June 30, 2006

On Earth As It Is At Dinner But Not South of Hadrian's Wall

by faisal

or: why the best restaurants in London are all ethnic food.

You've been learning to actually cook food, with recipes that don't start with "remove foil wrapper from cup". Phrases like "gently braise" suddenly and inexplicably combine with a shocking lack of calls to Domino's Pizza. Yet half your cooking seems to come out like some demented cardboard pudding. I'm here today to explain the problem. The problem is the British empire.

230 years ago this Tuesday the founding fathers set out to "assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them."

They fought for their own government.

They fought for the rights enshrined in the Magna Carta.

They fought for remotely phonetic spelling.

And despite this we are stuck today with cooking practice descended from a barbaric Victorian era practice of cooking all your food for four weeks. And then an extra two just in case one of your dinner guests forgot his or her dentures.

This has to stop.

So here we present some baby steps: pasta and spinach.


Pasta these days seems to always come with a note as to how long the pasta takes to cook. The time often doesn't correspond to how long the pasta actually takes to cook, so it's important to recognize and adjust for a key fact about the people who write these notes:

They are lying to you.

They are lying to you because they know every stove is different. They are lying to you because they know that "medium-high heat" means different things depending on what pot you're using. They are lying to you because they have no idea how long you let the pasta sit in your cupboard before cooking it. Most of all, they are lying to you because they're sadistic maniacs: the psychic screams of overcooked pasta feed not your palatte, but instead their dark desires for gustatory stupidity.

So, you ask, "when do I stop cooking the pasta?"

To paraphrase Paul Sedaris, I'm guessing you stop when it's finished.

For those of you who aren't Italian even in spirit, I will translate: The pasta is done 45 seconds before you think it is finished.

There is only one way to do this: about 3 minutes after you put the pasta in the water (2 if it's fresh) get a spoon and try a piece every 30-60 seconds. When it's still slightly uncooked you probably have 30 seconds or so left. Practice this and you'll get the hang off it.


Spinach, the food of Popeye, has been the victim of more indignities at our hands than your average American Idol contestant. Coming to American homes full of goodness, spinach is promptly turned into a disgusting mush devoid of flavor, nutritional value, flavor, mouth feel, flavor, and also flavor.

The good news is: spinach is easy.

  1. Cut the stems off the spinach.
  2. Bring a potfull of water to a roiling boil.
  3. Throw the spinach in.
  4. Recite the Lord's Prayer (the half-Kaddish, Fatiha, two Hail Marys or three recitations of the 1st ammendment will also serve).
  5. Take the spinach out, drain and serve it.

Some people have pointed out that this is a fairly short time. They're right. If you have time to do something else you have time to bludgeon the spinach to the point that it can't even be identified via dental records because you'll be sucking it through a straw.

If you're wondering why these two examples matter, consider the case of ramen cups. They can afford the saturation bombing recipe ("remove cover of cup. pour boiling water into cup. let sit for 4 minutes. enjoy. do not complain about the use of 'enjoy' as an intransitive verb.") because they start with no flavor to eliminate. Apply this to real food and you'll have spent 20 times more to end up with no flavor. You might as well boil cardboard: at least that has some fiber.


Posted by faisal at 06:36 PM | Comments (7)

June 29, 2006

Little Games in Pretty Boxes

by peterb

As those of you who care may have surmised, I, along with psu, picked up a Nintendo DS Lite the other week.

The original DS was, unfortunately, not actually worth owning. It had some clever games and nice ideas, but was wrapped up in a package about as appealing as a Radio Shack employee's cash register. It was clunky, and too big, and the screen was too dim.

The DS Lite looks like something that was made by Apple. It's all rounded corners and smooth lines, and it's just (barely) small enough to carry around.

If you think I'm focusing on the design rather than the games, that's because the games are, without exception, nothing too special. I mean, some of them are good — I wouldn't trade Advance Wars or Ouendan (thanks, Claire!) for anything — but frankly the second screen and stylus are just curiosities rather than anything truly compelling. At least to me. The design of the machine, however, means that I want to carry it with me, which in terms of a portable gaming machine is really the beginning and end of the issue. A portable you carry with you is (or at least can be) great; a portable you don't carry with you always sucks.

One side effect of the excellence of the design in terms of playing DS games is that it neutralizes the "plays Gameboy Advance games" feature completely. When you plug in a GBA game, it sticks out of the bottom of the case like a wart on a witch's nose. This, unhappily, makes me not want to play any of the GBA games. It makes my nice pretty white box bulky and ugly. I'll probably end up going out and getting an actual GBA to play GBA games just to avoid ugliness-induced psychic distress. There's also the issue that you can't instant suspend GBA games — it's not fair to call that a negative of the DS, but going from playing a game that supports instant suspend to playing one that doesn't is like leaving a sane world for one populated solely by madmen.

In other news, neither the Xbox 360, nor the PS3, nor your desktop gaming PC support or will support instant suspend. That's really all you need to understand to know that the Nintendo DS Lite is better than all of them combined.

Next week: I review the imported "vibrator stylus" that just arrived from Lik-Sang.

Posted by peterb at 08:43 PM | Comments (1)

June 28, 2006

DS Lite

by psu

I had pretty much decided to get a DS when the Lite hit earlier this summer. One of my co-workers had imported one a few months ago, and the new form of the device is pretty irresistible. Of course, I also had to keep up with Pete.

Where the original DS was fat, clunky, and full of sharp edges, the new DS is like an iPod that plays games. Soft lines, a shiny white exterior, and a new screen which is wonderfully bright indoors (although useless outdoors) round out the brilliant industrial design. The device finally competes with the PSP on the pure shiny level. However, unlike all the other "next-gen"-ish hardware I have, the DS has one cool advantage: it has games.

Don't let anyone lie to you, the PSP and the Xbox 360 are one game boxes. For the PSP and me, that one game is Madden. Your one game might be Lumines or some other sports franchise. But there is really nothing else. Daxter and Syphon Filter have a lot of potential, but both suffer from the same basic flaw, which is that by the time you manage to play a single level of the game, your hands have cramped up from the abuse of the tiny little analog stick and face buttons. Why there are not 15,000 little ports of Japanese RPGs for this thing I'll never know. But there are not.

The Xbox 360 has Oblivion and that's about it. Nothing else is actually any good. Even Madden fails to please, it actually plays better on the PSP.

By comparison, the DS has a dozen or so titles that are actually worth picking up. And, if you throw in all the GBA titles, there are dozens more.

Here are a few short impressions of what I have played:

Animal Crossing

A wage slave game about being a wage slave. In this game you play an opressed member of the proletariat, painfully scratching out an existence by doing odd jobs for the members of your "town", and also harvesting and selling the native flora of the area. As you obtain more material wealth, the game does nothing but drive you to obtain even more material wealth. It's like a recruiting video for unfettered consumerism.

You can also exchange fruit over wi-fi. That's really the main point of it. I'm still looking for a shovel.

Mario and Luigi

It was great on the GBA, and it's great on the DS too. I am concerned though, because the DS game uses the second screen to provide a map that greatly eases navigation through the various areas. This is a slippery slope towards seriously dumbing down the game for the noobs. Pretty soon it will be no better than a 2-d side scrolling hack and slash.

Advance Wars Dual Strike

It's Advance Wars but there are some new modes, tag teaming and the stylus makes picking units much easier. This means it is the best strategy title on the face of the Earth, only better. This is all you need to know. Buy it.

Trauma Center

My token entry in the gimmicky game play sweepstakes. This game makes you use the stylus to perform "surgery." There is an anime soap opera narrative going on too in between "missions." The game is hard, but the surgery mechanic is strangely mesmerizing and addictive. Recommended if you can find it.

Other notes

So there are four easy winners for you to look at. There are many more I have not covered. I started Phoenix Wright which is actually more of a novel where you stop the story to yell "OBJECTION" once in a while. I borrowed the Kirby game, and it seemed fun but too fast. Meteos is too hard.

I haven't even mentioned Mario Kart or both Super Mario games.

Finally, I can't stress this enough: the instant sleep when you close the machine is simply awesome, and all the games support it transparently.

It's too bad the thing doesn't really have a proper verison of Madden. Otherwise I could sell my PSP.

Posted by psu at 10:15 PM | Comments (4)

June 27, 2006

The Witch In Love

by peterb

I took a few books with me on vacation. One of them was an Italian novel called La strega innamorata, ("The witch in love"). It's funny, and quirky, and easy to read, even for someone whose language skills are as rusty as mine. And every time I picked up the book, it did me the favor of reminding me that I should pour myself a glass of what might be my favorite digestivo, Liquore Strega.

La strega...innamorata

Strega is a bold liqueur. It has a bright electric saffron yellow color, and a typically Italian label full of busy little curliques, medals, and flourishes. It's 80 proof, but feels stronger. The aroma of Strega is that of atomized pepper, mace, and salty air. To taste, it starts cloyingly sweet, but this is quickly clobbered by a strong anise and cassia mixture. A pine and wintergreen taste scratches you lovingly on the way down your throat. Strega is not an amaro. It manages to suggest bitterness to the back of your tongue without actually being bitter.

When the liquor finally reaches your stomach, you will feel warm.

There are substitutes for Strega. Liquore Galliano is often shelved nearby, but it's not as good and the bottle (twice the height of any shelf you have available) is painfully stupid and inconvenient. The closest substitution would be Chartreuse. Secretly, I think that yellow Chartreuse tastes just a little better than Strega — it's less sweet, and has a bit more of a burn. But it's French, and named after monks, which means that it doesn't have as much romance as its Calabrian cousin. So I always drink Strega instead.

It may not seem totally rational to prefer something that I know, intellectually, doesn't taste quite as good as its alternative. But that's how I feel about it.

I guess you could say I'm bewitched.

Posted by peterb at 10:10 PM | Comments (3)

June 26, 2006

Ice Cream Sandwich

by psu

One curious constant in the American food tradition dating back at least as far back as I can remember is the neighborhood ice cream truck. These small white vans are similar in shape to a mail truck, but much more festive. They play a happy song as they move down the street, and the colorful pictures on their bodies promise an irresistable selection of sweet confection. As far as I can tell, these trucks are the same everywhere. And, as far as I can tell, they've sold basically the same products for the last thirty or forty years.

Everyone has their personal favorites. I was always partial to the "strawberry shortcake" on a stick. It has a sublime combination of vanilla ice cream, and artificially red center with a generic sort of "berry" flavor, and a sweet crusty coating on the outside that I guess represents "cake". The brilliance of the thing is that it's just big enough so you get a range of interesting textures as the ice cream center melts, but it's never so big that you lose any of the bar in liquid form.

For me, the other iconic item carried in these trucks, and convenience stores everywhere, is the ice cream sandwich. I still get cravings for these chocolate cookies filled with a slice of vanilla ice cream. The proper ice cream sandwich has a variety of peculiar characteristics. Just as the bread around your barbecue can't be too good, there is no room in the world for a "premium" ice cream sandwich. Fancy chocolate chip cookies with nuts will not do. Thick bars of ultra-dense organic fair trade french vanilla bean ice cream are pointless. On the other hand, the cookie does have to have a pleasing softness, and the ice cream needs to at least reach the quality of a Breyer's or Hagan-Das vanilla. A bit rich, creamy, not too sweet.

The Klondike version of the ice cream sandwich fails on all levels. My wife picked these up by mistake when I sent her off to satisfy one of my cravings. They have a cookie that is too crunchy and ice cream that is all ice and sugar, and no noticeable dairy product. Whole foods, constantly fighting down market, has organic ice cream sandwiches that are almost right, but not really. They get the cookie part right. Unfortunately, the ice cream part is too dense and too sweet. It does not melt enough while you eat it, and it is too sugary.

Happily, the food store attached to my local gas station and Starbucks plaza sells the perfect product. The cookies are soft, but with a nice texture. The ice cream is vanilla, but not too vanilla. Most importantly, they don't get too hard or too soft in the freezer, so as you consume the item, the ice cream transitions from a firm, but soft texture to a sort of half-melted on the outside and almost liquid on the inside perfection. As you take the last bite, you think maybe you'll lose a bit of the product out the sides of the cookie, but like the sun coming up in the morning, the ice cream gods intervene, and it never happens.

Posted by psu at 08:34 PM | Comments (12)

June 22, 2006

Advance Wars DS Picoreview

by peterb

Can't write — too busy playing Advance Wars DS.

Posted by peterb at 05:39 PM | Comments (6)

June 20, 2006

A Hill of Beans

by psu

Recently, we've gotten a lot of feedback, both privately and on the site about the state of the local coffee scene. I am always happy to get this kind of information, since it never hurts to have new places to try. But, one aspect of these messages has been puzzling. Over and over again, the advocate of the new place will say "you have to go to Café XYZ, they use these special Moon Beans from the Outer Rings of Venus, which Rule."

With all due respect, this is nonsense.

I'll only say this once, because I've said it before in an article from couple of years go. Assuming a certain level of quality in handling and roasting, your enjoyment of the cappuccino that you have in your hand is determined by two things:

First, how good is the person making the coffee.

I've been going to my favorite coffee joint almost every weekend for more than 10 years. Over this time, I assume that the quality of their beans has stayed mostly the same. I have not noticed much variability in the coffee that I get at home when I buy these beans, for example. But, I have noticed that until this winter, there had been a drop in the quality of my weekend shot over the last three or four years. I never pondered why this should be. The answer was obvious.

Three or four years ago, all of the weekend staff slowly left for one reason or another. As each one disappeared, my chances of a good cappuccino diminished. If you observed the lines in the place during this period, you'd notice people jostling to try and make sure Elio or Dom made the coffee, because they know what they are doing and the new people did not. This, my friends, is much more important than which beans are going through the burr grinder. Always fight to get Elio.

The good news is that since then, La Prima has slowly hired new staff and this staff has slowly gotten better and better at pulling a proper shot of coffee. The result? In the last six months, I have not gotten a bad weekend cappuccino. I expect the situation to be stable until the current crew moves on.

Second, how fresh are the beans.

La Prima roasts its beans basically across the street from the café. In various communications, I have been told to obtain coffee from places that get their "fairer than fair trade" beans from various locales, all of which are further than 500 feet from the café. All things being equal, I claim that La Prima's beans are at least a day fresher, and therefore better. If you don't think a day in the truck makes a difference in how the coffee comes out, then I'm not really going to listen to you about where to go for coffee anyway.

So, the upshot is, if you are happy with your coffee, more power to you. I am happy with mine too, and I don't really see any reason to go chasing after a different shot, made by people I don't know using beans that came from some company way outside the city.

Besides, I'm pretty sure they'll just make the damn coffee too hot.

Posted by psu at 10:26 PM | Comments (9)

June 19, 2006

The Soul of A New Machine

by psu

I read The Soul of a New Machine for the first time when I was in high school. It is the best book I have ever read about computers. It is one reason I ended up working in software engineering. If you have not read this book, you should go and buy it now, and read it, and then come back here. Ready? OK.

Since you have now read the book, I don't have to tell you that it chronicles the development of a mini-computer by a company called Data General at the end of the 1970s. This machine was built to compete with a machine called the VAX, which was also developed the last years of the 1970s. It happens that I used both of these types of machines when I was in high school in the early 80s and so the story of the development of one of them seemed interesting on the surface. I picked it up in paperback, and read it in bed in two or three sittings while trying to finish my applications to college.

Back then, the stories about engineers on the project, and the technical aspects of the machine they were working on really pulled me in. The company politics and the maneuverings of business seemed to me to be the filler between the high points of watching this machine actually come to life. I soaked up the stories of late night microcoding, the architectural design, and the months spent debugging the machine.

To this day I am still amazed that a journalist, presumably with a limited technical background, could have such an obvious understanding of the layers of abstraction and complexity in the system that he was describing. One early section of the book walks the reader down through the machine from a single line of BASIC that divides two numbers into the CPU to a divide instruction and further down into the micro-architecture, where there is another software layer to tell the hardware how to actually divide two floating point numbers. Another section of the book contains the single best description of how a machine that uses a virtual address space fetches and executes its next instruction that I have ever read. It's all there, the address translation, the instruction cache, the page fault handler, instruction decode, the microcode sequencer, all the way down to the bare hardware. He even talks about what might happen if the machine recursively page faults forever. No computer architecture book ever explained this basic pipeline in a way that is more understandable. Every new student of computer or software engineering should be required to read the book just for this reason.

I also love The Case of the Missing Nand Gate. I have often wondered how to teach people to debug complicated systems, be they hardware or software. I still don't have an answer to that question, but this chapter of the book would be part of the formula. After yet another beautiful tutorial on how the instruction and data caches of the machine are specified to work, the chapter launches into a case study in finding, isolating, and finally fixing an intermittent bug of the worst kind. Finally, in the end, when the engineers have figured out how to make the machine fail, they capture a picture of the error in one of their logic analyzers, and immediately the fix is clear. What I found amazing about this section in high school was the detective story aspect of the narrative. What I find amazing about the chapter now is how clearly it captures the process of observing a system that is failing and how you trick the machine into failing while you collect the proof. Twenty five years after the book was written, this process remains unchanged.

What has changed in that time is what the book means to me. Having worked in software engineering, both academically and commercially for many of the twenty or so years since I read this book, I now realize how much more there is to the story of this machine. It wasn't apparent to my high school self, who saw the engineers as the heroes and the company above them as an often malevolent force, working to crush their spirit and creativity and take credit for their hard work. I think this is the way young, naive, and/or inexperienced engineers see the world.

I've come to see the book as more concerned with how the project was managed than anything else. My younger self never really realized that Tom West is the hero of the book. Not even the engineers on the team seem to realize this until the very end. In a coda to the main story, one of the engineers finds a specification for a trivial piece of hardware that allows the machine to interface to some kind of third party peripheral. He realizes that no one on the core engineering team could have possibly designed the plug or written the specification. There are hundreds of details like this in the final machine and the book credits West with collecting the support needed from the rest of the company to make sure all of these little problems were found and solved. The book accurately observes that while the central act of creation is in the hands of the engineers, this act would be wasted without the coordinated efforts of dozens of other people working on behalf of the project in other parts of the company. In other words, the romantic myth of the lone engineer taking over the world in his basement is, for the most part, just a romantic myth. Products that ship are built by teams of people led from a shared vision, not a single genius working alone.

Through all of my re-readings of the book, Kidder's writing remains wonderful. He manages to package up all these layers of narrative and psychology while keeping the story moving forward. He captures exactly what I find fascinating about working on computers. Moreover, the book perfectly expresses the pain and torture of managing engineers: needing to trust the team, needing to shield the team from anything that is external to their core task, and, perhaps most importantly, needing to convince the team that the task they have been given is important and groundbreaking in some concrete way, so that they will "sign up" for the job.

I don't really have anything left to say that Kidder doesn't say better. You should go and buy it now, and read it. And then read it again.

Posted by psu at 06:31 PM | Comments (4)

June 16, 2006

Chris Crawford's Games Sucked

by peterb

Every so often I mean to write an article about how Chris Crawford doesn't know what he's talking about. It's pretty impressive, in some ways: his book on game design, for example, is practically a manual on how to write a sucky game. And Crawford keeps inspiring me to write this article because every time he opens his mouth (or uncaps his pen) he says stupid things.

Lots of people have weighed in on the meat of Crawford's latest musings on how the game industry is moribund and uncreative, and I'm not particularly interested in tackling them. Instead, I just want to say something that needs to be said:

Chris Crawford wrote games that weren't any fun.

I think that Crawford gets a pass on this from so many commentators because he developed games in an era when there simply wasn't as much competition. So anyone of a certain age who writes about games has played his games. Therefore, when people talk about 1985's Balance of Power, they're not actually talking about that game, but about their memory of playing the game as a 13 year old.

To take Balance of Power as an example: it wasn't "innovative"; it was basically a rehash of Bruce Ketchledge's 1984 game Geopolitique 1990, published by SSI. The main difference between the two games is that Crawford made some changes to suck all of the fun out of it. Specifically, in Ketchledge's game, making too many significant mistakes could result in a war, which the player then had to resolve. In Crawford's game, making a single mistake resulted in the game immediately ending with a snotty little lecture from the programmer ending with "We do not reward failure."

What. A sanctimonious. Prick.

Who can point me to a single game that Crawford did that had any real influence beyond handwaving? We are talking, after all, about the man who developed Scram, a "nuclear plant simulator," which has the distinction of being the first game to be so boring that it was literally more fun to go outside and watch grass grow. The only game Crawford has published that even deserves to be on the same page as the word "fun" would be his 1981 wargame Eastern Front. It's a good game. But not enough to justify his reputation.

Some have pointed out — correctly — that Crawford need not have developed excellent games (or indeed, any games at all) to proffer opinions on the gaming industry. Certainly, none of us opining here at Tea Leaves have a resume that includes professionally published games, and that doesn't stop us. But the argument is made, and made often in wanky, uncritical hagiographies, that Crawford's opinion is important because of his "seminal" games and his "genius." This is false. Crawford's ouevre is average at best and mediocre at worst, and anyone familiar with the game developers writing and publishing games in the 1980s knows this to be true.

Crawford is good at something, but it isn't game development. It is self promotion.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 07:53 PM | Comments (25)

June 15, 2006

Torment and Friends

by psu

I've spent the last month dabbling with Planescape from time to time on the laptop. I'm not quite all the way through, but I think I've played enough to say a bit more. My overall opinion of the game has not changed since writing my first impressions. I think it's clearly the best of the classic "western" RPGs that I've played from the 1990s.

I've toyed around with these games ever since I finished KOTOR. I'm not really interested in investing heavily in PC games, but the fans of these particular games, Baldur's Gate, Fallout, and now Planescape tend to be so vocal in their support that I was interested in seeing what all the fuss was about.

I gave up on Fallout first, having only played four or give hours into the game. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the game, but I couldn't find a great reason to put up with the tedious gameplay and particularly the annoying combat system. After spending a night repeatedly getting killed by giant rats, I threw in the towel and went back to playing Mario and Luigi.

Baldur's Gate 2 lasted a bit longer. At a technical level, the game seems more playable to me than Fallout. Control over the party is smooth and intuitive, and there are no "action points" to keep track of. I really like the "real time, but round-based under the hood" control engine which is no surprise, since it's basically the same scheme used in all the Bioware games up to KOTOR. I also liked the narrative threads and character development in the opening parts of the game. There were only a few archaic mechanics that annoyed me. The constant shuffling of inventory got on my nerves. In addition, the need to obsessively rest the party so that the spell casters could refresh their memory grated. The game didn't lose me for good until I escaped the first area and got into the town. At that point, I completely lost the thread of what I was supposed to be doing. What had been a well paced plot was replaced with a huge area completely devoid of clues as to where I should go next. I tried to do a few of the quests in town, but I ultimately ended up bored and confused and put the game down.

Planescape improves on Baldur's Gate by emphasizing its strengths while pushing the annoyances more into the background. Although the game employs the ultimate RPG cliché of employing a main character with amnesia trying to puzzle out his true nature, the narrative is interesting enough and the pacing is good enough to keep you going anyway. The quests and the plot are intertwined and support each other in a pleasing way. Finally, the game has some of the best writing that I have experienced in a computer game. The text in the game is evocative and full of clever turns of phrase. Who could not like the idea of a "brothel" for the mind?

From a gameplay perspective, the best thing about Planescape is how it de-emphasizes combat. While it maintains the same smooth Bioware combat engine, the game does not force you to constantly worry about buffing your party and making sure you have all the protection spells case and magic armor equipped before every fight. Since the main character is immortal, if the fight goes badly you can just try again immediately. This brilliant gambit, along with the fact that you can score huge amounts of experience points just by talking to people make the game less of a kill and loot grind. It's refreshing to play an RPG actually just play the character rather than trying to navigate the optimal path through the character progression and loot procurement systems. It's odd that an eight year old game should be refreshing in this way. I find myself surprised that such a compelling system is not an overused cliché by now.

From the chapter titles on various walkthroughs, I would guess that I'm somewhat more than half-way through Planescape. I had to stop playing for a while because the license on the emulator that I am running on my Mac to run Windows expired, and I don't want to buy the software just yet. But, never fear. I won't be able to avoid getting an Intel Mac for home use forever, so when I do, I can dual boot it and finish the game. It's good to have something to look forward to.

Posted by psu at 08:51 PM | Comments (3)

A Real Conversation

by peterb

Both psu and I obtained Nintendo DS Lites this week, along with Animal Crossing. We actually had this conversation on iChat yesterday:

me: MY NOOK LOAN IS PAID OFF. But i feel empty inside.

psu: Me too. OK. We can sell the game now.

me: I keep going back to Nook's shop, but I can't find any weapons to kill the townsfolk. If that Chow talks to me one more time I'm going to stuff him and donate him to the museum.

psu: I guess it's because they dumbed the game down. I bet the classic Animal Crossing on the Gamecube is better

Posted by peterb at 08:45 PM | Comments (2)

June 14, 2006

Commandos Battle Pack

by peterb

I am an impatient soul.

This expresses itself in inconvenient ways when I am playing games that reward patience and timing. In grand strategy games, for example, I'll carefully marshall my resources, start moving troops into position, and then perhaps six or seven turns too early I'll get bored and say to myself "Well, maybe if I just send all my tanks rushing in I'll win." And, of course, I never do.

This is in part why I don't like the Metal Gear games at all — they are, by and large, games that reward you for sitting still and doing nothing until exactly the right moment, and that's just not my thing. As a reviewer, I make a conscious effort to not review those sorts of games.

I've made an exception to this rule for Commandos Battle Pack for the Mac. Mostly because, unlike the Metal Gear games, I actually liked it. This review may contain some minor spoilers.

The Battle Pack consists of two games packaged together: Commandos 2: Men of Courage and Commandos 3: Destination Berlin. Both games run well on a late-model Powerbook G4.

One of the best things Commandos has going for it is the plot. All men "of a certain age" will remember a World War II movie called The Dirty Dozen. It's been emulated and remade several times. The basic idea is "group of misfits who are too tough and independent for the regular army take on suicidal missions and, through stealth, ingenuity, and trickery, triumph. Also, they kill lots of Nazis along the way." It's a fair simplification to simply describe Commandos as an attempt to make "The Dirty Dozen Computer Game." The scenarios are drawn with relish. They deviate from history in noticeable ways, but always with a wink and a nod.

It's the fact that the Commandos games are squad-based that justifies them, in my mind. Your team of stereotypes and misfits covers a broad range of abilities. The Sapper, for example, handles the explosives, the Thief gets into hard-to-reach places, while the Green Beret is your man for close combat, the Driver handles vehicles, the Spy can impersonate enemy officers and distract sentries, and so on.

The interesting thing about Commandos — I'm going to use the collective to refer to both games here — is that if you're not careful you might think it is a war game. But it isn't. At its heart, it is a puzzle game, in some ways not unlike Sokoban or Chromatron. Each mission is basically asking you to figure out a way to apply your skills to reach your goal without getting caught. The game isn't turn-based, but the enemies move in patterns that are rigid enough that you can treat it like it is. While you can occasionally survive a firefight, your men are fragile enough that if they are detected, they're often dead. It is an odd sort of vibe. If you took away the World War II window dressing, what you end up with is something that feels like a cross between Metal Gear and Lemmings.

The first training level provides a good example of what I mean. One way to win would be to throw some cigarettes near a sentry. When he comes over to check them out, you knock him on the head, tie him up, and drag him out of sight. After taking out several other sentries in a similar manner, you have the thief shimmy up a telephone pole and shimmy on the wire over a minefield, on the other side of which he'll grab some wire cutters. Returning back to the first side, he'll give the wire cutters to the Sapper, who will cut the barbed wire around the minefield and then find and retrieve some buried mines. The Sapper can then place those mines near the entrance to the officers' bunker, whistle at the officers, who then run out and blow themselves up.

See what I mean? It's Lemmings.

But now that we've stripped away the WW II exterior, let's put it back on again and admire it. The missions throughout both games are plausible, exciting, and fun. Commandos 2 tends towards longer, more involved missions than its sequel. Commandos 3 provides more scenarios that let you brute-force your way through, rather than relying solely on stealth. The motion capture and animation in both games is arresting, and helps maintain the suspension of disbelief. The only sour note in the production values is the voice acting, which is uniformly wince-inducing from start to finish. Especially the Thief, who has a French accent lifted straight out of Monty Python and Zee 'Oly Graaahl.

The gameplay is clever and the puzzles are interesting. Regrettably, Commandos 2 has a UI that is needlessly baroque. It seems at times that there is a separate hotkey for every single action in the game. For example, A readies an attack, unless you want to use your fists, in which case you press Q. In the example I gave earlier, the Sapper would use the I key to cut the wires, D to detect mines, click on the mines to retrieve them, and then P to place mines. If the Sapper wanted to place a satchel charge, he uses the B key, but to throw a grenade, he'd hit G (but if his friend the Driver wanted to throw a molotov cocktail, he'd hit S). The keyboard guide (PDF) is like an exercise in existential despair. Separate keys for "put on uniform" and "take off uniform." Unique keys for eating food and applying first aid, both of which recover health. And, of course, you just have to remember at any given time whether you need to click, shift-click, or control-click. When learning the interface, you can't help but suspect that you are being made the butt of a very intricate joke. It feels like you use more keys than when playing a flight simulator.

In other words, the game was designed with an old-style PC game sensibility. And although it offends my delicate UI preferences, it really isn't that bad while you're playing. The techniques you use are introduced a few at a time, and there's an acceptable in-game glossary to help you navigate. Commandos 3, contrariwise, is designed with a much more mouse-based approach in mind, and is much easier for new players to navigate. But, if you just can't live without having special hotkeys dedicated to "Lipstick" and "Wear Dress" (note: I'm not kidding), you can set a preference to have Commandos 3 use the Commandos 2 keyboard map.

The games are strongest when they are outdoors. They use an isometric view that is manageable in the open, but becomes nearly intolerable once you go into a building. In this specific respect, between the two games, I actually think Commandos 2 is the better one. While the UI, as noted, is somewhat baroque, the game focuses on its strengths. Commandos 3 tries hard to address the weaknesses of the earlier game, but apart from the UI falls short of the mark. For example, Commandos 3 has plenty of multi-story houses, which just makes the indoor scenes that much worse. Instead of fixing the problems with the earlier engine, your attention is simply drawn to them.

But the interior-space issues aren't deal-breakers; indeed, the only reason I noticed them is because the exterior camerawork was so much better. I think it's important to focus on what Commandos does well: it takes stealth gameplay and puts it in a context where it doesn't seem ridiculous on its face. And it does so in ways that engage your brain. In a marketplace full of World War II games that reward you for indiscriminately shooting as much lead as possible while running and screaming, I think there's something to be said for games that take a less-traveled road.

In evaluating the Commandos games, the natural comparison is to compare them to the Jagged Alliance games, because they are both squad level games. That comparison is somewhat false. The Jagged Alliance games are really action games hiding behind a turn-based facade of strategy. The Commandos games are in fact clever puzzle games hiding behind a facade of real-time combat.

So, all of which leaves you with a simple question: should you buy the game?

I have a reputation, fairly, for being something of a jerk about user interface issues. I panned Civ IV for example, not just for its abysmal performance, but also because its user interface didn't live up to the requirements of its genre. I'm inclined to give the Commandos games a free pass for their awkward UI simply because they're trying to fuse genres in a novel way.

In the end, I think the deciding factor is whether or not you enjoy stealth games. As an avowed non-player of stealth games, Commandos held my interest and provided moments of drama, humor, and intellectual challenge. That suggests to me that if you already enjoy stealth games, you will overcome the UI issues to enjoy a depth of gameplay that is missing from other, non-squad based stealth games. If stealth games aren't your cup of tea, then I don't think Commandos will change your mind about the genre.

Commandos Battle Pack for Macintosh is published by Feral Interactive and retails for $40 in North America. Disclosure statement: The publisher graciously provided a copy for review.

Posted by peterb at 04:00 PM | Comments (1)

June 13, 2006

The Burr Under My Saddle

by peterb

This week I'm on vacation. While preparing for the trip, I had an interesting Shopping Moment that I'd like to share.

The moment involves coffee, as so many of them do.

I'm at the supermarket, and I'm going through my shopping list, and I get to the coffee aisle and realize that I'm going to need some. So I'm staring at my options — they even had a fair trade blend, which I ended up getting and may complain about later — and I grab a package of coffee.

Instinctively, I have picked up the whole bean coffee. I remember that the place I'm heading to doesn't have a coffee grinder, but I find myself standing there trying to work out how much effort it would take to pack my burr grinder and take it with me. Because, of course, the coffee will taste better if I grind it out in the middle of the woods instead of using pre-ground coffee.

It is then that the epiphany hits me like a wave. I am seriously considering packing a coffee grinder for a camping trip. I don't know how, and I don't know when, but at some point in my life I have apparently turned into a complete yuppie cock.

I put the whole bean back, and picked up a package of ground coffee.

(We will omit the discussion about packing the laptop and connecting to the Internet from the road. I lost that battle long ago, and am utterly at peace with it.)

Posted by peterb at 10:00 AM | Comments (5)

June 12, 2006

I Shot Bambi

by peterb

Nature photography can be frustrating. It's typically very hard to get close to wild animals. Hardcore nature photographers thus often use tripods, blinds, and very long lenses. This combination lets them create images that seem impossibly close up from hundreds of feet away. I'm too cheap to buy any of these lenses. They usually cost thousands of dollars and are too heavy to lug around casually. So the only animals I can usually get closeups of are either dead, domesticated, or exceedingly stupid.

In the "exceedingly stupid" category I would put the wild turkeys that have decided to live on Negley Avenue in the middle of Pittsburgh. I regularly walk (and drive) within a foot of these things, but unfortunately have never had my camera with me. But yesterday's lucky find makes up for my lack of turkey luck. I managed to get within 6 feet of a recently born fawn while carrying my camera and a reasonably long lens. It sat perfectly still while I took photographs of it. It was practically suffering fear-induced cardiac arrest. Had this been a full-grown deer, I never would have gotten within 40 feet of it.

So I got a good shot. The only reason I was able to get this close to it is that I saw it wandering around looking for its mama. As I drove up, it dove for cover in the underbrush and went to ground. That gave me plenty of time to park, get the camera, walk over, and calmly and methodically torture it with fill flash for voyeuristic purposes.

This particular deer, like all deer everywhere since the beginning of time, was mangy and starving. So before you start feeling too much sympathy for it, and get too terribly mad at me for torturing the deer, remember that in return for my great photo, I'll probably contract Lyme Disease. The fawn did eventually bolt when I got within about 3 feet. Had I been so inclined, I could have reached out and touched it.

Had I not seen exactly where the fawn had gone to ground, I would have walked right by it.

Later that day, I saw two more fawns gallop madly across an open field in the noonday sun. As they ran, they bleated for their mother. When they reached the woods on the other side of the field, they turned around and ran back to where they came from, bleating the entire time.

Apparently in Western Pennsylvania, it's been a bad week for fawns all around.

Posted by peterb at 12:04 AM | Comments (4)

June 09, 2006

Three For The Road

by peterb

Volume 2, Issue 9 of played.todeath has been released, and within its labyrinthine PDF you will find not one but three of my articles. Read them, love them, and then send hate mail. They include:

  • Indie Scene: Auto Assault Trading Card Game (page 8), a review of World's Apart's followon to Star Chamber and cross-marketing effort with NCSoft.
  • The Elder Scrolls I: Arena (page 15). For those of you who just can't get enough of Oblivion, you can find out exactly what made me give up and buy the Xbox 360.
  • Game Tycoon (page 34). Why brilliant concepts sometimes turn into dull games.

The magazine is full of other brilliant writers as well, of course. It's quite worth the download.

Posted by peterb at 08:07 PM | Comments (2)

June 07, 2006

The Bad Seed

by peterb

On my block, I'm the Bad Neighbor.

Oh, I'm not terrible or anything. I'm nice to people, and polite, and I don't have my car on blocks in the front yard. Nor do I blast music at 3 in the morning, or hang out on the porch getting drunk and whistling at neighborhood girls.

But I'm the Bad Neighbor for one very simple reason: my lawn is terrible, and I don't care.

In what can only be described as a bewildering turn of events, I've lately started caring about the fact that I don't care. Is something wrong with me? I spend my weekends visiting friends, or drinking coffee, or laying around reading or playing videogames, and from every nearby house I hear the buzz of lawn mowers, and the hiss of seeders, and the scritch of sprinklers.

And I don't get it. I don't understand.

The situation came to a head earlier in the year when I had so many dandelions on my lawn that my yard was noticeably yellow when viewed from Google Earth. My neighbors had begun to give me somewhat withering looks every time I drove up to the house, trundling ignorantly past the weed garden that is my front yard. Didn't I care that my soil was obviously alkaline? Didn't I want to pour some poison on the weeds and chase them out? Didn't I want a nice green carpet?

And the answers come to my mind practically unbidden: no, no, and no.

Let's put aside the issue of how environmentally hostile it is to dump toxic waste on your lawn to kill the plants you don't want. And let's even put aside the question of expense: while it's true that maintaining a lawn takes some cash, that's not really what's stopping me from doing it. It's really the whole idea of lawns that I don't get. Dandelions, clover, and black medic all seem just as pretty to me as green grass. They're just as nice to lay on. The weeds attract rabbits, birds, and other small animals to the yard. It's my house, not a golf course. Grass is just another plant.

The gap is best illustrated by a conversation I had with a neighbor who has since moved out. This guy worked on his lawn every day. Every single day from spring through fall, there was not a day that he was not in the yard cutting, trimming, bagging. Now, there's nothing wrong with that: obviously, he got great pleasure from it. We chatted about this, and we chatted about that, and I mentioned that some black raspberry canes had sprouted up in my front yard.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I just ripped a bunch of those out of my backyard. I hate 'em. They're so hard to keep under control."

And all I could do is stare. What kind of person destroys a black raspberries in favor of a sterile boring lawn? The gap is unbridgeable. I am a stranger in a strange land.

An architect friend of mine says that the idea of having a nice lawn is a middle-class folly that is inherited from the mythology of the British upper class. The memory of the "manor house," being imitated on a small scale by little would-be lords and ladies. Over half of the US's water supply goes to feed our lawn habit, much of that water carrying pesticides and chemicals straight back down to the water table.

Whatever the motivation, I surely don't understand it. If someone can explain the attraction to me, I'd love to understand. Until then, I suspect I will always be my neighborhood's bad seed.

And hey: although the grass is greener on their side, I've got all the black raspberries.

Posted by peterb at 05:20 PM | Comments (15)

June 06, 2006

Picoreview Haiku

by psu

It's been a busy time so our collective brain hasn't had a lot of room to generate content for the site. But, we have been playing a few new games recently, so, here are some short impressions, in the by now very clichéd Haiku style.

Final Fantasy X

Big hair, bigger sword
Walk from cut scene to cut scene
They never shut up

Call of Duty 2

Soldiers scream and shoot
Head throbs, eyes do not see the
head shot from nowhere.

MLB 06: The Show

The pitching meter
moves back and forth, up and down
But how does it work?

Commandos 2

Sneak behind Nazi
Arterial spray gushes
a warm summer rain

Oblivion: peterb

The thrill of combat
Oops, I leveled up too soon
Reload my last save

Oblivion: psu

It's a big wide world
Things to do, people to see
Their faces haunt me

A Fool And His Money

True believers know
Cliff's release dates are cruel jokes
Shut up and write code.

Shadow Hearts 2

Hooray! A new dress
For my creepy little doll
Now I must shower.


I don't keep the dog
That's why in twenty five years
I have never won.

Guitar Hero

Hard and fast solos
Hands throbbing, no star power
It's Cowboys from Hell.

Posted by psu at 09:30 PM | Comments (2)

June 01, 2006

The Beautiful People

by peterb

Today during lunch we were talking about style, and one of the gang opined that if only he was incredibly rich, he'd have more style.

I disagreed: you don't need money to have style. Having money doesn't give you style.

We all know someone that can't rub two cents together and yet somehow manages to always be the hippest person in the room. A similarly compelling proof that money can't buy you class can be found by looking at the in-crowd at last weekend's Monaco Grand Prix. The richest people in the world gather to be seen not watching a race. And, oh merde, are these people ugly. Not just a surface ugly, but a deep, abiding ugly that goes all the way to the bone.

Cash is nice. But it's not the solution to all your problems. It's a catalyst; a magnifying glass. If you have poor taste in clothes, having a sackful of cash just lets you have poor taste in expensive clothes.

Bill Cosby had a comedy routine where he was talking to someone about cocaine, who said "I love cocaine because it intensifies your personality." To which Cosby replied "Yes, but what if you're an asshole?"

It's a good question. And watching the Id Parade slouch its way through the streets of Monte Carlo, we see it answered.

Posted by peterb at 11:37 PM | Comments (2)

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