August 30, 2006

Madden 2007

by psu

Having learned my lesson from the last time I bought a football game for the 360, I took advantage of the boundless generosity of the second Pete to get Madden 2007 for the 360 using his Gamefly account.

I was cautiously optimistic about the game this year because the press says that the game is much closer to (say) the PSP version of the game than last year. The reality is that as usual, when they say "close" they mean something completely different. Sort of like when they say Metal Gear Solid has "good" game-play.

In its defense, the 360 Madden does play better than last year in one way: it doesn't feel like the running back is stuck in quicksand anymore. That's good.

Of course, there are a small number of things missing from the game when compared to this year's offering on the PSP. Yes, I bought the PSP version. Yes I know it's a sickness. Go away.

Let's see:

1. No accelerated clock. To make up for this, they make the playtime even longer with stupid offsides and motion penalties. Also, for God's sake whatever you do, never play against the Colts. Because then you spend almost all of the 45min of game time watching the Zombie Peyton Manning jerk and dance and sing and audible.

2. The A.I. on defense goes missing occasionally. Your little minions will run right past the play, seemingly clueless as to the fact that the guy they just ignored has the ball.

3. Defensive backs in particular enjoy ignoring their coverage assignments and just watching the ball go by.

4. The instant replay camera control is jerky and annoying. The frame-rate in the replay itself can be inconsistent as well.

5. The game camera occasionally jumps around at random.

6. Jump the snap was stupid in NCAA 2007, and it's just as stupid here.

7. The pre-snap adjustments are completely crippled compared to the PSP. You know, the machine with 1/10000th the CPU of the Xbox 360. To make up for it, the UI makes it harder and more tedious to configure fewer settings. Way to go.

8. Replays show that collision detection and clipping problems are common. Passes "hit" your receiver's hands 5 feet away from their body and bounce off. Willie Parker runs through the head and shoulder's of his center on the way to melting into the defensive lineman's mid-section. Yes, this sort of thing happens on the PS2 as well, but it's not quite as noticeable. I guess the machine is too busy pushing out textures and has no time left to actually do decent geometry.

9. The vertical play calling menus suck just as much here as they did in Madden 06 and NCAA 2007. They are also strangely non-deterministic. You'll hit one screen and go to the next, and hop back, and the available choices are not the same. This makes fast navigation difficult.

10. The Steelers picked off my Tom Brady avatar 4 times in 16 passes. That's stupid.

OK. There is one cool thing. The rendering model of Downtown Pittsburgh is cool.

Looking over this list, I find it hard to believe that the game is this bad. Maybe I'm being unfair. After all, I only played a few games over one night. But here is the thing. The game is almost fun. You play, and you are almost convinced that you will have a worthwhile experience. Then, inevitably, something stupid happens and you think "WTF?" and you are back to reality. I think playing the game for a few more hours will not change this.

My recommendation is to play this game on the PSP. The new version is really nice. They have added instant replays back this year. So it's nearly like having the PS2 version in your pocket, except that it's better because stuff like the retarded Superstar mode is not wasting your storage.

Posted by psu at 08:15 PM | Comments (4)

August 29, 2006

The Proper Road Bike

by psu

I've had my current road bike since I moved back to Pittsburgh in the early 90s. So, I imagine that it is almost 15 years old. In this time, I have spent a lot of time shopping for my "next bike", the perfect machine that combines versatility with technical and aesthetic excellence. The problem is, whenever I ride my bike I realize it's perfect (except in the rain).

This didn't stop me from building a list of attribtues in the perfect road bike. This piece overlaps a bit with my previous rant about road bikes, but not too much.

1. Steel

Here is the thing. Aluminum is cheap and light, but it's a crappy way to make a frame. Stuff just breaks off if you are not careful. Carbon fiber is just a fancy way to say "plastic". Would you ride a plastic bike after you crashed it? Titanium comes the closest to being a real contender. It doesn't rust! The only thing going against it is cost. But custom bike frames are primarily yuppy toys anyway. Still, you can't get a nice lugged Titanium frame. So steel wins.

2. Lugs

Lugs look nice. They can be a bit overblown, as in the Rivendell bikes. And, people can be a bit too ardent about defending them with foofy statements about Bike as Art. That's stupid. Lugs just look nicer than those stupid huge bubble welds in the average aluminum mountain bike.

3. Fat Tires

Bikes as transportation people make a big deal about wanting a frame with clearences so that they can fit fenders for rain riding. I used to think this way. But, over the last few years I've come to the realization that I will never ride in the rain unless I happen to get caught in a freak all day thunderstorm on a century ride (this happened once). I mean, my favorite saddle is a Brooks, made out of leather, which hates rain. 'Nuff said.

Fenders aside, the bike should be able to take 28-32mm tires without using stupid cantilever brakes. I don't like cantilevers. They squeal, they are hard to open, they are weird to adjust. I realize this is my particular problem.

4. No Lawyer Nibs

No lawyer nibs.

5. No Stupid Colors

It is a fact of life that companies that make bikes and bike related equipment employ people who are colorblind. The shoes from Sidi and Carnac are the best proof of this. But, the paint chosen for most production bikes and frames makes the case almost as well. You generally have a choice between industrial gray and black or some hideous two tone striped pastel mixed with blazing green.

Everyone knows that the proper color is a single paint and any color you want as long as it is blue, burnt orange, or red. Solid black is also OK. If you must have white panels around the lugs, I can forgive that.

6. Higher Handle Bars

Drop bars are for keeping your hands comfortable. This means you should not lean way over and put too much weight on them. If you want to crouch, get in the drops.

7. Bikes I like

I like my road bike a lot. Its only real failing is a lack of clearence for fat tires. I tried to run 26mm tires once, and for a year the tires rubbed against the frame whenever I was in the big ring. For the most part, I can forgive the bike this one sin. But, in looking around, I have found a few almost perfect bikes to replace it:

Surly Pacer. This bike is all business and no nonsense. No lugs, but no stupid welding either. I like the black and the fact that it's cheap.

Bianchi Volpe. This bike is great except for the cantilever brakes. Unfortunately, the same frame with decent road bike frames will only take skinny tires. Pick your poison.

Rivendell. This is the cheaper production of their road frame. I rode one of the custom road frames back when they only cost this much. These bikes are great, but I think the lugs are overdone and I don't like the paint panels.

Ebisu. I rode one of these a few years ago in Berkeley. I think this the current favorite on the "bikes I shop for but never buy" list. I like the understated styling.

Jamis. Jamis makes some nice cross bikes (Aurora, Nova) whose only bug is cantilever brakes. They used to have a bike that was the perfect orange, but they changed to stupid colors instead. I still haven't gotten over that.

Posted by psu at 07:31 AM | Comments (0)

August 28, 2006

Civ IV, Revisited

by peterb

Late last year I wrote a review of the then-new game Civilization IV for Played.todeath magazine. It was a hard review to write: Civ IV was a brilliantly designed game that was crippled by performance and user interface issues that made it, in my opinon, virtually unplayable.

At the time I opined:

[The developers are] rumored to be working on fixes for some of the issues in their release. If the patch is better engineered than the retail release, I might be willing to revise my opinion.

It is, and I am. I've recently been playing Aspyr's Mac port of Civilization IV, and it is a much more enjoyable experience than the original Windows release. Here's what you need to know.

Most of the improvements to the codebase have been incorporated in recent Windows patches as well, so you don't have to go the Mac route. That being said, a number of aspects of the game seem to just work better in the Aspyr version. Most notably, alt-tabbing back to the desktop is quick and painless in the Mac port, whereas when trying the same thing on Windows it always seems just too darn slow. On the downside, both the Mac and Windows versions of the game require that you keep the CD in the drive while playing, because no one ever plays games on a laptop.

The most noticeable improvements in the updated version of the game are in how it performs. No more do you suffer from intolerable slowdowns on large maps. The game moves along at a brisk pace, which allows you to enjoy the strategic improvements to the franchise that much more.

And the improvements here are not small. It's hard to describe them adequately without getting marred in minutiae: many reviewers like to discuss the intricate system of religions, for example. I prefer to describe the matter in broad strokes. The game allows for a certain degree of strategic flexibility that was abjectly missing in Civ III. Playing Civ III was like building a house out of playing cards. Cards that had been dipped in oil. Also, you were trying to build the house on the deck of a ship, during a storm. What I mean by this is that you could spend 4 hours playing a perfect game of Civ III, and then you'd make one wrong move and your country would be annihilated in under 45 seconds.

Civ IV is more sensible, and has an arc of play more appropriate to the game's timescale. You can still run things into the ground if you're not careful, but through commonsense gameplay and forethought you can almost always salvage some dignity, if not an actual victory.

In other words, it's a better game. A more balanced game. A game that, now that we can actually play it, is more fun to play.

The other issue I had with Civ IV was that I found certain aspects of the UI to be tragic. What particularly enraged me was the in-game help system, the Civilopedia, which I described as "not there when you need it, and when it is there, it’s hard to use." The patches have solved the latter problem: they have thrown away the useless "icon view" in the Civilopedia and replaced with a simple, easily navigable hierarchy of English text. Let's hear it for blessed simplicity. I'm still unhappy with the haphazard way the game targets tooltips, but I can live with it.

On my MacBook Pro, with all detail knobs cranked up high, I didn't have many performance issues. When you zoom out to a great height and the game chokes for a short while trying to swap the ridiculously huge cloud texture to and from the graphics card. This same interaction brings the Windows version of the game to its knees, also. The Mac version was compatible with all of the mods I tried. The game was noticeably slower on the G5 I tried it on, and is effectively unplayable on a Powerbook G4. I'd be interested to hear from readers who have played the game on a MacBook as to how the game performs.

I'm well aware that there are many people who bought the original version of Civ IV and had absolutely no problems with it. I wasn't one of those people: for me, and for many others, the game was a whirling nightmare of bugs and slowdowns. I am truly happy that a few months of extra engineering has resulted in a game that I can enjoy, now, too.

Disclosure statement: Aspyr graciously provided Tea Leaves with a review copy of the game.

Posted by peterb at 07:40 PM | Comments (4)

August 26, 2006

Things That Suck About Pittsburgh, #43

by peterb

Pittsburgh doesn't like one of my favorite bands, Me First & The Gimme Gimmes.

(via Pittsblog)

PS: It occurs to me after the fact that this could simply be something that sucks about baseball. Somehow I can't imagine the band getting a better reception in whatever they're calling Candlestick Park now.

Posted by peterb at 02:08 PM | Comments (1)

August 25, 2006

Revised Planetary Mnemonic Update

by peterb

Dear Astronomers:

You seem to be having some trouble making up your minds deciding which of the celestial bodies orbiting our star is a planet. I read your revised definitions where you explain that Pluto is "not a planet" but is a "dwarf planet" (could you make that any more confusing?).

You are lost. But do not fear. I am hear to lead you to the truth.

What you have is a complex document that was hammered out based on political considerations. What you need is a definition that is simple, crisp, and conforms to basic scientific principles. Thanks to my 35 years as Professor Emeritus and head of the Astronomy department at Universität Göttingen (footnote 1), I can succeed where you have failed. Here is the definition you should use:

Planet — A planet is any celestial body orbiting around the sun that is mentioned in the Schoolhouse Rock song and video Interplanet Janet.

You're welcome. I hope that clears things up.

The video for Interplanet Janet is available on iTunes.

Footnote 1: I am lying.

Posted by peterb at 08:37 AM | Comments (2)

August 21, 2006

Planetary Mnemonic Update

by peterb

Since they're changing the rules on me, I need a new mnemonic to remember the names of the planets. This one is mine and mine alone.

"My Very Earnest Mother, Camille, Just Served Us Nine Pickles (Cornichons, eXactly)."

(Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Charon, Xena)

Posted by peterb at 11:28 AM | Comments (2)

Booze: Orange Creamsicles

by peterb

The problem with White Russians is that they're very 1986. The other problem is that to make them, you have to buy a bottle of Kahlua, and now you have a bottle of liqueur that you can only use for White (and Black) Russians.

I was thinking about this today, and realized that I wanted something White-Russian-like (in the sense of "somewhat sweet, somewhat girly, likely to be served in a casino"). But I didn't want a drink that tastes like coffee. The fact is that I like coffee enough that if I want a drink that tastes like coffee, and yet has alcohol, I will make coffee and then put booze in it.

At that moment I realized that I still had a bottle of Cointreau in the cabinet, and thus this drink was born. I'm sure it's been independently invented in a thousand places, but mine was created to explicitly mirror the taste of the Good Humor truck orange creamsicles you had as a kid.

The recipe is simple:

  • Two parts Cointreau.

  • One part gold rum.

  • One part heavy cream.

Serve (of course) over lots of ice.

There are people who will blanch at the thought of heavy cream in a drink, and will want to substitute half-and-half or milk. If you are one of these people and are not at imminent risk of heart disease the only thing I can say is: you are worthless and weak.

Now if I can only figure out a way to mimic the taste and texture of those Strawberry Shortcake ice cream bars in a cocktail. Hmm. I wonder how well Strawberry Quik, vodka, and wheat germ would work together...

Posted by peterb at 07:31 AM | Comments (6)

August 18, 2006

For the Record, RIP

by psu

I found out today that my favorite record store of all time closed last month.

For the Record in Amerhst MA was everything a local record store should be. It had good prices (always cheaper than retail), a wide selection in all areas of music, not just the usual mindless micro-genres of pop music that most places have. You could walk in on any given day and find something unusual and wonderful no matter where your interests might lie. This is because the people who ran the store knew good music. They also knew every inch of their store, and could find any record they had in stock in 30 seconds if you could describe three bars from the first cut.

For the Record was a great place to go and hang out and browse and be surprised. It has fallen victim to other forms of music commerce that may provide you with the bits that you want, but do not have this level of personal contact. After more than 30 years in business, they are gone, and the world is worse off because of it.

Posted by psu at 08:54 PM | Comments (0)

August 17, 2006

Age of New Super Mario Empires Master Chief

by psu

It is mid-August, which means one thing. I'm killing time waiting for the next Madden. I've been doing this with a mix of old and new and new-old games.

Madden 2006

I still pick this up and play it once in a while, especially on the PSP. The game appeals to me because running is too easy and the human-controlled defense is too good. This means I spend most of my time winning. Last night, my simulated Patriots pummeled the Bills 42-0, capping off the fourth quarter with a play-action 65 yard bomb and a two-point conversion. Good times.

The tricky question this year is whether the 360 version of the game is worth considering. If the gameplay is as broken as last year, I'll probably put up with the PS2 looks-like-ass filter for 12 more months.

Age of Empires: DS

This is a strategy game. It is well done. On the other hand, since it is not Advance Wars it is not as good as Advance Wars. Still, it's a different setting and a nice change of pace. But it's really not as good as AW.

New Super Mario Brothers

I picked this up for the annual summer trip to the parents. I never played any of the classic, or even modern, Mario platform games. I've only played Mario Golf and Mario Kart. I tried Mario Sunshine once, but it gave me a headache.

If anyone ever needed conclusive proof that 3-d really did nothing to improve the platformer, this game would be a good start. The gameplay is fast and light and fun and super-refined. I presume that anyone who played this game on the NES has a deep sense of constant deja-vu, but for me, this is a great collection of classic gameplay that is as good as anything that has come around since the late 80s. And as a bonus, no camera problems.

My only complaint is, not surprisingly, the retarded save system. I die a lot. This means I have to play the stages dozens of times to get through them. This gets old. Worse, you can only die a limited number of times before starting the whole world over again. This is hard evidence that the game designer hates me.

I don't think it would be too much to ask to save my game after each level. But NSMB only has saves after every couple of levels. Yes, there are special save "huts", but you only get to use them once and you have to pay "money" to do it. This must be the result of some brain-dead old skool game design where the designer is supposed to treat the player like manure and the player is supposed to thank the designer for his trouble.

Only two things mitigate my hatred for this system. First, since it is a Nintendo game, there tend to be resources and power-ups when you need them. Second, there are some mini-games that get you as many lives as you need. Still, these are half-measures. They wink and nod at modern game design but only meet me halfway. Unlimited lives and a save at the end of each stage would have been better proof that the developer does not hate me.


A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a GDC presentation about Halo on my iPod. The talk was fascinating, and covered a lot about what is good in the game, particularly the A.I. and the pre-recorded alien dialog ("Augh! He's everywhere!"). As part of the presentation, they played an audio track from one of the early levels of the game, and I got curious about how it would be to replay the game from scratch.

I remember the orginal Halo as being slow, plodding and confusing, especially in the early stages. I had a lot of trouble staying oriented and finding my way through the areas. I also died a lot.

This time through, I find the pacing to be much faster. I originally wrote that the pacing in Halo 2 was tighter and faster than Halo, but now I think they are about the same.

The combat in the game also feels faster and more satisfying than I remember it. Maybe it's just because I'm using the bitchslap a lot. This will sound like an obvious point, but shooting things is fun. This really isn't the case in other shooters. In almost every other shooter I've played since Halo, combat ultimately ends up being a chore. It is boring and repetitive, there is no rythm and flow. In the end, you feel like you need to kill the enemies if for no other reason than to just make them shut the hell up and get their 5 lines of dialog out of your head.

Even in Half-life 2, the shooting took a back seat to physics puzzles, seeing the city, and following the narrative line that never did anything but tease you. Consider that the best level in the whole game didn't have you using a "real" gun, with, you know, bullets.

In Halo, you shoot things, and the combat has been tuned and refined to such a degree that when you get into a pleasing rythm it's almost like dancing with the game. Enemies appear at the perfect rate (and slightly differently every time) and you know just what to do to them to make them say something pithy ("Grenade! Oh No! Not again!") and then fall over in a cloud of blue blood and burnt alien flesh.

The first time I played Halo, I really only felt in tune with the game after I got the shotgun. This time, the feeling started a lot earlier and lasted a lot longer. The game stands head and shoulders above most shooters primarily because so many small details were done right. I'm not sure exactly which of these details were the critical ones. I just know that I've played a lot of shooters since Halo and none of them are as fun. You can complain about the checkpoints, the backtracking, the repetitive alien floor plans and the vehicle control, but for me, the whole package comes together better than any game in this genre since the first Half-Life.

Halo 2 is pretty good too.

Posted by psu at 09:33 PM | Comments (4)

August 16, 2006

i digestivi funzionano bene

by peterb

Some time ago, you may recall that we reviewed Italian amari, liqueurs that are believed to help aid the digestion. Our panel reviewed these beverages solely from the perspective of taste.

Tonight, I had a somewhat overwhelming dinner, and I can report that, in fact, amari do work wonderfully as digestivi. So three cheers for the ragazzi buoni who make Amaro Montenegro.

Posted by peterb at 11:08 PM | Comments (0)

August 15, 2006

Short Food Questions

by psu

I find myself confronted by the same food questions over and over again. Here are a few that have been bothering me lately.

1. I was in a rest stop on the turnpike yesterday. I bought a coke out of a vending machine. The coke was warm. This is not an uncommon occurrence these days. What kind of cruel world do we live in where cokes you buy out of a cooler or vending machine are warm? Shouldn't they lock the damn thing down until the drinks are cold?

2. This has always bothered me: why is flour-less chocolate cake considered cake? It has no flour. It has no texture. It's just a brick of brown sludge. What's the point?

3. How does Starbucks make a 2 shot iced latte that tastes like nothing but milk? (Yes I was at Starbucks. I was on the turnpike).

4. What kind of mutant actually likes that super sweet ISO standard American birthday cake icing? In a world where you can cover a cake in butter cream, this icing shit should die and never come back.

5. Why do people think that undercooking apples in pie and tarts is a good idea? Here's a hint: the apple in the pie should not have texture or bite or even the tiniest hint of crunch. If it does, you have failed.

6. The last one is not a question. Krispy Kreme donuts suck. A proper donut is cakey and substantial. For example, the New England style cider donut. Don't argue with me. You know it's true. That is all.

Posted by psu at 05:45 PM | Comments (22)

August 14, 2006

Worms: Open Warfare DS picoreview

by peterb

It took me exactly 3 minutes to decide that I hated this game and never wanted to play it again.

Posted by peterb at 08:13 PM | Comments (3)

August 11, 2006

Cointreau vs. Grand Marnier Knife Fight

by peterb

In preparation for an article on making a decent Margarita, I picked up a bottle of Cointreau (pronounced [kwan'-tro]). Since I can talk about booze for hours on end, let's divert from the Margarita discussion to talk about orange flavored liqueurs.

I had actually never tasted Cointreau "bare" before, whereas Grand Marnier is an old favorite of mine. It was interesting. For drinking neat, the Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge wins hands down: it's silkier, and has more body, and the cognac base gives it a more complex flavor.

These same factors, however, make Cointreau the better mixer. Cointreau has a bitter orange bite that is missing from its wealthier, more attractive cousin. It's harsher, but that makes it stand up better to being in a mixed drink. I've been at various bars that offer a top-shelf margarita by using Grand Marnier, but this seems to me to be a bad deal for both the mixed drink and the liqueur.

Cointreau bills itself as "the original triple sec," but most of the products you can buy that call themselves "triple sec" are undrinkable and unmixable (yes, Jacquins, I'm looking at you — how does that company stay in business?).

There's only one type of Cointreau. Grand Marnier comes in a number of variations, from the difficult-to-get-in-the-US-but-that's-OK-because-it's-not-very-good Cordon Jaune up to marketed-to-yuppie-philistines Grand Marnier Cuvée Speciale Cent Cinquantenaire. (Actual quote from the owner of the ad agency promoting this $220 booze: "The more obscure and more expensive, the harder it is to find, the better it is." I guess it's nice to know that money doesn't buy brains.)

Coming soon: tequila, the gentrification of liquors, and Margaritas as a serious drink instead of as slurpees for stupid drunk sorority chicks and frat boys.

Posted by peterb at 07:58 AM | Comments (6)

August 10, 2006

Fried Rice

by psu

Fried rice, to me, is the Chinese American Macaroni and Cheese. When I think of the quick and lazy food of my childhood, it's always fried rice. Egg fried rice, fried rice with the little Chinese sausages, fried rice with sliced up hot dogs (really!). The sad thing is, I was never very good at making it, and restaurant fried rice usually is not the same.

Lately though, through no concious effort on my part, my fried rice has gotten better. Here's what I've been doing.

1. First you need 2 or 3 cups of cooked rice, preferrably a day old. You should not waste fresh rice on this. It's a dish for leftovers.

2. 4 to 6oz ground pork.

3. One small onion. Optionally, one green onion.

Dice the onion and brown it in a pan in olive oil. Add salt and pepper, cook for a minute or two. Add the ground pork, tearing it up into small pieces. Stir this around, add more salt and pepper. Now put in a teaspoon or two of soy sauce. Mix this around until the pork is mostly done.

Heat the rice in the microwave (1 or 2 min on high), then dump it into the pan and break it up so there are no big lumps. Stir it around in the meat. Add a bit more soy sauce to season the rice. Then mix and cook on medium heat for 5 or 10 minutes, until the rice gets starchy. Add more salt and pepper to taste.

Add an egg if you feel like it. Or hot sauce, or whatever. Another classic addition is frozen peas and/or carrots. Just toss them in and mix them up so they heat up with the rice.

I think this has been working better for me lately for two main reasons.

1. Better rice. The fancy rice cooker and fancy Japanese short grain rice make for a great base. You get a nice starchy texture that I was always missing.

2. Oil and pork fat and rice mix well.

Note. You need a pretty big pan to do this right. A 12 inch saute pan, or the medium sized wok that I use. Non-stick helps.

Posted by psu at 08:18 PM | Comments (3)

August 09, 2006

PTD #10

by peterb

Issue number 10 of played.todeath is out. I have a few articles in this month's issue:

  • Retrograde: Nethack, my favorite rogue-like game, on page 19.
  • Indiescene: Styrateg, a nice little Fire Emblem clone. Page 23.
  • What might be the worst game of the year so far, NFL Head Coach, page 83.

...and there are, of course, hundreds of other articles by people who are almost as good looking as me. Download the magazine here (PDF, 20 Mb).

Posted by peterb at 10:57 AM | Comments (8)

August 08, 2006

The Cars Make the Man

by peterb

What we drive speaks volumes about us. But sometimes, the message that we think we're giving off isn't the message everyone hears.

The Car The Owner Thinks Everyone Else Thinks
Any minivan "I am a responsible mother, dedicated to the safety of my children." "These annoying breeders are everywhere."
Any SUV "I am not driving a minivan. See this car? Not a minivan. It cost twice as much, because it is definitely not a minivan." "Great. Now the really stupid breeders are everywhere too."
Toyota Prius "I care about the environment" "If he really cared about the environment, he'd be using public transit."
Honda Element "How come the guy in the Prius is getting dates with all the hippie chicks?" "Clowns are scary."
BMW Z3 "Ahhhh, German engineering." "You are driving a chick car."
Porsche Boxster "I am sporty, yet sophisticated." "He couldn't afford a Porsche 911"
Porsche 911 "I have an 8 inch penis." "He is bald."
Ferrari 360 Modena "I don't care what you think of me, because my trophy wife is 40 years younger than me." "I got nothin'."
Camaro "I'm gonna go down to Donzi's tonight and score." "I thought dinosaurs were extinct."
Ford Escort/Focus "I am economical." "He is cheap."
Subaru WRX "Check out my Rallisport style!" "At least he doesn't have those spinning hubcaps."

Feel free to add entries in the comments as appropriate.

P.S.: On one final note, I couldn't find a place for the Porsche Cayenne in this table, because I can't imagine what anyone who buys it could possibly be thinking. But I just wanted to assure all of you Cayenne owners out there: the rest of us think you're utter cocks.

P.P.S.: I humped your hummer (via green la girl).

Posted by peterb at 11:11 PM | Comments (7)

August 07, 2006

I Tried

by psu

I tried. I gave it my best shot. I believe I have given the game a fair shake, a reasonable evaluation window, a nice long looking over. Intelligent people who generally seem right about these things told me it was a good game, and I desparately wanted to agree with them. But I can't. The plain, hard, awful truth is, no matter how hard I try, I can't like NCAA 2007 on the 360. It's crap.

I've always said that the job of a good football game is to let you win while not letting you notice that it is doing so. I'm not a player who is interested in an "realistic" simulation of an actual team. I want a fun "simulation" of taking a team to the Super Bowl and winning every year. But it has to feel like I worked for it. Over the years, the mature football engines have been tuned to the point where this is possible. They have bugs and glitches and money-plays, but these concerns are fairly minor because the overall package plays well, and I get to win a lot. What's the point of playing a football video game and having a .500 season?

NCAA 2007 is not like this. The game is cheap and random, and the gameplay is glitchy and hard to predict. Then you lose. The result is a frustrating mess.

Passing is like flipping a coin. If you hit a good coin flip, your QB (or the CPU) can thread the ball between three defenders, and your receiver will dive backwards behind himself to catch the ball. If you hit a bad coin flip, that pass over the middle into wide open space will be picked off by a DB sporting magic warp drive shoes.

Running the ball is a bit better. The running backs handle more like the PS2 Madden than the Xbox 360 Madden, so it doesn't feel like they are running through quicksand. You can occasionally change direction. Still, sometimes you will be moving along and the avatar will suddenly spring into some random animation that you can't control. That's weird. The old problem of running into your lineman and getting stuck also persists.

Other on-field gameplay glitches abound. You will see players warping 15 yards across the field to make a play. You will be sacked by linemen who never touch your quarterback. The CPU team never misses a field goal, unless it is blocked and they recover their own blocked kick and run with the ball 30 yards to the endzone. Every game I play seems to have 4 or 5 INTs or 2 or 3 fumbles, or both. Every game.

The "jump the snap" feature is also heinously unbalanced. Jumping the snap allows the defense to jump into the offensive line with extra force if you time the button press just right. However, if you jump the snap, your lineman falls over his feet and shuffles to the side in a harmless manner. When the CPU jumps the snap, the lineman clips through your center and smashes the QB to the ground before he has even gathered the football.

I dislike the new play calling screens. I didn't really like them in Madden 06 either. They seem great in theory, except that the system is actually slower to use because you have to pick the exact play and hit A, rather than picking the group of three plays and hitting A, X, or B. It also does not help that the UI spazzes out and flips to the next or previous page of plays seemingly at random. The UI is also buggy in other ways. I've had defensive formations disappear (where did 4-3 Normal go?) and offensive play groups suddenly be named "text text".

The graphics and presentation are also disappointing. There are noticable anti-aliasing problems when the players are small. Also, the football is too dark and hard to find on the screen. The on screen tickers and scoreboard displays are horrible. They flash and dance for no reason. They don't really tell you much about what is going on. They are also missing those helpful messages that indicate whether you have made a first down, or whether there was just a touchdown, or whether your stupid moron running back just coughed up the ball again, which is why that cloud of players are all running down the field the wrong way. The audio is boring and repetetitive. I don't know who Lee Corso is, but if he says "Scooter special" to me one more time I'll go insane.

As a final insult, there are obvious bugs of a fatal nature. In one game, I recovered a fumble for a touchdown. The touchdown appeared in the scoring summary of the game, But I got no credit for the points, even though I kicked off on the next play, as if I had scored. Go team!

My summary: it's barely better than Madden 2006 for the 360, but if Madden 2007 is not better than this, I'll have to get the PS2 game again. NCAA 2007 is a glitchy, buggy, frustrating mess. Oh yeah, the new kick mechanic is stupid too. And I hate the option play. So there.

Posted by psu at 06:45 PM | Comments (3)

August 04, 2006

No Lawyer Nibs

by psu

For this afternoon, a short meditation on one of modern life's stupidities. I write this rant in my head every time I have to take the wheel off my bike. Here is why.

All modern bicycles use a quick-release mechanism to attach the wheel to the bike. By modern, I mean all bikes made after 1930 or so when a small company called Campagnolo in Italy invented it.

The quick-release works using a spring-loaded lever. You adjust the spring tension so that when the lever is closed, the wheel is very secure. How secure? If you watched the Tour De France, you may have noticed the fleet of cars that follow the race, one for each team. On top of these cars, you may have noticed half a dozen bikes or so, each attached to a roof rack. These cars drive at crazy speeds up and down mountains and around hairpin turns for 2500 miles over three weeks, and no bike ever falls off the rack. They are attached to the rack using exactly the same quick-release as you would use for your wheels. One can say that for all intents and purposes, a properly adjusted quick-release will be more than sufficiently secure.

For decades, cyclists lived in a time of bliss and wonder. To remove the wheel, you just pop the quick-release and take it out. To put the wheel back, you just stick the wheel in the frame and close the lever. There was generally no need to actually adjust the lever itself. Thus, the quick-release lived up to its name, making wheel attachment fast and easy.

Then, somewhere, someone crashed a bike because a quick-release was not well-adjusted, and some lawyers got involved and ruined everything. Now, on every production bike frame you can buy in this country and perhaps the world, when you pop the quick release open, the wheel does not come out of the frame. Instead, it just jiggles there against two little protrusions at the end of the fork which I, and many others call the lawyer nibs, or nubs, or hooks. I have heard people blame Ralph Nader for these offences against God. If this is true, then that's as good a reason as any to never elect that nut-ball to political office.

The lawyer nibs are a "safety" device. The theory is that if you don't adjust the q-r correctly, and you take the bike out on the road anyway, the nibs will keep the wheel from falling out. This might be true if you happen to enjoy riding a bike at 5mph on nothing but flat roads. If you were stupid enough to get up to full speed or go over a bump, you would instantly crash and hurt yourself badly. They are in fact useless for actually holding the wheel on the frame. All they do is make it impossible to remove the wheel quickly.

Instead, they force you to adjust the quick-release every time you put the wheel in the frame. Rather than a quick flip and pop the wheel out, now you have to pop the quick-release and turn-turn-turn-turn-turn-turn-argh-turn-hate before the wheel comes loose. On the way back in it's the same thing, but you have to make sure you adjust the quick-release just right. Every time you do this, you have a chance of doing it wrong. Therefore, every time you take the wheel out of your frame, the lawyer nibs force you to do something that you will eventually screw up and then you will crash.

In other words, what the nibs do is completely destroy the perfect utility of a fantastic piece of human invention and replace it with something that is both less safe and completely useless! Clearly this calls for a round of applause. Way to go.

Posted by psu at 09:00 PM | Comments (8)

August 02, 2006

Exchange Addiction

by claire

I have a problem. I've gotten into the habit of killing time in Squirrel Hill by visiting The Exchange, a local store mentioned before. Harmless, right? On its own it would be, except that every time I enter the store I find something that I just have to have. In my last 4 visits to the Exchange I have not once walked away empty handed.

A few recent acquisitions:
1) A blue PS2 controller.
Rationale - I need a second PS2 controller?
Actual reason - It's a freaking first party metallic blue PS2 controller! (I eventually found out it's probably from a special edition Japanese PS2 system. I love it so.)

2) Final Fantasy 1 & 2: Dawn of Souls.
Rationale - It was $20?
Actual reason - It was $20?

3) Silent Hill 3.
Rationale - I want to play through the Silent Hill series.
Actual reason - Actually, yea I want to play through them all and I didn't have SH3.

4) Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.
Rationale - I'd played an hour before and it was enjoyable.
Actual reason - It was $10.

I just can't stop myself. Every time I have some time to kill in Squirrel Hill I hear the siren song of the Exchange and their bargain priced wares. I hear, and I succumb and before I know it I find myself exchanging money for goods. Oh Exchange, why must you tempt me so. I am powerless against you.

Posted by claire at 10:25 PM | Comments (3)

August 01, 2006

Developer Interview: Auto Assault MMO

by peterb

In May, I reviewed the Auto Assault Trading Card Game for Played To Death. As part of the prep for that, I interviewed Scott Martins at Worlds Apart.

Questons are in italics.

Auto Assault shares a lot of visual similarities with Star Chamber. My presumption is that there's some degree of code-sharing going on, but often in development code-sharing is easier to talk about than to actually do. How abstracted is the engine underlying both games? Were you able to focus on game mechanics and assets to create Auto Assault, or did you have to rewrite significant portions of the underlying engine?

We've actually created a very modular and extensible infrastructure for creating digital-property style games.

That allowed us to really focus on the game and the gameplay of Auto Assault itself, rather than the tech. Frankly, for TCG design and development, a digital development environment can be a lot more efficient than paper-based iteration and playtesting. Our overview at: covers this in more detail.

Star Chamber is cross-platform. Are there any plans for an Auto Assault port to the Macintosh?

Yes, we'll be releasing a Macintosh build of AATCG here within the next week. (Editorial comment: We're still waiting.)

What was the hardest bug you had to track down in development? How did you eventually figure it out (if you did).

Because of the existing infrastructure, there weren't any particular technical challenges with Auto Assault TCG, per se.

Again comparing Auto Assault with the earlier game, one major difference is that Auto Assault is a "more pure" card game (eg, there is no strategic "star map" portion of the game). Was that designed in from the beginning, or was it something that developed as you refined the game.

That was a part of the design of AATCG from the beginning. We particularly were looking for a design that would also work well on paper for this game, because of the possibility of printing it as a physical TCG.

How many of your customers buy additional cards after the starter pack? Do you expect that to be significant ongoing revenue, or do you expect most of the revenue to come from new players buying the core game?

In general, most of the revenue on the online TCG business model comes from incremental purchases and microtransactions from existing customers. This is particularly true for Auto Assault TCG, which has significant promotional tie-ins to the Auto Assault MMO that allow MMO players to sample AATCG for free.

One obvious advantage to publishing a CCG on a computer is that there after cards are created, there is little or no marginal cost (read: printing and packaging) to selling each additional one. Do you plan on printing real cards? Do your customers seem interested in that?

We are exploring that possibility, and there is some interest in it. We think the design of AATCG has the potential for pretty strong among customers who play other TCGs in the hobby market.

What games, other than Car Wars, inspired Auto Assault? Are there any odd inspirations that wouldn't be immediately obvious?

Well, for Worlds Apart, our primary source of inspiration for the TCG design was the MMO itself. We played it and went through a number of early design iterations trying to come up with a game engine that was true to the experience of playing the MMO. The most important elements that we were looking for were that it be fast-paced and destructive, and we think we acheived those elements with this design.

What's the best mechanic in the game, the one cool thing that you think makes the game "click"? Conversely, what one thing in the game feels wrong or clunky to you? ("Nothing feels wrong, the game is perfect" is not an acceptable answer here.)

The thing that really "clicked" for me for this game over previous design iterations was the speed attribute and its display using the speedometer graphic. And while the display of that attribute is key to the feel of the game, it's multipurpose function (defense vs. scoring missions) and the decision points and tradeoffs therein really became the core of the game engine.

Nothing feels "clunky" to me, but if I had to pick one place where I wish we'd put a little more time and energy, it would be in making the base vehicle stats a little more varied.

Posted by peterb at 08:51 PM | Comments (2)

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