Friday, June 26, 2009

You say "exorcism", I say "cleansing ceremony"

I'm too damn lazy to put the links in, but making recent headlines is a video posted to YouTube of a ceremony at a small Bridgeport, CT church. In the video a youth writhes about on the floor while church members shout at the "homosexual demon" they believe to be possessing the boy.

Needless to say, gay and lesbian activists are less than enthused. I, however, have harvested a little nugget of irony from the CNN article about the video, which I'm happy to pass on to you. Call it an amusing juxtaposition of two quotes. Call it bitter snarkiness. I don't care. The first quote pertains to Patricia McKinney, pastor and self-described "prophet" of the small non-denominational church. The second is self-explanatory.

McKinney says she doesn't refer to the events of the video as an exorcism, but rather a "casting out of unclean spirits." --CNN

"I cast you out, unclean spirit!!" --Father Lancaster Merrin, "The Exorcist"

Monday, May 25, 2009

Choco ration's gone up! Double plus good, eh?!

I was eating Pringles a few minutes ago, not having paid much attention to the packaging apart from noting the flavor (plain, or "original"). I noticed that the Pringles were just slightly thinner than usual. I'm not some big Pringles nut, but I'm old enough to have been a kid when they hit the market, so I think it's fair to say I know Pringles. They were thinner. Not much, and not to the detriment of my snacking experience. Still, thinner. When I finished my snack I put the container away. That's when I saw it.

((( now CRISPIER )))

Crispier. You...fuckers.

You see, this is how they start it. This is the thin edge of the wedge. They take something away from you, in this case a slight amount of mass from a potato snack, and sell it back to you as an improvement. Bottled water costs more than soda. Do you see what I'm getting at? Thin Pringles aren't thin, they're crispier! This is positively Orwellian, and I may lose the capacity to work tomorrow because of it. The Inner Party has plotted and labored methodically, and the result of their cruel and inhuman works is the crispier Pringle. They are selling us our own destruction, and we are eating it compulsively. We are lining up to beg for the privilidge of buying it. This is the begining of the process that will undo humanity. The end result is the obliteration of all questioning, the conditioning of an automatic response for self-destruction. They will not rest until they can issue a command that makes us all leap joyously into the abyss. It starts at the heart of America: convenience food.

The Pringles are also labeled as a "Super Stack", though the canister seems to be the traditional size, weighing in at 6.41 oz. My infallible reasoning suggests the thinness of the Pringles ("Crispierness", fucko!) allows more total crisps in the container, allowing it to reach critical mass necessary to achieve "Super Stack" status. At Pringles Corporate Headquarters (aka Proctor & Gamble, Cincinatti, OH) I'm sure there's a PowerPoint slide illustrating this as an ancillary benefit of the Crispier Initiative.

Stay vigilant, my fellow Americans. Just don't look like you're vigilant. Not even in front of your kids.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The American spirit, as defined by Swedish death metal

So we now have a new President, and though I avoid writing about politics I'll throw my two cents into the blogosphere and hope it's worth every penny. Personally, I'm optimistic about the future of our country for the first time in a great while. Certainly there's a long hard road ahead, and President Obama's goals will not be met easily or quickly. Public opinion is a fickle beast, and it will be hard in the coming months for the American public to keep this initial wave of euphoric optimism from crashing against the rocks of harsh reality, but I'm hopeful that better times are ahead of us.

I was listening to some music last night on my luxurious new Sennheiser HD-600 headphones (which I've been meaning to blog about), when I heard my hope for the future expressed in an unlikely medium--Swedish death metal. Specifically, I was listening to the first track of "Holographic Universe", the latest CD by ultra-melodic death metal outfit Scar Symmetry. The pre-chorus and chorus (of the dontcha-just-want-to-sing-along variety) summed up my feelings about the change in the American political landscape quite nicely:

Thoughts that forced discordance away
Once more an era is fading
Whatever dreams we're reaching to claim
Decides the path we are taking

Gone forever
We are done with world views mechanical
None shall ever
Be a slave to thoughts inside their head

--Scar Symmetry, "Morphogenesis"

Congratulations, President Obama, and good luck. Swedish death metal is behind you 100%!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

All right, zombie killers, let's kill some fuckin' zombies!

Today is the release day of Left 4 Dead, Valve's highly-anticipated cooperative zombie apocalypse shooter. Those of us who pre-ordered and pre-loaded the game via Steam (Valve's online game distribution platform, which I've become quite a fan of) got to start playing at 12:01 this morning. I took a short nap last night and woke up at midnight to get a little game time in. I am old and cannot function adequately on three hours of sleep. Here are my first impressions:


And now, the expanded version:

If you like shooters, zombies, or shooting zombies, this is a must-have game. It uses a tweaked version of the Source engine (which powered Half Life 2), so graphics are good without being spectacular. I expect L4D will be fairly forgiving in regard to your hardware, but I have not tested this yet. I'm playing on a Core2Quad with 4GB RAM and an nVidia 9800GTX video card. The game runs smooth as glass, as it damn well should with that gear. Your milage may very, but I doubt L4D will be a system killer.

I only had time to play through the first two checkpoints of the first "movie". (L4D is structured in mini-campaigns called movies, each of which features different characters and locations.) That means I didn't get to see much that I hadn't already played in the demo. The second checkpoint's exit is not in the same place it was in the demo, so there was a little new content. Replaying old areas is still fun, because the game's AI Director randomizes much of the placement of zombies, including the spots where you will be rushed by massive hordes of undead. You can't say to yourself, "OK, I'll round this corner, walk half a block in this direction, and then a wave of zombies will attack from the left." Well, you can say it, but it'll be little comfort when the horde rushes you in an entirely new location. The level of randomization really does make the game replayable. When you hear that about a game it's usually nothing but marketing hype, but in this case it's true. I played the demo at least six times before the full game's release, and each time through was significantly different.

L4D is all about killing zombies, and boy does it pay off in that respect. The average zombies populating the areas you fight through tend to start off as Romero-type zombies--mindless shamblers, until you get close to them. Once they realize you are there they run at you, more like a 28 Days Later-type fast-mover. It doesn't take much to take them out individually. Damage is modeled depending on where your bullets hit. An accurate head shot is rewarded with a splatter of gore and a headless corpse sinking to the ground. Torso shots require a few more hits than head shots to bring a zombie down. More than once I've fired at an approaching zombie and neatly severed one of its arms. Throwing an explosive device like a pipe bomb into a crowd of zombies is especially rewarding. They seem to be attracted to the explosives and swarm around them, which results in a wonderful shower of blood and guts upon detonation. Shooting a zombie near a wall or other surface leaves persistent blood splatters.

If you're a zombie fan, you haven't lived until you've experienced L4D's zombies attacking in waves. When this happens, fast-moving zombies pour into your area by the dozens and rush you. The resulting carnage is spectacular, and the zombies come at you so fast and relentlessly that they overwhelm your position, even though you always play in a party of four (hence the numeral in the game's name). Sofa King cool.

The AI is surprisingly good. As I mentioned above, you always play in a party of four. You can play online cooperatively with up to three other gamers, or you can play solo with the game AI controlling your squad mates. I was expecting this to be a weak point, but it's not. In fact, the AI does such a good job of directing your squad mates (sticking close together, healing each other, etc.) that people have said the game is easier to play solo than with other humans, who tend to make dumb mistakes and/or not coordinate well with party members. I haven't tried the multiplayer options yet, but I'm hoping to play this at my mini-LAN party in early January. All I need is for a couple attendees to pony up the $50 for a copy of L4D. Hint, hint.

My first impressions of L4D are extremely positive. If you've ever watched a zombie movie and thought it would make a cool game, don't even hesitate to pick this game up. Do it now. I haven't even covered the boss zombies or the ability to play in Versus mode, four players controlling humans, four controlling boss zombies. Whoops.

Friday, November 07, 2008

I broke the Friday Fiver!

It is with an odd sense of pride that I report the apparent death of the Friday Fiver. This meme, which I thought was pretty popular, has not been updated in months. What's interesting to me is that my last Friday Fiver post was the last Friday Fiver! Could I have broken it? I've long espoused my membership in a radical splinter faction of disgruntled Friday Fiver posters. Could my ire have brought down the beast? I'd like to think so. I'd like to think lots of things.

I took a quick look around the blogosphere, and a few similar memes have sprouted up in the Fiver's wake. After reading today's questions I've decided they all suck, so I won't be participating in them. I'll just have to find something else to post about.

Damn it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Spore: PC Game Review

It was almost impossible for Spore to live up to the massive hype generated over the past several months by the EA PR machine. Will Wright, celebrated creator of the Sims and SimCity franchises, would've practically had to reinvent PC gaming for Spore to be all that EA wants you to think it is. I'm not going to keep you guessing--Spore is not any PC gaming revelation. What's more interesting to me is how far from greatness it falls.

Spore, in case you bought your first PC today and just happened to find my blog minutes after getting onto the net, attempts to take you through the development of an organism you create, from single cell through the conquest of space. About 90% of the game's pre-release hype focused on the creature editor, and it seems that roughly the same amount of development time was focused on this one part of the title as well. The "game", as it is, is broken into five stages depicting the development of your species: cell, creature, tribe, civilization, and space. Making one good game out of five little games doesn't sound like a good idea to me right off the bat, but to be fair my problems with Spore don't start there.

My problems with Spore start with the unwanted but necessary presence of the EA Download Manager, which has caused me more headaches than any other craplet in years. Spore is an online-enhanced game--the main gameplay is single-player, but you upload and download content to/from the online Spore community. To begin at the begining, you must be online just to install the game, which I find irritating in principle if not in practice. The tying of your serial number to your online Spore identity makes resale of the game a bit complicated, which is just what EA had in mind. You'd think that a game that is so reliant on online activity would be able to handle the downloading and uploading of game content natively, right? Bueller? No, for reasons I won't pretend to understand Spore requires the aid of the aforementioned craplet, the EA Download Manager. My first run-in with this rotten little app was on my wife's PC early last summer, when we downloaded the Spore Creature Creator and paid the $10 to unlock all the content. I had no problem getting everything downloaded on my PC, but the Download Manager had fits on my wife's PC, spewing error codes which EA's massively unhelpful customer service website translated into English to form the vaguest responses possible. Now that the full version of Spore is upon us, it's my PC that isn't getting along with the Download Manager. At least a dozen times in the past week plus my Internet connectivity has quietly withered and died. I haven't done any exhaustive tests to prove that it's the Download Manager, but it started happening right after I installed Spore. In fact, the first time I started Spore it told me that my PC appeared to be offline, and I exited the game to find myself unable to reach past my router. Each time I lose connectivity the solution is always the same: close down the Download Manager (which keeps running in the system tray after you quit Spore--WHY???), release & renew my IP address, and I'm back online. Bizarre coincidence? Maybe, but I'm gonna go on record and say the EA Download Manager sucks my balls.

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: OK, as I was writing this post I lost my Internet connection, and the EA Download Manager is not currently running. I still blame it, though. I blame it's sheer presence on my machine. Worthless craplet. Why does it even need to be there? Goddamn thing.]

Cell Stage
Spore begins in Cell Stage. You choose to be either a carnivore or herbivore, and then your single-celled self finds itself in a tidal pool teeming with life. You eat red meaty bits if you're a carnivore, green leafy bits if you're a herbivore. You also try to avoid being eaten by larger organisms than yourself, but there's no real penalty if you wind up being something's lunch. You also try to find parts--and by that I mean creature parts--by finding (by blind chance, as far as I can tell) bits of the meteor you fell to planetside in and breaking them open. Carnivores can also find parts by eating other organisms. When you find a part (or parts) you want to incorporate into your creature, you hit the "find mate" button, and you quickly locate a member of your species who wants a date. A fertilized egg is produced, and you enter into the first round of the creature editor. You start off simply, with a 2-dimensional cell you can't really manipulate and a few parts you can attach to your creature. In this phase of the game your choices are fairly limited, but you can still find a variety of mouths, appendages to help you swim, and weapons/defenses to help your carnivores kill herbivores (and other carnivores) and your herbivores not get killed by carnivores. That's really all there is to this stage of the game. It's incredibly simple and not particularly challenging. It's also some of the most fun I've had playing Spore, thanks in no small part to the beautiful visuals. The colors are vibrant, and there's a great effect when your organism grows and becomes aware of a larger portion of its surroundings that still looks cool after 50 or so repetitions. After eating and growing enough you gain the ability to sprout legs and stumble onto land and into the next stage of the game. This first stage, by the way, probably won't take you more than 10 minutes unless you're seriously prowling for meteor bits to unlock as many creature parts as you can.

Creature Editor
When you evolve into a land creature you enter a more feature-rich version of the creature editor you used when adding parts to your cell. This time your view and manipulation of your creature is in 3D, and you are able to manipulate your creature's spine in many ways to shape this blob of digital clay into your fantasy creature. This is the one part of Spore that is an absolute success. The creature editor is very powerful yet quite simple to use, and you can get very creative with it. It's simple enough for my kids to use, but a quick look on YouTube will illustrate the extremes that an imaginative and dedicated designer can take the editor to. If you're like me and never really made anything much more impressive than a big wall with your Legos when you were a kid, you can always import other people's creatures (and plenty that Maxis provides) from the online community. I suck at design, so making this the carrot that wags the dog doesn't really do it for me, impressive though it may be. I still need a decent game to let me do something fun with the creatures I create. In the upcoming stage of the game, Spore comes as close as it ever does to meeting that need.

Creature Stage
Once you have redesigned your creation as a land beast, you enter Creature Stage. The primary activity here is meeting other creatures and interacting with them through either social or combat skills. (If you have uploaded creatures of your own design to the online Spore community, the game may even use your own designs to populate the world, which is undeniably cool.) As you meet other species (they usually congregate around campfires) you can attempt to befriend them, in which case you must impress them by demonstrating four skills: singing, dancing, charming, and posing. How well you can do each depends on what parts you have equiped your creature with. If the species you're interacting with is unimpressed, or if you're just feeling mean, you can choose to attack them instead, and again the parts you equip your creature with in the editor define your combat skills. Impress or defeat enough creatures and you move on to the next stage. While you're running around the continent interacting with different species you'll also be trying to find parts to add to your creature. You can find parts in carcasses that litter the landscape; they're frequently found near campfires, so as you find new species you'll also find parts. Much like the cell stage, when you want to try on some new parts (or change the look of your creature by adjusting its body type or color) you head back to your nest, click on your mate to produce an egg, and after a trip to the creature editor you are reborn as the next generation of your species. This is the phase where you'll become most attached to your creature, as it is here that you'll make the majority of your design choices--picking which parts you want and thereby molding both your creature's appearance and its skillset. Sadly, you never get to interact this closely with your creature again.

Tribe Stage
Tribe Stage is essentially an expanded version of the Creature Stage, minus the creature development. (They threw the baby out and kept the bathwater.) Instead of a simple bonfire you now have a small village, and can control a larger number of your creatures at once. You need to gather food for your tribe, so must task some of your villagers with hunting/fishing (for carnivores) or gathering fruit (for herbivores). Food also serves as the currency with which you buy buildings for your tribal village, which equip your villagers with tools to make them more capable at the three tasks they'll perform: hunting/gathering, socializing (conquering other tribes peacefully), and combat. Each creature can only hold one tool at a time, so you must choose their roles and equip them, then send them into a different building for another tool if thier role changes. The goal of this stage is to conquer the other tribes of your species in much the same way as you interacted with other species in the Creature Stage: either impressing them with your social skills or beating them into a miserable pulp in combat. Each time you conquer a tribe, your own tribe's maximum population increases. Conquer all the other tribes and you unite your species and progress to the next stage. In my opinion, Tribe Stage is where Spore really starts to stumble,and unfortunately it just snowballs from here. Tribe Stage expanded (slightly) on the social and combat activities undertaken in Creature Stage, but the development of your creature is pretty much over. This is a huge mistake, as the game essentially does away with its most compelling element in favor of simplistic real-time strategy gameplay. There's a little bit of micro-management involved, but the gameplay of this stage boils down to amassing an army and moving it in to overwhelm your enemy's base. A tank rush is still a tank rush, even if your tanks utilize singing and dancing as weapons. This stage is a bit of fun once or twice, boueyed by the cute graphics and the wonderful animation of the creatures, but it is too simple to have much replay value.

Civilization Stage
Civilization Stage is pretty much a rehash of Tribe Stage on a larger scale. Instead of buying tribal huts to give you tools and weapons you buy buildings to drive your economy. You can design each of these buildings with an editor, or you can import designs from the online community. Again, the creative possibilities are staggering, and you can find some fantastic designs online. You only have a choice of three buildings: houses, factories, and entertainment establishments, and as you buy them you place them on a grid within your city. The trick is to maximize production (factories connected to houses) while keeping your people happy (connecting entertainment to houses), and it's not a very difficult trick. Instead of creating creatures, your cities create vehicles (another chance to design or import). All cities can create land vehicles, and coastal cities can create naval vessels. Half-way through the stage you unlock the ability to create air units. You use your vehicles to capture spice geysers, which help fuel your economy. Depending on what sort of civilization you are (which is determined by how you chose to progress through the previous stages) you will attack other civilizations with your vehicles as well, using economic, religious, or military means. All three of them play out essentially the same: you design vehicles with "weapons" of one of the three types, build up a fleet, and send them to an opponent's city to do battle.

When Religion Attacks! The picture above shows a city being attacked by religious means: vehicles project a giant hologram which prosletyzes to the city under siege. Apart from the animation, conquering by economics, religion, or force works the same way: there's a give and take with each side taking damage, and the victor generally goes to the larger force. It's another simplistic real-time strategy game with charming graphics and a relatively empty head.

Space Stage
Spooooores...Iiiiiiin...SPAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE!!! Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Space Stage is by far the most complex stage of the game. From my comments so far you would think that would be a good thing, and it almost is. Unfortunately it's bogged down by repetitive gameplay, an annoying interface, and a drastically shifted timescale. In Space Stage you start off with one colony (the development of which is pretty much identical to your cities in the previous stage) and a spaceship to design/import. You then set out to win the game by conquering the other space empires, either by ingratiating yourself to them by doing them favors (usually courier-type missions), buying them out, or going the frickin' laser beams route. You also build up your own empire by creating and improving new colonies, but this part of the game almost seems like an afterthought, and the terraforming system, while unique and an interesting concept, becomes a nightmare of micromanagement and repetitive go-fer jobs. Fans of space strategy games will see this as a very shallow attempt at the genre. Part of the problem is the miserable interface. From galactic mode you can fly to a star, at which point you have to zoom in by scrolling your mouse wheel. You'll then be in solar system mode, where you can fly to an individual planet, at which point you must manually zoom in again. It doesn't sound like much, but it results in near-constant use of the mousewheel, which gets old fast. You also have to contend with the visually appealing but impractical 3D space map in galactic mode, which turns the simple task of finding and flying to your destination an obnoxious hassle. There are a bevy of selectable filters that are supposed to make your navigation of the map easier, but they really don't help much. To make matters worse, the "mission" filter that is suposed to highlight the route to your mission's destination seems to work only occasionally. It's irritating to have to spend minutes at a time mousing over various stars on the map (which don't have labels for their names--you can only see their names by mousing) looking for a particular star, but even worse when the clock is ticking away on a timed mission when you're doing so. It's a poor interface, and that fact should've been readilly apparent in beta testing. My other issue with the Space Stage, which is the straw that busted this camel's hump, is the timeframe. Like in the other stages, there is a progress bar at the bottom of the screen that shows you how much further you have until you reach the end of the stage. After nearly three hours of exploring the galaxy, expanding my empire, and performing dozens of missions for other empires, I had progressed less than 20% through the stage. Maybe I'm missing something fundamental about the stage, but at this rate it simply isn't enough fun for me to continue. The number of hours I would have to put into the game doing repetitive, less-than-compelling tasks just isn't worth it. I have brought two organisms from their single-celled origins to the emptiness of space, and I am more or less abandoning them there, because at that point the time vs. reward ratio becomes horribly skewed.

The problem with Spore, technical buffoonery with the EA Download Manager aside, is that it puts forth a great and compelling concept--the design of a spceies--and then fails to deliver much of a game to give it legs. I'm not denying that the creature creator (and by extension the editor you use to design buildings and vehicles) is a masterpiece--it's a fantastic piece of software that pulls off a rare balancing act by being both simple to use and powerful enough to allow people's creativity to run rampant. Where Spore fails is in creating an equally compelling game to use the little buggers in. Like I mentioned previously, after the second of Spore's five stages you pretty much lose that personal relationship you have with your creation, as your development of the creature effectively ends with the Creature Stage. Sure, you can put clothes on them in the next two stages, but if that's your thing there are plenty of free web sites that will let you do that with digital dolls. Honestly, I get the impression that nobody really tried that hard to make Spore into a good game, as if the design team was too tired after crafting the creature editor. The editor was released for free in advance of the game (part of that enormous EA hype machine), and you can spend $10 to unlock all the parts and paint schemes, essentially giving you the best part of this experience for a sawbuck. Casual gamers may find some things to like in Spore, but for serious gamers the high-gloss Maxis production values can only temporarilly distract from the fact that Spore is a watered-down real-time strategy game at best, and holds little replay value.

"I've got all the little details worked out. Now if we can just come up with the main points, we've got something." --Woody Allen, "Love & Death"

Friday, August 15, 2008

Friday Fiver: Day Is Done

Well folks, I tried, but I just couldn't bring myself to go a whole year without blogging. That's not Slack...that's defeat! So, because you waited 350-some-odd days for me to come up with anything gripping enough to post, I give you...the Friday Fiver.

1. Last party you went to?
That's an easy one--Chris & Jenn's 19th annual birthday bash! Yes, we've been getting together and getting seriously goofy for 19 years straight. And yes, the recovery period is getting longer and longer. In days of olde one of the rituals of the "core group" was to assemble a collection of alcoholic oddities far too vast for actual consumption. (One standout example of this was a 6-pack of "Purple Passion" I purchased one year, which was basically grape soda made near-toxic with Everclear. They hung around until another of the core group drank the following year's party!) This year I consumed an astounding two drinks. Hand me down my walkin' cane.

2. Do you pee in the shower?
Almost never. I do, however, pee in pools, public fountains, punchbowls, upturned umbrellas, tubas, beehive hair-dos, microwave ovens, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, air conditioners, kitchen sinks, neighbors' garden hoses, dumbwaiters, and Chinese take-out cartons. I'm a guy; the world is my urinal.

3. Have you ever fired a gun?
Many times. My father is a sportsman, and for many years functioned as the regional "range officer", conducting firearms training and certification for the area's US Immigration officers. I have shot with him many times. I started off with shotguns and rifles. In the 80s Immigration officers began carrying weapons, and I learned to fire my dad's police-issue .38. About 10 years later they switched to semi-automatic .45s, and I learned to shoot that as well, going through many of the training exercises the Immigration officers have to pass to carry their weapons, including drawing and shooting from the hip, hitting a point-blank target with 3 rounds in 2 seconds. I hit myself in the gut with the slide once. Once. The resulting grapefruit-sized purple bruise taught me a valuable lesson: hold the gun at your side, not in front of you, idiot!

4. Where do you call home?
Could be Jerusalem, or it could be Cairo
Could be Berlin, or it could be Prague
Could be Moscow, could be New York
Could be Llanelli, and it could be Warrington
Could be Warsaw, and it could be Moose Jaw
Could be Rome
Everybody got somewhere they call home

When they overrun the defences
A minor invasion put down to expenses
Will you go down to the airport lounge?
Will you accept your second class status?
A nation of waitresses and waiters
Will you mix their martinis?
Will you stand still for it?
Or will you take to the hills?

--Roger Waters, "Home"

5. What's your favorite board game?
Monopoly! Yahtzee is right up there, too. I've got very fond memories of large groups of my family gathered around my grandparents' kitchen table playing Yahtzee into the night. Another honorable mention would be Anti-Monopoly, a fairly obscure game my Uncle Jimmy got me for Christmas when I was a kid, which I should still have at my parents' house. My grandmother and I played lots of Monopoly together, and she was nice enough to let me win most of the time. Once when I was about 14 I was bragging to my father about how I almost always beat my grandmother at checkers; he cocked an eyebrow at me and said, "You know, the only reason you ever win at checkers with your Gramma is because she lets you." As it turns out, my grandmother was a bona fide board game master, nationaly ranked in competitive Chinese checkers and able to finish that Hi-Q game with one peg in the center hole. After learning this I sat down at the checkerboard with her and asked her not to spare me, just to play as good a game as she was capable of. The resulting slaughter would've made Patton stand up and salute. That was the day the term "crushing defeat" entered my vocabulary. Gramma, your kung fu is the best!!