Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween in '16: Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines

For this year's special run of Halloween posts, Shangrila Towers is spotlighting those infamous creatures of the night - vampires. Keep your crucifix handy, and pray for dawn...

"Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines" is the last project from Troika Games, a studio founded by "Fallout" alums Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky and Jason Anderson.

In many ways, the game is emblematic of the highs and lows Troika brought to the table as developers - great writing, inspired game design which allowed you to talk, sneak, or fight your way out of most situations, and a whole mess of mood-killing bugs:

You play as a fledgling vampire straight out of White Wolf's "World of Darkness" pen-and-paper RPGs. At character creation, you can make anything from a genteel Ventrue to a ghastly Nosferatu. The choices continue on through Bloodlines' very first mission (which allows you to seduce your way to victory without firing a single shot), and its first major quest-givers, a pair of vampire sisters who use you as a pawn against each other, culminating in a very psychological battle.

Unfortunately, due to a strict release deadline handed down by Activision, there are rough edges throughout, and the last part of the game is unfortunately incomplete. The game's protracted development cycle also means it has pretty ugly graphics, even by 2004 standards (it was famously released on the same day as "Half-Life 2"). Still, if you're willing to do some patching and modding, "Bloodlines" is an engaging RPG that just needed a little more time to become a classic - a flawed but beautiful being, like the undead it portrays.

Halloween in '16: I...Vampire!

For this year's special run of Halloween posts, Shangrila Towers is spotlighting those infamous creatures of the night - vampires. Keep your crucifix handy, and pray for dawn...

"I...Vampire!" (1981-1983) was a serialized story that capped off "House of Mystery," DC Comics' long-running horror anthology series. The tale follows Lord Andrew Bennett, who is bitten by a vampire in 1591, but manages to retain his morality. However, when Bennett turns his fiancée at her request, she becomes Mary, Queen of Blood, a malevolent being bent on taking over the world. Bennett follows Mary for hundreds of years, and into the modern day, in a guilt-ridden effort to stop the evil he created:

If you like the "vampire with a soul" trope, "I...Vampire!" is required reading. While Andrew Bennett's ultimate mission is to prevent Mary's undead apocalypse, he often cannot stop himself from helping some random person in each issue - basically, he's a blood-sucking Dudley Do-Right. It's a fun character trait that presages more developed vampire heroes like Joss Whedon's Angel.

The series was popular enough to get a relaunch in The New 52, and the revival is good, but I'll always have a soft spot for the classic run.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Tech: Nintendo's last stand

The Wii U is the first Nintendo home video game console that I skipped out on playing. Overpriced, underpowered, and saddled with an awkward not-quite-a-tablet-controller, the system's put up laughable sales numbers compared to the Xbox One and PS4.

Now, Nintendo hadn't lost its ability to make great games (in fact, many of their Wii U titles are excellent), but they had lost their sense of what mattered to gamers. All that, combined with a flagging handheld video game market thanks to smartphones and tablets, forced a very radical step - the Nintendo Switch:

It's the merging of the Nintendo home and portable worlds, and it's one of the most daring things they've ever done. You turn two streams of revenue into one, you risk confusing consumers, and you put all your game design eggs into a single fragile basket. Will people want to play a weird tablet with detachable, uncomfortable-looking controllers? Time will tell...

Monday, October 17, 2016

Halloween '16: Castlevania III - Dracula's Curse

For this year's special run of Halloween posts, Shangrila Towers is spotlighting those infamous creatures of the night - vampires. Keep your crucifix handy, and pray for dawn...

"During 15th Century Europe, there lived a person named Dracula. He practiced sorcery in order to create a bad world filled with evil." 

That cheesy prose began one of the original Nintendo's greatest titles, "Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse." The game ditched the adventure trappings of "Simon's Quest" and returned to the straightforward action-platforming of the first Castlevania. It expanded on the formula, though, by adding multiple branching stages and four characters with wildly different abilities: standard-issue 'Vania protagonist Trevor Belmont, agile pirate Grant Danasty, magical witch Sypha Belnades, and Dracula's vampiric son, Alucard.

I will admit that I have never beaten Castlevania III, mostly because it's hard as a rock. Now, the game is not as patently unfair as something like "Ghosts 'n Goblins," but you still need a lot of trial-and-error and split-second timing to navigate the perilous stages. In doing so, you'll face off against grotesque monsters, dangerous traps, and, of course, Castlevania's deadliest enemy: staircases. However, despite the cheap deaths caused by castle architecture, "Dracula's Curse" is easily one of the best three Castlevanias (along with "Rondo of Blood" and "Symphony of the Night") and well worth tracking down.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Guns: Glock 43 review - Single-stack (im)Perfection

Introduction - Better late than never

If you only go by company marketing, you'd think the Glock 43 was the first slim 9mm pistol ever made, instead of one of the last entrants in a field occupied by essentially every other major handgun company in the world, including S&W, Ruger, Beretta, SIG, and Walther:

That said, I did pick up a Glock 43 shortly after launch, and have been shooting and carrying it for over a year now. Is this the single-stack 9mm the Glock faithful have been waiting for, or a missed opportunity that's too little, too late?

First Impressions - This small, and no smaller

To its credit, the G43 is about as small as an imported handgun can get under the Gun Control Act. Unfortunately, that is still larger than some of the competition, including the Ruger LC9s and the Kahr CM9:

The Glock 43 is noticeably shorter and lighter than the S&W M&P Shield, though the Shield carries one more round:

You can think of the 43 as a 25% to 30% thinner version of the G26:

Range Report - Yup, it's a Glock

The G43 arguably has the highest power-to-size ratio of any Glock pistol, but it's still pretty controllable with regular range ammo. The gun exhibited good accuracy at 10 yards:

Things get a bit more interesting with the hot stuff. Though reliability across all loads was perfect, the gun was pretty snappy with Federal 147 gr. HST +P, to the point where I was pulling and pushing shots in 15 round strings:

Compared to the Glock 26, the 43 exhibits roughly the same accuracy at 15 yards, but it takes a lot more concentration from the shooter - the trigger is slightly heavier, the grip is less comfy, and the gun itself is lighter. Here's a head-to-head comparison at 15 yards:

UMC 115 gr. JHP (the bargain pack stuff) at 15 yards:

Aguila FMJ range ammo at 15 yards:

Concealment and Carry - Old pros and old cons

In terms of raw shooting performance, the Glock 43 is above-average in the class. It does have, however, all the typical Glock problems, including absolutely awful plastic "sights." In this pic, you can see how the top corner of the rear sight was deformed from a one-handed rack on the edge of the range bench - not confidence-inspiring, regardless of what Glock's commercials tell you:

Another drawback is the capacity - again, all of the G43's competitors offer factory 7 and/or 8-round magazines, but the only way to do so with the Glock is to go with aftermarket extended baseplates from folks like Pearce and Taran Tactical:

When taking into account the money needed for extended baseplates and new Trijicon HD sights, the G43 is not a terribly great value.

Still, once it's set up correctly, the Glock 43 is a very easy-to-carry firearm. It disappears in an IWB holster, like this one from Blackpoint Tactical:


The Glock 43 presents a challenging question for a reviewer: do you rate a pistol by how it performs out of the box, or do you take into account what it could be? I really like the gun overall for its reliability and shootability, and do carry it regularly, but it's simply not squared away out of the box. If you can deal with these shortcomings, the Glock 43 is a good option, but thankfully, it's not the only option.

Miscellany: Norton Museum of Art

This spring the Norton started a major renovation that won't be completed until 2018. The art museum, already one of the largest in Florida, will double its gallery space and gain a swanky new public entrance on South Dixie Highway:

Admission is free to the museum while the expansion is being built. However, only a handful of galleries are open during construction, so I thought it'd be a good time to look at the Norton as it once was. Here is the old entrance and parking lot, which are being completely revamped:

The small central courtyard and sculpture garden will remain, but they will be joined by numerous other "museum in a garden" areas.

Most of the museum's collection is in storage, including my favorite piece - the Persian Sealife Ceiling installation of colored glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly:

Movies: Shin Godzilla

When I was a kid, I used to spend summers watching old Godzilla movies from Blockbuster. Of course, I loved seeing guys in rubber suits duking it out with each other, but I also hated the talky interstitial scenes of scientists arguing about how to stop the monsters.

"Shin Godzilla" (a/k/a "Godzilla Resurgence"), directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, does the impossible - the parts featuring people are (almost) as fun as the parts featuring Godzilla crushing Tokyo:

Images of panicked evacuees shrewdly evoke the March 2011 tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, much like how Ishirō Honda's original "Godzilla" echoed a devastated WWII-era Tokyo. And, as you might expect from the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hideaki Anno layers on the political satire pretty thick, with endless ministry meetings gleefully depicting bureaucratic paralysis (the bombastic Evangelion-esque soundtrack is a playful contrast).

Still, the movie is at its best when the big G gets to do its thang, and the monster here is one of the coolest versions of Godzilla yet - an ever-evolving, nigh-unstoppable force of destruction. "Shin" means "new," "true," or "god" in Japanese, and "Shin Godzilla" is all of those.

Rating: 8/10 (9/10 if you're a Godzilla fan)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Halloween in '16: Dracula vs. Drácula

For this year's special run of Halloween posts, Shangrila Towers is spotlighting those infamous creatures of the night - vampires. Keep your crucifix handy, and pray for dawn...

By now, most horror buffs know that there were two film adaptations of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" produced by Universal Pictures in 1931 - the famous classic starring Bela Lugosi, and the Spanish-language version that was filmed on the same sets during the evenings, after work on the Lugosi version ended:

Watching them back to back, I can say that the Spanish version of Dracula is a better film in many ways. Of course, the two movies mostly have the same script, but the camera work is more dynamic in the Spanish version (such as a famous tracking shot where the Count appears for the first time in his castle - a startling, very modern scene). In terms of performances, veteran director George Melford and the Spanish-speaking cast did a fine job, with Mexican beauty Lupita Tovar turning in a very believable performance as Eva (i.e., the Mina Harker character).

That said, I still prefer the English version, mainly because of the spellbinding work of Bela Lugosi in the title role. Carlos Villarías's Dracula is okay, but he's actually too fluent and human for being a centuries-old vampire - at times, Villarías feels like a guy in a Dracula costume, rather than the genuine article. Bela Lugosi, in contrast, conveys intense concentration, feral danger, and an alien magnetism every frame he's on screen - even without the sheen of nostalgia, this is the definitive Count Dracula. I'm glad we have both versions, but if you can only see one, see Lugosi's.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Guns: Mossberg 930 JM Pro review - Jerry's Jackhammer


Jerry Miculek is one of my favorite competitive shooters. In addition to being the fastest revolver shot in the world, he's avuncular, affable, and flat-out funny (at least as far as I can tell from his YouTube channel). I won't lie - I picked up the Mossberg 930 JM Pro partly because it had Jerry's name on it:

The 930 JM Pro is designed to be an entry-level shotgun for practical shooting matches. These events favor semiautomatic shotguns with giant magazines, since you need a lot of shells to be delivered on multiple targets at blinding speed. Can the 930 JM Pro hold up to this kind of shooting?

Fit and Features

The 930 JM Pro competes with semiauto shotguns from Remington, Benelli, and numerous other manufacturers. In hand, it actually feels pretty similar to my trusty FN SLP, which is also a gas-operated piston-driven design:

At heart, the JM Pro is a gussied-up version of the standard 930. For your money (roughly $700 versus $550), you get the following bells and whistles:
  • 3-round magazine extension
  • Beveled magwell
  • Fiber-optic front sight
  • Oversized charging handle and bolt release
Now, it's important to note that Mossberg offers other models of the 930 that might actually work better for 3-gun matches, such as the 930 Snow Goose (which holds 13(!) shells out of the box). I opted for the 22" barrel JM Pro - while it sacrifices some capacity and barrel length, it's also handy enough to serve as a home defense shotgun.

Range Report

Gas-operated designs like the Mossberg 930 are a pleasure to shoot, since the mechanism spreads out recoil. I found that the JM Pro was tolerable even with 3" magnum 00 buck, such as this Winchester Super-X. Now, each shot was still a jarring event, and this is still the maximum amount of recoil I can handle for more than a few shots, but it wasn't painful patterning the gun at 15 yards:

Regular loads, like this Spartan 00 buck, were much easier to handle, and could be machine-gunned out of the JM Pro in Miculek-like fashion. Using the 930's modified choke tube, patterns were tighter than my 18" FN SLP, as you might expect:

Royal 00 buck, 15 yards:

Remington 00 buck, 15 yards:

The Federal Flite Control 00 buck (LE127 00) remains the best buckshot load I've ever tested - tight, predictable patterns at 15 yards. If I were in a fight for my life, these are the loads I would prefer in the gun:

The Flite Control load was even usable at 25 yards, though as you can see, one pellet missed the target completely and one pellet was a very low hit.

The 930 JM Pro was quite accurate with slugs - here are some 25 yard offhand groups with Remington Slugger and Winchester Super X.

The one bugaboo with the 930 Pro (and literally every semiauto shotgun I've ever shot, including expensive ones) is that it can be sensitive to ammo. Garden-variety buckshot was 100% reliable, but a particular light load of Winchester birdshot sometimes failed to eject when I shot sporting clays with the gun. Also, the shotgun requires a firm shoulder - if you run from the gun, like I did after a box of the 3" magnums, you can get malfunctions since you're not giving the system something to recoil against ("limp-shouldering," basically):


I think the Mossberg 930 JM Pro is one of those products that does exactly what it set out to do - the gun provides a beginner with a very good, 3-gun ready shotgun without breaking the bank. Of course, you'll need to do a lot of mods to use it for serious competition, but the same is true for any factory gun. All in all, I would have no qualms recommending the JM Pro to any shooter...even if their name isn't Miculek.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Halloween in '16: The Dark Tower (Nox Arcana album)

For this year's special run of Halloween posts, Shangrila Towers is spotlighting those infamous creatures of the night - vampires. Keep your crucifix handy, and pray for dawn...

Our house is a gloomy sepulchre right now thanks to the hurricane shutters, and the shadows are putting me in the mood for an equally gloomy piece of music: "The Dark Tower," by dark ambient group Nox Arcana.

"The Dark Tower" is even more programmatic than Nox Arcana's usual concept albums, since it's supposed to act as a "soundtrack" to a book series written by band member Joseph Vargo. The books tell the story of a gargoyle-encrusted castle inhabited by lonely vampires, restless souls, and sinister angels; the music follows the same tack. In short, it's Gothic as all hell:

Like all of Nox Arcana albums, "The Dark Tower" is really not something you can sit down and listen to on its own. This is perfect spooky background music, though, perfect if you're setting up a haunted house or a hurricane bunker.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Storm coming

Stay safe and keep your powder dry...

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Halloween in '16: Fury of Dracula (Third Edition) review

For this year's special run of Halloween posts, Shangrila Towers is spotlighting those infamous creatures of the night - vampires. Keep your crucifix handy, and pray for dawn...

My friends and I generally enjoyed the second edition of "Fury of Dracula", but the game did have a few problems that kept it from hitting the table more often. The biggest issue was game length: sessions could often stretch past the three-hour mark, turning what should have been tension-filled chases into murderous slogs.

Well, Fantasy Flight Games heard everyone's complaints and (ahem) revamped "Fury of Dracula" with a new third edition:

By and large, the experience is largely the same: the game still features vampire hunters travelling across Europe, hoping to run across the trail of Count Dracula. The Dracula player, as before, uses traps, misdirection, and occasionally brute force to evade them. If Dracula sires enough vampires and causes enough chaos, he wins. At first, it doesn't feel that different.

All that goes out the window, though, once you actually engage in combat, either with Drac himself, or with his human and monstrous minions. The old edition had a clunky dice-rolling combat system that was often indecipherable to new players. This edition is entirely card-based, with new rules that enhance the bluffing aspects of the fights and minimize the effect of chance. Under this new system, you can defeat or avoid a foe even if you are overmatched, as long as you can guess what cards your opponent will play. Most importantly, the card-based system is much faster to play.

There are also a bunch of minor tweaks to streamline the experience. A new "advancing doom" mechanic that propels Dracula closer to victory the longer the game runs, ensuring that you'll never be stuck in a four hour slugfest. Many of the character traits, items, and vampire powers have been changed to make them more fun. All in all, the third edition of "Fury of Dracula" finally fulfills the promise of the original 1987 version - it's a perfect choice for some Halloween gaming.