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Tristan Davis

Tristan Davis

November 5, 2013

On GTA V

Filed under: Video Games — Tristan @ 10:52 pm

Yet another in a long line of overdue video game reviews, today we’re talking about Grand Theft Auto Five.

The review part of this is going to be pretty brief, actually.  All in all, it’s a fun game.  I’d say the world is lot more fun to explore than GTA IV was, but not as much fun as Red Dead Redemption, although you can clearly see how much they learned from that game: there are more Strangers and Freaks missions, as well as random events that pop up sometimes at certain points on the map.  There’s also a lot more mission types and random activities to engage in, and all in all they’re more varied and fun than they were in GTA IV, where the mini games were a boring chore and once you were done with the plot there wasn’t much to do but a few races here and there.

I haven’t had a lot of time to sink into the online portion of the game, just a bit here and there.  So far it’s entertaining.  I like how it gives some much needed structure to the free-roam mode from GTA IV, while adding the RPG style leveling (which is easy to forget about while playing the story).

Mostly I want to talk about the writing.  Overall, I think I liked the writing from GTA IV better.  There’s always a disconnect in these games between what the story is saying about the character and what the gameplay says about the character.  This is less of a problem in games like Skyrim, where they’re very careful not to make the protagonist out to be something the player isn’t making them.  This is also handled fairly well in RDR, where the missions rarely have you doing anything too repugnant, and there’s the added benefit of the story taking place in a generally more violent and dangerous era in our history anyway.

But in GTA, it’s always been tricky when the cutscenes feature Niko or Franklin or Michael talking about how they want to do the right thing, and then mowing down a bunch of cops in the following mission.

How the main characters justify their actions has always been a tightrope walk.  GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas were always about career criminals, so it was easy to explain their actions.  GTA IV took the more challenging road with Niko, an immigrant ex-soldier who saw the atrocities of war firsthand and was broken by it.  GTA V introduces three characters with varying justifications for what they do.

The most problematic of these is easily Trevor.  I feel like Rockstar took the lazy way out by saying, “Hey!  We can have a psychopath as a playable character!”  On the one hand, it is kind of nice to have a character you can go to for the kind of challenges that are… let’s just say unsavory.  But on the other hand, this creates a very uncomfortable place to exist as the player.  I think the worst of these is a  scene where Trevor murders a couple of innocent people off-camera whose apartment and lives he’d invaded an ruined is played for laughs, and I hated every second of it.  In fact, Trevor’s entire interaction with Wade’s cousin in Los Santos is absolutely horrible.  One of the main reasons I wanted to beat the game was so that I could stop playing as him.

The other much talked about bit of writing in the game is the women.  It has been pointed out, rightfully so, that there really are no good female characters in the game.  This is mostly true.  Micheal’s wife cheats on him with her tennis and yoga coaches, his daughter is materialistic and secretly a porn star, Franklin’s aunt is a grating caricature of female empowerment, and the few other women have roles so small as to be negligible.

An argument could actually be made that the only good characters in the game, male or female, are women.  I would say that Franklin’s ex-girlfriend Tanisha is actually the only good person in the entire city of Los Santos.  And Patricia is an odd duck to be sure, but seems nice enough.

Actually, I’d say that the male characters are equally as horrible as the women, but the problem with that is that their flaws are portrayed as virtues at worst and comedic foibles at… also worst.

I think I preferred Niko.  He was a murdering criminal just like all the rest of GTA’s protagonists, but at least he felt kind of bad about it.

November 11, 2012

New Bashert Schedule

Filed under: Comics — Tristan @ 9:16 pm

Starting this week, Bashert is going to two days a week instead of three.  This week it’ll be Monday and Thursday, next week will be the ongoing schedule of Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Why is the schedule changing, you may ask?  Well, in case you haven’t noticed, we’re about to have a baby.  No, it’s not just a funny storyline for the purposes of the comic.  The stuff with Elisabeth and I is, at least usually, true-ish diary comics.  The due date is coming up quite soon, at which point I’m pretty sure I’m going to be massively tired all the time.  Realistically, I was not going to be able to maintain a three day a week comic schedule, what with all the work of making sure a tiny human being doesn’t die.  Babies are kind of crap and keeping themselves from dying.  You have to feed them, like, all the time.

Anyway, rather than be making constant apologies for not managing three comics every week, I figure I’ll just go straight to doing the two day a week schedule right now.

In other news, I’ve changed my twitter handle to @tristanitis.  If you already follow me, not a big deal.  If you don’t already follow me, come on, what are you waiting for?  I sometimes waste perfectly good comic ideas on tweets, so you’re missing out.

November 1, 2012

Fall TV Shows

Filed under: Media Review — Tristan @ 9:49 pm

I’m going to review three of the new(ish) TV shows that I’m watching here.  Two of which are clearly right up my usual alley, and one which I take no responsibility for having seen.

WARNING: there will be some spoilers here.  Admittedly, since I’m watching these on a time delay, and haven’t actually seen more than the first two episodes of two out of three of these shows, so those spoilers should be pretty mild.

1. Arrow

I’ve not actually read a lot of the Green Arrow comics.  I read all the books Kevin Smith wrote when rebooting the series a few years ago, and I watched a small part of the Smallville episodes that worked the character in, but the new series has nothing to do with Smallville.  I guess what I’m saying is, I can’t actually tell you how true to the comics the show is being, as I’m not super familiar with the source material myself.

Anyway, of the three shows I’m going to talk about here, Arrow is by far my favorite.  I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but I’ve been very impressed.

For a start, the action is great.  Much better than most TV shows manage.  They’ve clearly got some great fight choreographers, and are also pretty good at keeping jump cuts to a minimum, so it’s pretty easy to follow what’s going on.

I think one of my favorite aspects of the show is how damaged they’re willing to let their main character be.  He spent five years living alone (as far as we know) on an island, fighting for his survival.  He comes back to civilization and is quite clearly pretty messed up by it.  Sure, some of it is an act to protect his burgeoning vigilantism, like when he acts like the alcoholic playboy he used to be, but other parts are not.  Oliver Queen obviously doesn’t know how to interact with his family anymore, from his younger sister who turned to drugs, to his mother that remarried in his absence.  The recent Batman movies are a clear inspiration for the series, so it’s also nice that they gave him a family to come back to at all, rather than just being the last member of the Queen clan.

The show is full of interesting characters.  Stephen Amell does a great job as the main character, completely selling both the callow dick he used to be in flashbacks as well as the driven man he’s become since.  I think my favorite has to be his would-be bodyguard, Diggle, who Oliver keeps evading so he can go out and do superhero things.  He’s quite clearly smarter than he lets on, and I really think it’s only a matter of time before Diggle figures out what Oliver is doing.  Not to mention Walter Steele, the man who married Oliver’s mother, played by, oh, let’s just go ahead and call him Dr Moon from the wonderful Silence in the Library Dr Who two-parter.  And rumor has it that another Dr Who alum, John Barrowman, is going to have a recurring role coming up.  Really, even if the rest of the show wasn’t really doing it for me, I would totally hold out long enough to see what was going on with whatever character he’s going to be playing.

Plot wise, it’s doing a great job of sprinkling in a larger, ongoing arc having to do with some vast conspiracy with bad guy of the week episodes, as Oliver basically does a Robin Hood schtick.  I’m genuinely curious to see what happened to Oliver on the island, how he learned to fight, and how the notebook got filled up with the names of Starling City’s worst.

It’s funny, but when they were showing Oliver’s empty grave in the second episode, I couldn’t help but notice that it said that Oliver was born in, like, 1985.  I’ve gotten to the point where the main characters of action shows are supposed to be younger than me.  Of course, he’s still played by someone two years older than me, so I guess I’ll just have to cling to that.

There is one thing I’m not super wild about, and that’s the interior monologues the show occasionally falls back on.  Amell does the best he can with the lines he’s given, but it’s painful.  The first episode opens with him being rescued, and immediately goes into a voice over bit about he’s coming back to clean up his city.  It is super awkward.  It’s use in the second episode is a little less painful, and they mixed it up a bit by later having him talk to his father’s grave, which points to the obvious solution.  They really need to let someone in on his secret so he can just have actual conversations with people about this.  Expository dialogue may not always be great, but it’s almost always better than expository monologue.  My vote is for Diggle.  Really, there’s only so many times he can put the guy in a sleeper hold and then run off to fight crime before he starts getting wise.  Of course, since I’m a couple episodes behind at this point, this could already have happened.  I hope so.

2. Revolution

Boy did I really want to like this show.  It’s got a lot of great actors and characters, an intriguing concept, and a proven show runner.  Pity the end result isn’t as fun.

Quickly then, the quality of action dropped off markedly from the first episode, but that’s to be expected when you had Jon Favreau directing the pilot.  After that, eh, not so great.

Eric Kripke made Supernatural, which, by all rights, should have been terrible, into a really awesome, fun, funny, and complex show.  Of course, I’d also give partial credit to Ben Edlund for that, but that’s just because I’m a huge Ben Edlund fan.

I can’t make myself care about the main girl on the quest to find her younger brother.  She’s kind of a blank slate.

I am impressed by the production quality of the show.  Shows that are long road trips can be expensive to shoot.  Supernatural has it relatively easy since it all takes place in the real world.  Well, sort of.  Revolution has to find new post-apocalyptic settings every week.  That at least is impressive.

Quick thought about the big bad:  What kind of idiot has his own last name, and some dorky symbol he came up with for it, tattooed on his arm?  That’s, like, the kind of tattoo idea that an eight-year-old who is super proud of his family would come up with, and is exactly why eight-year-olds aren’t allowed to get tattoos.

Really, the main problem with this show would have to be its basic premise.  It’s one thing to turn all the power off, and even another thing to keep it off, but Revolution goes way too far.  They even acknowledge it early on, with one character (who, I’m sorry, is way too young to have been a Google millionaire) talks about how it’s not just the power going out, but the basic laws of physics changing.  But it’s not even internally consistent.  No cars work anymore?  Really?  Because there are plenty of cars that should still work fine in a world without electricity.  Like, even if the starter isn’t going to work, it’s not like internal combustion suddenly stopped doing its thing.  After all, they still have bullets, and, you know, fire.

Basically, unlike Arrow, where my eyes light up whenever a new episode pops up in our Hulu queue, those four to five most recent Revolution episodes are just sitting there, slowly approaching their expiration dates, and it feels like it would be a chore to watch them.

3. Smash

Yeah, this is the surprising one.  I didn’t really mean to watch it, Elisabeth had it on downstairs while I was playing Guild Wars 2, and I couldn’t help but pick up some stuff.  This will probably be the most spoilerific review, because I don’t care.

For starters, I’m not really clear why, when they acknowledge early on that there’s already been an unsuccessful Broadway show based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, they think theirs will be different.  I know they had some reason, but it’s already gone from my mind and never mentioned again in the show, like it was the writers’ trick to bypass that obvious question show they could do a TV show about a Broadway show based on MM’s life anyway.  That being said, the musical numbers they’re coming up with aren’t that bad, they’re just still not part of anything I would want to watch.

Some of that might have to do with what a terrible role model Marilyn is.  Yeah, she had style and certainly made her way up to something from nothing, but she’s also pretty famous for sleeping around and having debilitating substance abuse problems.  So… yay…

They do an admirable job of working around the fact that an actual Broadway show would just be written for years before anyone started trying out by saying they’re workshopping the thing, but it still seems to be moving at a ridiculous pace, all so they can get musical numbers in their TV show in episode one.

Mostly it’s just the characters.  It’s like the writers of this show want you to like only one character, the innocent small town girl who wants to be a Broadway star, and have no problem with you placing all the other characters on a wide spectrum that has apathy at one end revulsion on the other.

The next most sympathetic character would have to be Anjelica Huston’s Eileen Rand, who regularly throws drinks in her ex-husband’s face, which actually is not necessarily a bad thing, as he’s clearly a dick, it’s just that it doesn’t always seem called for at the exact moment she does it.

There’s one of the play’s writers, Julia Houston, who is trying to adopt a daughter, and who we kind of like, right up until we find out she had a massive, cliche riddled affair.

There’s the other writer who, besides being gay, does not seem to have a whole lot of defining characteristics at all.

And there’s his assistant, who the show makes us first hate for putting a reel of them demoing a song on youtube, then we forgive him because it generates a lot of good buzz.  But now we hate him again because his friends have convinced him that because he vaguely got the two writers thinking about MM in the first place, he should be entitled to credit.  Basically, he comes off as a spineless jerk that blows in whatever direction the wind takes him.  Now it looks like he might blackmail writer 1with the aforementioned affair and blah blah blah who cares?

There’s Jack Davenport, who I’ve loved since the first time I saw Coupling, but here he’s playing the director, an opportunistic lech who puts the moves on innocent ingenue under the guise of helping her prepare for the audition.  His character is handled poorly all around.  Before he’s even on screen, writers 1 and 2 are discussing whether or not to have him direct, and writer 1 is for it, and all writer 2 can dramatically say is that he’s “A TERRIBLE PERSON!” and leave it at that.  I think they just didn’t want to reveal why he was a terrible person until he put the moves on Katharine McPhee so it would be a big surprise or something.  But, since they couldn’t just have the other characters pretend he doesn’t have a history of sleeping with impressionable young nobodies, they have to have them talk about it, but not actually say why he’s a terrible person.  For some reason Rand doesn’t seem to care at all.  Anyway, then he sleeps with the other girl trying out for the role, and let’s talk about her now, okay?

She sleeps with the director, in a move that totally made it look like she knew exactly what she was doing, and then later is talking to a friend and is all, “Do you think he gave me the part because I slept with him?”  Uh, yeah, dipshit.

Also, one of the Jonas brothers showed up in one episode, playing himself, I think.  I don’t know why.

Finally, there’s writer 1’s son, Bobby.  Bobby is extremely troubling, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.  I’ve gone through many phases.  At first I thought the character was supposed to be mentally disabled in some vague way.  Then I thought maybe the actor playing him was just making some really weird character choices.  Then there was a really odd speech he had about how his future adopted sister is somewhere in China, and they have to go and get her, like, right now.  This came off as extremely creepy, and gave rise to my new theory: the character was originally intended to be much younger.  Like, eight or nine, and not played by a 22-year-old.  I think they wrote that speech for a younger character, then aged him up, but were too attached to the sweet little speech they’d written to throw it out.  Coming from a small child, saying we have to go to China and rescue some unknown future sister could be kind of endearing.  Coming from someone who looks like he should be in college, it is decidedly less so.

In summation, Yay! for Arrow!  Whatever for Revolution.  Stop, just… just stop for Smash.

July 19, 2012

Videogames A La Carte

Filed under: Video Games — Tristan @ 4:54 pm

Recently I was replaying Red Dead Redemption.  Elisabeth was sitting next to me, and I’d just killed some large animal, probably a deer or cougar.  Next came the little cutscene where John kneels down to skin the animal in question.  Elisabeth found this very disturbing.

In case you haven’t seen it, the camera shifts to low perspective, pointing up at John from in front, so you don’t actually see the animal while it happens.  There are occasional spurts of blood, and some kind of icky sound effects.  Elisabeth made it clear that she did not want to see me killing and skinning animals while she was in the room, because she found the images pretty gross.  As I am generally prepared to acquiesce to her wishes, I agreed.

But this got me thinking.  Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just turn off the blood spurts?  A quick checked box in the menu options for ‘no blood from skinning’, or even ‘less gore’ in general.

Now, I understand why Rockstar would not have this option.  From a purely artistic standpoint, Rockstar games are all about creating a specific setting, rich in mood and character, and letting people go futzing around with their world like that isn’t really their thing.

There’s also the purely logistical standpoint, where having to test even minor things like removing blood can greatly increase production time and cost.

Some other games have done this, though.  Early on in Brutal Legend, you’re given a couple of choices which determine both the level of gore and use of strong language.  I haven’t played it, but I understand that some of the later Gears of War games have similar options. Even Dragon Age: Origins, which is a game with almost no redeeming qualities, let you turn off the completely ridiculous blood spatter that would cover your character during and after a battle.

I think including these options is a great idea.  It allows for more of a gradient in who can play your game.  Maybe parents are okay with their kids fighting off an alien race, but wish there was less blood.  I could easily see Brutal Legend as a game acceptable for an even younger audience, due to the fairly cartoony art style, not to mention Double Fine’s wonderful sense of humor, once you remove cursing and blood.

There’s also the fact that in not too long a time, I’ll have children, and though I certainly wouldn’t let them play the games I’m talking about for a very long time, and in fact, plan on playing games like this when they’re not in the house, I can see the advantage of having blood turned off in case they unexpectedly come home early and I’m in the middle of sawing a zombie in half.

I was also wishing for more options when playing the recent Minecraft port to Xbox.  I was reading about things like the adventure update available to PC players, and looking forward to adding exploring dungeons for treasure and building supplies to my Minecraft experience.  But then I read that that update also introduced the need to eat food to prevent starving to death, about which I was less enthused.

Minecraft already has a couple of specialty play modes, allowing you to build freely without having to worry about monsters and such.  So I think it would be great if they could let me explore dungeons, but also not have to manage my food supplies in a backpack.  This is an intentionally blocky, retro-looking game where I can carry molten hot lava in a bucket with my bare hands, so I feel like realism doesn’t need to be one of their strong design goals.

On a similar note, another Rockstar game, Bully, was something I enjoyed immensely right up until I discovered that if I my character didn’t get enough sleep, he would suddenly pass out from exhaustion. I stopped playing shortly after that.

Forcing characters to eat, sleep, drink, etc, is usually not included in video games for one very simple reason: it isn’t much fun.  Sure, there are a few games that let you manage things like this, Fallout: New Vegas for one, but they usually include it as an extra hard difficulty option, and don’t force you to do it.

I know that part of this is personal preference, but I go to video games for escapism, for fun.  I like a good RPG with plenty of stat and inventory management, but that doesn’t extend to managing how much food my character needs.  Are there any video games that make you stop and go to the bathroom when your bladder meter is full?  I mean, other than the Sims, but that doesn’t count.  The reason I play video games is for something fantastical, so having to manage the same bodily functions I manage in reality is a bit of a let down.

Anyway, I guess this is a plea for more options being available in video games.  Not just in story, but in how you play the game.  And, yes, I know that a lot of this is unrealistic, due to the extra work this would require, but I can ask, right?

Maybe my problem is that I keep wanting video games to be like the holodeck: a new world that I can explore without any real constrictions on how I explore it, and if something about the experience doesn’t jive with me, I can just tell the computer to change it, and it will.

That would be cool, huh?  Someday.  Someday.

May 29, 2012

Book Review: The Somnambulist

Filed under: Media Review — Tristan @ 8:05 pm

I recently picked up a copy of The Somnambulist and gave it a read.  From the cover, it looked like it had plenty of things I like in a book: engaging setting (Victorian England), interesting main character (stage magician and freelance crime solver), and some hints of the supernatural.

About a quarter of the way into the book, it became clear to me that it was unable to deliver on the promises made by dust jacket.  Spoilers ahead, but then, I’m trying to save you from reading this immensely unsatisfying book, so read on.

I think my problems with this book largely stem from its glaring and confusing inconsistencies.  The main character, Edward Moon, is a stage magician of some repute, and part of his act involves shoving actual swords through his assistant, the mute giant (and possible golem or genuine mythical giant) the Somnambulist.  We know that this is not just trickery because it is soon used in a combat scenario.  So, clearly, Moon is aware to some extent of some kind of magic being real in that universe.  However, just a short time later, when encountering a supposed psychic, Moon is quite reluctant to admit that she might be the genuine article.  His disbelief in the supernatural runs throughout the book, his default position being that there is a rational explanation for everything.  This is a somewhat confusing stance for someone who spends his evenings shoving swords through his best friend.

This book is also completely disinterested in explaining itself.  I am fine with their being some mysteries is a piece of fiction, leaving some bits to the imagination of the reader, but the Somnambulist goes too far.  I would accept that the author doesn’t want to categorically explain the mute giant’s origin, but that he also doesn’t want to explain what exactly happened between Moon and his previous assistant, or Moon and his sister, or the much mentioned but never illustrated previous cases Moon has worked on, some of them clandestine in nature, is a bit too much.

He also isn’t interested in explaining Thomas Cribb, a character unstuck in time.  At first I thought maybe he was aging backwards, Merlin-style, but that wasn’t it.  In the end, I just had to shrug and move on.

Part of me wonders if maybe these are just references I don’t get, largely out of a cultural gap between the UK and the states, but I usually don’t have a lot of trouble in that area, and given my anglophilic tastes in entertainment, I feel I would have had some before now, so I’m inclined to think that’s not the issue.

There are a lot of quibbling little things.  There’s a shadowy government agency, which, other than urging Moon to investigate, something it was pretty clear he was going to do anyway, doesn’t actually seem to serve much purpose in the story.  One of the agents in this organization takes it upon himself to hire two supernatural schoolboy killers.  This is a late development in the novel, and they serve more as a deus ex machina than anything else.  Frankly, there’s a lot of politicking and assassinating going on in the second half of the book, and barely seems to have anything at all to do with the nominal protagonist.  There’s some strange business with a group called the Survivor’s Club, which is where those ravaged by injury hang out without shame, but it doesn’t seem to add anything at all to the story.  A lot of the stuff on that side of the book is full clever ideas, but it ends up seeming like a whole bunch of things got thrown at a wall in the hopes some of them would stick.  Unfortunately, few, if any, do, so it all ends up feeling like padding.

Moon has a long suffering housekeeper (one of many traits he shares with Sherlock Holmes, and whether this is meant as homage or not is unknown to me), and she serves as one of the more sympathetic characters throughout the book.  However, near the very end, there is a scene where she has woken up and then proceeds to, out of nowhere, dig some of that crusty stuff that forms in the corner of your eye out and eat it.  The narrator mentions that this is a long-standing habit of hers.  All this passage does is take probably the most easy to relate to character and suddenly make her repulsive and strange.

My biggest problem with the book would have to the villain’s mind control device.  Over the course of the novel, various characters are brainwashed to his cause by use of some mysterious object hidden in the metaphorical wings.  Even Moon’s sister falls prey to it.  This is quite surprising, as she was established as a brilliant and strong-willed character, so cunning that she was able to disguise herself from her own brother.  I was naturally curious as to what this object or process was.  I was incredibly disappointed when I found out.

Part of the villain’s plot revolves around the resurrection of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Don’t ask why, it’s boring and inconsequential.  In any event, his body is, over the course of the novel, being revived in some kind of bath of nutrients in a steampunkish device deep underground.  And apparently, when people see this process taking place, it brainwashes them.  Somehow.  This is completely nonsensical.  That’s like if anyone saw Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, they were immediately converted to his cause by the mere sight of his jacob’s ladders.

Even worse, when Moon and the Somnambulist are confronted with it, they are completely immune.  How Edward resisted when his sister, who is quite plainly much more in control of herself than her brother, was turned is never explained.

It’s symptomatic of a book where lots and lots of things happen with apparently no relation to anything else, and where the title character is mostly superfluous to the story.  I mean, I understand why you would call this novel the Somnambulist, as it’s a wonderful word.  Though the sleepwalker in question seems to have been writing.

April 1, 2012

Adventures in Free to Play: Age of Conan

Filed under: Media Review,Video Games — Tristan @ 12:34 pm

Continuing my review of free to play MMORPGs, I downloaded Age of Conan and gave that a shot.  The results were uneven.

1. Action. This is definitely the most action centric MMORPG I’ve ever played.  Rather than the standard pick a target and do basic attacks, Age of Conan employs a defenses system.  Basically, when you have an enemy selected, there are little brackets to the left, right, and top.  These are weighted to show where the enemy is concentrating their defenses.  This corresponds with the first three attack keys in your hotbar, so you can attack on the side that the enemy is defending less.  They’ll move their brackets around based on where you attack, encouraging you to keep mixing it up.  Also, your power attacks only work when triggered from certain directions, so there’s actually some strategy in getting them to shift their defenses, then sweeping in on the exposed side with something strong.

There’s also a system where you have your own defenses in a similar fashion, but I could never get the hang of shifting them on the fly, or really tell where my enemies were attacking anyway, so I ended up keeping them even all the time.

2. Nudity. Age of Conan has very few qualms about nudity.  Given the Robert E Howard setting, this is not very surprising.  If you’re playing a female character, and aren’t wearing any torso armor, there’s going to be boobs instead of some forgotten age version of a bra.  It’s hard to say how I feel about this.  On the one hand, I’m in favor of games that are clearly intended for a mature audience going ahead with actual nudity.  On the other hand, this game can also be pretty immature.  For instance, the brothel in the first city is called the Bearded Clam.  Yeesh.

3. Graphics. Age of Conan actually looks pretty decent at a mid-range setting, the highest my computer allows before getting all jittery.  Character creation leans towards the Elder Scrolls mold, with a lot of customization in the facial features area.  Of course, once you get into the game, everyone kind of all looks the same anyway except for what armor they are (or aren’t) wearing. Still, I’ve always found that a more in depth character creation system leads to a certain amount of attachment to your character.  Taking the time to make them look just like you, or at least just exactly how you want them to, helps you identify with them more.

4. Micropayments. Age of Conan doesn’t wear the free to play cloak that well.  From word go, you’re constantly aware of how much of this game is locked off to you unless you pay more.  The classes available at the outset are highly limited unless you pay a premium to unlock more.  My inventory window had a lot of empty boxes that the game absolutely refused to let me store stuff in.  I’m not certain, but it seemed paying money would have opened up those slots.

5. Soloing. Generally speaking, Age of Conan was pretty forgiving to the solo player like myself.  The main questline won’t let you play too far unless you’ve reached a level where you can handle what’s being thrown at you, which is handy.  Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell where in the game I should have been leveling up.  There came a point where it seemed all the areas I was in were either too easy or too hard, and I couldn’t figure out where to go to find a happy medium.  Of course, I acknowledge that maybe it’s not really built for soloing,  but I didn’t ever really see people tackling things as a group, so maybe I was just missing a big area.

6. Quests. The quest variation was slightly better than most MMORPGs, and certainly better than Lord of the Rings Online.  They appear to be actually tailored to your class a bit.  Since I was playing a rogue, they tended to have a focus on sneaking around to get things done, where I assume a fighter class would probably have been bashing in more heads.  True, a lot of them boiled down to ‘go here, do this, collect this,’ but when you think about, life is just a series of repeated tasks anyway.  I did dishes today, and I’ll probably do more tomorrow.  At least I didn’t have to fight carnivorous plants to get them done.

All in all, I’d qualify the game as generally worthwhile, though, since I haven’t felt the strong urge to launch it again for a while, maybe it’s just not for me.

March 8, 2012

Adventures in Free to Play: Lord of the Rings Online

Filed under: Media Review,Video Games — Tristan @ 2:57 pm

I’m a big fan of huge, open world RPGs.  I love big, time consuming games for a variety of reasons, but one factor is a simple equation:

$/h=v

Where $ is the price of the game, h is the time spent playing it, resulting in v, which is a value.  What you’re looking for here is a low number for v.  If a new game costs $60, and entertains you for 20 hours, you’ve paid three bucks an hour for that entertainment, which, compared to the price of, say, a movie ticket which gives you about 6 bucks an hour of entertainment, is a good deal.

To that end, it recently occurred to me to give some of these MMORPGs that have gone free to play a try.  if v=$0, that’s a definite win.

So I downloaded Lord of the Rings Online.  This was a mistake.

This game is terrible.  I was only able to tolerate it for a few hours before I gave up in disgust.  Here are my main complaints:

1. It’s ugly.  Super unattractive.  This is a game that came out in 2007 and is just hideous.  I think the original Guild Wars has better graphics, and that’s a game that came out two years earlier.  The second time I launched the game, I decided to turn up the graphical settings to see if that would help.  Like many people, I often play with low settings to improve performance.  Imagine my surprise when I realized I was already set to the maximum across the board.

At one point I got a leather helm, equipped it, and was annoyed to see that my elven ranger had put what appeared to be a wilted lettuce cup on his head.

I try not to be a huge graphics queen, but with this game it actually confuses me.  At one point I was tasked with finding somebody’s lost son or friend, I can’t actually remember which.  I followed the waypoint, killing wolves all the way, until I found what assumed to be his body, as the quest told me I now had to go and find the quest giver again.  When I did, the quest giver started talking about he goblins clearly got his son/friend, saying I had told him their were goblins around the body.  This left me confused, as all I had seen were wolves.  It later occurred to my that the odd lump of polygons I’d encountered was meant to be a dead goblin, not a dead elf.  Not that there was any way to tell them apart.

2. Boring quests.  I got to somewhere around level 7, and every single quest I had amounted to: travel to some place, kill four or five guys or collect four or five things, then go back to the quest giver.  Every single quest.  To be fair, plenty of RPGs are mostly grind of this sort.  Heck, I recently hooked up my old PlayStation 2 and started playing Final Fantasy 12 again, and that’s a game where I can litterally spend hours running in a circle to build up a good chain killing skeletons.  The difference there would be that Final Fantasy 12 is visually stunning and actually engaging to play. Which brings us to…

3. The fighting.  It’s the standard MMORPG hotbar system.  Except I have no idea what the difference between any of my skills were, save that half of them seemed to be melee and the other half ranged.  Worse yet, there’s a weird bit where it seems I have to pick which kind of attack I want to start with or something.  All I know is, when I click on a monster, I expect my ranger to start shooting him full of basic arrows while waiting for me to tell him to do something more complicated.  Instead, I usually got a weird message saying I need a valid target, then, after clicking again, he starts firing.  I don’t know what a more valid target for arrows is than a goblin.

4. Lack of voice/lazy cut-scenes.  There’s really no voice in this game.  The only time you really hear anyone talking in game is when getting or completing some quests.  A long paragraph of dialog will pop up, and the quest giver will say something that is sort of vaguely similar to just the first sentence.  The differences in what they’re saying compared to what is written is distracting, and only takes you out of the game.

And the cut scenes in instanced quests aren’t any better.  The ones I encountered featured no voice, just word bubbles popping up above guys, sometimes overlapping with each other while the dialog played out, giving the whole thing the feel of a particularly poorly layed-out comic book.

That about sums it up.  It’s ugly and it’s not fun to play. A friend told me that Age of Conan is supposed to be fun, so maybe I’ll give that a shot next.  Right now, I’m going to go uninstall this and then fire up the PS2.

January 2, 2012

2011 media in vague, half-assed review

Filed under: Media Review,Video Games — Tristan @ 11:44 am

Let’s do a quick recap of things that I watched/played/read in 2011 and how I felt about them, shall we?

1. Worst movie: Suckerpunch

I reviewed it here earlier in the year, and distance has only made me less fond of the bloated, stupid, misogynistic mess.  As to the whole infantilization of its sexual lead, director Zack Snyder now says that was the point of the movie, that you’re supposed to be uncomfortable with it.  Unfortunately, as nothing in the movie ever makes it look like we’re not supposed to find Babydoll sexy, I have to think that saying it after the fact doesn’t really count.  Just because you say your movie is actually supposed to be a critique on the sexualization of youth in our culture, that doesn’t change the fact that you dressed up a young looking 21-year-old in a 12-year-old’s Japanese schoolgirl sailor suit and filmed her fighting robots and doing sexy dances.

2. Best underperforming movie: Fright Night 3D

This movie deserved so much better than it got.  It was funny, scary, smart, and everything else a great horror/comedy/action movie should be, but hardly anyone went to see it.  Colin Farrell turns his natural charm to the creepy side to play a vampire, Christopher Mintz-Plasse continues his track record of awesome parts in awesome movies, and David Tennant gets some great laughs out of being a foul-mouthed magician.  Even better, the 3D didn’t make your head hurt.

3. Most wasted potential in a new TV series: Grimm

I should do a full breakdown of Grimm here, but here’s the bones of its problems: Taking a strong opening two episodes that hinted at a large world full of fairy tale creatures that live in disguise among us mostly law-abiding everyday people, then utterly throwing any sense of a grander plot and continuity out the window in favor of a paint-by-numbers police procedural starring a protagonist who’s apparently totally uninterested in learning anything at all about his role as judge/jury/executioner for the mythical world.

4. Best Video game: The Elder Scrolls v: Skyrim

In all honesty, I have yet to play the other game that’s getting a lot of attention on best of the year lists, Arkham City, so this may change, but Skyrim is still utterly enjoyable, even after I’ve finished all of the two main plots and all of the guild quests.  I’m actually only two achievements away from having all of them in the game, but in pursuit of those, I still keep finding whole new sections of the map to explore that I’d totally missed before.  The combat is, in truth, only slightly improved from Oblivion, but they’ve fixed the auto-levelling world so perfectly that it doesn’t really matter.  Hmm.  I should probably do a full review of Skyrim too.

5. Best video game sequel: Portal 2

Okay, I know.  Technically speaking, Skyrim is also a sequel, but only in that loose fashion that all of the Elder Scrolls games are connected through their common world.  Portal 2 was a direct sequel, and though it might not have been as long as I usually like my retail releases, it was pitch-perfect all the way through.  For starters, it was funny, genuinely funny, in a way most video games don’t have a clue as to how to reach.  For an example of what passes for humor in other video games, look no further than Saints Row or that awful looking new Duke Nukem.  But it balanced that humor with moments of creepiness and fear due to the atmosphere of the massive, abandoned research lab, combined with the taunting of AIs and the increasingly deranged recorded ramblings of a long gone Cave Johnson.  In fact, I’m going to say that Skyrim and Portal 2 are co-winners for best video game.

6. Best video game that makes you send innocent men to prison: LA Noire

Okay, technically, this could be the worst video game that does it as well, ’cause there’s really only one.  LA Noire is fantastic, if only for the potential for future games it represents.  The facial animations are incredible, it was just the game design that was lacking.  For large sections of the game, you spend all your time getting innocent men to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, and you can kind of see that’s how it’s breaking down as you’re doing it.  Also, the main character is thoroughly unlikeable, and his motivations are kept maddeningly opaque until very near the end of the game.  For a noir movie, that would be fine, but for a video game, where you are in control of that character and thus somewhat complicit in his decisions throughout the game, it’s very annoying to have him suddenly commit adultery in a cutscene with no explanation.

7. Best fantasy series I finally started reading: The Kingkiller Chronicle

The second book in Patrick Rothfuss‘ fantasy series came out this year, so I think this one counts.  It’s incredibly well-written, and, unlike Harry Potter, handles magic smartly and with understandable rules and limits.  The characters have depth and are interesting, and the world is dripping with history and fully realized.  I actually started reading this series to Elisabeth, but, as I was partway through the second book while reading her the first, I began to worry about how happy an ending we’re going to get, so I had to stop.  As a story that is looking to be about the high price of revenge, I probably should have figured that out sooner.

In case you’re wondering why I didn’t give a link for everything in this review, I just wanted to link to things that I thought people might not have heard of.

September 29, 2011

Herman Cain, Taxes, & Slavery

Filed under: Media Review,Politics — Tristan @ 9:27 pm

Herman Cain recently released a campaign ad to illustrate the tax plan he would enact were he to become president.

I have a few things to say about it, but I don’t feel like I can really cover it all in a comic, so, wow, two posts in one week!  Amazing.  I’m not going to go into much detail on the actual meat of the 999 tax plan here, except to say that I think if you were to find one magic number that if you applied it as taxes to individuals, corporations, and as sales tax, and the revenue generated from that was enough to run the federal government, I’m kind of surprised that it’s a nice round number like 9, and not, oh, say, 8.9736395014.  Also, I think the world is actually a complex and uncertain enough place that to say “Here’s our tax code and it will never change because it’s going to pay for everything, ever, all the time, no matter what happens” is a little optimistic.  And unrealistic.  Let’s call it unrealoptimistic.

The real issue I have with this ad is the opening line:  “Our tax code is the 21st century version of slavery.”  I find something very troubling about equating our taxes to slavery.  I don’t think that paying a percentage of what you earn in exchange for important services (fire, police, roads and other infrastructure, education, defense, libraries, the list goes on) is really the same as actually being the property of another human being who can beat the crap out of you for not working the in the fields all day.

I think Herman Cain is able to get away with it right now for two reasons:

1. He’s trying to appeal to the Tea Party, which has become so divorced from reality that they’ve apparently convinced themselves that absolutely everything the government does is the work of fucking Satan, especially taxes because how dare the government take any of the money that I earned or interfere with my life in any way!  The government should never interfere in people’s lives except when it’s making sure those gays don’t get married, obviously.

2. Herman Cain is black.  I asked Elisabeth what she thought would happen if a white politician had said taxes were the same as slavery, and she said his political career would be over.  I tend to agree.

I poked around online, thinking there would be a bit of an uproar over this comparison, but I really didn’t see one, and that kind of surprises me, making me wonder if I’m overreacting out of some kind of subconscious white guilt.  But it just seems to me that slavery is a pretty harsh thing to compare anything to.  It’s like calling someone Hitler.  In fact, I propose that calling anything (late fees at the library, the hours your job requires you to work, waiting in line at the post office) the modern equivalent of slavery should be an addition to Godwin’s Law.  Say something is the same as slavery and you automatically lose the argument.

Also, really not wild about the final quote, “If 10% is good enough for God, then 9% should be just fine for the Federal Government.”  For one, I’m pretty sure “federal government” should not be capitalized, but mostly I don’t think how much you tithe should in any way have an effect on government policy, because, you know, separation of church and state.

September 24, 2011

Fun With Spam (no, not the food)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tristan @ 1:08 pm

Spam comments on my websites tend to be hilarious.  Presented here are a few examples from Bashert.  I could include the ones from tristandavis.com, but it’s time consuming enough to wade through and trash the 1,644 spam comments in my queue without taking screen shots as well.

Oh, and for the love of god, don’t actually go investigating where these URLs lead to.  That would be a terrible idea.

Anyway, here’s the first one.

I highly doubt that post was created specially for bashertcomics.com.

I love how these start out with “comment4,” as they are apparently not good enough at coding their spambot to leave that out of the actual message body.  The only thing better is this:

Oops, forgot to put the actual comment part in.  This leads us to the wonder world of bullshit online pharmacy ads:

Yes, one of the side-effects of taking Zithromax is diarrhea, what with it being a pretty hardcore antibiotic.  However, I don’t know that a lot of people are trying to order the diarrhea specifically.

Personally, I would think that diarrhea would make Zithromax sort of a last choice when it comes to acne medications.

There’s a whole list of drugs I get spam advertising.  Things like Levitra and Viagra, I kind of get the point.  It’s boner pills, and who doesn’t want better boners?  It’s the maintenance medications that really confuse me.  I’m not going to post images for all of the drug spam, because that would take too long, but I’ll list a few and summarize.  The beauty of working a pharmacy is that I’m in a good position to understand why so many of these are ridiculous.

1. Vasotec.  It’s for high blood pressure.

2. Synthroid.  For low thyroid.  The thing about this one is that it requires blood tests to know what dose of thyroid medication you need, and it can change easily.  So just because you think you know the dose you’re on, doesn’t mean it won’t change, making the thousands of “synthroid” (probably not synthroid, and you’re lucky if it’s not toxic) tablets you just ordered from “Japan” (doubt it) totally worthless.

3. Clomid.  Used to induce ovulation.  Also often spammed with the word diarrhea in the message body.  Yippee.

4. Norvir. This one’s used to treat HIV.  If you have HIV, you really, really need to be getting your medications from somewhere legit, not the internet equivalent of the back of someone’s truck off the side of the road.

5. Citalopram, Lexapro, Prozac, etc.  You probably already know what these are.

6. Valium, Xanax, etc.  You probably also know that these do.  To be fair, these could have a recreational use as well, not that it’d be a good idea.

7. Percocet, Vicodin, etc. Ditto.

8. Motrin, “chewable antacids.”  These are over the counter, easy to find anywhere from a pharmacy to a gas station, and also pretty cheap.  There is no good reason to be ordering these from a shady website.

9. Doxycycline, Tetracycline, Keflex, and a host of other antibiotics.  Because, yeah, everyone should take tons of antibiotics for everything.  What’s a drug-resistant strain?  Who cares!

10. Cellcept.  This one’s to prevent organ rejection.  The only reason I can think of why you would need this and couldn’t get it legitimately is if you paid an unlicensed doctor 20 thousand dollars to give you a fresh kidney, while in a remote hotel room, a confused young hitchhiker is waking up in a bathtub full of ice with a poorly stitched incision and note saying to call an ambulance.

I could go on, but I won’t.

Really, there are very good reasons why most of these medications are only available by prescription.

Oddly enough, these pharmacy spam comments don’t usually even show up on my comics that are about working in a pharmacy.  Most recently I had to close comments on the Cavalry vs. Calvary comic due to the high amount of bogus prescription drug spam.  For reasons that I can’t even begin to fathom, Deflection is another favorite.

This guy’s bar for what honors him has been set pretty low.

I was so ready to believe this one was genuine, until I saw the unlikely name choice of “Xbox Repair.”  Is that, like, Polish?  At least this one was on a slightly relevant comic.

God, what are we thinking about chicken recipes?  This one… might be good?  I don’t know.  I’m a little wary of including whipping cream in this.  It’s not exactly a tandoori recipe, is it?  The typos make it hard to tell.

I used to get tons of spam trying to sell heavy kitchen equipment, like industrial deep-fryers and the kind of massive grills not used outside of restaurants.  I still have no idea why that happened.

I love this one.  It starts with a ludicrously verbose several paragraphs (when was the last time you heard someone being described as “arch”?), becomes bizarrely scatological, and at the end reads like the Hannibal Lecter political theory course.  I can only assume the body of the text was taken from some thankfully obscure work of fiction by a 19th century asylum inmate.  Sort of like the Marquis de Sade, but even more unstable. And at the end, it turned out to be advertisements for backhoes!  What the hell!?

Pornotube is a real website, and you can probably guess at its content.  This was not actually an ad for them, because, believe it or not, I think they’re actually a little too honest for spamming wordpress sites.  The link went to beseen.net, which has a waving American flag gif reminding us to never forget, and a background that is so fucking hideous that looking at their page for more than 8 seconds will actually cause your eyeballs physical pain.  I am not even kidding a little bit about that.  Beyond that, I’m not sure what their goal is.  I don’t recommend you investigate to try and find out.

I could go on.  I didn’t post any of the inexplicable ads for used rental cars in Northern Ireland, or the ones that are just in cyrillic.  But I think that’s more than enough for now, don’t you?

PS But speaking of the food, I’ve got a coworker that makes some really excellent Spam onigiri.

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