Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books, movies, music, and maybe even games.

Dracula Untold

DraculaUntoldI didn’t go see Dracula Untold on opening weekend because the reviews were bad. Maybe my low expectations helped, because it didn’t seem anywhere near as awful as its early reviews suggested.

That’s not a huge vote of confidence, I know, so let me say this: I enjoyed it.

No, really!

It’s kind of a superhero origin story, complete with the “bitten by a…” and the “look what I can do!” underscored by “with great power comes great responsibility.” Also, comic-book physics, at least insofar as the portrayal of the inertia of a swarm of bats goes. And, you know, pretty much every vampire ability on display.

Dracula Untold comes in at #20 for me so far this year, which puts it squarely between my thresholds of “awesome” and “disappointment.” In terms of your movie dollar, however, seeing Guardians of the Galaxy again might be more rewarding.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

I really enjoyed the first two Borderlands titles. I even enjoyed the stories, which is kind of ironic since my introduction to the first game was my friend Brandon telling me how much fun it was in spite of the terribly disappointing story.

I don’t write game reviews, but I’ll try to describe my experience with the latest Borderlands installment, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, in meaningful ways.

Game Play

Lots of people have complained the BL:tPS felt like more DLC for Borderlands 2. This is an outgrowth of something I actually appreciated: all my game-play reflexes from Borderlands 2 totally fit. That was a big time-saver.

The new stuff here was invigorating. Enumerated:

  • Low gravity and butt-slamming! I had to build a new set of twitch reflexes, but once I did it was pretty rewarding.
  • Action Points start at Level 2! Oh, thank goodness. One of the worst things about BL1 and BL2 was that your choice of Vault Hunter means very little for the first four levels of game play.
  • The Grinder! About 1/3rd of the way through the game there’s a mission from Janey to repair the machine that grinds up weapons to make better (sometimes) weapons. This was fun.
  • More Dialog! Your character actually has a voice this time around. You don’t get to choose what to say (this title’s  from Gearbox, not Bethesda, let alone Bioware) but you have a personality.

What did I not like?

  • Broken maps! In three places the story quest ground to a halt while I looked for the path to something critical. The low-grav jumping had me thinking I was in a platformer, but no, I was lost because the entire path required me to walk off the edge of the map. (Note: In Borderlands 1 & 2 this is reserved for Easter Eggs and Instant Death.)
  • Loooong quests. “Artificial Persuasion” in particular had several points of re-direction (“that didn’t work, let’s try this… on the other side of the map!”) and felt like it should have been staged as four different quests.
  • Platforming? Not quite. All the jumping around makes you think you can scale some things, but no, this game is still kind of 2-dimensional. Not everything can be jumped on — even things that are within jumping distance. It’s frustrating to fall through things, or bounce off of invisible walls while trying to get from point A to point M without trudging past points B through L.
  • No difficulty setting. This is a real turn-off for me, especially in a game where the story has finally gotten really interesting, because it means I need to grind and grind and grind in order to be tough enough to slop my way through a fight that you super-twitch kids will blast through on raw skill.

Story

Gearbox delivered a pretty amazing story. I won’t spoil anything for you, but here’s some background: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel takes place about four years after the events of Borderlands, and about one year BEFORE the events of Borderlands 2. (It’s prequel AND a sequel, and they doubled down on giving it a goofy name.)

The four playable characters are people we’ve all met in the previous games, and two of them were NPCs we had to beat during boss-fights. The story-driving NPC, Jack, is the main villain in Borderlands 2, and is probably my favorite “I hate this guy” character in any story or game.

How, then, would the writers build a game with a satisfying story if half the playable characters and their boss turn out to be monsters?

Answer: Wow.

Better answer: If George Lucas had played these games prior to writing the Star Wars prequels, we’d have had much better movies to chronicle the fall of Anakin Skywalker and the rise of Darth Vader.

I’m impressed. Everybody in the story–EVERYBODY–acted from logical internal motivations, and responded rationally to external pressures. NOBODY did things because of plot-pressure. And the end was, at least for me, very satisfying.

If you plan to play, but haven’t finished yet, be sure to sit through the credits after you beat [REDACTED]. There’s sequential art running alongside the the scrolling list of names, and that art will complete the stories of Athena, Nisha, Wilhelm, and CL4P-TP.

$60 is a lot to spend on a game, but according to Steam, I’ve logged 35 hours on it, and my son has logged 30 (using the shared library.) Between the two of us, that’s a dollar an hour for play-time. Granted, I only bought ONE copy… I’m totally going to wait for the sale before buying enough copies for my kids to play with me at the same time.

The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll

On the final evening of the 2014 Out of Excuses Workshop and Retreat, Mary Robinette Kowal and I sat with students and talk about historical stuff, and Mary brought up some fun 18th- and 19th- century spy techniques.

I realized that the 1980’s are far enough back that the spy tech from that era seems weird and outdated. And that reminded me of a book I skimmed while working at Novell in the ’90s. I spouted a quick synopsis at the students, and realized that it might be fun for me to re-read.

TheCuckoo'sEggSo I bought a copy online and re-read it on my iPad, and as I did so I realized that the reason I was able to do this is because guys like Clifford Stoll took it upon themselves to build “trustworthiness” into the digital and social structures of the Internet 25 years ago.

The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Cliff Stoll, is a non-fiction account of the author’s discovery of a far-reaching, insidious hack, uncovered because of what looked like an accounting error. The technology he describes is antiquated, but the logic behind the hacker’s exploits remains valid today, and Stoll’s attempts to rally the authorities demonstrate how very unprepared we were back in 1987 for the big disruptions of next 20 years.

It’s dry in spots, and didactic in others, but I plowed through it voraciously. Stoll’s descriptions of the Internet of 1987 seem kind of quaint, but they’re also spot-on for his time.  His political views were very refreshing–he writes as a self-proclaimed liberal hippie, and yet he had to work with the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the Army, and the Air Force for an entire year. This was pretty conflicting for him, and for his friends, and was every bit as interesting to me as the computer stuff.

I met Cliff Stoll in 2006 at an Apache conference where he and I were keynote speakers. It was kind of cool to realize that he was one of the giants upon whose shoulders my entire business model was standing, and yet we had lots of common ground. In re-reading The Cuckoo’s Egg I found a chapter in which young Clifford Stohl sat down and talked to a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, asking for advice, and yes, there seemed to be some symmetry there for me.

[EDIT: As was pointed out by a reader, Cliff Stoll can be found making 3D immersions of Klein bottles with his family in Oakland, California. Looking for something awesome for that person who already seems to have everything? Look no further.]

 

 

Breaking the Borderlands

“Honey, I have a shotgun for you.”

I sent this message, and then I dropped the shotgun in question on the floor of the cave and awaited a reaction.

My 19-year-old daughter and I were wandering through the Zaford’s stash cave during the Clan War mission of Borderlands 2, so it’s totally okay for me to be giving my teenager a shotgun by throwing it on the floor of a cave. Video game shotguns can take a lot of abuse.

The color-code on this shotgun was orange, which meant it was from among the very rarest and most powerful class of items. When you see an orange item, you jump on it, so of course Kiki snatched it up, pulled up her inventory screen, and then messaged me back.

“Oh, Daddy. I love it.”

KikiGotAShotgun“Kiki” is my daughter’s online nickname, and by happy coincidence this particular weapon had flavor text associated with it : “Kiki got a shotgun.” When the player reloads the weapon, she will throw it, but instead of tumbling away and exploding like some other magical Borderlands video-game guns, this one will point itself at the nearest enemy and fly towards it, firing as it goes. The flavor text encourages you to imagine what it would look like if a witch on a broom had a shotgun. Oh, and when it flies away a new copy of the gun materializes in your hands, beamed there from your storage deck because video game science fiction is a lot like magic.

But that’s not really the salient point.

See, ultra-rare items show up in chests or loot drops with such tiny frequency that the average player might not see one at all during 20 hours of play. Most players spend dozens of hours grinding their characters up to high levels, and then gang-raiding boss monsters over and over in hopes of an orange drop. And even then, unless they’re doing this during the level-capped “Ultimate Vault Hunter” playthrough, the item is going to be several levels lower than they are. A low-level rare item doesn’t do much good against high-level enemies.

It is unusual, then, for someone to hand another player an ultra-rare item that is leveled perfectly for their character.

I’ve done it dozens of times, because I’m a filthy cheater.

See, from one perspective, the Borderlands games are all about finding new weapons, shields, grenades, and artifacts so your character can face higher-level enemies as you move through the game. Play runs like this: navigate through the level until there’s a fight, have the fight, then stop for five minutes and compare the loot drops to the things already in your inventory. In single player mode this is kind of fun for a while, but in multiplayer mode it quickly gets boring.

From my perspective, the Borderlands games are about teaming up with my kids to kill things in an imaginary world of endless violence, experimenting with play styles and team strategies while laughing at the things our characters say as they interact. Stopping every five minutes for loot comparison crimps the mirth. So I got my hands on an editing tool for our save files, and solved the problem.

The editor has a button that will bring all the items in my inventory up to my level, which means the super-cool stuff I found back during my level 10 slog is still super-cool when I’m level 35. It will let me duplicate items (I did not give Kiki my only copy of that shotgun), and I can even create items in my inventory—items that would exist legally in the game, but which I’ve not yet come across.

Better still, the editor will let me clone elements from one character’s save file and build a brand new character at whatever level or game stage I want, so that I can, for instance, jump online with my daughter and join her level 25 quest without grinding for eight hours to create a level 25 character first.

The Borderlands games do not have a difficulty setting. If they’re too difficult, you are expected to practice more, or grind for hours in order to find more effective weapons, and usually the player must do both. There are hard-core players who have done exactly this, and who have hundreds of hours of hard-fought game play invested in a single character who has lots of cool tools.

And I expect that some of those players resent the fact that people like me exist. I have a dozen different characters, and they ALL have cool tools, and while I also have over a hundred hours logged in the game, I certainly haven’t “earned” the collection of rare and ultra-rare items these characters field.

So what? When my daughter said “oh Daddy. I love this!” I felt like I had TOTALLY earned that moment. I also earned the four hours she and I and my youngest son got to spend together one Saturday, engaged in a quest that would have been eight levels too high for her, except I leveled a copy of her character and inventory from 25 to 32.

Kiki is coming home from school in a couple of weeks, and I suspect there will be lots of Borderlands mayhem spread across the screens in my house. There will be laughing and shrieking and cheering, and maybe we’ll pause for some loot comparison when something cool drops out of a boss piñata,  but whatever happens I’m looking forward to it, and I’ll have the editing tool handy in order to make sure that we all get to play the game we love.

(Dear “Rick’s Games Stuff”: thank you for creating Gibbed’s Borderlands 2 Save Editor, because family time beats the loot-laden snot out of frustration.)