Monday, June 30, 2008

Mass Effect Wrapup

I never got around to posting anything, but I did finish Mass Effect a couple of weeks ago. The main storyline continued to click, for me, right through to the end. The side quests got really old after awhile, though.

The quests themselves were just fine in terms of being distinctive in their goals. But their implementation was just so repetitive that it got old. Every last one of them involves dropping to the Rocky Mountain region of whatever planet you need to go to (climbing all those peaks gets to be like eating your vegetables after awhile), pick up the same sorts of side stuff in the ATV (minerals, artifacts, etc.) and then assualt one of about three or four different location types that always re-use the layouts and enemy locations. On that level, it's sort of like playing a less extreme version of Assassin's Creed in the amount of repetitiveness. I just expect a little more than that from Bioware.

The ending of the game was really satisfying and provides one of the few decisions of consequence in the game. I'd like to have played it both ways, but the final boss battle is a bit long (with a non-skippable cinematic in the middle of it) and you can't save, so I didn't care to go through that again right away. At some point, maybe as prep for Mass Effect 2, I'd like to go back through the game as a Renegade and see how different the experiene is.

The only thing in the wrap-up I didn't like is that there were no epilogues of any kind for your NPC party members. You get a nice finale for your character, but it's like the rest of your party just disappeared into the ether. Given the amount of time you spend getting to know those characters and getting invested in them, I think that was an oversight. Still, it's up there with The Witcher (still unfinished) for the best RPG I've played in quite some time.

Friday, June 27, 2008

August 1, 2008 -- The Reds in OOTP 9

I really don't know what to make of this. I'm a Reds fan. Yes, those that follow the blog...I root hard for the Browns, but I also follow the Reds rather than the Tribe. Being from SW Ohio there is reason for that. My dad. Dad grew up watching the Browns in the 50s and 60s -- this was before the Bengals existed. So when Cincy got a team he was already 100% devoted to the Browns -- plus Cleveland was great. Jim Brown, Paul Warfield...awesome teams. But the Reds have been around since Ambrose Burnside. So it was always the Reds and the Browns.


OOTP for the first time ever comes with default team rosters -- real players. No need to download the Lahman database. You get it right out of the gate. I need to ask Todd how his Tiger season is going but the Reds -- the 2008 Reds, on 8/1/2008 have a 5 game lead at 62-48.

Reds starting pitching is dominant with Arroyo having an All Star season along with Harang. Even rookie Homer Bailey went from a AAA 5 star prospect with 1 star current ability to a 4 star 22 year old -- in three months.

The Red Sox are 20 games out in the AL East.

It's odd to say the least.

Ticket to Ride on XBL

About to give it a go -- hopefully it's a good adaptation. I'd rather play Railroad Tycoon the Boardgame, though. So far the XBL boardgames have been hit, miss, and strike out swinging with the bases loaded costing your team the Series.

On Narcolepsy: The Pistons Draft a Sleeper

I didn't pay much attention to last night's NBA draft. Unless the Pistons have a pick in the top 15, I rarely ever do. Last night they didn't pick until #29 and that pick they immediately traded to Seattle for a pair of second rounders (who won't get guaranteed contracts). But I still found their first pick (at #32) interesting.

The guy's name is Walter Sharpe, a 6' 9" small forward from UAB (University of Alabama-Birmingham). If you've never heard of him, you're not alone. The guy played in a total of 40 college games, and only 18 in the last three years. That was due to transfers, academic ineligibility, an arrest for disorderly conduct and once getting shot in the stomach (reportedly, as an innocent bystander). Interesting postscript to the latter, one story I read indicated he tried not to let on to police and medical personal at the scene that he had been shot.

Let me restate that.

The dude tried to cover up having been shot in the gut. Recklessly stupid? Yeah, sure. But that takes the sort of seriously brass balls that you almost have to respect. It's like when your potty-training three year old is standing in front of you with shit dripping down his legs insisting that he's still dry. (I have some recent experience with this.)

Oh yeah, one more thing. Sharpe was diagnosed as a narcoleptic about five months ago. This was immediately interesting to me because, well, I am a narcoleptic. It's not something I get into very much since it's usually viewed -thanks in large part to TV and movies- as that condition where you fall asleep in the middle of jogging or mowing the lawn or some such nonsense.

In reality, it's basically a condition where you don't go through the stages of sleep properly, the result being that your sleep isn't nearly as restorative as it should be. Eight hours of sleep to you feels like about four or five hours of sleep to me. Imagine feeling severely sleep deprived every single day, regardless of how much sleep you actually get. That, in a nutshell, is narcolepsy. It doesn't make you pass out while in the middle of being active, like bowling or feeding the cat. That's a myth as far as I'm concerned. There's a subsymptom that some narcoleptics have, called cataplexy, that causes the appearance of passing out. It's a temporary loss of muscle control that -in severe forms- can result in you dropping like a sack of bricks, concious but unable to move. I'm grateful not to suffer from cataplexy.

What narcolepsy does do is make you very susceptible to falling asleep while passive. Reading a book, watching TV, sitting in a meeting or presentation are all recipes for a ticket to sleepy town. Usually, it's something you can fight off, at least to the extent that you can stay -technically- awake. Sometimes there's just nothing to be done. I once had an 8am college course in which I moved to the front row, five feet form my professor, in an effort to avoid falling asleep during his two hour class. I think I got through the entire class four times the entire semester, including test days. Ouch. (I still got a BA in the class, thanks to the fact that I'd already had the subject matter in high school the year before.)

For me the drowsiness while reading part is particularly intrusive, what with my occupation being an editor of extremely long and often boring tech books and all. On bad days I'll go into full bore head-bob mode in the hours following lunch, which is the second most difficult part of the day for me to get through. The worst is first thing in the morning. Just waking up and finding the will to move, let alone get out of bed is... difficult. I could wake up to find the house on fire and I'd have to talk myself out of sleeping for just five more minutes. That said, it's a condition you have to manage. You have accept the fact that you need more rest than the average bear and that sometimes it's necessary to find an out of the way place for a 20-minute nap.

So how big of an excuse is narcolepsy for Walter Sharpe's behavior? Not much, at least where being shot or being arrested for disorderly conduct are concerned. Frankly, having narcolepsy ought to keep you out of that sort of trouble. What narcoleptic has the energy for a night on the town? That said, the academically ineligible part is believable... to an extent. Don't get me wrong, you can feel exhausted all the time and still take care of your shit. It's just harder to do things like stay awake and focused when you're in class (especially if the prof is fond of showing movies). Staying up late to study also produces less than stellar results. (And in some cases oversleeping for and missing a final... not that I would know about that.)

It's a matter of degrees, though, because I definitely feel that I did worse in school than I otherwise would have if I didn't have the condition. For me, it was probably the difference between being a 3.5 student and 3.0 student. There's no doubt that my grades got better when my classes moved from a largely lecture-driven environment to one of frenetic activity (video and film production). For Sharpe, it's completely believable that it could be the difference between eligibility and ineligibility.

Pistons GM Joe Dumars says they talked to just about everybody connected to Sharpe and that he thinks, now that he's getting treatment for narcolepsy, that his struggles are behind him. I'm not gonna get into Sharpe's basketball skills -that's way out of my league- but if Sharpe thinks his newfound magic narco pills are going to completely change his life, he's got another thing coming. The pills you can take for narcolepsy do not knock the condition out of the park. They're masking agents. Your body and mind are still just as tired as they always were, you just don't feel it... as much. (At least, that's been my experience.)

When I was first diagnosed I was prescribed a drug called Modafinil (trade name Provigil). It felt like a whole new world. I was awake. I had energy. I could split the atom with a pair of tweesers. Didn't last. Your body adjusts and after a while (months, maybe a year) you have to adjust the dosage and keep adjusting it or move on to some other drug. For me, taking a pill every single day wasn't what I wanted and as prescription drug co-pays have gone up I really didn't want to keep paying for it. After a couple years I quit taking it or any other narcosleepy drug, aside from a couple of experimental meds I've taken while participating in various sleep studies. (Getting paid to take this crap is far better than paying to take it.) Today I just manage the fatigue as best I can. In the grand scheme of things that can go wrong with your body, I'd take this over about a million and one other conditions any day of the week.

The point is, the drugs can help. But they're not gonna change your life for you. You have to do that yourself. So, it'll be interesting to see where Sharpe goes from here. I'm sure whatever drugs he's taking right now will help him out in the short term. But as his body adjusts to the meds and he starts really bouncing back and forth between time zones (assuming he makes the team) on NBA road trips, it's gonna be a whole new test. If the Pistons are smart they'll have a doctor watching him very closely, one that can help monitor what he's taking, how much he's taking and when he should be taking it.

Hopefully the kid can make the most of the opportunity he's getting right now. I know I'll be rooting for him.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

More OOTP and some Deep Route

First off, I am in full OOTP mode right now. Testing features, stats, etc. Like I said earlier, I love the game -- I really do. I have always had great affection for OOTP.

But why after 9 versions do I still see this from time to time?

Score is 6-1. I'm leading. CPU brings in a PH in the 3rd and the new pitcher stays for the 4th and 5th -- then leads off the bottom of the 6th and gets pulled at the start of the 7th. Why didn't the AI hit for the pitcher in the 6th?

Is this a deal breaker? Well, no. But it certainly shouldn't happen.

Deep Route is JUST about ready for "release." I have yet to get Todd signed up yet -- or Billy Baroo for that matter but the time is almost upon us.

There are still some kinks to work out but man..if you like NFL management sims do yourself a favor and check it out. It plays as well as any football sim I have ever played -- from a playcalling standpoint.

Long nights, baseball, politics, apple pie..and I'm tired

Storms kill me.

If you happen to see national radar and notice that there are storms over central Ohio -- please think of me...especially if it's at night.

My dogs really, really, really, really hate thunder. My old dog, she's 14, trembles uncontrollably when thunderstorms strike. I have tried meds -- but to no avail. Well, our "new" dog picked up this habit and tends to act like an idiot when it storms as well. So at night -- if it's nasty out -- Bill is awake. Most likely on the couch downstairs watching an infomercial at 3AM (Go H2o Mop!) while the dogs shake rattle and roll.

Last night was such a night. Storms lingered over central Ohio from 10 PM until about 4 AM. I did not sleep.

So today I'm kinda tired.

A few notes before I pass out:

OOTP 9 is fun -- no doubt. Is it $40 of fun? Well that depends. I thought OOTP 7 was the high point for the series, and while I believe OOTP 9 is technically a better game -- faster sim speed, better scouting mechanic, and better AI -- from a review standpoint I really have no idea how to grade it.

I don't think it's essential if you own and like OOTP 7, but I'd clearly prefer to play OOTP 9 due to the enhancements even if those enhancements are a bit on the "this could have been patched" side.

The new ball animation is a total gimmick. Basically the ball is put into play and you see it travel along its path but you have no idea what happens unless you read the text. So, um, what's the point?

Until a "text" game adopts something like the 20+ year old MicroLeague Baseball graphic UI -- just stop. Keep it text with sound effects (which are back for OOTP 9 btw). You need to see the ball in FLIGHT and you need to see the players MOVE -- even if it looks like crap (sorta like MicroLeague). If all that you see if the ball animation it's a wasted feature.

So anyway -- better game and if you are in a league that is upgrading to V9 then go for it. Solo players that are happy with OOTP 2007...that's a tougher call.

The Political Machine is another oddity. I dunno what it is but I think making games based off political campaigns is trickier than it seems. I didn't like the 1960 Boardgame and PM, while full of strategic options and a superb feeling that you never have enough time to do everything you want -- it still comes off somewhat hollow to me. More on this later as I finish up my review. I just don't like the fact that I can lose to Ron Paul because he took New York.

Oh, yeah, zombies. I got the Last Night on Earth expansion (Growing Hunger) and it's a riot.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hump Day Music Break

Crazy busy today so sorry for the lack of posts. Here's an awesome live Zeppelin video, though.

We'll get back to posting tomorrow. Well, after I take Ashley back to the dentist.

Monday, June 23, 2008

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions

As a geek, I've always had at least a casual interest in the NASA and the space program, but I never really learned a whole lot about it. In 1998 I watched HBO's fantastic miniseries From the Earth to the Moon and since then I've become even more fascinated with the space program and the personalities that built it.

If you've never seen From the Earth to the Moon, rent or buy it on DVD. It's a fascinating retelling of the entire Apollo program (along with one episode that focuses on Mercury and Gemini). It does, of course, take some dramatic license in the name of compelling televsion, but my understanding is its as faithful a docudrama as you're going to see. (It also won an Emmy and a Golden Globe.) In particular, the episodes "Apollo 1," "Spider" (creation of the Lunar Module), "That's All There Is" (Apollo 12) and "Galileo Was Right" (Apollo 15) are among my very favorites.

Since then, I've seen a couple different documentaries about the Apollo program, but nothing nearly as good as the one Discovery Channel has been bringing us over the past three weeks: When We Left Earth. It's a three episode, six hour documentary extravaganza that covers the entire history of NASA and the manned spaceflight program, including the very underappreciated shuttle program. There is video footage in this documentary that the public has never seen before. It's full of interviews with veterans from every phase of NASA's history. It's just phenomenal stuff.

Of particular interest to me was last night's episode, which was basically all about the space shuttle. I know that, anymore, the shuttle program is thought of as a fleet of rickety old spacecraft, but it's truly a remarkable machine. I know that when thinking about the shuttle program it's easy to focus on the failures of Challenger and Columbia, but I think that only goes to show what an unprecedented success it's actually been. For more than 20 years those craft have been putting humans into orbit and safely bringing them back, as hazardous and difficult an undertaking as you can possibly take on. Last night When We Left Earth spent a lot of attention on the deployment and subsquent repairs of the Hubble space telescope and it's just remarkable stuff and some of that footage is simply jaw dropping.

You know, every time I watch somethig like this I simply can't get over the fact that we were able to go to the moon, for the last time, a couple years before I was born yet not have found a reason to go back in the 36 years since. I know when that sort of debate comes up people always focus on the money. It's a valid opinion but, I think, a short sighted one. Money is just not what the space program is about. It's about discovery and it's tough to put a monetary value on that.

The thing about discovery is that you don't know what you're going to find out from it or what the impact will be. But every so often you find something that will change the world. I've always liked the example brought up in an episode of The West Wing in which a physicist named Dr. Millgate says, "Great achievement has no roadmap. The x-ray's pretty good. So's penicillin. And neither was discovered with a practical objective in mind. I mean when the electron was discovered in 1897 it was useless, and now we have an entire world run by electronics."

What's left to discover on the moon? On Mars? I don't know. But isn't that the point?

"You know who I pray to? Joe Pesci."

Today, a little video in memory of George Carlin.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Camping Pics

Early man make fire. Point with stick.

I love this picture.

Late night Midnight Party by latern light.

Lake Erie -- 10 AM. Cold.

During the Monday storm. Fun.

Our campsite, with ultra cool ass saving canopy.

We made something resembling ice cream.

Midshipman Abner surveys the lake at 7 AM. Looks good, Captain.

My daughter is insane.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

NCAA 09 Demo

It's on XBL right now. I won't be playing this demo but go ahead.

I'll wait for the final game. EA demos are notorious for playing on easy levels and showing you nothing outside of what it will look like, so my time is better spent-- elsewhere.

Todd and Bill's Excellent Adventure -- OOTP 9 Double Time!

We both have OOTP 9 and I'll be posting some thoughts as I progress through the new features. Todd will too because I am making him. I have that kind of power. I'm also playing The Political machine and I'll be posting about that, too. It's a cute game with bobbleheads.

Today will be slow blog and work wise as Ashley gets her first set of "intro" braces. Those tiny braces that kids get before they graduate to the bigger ones. She's um...thrilled.

In boardgame news, Michael's conclusion to There Will Be Games is up. A great, sad story.

I'm knee deep in new games from goofy, gather around the table and laugh at people games like Last Night on Earth (if you like zombie movies -- MUST hilarity.) In somewhat depressing news, Blackbeard totally flopped. I have yet to play a truly great pirate boardgame and I have tried nearly all of them. I dunno why that is, but it's the one genre no one can really get right.

To more historical wargames that Mary and I enjoy a great deal.

Like Age of Napoleon:

And Warriors of God:

Warriors of God just came out in limited release and is about the 100 Years War. Fortress Ameritrash has a GREAT review on it.

I have a design doc written out for our racing boardgame. When we have a prototype, which we're close to having, I'll open up another blog dedicated to it. Almost there.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Incredible Hulk: On the Money (with Many, MANY Spoilers)

It's been a crazy week so far and I've been absolutely swamped at work for the first time in... a while. But I did get out long enough on Friday to take in The Incredible Hulk. It's good. Not Iron Man good, but good. Some general stuff that stuck out to me:

- This is the Hulk I was hoping to see on screen. He's not just a mindless ball of anger and screaming. Hulk, in this movie, has his own personality and it's tied loosely to the psyche of Banner. We see him angry, sure, but we also seem him frustrated, sad, determined, etc. He uses basic tactics to accomplish his goals (which are loosely defined as trying to get away from people) and he uses his environment to facilitate that. The CG animation really puts a lot of depth to his emotions and his actions and it's nice to see a mind at work. I particularly like the scene with Hulk and Betty in the thunder storm (which, I believe, is lifted from one of the comics). And the moment went Hulk screams, "Hulk SMASH!" Oh, I was all aflutter.

- Speaking of which, what really makes this a better film than the last one, for me, is the fact that it's memorable. I didn't hate the first film, but I was completely indifferent to it. I couldn't tell you now what it was really about or how it ended. I have a vague recollection of Hulk throwing a tank like a discus and that's about it. This new movie is loaded with memorable scenes and memorable dialog. There's a lot of fun nods to the comic, to the TV series, etc. The movie sets its reality and it revels in it. It simply works.

- Edward Norton doesn't bring to Bruce Banner what Robert Downey Jr. brought to Tony Stark, but that's a pretty high bar. I think of Norton like I think of a starting pitcher who is unspectacular but can put in 200 innings a year for his team. Norton won't get a Golden Globe nod for his work, but he gets the job done.

- I can no longer see Liv Tyler in a movie and not see her as the elf, Arwen, crying. And I mean that as a bad thing. I loved the Lord of the Rings movies, but it was far too much of Liv Tyler close-ups being all weepy and now I can never watch her in another movie and see anything else. That said, she's far better in this flick than Katie Holmes in Batman Begins.

- William Hurt is spot on as General Ross. Not much else to say here. The dude is an insecure stuffed shirt who was hurt by the Hulk and now he wants to hurt the Hulk back, only he's got everybody else doing his dirty work for him. That's how it should be.

- The main villain of the piece (other than Ross) is an aging, but highly decorated and accomplished soldier by the name of Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). Ross has brought him in to help capture the Hulk. After his initial failure, he gets himself hopped up on bad Super Soldier Serum (a lovely nod to the Captain America origin, which I'm sure will pay off when they make that film) and then goes a bit crazy trying to get more and more powerful (until he finally goes a giant leap too far and becomes the Abomination). For him it's all about denying his limitations and proving nothing can beat him. Up to the point that he becomes the Abomination he's an identifiable character. He's not even really a villain in most of the film. He's a soldier trying to do his job and I think that pays huge dividends for the film as a whole. For him it's a steady, but logical, progression, a devolution that ultimately ends with him falling into full goose gonzo crazy-monster thing. The progression, though, makes it a bit more believable than your stock villain whose just bad to get chicks or something.

- The end of the film is the pill that's hardest to swallow. The final battle between Hulk and Abomination... I don't want to say it's unsatisfactory, but for me, it was. I'm glad they didn't go the cliche route of killing the villain, but basically the Hulk knocks him out and, well, what happens next is up to the imagination I guess. The Hulk is allowed to get away and something (I assume) is done with the Abomination's prone form. We're not privvy to what that is, though, and I think that's a bit of a miss-step. There's also a plot thread with the character of Dr. Sam Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) that was never going to be resolved in this film, but should've had a more satisfactory bookmark placed as a holdover for the next one.

- On the other hand, there are two great, great moments at the end of the film. The first is Banner, way off in the middle of nowhwere (Canada), putting techniques to use that we first saw him endeavoring to learn in the first part of the film, learning to control his heart rate and control his change. The last we see of him is his eyes turning green and a smile on his face. I don't know what others will take from that, but to me we're being told that Banner has learned to control his tranformation. Doing that, to me, is the first step towards putting the Hulk character into an Avengers film (which is clearly Marvel's aim). We've seen plenty of Banner's Hulk transformation being completely out of control. I'm ready to see the Banner that can use the Hulk as a tool to smite evil!

- There's a brilliant Tony Stark cameo at the end of the film. (You don't even have to wait for the closing credits.) Stark confronts Ross in a bar, they exchange pleasantries and then Stark reveals that he's putting together a rather specialized team (a nod to the Avengers). I just can't say how frigg'n cool it is that Marvel is sewing together all these separate threads from their universe. I'm actually bummed that there's nothing else coming out this year to continue the progression.

To sum up. If Iron Man is an A- movie, I give The Incredible Hulk a strong B+. When I go to a summer movie ready and willing to turn my brain off and enjoy some good action, this -and not the travesty of tripe like Crystal Skull or Transformers- is the kind of thing I've got in mind. The new Marvel Studios is now 2 for 2 and I can't wait to see what they do next.

Hump Day Music Break

Lots of pictures coming tomorrow. I found the camera...whew.

Anwyay, today we're going into the archive. There are a select few bands that I can listen to pretty much 24/7. The Beatles, Zeppelin, The Who, Neil Young, The White Stripes, and Pink Floyd among a few others.

I saw Floyd in concert at Ohio State back in the mid 90s -- well, we sat on the hill outside of Ohio Stadium, but I saw it dammit! It was an "ok" show. Lots of lights, a big ta-do about the same songs everyone has heard a gabillion times. I love the classic Pink Floyd set -- Brick in the Wall, Hey You...pretty much the entire Wall CD. But it's nowhere near my favorite stuff from the band.

I much prefer the early Pink Floyd days.

Here's an absolutely great YouTube vid of The Gnome, off the Floyd's first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Syd loved kids songs and this is a prime example. Plus whoever did this video...awesome.!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Return from Lake Erie

I am surprised just how much I enjoy our annual camping trip to Kelley's Island. I am typically not an "outdoor" type. I play basketball in a gym -- no more blacktop due to my ankles. (If you have followed my blogging over the years you know how messed up they are). I'm also not big on bugs. Spiders freak me out. I also burn easily. When I go swimming I am coated in sunblock to the point of absurdity. But I love our camping trip.

Let me back up a bit first.

There are various forms of camping -- there's RV camping where you bring a big tank/mobile home and watch TV. That doesn't interest me. There's also Old School where you use a bucket as a bathroom. I'll pass on that, too.

We float somewhere in the middle: Sleep in a tent but with an air mattress -- screw the ground. My back's been battered from basketball enough as is. We cook 100% by campfire -- this year we cooked everything over hot coals wrapped in tin foil. For me, a fireproof tea kettle is of great importance,. I must have coffee. Fill up the kettle and sit it on the fire. Woo hoo. Boiling water! I should go on Survivor.

Kelley's Island has great bathroom facilities that resemble more of a locker room than what you'd expect in a forested setting. Clean bathrooms with showers that contain enough water pressure to blast rust off a truck. -- key for me.

Ashley brought a friend with her this year and they practically lived in the lake -- swimming by 9:30 AM. Lake Erie at 10 in the morning, if you didn't know, is COLD. Not "chilly" but bone chilling cold. The persistence of youth.

Our trip was great aside from a Monday Night Armageddon Rainstorm that nearly blew our campsite away. I have never been outside in such a storm. It was pretty scary...and the kids slept right through it. The deep sleep of youth.

But Tuesday through Friday was great and we have a lot of pics that I'll post tonight or tomorrow. I can't wait for next year's trip. Maybe one year I'll get Todd and the fam to go. Maybe when his kids are a bit older.

Todd -- you're down with sitting by a fire for several hours a day chilling lakeside and playing boardgames while the kids swim, right? I tell you -- best vacation ever.

The best part of the day for me is getting up early...around 6AM and starting a fire -- making a cup of coffee, feeling the cool breeze come in off Lake Erie and just watching the lake as the waves roll up to the rocks. There are very few better ways in which to start your day.


OOTP 9 Release Date Announced

We are pleased to announce that OOTP 9 will be released on June 18th! As in years past, OOTP 9 will run on both PC and Mac platforms, and will sell at a list price of US $39.99 for customers outside of Europe, and €39.99 in Europe.


Check out all of the new features.

Ninja Gaiden II Rod of Trials

Our news editor is on a kick making these how to vids for us. GameShark lacks the infrastructure to host its own vids so we're forced to use YTube.

Still, pretty cool stuff.

Here's an Easter Egg vid as well as a How to Find the Rod of Trails vid.

Brakke at his best -- Mass Effect review

I rarely praise Todd for much of...anything, really. But his take on the PC version of Mass Effect is great stuff.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Roman D20

Check this out -- a 20 sided Roman die circa 2nd century A.D. for a bargain $18K.

I bet they used this to play D&D: The Roman Gods Edition.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Hulk Smash

One more quick post for the day. I'm just about to take off to go see Incredible Hulk. Based on some early reviews from trusted reviewers I've been getting more and more excited to see this one. I'll be sure to get a review of my own up early next week.

Teh Awesome

I was reading Bill Harris's Dubious Quality blog this morning (one of the best there is) and there's a link in his Friday Links post to a Games Radar video that is just too awesome for words. It's the opening title sequence to The Naked Gun, only done using the GTA IV engine. There doesn't appear to be a way to embed the video here, so you'll have to click the link above. If you have fond memories of The Naked Gun movies (or, at least the first one), this is a must watch.

Mass Effect's Shortcomings

I've spent every single evening this week playing Mass Effect in an attempt to get as far as I can in it before writing my Gameshark review; a review that's already a few days overdo thanks to the sinus infection I had last week and the long Wings playoff run. Not that I'm complaining about the latter, of course. I haven't finished the game yet (boo!), but at this point I think I've got enough of a handle on it to get a review done (yeah!).

Overall I remain very, very impressed with this game. That said, it is, predictably, flawed in many areas. This is the type of game that in many places is so unbelievably good that the areas where it fails to measure up really start to stand out after awhile. The sometimes inane behavior of your squad mates in combat is a pretty easy target. Let's just say it could be better and move on from that.

I've also really grown tired of the limited dialog options. I don't necessarily have a problem with the fact that most every response is of your generic good, neutral, evil variety. It's that how characters respond to your choices really doesn't change much and sometimes not at all. The dialog is very carefully crafted to feel seemless, but it doesn't take much reading between the lines to realize that many, if not most, of the NPCs have responses that will fit whatever option you choose. And even if something you say does merit a unique response, it's usually of the one to two sentence variety before the NPC jumps right back into the generic conversation tree. And, really, don't get me started on the love triangle with two members of your crew. I'm all for romances between characters in an RPG, but their dialog (and the dialog I have to choose from) is the stuff of high school romances. At this point in their development as developers, I really expect better from Bioware than that.

I also don't like that a lot of parts in the game, mainly in the side quests, get told to you rather than shown. Survey a planet and a text dialog narrates to you what you found. Complete a planet based side quest and -too often- you get a text dialog that narrates a quest summary to you. This aspect of the game reeks of underutilized potential. If I survey a planet, why don't I get a report (either audibly or textually) from Joker (the pilot) or someone else in the crew? It would accomplish the same thing, but at least it would be done within the context of the game universe and it would give a very underutilized ship's crew something more to do. (Another problem is that only the NPCs seem to have dialog that evolves with your progress in the game. The other members of the ship's crew have the exact same dialog options they had when I first took command of my ship. Ugh.)

Hopefully this doesn't leave the impression that I've soured on the game. It's still a great, great game. I'm leaning towards and A- at this point. But when sequel time comes (if it hasn't already), I hope Bioware takes a good look at some of the things they could've done better. For all the things Mass Effect does right (and there's a lot), there's still a ton of unrealized potential.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Wednesday Music Break

Usually the Wednesday Music Break (I refuse to title a post "Hump Day") is Bill's thing, but, with him on vacation, I figured I ought to throw something out there. I'm not much for knowing good music from bad music, but I know what I like and Tom Petty has been and remains one of my all time favorites. So today's music break is the track Saving Grace from his most recent album, Highway Companion.


Monday, June 9, 2008

Mass Effect (PC) Impressions

Preface: I'm still not very far into this game. That's why this is an "impressions" post and not a review. My level of enthusiasm may change as I go deeper into it (though I doubt it).

If you haven't played it, Mass Effect is set in a distant future setting in which mankind, having discovered alien technology, has catapulted to the stars and found itself as one of many races looking to co-exist (or not) in the cosmos. You're a military man (or woman) with the last name of Shepard (the first name is up to you). It's a mix of classic RPG elements (multiple character types, character leveling and development, epic story) and 3rd person action. But as I've been playing it, the comparison that comes to mind more and more often is Starflight (1986).

Starflight didn’t have any 3rd-person action shooter elements, but you created your captain and crew, took command of a fully upgradable ship and explored a multitude of star systems and planets in an attempt to figure out why stars across the galaxy were going nova and how it could be stopped.

In Starflight you direct your ship where you want, when you want, collecting hints and following-up on rumors as you go. As you travel, you can land on any world (that doesn't have crushing gravity) and use your armed rover to search for alien artifacts as well as biotic specimens and useful minerals that can be mined and sold. As you gained money, you could train your crew to improve at their jobs. For example, your communications officer would get better and better at translating ship-to-ship communications between alien races. You could also improve your ship and take on more dangerous areas of space. It was epic in scale, when you consider it shipped on a pair of 5.25" floppy disks. True, you needed your own imagination to fill in a lot of details, but that was true of most games of the time. (And I suspect my imagination filling in the blanks for those old games is why I still revere them so much.)

Starflight was and remains one of my all time favorite games.

In Mass Effect you start off as a lone marine on an assignment that is very much on rails. But it's not long before you end up with a ship of your own, the autonomy to go where you will, and a team of party members that travel with you, allowing you to select any two of them as you adventure outside the ship. (Which crewmen you select can have a significant impact on how easy it is to accomplish your goals in a specific area.) The planetary exploration is incredibly reminiscent of Starflight (at least, so far). There are fewer star systems and fewer worlds, but if there's reason to do so, you can land on inhospitable alien worlds and find resources to be mined, alien artifacts and other unforeseen encounters. The main difference being that you can actually get out of your ATV and walk around a bit. (Plus, it uses more than 16 colors. Mass Effect is gorgeous.)

All that, however, isn't what makes Mass Effect the kind of game experience I've been looking for, for years. It's that the galaxy is allowed to breath. When you first arrive at the central world of Citadel, Mass Effect looks like it's going to be a pretty generic 3rd-person shooter with a little talkity-talk as you go. But as you explore the Citadel an entire galaxy opens up to you. The alien races all have incredibly rich histories. Every character of consequence has a deep personal history that offers clearly defined motivations for their actions. And the actions you take in the world have consequences in the world appropriate to their scale. (If you're just doing one person a small favor, they'll remember you. But if you do something big that gets everyone's attention, most everyone will comment on it.) With characters and cultures so well defined, it's easy to get lost in the world and get to the point where you actually give a shit what happens to the people in it.

Bioware has also done a marvelous job of investing you, as a player, in your own character. You can pretty much, if you so choose, make up a character in your own image, which is nice. There's a handful of character classes that allow you to specialize in three main areas or some combination thereof: combat, biotic skills (magic) and tech (decryption, electronics, etc.). But beyond that, the game also lets you select a two-part backstory involving how you grew up and a life changing event. There's only a few options to choose from, three for each of the two parts, I think. But the ones you choose are frequently reflected in the game. If you decided that your marine was the sole survivor of a disaster, for example, NPCs throughout the game will refer to that back story. Even if the options aren't as diverse as you might like, it was still very effective at investing me in my own character, something that I never got from Oblivion or Bioshock.

Granted, this game isn't going to hit everyone's happy place like it did for me. There's every bit as much talking up NPCs and running fetch quests as there is intense combat. If you're not one who likes to read or hear a lot of dialog, or spend lots of time solving other people's problems, Mass Effect is going to be boring as hell for you. And it's not like Mass Effect breaks a ton of new ground. This style of game has been around forever. For all Bioware's crowing (before the console release of the game), your dialog options, in particular, really don't go anywhere we've not been before and your dialog choices don't often have the moral ambiguity or unknown consequences of The Witcher.

For me, though, I don't care. Mass Effect is hitting an itch that I haven't been able to scratch since the days of Black Isle studios and the Infinity Engine games (Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale), but it's doing it in a sci-fi setting that I've been missing since Starflight, more than 20 years ago. (Note: I still haven't played Knights of the Old Republic. Maybe I've just missed out.) Bottom line, if you like a good, old school, PC RPG that unfolds like a great book or movie, Mass Effect is well worth checking out.

Oh, and for what it's worth, I have yet to hit the infamous alien sex scene (perhaps I missed it?) that caused all the controversy last fall. I did, however, just find this YouTub clip that pretty much sums up my feelings about it. It's only 30 seconds, so give it a quick view:

Restoring the Faith

Believe it or not, I've spent a fair amount of time in recent years, not playing games, but rather thinking about whether or not I should bother playing games anymore. Even with the ones I've really liked the last few years, like Civ4, Bioshock or The Witcher, I end up putting my time in and then asking myself, "was it worth it?" And it's not that the answer is always no, but I think the fact that I feel the need to ask myself the question is telling. Sure, I can get lost in playing Civ4 for days on end if my job and role as a parent didn't prevent that from happening, but when I finally turn away from the screen I don't necessarily feel like I've really gained anything.

Every so often, however, I'll play something that reminds me why I play games. You see, I'm all about the story. I think the one constant in my development from young'n to kinda sorta being an adult is my love of a good yarn told well. I think when you're exposed to a story and characters that, for whatever reason, are able to communicate to you and allow you to get lost in them, well, they become a part of you forever. And there's no rhyme or reason to it. One person's Citizen Kane might be another's Batman and Robin. (I'd say and vice-versa, but come on. Nobody liked Batman and Robin.) The love/hate relationship the masses have had with the latest Indiana Jones flick is proof enough of that.

Getting caught up in a story, I think, happens more easily with non-gaming media (books, movies, TV, even music) where you're just along for the ride. But a good game can accomplish just as much as any of these other mediums. When it can, it's even better than those mediums because, in its own way, it's happening to you. You're not just along for the ride anymore. After more than 20 years playing games, it's the ones with stories that ensnared my sense of wonder that I remember. X-Wing may have been a better space dogfighting sim than Wing Commander, but decades later, I remember the Wing Commander storyline (and the game) more fondly than I remember X-Wing (which was a great game too).

If a game can call me back to it because I simply have to know what happens next, just as I might stay up far too late to digest just one more chapter of a good book, then it's hitting my narrative g-spot. Baldur's Gate II remains my all time favorite game, in part, because it is the most epic title I've ever played. It's characters weren't just portraits off to the side of the UI, they were people with histories and their survival mattered to me. Likewise the quests let you feel like you made an impact on the game world and that you weren't just doing them to gather better arms and more experience. Ultima V, despite the archaic graphics of the time, still allowed a willing mind to run wild. Lord British is missing? The eight virtues of the Avatar perverted? Your heroic companions of Ultima IV in hiding? Just what has happened to my Britannia?

It's been awhile, though, since a game really was able to grab me on that kind of level. Bioshock came close, but in the words of Ken Levine, at the end of the day it was really, "just a shooter." Ultimately, I still think its spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2, was a more memorable game. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion never really gave me a game world that I could feel a part of, even if the world itself was a breathtaking place to explore.

I was beginning to think that perhaps I'd changed, that my ability to sink into these places and become a part of them had been lost to a mind that had to worry more about making sure the kids were eating their dinners and that the mortgage got paid. Despite having a computer and three game consoles that do get used regularly, more than once I've wondered if I shouldn't just close it all down.

Then, along comes a game like Mass Effect and the feelings brought on from playing games like Wasteland and Planescape: Torment are suddenly rekindled. I hear the voice of James Earl Jones at the end of Field of Dreams, saying, "It reminds us all of what once as good and can could be again." Okay, yeah, he was talking about baseball, but the axiom still holds.

Yesterday, I finally got in a good, long marathon session of Mass Effect and the short version of my impressions can only be summed up as this: I love this game. I play it and I remember why, at 34 years old, I'm still playing games and why I'm not going to stop anytime soon. It's a fully realized world with three-dimensional characters that are almost instantly compelling. And it makes me feel like I'm a part of it, that I'm not just grinding out experience so I can improve my character skill set. Since this post is already pretty long, I'll just leave it at that for now. I'll do a real impressions writeup between now and Tuesday morning.

Oh, and I'm embedding the following video again because there should never be a reference to James Earl Jones without it coming up:

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Don King Call

Wow. Here is my write up from the 2K conference call with Don King. Surreal does not begin to describe it.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Me, Not As Tough as Ryan Malone

I've been wanting to write up something on the Wings winning the Cup, as well as some Mass Effect (PC) impressions, but a sinus infection I've been battling decided to turn nasty a few days ago. My ass = officially kicked. At this point my face feels like one big bruise, not unlike the Pens' Ryan Malone, who took a slapshot to the face in Game 5 (see the embedded video). Only, I'm not tough enough to stay suited up to play. So, it'll all have to wait till next week. Have a good weekend, everybody!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Stuff on a Thursday

Twlight of the Arnor is a brilliant expansion. See. This review says so.

Michael's next to last installment of TWBG is online today. Hate to see this series come to an end. Sucks that Mike had to go through all of that but it gets a lot of hits! Maybe I can convince him to open the store up again...

We also have a preview of Guitar Hero Aerosmith. Do GH fans really want to play that? Todd? I liked Aerosmith when they were on coke. When bands sober up, the music suffers.

I'm getting packed for our vacation next week -- you will be in the hands of The Brakke from Monday through Friday. Happy for Todd that the Red Wings won. I forgot they even played hockey in the near Columbus, we tend to forget from time to time.

Lastly, I have my copy of Conan but I haven't opened it yet. Anyone playing this?

Lastly 2x, I should have a preview of the new version of The Political Machine ready before I leave. Let's hope it's better than the 1960 boardgame.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Red Wings: Champions!!!!

'nuff said, for now. I'll write up more later.

A Simple Red Wing Prayer for Tonight's Game 6

Please don't blow it. Pretty please.

...with sugar on top, even.

Hump Day Music Break

One hour of sleep last night due to the storm system that came through Ohio; my dogs FREAKED out and it was a miserable evening. So, here's some Black Keys.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Marc-Andre Fleury: I Hate You

Do the Pens not understand that last night's game was supposed to be a coronation? Did they not get the memo? Does their goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, not understand that if the puck doesn't reach the back of the net that the Wings don't get the goals they need to win? I mean what the f#@? It's cats and dogs living together out there on the ice. MASS HYSTERIA!!!

In all seriousness, you have to tip your hat to the Pens. I'm not saying I think they deserved to win last night. I don't think they did. After a shoddy first period the Wings pretty much owned the rest of the game, especially the 3rd period and the first overtime. Fleury flat out stole the game.

I've got to say how glad I am the game wasn't decided on either of those phantom goalie interference calls the Wings got tagged with in the first two OTs. I really don't want to hear another Penguin gripe about not getting calls after that fiasco. That said, the final 4-minute penalty to Hudler, that lead to the Pens' game winner had to be called. It wasn't an intentional stick to the face, but he did it and it probably cost the Wings the game. Though, after about 10 minutes of overtime you had to know it had the feel of a game that just wouldn't go the Wings way, no matter what.

I'd try to sum up what it feels like, as a fan, to watch that unfold, but the On The Wings blog already pretty much nailed it. I got very little sleep last night as the number 34.7 flashed in my head over and over again. It was so bad my dreams were filled with visions of Fleury stopping golden opportunities. I can't even imagine what it's like for the players.

I so wanted to see the Wings hoist the cup on home ice. Now it's back to Pittsburgh, where I think we'll see a Winged fury unleashed for Game 6.

At least, I hope so.

It's 12:24 am

And this frigg'n game is still going. The Wings were up 3-2 in the closing minutes. My wife got our four year old up to come watch the final minute. Then the Pens scored with 35 seconds left. As I type, they're now heading for a 3rd overtime and I just had to send the poor kid back to bed. Who knew?

Fleury (the Pens goalie) is single-handedly keeping Pitt in this game. If you're not watching you're missing an epic battle.

Also, Mass Effect (PC): Tres Cool so far, but I've barely scratched the surface.

Update: Well, that sucked.

Monday, June 2, 2008


I spent a lot of time this weekend watching movies --some new and some for one reason or another slipped past the net when they were you know...relevant. I couldn't sleep this weekend so hey...might as well watch some TV.

I have no idea WHY but I watched Pirates of the Caribbean at World's End. I loved the first movie, didn't like the 2nd, and wow, this last one was just dogshit from top to bottom. Not only did I watch it but I sat through all 2 hours and 48 minutes of it. (Insomnia!!!) What a train wreck. See, when Todd bags on Temple of Doom -- I understand his complaints and I agree with most of them, but then I watch this piece of bloated trash and it makes movies like Temple at least in the high "C" range. No, still haven't seen the latest Indy. But I will.

I did see the new Narnia movie. Like most sequels -- not nearly as good or as fun as the first. And a plot of convoluted as The Sicilian. Still, leagues better than the Pirates sequels.

Romero's Diary of the Dead, if you like the zombie genre, is totally awesome.

28 Weeks Later, while NOT a zombie movie (seriously people -- infection -- rage..not dead people rising from the grave) is also dogshit. See, I have NO problem with an implausible premise (zombies, giant monsters) but the plot has to make sense. This one doesn't. Again, loved the original and this one was made to make a buck.

Cloverfield is next on the chopping block. Motion sickness + rich beautiful twenty something yuppie I started cheering for the damn monster just to eat these assholes and be done with it. So much hype for this movie but I already saw the hand held video camera horror movie thing -- it's called Blair Witch Project and it's ten times scarier than this. And seriously the first 25 minutes is spent watching a boring home movie. It's painful. I give it props for the exploding death scene. But that's the highlight.

So it was a sleepless weekend spent watching, for the most part, bad movies.

I really need to sleep.