If you have any complaints which you'd like to make, I'd be more than happy to send you the appropriate forms.
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Tech: Tomb Raider review
A video game reboot is, in many ways, even harder to pull off than a film reboot. After all, a game reboot doesn't just have to tell the same story in a different way; it usually has to play differently, too, while still remaining faithful enough to the original that it's recognizable. Some games succeed in this effort ("Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," "Metroid Prime"), but many do not. This year's "Tomb Raider" is one of the good ones, and it provides a lavishly produced re-imagining of Lara Croft, gaming's answer to Indiana Jones.
Lara's been in need of a makeover for awhile now; her cold bravado felt out of place among today's more lighthearted adventure gaming heroes (cf. Nathan Drake), and adventure games themselves have come a long way since her debut in the late '90s. So how did Crystal Dynamics fare in rebooting her story?
Exquisite controls - Lara runs, jumps, and climbs as well as any of the protagonists in the "Uncharted" or "Assassin's Creed" games. Lara also automatically takes cover behind obstacles when you move close to them, no awkward button presses needed.
Triple-A production values - The whole game takes place on one mysterious island, but somehow there's a huge range of beautiful environments on display here. You'll traverse everything from dense forests to frozen mountaintops to grimy shantytowns, and each level is littered with fun stuff to see and collect.
Ludonarrative Dissonance - Believe it or not, this is one of the most common gripes with the game. Crystal Dynamics does a great job of presenting Lara as a vulnerable, unsure young woman in the cutscenes and backstory, so it's pretty jarring when Lara starts slashing dudes in the face with a climbing axe or casually mowing them down with an assault rifle.
Too much fighting, not enough platforming - Sort of the same problem, I guess. The game's third-person combat is generally pretty good, and exceptional at times (in one memorable level, Lara stalks a team of flashlight-wielding baddies in a dark forest, Rambo-style). There's way too much of it, though, and the focus on fighting means the platforming and puzzle-solving elements are undercooked.
"Lords of Waterdeep" is a Dungeons & Dragons-flavored board game set in the city of Waterdeep. As one of the titular Lords, each player competes for influence and power within the city by hiring adventurers (i.e., fighters, rogues, clerics, and wizards), creating buildings, and completing quests. At the end of the game, a player gets a victory point for each hired adventurer, victory points for completed quests, and a special victory point bonus depending on which Lord they are playing as (which is kept secret from the other players). The player with the most victory points wins:
At first glance, it seems fairly odd to graft a European-style boardgame design onto the D&D license. After all, D&D is all about exploring dungeons, fighting monsters, and looting treasure. These concepts typically don't work inside a Eurogame framework, which eschews player elimination and direct competition. "Lords" avoids these pitfalls because it's really a resource management game. Though the D&D stuff isn't exactly ignored (each quest, building, and card is appropriately flavored), the game mechanics boil down to who can accumulate resources and spend them in the most efficient way.
To this end, each player gets a limited number of actions and makes interesting choices each turn: do you spend your time hiring new adventurers? Grabbing new quests to undertake? Building stuff that'll make it easier to hire more adventurers later? Hindering your opponents? This is all cerebral fun, but it's maybe not the bloodletting or treasure-hunting some people expect from a D&D-based game.
Bottom line: if you like Eurogames like "Settlers of Catan," you'll probably like "Lords of Waterdeep." There's a certain satisfaction in completing big expensive quests (like raiding the Undermountain), and you seldom feel like you're losing so badly that you can't recover. Plus, the components here are excellent, with a nice gameboard representing the city, good artwork on the cards (hey, it's Wizards of the Coast), and even a great box insert that keeps all the little tokens and cards organized. However, if you're looking for a game with hitpoints, armor, damage, or even monsters, look elsewhere.
A lot of people realized that ammo would be hard to find after the Newtown shooting. Six months into 2013, though, it's still nearly impossible to find a box of 9mm on a store shelf, at least in my neck of the woods.
I considered myself fairly well-stocked - a few cases onhand for every caliber I shoot, double that counting reloading supplies - but I'm starting to run dry. More gun reviews are coming, ammo and time permitting.
2. There's a message onscreen dedicating the movie to "post-9/11 veterans with gratitude for their inspired service abroad and continued leadership at home."
A shame, it all looked so promising in trailers:
And that's not to blame the actors, who do a great job with the material they have. In particular, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have fantastic chemistry here, and really capture the Kirk-Spock bromance that was at the core of the original series and movies. The special effects, editing, and directing are all pretty good, too. Heck, I've even warmed to Michael Giacchino's score, though it'll never compare to Jerry Goldsmith's work on "First Contact."
No, the real problem is the writing, which seems to ditch continuity and consistency whenever it's convenient to the plot. One moment the Enterprise can't raise anyone on comms, the next moment, Spock's having an intergalactic heart-to-heart with Spock Prime. Transporters can't lock onto anyone who is moving, unless it's the villain, in which case the transporter can instantly send him halfway across the galaxy (why bother with starships then?).
Even without talking about actual plotholes, the whole thing starts to get silly. There's no way of knowing whether the screenwriters will impose some arbitrary constraint on 23rd century technology for the sake of drama, and thus no fun in seeing the Enterprise crew figure out clever solutions to their problems (e.g., bringing down the Reliant's shields in Star Trek II, constructing a whale tank in Star Trek IV, creating a plasma-seeking photon torpedo in Star Trek VI, etc.). That's not a huge part of "Star Wars," which Abrams is also taking over, but it's central to Star Trek, and that's why STID gets a...
My one bedrock requirement when it comes to holsters is safety. If a holster does not retain the gun, allows objects to get caught in the trigger guard, or cannot stay attached to my body, I will not carry with it - no exceptions. That being said, there are holsters that, while not unsafe, have design quirks that I personally do not care for.
Take this DeSantis Pro Stealth IWB holster, for instance. It's fairly inexpensive, it's ambidextrous (the steel spring clip can be moved to the left side), it holds its shape okay (for a nylon holster), and it includes an elastic mag pouch in the front that does a decent job of holding a GLOCK 26 10-rounder. Unfortunately, the spring clip is positioned so far up the holster that the grip of a G26 doesn't clear the beltline, leading to a very awkward draw. Since the whole point of an IWB holster like this is to bring your CCW gun to bear, the Pro Stealth got discarded.
Here's an old Galco Waistband IWB for a 2" J-frame snubby. Again, the holster in most respects is fine - it safely and securely holds the gun, the draw is fast, and the plastic spring clip allows you to take the holster on and off easily (great for short forays into places where you cannot carry a gun legally). The holster really only has one (major) flaw: once you draw your snub, the holster collapses and makes reholstering impossible without two hands, since the mouth is not reinforced like other holsters (including other rigs made by Galco). Not only does this make draw practice tedious, but it's also a disadvantage if you ever have to reholster your gun during or after a self-defense shooting:
Again, these holsters are not unsafe or dangerous in any way, and are certainly superior to carrying without a holster or carrying in an El Cheapo no-name flap that won't hold the gun. But their flaws meant that they went into the great gunshop holster bargain bin in the sky...
A stunt driver (played by Ryan Gosling) leads a double life as a criminal, with the help of a seedy car mechanic. Gosling's character falls in love with a woman and her young son, whom he quickly bonds with. The stunt driver must pull off more and riskier jobs to help get the woman money.
In "The Place Beyond the Pines," Director Derek Cianfrance has made a quintessentially American cops-and-robbers story. Tonally, the movie's sort of a cross between his sophomore feature, "Blue Valentine," and classic gangster epics like "The Godfather" or "Goodfellas" (Ray Liotta gets a characteristically gritty role) with some decent riffs on sins, forgiveness, and father/son dynamics.
The movie drags, there aren't any exciting chases or action scenes to speak of, and the snakebitten lot of every character feels a bit heavyhanded. If you're willing to overlook these flaws, you'll find a capable evening of entertainment here.
Remedy's "Max Payne" was a fairly big hit back in 2001, and the sequel released two years later, "Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne," was also well-received. Most people, including yours truly, loved the combination of Hong Kong-style slow-motion gunplay and hardboiled noir that the series offered. It's surprising that it took nine years (and a developer change) before the next installment in Max's story, "Max Payne 3":
The previous Max Payne games had some obvious nods to classic movies (John Woo, Peckinpah, and film noir in general) but Rockstar Vancouver has taken things to the next level here. For one thing, the entire plot is basically a retread of "Man on Fire": Max, like Creasey, is an alcoholic, burnt-out American bodyguard who tries to track down a kidnapped girl in a foreign country, meting out death wherever he goes. The main setting of the game - destitute favelas in São Paulo, Brazil - is straight out of "City of God." Heck, Max even goes for the John McClane look (white undershirt, shoulder holster, bald head) halfway through the game.
All the cinematic aspirations haven't changed the basic third-person shooter gameplay the series is known for. Max can still activate "Bullet Time" at will, slowing down the gameworld but leaving you free to aim at normal speed (which effectively gives you superhuman reflexes). Though there's a new cover system in Max Payne 3, Max is still just as fragile as he was in earlier games, and there's no automatic health regeneration. The upshot of all of this is you'll have to alternate quickly popping and shooting bad guys in cover with dramatic slow-motion leaps and dodges, especially when navigating the game's tougher stages.
Thankfully, the levels themselves have the amount of detail you'd expect in a Max Payne game, especially one developed by Rockstar. A shootout in an office will shatter glass, spin desk chairs, and scatter papers into the air, whereas a pitched "Black Hawk Down"-esque battle in a favela might leave bullet-ridden ruins out of wooden shanties and trash piles. It's all very entertaining, top-tier action gameplay.
The main problem with Max Payne 3 is that there's actually too much "action gameplay" - 10 to 12 hours' worth, to be precise. Going from gunfight to gunfight is common in shooters, but becomes ludicrous in a Max Payne game - it's hard to be world-weary and cynical when you're gunning people down by the literal thousands. The previous two titles were much better paced, both in terms of setpieces, length (only 5-7 hours each), and difficulty. Still, it's hard to complain about getting stuffed full of ultranoir violence, so I'll give Max's third outing a...
Guns: Ruger Gunsite Scout Rifle review - A 21st Century Jungle Carbine
Introduction: The Scout Rifle Concept
Jeff Cooper was a big proponent of the "general purpose" or "scout rifle," an intermediate caliber rifle that could serve on both the battlefield and the game field. As Cooper wrote in "To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth":
"[A] general purpose rifle is a conveniently portable, individually operated firearm, capable of striking a single decisive blow, on a live target of up to 200 kilos in weight, at any distance at which the operator can shoot with the precision necessary to place a shot in a vital area of the target."
There have been varying attempts to follow the scout rifle template: the well-made but expensive Steyr Scout, the cheaper Savage Scout, and innumerable homebrew versions based on surplus military or commercial hunting rifles. The latest (and probably most realistic) option for those who want a scout rifle is the Ruger Gunsite Scout, approved and designed with the help of Gunsite Academy:
The Ruger Gunsite Scout reminds me a lot of the famous Lee Enfield Jungle Carbine. The two guns are nearly the same weight and length, can hold 10 rounds of ammunition in their magazines, and have about the same power (.308 has very slightly more pop than .303, but the GSR's barrel is only 16"). The GSR's flash suppressor and grey-green laminated stock even look like they belong on a military bolt-action.
Out of the box, the gun comes with a 10-round magazine, a set of conventional Ruger rings (in case you want to mount a regular scope to the gun), spacers for the adjustable stock, and all the tools and such necessary to mess around with all these parts. The instruction manual isn't a generic Ruger M77 rifle manual, but one specifically written to explain the GSR's unique features. All in all, I thought it was a pretty good value for about $750 (this was before the current gun-buying craze began).
The Ruger GSR: Concept vs. Reality
Cooper laid out a few guidelines for a scout rifle - not exactly "requirements," but metrics for evaluation. How does the Gunsite Scout measure up?
"The current guideline [for the scout rifle] is a length limit of one meter and a weight limit of three kilos. (This weight is measured with all accessories in place but with the weapon unloaded.)" SortaFailed.
Ruger opted for a heavy laminate stock and a medium contour barrel on the Gunsite Scout, which pushes the naked weight to a portly 7 pounds. Add in a scope, rings, sling, and ammo, and you're humping a 9 pound 16" barreled bolt action .308 around. Not too impressive, considering that Ruger sells an M77 Compact that's more than a pound lighter. The length requirement is basically satisfied, though, especially if you ditch the adjustable spacers in the Gunsite Scout's stock.
"The modern scout uses a low-power telescope mounted just forward of the magazine well." Passed.
The Gunsite Scout has a pretty foolproof forward Picatinny rail that'll interface well with a variety of rings and mounts. Pop your intermediate eye relief scope on there, and you're good to go. If you want to get even fancier, you can use the nifty one piece XS Scout Rail, or eschew the scout scope altogether by detaching the rear sight and using conventional rings.
"Reserve iron sights are held to be desirable for a proper scout rifle." Passed.
It's hard to find a new-production bolt-action rifle with iron sights nowadays, and it's even harder to find one with an aperture sight. The scout design calls for irons, though, and the GSR thus wears a bombproof, Mini-14-esque front blade and rear sight. The sights are good, if imprecise - the front blade is a bit too thick and the ghost ring is a bit too big for shots past 200 yards.
"Two-lug, ninety-degree rotation was favored, as was the traditional Mauser claw extractor and positive ejector." Mostly Passed.
I don't go overboard with the Mauser action worship (the term "massive claw extractor" is used so often in the gun community it might as well be a benediction), but I do like them in general, and the Gunsite Scout has a Mauser-type action. The rifle has a three position safety (which can either lock the bolt entirely or allow it to be worked on safe), a fixed ejector, and, yes, a massive claw extractor. It feeds from a detachable magazine (more on that later), so it's not entirely controlled round feed, but it's close enough. One caveat: I find the GSR bolt binds and catches a bit more than a true Mauser.
At the Range: I need more practice.
I have precious little time to shoot compared to when I was in college, so every trip to the range is an exercise in pride-swallowing concentration. When you haven't shot a rifle in four months, 100 yards suddenly looks very, very far away:
Here's what the Gunsite Scout's irons look like at that range. The target is that tiny dot in the middle of the aperture.
The Gunsite Scout feeds from detachable magazines, either fancy Accuracy International 10-shot steel or the Ruger polymer variety (available in 10, 5, and 3 shot versions). I didn't notice any difference in reliability between them, and the polymer ones are (much) cheaper, lighter, and shorter. Advantage - plastic.
My first range session was, well, bad. Using PMC .308 147 gr. FMJ ammo, I could barely cobble together a recognizable group. Recoil was light thanks to the Gunsite Scout's spongelike buttpad and relatively heavy stock/barrel. The trigger was pretty light, too, and broke as cleanly as any other Ruger hunting rifle. The fault, dear Reader, is not in our guns, but in ourselves.
At the Range, Part Two: Let's try the premium stuff.
I resolved to test the GSR again, this time at a 200 yard range, but with vastly improved ammunition: Federal 168 grain Gold Medal Match. It's not the world's greatest target ammo, but it's a good baseline that's readily available (or at least, it was, before all of the world's .308 ammo was snapped up in the current hysteria).
With better ammo and recent practice, I was a lot better this time, even at 200 yards. From prone, unsupported, the iron sights group measured roughly 7", with all but two shots landing in a 5" circle. I bet that the gun can shoot about 1.5 MOA, but that's about as well as I can shoot it.
Final Thoughts: The solution in search of a problem?
The biggest knock on the Ruger GSR, and indeed, the whole scout rifle concept, is that it's an answer to a question no one's asked. If viewed simply as a short, handy bolt action .308, though, there's really nothing overly negative to say about the Gunsite Scout. Like the old Jungle Carbine, which was prized for its light weight and ease of use, the Ruger Gunsite Scout is a pleasing combination of power and portability. Snap a compact scope on, loop up a Ching Sling, and you feel like you could be ranging around the Rhodesian underbrush with the Colonel himself.
I read books aloud for Learning Ally, a nonprofit that provides low-cost audiobooks to people with reading-related disabilities. I mostly read nonfiction textbooks, since the service is aimed at students. Occasionally, I get to read fiction, like "The Absolute Value of Mike," a novel by Kathryn Erskine:
The book's protagonist is Mike Frost, a fourteen year-old who lives with his absent-minded, genius professor father. Like a lot of teens, Mike is torn between fulfilling his parent's expectations and finding his own path. In this case, Mike's father wants him to enroll in the science-and-math-centric Newton high school, but Mike (who suffers from dyscalculia) doesn't want to follow in his father's footsteps.
Mike thinks he finds the perfect way to placate his dad when Mike is sent away for the summer to do an engineering project, an "artesian screw." Needless to say, things spin wildly out of control, and soon Mike is hanging out with a homeless health food nut, trying to revive his catatonic great-uncle, and raising money to adopt a Romanian orphan.
"The Absolute Value of Mike" is a breezy coming-of-age story, with a so-so plot and memorable characters. Even the people who are mostly comic relief - like Mike's Mr. Magoo-like great-aunt, Moo - get some nice dramatic beats. In particular, I think most young readers will like Mike, who is a good kid at heart but often angry and put-upon. The book is a fun read for a grade or middle-schooler, and I'm glad it was assigned to me.
My friend and I stopped by the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami to take in Taylor Swift's latest ode to romances, breakups, and panicky screaming from teenage girls, "The Red Tour":
There's always been something coldly professional about the way Swift approaches her career, and the jump from the "Speak Now" tour to this one is a good example. Last time around, Taylor Swift embraced the theatrical excesses of her imagination (a giant Gothic bell, a fake wedding, a castle balcony that soared above the crowd).
In contrast, the production in "The Red Tour" was more like something you'd see in any other pop star's concert. Aside from a cheesy paparazzi setup for a jeremiad on celebrity, "The Lucky One," the concert was a straightforward performance of tracks from "Red" and earlier albums. Of course, Swift could have spent two hours singing alone with a guitar and the crowd still would have eaten it up. Actually, I think the screams were loudest for her acoustic set at the back of the arena:
The music itself was fine, I guess. Taylor Swift's live singing is better than it's ever been, but she's still largely drowned out by her own band and the noise of the crowd. On a more fundamental level, the charming pop-country of her first album has been replaced by lite versions of U2 and Springsteen. So, I drink in the spectacle of 13,000 people yelling in the dark, watch the house lights come on, and take my friend back home.