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The Week in Old Entertainment: June 13th, 2013

Phonograph

In rather interesting developments (I got Dani to play a video game!!), I have a mix of mediums for this week’s review of old entertainment: The Witches and Hancock on the film side of things, and the Playstation 2 game Final Fantasy X!

The Witches is a fun Jim Henson production from 1990 based on a Roald Dahl book and starring Anjelica Huston, Mai Zetterling, Jasen Fisher, and Rowan Atkinson. It gets things started properly by having a little spooky bedtime story about how witches are evil, hairless, soulless creatures that want to kill little children because they smell dog droppings when in their presence. Our protagonist, the tiny child Luke, loses his parents and nearly loses his grandmother all in the first 15 minutes of the film – and even has a really creepy encounter with a witch. When I learned about this movie, I did not know of its Jim Henson connection, but even without the creatures this film does a fantastic job of being eerie through superb make-up and casting (where do they get all those people with eyes so far apart in England?). Straight off the bat, I knew if I has seen this film as a child, I might have had nightmares about it and that, today, gives this one thumb up already.

To give the plot away, the boy and his grandmother inadvertently stay at a hotel where a coven of witches is having a summit where they plan to kill every child in the UK. the boy gets caught and turned into a mouse – things get the royal Jim Henson treatment from there. The movie is fun, childish, and follows all of those Roald Dahl orphan stories to a unique solution. My favorite things about the movie were Rowan Atkinson’s normal oafishness and the initial idea that these outcasts from society are having a meeting at a nice sea-side hotel and the one person who should not be around them (a child) is there to witness the proceedings. I knew this setup from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, where a young girl and her travelling companion end up at a Georgi motel playing host to a convention of serial killers. It’s a delicious trick and one that should be seen more often.

My girlfriend Dani had seen this back in her childhood and explained before viewing that, beside the creepy witch parts, this is the sort of tale that sets up other movies later on for fantasy success. Could Hocus Pocus, Addams Family or even Harry Potter have had as much success without The Witches preceding them?

It was good. Some of the creature effects don’t hold up as well since this is a mixed fantasy with reality movie, as opposed to something like Dark Crystal that has no human actors, but still worth the view. I’d give the Witches a score of 8 rat-transmogrifying hexes.

I don’t know if it was because of the release of Arrested Development’s fourth season, but the Netflix queue was starting to look Jason Bateman-heavy. The pairing of him with Will Smith for the 2008 super anti-hero flick Hancock looked decent enough when I saw previews, but this movie didn’t quite grab me enough to pay for a ticket back then. I didn’t even know this movie had Charlize Theron in it, so her involvement in the major elements of the plot was both surprising and enjoyable. How could they not let people know that Charlize Theron is in this movie? She’s the Oscar winner in the bunch! Plus, she and Bateman were brilliant together in Arrested Development’s third season. Hancock under-sold itself by relying on just Will Smith to bring people to the movies.

Hancock has some bizarre twists. Will Smith is Hancock, the perpetually drunk superhero with Superman-like ability. He can fly, is strong enough to rip open cars and stop moving trains, and impervious to bullets. The first bizarre twist involves Hancock taking an admiring groupie home to his trailer and some nasty ejaculatory humor. Yeah…    Then we introduce all of the other players – Jason Bateman as a PR guy that gets saved by an act of “heroism” by Hancock and Charlize Theron as his wife. Immediately there’s strange looks between Theron and Smith that threw me. Was she disgusted my Hancock? Turned on? A mix? The look said bedroom eyes, but the characterization in the plot/story said disgust. I wuz confuzzed.

SPOILER – SKIP TO THE SCORE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW – the twist of the movie is that Charlize Theron and Will Smith are both superhumans. They’d been husband and wife for thousands of years, but a bout of amnesia for Hancock allowed her to escape the immortal lifestyle and embrace one as a mortal. Did anyone else expect this sort of Grecian god aspect to the movie? It kind of threw me and I’m not sure why. The explanation for the how and why this hero has his powers took a much larger role in the movie than the parts I liked, which was mostly Hancock trying to rehabilitate his reputation as an upstanding superhero and not a drunken asshole. Maybe this was more of a twist than I was expecting, but the last half to third of the movie felt disjointed from the idea of the movie that the first half presented. I don’t think they even needed to go into why and how this superhero got his powers, I liked the movie that was trying to dry Hancock out. The actors did a great job, the problems in this movie are script-based.

I’ll give Hancock a score of 5 bottles of bourbon, which is definitely less than the number of whiskey bottles broken in the movie.

The interesting twist to the last week was about a two hour stretch of Saturday night where I got Dani to play Final Fantasy X on the Playstation 2. My gf does not play video games on her own, but we do play silly, simple games together on the Wii like Dr. Mario, Tetris Party, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and Wii Sports. Somehow, I convinced her to play 2001’s Final fantasy X for 45 minutes. In fact, we had to negotiate the time she would play beforehand, but humored me as her adventure wore on.

final-fantasy-x-screenshot

Yeah, this is one of the sappier openings in the series…

Listening to her play was hilarious. She’s familiar with the Final Fantasy series from my own enthusiasm for the games, and from watching college boys play FFX – you know, back when it was a relevant game. She mocks and mimics the whiny main character, Tidus. She ad-libs new reactions and criticisms of the plot in the manner of a Mystery Science Theater critic. She even confuses gameplay with the many cut-scenes that begin this adventure. “I have no idea how I’m doing this,” was her favorite phrase as the game showed off cut scene after cut scene.I think her actual enjoyment of the game only started after the first hour – when she was finally deposited 1000 years into the future and marooned with a gang of Al-Bhed forcing her to do work. She got to a decent stopping place after getting to Beseid and meeting Wakka, he of the awesome faux-Jamaican accent and red-plume coxcomb hair. It was a great first step for her.

I’ve played Final Fantasy I thru XIII. I admit that I’ve only finished half of those, but I’m a huge fan of the series. Final Fantasy X deserves some praise for the leap it made from Playstation 1 to 2, and for being one of the most solid plots of a fantastic story series. It’s also the first to have voice acting, but like the next installment on the PS2, FFXII, that voice acting has its moments. Tidus is whiny, edging on sappy and nauseating, especially with that high pitch. Dani didn’t get to Yuna yet, but I find her to be vapid and uninteresting. The surrounding characters are more interesting, especially when you get to their individual twists. Despite twelve years of technology, the colors and textures of the realm of Final fantasy X hold up to similar games of today. Sure, it’s not both gritty and clean like a Modern Warfare, but the 3-D world still looks good.

I’m not sure if it grabbed Dani enough for her to put in the 50 or so hours to finish the game, but I’ll see what I can do to make that happen. That time frame is based on if she doesn’t play any Blitzball. And she might play some Blitzball…

Final Fantasy X, as a game to be played in 2013 and beyond, gets a solid 7 and a half cut scenes to be endured. The other cut scenes you want to see.

Who knows what old thing I’ll review next week? One sneak peek: the Hitchcock biopic with Anthony Hopkins is slated next on the queue. 🙂

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Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ARAM

Love It or Leave It - LOL

League of Legends – AGAIN!!

Ugh. A full month between blog posts has passed. This is the sort of trend that things like “steady employment” does for one’s creative flow.

Honestly, it’s all my own fault. Back on February 19th I wrote about how I sucked at League of Legends. Then I started playing it again. Then a friend started working at Riot Games and I saw the Riot HQ in Santa Monica. With new-found enthusiasm, I’ve flung myself to the wolves of the digital battleground and joined the horde of internet trolls playing League of Legends on an almost daily basis.

I might even say I don’t suck anymore. I wouldn’t say I’m good at the game, but constantly getting better. Like anything, from specific hobbies such as Magic: the Gathering or playing sports or making art, if you do something everyday you get better at it. This probably rings true for things like sports, art, or anything at all: constant exposure and repeated activity in the field leads to more success and building of your skills. This is true for video games.

It all started with one satisfying experience. I’d been playing intermittently and saw some players do great things with a particular champion that looked like fun to play: Hecarim, a ghostly centaur with a tanky-melee play style. He’s still on the newer end of champions available, so I saved up Influence Points (points earned in game by accomplishments that can be used to purchase things like champions and power-up runes) to get this new, shiny toy. The day finally came and I got to play a game with Hecarim.

The usual suck proceeded.

Undeterred by one game, I played a few more. Hecarim gains bonuses to his damage output when he his speed is boosted, so I looked into making him faster with certain items. Then I played one particular game. A game where I moved everywhere I wanted to at super-human speeds, initiated team fights (and survived!), and helped even the odds when my team mates were getting overwhelmed. People were typing things like, “thx Hec” and “nice gank” to me. TO ME.

I think I played Hecarim exclusively for a week. But then I expanded and started finding out what the other champion’s play styles are like. I purchased the champion bundles that Riot offers back in 2010, so I had many champions available to me that I had never played. I learned what Support really is with champions like Janna & Sona where I might get 1-3 kills a game, but 30-40 assists while buffing my team. I found out what it was like to shrug off everyone’s attacks and gank people from behind with Garen or jump out from a bush with Jax to slaughter everyone in sight. I played weird and difficult to learn champions like Karthus, Kassadin, and Zyra (and found that I don’t like those very much, but I did try at least ).

Then the last week of ARAM (all-random, all middle) came along as a part of the Freljord event. You enter a game, get a random champion that’s available to you, and the two teams square off in just one single lane. You can’t choose your champion, so you can’t rely on just knowing the tricks with one. And the whole game is a big team fight, so one person can’t go off on their own – everyone has to work together. It’s genius in that it’s also incredibly basic. It forces players to adjust bad habits. Since the entire enemy team is in the same lane, no singular player can dive out ahead and slay them all – they’ll die and earn ridicule from their own team. ARAM is about poking at the enemies, being patient, and capitalizing on your enemies’ mistakes.

It’s a ton of fun. Two memorable games stuck out for me: one where I was Alistar(roving Minotaur tank, what’s not to love?) and never killed anyone I was aiming for (but put my team on my shoulders for nearly 50 assists), and one where I was Teemo (little rodent scout), a champion I had never played with before, but during the course of the game my own team mates got mad at me. I had never before been accused of being a kill-stealer (never had the opportunity before), nor had I ever heard complaints from my own team about how my champion is OP. I rocked my first-time Teemo and couldn’t even share that with my team – the troll accusations would have flooded the whole of the internet. It is known.

So this, unfortunately, is where a lot of my free time has been going. 😉

I should probably do an Iron Man review, as I have particular views on this “trilogy” as a whole, plus I’ve had some really unique experiences lately with the Tarzana Post Office and being Adam Sandler’s stand-in for Grown Ups 2. For the moment, however, I’m logging back onto LOL for another game.

Understanding Competition

It’s funny, I would consider myself a nerd, gamer, and hobbyist, but during the normal course of a day I do not consider myself a competitor. That was never a strong drive within me, I’m much more of an amateur and an enthusiast.

I’ve been reading a plethora of late regarding the differing trends within my games and the importance of understanding the “meta” – the game within the game. For those who wish to know, the games I specifically referring to are:

The interesting thing is that each article is referring to the same concept, but in their own language.

Which is better: rock, paper, or scissors?

In this post on competitive Warhammer 40K, the poster Z cries foul on the merits of actual play versus the work done at the planning table long before anyone sits down to play a game. If anyone with a firm grasp of the rules and strategies shows up with the “correct” army list, they can win a competitive tournament over the likes of a “better” tactician wielding a different army. I believe the trend now revolves around Space Wolf armies with roaming packs of Razorback-mounted Grey Hunters and small units of Long Fang heavy weapon teams. Gone are the likes of “fun” armies and lists that have any hint of originality, you must have the correct formula in your force composition to have any sort of competitive success.

The same goes for Magic: the Gathering. In a scenario where you have 20 years of cards printed and 1000 new cards introduced each year, a competitive deck of 60 cards has to be fine-tuned and consistent. With the internet and the proliferation of ideas & information, the metagame of Magic changes each week. Sometimes aggressive decks with cheap creatures like zombies, elves, or varying colors of humans rule the meta. It usually takes some time, but eventually a meta gets ruled by control decks that specialize in countermagic, card advantage, and playing a slow and methodical pace that evaluates each and every choice. Other weeks are ruled by the correct combo that no one expected which fits exactly in the meta for its time and event, then gets imitated for weeks. Typically, a competitive Magic deck costs in the neighborhood of $400-500 for 75 pieces of cardboard! (the Warhammer players scoff, “$500, eh? I got all my minis from ForgeWorld…”)

Then there’s League of Legends, a game that’s completely free to play, should you choose to do so. I’ve already lamented my own travails in this cyber den of scum and villainy (one week later, the guys @ Penny Arcade did the same), but there is a strong professional circuit already there with cutthroat play. The drive to get to play games professionally makes playing these “games” no more or less competitive than our already bloated past time of professional sports.

Leading to the NBA, of course. The NBA is a game just like Chess and Rock, Paper, Scissors. How you ask? Every team in the NBA right now is asking themselves the same question: how do you stop a 6’8″, 260-lb superfreak with eagle-eyes and pogo-legs by the name of LeBron James? Although no one except for the 30 coaches in the league have to consider the merits of small-ball lineups versus a killer post-up strategy with your tallest players, the nation is still enthralled with these discussions. It’s all the same.

Whether you’re looking at Fire Dragon aspect warriors to burn down tanks, finding a spot for Rest in Peace to shut down graveyard combos, jungling with Amumu because his build has been buffed by the latest patch, or drafting a corner-3 shooter with long arms that can defend 3 positions, it’s all rock, paper, scissors. It’s all about getting an edge on your competition. It’s all about …   fun?

The nature of all of these is still in the context of a game and I think ALOT of people are forgetting this. After all, the professional basketball business is a billion dollar industry and inflated way over its practical or even pragmatic service to society. But we embrace it. Call it love of the game, call it city or team pride, call it entertainment.

Over in League of Legends, there’s a mixed bag of accounts from the positive play experiences to the negative. People are jerks when given the anonymity of the internet, but not always. I had really great fun in a game recently where I was laning with a whiny team mate (in a bot game!) who called me a n00b for not playing Maokai “correctly,” but I then proceeded to complete my build, farm our lane, and pull off a nice ambush and triple-kill of our enemy bots. It was one of my best games ever and I even got to say to the guy whining at me, “Do you have any constructive advice instead of name-calling?”  I was never answered. It felt great! In the competitive arenas, its both much better and much worse, the extremes are way out to either side with very helpful people with actual input and suggestions on one end and the scum of the (w)hole of the internet on the other.

The game is a game is a game. Gamers and nerds are strangely competitive people. It might be something residual from high school, but how strong that trend towards friendly competition versus rudeness is up to the participants. I know a long time that the major Warhammer tournaments started giving out trophies not only for best painted army and overall winner, but also to the best sport/most fun to play. That attitude is the goal, I believe.

If you’ve fallen in love with a game, you know what I’m talking about when I say there was a golden era for you when you started playing it. For Warhammer, it was in the 8th grade playing in my friend’s basement. For Magic, it was only a few years ago right after I learned how to play and hosted multi-player games in my home. For basketball, it was my sophomore year in college when we had a regular rotation of 8-12 guys who played pickup twice a week.

No one likes to lose, but the simple joy of playing a game should reach people more often. Yes, if you want to take a game more seriously, start to learn your meta. Know the ins, outs, and match-ups. For a professional athlete, that is as much of the job as the actual performance. Read Sun Tzu and learn strategies that apply to warfare, politics, and personal interactions. Hell, watch Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.

Just have some fun, too.

Why I Suck at League of Legends

Love It or Leave It - LOL

Love It or Leave It – LOL

This all depends on how well you know your memes, but on any given day Riot Games’ League of Legends can either be Good Guy Greg or a Scumbag Steve.

The free to play online battle game is both good and bad because of what it is: free and an online game. Its so simple that kids play it while actually in high school, but complex enough it has a pro circuit. Sounds exactly like Magic: the Gathering, but free. Who could ever be so cleverly evil as to mix those two concepts?

This all started because my brother in law took pity on a n00b (me) and invited me to play some sessions with him and his friends. They were good, I was not. My “brolaw” usually carried the team to victory, while I fed the other team’s more opportunist players. I chose a handful of  champions and got to be passable in those games, but became wore out by being a constant drag on the team. So, I stopped playing for a long while.

The itch came back recently. The itch to farm a lane, the itch to take on the ravenous hordes of internet trolls and LOL junkies, the itch to take anonymous digital abuse. This phenomenon was just explored by a Penny Arcade comic.

I’ve returned to the game, fixed a few things, and got wise to some previous trends that made me suck before: I no longer tower-dive, I know how to last-hit now, and I’ve even upped my ganking skills (skizillz, to the unitiated).

But I still suck.

My chief problem is this: I believed the game had two specific modes: fun mode(Co-op vs. AI) and sodomy mode(PvP). The developers at Riot have created and designed their AI to be competitive and challenging without being ruthless and unrelenting (like human players). I can often pull out a line of 5 kills/5 deaths/15 assists in a game of Co-op. I’d compare that to my most recent foray into PvP which came out as a 1/8/4.

How to improve? I’ve taken a look at some beginner’s guides. This here on TopTierTactics was quite good. Also, the subreddit r/summonerschool has some great information.

I’ve come to some conclusions: I’m playing alone and losing out on the communication aspect that allows teams of players to coordinate their ganks and help. My bro-in-law and his teammates are in constant chatter when they play about where to go and what enemy is where. Communication is a key tool and I’m not using it.

I’m also not a tremendously competitive  person, clearly not in the way that the other LOL’ers are. If  I lose astronomically with a final line of 0/9/6, I’d much rather find a Co-op game where I can have some fun and get some bot kills than return to the PvP to try to correct any mistakes I had. That sort of scenario is hard, again, since a LOL game’s makeup is random and I’m taking a luck of the draw team that usually won’t provide constructive feedback, just harsh criticism. If I want to really improve, it’ll take some resolve and time to suck it up and play. It’s a Sun Tzu thing, “Know thy enemy but not yourself, wallow in defeat every time.” I’ll have to keep sucking to learn my mistakes before improvement begins.

I do want to emphasize that toxic players and rage-trolls that hate on players in the game are usually bringing their team down, most every article I’ve read has said that, too. The game is a game and no one gets where and what they want through belittling another player. Make sure you use the honor system Riot has in place as well as the Tribunal to report abusive jerks. They probably need some more structure in their lives, after all, give them some.

If I want to improve my LOL game, I’ll also need team mates. I’m more heavily invested in a number of games already, so I won’t be soliciting for teachers and advice just yet. I just broke level 17. I’ll keep going casually for fun, but I’m keeping track of mistakes and trying to learn from them. It’s something that most gamers should do if they want to play better, regardless of their chosen format.

Overall, I still suck, but I’m having fun.

All I Want to Play is Shadowrun Returns

I am excited for one particular release later this year and that is:

Shadowrun Returns!!

Shadowrun Returns!!

Oh, and let me tell you why.

My golden age of video gaming is the Super Nintendo 16-bit console. The level of clarity and graphics were stunningly beautiful for my 8-year old eyes (a very important shout out and thank you to my parents for purchasing this the first Christmas it was available in 1991). The funny thing is, I have never played the Shadowrun SNES game. My favorite games for the 16-bit were three unique, and relatively unheralded, games: E.V.O., Ogre Battle, and Metal Marines.

EVO+Search+for+EdenE.V.O.: Search for Eden is probably the hardest to describe.  It’s an evolution game. You start as a fish, then move on to an amphibian, then a full-blown dinosaur, and then a mammal with the possibility of achieving humanity. Between these steps it was possible to customize your creature. There were unique heads, ears, necks, horns, tails, body-types, etc. for everything. Creating and customizing my unique beast was the best part and I appreciated the bevy of options available.

Ogre BattleOgre Battle: March of the Black Queen is a unique mix of genres as a “tactical” RPG where you are the general of an army consisting of knights, samurai, wizards, monsters, ghosts, angels, and dragons. The magic and medieval elements sucked me in, plus there was complete tactical and creative customization of your fighting units within the game. The fun part was organizing and evolving these units to become new, unique, and powerful forces.

metal_marines_box_usMetal Marines is a strategy/tactical game that combined some of the great elements of Sim City and put a military mind in charge. It was the SNES version of Command & Conquer before they had the ability to create real-time strategy that worked. Gameplay involved creating an army base , defending that army base, then building a force (consisting of 50m tall robots) that venture out and destroy neighboring bases. Yep, following a theme, the best parts were the building and customizing of these robots and bases.

So you see, I really like the customization and creation areas of my video gaming. Its the same sort of activity that really gets my brain moving for Magic: the Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, and fiction in general.

Anyway, I loved all those games until I hit my teens and found a new drug of choice. An expensive and habitual drug: table-top gaming. Being a teen with little money or painting acumen, I chose Necromunda as the game to play.

Can you smell the Underhive from here?

Can you smell the Underhive from here?

So, you see the small leap it is from Necromunda, a dystopian future set in the slums of a giant hive-city, to Shadowrun, a dystopian future set in the slums of Seattle. Necromunda gives you control over a gang, usually 8-10 members, in their never-ending warfare for survival and turf. Shadowrun the RPG puts you in the driver seat as a member of team of spies/thieves/thugs performing daring and illegal jobs for or against powerful corporations, organized crime syndicates, or even ancient dragons.

Shadowrun Returns represents the culmination of all and every thing I want to play in a video game. It promises untold customization for your main character, recruitment options for your shadowrunners, equipment options, gear & weapon options, a fantastical/scifi world, and control over a small squad of illegal operatives doing awesome and impossible things. Not only that, but Shadowrun Returns promises actual world customization. The designers want you to be able to design and create streets, buildings, and obstacles to then pit against yourself or others.

I just want the designers and developers to know that. Their game is exactly what I want. There’s so much choice and customization involved, I could probably play it until the end of time. I’m looking forward to it immensely, especially playing it on a  tablet. When I saw the Kickstarter for Shadowrun Returns last summer, they had my interest.  When I heard tablet gaming, they had my attention (and then my money). You can still pre-order Shadowrun Returns through Harebrained Schemes’s site.

I also wanted to bring attention to a fantastic blog, The Lost Levels, which focuses on classic gaming (yes, I’m doing an awful lot of pimping here). It appears to me that he and I must have shared the same video game library as kids. The Lost Levels is a fantastic read and I cannot recommend it enough, especially his endorsement of Final Fantasy IX.

TL;DR: OMG SHADOWRUN OMG.

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