Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Day

It's February 29, Leap Day. If you somehow didn't notice on your own, the Internet will be happy to tell you about it. Repeatedly.
I know Leap Day only comes around every four years (mostly), so it's something out of the ordinary. Still, the sheer number of times I came across it in just my normal daily routine surprised me. Without going out of my way to look anything up, it still popped up quite a few times.

First there were the ad emails. I had four by noon, and I expect a few more will come in later on. Not surprising, as marketers will seize on anything to try to sell you something. My favorite was from the Bacon Freak "Bacon of the Month" club. It's so obvious...nothing says "only once every four years" like "give me new bacon every month," right?

I spotted Leap Day mentions on the Google Doodle, Facebook, Twitter, and various places in my RSS feeds. Everyone wants to you to notice that it's February 29. And comment about it on their site, of course.

The Farmer's Almanac has a nice little write-up of the history behind the leap year. Goes all the way back to the Roman and Julian calendars. Although as I said back on January 1, it's a bit arbitrary to pay attention to a particular day in the year. Still, if you're going to pick a day to be special every four years, why not February 29?

Leap Day always reminds me of the leap second, which happens much less regularly and doesn't get nearly as much press. I guess that's to be expected from something with zero impact on most people. I remember having to apply various patches to the computing systems I helped to manage to account for it, though. Even the smallest change in timekeeping does have its impact.

Anyway, Happy Leap Day! Enjoy your 24-hour reprieve from the beginning of March.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Spam, Spam, and Spam

I ate some Spam.
I probably should Internet-shout SPAM® instead of saying Spam, by the way. The official website has the name in all caps. But I do have some manners.

Normally, I wouldn't pick up one can of Spam at the market, much less three. But there was a coupon, and it had been years since I ate any Spam, and...OK, none of that actually matters. I just couldn't resist the idea, once seeing that coupon put it in my head.

That was weeks ago, but that doesn't really matter with Spam. They tell you to check the expiration date, but really, what could go wrong with it? Anyway, a few weeks is well within shelf life in any event.

Buying Spam is one thing, but deciding what to do with it is another thing entirely. Most of it got fried in a skillet, chopped, and mixed into various pasta. Mostly mac-and-cheese, and some penne with red sauce. Some ended up in a sandwich after the frying, which was surprisingly good on cheese bread with mustard.

There are three different varieties in that picture, but I can't say I really noticed the "bacon" and "turkey" flavor differences. Maybe if I'd eaten just the Spam, it would have been more obvious? Not an experiment I really cared to make. What I did notice is how much salt is in those cans. You need quite a bit of other stuff...like the aforementioned mustard, or pasta sauces...to balance it out.

The Spam is all gone, and I think I'm good now for a few years. Once a decade or so seems about right to revisit this particular taste experience.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Nightwish Live in Royal Oak

Nightwish played at the Royal Oak Music Theatre on Friday night, with Delain and Sonata Artica. and I was there. Not the greatest venue for a concert, but it was a solid show.

This was the first time I'd been to the Royal Oak Music Theatre. It's almost 100 years old, and started life as an "art-deco movie palace." The fact that it wasn't designed as a music venue shows. The stage is pretty low, making it tough to see if you're not especially tall. There are tiers to the floor space, but only a few. If you're not in the first couple of rows from the front of the tier, good luck seeing past all the people in front of you. There's a balcony, which I'll keep in mind if I ever go there again...might be worth a bit more to get seats up there.

The doors were supposed to open at 6:30, but I decided not to show up that early, figuring that nothing much would happen for a while. Glad I did, because when I arrived around 7:30, there was still a huge line outside. (In the cold...it's February in Michigan!) It was 7:45 before the line cleared out. Which worked out all right because I needed to find parking anyway. Downtown Royal Oak on a Friday night stretches the limited nearby parking pretty far.

By the time I got inside, Delain was already playing. I've probably heard a song or two of theirs on Pandora or something, but nothing I recalled clearly. It's always tough for the first warm-up act at any concert, of course, but the crowd was fairly lively. The music sounded good, but I couldn't really tell what they were doing on stage. I was maybe 50 feet back, on the second floor tier. There were many 6-foot-plus people in front of me, though, and the stage wasn't high enough for me to see above them. Even holding my phone up at arm's length, I still had people's heads blocking the view. All the pictures I took suffered somewhat from that, as well as from my phone's weak camera and my poor photography skills, but they did get better later on.
Delain
After that, I moved back and up a floor tier. There were still people in front of me, but I was only a couple of rows back from the edge of the tier, so I could mostly see through the gaps between people. So I saw a bit more of Sonaca Artica, but unfortunately the sound was terrible. Someone didn't do a great sound check, because the drums were up so loud that they drowned out almost everything else. The music I did hear seemed decent, but that was maybe 20% of what they actually played, when the drums were comparatively quiet. The rest of the time, all I heard was bass and snare drums. I'd blame it on my hearing or the acoustics of the hall, if it wasn't for the fact that neither of the other bands had the same problem. It was just some poor sound engineering.
Sonaca Artica
Fortunately, by the time Nightwish took the stage,  the problems were mostly ironed out. I had a spot where I could (mostly) see, and their sound engineer knew what he was doing. It was about 9:45 when the main show started, and they played for almost exactly 2 hours.
Nightwish
A large portion of the set list came from the latest album, of course. The show began with the first song from Endless Forms Most Beautiful, and ended with the last, with plenty more in between. I was mildly disappointed that they left out my favorite track (Alpenglow), but you can't fit everything into two hours. The last track, The Greatest Show On Earth, has a bit of a reprise of Alpenglow's "we were here" chorus anyway, and that made a great ending to the show.

Older songs were plentiful, too. I particularly liked Storytime (from Imaginaerum) and Seven Days to the Wolves (from Dark Passion Play). Floor Jansen, who took over as lead singer back in 2013, did a pretty amazing job singing the earlier stuff, considering that those songs were written for singers with higher ranges. I noticed a couple of spots where she had to drop out of the high notes, but overall she handled it very well. I just hope her voice holds out, doing that stuff every night on tour!

The one major omission that I noticed was the lack of Wish I Had An Angel (from Once). Considering that it was probably their biggest US hit, I was surprised not to hear it in the set list. Maybe it was intended as an encore that never happened, or maybe they're just tired of playing it. Not a big deal, anyway, with so many other good songs to choose from.

It was good to see Troy Donockley on stage, too. He's played various non-traditional (for a metal band) instruments as a guest on the last few albums, and joined the band officially for the latest one. You don't often see a flute or the Uilleann pipes played on stage at a metal concert! I actually had to look that last one up, didn't recognize the instrument on sight, but fortunately it's pictured on Troy's Wikipedia page.

All things considered, I had a great time. The night started out a bit rocky with the logistical issues of parking and waiting in line, and the venue had some issues. But live music has a way of helping you to forget those little annoyances. Nightwish puts on a wonderful live show, and I hope to see them again someday.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Blade and Soul: The Botpocalypse

My friend L and I played our duo characters in Blade and Soul up to the level cap (currently 45 on the NA/EU servers) and finished out the story missions. And that's as far as we're likely to go. There are several reasons, not least of which is the amazing amount of time needed to make any progress, but the last straw for me was the bot hordes that choke some of the endgame areas.
We finished out the currently available story missions just before reaching the level cap, and I have to say I wasn't impressed. There's no actual ending from a story perspective, because the evil lady who killed your master gets away (yet again, seems she does that in every story chapter) and nothing you've tried against her seems to work. I realize there is more to the story yet to be released, but it's still a letdown to get to the end and find very little in the way of resolution. You'd think they could have found a way to release the game with a complete, coherent story arc instead of just part of one.

Worse, the last bit of the story forces your character into a complete 180-degree-turn in terms of motivation. No longer is everyone telling you to "remember what Master Hong would want you to do" and begging you not to give in to revenge. The teaser for the next bit of the story is basically "come to the dark side." Stuff like that can be interesting in books and movies, but when you're supposedly playing a game where you have some level of control, it's a real downer.

Despite that, L and I were still willing to look into the endgame content. We tried Mushin's Tower, which is a series of solo instances, and each of us got completely destroyed. No problem with the toughest part of the story content or the lower level dungeons, but the difficulty in the tower spiked way up. Neither of us could make it past the first couple of levels, much less get all the way to the top. Which means we needed more and better gear, since it was unlikely after 45 levels that our combat reaction skills would improve much more.

Some gear upgrades drop from various world boss monsters, and it's here that the bots first became a real problem. You'd see dozens of players just standing around the boss spawn point, doing nothing. Then the boss spawns, and they all instantly jump at it and do some big attack. Once it's down, they go back to standing around. You might see a few actual players doing the same thing, but most of them are clearly just farmer bots. We missed a couple of boss spawns and had to wait around for the next one, because the bots killed it so fast.

You also need big chunk of in-game money to upgrade. Here the main way to progress is to do daily missions in big 24-man instances. The bosses you need to kill are difficult enough to require a full team of six, and in some cases more. There weren't many bots here because the zone is large and complex, but finding a decent team is no fun. Most people you pick up through the group finder just run around following whatever their own mission log says, and if you miss one objective, tough...they're not coming back to help you finish. Worse, the spawn rates for some of the objectives are very long, so you see a lot of players camping a particular spawn, and if you happen to be a little late getting there you've got a long wait for the next one.

Then there are the daily 6-man dungeon missions, and the bots are back there with a vengeance. It's easy to use the cross-server group finder to get a group. Too easy, because almost every time you'll find that 1-2 of the people who joined are bots. They walk into the dungeon and just stand at the entrance. The game doesn't check participation, so if the rest of the group manages to make it through, the bot gets the quest rewards for free. The obvious solution would be to kick the bot from the team, but there's no such option in Blade and Soul. So you end up either taking forever to get through a dungeon with less than a full group, or going back to the group finder over and over until you manage to get a bot-free group.

Between the story disappointments, major difficulty spike in areas like Mushin's Tower, the amount of time and effort needed to grind for money and items, and the bots making it all harder, I've had it with Blade and Soul. If the developers make an effort to fix the bot problem, if they smooth out the end-game grind, and if the story is extended to some reasonable conclusion, then I might consider trying it again. Until then, I recommend staying away.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Tales of Maj'Eyal

I first played Tales of Maj'Eyal about a year ago, and was recently inspired to pick it up again due to a recent expansion. (Which I haven't played yet - might write some more about the expansion after I've spent some time with it.) It's free to play, but there are expansions to purchase and benefits for those who donate to support the developer. Both of which I have done, because supporting this kind of craftsmanship is well worth doing.
Tales of Maj'Eyal is a roguelike, using the same turn-based dungeon-crawling gameplay of classics like Angband, NetHack, and of course the original Rogue. Though unlike its precursors, this game has some decent artwork and sound. It won't burn up your graphics card, but it beats ascii maps! For the most part, you're moving your character around a map and fighting whatever you bump into. Sounds simple, but a rich variety of player skills and enemy types keeps it interesting for a good long time.

There's an entire high-fantasy mythology underlying the world, and plenty of characters and quests for your character to handle. While the general arc of the campaign is always the same, each level is procedurally-generated for each game, so it's never quite the same as you play different characters. Making it through the whole storyline without dying takes some significant effort, as with most roguelike games, so it's good that there are options to allow continuation after death. Of course, if you'd rather play classic perma-death, there's that option too.

Tales of Maj'Eyal is definitely meant to be played more than once. There are some classes and races that can't even be played when you first start up the game. As you move through the world, certain discoveries will unlock additional play options. Steam says I played 99 hours (before the latest expansion) and I know there's some bits I still have yet to unlock.

My favorite part of the game is the wide variety of characters that you can choose to play. Multiple types of magic users, different warrior classes, various types of rogues, even undead characters - there's a ton of different options. Different parts of the game are easier for some types, and more difficult for others. The game feels different with each new character.

There's no multiplayer aspect to Tales of Maj'Eyal, but that doesn't mean there's no community. When you play while connected to the game server, you can chat with other players and see updates of what is happening to others. Most of those updates are either players dying or gaining achievements - more the former than the latter, most of the time. In addition, the game master (who goes by the handle DarkGod) will occasionally give out bonus items or open portals to special zones, such as the Bearscape (guess what...it's all bears). Watching that constant feed of deaths and accomplishments and exploring those bonus zones are fun extras.

Now that I've started playing Tales of Maj'Eyal again, I expect it'll be a few dozen more hours of gameplay before I put it down again. Not only is there plenty of world to explore, but there's always just one more character race/class to try...

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Marvel's Agent Carter

For the last two years, ABC has run two Marvel universe shows in the same time slot. Agents of SHIELD runs in the fall and spring, and Agent Carter fills in the winter weeks. I've enjoyed the show, and would like to see it continue, though its future is in doubt.
Agent Carter takes place after the first Captain America movie, starting in 1946. The title character is the same Peggy Carter from the movie, now working in an American agency called the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR). There are quite a few tie-ins to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), such as the appearances of Howard Stark and his butler Edwin Jarvis. A sample of Captain America's blood makes an appearance, and the "zero matter" used in season two has ties to the upcoming Doctor Strange movie as well as Agents of SHIELD.

Since Agent Carter takes place back in the 1940s, the setting is interesting in its own right. I'm not expert so I don't know exactly how historically accurate it all is, but nothing jumps out at me as being too far out of place. (Other than all the comic-book villains and super-weapons, of course.) The setting plays into the writing, in situations such as Carter's stay in a women's boarding house and an investigation into a Nazi-Soviet incident from the war.

A large part of the appeal of Agent Carter is the job done by Haley Atwell as Carter and James D'Arcy as Jarvis. They spend a lot of screen time together, as Carter is going about her investigations and Jarvis assists her. The strong agent towing along a rather timid butler setup works nicely, and the friendship that develops between them is portrayed extremely well.

One of the major themes in Agent Carter is the effort that Carter has to put into being treated equally to the male agents. She's constantly having to go around the system in order to pursue her case, and having to deal with co-workers who don't believe she can do the job. Of course, she also uses the tendency of opponents to underestimate a woman to her advantage. As the show moves along, other strong female characters are introduced, most notably two villains - Dottie Underwood in the first season, and Whitney Frost in season two. I think the writers have done a nice job keeping female characters in leading roles, while still working in the male-dominated 1940s setting.

The second season, which has just the finale left to go as I'm writing this, has a lighter feel than the first. There's still plenty of world-in-danger mystery and action, but also quite a few humorous moments and side jokes. The first season had that too, but it's more pronounced in the second. I enjoy both, though I think I prefer the slightly more serious tone of the first season.

The future of the show hasn't been officially determined yet, but the future is in doubt. Ratings have been down for season two, and Haley Atwell has been cast in another series. I think more Agent Carter would be fun, but regardless of what happens with the future, I've enjoyed the two seasons we have already.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Sid Meier's Starships

Sid Meier's Starships is one of the games that came along with the Humble Firaxis Bundle that I bought a few weeks ago. I've fired it up a few times since. I enjoyed a few games, but it doesn't really have the depth for me to play it for long.
Starships is a strategy game in which the player controls a space empire, with a single starship fleet and multiple planetary systems. The idea is to dominate the galaxy by destroying or overwhelming all the other empires. Battles take place on a tactical map where you take personal command of the ships in your fleet, navigating around various space hazards as you take shots with lasers/torpedoes/etc at the enemy fleet.

Starships is a 4X game, but nowhere near the complexity of the Civilization games for which Sid Meier is most famous. There's not a whole lot of exploring, largely because you have only the one starship fleet to move around. As soon as you discover a new system, you'll probably want to expand into it, or exterminate the enemy that holds it (if you can). Building up the cities and other structures in your systems to exploit the resources they hold is important, but not particularly complex. The main focus is on upgrading your fleet, so that it can go into enemy strongholds and blow up the opposition.

The player spends most of their time with the starship fleet: upgrading and expanding it, repairing damaged ships, deciding where to send it each turn, and of course controlling it in battle. You can put the same components on each ship, or specialize: maybe one ship has strong shields and short-range cannons, while another has fewer defenses but heavy long-range lasers, and yet another carries a load of fighters or torpedoes. At the lower difficulty levels, it doesn't seem to matter much how you outfit the ships, since you're going to outclass the AI pretty easily. When I moved up a level or two, though, I found it makes a lot of sense to have specialized ships that support one another in a fleet strategy.

The tactical battles come in two flavors: missions for unaligned systems, and battles against enemy fleets. The former will ask you to accomplish some mission (escape from overwhelming forces, escort an unarmed civilian, wipe out specific enemies, etc) while the latter is a straightforward last-ship-standing brawl. In both cases there are various hazards scatted around the battlefield, mostly asteroids and space debris, which must be maneuvered around. Combat is turn-based, and each player has "battle cards" that can be played for various boosts to their side. There's plenty of room on the maps to outmaneuver your opponent (or vice versa) as well as special warp gate points that can provide some random surprises.

You also need to keep an eye on the systems in your empire, which produce the resources needed to support the fleet. Cities and structures in your systems determine how many resources you get. There's a technology tree with various ship upgrades that requires science from your systems, and wonders that can be built to provide special abilities. You start with one system, and expand to others via an influence system, where missions performed by your fleet add to your empire's influence on a system until it decides to join you.

The downside to Starships is repetitive play and the lack of depth. The battles can get tedious once you've put together a good fleet, since the AI's ships will run around the map to drag out the battle long after the result is clear. After a while, each battle feels the same. The technology tree and system building are interesting to learn, but there's not much variation in how to use them from one game to the next. Going up to a higher difficulty mitigates this to some extent, but I found that once I got to Hard (second-most difficult), my time-spent to progress-made ratio was disturbingly high.

I had a good time learning how Starships works, and playing a few games (on small/medium maps...I'd rather measure game time in hours, not days). It's a well-designed simple strategy game, good if you have an urge to do a little conquering. I doubt I'll play it regularly, but it's nice to have available when I don't feel like the full days-of-play experience of something like Civilization.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Auto Racing

I am not a car guy. My car is a fine tool for getting around, but otherwise not particularly important. Yet it's still fascinating to watch professionals pushing vehicles to the limit.
I don't really follow auto racing as a sport. I don't have favorite drivers or teams. I just happen to catch races (mostly NASCAR) on TV occasionally. Which car wins doesn't have a big impact from my perspective, although I do usually pick someone to pull for in a particular race, just to make it a bit more interesting. So if not for the competition, why pay attention?

Let's be honest - the danger is part of the draw. There's almost always a significant accident in these races, often more than one. We all have a bit of danger voyeur in us. Cars driving in close quarters at high speeds gives that voyeur a chance to come out. And while people do get hurt, serious injuries are fairly rare considering the danger involved.

It's not just about the danger, though - if it was, it would be easy to just watch some crash highlights rather than an actual race. The science and engineering nerd in me is fascinated by the whole event. While watching a race, you hear a lot of talk about things that don't seem all that important at first glance. How clean the air is. Temperature of the track. Minor air pressure differences in the tires. Bits of debris on the track. It doesn't take long to realize that those seemingly small things make a big difference at 150-200 miles per hour.

The logistics and strategy aspect of getting through several hundred miles at very high speeds is interesting to me, too. How to time pit stops to have enough fuel at the finish. Which tires to change, and when. What adjustments to make to how the car handles turns, and at what point in the race. Whether to push to the front of the pack early, or hang back and make a move late. I don't pretend to know much about actually making all those decisions, but it's fun to watch (and honestly, to second-guess).

Then there's the team aspect of the sport. The driver gets all the name recognition, but races are won and lost on pit stops, too. The speed and precision of the fueling, tire changes, and other adjustments is pretty incredible. The drivers are constantly getting updates from spotters through the race, since they can't see everything in the field from track level. It feels like a cliche when you hear a driver thank their whole team at the end of  race, but that doesn't make it any less true.

I don't go too far out of my way to watch racing, but when the opportunity arises, I'll catch a race broadcast. Such as the Daytona 500 last night, which had an incredibly close finish. If you pay attention to everything that's going on, the sport is a lot more interesting than just a few hundred left turns.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Hearthstone: Tavern Brawl

Hearthstone is a fairly simple example of the TCG genre. I consider that mostly a good thing, but it does mean that the game can feel repetitive and stale once you've seen most of what it has to offer. The weekly Tavern Brawl format helps to keep things fresh, even though it's not something you'd want to play all the time.
Each week, the Tavern Brawl format introduces a change to the basic rules. Sometimes it's just one change, like giving your hero taunt, so the enemy can't directly attack your minions. Other times the Brawl makes major changes, like giving each player a deck from one of the adventure bosses. The Brawl is available for five days each week, then closed for two, before starting anew for the next week.

Learning what the new rules mean is part of the fun of playing in the Tavern Brawl. You know what the rule changes are going in, but I find that I almost always see something unexpected in the first few games that I play under a new format. The implications of the rules modifications usually go deeper than my first reaction to the obvious differences.

Just about every one of the Brawl formats I've seen fall into one of two categories: horribly unbalanced, or massively random. After a few games, it's usually pretty clear why these aren't the standard rules! Some formats heavily favor one class or deck type or players who have lots of high-end cards, while others add so much random activity that the player's choices feel unimportant. These are fun to play a few times, but you wouldn't want to do it long-term. So it's good that the Brawl only comes around once a week, and don't repeat very often.

The rewards for playing in the Brawl are simple: one pack after winning one game each week. You can also progress your quests and 1-gold-for-3-wins objectives. This is a nice balance, because it encourages folks to play a few games, but doesn't provide incentive to keep going past the point where the fun of discovering the new format wears off. If you get tired of the Brawl after winning your one game, you can simply return to Arena or constructed play, without missing out on any rewards.

I can't recall seeing anything similar to the Tavern Brawl in any other TCG that I've played. Modifying rules occasionally does happen, but not in the structured and recurring way that Hearthstone does it. I really like the way it works, and I hope the developers keep coming up with new and interesting ideas for the Brawl.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Privacy and Government Compulsion

The US Department of Justice and Apple are in a legal battle over whether the company has to unlock one of their phones at the government's request. My opinion is that Apple is right, but not necessarily for privacy reasons.
The phone in question belonged to one of the shooters in the 2015 San Bernardino attack. Federal prosecutors believe the phone could hold evidence related to the attack. Apple says that they have cooperated in providing information that they have access to, such as what the attackers backed up to iCloud. But they've drawn the line at providing tools that could help to unlock the phone itself.

The natural surface reaction to that stance is "why not" - after all, the shooter is gone and his phone is physically held by the FBI. The issue, as Apple CEO Tim Cook stated in an open letter on the Apple website, is that the government wants Apple to build a tool that disables security features on the iPhone. Once they've done that, the government can order the use of that tool any time they want iPhone data. The next case might not be as clear-cut as a known perpetrator of a terror attack.

I don't have strong feelings on the privacy part of this issue. I understand the argument that any violation of privacy by the government is the first step on a slippery slope leading to a Orwellian Big Brother dystopia. I also understand the need for law enforcement to access the information of known criminals. Like nearly everything in life, I think the answer is somewhere in the middle rather than either extreme. If the government finds a way to open up that phone and get the data they need, then more power to them. (And it feels like they should be able to. There are a lot of very skilled hackers in the world, surely the FBI could find one.)

Where I do have a problem with the government's request is that they're trying to get Apple to weaken their own products. Once you've built a security-circumvention tool, that tool could end up in the hands of unscrupulous users. It also sets a legal precedent to force other companies to do similar things. Both of those things are dangerous to the public at large, not just criminals.

If any government believes that they need to have access to their citizens' information (electronic or otherwise), then they need to set up rules beforehand that allow them access. The free countries in the world don't have such access-granting rules, and likely won't because the people won't stand for it. Coming in after the fact and trying to force a company to violate their own privacy promises to the consumer is no better, and we shouldn't allow either.

Friday, February 19, 2016

RWBY

If you've watched RWBY, it's probably because of the complex and fast-moving combat sequences. That's what first got me interested, along with the unusual animation style. I stuck around because of the quirky characters, amusing banter, and great soundtrack.
RWBY looks very different from most animated series. It's developed using Smith Micro's Poser 3D modeling and animation software, rather than traditional animation techniques. It takes some getting used to, but I think it works pretty well. The combat sequences are great, though in non-combat sequences the character motion is sometimes a little bit off. I think some of that may be due to the experience level of the animators, as it becomes less obvious later on in the series.

I label RWBY as "anime" although technically it's an "animated web series" created in the USA. Close enough for my purposes. The web series format means that episodes range from "short" to "really really short", usually 4-12 minutes. I didn't discover the series until the end of the second season, which probably saved it for me, since I don't know that I'd have had the patience to wait out the release schedule. Watching an entire season straight through, which only takes an hour or two, is the way to go.

The background and world of RWBY is moderately interesting, but not particularly exciting. Humanity lives on a world populated by dark creatures called Grimm, and use a substance called Dust and their inborn Aura to generate crazy-powerful-and-fast combat abilities. The main characters are students at an academy that trains Hunters/Huntresses, a sort of ranger/warrior societal role that is expected to protect others from the Grimm. It's not a terrible premise, but I didn't find the world to be particularly compelling.

But that's OK, because the characters are so much fun that it doesn't much matter what they're involved in. Each one is a warrior, of course, with their own special abilities and fighting style. The four trailers that preceded the series premiere, one for each of the four primary student characters, are a fine introduction. All four are great fighters, but with totally different styles and personalities, and those differences lead to often-predictable but still amusing conflicts. The way these four and their friends interact and grow is the real glue that holds RWBY together, and makes it more than just another CGI series with nothing much to offer beyond pretty combat sequences.

Through the first two seasons, RWBY feels almost like a slice-of-life series. We know there are bad people around and they cause occasional problems, but most of the focus is on the characters' daily lives. Season three starts out that way, but about halfway through things get serious. Serious as in death, destruction, and complete upheaval of the lives of most of the characters. I don't think they're going to be able to get back into the daily-life-with-occasional-interruption feel as things move alone. At least, not for a good long while.

The soundtrack also deserves special mention. Much of it has a hard rock/metal/punk feel, which puts it right in my area of interest. Jeff Williams created most of it, and he's done an excellent job. The intro music to the first two seasons is particularly good. I don't buy a lot of soundtracks, but I have the first two for RWBY and may very well end up getting the third as well.

The original creator of RWBY, Monty Oum, led the first two seasons before he passed away in early 2015. The series is continuing with the rest of the team, partially working off Oum's ideas, and generating their own. The third season does feel a bit different than the first two, especially the second half, but it's hard for me to say whether that's due to Oum's absence or simply the show's natural evolution. Either way, I still enjoyed it. My only real complaint is that the cast of characters has expanded so much that screen time is spread thin; I'd rather see more focus on fewer people, particularly because the short episode length limits the time available.

I hope the creative team behind RWBY is able to keep it going for several more seasons. I feel like there's plenty more story to tell, character growth to see, and monsters to fight. Looking forward to the next season already!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Pets, Virtual and Otherwise

I've never been much of a pet person. I know plenty of people who are, and getting acquainted with their pets when I visit doesn't bother me. But having a pet of my own hasn't really appealed to me. I think I've filled that particular niche in my brain in other ways.

We had a few different animals in the house as I was growing up, but most didn't stay around long. Between various allergies among family members and our frequent housing moves, it was easier not to have them. Once I was out on my own, I just never really felt the need to get a pet. It would cross my mind occasionally, but I'd lose interest long before actually going out to get one.

I was thinking about this recently as walked past the pet supplies aisle in the store. The sheer amount of things you can invest in to keep your pet healthy and happy is pretty amazing. And that was just one section in a big-box store. Shops dedicated to pet supplies, and of course the Internet, makes the selection a whole lot larger. The investment that people make in their pets, both in time and money, is pretty foreign to me.

A bit later on, once I'd gone home and logged into a game, it struck me that I do actually have pets. Just about every role-playing game, especially MMOs, encourages you to be invested in the actions and well-being of your characters, much like keeping a pet. It's not exactly the same, obviously - you don't directly control the actions of your cat or dog, or send them out to fight dragons or soldiers. (At least I hope no one does.) And your MMO character isn't going to sit on your couch or wake you up with a wet nose. But there's a lot of parallels: work to keep them healthy, obtain toys and (maybe) clothes for them, spend time with them just playing around with no real end goal except having fun. And it can be a rough experience when you lose them (as in hardcore-mode games with perma-death, or if the plug is pulled on an MMO).
No, I don't have pet rocks. But the picture seemed appropriate.
So I guess I do understand a bit of people's fascination with their pets. Mine are just virtual. Has the benefit of less messes to clean up.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

X-Files Season 10

I was a big The X-Files fan back in the mid-to-late 1990s. Which is odd, because the horror genre isn't my thing. But the lead characters were great, the tension between the paranormal and scientific in the show appealed to me, and I enjoyed the big-mystery aspect of the show's conspiracy mythology.
So when FOX announced a new set of six episodes, with both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson starring, I was happy to hear it. After the poor last couple of seasons of the original series, and the unimpressive second movie, my expectations weren't too high. Mostly I just wanted to see something that reminded me of the good old days.

"Reminder of the old days" is pretty much exactly what we've gotten in this six-episode mini-season. I've seen the first five (the finale is next week), and it feels very much like the writers were aiming primarily to tickle the nostalgia of old-time viewers. The first episode goes right into the conspiracy mythology (and so will the last, judging from the preview teaser). There's a couple of "unexplained phenomenon" mysteries, plenty of Mulder-Scully rapid-fire banter, appearances by a good number of old friends (and enemies), and even a tongue-in-cheek monster mystery reminiscent of 1998's "Bad Blood" episode.

There's also the appearance of other FBI agents who get involved with Mulder and Scully, which is a much less welcome bit of throwback. Using different agents to continue the show didn't work well at all in the last couple of seasons of the original run. These new agents are obviously based on younger versions of our heroes, though, almost to the point of caricature. I'm probably reading too much into it - once bitten, twice shy. Nothing has been said thus far about them supplanting the originals in some sort of continuation of the series, and I hope it stays that way.

It feels like a lot is stuffed into this short mini-season, and with good reason. It's hard to do "big-mystery conspiracy mythology" in just a few episodes, while also accounting for a five-year time gap and doing some character exploration. But although it does feel rushed at times, the feel is still The X-Files, and I'm glad to have this little trip down memory lane.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Nightwish

I don't exactly remember when I first heard a Nightwish song...likely on Pandora, somewhere around six years ago. I do remember that I liked the band enough to buy their then-latest release, Dark Passion Play, and most of the rest of their albums. I've been listening to them quite a bit recently because I plan to see them in concert later this month.
Nightwish is described on Wikipedia as a "symphonic metal" band, which seems as good a description as any. The hard rock/metal musical style, combined with vocals that are mostly sung (as opposed to screamed or growled, which is OK in moderation but often over-used), is one of my favorites. Several of their albums have a theme that runs through all the lyrics, which I also appreciate. I wouldn't want every release to be a concept album, but they're fun to listen to occasionally.

The band formed back in 1996 in Kitee, Finland, and have gone through a few iterations since. They've had three lead singers (all female), and switched bass players once, but the rest of the lineup has been pretty constant.

As I said, I was very impressed with Dark Passion Play (2007). I also really like Once (2004). The four earlier albums weren't as good, in my opinion, so I suppose it's a good thing that I didn't discover the band until the mid-2000s. Since then, there have been two more releases, Imaginaerum (2011) and Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2015), both of which are excellent.

Since they're from Finland, Nightwish tours are an uncommon occurrence here in the United States. I consider myself fortunate to have caught wind of this one, with a concert location fairly close over in the Detroit area. Looking forward to the live show!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Kodi and Pirates

Yesterday, the Kodi developers made a post on their blog calling for action against unscrupulous folks using the Kodi name to sell illegal and dangerous media center software. Today, their website is down, presumably from a denial of service attack. Unlikely to be a coincidence! (There's a copy of the blog post in this reddit thread, in case it's still down.)
As you may know if you've read my earlier media center posts, Kodi is a media center application. It's great at playing your various media files, mostly music and videos. Some examples: video files that you have stored locally, stuff on your MythTV server, and streaming services like Pandora or Crunchyroll.

Kodi is open source and copyrighted using the GPL. Basically, this means that anyone can download and use the software, and modify it for their own use. A lot of folks do this all the time, even me in my own small way. Some of those uses aren't entirely legal, mostly by using pirated sources for video streams. In itself, that's not a major issue for Kodi - those people are doing something illegal, but Kodi is just one of the tools that they're using. In the same way that it's not the fault of the car when the driver breaks the speed limit, the Kodi software isn't at fault with people use it to pirate media.

The problem that the Kodi developers have is that some unscrupulous folks are spreading their illegally modified software around, and using the Kodi name to do it. Some of these people sell some kind of cheap hardware with a modified version of Kodi pre-installed, advertising something along the lines of "Kodi lets you watch free TV and movies." Others use Kodi in videos that show people how to install Kodi add-ons that access pirate sites.

This means two things that are bad for Kodi: the customers come complaining to Kodi (not the original seller) when things stop working, and the world views Kodi as a source of pirated media. The former causes a whole lot of wasted time and effort by the Kodi developers. The latter makes it near impossible for Kodi to do legitimate business.

So the Kodi developers are trademarking the Kodi name and logo, and will be going after those using their name without permission by issuing takedown notices and possibly other legal action. People may still be doing the same things with the software, but they'll have to stop using the Kodi name to do it, or face legal consequences.

I support the Kodi developers on this, but I'm not sure how much it's going to help. Protecting the use of their own name makes sense, and I certainly hope they can stop the worst of the abuses. However, the public perception of the media platform as a support for piracy isn't likely to go away. No matter what name is used, the software is still open source and extensible, and people are going to write code that puts it to illegal use.

It might help if Kodi can find a way to push a positive image, as well as attacking the negative image problem. Kodi can be used for legitimate purposes, and there's a lot of potential currently untapped. There aren't Kodi add-ons for many of the most popular media services, and those that exist are unofficial and break often. (Even the Crunchyroll add-on that I use is unofficial, and that's a pretty minor service.) If Kodi had stable, supported connections to useful services that people want to use, I think that would go a long way toward changing perceptions from "Kodi is a pirating platform" to "Kodi is a legitimate media platform."

In any event, I wish the Kodi team the best with their efforts to change public perceptions of their project, and keep control of how their name is used. As well as good luck getting out from under whatever DDOS attack or hack is causing problems on their site.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

We Should All Be Absentee Voters

I vote in pretty much every election for which I am eligible, even if I don't particularly like the way the system works. I'm fortunate to be in a position where I can fairly easily make it out to the polling place regardless of when the election happens to fall. But not everyone can.
I've had to use absentee voting in the past, mostly due to work. When I was traveling almost every week, I'd request an absentee ballot. It's not a difficult process, but it does require you to plan ahead. The current Michigan rules say that you must apply by the Saturday before the election. That doesn't sound difficult, but if the reason you're voting absentee is that you're very busy with work and travel, it's tougher than it sounds.

In Michigan, you can only request an absentee ballot if you meet certain conditions (copied from those same current rules):
  • age 60 years old or older
  • unable to vote without assistance at the polls
  • expecting to be out of town on election day
  • in jail awaiting arraignment or trial
  • unable to attend the polls due to religious reasons
  • appointed to work as an election inspector in a precinct outside of your precinct of residence.
Nowhere in there do I see some pretty common reasons that someone might want to vote absentee. "Out of town unexpectedly," for instance. Or maybe "Kid got sick and had to stay home." How about "Work schedule leaves only a short window when polls are open, and other commitments cover the rest." And there's always "Lines at the polling place are incredibly long and I can't afford to wait for hours." Life doesn't stop just because the government schedules a single day to vote.

Several states already conduct all elections by mail, which is effectively absentee voting for everyone. This makes the most sense to me. Not only does this allow people to vote on their own schedule, it also saves a lot of hassle in setting up polling places, getting volunteers to run them, and so on. It also makes it more likely that voters will make more informed decisions, since it's easier to look up some candidate you've never heard of when you're voting at home with plenty of time.

I'd like to see a lot of changes to the electoral system, and I realize this is a fairly minor one in the grand scheme of things. But it's also a fairly easy change to make, since absentee mail-voting already exists everywhere. It's cost-effective, since it eliminates a lot of polling-place costs that should more than cover the expanded mail-voting system. But it doesn't seem to be a priority. I'd be a lot more likely to listen to a politician if they're speaking out about changes like this that improve our system.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Blade and Soul: Time Sink

Every MMO is a time sink to some extent. Daily quests, repeat boss and dungeon runs for specific loot drops, crafting, multiple characters, etc, etc. I've played a bunch of MMOs, and come to expect it. Even so, I think Blade and Soul is a pretty extreme example when it comes to how much time the game expects the player to spend.
Let's start with multiple characters. Every character you make has to go through the tutorial and the whole main story-line quest. No way to skip any of it (apart from skipping cutscenes) that I noticed. No alternate way to unlock travel powers, or get the important quest rewards. And as I mentioned before, the story is all very generic. Doing it once is mildly amusing. Doing it again gets old fast.

The most obvious time sink is crafting. The way you get raw materials is to put in an order with a gathering guild. The lowest level orders take 30 minutes to fill, and the time goes up from there. Then you turn over those materials and some other rare items to a crafting guild, who spend more hours making an item for you. The good news is that those countdowns continue while you're offline, but the bad news is that you have to log in to set up new orders as the old ones are completed. Lots of MMOs use this approach, but very few have this kind of length. (For comparison, Star Wars: The Old Republic gathering missions mostly take 3 minutes at low levels.)

Then there's that "other rare items" that I mentioned. All but the most basic crafting requires special items that come from random drops in boss fights and daily quests. Many of these aren't tradeable, so the only way to get them is to go do the quests...another time sink. Daily quests aren't anything new in the MMO world, but again, Blade and Soul stands out for the sheer amount that it expects you to do in order to progress.

Even daily awards require more time than I usually see in these kind of games. Blade and Soul has a "Daily Dash" where you spin a wheel to get a number, then move a token that number of spaces along a game board, and get whatever item you land on. You get multiple spins, but you can only use one per hour. So in order to even get the full daily log-in reward, you have to play the game for multiple hours.

Finally, there's item upgrades - probably my least favorite example of how Blade and Soul eats up your time. At several points, the only way to continue to upgrade your weapon (at least, as far as I can tell) is to defeat a world boss, take reward tokens that he drops, and spend those tokens on a "wheel spin" where an NPC gives you a random item. You'll eventually get a weapon box, which you then have to open and hope to get something usable by your class. It's not tradeable, so you can't buy one or sell your extras. It can take dozens of attempts to get what you need, which means a ton of boss fights, which means sitting around with a lot of other people looking at the ground until the boss spawns and everyone jumps in hoping to get a few hits in so they get a reward. It's a terrible player experience, combining the worst of boredom (waiting on the boss spawn) and frustration (getting useless crap from the random wheel spins).

Blade and Soul has some good aspects, certainly. There's some really good art and animation, and some interesting combat moves (even if it's not really my favorite style). It's fun to play as a duo, at least as long as you stay away from the 6-player dungeons. But the sheer amount of time needed to progress means I'm unlikely to stick with it after I've made it through once.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Valent-ICE Festival

When the weather forecast calls for sub-freezing temperatures with occasional snow and 17 mph winds, I usually stay inside as much as possible. But I spent an hour or so outside today, so I could check out the Valent-ICE Festival in downtown Grand Rapids.
Of course, Ice Yoda was my favorite.
The festival has several different events: ice skating, happy hours, live ice carving, and so on. Other than watching the ice skaters for a few minutes, I didn't attend any of that. I did walk around downtown to look at the ice carvings, though. There are quite a few, mostly in front of the businesses that sponsored the festival. I took pictures of most of the ones I saw.
This one is in front of the Van Andel arena, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
They certainly picked the right time to hold an ice sculpting festival! It was really cold, but there's lots of places to step inside for a moment to warm up. I especially appreciated the downtown pedestrian bridge, which I used to walk a few blocks without exposure to the elements.
This building sculpture was fittingly placed at an architecture firm.
I had a good time checking out all the ice art. Once a year is plenty for walking around outside in this kind of winter weather, though!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Blade and Soul

My friend L recently decided to start playing Blade and Soul, a Korean MMORPG which just recently released an English version. He convinced me to give it a try.
The first thing that struck me about Blade and Soul is that it's very pretty. There are lots of big open landscapes which are nicely realized, and the interiors of caves and the like look appropriately gritty. The art style is very much in the tradition of martial arts fighting games and anime. The characters are overly cute, but since they spend a lot of their time kicking monsters in the face, it sort of balances out between cute and dangerous. A dozen or so levels in, you'll start encountering Dragon Soul travel points, each of which has a pretty incredible travel animation. The game has plenty of eye candy.

I was pretty impressed by the character appearance creation options. As I said, all the characters are anime-style cute, but you have a ton of choices of exactly how that plays out. Everything from slight facial changes to body style to coloration is customizable. Unfortunately that doesn't extend to clothing - everyone has the same starting uniform once you get into the game. You can find others as you play, but it takes a while.

There are a bunch of different class and race options, as you'd expect. It's all based around magic and martial arts - options like the Blade Master or Assassin on the martial arts side, or Summoner on the magic side. It all bleeds together, of course; for instance, your Blade Master might use a magical Lightning Sword attack.

Combat is very interactive, requiring the player to move around a lot, execute attack combos, and keep the target lined up. I've only played the lower levels thus far, and not run into anything too difficult, but I can see the direction things are going. There's going to be a lot of twitch-reaction coordination needed, which sadly means I'll probably be awful at it. I'm sure the basic story content will be workable, especially in a duo. But higher level dungeons and such will be a challenge.

Speaking of story, Blade and Soul does have one, but it's very limited. Nothing that I've seen thus far is specific to class or race - everyone gets exactly the same quests and meets the same people. It's all very generic for the genre: you're a martial arts student, some bad guy comes after your master and fellow students, you must avenge them. Heard that one before! Some of the quest bits are entertaining, but none of it is a surprise.

Having said that, the writers sure seemed to have a good time putting quests together. You'll run across plenty of amusing little stories, like the hopelessly-in-love guy sending mushrooms to the object of his desire (who hates mushrooms), or the old man that sends you after his apprentice because the kid stole all the beer. They use a fun little system where you can see thought bubbles from the character you're talking to, so you know when they're trying to deceive you, or just asking you to do something dangerous because they're too scared to do it themselves. It's entertaining to go through once; too bad there's not anything new if you want to play another character.

And then there is loot. You get a lot of it, mostly from defeating the occasional boss monster and from doing quests (many of which can be repeated daily). And you can't use much of it at all without removing "seals", or in some cases unlocking treasure boxes. Even once unlocked, most of the items will be class-specific, which makes the vast majority unusable. You get a decent amount of the keys and seal breakers, but there are special key versions that give you better results if you use them. (Which are purchasable in the real-money store, of course.) And you'll need those better versions to get items specific to your class, or else be prepared to grind for the same drops over and over while hoping the random drop is something you can use.

I'm enjoying Blade and Soul as a change of pace. It's not the style that I normally play, and the duo experience with L has helped to smooth out some of the more difficult points. The combat isn't my favorite style, and the loot system seems unnecessarily focused on repeat grinding. I'll give it some time, though; maybe it'll grow on me.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Marvel Heroes: Theme Building

Like most ARPGs, character builds in Marvel Heroes come down to laying waste to as many enemies as possible, as quickly as possible. With so many different characters to play, though, I find that it gets boring trying to maximize damage output for each one. Building a few characters according to a theme is an entertaining alternative.
This post doesn't have anything to do with Storm. I just like the picture.
Pretty much every playable character has two or three choices for how to focus their build. Take Psylocke, for instance. She can be played with ranged psionics, a melee mix of physical (sword) and psionic damage, or all-psionic melee damage. If you're looking for maximum damage, the hybrid melee build is probably going to win out. My Psylocke is currently an all-ranged psionic build, though, focused on the telekinetic theme rather than the up-close-and-personal assassin aspect of the character.

Colossus is another character that I like playing with a theme build. Most people play him as a tough melee character, doing damage largely with his fists. He has a set of powers that focus on his friends, though. He can do the "Fastball Special" Wolverine throw that is a staple of X-Men comics, and Wolverine will stick around to fight for a while. Colossus can also summon his sister Illyana (aka Magik) to fight alongside him. With the right gear and build, Colossus can have both helpers out and fighting all the time, turning him into more of a three-person team than a single character. It's not the most optimal damage-dealing setup, but I think he's more fun to play that way.

The most customizable Marvel Heroes character, by far, is Rogue. She has a set of powers of her own, but nearly two thirds of her power choices are borrowed/stolen from other characters. There are dozens of possible choices; honestly, it can be a little overwhelming to decide what to focus on. Rather than focus on pure damage output, I created my Rogue builds around themes. My first build was focused on fire powers and gear. After a while I decided I wanted to try another option, so I created a build using all X-Men powers and gear. (A few X-Men enemies in there, too.)

I find that playing Marvel Heroes can get repetitive if all I do is focus on "optimal" character builds. (True of just about any ARPG.) Playing around with theme builds as an alternative helps me to see the game from a fresh perspective.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Hex: Shards of Fate

Back in May 2013, a Kickstarter project was launched to build a new digital customizable card game. The project was described there this way:

HEX is a free-to-play game that combines the compelling collectible and strategic game play of a trading card game (TCG) with the amazing community and storytelling aspects of a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) to create an entirely new gaming experience: the MMO/TCG.

People were enthusiastic about this idea - Hex: Shards of Fate was fully funded in less than a week, and ended up with more than $2 million in pledges.

I wasn't one of those backers, largely because the backer rewards weren't geared toward the single-player experience. The traditional TCG aspect of Hex doesn't do much for me - I've been there and done that with Magic and various other games, and settled on the simpler variation that is Hearthstone. So I more or less ignored Hex until they got the single-player aspect worked out.
I did try out Hex at one point during the 2.5 years that the single player experience was in development, out of curiosity. The reason I was curious at that time was that Hex was in the news due to its owners, Cryptozoic, being sued by Wizards of the Coast, who own Magic: The Gathering. The lawsuit basically said that Hex copied Magic, then changed some names and added a few extras - which is copyright infringement. The lawsuit was settled out of court eventually. When I tried out Hex and played a few games, I could see where Wizards was coming from - playing Hex does feel a whole lot like playing Magic. Enough so that I had no interest in playing the game as a traditional TCG. If I want a game where I lose regularly due to drawing not enough/too many resources, there's already plenty out there.

The reason Hex is on my mind again now is that they've finally gotten around to the single-player experience that interested me back when the Kickstarter first launched. You create a character much like any other RPG, choosing a race and class and name. There's a talent tree to customize your character's abilities, and an inventory for items, which you can wear to modify how the cards in your deck work. You start with a basic deck that matches your class, and find new cards as you move around in the world and fight various enemies, with each fight being a card game.

There's not a whole lot in the way of story or world to explore. You basically just move around the map from one pre-set point to another, having encounters which might give you quests, discover new cards, or have monsters to fight. There's a story-line, but it's nothing particularly interesting. Feels like something just thrown together to have a place to hang the encounters. Having said all that, I still find it moderately interesting simply because most TCGs don't bother with having story at all. It's nice to have a game provide some reason to be holding all these card duels.

I haven't found any kind of traders yet where I can buy or sell cards/items. So customizing your deck and items depends entirely on rewards from quests, battles won, and the occasional friendly character. You do accumulate gold, but the only place to spend it is the auction house where other players are selling their extra stuff. Most things are very expensive, as usual with that kind of setup. There's also a platinum currency obtainable for real money, usable to buy packs in the game store, but as far as I can tell you don't get any of that by playing the game.

There are occasional dungeons which consist of several fights in a row, where you have to use the same deck for all of them. That adds an interesting dynamic since you can't swap out specific cards if you run into a particularly nasty enemy that requires a specific type of response. And there are such enemies. Some encounters feel completely unfair and unwinnable with the basic deck, but can be handled with some deck modifications...if you have the cards.

I doubt I'll stick with Hex for very long, at least as the experience currently stands. If they make some modifications to how you can obtain more options for deck customization, and expand the explorable world to feel less linear, I might come back to try again. Nevertheless, I'm glad that someone is trying to figure out how to make this genre work, and I hope they can perfect it.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Super Bowl Wrapup

It was a pretty entertaining Super Bowl that was played last night, with the Denver Broncos winning 24-10. It's always better when the team you're pulling for wins, of course.
This was one of those rare sporting events where everything went pretty much exactly according to the predictions, except for the outcome. The Denver defense was supposed to be really good, and it was. The Denver offense was supposed to be really bad, and that was certainly the case - under 200 yards, and only 9 points if you don't count the 4-yard gift-from-the-defense TD drive. Carolina's offense put up better numbers than the Denver offense, as predicted - 100+ more yards, and 10 points.

But the Broncos won, in large part because the Panthers made more mistakes. Four turnovers are going to lose you a lot of football games at any time of the year, and especially in the playoffs. The first-quarter fumble recovery TD for the Broncos set the tone. Denver's defense never left Cam Newton alone all night, especially MVP Von Miller.

So the action on the field was pretty entertaining. Off the field, not so much. The CBS commentators are my least favorite of the three big networks (NBC has the best and FOX is second, in my opinion). The halftime show did nothing for me, to the point where I spent most of it up and wandering around in the kitchen.

And then there were the commercials, none of which were very amusing or memorable. I did laugh at the wiener dogs, and I appreciated the Helen Mirren don't-drive-drunk spot. But in general the ads were underwhelming. The single spot that most impressed me was local - Art Van Furniture had an ad planned, but pulled it in favor of their president thanking people for their donations of bottled water and other support for the people of Flint. (Art Van stores have been central locations for water donations.) It's good public relations for Art Van, of course, but I think it still takes some guts to use that expensive ad time for something other than direct advertising.

All right, that's football done for another season. Now on to more important things...spring training starts in a couple of weeks!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Only A Game and Super Bowl Haiku

It seems that the cross-over audience between NPR listeners and NFL fans would be a pretty small group. Nevertheless, the NPR sports show Only A Game always finds plenty of contributions for their yearly Super Bowl Haiku feature.
I listen to Only A Game almost every week. It's an hour of sports-related news stories, but nearly every show has at least one story well outside of the usual mainstream sports-media fare. Case in point, last month there was a story titled "Cholitas Luchadoras: The Indigenous Women Wrestlers Of Bolivia."Not something you're likely to find in Sports Illustrated or on Sportscenter!

Only A Game also follows some of the more controversial stories in more depth than a lot of other sports media. The obvious example is the concern about concussions and other head trauma which has dogged the NFL, as well as other sports. A quick search on their website shows several pages worth of stories on that topic, ranging back several years and covering football, hockey, soccer, and more. I particularly appreciate the "in their own words" segments which feature former players speaking out about their own experiences.

It's not all serious with Only A Game, though. Host Bill Littlefield tends to wax poetic on a semi-regular basis, and while some of these compositions are serious, most have a humorous bent. Every week he and Charlie Pierce discuss news of the week, almost always with at least one absurd story. Bill's laugh is heard regularly on all but the most serious topics.

And then there's the Super Bowl Haiku. This year is the twenty-second edition, garnering a record number of submissions, so the tradition is going strong. You can listen to them here, and I recommend you do, as it's much more entertaining than just reading each entry. Take a few minutes to check it out before the game, or better yet listen to this week's whole show.


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 Storm...my 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.