Saturday, August 15, 2009

Alf Wiedersehen

Okay, I know it's actually "auf" and not "Alf," but if I had said that, then I wouldn't have had any good reason to put this in my post:

So I'm hoping you will forgive me.

Anyhoo, I'm off to Germany tomorrow. Yay? Kind of yay. I mean, I'm looking forward to the GamesCom convention, which I've never attended, and I'm also looking forward to Cologne, which I've never visited, but, hey, travel is exhausting, and I'm going without my family, and I'm going for work anyway, not "fun." Still, it could be worse. I'm staying at the Hilton, for one, and I don't have to share a room with any other probably-smelly EA employee, and the "work" I'm doing is just demoing MySims Agents, which is something I really enjoying doing. BECAUSE THE GAME IS GREAT AND YOU SHOULD ALL BUY IT.

I'm going to be in Cologne from Monday-Saturday, leaving Saturday morning. So if you were planning on seeing me at the convention, don't wait until the weekend! I will already be gone. I'm "behind closed doors" for most of the show, but will also be checking in at the main EA booth on the show floor, and will also be wandering around whenever EA lets me off my leash. (And if you happen to be a member of Kraftwerk, and you're reading this, and you're gonna be in Cologne, please stop by so I can worship you for a moment, because I do: I worship you.)

My favorite German band, rocking out.

Besides stalking Kraftwerk, my other goals on this trip include:
1) Not getting fired
2) Getting in a good walking tour of the city, or at least the highlights.
3) Making significant progress in Chrono Trigger
4) Sampling as many fine German beers as I can. Apparently, the local specialty is something called Kolsch. This sounds good to me, so I will probably have quite a few of these. If you'd like to buy me one, I'll probably accept. I haven't had a beer in 3 weeks in anticipation of this trip, so my beer gut, at this point, has all but totally deflated. In theory, that's a good thing. Well, in reality it is too. But look. I'm not going all the way over there, to what is essentially The Beer Country, and not loading up on the stuff. I may be concerned about my health and appearance, but I'm no moron either. So let's fuckin'drink up!

I will also be doing the requisite tweeting (@greenspeak), and will hopefully get at least one or two blog posts and photos up over at I think we're gonna have a hub set up for Cologne, but if not, try here.

I do, as usual, have lots more to say, and have many more blog posts in my head that have not translated to this space yet--my AT&T rant, the next Motorcycle Diary post, my Rock Band dilemma, and more--but sadly, I am a busy man, and must pack and get ready and all that.

So for now I bid you adieu, but I shall be floating around the information superhighway here this coming week, live from Cologne, with important and exciting infotainment for your infotainment pleasure!


Saturday, August 8, 2009

A gaming post!

Hi there! It's a beautiful, sunny late Saturday morning/early afternoon here in Berkeley, California, so what better time to be behind my computer inside my house with the blinds closed.

I've been playing lots of games lately, but haven't yammered about them much, so I figured it was time I did so here. If you visit this blog for reasons other than gaming, you may want to check out now, as this will be a geekapalooza. For all the rest of you: Welcome!

First, let me just say that the pile of games that I have now started and not finished grows ever longer. As much a I'd like to be, in theory, A Guy Who Finishes Games, the sad reality is that I am not. It might be my years as a gaming journalist, in which I was always jumping from one thing to another, to keep current, and only finishing games I was actually reviewing, but even without that excuse any more, I can't stay focused long enough to finish anything. Unless the game happens to be relatively short, like Trine, in which case I do get to bask in that feeling of accomplishment. It's for this reason that I have really come to like shorter games; just a totally selfish desire to finish. Because when faced with epic monstrosities like Fallout 3---which I love dearly, I should say--I just know there's no way in hell I'm ever gonna get through it. I can't even fathom that folks are on to the DLC packs for that game. I'm maybe, I dunno, halfway through the main quest, and it's taken me months to get there, just because I keep getting distracted by other games.

Currently, for example, I am in love with King's Bounty: The Legend, which I downloaded off Steam, and which, within 5 minutes of starting, I knew was going to hook me deeply. The original game and subsequent series off which it was based--the Heroes of Might and Magic series--are some of my favorite strategy games of all time, combining exploration and turn-based combat with a hearty dose of fantasy wankery and droll irresistible meal for Count Dorkula here. The scary thing is that games like this can take forever , and while it is an awesome forever, it does tend to push everything else to the background--kinda like WoW did for me for a good couple years there. (And let's not even talk about WoW; I still miss it and my PC still won't play it. It's just an open sore I'm trying to ignore.)

The fantasy strategy/RPG itch is also getting satisfied via Chrono Trigger on the Nintendo DS. As a PC gaming dork for most of my life, I largely missed out on the JRPG thang--with the exception of Final Fantasy 4 and 7--and I knew that Chrono Trigger was one of the big ones that I'd get to eventually. Playing the new DS version has been a blast so far, though I'm really not that far in. I'm just past the trial, but that itself was so clever--with all the "evidence" weighed against me being made up of actions I had taken earlier in the game up to then--that I knew I was in good hands. That's the kind of smart and creative design decision that you really rarely ever see, especially these days, when developers and publishers seem to go out of their way, more so every year, not to hold everyone's hand and baby our way through these games. The trial comes as a complete surprise, and there's nothing you can do at that point to undo the actions that led you to it, or that lead to the verdict. The game judges you by what you did, and then responds accordingly. It's just a small little set piece in the game, but it's brilliant.

The DSi, by the way, is fast becoming, well, not quite my "platform of choice," but often the one that I default to, if for no other reason that I can play while lying in bed or on the couch. Because, as mentioned above, I can't ever focus on just one game, I'm also simultaneously making me way through Professor Layton (maddening at times but super entertaining and fun to share with others in the room) and Rhythm Heaven, which is also entertaining, and hilarious at times, but also way harder than I was anticipating. And my sense of rhythm really isn't bad for an old white guy--years of bass playing helped overcome the genetic disposition to not stay on the beat.

And then there's GTA Chinatown Wars , a game I enthusiastically bought because of all the rave reviews, and which I too played the hell out of for awhile, but ultimately put down out of frustration--the driving, to me, was just too hard to manage with the D-pad, and I found myself losing missions repeatedly simply because I was battling the controls, rather than the game. It is impressive what Rockstar managed to cram into this game. And I even liked all the stylus-based minigames. So they get a ton of credit for reimagining this series for this platform as well as they did. Ultimately, it's more about me than the game: I just suck at action games on the DS. Nor do I want to feel that stressed out while paying on that contraption, since I'm usually horizontal while doing so.

Other games? I powered through episode one of the new Tales of Monkey Island from Telltale, and loved it. I'm also replaying the new version of Secret of Monkey Island, but, fortunately or unfortunately, I still remember most of the puzzles--surprisingly hardwired into my brain--so it's less about discovery than it is nostalgia. Still, we're talking about one of the funniest games ever made--by far--and like a classic comedy film, it totally holds up and provides the same laughs, all over again. I miss games like this, frankly. It feels like a bit of a lost art. So here's hoping that Tim Schafer and the gang really bring it back with Brutal Legend. It seems like it simply has to be a Day 1 purchase for me. I want to believe.

Other games? Having a blast so far in my limited experience with Battlefield 1943. My biggest problem is still the old console controller vs. keyboard/mouse thing--the cross to bear for all PC gamers. Fights that I'd easily win on the PC just have embarrassing results with the controller, a problem for me going all the way back to Halo 1. But I've always really dug this series, especially because the ability to garner points via methods other than shooting--like flag-capturing--always ensures I can do well on any given server. I blabbed about this on the last Out of the Game podcast, but it constantly amazes me, and this goes all the way back to the first Battlefield--how many players seem to miss the fundamental goal of the game and get caught up in battles that are totally meaningless. Meanwhile, I can rack up points and contribute to the team's bottom line in my own rogue, solo way, and then do my little superior dance when my name shows up near the top of the leaderboard. Err, when I'm not getting endlessly picked off by snipers, that is.

Finally, this summer has led to a resurgence in boardgaming, thanks to both family members and some of my pals at EA, which in turn has led me to zombie out on XBLA with both Catan and Carcassone, which provide able AI opponents. Actually, let me amend that. At least for Catan. Because they may be "able," but as far as I'm concerned, it fuckin' cheats. There. I said it. Because, without fail, once I establish a lead in that game, it seems that every new die roll is a freakin' miracle. Suddenly the 2s and 12s start pouring out--as long as it benefits the other opponents--as well as the 7s, which invariably lead to me losing all my cards, over and over. Okay, so maybe I'm just a paranoid crybaby. But I definitely get the sense, once I start winning, that the AI stops being three separate opponents with their own agendas, and instead one vengeful computer, like HAL in 2001, doing everything it can to prevent my victory, including spinning the die whichever way it helps it best. However, lest it appear I am insulting the designers, who I have nothing but love for (really!), let me offer an alternative, but equally probable, explanation for what I am experiencing: I just suck at Catan.

The list of unfinished games (Dead Space, Mirror's Edge) grows ever higher, as does the list of games just barely even started (Persona 3), and the chances of me ever finishing them all decreases as the days pass, my hair gets grayer, and my life gets busier. For decades now, I've always imagined this theoretical future when I am going to have nothing but time on my hands, and I will finally get around to all of this wonderful gaming, but, ya know. Sure. Still, it's a nice fantasy to cling to, and helps quell the feeling that I'm in way over my head here with all of this. Such a rough problem to have in life, isn't it? Too many games to play and not enough time. Cry me a freakin' river, I know. But such is the burden of the 21st Century Gamer.

Woe is us.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Motorycle Diaries, Part II

I have promised you, The People, another motorcycle blog, and I have been delinquent in delivering. Forgive me. I've been a bit distracted. In addition, my motorcycle has not even been in my possession this week, as I brought it in for a 15,000 mile servicing. This is after skipping the 4,000 and 7,000 and 13,000 mile servicing, for which I am a very bad boy, indeed. The problem is that I ride every single day, 70 miles a day, and so I hate to be without it. Which is about the stupidest possible excuse I could come up with, since the bike will obviously be no good to me if it gets screwed up.

Now, I have done the basic upkeep of the bike--oil, tire pressure, etc--but when it comes to actual mechanics, ferget it. I am beyond incompetent. Well, that's not entirely fair. I'm just unskilled. I lack knowledge. I did not grow up with a father who tinkered in the garage and handed me down his toolkit. I do not, in general, repair items, and the only furniture I've ever assembled successfully comes from Ikea, which doesn't count. It's kind of a crappy thing to have to admit as a guy, and even worse when you ride a motorcycle. Because the expected cultural wisdom is that you fix yer own goddamn bike. It's about being "at one" with your machine, which, in theory, I completely agree with. I just know that in practice, it'd end in catastrophe. So, I just pay the price instead--and in this case it's a heavy one. Like, $1,500 worse. OUCH. The only solace I have is that this is what it would have cost me, apparently, anyway, just as a matter of course---not because I was delinquent on bringing it in. Still, that is a veritable buttload of money, and makes me realize once again how helpless I am in the face of mechanics.

In any event, I promised to say what I ride, and since it's not like it's any big mystery or big deal, I will tell you. I don't know why it has not come up yet. It is a 2009 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic, in black. It looks like this:

I absolutely freakin' love it. Not only is it the first bike I bought brand new, but it is also the biggest and most comfortable. And loudest. Now, you may scoff at that last part, and I am certainly not one of those obnoxious attention-getting a-holes who feels the need to wake the neighborhood or cause babies to scream and dogs to howl as I ride down the road (and really, it's not THAT loud--it's all stock parts), but I promise you that having a bike that motorists can actually HEAR--since no one ever sees us--is a huge safety thing. I can tell, on the freeway, that it's usually the sound of my bike that makes drivers aware BEFORE they see me, and it's a comforting feeling.

The sitting stance on this bike--a cruiser, my first--means that I can basically sit upright, and even lean back a little, which is great if you're a middle-aged dude like me with a bad back. Younger dudes like to point and laugh at cruisers, but my comeback to you is this: Fuck off. Wait till you get to be my age. All I know is I can sit comfortably on this thing for 70 miles every day, and have a nice wide viewing angle in which to watch all the traffic. So you sport bike/rice rocket punks go ahead and rip by me and have a nice day. Old man Green is having a great old time anyway.

I started out small, by the way, on a tiny Ninja 250, and if you are a new and inexperienced rider, I can't recommend this strategy enough. Do not let macho posturing get to you. Do not let your friends laugh at you. Learning the basic techniques, and staying alive while doing it, is your first and only priority when you are starting out, and you do not need, nor really should have, a bigger, more expensive bike to start. It's just stupid. You're gonna drop the thing almost guaranteed at some point (I did, more than once), and, for me anyway, the 250 was just the right (small) size in which I felt like I could be in charge, rather than having the bike overwhelm me. It's also fast as hell, anyway.

I know some folks will probably comment that they started out on bigger bikes and were fine with it, and that's cool. Well, it's cool as long as you survived and didn't feel out of your depth. But I totally recommend starting small and working your way up. Or shit, even just staying small. My previous bike, before this Vulcan, was a Yamaha Seca II, a 600cc that was just beautiful to ride. And if it wasn't for my new, long commute, I would have been happy staying with it. I only upgraded because of the commute. I mean, to be honest about it, I totally would have gotten a bigger, newer bike much earlier than I did, because, ya know, you will always have that itch, but I let practical reasons, like money, trump my base desires. Fortunately, by taking a job with a hellish commute, a new, bigger bike became a practical reason. So yay!

One more thing about this bike. Some folks may be inclined, for better or worse, to say it looks like a Harley. I really have no opinion on Harleys or Harley riders. I'm too concerned with my own riding to judge others. I will, say, however, that I have heard that my bike is referred to, among Harley riders, as a "Hardley." I am amused.

Okay. I have procrastinated enough. I now must brave the horrid Bay Area freeway in my car, for one last evening. I hate it. Even when traffic sucks, when I'm on the motorcycle, well, I'm still on my motorcycle. In the car, I just want to run everyone else off the road and/or stab myself in the head with a pencil. I do promise I will do neither, however. The one thing I can do in the car that I can't on the bike is listen to music. And the first Gorillaz CD sounded so freakin' great on the way in this morning, that I'm going to listen to it again on the way home. But even louder.

Next time: The joys and perils of lanesplitting.