Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Miscellany: Mansions of Madness - Forbidden Alchemy review

"Forbidden Alchemy" is an expansion set for the "Mansions of Madness" board game that focuses on the (appropriately Lovecraftian) theme of "science gone mad." The set includes three scenarios (with accompanying new monsters, puzzles, and tiles), as well as material that can be used with the original MoM scenarios (mainly new investigators and combat cards). For the playtest, our gaming group tried out "Yellow Matter," a story about the discovery of a meteorite and its mysterious yellow substance...

We generally like "Mansions of Madness" for its atmosphere and roleplay-friendliness, but the game certainly has big flaws: it takes forever to set up, the monsters and obstacles all behave the same, and some scenarios are flat-out unplayable ("Classroom Curses," I'm looking at you). "Forbidden Alchemy" doesn't really iron out these kinks (hell, the initial release was so botched that the CEO of Fantasy Flight Games apologized), but the included material is at least as good as anything in the original game.
"Yellow Matter" has the players trying to rescue a test subject from the clutches of the sinister Dr. Faust, all the while dodging horrible alien monsters and the mutations of their own bodies. Playing as the Keeper, I eventually defeated the Investigators by turning one of them into a Cronenberg-esque horror, the first of a new human-alien hybrid race. The experience wasn't perfect, by any stretch (it was unclear that I had even won until we figured out what the objective cards meant), but it was fun, and worth the $25 asking price.

Food: Middle East Bakery & Grocery

Clematis and CityPlace draw all the attention, but some of the best food in West Palm Beach comes from small local joints off the beaten path, like Middle East Bakery & Grocery:

Okay, so it's not much to look at. There's no service to speak of, and the only dining area is a set of tables and chairs outside. If you like Lebanese food, though, you should probably pay the place a visit. Half grocery store and half take-out deli/bakery, the proprietors serve up a fairly large selection of Middle Eastern favorites - shish tawook, grape leaves, you name it. You can grab a lunch platter for about $10 that includes rice, salad, hummus, pita, and an entree.
The food's good - really flavorful and fairly authentic - but it's also a pretty heavy meal, since every dish is positively soaking in rich spices and dressing. See if you can spot the falafel in the picture below underneath all the sauces, vegetables, and garnishes:

2/4 stars

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Guns: Mossberg 500 Bantam review - the n00b cannon

A few years ago, I recommended a 20 gauge shotgun to people who were looking for a home defense firearm, but who weren't looking to put in a ton of practice. The time I've spent at pistol and rifle ranges since then has only reinforced my thinking - rather than getting a $300 handgun of questionable reliability, why not get a shotgun for the same price that's both easier to hit with and way more powerful? A single 20 gauge shell's worth of #3 buckshot is roughly equivalent to about 20 rounds from one of these:
Always being one to put my money where my mouth is, I gave a Mossberg Bantam 20 gauge shotgun to a dear friend of mine who wanted a firearm, but couldn't muster the time to get to a range regularly. Was my advice sound?
Fit, Finish, and Features
Retailing at under $300, the 500 Bantam is a working man's shotgun. It's made in the U.S. and better built than Mossberg's budget Maverick models, but certainly not as rugged as the 590 series or the Remington 870 Police line.
The Bantam is intended for smaller shooters. The gun comes with a 22" vent rib double-bead barrel (using Accu-Choke interchangeable choke tubes) - noticeably handier than the typical 26" or 28" barreled hunting shotgun, but not short enough to get you kicked off a stodgy trap field. As you can see from the small spot of rust below, the finish on the barrel was good but not great:
I've always liked the tang safety in the 500/590 shotguns, which is just flat out superior to the small crossbolt safety in Remington's 870 series. The condition of the gun is readily apparent to the user, and the safety is easily engaged and disengaged when mounting and dismounting. The only (minor) problem with Mossberg's safety is that it doesn't play well with pistol grip stocks.
The 500 series of shotgun barrels attach with a simple integral screw that attaches to the magazine tube. It's a bit less robust and user-friendly than having a separate screw-in magazine cap like the 870, but it worked fine for our purposes:
At the Range
I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that a clay pigeon launched from a skeet or trap house is much harder to hit than a bad guy breaking into your house. The thing might be fluorescent orange, sure, but it's only 5" across, it's flying through the air, and it's usually more than 10 yards away from you.
That being said, both of my friends were able to learn how to operate the Mossberg and break clays with only a couple hours' worth of practice and some (really) basic instruction provided by yours truly. Through it all, the Bantam performed fine, with zero malfunctions through more than 200 rounds.

The Mossberg 500 Bantam is a rare example of a product that performs exactly as advertised. Out of the box, without any additional accesories or even a cleaning, it'll feed and shuck and shoot as well as any shotgun that I've seen. For someone who's not into shooting but wants a gun for home protection, I think it's a good option.

Mulliga's Haunted Halloween 2012 - Classic Slashers in the Comics

Another Halloween, another season of supernatural spooks and scares. As always, Shangrila Towers celebrates October with a series of ghoulish posts. This night's feature - two legendary masked horror film characters are translated into comic book form:

Halloween: Nightdance

In the original "Halloween," Michael Myers was an inscrutable monster whose motivations (if he/it even had any) are so twisted that they're unknowable. Unfortunately, the sequels saddled Myers with an elaborate backstory, making him more predictable - and less scary. If you weren't Laurie Strode, related to Laurie Strode, or in close proximity to a Strode, you were pretty much immune to The Shape.

"Halloween: Nightdance" is a comic series that's faithful to the spirit of the first movie: Michael Myers appears in a nondescript suburb and starts killing people - no explanation, no backstory, no mercy. Since Michael Myers isn't bound by any rules or conventions, "Nightdance" is darker and scarier than every "Halloween" sequel.

Writer Stefan Hutchinson and illustrator Tim Seely do a good job of telling this serial killer story, though they occasionally let the panels get mired in complexity. When the bloodletting starts, though, "Nightdance" is an adrenaline rush that gets back to the core of the "Halloween" experience - pure evil.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Wildstorm Comics)

The basic concept of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" - a family of cannibal killers in rural Texas - doesn't seem like it would generate a lot of different plot ideas, but there have been a surprising variety of interesting comics about the misadventures of the Sawyer clan.

The latest, published by Wildstorm Comics, is comprised of mini-series and one-issue specials that tell short stories from the TCM universe. It's a good tack, since the premise of TCM doesn't really hold up to prolonged inspection (Does the family pay property taxes? How do they handle the guy from the electric company, or the mailman?).

Leatherface, who has come to represent TCM in the same way Pinhead represents "Hellraiser," appears in all of the vignettes, but the only comic to really explore his character is "About a Boy" (written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning and with art by Joel Gomez). There are funny stories ("Texas Chainsaw Salesman" features someone who's desperately trying to sell chainsaws to the family) and self-aware stories ("Cut!" follows a bunch of students trying to film a horror movie - but stumbling onto real horror in the form of Leatherface and Co.), so all but the most TCM-averse horror fans should find something to like here.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mulliga's Haunted Halloween 2012 - Horror Documentary Double Feature

Another Halloween, another season of supernatural spooks and scares. As always, Shangrila Towers celebrates October with a series of ghoulish posts. Rather than review horror movies tonight, let's look at two documentaries about horror movies. After all, there's nothing more frightening than the truth...

Best Worst Movie

It's fun to snicker at awful horror flicks, but have you ever wondered where they come from?

At the end of the day, there are hundreds of people who write, direct, produce, and perform in horror movies, and there's gotta be at least some who care about putting out a good product. If you genuinely tried to create a good horror film, but failed so miserably that people consider your work one of the most laughably bad movies of all time, what would it do to your career? Your psyche?

"Best Worst Movie" attempts to answer these questions, at least with respect to the cast and crew of "Troll 2":

Directed by Michael Stephenson (the child actor in "Troll 2"), ""Best Worst Movie" follows one of Stephenson's "Troll 2" costars, George Hardy (a dentist by trade with no acting experience, Hardy auditioned for the movie expecting to be cast as an extra...he was instead assigned a starring role as the family patriarch). In the documentary, Hardy travels around the country to figure out why "Troll 2" has become a camp classic, attending midnight screenings, horror conventions, and generally laughing at his awful performance with fans.

There's a dark edge to "Best Worst Movie," since most of the members of the cast faded into obscurity. Several of them (particularly the actress who played the mother, Margo Prey) fell on hard times, both physically and mentally, and their segments border on the tragic. Even Hardy himself questions whether he's wasted his life if the one thing he's famous for is a bad movie. Still, at the end, the documentary is upbeat - if people can enjoy a movie that's so absolutely wretched, how bad can the world really be?

Rating: 8/10

I Am Nancy

To the casual horror fan, Wes Craven's "Nightmare on Elm Street" series is all about Freddy Krueger - the iconic, wisecracking, malicious bogeyman that kills you in your dreams. To a lot of hardcore ANoES fans, though, the heart and soul of the movies is Nancy Thompson:

"I Am Nancy" is documentary that celebrates Nancy, the girl-next-door played by Heather Langenkamp in three of the original "Elm Street" movies. Unlike her disposable compatriots, Nancy has the wits and courage to face Freddy on his own terms, both in the world of nightmares and our world. She doesn't always come out on top (these are horror movies, after all), but it's her willingness to fight that has gained her appreciation among ANoES cognoscenti.

The nuts and bolts of the documentary are simple - Heather Langenkamp travels the horror convention circuit, searching for reasons why Freddy became popular and Nancy did not. She's an engaging host, but considering the already metafictional nature of the last proper Freddy flick ("Wes Craven's New Nightmare"), "I Am Nancy" spends a bit too much time riffing on the meaning of the movies and how Nancy's can-do character fits into pop culture (there's already plenty of scholarship about how Nancy fits in the "final girl" canon - do we need yet another interview from Wes Craven and Robert Englund?). Overall, though, the documentary moves at a good clip, and there's some legitimately inspirational bits, like Heather's neat conversation with a fan who got over a crushing injury through the help of Nancy.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, October 15, 2012

Tech: FTL review

"FTL" is a sci-fi spaceship simulation game that puts you in command of a lone ship, on the run from the dangerous Rebel fleet. You travel from system to system, gathering supplies, scavenging weapons, and (very frequently) blowing your foes out of the stars:

Developed by Subset Games (with the help of nearly 10,000 enthusiastic backers on Kickstarter), playing "FTL" is a lot like being the captain in a "Star Trek" movie. It's not an action game - you don't fly your ship around directly or aim lasers at people. Instead, you decide where to allocate your ship's limited energy reserves, which weapons to fire, and where to send your crew when things start bursting into flame.

Don't be fooled by the cute, pixelated graphics - there's a lot of strategy here. At any given point in "FTL," you'll be faced with decisions for which there are usually no right answers. Say you come upon a powerful beam weapon that your reactor cannot currently support. Do you sell it for scrap, investing the money elsewhere on your ship, or do you spend the money upgrading your systems to accommodate it? "FTL" randomly generates the game world every time you play, which means there's never any way of predicting how your choice will play out.

At its best, the random nature of "FTL" generates those "you-had-to-be-there" moments that are the hallmark of classic games. You're locked in a tight battle with a superior ship, and you just manage to penetrate its shields with a volley of missiles, and then follow it up with a burst of laser fire that destroys it. You're in orbit around a massive active star, putting out the fires from solar flares while desperately repairing your engines to FTL jump away. You get boarded by alien invaders, losing your last crew member to their laser blasts. It's gripping stuff, especially for anyone who likes a good space opera.

The game's major flaw is that the moment-to-moment combat gets repetitive - for any given ship configuration, you'll quickly develop go-to strategies that you'll repeat every time you get into a fight. There also isn't that much content here - you'll see all the random scenarios and quests in a few playthroughs. For a $10 indie game, though, these are easy flaws to forgive.

Rating: 82/100

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Guns: FMK 9C1 Gen 2 review - Rightwing Rough

Introduction - Red State Ready
Aside from supporting the right to keep and bear arms, most gun manufacturers try not to get involved in politics. Not so with FMK ("For My Kountry") Firearms, a gunmaker in Placentia, California that doesn't hide who it backs politically. Heck, there's a speech from Ronald Reagan right on the home page.

FMK's only product is the 9C1, a compact 9mm pistol that's very similar, design and size-wise, to a GLOCK 19 or S&W Sigma. The 9C1 comes in a better-than-average plastic case with the Bill of Rights helpfully printed on the front:

Inside, you'll find two magazines, a manual, a set of interchangeable sights (which allow you to adjust for windage and elevation), and a political booklet called "Red State Coalition."

The booklet is wild stuff, something you'd never see bundled with a mainstream firearm manufacturer's product. It's a bunch of conservative political essays, levelling the usual criticisms of the state of our country. I prefer PJ Media for this sort of thing, but I suppose it's nice that founder James Pontillo II has the stones to vice his opinions, even something sure to be negatively received by many potential buyers.
Overview and Impressions
Back to the gun. The 9C1's MSRP is $400, with street prices hovering around the $300 to $350 range. That makes the 9C1 a full C-note less than say, an M&P9. Of course, you receive much rougher fit and finish than a mainstream polymer pistol - my 9C1 had a molding seam running down the back of the grip, which really should have been sanded down at the factory. Aside from that, the gun felt surprisingly good in hand (there's a subtle depression or channel running down both sides of the grip, which allows your fingers to comfortably curl into the frame).
The major difference between the 9C1 Gen 2 and the previous version is the addition of an accessory rail for mounting a light, which is almost an essential feature for a polymer framed gun of this size. There are also some other minor revisions, like a better trigger. Speaking of triggers, the 9C1 is disassembled like a GLOCK - hit the takedown levers, pull the trigger, and off the slide goes:

At the Range

Shooting the 9C1 was a mixed bag. The gun constantly kicked back empty brass back into my face when shooting - distracting on the range, potentially deadly in a self-defense scenario. The 9C1 was also not reliable at first. Here's a failure to eject I got early in my testing:

After awhile, things settled in and I hammered about three hundred rounds downrange without any malfunctions, which is fairly decent performance for a ~$350 off-brand 9mm. Accuracy was on par or slightly worse than something like, say, an SR9.

Let's face it - there's really no reason to buy a 9C1 if you can afford a regular pistol. Your garden-variety handguns (GLOCKs, XDs, yada yada yada) will all outperform the 9C1 in terms of reliability, accuracy, and availability of parts/accessories/holsters. But, if you have a full armory and you want the pistol equivalent of a conversation piece, I suppose there are worse choices than the 9C1.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Mulliga's Haunted Halloween 2012 - House of Hell

Another Halloween, another season of supernatural spooks and scares. As always, Shangrila Towers celebrates October with a series of ghoulish posts. Tonight, we'll check out a tale of terror that you make up as you go along...

Haunted house adventure games have a long tradition; for instance, "Resident Evil" can trace its lineage back through "Alone in the Dark," "The 7th Guest," and "Maniac Mansion." The roots of the genre go even further than that, though, reaching at least as far as a choose-your-own-adventure book called "House of Hell":

Written by game designer Steve Jackson (not the GURPS Steve Jackson), "House of Hell" drops you into the classic horror scenario: it's a dark and stormy night, your car is stranded on the road, and you seek shelter in a seemingly deserted mansion. As with all gamebooks, you flip to various pages based on choices you make. Do you knock on the door or go around the back? Do you go down the hallway or up the stairs? Do you try to fight a strange creature, or run away?

The main reason why "House of Hell" is a classic is its simplified version of the sanity system made famous by "Call of Cthulhu." As you encounter spooky events during your adventure, your Fear score increases. The scarier the occurrence, the more your Fear score increases - small shocks like a door slamming only give you a single Fear point, but being startled by a headless ghost coming through the wall adds a boatload of Fear to your total. Once your Fear score hits your maximum, it'sgame over (you literally die of fright).

That being said, the book is much like any other choose-your-own-adventure: you progress blindly through the story via trial and error, wrong choices, and dead ends. In any other story, this design is irritating, but for a haunted house, it makes sense that random hallways would be deadly, or that you left a critical item in another room. So, if you have the opportunity, wait for a dark and stormy night and knock on the door to the "House of Hell"...

Monday, October 01, 2012

Mulliga's Haunted Halloween 2012 - Halloween Horror Nights 22 - There Is No Way Out (of the crowds)

Another Halloween, another season of supernatural spooks and scares. As always, Shangrila Towers celebrates October with a series of ghoulish posts. Let's kick off this year's festivities with an annual Halloween tradition - Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights...

Given how much time and money Universal spends on HHN, it can be easy to forget that the whole thing is subject to the demands of the host theme park. This year's iteration only featured seven haunted houses instead of the usual eight, for instance, because the "Jaws" attraction was demolished and its queue area was unavailable for building a house (construction has already started on what is presumably the newest Universal Studios attraction, "Harry Potter and the Truckloads of Tourist Money").

The practical effect? HHN was more crowded than I've seen in years, with relatively long wait times for houses and huge flocks of people choking the event's streets. This year's iteration didn't have a single coherent theme, so I think I'll just run through the park house-by-house (spoilers ahead).

The Walking Dead: Dead Inside - This house was predictable but fun, with scenes pulled straight from the first and second seasons of AMC's adaptation of TWD. You'll see the iconic deserted hospital Rick wakes up in, zombie-infested Atlanta, and the Greene family barn, among other things. Our visit was made extra-special by an appearance from Greg Nicotero outside the attraction (yes, that Greg Nicotero).

Welcome to Silent Hill - The "Silent Hill" franchise helped define survival horror, and this event is the first time its world has been translated into haunted house form. Universal chose to draw mostly from the live-action movie instead of the game, which seems like a missed opportunity to me (the terrifying radio static and fog of the first game doesn't really come through). You'll run into Pyramid Head and the nurses, though, so all is forgiven.

Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare - A series of vignettes (loosely) inspired by Alice Cooper songs and imagery from his album of the same name. It's more weird than scary, since it's hard to be frightened when you're rocking to "School's Out."

Penn & Teller New(kd) Vegas - The comedy/3D house of this year's HHN, complete with videotaped segments specially done by your favorite libertarian magician/funnymen, Penn & Teller. The whole thing is a twisted take on Vegas tropes - a Technicolor irradiated Vegas buffet, a mutant Elvis impersonator, a post-apocalyptic quickie wedding chapel, etc. It's not a bad house, but the 3D seems sorta purposeless.

Universal's House of Horrors - Classic Universal monsters never go out of style, and this house uses black and strobe lighting to present the old standbys - Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I love classic horror, but this house is a bit low budget, with some underwhelming rooms, and not worth visiting more than once.

Gothic - A trip through a gargoyle-protected cathedral. There's some great effects here (look for neat stuff in a candle-filled room and a starry overlook), and the architecture is on par with the branded houses. Good one to knock out when the more famous houses are getting slammed.

Dead End - This is, for all intents and purposes, a generic haunted house. Ghosts, ghosts, and more ghosts. Quite skippable, if you're running low on time.

As always, my crew and I checked out the two stage shows at HHN. This year's "Bill & Ted" was decent; there was an election-year centric plot and the requisite awful pop culture one-liners. The other show was the "20 Penny Circus," magic for people with questionable tastes. It wasn't much of a magic show (there were some obvious ringers selected from the crowd), but it fit the HHN spirit and allows you to sit down a spell.

All in all, I think HHN 22 will go down as one of the weaker years in the pantheon (and this is coming from someone who dressed up as Rick Grimes for Dragon*Con). See you next year...