradley Baker), Storm (Danielle Nicolet) and Jean Grey (Laura Bailey). By regular, I mean they appear in more than two levels, as if we’re counting characters by the amount of levels they appear in, then this game should be renamed LEGO Spiderman and friends.
                Regardless, these characters are the basis for much of the gameplay as each has an ability that is useful throughout levels. As you can guess, most of these powers are related to their super-powers or arsenal. Ironman’s suit lets him fly and shoot lasers/ missiles, Thor has the power of thunder and lightning, Hulk can pick up large objects and has super strength, so on, so forth. I figure these characters are so well known that I don’t have to explain much about them.
                Naturally, there are more abilities linked to different characters – the Invisible Woman (Kari Wahlgren) can turn invisible, some characters have mind control, some interact with specific objects. You’ll need all of these abilities in order to progress through levels and unlock extras.
                The gameplay is the same as most LEGO games – you run around and destroy/ interact with anything made of LEGO whilst beating up bad guys and collecting LEGO studs and various items. Each Level has a series of puzzles that must be completed to progress, and always ends in a boss that often also counts as a puzzle (it’s rare to find a boss that isn’t a puzzle). The controls are simple – you can run, jump, punch and use your special ability. You can also switch between characters on the fly, which you’ll need to do regularly if you’re playing single player.
                Collecting things is a good chunk of a LEGO game, and you’ll find yourself searching the levels to find the various secrets. Mostly these take the form of Minikit pieces (though they aren’t for minkits in this game) or trying to find Stan Lee (voiced by Stan Lee himself). Bonus missions also contain Red Bricks which unlock ‘cheats’ and Character tokens. The games Overworld also has character tokens scattered around, as well as Gold Bricks which are used for accessing bonus levels.
                  LEGO Marvel’s overworld is a recreation of New York City – naturally not to scale or completely accurate to reality. Seeing as how this is Marvel’s New York, there are noticeable differences to the city layout, including Stark Tower and the Baxter Building, as well as the Daily Bugle and Oscorp. Unfortunately, these don’t disguise the fact that you’re running around modern day New York, which lends the overworld a rather generic feel.
                Since you spend a large time running around New York, the game does give you access to vehicles to speed up travelling, as well as allowing you to fast travel to SHIELD terminals. Vehicles are actually rather wasted, as most of the superheroes can either fly or have other forms of quick aerial travel, so you’ll probably spend most of your time in new York zooming around as Ironman. This isn’t helped by the fact you have to unlock almost every vehicle to begin with, and the aerial vehicles do not control well at all.
                In fact, flying in general isn’t as smooth as it was in LEGO Batman 2, often resulting in situations where you find yourself flying head first into a building or missing your target because you flew too high or low with no way to accurately tell what angle your heading. Compare to Lego Batman 2 which gave you a targeting reticule whilst you were flying, and seemed to have tighter physics.
                Most of the core gameplay is as polished as ever. The LEGO game formula hasn’t changed much in the last decade, so it’s expected that the core mechanics are rather polished. There’s actually a great amount of extra detail that’s been put into the basics of the game that surprised me – most of the core characters have noticeably different animations to go along with their movements and actions, whether it be idle animations or combo finishers. It’s a small but nice touch, making each character feel more unique. Of course, this does not extend to the whole roster of 115 characters, with many not having much in the way that makes them unique beyond a change in skin.  
                However, there is a noticeable oddity in the core mechanics that seemed very odd, and one I’m pretty sure was not in any prior LEGO game. Usually, the punishment of dying was to lose a percentage of the studs you had collected in that level, but that seems to have been removed here. Whilst the LEGO games aren’t difficult, and there’s no way to fail or get a game over, this seems like an odd choice and removes any illusion of difficulty, letting you simply keep dying without even the threat of failure.
                Combo finishers are also an odd feature. Whilst the animations are nice and often funny, they tend to slow combat to a halt for between five and ten seconds to perform the move, a move you’ll see regularly throughout the game as you use the same characters constantly to fight enemies. What begins as a nice little animation starts to grow rather annoying as you watch the same few animations again and again in a short space of time, each time taking you out of the fight.          Repetition is actually the biggest buzzkill of Lego Marvel. The cast of characters actually feels a lot smaller than it is due to the repeated appearance of specific characters and the fact you’re given basically all the characters with unique abilities very early in the game, with only a few hidden characters or the villains having any new powers later into the game. Again, contrast with Lego Batman 2, where each level tended to introduce a new power for either Batman or Robin before they started to introduce more characters as the game progresses. The slower distribution of character abilities made it much more interesting and gave you a drive to continue through the story, as well as making levels more varied.
                The other issue of having a surprisingly small cast of characters is the reuse of dialogue. Again, I did not notice this in LEGO Batman 2. Whilst it is amusing for characters to utter one-liners or small quips throughout stages and fights, the lack of variation in these is excruciatingly annoying. This is actually much worse for characters like Spiderman and Deadpool (Nolan North), who are known for constantly cracking jokes – having them repeat dialogue without the character commenting on it feels against the characters. This is especially true for Deadpool, who narrates 12 of the bonus levels, each time repeating the same dialogue over and over. Bear in mind you have to play these levels at least twice, and you’ll be forced to listen to the same sound clips 24 times – for a character who spends most of the time breaking and mocking the fourth wall and media, this seems like quite an overlook.
                Also, I wish to note that Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is the most annoying feature in the game. Whilst his presence in the story isn’t too bad (he’s mostly there for the occasional physical comedy moment), he spends the entire game giving you tutorial messages. I mean the ENTIRE GAME. Half the time, the tutorial messages have nothing to do with what you’re doing at that moment, and the other half is information that you already know and have used several times in previous levels. Bear in mind, Coulson is a character that only exists because of the films, where he was the least interesting and most boring character in the film series so far.  
                There are actually a few character decisions that are rather strange, to be honest. Spiderman’s powers have been weakened slightly so he cannot climb walls, merely stick to them with a few exceptions. There’s a lack of female characters in the game that could easily have been included purely for variety. Whilst a great many are unlockable, the story features only a handful, most of which are only present for a single level. More surprising is the fact that characters with unique abilities that you’d expect to be included, such as Antman (Nolan North) and Doctor Strange (James Horan), only exist outside of the story. Whilst Strange gets a level (where he doesn’t appear for two thirds of it), Antman is relegated to an unlockable character with a few challenges unique to him.  I understand the focus on popular characters, but it feels like a disservice to most of the large cast of characters –particularly the female ones – that unfairly get pushed aside or given nothing to do but be optional characters.
                    Collecting hidden stuff in the game is also slightly disappointing, mostly due to the fact that the minkits only unlock comic pages which detail the story of the levels you find them in. In theory, this will allow you to read through the plot of the game as a comic, but the comic pages lack dialogue and are simply the key events of the story for that level, without any context and no comic pages for the opening or ending.
                The game is also surprisingly glitch ridden. I have no idea why this is the case – the only LEGO game I’ve previously experience glitches with is Lord of the Rings, which was more excusable for the contrast in contents and scope between that game and its predecessor. The problems I experienced included falling through the world after performing a basic action, areas not loading properly or at all, enemies spawning behind or in the walls or ceiling, already collected items reappearing in levels or the map, music and audio glitches, studs being collected but not added to total, getting stuck on terrain and being unable to move or continue and some areas locking again after being opened with no way to re-enter them (a glitch that made me force a glitch so I could complete a mission in the area). Add to that the constant issues with friendly and enemy AI and the fact that the game will fail you during racing missions for being too far ahead of your opponent, and it results in quite the broken game. I want to note that I only suffered these after already completing the story mode.
                A final complaint is aimed at the controls. This only holds true for characters that can transform between costumes or hulk out, but the button to transform a character is mapped to the same button that changes characters or brings up the character selection menu. In a time when game controllers have 16 buttons (based on a PS3 controller), I see no reason why you had to map three functions to one button. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that the transform button is given the same button command as the menu (hold down the character swap button). Why it couldn’t have been mapped to any other button is beyond me.
                On the plus side, and this is a very large plus, LEGO Marvel is brilliantly written and very entertaining. It’s very clear that the writers know these characters well and have amplified their most prominent features for the sake of humour. Ironman is obsessed with his own ego, Spiderman constantly quips about how much his life sucks, Captain America is patriotic beyond belief. The exaggeration is enough that it allows for the characters to be funny and oddly mocking of their origins, but not so much that is turns them into caricatures. This quality of writing extends into the side quests and incidental dialogue too, making this one of the funniest games available on consoles.
                 The other great thing about the game is Stan Lee. Not only because it’s Stan Lee, but because the game is well aware of the ludicrousness of Stan Lee being there. Once you successfully rescue him 50 times, you get to play as him, and Stan is basically the best character in the game. This is not a joke. It is awesome.
                Visually and aurally, the game is great. The graphics are bright, colourful and good to look at, and the particle effects are amazing, helped by a high object limit that means the game never stutters visually. The Voice work is all great, especially when you take into account that amount of characters some of the actors voice. Music wise, the game adapts a number of the scores from the Marvel movies, which it pulls off quite well. The theme for the New York overworld quickly grows boring and dull, though.
                On the whole, LEGO Marvel is probably the LEGO game that suffers the most from its faults. Whilst it is not the worst LEGO game, it is a good game that is weakened by a lot of poor design choices and server repetition. I do recommend it for the writing, but be forewarned that it gradually outstays its welcome.