Jared

I'm a Trekker, a Brown-coat, a bibliophile, a Star Wars nut. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Steampunk, mythology, anime, noir, detective stories it doesn't matter. I'm into pen and paper rpgs, console and pc games, board games. Want to argue for hours over who would win were the Enterprise-E and a Star Destroyer fight? Sure. Want to debate the advantages of the Way of the Open Palm or the Light Side? Definitely.

Nov 182009
 

So now that we’ve covered the setting of Dragon Age, let’s look at how the game actually plays.

Dragon Age will actually surprise you with the depth of character choice and tactics available.  There may be only three classes to choose from, but each has several skill branches and unique abilities.  The warrior has skills divided amongst general warrior abilities, sword and shield, dual wield, archer, and two-handed.  The general skills deal with things like the characters durability, armor usage, and drawing the enemies’ attention to the warrior away from more vulnerable characters.  Two-handed and dual wield are the main damage dealing options for a warrior (dual wield shared with rogue) the one putting a lot of power behind a slow and massive swing, the later quick attacks with two weapons to wear down the foe.  Archery is for damage at range, which is less powerful than the other weapon types but has the advantage of being safer.  (Also shared with the rouge who is probably the better archer choice as armor weight affects the speed you can fire a bow)  Sword and shield is best for the main ‘tank’ in the party, as well as having some nice stun and knockdown abilities.  In addition to this there are four specializations for the warrior: Beserker, Ravager, Templar, and Champion.  Each of these is unlockable through specific quest events, training from friendly companions, or books bought from merchants.  One very nice thing the developers did is set it so that once one player unlocks a specialization it is permanently available to everyone, regardless of when the character is created or where they are in the game.  Of course you can’t start out with a specialization, earning a point to pick one at level 7 and 14. (just 14 for the companions as they all start with one except for Sten who can only get one, and the Mabari and Shale who are their own special classes and get none)  Since the ‘soft’ level cap is about 20 (meaning if you do everything in the game possible to get you experience you will end up about level 20 or so) your choice of specialization is important.  Now each of the four only gives you 4 more skills to learn (as opposed to 12 for the rest of the classes’ branches) but these can radically alter how you play.  The Templar, for example, gains powerful abilities to disrupt and drain a mages ability to cast spells, while the champion gains some strong leader abilities for the party, and the last two (who I admittedly not looked at over much) focus on damage dealing and health/stamina management.

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Surprisingly trap and poison use and manufacture, as well as pick-pocketing are not tied to the rouge class and can indeed be learned by anyone.  They are grouped in a separate talent pool along with other skills like combat tactics, coercion (Player character only) nature skill, (resistances and enemy detection) potion making, and combat training.  Mind you though, Rouges get points to spend on these skills more often than the other classes, 1 every 2 levels instead of 1 every 3.  Coercion isn’t necessary, but is highly useful for getting out of trouble and getting people to help you, while combat tactics is essential for your companions, as each rank (out of 4 for all of the skills) gives you additional spots for instructions to the companion AI.  Everything from at what point to use a health potion (I generally set it up as Self: Health <25% Use: smallest health potion) to actions to take against specific levels of monster (I.E. use skill X on any enemy Elite level or higher) or even when to bail out a specific member of the party.  They are quite handy and generally effective, though in combat occasionally they will still disengage and follow me around if I am trying to avoid notice (with the healer mage I am currently using) and they have an annoying tendency to switch to melee weapons no matter what I tell them to do, (there is a lvl 1 skill that makes archery in close quarters no longer an issue) so much so that I finally just took the swords away from my archer.  Combat training is a must as well, as it ties directly into what weapon skills you can learn (you need 3 points in combat training for the third skill in the chain for example  It also enhances combat prowess for rouges and warriors, and how much damage a mage can take before it interrupts their spell casting) Poison making I found more useful than traps, as you don’t often get a chance to lay an ambush, though it is somewhat less useful than you would think as you must be training in poison making to use poison on your blade, not only to make it.  Survival and Stealing I frankly never used, though I suppose the later would be useful for an ‘evil’ player who wanted extra cash.  Neither came up that I saw in the story except for 1 side-quest for survival, and a quest chain of theft. (Some requiring stealth which is rogue specific)

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Anyway, the rogue has access to dual-wield (which works a bit differently than for the warrior thanks to flanking attacks becoming backstabs for extra damage) and archers, as well as the general stuff like stealth, lock-picking, and ‘dirty’ tactics, as well as some enhancing the back-stab function.  Their specializations are Duelist, (bonuses to accuracy and defense, which covers blow avoidance while armor covers blow reduction) Assassin, (bonuses to back-stab and focusing on a single target) Bard, (Party buffs and a couple tricks on enemies) and Ranger which is deals with summoning a wolf, bear, or spider to fight with you.

Mages have by far the widest range of skills available to them; so many that I doubt two mages together could learn them all.  They are divided among creation, (healing mostly and some trap like spells called glyphs) primal (elemental attacks) spirit, which covers attacks that have various effects like stunning or trapping foes, as well as some that paralyze or disrupt magic, even spells that turn an enemy into a walking bomb if it dies while the effect is in play.  Entropy covers debuffs, reducing resistances, increasing damage taken, that sort of thing.  What makes mages most fun though is the spell combos.  Take for example the unrelated spells crushing prison (immobilizes the target and hurts it over a few moments, though it can be resisted) and cone of cold.  (Or indeed, a number of skills in the cold line and a few in the stone line)  If the target is already frozen or petrified Crushing prison might very well shatter the enemy, resulting in it instantly dying.  There is also the example given of combining a grease spell (normally only affecting movement speed) with any fire spell, resulting in a patch of fire burning anyone in its radius that lasts a fairly long time.  As for their specializations, I found two more useful than the others.  Blood Mage can only be unlocked if the main character is a mage (as far as I know) but isn’t useful enough to offset its negatives (in terms of story mostly) as blood mages are seen as the worst sort of dark mage, the type of mage supposedly responsible for the darkspawn in the first place.  Shapeshifter certainly looks cool, allowing the mage to turn into a bear, spider, or even a cloud of insects, becoming more proficient at melee combat for a time, but at the cost of not being able to cast any spells.  Since mages double as healers that can be restrictive.  Spirit healer on the other hand is probably the most useful of all 12 specializations, starting with a spell to heal the entire party a fair amount, as well as including combat resurrection of party members (technically it only brings them around, they are considered unconscious, not dead) a spell that heals a party member if they get too close to dying (useful as there really are fairly few healing spells and all have cool down periods around 20 seconds) and finally an aura that not only heals the party every few seconds and removing injuries (penalties incurred when a party member falls in combat) from those very close to the healer, something no other spell can do at all.  The last specialization for the mage is also very useful, but counterbalanced with some serious drawbacks.  Arcane Warriors are a lost order of mages (from a VERY long time ago) that combine magic with some of the skills of a warrior.  Basically it lets the mage use armor and weapons, substituting their magic ability for strength to meet the prerequisites of using a certain weapon or piece of armor.  The first skill in the line grants this, and when activated channels spell power (the measure of the relative power of a mage’s spells) directly into melee damage.  The catch is that it adds 50% fatigue to the mage.  What that means is all spells cost 50% more mana to activate, in addition to the fatigue penalties of the armor itself, without access to the skills warriors have to negate some of the penalty.  The other three skills give bonuses to accuracy, damage, and armor, one significantly so, though it costs constant mana to maintain.  Basically it turns the mage into a very strong and tough attacker who just uses the basic attack and some spells.  The one real trick though is that while the mage can use any weapon and shield, many spells can’t be cast with a sword drawn like the can a magic staff.  So in order to cast the spell the mage first has to put away the weapon, which takes a couple seconds that can be quite precious in the middle of combat.  I don’t know, there is a lot of merit in the skills, and at the very least the first point giving you access to armor is invaluable, though I would recommend you wait till the lvl 14 specialization as spirit mage is more important.

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So how does combat work?  Your party is limited at any time to 4 people, yourself and 3 others.  Generally you will be outnumbered or attacked by a few strong foes, and it all happens fast.  Pausing to issue specific orders to your party members (and you can control whichever you want in combat, changing on the fly) is often crucial, despite the usually reliable AI.  This is area the PC version really shines over the Xbox, not only because you have the entire number row for presets of skills and potions/traps/poisons (a different bar for each character obviously) while the Xbox has only six, three of the four buttons and a second row accessed by holding the right trigger, but also because on the PC you can zoom out for an overhead view not unlike a game such as Neverwinter Nights to get a better sense of where everyone is.  On any mode but easy and normal you have to be very careful with spell placement due to concerns about friendly fire (and actually, even in easy and normal with some spells will still cause problems.  Cone of cold for example won’t hurt a companion character, but it can still freeze them)  If you don’t like pausing often I’d recommend you play it on easy, which generally can be done with the AI handling everything for the other 3.  In fact, I would recommend you start on easy regardless, even if you are a long time player of RPGs.  Dragon Age Origins is HARD.  There has been so much talk about this that Bioware is going to (it might actually be out for PC already, I didn’t check as I primarily use the Xbox) release a patch lowering the difficulty across the board.  This also will influence the party you bring with you.  Having two mages can be very cool, especially if you plan ahead to complement their respective spells, but having two mages and a rogue (rouges are basically mandatory for their lock-picking skills if you want to get the good loot) leaves too much for the heavy to handle, and I don’t think a group with no warriors would survive at all. (It would make a good challenge though, perhaps even up to the level of FF1 with 4 White Mages, though the most you could do is 3 mages and a rogue, assuming the PC is a mage.)

I’m not sure what else to say.  The game is extremely fun, though the necessity of pausing can be a bit of a turn-off for those seeking fast and furious playing, and can be as straightforward or tactically deep as you are willing to make it.  Dialogue choices are easy to understand and intuitive, though you can’t always predict how the other party will react. (As it should be)  The realism of the combat is intense, though not as bombastic as something like Fallout 3.  There are some cool fatalities for the melee classes, beheadings and the like for normal monsters, but much more dramatic for the larger enemies like dragons and Ogres. (Coolest moment of the intro for me was when my rogue leapt onto the dying Ogre’s chest, knocking him the the ground before plunging her sword through his mouth out the other side of his head)  Blood is plentiful, almost too plentiful in fact.  Fallen foes will seep out great pools of crimson liquid, and any level of melee combat will leave your party members spattered from head to toe, blood that endures until you leave the area.  One spell (a form of blood magic) even has the mage spraying a veritable fountain of blood from their throat, using it to recharge their mana.  Is it too much? Maybe, and it certainly is a bit distracting when you are making nice with your love interest and they are covered in blood.  It does drive home the seriousness of the game though, especially in one moment towards the end that is totally brutal and effective but that I am not going to spoil

Oh, one last minor (very minor) complaint.  It is possible of course to bed a fair number of people in the game, from prostitutes to party members.  The game does a great job of getting you to emotionally bond with your significant other, yet when you finally invite them back to your tent… well, let’s just says the scene is ludicrously badly animated.  I’m not saying they should have made it more explicit (underwear is never removed) or longer, as I said the emotional aspect is more important than the physical, but something better than this non-sensual tripe would have been nice.  Heck, a long kiss and then fading to black would probably have worked better.  I have to wonder if this is another victim of the long development time of the game though, as Mass Effect’s love scene(s) was much better done, not overly explicit yet effective emotionally.  Or maybe it was because of all the stupid backlash they got when Mass Effect came out, decrying the game as a sex sim or what not? (Which is truly sad, as sex sims do of course exist, at least in Japan.  I’m not sure if they are available here, never having had any interest in finding out.)

Anyway, the game is nearly flawless, and what faults is does have are mostly hidden by its brilliance elsewhere.  If you care about a game’s story, the characters, the choices, or even just like a good fantasy about good(ish) against evil, get this game.  If you prefer games to be twitch based and nothing but action, I’d suggest you think about it before buying, but definitely think about it.

[tags]Bioware, RPG, Dragon Age Oridins[/tags]

About

I'm a Trekker, a Brown-coat, a bibliophile, a Star Wars nut. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Steampunk, mythology, anime, noir, detective stories it doesn't matter. I'm into pen and paper rpgs, console and pc games, board games. Want to argue for hours over who would win were the Enterprise-E and a Star Destroyer fight? Sure. Want to debate the advantages of the Way of the Open Palm or the Light Side? Definitely.

Nov 172009
 

So I didn’t plan on it taking two weeks from launch to finish my review of Dragon Age, but the extra time (minus the time I spent on my freaking mid-term of course) ended up being a good thing.  I’ve been able to take the time to not only play through the entire game but to experience the first several hours of all six origin stories.

If I had to review the game in a single word I think I would have to go with magnificent.  Thankfully I am not limited to such, so much so that I am not sure what the best thing is to begin with.

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I suppose the origin stories themselves are the best place to start.  There are, of course, six different choices as to an origin. (Twelve if you include gender, which affects gameplay only a bit less than your class does)  I found all six options to be enjoyable and compelling, but in very different ways.  I must note though that none of these are happy introductions to Ferelden. (The country the game takes palace in) Fratricide, betrayal, rape, tests of life and death, abuse, and soul crushing prejudice are just the tip of the iceberg of the bad things that happen in this game.  I was particularly impressed with the city elf and human noble origins, both deftly evoking major emotions for the NPCs in a very short time.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the dwarven intros, as I almost never willingly play as a dwarf, mostly because I vastly prefer finesse to brute strength tactics, something dwarves are not known for.  The mage and Dalish origins are the weakest in my opinion, the Dalish being very straightforward and reactionary, though it does capture well the feel of their nomadic lifestyle and slowly disappearing culture.  The mage opens spectacularly, pitting your character immediately against demons in a life and death struggle, but kind of stalls after that, as you help (or not) a fellow mage, but without any real connection to him or his plight.

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No matter where you start you end up at Ostagar, a crumbling fortress of a lost empire, as the King and his army prepare to fight the darkspawn, an evil race that goes far beyond the standard Orc placeholder race.  One of the most interesting aspects is that their blood is poisonous, and usually lethal, making fighting them all the more dangerous.  This (and some other things I won’t spoil) is where the Grey Wardens come in.  They exist as a (nominally) neutral force throughout the continent, whose sole purpose is to fight the darkspawn and the blight.  The term blight is used to refer both to the taint of the darkspawn, and the destruction said taint causes on their environment, and the massive invasion when the darkspawn rise up from the deep roads (the abandoned tunnels of the dwarf kingdom) to destroy everything they can, lead by an arch-demon.  The Grey Wardens have, through a secret and apparently terrifying ritual, gained immunity to the blight, and are said to be the only ones capable of killing and arch-demon.  It is here the player is made a Grey Warden, and given a vital task away from the front lines.

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Of course the battle doesn’t go as planned, and the player finds themselves nearly alone, left the daunting task of building an army large enough to withstand the blight, a task made worse by everyone seeming to decide that now is the best time to start killing and/or plotting against one another.  The scope is epic, the tale dark and grim, yet heroic.  I could go on for a very long time indeed about how much I loved the story, but it is better experienced first hand.  I will say this though.  Bioware has managed to make the game very ambiguous in a great way.  I always go the ‘good’ route in games, for reasons too complicated to explain here, but with Dragon Age I wasn’t always sure what the good path was.  Who do I support in a divisive dispute between two groups of political backstabbers, neither of which is telling me the whole truth?  In another case I have a group attacked by another over a curse laid centuries before.  Do I side with those attacked through no fault of their own or those who attacked out of desperation because of a curse also no fault of their own?  No easy answer presents itself and that is wondrous, especially as these are not trivial choices to make.  Over the course of the game you will be making choices that will drastically change the political landscape of the land, to the level that complete annihilation for certain groups is possible.  As I’m fond of saying, give a man a choice between saving his family and a million dollars, the moral choice is obvious and easy to make.  Make him choose between saving his family and saving a dozen strangers, or two different groups of strangers, and the quandary will have him thinking long after the choice is made.  Of course not every choice in Dragon Age is so difficult.  There are several encounters with nefarious characters of various stripes that I had no problems exterminating with extreme prejudice, and other decisions to help requiring no thought at all.  This really helps the world feel alive, a world that has its light and dark side, but grey as well.

For me though the best part of the game, even above the superb story, is the party characters and their interactions.  One role they serve is as relief (comic and otherwise) to the dire and grim tone of the game.  They argue with each other, say unintentionally hilarious things, and feel like real people, with their own motivations, goals, and personalities that they stick to, even when it isn’t advantageous to them.  I found myself even liking the ‘evil’ characters of the group, all too easily looking past their sociopathic and selfish natures to find their redeeming and charming qualities.  Here is a non-spoiler example of an interaction for you.  Two of your possible companions are Sten, the giant (7 feet thereabouts) warrior whose culture is utterly alien to the rest of the party, and the Mabari war dog, super intelligent (for a dog) trained hound of immense size who is utterly loyal to you.  One time in camp you can go over to interact with the dog only to find him having a staring contest with Sten.  He grows.  The dog growls back.  He snarls.  The dog barks.  He roars, and the dog lunges at him, stopping just short of actual contact, without Sten moving at all.  Then Sten laconically says, “you a true warrior, worthy of respect” and walks off.  After forty hours I have to wonder if the dog is the only one who actually gets Sten at all.  The game is filled with moments like this, odd little interactions between your companions that reinforce their character.  The best part of this is that with a few exceptions you can’t predict how a party member will react to another’s comments, but it always feels natural, in keeping with their character.  Of course you can interact with them to a great extent as well, albeit with less spontaneity.  Romance, a staple of Bioware games for some time now, is an option with many of your companions, both with the opposite gender and same gender.  You can gain influence with them all through dialogue (and lose it too if you offend them) and through the giving of gifts, with specific gifts working better or worse on a party member depending on their needs and wants.  They all (except the dog) have a personal quest you can help them with, ranging from a reunion to saving their life in some way.  Who your companions are isn’t certain at all however.  A couple of them you can miss getting entirely if you don’t do certain things before a particular point in the game. (The dog being the best example: If you don’t complete a simple side quest in the Ostagar portion of the introduction he will not be available later on, unless you are of the human noble origin)  Others you can kill instead of recruit, and there are points in the game for most of them, if handled poorly, can result in them leaving or even attacking you.  The voice acting is excellent as well, with only minor complaints here and there.  At times I wished there were a few more NPC voices to choose from, but that is a difficult problem to address, especially with the cost in time and money to do voice recording.  The party’s voices are all excellent, though one in particular’s accent is a bit uneven, something I was willing to overlook as otherwise the voice actor was perfect for the part.  I’d like to highlight my favorite companion voice, but I can’t decide who it is, they are all great.

Some people have complained over the fact that Dragon Age doesn’t voice the main character’s lines, instead using the more common form of picking what to say from a list of text options.  I can see where they are coming from; Mass Effect really did set the bar high on player conversations, but it really isn’t feasible in Dragon Age for a number of reasons, the biggest one being sheer size.  Dragon Age is larger than Mass Effect is, not just in overall content but in number of lines as well.  Much of Mass Effect is taken up with exploration and combat on uncharted worlds, where conversation is kept to a minimum.  Dragon Age on the other hand deals more with politics, history, and even party dynamics, leading to a much larger pool of choices.  Also, Shepherd, male or female, is always a military officer, making condensing choices to short descriptions easier (because of the uniformity, not the fact that s/he is a soldier specifically) and meaning that they can do it with only two voice actors, male and female.  Were you to voice the player character in Dragon Age you would need at least six, if not eight or more voice actors, all recording all of the thousands of possible lines.  This is because you can be so many different things in Dragon Age, nobility from two different races, a nomadic wanderer, a downtrodden slum dweller, elf or dwarf, or a highly educated human or elven mage.  Just imagine how large all that audio work would become.

As for the setting in general, it is at least on par with the world building of Mass Effect.  More of the history and culture is revealed through codex entries than in previous Bioware games, so if you don’t care to learn about, say, the country of Antiva neighboring Ferelden you can easily skip it, and you’re sure to skip something at some point due to the sheer weight of information.  Even if you don’t read a single codex entry (which I didn’t much my first time through) it is hard to miss just how fleshed out the world is.  It truly feels like Orlais, Antiva, and the other neighbors exist in the world of Dragon Age, even though you never visit them, and only meet a couple people from outside of Ferelden.  The various cultures are well thought out and distinct, from the isolationist Dalish to the backstabbing caste conscious dwarves, and the several human cultures.  The Qunari (the giant race Sten belongs to) are only hinted at, but that merely reflects how little the Ferelden’s themselves know about the mysterious group, yet you clearly get the feeling that even if it isn’t said in game the developers took the time to develop each group completely.

Of course you can’t have a high fantasy setting (not that it is strictly a high fantasy) without inviting comparisons to Lord of the Rings, for good or ill.  It is very hard to ignore the conventions of Tolkien’s work, especially when it comes to various standard races of fantasy.  Bioware somehow manages to make all the races seem familiar, yet completely their own.  The elves are downtrodden former slaves, the dwarves still appear concerned with honor and duty yet are ruthless and pragmatic in secret, and the humans are as divided as ever.  The group most departing from the standard is mages.  They are still incredibly powerful, able to ‘make manifest their will’ in the physical world, but it is as much (if not more) a curse as a blessing.  Not only are mages feared and hated by the people, the dominant religion treats them as a necessary evil, so much so that the mages are trained in an isolated tower in the middle of a lake, constantly watched by knights templar trained specifically to counteract a mage’s power and never allowed to leave.  The craziest thing is I can’t say they are wrong to do so.  Along with their great power mages attract the attention of demons of the fade (the dream-world) and a weakness to being possessed.  Any mage whose guard slips even for a moment runs the risk of being possessed and turned into an abomination.  Worse is the temptation of blood-magic, taught to mortals by the demons, offering vast power, at a horrific price.

One element of the setting often overlooked is the music of a game.  Personally I will put up with a lot of blemishes in game-play and graphics if the story is compelling enough, but I am not so forgiving when it comes to the music.  Let me put it this way.  Imagine your favorite scene or battle from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or some other epic.  Now imagine it with the soundtrack replaced by a Weird Al polka.  It just isn’t the same.  Thankfully Bioware spoils us with their soundtracks, accompanying their games with music rivaling anything you’d see in a Hollywood movie, and Dragon Age is no exception.  To my tastes I don’t find the overall soundtrack to be quite up to the level of Mass Effect or Jade Empire’s music (gotta love Jack Wall’s stuff) but it is effective, and certain tracks are hauntingly beautiful. (My favorite is Leliana’s song, check it out on YouTube)  Aside from the music the sound quality is superb, in voice acting as already mentioned, in incidental sounds, combat, etc.  Even the dog’s sounds are done superbly, in large part responsible for the effectiveness of that character’s presence.

Graphics is a bit trickier proposition, and an area where I do have some legitimate concerns with the game.  Originally I was unimpressed with the graphics on my Xbox, despite playing it on a 50 inch flat-screen.  The resolution seemed sup-par and as I played the origin stories I just wasn’t particularly impressed, especially by the fortress of Ostagar.  Luckily Microsoft just sent me out a new Xbox, mine having succumbed to the red ring of death.  I had been playing on my little brother’s system, never realizing that it wasn’t setup properly for a 1080i big screen.  Once the resolution was set up properly on my new system the game looked much better.  That said, the early part of the game isn’t as polished as the later areas.  I did some digging and the consensus seems to be that the introduction was finished quite a while ago (the game did spend a long time in development) and simply never updated to the quality of the rest of the game.  So if you are picky when it comes to graphics go with the PC version and give it a bit before deciding.

That’s it for the setting and story of the game, my next post will concern gameplay mechanics and combat, as well as the strengths and weaknesses between the Xbox and PC versions, and I actually was surprised that there are a couple things that work better in the console version.

Oh, one note about the screenshots.  They are from my brother’s two characters.  It turns out the game automatically takes screenshots for achievements and specific points of the story.  A few are rather worthless, for example one of the romance achievements is a screenshot of a black screen, but the idea is rather nice

[tags]Bioware, RPG, Dragon Age Origins[/tags]

About

I'm a Trekker, a Brown-coat, a bibliophile, a Star Wars nut. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Steampunk, mythology, anime, noir, detective stories it doesn't matter. I'm into pen and paper rpgs, console and pc games, board games. Want to argue for hours over who would win were the Enterprise-E and a Star Destroyer fight? Sure. Want to debate the advantages of the Way of the Open Palm or the Light Side? Definitely.

Oct 282009
 

I was planning on writing a quick review of an anime show for tomorrow, part of my plan to force myself to stay writing and posting.  Instead I want to tell you about something truly amazing. (And thanks to Alf of Bridge Troll fame for introducing me)

This is a project called “The Symphony of Science.” (http://www.symphonyofscience.com/) Basically they have taken footage of Carl Sagan and other scientists talking about the Universe, some of their most beautiful statements, and turned them into music by digitally adding musical tones to the words and syllables.  I know that sounds really strange and “A Glorious Dawn” doesn’t help any by starting out with cut up film of Carl Sagan making very peculiar sounds. (It’s him imitating a Whale Song, BTW)  Heck, you might not even like it the first time through at all.  I can guarantee though that most of you, if you actually listen to the lyrics, will not only have it stuck in your head after a couple times through, but love the songs.  It’s a message about man’s potential, that despite being utterly insignificant in scale to the Cosmos, we are part of the cosmos and therefore extraordinary.  Put simply it is sublime stuff.

Both songs are available to download for free of the website in both audio and video forms.  We are also told there is more to come.

Personally I wish we would see more ideas like this.  Science is vital to humanity, shaping most of what we know and indeed how we know it yet is often one of the hardest things to get kids excited about. For me it was Bill Nye the Science Guy who did it, along with a book called “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.”  Carl Sagan singing like a Cylon might not capture too many kids imaginations, but if it gets even one child to study science (be it biology or mad-science, I’m not picky) it was well worth it.

“A still more glorious dawn awaits, not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise.  A morning filled with 400 billion suns, the rising of the Milky Way.”

“The sky calls to us.  If we do not destroy ourselves we will one day venture to the stars.”

[tags]Science, Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Music[/tags]

About

I'm a Trekker, a Brown-coat, a bibliophile, a Star Wars nut. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Steampunk, mythology, anime, noir, detective stories it doesn't matter. I'm into pen and paper rpgs, console and pc games, board games. Want to argue for hours over who would win were the Enterprise-E and a Star Destroyer fight? Sure. Want to debate the advantages of the Way of the Open Palm or the Light Side? Definitely.

Oct 262009
 

First off, I must apologize for not having posted anything for such a long time.  It’s not what I would have liked, but certain family problems and occurrences beyond any of our control have made it very difficult for me to do any writing the last few months, both logistically and emotionally.  We aren’t out of the woods yet, but hopefully I can start posting with more regularity soon, especially since I have a couple dozen review subjects backlogged, from books, anime shows, to a few pen and paper rpgs, especially the unfinished review of Unhallowed Metropolis and Unhallowed Necropolis that I have not forgotten about.

Anyway, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Castle is an ABC crime show, in the more humorous vein of shows like the Mentalist and Psych.  The shows titular lead, Richard Castle, (Nathan Fillion of Firefly and Dr. Horrible fame) is a mystery writer on par with Patterson or Cannell, fresh off killing his main character out of boredom.  Meanwhile Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic, The Spirit) is looking at two seemingly unrelated murders with one odd thing in common: Both were killed almost exactly like murders out of Castle’s books.  She brings him in for questioning, leading to him volunteering to help with the case because of his familiarity with the crimes.  Really though, he offers to help because a copycat is the “Red Badge of Honor” for a writer like him, to the point that he asks for copies of the crime scene photos to take to his poker game with Patterson and Cannell. (Who make a splendid appearance as themselves in the episode)

Beckett doesn’t like Castle at all of course; He’s a womanizing man-child who doesn’t take anything seriously, lacks empathy, and gets away with everything (including, apparently, stealing a police horse naked) because of his close friendship with the mayor.  By the end of the pilot they’ve solved the mystery and Castle has found his new inspiration, Detective Beckett. Again thanks to the mayor he get himself made Beckett’s unofficial partner so he can write the first novel on Nikki Heat, as much because he simply enjoys the novelty of solving real crimes as writing inspiration.  The cast is rounded out by Castle’s crazy(er) mother, his 15 year old daughter who is rebelling from her family by being totally grounded and responsible, Beckett’s captain, Lanie Parish, her medical examiner friend, and Esposito and Ryan, the other partnership of detectives.  All of the characters are charming and funny in their own ways, and very believable.  Castle is actually in its second season, the first ten episodes airing last spring as a mid-season replacement show.

Now, why am I plugging a fairly normal (if extremely fun) crime show on a Geek blog?

Part of it, of course, is the presence of the amazing Nathan Fillion, who has somehow missed becoming a big star so far despite outstanding performances, including that of Mal Reynolds in Firefly and Serenity.  Most sci-fi buffs I know love the guy, who is extremely affable for a movie star and very expressive in his work.

The main reason though is one extremely hyper-real thing to come out of the show.  First though, I suppose I should explain what I mean by hyper-real.  This gets me back to certain core theories of virtuality and simulacra (simulations) that are becoming much more prevalent now thanks to the internet.  Basically there are several orders of simulation.  The first is something like a reflection, a good and faithful representation of something else, but clearly nothing more than a representation.  Second order simulacra involves things such as mass-production copies, even photo-copies themselves, where the distinction between the original and the copy is blurred, even hidden completely.  Third order simulacra actually precede the original, so that it is in fact a simulation of nothing.  A bit hard to understand, I know, and harder to point to in real life.  The Matrix could be considered third order or high second order (the actual construct, not the whole film) because what the matrix copies doesn’t exist anymore.  In anime the idea of Stand Alone Complexes (the Ghost in the Shell television series) is much the same thing, dealing with copycat crimes and behavior when no original exists.

The inevitable question is how can a mystery show deal with such post-modern ideas, beyond the level any television show does as a fictional representation of life?  Well, remember I said that Castle officially follows Beckett around so he can write a book based on her?  Well, as of last week’s episode it had been published and released in their fictional world, getting rave reviews and great sales.  Here’s the thing though.  In the real world the book, Heat Wave, was released to good reviews and an instant spot on the New York Times bestseller list a couple of weeks before that episode aired.  It’s listed as written by Richard Castle, with glowing blurbs on the cover.

“Castle hasn’t lost it, Heat Wave looks like another bestseller for the thrillmaster.  It’s Hot!” –James Patterson, New York Times bestselling author

“Rick Castle must have been doing his research because Nikki Heat has the unmistakable ring of truth.  This book is gold.  Couldn’t put it down!  I’m getting jealous.” –Stephen J. Cannell, New York Times bestselling author

I’m sure the book started out as a marketing ploy, another way to promote the show, but without (probably) realizing it the produces of the show and the book’s ghost writers (Who I am guessing are named Tom and Andrew based on the post script where “Castle” called them his Sherpas) have breached the hyper-real, a simulacra of something that doesn’t exist.  Luckily the book isn’t bad at all, better in fact than a lot of mysteries I have read recently.  I even liked it better than the last Alex Cross novel I read (sorry Patterson) though that one was certainly well written.

It seems with every passing year “reality” becomes more distorted, less secure.  Is a romance any less real because it happens entirely on a server of WoW?  What about Facebook or Myspace?  We are on the verge of true robotic prosthetics, (BTW, the Bruce Willis Movie Surrogates was excellent from a cyber-punk viewpoint, most of the negative reviews are because the reviewer simply didn’t get the point of the movie) exoskeletons of an Iron Man bent, (without the flying of course) and connecting computers to people’s brains so they can ‘talk’ for the first time in decades in some cases.  Reality ain’t safe or secure.  Enjoy the ride.

P.S.

Tonight is the Halloween Episode of Castle, and from what I can tell in the previews, Castle’s costume is that of himself, sort of.  In the episode Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) is dressed as Mal Reynolds. (Nathan Fillion) Nothing major (though undoubtedly good for a few laughs on our end) but still another indicator of how fluid reality had become.

[tags]Nathan Fillion, Richard Castle, Stana Katic, Hyper-Reality, Simulacra, mystery[/tags]

About

I'm a Trekker, a Brown-coat, a bibliophile, a Star Wars nut. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Steampunk, mythology, anime, noir, detective stories it doesn't matter. I'm into pen and paper rpgs, console and pc games, board games. Want to argue for hours over who would win were the Enterprise-E and a Star Destroyer fight? Sure. Want to debate the advantages of the Way of the Open Palm or the Light Side? Definitely.

Sep 102009
 

One has to wonder, if they can consistently make ads this cool for their games, why oh why did the movie fall through?

Let’s just hope the game is half this cool.

It is interesting though, just how saturated we are getting with the Halo universe. We’ve already had 3 main Halo games, plus the RTS. ODST isn’t even out yet and they’ve already announced Halo: Reach and a Animatrix style collection of short movies. Is it too much? Maybe, but too much of a good thing is still better than too little of a bad thing.

[tags]X-Box 360, Halo, ODST[/tags]

About

I'm a Trekker, a Brown-coat, a bibliophile, a Star Wars nut. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Steampunk, mythology, anime, noir, detective stories it doesn't matter. I'm into pen and paper rpgs, console and pc games, board games. Want to argue for hours over who would win were the Enterprise-E and a Star Destroyer fight? Sure. Want to debate the advantages of the Way of the Open Palm or the Light Side? Definitely.

Aug 292009
 

This is at the same time to most awesome and disturbing thing I have seen in a long time.

Background: The Guild is the creation of Felicia Day, actress of Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog fame. (And if you don’t know what that is look it up immediately, it’s probably the funniest, geekiest creation of Joss Whedon ever)  It’s a web series about the real life activities of a guild in a WoW type game, a guild that is to a man neurotic and dysfunctional in a wide range of hilarious ways.  Seasons 1 and 2 have aired, and can be seen on Youtube.  This music video was made in part to help finance season 3, and is available on iTunes in MP3 and video form.

[tags]Dr. Horrible, Felicia Day, The Guild, Music Videos[/tags]

About

I'm a Trekker, a Brown-coat, a bibliophile, a Star Wars nut. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Steampunk, mythology, anime, noir, detective stories it doesn't matter. I'm into pen and paper rpgs, console and pc games, board games. Want to argue for hours over who would win were the Enterprise-E and a Star Destroyer fight? Sure. Want to debate the advantages of the Way of the Open Palm or the Light Side? Definitely.

Jul 282009
 

I apologize in advance to all the Star Wars fans out there.  I felt the world become smaller somehow when I saw this.  That said, not only does misery love company, but I think it good for the uber-fans to be able to admit that their chosen object of devotion is not in fact perfect.  A special thank you to the Spoony One of the Spoony Experiment for finding the full video (the one we had was only Vader) and inflicting it on his audience.

Speaking oft the Spoony One, his blog is fraking hilarious.  For those of you unfamiliar with the site, its motto is “Because bad movies and games deserve to be hurt back.” Noah Antwiler (The titular Spoony One) specifically looks for bad movies and video games to review and criticize mercilessly, in a style similar to the beloved Mystery Science Theater 3000. (He even has his own robot named Burton in tribute to Crow and Tom Servo)  My personal favorites are his reviews of “Yor: Hunter from the Future” and a multi-part bash fest on every aspect of FF VIII, not to mention the series on the horrid FMV games. (Think of them of games based on chose you own adventure books using the early full motion video technology used in games like Resident Evil 2 or the first Command and Conquer for cut-scenes)

I will add though that this is not a site for youngsters, as Noah has no problems swearing up a storm in frustration and anger as he slogs through painful games for our amusement.

[tags]Star Wars, Spoony Experiment[/tags]

About

I'm a Trekker, a Brown-coat, a bibliophile, a Star Wars nut. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Steampunk, mythology, anime, noir, detective stories it doesn't matter. I'm into pen and paper rpgs, console and pc games, board games. Want to argue for hours over who would win were the Enterprise-E and a Star Destroyer fight? Sure. Want to debate the advantages of the Way of the Open Palm or the Light Side? Definitely.

Jul 232009
 

Seriously, I just dodged a bullet of ridiculous proportions.  In addition to my lovely job here, and my normal job at the local library, I have various duties related to my church.  I am one of the secretaries for my bishop, in addition to being general historian. (For my local congregation only mind you)  This actually is a fairly important job, as we consider record keeping a vital and sacred responsibility.  Among of tenants is one saying we will be judged, among other things, by what is written.  Of course we also believe there are perfect records of everything kept in heaven, so human error won’t be a factor, not that it means we can slack off on our end of the book keeping. Today was the normal weekly meeting for the Bishop, his councilors, the clerks, and the secretaries, to go over changes in assignments, upcoming activities, ways to help the members, and so on.  Since this is a congregation for unmarried college students there is a lot of turnover, especially during the summer months between semesters.  As my laptop is currently tethered to its AC adapter (the battery crapped out and I haven’t had the cash to replace it yet) I use the Bishop’s laptop to take notes on, storing all the information on a standard 1GB flash drive my father acquired somewhere for like ten bucks.  The meeting itself was nothing out of the ordinary, a few changes here, a look back into past meeting notes for a phone number here, plus a look at the new members pictures.  (I also am responsible for having pictures for the members, to help the bishop keep straight all the faces and names, very useful with the large number of move ins and move outs each month, stored in digital form on my flash drive as well as in magnet form on the white board in his office)

Anyway, I got home and started on my laundry.  Yeah, I’m sure some of you can guess where this is going.  Somehow when emptying my pockets into my hat (a very nice black fedora btw) I missed the drive, and it ended up in the wash, a fact I did not discover until I was putting the load into the dryer.  Since I haven’t backed up the drive onto my desktop for at least a month, I started panicking.  I gave it time for any lingering moisture to evaporate, then tried it on my laptop.  For about five seconds I thought it was still working… until the little bubble popped up on my desktop telling me that my computer did not recognize the usb device just connected.  Even forgetting about the meeting notes from the past month, this was a disaster.  I need to have an updated picture directory printed by this coming Sunday, an updating process that normally takes two to three hours a week (I’ve made some progress in making it more efficent, but it is still slow going)  I was looking at a good five hour job to update the version from a month and a half ago, even assuming I could locate all the neccessary pictures. (Not likely)

So I took a break, logged onto Lord of the Rings Online, and killed a few hundred orcs to blow off some steam.  I tried it then on my primary desktop, but still no joy.  I figured at this point, it’s toast anyway, so why not try prying the outer case off to check the circuit board directly?  I did so, catching a very small bit of moisture on the interior surface, then tried it again.  Hallelujah, it worked.  Not wanting to push things I immediately transferred the entire contents of the drive onto my desktop, and then to a second location, just to silence my inner paranoia.  So thank you, Kingston, for making even your cheap flash drives good enough to withstand a trip through the washing machine.  (I am not, however, discounting divine intervention as a possibility)

Oh, and in case you were wondering (you probably were not) the picture at the top of this blog is the actual type of flash drive I use.  I found it somewhat interesting that it came up practically on top of the list when I typed 1GB flash drive into amazon.com

[tags]Flash Drive, Kingston[/tags]

About

I'm a Trekker, a Brown-coat, a bibliophile, a Star Wars nut. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Steampunk, mythology, anime, noir, detective stories it doesn't matter. I'm into pen and paper rpgs, console and pc games, board games. Want to argue for hours over who would win were the Enterprise-E and a Star Destroyer fight? Sure. Want to debate the advantages of the Way of the Open Palm or the Light Side? Definitely.