Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Games - World of Warcraft Update

It's been a long time since my last post, and the blame can be layed squarely on World of Warcraft. It's absorbed every spare moment since the Thanksgiving weekend. This is a fantastic game! My favorite parts:
  • graphics - I really like to vaguely cartoon-ish look of the buildings, chars, and mobs. The towns are works of art - Darnassus in the night elf area is stunning.

  • quest system - absolutely brilliant! NPCs that can give you quests have a big yellow exclamation point floating above their heads. And once you accept the quest, it changes to a silver question mark; when you have everything you need to complete the quest, it changes to a yellow question mark. Every quest you accept is logged and tracked - if you need to kill 6 wolves, it keeps count for you so you know exactly when you've achieved the goal. And when you've killed your six wolves and head back to town, the quest-giver shows up on your mini-map - no more searching for that elusive NPC! Rock solid execution, too - I've been in the middle of completing a quest with the NPC and accidentally closed the window - and I didn't lose my quest items. I just re-initiated the conversation - no problems! Best quest system I've ever used - hands down.

  • down-time - almost none. My warrior occaisionally has to sit down for maybe 10 seconds to regen his health. My druid has never had to rest - ever.

  • resting xp bonus - a small bonus to your xp after logging in that's directly proportional to how long you've been offline. It's not earth-shattering, but it's a great gesture to us casual gamers

  • music - I love the music in this game! I've actually turned up the background music volume in the sound settings. Most RPGs I turn it off.

  • mail - there's an in-game mail system where you can send messages, money, and items to other players, and they don't have to be online when you send them. There's mail boxes in almost every town, so it's easy to use.

  • auction house - Each major city in the game has an auction house where you can bid on items put up for sale by other players, and vice-versa. Auctions last for 4, 8, or 24 hours, and if yours is the winning bid, you receive the item via the in-game mail system. Awesome!
Great game. Kudos to Blizzard!

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Games - World of Warcraft

The fine folks at Blizzard will ship World of Warcraft on 11/23. I've pre-ordered it from EB and I just had to splurge on the fastest shipping possible. I've been waiting on this one for a loooong time, and would love to have it loaded up for the Thanksgiving weekend.

The last MMORPG I played was Dark Age of Camelot, but even that was over a year ago. I'm looking forward to hooking up with some of my old Everquest guildmates for some high adventure. Many of them are playing Everquest 2 already, and hearing the fun they're having is making it tough to wait on the release of WoW. Hang on, Shadowbane! I'll be there soon!

Books - The Bourne Identity

In another attempt to break away from the fantasy genre, I picked up The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. I'd heard from several different sources that the book was much better than the Matt Damon movie, so I gave it a whirl. Can you believe it's the first Ludlum I've ever read? Can you say newb?

Plot synopsis: Our young hero wakes up in the care of an alcoholic British doctor with no memory of who (or what) he is. They discover microfilm implanted under the skin of his hip, and with the info it presents, he begins to track down his identity. This quest leads him further and further into a shadowy world of international intrigue, and the more he uncovers the more questions are raised. Can the young hero discover his identity and come to grips with the revelations it brings? Only Ludlum knows for sure.

So, how was it? Well, it never quite clicked with me. It's important to empathize with the protagonist of a novel, and I never quite managed to do that with Mr. Bourne. I found that I didn't really care if he ever found out who he was, or if he was killed before doing so.

Given my emotional detachment from the book, I tried to enjoy it in other ways. Ludlum's depictions of Zurich and Paris were well done - these cities truly felt like characters in the story. The heroine was from Canada, so I have to give a few points for that. Mr. Bourne's identity is skillfully revealed as you progress through the novel - it kept you guessing, never sure if he was "good" or "bad".

I expected some high-tech "spy gear" in the novel, but there wasn't much in that area. Perhaps because the book was written in the late '70s? The hero handles the situations that arise by thinking and adapting, not through some cool pieces of technology. That's one area where the book differs from the movie - don't expect any Bond-like gadgets.

So overall, a decent book, but I doubt I'll be buying the 2nd and 3rd books in the series. 3 out of 5.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Games - Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005

Since NHL 2005 won't work for me, I find myself gameless. So I picked up Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 . (Smart, huh? Give EA some more of my money!)

I've been a fan of PC golf games for years and years - anyone remember Mean 18? Every few years I'll pick up the latest in the EA or Links golf series, and I'm usually impressed. The advances in graphics and ball physics have amazed me, and PGA Tour 2005 is no exception.

The opening cutscene gives you a good idea of where EA has gone with this version - fun! After starting with your standard live footage of a dramatic shot from Tiger, it breaks into a riot of uptempo music and dancing avatars! A parade of golfer avatars strut their stuff and shake their booties in hilarious sequences. EA has populated the game with a whole cast of characters for you to compete against, from beer-bellied truckers to beehived matrons to pimped-out urbanites. They made me laugh outright (and still do). I really appreciate that EA has injected some goofiness into the game without sacrificing its realistic golf feel.

Personalization is another area where PGA Tour 2005 stands out. EA has taken customization of your avatar to new heights with their "Game Face II" system. You can change most anything about your golfer - height, weight, head shape, mouth, eyes, teeth, eyebrows, tatoos, scars, skin complexion - the list is comprehensive to say the least. And you can specify the type of clothing, hats, watches, gloves, shoes, clubs, and putters. You can unlock still more items as you progress in the game. It's almost overwhelming - in a good way. My wife and I were able to create golfers that look just like us! Seeing Virtual Me doing a goofy celebration dance after a birdie putt cracks me up!

PGA Tour 2005 provides a great environment for advancement, something that is key for a game's longevity. My new golfer started as an Amateur Prodigy who couldn't hit a 250yd drive if his life depended on it. But as he's played tournaments and won some money, he's been able to buy attributes such as Power or Shot Mastery. And with the increased attributes, he is able to take lessons and gain new strokes like High Spin or Flop Shot. After a week or so of moderate play, my golfer is now an Amateur Phenom, and he's about to challenge Jim Furyk in match play. These advancement steps keep you coming back for more and greatly add to the game's appeal.

Gameplay itself is very good. The graphics have taken another step up - grass blowing in the wind, ducks swimming in the pond, birds flying overhead, the galleries clapping, and the very realistic animation of your avatar. Amazing stuff. Sound is also very good (I swear I've heard a bear roar in the distance when playing Lake Tahoe). CBS's David Feherty and Gary McCord provide the commentary, and do a great job.

As for downsides, the only one I can think of is the utter lack of instructions in the manual. I had no idea how to buy attributes, unlock lessons, or buy clubs. The on-screen instructions to unlock a lesson said to pull up the "My Golfer" screen and buy Shot Mastery points. Problem is, there's no "My Golfer" screen! Turns out this feature is on the Game Face II -> Attributes screen. Without help from a message board, I doubt I would have found it. Stuff like that must be in the manual!

All in all, a very good game. A little more effort spent on the documentation would have made this an absolutely perfect game. 4.5 out of 5.

Games - NHL 2005 Update

An update on my struggles with NHL 2005: I managed to get play-by-play commentary working - it turns out that you need to turn "On-Ice Sounds" off in order to hear the commentary. Ok...whatever.

Unfortunately, my gamepad continued to malfunction within NHL 2005 (it works splendidly in every other game I've ever bought). EA doesn't officially support my GameElements AxisPad, so I caved and bought a Logitech Dual Action, which they do officially support. But it has the same problems! Arrggghh!

This is too cruel - there's no NHL season due to the lockout, and I still can't play NHL 2005. What's a red-blooded Canadian to do?

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Books - Digital Fortress

Since I enjoyed both Angels and Demons and The DaVinci Code from Dan Brown, I decided to check out his first novel, Digital Fortress. This time Mr. Brown takes us inside the super-secretive NSA for a look at the world of cryptography and codebreakers.

Within 2 pages, I could see where Brown developed his formula for fast-paced thrillers. Angels and DaVinci begin the exact same way Digital Fortress does - a disconnected murder scene followed by the introduction of the athletic, attractive, intelligent, wealthy (oh - and lonely) protagonist. The protag quickly falls into a web of intrigue, faces numerous life-and-death situations over the next 24 hours, and yet manages to be back at work the next day. Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed Fortress, and would recommend it. I just found the pattern to be very evident.

Technically, Brown did quite a good job with his use of cryptography and computer lingo, and I didn't find too many holes in his explanations. All in all, acceptably plausible.

Don't want to get into the plot - it would be difficult without giving it away. Suffice it to say - a fun book. 3.5 out of 5.

Games - NHL 2005

My latest purchase arrived earlier this week - NHL 2005 from EA Sports. I've been a faithful fan of EA's NHL games since 1994, and I buy them as soon as they hit the shelves. So I counted the seconds as the installer slowly loaded the precious bytes to disk, and fired it up with my gamepad close at hand.

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm soured pretty quickly. First off, the background music at the main menu sounded lousy, as if they recorded it at a very low quality. Minor detail, I thought - let's see how she plays. So I hit "Play Now", quickly accepted the default game settings, and launched into the game. The opening sequences were well done (especially the Canadian anthem). Once the puck dropped, however, the problems began.

I noticed immediately that there's no play-by-play commentary. What gives? I checked my sound settings, and sure enough, play-by-play enabled. I'll figure it out later, I thought, and returned to the game. Well, next problem - as soon as one of my players gets the puck, he freezes up! Turns out he's locked in "Manual Deke" mode, and I can't pass, shoot, skate, nothing. The player eventually gets clobbered, and the puck luckily bounces to the goalie, who covers up for a faceoff. I then try to pull up the Line Change menu - and can't! I'm hitting the right button combo - Mod + DirPad, but cannot for the life of me get a line change called. So the same line stays out there forever!

Needless to say, I abandoned the game. I went Googling for some answers, and have yet to find any. Other people are having similar problems, but no one has answers. Of course I tried EA's support site, but I can't even find anywhere to post or email a question!

So I'm pretty peeved. I've supported EA for a lot of years, and I've never had this kind of trouble with one of their games before. Don't know if they rushed it to market, or just didn't test it enough. Very disappointing. Hopefully they'll get a patch out soon. 1 out of 5.

On a happier note, purchasing NHL 2005 was easy. I was very pleased (once again) with NewEgg's service. The order was processed quickly with feedback at every step along the way, and it arrived at my door within 3 days. Kudos!

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Books - A Fortress of Grey Ice

I was happy to find A Fortress of Grey Ice by J.V. Jones in paperback last week. With the long hiatus since Cavern of Black Ice and the lack of activity on her web site, I was worried that something had happened to J.V. Luckily, that's not the case.

I'm about halfway through Fortress, and it's another quality piece of writing from Ms. Jones. Her characters are complex, interesting, and most importantly - not stupid! I've read too many books lately where main characters say and do things that just don't make sense. J.V.'s protags are much more intelligent, and as result, believable. Sure, they still make mistakes, but I don't find myself shaking my head in disgust when they do. My only gripe so far is how often she switches protags and settings. It's a tribute to J.V.'s writing that when a chapter ends and she focuses on a different character, I go through a moment of disappointment - I want to keep following that plot line I just read! Ah well - I guess that's a pretty good problem to have. Thumbs up so far.

Music - Assemblage 23

Listened to an advance copy of Assemblage 23's new album Storm over the weekend. Good stuff! Once again, Assemblage 23 has delivered a quality album. Nothing ground-breaking, mind you - it sounds a lot like the previous releases. But since I really liked the previous releases, that's a good thing! I learned that they're actually a one-man act, too - Tom Shear writes, performs, and produces everything himself. Surprising - I always thought A23 was a band...

Games - Far Cry

I recently finished playing Far Cry from Ubisoft . I'm usually not into FPS games, but after trying the demo, I was hooked! Awesome graphics, amazing realism, and uncomplicated gameplay all added up to a very fun game. Yes - I'll admit it - I played it on the lowest difficulty setting, and still got my butt kicked frequently. And yet it was still fun somehow...Highly recommended! 5 out of 5!

Sunday, September 12, 2004

It has begun...

Look out, world - my dehydrated thoughts are now on the shelves...