Thursday, December 09, 2010

Howard Stern re-signs with SiriusXM

Awesome. Now I'll be able to make it through my commute for five more years. Consider my subscription renewed.

For anyone who heard yesterday's show, you know we now can look forward to seeing George Takei wrestling with Ralph Cirella and Richard Christy in speedos!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Call of Duty: Black Ops - first impressions

The major difference between this game and the new Medal of Honor is the narrative presentation. Medal of Honor is fairly straightforward, gritty even, allowing you to play different aspects of one single mission within a much larger war. Also, with Medal of Honor, while there is an ultimate mission goal, it is clear your allegiance as a character is to your fellow soldiers rather than to being a "save the world" hero. You feel closer to the action.

COD: Black Ops has different ambitions, as one might expect from this series. As you can tell from the title of the game, you play as an operative on secret, behind-the-scenes missions. The setting for this game is the Cold War - the game begins in 1961 and I believe you play through several real-world conflicts, starting with the Bay of Pigs. I'm only a couple of missions in, so I don't know how far through history this game goes.

I like the type of game that fills in the holes of history. Games that allow you to play through a story that is framed by actual historical events. This is that type of game. So far, the story is pretty fantastical, but still fun. I have only played the single player campaign, and so far, I like it.

The graphics are sharp, controls are responsive, and the sound is good. I noticed a few times where the action paused for a second while the game was loading, but hopefully that will be minimized or eliminated by installing the game on the hard drive. This game feels highly polished, and I'm looking forward to finishing it and playing the multiplayer and co-op zombie modes.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Medal of Honor - full review

My initial impressions are here. The main issue I had early on in playing the Medal of Honor [wiki entry - plot spoilers there] campaign was distracting audio dropouts during heavy onscreen activity, specifically when my character was firing the PKM machine gun. I'm happy to report I had no further incidents of such dropouts during the remainder of the campaign.

The only other sort of glitch I noticed is that I was able to run up onto a spawn point for the enemies in one of the later levels. I think it was in the "Rescue the Rescuers" level where you are advancing up a rocky mountain. I don't know if I moved forward too fast or just went an unexpected direction, but me and my squad were all sitting around this spawn point just killing enemies as they appeared. It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening and how these guys seemed to be getting the jump on us so quickly.

The overall narrative of the campaign is quite good, and pretty different from most games of this genre. The focus is on the soldiers and their loyalty to each other, not some overarching mega-mission to save the world. You play a number of different types of special operations soldiers, including Army Rangers, Delta Force and Tier 1 operatives, each at different points and from different points of view of the same overall sequence of events.

My favorite game mechanic is the slide - as you run to cover, if you crouch while you're running you will go into a slide and stop against the cover and end up in a crouched position, ready to go. It's really too bad this mechanic did not carry over to the multiplayer aspect of the game. The slide is a great addition that I haven't seen before, and the mechanic is executed flawlessly, much like Rainbow Six: Vegas 2's implementation of anchoring behind cover and rotating out or above to shoot (see here at about the 33 second mark).

The campaign is quite short, maybe four to six hours, depending on your skill and aggressiveness. I wish it had been longer, but what is there is good. There is a good variety of vehicle and weapon usage. The gameplay is fairly structured, however, and while you are definitely not playing "on rails," the game takes you where you need to go, providing the appropriate weapon for the situation. Also, as I have seen others mention, there are areas in the game with "invisible walls" where you can see an area your character could obviously go to, but the game simply won't let you. This sort of funnels you through some parts of the game, and while it is a small complaint and something I only noticed once or twice, it would be just that more immersive if your character could explore any area that appears accessible.

The multiplayer felt good, other than the fact that the controls did not directly carry over from the single player campaign. For one, the slide mechanic is missing, and the other thing is that your controller settings have to be set separately. For many games I don't use the default controller configuration and I had to set that configuration up in the multiplayer separately even though I had already done so for the single player campaign. Also, the configurations are named differently between the single and multiplayer, so it's not immediately apparent which in the multiplayer will be the same as what you use in single player. This is fairly small, easily remedied and hopefully a one-time thing, but I spent 10-15 seconds in my first live multiplayer map sitting vulnerable while I configured my controller.

There do not appear to be a lot of options to select the type of game you want to play in multiplayer. Admittedly, I have not played a ton of games, so maybe I just haven't found all of the options, but it looks like you select a "type" of game (combat mission, team assault, objective raid, sector control or hardcore) and go. That's fine with me, but I imagine for the multiplayer junkies out there who like specific settings, it may not be enough.

Comparisons to Battlefield Bad Company 2's multiplayer are inevitable as the same developer did the multiplayer for this game. The feel is similar, but the settings and goals in the various gametypes are different enough that I was not constantly being reminded of BFBC2. This multiplayer stands on its own. Now I just need to get some of my friends online to play with me.

I definitely give this one a "thumbs-up." The only hesitation I have in a full "buy" recommendation is that you should probably make sure your friends online are also going to buy this one since the single player campaign is so short. The campaign looks to have decent replayability with multiple levels of difficulty and a "Tier 1" mode (available after completing the game once) which involves beating each stage under a "par" time, but once that's done you'll be playing with random people online if your friends don't have the game.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Medal of Honor - first impressions

I picked up Medal of Honor for the Xbox 360 today and played through the first few levels on the single-player campaign. I have not played multiplayer yet. The game is good, but I have to say I'm a bit disappointed. My biggest gripe is that there are some serious audio glitches when there is a lot of action on the screen. The sound just drops out for fractions of a second, which is very noticeable and distracting. The drops have been most noticeable so far when using the PKM machine gun. I'm using headphones, so the effect is probably amplified for me, but it still shouldn't happen. My in-game audio "Speaker Type" is set to "Headphones."

In addition, movement of the enemy vehicles and soldiers can be a bit stiff, sometimes making angular turns instead of smooth movements. You also seem to be able to "play ahead" of the audio. By that I mean you can kill an enemy or move to a position before the game's script gets there and the audio prompt (e.g., "tango at 12 o'clock") will still play. That's small, but it's something I noticed.

On the good side, the graphics are pretty good, and I like the way you can shoot through holes in buildings or other cover to take out enemies. Your squadmates are particularly good at clearing enemies on their own too, which helps. So far, I like the feel of the game, the focus on working as a squad. I'll give the multiplayer a try this weekend. If DICE did that as well as it did Battlefield Bad Company 2, there should be no issues.

UPDATE: added in-game audio settings

Saturday, October 02, 2010

PAX Prime 2010

The Penny Arcade crew continue to do it right. Despite the 67,600 attendees during the course of the weekend, the "con" experience was great: friendly people, effective line management, and the volunteer Enforcers were awesome.

There was an endless variety of panels to attend and topics to learn about. There was simply too much available to do everything one might find interesting, so picking and choosing was a must. I attended the Bungie panel on Halo Reach, a live taping of Major Nelson's podcast and a panel on academic research related to gaming.


The Reach developers shared some insight into the creative process and thought behind the design of this final game in the Halo franchise to be developed by Bungie. Among other things, they showed video of some of the motion capture techniques used which was overlaid on game footage so you could see how it was integrated into the game. The captured facial expressions for the voiceover actors was quite amazing.

Major Nelson
Xbox Live's Major Nelson put on a pretty good show. The usual cast from his podcast was there live, and the resulting podcast was posted that weekend. They took a lot of questions from the audience, and everyone who asked a question was given some extra swag. Plus, they gave away probably ten of the new special edition Xbox 360 controllers and the grand prize giveaway was the very first publicly available Halo Reach edition of the newly redesigned Xbox 360.


Academic Research and Game Studies
I didn't quite know what to expect with this panel, but I probably should have since it was exactly what the title says. This was a panel of researchers, some still graduate students, who were adapting more traditional areas of social science research to the area of gaming. It was a little bit dry, and correspondingly I did not take any pictures. It wasn't too bad, but I wasn't the intended audience of potential grad students or teachers who were interested in formal research about how people interact with and play games. Just goes to show the variety of topics available at PAX.

Exhibit Hall
With the main theatre located off-site at the nearby Benaroya Hall, there was much more space available for exhibitors this year. There were two "wings" of the exhibit hall and more than once I became turned around and had to keep wandering to find something I remembered I had seen before and wanted to revisit.

All manner of gaming-related companies were represented, from game developers and specialty hardware manufacturers to clothing companies and book publishers. Countless videogames were available to look at and play: Rock Band 3, Duke Nukem Forever, Metroid Other M, EVE Online, Halo Reach, Fallout: New Vegas and a lot of smaller indie games from all types of developers. The focus of PAX continues to be on games, but a number of related industries like comics and to some extent movies and T.V. also have enough crossover appeal to warrant a presence.

Characters and costumes
Another cool and fun thing that has become more and more prevalent at PAX over the years is the effort that people put into making costumes of their favorite characters. Taken to its extreme, this is called cosplay and involves live roleplaying or posing in-character. Below are a few great examples from this year.


The last PAX I went to before this one was 2008, when it was really beginning to become a huge event, and the waiting in lines for virtually everything took away a lot of the enjoyment of the show. This year, the Penny Arcade crew appeared to have addressed the line-waiting problems with pre-planning (taped or roped off line queues along with plenty of Enforcers to answer questions, keep people informed and play games involving the line-waiters) and active monitoring (counting of people in line versus room capacity, for the largest events there was a twitter feed specifically for updates on line length and remaining room capacity).

What this convention continues to have that makes it so enjoyable is the community. Everyone is there to have a good time, and there is something for everyone and every type of gamer. The volunteer Enforcers also make a difference - they are not simply temps hired to monitor just another convention floor, they are gamers themselves and have just as much enthusiasm as the regular attendees. As the Penny Arcade crew have said before, they create the opportunity and space for the show, but it is the gamers who create the atmosphere and the community.


Many more pictures are at my flickr page.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Phoenix Comicon 2010

I have family and friends in Phoenix and lived there many years before moving to California, so deciding to attend this year's Phoenix Comicon over Memorial Day weekend was an easy one.

The variety of interests at the Phoenix Comicon this year was quite broad, though the main themes were pretty clearly comics (characters, art, artists, authors, accessories) and science fiction (authors, movies, books, costumes). There was a smattering of gaming-related events like freeplay sessions of Rock Band (and Wil Wheaton's Rock Band all-nighter), but gaming was not a main focus.

Phoenix Comicon has been around for nine years, but has not seemed to be very visible until the last several years. None of my friends who still live in Phoenix were aware of it when I told them I was going. I think with the explosive growth and commercialization of the San Diego Comicon, more people are aware of cons in general, and some people may want to find a less crowded, less in-your-face and less commercialized version of the con experience. The Phoenix Comicon provides that alternative and has become more visible as a result.

There were a ton of people in all types of costumes. It was obvious a lot of people were having a lot of fun:
Storm Troopers and Leia
R2D2, Jedis and a Queen (high)
Powergirl -- Super curves!
Iron Man 4
Four-horned monster 4

There were writers, artists and actors there whom you could talk to, have your picture taken with, and whom would probably sign something if you brought it to them. Some pretty well-known people were there, including Stan Lee, Levar Burton and the previously mentioned Wil Wheaton.
Exhibition Hall

Unicorn Pegasus Kitten ("UPK")
Wil Wheaton and John Scalzi had a "Super Happy Fun Time" panel wherein they discussed various Internet-related items (as you do), a little about their respective backgrounds, and revealed a certain fan fiction writing contest (deadline for entry was June 30) and subject painting which I have to say I am glad I was witness to. Phoenix Comicon 2010 will likely be remembered as the beginning of the epoch of UPK storytelling. This was the scene just moments after the unveiling:
Wil and John unveil UPK

Here is a closeup of the painting taken after the panel:
Unicorn Pegasus Kitten

There are a number of crazy Internet-Wheaton-Scalzi memes going on here, my favorite being the Wheaton infamous clown sweater. You can read about that, along with what else is going on in that painting, at the link to the writing contest above.

Levar Burton
I'm a big fan of Levar Burton from watching Reading Rainbow as a youth, and also Star Trek: The Next Generation. I had hoped to see him at this event, but hadn't planned to have my picture taken with him. There was a portrait service there that scheduled photos with various of the celebrities who were at the con, and I just happened by the photo booth right at the end of the session with Mr. Burton. I thought I probably wouldn't have another opportunity to have a professional portrait taken with him, so I decided to do it. The portrait is on the portrait company's flickr site, linked here. I elected to provide that link instead of posting the portrait here directly as the portrait company has reserved all of its copyright rights.

Next Year
Overall, this was a really fun event to attend. It ran the entire weekend, starting with Thursday evening preview events. I attended only on Sunday, but it looked like there were plenty of things to see and panels to attend if one were to go for the entire show. The price is right, too. I believe it was only $35 for a full event pass. I'll probably go again next year as it's a great bonus to a summer trip to see family and friends.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Artie's voice on the radio

Last week The Howard Stern Show was on break and played a special collection of clips called "Wasted Week." It was a showcase for funny bits and the recounting of drunken misadventures of several of the Stern Show staff, former guests of the show, Wack Packers and others.

Some of the stuff was pretty funny but what I noticed most was the presence of Artie Lange's voice on many of the clips. One would think some of the stories would have been about Artie, but I didn't hear any. He was just part of the show, one of those making observations and participating in interviews and bits. I was reminded of how much he brought to the show with his observations, jokes and laugh. The show is still funny now, but hearing these clips reminded me that it is missing something.

I think I express the sentiments of many Stern Show fans when I wish Artie the best and hope that he takes whatever steps he needs to to get better. Hopefully he can someday return to comedy and maybe the Stern Show.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Phoenix Comicon 2010

I will be attending the Phoenix Comicon tomorrow, May 30. I have been to several Penny Arcade Expos, but never a comicon, so I'm looking forward to seeing what's going on there. Plus, I want to see authors Wil Wheaton and John Scalzi. I just signed up for Twitter so I can keep up with @wilw, @scalzi and @PhoenixComicon. My Twitter username is @Kev_aru. The tag for tracking Phoenix Comicon-related info is #PHXCC. I will post pictures on Flickr.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Blame Sally back in Sacramento

Blame Sally will be back in Sacramento next weekend, May 22, 2010. The venue is one I've never been to before, a yoga studio called fusion yoga studio. I've written about Blame Sally before--their style is hard to categorize, though the general category that is closest is probably folk. Throw in the accents from a Fender Strat and beautiful vocal harmonies and you are getting warmer.

You can check out some of their music here and here.

The show starts at 8:00p, hope to see you there. The more people who attend, the more likely it is the band will be able to travel to Sacramento more often.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Hello, Sacramentonians!

I went with my friends Holly and Chad to see Conan O'Brien's "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television" tour last Thursday in Sacramento. The place was packed and the show was really funny. His band from the show (minus Max Weinberg) played a few introductory songs, and at one point all of the horn players walked out among the audience on the floor and played their solos using their wireless mics.

Conan did a monologue with some choice local material, including his impression of our governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, mention of the governor's name garnered mass boos from the audience. He's not a popular guy in this state right now, primarily because our budget is such a mess, but I digress. Conan used the Schwarzenegger impression and the associated booing to good effect, though, bringing it back several times and throwing in a faux-behind-the-scenes impression of Schwarzenegger talking to Conan on the phone about mention of his name and how it went over.

There were a couple of prerecorded videos which were really funny. I won't spoil it for those still waiting to see the tour, but one documented Conan's life during the post-Tonight Show funk prior to his putting this tour together and another involves a certain comic canine with which any fan of Conan's will be familiar.

There was more music than I expected. Conan played the guitar, and took center stage quite often, both singing and strumming, playing with the full band and two backup singers. Mr. Andy Richter also appeared, adding to the comic mix. They play off of each other well and Andy complements Conan perfectly.

Overall, this was a really fun show that exposed the audience to more of Conan's forthright genuineness and humor. He poked fun at TV network executives without being cruel, and made light of his own situation and his struggle to recover after losing his dream job.

Conan's recent interview on 60 Minutes was good, too. Nothing particularly groundbreaking was revealed, but he made it clear he was disappointed in how the late night situation happened and how he would have handled it differently had he been in Jay Leno's shoes.

This is great, too: Conan's recent appearance at Google, which happened on this tour the day before he appeared in Sacramento.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Lazy Sunday afternoon

What I am looking at:

Lazy Sunday afternoon

What I am listening to:

Pink Floyd "Animals" LP art

Pink Floyd "Animals" LP art (inside)

Pink Floyd's 1977 album "Animals." One of my favorites. The guitar work of David Gilmour is simply superb--it conveys the feeling of the theme of this album perfectly. Great bass work on here too, by Roger Waters. Heck, everything is terrific. I love the drums, keyboards and synthed-out vocals and sound effects, plus the various farm-inspired metaphors conveyed through the lyrics.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A little self-promotion--Scenic Brews

I am a contributing writer to a new e-magazine published by a friend of mine out of Southern Arizona. It is called Scenic Brews and the general theme is all things brewed, from beer to coffee to tea to whisk(e)y and back to beer. Accompanying food and photography of the same is also an emphasis.

I am writing the "Beer & Pizza" column and this first column is an introduction and then discusses a recent beer tasting I went to at a great local restaurant here in Sacramento called OneSpeed Pizza. The e-zine will be published every two months with occasional updates inbetween. I hope you enjoy it.