Sunday, December 30, 2007

Massive Attack.

So I burned myself up a nice fat tasty MP3 CD of Massive Attack for the car, and after listening to it for a week straight, and after catching House early enough to watch the intro, it occurred to me:

Every single Massive Attack song belongs in a fucking cinematic montage.

I mean, perhaps I've watched Snatch one too many times, but Trip Hop is still de-rigeur grimy ambient filler music. It's just appropriate for everything, from breakups to gunfights and everything in between. And the same shit, too...the aforementioned House opening uses "Teardrop" from 1997's "Mezzanine." I'm pretty sure every song on that CD is in a movie or TV production somewhere.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some Sneaker Pimps to listen to.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Review: SIG P226

In the "practical modern guns" department, enter one SIG-Sauer P226, caliber .40 S&W.

A quick history lesson: Back in the 1970's, Schweizerische Industrie Gesellschaft (less verbosely known as SIG), known both for the frighteningly accurate but unworkably heavy SIG AMT/510 battle rifle and the legendary SIG P210 pistol, decided to follow on the latter with a gun equally effective but not backbreakingly expensive. Due to the Swiss liking their neutrality, SIG contracted with J.P. Sauer and Sohn of of Germany (known for the Sauer 38H, a badass little pocket pistol featuring a recocking/decocking lever and which was mostly used by the Luftwaffe, who took most of the production run and never bothered to pay for them) to actually produce the pistols, resulting in the SIG-Sauer brand-name. The first pistol they produced was the P220, a very European single-stack automatic with a heel mag catch, DA/SA trigger, safe decocker, and unmatched reliability. In 1984, as an entrant in the US Army pistol trials, they produced a double-stack version, identical except for the magazines and a button magazine catch, called the P226. Despite being in many ways superior to the Beretta entry, the latter won (the handwringing hath never ceased on this matter, for one reason or another). Nonetheless, the Wondernine furor of the 1980s produced a ready market for this fine firearm, and the P226 won widespread favor with police agencies in Europe and North America, as well as the FBI and the Navy SEALs.

No doubt the mere mention of the SIG-Sauer P-series will let forth a great torrent of wailing from both the 1911 and Glock mafias for its DA/SA trigger; comments such as "a solution in search of a problem" and of course "unnecessary complexity" bubble forth to the surface like bunker oil from a mortally-wounded battleship. To which I both acknowledge the utility and desirability of a single consistent trigger pull and say thusly, "fuck y'all." Because the double-action trigger is nae problematic with a bit of practice.

The trick is merely to dry-fire. Preferably on a daily basis. Since you might do well to perform such a task regularly with any firearm, it should not be problematic. In fact, after a while your DA-only groups may well shrink to below your SA groups. At least Ernest Langdon says so. Whilst shooting steel, the first shot is usually the most reliable.

One also notes a lack of similar wailing vis-a-vis Trigger Pull when revolvers are mentioned.

The double action is listed as 10.5 lbs, and the single at 3.5 lbs. Neither are in any way taxing, and both are exceptionally crisp. The single in particular has a surprisingly short travel. In effect, the bullets not hitting the target are your fault, you taffer. Stop jerking the bloody thing, it's not going to bite. Except with CCI Blazers. What the hell is up with those things?

Trigger mechanism notwithstanding, is it a good gun? Are you bloody kidding me?

In .40 S&W, the 226 feels like a 228 in 9mm. The large frame soaks quite a bit of the .40's snappy recoil. With lighter loads (like S&B plinking ammo, for instance) the 226 has negligible muzzle rise, and absolutely no bite. It takes borderline +P loads (such as CCI Blazers, which are surprisingly spicy) for any sort of fatigue to set in. Hogue grips make the gun even more manageable.

The sights are standard SIG bar-dot (also seen on the Beretta M9). Combined with the trapezoid inset on the rear sight, target acquisition is quite snappy. The only problem is low-light acquisition, which is improved by 1) clearing the grime from the sight surfaces with a Q-tip and 2) replacing the sights with tritium 3-dots. The latter are available from any number of suppliers - Trijicon, TruGlo, Novak, etc. I'm sticking with standard dots for now.

The sights are drift-adjustable fixed, which is peachy so long as the gun comes shooting on point. Mine does, so no big. However, a friend's 228 shot consistently left, and a sight pusher is a solid $180 online. A bit of quality time with a brass rod and a mallet will do well to both scuff up the finish on your gun and knock the sight back into alignment. Still, a royal pain in the ass if you don't get it right the first time.

The barrel is traditionally rifled and machined to a high-grade; Ernest Langdon called it the only gun he didn't need to accurize for competition. The traditional rifling is nice for those who prefer to reload with unjacketed bullets. I found TMJs for cheap, so that won't be an issue, but it's good to know I can. Due to bolt-face differences, the 9mm P226 barrels apparently won't work in a .40 P226, which is a bit odd given that apparently the same will suffice (at least in a plinking capacity) in a SIGPro 2340. Bar-Sto actually does make a semi-drop-in 40-to-9 barrel, but I can't yet justify it at $240, especially since the SIG .40 mags are too wide at the mouth to hold 9mms, and thus I'd have to get a few more $35 mags.

A notable aspect of the feed is the almost straight-in feed angle; this explains the gun's legendary reliability with anything up to and including a full wadcutter (I haven't tried it yet, but one of these days...). One small side effect of this is the tight fit of a full magazine in a gun with the slide forward. If you're not concerned about your +1 and always speed reload, you won't need to give the mag a few extra slaps to make sure, but it's a bit jarring to to a tac reload with a fresh mag.

On the subject of magaines, the California-crippled 10-rounders only lose two rounds, so I don't feel too ripped off; if I had the same piece in 9mm, I would no doubt mourn my missing five rounds. The Mec-Gars are nicely built, and have yet to give me guff, though the springs are extrordinarily tight out of the box and make round ten a royal thumb-buster until they've broken in a bit. They also don't have the bizarre tenth-round rattle that the P228's crippled magazines have. I download my backup mags by one, because the tight springs keep them from fully seating without a mighty slap. Once again, a bit of break-in will doubtless solve this. But then, 9+1 of 135-gr JHPs is enough to make a statement.

Fit and finish is top-flight; no military-grade roughness, even on interior surfaces. My example was almost new when acquired, so I am witnessing the wear marks showing up, but they are hardly unpleasant. Whatever treatment is on the alloy frame is extrordinarily tough; the slide rails show no sign of wear whatsoever.

So is it worth it? Well, it's fed about 2600 rounds so far, and the only reliability gaffes have been my own boneheaded reloading errors (neck them cartridges only as far as necessary, or the crimp won't be tight enough and catch in the chamber, often keeping them from going fully into battery...live and learn). And it's yet to not match whatever effort I put into keeping it on target. So definitely.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The perils of playing old cult classic games on the internet

Observation: Games with a small but hardcore following become less accessible over time, asymptotically so if they do not have a built-in automatic download feature.

Evidence: When a dedicated game community likes a game/mod enough, a whole cottage hacking industry builds up around it, providing micro-mods of varying degrees of usefulness. The most prevalent are various forms of Admin Mod, which provide features like map voting, player kicking, and shoehorning in the Unreal Tournamnent "multi kill!" sound effect at appropriate times. If these mods are completely server-side, connecting to a server is no more difficult than a 'clean' one; you just get all sorts of nonstandard text popping up and occasionally are booted from the server by a gaggle of Polish teenagers who are convinced you are cheating. Counter-Strike, while heavily adorned, features strictly server-side hacks; the only required downloads are custom maps, and the standard set is popular enough that you can simply find another server. Soldier of Fortune 1 is much the same way.

Soldier of Fortune 2, on the other hand, is quite a bit more painful; every server is invariably layered thick with modification, and no one has standardized the versions. Fetching the latest mod release from SOF2Files.com is insufficient, because every server seems to be running a different version; even if you have the file in question, it occasionally downloads. This would be quite a bit less frustrating if the download rate was not consistently capped at 1 KB/sec. The other problem is that of finding human opponents. Sure, there are many decent-quality SOF2 bots out there. The problem is that most fucking servers are running them. A server that claims to have 12 people playing is almost invariably 12 bots. Even picking oddly-numbered player-counts does not help.

It begs the question; whence comes this vast wasteland of deserted servers, buzzing only with the soulless thrum of bot-on-bot carnage, when the total number of players is but a pale shadow of even the server-count?

Also, is there a way to not broadcast bots as active players? If I want to play with myself, there's a very nice singleplayer campaign (or fleshbot, for that matter).

Mediocre FPS Retro Review #1: Kingpin

Gaming travels in phases. Company A releases riotously popular game, Company B develops similar game with redeeming characteristics, Teeming Throng of minor Companies scramble to fill the remaining brick-and-mortar shelf space with poorly concieved knock-offs. It's always refreshing to see a company buck the trend, though, and Xatrix decided to do so well into the Space Marine period, releasing a portentous piece entitled "Kingpin."

Portentious? Kingpin was one of the first mainstream games to tap into the Thug Zeitgeist, long before Grand Theft Auto 3 had every pasty-white game designer trying to emulate the gangsta rap 'lifestyle' in interactive form. What could be more exciting than a Quake 2-powered game with RPG elements casting you as a down-and-out hood clawing his way to the top in a grim crime dystopia?

Counterstrike, said the vast majority of gamers. However, due to its release in the Pre-Gangsta Period, it was relatively untouched by the zeitgeist and instead forged its own path. The result is worthy of inspection, both for its miserable failings and its at times extrordinary achivements.

The game's opening sell has to be on art. With no game to play, all hype is by necessity visual (or audio, but this is rarely released except attached to video), combined with hyperbolic pronouncements extolling the myriad ways in which the pastime in question will make you, the reader, its 'bitch.' Kingpin scores big right off the mark, teaching the by-then 24-month-old Quake 2 codebase some very tasty tricks. Enhanced particle effects, 16 separate hit-zones per character with individual pain skins, dismemberment, volumetric lighting, lens flares, and all the other happy fun tasty buzzwords of the late nineties (you lived through them, most likely, so you remember) made their way into Kingpin. Fortunately, the good folks at Xatrix were not simply content to tack thugs onto sci-fi boilerplate, or even modern-day boilerplate for that matter, and varnish the whole thing with Voodoo-II-SLI-killing sparkly-bits.

Nay, Xatrix kept The Crow, Brazil, and The City of Lost Children on continous loop in every cubicle in the art department. The result is what is to this day one of the most unique and compelling urban landscapes committed to digtal media. Though some trappings are strictly modern-day (the three Cypress Hill songs that quickly wear out their license, the shamelessly stolen Resovoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction lines, etc), the rest of the game drips with decayed Art Deco splendor. Clever use of false perspective allowed the Quake 2 engine to render cascading cityscapes that stretched deep into the horizon. Every bit of signage, in-game menu, and HUD graphic was lovingly crafted to look like lettering ripped from a 1950's automobile or The Ministry of Information's typing pool. With so involving a background, the typical disconnectedness of First-Person Shooters (It's a maze vaguely resembling an office!) became instead an evocative story-telling piece; this is a city lost in time, an effect that Kingpin accomplished almost as well as the Alex Proyas magnum opus Dark City. The anachronistic elements (steampunk machinery and the aforementioned licensed "soundtrack") simply serve to build this effect, until the player can truly experience a suspension of disbelief. This is a city, and when the sun goes down (does it ever come up?) the psychopaths, the marginalized, and the graveyard-shifting steelworkers come out to play.

Alright, so we have a cool world. Now what can we do in it? Xatrix originally seems to develop Quake 2's hub system, which resulted mostly in a metric fuck-ton of tedious backtracking, into an RPG-esque questing system. This notion is reinforced by the inclusion of money and a notebook of observations and objectives. The game usually does a decent job of telegraphing the objectives, so the notebook serves to fill-in side bits (get the bum some booze so he'll give you a hint; get the dude his watch back; there's cool shit at location X) that add so-called flavor.

The first hub seems good enough at keeping up this system - there's a limited supply of money and a preponderance of potentially cool shit to spend it on; there's a series of objectives that don't necessarily have to be carried out (or at all, in some cases); the game gates in a fluid manner, with progressively more nasty enemies in the place of locked doors. People stand around on street corners, hustling you crowbars or backup muscle. There's a street gang blocking your path one way, and there are logical choices on how to get past them. Same with the dudes covering a warehouse entrance the other way.

After a while, it becomes apparent that there are three ways to interact with anything: If it doesn't attack on sight, walk up to it and interact with it, hire it (if applicable), or kill it. Xatrix has thoughtfully provided three attitudes with which to interact - friendly, neutral, or hostile. However, all three result simply in dialogue loops - "fuck" (friendly tone); "fuck" (neutral tone); and of course "fuck" (hostile tone). Occasionally, people respond poorly to "Fuck you, motherfucker" and ask you post-mortem what you'd like on your fucking tombstone, but mostly it seems that "motherfucker" is in fact a honorific (the Kingpin-speak form of "Blanco-san") and that "fuck you" is actually a catch-all for "hello," "goodbye," and "It was a pleasure to make your aquaintance." Needless to say, the dialogue wears out its welcome quickly, and actively inviting it (especially when not for personal gain) is not a desirable state of affairs. This leaves hiring and killing.

Hiring is, much to the surprise of my jaded gamer-view of squadmate AI, essential for surviving any gunfight, and is a good way to spend your hard-mugged cash. Xatrix saw fit to hire Ryan Feltrin, the mad scientist behind the phenomenal EraserBot for Quake 2, and it shows. Your buddies are extremely aggressive in combat, either charging forward and taking a bevy of enemies with them in crowbar-swinging glory, or standing and delivering a withering hail of Tommygun fire. Even more surprising is their uncanny ability to follow you just about anywhere in the map with a minimum of navigational assistance. Remember the befuddling inability for labcoats with multiple PhDs to follow you in a straight line in Half-Life, much less around corners? You can try your damndest to lose your teammates in twisty alleys, by jumping through windows, or through air ducts; your retainers will often burst in the back door, flanking your opponents at a most opportune moment. Rarely, even in today's games, are your essentially autonomous buddies nearly as smart (or at least devoid of keyboard-tossing idiosyncracies) as these.

Of course, this is an FPS, and the vast majority of the game will involve killing. Lots and lots of killing. Killing is the primary advancement mechanism, income source, and gating tool rolled into one. And boy is it inconsistent.

For starters, the game shows its Space Marine-era roots in its weapon advancement tree. First you have a nearly useless melee weapon. Then you get a handgun (yaay!) but it turns out to be far less damaging than the crowbar and in fact a liability in combat, especially since enemies consistenly dual-wield handguns for 1.75 times the rate of fire and equal damage per shot, and you are not permitted to do likewise. Fortunately, salvation comes in the form of a short-barreled pump-action shotgun, which actually lets you kill shit in an efficient manner, but is saddled by a slow rate of fire and short range (killing range is, well, crowbar-length). After soldiering along for a unit with these three, you finally get Zee Tommy Gun, which spits low-damage bullets at a respectable clip and moderate dispersion. Other than the inclusion of reloading, everything looks a lot like Doom. Things don't look much different with the inclusion of a rocket launcher, grenade launcher, and extremely finicky flamethrower; in fact, it's gang warfare with Quake2 weapons. Then, like manna from heaven, comes forth the Heavy Machine Gun. Lo, the lord hath requested a Railgun with three-round burst, and His most benificient forgemasters hath crafted Him a weapon that shalt smoke all other weapons in thine arsenal. No, really, it'd render the rest of your arsenal utterly obsolete if you didn't occasionally run out of ammunition. It kills every enemy in the game in a single three-round-burst, regardless of range.

And then there's the player vs. enemy damage curve. The player takes damage at pretty much the same rate as enemies. This is all well and good, except there are more enemies than you and they all fire faster. On "realistic" (admittedly the hardest option available) your health drops from 100/100(100/100/100 - it uses locational armor, which serves primarily to triple the price of armoring yourself) to stone dead quicker than it takes you to quickload. This does not reward clever tactics, this rewards "kill-quicksave-repeat" ad-nauseam. By unit two, this starts feeling an awful lot like work. The fact that unit two has you fighting in (drumroll) rooms full of crates and a hallway-tastic chemical plant level doesn't help the churning noises your stomach starts generating after roomfuls of shit-brown sameyness.

Fortunately, the last three episodes are sufficiently worth visiting to warrant either continued grinding or blatant cheating. Part of Xatrix' genius is the ability to wrap what are ordinarily very expansive environments (city streets, docklands, train tracks) into convincing simulacra that fit into level sizes more fitting with the limitations of the Quake 2 engines. This is not to say that the levels are small, by any means; but the places feel more expansive than they actually are. Part of this is the fact that later sections (especially the Docklands) layer the playpaths; the same roughly cubical space gives double or triple duty with the same polycounts; the shared landmarks give a sense of place, but are viewed from multiple angles (the differing paths) and get the most possible mileage out of the asset-load. The relatively open, non-linear nature of these sections means the same path gets beaten repeatedly, but the designers have included at least a handful of secrets/alternate paths/cool stuff to discover. Poisonville, despite having horrifically crate-a-licious primary path levels, has a delightfully convoluted jungle gym of a hub level; with the player changing altitude via staircase almost every time they change room, there is ample opportunity to approach the main avenues from a different height, which usually means a windowsill full of loot or a rooftop path into a warehouse with a locked front door.

Should you play Kingpin? Well, it's available on Amazon for $.99, which is less than shipping. It's less if you're not squeamish about stealing data. If you appreciate great art direction, it's worth experiencing at the very least, even if the gameplay feels half-baked and ass-backwards from our modern FPS conventions. It did a lot of things first, and for that it's worthy of note. And if you've ever appreciated an Alex Proyas or Terry Gilliam movie, you may find a kindred spirit.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

SIG/Hämmerli Trailside

I love old guns.

My previous two (poorly monikered) range reports are for guns made in 1954 and 1887 (!) respectively, so this should come as no surprise, but it bears repeating. My motto is thus: "New guns are practical. Old guns are interesting."

However, my SIGArms/Hämmerli Trailside (4.5", adjustable target sights) never fails to attract interest. For those not in the know, sometime in the 90's SIG came to their subsidiary/partner Hämmerli (late of many Olympic shooting competitions; the name is most often attached to frighteningly well-made .22 pistols with price tags somewhere near the price of my car) and requested a line of plinking and competition autos to Swiss standards of accuracy of craftsmanship but with a more Plebian MSRP. And, boy, did they deliver. Usually, upon handing someone the Trailside and my trusty bottomless-ammocan-of-.22, the comments go as follows:

1. "Wow, this is a really nice grip."
2. "Wow, that is a really nice trigger."
3. "Wow, those holes are really close together."

And indeed, those holes can get even closer together, judging from the thoughtfully-provided factory target - an FDR-sized group shot at 25 meters! I suppose I'll have to splurge for Eley Tenex, at $15 for 50, to really achieve such groups - the Big 5 bulk ammo probably won't quite suffice - but I suppose it'll be a while until I hold up my end of the bargain, and anyway it's fun and educational to pop off 150 rounds per range session for the price of a Chili-Cheese dog at Casper's. As it stands, the cheap stuff is frightfully good at cycling the gun (nary a hitch with 36gr copper-jacketed Federal, though the dirtier 40gr CCI LRN does on rare occasions produce a stovepipe) and has allowed me to shoot 1" groups at 50ft on a good day with the planets (and the four humors, plus caffeine) in proper alignment. (Oh, and those pesky 'shooting fundementals.') The Trailside (and its "targeterized" cousin, the Xesse, which is the same thing with nicer grips and a selection of barrel weights) does routinely show up on the bullseye circut, which is (to put it mildly) a shining endorsement. For a mere plinker, the Trailside is probably overkill. As the old saying goes, though, nothing succeeds like excess.

Hämmerli built this gun rather like they build their professional-caliber ones - with a typically Germanic attention to detail and an untypical simplicity. The frame and barrel are all one chunk of metal, and the slide runs both along rails to the rear and in a long notch under the barrel. The fit is damn near perfect - this gun does not rattle, no matter how hard you shake it, partly because of the very small number of moving parts. The lockwork contains maybe six levers and a return spring (in addition to the mainspring), and the slide-mounted safety is a one-piece affair that blocks the hammer. Very elegant, and very functional. All in all, it looks a lot like a Hämmerli 208 or 215, and the price is approximately 1/5 of those guns.

The grips are black-plastic two-piece affairs, which affix to the gun with a single screw and nut. They fit my hands very well. Actually, they fit the hands of every person I've ever handed the gun to very well, and the range of hand sizes is not insignficant. After a while, one forgets the grip entirely and focuses on the shooting, so comfortable are they. The combination of good balance (a bit of nose-heaviness from the chunky barrel cross section goes a long way) and good grips makes rapid fire very manageable, even for a .22. If these grips fail to impress, one can either seek out the chunkier Xesse grips (which are essentially the same with a more pronounced palm swell and iMac colors) or go whole-hog and get custom-fitted rink grips. That the latter are available is yet more evidence of this weapon's good standing in 'proper' target-shooting circles, the fellows who develop an unmatched spiritual devotion to punching wee little groups in targets a long way off. The grips in question also cost half of what the gun does. When's the last time you paid, for the sake of comparison, $400 for a set of SIG P226 grips? Still, it's cool that they're there if you want them.

The sights are standard Bo-Mar style target affairs, and my piece has click-adjustable rear sights, which double as fixed sights on those range days when you leave your toolkit at home somewhere and change your ammo or shooting style. Once the gun is sighted in, striking the desired target is embarrasingly easy. Blasting away at practice plates at a steel shoot is child's play, and a great way to practice double-taps. About the only complaint I can level at the sights is that they're a bit tricky to acquire in a low-contrast situation, for instance indoors shooting at a dark bullseye. This is consistent to all sights of this style, and doesn't seem to be a problem with the right target (If I turn the paper over and stick a 1" Shoot-N-C in the middle, the problem mysteriously vanishes). This is why I usually prefer a sighting system with a pronounced white front sight, such as 3-dots or the standard SIG "pumpkin-on-a-post" sights - it's easy to focus on the front dot, regardless of target. Then again, putting Novak sights on a plinker/target pistol seems heretical, to say the least.

No gun is complete without personality, and while it's definitely not the borderline-alcoholic uncle with a strong opinion about everything that you dread Thanksgiving because of, it does show some odd character traits from time to time - mostly the magazines. They're plastic. They cost $35 to replace. And they do have some odd feeding problems on rare occasion, especially when filled to capacity. The most common one is a failure to feed the first recoil-cycled round (the first being hand-chambered). This doesn't happen often, mind you, but enough to make you groan when you hear the far-too-loud hollow snap of the non-dry-fire-safe pin hitting an empty chamber. A minor complaint, but it does seem odd that an otherwise masterfully-crafted gun would have such a critical component be of less-than-ideal design.

The Trailside is probably the nicest plinker out there, because it straddles the worlds occupied by field guns and target guns so well. In honor of its Swiss heritage, I have christened it "Der Häschenpistole." (It's the umlauts, man.) Tt never leaves the range case, and I always stock at least a thousand rounds for it. A range day is never complete without at least a little playtime for the .22, and rarely is it more pleasurable than with a gun as fine as the Trailside.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Wadjet Eye.

It's really a pity that the Dave Gilbert trilogy (The Shivah, The Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound) only took about fifteen hours to complete. Not to say I didn't get my money worth - far from it - but gaming this good doesn't come along often.


The Shivah

Who can resist a film noir adventure game starring a world-weary Rabbi pulled into a world of intrigue and murder?

I hesitate to reveal much of the plot, but Rabbi Stone will spend a lot of time wandering around Manhattan, piecing together seemingly coincidental bits of trivia, reading other peoples' e-mail, and answering a lot of questions with a lot more questions. Along the way, the game meditates on morality, forgiveness, and faith in a very touching way. Ebert take note: since the gameplay of games like this is pretty much a gated series of events, the 'player creating the art' problem does not crop up, and thus could be considered art. That argument is kryptonite and I leave you, humble reader, to ponder such mysteries, but it does bear mention. Other than the occasional choice of response (and in only three scenes - the most emotionally charged moments, actually - does the response chosen actually matter), the dialogue is necessarily pre-written, and pretty much the same on every playthrough. Not, of course, that the dialogue is bad - far from it, it's some of the sharpest writing you'll find in a video game - but it is static.

The Shivah is a great game - both by itself and as a spiritual prequel to the Blackwell games. Nothing supernatural is going on here, but the mechanics that would show up later in Legacy and Unbound get a trial run in The Shivah. The clues-as-inventory system is quite clever, once you figure out how to use it (this system definitely gets polished in its later iterations). I find that every adventure game has a major head-on-desk moment, and the one I found in Shivah involved the clue system; I only figured it out after playing Legacy and, later, hitting the website. While I understand that these games are more about character and story than puzzles, it's pretty frustrating to overlook a mechanic that hasn't been used in a while. Still, don't let that stop you.

And it's five dollars. Seriously, man, that's less than most people spend on lunch. Treat yourself to Ramen and The Shivah for a day and you will not be disappointed.


The Blackwell Legacy

Dave Gilbert must have grown up watching a continuous loop of Bogart movies or something, because he really likes his noir trappings. Mercifully, between the P.I. antics of Rosangela Blackwell and her sharp-tongued noncorporeal companion, this is a good thing.

Mr. Gilbert takes a subject matter I ordinarily find unbearably trite (ghosts, hauntings), hangs a basic set of rules on it (ghosts cannot interact with matter, ghosts cannot be seen except by mediums and 'stupid' animals, etc), and makes it into a very tightly-crafted mystery story about suicidal college students.

Along the way, we meet an endearing rogues gallery of colorful characters, brought to life by spirited voicework and face close-ups (these are sorely missed in Unbound). Rosangela is totally convincing as a borderline shut-in with some serious social awkwardness, and a great foil for noir-antihero Joey, the sidekick who growls snide comments at awkward times during conversations and enjoys scaring dogs just a little too much. While the supporting cast is held at arms-length (Joey and Rosangela spend most of the game building chemistry), they are equally colorful - from the punkish dorm-dweller Kelly (and her nervous RA, Adrian, who was put on a women-only floor because the records office thought Adrian was a girl's name) to the ever-friendly next-door neighbor, Nashanti, and her pug, with whom Joey has a bit too much fun. The writing is consistently top-notch, and the voice acting is almost all spot-on. The attention to detail is excellent; Rosangela sounds more confident as the game goes on, for instance. I don't know how long it's been since Mr. Gilbert (or at least his Sprite-making Robot Retainers) have seen the inside of a college dorm, but the art and writing for these scenes is spot-on convincing.


Blackwell Unbound

Hey, more Blackwell isn't ever a bad thing, right? Absolutely. With some interesting new gameplay wrinkles, a new sprite artist, a new composer, and some amusing references to both of the above games (I guess The Shivah takes place in the Blackwell universe after all), it's definitely worthwhile.

Let's get the bellyaching out of the way first. Unbound dispenses with the pop-up full-face animation from The Shivah and Legacy, and it's an unfortunate loss. That feature really pulled the player in to the game and humanized the characters, especially when little touches like Rosangela's awkward grins or Rabbi Stone's head-in-hands gestures were used for comedic/dramatic effect. Fortunately, the players should already know Joey's character, and Lauren Blackwell is well-written and well-acted enough to be immediately engaging, but the supporting cast never feels quite as rich as Legacy's. The background art seems to have dropped off a bit, too...Legacy's art was consistently excellent, while Unbound does occasionally have some wierd-looking mattes. The game uses lots more movement in 3D than Legacy, and the resultant sprite-scaling is an awkward reminder that the sprites and background are 320x200 but running in a 640x400 game (remember to turn that on, by the way, or the text is completely unreadable). The full-res floating dialogue text isn't much better on that count (another reason I prefer the headshots). The instrumental soundtrack is evocative, but I found the lush real sounds poorly matched to the old-school graphics, while Legacy's distinctly electronic jungly-ambient music gelled with the overall package much better.

OK, that said: Unbound is more of the same, and consequently kicks all sorts of ass. We have more New York-hopping, note-taking, ghost-mugging action, with another great duo. Joey and Lauren are arguably an even better match than Joey and Rosangela. Lauren chain-smokes her way through the adventure (the game actually tallies how many cigarettes she uses), and is callused and embittered to an almost absurd degree. She throws barbs as fast as Joey can, and makes Joey seem almost cheery and enthusiastic at times. The switching-character mechanic, while somewhat underused (I mean, Joey can't interact with the living, and most of the game is dialogue, so...), lends some interesting wrinkles; Joey's ghostly nature is used to great effect in several scenes. I'm guessing he learns the power of light breezes sometime between the two games, though.

While insane New Yorkers have token representation in the previous games, just about every supporting character in Unbound either has a dark secret or is certifiably loony. It lends Unbound a much darker atmosphere than the previous games - while both The Shivah and Blackwell Legacy have the player straddling the 'normal' world and a parallel world, be it shady dealings or hauntings, most of the characters were at the very least decent, everyday people. By comparison, Unbound could probably be run as a Vampire: The Masquerade module and not be too far out of place. It's no wonder Lauren distances herself so much from everyone, and when she does get close Joey generally points out (correctly) that they're up to no good. It'd be pretty unremitting without the ending, but at least the humor remains thoroughly intact.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cellblock Squadrons: First impressions

What would gaming be without sci-fi starships blowing the everloving snot out of each other? I mean, the whole thing kicked off with SpaceWar, right? And other than the simulation/shump split (Space Invaders or Elite, if you will), it's pretty much been variations on those themes ever since. Cut forward a decade or so. The mainstream gaming biz has forsworn its roots; other than Rogue Squadron and the occasional Gradius remix, starships seem to be the things in the cutscenes of sci-fi FPSs that explain why our hero is in the ass-end of nowhere fighting giant amoeba with a plasma rifle. The germinal genre has been driven underground; the largest-profile release is a Geometry Wars update for XBox Live Arcade (not to say such a thing is unworthy, mind you) and its fans have turned to the dusty frontier of gaming. Startups gun each other down at high noon, and press gangs for EA roam the high desert. In the back of a clapboard farmhouse, an infant, swaddled in whorehouse laundry, realizes it has lungs and makes sure everyone in a half-mile radius knows it. The infant is Cellblock Squadrons.

Alright, so the word is not 'out' per se, other than a celebratory, though demure, entry buried somewhre in Manifesto Games. But it is worth repeating, because, if my first impressions lead me to believe that it's a triumphant celebration of all things Starfighter Simulation.

Mercifully, the good folks at Super Furious software have chosen the fast, minimal, and accessible route. The plot is quite minimal, and is explained in a ten-slide voice-acted introduction. The Earth has united under one government, but is under attack by aliens from without and rebels from within. Much like Mad Cows and Unexploded Ordnance, the powers that be have decided that the best way to solve both problems is to pit them against each other. Naturally, you are a member of the titular penal squadrons. You fly until you die or pay your debt to society (rebellion, apparently, is a $500,000,000 crime, which you pay off by the mission). The between-mission briefing and setup is framed as you in your cell recieving the mission information on a PDA; the missions tick foward a week at a time, giving instantly a feeling of isolation and cabin fever. It's a great setup. And then you get into the mission.

There are less controls to learn than your average first person shooter; in fact, the control scheme *is* the same as your average first-person shooter, but even simpler. Ships have a forward-firing battery fired with the left mouse button. Most ships have a special ability, such as a short duration shield or a ram attack. Most ships have a boost function, which gives heavy thrust for a fixed duration. WS is throttle, AD is roll. Targeting has been simplified to a locked/unlocked toggle; in unlocked, it brackets the target nearest to boresight and gives you damage bar and a lead indicator, while locked mode holds on to the last target until unlocked again. There's a 'kill throttle' button, and a look backwards button. And, really, that's all you have, or need. Every function provided comes in handy at some point, and you never feel you're lacking for something. It's a very nicely executed control scheme, combined with a nice fisheye radar system that seems awkward at first, but then becomes very effective - edge of circle is 180 degrees back; center is forward.

The combat seems very yank-and-bank Descent:Freespace type shit for a while - shoot targets until dead, and so forth, until mission is achieved. After a while, you start noticing things:

1. Whoa, there's a wingman count in the bottom left, and the number is, like, sixty-eight.
2. There sure are a lot of laser blasts flying around. A lot more blue ones than red ones.

Right off the bat, the sheer size of the furballs you get into is staggering. Those used to Freespace-like battle sizes, with thirty a respectable number of ships in play, will find these battles staggering. The sprays of projectiles and the screen-filling energy beam weapons have a patterned, shmuppy quality; combined with the minimalism of the ship design and interface, the game is compellingly abstract, despite having a strong premise backing it up. Instead of fiddling with energy levels, shields vs hull integrity, missiles vs guns, targeting subsystems, etc, it's two hordes of totally AI-controlled starfighters duking it out, and the only thing that matters is dealing more damage before the other guy does the same to you. The simplicity is liberating.

Despite the complete lack of squad commands, the tactical choices available quickly become obvious. The enemies come in three levels: fighters, frigates, and capital ships (well, that's what I'll call them, anyway). Do you focus your attention on clearing the fighters first, or do you straight for the throat and take out the heavy hitters? One you choose an enemy, you have to choose an approach. Your squadmates choose targets in a totally autonomous manner. You can tell very clearly by the patterns of laser blasts in the distance who is engaging who, and where the concentrations of force are. Do you pick off stragglers or go for a popular target and let your buddies soak up the return fire?

The look of forty of your wingmates swarming a capital ship while the latter blows them away one by one with enormous energy beams, the victims erupting into incandescent fireballs, has a surreal beauty of the kind usually seen in, say, Grid Wars. Remember the panoramic view of the final battle in Return of the Jedi? It's like that, only you can fly into the middle of it and affect the outcome. And isn't that what epic gaming is all about.

Did I mention that this is just the demo?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rainbow Six: Vegas

Franchises evolve. This is especially true of venerable franchises like Rainbow Six; while less compelling IPs have come and gone, R6 has remained the standard-bearer for tak-tik-ool shooters since its groundbreaking 1997 debut. The thing is, with R6:Vegas, it's just not Rainbow anymore.

Oh, sure, it's got dudes with a penchant for evil black firearms and magazine pouches raiding buildings and neutralizing tangoes. Sure, you have teammates over whom you exercise some degree of control. But except in name (and occasional trappings) it's not the same Rainbow. Not by a long shot.

See, Rainbow Six was a surgical examination of counter-terrorism ops; in proper vintage Technothriller style, it tried to present the subject matter with as much versimilitude as could be managed. The training was a series of drills executed in shoot-houses, the missions had you shooting it out with thinly-masked versions of, say, the Red Army Faction, and the weapon selection, while sparse compared to modern offerings, was properly representative and convincing in action. Also, since dead assaulters stayed that way between missions, there was a distinct risk of getting attached to Santiago Arnavisca and his homies. The missions were not linear hallways full of tangoes so much as open buildings that you could raid in pretty much whatever way you deemed tahk-ty-cooly prudent.

Cut to nine years later. Two more iterations of the same pre-planned mission structure have come and gone, each with more guns, tack-ti-kull options, and polygons. The franchise has migrated to the console world, which makes financial sense more than it does gameplay sense; console controls and surgical precision rarely come together, and bratty-little-sister franchise Splinter Cell is really more appropriate for the platform, especially given that it's an admittedly very well done Metal Gear Solid knockoff. An unfortunate side-note in the form of R6:Lockdown is likely compellance in the virtual franchise reboot that is R6:Vegas.

The first shock upon loading up a new game is that Red Storm really has it out for Mexico. Wait, no. The first shock upon poking around the opening level is that it's LINEAR. Hell, the GRAW games were still fairly flowing, even if they had a distinct path. The noise that the mosquito-in-our-ear makes about 'multiple paths' breaks immersion in that it points out that, yes, this game is mostly linear. The next thing noticed is that you can loot weapons from your fallen foes. A logical point, of course, in that given the proper impetus, Wouldn't You Do The Same Thing, but given that you're already hauling about multi-thousand-dollar tacctuhkil uberguns, why would a hardened op who probably spends fourteen hours a day training switch to a grimy-looking MAC11? And why does no one complain when you leave your expensive toys behind on a Mexican street corner? On the plus side, it does solve one issue with R6 1-3 - the "I want to try the same thing with different guns" problem; it saves you a restart. So do the conviently located equipment boxes, which the proprietors of an abandoned mining complex have thoughtfully stocked with all your favorite firearms and no less than fifteen magazines for each. Did I mention that this game's verisimilitude is a bit thin?

I probably sound like a Fallout fanboy right now, so let me point out that, yes, I really love this game. Blasting the crap out of painfully generic evil people with various and sundry wundercannons is still one of the most engaging things one can do with a personal computer. The fact that you can fiddle with said guns (or at least their sighting systems and suppressors) until you get the preferred results only improves the experience. And the designers have provided just enough guns to give tantalizing variety without resorting to shameful minutae that would just lead to distracting micromanagement of stats; the 60 or so guns in Raven Shield, while incredibly amusing to my inner gun nut, became pointless when I realized that about fifteen had any worth, and the same five or so get any play at all.

Which leads me to my next point: shooting stuff in this game is fun. The gleeful release from the annoying minutae of 'realism' means that the designers went hog-wild with visceral impact. The pumpkin-sized puffs of blood that balloon from pierced flesh, the showers of coins from exploding slot machines, the simply criminal quantity of glass waiting to be shot/jumped through/blown out with grenade; the particle artists obviously had way too much fun with this game. Vegas was indeed a good choice of setting; not only is the palette an arresting golden-red at all times, but the screen is usually awash in bloom effects from the endless neon lights. The screen-filling muzzle flashes are another good indication that the crew has thrown realism to the wind and focused on making a kick-ass hollywood action flick with tahktokul dudes blowing the shit out of an army of terrorists with the same population as St. Petersburg, Florida.

Shooting shit is enhanced by a very smooth cover mechanic. Essentially, you hold down right mouse to enter cover and the arrow keys to pop out and shoot people. If you don't want to pop out, you can burn ammo with 'blindfire;' the utility of this is of course questionable, but it's a nice touch nonetheless. What makes it so worthwhile is that it transitions are seamless; if you want to hit cover, hold down rightmouse, move up to said wall, move pretty much as you normally would, release rightmouse to leave cover. There are no awkward snaps anywhere in the procedure. As I said, butter smooth. No wonder everyone's ripping it off; this is the example to beat.

A sore point in an otherwise blissful bacchanal of death and destruction is the collection of boneheaded gun-modelling errors. Not from an art standpoint, but functionally-speaking. The good folks at Red Storm seem to have forgotten all their real-world research. In R6:Vegas, shotguns recoil like elephant rifles and take about three times as long as necessary to pump. The XM-26 LSS is depicted as a semi-auto rather than a straight-pull bolt action; if a real gun manufacturer could make a self-loading shotgun that small and still be useful, they'd pee their pants in glee and/or government contracts. Oddly, the guns that actually *are* semis (Benelli M3, SPAS-12) are depicted in pump-action mode, which strikes me as pointless, as the pump is meant to be more of an emergency measure for low-powered cartridges, and all Rainbow throws through these things is good ol' 00 Buck. After the fantastic modelling in Raven Shield, the shotguns here are a letdown. The G3KA4 and SCAR-H are modelled with standard 20-round magazines, but are designed as 30-rounders (them 7.62s have gotten awfully skinny since I left them). And the stat choices are decidedly mixed-up (A G36c with an 8" barrel has better accuracy potential than a 16" M8 Carbine?). Incidentally, the same M8 Carbine seems to be canon in Red Storm world, perhaps because of GRAW. On the plus side, the AR-15 variants are conspicuously absent, so we're left with a collection of mostly rarified European designs, which fits the larger-than-life persona of R6 quite nicely. It does seem odd that there was no conspicuous asset-sharing between GRAW and R6; while the setting is different, the Mexico props and firearms could carry over just fine, or are they really the same ones with uglier skins?

As is in vogue these days, getting shot is no big deal, as long as you have some nice cover to cower behind while you revive yourself with a few manly grunts. Needless to say, the perma-death elements of R6 1-3 are completely gone; you die, you restart, and if your buddies go down you stick them with the magic adrenaline needle from The Rock and they get up like nothing happened. As fitting the Hollywood feel of the game, it's a good choice; first aid kits would be painfully out of place, and permanent injury would be endlessly frustating (I'll admit it certainly was in previous iterations...limp limp limp).

The few taktikil elements that remain are certainly fast enough. Spacebar is a combination use key and order key. Pointing at ground or cover will send your two buddies there; point it at something usable, like a ladder or fast-rope point, will make them use it. When there are options (say, do I breach the door with C4 or frag-and-clear), three icons appear at the bottom of the screen, which correlate to three keys. It's all very fast and furious, and while you'll probably spend 65% or more of the game simply having your buddies follow you, there are times when you actually want to use strategy, and it works well. The sudden-death hostage zones of R6 1-3 are still in, but feature multiple entry points; since the 'playbook' icons also function as a go-code, you can coordinate running in one door while your team flashes and clears through another door. These scenes are not nearly as brutally hair-trigger as in the previous games (and the game mercifully checkpoints right before each time), but do provide a different sort of challenge from the endless blasting of bad guys.

We've come a long way baby. From a clinical dissection of a fictional SAS-style CT unit to an interactive movie about superheroes with shiny gats blowing up Las Vegas, it's hard to believe it's the same franchise. But it's not unwelcome.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Stalker

It's taking me a few days to write a review of this movie. It's quite unlike anything else I've seen; as a depiction of solitude in a wasted world, it's similar to Luc Besson's Le Dernier Combat; I've heard its use of Sepia for the 'real world' and color for the Zone compared to the Wizard of Oz; its themes of spirituality, emptiness and despair, and martyrdom are all universal, but I've never seen them tackled in quite this way before. Tarkovsky is obviously a master of technical film. His compositions are more profoundly deep than most film, using depth of field in such a way to keep most of a scene in focus and give it an almost surreal, enveloping quality. The sound design is lush; the Zone crackles with life, from babbling streams to the ceaseless chatter of wildlife to the bizarre acoustics of bunkers and pipelines. Tarkovsky fills his landscapes with the rusted detritus of civilization; between buses, tanks, sub-machine guns, images of the Christ, chinaware, and telephones that are still hooked up to the network, Tarkovsky elicits a degree of futility that both echoes the feelings of the main characters and forces us to consider our society in a broader context. In the proper Russian tradition, the main characters are deeply conflicted, wracked with spiritual crises (well, except one); the depth of field echoes the great depth that Tarkovsky explores the themes, in man-vs-self, man-vs-man, and man-vs-nature, frequently all at once.

There are so many unanswered questions here - what do the changes in color mean? What is the significance of the telephone, the bird, the repeated juxtaposition of desert and water (life)? You know what? I'm going to break open the Netflix envelope and watch it again.

Range Report vz.52, 9x19mm

The last two Saturdays, I've attempted (with varying degrees of success) to hammer away at a panoply of steel targets, in full view of people who have invested more into their gun than I have into my entire firearms collection and reloading setup. I'm fully convinced that my setup's cost is approximately 2/5 of the next most expensive firearm on the range, namely my range buddy's SIGPro SP2340. The weapon I've been running with is the cult-classic CZ vz.52 handgun, equipped with a drop-in Czech 9x19mm barrel and resting in a the criminally ghetto military-style full-flap holster that came with it.

The barrel in question comes with a few disclaimers, mostly pertaining to feeding and ejection reliability. For those not in the know, a vz.52 in passable condition is a *flawless* performer with the native 7.62x25mm caliber. Due to the near-identical case heads, the only thing required to shoot 9x19mm is a barrel change. This is all well and good, except that due to the OAL being a good 5mm shorter, the rounds don't exactly get along with the magazines. Every third round or so pops up a good 75 degrees, jamming the slide 2/3ds back and being a pain in the ass to clear. This is in addition to the fact that the bottlenecked Tokarev cartridge has a nice conical quality to it, which slides into the chamber quite nicely, whereas the Parabellum is a stubby cylinder nowhere near as aerodynamic or elegant. Given the length disparity, those 9x23mm Largo barrels that were up on Makarov.com suddenly make a lot of sense. Whoops, only a few years too late. So the feeding problem's a fixture if I want to run 9mm; if I'm shooting plates and IPSC-style stuff, I'm stuck; they don't much like me shooting semi-armor-piercing FMJs at 1500+fps at their nice targets for some reason.

See, the magazines I got with the CZ have a problem. They go "sproing" when loaded and held by anyone that isn't me. More specifically, the floorplate wiggles its way loose and the magazine spring bounces gaily into an inaccessible corner, right after I have told the person then holding the gun that it's really sweet once it gets running. After an awful experience with Triple-K magazines (the follower actually jumps the slide catch, which requires the user to remove the left grip and poke at the lockwork with a paperclip for a while to actually get the magazine out of the gun) I got some original Czech magazines from J&G. These look identical to the original magazines, but don't go "sproing."

The icing on the cake is this: they solve the feeding problem. It turns out that the feed lips on the original mags, after thousands upon thousands of rounds, have been nicely radiused; the corners on the lips are instead graceful curves. This is bad. The new magazines have rail-straight feed lips that fully restrain a 9x19mm cartridge. This is most definitely good. They also don't jam in the slide catch, because the follower isn't a bent piece of 10-gauge sheet steel.


So now I have a 98% steel-shooting gun. 98%, because it does still jam from time to time, but with 8-round mags, everyone probably just figures I'm executing a tactical reload for some reason.

The nice thing about re-barrelling a handgun like this is that it retains the same operating mechanism; namely, a form of roller-retarded blowback. It's not techincally roller-delayed blowback like on an H&K, but it's got rollers, and I can say it's got the same mechanism as an MG42, so whatever. Anyway, it's got the advantages: it's smooth, accurate, and controllable. The bore axis is a bit on the high side, but with a small caliber like 9mm combined with Hogue hand-alls, recoil's a non-issue; accuracy is extremely good at least in part because the barrel movement is minmal (3mm straight back) and never changes angle; and the slide movement is not at all violent. So it's great for repeatable hits on small targets. Guess what a plate rack is.

There is, of course, the matter of the grip angle, and the other, possibly related issue of the sights.

The CZ52 has a fairly straight grip angle, at least compared to, say, a 1911. To it points funky until you get used to it. An incorrect grip can be a bit too easy to get, especially if it's not your preferred gun; with a slightly low strong-hand grip and a high, competition-style weak-hand grip with high thumb, it points quite nicely. This takes practice (some would say too much practice).

Once you've nailed down the grip, the sight picture comes into play. People gevetch about military-style sights, and not necessarily without merit. They're small, they're hard to focus on in the right conditions, they don't have any bells or whistles like micrometer click adjustment or tritium night sights. But in this case, they work. The parkerizing has a great deal to do with it, actually. A 60% gray target picture is more receptive to value differences in the target. Let's put it this way. A click-adjustable Bo-Mar style target sight is fantastic if you want an adjustable aimpoint, a wide, clear sight picture, and good relief between the front and rear sights. However, they come in black. 99% of bullseyes are black. Trying to focuse on a black front sight against a black target in anything but blistering midday sunlight is, to put it mildly, difficult. One might prefer 'downright impossible' if one has computer eyes. After a while, a can of day-glo spray paint is a vital addition to your range bag if you want groups and not patterns. Three-dot sights, on the other hand, solve the focusing problem beautifully. There is a nice white dot floating in front of you that your eye focuses on to the exclusion of everything else in the current scene. However, the dot is not necessarily the aimpoint, or covers up the point of aim. For combat shooting, this is fine - the human head is rather larger than the 3" difference or so. In plate shooting, this is the difference between hitting the plate, hitting the hinge, and hitting the railroad tie the hinge is bolted to. So the CZ52's 60% gray parkerized sights are a surprisingly good compromise. It helps that the point of impact is perfectly zeroed to the sight in both calibers, probably another result of the lack of barrel movement.

The sights are very usable until the guy at the front of the range hits the wrong switch and powers down the halogen target floods, which (of course) take a good 5 minutes to spool back up from off. When the guy next to you is a cop with a Springfield XD and nice tritium three-dots, the results are kind of embarassing.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Range Report - Webley MK.1

There's no firearm quite like a Webley.

Well, OK, so there's the Enfield revolvers, but the hinged-frame breech-loading revolver is a distinctly British innovation, and the Webley revolvers are the archetypal example.

I procured mine on something of a whim, thinking it nifty and knowing a small amount about Webleys. If I had only known at the time that this weapon was approximately 120 years old...and, predictably, mine looks about that old, lacking almost completely in finish and resplendent in nicks and scratches. Miraculously, the bore is nearly factory-new, for reasons I can only speculate on. Its previous owners certainly took good care of the functional bits.

Being of 1880s vintage, it is chambered in the thoroughly manly .455 MK1 powder-of-color cartridge, which throws a slug the size of a bowling ball at a velocity slightly less than that of a good fastball. OK, so that may be a slight exagerration. Nonetheless, it is most proper cartridge for stopping a charging assailant at speedrock distances (and possibly setting him on fire with a flurry of slow-burning propellant, which was according to one historian was a not-uncommon occurence). Within 15 meters, the US Army determined it a superior manstopper to .45 Colt in the Thompson-LaGarde tests that resulted in the adoption of .45 ACP. Soft lead is bad enough, but performance could be improved with the MKIII "Manstopper" bullet, which is essentially a wadcutter with a hollowpoint. Declared unsporting by the powers that be, it didn't last too long but could no doubt be re-created by an enterprising chap with a properly-shaped bullet mould.

I was not expecting anything resembling practical accuracy from this piece; years of reading pieces regailing tales of a horrendous, lifetime-to-master double-action trigger had me skeptical, despite two solid months of dryfire practice. Fortunately, such fears were unfounded. Perhaps my Webley has seen a lot of action and consequently has nice, rounded corners on all the lockwork (a suspicion furthered by the unusable single-action sear notch); maybe the triggers aren't really so bad. Whatever the case, mine is butter smooth and nowhere near unusably heavy. Everyone who picked it up could easily hit a large pepper-popper at 15 yards; my esteemed SIG-toting compatriot additionally levelled 2 of 3 small poppers at the same distance, on his first time firing the gun. So accuracy is no problem. With practice, a plate rack should be no match.

The Webley was the fastest shooter of its day; the combination of double action and auto-ejecting break action allowed a positively unsporting rate of fire. My experiences confirm this line of reasoning; the DA is a fairly fast reset once one get the hang of it, and mastering the 'break-snap' ejects the empties efficiently and leaves the chambers ready for new cartridges. The only way one could speed up this cycle would be a speedloader, though a pocketful of shells is surprisingly quick. I may look into HKS S&W Model 25-2 speedloaders, since the period-appropriate Prideaux models tend to auction at prices exceeding what I paid for the original gun. I'm not that hardcore of a collector, and practically speaking paying $700 for some pressed and bent metal is a bit silly. Whatever the situation is with loaders, the Webley would function most decisively in a defensive situation; 255 grains of lead sends a strong message. When I get some more experience (read: the pros decide I'm not too much of a rank amateur) I fully intend to speedrock and mozambique with this old chap.

The problem (or charm, if you prefer) is this: the powder-of-color produces great torrential volumes of white smoke. There's no question that you're firing it, even with a functionally-deaf audience. I would no doubt have faced a lynch mob had the wind been blowing towards the firing line, but since it merely afflicted the ammo table it attracted mostly positive attention. However, after five rounds rapid fire, you simply cannot see the target, especially at night. I shoot at night. A work-around drill would be three rounds standing followed by three rounds from a crouch, which is, in a word, silly. Shooters were observed waving their off-hand about above the gun to clear the sight picture (don't sweep those muzzles, kids!).

Cleaning the gun proved that Goex is indeed the filthiest, most vile propellant one can possibly run through their firearm. In addition to some pesky leading from the hard-cast bullets, 45 rounds produced thick cakes of carbon fouling on every surface on or near the muzzle and barrel/cylinder gap. The area right around the blast shield is most problematic in this regard, as it is the confluence of three cylinders, which leave oddly-shaped gaps between each other and are hard to hit with a toothbrush or cloth. The relative imprecision of blackpowder loading, after the tenth-of-a-grain tolerances in centerfire autopistol cartridge loading, seems suicidally brazen (loading cartridges with a scoop? Dear God, my good fellow, do you not want your hands?). The use of MKII cases is both convenient and a safety precaution; even with the long, presumably .45-70 bullets seated on the rear cannelure (if I tried hard enough, I could probably pull the bullets out with my hands alone), there is plenty of chamber space but only enough cartridge capacity for 14 grains of Goex FFFg, which is 2/3ds the originally prescribed quantity and sufficient merely to push the bullet out of the barrel and onto the target. Trajectory seems sufficiently flat within 15 meters, and though one can actually see the bullet arcing downrange accuracy is not affected. There is a most amusing delay between the discharge of the firearm and the dulcet 'ping' of a steel target face.

The hesitancies experienced beforehand were made well worthwhile by the experience of operating a fine late-19th century firearm in its proper context, and I will no doubt revisit the experience in the future, perhaps to a more exacting degree with regards to target choice.

May the sun never set on the British Empire. God save the Queen.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Filthy Sellout.

Verily, I admit my weakness in the face of unyielding social pressure and go forth to the internet to speak my piece, whether or not anyone wishes to consume such product.

The trifecta in question is quite simple.

Video Games
Beer
Firearms

The fourth part of the trifecta (which is a concept that probably makes a lot more sense at 5:54 AM after the third re-steeping of some nice Pu-Erh, priming 460 9mm cases, and watching Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45) is cinema and its bastard redheaded step-sibling television, whose dead horse I like to flog via Bittorrent on occasion.

Between which will be devoted most of my entries. Besides, a simple "Bunnyman.blogspot.com" was taken by what appears to be a spastic teenager from Macao whose entire knowledge of English was taken from reading the backs of Radiohead albums and, in a fit of angst jumped off a theme casino, despondent after the recent US presidential elections. I'll just assume that somewhere in that cloud of question marks is a suicide note, since Asian language support is not actually activated on this browser.

Later.