Tuesday, March 30, 2010

And they all look just the same

As I was leaving the gym this morning I passed three evenly-spaced men in business casual attire all walking at the same pace and all reading things on their smartphones.  It made me think of little boxes on the hillside.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Game frenzy

I've been playing a lot of single-player games recently.  There's no particular reason, though if I had to hazard a guess it's a combination of the fact that Jason's been spending a lot of time away playing Final Fantasy XIII on the big TV, and also I don't have a lot of new stuff to do in World of Warcraft right now other than a couple hours on the weekends.

I was pretty excited to get into Mass Effect 2 after finishing Dragon Age, and it was absolutely phenomenal.  It's certainly better than Dragon Age in just about every way, and one of the best games I've played.  Mass Effect 2 sheds the ideas of inventory and stats and skill points, and might as well get rid of experience points since you basically just go up one level for every mission you finish.  I and many other people feared that this would dumb down the game too much, but it hasn't done that at all.  Sure, it feels more like a shooter than an RPG in parts, but basically what it boils down to is the role-playing and character development elements of a great RPG like Baldur's Gate, and the strong action gameplay and micro-storytelling of Gears of War.  While Gears of War's overall storyline was pretty much the standard sci-fi/fantasy "someone bad is going to do bad stuff to us so we have to stop them" story, it did a good job of keeping you immersed and focused with shorter episodes of a story,.  Mass Effect 2 is the same way—think of it as a season of a great TV show, where there's an overall goal and storyline that's always on your mind, but the episodes are mostly self-contained and interesting in themselves.  I could go on for a long time about how great Mass Effect 2 is, but I can pretty confidently say that both Mass Effect (1) and Dragon Age were good games, and Mass Effect 2 has everything that was good about either of them with none of the bad.  It's a great RPG and it's a great shooter, and very few genre-crossing games can manage something like that.

Torchlight is also excellent, and if you manage to catch it this weekend on Steam, it's only $5, which is pretty incredible for a fairly recent and quite great game, but if you don't, it's still worth the normal price of $20.  Basically, it's a nice mix of Diablo and Diablo 2 with a more cartoony art style, modernized a bit with hotkeys and things like that.  The gameplay is every bit as solid as either of those masterpieces, and while there's no story to speak of and only three classes, I had an absolute blast playing through it—more fun than when I recently played through Diablo 2, even.  The graphics and audio are great, and the music is fantastic, composed by the same guy who did Diablo 2's music, one of my favorite soundtracks to anything ever.  It's fairly short around 10-15 hours for a single run through the main storyline, and has no multiplayer, but it has tons of replay value, and it's a top-quality experience.

And ugh, Command and Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight is a colossal disappointment.  First of all, both single-player campaigns take only about ten hours, which would be okay if it were great (or even simply as good as the last several C&C games), but it most certainly is not.  Almost everything about the game is bad.  The storyline is abysmal and makes no sense at all—not that the last couple C&C Tiberium games' stories made that much more sense, but this one is just baffling.  It's not even a real-time strategy game other than in the most literal sense.  There's essentially no base-building, and there are no real resources to collect or manage.  In most missions of the single-player campaign there aren't even control points you have to capture like in Dawn of War or Company of Heroes.  You can only have a few units at once—say, six to ten, depending on the mission and which units they are—and they go down quickly.  Your entire base has been packed into your MCV (mobile headquarters) or "crawler," which manages unit production, upgrade research, and building production if you're the defense class.

Yep, there are actually three different classes to play as, and they're all almost entirely distinct, and you can change class a limited number of times during each mission, which is probably the coolest thing about the game.  You can start out as offense, roll out some tanks and take some territory, and then redeploy as the support class, and start sending out aircraft.  (Unfortunately, the defense and support classes seem of very limited use during the campaign, as most of the time you're always on the offensive.)  The problem about having a totally mobile base that can crank out another tank or jet or commando every few seconds is that your opponent has one too.  Or, in the campaign, your opponent will have like four of them.  Every time you try to take ground in the campaign you have to assault another one of your enemy's crawlers, and while you're trying to take down its roughly one billion hit points, it's popping out dudes looking to kick your ass like it's Crawler and Kate Plus Eight.  The end result is that in their attempts to make things more exciting and dynamic, they've accomplished pretty much the worst possible outcome, where each and every battle feels like a stalemate.

Oh, and you sort of have to grind XP, too.  You get XP from killing things, and when you level up, you get new units and technologies, which persist across missions.  But, each mission has an XP cap, and by the end of each campaign you don't even have enough XP to use all of your top-tier technology.  You either have to draw out the battles even further so you can kill more stuff to get more XP, do skirmishes in the middle of the campaign to try to level up, or just deal with it, which is what I ended up doing.  Maybe that's part of the reason the game felt quite hard most of the time, but excuse me for wanting to sit down and play an RTS campaign without having to stop to grind XP.

Multiplayer and skirmish battles are equal failures.  Skirmishes take the same basic small-team-plus-mobile-base formula from the single-player campaign (as well as your level and XP from the campaign) and replace the story objectives with control points, just like the multiplayer and skirmishes I hated so much in Company of Heroes.  Sigh.  (Control points don't have to suck, but they usually do.  They were a pretty decent mechanic in the first Dawn of War game, because you didn't generally have to worry about defending every location on the map all at once with your six little dudes.)

I love the Command and Conquer series.  Not even counting the excellent Generals and Red Alert alternate universes of C&C, the older C&C games have all been great, and the original one was one of the great classics of all time.  But no amount of fanboyism and rose-colored glasses can make me overlook that C&C4 sucks really, really hard.  They removed basically everything that was great about C&C, yielding a crushing disappointment of a supposed end to the series.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Laundrymorse

Laundrymorse(n.) The feeling of disappointment in oneself upon putting the last load of laundry in the dryer and subsequently realizing that you're wearing the shorts that you really wanted to make sure got washed.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fireflies

The short version:
Flight of the Conchords—I Told You I Was Freaky: quite amusing
Electric Light Orchestra—All Over the World: 7/10
Owl City—Ocean Eyes: 6/10
The Fray—The Fray: 4/10
Bassnectar—Cozza Frenzy: 3/10
Coldplay—Parachutes: 4/10
Shpongle—Are You Shpongled?: 5/10

I've been listening to a lot of music recently, starting with I Told You I Was Freaky from the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, who apparently also have a TV show—I'm not really sure of the details there. The CD is rather funny, though, and several of the songs would stand on their own perfectly well without being funny, which puts it ahead of most musical comedy. My three top favorites would work well even if they didn't make me smile: Hurt Feelings, Carol Brown, and Sugalumps (one of several songs on there with the general theme of "genitals"). But there's a wide variety of styles (80s German techno, weird Russian... thing) making each song sound fresh and unique. I can definitely recommend it.

Then I went back in time a few decades and picked up a greatest hits album from Electric Light Orchestra, All Over the World. It's got a song I really enjoyed as a kid from Disney's D-TV: Pop & RockEvil Woman (warning: loud) the Disney video for which featured Cruella DeVille and other villainesses. I suppose it's not the only CD I've ever bought based on a childhood favorite cartoon. As it turns out, it was a good purchase—I have a soft spot for pop music with pianos and strings, and there's a lot to enjoy on the disc, especially given that I'm not usually terribly fond of older music. Mr. Blue Sky and Don't Bring Me Down are also solid. It makes me wonder how well a lot of these songs could be adapted to a more modern style: they're a bit happier than most of today's hits, but remove the occasional 70s falsettos and add a modern beat and I'd definitely buy the CD a second time.

I also picked up Owl City's Ocean Eyes, with the smash hit Fireflies. That track's pretty fantastic, and the rest is pretty catchy, but it's hard for me to call most of it "good" music. Most of it sounds really lazy. Still catchy for the most part, but I don't get a feeling that it took a lot of effort. It's less creative and interesting than The Postal Service, the most similar band that comes to mind (a friend described it as childish, and I can't deny that). The lyrics are less poetic and simpler, and chock-full of puns ("I've been to the dentist a thousand times so I know the drill"). Nothing on the disc is as awesome as Fireflies; the rest is merely decent, including Cave In and Hello Seattle. If you liked any of The Postal Service it's worth checking out, and most everyone seems to like Fireflies, but I can't recommend the rest of the album to most people.

Merely decent is still a little better than what I think of The Fray's self-titled album, which is more in mediocre territory. The best song on here is You Found Me, and unfortunately the rest is fairly forgettable as far as I'm concerned. It's not bad; it just all blends together and seems rather painfully generic. I'd pick out Syndicate and Where the Story Ends as the two next best tracks, but honestly if I played them right now I don't think I could tell which one was which.

I got Cozza Frenzy by Bassnectar as a Christmas present. It's very bass-heavy experimental electronic music. And myyyyyy goodness it is bizarre. It's hard to listen to the whole album in one sitting; most of the tracks are quite grating on the ears. I can see some parallels between Basement Jaxx (whose music I adore) and this, which is worth bonus points for the giver, but where Basement Jaxx focused on being danceable and fun, this album is focusing on being "big" and loud. Probably the least insane and most pleasant are the title track, a remix of When I Grow Up by Fever Ray, and Window Seat. (That remix is definitely of the "add a heavier beat and call it done" school of remixes, which admittedly does improve it, but it's not a terribly inventive change.) I'm adding about half of the tracks to my main playlist, but I don't think I'll mind if it's a couple weeks before one of them pops up.

But wait, there's more! I also rounded out my Coldplay collection with Parachutes, and it is very much my least favorite of their albums. My feelings toward it are quite similar to The Fray; it's all forgettable and none of it really grabs my attention. This album is a little more artfully constructed, but I don't quite like the sound of it as much as The Fray. The best stuff on here is Trouble, High Speed, and Shiver, but I'm pretty glad that I only spent six bucks on this CD.

Finally, I picked up the first album by Shpongle, titled Are You Shpongled?. I'd heard one of their songs (Around the World in a Tea Daze) many years ago and absolutely adored it, but this CD left me feeling disappointed. It's good background music, but Tea Daze had great sounds and a wonderful melody, and nothing on this album compared. I guess I'm going to try some of their later music to find more of that. Still, I do like Shpongle Spores (with a neat sci-fi soundtrack sort of vibe), Behind Closed Eyelids, and Divine Moments of Truth.

I'm slowly making it through my queue of music, but I'm finding that I'm listening to music less than I was a few months ago. Jason and I have fairly different musical tastes, so I tend to play my music less when I'm at my computer, and when I'm away from my computer I tend to listen to mixed playlists rather than new albums at a time, so I end up going through new music at a lower rate. I'm not sure if it's a problem or not. I'm still thinking about it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Loot

One of the things about the World of Warcraft loot system that I think is particularly fantastic is that even if you get unlucky and the monsters don't drop the wonderful shiny things that you were hoping for, eventually, you can still get some sweet stuff.  It's sort of like a consolation prize.  It's a great mix between that exhilarating feeling you get from RPGs where you equip something awesome and powerful and new that just dropped, and a mitigation of that obnoxious feeling you get from early versions of World of Warcraft (and many other RPGs) where you've been playing for days or weeks and haven't gotten any new gear.  This is particularly important in WoW because much of WoW is played at a level cap, where you progress mostly only through acquiring better equipment, as opposed to most other RPGs where either there isn't a level cap, or it isn't practical or important for most players.  (Diablo II's is 99.  You can beat the game at around level 30.  Only the truly hardcore minority ever get to 99.)

Bosses in current level 80 dungeons and raids in WoW drop an item called Emblem of Triumph (or a better version, the Emblem of Frost).  Once you collect enough of those babies, you can turn them in to a curator of artifacts in the main city of Dalaran for a piece of powerful new gear.  As long as you kill enough bosses, you're guaranteed to eventually get something good from it.  If you're lucky, along the way, you got a few other upgrades to your inventory too, but at the very least, you know that after a few more bosses you'll have enough Emblems to buy that shiny new Brimstone Igniter or Bloodshed Band.  It's something to look forward to, and it's a powerful motivation to keep playing if you've been really unlucky in your past few expeditions.

In contrast, years ago, before World of Warcraft's first expansion, at some point I would play for weeks to a month between getting an upgrade to my equipment.  Since upgrading your equipment is how you get better (other than your own player skill) when you're at the maximum level and XP the game allows, things become stagnant.  Multiple times I considered that it was time to quit.  (I would have, but I decided to try out another couple classes first with one of my friends.)  I haven't felt any desire to quit for a long time.  Most single-player RPGs don't have as much of a problem with this because you just keep leveling until the end of the game, but WoW doesn't end, so it has to have an artificial cap somewhere.  Blizzard has discovered how to bring back that feeling of constant excitement of improving your character even though it's currently impossible to level from 80, where most players are, to 81.

The stars have aligned and I've been saving up—I'm getting six new pieces of top-quality equipment within the next few days.  If I'm lucky, I'll get some more from the bosses I kill.  But even if I don't, I know there's a reason to keep playing my 30-45 minutes every night.

omnomnom

I've been dieting moderately strictly recently.  I've lost several pounds—nothing drastic, but enough that at least it's sort of working.  It's not quite what I was hoping for, but if I can keep this rate up for several months it might be okay.  Losing weight means being miserable all the time, and part of being miserable is unusually powerful cravings for things that are delicious.  The delicious things I've been craving recently include:
There; now you can be miserable too.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Shower

Well, gee, it seems like I haven't written one of these in like two weeks. It's not that I don't have anything to write about; it's that I haven't had much that's very interesting happen recently. On the other hand, I've got plenty of "rainy day" topics saved up, but I've been rather occupied with working on my World of Warcraft mods and then Mass Effect 2. Really the only thing that's happened recently is that I remodeled my shower.

I didn't really plan on doing it. It was sort of a last-minute remodel, which is a phrase that I don't recall ever hearing thus far in my life, to be honest. I'd suspected that there was a sizable amount of mold growing behind the tiles in my shower, and it behooved me to remove it sooner rather than later. I was beginning to suspect that it was making Jason and me ill, based on feedback from a friend with a similar problem very recently. So, I had someone come out and test my shower, and there was definitely plenty of moisture back there, and it was leaking down to the first floor.

I scheduled a demolition appointment soon after, but I only have one shower, so I needed a new one built ASAP. It turns out that, much like Rome, showers are not built in a day. This little mold problem ended up costing me $6,200 (only $850 of that is materials) and seven obnoxious days of not showering at home. (Luckily several Microsoft buildings have showers, along with the gym.) But, the new shower looks really nice and feels more luxurious, and I was planning on eventually redoing the bathroom anyway, so it's mostly just the timing that sucked. Even with my tax refund arriving around that time, I didn't have that kind of money just lying around.

It ended up costing a couple thousand more than I was planning, but I'm glad I didn't wait. I do feel a little better, whether that's due to the removal of the mold or just variance in seasonal allergies. And, it'll be paid off soon enough, and I can get back to finishing off New Car Number Two. (Now I already have a construction contractor picked out for that.)  Then maybe sometime next year I can look into fixing up my nightmare kitchen like I planned back in 2008.

Pictures of the work are on Facebook.