Saturday, February 6, 2016

Super Bowl L

It's Super Bowl L weekend (yeah, I know, it's officially 50, but I do like this once-yearly use of the Roman numerals I learned in grade school), so I guess I should pick a team to cheer for. I know that doesn't sound too enthusiastic, but I do actually enjoy watching these big sporting events. The surrounding hype I could do without, which is why I haven't paid much attention to anything Super-Bowl-related for the last two weeks.

When I was watching the playoffs, the Carolina Panthers were my third-favorite team in the NFC, and the Denver Broncos were my second-favorite in the AFC. Makes sense to hope the Broncos win on Sunday, then. I like cheering on the underdog anyway, and with the way the Panthers have played through the season and the playoffs, Denver certainly feels like the underdog in this one.
There's also the last-hurrah aspect of Peyton Manning's appearance, in what is almost certainly his last Super Bowl. I like watching Cam Newton play, too, but I figure he's likely to have several more shots at the big game. This is probably Peyton's last chance on the field, and it would be a nice closing statement to a Hall of Fame career if he went out on top.

Having said all that, I still think it's more likely that the Panthers win, and they very well could win big. Their offense has rolled through some really good defenses (i.e. Seattle), and I don't think Denver's offense will be putting a lot of points up. If the Denver defense makes just a few mistakes, the Broncos could quickly be in an insurmountable hole. I'll be hoping to see the old guys pull out an upset, though!

Friday, February 5, 2016

No Game No Life

No Game No Life is one of those shows that I added to my playlist based on premise, rather than someone's recommendation or previous work by the creators. Doing that is a gamble, and this one turned out to be a loser.
The premise that I liked enough to try out the show is that a pair of gamers (brother Sora and sister Shiro), who are great at video games but terrible at anything else in life, get pulled into a fantasy world where everything hinges on making bets and playing games to resolve them. It's basically a fairy tale, but instead of the "chosen one" role having magical powers or great sword skills or whatever, they've got the ability to win games. They end up as rulers of the human part of the world, working with Steph (the local princess) and various others in conflicts with the non-human kingdoms.

Sora and Shiro are constantly getting into situations where they should lose their games, but then it turns out they foresaw the situation and pull out some amazing table-turning victory. The explanation always boils down to "Sora and Shiro together are smarter than everyone else." In almost every episode there's some new twist on it, but it always comes down to the same thing in the end.

I expected the show to either try to explain things seriously, or make everything a joke. Either approach could make for good entertainment, but the writers chose to attempt both. Most of an episode will seem to be seriously trying to explain what's happening in the game-of-the-week, but suddenly out of the blue there will be a couple minutes where everything is a big joke. Worse, they also added a whole lot of stereotypical harem-style fan service aspects. The funny stuff mostly revolves around humiliating Steph in various ways, mostly involving scanty outfits. Didn't seem very funny to me.

I've put up with similar problems in other shows before if the characters are well-formed and change over time in interesting ways, but No Game No Life doesn't manage that, either. Sora is a arrogant jerk, and since he's always the smartest guy in the room (except maybe his sister) there's no reason to change. Shiro has basically no personality at all and is totally dependent on Sora. The other characters are around only as comic-relief targets or enemies to be conquered.

Had No Game No Life been any longer than 12 episodes, I'd never have finished it. As it is, I stuck it out to the end, in hopes that it might improve by the end. No such luck. This is one to avoid.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Marvel Heroes

Marvel Heroes is a massively multi-player online (MMO) action role-playing game (ARPG). Short translation: it's an MMORPG where the vast majority of what you do is combat. There is a story-line, but it's fairly shallow and not character-specific. The main attraction of the game (for me, at least) is that you can play as many different characters from the Marvel universe.
The game was first released back in 2013, and to be honest, it was pretty terrible. Lots of bugs, poorly designed characters, limited gameplay choices. I tried it briefly and gave up quickly. But to their credit, the developers have done an amazing job improving the game since then. In late 2014 the game was re-branded as Marvel Heroes 2015, and when I tried it again, it felt like a completely different experience. In January it was re-branded again as Marvel Heroes 2016 with a new round of improvements and expansion.

Unlike almost every other ARPG that I've ever played, characters in Marvel Heroes aren't based on a race or class. Instead, each of your playable characters is a personality from the Marvel universe (i.e. Iron Man, Spider Man, Captain America). There's a ton to choose from - 53 at the time of this post. You choose one when you first pick up the game, and can unlock others through various means: purchase, picking up in-game currency, occasional giveaways and rewards. You choose gear and decide which abilities to focus on for each character, so they're not always the same: your Jean Gray might be focused on her psionic abilities, while my Jean Gray uses her Phoenix powers. Both thematic for the character, but the player chooses how to customize their version.

Marvel Heroes uses a top-down isometic view, so you're always looking down at your character moving around the world. That's important, because there's always a ton of things going on as you fight your way through hordes of villains. A first-person viewpoint wouldn't have much of a chance of keeping up. Most combat is an explosion of lots of different superpower effects, to the point where it's difficult to see what all is going on. The interface provides some help, like pointing out where a boss is among all the chaos, but it can still be a challenge to keep track of everything that's going on. And that's part of the fun...the "action" part of ARPG is certainly front and center most of the time.

My experience with Marvel Heroes has gone through three major phases: discovery, expansion, and end-game. They overlap somewhat, but I think every player is likely to follow more or less the same path.

When a player first starts Marvel Heroes, everything is new, thus the Discovery phase. You've got just one character to play, and you take them through the story chapters. The story is pretty simple and feels very much like a comic book, especially since it is told largely through "motion comics" - basically slideshows using comic-book style art with voiceovers. You get to see all kinds of locations familiar to Marvel universe fans, from Hell's Kitchen to the Savage Land to Odinheim. You'll also be introduced to the concept of patrol zones (open areas with tons of enemies to beat on and periodic villain invasions) and terminals (repeatable areas with one major boss and his minions).

As you make your way through the story and have seen most of the various content areas, the experience becomes about Expansion. The most obvious form is unlocking new characters to play, which can be done quickly with purchases from the store or more slowly through collecting gameplay items. I've spent very little on character unlocks, myself, but I know people who have bought quite a few. My purchases have mostly been unlocking new storage space, and once a costume (90s X-Men favorite character from that old cartoon). You can also improve your access to various items and abilities by leveling up the crafter and enchanter NPCs, obtaining influence with the Genosha Liberation Front, and collecting items for the various weekly event vendors. Then there are Team-Up characters, who are unlockable like playable characters. You can choose one Team-Up for each of your playable characters, granting various buffs and some combat assistance.

The expansion never really ends, but once you've gotten a few characters up to the maximum level of 60 and improved their gear/builds, you can shift focus to the End-Game. There are several raid zones meant for 10 players, and special "cosmic" versions of the patrol zones only accessible after your character completes a moderately-difficult trial zone. The game feels very different with a character at 60, as difficulty scales up and more zones are available to access.

The Marvel Heroes experience is almost entirely about the different playable characters, Once you've gone through that initial discovery phase, you won't find much new in terms of story or areas to explore. The game still comes down to repeating the same areas with the same enemies, but using different characters keeps it interesting. The game reinforces this by giving each character their own personality, with different one-liners during combat and occasional comments as you pass through different areas or near other characters. (For instance, my Storm likes to compliment every Psylocke she sees, while Emma Frost has a put-down for almost everyone she runs across.) If you get multiple characters up to level 60, each adds an experience boost to all your other characters, which smooths out the slow grind of getting a new character through lower-level content.

I don't play Marvel Heroes every day (though I'll usually log in once to claim daily rewards), but it's enough fun to keep me coming back on a semi-regular basis. Especially as the developers continue to add new playable characters, additional areas to explore, and special events.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Financial Market Instability

If you follow the financial news at all, you know that January 2016 was a pretty poor month in the financial world. Stock markets had all kinds of up and down days, trending more toward down, and there's been all sort of concern over the price of oil and the future of China. It's easy to get caught up in all the fuss.
The S&P 500 index over the last few months. That steep drop around Jan 1 sure made the news.
It's really tempting to react to what goes on in the financial world. When you see headlines screaming about a horrible day on Wall Street, or forecasting doom and gloom because oil prices are crashing, it's easy to think that you need to take some action. Of course, that's the worst time to do anything with your investments. Reacting emotionally to the news of the day is a good way to lose what you've built up over time.

Just about any financial adviser - at least, the ones who actually want to help you - will tell you to make a long term plan and stick to it. That's what I've done, balancing my investments between stocks and bonds, plus a few CDs in case of something catastrophic in the financial markets. Other than occasionally rebalancing the stock/bond ratio, I don't change anything based on what the markets are doing. Putting more money in or taking it out happens when my needs dictate, not based on market changes.

If you follow the news at all, you probably can't avoid hearing about the financial world's latest problems. But that doesn't mean you have to react to it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

SWTOR: No Group For You

Playing Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) as a duo with my friend L has been a good time, with our characters working together. We made it all the way through our class story-lines and the Rise of the Hutt Cartel content on the planet Makeb. And then SWTOR decided it wasn't going to let us play together any more.
From the early sections of the game all the way through the Makeb story, the story aspect of instanced missions worked one of two ways. For our class story-line instances, the owner would make all the story decisions, while the other player would see the cutscenes but not have any control. Only the owner got credit for mission completion, which was fine since the other player didn't have the mission anyway. For all other instanced missions, both players would be able to make decisions, and the game would randomly choose one choice. Both players got credit for completing the mission instance, no matter whose choices were chosen. It worked fine, and allowed us both to progress the same missions without having to do everything twice.

Once we started the Shadow of Revan expansion content on Rishi, though, this was no longer the case. The instanced planet story-line missions took place in something called a "Personal Phase", which meant that it worked like the class story-line missions. Only one player was in control, and completing the mission only counted for that player. If we wanted to go through the story-line together, we either had to do everything twice, or separate every time a mission instance showed up. We could still do non-instanced content together, and when a Flashpoint came along that was still fine, but all the other mission instances forced us apart. If that was a rare thing it might be OK, but those mission instances show up a lot, and several of them are fairly long.

Moving on to Knights of the Fallen Empire made things even worse. Almost everything you do until reaching Chapter IX is in an instance. You can summon another person into your instance, but again they can't progress their story. Worse, the second person misses a lot of the content: cutscenes start without them, and they can't hear side comments from companions and other characters. The second person also gets kicked out of the instances regularly, so the owner has to redo the summoning. It's a terrible implementation for grouping, so much so that when the patch notes say "We've made it even easier for you and your friends to play Knights of the Fallen Empire together" I'm tempted to call it false advertising.

Even after reaching Chapter IX, actually playing the game as a team is nigh impossible. The new conversation format only allows one player to participate at a time, and those "Personal Phase" instances keep cropping up. The entire Odessen command center bunker is inside one! Heroic missions and Flashpoints are still workable for a duo, fortunately, but not all the content is set up that way.

I sort of understand why the SWTOR designers chose to go this route. I get that it allows each character's story to unfold separately, and that it makes story-writing a whole lot easier. But it also means the game is a long single-player chain, which players can't enjoy together. Back when I first went through Knights of the Fallen Empire, I said that it felt like watching a movie. But at least you can do that with a friend. This is more like each watching a show at home, only able to talk about it afterward. After you finish that long chain, then you can play together in repeatable Flashpoints or heroic missions, but at that point the game is primarily just an MMO grind exercise, not a story to follow.

I'm pretty disappointed in the way things have worked out for our duo in the recent content. One of the best parts about playing as a duo is seeing the story unfold together, and talking about things as they happen. It's really difficult to keep that going in the newer content. L and I may still go back to earlier content, particularly with a couple of Imperial characters of classes that we haven't tried yet. But when SWTOR releases new stuff, I'm afraid we'll each be going it alone.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Dental Changes

I changed dentists this year, largely due to cost, and somewhat for the sake of convenience. When I changed insurance providers after leaving my job in 2013, I kept my same dentist even though it was out of network. It cost a little more, but not much. But this year the out-of-network fee was going to be higher, so I decided it was time for a change.
My new dentist is much closer, about a 10 minute drive instead of a half hour. (Back in 1998 when I first moved to the area, location was a factor in choosing my original dentist. But I've moved since then.) This office is in-network for my insurance, so all the preventative stuff is covered 100%, and other costs should be lower also. Not that the amount the insurance pays is any different, but as an in-network provider this office has an agreement that they won't charge additional costs directly to me. All I have to pay is the insurance deductible and the percentage that isn't covered.

I know some people have difficulty changing health care providers. Maybe you've been going to the same person for care over your entire life, or you just feel more comfortable with a particular provider. For me, that's never really been a concern. As long as my doctor or dentist or optometrist has the right credentials, and a quick search on the web doesn't turn up any major bad stuff, I'm happy to go to whoever can help.

My first cleaning visit to the new dentist office was in mid-January. The cleaning part went fine, but they found cavities. One wasn't much of a surprise...I'd been hearing from my previous dentist that they needed to keep an eye on one tooth during several previous visits. That had finally gotten bad enough to fill. But it was quite the surprise to hear that I had a total of seven (!) spots that needed filling. All but that first cavity were very small, and were detected using a tool which looks for decay inside grooves in the teeth, which can easily go unnoticed if not using that particular tool. (At least, that's how they explained it.)

Therefore, I got to make another visit to have all this decay removal and filling taken care of. Seven different dental issues (even small ones) made this by far the most complex dental procedure I'd ever had. I've been fortunate to have very little in the way of dental issues...never needed braces, only a few fillings, no wisdom teeth removal, no root canals. I'd been assured this would only take an hour or so, and they'd just need to numb one small part of my mouth, so I wasn't too concerned. Still, going to have your mouth poked and prodded is never something to look forward to.

As it turned out, the most uncomfortable part of the whole procedure was the room temperature...way too cold for me. Had a couple of minor pains and some really annoying noises during the actual fillings, but nothing significant. Even the shot to numb that one section of my mouth was nothing more than a minor pinprick. Had I worn a sweater, it would have been no less comfortable than a standard cleaning visit. The whole thing was over in about 45 minutes.

I don't have the bill yet, but based on what the office folks said, it will probably end up costing around $900. The insurance pays about half of that. It's a fairly big outlay, but to avoid worse dental issues in the future, I consider it money well spent. And I can use my health savings account, so it's not money coming out of my regular finances.

So I'm back to full dental health, for the moment at least. And I shouldn't have to worry nearly as much about those grooves in the teeth, since the worst offenders have been filled now. With a little luck, it'll be a long time before I need a non-cleaning dental visit again.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

SWTOR: Recent Events

As L and I have been working through the Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) story as a duo, we've taken the time to investigate a few of the world events. These events are week-long and mostly rotate every week, although occasionally the schedule changes a bit. We've participated in three events: the Rakghoul Pandemic, Relics of the Gree, and the Bounty Brokers Association.

Rakghouls are sort of the Star Wars version of zombies. If you get infected with the plague, you get sick, and eventually turn into a mostly-mindless Rakghoul. In the Rakghoul Pandemic event, a planet is suffering an outbreak of the plague, and various opportunities await the player willing to fight it. There's an assortment of daily missions, mostly related to exploring a set of tunnels where the infection is sourced. Most of these are easy for a solo player, but there's one fairly difficult mission recommended for four players, and an operation-level giant Rakghoul boss requiring at least eight players.

L and I were able to do everything except the giant boss as a duo, although the four-player mission did require some time to push through. It wasn't really dangerous, but it took us a while to do enough damage to take out the bigger enemies. I also fought the big boss with my guild, the New Outriders, and that really showed up the difference that high-end raid gear makes. My tank Trooper couldn't survive against that boss, in mostly 208-level gear from non-operation vendors. Another guild member got his tank that had mostly 220-level gear from operations, and I barely saw his health move. We got the big guy down in the end, but it took teamwork and a whole lot of firepower.

The Gree are an alien race with advanced technology who show up occasionally around the galaxy. I first saw them in a quest line on Coruscant, helping the Republic rebuild damaged infrastructure. In the Relics of the Gree event, a giant Gree ship shows up on the planet Ilum. Players can do various daily missions for rewards from the Gree Enclave representatives. Similar to the Rakghoul event, there are several missions easy to solo, one suitable for a small group, and a big operation-level boss encounter. There are also a couple of world bosses that I know only from mention in the event missions, as I've never gone looking for them.

The Bounty Broker's Association event is a different beast. The idea is that players are being offered the chance to assist in bringing in bounties on criminals, presumably because the supply of criminals outstrips the capacity of the bounty hunters. Rather than having a set of daily missions, you can hunt down only one bounty each day. Finish enough bounty missions, and you're offered the chance to go after a bigger enemy.

My personal favorite is the bounty event, in large part because the daily time investment is minimal. It works great for L and I to track down a bounty together in short order, then move on to doing other things. There's several different missions, so you're not doing the exact same things every day. They're all similar, of course, but at least you go to different locations and have slightly different enemies each day. I also like this event particularly when playing Eltaix, since she's a bounty hunter and it feels right for the character.
Eltaix with her latest bounty target. Captured this one alive.
The SWTOR world events are interesting to discover as a sideline to the main stories. We'll probably get tired of them after enough repetitions, but for now, L and I are enjoying learning about the events when we happen to run across them.