In our schools, we teach students there is one and only one right answer to every question. Then we add the questions together in tests and teach to those tests, expecting students to spit back what we feed them. We call that achievement. We should instead be encouraging experimentation, rewarding challenges to our accepted wisdom, and designing schools around learning through failure.
04 June 2012
20 January 2012
A couple of years back, I completed my Masters degree. It was principally concerned with open, online and distance learning; in short, educational technology in the modern learning environment. Now, while I never really expected to be able to apply all those ideas in my job, since our learning institutions are still very much based around classrooms and traditional structures, I did at least think that it would be generally accepted that, as the information age moves into the digital age, the importance of such technology would be basically unquestioned. The internet, portable computing, and constant connectivity are increasingly ubiquitous. Denying that is like Cnut trying to hold back the tide.
Some six years before that, I worked for an institution which was integrating the internet and computing into examinations. Instead of pen-and-paper exams for each separate discipline, we were beginning to do combined, networked exams. Students would begin in the morning, have a number of tasks to complete over the next few hours, had full access to computers and the internet, and took breaks when they wanted. The general idea was to make the examination as 'realistic' as possible, essentially reflecting a day at work, along with the resources and skills required to deal with it.
By no means was the procedure perfect, but it nevertheless embodied the principle that education and examinations should adapt to the actual way the world works. Educational institutes do not exist in a bubble; they should prepare students in a way which is relevant to society and the work environment into which they will be thrust upon graduation. Even if not all institutes could or should be consistently cutting edge, surely all must be informed by the realities of the world outside.
When I began teaching in the late 90's, I purchased a briefcase which ultimately broke under the weight of the stuff I had to carry around in it: textbooks, dictionaries, cassette players and so on. I quickly lightened the load by purchasing an electronic dictionary, which was soon supplemented with and ultimately replaced by a Palm handheld. Nowadays I have only a MacBook Air, a set of USB speakers, and the occasional textbook. The university has a wireless network which, even if a bit flaky, covers the whole campus. Beyond that, smart phones have expanded internet connectivity to the point that essentially all my students are online at all times. Not being able to access the internet is the exception, rather than the rule.
Textbooks are next for the chopping block, as Apple's keynote yesterday indicates. As mobile computing becomes increasingly powerful, yet also more lightweight and affordable, and as the digital publishing becomes easier, lugging heaps of textbooks to lectures will become a thing of the past. I'm not fantasizing here, nor jumping on the 'Apple will revolutionize education' bandwagon; this is just the way the world is now. This semester, for the first time, I have students using iPads to write academic papers. Between exams today, most students pulled out their smart phones and checked Facebook or whatever. In many ways the important point is that this technology is not brought into the classroom by teachers, but by the students themselves.
In this context, I would argue that it is largely anachronistic that my students today are writing an exam with pen and paper. After all, the only time in their lives that they will actually do such a thing is in an examination. But I accept, with qualifications, that our institution does not have the resources or confidence to administer the kind of networked examination that I described above.
Worse, in my view, is the professor who says, amidst sexist jokes, that universities should be the same today as they were 60 years ago.
But what I truly cannot stomach, and the reason for my post today, is the recent decision by my department to ban the use of electronic dictionaries from examinations. We only permit paper dictionaries. Let me make this clear: a year ago, electronic dictionaries were allowed. Now they are not. And I'm not talking about smart phones, or iPads, or something with an internet connection, but a technology that I would consider two generations out of date (electronic dictionaries to PDAs to smart phones). Why? Because some of my colleagues, by their own admission, are unable to tell the difference between an electronic dictionary and a smart phone, and are unable to tell whether the student using one might have an internet connection and be cheating; and because these same colleagues think that, because you can find words more quickly using an electronic dictionary, it gives the student an unfair advantage over those who don't have one.
These 'arguments' are so vacuous that I refuse to dignify them with a direct response. I do not expect everyone to be as much of a geek as I am, but people whose job it is to offer instruction to the youth of today should have a basic level of technological competence and understanding. Without that, how can you possibly stand in front of a classroom and offer your students relevant instruction in an appropriate manner?
Though it may seem harsh, I simply cannot believe that anyone with such an attitude has the right to call themselves a 'teacher'.
26 August 2011
05 June 2011
gratuitous (adjective): uncalled for; lacking good reason; unwarranted [OED]
In the aftermath of World War II, the Allied Powers (naturally enough) eliminated Nazi ideology from Germany's educational curriculum. But they went a step further: in 1949, the constitution of West Germany divided educational authority between the various federal states, to all intents and purposes abandoning a centralised system. The rationale behind this was to ensure that, should an objectionable party rise to national power again, it would be much harder for it to indoctrinate school children.
This devolution of educational responsibility has led to any number of problems for the German school system, not least that some states do not recognise the qualifications of others (meaning that, for example, someone who has trained as a teacher in one state may have to go back to university if they wish to teach in another). But for the purposes of this post that is beside the point. What's important is this: that in the matter of education, one group of elected officials acts a buffer to the potential excesses of another group of elected officials. Effectively a system of checks and balances, the constitution does not trust elected politicians to act in the best interests of the people.
So why is it that unelected German censors are able, without any opposition whatsoever, to dictate what is appropriate for me to see?
German censorship was always a bit idiosyncratic. As if uncomfortable with the farcical association of the erotic and the macabre, Woody Allen's 1975 film Love and Death had its title changed to The Last Night of Boris Gruschenko. Perhaps for a similar reason, Peter Jackson's 1996 film The Frighteners was awarded an 18 age rating in Germany, in contrast to its 15 in Britain (that's really the only reason I can think of here). Most ridiculously, however, is the fact that the 1963 film version of Tom Jones is still rated an 18. It is, and as far as I know always has been, a PG in Britain. The mind boggles.
But the German censors are having a field day with computer games. And no, I'm not just talking about highly controversial games like Postal or Grand Theft Auto. No. I'm talking about Portal. [Spoilers follow]
If you're not aware what Portal is about, I'd advise reading the wikipedia article I linked to, or picking it up on Steam for €9. In short, it's a physics based puzzle game in which you have to escape from an experimental complex run by a rogue AI. The player acquires a 'portal gun' which may be fired at two surfaces (floors, ceilings, and so on) in a room, thus creating an 'entrance' and an 'exit' and letting you reach otherwise unattainable areas. Falling through a portal allows the player to gather momentum and so 'throw' yourself across greater distances. The graphic on the right (taken from wikipedia) explains this mechanism a bit more.
The point is simply that this is what the game is about. It isn't about shooting old ladies or dismembering aliens. It isn't about stealing cars or fuelling gang warfare. It's a extremely well-scripted and inventive game which demands some actual thought to complete. To be sure, we're not talking about the puzzle complexity of Riven or the Rhem series, but Portal succeeds because it gradually introduces the player to a few simple mechanics and challenges him or her to combine them in interesting ways.
But surely, for it to fall foul of German censorship, there must be some of the more stereotypically gratuitous elements of computer games involved? Well, there aren't. There is no nudity or swearing. The player does not have access to a weapon of any kind; to defeat enemy gun turrets (which crop up on only a handful of levels) the player must knock them over by, for example, opening a portal underneath them. The rocket launchers encountered on the last level are indestructible, but can but used to destroy obstacles (and the final boss) by forcing them to fire through portals.
So, if there is no nudity, no swearing, and no actual violence in the game, what exactly was censored?
Well, there's some blood on the walls, as can be seen in the image below:
And here is what the censored version looks like: (both images taken from schnittberichte.com)
Now, I played through Portal yesterday before being aware of the extent of the censorship, and you know what? I thought those marks on the walls were mud or dirt. I honestly have no idea how prevalent they are in the game, because I hardly noticed them at all. At one point I found myself in a corridor with what looked like sewage on the floor; I am guessing that it was actually supposed to be blood.
An apologist might ask whether the blood was really necessary. After all, haven't I just been talking about how surprisingly cerebral the game is, especially for such an unexpected hit? The answer is that yes, the blood is necessary. Because there is this thing called narrative.
For example, in that corridor which I thought was covered in sewage, what passed through my mind was, 'Ooh, stinky.' What should have been passing through my mind was, 'Ooh, danger'. Instead of a warning about what might be waiting for me at the end of the corridor (a room full of gun turrets), I thought it an unnecessarily crude environmental detail.
The blood on the wall is the same. As mudstains they are just ambient dirt; as bloodstains they serve to increase tension as you progress through the game. There was meant to be a contrast between the computerised voice promising to reward me with cake at the end of the test, the increasing danger, and the suspicion that not all is as it seems.
As I played, I found myself wondering when the 'story' would begin. It already had; but as the game designers had chosen to give visual hints, and because many of these hints were subsequently gutted by the censors, I didn't notice. All I saw was mud.
The irony of this whole situation is that the proponents of censorship, who would claim that computer games are just exercises in sleazy violence and sex, are cutting off the nose to spite the face. Portal is exactly the kind of game which they seem to think doesn't exist: a clever, inventive game in which there is little or no objectionable content, and yet became extremely successful. Yes, there is some blood; but it is used as a narrative device rather than as a gratuitous gimmick. Rather than neutering Portal, the censors should have used it as proof that they are not opposed to computer games in general, but only those mired in excess.
They could even have acknowledged it as having educational value, not only in the problem solving skills, but also as an illustration of there idea of 'Show, don't tell'. They could have used it to help young players to be able to recognise precisely when a game—or a film, or a song, or a book—is being gratuitous, and when it is not.
Of course, that would never happen. Computer games are the but the latest scapegoat of the narrow-minded. When it was published in 1749, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones was blamed for a number of earthquakes (which helps to put Boobquake in context). We don't blame books anymore; Charlotte Roche's Feuchtgebiete was the best selling novel in the world in March 2008, and few people even batted an eyelid. In the 1950's, Elvis was condemned for his 'black' music and 'erotic' hip gyrations; today, few people care about the pseudo soft-porn videos which usually accompany the 'songs' of the latest pop starlet. But some blood in a computer game? Too much, too much.
In the end, it would be easy to conclude that 'dumb censorship is dumb'. Yet I feel the issue goes deeper than that. Though computer games were blamed for the Erfurt massacre in 2002, the educational system of Thuringia left the perpetrator with few job prospects. The educational structure is broken in part because of the distrust of elected officials, and a constitutional safety measure to prevent them from imposing an ideological agenda. But that is exactly what these censors are doing to the population of Germany. They have decided what is good, and what is proper, and what we are allowed to see, and what we are not. By what right do they make these judgements? On whose authority? They were not elected, and they are not answerable to the public. The system does not trust publically-elected officials to do their jobs without prejudice; so why should the system allow those who are not even elected to be beyond question?
The gratuitous censors, I think, are the ones who need to be censored.
22 May 2011
While we're on the subject of poor journalism from Der Spiegel, I'd like to point to this recent article, published in the wake of the March 11 earthquake Japan. The basic idea here is that things like anime and manga, for all their weirdness to Western audiences, have now proven themselves to be a prediction of the future.
There is a photograph that a photographer took after the earthquake in the town of Natori. Before the earthquake some 70,000 people lived there; today the town has been reduced to rubble. In the picture, a girl cowers at the side of a road. She's perhaps 20 years old; hair dyed red, wearing a black jacket and hugging her naked legs, it looks as if the girl is freezing and she herself is the only thing she has left to hold on to. Next to her are a pair of wine-red Wellington boots, behind her the remains of civilization. As if Godzilla had trampled through the town.
To me, this is dreadful in several ways.
First of all, in an article which claims to be about the artificially of culture, the only way it seems able to view the suffering of this girl is through the lens of popular entertainment. Saying that it looks like something out of a comic book does not suggest much empathy.
Secondly, I'm quite sure that the photo looks the way it does because of that. The photographer, or editor, wanted to create an image which made you think of manga / anime. In that sense, the fault is not entirely with Der Spiegel, although they should have noticed the implicit manipulation.
But more importantly, the argument that Japanese popular culture is a prediction of such disasters is, to put it midly, completely arse-about-face. Yes, the geographical situation of Japan leaves it particularly susceptible to natural disasters, and the Japanese have always been aware of the fragility of their existence. But those recurring images of destruction in anime and manga? They're about something far more specific that has already happened.
Yes, you've guessed it: the two atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the USA at the end of the Second World War. Such manga, anime, and movies like Godzilla are not haunted by destruction because of an apocalypse that might happen, but because of the apocalypse that already has.
I find it completely unfathomable that the author of the Spiegel article does not feel it necessary to mention this: the bombs are mentioned in passing, almost like inconvenient details which to not fit into the argument of the article. To be sure, some (recent) manga and anime do specifically predict what might happen in the event of an big earthquake in Japan, such as Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 or 51 Ways to Save Her. But these are really the exceptions; works like Akira , Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, and Neon Genesis Evangelion are far more representative, and in all of those the apocalypse has already happened. Talk about a hint.
This should be so obvious that it doesn't need pointing out. Yet despite discussing Nausicaä, it still doesn't occur to the author of the Spiegel article. But perhaps it explains why they find Japanese culture quite so weird.
The first of two articles complaining about journalistic standards in Der Spiegel.
This week, the German weekly Der Spiegel published an article entitled 'Not fit for school: Why a teacher is fighting for her right to undress' (my translation). Unfortunately, it isn't available on the Spiegel website, so I can't provide a link; the week before did contain a summary of the news, without commentary.
The story is this: Rachel Whitwell, a New Zealand school teacher, and girlfriend of one of the country's biggest porn kings, decided to pose nude in the Australian edition of Penthouse. The New Zealand educational authority found out, decided to investigate, and ultimately revoked her license to teach. The original photos caused a minor scandal two years ago; then she posed again a year later; and the educational authority's recent verdict is now causing a much bigger scandal. As the title of the Spiegel article indicates, it isn't really about a teacher who strips before the camera, it's about one woman's fight for freedom.
Or not. Der Spiegel goes out of its way to tell us a story about a young woman who wants to be a good mother and spend more time with her daughter, so decides to supplement her teaching job with better-paying nude modelling. Which is such a shame, as she's clearly an exemplary teacher:
She taught five and six year-old children from socially disadvantaged families. She taught them reading, writing and arithmetic, and tried to encourage them. She says she wanted to bring them up to be free thinkers.
As a teacher myself, I'm not convinced that's such a big deal. She taught the kids The Three R's. She did her job. Incredible.
Worse, Spiegel seems to have got its facts wrong concerning the original motivation for her to strip. Just to prove how lame Der Spiegel's research is in this article, here's how I found out.
The summary article I linked to above refers to a publication called the 'Sunday Times', in which the Ms Whitwell said she saw no reason why posing nude should affect her job as a teacher. Curious about what such an august publication as that had to say about this topic, I googled 'Sunday Times Rachel Whitwell'. In fact, the publication is actually called the Sunday Star Times and refers to itself as 'Sunday News' (article here). Excellent use of sources, Spiegel. Anyway, right above the google link to that article is another from the New Zealand Daily Telegraph in 2009 which contains a little more information from around the time of the original photo shoot. And it turns out that she originally posed nude, not spend time with her daughter, but to get back at her pornographer boyfriend. Half his age, she had decided to test him by anonymously flirting with him on facebook; he organised a rendezvous; she confronted him and sent the photos to Penthouse in revenge.
See any mention of the caring mother in there? Nor me. Sounds more like a retcon.
The latest Spiegel article also fails to mention, as the summary one admittedly does, that Ms Whitwell had previously had erotic stories published in adult magazines, and has her own table-dance studio. I suppose such omissions are understandable when you're trying to make the case for a struggling single mother who accidentally becomes embroiled in a fight for truth. Oh wait, that was Erin Brockovich.
Indeed, the Spiegel article reads as if its attempting to answer the call of another article by the Sunday Star Times which bemoans that, with regard to this case, no feminists are coming forward to demand that a woman's body is her own. Let's think for a moment why that might be.
First of all, no one has said that she isn't allowed to strip before the camera if she wants. She's not being prohibited from posing in Penthouse. The NZ education authority has just decided that she's not allowed to do that and teach children. That may or may not have to do with the conservatism of the authority; but given the erotic stories, the table-dancing, the pornographer boyfriend, and then the photos and subsequent interviews, you can't exactly say that she's making it easy for them to be open-minded. Challenging them at every opportunity, more like.
Secondly, Ms Whitwell hardly went out of her way to be anonymous. Claiming, as she does here, that she had no idea that anyone in New Zealand would see the original photos is naive beyond belief. There's this thing called the internet, see? And Australia? It happens to be this huge mass of land not far (relatively speaking) from New Zealand. Penthouse? That's hardly an obscure magazine. And actually posing as a teacher in the photos and on the cover of the magazine? Very tasteful.
Thirdly, this isn't about women's rights, because a male teacher would be treated no differently, and probably worse. Indeed, that fact that Ms Whitwell is a woman probably made the whole posing in Penthouse thing more acceptable, despite the authority's verdict. I'm quite sure they would have come down on a male teacher posing in Penthouse like a tonne of bricks, and I can easily imagine suspicions of paedophilia flying around too.
Finally, the key question, and one which Spiegel conspicuously fails to ask, is whether you would want such a woman (or man) teaching your children. For most people, the answer is surely, 'No'. Spiegel almost suggests that this is hypocrisy, since no-one bats an eyelid about a fireman posing in a nude calendar. But firemen and women aren't responsible for children in the same way that a teacher is. And as I said before, Ms Whitwell hasn't exactly been discreet about this whole issue.
What I'm really getting at, though, is Spiegel's botched attempt to make this about freedom and women's rights. It isn't at all: it's about responsibility. If Ms Whitwell wants to pose nude, let her. But she should take responsibility for the consequences. If she taught at a university, she would have to deal with students and teachers who are capable of googling her name; if she worked in an office, she'd have to deal with colleagues and customers who do so; as a primary school teacher, she has to deal with parents. That's part and parcel of the choice she made by posing nude in the first place.
The women's rights movement was always about choice and equality: the right to choose the same things as men. It was never about freedom to do anything you want without concern for the consequences. That's a form of anarchy. The fact that Spiegel, which is supposed to be 'good' journalism, can't tell the difference, is disappointing.
01 August 2010
A day after release, I picked up the Starcraft II collector's edition. Last night I completed the single player campaign. These are my thoughts about the game. Spoilers indicated.
Mac Land / Performance
As usual, Blizzard remain committed to the Mac platform like no other major developer. The standard release of Starcraft II contains native versions of the game for both Windows and Mac on a single disc. Even as more stores are stocking Mac games because of increasing market share, it's still rare for a company to develop their own port and release it in the same package. Witness the two games I've played recently: The Witcher was never ported to Mac at all, and Dragon Age: Origins was fobbed off with a prompt, performance-challenged, and seemingly unsupported Cider port. But despite this, all is not well in Starcraft II Mac land.
First of all, a niggling issue that bugged me. The collector's edition contains a somewhat heavy usb flash disc which replicates the dog-tags seen in the game. It come with both the original Starcraft and the Broodwar expansion pre-installed; but only for Windows. Thankfully, the registration key can be used on the battle.net site to register the game and you can then download a Mac version in whatever language you like. Unfortunately, you need to launch the Windows installer to find out what that key is.
Much more important is the performance of the game, which is terrible. My Macbook is pretty new (late 2009) even if it is not the most powerful. But it easily meets the requirements for the Starcraft II. Nevertheless, the game has to be set to the lowest possible settings to be playable; and then it looks little better than Warcraft III. On the same machine under Windows 7, I can boot the settings up on everything at least a notch, which makes a considerable difference. And it seems from the forums that this is more-or-less a universal problem for Macs of all capabilities, because of drivers and broken shaders / lighting. Hopefully this will be fixed soon (and knowing Blizzard it probably will be), but at the moment Starcraft II is only just playable on Macs, if at all.
Battle.net / DRM
Next up is battle.net integration. To register Starcraft II, you have to log on to battle.net; after that, whenever you boot up the game you'll be asked to sign on with you battle.net account. This allows a number of cool features, such as achievements and online saves. This latter is quite sweet: when I installed the game on Windows today and logged on for the first time, I was able to pick up my single player game from where I left it. However, the implementation is a little clunky: Starcraft II will remember my account name but not my password (Dragon Age remembers both), meaning I had to change my password to something a lot simpler and less secure so I could type it in every time I boot the game.
If this sounds suspiciously like a form of DRM which requires you to have an internet connection at all times, you wouldn't be far wrong. Starcraft II does have an offline mode, which means that if no internet connection is detected you should be informed and can play anyway (so long as you've registered once). Sounds fine; except for many people it isn't working, and anything you do during this offline phase will not be recorded or synced with battle.net next time you reconnect.
This is what happened to me. I was playing along, completing missions and picking up achievements, when all of a sudden all my save games had gone. It turns out that I had been disconnected from battle.net while playing, and so everything I did after this was automatically saved as a new, unidentified user. I no longer had access the the old files. But with no huge pop-up explaining the problem I had no idea what was going on and soldiered on. In fact, several hours later, I completed the game, let the credits role, and only then was notified that I'd been disconnected. The problem is that when I reconnected, all of that recent gameplay vanished – as it belonged to an unidentified user rather than my battle.net account. As far as Starcraft II was concerned, I hadn't completed any of those missions, nor the game as a whole. I'm sure that if I disconnected again, those saves and missions would be available – but none of the preceding ones the would be. And there is currently no way to merge the two sets of files.
To put it simply, this sucks. Being set back several hours because of a weak internet connection is dreadful service. And what if, for example, I want to visit my girlfriend's parent's, where I don't have access to the internet. If I'm lucky I can play, I can even continue the game, but it won't be acknowledged in anyway.
Many games require an internet connection nowadays – Dragon Age does. But not having one will not negatively affect gameplay. I remind you that this concerns the single player campaign, not multiplayer: I'm playing against the computer. The internet is not required at all for this. But Blizzard have integrated the save game system into battle.net in such a way that it is easier for me to carry on from where I left of when I install the game on a new computer, than when the internet drops out for a couple of minutes. That's crazy.
Knowing that I have to replay those final missions just to get an achievement to say that I've done so put a serious dampener on my enthusiasm for the game.
On to the starship environment which forms you base of operations. Starcraft II definitely boasts a much improved 'story mode'. Where the original game simply loaded the next mission, Starcraft II allows you move to four different locations on your ship (armoury, bridge, canteen, lab) and talk to various crew members about the last mission, or buy upgrades for units. There's far more interaction with NPCs than ever before, and it looks much better than the cut-scenes in Warcraft III, for example. But improved as it is, I wanted more. The locations you can visit are static, with an occasional NPC wandering about. So you get one view of the bridge, and that's it. Interaction with NPCs and objects is just as limited: click on an object, trigger the cut-scene, move on. There's no scope for dialogue options at all.
An example: at one point you pick up a female scientist whose planet is under attack. You evacuate her colonists, relocate them, and kick her off the ship. All well and good. While she's on board, you have a handful of brief dialogues, and as she leaves, she kisses you on the cheek having developed some feelings for you. All well and good. But because of the limited interaction, she's utterly undeveloped as a character. Just take a look on her character profile on battle.net – obviously enough, she's got an entire life history. Can you find out any of this in the game? No. Is there any indication of any of it in the game? No. On battle.net, she's a fully fleshed out character. In the game, she's more-or-less a hitch-hiker. You pick her up and take her to her destination. That's it.
True, I may have been spoilt by games like Dragon Age, in which you can actually talk to your group of NPCs and they will either grow to like you or hate you depending on what you say to them. In the end, these starship sequences are good, but feel so much like a missed opportunity. There's only three members of the crew who have anything like realised characters, and that's Jim Raynor (your character), Tychus Findlay (more on him below), and arguably Matt Horner (ship's captain).
Part one of three
Now we come to the hub of the problem with Starcraft II: the story. The first thing to mention is that the game I've been calling Starcraft II is really Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. It's the first part of a trilogy of games, and single player campaign has 29 missions focussed on the Terran (human) forces. There's a brief section in which you can play Protoss, and at no point do you play as Zerg. Where the original game (and Warcraft III) had three 'chapters' – one for each race – of some 10 missions each, Blizzard decided this time to spend almost the same amount on one race at a time. We'll get round to campaigns focussed on the other races in the sequels.
I have, in principle, no problem with this. Twenty-nine missions allows greater involvement with the Terrans than before. Theoretically it allows for a more gradual build-up of the story-line; and indeed, for the first few missions you really are just bumming around raiding and pirating. But... Many of the missions are really side quests (I'm curious how many could be avoided altogether). The afore-mentioned scientist has a series of missions which have absolutely no bearing on the main 'plot'. There's a renegade wraith (an enhanced ghost) whose missions are exactly the same.
Now, the advertising for Starcraft II boasts that your actions will affect the development of the game, and indeed they do, but strictly speaking only in three cases are you actually given a choice. Once is at the end of the game, when you can choose to cripple either the ground forces or their air forces of the Zerg before the final battle. The other two cases are in the side quests mentioned above: you may choose to support the renegade wraith, or betray him; and you may choose to support or abandon the scientist when her colonists are about the be purged for Zerg infestation by the Protoss. The choices have an impact on the individual story-lines, but since these story-lines are effectively isolated from the main plot, so are the choices. In the end, the only real choices which have any effect on the campaign are the order in you complete the missions, which determines what units you have available at a given point, and what upgrades to research or purchase. That's fine, but given the extent to which recent RPG games (again taking Dragon Age and The Witcher as examples) allow you to affect scenarios, this has to be chalked up as another missed opportunity.
On to the story proper. I have to say, this was the first time I've been disappointed with a Blizzard story (I haven't played the first two Warcraft games, nor World of Warcraft). First of all, we have Tychus Findlay, an old buddy of Raynor's who's being blackmailed into betraying him. That's the plot twist. The problem is that from the very start of the game it is clear that Tychus is going to betray Raynor in some way. From the fact it's his face on the cover, to the opening cinematic, to his unwillingness to discuss his escape from prison, to hints dropped by all and sundry. The only thing we don't really know is how he'll betray Raynor, and who he's working for.
Who is obvious enough, in fact: Arcturus Mengsk, who betrayed Raynor in the first game by sacrificing an entire planet in order to take power in the region. Mengsk has been the villain since the end of the first chapter (of six, counting the expansion) of the original game. So no surprise there. What is surprising is that, while working undercover for Mengsk, Tychus enthusiastically works against Mengsk, along with Raynor. At no point is there any indication that he's trying to sabotage Raynor's operations, even when Raynor gets hold of a recording of Mengsk issuing the order to lure the Zerg to that planet in order to take control in the ensuing chaos. Needless to say, broadcasting that recording is devastating: imagine a recording of George Bush from before the Iraq War admitting he knew there were no WMDs and going ahead anyway. And multiply it by a thousand. But the mission in which you take over the UNN to broadcast the recording is the one in which Tychus in most directly involved.
Okay, you might say, but any subterfuge on Tychus's part would risk giving the game away. Yet the game has already been given away to all but Raynor, who will brook no criticism of his buddy. Any villain worth his or her salt would take steps to avoid the kind of damage which Raynor causes: after all, if Tychus is there to assassinate Raynor, it should be done before Raynor manages to undermine the whole regime.
But Tychus isn't there to assassinate Raynor. He's there to assassinate the Queen of Blades, the ruler of the Zerg created from Raynor's old flame Sarah Kerrigan who was betrayed and left behind by Mengsk when the planet was sacrificed. It seems that Mengsk, in an amazing feat of premonition, knows that Raynor will ultimately succeed in battling through swarms of Zerg forces to Kerrgian in the hope that she can be deinfested and redeemed; and that Raynor's mercy will mean that Tychus will have to step in and take her out.
I don't buy this at all.
To begin with, at the start of the game when we meet Tychus for the first time, there is no indication that Kerrigan could become deinfested and so weakened to a point where she could be easily killed (other than Mengsk's fabulous skills of prediction). Secondly, everybody has been running circles around Mengsk throughout the game. Raynor has been making significant progress in his war of liberation; the disenfranchised on planets everywhere are in uproar; and even Mengsk's son Valerian has been vying for a position of strength. He's been secretly funding the recovery of an ancient artefact of immense power (which Raynor has been collecting the in fragments), and ultimately snatches away half of the imperial fleet and allies himself with Raynor for an assault on the Zerg homewold. So: the only time in the entire game in which Mengsk seems to be on the ball is at the moment of Tychus' betrayal, and by that time it is barely plausible. In comparison, imagine it had been Valerian who was behind Tychus' betrayal. Valerian is funding the Möbius company to search for the artefact, and Tychus originally says that it was this company who paid his bail. Likewise, Valerian knows exactly what the artefact does, or at least suspects at the start of the game. He's also trying to step out from under his father's shadow, and bears no personal grudge again Raynor. It's more than plausible that he would want to achieve something big (such as defeating the Queen of Blades) and would be more than happy to use Raynor to achieve that goal, which would double as rude gesture to his father as well.
In the end, it seems to me that the decision to have Mengsk himself behind Tychus' betrayal was motivated by an awareness that Mengsk seems to be complacent to the point of incompetence throughout the game; and that does not a good arch-villain make. The fact that it makes the whole betrayal preposterous seemingly slipped under the radar.
Finally, let's talk about the artefact. It's totally a deus ex machina. It effectively comes out of nowhere and saves the world. All of a sudden, the Zerg are (seemingly) completely defeated and Raynor has his girl back, and carries her off into the sunset. The only thing which keeps me from thinking that this is completely lame is knowing that there will be two sequels: the Protoss mini-campaign hints at a cataclysmic battle to come, although to be honest it didn't seem to add anything beyond what was already hinted at in the original game. And I know that it isn't fair to compare the end of Wings of Liberty to the end of Starcraft I (which was apparently voted the best end of a game in 2003). The artefact can't begin to compare to Tassadar's ramming a battle ship into the Zerg Overmind and (seemingly) loosing his life in the process. But if the end of this instalment brings us a third of the way through Starcraft II, then it may be fair to compare it to the end of the first chapter of the original game. Yet against Mengsk's sacrifice of an entire planet, and the betrayal of Kerrigan which sets in motion so many events to come, Tychus' betray just doesn't cut it.
There is plenty to like about Starcraft II. The graphics, when they work, are very good. The single player missions are well designed. The cinematics are excellent, as are the 'story-mode' animations. The variations brought into the campaign allow for interesting replays. And of course, this is no more than a half review, as I'm not touching on multiplayer at all. Ultimately, it may be no more than a quarter review, or even a sixth, if the sequels bring more to the multiplayer table. But my feelings remain the same: for the first time, I'm underwhelmed by a Blizzard game. And most surprising of all is that the story is its greatest disappointment.
04 May 2010
29 April 2010
2101 Mr Clegg says there should be no bonuses for board members of banks. He adds there should be no bonuses for staff of banks making a loss and no cash bonuses at all of more than £2,500.