Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Build-Up to iPhone

The iPhone. Released last year to much fanfare only to run headfirst into a wall of scorn six weeks later when the price was slashed by several hundred dollars. It’s like Steve Jobs himself was pointing at the early adopter Apple fanatics and quoting Nelson from The Simpsons.

“Ha ha!”

But now the new generation is ready for me to pick up. I played with my dad and sister’s iPhones over the Christmas break and I thought I was hungry for it before. Oh no. I just wanted one and if I got one when my contract with Sprint was up in the spring then so much the better. But now I’m actually going to pay double the cost just to break the contract.

Because I have to have one. RIGHT. THIS. INSTANT.

This thing is hands down the sexiest piece of tech to come down the pipe in years. I mean that goes without saying. Look at it! It is stunning. What’s better? Touch screen tech that is just about flawless. Oh sure, there are certain quirks here and there (just try playing Pac-Man on it, or better yet don’t) but on the whole it is a giant leap forward in terms of user interface.

You can have 3-D. People want to know that what they see and touch is real. That’s why I firmly believe, and this is a slight digression, that the current top guys in Hollywood (Spielberg, Cameron, Zemeckis, Jackson) who are obsessed with developing a new generation of 3-D are missing the point. People love special effects and marvel at what a computer can do.

But you heard genuine gasps of awe in “The Dark Knight” when that truck flipped over. Even before that, the way that car chase on Lower Wacker Drive through Gotham left people gripping their seats and shouting from excitement? Why is that?

Because what they were looking at was real. It was tangible. They knew instinctively they could reach out and touch what was on screen, in spite of some CGI thrown in here and there. For the most part, it was real and the stunt work was amazing. At the beginning, when the two robbers slide from one building to the next the audience was in the moment more so than if they were CGI figures because it was real and the IMAX presentation made it seem as if they were there with them. That’s the next big thing – finding a way to IMAX everything. It brings reality so close you can touch it.

Which is exactly what I love so much about the iPhone. I’m not just pushing buttons and cycling through menu after menu. I’m sliding through menus with the touch of my hand. Or I’m shaking the iPhone so that the slot machine style interface of an application will bring up local delis in my price range. I’m interacting with it beyond just hitting a button and waiting for my call to go through. I’m stretching pictures out, finding a mind-boggling amount of information out about local eateries, and more.

But the bottom line is this – it’s not cold and impersonal. I can do a gazillion things with this little device and never once do I lose sight of it being a phone too. I’ve railed in the past about phone carriers packing more and more features into their devices transforming them from phones into PDAs. The iPhone is no different, but it does so many things so well and so smoothly that I am happy to gloss over the fact that a phone is one aspect among many.

Oh I can’t wait to get my hands on one tonight. I’ll report back on whether my lust translates into a full blown love affair or a crash-and-burn.

3Dog Nt

Is 3 Dog Night honestly worth a license plate devoted to them? No sir. No they are not.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Now Playing: Dragon Quest IV (DS)

The Nintendo DS is a Godsend for those of us who wax romantic about the games of our youth. The old 8 and 16-bit classics we grew up with on the original Nintendo systems were fun little time sinks, and continue to provoke endless debates when pitted against current generation software.

Which was the cooler JRPG? Final Fantasy VI or Final Fantasy XII? What’s your favorite Dragon Quest of the original seven?

Meanwhile, I’m playing Dragon Quest IV on the little handheld that could and my understanding is it never came out in the States before now. I love the facelift Square-Enix bestowed upon it. The once 8-bit game is now rife with color, humor, wonderful art and energy. It’s also filled with the need to grind, and grind, and grind, and grind some more. It’s like playing EverQuest only repeatedly cycling through the first 15 levels.

The story introduces the hero right off the bat then jumps to someone else. You take control of them for the next four to five hours and complete their introductory story. Then it jumps to another character and you repeat the cycle. Then you repeat it a third and a fourth time, each with new characters. Then finally it jumps back to the hero who is at… level 1.


Why yes, Square Enix, I would LOVE to grind the first 15 levels FIVE GODDAMN TIMES IN A ROW! Doesn’t that sound like fun? Oh it surly does to me, thank you kindly. Seriously, a game like this released today would be shredded. Once the story sort of kicks in then the game picks up and starts to move but according to my in-game clock I’ve already been playing for north of 24 hours and now I’m starting over YET AGAIN?!?!


To be fair, this is not the kind of title you blaze through. You savor it, enjoy it slowly, and take your time with it. Pull it out at the airport and level grind while waiting for your flight, and continue grinding while ignoring your spouse during the actual flight. I can’t say I haven’t had a lot of fun with it, but I’ve been at it for two months now and I’m just getting to the primary story line. The good news is I’ve discovered a reasonable place to farm metal slimes so my characters all level a hell of a lot faster now than at the beginning.

And some of you have absolutely no clue what I just said.

For those of you new to the Dragon Quest series, let me be more succinct. Each new release of a Dragon Quest title virtually shuts down Japan as people call in sick to play it. This is not a joke, nor an exaggeration. An entire country shuts down to play one game. The fascination with this series is wild to me, but there you have it.

In this iteration, a hero is called to defeat a great evil but picks up a bunch of friends along the way. Wait, that’s pretty much every video game ever designed. Where this game differentiates itself from everything else is what I mentioned about chapters – one per supporting character, and you get to power level each one for the first 15 levels or so before getting to the meat of the story. Once you do, the game opens up and becomes way more fun but getting there is a beating.

It’s certainly charming and quirky and is a perfect fit for the DS. If you can just get through the level grinding of the majority of the game, DQIV is a nice little time killer. If you’re looking for a quick fix title to blaze through, look elsewhere. This is one you take your time with and just play at your leisure. Even after putting it down for a week or two, it’s surprisingly easy to figure out what to do and where to go next.

I get a kick from old school titles like this. Contrasting them against modern titles is fun to see the evolution of game play. Next on my “Ye Olde School Playlist” is Chrono Trigger which has developed a mythic reputation since its release. I’ve never played it, but the music from the sequel’s intro has stuck with me for years. That may be an odd recollection, but it’s the closest I’ve come to actually playing it.

But at the rate I’m going on DQIV, I’ll probably hold off on starting Chrono Trigger until sometime next year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Information that might have been useful YESTERDAY

Fired up my email this morning and had an email dated 2:07 AM Saturday. The contents of the email informed us that for the next two weeks we could dress casual at work. I'm reading this while dressed in a suit as upper management (i.e. those with Blackberrys) walk around in jeans.

Note to Santa - bring me a Blackberry.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Latest Reviews

My two latest reviews at Gaming Trend are up and here they are: Madagascar 2 and Far Cry 2. You might notice a significant difference in the writing styles for both and the explanation is simple – one sucked and the other most assuredly did not.

To make it easier to discern which is which, allow me to extol the further virtues of "Far Cry 2" forthwith. I wasn’t a big fan of the first game. Much like “Doom 3,” “Far Cry” was an engine in search of a game. It presented a massive world that was top to bottom beautiful, and let players loose in it to do what they would. Sandbox style shooters are nothing new, but “Far Cry” left me bored. Even when it took a hard right into science fiction territory, it did so by just throwing a bunch of mutants at you and still letting you go on your merry way.

“Far Cry 2” has no such sci-fi elements, electing instead to keep things firmly grounded in the real world. The game immediately benefits from this by setting up a massive powder keg in the middle of Africa, then dropping you in the middle of it to find and kill a single target – the gun runner behind both sides of the conflict known simply as the Jackal. It’s an ingenious setup but what truly thrills is how the game utterly swallows you.

This is not a twitch game by any stretch of the imagination. It will take you a while to move from one place to another even after mastering the bus system, the only rapid transit available. Otherwise, you’re on your own to find transportation (surprisingly easy) and surviving the drive along the numerous dirt roads (somewhat more difficult). I’ve been playing it constantly for over a month now and I’m just to the point where I can experience the back half of the game.

This thing is one of the most immersive titles I’ve played since BioShock. Nothing else touches it. I’m thrilled that it’s sold over a million copies because with everything else hitting right now (Gears of War 2, CoD: World at War, Fallout 3, Rock Band 2, et. al) this is the gem that would absolutely be swallowed. I’m sure people bought this then dropped it after a day to play GoW2 or CoD and those sad souls are missing the winner of the bunch.

“Far Cry 2” is not interested in just throwing bigger and bigger guns at you and letting you wade through the bush nuking the hell out of everything in sight. There is a purpose here, but one that is not immediately evident. The purpose here is to literally live the events, and every single action happens through your character’s eyes. Walk up to a car and you watch as your character slides across the seat or climbs up into the gunners seat. Get into a gunfight with a crappy firearm and watch it jam, usually at the worst possible moment. Get shot up almost to the point of death and check it out as your character pops bullets out of his/her arm with their fingers (and no I’m not kidding about this).

At no point in the game does anything feel video gamey. Well, that’s not entirely true. Attacks on the roads are more frequent than they should be and enemies can hit you a mile away it seems with little effort and with crap weaponry. Also the dialogue coach at Ubisoft should be fired immediately because all the characters deliver their lines as if there was no punctuation used anywhere in the script.

Forgiving these minor grievances allows one to indulge in a game world so vast and rich and detailed that it’s stunning. During development, the designers took a trip to Kenya for a safari to see for themselves whether what they’d come up with was accurate. Upon returning, they tossed everything and started over. The resulting level of detail takes you across the planet to an honest rendition of Africa via the country of Kenya. I’m left stunned every time I play it.

So what haven’t I liked? Not much really. My gripes are pretty contained to the ones listed above and that’s about it. I hate having to go through so many checkpoints, i.e. guard stations, but off-roading cures that little hiccup. Ditto the random battles that happen quite frequently. The guns breaking or jamming infuriates me but just compare the rusted POS you pick up off some local thug to the nice shiny weapons available for purchase at the gun store and tell me which one looks more reliable. Running out of ammo in the middle of a firefight can happen, so dropping a gorgeous gun and picking up a rusted one for the sake of expediency adds to the tension. How many shots until this thing jams or worse, breaks completely? Your heart races as soon as the shooting starts.

Every. Single. Time.

As for the story, this is not a plot driven game so to speak. There is an overarching story, but the game is more about the experience and less about the tale being told. This isn’t “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” Early on, the player is told by a journalist that he lost tapes of a conversation he recorded with the Jackal and when you start finding those tapes the lights will begin to turn on. The further you delve into the game, the more the tension builds and your understanding of the Jackal is fleshed out by these tapes. It’s a clever way to build anticipation towards your eventual show-down with him. You come to understand not only his philosophy on world events but also what he’s doing in this particular war-torn area of the world.

The buddy system is also pretty cool in that you stumble across people who will assist you. They don’t run with you all the time but if you get hurt, one usually shows up to get you out of the situation. I like the fact that even though they can take an inordinate amount of punishment, they can in fact die. If they do, then they are gone for good. Bonding with at least one or two is inevitable and when one of your close buddies dies, as happened to me, it genuinely hurts.

I can understand how this one seems to have been marginalized by the press in favor of Fallout 3, the latest Call of Duty, and so forth but this is an honest gem. If you have the chance to really check out Far Cry 2 then do so but be prepared to be swallowed whole.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

No Need For An Alarm Clock

I have my stomach! I was sound asleep this morning. Dead quiet throughout the house. All of a sudden I hear this:

Brrrrrrrp. Mmmmmmrrrrppppp. Repeat.

I snap awake. Angry. I roll over. That only muffled it slightly. Whatever else, my stomach was running on empty and apparently felt it was its solemn duty to inform me of its displeasure.

At 5:50 a.m.

I get up and scarf down a piece of bread. Lay back down. My stomach growls less and less until finally it’s quiet again. Some people hate their bodies for various reasons. I hate mine when it wakes me up. Self preservation takes a back seat to a good night’s sleep in my book.

But I’m weird like that.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Ixnay on the Raspberry-ay

One thing I love about my office is the abundance of sweets that find their ways into our hands. Someone is always bringing cake or cookies up here and it rules on a number of levels. However, a co-worker offered me some cake recently and I had to decline.

“What’s in it?” I non-chalantly asked.

“Oh the good stuff. Vanilla, and raspberry, and…”

I cut her off with a stern head shake.

“Nope, can’t do it then. But thank you.”

Not sure if it’s a food allergy or just revulsion, but if I have a small taste of raspberry I get a migraine. More than a taste adds extreme nausea as a topper. Been that way my whole life but took me forever to figure out what the specifics were. My problem is an addiction to all things chocolate. Chefs the world over have the same problem: Thinking raspberry drizzled over chocolate is a good thing.

Now you understand my predicament.

I remain puzzled by people who love, love, love raspberry on chocolate. Everyone enjoys different flavors, but that one is just disgusting. Not to mention headache inducing.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Two Weeks Later...

Max 0.05 entered our world on 11/20/08 and our lives remain uprooted. But in a good way. Sorta. Right from the start, evidence surfaced of him one day evolving into a clone of Yours Truly. This is both a good and bad thing. The good thing is I feel I’m a pretty level headed individual who could have been better were I less shy and more self confident when I was younger.

The bad is I was a holy terror as a child who only mellowed out when I was overtaken by extreme shyness. At 12.

Infants traditionally have three tasks:

1. Eat
2. Sleep
3. Poop
Not necessarily in that order, either. Or sometimes they manage the trifecta and accomplish all three at once, which is something no one outside of new parents should ever bear witness to.

A fourth dictum is conveniently left unspoken, lest skittish folks decide children are not for them:

4. Scream/cry like crazy
This last one manifested itself quicker than we suspected and continued through the holiday week while the in-laws camped out at Casa de Skim. Every night starting at about 8 p.m. and going through midnight, Max 0.05 would scream holy hell with only a slight respite occurring upon feeding. He would exhaust himself, we’d stressfully rock him and work to comfort him and it was all for naught. Frustrating doesn’t begin to convey the anxiety a new parent feels anyway, so when you add screaming fits as a capper, you find yourself frazzled beyond belief. During the day he was a gem, an affable baby boy with the biggest and most alert eyes you’ve ever seen. At night, he’d morph into Holy Screaming Fury™.

When you come to dread the sun going down, you’re either in a horror film or living with a newborn.

We worried we were overfeeding him at first. A newborn’s stomach is about the size of a small marble and he was packing a mean amount of acid reflux. Turns out this is entirely normal and goes away on it’s own after two weeks. Again, this is information that might have been useful AHEAD OF TIME. So we tried over-feeding him to see if that calmed him down.

8 p.m. came and went with no screaming. Ditto 9 p.m. Ditto 10 p.m. Then 11 p.m. and he started fussing, so we fed him again.

It was like someone flipped a light switch off and he sacked out until his next feeding at 2 a.m. It was the first night in literally two weeks that My Fair Lady and I got a solid amount of sleep. We actually felt human the next day.

In short it’s been incredibly stressful but surprisingly enough we’ve enjoyed it. Max 0.05 is a gem when he’s not crying. He has the biggest eyes and is so alert it’s scary. He knows both of us by now, or at least enjoys listening to our voices. He’s already developing a personality quirk that’s hilarious. When he stretches out and yawns, he goes all out. He has his arms down at his sides, he stretches his legs out, then he stretches his neck out and yawns as wide as his mouth will allow. It’ll be wild to see if he still does that later in life.

When we threw our list of questions at our pediatrician, she offered some sage advice about the first month – survive it. Doesn’t matter what you do, just survive it. After that, it all gets better.

We’ll see what happens.

P.S. For the last two nights, he’s been up and at ‘em every 15 or 20 minutes. I took the first shift last night and rocked him in a pouch until 2 a.m.-ish. My Fair Lady took over at that point and is, I believe, close to collapse. She’s a trooper but believe me when I say that watching a newborn would exhaust Patton’s 3rd Army. We’re almost through the first month and we are watching that calendar like a pair of hawks.

Deadman Switch

A co-worker observed in the lunch room the other day that I got a haircut.

“No,” I replied, “I got a lot cut.”

“Well, it looks really good.”

“Thank you. I just wish they got the white ones too.”

I recently found three white hairs on my head. These were not gray, or pseudo-white. These were Anderson Cooper white.

“Why don’t you just pluck them?” my co-worker asked.

“Are you crazy? They plan for this. All white hairs come with a deadman switch attached. Pluck one, and it sends out a signal for reinforcements. I’ll be white haired by Christmas of next year. All I’ll need is 100 more pounds and a beard and I’ll have a line of kids demanding toys.”