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.