Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dragon Age: Origins

I initially beat this game a while ago on the PS3, but I wanted to play it on the PC and do a comparison, which took me until about two weeks ago to finally through it.

This game, simply put, is amazing. While naturally it's not perfect, it comes a lot closer than most games I know, so let's break it down.

Story. Without giving spoilers for anyone who hasn't played through this yet (then why are you reading this? Go. Play it. Now.), the story of this game is incredible. It creates a deep world filled with history and culture. The extensive background work they did is readily apparent. While not overloading the player with information, the culture reveals itself through the rules of the world, the culture apparent in how the NPCs behave, and how events unfold. Having this kind of basis to build on creates a world that's cohesive and credible, allowing the player to dive in and stay immersed. Additionally, while the player is inducted into an ancient and honorable order, you are not hailed as a hero. Quite the opposite. The bad guys are spreading rumors about your order, and even if the people of Ferelden don't believe the rumors, they largely wonder if your order is still relevant, or strong enough to make any kind of difference.

One of the greatest things about the story is that the player is presented with a number of choices that change and shape the story. However, while these choices strive to be interesting, they fall just a shade short. Looking at the 6 major choices in game (the 5 major quests of the second act of the story, and the Landsmeet in the third act), two come very close to being something that will engage the player, but then turn around offer a third "warm and fuzzy" option. While this may not end up available to the player in all playthroughs, it does kind of distract from things. Another choice comes down to "be a jerk for power, or not", so unless your character is a little wishy-washy in their morality, this will be an easy choice. This goes on for many of the choices. If you have a strong idea of your character's morality, this quickly turns into easy choices that have far less meaning than if they had balanced the pros and cons of the choices a bit better. I think only one of the choices really becomes interesting, and that's "The Broken Circle" quest line. Here, your character can feel good either way, but it comes down to the many versus the few in terms of who deserves what.

Character development is incredibly powerful in Origins. Every one of your companions has a unique back story, unique and developed personality, and interacts realistically with other members of your party. Who you have in your party will change not only the banter, but how the group seeks to influence you in your choices.

A wide array of side quests exists, both offered by the common folk, and most of your companions will have quests. This creates a rich and immersive world where you will really feel part of a living, breathing world.

As far as class balance, there is none. Mages are grossly overpowered, and including the player you can have up to three in your party. Rogues are useful and versatile with options to be melee, assassin or archery. Warriors, however, move very slowly. While they can deal damage, especially among widespread groups of base level enemies, your ranged party members can often dispatch the one you're going after before you get there.

Tactics can be set for each of your party members as well. This is useful ability to keep your party working in unison or to set "oh shit" options up if squishier party members get aggro. Use of abilities or potions at key moments if your attention is on characters is hugely helpful. But they can be difficult to set up properly for total reliance. I found myself pausing every few seconds and cycling through characters to manually set their inext action. This could make some battles last incredibly long but with half that time not actually in action.
But despite these issues, this game is beautifully designed, creating a world that is enjoyable, deep and vibrant. I'd definitely say it's worth the time and money to buy, especially now that it is a lot cheaper and comes bundled with a bunch of goodies.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Mists of Pandaria Beta: Pandaren Starter Zone

My beta tests will be limited. I am a big fan of seeing a game unfold all shiny and new on release versus playing it to death during beta.

My focuses will be the new starter zone, some of the high level stuff and new achievements.

First, the new character creator is great. You can see all the choices laid out at once, making it much better than trying to cycle through and find what you want.

The Pandaren starting zone is gorgeous. Once again the starting zone Blizzard designed is tightly themed, well-structured, and based off the few quests I was able to do, will be as entrancing as the other starting zones.

The beginning of the monk class was a lot of fun. It has a bit of a rogue feel. But still was unique. I'll write more when I check it out with a premade. 85.

At a start, this xpac is looking to be amazing. Some felt the Pandaren were too cartoony, but I love them. My little Pandaren girl is just adorable. And I love playing her. I am greatly looking forward to starting up a Pandaren monk when the xpac drops.

Monday, January 9, 2012


After a year long hiatus, and despite a backlog of entries to catch up on, I decided to open up the new year with a post on hackers. Those vial scum that infect our devices for fun and/or profit.

One in particular, the Windows Security 2012 viruses, and its predecessors (2010 and 2011 versions) have given me quite the headache. Now, I'm tech and internet savvy enough that I don't get hit by most viruses (this is the only one I've had an issue with). I have a good antivirus software that I keep up to date and running at all times. I surf sites that I'm familiar with and "know" to be safe. I don't click links offering me huge prizes as I'm the 1 billionth visitor. I admit to one flaw (that I will be fixing soon), and that is a tendency to run with my firewall off due to making some gaming, and more particularly subversioning commits of programs run a great deal smoother.

When I first got this virus in early 2010, I was still relatively noobish enough that I didn't want want to go digging around in my registry on my own. So I shelled out a couple hundred bucks to let techboys dive in and deal with it. At this time, the virus was pretty nasty already, writing itself into your system restore checkpoints, and shutting down all programs and internet access except to its own site.

The idea behind this virus is simple enough: put together a rogue program that looks believably to be a legitimate Windows issue, then  charge unwary users to "register" it, and at the same time steal credit card information. I will give them props for at least trying to get something out of the deal. The only thing worse than a hacker-for-profit is a hacker-for-shits-and-giggles.

I went the next couple few years with no trouble from this nasty little shit. However, the creators seem to be out for blood as I've been hit with it 3 times in just the last couple of months now. I think I've finally nailed down the site I was getting it from (actually a long-time favorite of mine. I do not think its the creators of the site installed the worm, but that the creators were simply able to worm it into their system).

And the little shits have been doing their homework. The first time I got it, I ran into a couple small snags uninstalling it myself, but was able to dig into the registry and get rid of it. The second time, however, they had the virus shutting down access to the registry editor, the system restore feature (the "nice" one that rolls back your system a few days and saves all your files, regardless of when they were created rather than wiping your hard drive to factory oblivion), and the command prompt.

This latest incarnation, however, shows further ingenuity. They killed system admin rights, disabled the task manager, removed visibility to external drives, hid the system protection feature so system restore couldn't be turned on at all, and after entering in a fake registration code from one of the many removal guides available shut down my network drivers regardless of what level of Safe Mode I booted up in.

After three hours of rage and tears, I was finally able to make some headway against this beast. I really, really, really do not want to wipe my computer. It wouldn't be the end of the world, with my files backed up. The only files I'd lose I care at all about are my Skyrim saves. My bigger problem is that I would then have to reinstall a lot of programs. Besides taking up time, some (like my Windows Office) I'm out of installs on. Others I have difficulty locating the disks for, and all in all, would take me a good couple of days to get everything back up and running, patched and ready to roll.

So this boils down to a great deal of rage on my part. People like this are scum, and should focus on getting out of their parents' basements and getting real jobs.While I'm sure they rake in a fair amount of money, its at the cost of other people in the worst way. Besides the money and identity theft, which can seriously fuck a person over anyways, it also kills what, to many people, is the most important device in their lives. Family pictures and videos lost, access to internet to manage the household, hours of games, important documents, etc. All possibly lost. Or, if it can all be saved, it is at the cost of several hours of work. Hours that often need to be put to use elsewhere, working, sleeping, cleaning, relaxing from a long day, etc.

How many of us really have the time for this kind of shit? All so some asshole can get rich off of the portion of the populace that doesn't know how to recognize this kind of scumbaggery. While the tech savvy like myself just hang our heads in shame for getting a virus and can dig in and beat it, there's a large number of people with no clue how to recognize this kind of thing.

Its easy to brush it off as "their own damn fault" for not learning the proper ways to protect themselves, but who teaches them? Most computers are up and running out of the box in minutes, with no alerts to this kind of thing. Ask a tech at a store, and they'll simply offer a good anti-virus (which Windows Security can get past).

I will give the creators of the Windows Security virus that they're smart. Every new iteration of the virus ruthlessly cuts around the various ways to counteract it and kill it. And thanks to them, I've learned how to rip the very heart out of my computer, beat into submission, and and shove it back in.

But it's cost me so much in terms of time. And ironclad security (if there is such a thing) quickly starts to interfere with legitimate applications and usages.

And with the rise in the use of smartphones and similar devices, those are quickly becoming vulnerable to hacking as well.

It's despicable, its disgusting, and it's costing victims time, money, and possibly leading to serious, life-changing problems.

And sadly, there's no way to stop it. As long as there's a profit to be made, and the internet and constant connectivity is such an increasingly critical part of our lives, we will never be free from this kind of threat. People will do terrible things to each other for fun and profit, just as we've done for millennia.

The common response to rants like this from many people is "Lol, then buy a Mac". But as more and more people buy Macs, they'll start getting hacked just as much as their Windows counterparts. Yes, Windows has problems that are undeniable. But Macs are not superior or immune. To be perfectly honest, the main reason Macs aren't hacked as often is that most of their users are artists, hipsters, and college students. Few of whom have anything worth stealing. PCs are targeted because the virus will hit the widest base, and are also far more likely to hit more novice users who will fall victim to the scams. As one person put it, if Fort Knox and the cookie jar had the same level of security, which would you be more likely to steal from?

So there it stands. Hackers are complete scum in my view. Even so-called "political hackers" like Anonymous, who claim to be fighting for truth, justice and the American way when they're just bullying anyone who disagrees with them.

But the vast bulk of my hatred lies with the creators of the Windows Security virus. As I pass 4 hours of working on getting rid of your worm, for not the first time, I want to find you. The things I want to do to you make Guantanamo Bay look like a five star day spa.

I will find you. And when I do, I'm going Liam Neeson on your ass.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dead Like Me: Life After Death

Dead Like Me: Life After Deathwas the straight to DVD movie that followed the critically acclaimed series, Dead Like Me, and attempted to give it some closure that it didn't get in its second (and final) season.

The movie starts with the restaurant where George, Daisy, Mason and Roxie all gathered together to get the day's reaping assignments from their boss, Rube, burning to the ground. Our quartet of protagonists are shocked to find their former boss no where in sight, and discover that he has finally moved on and that they have a new boss.

The movie manages to capture a lot of the charm of the series. However, a lot of issues just played out as cheap and contrived, in an attempt to bring closure in the space of a movie. George's reap causes her to become entwined with her younger sister's life. It felt forced and contrived, and served little purpose. The lack of closure for Reggie and Joy after George died (and, unbeknown to them, became a reaper) was part of what made the series so poignant.

The loss of Mandy Patinkin (who played the original boss of the reapers) was a big hit to the charm of the show, and it lost some of the structured feeling, as each of the reapers gave in to the excess provided by their new boss. While their characters didn't necessarily act out of character, they felt largely forced. The loss of his guidance forced the characters to make their own way, which was certainly an interesting plot, and better than many they could have done, but it jsut didn't feel bad.

Dealing with a reaper gone bad (their new boss) felt too much like one of the episodes in season 2. The emotional core of George and her sister again felt forced, with Reggie being involved in a secret romance and trying to find acceptance among her peers. This felt incredibly cheesy for the story.

All in all, it wasn't a bad ending for the series, and it wrapped up lose ends perfectly well, but it still managed to fall far short of the original series and leaves the viewer feeling disappointed.

The Futility of the Console Wars

I kind of touched on this a few days ago, but I wanted to touch on it in more depth. It comes as no surprise that Nintendo, XBox and PlayStation are in a 3 way war with each other. But what is really the point?

Gamers tend to polarize in favor of their favorite platform. Their preferred is the only "real" console, and too be a "real" gamer you have to have one.

But what are these companies really accomplishing? Increasing fractional points of their marketshare? What does that even mean anymore? How many households really don't have more than one? True, a few truly can't afford it. Some just don't care. But after all these years, people that want them pretty much have them. Going off the prices of the brand new consoles (let alone what their prices have fallen to over the last couple of years) the total cost of all 3 would have been $1400.  A large chunk of change to be sure, if paid all at once. But, when you break it down over the long term, the XBox 360 was the first of the new gen to come out, and it came out in November 2005 (not a bad strategy. Come out a year earlier than the PS3 or Wii and get a head start). That was 62 months ago, though. If you set aside just $23/month, you'd have all three right now. And that's going off of new prices, let alone the massive drops we've seen in the last couple years.

So, if you really wanted all three, you could easily have reached that mark by now.

 So really it comes down to what you prefer in your console. More and more, the consoles are trying to overlap each other. The Wii started off catering to the family market, trying to appeal to a broad base, and offering a family friendly system that parents and grandparents would feel comfortable getting their kids. With their innovative motion control system that got the kids up off the couch, and being the first console to develop software that went beyond simple gaming, the Wii has a strong base. Mario and Zelda will never go out of style, and their party games are changing how families spend time together.

XBox has long been the console appealing to the 18-34 male demographic. Halo and other FPS titles are what the XBox was built on, and their offering of Achievements and online multiplayer struck true with the "hardcore".

PlayStation found a niche in the middle. A large number of strong exclusive releases keeps it popular among hte hardcore. Games like LittleBigPlanet and ModNation provide options for families. Almost most importantly, PlayStation's creator, Sony, is able to add alot of functionality that the others couldn't. It comes with a Blu-Ray player (which of course was developed by Sony), and through firmware updates is able to keep on the cutting edge without the need for a lot of excess hardware. PS3 already supports 3D technology, and all signs point to it not going out of date for a long, long time.

But now, it seems that they are all trying to trample on each other. The Wii is trying to pick up more ports of the "hardcore" games. XBox and PS3 both are embracing the action-controllers with their Kinect and Move respectively. XBox is making a serious push to put out exclusive family-friendly games like Kinectimals. And the PS3.... well, the PS3 has Kevin Butler. And that just plain makes them epic.

But I wonder what would happen if instead of trying to simply grab more customers, these consoles (in particular the Wii), especially when it comes to their graphics device) moved more towards simply improving their experience. Focusing on what they do best, and perfecting it, and giving their fanboys a taste of what each console individually has the potential to become.

Right now, the only real victims are the players. Berated by their friends for buying the "wrong" console. Feeling obliged to defend their choice of console to other gamers they come across, and the idea that whichever console you happen to own, you must clearly fly their fanboy flag.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Internet Didn't Just Kill the Video Star

Back in the day, I remember pouring over players' guides for my games. Finding all the secret areas, helping find the smoothest route through a level, and completing all the optional side-quests. I had an entire shelf filled with them.

But it dawned on me the other day that the last player's guide I actually bought was a couple years ago. Nowadays, I don't even consider picking one up for my games (except Pokemon, but that's because it is more encylopedic and allows for easy browsing through the full Pokedex).

With internet sites teeming with guides written and published by other gamers, forums with which to ask (or find an answer to something someone else asked) questions about how to conquer a certain aspect of any given game, and even video walkthroughs available on YouTube, there is no point to shelling out cash for a players' guide. A quick Google search can even bring up the map for Super Nintendo's Jurassic park. I used to spend hours carefully pacing and measuring where I was, and drawing it in colored pencil on graph paper.

I can't remember the last time I actually jotted down notes during a game (not counting WoW, where notes are related to gear and AH prices rather than notes about the story itself). Anymore, I simply keep my laptop next to me when I'm playing, and within 30 seconds I can find the answer I need.

In some ways, its almost sad. Few players guides are worth the price. I think the only guide I still have and use that I think is worth it is the Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess leather-bound special edition guide. Guide's aren't entirely without their value, however. It provides everything you need in a simple package (no wading through forum posts trying to find something), and the writing for the walkthroughs tend to be seasoned with anecdotes and humor.

But those alone aren't enough. Bradygames and Prima need to wake up. I'm sure they've noticed the declining sales, but they aren't doing anything about it. Guides cost about the same, and still don't come with any kind of perk to encourage using a paper guide versus a searchable text guide on the internet.

Even I can't think of much that would entice me to buy guides that are going to eat up shelf space. Any token "collectible" items they offer with it are unlikely to be cool enough to pique my interest. In-game rewards are rarely necessary to fully enjoy the game. Maybe add some concept art, some back story, and maybe an interview or two?

Who knows. As the players' guide sections of game stores dwindles, I know there will come a day when my kids will wonder I had to go buy books to have a game walkthrough. Just brings back a little nostalgia for the days when I spent the time I wasn't gaming pouring over these guides, learning every game I had inside, out, and sideways in ways that in a world where I don't have to dive too deep to find what I'm looking for, and finding extra tidbits along the way are rare.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Biggest Loser: The Ultimate Workout

The Biggest Loser: The Ultimate Workout is the latest in a line of Biggest Loser workout games, and the first compatible with the Kinect. While I have not played other TBL games, I have played other fitness games, mainly on the Wii.

The Ultimate Workout is probably the best I've seen. First, if you're a fan of the show, you'll enjoy getting to work with your choice of Bob, Jillian, or both. If TBL isn't your thing, then you still get an excellent comprehensive workout. You are given a wide range of tools to help you meet your goal that I don't see so comprehensively offered in others.

The first thing offered by TUW is a body analyzer. This picks up your measurements without the need to go find a tape measure. These are not entirely accurate, but if it is off by enough to matter, it seems to go far enough that it is easily noticeable (it read my neck as 216" around. I'm pretty sure that my neck isn't 18 feet around). It has a standard array of offering recipes, calorie trackers, and a "Lifestyle Tasks" that give you simple tasks to help build healthy habits.

The game offers 10 different workout programs, with focuses ranging from large amounts of weightloss to muscle toning, to intensive training. The game uses a fitness test to help you determine your level of fitness, which helps to ensure that you don't push yourself too far, or go too easy. While other games offer this, I felt TUW had a much better test, and I was very happy with the level of my workouts. It also provides a variety of workouts from basic aerobic and muscle exercises to yoga to boxing training, keeping your workouts varied and more interesting.

Utilizing the power of the Kinect to provide a controllerless experience, this game takes away a lot the frustration of at home workouts. When using workout videos, it can be hard to do a new exercise and be sure that you're doing it correctly, and with the Wii, the necessity of holding the Wiimote and Nunchuck makes adding things like dumbells and medicine balls nearly impossible. With the Kinect, TUW is able to tell you if you're not doing an exercise correctly, urging you to correct your shape, kick higher, lunge farther, etc.

By far, this is the best workout game I've played, but it is far from perfect. There are a number of features that are lacking, or outright missing. First, despite clearly being compatible with XBox Live, there is no way to email yourself the recipes listed in game. You have to break out the pad and pen and try to copy it down from the screen.

Next, there is no way to change your workout to account for injuries. During my first week, I bruised my knee (unrelated to the game), but there was no way to adjust my workout to avoid aggravating the injury. There were plenty of exercises that didn't bother me much, but no way to reset my daily workout.

Third, there is no way to schedule specific days off outside of trying to set your initial schedule (when you start a workout program) to line up with what you need. There is no way to account for things like going out of town for a day or two, or other one-time adjustments easily. This would be a great addition to the game, to allow that week's workouts to be set to catch up with what you will you be missing.

Finally, the limitations of the Kinect can skew your scores for individual exercises, and cause the trainers to get pissy with you. It can be incredibly frustrating to be executing the exercise correctly, and hear that you're quitting, or have that one show up as your worst exercise (instead of seeing your real worst that you need to focus on improving).

Now, I know many gamers rail against the idea of workout games. They feel that exercise and games are antithetical. However, this view severely constricts what our consoles are capable of doing for us. I've found games make the best form of exercise. Going to the gym is a headache, exercise videos can end up doing more harm than good, and the structure and motivation provided in these games can help to keep you focused.

If you're interested in working out, whether to improve your fitness or to lose weight, this is a good buy that will not end up on the back shelf when you reach your initial goals.