Friday, September 28, 2012

Josh comes around

I know not everyone around here shares my opinions on Batman and Firefly, so you may find this Facebook status update amusing. This is what happens when you don't log out when your friends are visiting.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review: Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping Dogs was okay. Not a great game, not a terrible game. I think the biggest problem is that the GTA does this kind of thing better and a collection of warmed over Hong Kong action movie cliches can't save it.

The title screen is terrible, though. It's this logo on a black background. I've seen NES games with better title screens.

This is well worn territory to those who read this blog, but I like my heroes to be heroes.  I like to play heroes in a video game. I don't find villains who kick puppies for dark side points to be particularly engaging, but I'll play a villain protagonist, but only if the game is honest about it. The Prototype series is probably my favorite open world game, because I'm a monster and the narrative never pretends otherwise. I'm not evil for the sake of being evil, but the character is almost entirely self-interested. In Sleeping Dogs, you play my least favorite type of character, the biggest shit in the world whom everyone treats like a hero.

Early on, you're romancing several women. You get a tip that one of them is cheating on you, so you do what any concerned party  would do in that situation, and you bug her phone and follow her every movement around town. Did I say concerned party? I meant crazy stalker.

It happens so early on that every subsequent act is seen in the light of that one. If not for that one mission, I think I wound have had an entirely different impression of the character.

The advertising was also a little misleading. I read about making tough choices and conflicted loyalties, as Copp Maverick, maverick cop goes undercover with the triads. But it's really not like that. You're a guy in the triads who occasionally calls on his police contacts.  There were a few "investigation" missions, but they were short and unconnected to the overall plot. It was mostly go here and click on this. When we were investigating a later mission, Tim made the quip, "I'm going to click on a glowie and  find a phone number who tells me who did it," which, as it turned out, is exactly what happens. I think the game would have been better served getting rid of these entirely rather than rolling them out like this.

The main plot is fine. It's painfully predictable, which I think is working as intended, because the authors didn't want to depart too far from the hard-boiled John Woo gangster apocalypses, which, in spite of their many merits, do tend to follow certain formulas. The writing was uneven. It's almost as if there were two writing teams.

I guess I would have liked to have seen a little more nuance. The bad guys are shown as irredeemably bad, but  I'm not sure that shooting up a wedding is worse than kidnapping your enemies, murdering them, making them into stew that you force feed to other kidnapped enemies, to take an example from the game.

The chases were pretty badly executed. It's impossible to catch your target and nearly as impossible to lose him. You just parkour up a bunch of stuff, and follow  him for three minutes until he stops running and decides to fight. And there are so many of them. I'd rather win or lose on the basis of my skills, not just get to a point where the game says, "Hey, you didn't lose by this point, so I guess you catch him."

Then there's fast talking. I don't even know why fast talking was implemented. When you talk to certain people, a triangle will appear and you have about ten seconds to push it to respond. If you do, you successfully fast talk your target. Its inclusion is just bizarre. It's almost impossible to fail (though we did so once, when Tim was playing and talking to me during the conversation) and it adds nothing

There were some funny moments, but mostly they come from random occurrences in an open world game such as this. For example, a woman wanted me to take pictures to provide new designs for her t-shirt business, so I went around to local landmarks. At one location I stopped my car too late and wound up running into a bunch of pedestrians who were sprawled at unnatural angles in front of the scenic vista. I snapped the picture anyway. (I did like the mission with the drunk photobombing you when you were trying to take a picture of a sunset, though.)

And there was another fight against a bunch of goons. We just mounted a nearby moped and drove back and forth, honking the cute little horn every time we ran someone down.

And likewise, it's viscerally satisfying to steal an SUV and plow it into a group of unsuspecting thugs.

There were a lot of minigames for various activities, but they weren't too bad. I actually enjoyed the hacking part. The main problem with them is that they came too frequently, and it just seemed like a cheap way to extend the playtime.

Verdict: Buy it used. Preferably from me.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Words with Nerds

I really like this picture and I think it's going to be one of my favorites. That's my wife and my best friend, each playing Words with Friends on their phone. I took a break to snap a picture with mine.

My friend Tim came down to visit this weekend. Tim has been my best friend for a long time. And the usual disclaimers apply here, that Jen is my best friend too, but in another way, and that it's weird for adults to say "best friend". Whatever. But it is nice to see the people with whom you're closest getting along so well.

Here's my piece from the series I wrote when the blog was young. Tim's a good guy, he's interested in the same geeky things (in some cases, he sparked my initial interest in those geeky things) and I don't see him as often as I'd like in person, so I sometimes forget how frightfully smart he is. (Though, like me, it's the kind of smart that's not really useful for anything on its own).

And before I get too far into this post, I want to say how very much I appreciated everything Jen did to make this a weekend where I could really spend a lot of time with Tim. Lily really wanted to see Mister Tim and Jen kept her busy with roller skating and trips to the shore so Tim and I could have some time alone, which we mostly squandered.

Here's a picture of Tim reading with Lily. We have a series of books called "You Read to Me, I'll Read to You", which are designed to be read by two people. One reads the text of one color, the other reads the text that rhymes with it, which is printed in another color. The final paragraph is read by both readers, and usually includes some variation of "You read to me and I'll read to you." It's cute. We have fables, fairy tales and scary tales, the latter of which is of course Lily's favorite.

I have the habit of humming fragments of songs. Usually whatever pops in to my head or something that I hear in my environment. Tim does this too. So I'll start humming something and I few minutes later Tim will hum it. Repeat several dozen times over the course of the day.

We were mostly humming the theme to Gravity Falls and a piece from Nausicca.

For your listening pleasure:

This was the first time I had seen Gravity Falls, but Tim loved it and Lily loved it and I loved it too! (Jen declined comment) I don't know why no one ever thought to cast Kristen Schaal in a cartoon before this, but oh my good, she is perfect as Mable. I enjoy the absurdity of the show, and the Street Fighter episode is one of the all time funniest things I've ever seen. "Winners don't lose!"

On Friday night, we all had Indian food at the local restaurant. The place has to be a front for someplace, because there are never more than ten people, including our party and the staff whenever we eat there, and yet they've been tenaciously clinging to life for several years now.  Lily loves Naan and she made a meal of that and washed it down with the ice water, and we tried not to think too hard that we were feeding our child bread and water.

We stayed up late and played Sleeping Dogs and Trapt. Sleeping Dogs was a Hong Kong version of Grand Theft Auto and will get its own post shortly. Trapt is the successor to the Deception series of games, where you lure people in to your castle and kill them with traps. Trapt was great in concept, but lackluster in execution. I should have listened to the reviews on Wikipedia that call it "tediously unengaging"  and "fairly short and almost unintelligible".

We spent too much money on food and since Tim is occasionally interested in alcohol archeology, we went to the local liquor store. He took a picture of a beer called Delirium Tremens, which is the ultimate in truth in advertising. This picture is a placeholder and I'll replace  it when I get a copy of Tim's photo.

Truth in advertising

Sometimes we do something big when we get together, other times we don't and this was one of those times. I don't regret it, though. Sometimes that's just what the doctor ordered.

A picture of Tim next to a sign with a curiously specific claim about its cheesesteaks

And we will conclude Random Quotes from the weekend:

  • While Playing Sleeping Dogs: "I don't like being beaten to death." "Then stop doing it so much."
  • Lily came downstairs when she heard us watching cartoons at 4 in the morning. "This is what grownups always do after kids go to sleep!"
  • "Is that a camel or a dromedary?" "It's a llama with osteoporosis."
  • "Chinchillas will pee on you to defend themselves."
  • "At least I'm still beating my wife." (This was in reference to how I was losing most of my Words with Friends games, but I was still ahead of Jen in that particular match.)

and the best for last...

  • "Let me put my pants on! I don't want to miss this!"

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Old Zelazny tribute poem

So, I've been thinking about this poem since my post about Whelan's Z-World piece the other week, and I like it for many of the same reasons; it's a loving tribute that ties together a lot of disparate elements from Zelazny's career.

I remember seeing it on the old, which was such a great site until it suddenly vanished one day. The poem had been written by someone under the name Trashman, and was hosting it after Trashman's site went down. I'm going to do the same.

He's climbed up the stair
                   above Amber fair
                   and walked among shadows
                  `till no one was there
                   A silver red rose
                   flutters down through the air
                   his walk through the pattern has ended
                   and the last of the wild ones sputters and stops
                   while Camelot stands undefended.

                   Zelazny is dead
                   (do you hear me, Fred???)
                   to the ziggurat blue
                   has gone Dorakeen, Red
                   The riddle is solved
                   (was it feathers or lead?)

as a face in the
shadows looks on . . .

             . . . a gargoyle reaches but nothing is caught
                   a shrugger of thunders battles his foes
                   an alley is crossed, a leviathan sought
                   pin seven is pulled and a new face is chose
                   a unicorn forfeits a pawn. . .

he feels the story has come to a close
he tarrys, a breath. . .
and moves on.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Roger Zelazny Cover Art Review: Michael Whelan: Z-World

I was flipping through my copies of the COLLECTED STORIES, trying to figure out what I'd want to cover next. I liked Youth Eternal, but I think any review of it would be longer than the story itself.

Then I came across Michael Whelan's piece in Book 6. I must have at least skimmed it before, but this time I really sat down and read it and I was tremendously impressed with how much thought he put into the piece. (Also, I appreciate it how he explained the basics of how he approached the composition in a fashion that was accessible to a reader with a grade school art education.)  I've mentioned before that the Notes are among my favorite features in The COLLECTED STORIES. I think they expand and enrich appreciation of the stories. This essay was like a twelve page note on the painting. I liked it before, but I love it now.

Also, I went over Whelan's website and I wished I had done so sooner, because he was at the preview party at an art museum ten minutes from where I work! Argh!! I can't believe I missed that opportunity! I'm kicking myself!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

I come to praise City of Heroes, not to bury it

I was never huge into MMOs. Back when I worked at the comic store, the Viscount, who had worked there previously, would regale of us with tales of his time in Ultima Online. The living world just sounded so cool. But I never did wind up playing Ultima.

I did play a text-based MUD called Mirkwood for a few years. That was fun. And then I found City of Heroes.

Like most of the gamers of my generation, I started with D&D and I've played it, but it was never my favorite. Ah....but superheroes. I saw a feature on CoH when I was working in a bookstore, while flipping through a magazine I was supposed to be destroying, and thought, hey, this could be neat.

I started a week after launch. Safari Joe was my first character, an AR/Devices blaster. A bunch of real life friends played it at first too. They kind of drifted away for their various reasons, but I stayed with it for years. Shortly after the last of my real world friends gave up the game, I was ready to hang up my cape too, but then I learned my brother in Florida was in to it. So I reactivated my account and we teamed up.

I can't tell you what I liked so much about it. With the exception of a rapid succession of major nerfs (Diminishing returns on enhancements and a major reduction to defensive powers), the game got better with every update. I remember the first time I felt like an honest to goodness super hero. It's when I was in a large group gathered together at the entrance to a high level area to defeat the Hamidon, the only raid boss in the game at the time. The leader gave the go order and suddenly everyone was flying and leaping and teleporting and superspeeding towards the target. It was glorious and it was epic and the only other time I felt that way was when I was running the ITF for the first time and we couldn't stop the alien controlled Centurion until I blasted him with the chemical warhead I'd been saving for a rainy day.

My interest waxed and waned over the seven years, but I can't think of any other game I've played regularly for seven years. I hadn't played much since the last update, but I kept up with forums, and the upcoming update (they called them Issues, and this would have been Issue 24) looked very promising and I planned to check it out. And then, while checking my phone during some down time at work, I noticed a facebook post saying "Please Read" and a link to a "So Long and Thanks for all the Fish" post on the official forums. All development was ending immediately and servers would be shut down at the end of November. They were professional to the end and put on as positive a spin on the situation as they could, but it was a pretty raw deal and everyone knew it.

There are couple explanations to what led up to this. The parent company, NCSoft had a lousy last quarter. They had a new majority shareholder in the form of Nexon, and while CoH was profitable, it wasn't pulling in crazy money and rumor had it that Nexon was putting pressure on them to close the studio.

I had been playing the game since before my daughter was born and now she's reading well enough to play. (She certainly spells better than most people you find in a Pick Up Group.) She would sit on my lap when she was a baby and I was playing and when she got older she would make heroes in the character builder. With Issue 24 approaching, I had the thought that I would finally be able to share this game I enjoyed with my daughter. I suppose that's why I feel so melancholy about the whole thing. I knew the game wouldn't go on forever, but it's disappointing to have it cancelled under these circumstances. It reminds me of the scene in the Matrix where Cypher is pulling the plug on his former comrades in the Matrix, and Switch just says, "Not like this." It's silly to get upset about it when there are so many more important things to worry about out there, but I am.

I remember reading once that the TiVo had one of the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any commercial product. Almost everyone who tried it was very happy with it.

That's how I think of City of Heroes. It seems to be fondly remembered by people. When I mentioned that it was going to be shut down to a couple of people with whom I had played, the overwhelming consensus was "That's a shame. I had fun with it back in the day."

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Unweaving the Rainbow

The title of the post comes from a book by Richard Dawkins, which in turn comes from a joke by John Keats where he accused Newton of destroying the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to prismatic colors. Dawkins said that for him, the beauty of the natural world is only enhanced when one can understand the underlying forces than give rise to it.

My philosophy is similar. It was never enough to say, "Hey that's neat!", I wanted to know why things were as they were.

Unsurprsingly, I loved science shows as a kid. My favorites were 3-2-1-Contact, which had the best theme song ever,

 and Mr. Wizard's World. I don't think I've ever seen Bill Nye and (apparently he's not the same guy as Bill Nighy),

See they both wear bow ties! Anyone could make that mistake!

but his show filled the same role in the 90s. I just didn't watch a lot of TV in the 90s, and somehow Bill Nye sailed entirely beneath my radar.

Lily's attitude is similar to mine. See that rainbow at the top? She drew that as part of a fundraiser. Kids could draw a picture and the school would put it on a bunch of stuff that you could buy. Whenever she draws a rainbow, she wants to get it right. I discussed her perfectionism in an earlier post, and I think this is a manifestation of it. She knows that the patterns in rainbows in reality follow a specific pattern and she wants to make sure her drawings follow this pattern. So it's ROY G. BIV all the way for her, accept no substitutes.

In a comment to an earlier piece, cfc asked if I could be influencing her perfectionism. I don't think I am, directly, at least. I think it's just a part of her makeup. I was raised very differently than she was and we wound up with very similar attitudes, so I think this is a largely a question of nature over nurture.  That said, she loves me very much, and she sees my attitudes, and seeks to emulate them as kids of that age do. So while I never went full Harry Chapin and told her that "flowers are red", I very well may have complimented her pictures that more closely resemble the objects they represent and thereby reinforced her attitude.

I'm naturally curious and so is Jen, and we both have a decent general education and we're each adept in our own way about explaining concepts to an audience hitherto unfamiliar with them. I'm happy that she wants to understand the world, and I'm happy that we can help her do it.

She watched an episode of Mythbusters on Netflix and fell in love with it. And Mythbusters is in fact pretty awesome. The thing I like most about them is that they're willing to revisit and revise earlier experiments in accordance with feedback. They don't have lab coats, but they are great scientists.

(Though their gun safety is dreadful. We were watching an episode where they try to determine if it's possible to do the Wild West trick and shoot and gun out of an opponent's hand and they're gesturing all over the place with them and pointing the handguns at each other's faces. I expected a repeat of that scene from Pulp Fiction. Have we learned nothing from Jeff Cooper, people?)

Also, something I learned from the Wikipedia page is that they repeat the experiment more times than they show in an episode, so they're drawing their conclusions from a much larger sample size that it would appear. That actually addressed my number one concern with the series.

I asked Lily why she likes the show, and she said, "Because they test things by blowing them up," and I don't think I could have said it better.