October 2008


Games October 29th, 2008 by HMTKSteve

Carcassonne

My love for video games is right up there with my love of board games. Both are great ways to spend your leisure time. Video games tend toward the free time when you are by yourself while board games require the presence of other people. Unless you play some of the older Avalon Hill games that came with solitaire rules or if you are just kind of weird...

One thing I truly love about the Xbox Live service is that I can get my game on even when other people are not around. I'm not just talking about beating a sad little A.I. into the ground either. I'm talking about laying the smack down on real people via Xbox Live.

So far I have been having a lot of fun playing Carcassonne on the Xbox, which is funny because I have never played the board game version. I know at least one of my friends has it but we never got around to playing it. Now that I have played it on the Xbox (with some of the expansions) I can honestly say that I will likely never play the board game version. It's not that the game is bad either. It's because the Xbox version is so good.

Carcassonne

How To Play

In Carcassonne you lay tiles and place meeples. Because you have to play whatever tile you draw the game has a very high luck factor to it. It's not all luck though because you also have to place meeples on the board in order to score points. These meeples stay on the board until whatever they are on is complete and points are awarded.

If you place a meeple on a road section it stays there until the road is complete and scored. Same for placing a meeple on a city. The one exception occurs when you place a meeple on a piece of farmland. In that case the meeple never returns as farms are not scored until the game is over. It is also important to note that when placing a meeple it can not be placed in such a way as to touch another meeple on that structure. A common tactic is to place a new section so that it does not touch the existing section but will once that area is complete.

Another thing to keep in mind when placing your meeples is that if someone else places more meeples on that road or city than you did then you will not score points. If you tie for most meeples than all players who tie score the same points. Either way all meeples are returned when the structure is complete.

There are also a few monastery pieces in the game that score once all eight surround tiles are placed.

If, at the end of the game, any features are not complete you score one point per piece of that feature your meeple touches. So, if you have a meeple on a road that is four pieces long you score four points for it at the end of the game.

Carcassonne

Why It Is awesome

So, what makes this version so much better than the board game? In a word; scoring.

Because the system keeps track of the score and enforces the rules you never need to worry about how many points you have or if someone else can legally place a meeple somewhere on the board. This is most problematic with farmers. It is easy to make a mistake and place a farmer on a farm that already has a meeple on it.

The other thing that makes this game great on the Xbox is the availability of players at all hours of the day. If you create a game session it will fill up in under five minutes. You can also reserve spots for your friends or design the game to only allow your friends and keep out strangers.

Expansions

If you get tired of the basic game the River expansion is included. When playing with the river the initial setup is a little different due to the fact that you construct a long river that goes in a mostly straight line across the playing area. After the river is completed play continues as normal.

If you like the River expansion (and have 300 MS Points) you can invest in the 12 piece Rivers II Expansion Pack. These new tiles include a fork in the river, as well as elements from the board game expansions.

For another option (and 300 more MS Points) you can purchase the King and Baron Expansion Pack for Carcassonne. This pack only has five tiles in it but it adds more than that to the game play. The player with the largest completed town gets the King icon next to his gamertag while the player with the longest completed road gets the Baron icon. During end of game scoring the King gets an extra point for every completed city while the Baron gets bonus points for completed roads.

Conclusion

If you like board games and video games you should seriously consider adding this one to your Xbox Arcade collection. It only costs 800 MS Points and supports up to five players over Xbox Live. You can play four player local as long as each player has their own controller.

This was the first game I purchased on the Xbox and I am not in the least bit sorry I did. I've already unlocked 10 of the 12 achievements in the game and of the remaining two one is based on total points (will eventually get) while the other requires some skill (beat an opponent in a player match by 50+ points). I know I'll acquire the bragging rights behind these last two soon enough. Once I do I will continue playing this game because it is lite and fun.

Games October 28th, 2008 by HMTKSteve
Fairy Meat Anarchy 2

I have recently started painting miniatures again. Not just me but my daughter as well. See, my daughter has become very interested in my boardgame collection as of late and while exploring said collection she encountered a box of Fairy Meat miniatures. Some of them were painted while the majority were either primed or untouched.

I gave her one of the fairies from season one to paint and I took one from season two. I also purchased for her a set of brushes and a starter kit from Games Workshop (the Night Goblin one). She knows how particular I am about my brushes and paints so after a short course in proper brush use we were on our way to painting together.

Her fairy is not yet done while mine needs only a final coat of matte sealer before it is ready for the battlefield.

Politics October 17th, 2008 by Danny Mc Guire

We've all heard about "Joe the Plumber" by now. The guy out in Ohio who asked Obama about the ramifications of purchasing the plumbing business from his boss.

Obama's answer about "sharing the wealth" allows his opponents to further paint him as a Marxist. Coupled with the Obama campaign's "95% of Americans get a tax cut" (only about two thirds pay income tax) line and we find Obama in a situation where he comes off sounding like a guy who is trying to paint wealth distribution (Marxism) as a tax cut.

Now the rabid dogs on the left are going all out to discredit Joe Wurzelbacher. They point to him having tax liens on his property, not being a licensed plumber and possibly even being related to the Charles H. Keating, Jr. behind the Keating Five Scandel. The one thing they are not doing is discussing what Obama said to the man. (I'd link to these accounts but you can find them all by doing a Google search on your own.)

It does not matter if Joe Wurzelbacher was a plant or not. What matters is the answer Obama gave him. An answer that many are trying to ignore by attacking the questioner. It's as if some people think that discrediting the man who asked the question will somehow remove the question (and its answer) from the political debate.

Further reading:

Did Barack "Spread the Wealth" Obama Just Blow the Election?by James Pethokoukis
Searching for Obama's 95 Percent by Philip Klein

Games October 4th, 2008 by The Grim Jesta

The Witcher was one of those games I paid attention to during its development. Dope graphics, mature storyline, innovative combat system? Color me SOLD! I waited for that game to come out with mucho anticipation. I thought for sure that this game was going to be the roleplaying game of all roleplaying games. Unfortunately, what I got was ridiculous loading times, stiff dialog, and a combat system that was pretty much: click swing-swing click swing-swing click swing-swing. The game was pretty and the adventure itself was still fun, but the game needed some polishing, something I thought the patches would do. They didn't. Eventually The Witcher started to collect dust in my hard drive.

Fast forward to now. CDProjekt has released The Witcher: Enhanced Edition. "Oooooh," says I. I didn't even know this was coming out until I received my review copy. "Enhanced," says I, "what does this mean?" (I really talk like that sometimes. My mother should have aborted me, I swear.) The outside of the box claims the following:

  • A disk including 44 music tracks
  • A "making of" DVD
  • The official game guide.
  • A short story by the dude that write the comics or something.
  • Zzzzzzzz. Zzzzzzzzz.

The Witcher: Enhanced Edition

What the fuck? Man, this box sucks. Where's the 'enhanced' stuff? Ooooooh here we go. Inside the little game flap. I throw the game case over my shoulder and start reading the inner flap of the game box itself. Aha! Here we go, now we're talkin'!

  • Two new adventures! Aww yea, I always thought the game needed a couple more solid quests.
  • Polished translation and voice work. Not bad. Not bad.
  • Greater variety of non-player characters.
  • Streamlined inventory? Suh-weet.
  • Auto-looting. Meh. Whatever.
  • Level loading times reduced by up to 80%. No fucking way! Are they serious? One of the worst aspects of the original Witcher... fixed? This I gotta see. Those load times made it PAINFUL to run in and out of unimportant homes just to loot their cabinets and shit. Y'know, right in front of the owners. Hrm. And usually all I got was some flint stones and muffins. And extraordinary amount of muffins. maybe that was just my game.
  • Improved game stability? Nice, really nice. I can't tell you how many times the original Witcher screwed with me. I thought it was out to get me or had a mafia hit against me, hoping to fulfill it by making me KILL MYSELF. Yea, the game stability issues needed to be fixed. Fucking crashes.
  • Improved facial expressions and body animations? No more wooden Anakin Skywalker style acting? Shit, if this was all they fixed in the enhanced edition I probably would have still bought it just on this alone.
  • WHAT!?! Hold that thought. Improved combat responsiveness! YES! Shit, if this was all they fixed in the enhanced edition I probably would have still bought it just on this alone. For those of you who have never faced the pain of the original Witcher's combat, you have no idea. You have NO idea...
  • Improved weather settings. Yea. Okay.
  • Improved AI for the Dice Poker mini-game. Fuck! That was how I made all my loot. Abusing the stupid computer in Dice-Poker just to afford all the expensive shit in the game. Dammit! *sigh* Oh well, there goes that exploit.
  • All the latest patches implemented. Well, that's handy.
  • Accelerated map and inventory loading. This falls under the level loading times thingy. Like, I'm giddy that they fixed it. Or at least they say they did. We'll see when I start playing.

Alright, so let's install this thing and...

OH WAIT. I forgot to add that the game comes with the adventure editor D'Jinni. The mod crews will love that should it deliver.

Moving on. So I installed the game and played through quite a bit of it. Some of the claims they make on the box are buh-huh-ullshit. Others are spot on, while a few are kinda fixed, but not enough to warrant claiming they're fixed in the Enhanced Edition of The Witcher. And honestly, some changes rocked my pants in a surprising way. So let's get to business and get this review rolling, eh? Keep in mind that this isn't a review of the Witcher itself. You can find legions of those of the internet. No, this review is to see if the claims they make on the new box are true, to see if the Enhanced Edition is worth it, especially if a person already owns the original version (like I do), and to see how this new content adds up.

So...

*Waves the Magic Harpsichord Wand of Time-Passing*

...well, I played the game in it's 'enhanced state'. Here's the pre-verdict, all sorta bullet-pointed for you freaks. Because I know you love bullet points. First things first; the inside flap of the box's claims, the ones I was giddy over:

  • The "two new adventures" are not part of the core game. They're, like, entirely new mini-games included on the Witcher disk. I thought they were new adventures IN the game itself. I was all excited over nothing it seems. Kinda like the first time I had sex. Thankfully it turned out the girl was just a bad lay. You can tell her that. Last I heard she was stripping somewhere on Staten Island.
  • The voice work is... better? Really? It's still pretty bad. We're still in the domain of Anakin Skywalker here, people. The lips still didn't sync up in some places.
    Speaking of chatting it up, the new body animations are unusually silly. People move too animated now, like they're friggin' doing the Vogue sometimes. What the hell is up with Geralt moving like he's a priss now? I keep expecting him to finish off by tossing his hair side to side like some girly man. Ugh. Alright, some of the new body animations work, but usually, no. Just.... no. And why couldn't they fix the "door opening" animations. Watch Geralt open the door in the Kitchen of Kaer Morhen. Painful; just painful.

I shall break my awesome bullet pointing to point out that thus far the review seems pretty negative. But it gets better. Really, it does.

  • There are more NPC skins, which is cool. Seriously, I think the original has, like, four skins for every single non-main character in the game. Watching townsfolk gather anywhere was like some nasty glitch in the Matrix. Now it looks like the thriving medieval world the original Witcher was supposed to have. Even the monsters come in different shades of whatever color their race is supposed to be.
  • The streamlined inventory is nice. Your alchemical goods are in a separate area from your non-alchemical regents. And there's an auto-sort/stack button. So the new inventory, while not a huge upgrade, is a welcome one. More room to carry muffins and shit, despite the fact that the general area in the inventory has been slightly reduced.
  • Here's the big one: The level loading times really are significantly faster. I used to be able to go get a drink and use the bathroom just from making the mistake of entering a peasant's hut (All that just to get a fucking muffin from a cabinet. Assholes.). Now the game loads like a game should load, which is pretty darned fast. I used to dread "scavenging". You know, walking into peoples' huts and stealing crap out of their kitchen cabinets right in front of them? That.
  • Thus far the game seems to be much more stable, so the box didn't lie here either. Let me tell you this: the original Witcher, patched and everything, crashed on me enough times (or did freaky shit) that I almost quit playing, but the lure of medieval wench boobies was too strong. You *do* know about the massive amount of sex on this game, right? Right?!? I mean shit, sex is a collectible card game for frig's sake!

The Witcher: Enhanced Edition

  • I didn't notice anything with the weather. Which means it's probably awesome now, because if it was broken I'd probably start ranting here about how stupid the weather is in this game. So sure, we'll consider this one fixed.
  • Friggin' dice poker A.I. pissed me off. I can't exploit it anymore. It... it played smarter. Dammit! No, seriously. This is fixed as well. But man, I used to looooooove exploiting the stupid A.I. for this game. I'd be rich(ish) in no time. No more stealing for muffins (seriously, almost every chest, dresser, crate and basket I looted recently had muffins in it.).
  • Yup, the inventory and map loading times are dramatically increased. You no longer scream in frustration when you accidentally open one of them. Props to these mofos for fixing this aspect of the game. I really hated opening my inventory. It was stupid. Now it isn't stupid. It's awesome, like me.
  • Something that really pissed me off? You need to be online if you want to use the D'Jinni level editor. Some of you (probably most, actually) have a computer that is online 24/7. But I know people that still use dial-up for fuck's sake. Then there's people like me that don't have a router, so my girlfriend and I (or boyfriend if you believe the rumors Steve spreads) literally battle back and forth for the connection. She wins all the time. Fear the power of the boobies, for they are awesome to behold (in a collectible card game sort of way... lolz Witcher). But since I am not always connected to the internet it really irks me that the D'Jinni editor is online, especially considering that it uses the Neverwinter Nights 2 engine, and that game's editor is offline. So what gives?
  • Auto-looting is a really nice upgrade. You can CTRL+Left Click on containers to loot them without opening the inventory panel. Geralt now can loot with his MIND! Holy Jedi, Batman!
  • And the big one: combat responsiveness is fixed? Where? Sure, I saw a slight increase but the game still has problems in this area and could use further "enhancing". I still has some problems here, most notably against that motherfucking Beast boss fight. Let me tell you something: never, in the history of my 23 years of video gaming, have I hated a boss fight so much. The Beast is a cheap prick and I hope he dies of ball cancer.

Now for things not on the box that I notice were also fixed or something like that:

  • Your save games from the old Witcher still work. I went to load the game and found ALL of my old save files still there. This allowed me to play the game in various areas to better give you the most awesome review ever. Because I'm awesome. If you don't agree then you must be awesome-blind.
  • Speaking of saving, you can turn off auto-save if you want to. You couldn't in the original. That's nothing huge, but it's worth noting the change.
  • The tree shader has been improved, dammit! I'm a sucker for game shadows, so I noticed this one right away. The game looks a lot better with this enhancement.
  • The music transitions smoother. I didn't notice it until I was about two hours into the game. Nice fix.
  • The NPCs actually look at you. Another thing I didn't notice it at first, but they do. I could have listed this under the "improved facial expressions" bullet point, but those aren't that good, whereas this is. Like, the NPC's eye follow you when they aren't busy and stay focused on their task when they are. I thought that was pretty cool and since it was absent in the original it has been duly noted. Bullet point, baby!
  • One thing I'm not sure if it is new or not is that the Innkeepers have storage like a bank. I don't remember being able to do that in the original, but then again my memory is shot most of the time.

Other stuff (sorry, no bullet points):

The game comes with a pretty sweet map of the world the game takes place in. For you tabletop RPG geeks (such as myself), now you have a map for the setting so you can run a Witcher roleplaying game using your favorite system. Score. Also included is a game walk-through booklet and a story written by the dude that does the comic, Andrzej Sapkowski (my spell check just freaked out), complete with pretty cool color artwork. I can't tell you if the story is any good since I haven't read it yet, but it's the guy that writes the comic for frig's sake, the creator of the entire franchise. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that at worst it's decent stuff.

I almost hit the floor when I saw that the game came with four disks considering that the game itself is a DVD disk. I was like, "Holy shit! How much new content is there!?! Silly Grim. It turns out that the game is still one disk, but it comes with a "behind the scenes" DVD that was pretty cool to watch, the game's soundtrack (Oooooooh, roleplaying music), and a disk of music that inspired the game. Okay, apparently the last one is the music the people that made the game listened to when they were programming or whatever. I already own the bands I liked on the list and the rest of it kinda sucked. But I'm a total music snob so ignore my little rant here about the music. You'll probably like most of it.

And now for something I wish they would have fixed but didn't: combat. Yes, combat. The meat of the game. You'd think that re-releasing the game with lots of fixes would have meant the programmers would have a chance to liven combat up a bit. But did they? Nope. it's is still click-swing-click-same swing-click-same swing again followed by click-swing-click-same swing-click- same swing yet again. It's boring. The only time you do a different swing is a finishing move (when the foe is stunned) or is you use one of the other two combat styles, and each of those are click-swing-click-same swing-click-same swing again followed by click-swing-click-same swing-click- same swing yet again. Meh. All it is is three-swing combos of the same swing over and over again.

The Witcher: Enhanced Edition
The verdict? Well, if you already own the Witcher this might not be worth your money all over again. Even with the loading times being better and the slightly improved combat, you already dropped $40-$60 bucks on this game once, so doing so again is... well, you know. Unless these things they've fixed really, really bothered you to the point that you couldn't play the original and/or the music disks, maps, and other extras really appeal to you. Or find some sucker on one of the internet classified sites to buy the old one for $20 so that purchasing the same content (albeit improved) all over again doesn't hurt as much. Certain aspects of the game are most certainly cleaned up, but it's still the same Witcher you nabbed before... oh wait, you do get the two new adventures that are separate games. Uh. Yay? I dunno. I wasn't impressed by them.

    What? What's that you say? More bulletpoints, Grim? Oh shit yea!

  • If you already have the original and thought it was good as it is then you don't really need the new one.
  • If you already own the original but the unresponsive combat, load times, etc. drove you mental(er), then you should probably get this.
  • If you like extra stuff, like music CDs, maps and story books, then you should get this.
  • If you want the editor and/or the new adventures (I think I'm biased against the adventures because I thought they were in the game), you should definitely get this. Make me some good adventures to play.
  • If you never played the Witcher, get this game. Honestly. The storyline is pretty sweet, the world is believable as far as video games go, and it is a lot of fun. Just make sure some dude isn't suckering you into buying his old one off some internet classified site. Nah mean?

Final Verdict (Finally... oooh, pun! I think...): you probably want this game, since I don't know anyone who owns the Witcher that was content with it. Most of the shit they fixed in the Enhanced Edition are things these very people bitched about, so chances are they'll rebuy the game to play headache free. Sure some things aren't fixed in my humble yet awesome opinion, and other things irked me (like the editor), but overall the game is a much better, saner, and pleasant experience.

-=Grim=-

Games October 4th, 2008 by HMTKSteve
Xbox 360

I recently acquired an Xbox 360 in a contest. After spending a few weeks with it I'm ready to share my thoughts on the system. For purposes of this review I will be speaking specifically about the mid-level Xbox 360.

The Xbox 360 is the second generation console in Microsoft's Xbox line of consoles. The console comes with a single wireless controller, 20GB hard drive, corded headset, Ethernet cable and an AV cable that can connect to an HD monitor. In order to get the full enjoyment out of the console you need to be able to connect it to broadband, either cable or DSL will work.

Xbox Live

All Xbox 360 consoles offer a free version of Xbox Live called Silver membership while you can pay for the Gold membership. The key difference between the two levels is online play. If you want to play your games online you have to pay for Gold membership. It's not very expensive but it is an annoyance. Another problem is that the membership is user level not console level. This means that if both my daughter and I desire to play games online we either have to share an Xbox Live account OR pay for two accounts to work at the Gold level.

Playing games is not the only thing you do with an Xbox Live membership. The Xbox Live Marketplace does allow you to download game demos and purchase downloadable content but it also allows you to watch movies and TV shows. Yes, the Xbox 360 can be used in a similar fashion as the Apple TV product.

The movies and TV shows can often be purchased in either standard definition or high definition. Not all content is permanent but if you just have to watch a movie that is offered in the Marketplace the option is there.

Prices are listed in Microsoft Points. These points do not have a set monetary value because you can buy more points for less money when you buy a whole lot at once.

When you create your first Gamertag you will be given a complimentary 30 day gold membership. Xbox Live also has the occasional Gold weekend where everyone gets the benefit of a Gold level membership.

Achievements

A lot of people have talked about achievements in the past. Some think they are awesome while others consider them worthless. Some achievements are good while others are bad. I like to think of them as little trophies you get for playing the game. I'm not going to bust my ass to earn them but I do think they are a nice bonus feature of the system.

In the past gamers had to keep a camera near the TV for when they hit a high score or did some other amazing thing. With the achievement system in place many of those great moments in gaming can now be bragged about and backed up just by pointing at the achievement.

Not all things worth bragging about have an achievement and not all achievements are worth bragging about but... It's still a nice system and I have no ill feelings towards it.

The Network

Unlike the Nintendo Wii the Xbox 360 does not come with built-in Wi-Fi. There is a Wi-Fi adapter you can purchase but it is not cheap. I don't know if you can stick any old Wi-Fi adapter into one of the system's USB ports but it would have been nice if Wi-Fi was built-in.

I have a wired and Wi-Fi network in my home so it was no big deal to plug the system in directly. The included Ethernet cable is not very long so it is still sitting in the box. If you keep a router in your AV cabinet you can make use of the Ethernet cable included with the system.

Audio/Video

I dispensed with the included AV cable right away. It is very large and bulky and I did not want such a large cable cluttering up my TV cabinet. Because I had been using an upscaling DVD player I simply put that away and reused the HDMI cable.

Over HDMI the Xbox 360 is a beautiful thing. It runs in 1080P and upscales DVDs. The sound is also excellent and I have no complaints.

When watching DVDs you can choose to watch them in pan-and-scan, widescreen or zoomed formats. I prefer to have my movies take up the full screen on my TV so I always set them to stretch over the full screen. Some things look a little fat but it is not that bad.

Family Controls

When I saw that the Xbox 360 had parental controls the first thing I looked for was not a rating system (I choose what games come into the house) but a timer system. The console does include a timer system but it is broken.

It is broken because you can not tie a timer to a Gamertag! What good is setting a timer for the kids if it is a global timer? Not only that but playing DVDs also counts against your usage time!

Some of you may not see this as a complete failure but for me it is. The Xbox 360 is not just a game console for me, it is also a DVD player replacement. If watching movies runs the timer down than the the timer is useless.

Media Center

The Xbox 360 can also connect to one Media Center PC in your home. This allows you to access the media content on the PC through the Xbox 360.

One of the first things I did was to try and get the Netflix plugin to work. After spending about an hour fiddling with it I got it so I could watch the on demand Netflix movies right on my TV. Then I got greedy.

When I tried to connect the console to a second PC running Media Center everything went wrong. For some reason Microsoft has decided that the console can only connect to ONE PC running Media Center. I have not been able to get the Netflix plugin to work again since.

Microsoft also offers a remote control for easy access to DVD playback. Buy it. It is $20 well spent.

Where's The Web?

For a console with such a large devotion paid to its online side I have to ask one question: “Where is the web browser?”

Even the Nintendo Wii offers a web browser. Why did Microsoft skimp on this? Don't they make Internet Explorer?

It's not a deal breaker but I would expect Microsoft to allow its customers to cruise the web with the console. The console already offers a mini keyboard of sorts and a camera attachment. Why is this missing?

Conclusion

The Xbox 360 is a very good console. It is clearly designed not just to be a gaming system but also to be the hub of your home entertainment system.

Between Media Center, DVDs and the Marketplace you may never need to leave the house to enjoy watching movies. Once the Netflix Microsoft partnership is complete later this year and the official Netflix support is added the Xbox 360 will attain dominance in the console market.

    The Good

  • HD Graphics
  • Online Gameplay
  • Multiple user accounts (Gamertags)
  • Wireless controllers
  • Media Center
  • Wide selection of games
    The Bad

  • Not 100% backwards compatible with original Xbox games
  • Xbox Live membership is account based not system based
  • Wired Ethernet standard
  • No web access
    The Ugly

  • Timer is console not user based
  • Media Center is ONE PC only


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