Frugal Game Reviews: Half-Life 2 – Lost Coast

Posted: 7th November 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Reviewed by Mr. Parvenu

This story doesn’t end well.  The beans get burnt.
Before that, a brief aside about my computing.  I’ve a Mac and a PC.  The Mac sees most of the action these days, as the laptop is just more useful to me.  Naturally, all of my gaming is done via the tower-PC.  Due to a recent move, I have just started using the PC again, and am in the process of re-installing various programs and games.  This is how I found the Lost Coast.
I think it was long ago when I lived in Taiwan, and I bought a video card with all the Half-Life stuff bundled with.  Back when the ATI 9600XT was a good card.  Anyway, so I (re)installed Steam and found that there, listed with the numerous other Half-Life games was an unfamiliar title: Lost Coast… it seemed to call out to me, flirting with my sense of adventure.  I had many questions, “What’s lost about it?”, “Will I be playing as Gordon?”, “Why don’t I remember more about this title?”.  What I did remember from a few years ago, was that the Lost Coast had introduced some new renderer, or sharper textures (something I’ve always complained about in previous Half-Lives… the textures can be downright terrible).

I looked up Lost Coast at the Steam store to find that the list price was $99.  “Wow, that’s expensive… this game better kick a– oh it’s part of the ‘Valve Complete Pack’, which contains 21 other games.”  I know what you’re thinking… and, yes, $99 is a bit on the high side for a frugal game review. However, if you divide by 22 games, it’s only $4.50 a game.  So I give it a pass.
Clicking through my Library and on the 5th game with a title that began with “Half-Life 2…” the download and install process began.  But, it was late, and, if like any other game of the same name, bound to take a long time to install.  I left the old girl running and went to bed.

The next morning I did several things, among them were: wake up very late, because my job affords me flexible hours, and I’m lazy; turn off my computer after noting that the game has successfully installed; placed a heap of black beans in water to soak so I could have something for dinner.

Arriving home from work, I put the beans in a pan with some water on the stove and booted up Lost Coast.  The menu screen shows a quaint town suspiciouslynot riddled with bullets and debris.  “Curious, no Combine activity.”  You start the game on a pier overlooking a bay and the aforementioned city.  I was quite struck by how real the water looked… “Ah, there’s that new fancy rendering I heard about… a while ago.”  Onward, you meet up with a less colorful Gordon, of the fisherman variety, who instructs you to take out a gun on a hilltop… a gun that most not be shooting at the city, as it looks pristine from most angles.  “Ah, well, up the hill.”  In no time you hear the distinctive radio chatter of Combine baddies and engage in some well choreographed shoot outs.  I must admit to being genuinely surprised when by the sound of zip-lines and repelling troops, which took me so off guard I took a few moments to regain my composure and return fire… “I’d forgotten they did that.”  I’d forgotten, because it had been some time.

Quickly dispatching the rest and making my way into the courtyard proper, I hear the repeated blast that must be the gun I’m meant to destroy.  Having swept through the courtyard for goodies I become unceremoniously stuck.  There’s a door to the sanctuary of a church, but I can’t seem to open with with any weapons, breaking the stained glass and moving some boxes adjacent so I can just jump through doesn’t work.  Stacking boxes high enough to jump the fence only leads to the background textures going wonky and forcing me to reload the game.

Back to the courtyard, find power-ups, stand bemused in front of church doors.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I did this for some time.  Pondering how to open a door.  After perusing the options menu for keyboard controls I found the “use” button is mapped to ‘e’.  “Oh right,” it had been so long I forgot the “use” button… wait, had it been so long that I’ve forgotten basic controls of the game?  Indeed, it had.  Three years… Half-Life: Episode 2 had come out in October of 2007.  Three. Years. Ago.  As many have said before, “Isn’t episodic gaming supposed to mean shorter games at more frequent intervals?”

Note: Episode Three has no discernible release date at the time of writing.

Anyway, I made it into the church and stopped the gun, and shot some more baddies.  After which I was stalled for a few minutes trying to figure where to go next after being marooned on a rickety ledge atop the sheer cliff side.  A few blasts of the gravity gun later and I’m descending back to the fisherman.  He greets me and as the screen goes black, I wonder what the next level will be… but, alas, there is no next level.  I had come to fist-fight with a bazooka.  I was expecting something like half an “episode’s” worth of play and got about 30 minutes.  Flummoxed, Wikipedia tells me that Lost Coast is a “technology demonstration”… which is probably why I never played it.

Was it prettier than previous incarnations?  Yes, the water in particular is very realistic.  The textures a grade above horrible, which is a marked improvement.  But there is very little else to this game, which would have been nice to know before my hopes for a longer game, as well as all the water in the pan, evaporated, and my dinner scorched.


Posted: 31st October 2010 by Mister Critic in Random

Reviewed by Mister Critic

Thanks to public broadcasting, and viewers like you, we now have a 21st century  version of Sherlock Holmes that is as brilliant as the original story. Today’s Sherlock has all of the deductive skills, wit, quirks and vices of olden days, but now set in modern day London. In this new series, Holmes is a consultant for the police, brought in when their detectives are unable to solve the case. He doesn’t do it for the money, he does it because he loves solving cases. And his enthusiasm is catchy.

In the first episode, A Study in Pink, we see how Holmes and Watson met and came to live together as roomies at 221B Baker Street. During their first case they must figure out whether several recent deaths were separate suicides or the work of a very clever serial killer. It is that cleverness that draws Sherlock in, but maybe a little too close this time.

I love that the creators of this new show did not warp the Holmes character, destroying his very essence with non-Sherlockian qualities.  It is as if the makers of the new PBS/BBC series “Sherlock” read my mind or maybemy last Sherlock blog post.  The updates either add interesting new insight into how a modern detective solves modern crimes, like the role of cell phones and text messaging, or the updates help enhance my intrigue with the character’s wonderful mind. For example, as Holmes studies a crime scene, we see words pop up on the screen showing what Holmes is observing (kinda reminded me of The Electric Company). But what do these words mean? Perhaps we can deduce before the great Sherlock! So the game is afoot and we are in on the action as he figures out the crime.

Another great update is the new dimension that has been created in the character of Dr. Watson. Today’s Watson is a military doctor having served in Afghanistan. Now he is back home, has been injured and is haunted by his past.  Whereas, I felt the Jude Law version of Watson was a rather bland tag-a-long, this new Watson, played by Martin Freeman, has brought some real depth to the character with superb acting. Now I am excited for the new Hobbit movie as Freeman has recently been tapped to play Bilbo Baggins.  In addition to the psychological demons, Freeman also portrays the fascination Watson has with Holmes in a way that is believable and which helps the audience actually like Holmes, an self-diagnosed sociopath.  Although, I don’t think my wife needs that help, as I have heard on many occasion since this first episode aired how she is in love with Sherlock. Great, how does one compete with Sherlock freakin’ Holmes?

Well, quite right, jolly good show. I am looking forward to many more adventures with this new duo, and I hope that you will join them Sunday Nights at 9:00 pm, on your local PBS station.

Sounds Like This-Eric Hutchinson

Posted: 17th September 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Reviewed by Mister Hand

I don’t listen to the radio much, as they tend to overplay songs and make me hate some of my favorite artists. That said, one of my favorite hobbies is to do is discover new artists, which is where I usually have to deal with my love/hate relationship with the radio. Now add to my hobby, the wonderful world of iPhone applications, one of which is called Shazam. Not to be confused with the ill-fated Shaquile O’Neil movie Kazaam, this application samples songs and then spits out the artist, song title, and album. This has tremendously helped identify songs since radio stations don’t often say anything but their station identifier anymore. So Shazam has helped me not only identify songs, but I also find that if I sample a song 3+ times it probably means I really like it.

In comes Eric Hutchinson’s song “Rock & Roll” off his album Sounds Like This. I really dig the driving guitar and drum beat, but his blues-like voice really captured me. It sounded much different than most of the styles of music I’d been hearing for some time. I pushed off the urge to buy the cd for much longer than I once was able to – due mostly to a thing called a mortgage and groceries and other frivolous things. Eventually I decided to listen to other songs on the album. Oddly, I found that I liked some of the other songs better than the radio hit. The first song on the album, “Ok, It’s Alright With Me,” grabbed me right away and I knew my ears were in for a great ride. After sampling the album on iTunes – who knew 30 seconds of ten songs would be all it took – and the unresistable price of $7.99 would hook me… but it did. Add to that a great review by the online “Queen” of reviews Parez Hilton and you’ve sold me. I’m not going to try to compare Hutchinson’s sound to other artists… I just urge you to check him out and give it a try on Pandora, Rhapsody, or iTunes.

Dreamscape (1984)

Posted: 14th September 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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I meant to post this right after the Inception post, but life got the better of me.  By happenstance (or was it fate?), I stumbled upon Dreamscape on Netflix Instant movies right before seeing Inception. Apparently, I missed the Dreamscape boat on the first go around back in 1984. But look at that cover! This looks like something I would have loved as a kid. I mean it looks just like Indiana Jones . . . but of dreams!

However, wow, covers can be deceiving. I am sorry to anyone who loved this movie back in the day. It is not a good movie.  First of all, the premise is that Dennis Quaid is a psychic whiz kid who is too cool for school, acting like a poor man’s Han Solo. He’s wasting his talents at race track making lots of money. And he plays the saxophone. Not important to the plot really, just shows he’s a cool cat. But soon he is kidnapped by this secret, government(?), research group and they convince him to help them with program they are developing: a way to use his psychic powers to enter other people’s dreams and interact with the dreamer. So Quaid reluctantly goes along with the program by doing things like helping save a kid from some creepy nightmares, and helping a guy get with his impotence problem.  But it turns out a person can die in dreams and perhaps the program is being used for other purposes, like MURDER.  I don’t want to say who the target is, less for spoiler reasons and more because I don’t want to end up on some government watch list for posting the magic words that get you on a no fly list. Let’s just say it is the highest level government official of the United States of Americans.

Anyway, the other plus of the movie is that it has Norm from Cheers. I can’t tell, but I hope he made it on the cover.  SPOILER ALERT: you get to see him die.

Inception is proof that Dreamscape could have been a great movie. It was just made in the wrong decade by the wrong director with the wrong cast and the wrong plot.  And the effects sucked. The movie relied heavily on Claymation, and that is creepy (more on this in a future post), don’t get me wrong. But these are dreams, man. It should have been either a fun adventure as promised by the cover, or a horror movie, although in that respect, Nightmare on Elm Street did the dying in dreams thing much better.

And the worst part for me was the main character’s love interest, Kate Capshaw, who will forever be known to me as the annoying woman that ruined the Temple of Doom with her whinny voice.  In this movie it is just assumed that she should be into Quaid’s character. No real reason given. She is a successful career woman, a research scientist, she doesn’t need some punk kid who is too immature to understand the need to use his psychic abilities for good rather than gambling. And she tells him she’s not into a relationship because it could jeopardize her career, but does he respect that? No, instead he goes into her dreams, without her consent and tries takes advantage of her during a private sex dream. This movie should have been called DreamRape, not Dreamscape. No means no even in the dream world, right?

Anyway, very disappointing. This movie was not the stuff dreams are made of, or whatever corny dream reference you want to insert. Maybe someday someone will make a cool Indiana Jones of Dreams.

These Children Who Come at You With Knives by Jim Knipfel

Posted: 13th September 2010 by Mister Critic in Random

Reviewed by Mister Critic

I had so much hope for this book. The concept of a collection of modern, humorous, adult fairy tales sounded so good. It seemed to be getting good reviews, the title grabs you, and look at that cover. So much potential.

And yet, so much disappointment. The author captured the “feel” of a fairy tale written by the Grimm Brothers. I have been reading the original Grimm’s fairy tales to my daughter lately and it is interesting to see how dark the stories are compared to the sanitized versions we grow up. Mr. Knipfel’s stories carry the same dark theme but in today’s world.

However, overall the stories were not that funny, not that poignant, not that clever and just not that good. Some stories elicited a slight chuckle here and there, but over all I did not find it very funny. I am not a big fan of gross or potty humor and the author drew from that well quite a bit. it was hard to tell if the author was including that type of humor because he thought it was funny or was trying to be ironic about how some people find that stuff funny. Either way, just wasn’t my kind of humor. And I didn’t find the moral behind any story all that interesting. Maybe I just didn’t get, but it there wasn’t anything that was that mind blowing about his stories. In fact, as I sit here to review this, I can barely remember most of these stories. They just weren’t that interesting.

Instead, the general feel of the book reminded me those times when you tell a story when you are really tired or drunk and at that moment you think it is really funny, but when you think back on the story in the rational, sober light of day it really wasn’t funny and in fact didn’t make much sense either. This book was like that for me.

I would like to see see a great comedy group like those who did Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten, picking up the general idea of the book and then improving it into a great comedy. Like I said, there is so much potential in this idea, but for me, this book squanders that potential and will not live happily ever after.

Inception (2010)

Posted: 7th August 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Reviewed by Mister Critic

“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

The above line from the movie Inception was one of my favorite, and it is apparent that Christopher Nolan took those words to heart when he wrote and directed Inception. Simply said, I loved this movie. A thoughtful plot with fun characters, a cast of great actors, amazing visuals, and an ending that is assured to make you want to discuss it with friends. The movie is a sweet dream. There is the right balance of action, suspense, and mystery to keep the film moving forward without turning into a thoughtless shoot-em up.

If you have not watched the movie, stop reading right now and come back after you’ve seen it because I do not want to risk ruining it for you. Don’t worry, we’ll wait.

Okay for those of you who are going to be stubborn and not watch it first, here is a little summary. See in the world of Inception, there is this machine that lets you go into other people’s dreams, apparently used sometimes by corporations to steal secrets from each other. But the bigger question is can you plant an idea in person’s head while you are in their dream without them realizing it was not their idea? Can you create inception? Hence the title of the movie. Leonardo DiCaprio is a master of the dream domain and he is hired to assemble a team of specialists, sort of like Ocean’s 11, to enter into a guy’s dreams to convince him to break up his family company.

Let me just say I love just about everything about this film, as well as Christopher Nolan’s past films. His movies are complex, well written and make you think, which is rare in movies today. I wish he would make more. And I have to also say I have become more and more impressed with Leo D each time I see him. When I first heard he was in this movie, I was worried, but he has really grown into great actor. I thought his portrayal of the psychological strain his character was struggling with was very well done.

The only thing that stood out for me in the movie was that I felt at times the dialogue was little clunky or obviously trying to catch the viewer up on some of the technical details. But some direct, in your face explanation was necessary since I felt at times there was a lot going over my head. There was so much to learn about this world, and I feel as though I only picked up on half of what was going on. It was one of those movies where immediately after it ended I felt like I needed to buy a ticket to watch it again.

So maybe I will. And you should too. Sweet dreams from Mister Critic.

For discussion, two questions: What is your totem? and What do you think happened to the top at the end? I’ll share my answers as soon as a good discussion starts up.

Frugal Game Reviews: Crayon Physics

Posted: 4th August 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Reviewed by Mister Parvenu

Remember when when you used to unroll a seemingly endless sheet of white butcher paper and start drawing? Those drawing would come alive in your mind. Crayon Physics does just that. It’s an obvious labor of love that lives on the fringes of what one can call a “game”, in much the same way as Flower or Flow.

Crayon Physics is less “played” than explored or experimented with. The goal of the game is to complete every level. Levels are presented to you via a “Super Mario 3” top down view of the world with a path dotted with nodes that represent different levels. The goal of each level it to manipulate a red ball so that it rolls into the star. Each level is a static side view of varied terrain, that can be complicated platforms or a simple as empty space.

The red ball can be gently pushed by clicking on it in order to start some kind of motion, but clicking the ball only imparts a very small movement. You must draw ramps, stair, seesaws and various other simple machines that materialize and on the screen and become part of the landscape that the ball can interact with in it’s travel toward the goal-star. As you progress through the game there are “tutorial” levels that show you how to build new primitive objects, like ropes, fixed axes, wheels, pulleys etc. There are also rockets that you’re able to use in interesting way to launch, drag, pull, hurl, or otherwise get the red ball to the star.

The whole game is rather hypnotic, the benevolently haunting music, the elementary-school ambiance, the whole experience is quite enveloping. Though the stated goal is to get the ball to touch the star, the real point of the game is, I think, to find the most creative way to do so. Often the simplest ways to complete a level are the least rewarding. Which leads to my one critique of the game. There’s no in game reward or encouragement for elaborate or especially creative problem solving, which is perhaps by design. After all, there really wasn’t any incentive to start drawing on that butcher paper as a child; other than your own amusement.

Watch the trailer here.
Crayon Physics Deluxe for PC (only) can be purchased here for $19.95

Committed: Confessions of a Fantasy Football Junkie

Posted: 19th July 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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by Mark St. Amant

Reviewed by Mister Critic

TO: All My Rowdy Friends
FROM: Mister Critic
RE: Are you ready for some (fantasy) football?

I have been in the world of fantasy for going on nine years. I have been haunted by my lack of knowledge, lack of luck and lack of passion for the game. When I first started, I would let the computer make my draft selections. Some weeks I would forget to change the line up, even though some players were on a bye week. Needless to say, I never made the playoffs. Sure I won a couple games, but you know what they say about a stuck clock? They say it is better at fantasy football than I am. I mean it was so bad that one year, we needed another player because someone dropped out at the last second, so the league manager signed his pet parrot up for his own team. And the parrot beat me. I am not kidding. Do you know what that does to a man?

Reviewed by Mister Parvenu

Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again”… I respectfully disagree.  For the gamer in me, Star Control II, or what is now known in the open source community as “The Ur-Quan Masters”, is a homecoming.  Released in 1992 by Toys for Bob as a sequel to the 1990 original Star Control, Star Control II (SC2) features rich dialog, pointed humor, excellent music, harrowing plot, challenging combat, and some of the most sprawling space environments to confront a player in all of video game history, let alone video games of the early nineties.  This is by far one of my favorite games of all time, not simply because it was for its time an amazing game (which undoubtedly it was), but this game continues to hold a grip on me because of so many things it leaves up to the imagination of the player.  Letting the player do some of the imagining “legwork” is something modern games have long forgotten how to do. Read the rest of this entry »

Fallout 3

Posted: 28th June 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Reviewed by Mister Critic

Being a child of the 80s has left me with a fascination with and constant fear of nuclear apocalypse. During the height of the Cold War, I am sure I drove my father crazy with questions about what would happen in a nuclear war. Would there be any chance of survival? What would the world look like? That fascination, coupled with my aforementioned love for the survivalist genre, has led me to my dystopian utopia called Fallout 3.

I have been a fan of this series from the beginning, but I have to say the creators of Fallout 3 have outdone themselves this time. They have created a game that really immerses you into their world. They have thought of every thing. And I love them for that.