Monday, September 17, 2007

Parking Lot + Daystar = Sadness

We attended the "Taste of the Summit" event over the weekend, wherein the various restaurants around the local shopping megaplex set up tents and let us sample their delicious wares for $10 a person.

I tend to avoid the large area most people refer to as "outdoors" for various reasons, not the least of which is that it is the natural habitat for bears, tree pollen, and Jehovah's Witnesses. However, some of our friends were going, so we braved the suburban wilderness of southeastern Birmingham and headed to the Summit.

The crowd was huge, and the lines were long. The food was every bit as good as I've come to expect from the restaurants around there, but waiting in line for up to twenty minutes for a couple of spoonfuls of pasta was a bit disappointing. Sure, it's only $10 to sample ten different restaurants, but I doubt they would have lost much money (and probably gained more future customers) by being a bit more generous with the portions. Still, the cuisine was excellent and we got to hang out with our friends and listen to live music, so overall the day a success.

Except for one thing.

One critical fact about the outdoors that I had overlooked: there's a really bright, hot ball of fire that sears the flesh of fish-belly-white nerds like me. I woke up this morning looking like I'd run a marathon through a slaughterhouse. I'm also pretty sure that sometime during the night, small gnomes replaced the water pipes leading to my shower with similar pipes carrying sulfuric acid. I figure shaving is completely out of the question, so I'll be going with my unpopular but far more comfortable "mountain man" look for the next couple of days.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Well, do you have any Frank Black?

Through a comedy of unexpected circumstances, Hillary and I found ourselves at a karaoke lounge on Tuesday night. Originally, we were just going to meet up with friend Adam borrow a couple of old games, but we ended up sticking around and watching him and his wife sing to the (as yet) empty building.

I never thought I'd enjoy hanging out in a karaoke bar (since I don't drink and I can't sing), but it was actually kind of fun to watch the free entertainment. In an uncharacteristically extroverted move, Hillary decided to get up and try a couple of songs, since there wasn't yet a sea of strangers inhabiting the place. She did a believable "House of the Rising Sun", and then kicked it up a notch (bam!) to do a great cover of Tori Amos' rather difficult "Silent All These Years".

Me? Nope. There are only two professional singers that I feel confident I can do justice, and there are no Pixies songs in the karaoke catalog. Although right before we left, I noticed that my other choice, "Punk Rock Girl" by the Dead Milkmen, is indeed available. So maybe one day...

Friday, September 07, 2007

With apologies to CliffyB

I'll get right to the point.

I finally got around to playing through Gears of War this afternoon. I have concluded that it is an overhyped, overrated, poorly-designed piece of shit.

There, I said it. I just trash-talked the most popular game on the Xbox 360. In fact, I beat the final boss not two minutes ago, and I am typing this entry as the ending cutscene plays. The game left me so unfulfilled that I didn't draw any satisfaction from beating it, other than that I won't have to play it again. It embodies virtually everything I hate about "twitch" shooters.

For starters, there are several insta-kill encounters that give you very little hint about how to beat them, so they turn into trial and error. Nothing breaks game immersion nearly as much as having to reload every time you make a single misstep. And the save system is non-existant; Gears uses a checkpoint system, so there's absolutely no way to backtrack or save right before a difficult encounter if the Console Gods didn't decide to put a checkpoint where you'd like.

Take, for example, my second encounter with a Berserker. There's no clue about what you're supposed to do, but through trial and error (and a few reloads), I figure out that I'm supposed to get him to charge at me, destroying columns and making the roof collapse. Okay, the problem is that the movement/cover system is so badly designed that half the time when you try to roll out of the way, your character takes cover on a nearby obstacle instead. Which results in getting trampled, which is insta-death, which makes you reload. Again. And again.

After several tries, I finally kill the Berserker, and I notice that there's no obvious way out of the room. I scout around for a few seconds, and I get a helpful little hint that there's a way out -- I hit the Y button, and my view focuses on a flaming hole in one of the walls. Well, fire is bad, but after all, the game told me that this is the way out. Besides, it's not much fire, so I can probably roll through it if I move quickly. Right? No. Insta-death. And what's even more fun is that the previous checkpoint is before the infuriatingly annoying boss fight.

This is pretty much par for the course throughout the game. Almost every boss fight is a stupid gimmick encounter, often where the enemies are magically immune to all of your weapons.

The final boss (and I hope I'm not ruining this for anyone, but it's not much of a spoiler) is a mean-looking guy with a swarm of bats swarming around him. He's completely immune to weapons when the bats are with him. They can be dispersed with explosives, but you have a very limited amount of explosive ammo. I have no idea how you'd even beat him if you didn't hoard your explosives during the level leading up to the fight. Occasionally he'll throw his bats at you, and if you're in the wrong spot, you're insta-killed and get to start all over. Fun.

I'm not opposed to creative boss fights. I loved Shadow of the Colossus, which consisted of a variety of encounters with giant golem-like creatures. Each fight was completely different, and you often had to figure out how to use your surroundings to win. The problem with Gears is that the sudden change from "shoot hordes of identical enemies" to "figure out how to defeat this giant oops you're dead" was too jarring and just didn't flow well. If you give me a small arsenal of destructive weaponry, let me use some of it to defeat the big nasty guys, okay?

I'm sure you've heard the stupid joke about the man eating at a restaurant who responds to his companion's complaints that the food is poor: "Yes, and the portions are so small, too!". So I'm hesitant to complain about the game's length. However, it took under four hours to complete the entire campaign, even with frequent reloading. To clarify: this $60 game can be completed in an evening, with time to spare for dinner.

I guess most people are drawn to its "hardcore" multiplayer mode, but given that the sum of my experiences with the Xbox Live population consists of being called racial slurs and/or a homosexual (and often both at once!) by hormonally-challenged thirteen-year-olds, the multiplayer aspect doesn't seem too attractive to me. So, instead, I'm putting it up for sale on and chalking it up as a reminder on why my normal policy is not to buy games without playing a demo first.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

You been here four hour!

Hillary and I had the misfortune to eat at the Worst Chinese Buffet in Birmingham and Quite Possibly the Known Universe last night.

The food was cold. The food was disgusting. The waitress only spoke two words of English, and yet somehow still managed to come off as rude and borderline hostile. My water showed up with a small bug of some sort at the bottom of the glass. When I pointed it out, the waitress almost appeared angry at me for daring to notice such a minor inconvenience. We finally walked out and went to the slightly less nausea-inducing Cici's Pizza across the parking lot.

When we got home, Hillary looked up the Chinese buffet's health rating online. They received an 81 -- this is a terrible score, especially in Birmingham, which tends to average much higher scores than other areas around the state.

More interestingly, there were three "critical" items on the list. My favorite:

"Using a wiffle ball bat to stir tea. The end of the bat has been cut off. Provide a smooth easily cleanable FCS in good repair for stirring tea."

Now, my initial (and second, and third) reaction was to be absolutely disgusted by this. However, I love the show Good Eats. Alton Brown always says that you should never have a unitasker in the kitchen, other than your trusty fire extinguisher. Can you really fault these purveyors of fine Asian cuisine for getting dual functionality out of such a mundane children's toy?

Excuse me, I need to go throw up now.