Thursday, December 31, 2009

Game Review: Borderlands (PC)

BorderlandsBorderlands, from Gearbox software, blends FPS with RPG and tickles the loot center in every gamer’s brain. Borderlands is a good game, but misses greatness in every single category. Fortunately, there is a shitload of guns to make up for it.

Borderlands the RPG

Borderlands has all the makings for a great RPG: interesting characters, progression, and a story. Unfortunately, Borderlands is the king of “almost”.

The characters, like Dr Zed, come with great introduction scenes, but are quickly limited to dialogue boxes only. Other NPCs stand still, not moving, and often blend so well into the scenery that players walk by without noticing them. The only characters that stand out are the R2-D2 inspired robots nicknamed "claptraps" and some random chick that appears on screen to provide dribbles of information throughout the player's journey.

The story is fun to think about, but is not a draw for the game. It ends abruptly and does not make use of the characters or game world very well. The world itself will often make a better story than what is being sold by the random chick that pops up on the screen. The pieces are there, but the story is never put together firmly.

Character progression is handled via talent trees where players can specialize their skills in various weapons and skills. It's a well rounded, but average system. Each character recieves their unique class skill at level 5. After that, there were not any milestones that made me feel like I was achieving an important step in my characters life. Weapon skills are raised by using various weapon types

The loot is really the only RPG staple that stands out in Borderlands. It randomizes the look, stats, and effects of each weapon. With any randomized system, there is a lot of junk that is worthless, but getting a rare weapon is a treat. Getting to use that weapon to take down a giant mammoth-like Rakk Hive is icing on the cake.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Reposted Book Review: Elantris

Title: Elantris
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Tor Fantasy (May 30, 2006)
Quick-Hit Thought: A one volume epic fantasy worth reading.

I have to admit the only reason I picked up Elantris was due to the announcement that Brandon Sanderson would be writing the twelfth, and final, book in the Wheel of Time series. Along with favorable reviews, and the fact that the story begins and ends in a single book, really sold it to me as a book worth reading to get a measure of Sanderson’s abilities.

The main point to understand about Elantris is that it is an epic fantasy tale wrapped up in under a thousand pages. It covers the gambit as far as epic fantasy goes. There is the hero, the villain, the princess, a story, and most of all, the fantastical world.

Elantris, located in the nation of Arelon, is more than the title of the book, it is the name of a magical city that ten years prior stopped being magical. Outside of Elantris is the smaller, non-magical city of Kae, newly revitalized in the wake of the downfall of Elantris and now the center of Arelon’s monarchy.

Elantris serves as a prison, housing those unfortunate enough to be afflicted by the magic that once made the city and the Elantrians great. The book begins as Raoden, the prince of Arelon, becomes afflicted with this magic and is cast into the crumbling city of Elantris. The story excels from that point forwad. Every chapter spent in Elantris is well worth the reader’s time.

Outside of Elantris, two other points of view are followed: Raoden’s widowed-before-the-wedding wife, Sarene, and Hrathen, priest sent to convert the non-believers of Arelon. While Raoden struggles within Elantris, Sarene and Hrathen battle politically in the city of Kae.

I thoroughly enjoyed the chapters involving Raoden and the overall story line of the book. However, the chapters involving Sarene and Hrathen take a while to become enjoyable. Sarene is just too much of a stereotypical feminist, while Hrathen is the obvious conflicted bad guy. I did enjoy Hrathen overall, but the most interesting aspect of Hrathen was his back-story which I would not have minded more of.

Fortunately, towards the end of the book, the three characters become entwined together in the chapters and the pace picks up significantly. The plot spins down quickly and an expected, but well-executed, ending unfolds.

Overall, the book serves its purpose as a one-book epic fantasy tale. More back story on Hrathen would have been nice and the pacing could have been smoother. It was refreshing to read a book without having to worry about the next book in the series. Elantris tells a great story that begins and ends within a thousand pages. Quite a feat in an otherwise bloated fantasy genre, especially for an author tagged with the responsibility to conclude one of the most bloated epic fantasy series out there.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Reposted Book Review: The Name of the Wind

Title: The Name of the Wind
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: DAW Trade; Reprint edition (April 7, 2009)
Quick-Hit Thought: Quality writing, minus a few WTF moments.

I debated how to write this review. Should I review the book, or should I review the reviews of the book? To me, the more interesting option is to approach the reviews, as they influenced my decision to get the book. The reviews for The Name of the Wind are split; some people love it, some people hate it. For some, Patrick Rothfuss, is the next big name in Fantasy. To others, he is a self-centered arrogant jerk. Personally, I fall in the middle and have no opinion on the Mr. Rothfuss himself.

Looking at the reviews on Amazon, we get the following gem from Robin Hobb (an accomplished author):
It seems to me that every year there are more books I want to read and less time for me to read them. Because my time is limited, I'm guilty of picking up the books by my favorite authors first, and fitting in new authors only when it's convenient.
Due to a stroke of luck, I've had an advance copy of The Name of the Wind by my bedside for over six months, just waiting for me to open it. Unfortunately, deadlines of my own kept getting in the way. But in a way, it's lucky that I didn't crack this book until just a few days ago. If I'd had this tale to distract me, I'd have been even later getting my work done.

I loathe spoilers, so I'm not going to discuss the plot of this book. I will say it has all the things that I demand of a book. The characters are real, the action is convincing and it has a compelling story to tell.

One of the things I like best about this book is that the magic is absolutely rooted in the book's world. Nothing seems contrived; the consistency is excellent.

The characters are very well realized. That means that when the protagonist does something clever, it's believable. And when he does something youthfully dumb, it rings just as authentically true. Because the characters are real and the magic is true to its own world, I closed this book feeling as if I'd been on a journey with an entertaining new friend, rather than sitting alone looking at words on a page.
This one is well worth some of your precious reading time. I'll wager that the books to follow it will also be.

Robin Hobb
From the peanut gallery, we get:
Like so many here I was suckered into this. Before you buy this book, read all the reviews. Read the honest 1 and 2 star reviews, read the others. Do notice how many reviewers gush praise but don't actually discuss the book. Or how many of the reviews all sound alike? Mention of the main characters, three to five sentences, all proclaiming how this is the best thing ever. Are we really supposed to believe this over the top hype? The funniest, and I mean laugh out loud funny, is the recent review that proclaims "next biggest thing since Tolkien". Or how about the laughable "I hope to be witnessing history on par with Herbert, Tolkien, etc."
I'll admit I bought the book based on the above two reviews. One, because Robin Hobb is a trustworthy review source. Two, because I wanted to know why so many felt the book was overrated.

I tend to agree that the book is overrated. If I rated things in little stars, TNotW would be a 3/5. Its enjoyable and well written, but it lacks the consistency of better novels. The core story is great and I enjoyed the main character Kvothe throughout. What I didn't enjoy was senseless meandering to the side. Situations in which some pretty stupid shit happens; *SPOILER* as stupid as dragons getting high on drugs spurring our hero into action. */SPOILER*

The book is about a man telling another man his life's story. The book starts with the hardened adventurer settled down as a tavern owner, adventures almost long gone. A happy-go-lucky scribe stops by and asks for the hero's story. What ensues will take three books to tell, but this first book covers the entire first day of story telling.

This approach leads to an interesting look into the events that make up the main character's life. As anyone who talks too much about themselves, Kvothe tends to embellish his stories a little bit. Unfortunately, it is hard to tell whether Kvothe is intentionally embellishing them or whether Rothfuss just writes that way. Unfortunately, this spills over (as mentioned above in the spoiler) into some pretty WTF moments.

I would have enjoyed the book a lot more and laughed a bit less at the situations had Rothfuss cut about a hundred or so pages of side story and focused on Kvothe's main storyline at the University (and area around it) and chasing information about the Chadrian. I was really intrigued by the way Kvothe interacted with the Masters at the University and was a bit disappointed when he left to chase ghost stories. I didn't mind that he had left the University, but I was very displeased at the reasons Rothfuss chose to keep him away. At one point, I almost put the book down because I couldn't stop laughing at the situation the characters were in. Seriously, read the above spoiler and tell me it doesn't sound stupid.

I tend to rate things on a 0 to 1 scale. 0, no. 1, yes. In this case, TNotW is a 1, because it is worth reading and deciding if the second book is worthwhile to the reader.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reposted Book Review : Smart Bomb

Title: Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution
Authors: Heather Chaplin, Aaron Ruby
Genre: Gaming
Publisher: Algonquin Books (October 12, 2006)
Quick-Hit Thought: Great read for those interested.

I'm just a gamer. I don't develop games. I have no grand dreams of magically breaking into the industry. However, there are many developers in the industry who have done just that. This is a review of the book, Smartbomb : The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Video game Revolution. This is a review from the side of a gamer, of a book about the rock star developers that make my world go.

At the heart of Smartbomb is a collection of stories about the rock star developers of the video game industry. The pacing of the book is defined by the first developer we meet, Cliff Blezinski. "CliffyB", as he is known around the offices at Epic Games, is known for his once flashy pimp-like attire, back when he burst onto the scene with the Unreal and Unreal Tournament series.

CliffyB is a recurring character in the book. He is considered to be one of the last home-grown programmers who has truly broken into the industry. In a day where developers arrive with college degrees built upon game development, CliffyB is a throwback to such legends as Will Wright of The Sims fame and John Carmack of Doom fame. Wright and Carmack don't have game design degrees, but they have some of the most influential video games in history under their belts. They developed games, because there was no other outlet for their creative talents.

However, CliffyB has gone from flashy pimp to laid back front man for Epic. There is a tantalizing connection where we see him at the same parties and conferences as Wright and Carmack. While CliffyB catches the audience's eyes with a new dazzling hair color, Will Wright drops a bomb as he displays his latest effort known, Spore. Wright's presentation ends in a standing ovation. Smartbomb shows us where these visionaries came from.

The husband-and-wife team of Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby connect many dots amongst a varied background of gaming history. Reading through the book will have you hitting Google for more information on such subjects as the Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT, and the Stupid Fun Club. Their writing style has a dramatic flare that drives the book, and readers will find themselves wanting to know more about the topics covered.

While there are many eye-opening insights into several facets of the gaming industry, there are also several reproductions of well known gaming history tidbits, such as Nolan Bushnell and the early days of Atari. For the seasoned video game historian, this is all information covered in other books, such as Steven Kent's "The Ultimate History of Video Games'', and Dean Takahashi’s "Opening the Xbox: Inside Microsoft's Plan to Unleash an Entertainment Revolution.''

However, there are enough new connections and flavors amongst the entwined stories that the reiteration of information is not overwhelming. Also, being a relatively newer book in a growing industry, it serves as a great starting point for the new-age video game historian. The driving point, the reader will know more about gaming and where gaming is headed after reading this book.

It is very interesting that most of the gaming scene was covered. At one point, you're in the “gaming room” of an Anarchy Online addict before you are whisked away to the sweltering hotel basement in Dallas, where the latest Cyberathlete Professional League tournament is underway.

Smartbomb drags you into the rock star life of the game development industry and then firmly plants you back with the core of the industry: the gamers themselves.
Update: 7 Nov, 2006 - Reposted from old Heartless Gamer Reviews section and applied labels.

Update: 2 Apr, 2007 - Edited labels and article.

Update: 28 July, 2008 - Added info section.

Update: 15 Dec, 2009 - Reposted to new Heartless_ Gamer Reviews.