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Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

May 31, 2012 Leave a comment

When we last left off in this series it was with semi-sequel: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood in which Desmond had reached the apple of Minerva below the Colloseum in Rome, Ezio had ended the last of the Borgia’s and had begun the task of rebuilding the Brotherhood. When Revelations was released it was called the end of the Ezio trilogy, which I didn’t realize that this was a thing. In November-ish, Assassin’s Creed III is going to be released taking us from the Renaissance to Pre-Revolutionary Massachussetts. Yet we’ve had three games already, but they are more like sub-games and Revelations is more AC II.3 than it is a straight up sequel. Which isn’t to say that it’s short, or that the story is hasty, or that it is at all similar to the growing number of tepid sequels that are being pumped out by the game companies. It’s a full game, that will sort of stand on its own, although one of the story lines will make absolutely no sense to those picking up this, as their first foray in the series.

Spoilers ahead: but then again you’ve had over six months.

At the end of Brotherhood, Desmond had stabbed Lucy under the control of the alien Minerva. In response to this he lapsed into something like a coma, but the animus is keeping him alive. The only trouble is that he can’t get out and his mind is stuck in the machine. In it he encounters the consciousness of the mysterious subject 16 from the previous three games. A tortured victim of Abstergo who was thought to have died in the machine. In each of the previous games Desmond as Dante has always had a Virgil to guide him to his purpose. In the previous three it has been Lucy, Shaun, and Rebecca all acting as guides. Shaun handled the historical references with his dull saracstic British wit, Rebecca doing the technical, and Lucy with the overall mission. Here none of that is present, it is only the unhinged Subject 16 that seems to be cryptic for the sake of being cryptic, but generally just points and says ‘go there now and figure it out.’

That’s the Desmond story. As I said earlier this is the final of the Ezio trilogy. Ezio, having left the Order in good standing in Rome has traveled to Masyaf, the original headquarters of the order from the very first AC game to unlock a vault to discover the purpose of the order and what he ought to do with the apple. However, it has been captured and occupied by the Templars who try and kill him. Although Ezio escapes he has lost his equipment and most now flee to Constantinople to discover the five keys to the vault of Masyaf. One of which is beneath the Sultan’s palace in the city.

In the city we meet Yusuf Tazim, the leader of the Assassin’s Order in Turkey. We also meet Suleiman, the future Sultan of the Ottaman Empire, also called Suleiman “The Magnificent,” his jealous brother Ahmet, famed explorer/pirate/inventor Piri Reis, and get to tour various famous locales such as the Hagia Sophia. In short, it’s your typical AC game. What’s impressed me in the past about the series continues here but now it’s expected, and the polish has worn off. We’re also stepping away from a period of history and location that I am familiar with so that may contribute as well, but there is a lack of historical information that populated the previous two games. When it does appear it lacks Shaun’s wit and feels almost tacked on.

What is nice is the feeling that you aren’t alone. Having an established order in the city gives more of an epic feeling to the overall historical narrative that didn’t exist in the previous games. Sure, there were other Assassins like Caterina and Machiavelli, but seemed more remnants of a thing that was, rather than a thing that is. Here Tazim represents an a group fighting a war and they need help. This should have given Ezio a few assistants like the incredibly well done system from the last game, but for some reason you still have to go around doing the recruitment. It’s kind of old to be doing this.

What is new is that Tazim has given Ezio a hook for his arm blade that Ezio can use to travel through the city by means of zip lining along the various wires that for some reason are strewn about Constantinople. It’s kind of interesting, and it gives you a bit of an added reach in combat, but that’s really it. The other addition is that of Piri Reis and his bombs. Reis instructs you on how to create a series of hand grenades and anti-personal mines by mixing different kinds of gunpowder, shells, and secondary ingredients for a variety of effects. This is more of a mix and match method of creating chaos. You can use a time delay fuse on a hard shell, to set off either a smoke bomb, or a noise bomb to distract guards, or poison/shrapnel to kill others. There are contact fuses and mine fuses, etc. There are only in, truth, about nine different bombs you will use, with the possibilities being for more novel effect (goat blood and coin bombs).

The brotherhood system has been revamped as well. Now the assassin’s have more levels and can operate strongholds overseas. You don’t choose the weapons anymore, and while the system seems a bit deeper than it was in Revelations its hampered by a ridiculous tower defense minigame that serves no other point than to be a distraction from the story. Luckily though, you don’t have to do this too often, during my first play through of the game I did it twice, failing both times because I didn’t understand the system.

Playing throught the game, the highlight is definintely the interaction of Ezio with the other characters. He’s older now, much older than Revelations, and this is a unique take on the sequel. Typically sequels track the same character but they don’t seem to age or change in anything other than abilities. While Ezio is certainly deadlier than in his Florentine adventure, he is also wiser. The characterization of Ezio has really given the players a sense of the sweep of his life. As the game ends he departs Masyaf weary, retiring from the Order.

After finding one of the keys to the vault, we are also revisiting Altair Ibn Lahad, the central character from the first AC. This was an unexpected treat, as the first game had yet to find its voice and was saddled with repetitive game play. I’m going to spoil the hell out of this so stop reading:

 

The last image of Altair we have is his sealing the vault with the apple inside it. Then we do something that I haven’t seen a game do in a long time, die. That seems odd doesn’t it, I die all of the time in games. But I don’t mean you die and then you have to start over, I mean that the character itself sits down to die. Sure, it’s not a Call of Duty Game unless you get shot in the face or hit by a nuclear weapon, but this is somehow different. This is the end of the character’s life, and he merely sits down to rest. It’s a surprisingly peaceful end, and is treated not for the shock that the CoD series does it for; but merely to cap off the end of the character. Imagine of a Zelda game did that? During one iteration Link just lays down on a bed and closes his eyes…and that’s it. Altair’s time has come to an end, and as an elderly man he just accepts his fate. It’s an actual touching moment in a series that does know how to tell an emotionally compelling story.

 

End Spoiler: Aside from the lack of innovation, or a compelling mystery to solve (the puzzles are gone), the game feels unfinished and rushed into production. There are several glitches during the game, one in the beginning that had Ezio walking off a roof over and over again as soon as he climbed atop it, which made me turn off the game and restart the whole thing because I thought my Xbox was at fault. The weapon selection system (which has always needed some improvement) has an infuriating default system that constantly forces you to draw your weapon when you just want to select one to be at ready. This can be alarming to the numerous guards and can fail a mission right then. While the previous AC games have been great excursions into conspiracy and history this game doesn’t live up the standard they have set. It’s got all of the elements, but lot of it just feels forced. I want to know more about the history of the Hagia Sophia and the grand Bazaar, I want excerpts from the obscure books I had to find (in the previous games it was art, but at least then I was able to see the paintings), I want puzzles that test my logical capacity to the straining point, all of it in this game feels dumbed down and rushed.

If you are a fan of the series than you have to get the game as it fills in some story questions but all in all, this is like the second to last season of Lost. Sure it’s essential to the plot and is better than most of the other crap out there but it’s been done better before, and by the same people.

7/10

Categories: reviews, video game review

The A-Team

August 18, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m old enough to remember the show when it ran in the 80s, and I was a big fan then. Still, when I see reruns on the television I’ll stop changing the channel trying to remember what the episode was about or at least wait until I hear BA pity a fool, or Hannibal love it when a plan comes together. One of the reasons that I looked forward to the movie was to see who they would get to play whom.

The series was essentially character driven representing the cliches from almost every action movie prior to the eighties. You had the cool confident commander, the pretty boy ladies’ man, the tough guy, and the crazy person. The action, when viewing the show now, actually seems secondary to the characters since the characters are all former Special Forces the violence is part of their character. The actors need to portray a group of people that trust and love each other, but also can’t stand each other from time to time.

The movie did this extremely well especially with the casting of Liam Neeson as Col. John “Hannibal” Smith. Liam Neeson as an actor must have gotten tired of the heavy dramas a few years ago, I’m willing to bet that it started with The Phantom Menace that he realized I could actually have fun in an action movie. Even in deadly serious action movies like Taken, where his acting alone saved what was a pretty cliched movie, you can kind of see that he is being entertained as well. Bradley Cooper played Face very well and the dynamic between the two was well played, reminiscent of the relationship between George Peppard and Dirk Benedict. While it still worked well, the other two characters weren’t that memorable. The man who took over for Mr. T, Quinten Jackson, seemed to be laughing through his lines too much but he had the expressive anger that Mr. T brought to BA Baracus, the same can almost be said for Sharlto Copley as Howling Mad Murdock. The issue with Murdock is that you can take the character one of two ways: you can go the over the top comic relief crazy as the show did with Dwight Schultz or you can take a reserved subtle crazy. The movie ops for a middle ground instead treating the character as someone that is more of an adrenaline junky with a death wish and poor impulse control.

Reservations aside the characters work together and that is what is the most important thing about capturing the essence of the A-Team. The only thing really missing from the movie was a character named “Decker.” Jessica Biel is also in the movie playing “hot female” but largely is inconsequential to the plot. Normally this type of thing is annoying but if you remember the show correctly, the lead female was either a damsel in distress or fulfilled this role. Here, she’s an army intelligence officer seeking to arrest the A-Team for stealing a bunch of hundred dollar printing plates, which is the set up for the whole movie. This is the famous “crime they didn’t commit,” which is an actual improvement over the show because in the show they actually committed the crime they were arrested for.*

Basically the whole movie revolves around the team trying to retrieve the printing plates to clear their names. With a whole bunch of explosions fit in between. What do you expect? It’s an action movie based on an action television show, the plot is more of a vehicle for the gun fights. It’s a good thing too, because were this movie a serious investigation into the theft of missing printing plates I would have a problem with it. The plates themselves originated in Iran before the fall of the Shah in the 70s. For some reason the Iranians had the ability to print US $100 bills. I don’t feel like looking this up, but it’s certainly plausible. The plates were then captured at some point during the Iran-Iraq war and in the possession of the Iraqis when the US toppled Saddam. Again, plausible. What isn’t, is how these plates are in any way useful. In the mid 90s the design of the Franklin bill changed drastically. Aside from using the money to buy things in Somalia the money can’t be used.

“Hot Female” at one point describes the team as “specializing in the ridiculous,” and nothing better summarizes the movie than this one phrase. The movie is full of the cartoonish violence that accompanied the series but the movie never takes itself so seriously as to make itself absurd. It seems that everyone in the movie is having fun at the expense of what is going on. From Hot Female’s explanation that the team is trying to “fly a tank” to a mercenary’s plea to his CIA captor that he not get executed by a particularly inept agent, it’s a fun movie that perfectly interprets the series for the big screen.
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*In the eighties show the crime they were accused of was robbing the bank of Hanoi to defund the North Vietnamese and bring an end to the war. However the orders that sent them there were burned and the commanding officer killed by the VC, so it looked like they did it on their own accord. Still, they did actually rob that bank. It’s unclear to me how robbing the bank of an enemy during a war would cause you to get arrested by the army, but whatever.

Categories: movie review, movies, reviews

The Moon Voyage

July 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Like “The Mysterious Island” I picked up “The Moon Voyage” out of a sense of curiosity. Jules Verne’s writings are known for a certain prophetic aspect, his Nautilus semi-predicted submarines. I say “semi-predicted” as they had been used with moderate success in warfare at the time of his writings and his foresight is actually based on their merging with other technologies still at their infancy during his time. Where “The Moon Voyage” exceeds this writing is notably in his setting the moon launch in Florida by a team of Americans. All of this is pretty extraordinary but perhaps even more so when he gives his justification for that location.

The story itself surrounds an American gun club based in Baltimore led by President Barbicane (president of the Gun Club not the United States). The club itself is in a state of decline with the end of the US Civil War the membership of the club is comprised of men who designed and used artillery during the war. Without that war they feel themselves to be useless relegated to waiting for another war, or perhaps as one of them proposes to actually lobby for the beginning of another war. Barbicane has other designs, he proposes that instead of building more and deadlier weapons he proposes that the club apply itself to building a gun that could propel a projectile to the moon.

Instead of skepticism the club, and the country, embraces the idea in what Verne calls the spirit of American ingenuity. The dimensions of the weapon, the projectile, and the amount of propellent needed are well calculated. The time of launch is determined with help from the British, and the location itself as well. Here’s where we get to his prescience. Florida is chosen but it’s not random and this is also where Verne’s strength as a writer excels. Other writers might have just picked a place randomly or perhaps based their location on proximity to a major city or industrial center for obvious reasons. Verne chooses Florida for purely scientific reasons. According to the British the Moon is closest to the Earth between certain Latitudes and only two places in the US are within that constriction: areas of Florida and Texas.

Florida won because the location they picked is remote and with few cities in Florida at the time, there would be no jealousy among them as there would have been in Texas. There would also be no confusion or controversy over appropriating land for the project as their might be in the more densely populated Texas. The initial project’s purpose is to see if it can be done, that’s it. It was nothing more than an exercise of the industry of a uniquely industrious and ingenious people. Then it is proposed that the projectile be occupied and thus the project is undertaken to change the shell to a capsule.

There is no decision made in this book that is not accompanied by a reason for that decision and then a detailed explanation of how that goal was carried through. Everything seems to be based on the science of the time, which although somewhat inaccurate has the reading of a logical proof and the absolute faith of the characters in that science. What gets forgotten amid the correctness of the Florida location are three other predictions that eventually would come true.

The first is the fact that the three travelers in the capsule once launched would experience no weight. While scientists of the time new that gravity was based on mass (a fact keenly and repeatedly stressed during the book) what wasn’t accepted as a scientific theory at the time was that in space that gravity would diminish and that passing a certain point would mean that the travelers would be weightless. When the travelers do hit weightlessness they are completely “stupefied” finding “weight wanting in their bodies.” Given Verne’s scientific researches into everything else that went into the book, including some rather lengthy discourses on the geography of the Moon, it stands to reason that he stumbled across some monograph on the subject but again, this was not an accepted theory at the time merely a hypothesis.

Secondly he also predicts that other objects in space also have gravity. Now the moon having gravity is one thing, that was something accepted such an object’s mass would have attraction. What Verne predicts though is that a passing comet not only has gravity but also enough gravity that it pulls the capsule off course. Not by much of course, but enough so that the journey is put into peril when the travelers realize that they have no landed on the moon when they should have.

Thirdly is the burying of the Moon Gun. This is based on common sense given the enormity of the cannon and the amount of fuel being used but it has been tried twice in history. Hitler’s V3 project, an attempt to build artillery cannons that could be fired from France and hit London with no warning compared to the the V1 and V2 missiles were also proposed to have been buried in the ground…although this probably had more to do with being hidden from British and American bombers as well. Then there was Saddam Hussein’s attempt at building an atmosphere capable artillery gun that had much the same construction. Although that project was “cancelled” by Mossad agents (allegedly) when the lead engineer was found dead in an Iraqi hotel from two gun shots to the head.

The Moon Voyage is an interesting read if only to learn of the fascination with the moon and the science thereof in the late 19th century. Verne’s strength is also causes his writing to drag as the various aspects of the moon are presented in great detail as well as a history of astronomy and selenography which slow the story down. However overall the story is about a scientific project and the execution of which by learned and ambitious men who are willing to risk everything just for the accomplishment of it. This, Verne says, is a uniquely American state of mind.

Oh yeah, the first capsule to actually land on the moon was called “Columbia,” but Verne labels his “Columbiad”–I guess you can’t be right all of the time.

Categories: book reviews, reviews

“Among the Truthers”–Jonathan Kay

June 21, 2011 Leave a comment

To be interested in Conspiracy as a flight of fancy is one thing, but to truly believe in a conspiracy theory is more akin to really believing in the various stories surrounding religion. While this may be deemed offensive to some (on either side of that comparison) the parallels are pretty numerous. First and foremost is the belief that world events are not random, they are controlled or at least guided in much the same way that believers in God will explain the path of a tornado that rips through a town and kills very few people. This belief though is opposite in tone than the religious, whereas the faithful will ascribe events that spare human life as the result of God’s hand, Conspirators believe that events which claim human lives are the result of a master plan. There is also the notion of belief in something despite the lack of evidence, i.e. that of faith.

Jonathan Kay’s book, “Among the Truthers” is an examination not of conspiracy beliefs but of the people that believe in conspiracies. Focusing on the most prevalent of modern conspiracies, that of the theory that the September 11th attacks on NYC and the Pentagon were an inside job (most theories either ignore the Pennsylvania plane or have a different theory to cover it: that it was shot down by US Planes is the most common). This choice of focus is obvious as it allows the author to immerse himself in a world that is still living and still growing. Despite the fact that most people believe that the single shooter of JFK is a dubious idea, the theory is pretty stagnant relegated to once a year repeated specials on the History Channel.

It should be noted that the author does not believe in the theory, accepting the events according to the 9/11 commission’s report, and the numerous scientific studies that have proven the collapse happened the way it did from the cause of the plane’s collision. Kay, also ignores the temptation to include a chapter or two on why the alternative theories presented are wrong. He claims that this was advised by his editor who said that there would be no market for such a book. Believers in the theory would claim that he was a puppet while people accepting the official explanation would have no need to read it. There are numerous web pages on the internet devoted to both.

Which is one explanation that he offers for the spread of this theory. The development of the internet not only allowed people formerly regarded as crackpots to disseminate their beliefs but it did something else, something much more important than just giving them an outlet: it gave them encouragement. Where once they might have wrote about their theory and then forgotten about it. The internet could now give them instant feedback and compel them to continue. The theories became compartmentalized much like modern political discourse into an echo chamber where theorists only hear support for their beliefs and are thus more and more convinced of the “truth” of it. Is not this the exact opposite of the dream of Web in the mid-1990s? What once was supposed to be access to the world of divergent opinions and information instead has became a collection of cliques that only speak to each other.

The causes of conspiracism are varied. It’s propagation is not only based on the web but also in the atmosphere as well. The book goes to great strains to explain that while people on the right or left would like to blame the other side for these ideas, the genera of conspiracy is actually the fault of both. While the right wing has had more prevalence lately in the dissemination of conspiracy theories, the left wing has had its time before. Whenever one group is in power it is the other group that will have among itself a fringe element that sees conspiracy. The difference we see now is that conspiracy theory was given public air by Glenn Beck, whom Kay categorizes in the book as a conspiracy theorist for which I have to agree (his threading of Soros as a liberal puppet master should suffice as evidence). On the left though there have been Noam Chomsky and Jacques Derrida. What has to be decided is which is worse: a political pundit on the number one cable news channel or two well respected PhDs? These enablers lend legitimacy to the odd theories and give them main stream acceptance.

The point is made though, that we cannot ascribe to one side of the political debate responsibility for conspiracy, only specific theories that often have origins in some surprising source. For instance, it was the KGB that first implanted the idea that AIDS was genetically engineered. Or, although not mentioned in the book, “Birtherism” first appeared not in the GOP or its followers but in supporters of Hillary Clinton’s nomination bid.

The most damning indictment though, and deservedly, goes toward left-wing academics. The era of political correctness has basically necessitated that America is the evil empire in the world and academics adhering to a false model of Marxism have portrayed the United States as hegemonic in its goals. Belief that “the great engine of evil in the world is American hegemony–and so every epic tragedy the world suffers must somehow be laid at Washington’s doorstep.” This era of PC has also given the general population the reluctance to criticize people for holding certain opinions. Forcing relativism on people who would otherwise know better. Medical conspiracies including the vaccination conspiracies rest on theories that just “feel right” to people like Jenny McCarthy despite the united opposition of Pediatricians in both the US and for most of the world.

Another important facet that Kay concentrates on is to make a differentiation between people who are conspirators and the genuine insane. Most conspirators are not insane, he mentions, but some are. Despite the fact that someone with mental problems might be a conspiracy believer is the exception. The line is whether or not the person believes themselves to be involved in the conspiracy, usually this involvement is in hiding from the guiding hand of the world events. Most “truthers” don’t think someone is out to silence them.

The religious analogy also applies to the various sects of conspiracism. Within each there are hierarchies, schisms, and outcasts. Getting the “story” straight is often difficult for them, and people who do not ascribe to the “official” story proposed by the conspiracists are often shunned or labelled crackpots. The irony of this is that they themselves deride the mainstream press and government officials for doing just the same.

Ultimately though the conspiracist movement is full of ironies and contradictions. Professional Academic journals have thus far not accepted the movement’s ideas as having any truth (although there are Academics who are truthers) and thus are called “ignorant” or “puppets” by members of the movement. Yet, those very same people seem to crave such acceptance to the point where they have set up their own academic sounding journal “Journal of 9/11 Truth.” The same with the media, while You Tube videos abound with truther confrontations these amount to no more than pranks. The media is “in on it” but then upon meeting journalists those that don’t specifically dismiss them often seek to get their ideas mentioned in it. This lends itself to the idea that substratum for a good deal of conspiracism activists is stardom in one fashion or the other. They deride the mainstream academics and media as being worthless then brag about how their theories and intelligence make them outliers but in the next breath they are seeking the approval of the mainstream.

Ultimately the contradiction inherent in the 9/11 truth is that the truth for them is unfulfillable. If we assume them to be correct, and that a group of people (or aliens) were able to manipulate the entire world into believing what happened on 9/11 was the real thing, then what kind of independent investigation could escape their grasp? The invisible hand is suddenly unable to direct a second investigation? It would seem that what the most vocal people espousing these theories really want is to lead the investigation.

Kay’s book is gripping, especially for people who may not be familiar with this world. His only fault is in his writing style, which is journalistic in origin. That’s not a problem so much as his constant need to cite earlier and later passages in the book, as if we were reading a series of articles in a newspaper. It gets quite distracting to the point where i was noticing that he couldn’t go three pages without making a reference to the past or the future. Much like the flow chart of a conspiracy theorist explaining how the Bildergergers were really the puppet of the Tri-Lateral commission or something.

Categories: book reviews, reviews

The Mysterious Island

June 9, 2011 Leave a comment

You can download it here.

I was first made aware of this book when viewing Tron: Legacy over the winter. It popped up as a rather obvious reference, especially when they openly displayed the book and had one character explain that it was her favorite. I was intrigued, but not enthusiastic since I didn’t completely enjoy the movie to begin with. Yet Jules Verne, is one of those science fiction writers who is so prescient that it wouldn’t surprise me if we find a vault in France one day with one of his books that describes a picture phone. This is the guy who predicted that people would be weightless in space long before anyone was able to actually confirm it. I could go on about Verne and his predictions, especially his view of the modern submarine and the existence of the giant Kraken.

I assumed that since Tron:Legacy was a huge science fiction movie and Jules Verne was a science fiction writer there would be something in common betwixt them in “The Mysterious Island.” The story centers on four men and a dog who escape the confines of the Confederate Richmond in a hot air balloon in 1862 only to be blown away by a Hurricane where three of them land on a small islet in the Pacific. A search of the surrounding area reveals the Islet to be connected to a larger Island made of Basalt and Granite with lush vegetation as they search for their fourth comrade. These four are Gideon Spillett, Pencroft, Neb, and Brown. Spillett is a journalist, Neb is a freed slave, Pencroft a sailor, and Brown is Pencroft’s young protege adopted by Pencroft.

These four are in danger because they have not the tools to survive. In fact one of them even remarks that unlike Robinson Crusoe, they were shipwrecked with nothing and would have to fend for themselves. They search awhile for their fifth member, an engineer named Harding and it is in the engineer that they place their salvation believing that this man of science could construct for them everything that they would need for survival and deliverance from the island. While initially they feared that he had drown in the sea he turns up inland on a beach and is nursed back to health along with some assistance from his dog Top.

From this point the five castaways begin constructing their lives on the island fearing that there may be some time before they are rescued. The faith in the engineer is validated by his seeming omniscience in the fields of chemistry, physics, and mechanical engineering. His first feat is to construct fire using a water lens. Which he built out of two watch faces and filled them with water. Then things a get a bit deus ex machina as he is able to forge iron tools, derive glass, and create pyroxite and nitroglycerin for use as explosives. I suppose all of this is possible but where Crusoe had to make do without certain things these castaways are lacking nothing as long as the base materials exist. How one derives nitroglycerin without a labratory and not blow themselves up is quite astonishing given how unstable the chemical is.

The Island is abundant in life, all kinds of animals live there from Jaguars to seals to kangaroos and all sorts of birds. This leaves them not wanting for food, although for some reason they do begin to lack clothing. Why the engineer can construct chemical explosives but not a rudimentary tannery seems to be his only limitation, even though all of the materials are there. You may object telling me that, “the internet says that you would need battery acid or something equivalent for the tanning of hides, lol rofl.” That may be the case but not only is nitric acid a principle part of the making of nitroglycerin (the word “nitro” is right in there) but also the engineer makes batteries and a telegraph machine. That’s a minor quibble. After excavating an underground cave of Granite with explosives the survivors move into “Granite House” which is quite impregnable from the outside and after rescuing a man named Aryton from an island about a hundred miles away (in a sloop which they constructed for the purposes of sailing around the island…although a Viking Longboat would have been a better idea), they live in relative harmony.

The title of the book refers to a series of actual deus ex machina instances which can be explained by no one in the book. The first is the rescue of Harding. He was the last in the balloon that disappeared into the sea yet he was found hundreds of yards up the beach with no recollection of how he got there. The second is that the dog Top is saved from a dugong whose throat was mysterious cut. A crate of supplies mysteriously appears in the water furnishing the five with guns and new clothes, the message indicating the sixth person on the nearby island and finally the sudden explosion of an invading pirate ship which Harding explains came from an underwater explosive device, a torpedo (which at the time of the civil war was a term used for any underwater explosive device).

They search the island to and fro seeking out their elusive benefactor, all the while Pencroft commenting that he will never be found unless he wishes it so. Finally the man behind the curtain contacts them and sends them to an underwater cavern in which he lives. It turns out to be.[spoiler warning but you’ve had like a hundred years to read this book]…Captain Nemo and the Nautilus! It was he that rescued everyone, somehow, left the supplies [more probable], blew up the pirates [extremely probable], and then killed the surviving pirates [with his ray gun–which fits in with 20,000 leagues under the sea]. Nemo is dying and in the bottom of the cave the Nautilus is his final tomb.

The book doesn’t end there but I will end the synopsis. The book is driven by the suspense of the mysterious force of the island and the ingenuity of the survivors. It’s not that character driven at all, in fact several times while reading, even toward the end, I had to remind myself who was who. Only Neb, the freed slave, and Harding, the engineer come off as being remarkable if only for the fact that the former becomes the cook and the latter is utterly so important. The rest occupy a middle ground of obscurity. Also lacking is the despair of Crusoe that they would never see home again. Crusoe was driven by internal struggle which he resolved by appealing to god. Perhaps this was because of the isoloation on his island but where these five have companions that resolution is unnecessary.

The real problem for the book is that Harding is too ingenious. The book settles into a groove we know they are going to survive, but the only question is how. And the how is often answered with the most unlikely answer. “How can we communicate with the corral?” Answer: “I’ll build a telegraphy machine with iron wires (five miles of iron wire).” It gets unlikely to the point of ridiculousness. As a reader I became like the character Sawyer on Lost, just accepting whatever was happening because thinking anything to be improbable at any point was not to believe that it couldn’t happen.

Which brings me to the final point: I have no idea what the writers of Tron were thinking when they used this book in their movie. There is nothing in common between the two. For the two plots to even have the slightest resemblance the movie would have to have spent 75% of its time before revealing Jeff Bridges outside the grid. This book has more in common with the first season of Lost, a group of survivors struggling on an island with some strange occurrences. In this respect it works, and works very well. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me that one of the books Sawyer read on the beach was this one.

It’s not as strong as Robinson Crusoe, but it is entertaining. If you are a huge 20,000 Leagues fan I would recommend the book if only to learn the final fate of Nemo. 

Categories: book reviews, reviews

LG Quantum

June 3, 2011 Leave a comment

My last post indicated that we had switched off of Verizon for AT&T, the only choice left was what phone to purchase. I did the research necessary attempting to find a smart phone that would work for me and was relatively inexpensive. What I did not realize before I started looking was that the price of these devices had dropped significantly. This is due to the market competition between operating systems, up until recently there was only one, the blackberry marketed primarily to business people. I don’t know if this is because the company figured that the average person would have no need for it or…I can’t figure a different reason actually. Then came the iOS on the apple iPhone. Google entered the fray with the short lived Nexus but then quickly teamed up with Motorola (who rode the success wave with the Razr far too long) to produce the Droid and the Android OS. The late comer to the game was Microsoft. Microsoft had previously worked with Windows Mobile, which primarily existed on PDAs (remember those?) but integrated roughly on some phones. It wasn’t a cash cow, so they revamped the OS to produce windows phone 7.

Each of the operating systems has its advantage and disadvantage, the iPhone trades a lot on the reputation of Apple products and what people understand from the iPod. The iPod is an interesting case for a marketing/business student because it wasn’t the first portable mp3 player (that honor goes to this) but it was the most marketable. Even HP had the rights to “iPod” before Apple started really pushing them. Android does the same with brand recognition, relying on people’s perception of Google and the biggest advantage of being completely customizable. Blackberry is a legacy thing, people I know who use blackberry products do so because they have always been using them. It helps to be the first into the pool, provided you know how to swim. Windows 7 Phone is wholly new and I’m not sure how they are advertising it, in fact I pretty much was unaware of the system itself until I went to shop for the phones. Ultimately I settled on that for a couple reasons.

The first was that for some reason Gwen was able to use it pretty flawlessly at the store, the first time that she (or I) had ever seen it. The second reason was that when I used it the default home screen just made alot of sense. Everything was clear and labelled in big bright tiles that were common sense labelled. I worried a bit about customization and the basic color pattern wasn’t to my aesthetic taste (being a color I label “Microsoft Blue”). A different display model at Best Buy showed the tiles in a Green which made me realize that I could change that color, a definite plus. This was the operating system I decided I would get. I ruled out iOS because of adherence to the ITune store which I have a funny feeling about. I also possess a strain of “anti-Mac” which was definitely a factor to be completely honest. The plus part in their column was that iPhone 3 was only 50 bucks at AT&T, but a sales person explained that the recent update slowed the phone down (although subsequent conversations with people who have the phone has made me realize the phone is just fine, perhaps the person who talked to me is a virulent mac-hater). Droid OS seems to geeky to me, by this I mean that it makes me think of Linux. Complete customization is great when you want to go through completely customizing something, and though I like the idea of customizing every single thing I don’t want to have to do it. People I know have bragged about how long they spent setting up their droids before they used them and that kind of turned me off. I’ve played with the droid phones and the default for them seems alright but there is a certain level of customization that I know would give me the “oh screw it, I’m not going to bother.” Blackberry I just plain don’t like. My brother had a Blackberry storm and I couldn’t figure out how to change background screens or do anything on it without needing a password (Laura’s short lived experience with the Blackberry Torch would prove this frustration was warranted).

I took the windows 7, specifically the LG Quantum. There were three WP7s to choose from an HTC, Samsung, and the Quantum. The HTC received bad reviews and the only real feature on it was that the back slid open to reveal surround speakers, which I don’t know about you but if I need surround on a video I’ll watch it on the big screen of my laptop or television. The advantage of the Samsung was that it had a memory card port. I don’t see why this is a feature at all, every phone ought to have the micro SD slot thereby expanding the memory to infinite but that seems to be against the grain now. Plus, my experiences with Samsung phones has been miserable. The LG was the last left and its advantage was that it had a real keyboard. I like this feature because virtual keyboards suck you can’t type while looking at something else, and you lose half of the screen when you do need to write something. I settled on that phone after making sure the phone’s camera was a step up (it was I went from a 1.2mp to a 5mp). With that rather large preamble taken care of I will now review the phone.

The very first thing I noticed with the phone was its weight. It weighs a little over 6oz, which isn’t much but with a 3.5 inch screen it feels considerably heavier than other phones (the iPhone 4 weighs just under 5oz). The weight, although it takes some getting used to coming from a person used to the 5oz Voyager and the 3.5oz Chocolate, actually makes the phone feel solid. At first I wasn’t sure that I would adjust to it, but once I did it’s hard for me to hold a different cell phone and not think its a flimsy piece of shit.

The slide out keyboard snaps out with a satisfying “thunk” and functions well. The individual keys are a little bigger than they are on other phones and are soft plastic which, again, takes some getting used to. This doesn’t take away from the phone itself, that would be like docking a computer a couple of points because the keys are slightly different than your old one. The real trouble with the keyboard are the function and shift keys. Instead of making these buttons like the rest of them the engineers decided that they would make them recessed circles on the side. They are little too hard to press and the location of them makes no sense.

The 5mp camera works great, it’s not an instant take camera, but its pretty close (this is the delay between when you hit the shutter button and the time it takes to actually record the image, the voyager it was easily half a second). The worst thing about the camera is that you can’t change the settings permanently. Everytime you open the camera it’s on the factory default, this is a software issue that might possible be settled in an update but I do wish I could turn off the camera noise (it’s wholly unneeded). The nicest phone feature is that I don’t have to have the phone screen on to take a picture, I just have to hold the button down for a couple of seconds (although it’s difficult to actually figure out what I’m taking since there is no view finder.

OS wise, the windows 7 works extremely well. The phone integrates the contact list with facebook, which meant I didn’t have to manually transfer names and numbers to the new phone (I hope most of my friends realize their numbers were available on facebook). The people tile takes care of my need to check facebook and the like, it’s nice because it integrates anything I need it to, it would be even nicer if I had anything else aside from facebook to actually integrate but I can see the appeal regardless of my complete lack of exploiting the tile.

The biggest perceived lack that the WP7 possesses as opposed to android or iOS is the number of applications available. Initially I was a bit hesitant but once I had the phone I realized that this lack really exists only in appearance. Any website worth having as an application is going to make an app for the phone. For instance facebook (although unnecessary given the people tile), amazon, ebay, bbc, wsj, fox news, cnn, etc. already have it. What I realized is that while android commercials trump up the fact that they have 100 million applications (or whatever) most of them are crap. The same goes for the relatively smaller number here. A good number of them are either re-skinned versions of others, or outright copies. There may not be an angry birds for WP7 but there are enough clones that it doesn’t matter. If someone could show me what the real variety is for the other OS’s I might be more impressed but as it stands I have compared the application selection on my phone to my wife’s iPhone and there isn’t anything that I really can’t find either the same thing for or at least something so completely similar that it might as well be the same thing.

Two big advantages in application is the Xbox Live application, where all of t gheames are located but it also syncs up with my Xbox 360. I can check my account and make updates to my profile through the phone. I can also play music, movies, and view pictures stored on my phone through the Xbox (although there are some connection issues but this is with my local network and not the phone). The next is that I have access to windows office on the phone. This isn’t a stripped down version either it’s full word, powerpoint, excel, and onenote (which I have never used and cannot figure its purpose). I’ve used the word for storing some documents and am currently trying to figure out how to use the phone as a remote for power point presentations but my limited technical know how hasn’t supplied me with that ability yet.

The disadvantages of the OS are rather arbitrary based on engineering decisions which are strange. For instance the tiles are permanently oriented vertically, or portrait style. If you tip the phone on its side the tiles don’t change orientation. Most of the applications do, but the home screen does not. This is strange but the designers justify it by saying that their research showed that people only used landscape mode for things like writing text messages or browsing the internet, not for general selection of applications. While this may be the case it makes using the phone a bit strange since you have to read some of the tiles on their side. The other problem is the volume. This phone has a low ringer and notification volume level, really low and even at the highest setting its only audible with little competing noise. Finally the video camera is a bit dark. Brightly lit rooms appear to be dimly lit, while I’m used to this with my last phone it wasn’t something I was anticipating with this one.

In all I’m very happy with the phone, and some of the problems can be fixed with a software update that is supposed to be coming in the late summer. Despite some people’s reservations with Microsoft as a corporation I think the system works extremely well and this particular phone works well with it.

Categories: reviews

Assassin’s Creed II.1 Brotherhood

May 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood picks up literally right where Assassin’s Creed II ended: in the basement of St. Peter’s in Rome where a ghostly image of Minerva explains to Ezio Auditore of an impending doom facing the planet. Gone is the body of Pope Alexander VI, having survived the fight with Ezio. From there we follow Ezio’s uncle to his fortress town of Montenegro and the past story begins. The present story has Desmond and the fugitive Assassin organization still looking for the pieces of Eden to thwart the Abstergo corporation only this time they’ve also made it to modern day Montenegro where they are using Rebecca’s Animus to hunt for clues in Desmond’s ancestor’s past.

This is the setup for our story. I should warn here that spoilers follow, not just for the game but also for fans of the Showtime series “The Borgias” as historical personages and some events that take place are actual. While the previous game took place in the cities of Florence, Venice, Tuscany, and the Romagna this game takes place entirely in the Eternal City of Rome and the surrounding country side. This makes the game somewhat smaller in area but it is no less diminished by this as Rome has the enough hidden nooks and crannies to make the smaller location seem more varied. I remarked in my review of the previous game that it seemed odd that it would introduce Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) and then omit his infamous children Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, this game amends that omission. As well as the omission of having introduced people such as Niccolo Machaivelli and Caterina Sforza and then dropping them almost immediately is also amended. No longer are we dealing with the plots of banking families, now Ezio is fighting to free Rome from the grip of a tyrannical Pope and his son who is seeking to become the king of all Italy.

Ezio, is also older in this game. Typically a video game starts with a young gun happy and naive hero. Here, Ezio is wisened by his previous struggle and whose character acts as a seasoned veteran. This is a nice change from the cliche. The game also handles the character ability growth as well. Let me explain that: as a character moves through a game they typically gain health and more abilities, so that by the end of the story they are a much more advanced person than they were in the beginning. This game having begun at the end of the previous game faced a difficult problem in that reducing Ezio’s abilities would have to be done with care or else seem capricious thus breaking immersion. The problem is solved as the previous game placed all of Ezio’s abilities into the equipment he was carrying viz. his health was specifically tied to what kind of armor he was wearing. After a sexual encounter with Caterina Sforza a Borgia cannonball destroys Ezio’s equipment, thus reducing his health and power to almost nothing. It’s a clever device that solves the dilemma that I call the “Doom II problem*.”

The missions themselves in this game closely follow the types introduced in the very first Assassin’s Creed and then refined in the second. Retrieve something, follow someone, kill another, infiltrate this building, etc. The variety is a bit lacking but the different methods in which you go about it rescue them from tedium. What is more concentrated on here is stealth. Many of the missions require you to remain undetected or else the mission is failed.

There some new additions to the game that improve it upon the previous installment. The first are the Leonardo missions. Leonardo has been drafted into constructing weapons for the Borgia family’s wars in Italy (this actually happened), and this was against Leonardo’s will, he conscripts Ezio into destroying these weapons so that Cesare Borgia will be left without them. These are examples of the stealth missions alluded to before, if you get caught locating one (they take place in isolated towns outside Rome) the mission is failed. However once the blueprints are burned you get to take them for a spin. These missions were delightful then, because the inventions aren’t new cannons or Leonardo’s modified siege towers they are the tanks, glider (we saw in the previous game although this time it’s armed), and machine gun that appear in his notebooks based on his actual sketches and engineered by the developers to how they could have worked. The tank is the most fun.

The hidden messages have also returned. Although they have become much more complicated, giving two puzzles per message as well as a chess game that you have to pick one move per message for. Hint to actual chess players, don’t pick the move you would do, just pick the move hinted at by the clue otherwise it’s infuriating.

The most welcome addition for Brotherhood is the brotherhood itself. Ezio seeking to rebuild the Assassin’s Order begins recruiting followers from among the oppressed of Rome. When I initially read a preview of the game highlighting this feature I was less than thrilled. I figured that these would be worthless teammates ala Tie Fighter (and every other game you get wingmen in) that you would spend more time protecting than they would do helping. I was delighted to be wrong. The method for using them is this, you highlight an enemy or a group of enemies and then hit a button causing Ezio to whistle. Out of the nearest hiding spot (or if you are in an open field horses come riding in) your followers come and attack your targets using every ability that Ezio possesses. These are formidable allies and just watching them fight gives you the impression of what exactly it must be to be one of the Borgia soldiers facing you. Although I should say that you have to level them up at least to level 3 before you send them against more than one foe alone since they will only have their hidden blade at first. The other feature regarding them which was surprising is that if the enemy sees them they attack them rather than you. A couple of missions were remaining undetected was necessary were solved by having a group of my followers attack and kill guards out in the open while I snuck in around them. I’ve played plenty of games were if the guards catch your allies they’ve caught you. This not only adds to the gameplay but also to the immersion as these new assassin’s have their own existence.

All in all, fans of the previous game will eat up this version. It takes everything that was great about the Florentine adventure and expands upon it. The money system is re-worked so that you improve Rome itself rebuilding the aqueducts and various monuments, there are some sidequests. And you even get a bit into Machiavelli’s personality (a personal treat). This won’t make people who disliked the series thus far like it. But it will push those on the fence over. 
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*Doom II Problem: so our hero after beating back the hordes of Hell in Doom is now going to invade Hell. What does he arm himself with? A cestus and a pistol.

Categories: reviews, video game review