Friday, July 28, 2017

Active Raid

Active Raid follows a police unit in near-future Japan that uses personal robotic suits called Willwear. They're basically miniature mecha, taking on threats that largely come from misuse of technology.
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Active Raid caught my eye primarily because it was broadly in the police/military genre, which I enjoy (one of the many reasons I'm a Ghost in the Shell fan). There are quite a few plot points that revolve around bureaucratic in-fighting, a staple of the genre. The unit members fit broadly into the usual stereotypes: techie handyman, calm but rule-bound fighter, info hacker, hot-headed fighter, and so on. The overall story progresses from seemingly unrelated crimes to tracking down a shadowy mastermind (twice, since it's broken into two seasons). I'd say the series does an adequate job of representing the genre, though nothing particularly new or exciting.

At first glance, Active Raid does very little to make it stand out from any similar series. A bunch of young officers are gathered in a special unit that takes on mecha...I mean, Willwear...threats. Just about every episode makes sure to spend time going through the Willwear-equipping process, making it look like a toy commercial. The villains are caricatures, from bank robbers to love-crazed idol fans. Fan service is minimal as far as these kind of series go, but certainly not completely absent. Not exactly breaking new ground.

That impression never completely goes away, but there's more to the series as it goes along. Quite a few contemporary societal issues are brought up, from government corruption to dealing with dementia to the dangers of widespread malware attacks. It's all done in a fairly light-hearted way, but it seemed clear to me that the writers wanted to give viewers something to think about beyond just the robot suits zipping around. You could pretty easily choose to ignore it, but those themes are there if you're inclined to consider them.

Active Raid is worth the time to watch if you're a fan of the police/military and/or mecha genres, as long as you don't mind that it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's unlikely to change your mind if you don't particularly like those genres, though.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

First-person action brawlers aren't really my thing, but I can be persuaded to play them if the theme is interesting. And themes don't get a whole lot better than the Lord of the Rings universe.

Shadow of Mordor cover art.jpg
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor came out last year, which makes it a fairly new game for me to be playing. There's a sequel on the way soon, which of course means good deals on the original, so I picked it up for just a few bucks in a recent sale. I played it on my PC, though it's available on just about every gaming platform.

The story takes place in the time between the Hobbit (when Bilbo finds the One Ring) and the start of the main story in Fellowship of the Ring (when the Fellowship starts their quest and the War of the Ring begins). The main character is a ranger named Talion, who used to patrol parts of Mordor before Sauron and his minions began to reclaim it. He's haunted/possessed by a mysterious elven spirit, giving him all kinds of interesting abilities. Learning about that spirit makes up a good chunk of the storyline.

Shadow of Mordor does several interesting things as far as combat mechanics. There's the usual assortment of physical attacks - sword for melee, dagger for stealth, bow for ranged - but everything can be augmented by special spirit abilities. You can drain enemies of their energy to replenish ammo, for instance, or have your spirit augment melee attacks to stun enemies. Lots of blood and gore while beating up orcs, too, of course. I'm not particularly good at these kinds of first-person action combat mechanics, so it took me a while to get the hang of it, but eventually I got fairly decent at taking on hordes of orcs.

There's quite a bit of Middle-earth flavor in the game, which I really liked. You can find various artifacts with bits of lore embedded, each of which has a bit of story attached. There's small silvery runes called Ithildin to collect, which unlock portions of a image similar to the hidden Moria door. And throughout the main story there are references to the larger world, from references to coming war to an appearance by Gollum. They do take some liberties with the world that may upset some of the Middle Earth purists out there, but I don't mind that sort of thing, figuring I can just ignore the bits that don't seem to fit.

As Talion goes around Mordor, he'll run into stronger enemy leaders that are tougher to kill. These captains and war-chiefs are unique, and they'll remember if you run from them or if they kill you. They get more powerful over time, too. You can even find special missions to defeat captains who defeated your friends (assuming you're playing online and linked to a friends list). Those encounters add some extra depth to the kill-'em-all gameplay mechanics. And eventually you can use spirit domination to bring some of them around to your side, which adds a whole new facet to your fighting style.

There are some extras beyond the main story, mainly combat challenge modes. I didn't really mess around with most of that, since the combat wasn't the draw for me anyway. I was there for the story and Middle-earth world. I'm sure players that are more into the combat would enjoy them, though.

I had a great time roaming around Mordor in Shadow of Mordor. Well worth playing for any Tolkien fan, or if you like the gameplay style. If you like both, all the better!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World

Last year, Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World was one of the more popular anime series to air. I caught up with it on Crunchyroll recently.
A silver-haired girl against a medieval-style city. She is wearing a white robe with eagle motifs emblazoned on the sleeves. A gray cat is hovering in the air behind her. The series' title is superimposed across the front in Japanese, with the circled number ① in the upper left-hand corner.
The series follows a boy named Subaru who is pulled from our world into a fantasy land. He welcomes the change and assumes he'll get fantastic powers like the stories he's read, but instead he remains basically himself. The only power he seems to have is that dying sends him back to a previous point in time, reliving hours or days, but he can't tell anyone about it.

I like those concepts - the involuntary time jumps, interesting fantasy world, a hero who isn't an amazing prodigy at combat. Through the initial discovery phase of the series, as Subaru learns about the world and figures out his time jumping power (or curse), it all works together pretty well. The way he manages to ingratiate himself to some fairly powerful people bends the limits of credulity, but that's not uncommon in these kind of stories.

Unfortunately, then the series bogs down. Entire episodes are spent largely listening to Subaru complain about how powerless he is. Characters that were central to early episodes disappear entirely, both friends and enemies, while others pop up almost at random. Even Subaru's main love interest Emelia is absent from large stretches of the series. Hard to do any real character development when everyone but Subaru is constantly fading in and out of the story. And very little progress is made on understanding mysteries that were introduced in the early going.

The last few episodes get back on track, for the most part. There's some moderately interesting action, particularly in the whale fight, and some of the problems laid out earlier are resolved. It still feels like quite a bit is left undone, though. Perhaps there's more complete resolutions in the manga, but in the anime the story feels unfinished.

I watched all of Re:Zero because of the interesting hooks - the time jumps, a comparatively weak hero, exploration of a new world. Sadly, the execution doesn't hold up to the promise. If the hooks sound like your thing, try it out; otherwise, you're probably better passing it up.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

America on Tap Beer Festival in Grand Rapids 2017

I enjoyed last year's America on Tap Beer Festival enough that I decided to go back again this year.
The event was in the same place as last year, Calder Plaza in downtown Grand Rapids. We arrived a bit earlier this time, about 15 minutes before the gates opened, which meant we weren't quite as far back in line this time. It still took a good half hour to get in, though, and plenty of others were waiting behind us. Definitely a popular event.
The America on Tap folks know how to organize this kind of event, in start contrast to the terribly organized Tots and Beer event that I went to earlier this summer. No long lines for beer - I think the longest I had to wait was just a couple of minutes. Around 3 dozen different breweries represented, with plenty of space under a couple of long tents. Live music and several food carts if you'd like a snack. My only complaint was that they only had a couple of people checking IDs at the entrance, but once you got inside everything was set up well.
The weather was just about perfect, plenty of sun but not too humid and a bit of a breeze to cool things down. Like last year, quite a few of the beers I tried were lighter fare since that goes with the weather better than heavy dark stouts. I did try a couple of the latter as well, though. Just about every kind of beer you can imagine was represented, as well as plenty of mead and cider.

As long as this festival is making stops in Grand Rapids, I'll try to make it out. Good fun with a friend or two, and plenty of excellent beverages to try.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Long Strange Trip - The Grateful Dead

I'm not a Deadhead, though I've known a few, and never attended a Grateful Dead show. Heard plenty of stories, though. Watching Long Strange Trip was a window into some of that folk rock and counter-culture history.
A skull with roses on it, colored to suggest the Grateful Dead lightning bolt skull logo.
The documentary follows the Grateful Dead from their formation in the 1960s all the way through to the 1990s and the death of Jerry Garcia. There's a good amount of background in the early going: hippie culture in California, the musical roots of the band members, and of course a bit of the history of LSD. I learned quite a bit - I had no idea Jerry was a banjo player with several bluegrass bands in the early '60s, for instance. The history is nice for those of us who are too young to remember the '60s and didn't know much about the band members before their famous days.

The documentary doesn't pull punches on the subject of drugs. Acid parties are credited as building a sense of camaraderie, and limiting the clash of egos that is such a struggle for many musicians. There was experimentation with laughing gas in the studio, video crews who learned quickly not to drink anything the band gave them, and even a rivalry between coke-heads and acid-heads on tour. That sort of casual mind-adjustment has never been my taste, but it's interesting to see how the Dead used it to maintain the lifestyle and relationships that they wanted. All of this worked well early on, but eventually people started dying (such as Ron "Pigpen" McKernan from alcoholism, and Brent Mydland from overdose) as the lifestyle took its toll.

Unsurprisingly, none of the band members were particularly business-minded. Their first studio album went way over budget, and one of the interviews talked about how they rarely had any money left after tours since it was spent as quickly as it was made. They talk about the "wall of sound" speaker setup that cost a ridiculous amount to buy and maintain, the chaotic leadership (such as there was any), the lack of planning. It's pretty incredible to me, someone who likes plans and organization, that the whole thing held together...but somehow they made it work through those lean days. And of course, later on the commercial success came almost despite whatever the band did.

That lack of business acumen worked in their favor sometimes, too. Allowing fans to tape the live shows was seen as a terrible business move - who would buy albums if they could get a copy of a live recording? It worked to the band's advantage, though, by expanding the audience who wanted to go to live shows for more of what they'd heard on the tapes. A good number of self-identified Deadheads got their first exposure to the band from those live recordings.

To me, the whole story revolved largely around one theme: the band (especially Jerry) was interested primarily in everyone having fun. Whether that meant using drugs to get in the right mindset, or spending too much money to give fans the best concert experience possible, or having semi-controlled chaos instead of a single leader, or ignoring rules and regulations, or being the face of the Grateful Dead for legions of fans. It seems to me that in the end, Jerry had put others having fun ahead of his own well-being for too long.

Long Strange Trip was a very interesting watch. I'm sure there's plenty more depth to the story of the Grateful Dead, but this sure covered a lot. I'm glad to have had the chance to learn a little more about the band through this documentary.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Grand Rapids Tots and Beer Festival

The idea of sampling craft beers and eating interesting preparations of tater tots is a good one. The execution could use some work, though.
This festival was held in downtown Grand Rapids at Ah-Nab-Awen Park, right by the river. A friend and I drove down, found parking easily, and walked over to the park. Nice area, and there was plenty of room fenced off for the festival goers. Couldn't ask for better weather - sunny with occasional cloud cover, upper 70s, bit of a breeze off the river.

There were eight beer-serving stations, with about 30 beer options. Unfortunately, they needed about twice that many for the number of people who showed up. Compare that to last year's America On Tap festival, which had a couple of dozen serving stations. The problem isn't overcrowding - they limit the number of available tickets - so I can only assume the organizers simply didn't plan properly.
With so few places to get the beer, the lines were ridiculously long, running 20-30 minutes to get one sample. Obviously there's no way to sample every beer at that rate, or even a third of them. I ended up trying three, but no more - couldn't bring myself to stand in line any longer. I had a brown ale that was pretty good, but the others were forgettable.

The food part wasn't nearly as busy, no more than a couple of minutes wait. There were about a half-dozen stands that served a few tater tots with various toppings. Nothing amazing, but nice snacks to have in between beers. My favorite was the jalapeno popper version. They even had some dessert choices, but fried potatoes with powdered sugar or chocolate didn't seem like a particularly good idea, so I skipped those.
I like the idea of this festival, and despite the lines my friend and I had a pretty decent time. Still, I can't recommend that anyone go to this particular festival. There are enough others that don't have the organizational issues and long lines that it's kind of silly to spend money and time on this one.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Visit to Blandford Nature Center

I recently went along on a trip to the Blandford Nature Center, as a volunteer helping out with a summer education trip.
I had no idea this place existed until this trip, although I probably would have if I'd grown up in the Grand Rapids area. They do a lot of work with area schools, bringing kids out to experience a bit of nature and see some of the wildlife being rehabilitated. It reminded me of Oregon's outdoor school program, which I attended way back when I was a sixth grader, though not nearly as involved.
The nature center is on the northwest side of Grand Rapids, in a fairly heavily wooded area. There are quite a few trails to walk around in the woods, though on this short visit we stuck to the shorter ones. There's also plenty of open meadow area and some swampy wetlands spots, so visitors get to see all sorts of different habitats. Our group was large enough that we split up and cycled through all the various areas a few at a time, with the center staff leading us through some areas and exploring others on our own.
In and around the central building are habitats for injured or otherwise incapacitated animals. We saw owls, turtles, rabbits, and even a bobcat. The kids I was with were particularly impressed with this part of the trip, especially when they were able to touch the turtles.
There's also a farm on the premises, growing all sorts of vegetables and other crops. Not a lot of quantity, but plenty of variety. Same with animals, with a small flock of chickens and a few pigs. They also make maple syrup in the winter - we didn't see that part in action, of course, but did pass by the barn and saw the equipment.
It's good to see these kind of nature centers available to the public, particularly for school groups. It's important for city kids to get exposure to the world as it exists outside of the urban areas where they spend so much of their time. Hopefully the Blandford Nature Center will continue to serve that need for a long time to come.