Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Devil In The Corporation

Even if I was a great fan of the original Diablo and D2, I was late in deciding to take on Diablo 3. It was a combination of factors, from the bad reviews the game kept getting, to the constant servers errors I kept hearing about and to me being too busy to take up such a time-eater. However, I came across it at a great discount and, on an impulse, decided to give it a try. Three weeks of (casual) gameplay later this is what I think.

DIABOLICALLY GORGEOUS
The game is beautiful to look at and a visual pleasure to play in. The environments are meticulously rendered and yet they loose none of their details when zoomed in or acted upon. Blowing up tree trunks or exploding bodies of enemies is both fun and physically accurate. Sure, some heads or pieces of wood can be seen to spin for too long, but that is part of the game's appeal, right? You are become Death, the destroyer of Worlds!

YOUR CHORD SOUNDS FAMILIAR
The sounds are better than the music but they are both quite well made. What I found strange was that, at least once, throughout Act I, the background music clearly reminded me of the main theme from Baldur's Gate. Let's chalk this one off as ...tribute.

GRINDING BUILDS CHARACTER
The bad news is that it builds exactly the same kind of character for everyone. There are no choices when leveling up. Everything eventually gets unlocked for you and you only get to choose what 4 skills to use and which runes to combine with each one. Your strength, dexterity, intelligence and vitality get automatically increased, depending on your class. No more making a tank out of a ranger I am afraid. And this is where the game looses a good chunk of its rating.
The fact that you get to have a sidekick that does practically little more than keep the mobs occupied until you dispense of them, does not help either.

CULTURAL PHOBIAS DO NOT A GOOD STORY MAKE
Yes, the story plot is infantile, disrespectful to the original games (I will refrain from spoiling it) and it offers very little help in immersing into the game world. It is unfortunate because, Blizzard has proved in the past that they can produce games with a very good back-story, such as Starcraft II.
However, this a game franchise that is heavily invested on the Judeo-Christian culture of the Devil. Just read the name on the box! So, taking away demonic pentagrams and most religious symbols (some crosses can still be found) fools no one. Because once you go down that road and then decide to backup, you should make sure not to step on yourself and trip. As in: if a golden-eyed Fallen Angel (Hello!) is helping you fight Diablo, are you sure who is the Devil and who is not?

LOOT. LOOT NEVER CHANGES
Well designed and clearly labeled items make all the difference in the world. I would love for Borderlands 2 items to have such a clear Damager-Per-Second (DPS) number to make comparisons easier. Pair this with an inventory that is big enough and free of the need to play item-Tetris in (all items take up either one or two vertical squares) and you have yourself almost loot haven. Almost because you still get too many unusable items, mostly because of class restrictions.
You can stash such items in your common stash to share with your other heroes (on the same BattleNet account) but make sure to find the necessary...700,000 gold to pay for all the extra stash space. Hint: use the Auction House while you still can.
The only thing I found missing is the ability to add sockets to magical items and enchant regular ones.

THE AUCTION HOUSE: BRILLIANT! (WHEN IT WORKS)
I am going to go against the current here but here it is: I found the Auction House a brilliant idea. Well designed and decently executed. I am going to be sad to see it go on March, as announced. I can only hope they change their mind before then.
In all honesty, I am currently a Demon Hunter at Nightmare difficulty. And I have heard the complaints that it is impossible to finish Inferno without Real-Money Auction House (which is clearly not how it is supposed to work) but up to Nightmare, using the Auction House is the only way to get enough money to be able to do the enhancements you want, craft or buy the items you covet and unlock the precious extra stash space you need.

CHAINS IN NEED OF BREAKING
I had to rate the game even lower because of the always-online requirement. Because it is indeed a hassle and a hindrance (just try pausing in town for longer than half and hour and see what happens). Yes, the game does offer some gameplay features (namely, the Auction-House) to compensate for the inconvenience but they all give way to anger and frustration whenever Blizzard's servers go down  and you are unable to play a Single-player game for days at a time(!). Take away the Auction-House, however, and the always-online requirement becomes a severe and now unjustified hindrance!

THE ORIGINAL SIN
No, D3 dips to an even lower rating for managing to be both short and boring at times. There, I said it. Yes, it is a well balanced eye-candie, with tons of loot, problematic character development yet the gameplay feels like at chore at times and it is over before you know it. I even found Act I (the one offered for free as a demo) to be better designed and longer than the rest.

It is like that old Woody Allen joke: two old ladies are complaining about their retirement home catering. "The food was awful, barely edible", "I know", her friend replied, "and such small portions!".

Monday, November 4, 2013

This Is The Universe Singing To Itself

At the end of a job interview once, I was asked to choose between Star Wars and Star Trek. I made a favourable impression when, instead, I replied, "Dune".

Because the Dune Universe is as emotional as it is scheming and so deep in human accomplishments and  shortcomings as it is rich in mythos. 

The lyrics of this song are written in Chakobsa, the language of the Fremen, the desert people moulded upon the Arab nations and their control over the Spice that allows the world to function. 

Do yourself a favour and pick all six of the original Dune books. Try to steer clear of the latest fun-exploitation novels churned out every year in the name of Frank Herbert. They do little more than soil Frank's vision. 

And even thought the 1984 David Lynch's Dune film is considered canon, do not overlook the Dune (2000) and Children of Dune (2003) Mini Series. This where this magical music comes from.  

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Most Touching Ballads By The Most Haunting Voice You Will Ever Hear

Compared to its population, Canada is blessed with a disproportionate great number of talented performance artists - and Sarah McLachlan is one of the best examples.
Maybe they are inspired by the endless expanses of the Great North and the blandness of the Toronto sprawl; maybe it is the English and French cultures creating unique sparks as they reluctantly merge; maybe it is living in Vancouver, one of the most ephemerally beautiful cities of the world, set on the ridge of the Pacific ring of fire; or maybe it is the eternal adolescence of the Canadian psyche or the freshly disillusioned naiveté of a nation of great poets and dreamers in the shadow of the bordering militaristic giant. Who knows.

Sarah McLachlan is a great Singer - and this is her very best album! I have Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (together with all her albums) since my university years - God bless the Due South TV Series that exposed me to her absolutely haunting voice! I have been playing it numerous times over the years, one could not get tired of this collection. The pieces are all gems, from start to finish! The music speaks directly to the soul, such poetic lyrics are so hard to find any more.

And, I promise you, Sarah's voice will haunt you forever.

It's A Brand New PostApocalyptic Dawn

I am old enough to have played the original game when it first came out in 1997. I was a great fan of the series that followed and, thus, was very eager to get my hands on this latest installment. In a short sentence: Fallout 3  is a dream come true.

It is a cRPG game in which the player can alternate between the First and Third person perspective roaming a world comparable in size with Oblivion. The action has moved from Vault 13 and Southern California to Vault 101 and Washington, D.C. and the story brakes away from the previous bloodlines. However, the atmosphere of the original has been maintained and its scents sharpened: veterans will find it fitting like and old glove - whereas the new gamers are in store for a bag of pleasant surprises.

The graphics are wonderful, the guns detailed and the environments highly interactive. Short of a screenshot, imagine what would HalfLife-2 would look if released today. And similar to HL2Fallout 3  does not require an...übercomputer to run smoothly. Once you see a NPC move though, you understand where the corners were cut.

Character customization is carried out in great style using the new and improved PIP-BOY at the beginning. You exit the vault and the harsh reality of a world that barely survived annihilation slaps you on the face. Adapt or perish.

The main storyline is there to be followed but Fallout 3 offers the greatest number of alternative choices I have ever encountered in a game! There is always a great number of paths to follow in order to achieve any goal - but every choice comes with a consequences tag. This is common feature of most classic cRPGs but in Fallout 3  I saw it implemented like never before. If nothing else, this sends replayability through the roof.

Side-quests offer little besides distraction and experience points (XP) to be spend on character improvement. XP are gained solely by completing quests, emerging victorious from fights, finding locations, picking locks and hacking terminals - and they are not limited by the action they were earned. Levelling up is based on 7 basic attributes [Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility & Luck - acronym?;)] that, in turn, affect your (13) specific skills. Since levelling
up is capped at Level-20, the game designers wanted to encourage replaying the game. On the other hand, it also means that your character will never realize its full potential (in case you are wondering why I withheld a star from fun, that's the second half of it).

The game is violent and gory but well within tasteful limits. Not so with the language - but it is tradeoff with realism. In a radioactive world, Sunday-school niceties are bound to go out the window.
What deserves a special mention is V.A.T.S. (:Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) which opens new vistas in cRPG design. It is an ingenious system which lets you pause the game and target specific body parts of your opponents. The success of your attack still depends on your skills but the end effect is cinematic and amazing (remember the movie Swordfish?).

After the nuclear summer of 2008 (with all the LimitedInstallation-defective EA releases), this seems like a postapocalyptic dawn indeed! Bethesda decided to listen to the gaming community and did not cripple this beautiful game with any idiotic DRM scheme. Inputting a serial number and a DVD-check is more than reasonable.
The publishers of Fallout 3  understand that there is a fine balance between "protecting the product" and..."insulting your own customers". And they obviously view respect as the two way street that it is - and for this they deserve our support: buy this game, today.

Voting with our wallets is the only argument the gaming industry cannot afford to ignore. And it is about time to cast some well deserved positive votes.

In The Valley Of Colours And Kings

After Zuma's success, a number of clones appeared - but the Luxor series is the one that actually improved on some aspects of the concept. As the series progressed, Luxor games became more and more self-reliant. With Luxor 4: Quest for the Afterlife the franchise flexes its own muscles.

A series of coloured balls (with the number of different colours increasing every few levels) gets pushed and you have to match them in sets of three or more in order to remove them - and prevent them from reaching the end zone. Instead of having the "shooter" in the centre, it is located at the bottom and it slides left and right. This makes for some quite difficult shots (especially when obstructed by the advancing row of balls) and raises the difficulty of the game.
On the other hand, the power-ups are more powerful, at the end of every round a number of coins and gems drop and "catching" them add lives to your paddle. It seems pretty straight-forward yet it can become highly...addictive!

Compared to the previous instalment of the series, Luxor 4 is graphically even more impressive, enriched as to the dropping bonuses (and...penalties) - yet it will seem somewhat easier to seasoned players of the series; nevertheless, it will fulfill the fans craving for more pharaohnic fun!

This is an example of what has come to be known as Casual Gaming: small, resource-light games that are fun for the whole family.
It would be a good idea to download the 60-min trial version from a casual games site, such as Reflexive and decide for yourself whether this is indeed your cup of tea. It wouldn't hurt to wait for the price to drop either: most casual games sell for no more than $10.

Another WindTrap, Disappointingly Holding No Water

To anyone familiar with the original DUNE universe, Frank Herbert's vision was so rich and majestic that as a reader I did not want the story to end. Well, at this point I very much wished it had.

Paul of Dune had everything going for it: an interesting timeline, a detailed setting and unresolved cliffhangers. Yet it manages to fail.
This book picks up the action just after the first book (and the movie) of the series (Dune) and before the second (Dune Messiah), a very interesting period of 12 years for which, so far, we only had hints and suggestive glimpses of. At the same time, a number of flashbacks flesh-out the details of the life of an adolescent Paul Atreides.
Wheels within wheels? No. Rather more like a lone, rusty wind-wheel turning in the soft breeze of decadent Kaitain. Let the good times roll...

According to Dorothy Parker, there are books "not to be tossed aside lightly, [but] thrown with great force". This is one of these books. My study coffee-table now has the indentation to prove it.

I received this book for free from the publisher and for over 6 weeks I tried to read it numerous times. I kept getting so discouraged that I was this close in giving up. The first 100 pages can be summarized in just one phrase: "Paul is devastated by the ongoing Jihad but it is inevitable and the lesser of many evils according to his prescience". Paul says it. Irulan makes notes about it. Alia has inner voices echoing it. OK, we get it, please move on!
Which prescience, one must note, apparently is a very fickle commodity as we keep hearing of it but never actually see it in action.

What has became of Paul, the leader of men and conqueror of worlds? That little man is the...Kwizats Haderach? That is what the Bene Gesserits were selectively mating people for, for thousands of years? That is what the Tleilaxu were trying to duplicate? Well, someone must tell both the the witches and genetic abominations that they are not missing much!
To keep the new emperor human is one thing; to make him dull and cruel, spineless and indecisive is quite another.

This is a book of science fiction so, yes, suspending one's disbelief is a requirement from page one. Nevertheless, a basic logical scaffolding is required for the whole world not to collapse. Taking over entire planets with only a handful of unruly Fremen and some Sardakaur fresh from switching their allegiance? Paul having delegated almost every important decision to...Korba and his Qizarete priests? Where has the unstoppable momentum of Paul gone? If he had lost steam so soon, there is just no way that his vision would materialize by others.
And just how did Fremen become so bloodthirsty and lost all sense of honor in a few weeks?

The young Paul stories fair a bit better but are cursed with the readers'...prescience of the Dune future: every new storyline must serpentine and eat its own tail before the end. After all, the Golden Path future has been set by Frank. And Writing is not a hereditary ability.

It feels like a bad batch of semuta to be sold anyway only, once more, to take advantage of the hardened addicts.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Of All The Lairs In The World...

Evil Genius is a game that stays for you for a very long time - and is bound to find its way to your hard drive every time there is a new Bond film hype. After the deluge of the latest DRM-ruined games, I went looking through my gaming library for older gems to play. This is definitely one of them!

In a classic Ian Flemming's setting, you start in a desert tropical island where you are to design and build your secret lair. In a Sims tradition you do not control your minions directly, instead you control the Evil Mastermind behind everything that is brilliantly nefarious: a stocky Bloomfield-lookalike in a gray Mao/Nehru jacket and an insatiable mood to take over the world (the other choices are the heavy-accented seductress Alexis and efficient Shen Yu - but we all know how chauvinistic the world of self-indulgent espionage can be).

Besides the Evil Genius, you can (partially) control a couple of major Evil Henchmen/women. I said partially because once given an order they will take their sweet time to execute it - if ever. No wonder Bond always won in the end: the Evil nemesis had to do everything himself!

Including making ends meet. Yes, even the most evil of geniuses apparently cannot print money. Hence, the need to built hotel and vacation resorts - not only to hide but also to finance the plans to take over the world. From hotelier to World Dictator - everyone not born with a silver spoon in his mouth has to pay his dues I guess...

Nevertheless, the real fun of the game is designing your lair and setting up the traps! Since there seems to be an endless number of possible combinations this alone multiples the replayability of the game.
Plan carefully ahead and watch the invading Secret Agents be thrown helplessly from one trap directly to the next - and finally out of your lair (or into a body-freezer room). Until the Super Agents that is.

The Super Agents make the game almost impossible to win. Again, in a true Ian Flemming fashion, good should prevail - and should do so easily (funny that concept never seemed to caught on in real life...). Nevertheless, the game is not unbeatable - it just needs a lot of practice. (I needed more than half a dozen tries - and they were all fun!)

In these Middle-Age days of PC gaming, when the industry decided to go to the dark side, it is a good idea to unwind with a brilliant classic.

Because What Everyone Really Wants To Do Is Direct

During the months of boycotting most new PC games releases (for harbouring vicious DRM schemes and Limited installations), I found the time to replay a number of older games that truly are much better in many ways. Most importantly, innovation.

The Movies is a cross-genre hybrid, beautifully combining a Sims game with a business-RTS one and a highly creative movie suit. Not only do you get to step into the shoes of a Hollywood mogul, but you get a shot in "realizing" that film you always had in you.

The game starts with the design and building of your Studio (using up the allocated funds), complete with Script stables, Sound stages, Production offices and, well, casting-couches? (not so surprisingly that part of Hollywood was not included). Casting is pretty straight forward, plucking some lucky characters from the waiting line and turning them into stars. Or script writers. Or directors. Or janitors. Yes, life is a bitch.

What I liked about this game was its historic accuracy, simplified efficiency and clear-cut design. Not only are most stages in making a movie readily available and the means to achieve this evolve as time progresses, but everything has a familiar feel and self-evident practicality as well.

Stars throwing tantrums and directors relaxing too much with the sauce; ageing stars in need for nip/tacks - and always keeping an eye out for whoever has the bigger trailer!

What I loved about this game was the opportunity to plan out the script in a detailed story-board and then shoot my own movies. The bad news is that if your visions are long and complicated your studio will be... bankrupt in no time, as it will release fewer and more expensive movies. But that is besides the point, is it not? What is a bankrupt studio in the wake of a iconoclastic new director towards his vision?

In the end, although very entertaining in many ways, the strong suit of this game is not its Movie-Business Management Simulation but rather its Movie Creating editor. Simply, there is no other game like it.

Memoirs Of A Masterpiece

If you have only experienced the movie, let me make it as clear as possible: you have barely scraped the surface. Memoirs of a Geisha is a very rich and rewarding novel that will absorb you into another time, a far away land and a completely alien mentality. Welcome to the Floating World of the Geishas in its twilight.

This is the true story of Mineko Iwasaki (whose personal autobiography is also available under the title Geisha: A Life) presented in the form of a novel by a brilliant Arthur Golden (too bad he did not follow up his success with a second novel).

Japan in the years following WWI was a country in transition. The old ways were on their way out yet they have a way of soothing the soul of any nation, especially one found itself caught in limbo, between progress and tradition. In this transitional world Sayuri is offered the chance to become a Geisha. The unique color of her eyes, her patience and artistic abilities soon propel her to the position of the most famous Geisha of them all. But one should always be wary of what he wishes for.

Fame and success are never a guarantee for personal happiness. Predictably, Sayuri's love story is bittersweet and has many false starts. In fear of spoilers, I shall only say that life is never boring.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Westwood Went Out With A Bang!

The Spice Must Flow! I loved the original story (even though not the endless franchised series been constantly ghost-written as you are reading this). However, one needs not be a Dune fan to enjoy this wonderful game!

In Emperor: Battle for Dune the graphics may be quite dated today, almost at par with C&C:Generals. On the bright side, they will truly shine even on currently low-end machines or tablets. The units are well designed and clearly visible in any zoom-level - something surprisingly rare even in new games (such as Supreme Commander) in which one can either zoom-in or play. Plus, the battlefield view is rotatable, another feature I miss in many new RTS games. I especially enjoy the way the buildings come up and the targeting-lasers of the snipers as they move around.

If this is not the the best strategy game, it is definitely well within the Top-5 all-time RTS! Well balanced gameplay (if you liked C&C: Tiberium Wars, you will love Emperor: Battle for Dune). A Solid story-line, interesting videos and random environmental events (sand-storms, worm-attacks) to keep the field level in the name of Shai-Hulud.

Sad but true, greedy lawyers and bean-counters have taken over the gaming business. True game-designers, the likes of Westwood Studios, are pushed around - if not entirely out of the picture.
I bought the game some years back but still take it out once in a while. They just don't make them like this anymore...

Get it for the nostalgia. Experience it for its polished gameplay

Never Rising Above The WaterLine

I found the story of the book-description interesting and decided to give it a try. Well, these were some hours I will never get back, no matter how much I would like to.

Suspension of disbelief is a requirement to enjoy fiction - but a basic logical scaffolding is still essential. Otherwise no immersion is possible.

Some other reviewer compared Antarktos Risisng to a Michael Crichton novel - but, besides the quick passing of some dinosaurs, I fail to see the connection. Crichton's science was cutting edge yet solid. The "science" behind Robinson's claims is half-baked at best, if not simply not there. And he is sloppy as well. Unless the continent some way acquired...a metabolism, there are no "katabolic" winds in Antarctica (p.35). The author probably refers to katabatic winds. Then again, the novel had much more serious problems than poor proofreading.

A character, being the sole survivor of her home-city and after weathering the worse of the climactic change in her well-stocked basement, she decides to take off: what she deems essential to pack in this post-apocalyptic world. What does she pack? Her ...DSLR camera (whose characteristics she describes in excruciating details in p.53) complete with its 200mm lens! What's a extinction event if one cannot snap some decent sunset pictures, right?! 

Antarctica thawing in...days - and then turning into a tropical environment, complete with 15ft tall trees within...weeks? No even if said trees were on springs!
Full-grown dinosaurs thawing out to packs with well set hierarchy (not to mention cool nicknames!)?
Gigantic demon-spawns living undetected for centuries, having to resort to...eating their own babies (need I point out how inefficient this is, to say the least?) - yet, not neglecting to learn English, taught by the scientists/"teachers" they captured? Forget English, eat the teachers and let your babies live! 

In this light of stretched-out allowances, the incorporation of Creationism and "scientific" verification of Biblical claims would not have bothered me so much, were they presented in a more logical basis. On that note, I never understood the impetus behind strong-arming science into "proving" claims that are supposedly articles of faith.

Again, a novel that fails to work in every level. It is not even bad enough to claim cult status.

Sure, Rimms, Flash & Bling-Bling. But What Is Really At Work Under The Hood?

Need for Speed: Undercover is yet another EA release which, gameplay and graphics problems aside, suffers from the bundled DRM scheme: SecuROM with Limited Installations.

This is a well known scheme based on a custom-made augmented version of SecuROM 7+, used for over a year now (from BioShock to Mass Effect, Dead Space and Red Alert 3) and it has been proven to offer overall...zero protection from piracy. But, of course, fighting piracy was never amongst its aims.

SecuROM is not a Digital Rights Management system but rather a spyware subroutine that unavoidably comes bundled with most major game releases. It borrows into the Root of our systems, masking itself from the System Manager and refuses to be removed - even after one completely uninstalls the game it came with. SecuROM is indeed used as a cloaked dataminer, gathering information on the system and its user's activities and sending them to its mothership. It is the metho
d the industry's behemoths chose to pave the way for their coveted Pay-per-Play future.

Turning our own PCs into their...insatiable coiners is what the gaming executives are having wet dreams about. Games that we will have to keep paying for again and again.
And that is where the idea of Limited Activations comes ins: not only it nullifies the value of a game once bought, killing the second-hand market overnight, but it also familiarizes gamers to the idea of having to buy the same game over and over in order to keep playing it.

Need for Speed was a series I loved in the past and would love to keep playing in the future once the DRM idiocies get resolved. But not at this price.
Some people are indifferent to these issues - and I respect that. In a free market voting with one's wallet is the most effective expression of opinion - and everyone is free to cast his vote in whichever direction he seems fit. My experience though taught me that most gamers would like, at least, to make well informed decisions.

And who would not want its customers well informed?

Keeps Gooing & Gooing

This is a small game only in cost: it has offered me endless hours of fun!
If I were to describe this game as simply "building bridges made out of, well, elastic goo", I would do it no justice. I could never imagine how entertaining balancing goo-tension and gravity could be!

The graphics are clear and do not have high hardware requirements. The music is well chosen and appropriate. And the gameplay you will find yourself longing for after some hours away from the game.

World of Goo is a game that can be enjoyed by the whole family - and it comes free from any draconian DRM schemes.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Nothing Is Sacred Anymore...

The original Sacred was a great game that, although not exactly groundbreaking, it offered many hours of action-cRPG fun. What is more, its publisher had the good sense to price it reasonably from the start and thus fight piracy in the most effective way.

Sacred II, although enjoys more demanding environmental graphics and spell effects, is just another victim of clueless gaming industry executives. Instead of learning from the history of their own game, they'd rather idiotically jump on the "SecuROM/Limited Activations" bandwagon. After all, if they can hide behind the "everyone is doing it" excuse, who can blame them when the game does poorly?
They are obviously under the illusion that selling at full price a game that is actually rented will fail to be...noticed! Respect is a two way street - and underestimating gamers' intelligence is not a good start.

It is a shame that Sacred II got shot in the foot by its own publisher. Now, instead of being another success, it will simply be another game sacrificed on the alter of corporate Greed and marketing incompetency.

Avoid.

The Coolest Assassin. And This Time It Is Personal

I have been following Barry Eisler's books ever since Rain Fall. There have been some ups and downs but with a Jack Rain novel one received a huge entertainment check that never bounced. The half American-half Japanese ghost of international assassins, martial-arts expert, able to kill anyone - and make his death appear natural if needed.

The prose is flowing, the imagery detailed and the rhythm takes the reader on roller-coaster ride he does not want to end. Second only to the first novel of the series, The Last Assassin is one the best. Rain is trying to save his son and secure their future from his mortal enemy while trying to untangle a dangerous love triangle at the same time.

My only gripes are that, the endgame is somewhat anticlimactic. I am not going to ruin it for everyone but I could do without the last twist if it meant for his arch-enemy to meet a more deserving fate. 
Moreover, contrary to his myth, Rain is rather reacting than taking the initiative in this one. As a result, his loyal wise-cracking sidekick, Dox, at times appears more competent than him. Then again, he does not have to decide between Delilah and the mother of his child while taking on both the Yakuza and the Triads! And he does so in determined style.

All in all, a great novel. I cannot think of anyone not enjoying it.

Apparently, I Saved The Best For Last

Following Michael Crichton's untimely death, I decided to complete my library with his works. The Great Train Robbery was the only one missing and, I must say, although not the usual Science-Thriller Crichton had accustomed us to, it had the writer's signature iconoclastic approach to everything he wrote about.

Set in mid-19th century London, this novel is half historic travelogue through all strata of Victorian society and half an interesting roller-coaster ride on setting up and carrying through the infamous heist.

The period dialogue gave me trouble in more than one occasion at first but after a while you get used to it and you barely notice it. This is one of the early works of Crichton and although some of his flaws as a writer are present, so are most of his strengths: the secondary characters are barely fleshed out; on the other hand, his acute perception, solid research and multifocal vision does not pause before shattering long-held misconceptions and prejudices.

Highly Recommended!

Spaghetti Made Out Of Steel

I love how these BRABANTIA cannisters look on my kitchen counter-top. Obviously, taking your spaghetti out of its box and keeping it in a cannister is a good idea only if you are using the same type of spaghetti. These cannisters come with a discreet label on the side that can be colour-coded as well.
The measure contraption is a bit generous in portions (and one can use the opening off a 2L soda bottle with equal results) but it is a convenient idea and it looks nice.

The quality of the fingerprint-free steel is unparalleled. It looks and feels sturdy and it will not accumulate fingerprints most brushed steel items do. Not the same can be said about the plastic lid though. The clear part at the top came with small but quite obvious molding imperfections. The first cannister I received I asked to be replaced but, when the second arrived with exactly the same issue as well, I realized it must be a common issue.

Brabantia keeps offering products of excellent design and made of good materials. That is why I will keep favouring their products. However, they do need to look into bringing their manufacturing back to their old standards.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

NOKIA Tries To Save Face. MicroSoft Could Not Care Less.

I have been a loyal Nokia customer ever since my first cell phone, the legendary 6110 (and what a great phone that was!). Over the years I have upgraded or simply replaced a number of Nokias and my loyalty may have been tested at times but it was never scorned. Until recently.
My latest 6500s was at its last of its nine lives (after its second battery replacement and numerous drops) so I decided to bite the bullet and go shopping for a smartphone. I have always refused to submit to Apple's fascism whereas I judged Android's deep waters too dragon-rich for me, so a WindowsPhone seemed to be my best option. Or so I thought.

THE PHONE HARDWARE IS GREAT
If I were to review the LUMIA 800 device itself, it would give it an almost perfect score (and my past experience with Nokia products would had made me round it up to full marks). Other than the flimsy USB door (that, in my case, I predict will not survive long enough to see the first snow) and the (cheap) plastic feel of the silver side buttons, the phone is perfect. Reception is good and sound quality (both sending and receiving) is excellent. Unfortunately, no matter how good the hardware may be,a smartphone is as good as its operating system. And the list of my grievances regarding the software is long...

BASIC FUNCTIONS ARE MISSING!
I know all about Apps, free and paid, and how they are supposed to enrich and personalize the experience smartphones get to offer. And after spending several afternoons raking the Windows Phone Marketplace I can tell you this: once a basic function gets yanked out, there is no getting it back intact! No reminders, no appointment book, no presenter - no Golf!

ALARM FAILS
It took me three days to find a CountDown Timer that is able to work after the screen saver lock kicks in. No such luck with the Alarm though. The Alarm will not work unless the phone is turned on. I have tried every suggested Alarm clock app and this problem remains. Apparently this is a well known problem. For over 2 years now!
Think about it for a moment. Either at home or on a trip, you want to set the alarm before going to bed, turn the phone off (not only to preserve the precious battery juice but also to get some hours of privacy as well) and expect your phone to wake you up the next morning. But this is not allowed on a Windows phone! I have updated mine to WP7.8 but this function (as well as all that follow) is missing from the latest WP8 as well.
Just because the iPhone does it this way, Microsoft, it does not mean it is the right way. Wake up! (apparently your alarm clocks did not go off either...)

CHARGES ONLY IF...TURNED ON
When I bought my new LUMIA 800 I went to my cell phone service provider and requested a twin (micro)SIM card. Since I kept my old 6500s, I tried charging my LUMIA while it was switched off (the provider does not allow both SIM cards to be active at the same time). Surprisingly, the Windows Phone either switched back on or (if turned off while connected to the charger) it simply refused to charge!
Again, to appreciate the problem, keep in mind that a smartphone will need to be charged every single day for 2-3 hours.

TOTALLY IDIOTIC SOUND LIMITATIONS
With my old phones if I wanted to use any sound or song as a ringtone, wakeup music, SMS sound or eMail alert, I could just choose one from the phone folders. Any mp3 or wma file would do. And I could transfer them there using a simple USB connection and Nokia's Suite. Well, if MicroSoft has its way, those days are over.
First off, you have to use a PC to install their own suite, Zune. You have to use this interface to transfer and synchronize files between your PC and your Windows Phone. So far, no foul, Zune works fine. And then you decide that the generic chimes provided by Microsoft are crap and want to customize how your phone sounds. No go.
Nokia tried to fix this by releasing a free RingTone Maker (only available for Nokia Windows Phones) but that too comes with ridiculous limitations: only sound files less than 2MB can be used and even then, only a 30 sec soundbyte can be made into a ringtone! Why do we even have 16GB phones if such 1990's limitations are to be in place?

PLEASE CHOOSE YOUR CUSTOMIZATION STRAIGHT JACKET
Smartphones have much larger screens than our old phones. Why can we not choose the size of the font and strain to discern the phone numbers of our contacts? (There is a Big Phonebook App but it has to import all your contacts and it does not auto-update every time it is used).
Smartphones have far greater processing power. Why can we no longer switch our contacts between a list and card format? In the much larger screen I can see less information about each of my contacts than I did with my 6500s.
Smartphones can now project 16,000,000 colours. Why can we not choose to change the colour of each individual tile?
Swiping from the right edge will take you to the Apps list. Why is swapping in the opposite direction not allowed? It is not reserved for anything, so why yet another counter-intuitive limitation?
Finally, where are our easy to use and trusted Profiles!? The movie is about to start, am I to go through the damn menu to silence my phone?

The lack of Applications for the N9 made me choose the LUMIA 800. As the days go by, I start to realize that I did not chose the lesser of two evils. And I have now seen the face of Evil. And its number was 7.8.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Deus Manifestare

During this ongoing Dark Age for PC gaming, when corporate Greed has coupled with pseudo-DRM schemes to stifle any original idea or creative process, I found myself, again and again, reaching for the classics. And Deus Ex is definitely a classic masterpiece.

Set in the near future, infused with equal doses of cyberpunk mentality and noir atmosphere, playing like an FPS with strong RPG elements (inventory, character development, modifiable equipment, secondary quests) - and yet one is better off avoiding shooting more often than not!. Whoever played Deus Ex can attest that this game will stay with you. Forever. And rightly so.

This is a game infused with life. The characters act natural. The script is brilliantly paranoid. And the whole setting will immerse you into this twisted world of technological possibilities and power.
In a perfect world, David Lynch would have realized William Gibson's Neuromancer. Short of that, we have been offered Deus Ex.

Sure the graphics may look dated. But I promise you that you will find no lip-synced modern game more appealing than Deus Ex  Even 5+ years old PCs will be able to render its full potential (although the game's strengths are hardly limited to its appearance) - and it is DRM-free.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Bears. Beets. BattleStar Galactica

I have been a huge fan of the Office ever since its first season. And, up to and including the very last episode, I am glad I did. The Series was original in its premise and execution, the pseudo-documentary format opening up numerous previously little explored avenues of storytelling. And it was great fun to watch.

The setting (the office of a small branch of paper-selling company) and the stories (everyday life of the people found working in such a low-prospects jobs) seem mundane at first. And there lies the magic of the creators. For (if the endless strings of CSIs are any indication) it not hard to create good TV with car chases, gadgets and explosions. It is extremely hard to make excellent TV with only the everyday grind to work with. It seems effortless only because they made it look easy.

The brief one-way interviews each character had with the camera functioned as either prefatory summaries of stories about to unfold (building up the anticipation) or as instances of pushing back, yet never breaking, the forth wall, and, thus, making the viewing experience more personal and involving. All without the show ever loosing its step.

Producing, directing and writing will only get you so far without the right cast. And the Office enjoyed such stellar cast. Steve Carell may have risked getting typecast by creating the unforgettable character of Michael Scott but it was worth it. Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) served first as the precarious love interest and then as the familiar friends you care about and the rest of the cast was one successful pick after another. From hypochondriac and hypercritical (not to mention hypocritical) Angela Martin (Angela Kinsey) to perky Kelly Erin Hannon (Ellie Kemper), I could not imagine anyone else portraying these memorable characters. However, the show stealer has always been obsessive nerd Dwight Schrute, portrayed to perfection by Rainn Wilson.

Purists and snobs will try to argue that the precursor British BBC Series was better. Strangely for someone who usually finds Hollywood remakes watered down and bland, in this case I strongly disagree. The US version was much better. It had the perfect mix of familiar workday desperation and sweet quirkiness to make it a weekly craved addiction. In contrast, I found the BBC version too mean for my taste. Maybe one should have grown up in a cruel class system, carved out by accent hues and prep-school rankings to appreciate it; however, during the handful of episodes I managed to watch I found myself laughing at the characters, not with them, and then felt bad about it. Anyway, in all honesty, how could Gareth ever compare to Dwight!

The series is unique in another aspect as well: it respected its viewers. Every producer, director and writer wants to make his or hers memorable splash so we often end up with unnecessary cliffhangers, ambiguous endings or unsatisfying closures. Not so with the Office.  No spoilers but I will just state that the show does not disappoint to the very end.

Now, how many reams of Dunder Mifflin Premium acid-free paper should I you down for? 
_________________________________________________________________________________


Saturday, June 29, 2013

Deceptive Kaleidoscopic Views & Sharp Morality Shards

The Ice Storm is one of the best films ever released. Ang Lee proved to be one of our great contemporary film directors and he sure did justice to Rick Moody's novel. In fact, most people who enjoyed both will tell you that, surprisingly, they prefer the film over the book. One of the main reasons (besides great directing and solid acting) is the unforgettable music of  its SoundTrack..

From the opening titles, Mychael Danna's hypnotic melodies take you effortlessly two generations back, in affluent yet creepy American Suburbia. Unfortunately, the opening titles theme is not included in this release (my only complain). I would have loved to be able to listen to it while driving without Paul's (Tobey Maguire) monologue on top but no luck.

The same is also true for a number of memorable instrumental pieces. In fact, Mychael Danna's pieces on this soundtrack are limited only to Tracks 1-3. The rest are songs from the era that make a small or greater appearance in the movie.
Nevertheless, Danna's composition and execution are so powerful that this soundtrack deserves a place in your life.

Indeed, "family is the void we emerge from. And the place we go to when we die". 
Everything in between is music.

A True Prince Amongst Thieves

There was an extra reason for gamers to rejoice Holiday season of 2008: draconian DRM schemes appeared to be on their way out. First Bethesda striped SecuROM to the bare minimum for FALLOUT 3; then DRM-free World of Goo (an indie game!) outperforms Spore - a 45-million flop; and, finally, UbiSoft decides to walk the narrow yet honest path towards customer loyalty, by releasing a DRM-free game. Yes, Prince of Persia is DRM-Free!

This was either a very decent and brave decision (after all, only a month ago, Far Cry 2 came with a fully activated SecuROM 7.xx and Limited Installations) or it was an experiment: the executives wanted to see whether games do indeed sell good either with or without intrusive DRM.

Either way, UbiSoft deserved to be congratulated.
I was one of the first to chastise their decisions to ruin good games with heavy-handed DRM schemes. It is only fair to be one of the first to congratulate them on a customer-first decision. And because talk is cheap, I bought my copy the moment it was released. I would advise anyone who would care to listen to vote with his or her wallet and support such a gutsy decision. Because it sure takes guts to go against the current and brake ranks with the other greedy game publishers. And, this time, the Canadians at UbiSoft (Montreal) proved they have brass ones.

The game itself is simplified fun. The graphics are clear and fresh in a comic-book/retro way (known as cel-shaded) and the gameplay enjoys (or suffers, depending on your point of view) a number of assists that make it easier and flowing. Probably, too easy. You will not get the frustrations of repeated deaths but neither the satisfaction of finally making it through a hard boss.

The game does give off a platform feeling (combos on a PC game always give me an awkward feeling as they are much easier with a gamepad - but that again, this is an action game, it is to be expected). 

All in all, a good game that still deserves our support.

Gaming Is Still Crossing The Dark Mines of Moira

"One ring to rule them all, 
one ring to find them, 
one ring to bring them all 
and in the darkness bind them."

Well, it sure is more honest than the vapid..."Challenge Everything!"

Darkness still spreads on the land of gaming. The number of games that get ruined by the bundled DRM schemes keeps growing. Lord of the Rings:Conquest is just another edition. Burdened with SecuROM 7++, OnLine Activation requirement and Limited Installations it is bound to follow in the steps of Red Alert 3 and Spore: yet another expensive EA flop.

In the spirit of the Tolkien epic, EA is the Dark Lord Sauron that tries to watch everything from its tower of power. Greed in the heart, contempt in the nostrils, arrogance in the eye. Unfortunately for such entities (and contrary to board-meeting projections) not every gamer is either an Orc or a Troll. Some of us decided to take a stand. And fight back. And our numbers are growing.

No matter how many Nazguls EA releases this time around, in the end, the Ring of DRM rule will be cast in the burning heart of Mount Doom.

And the land of Gaming shall be free to dream again.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Turn-Based Strategist's Heaven!

The Galactic Civilizations Series in effect has kept the classic Turn-based Strategy genre alive. When the Civilization Series was going to the dogs (released in an endless stream of DLCs, all flashy animations and dummied-down options instead of evolving) and the Master of Orion Series was committing seppuku (unable to live with the shame of its Master of Orion III), GC reminded us how much fun space colonization can be!

Galactic Civilizations II (Ultimate edition) is the one to have. Starting off with a planet in a customizable Universe (size, resource abundance, scarcity of habitable planets etc), one begins his journey of exploration, colonization and conquest. With the exception of roving pirates who can be destructive if encountered early on (but whose annoyance can be deselected), the factions are well balanced and interesting.
The graphics are clear (with full zoom capability), whereas the interface is easy to master and friendly to use.

However, what makes GC so much more fun than any other space colonization game is its ship design options. From freighters and colonist-ships to planet defenders and frigates, there are no limits in what one can build in your dockyard. Want something that looks like Star Trek's Enterprise, Star Wars' Millennium Falcon or Battlestar Galactica's Colonial Vipers? Easily done - the sky is the limit.
Research will not only keep you solvent and your people happy but it will also make it possible to better equip your ships. Stronger engines, more effective armor, more destructive weapons.

And, on top of all that, this being a Stardock release, it comes free of any intrusive DRM scheme. These days, that alone deserves gamers' support. How much more so that Galactic Civilizations II is a great game. Its new patching method is neither convenient nor reliable and I hope the Stardock people will see to that promptly. Besides this shortcoming, highly recommended.

Will The Iceman Survive The Rain?

I have followed John Rain's saga ever since the very first book, Rain Fall. Sure, the road had its ups and downs but it was totally unforgettable. Barry Eisler knows how to create a cool yet deadly character that will stay with you forever. The problem is, can he keep him cool and deadly while exploring fresh storyline ideas - and his character grows older?

In Requiem for an Assassin, Rain is forced out of his retirement in Paris. An old nemesis had abducted his friend Dox and unless he performs three naturally-looking assassinations, his friend pays the price. Is the deal just bad or is it doomed from the gates and both Rain and his friend will end up shark bait?
The clock is ever menacingly ticking; the stakes keep getting higher and higher; the locales keep changing from Thailand and Vietnam to LA, from Singapore to Rotterdam; and Rain, uncharacteristically, has to accept unsolicited help from old friends that had actually once been older foes.

The problems with this book actually started from the previous installment of the series (The Last Assassin) and they can be summarized into this phrase: Rain started having doubts. Having an alienated kid and a steady love interest has dulled his edge and diluted his determination.
Character development and fancy literally footwork aside, I think that, in the end, Barry Eisler tries to morally save his character - and in the process is corroding him to the core. A cold-blooded assassin may have his inescapable reasons to have turned out that way - but he cannot exist on a moral high-ground no matter what. And if he is no longer the cool cold-blooded assassin, he is no longer John Rain.

Having said that, I want to make clear that this is one of the best fiction books I read in years. I enjoyed both its tactics and action as well as its reasoning and detailed descriptions.

Comfort With Compromises

Upgrading my PC usually calls for also upgrading some of the aging peripherals. So, even though my old keyboard (a MICROSOFT Multimedia one) was still in perfect working condition, I decided to change the whole set up. I still had fond memories of my old MS Natural Elite Pro keyboard I had used writing my Thesis, so I decided on the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 model which seemed to be its improved replacement. I have had the keyboard for over two years and here are my impressions:

THE GOOD:
- The 4000 is not just another beautiful keyboard but a really comfortable one too. Not only are the curves natural and well molded but the minimally padded leather-imitation wrist-rest offers a silky sense of luxury. The keyboard comes out of the box with a negative angle attachment, which can easily be removed - it is comfortable but personally I need to see what I am typing.

- Compared to other Ergonomic keyboards, one has to note that unless the keys are physically separated into two groups any ergonomic effects will be minimal. So, if you are thinking of Logitech's Wave, it is a good idea to actually give both of them a try at a local store before making a choice. As I said, I am no professional typist (yes, more of a 2-fingers) yet I found that my typing is much faster and my typos more rare when using Natural keyboards.

- I liked the idea of the BACK/FORWARD buttons at the wrist-rest. Although most mice now have this functions on their side buttons, it is still a big help when browsing (my mouse has a Magnifying Function where the FORWARD usually is).

- Also, this is a really quiet keyboard. You get a satisfactory feeling when pushing a button but instead of an annoying "clack" sound only a muted "tap" is heard. Ideal if your wife is in the habit of taking naps in your home-office couch.

- As an avid gamer favoring the right side of the keyboard (arrow keys instead of the WASD configuration) I enjoyed the ample room around the former.

- Finally, I liked the placement of an extra set of EQUAL, PARENTHESIS and BACKSPACE at the top right corner (especially the parenthesis, I always hated finding the opening and closing one among the numbers)

Now, THE BAD:
- For some reason the ENTER and RIGHT SHIFT keys are too small! I could do with regular sized "H" and "N" keys if it would mean not hunting the ENTER. And this is a large keyboard, I doubt it would make any difference if it was yet a bit longer for that.

- The SPACE bar is, well, fickle. Sometimes it works even if hit at the side. Others it refuses to respond unless hit at the middle.

- The key letters and symbols have a tendency to rub off(!). This is totally unacceptable for a premium priced product - especially one sporting MicroSoft's brand name. I decided to wait for the problem to become more pronounced and have this one replaced.

- The Media keys on top do not sit well in their homings and are not perfectly aligned. Especially the VOLUME UP in my keyboard seems to rest at an angle. Again, poor quality control for such an expensive and brand name product.

All in all: a mixed bag of good features but with compromises and inferior quality control. I truly miss my old MS Natural Elite Pro keyboard. If it came in black I would buy one again.