Saturday, March 31, 2012

Marvel Movie Project #20: Elektra

Jennifer Garner was a really hot property at the time the Daredevil movie was made, I get that.  She was doing gangbusters over on that show Alias.  It was a show that featured some action scenes, so I guess someone assumed that Garner was an action star and that she would be a perfect fit for an action role in an action movie like Daredevil.  That didn't quite pan out like everyone hoped, and while it wasn't so much Garner's fault, it was her star power alone that deluded Hollywood into thinking she could carry an action film of her own.  Deluded.

When handling a character like Elektra, you have an opportunity to tell a myriad of interesting stories.  You can tell a ninja story, an assassin story, a psychological drama about someone returning from the dead, and so on.  The story doesn't have to be overly complex, but it does want some depth.  Elektra may not be the most involved Marvel character, but there is substance there.  Whatever angle you decide to take will dictate the tenor of the film.  Is it a mystery?  Is it all out action?  Is it a character profile?  Do we care about Elektra?  Can we relate to her?  Should we?

All important questions that no one in the production of the Elektra movie bothered to ask.  Instead, what we get is a paper thin plot strung along by cheesy dialogue and weakly navigated by cardboard characters.  The first indication that this was going to be a clunker comes in the first 5 minutes of the film when the person Elektra comes to kill tells the audience, via direct address no less, that he is an "evil man."  You have to be one of two things to self-identify as the "bad guy:" you have to be mentally deranged or so morally bankrupt that you are criminally insane.  The person in the movie does not come across as either.  He comes across as corrupted person, maybe a dirty businessman or some such, but he does not come across as unhinged.  As a matter of fact his composure in the face of death suggests a metered, controlled approach to his emotions and a deep existential understanding of his situation.  Yet he sits there in his chair and tells me that an assassin is coming to kill him because he is a villain.  A true villain never sees themselves as such.  For one fictional and one non-fictional case study consider Magneto, and ironically, Adolf Hitler.

Even with that shaky start I was willing to give the movie a chance to recover.  Perhaps that was just a poorly scripted scene (see also Elektra's flatly delivered "I've been dead once" groaner that immediately undermines anything else she might do for the rest of the film).  With that in mind, I settled back in hoping for a dazzling recovery in the second act.  But I knew the film was doomed the minute the guy and his daughter moved into the house next to where Elektra was staying and my brain said "that's the guys she's going to have to kill."  If I can see your plot coming this far down the road, then you are in trouble.  Sure, I didn't guess the part about the daughter, or the ensuing attempt at a parallel between Elektra and the child, but those bits were icing on the already rotten cake anyway.  When that guy moved in, there were only two ways they were taking this: love interest or mark.  I am wrong; I left out the third: love interest AND mark.  So I guess in that way Elektra did exceed a slight expectation.  Or perhaps it overfilled an already meager expectation.  It is hard to decide.

Either way, if you are going to make your plot that transparent, then you had damn well better make the ride to the end one hell of a trip or you are just serving me some plain white toast.  Sadly, Elektra opts to order off the Jake and Elwood menu.  Once the predictable plot gets going we meander through some fairly decent, if a bit borrowed, action scenes and then amble our way toward an obvious conclusion, despite some head-scratching side roads like Elektra decision to take the girl to her mentor and train her to fight.  Sadly, Elektra does very little assassinating, apart from the self-proclaimed "villain" at the start, and she has very few moral dilemmas to face despite her anti-hero status.  Her purpose is clear very early on and she recognizes it, then she drags us along to the inevitable conclusion.

By the time the movie is over, nothing has really been gained and despite what the film tries to assert, no characters have really been significantly changed or developed.  Wait, I take that back.  At the beginning of the film, for no apparent reason, we are led to believe that Elektra has pretty a strong OCD.  At the end of the film, and really in pretty much every scene after the OCD scene, Elektra seems to be well cured of her disorder.  So maybe something is gained.  What is lost is 97 minutes of my time.  A shame too, because an Elektra story is very wide open and has a lot of potential for coolness.  You know, like when Frank Miller did this:
Do not confuse with what happens in the terrible Daredevil movie.  NOT the same at all.

Aimee's Take:

Elektra is a soulless movie filled with cardboard cut-out characters. It is fortunate that Elektra is the title of the movie, because if it were not, I would have no reason to know the main character's name. It is predictable and wooden, plodding stylishly through a nonsensical plot. 

There is a reason that, for the most part, Elektra sucks up the bottom rung of every ranking and movie list. It is intolerably bad. But--as you've seen, not as intolerably bad as others. Elektra represents, on our list, the demarcation line between miserably awful and almost watchable. Elektra and below = no likeable characters. Above it? There's at least one character that makes the movie interesting--even if it is only for the duration of their screen presence. 

There's nothing in Elektra to make me even remotely interested in the character. I hate every character--from Elektra to who ever that little girl was. They were all aggravating bitches when they weren't being completely stilted.

But, it is a stylish movie. You can follow the plot, even if it doesn't make a lot of sense. And the costuming was nice. I have no real complaints about the soundtrack. Simply put, it's just not a good movie--but it's not offensive. I will never watch it again, but I guess I wouldn't blame someone for throwing it on in the background while they ate a Lean Cuisine on a Tuesday night. Plus, some people find Jennifer Garner's pouty man-jaw, goblin ears and Hulkish hands to be attractive. I am not one of them, but I guess I can make a case for someone enjoying the (dubious) eye-candy.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

NES Golf Tour: Lee Trevino's Fighting Golf

Our first stop on the tour finds us on the links with none other than golfing pro Lee Trevino.  For those of you not familiar, Trevino, or Supermex as he is affectionately known is a six time tour championship winner and one of only a handful of golfers to survive being struck by lightning!  Trevino never took home the fabled green jacket, but he won every other major championship and was inducted in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1981.  Trevino was a champion and hero for Mexican-American golfers in a time when the sport was almost exclusively an old white guys club.  Supermex is the real deal.

Being a golfing great doesn't mean that the video game bearing your name is going to be a winner, and quite frankly the name "Fighting Golf" evokes images of Arnold Palmer and Bobby Jones dueling it out with 9-Irons.  Fortunately the game doesn't go that route and instead endeavors to give us an honest round of non-combative golf.  So let's put Lee Trevino's Fighting Golf to the test and see how it all shakes out.

Course DesignLTFG's course design varies from interesting to downright unrealistic.  Some holes provide lots of challenge for the experienced golfer and are still wide open enough for the amateur.  Other holes are nearly impossible for even the seasoned pro.  A couple of holes ask you to drive your maximum possible distance over a sand trap or water hazard before reaching the fairway safely.  Fail to hit at your maximum or have a prevailing wind against you and you are guaranteed to be spending time in the hazard or taking a penalty stroke.  That is just unfair.  There are also a lot of extremely narrow fairways that demand precision the game is incapable of delivering, particularly on the USA course.  Overall, the Course Design in challenging, but not so unrealistic that it isn't fun.

Green Design: The greens in this game are pretty standard in layout and vary nicely to present a good challenge at the end of the hole.  The one drawback is the seemingly random break generation that occurs on the face of the green surface.  Sometimes the green is relatively normal with a dominant break and maybe a few minor breaks here and there.  Other times, the breaks are all over the place going in every conceivable direction with no realistic direction or plan. This can make setting up a putt a logistical nightmare.  This is not a persistent condition, but when you get a busy green it can ratchet up the challenge.
Oh boy!

Shot Set-up Interface:  This is where the game begins to suffer.  A good interface will give you a good look at the hole, either from a third person over the shoulder perspective or a top down, or both.  It will tell you your distance to the hole from where you sit and will also tell you other distances perhaps by moving a cursor across the map.  Hazards will be as visible as realistically possible.  LTFG has little of that.  You do get two looks at the course, third person and top down, and you get the distance to the hole, but that is about it.  There is no way to judge how far out that bunker is and you have no idea if a 3 Wood or 2 Iron would have better range to evade that little stream.  You'll have to guess it the entire way.  Play long enough and you'll figure it out, so I suppose in that way it is more realistic, but there are some allowances that video game golf grants us, this is one of the bigger ones.
Another major problem lies in the fact that what you see in the two windows doesn't always match up.  The third person window is wildly inaccurate and can almost completely be ignored.  The only window worth paying attention to is the top down window as it more accurately represents what is going on in the game. Don't be surprised if the third person window shows you in the water or on the fairway when you are really in the rough.  The loss of the third person view makes lining up certain shots, particularly when trees are in play, a challenging endeavor. What is one of the most integral aspects of the game play ends up creating some serious obstacles to your success.
Is it on the green or in the rough?

Swing Interface:  Fortunately, the game is not further complicated by a troublesome swing interface.  LTFG features a pretty standard swing interface following the classic formula of pressing A to start the swing, A to set the backswing, and then A again to determine accuracy.  Slice and Hook are determined by how far from the accuracy target you stop the meter.  You can add loft or hit the ball low by pressing up or down during your swing.  This is absolutely necessary on some holes as you need the extra distance lofting will give you.  Playing with different characters will change the speed of your swing meter, so practice with slower characters like Pretty Amy before moving on to more advanced characters.  Hooking and slicing can be unforgiving if you are too far from the accuracy target, so swing carefully!

Miss an important putt and Chosuke will punch himself in the neck.
Putting Interface:  Putting is also pretty standard, with the same kind of interface, only this time all you have to worry about is power.  Press A to start your swing and then again to set the power.  Figuring out exactly how much power your swing is going to generate can take some practice, but once you get the hang of it, putting will be easy.  Putting from off the green is not possible so do not try it.

Auto-Caddy: The auto-caddy in this game is pretty reliable and you can trust it about 90% of the time, just be careful in your short game.

Spin Control: The game says you can add backspin to your shot by pressing left or right and A during your shot.  I have seen no evidence that doing this has any impact on the game.

Wind Influence:  Wind is a moderate factor in this game and you will need to account for it when it is particularly strong.

Break Influence: With the greens featuring any number of breaks in any given direction, you will definitely need to consider it when making particularly long putts.  Some breaks can be considerably strong so watch out when the grass is dense in one direction.

Chip in Possible? Yes, but extremely difficult to pull off and rare.

Hole in One Possible? I have never hit one.  I have come close, but never actually sunk one.  I feel like it is possible, given how the game plays, but have no concrete proof.

Learning Curve: 8.  While you don't have to live with this game to get the hang of it, expect to play several rounds before you are entirely comfortable with the game play.  Judging distances and learning not to look at the third person view will require patience and practice.  I played many rounds double digits over par before I got the hang of the course design and shot set-up.

Whistles and Bells LTFG has some nice extras to make your experience all the better.  The game features two courses and four different golfers to choose from.  Each course is different and features unique elements to challenge you.  Each golfer also provides a different game play experience.  Beginners will want to start with Pretty Amy or Chosuke, while the advance player can take advantage of the skills afforded Supermex or Big Jumbo.  That's right, you can play as Trevino himself and he's pretty good!  Each player also has a set of expressions to let you know how they feel about your play.  The game has good graphics and minimal sound effects.
Pretty Amy has a full range of emotions and when she's really upset she flashes her unmentionables!

Overall Score: 6.  Lee Trevino's Fighting Golf is not the worst golf game you can play on the NES, but it has several important shortcomings that can turn a fun round of golf into a frustrating cartridge toss across the room!  I still enjoy playing LTFG from time to time, but it does not get as much play time as some of the other games on our tour.

Unrealistic holes like these are fun-killers for sure.

Tips from the Club Pro:

  • The ball gets a ton of bounce from the fairways so be ready.  Plan your shot just a bit short of where you want to end up as the ball may bounce far past your target.  This applies to greens as well.
  • Likewise the trees are also made of rubber.  I have hit a tree roughly 150 yards out from the tee and had the ball ricochet nearly the entire distance back to the tee.  
  • Having said that, avoid trees at all costs.  Do NOT try to go over them under any circumstance.  Take a low shot or hook or slice around.  Avoid trees as they will almost assuredly add one or two strokes to your score.
  • Speaking of hooks and slices, some holes are going to require you to hook or slice on your tee shot, so if these shots are not part of your game, you may want to put in some practice time getting used to using them.
  • On your tee shot, do not be afraid to use the loft shot as you will find some holes demand it to avoid hazards.
  • Chipping is a crap shoot.  The short game in LTFG is tricky enough, but chipping takes this to a new level.  Intuition is your best friend when approaching the green.

Club Pro's Top Rounds:
Course: USA
Date: 3.19.12       Score: 69 (-3)
Date: 3.18.12       Score: 80 (+8)
Date: 3.16.12       Score: 82 (+10)

Course: Japan
Date: 3.22.12      Score: 80 (+8)
Date: 3.19.12      Score: 87 (+15)
Date: 3.18.12      Score: 88 (+16)

Join us next time on the tour as we visit another golfing powerhouse and the game that bears his name: Greg Norman's Golf Power!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

NES Golf Tour Part 1:Introduction

NES Golf Tour Rules and Regulations

Over the course of the next several months, I will be taking a Closer Look at all of the Golf games for the NES.  Golf really got a chance to shine on this system and the games developed for it laid the foundation for all non-PC golf games to follow.  The NES didn't have quite the power to compete with the incredibly in depth golf simulators that one could find on the PC, but these games are pretty fun for the most part all on their own.  For each game I will analyze how it stacks up in certain crucial categories as well as how much fun it is in general to play.  These categories are listed below with a brief explanation of each.  I have played endless rounds of golf for each one of these games and I will list for you my best 5 rounds for each game so you can see how you stack up.  I must warn you, I am a golf game lunatic.  I have ridiculously low scores on some of these games. I can play golf video games until the sun goes down and then even past that.  I will not say that I am the best, I clearly suck at many of these as well, as you will see, but I think I've been around the block enough times to give a fair analysis.  I would love to hear your feedback on the various stops along this tour as well as see some of your scores and hear your horror stories and tales of glory!

Here are the basic criteria against which each game will be judged:

Course Design:  How well is the course(s) designed?  Is the design realistic or does it abuse the video game privilege? Is the course design fair?  Does it feel like a golf course or a video game?

Green Design:  How well designed are the greens?  Does hole placement vary from round to round?  Are breaks designed with realism?

Shot Set-Up Interface:  How easy is it to set up your shot?  Does the game give distances to pin?  Is it easy to line up a shot?  Can you adjust your position?  Can you view the entire course?

Swing Interface:  How easy is to swing your club?  Are the controls intuitive?  How easy is it to hit an accurate shot?  How easy is it to hook or slice?

Putting Interface:  How easy is the putting?  Are the controls intuitive?  How easy is to hit an accurate putt?

Auto Caddy:  Is there one?  How accurate is it?  Is it helpful?

Spin Control:  How much control do you have over the spin of the ball?  How important is spin to the game play?

Wind Influence:  How much does the wind/weather factor into your game?

Break Influence: How much does the break on the greens influence your putt?

Chip in Possible?

Hole-in-One Possible?

Learning Curve?  How many rounds will it take to get into the flow of the game?  How easy is it to pick up and start playing the game successfully?  Rated on a scale of 1-10, 1 being "Pick-up-and-Play", 10 being "you must live this game for a few days before you get the hang of it."

Whistles and Bells:  What are the special touches in this game?  Are there animations?  Are there save files?  Does the game track your progress?  Are there lots of courses to choose from?  Are the graphics outstanding?

After analyzing each game against these criteria, I will give a short summary of my evaluation of the game and tell you exactly how much fun it is to play.  I'll also give it a ranking on a 10 scale with 1 being the really terrible and 10 being a must have golf game.

If you love golf games as much as I do, this should be a lot of fun!  If you are new to NES golf games, I hope this Tour will be a great primer and help you find the game that is right for you!  So if you are ready, go get your green jacket and let's meet back here for NES Golf Tour Part 2: Lee Trevino's Fighting Golf.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Marvel Movie Project #21: Fantastic Four

I thought this movie was pretty good when it came out.  Not perfect, certainly weak in spots, but on the whole enjoyable.  Color me an optimist.  This movie is not good.  Not good at all.  I think where I was deluded was in the fact that the movie is very light, has fun moments, features "good enough" special effects, and is easily forgotten.  When you don't have many other super hero movies to compare it to, this makes for a good superhero film.

But see, therein lies the problem.  The Fantastic Four isn't a superhero story.  Heck, at its very best it wasn't superhero comic book either.  Oh sure they all have incredible powers, they go off into space and places like the Negative Zone, they battle incomprehensible bad guys like Galactus and Annihilus,  but at their core what makes the FF great, and likeable, and relatable is that they are a family and their story is a family drama.  They may not be your conventional family unit, but they are a group of people sharing a common bond and as a result of that bond, are confronting life's troubles together.  They do not always get along and they often quibble amongst themselves, but at the end of the day they are a unit.

The FF movie tries hard to get this notion across.  It tries too hard and in the worst possible ways.  Instead of allowing the actors to develop characters with chemistry, the film forces conflict upon individuals and then tells you that they are a family.  If the movie has to tell us they are a family then it is failing to do its job.  And if the movie fails to get the essence of the FF right, then all we are left with is a bad superhero movie.

And we are.  I'll not bore you with details, but I will ask you a couple of questions.  Why is Victor Von Doom part of the origin story?  He isn't part of it in the comics and it makes no sense for him to be part of it in the film.  As a matter of fact, him being part of the origin completely undermines the family concept entirely because if he is part of the origin, that makes him part of the family and therefore the story should become one of healing the family by bringing Von Doom back into the fold.  But that's not the story.  Instead that leads to my second question, why does Dr. Doom have lightning powers?  In the comics he has no powers, he is an evil, tyrannical Iron Man.  The End.  He is a dictator who dabbles in the arcane and builds armies of robots to do his bidding, some of which he makes in his own image.  Which leads me to my final question, if Dr. Doom is our villain, where oh where are the Doombots?  Exactly.

This movie honestly feels like it was written by about eight people, with maybe three of them having read one or two FF comics.  None of the characters are quite right, the plot is confusing and meandering, and the scripting is shallow at best.  Case in point, early on when the Four's powers are revealing themselves, we are treated to a comical scene where Johnny Storm (the only really likeable character and hands down the best performance in the film) discoves his powers.  Perfect.  That is exactly how it should be, and if executed well it can really set the tone for the film and his character.  But instead, this scene is executed by giving the same lame joke twice, each instance within about 15 seconds of each other and slapping some action in between hoping no one notices.  I kid you not.  The joke is funny once, mainly because of who Johnny is, but back to back it just comes across as poorly written.  "You're hot." "Thank you" is funny, and the way Chris Evans delivers the line is spot on.  It works.  But then, mere seconds later to have the same exchange: "You're on fire." "I know," is either bad editing or sloppy scripting.  It makes the characters look like they have already forgotten an exchange they just had.  Of course, I won't bother to go into the performance by the "actress" who portrays Johnny's nurse...

The Fantastic Four is not a superhero movie, it is a family drama with superhero dressing, but when you do not get the core right and you miss the mark with the dressing, all you are left with is a bucket of crap.  Fantastic Four isn't the worst comic book movie out there, clearly, but it certainly is symptomatic of what can go wrong when people try to make a movie based on a comic book, but fail to understand what makes the comic book appealing, and end up with a superhero movie instead, and a bad one at that.

Aimee's Take:

The five of you reading this know the drill by now: Stan takes the hard look, and I pick one thing I don't like and complain about it for a short time. Well, today, what I'm going to complain about is how the Invisible Girl/Woman was terribly miscast. 

I'm a big fan of the Invisible Woman. I only fairly recently discovered how nicely her character was allowed to develop in the 1980's. She dealt with all the problems a mundane woman might have, along with all the problems that stem from being the "team mom". Strong, and incredibly powerful, Susan Storm battles her own feelings of inadequacy as she recovers from a miscarriage, struggles to create a "normal" family environment for her son, and faces her husband's often aloof super-genius intellect. Sue is part of the glue that holds the Fantastic Four together--although it's not always easy to make that happen. During my favorite run, Thing is replaced by She-Hulk. The cast rotates fairly often, because, like any family, sometimes there is conflict, and sometimes people have to follow a different path than the one their families would make for them. Through most of this, Sue is a rock. She grapples with being both powerful and unappreciated. She grapples with being herself and being "normal". There is something about Sue that grabs me, as a woman. It wasn't always true of her character and it certainly hasn't always continued in her stories, but Sue is a tremendously accurate avatar for the average woman. 

 So by all means, let's make her the goddamn bitchiest character in the history of cinema. To say that her character is unsympathetic is an understatement. She is so unfeelingly fake and horrible, switching her "affections" from Victor to Reed, leaving everyone in the audience to wonder why EITHER of them would want anything to do with her.

She's too young, looking roughly three-four years younger than her kid brother, Johnny. This makes her ceaseless nagging mothering all the more annoying. (In reality, Jessica Alba IS older than Chris Evans--by a couple of months.) Reed isn't quite old enough by comparison to seem "fatherly" (believe me, this is an important component of their relationship, and a significant source of real familial conflict). Besides, with Alba in the role, Reed could be 65 years old--this Sue Storm is 100% right all the time, and if you disagree, she will ice you out. She's not just the team mom--she's the team dictator. 

Plus, there's the universal truth that goes: "An astonishingly beautiful girl with olive complected features will look one-hundred-percent convincing as a blond scientist of some kind." What, that's not a thing? Well, I'm not saying that Sue can't be beautiful, but she cannot be intimidating. She is the girl next door. I don't know why we had to have her dye her dark hair blond... it looks really, really unnatural and I see it as very unnecessary. Sue being blond is a very small detail and it has nothing to do with her character. Of all the things we could have gotten right--this is the thing we decided to stick to? 

I'm also not sure why we had to make Sue a scientist. It was ok to leave Johnny as...whatever the heck Johnny is. It was fine to have Ben be a lovable meathead type. So why do we have to have Sue be roughly as intelligent as Reed? You know, it's ok to have a female character who isn't "having it all"... I know that Sue gets a makeover in the "Ultimate" incarnation--but here's the thing. This movie follows, roughly, the original origin story. Why attempt to blend the two so unsuccessfully?

But enough about this. I want--no, need, need--to tell you about the most astoundingly insane cinema "fuck you" in the history of cold-hearted bitches. 

Ok, you may be familiar with the scene where Ben is on the bridge. There is a big special effects show down and all the team members show up and realize that, hey, we can use our powers as a team and to do things that are good. It's the FF "ah-ha". But, towards the end, Ben's fiance walks up to hand over the engagement ring, basically saying, "you're a big freak, I can't deal with you, I'm leaving," after presumably having witnessed this big event on TV.

Ok, first of all--this scene creates an ENORMOUS traffic jam. Traffic is backed up indefinitely. Probably for miles. Assuming that this woman saw only the first part of a news report (cluing her in to Ben's location), she would have likely hopped on a car or bus and been stuck for several hours trying to head in that general direction. I am left understanding, then, that this bitch WALKS the entire length of a police-blockaded traffic jam, just to say "fuck you" to Ben Grimm. 

If we are expected to believe that this woman's dedication to throwing this ring down--wordlessly--in front of her obviously distraught fiance is so great that she will go to such an extreme length, then I have news for Ben Grimm: she's not worth being upset over. She just saved you a lifetime of extreme bitchiness. Too bad you have to basically go home to Sue...

I'm not saying she shouldn't have a right to leave with the dramatic changes going on in her life. It's probably reasonable to say that she can't deal with her fiance becoming a rock monster, and that she shouldn't be blamed for her reaction. But she could have written a letter. I mean, Ben can't be that hard to find. She could go visit Reed and say, "Here's the ring, I can't face Ben, let him know this is about me, not him..." She could have called him on the phone, maybe. But instead, she decides to dump him on television, and she is willing to walk miles and duck police lines to do so. And she does so without so much as a "sorry about your luck". 

That, ladies and gents, is just nuts. 

I'd have to say, one reason this movies isn't on the very bottom (and it was, for a while) is because it contains the above scene. It's really quite amazing, once you work out what it really means. You won't see it the first time, it just kind of works. But when you really think about it--it's insane. It's the greatest, coldest break-up scene I've ever witnessed. Cinema gold. Unintentional, but entertaining.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Closer Look at DragonVale for the iPhone

UPDATE!  For those of you seeking the latest, greatest DragonVale info, check out my new DragonVale Update Page for the low-down on everything that is new and funky in the floating islands!
Otherwise, enjoy the main feature below!

Look, I know you don't want to know about my personal life and I thank you for it, but this story begins in the boudoir; I cannot help this fact so just bear with me if you can.  Sometime back in December on a lazy Sunday morning, the wife and I were lounging about in bed enjoying the fact that we had no where to go and nothing to do.  As you may recall from my recent Smurf Village missive, not much was going in the village and I was pretty much fed up with my Trade Nations town, so I was looking for some other time waster for my phone.  I dialed over to the App Store and browsed around to see what the top ranked apps were.  In the Top 25 Grossing category the #1 game was something called DragonVale.  I like dragons and the icon was pretty cute, so I clicked on it. By the description: "Play DragonVale and raise, feed, and breed your own lovable dragons."

I was sold.

There was a chance that I was buying into a dragon themed My Little Pony or Nintendogs here, but I risked it. I am pleased to report that it was worth the risk!  You know I am goofy about Smurf Village, but I think in DragonVale I may have found the best "In-App Purchase" game currently available. (For those of you like me who have no idea what that means, it is the kind of app where it is free to play but there are elements within the game that cost real money)

The premise behind DragonVale is exactly what the description above says.  The game is that simple.  Build Habitats, pick up a few dragon eggs and you are off and running!  Pretty soon you'll have Fire Dragons, Plant Dragons, Cold Dragons, and Earth Dragons everywhere!  Then you start growing food to feed the dragons and raise them to maturity.  Once they become "of age" you can build a breeding pit and let nature take its course.  This opens the game up in all new ways.  Now you can breed hybrid dragons like Storm Dragons (Lightning + Cold), Magma Dragons (Earth + Fire), and Fog Dragons (Water + Air).  Just remember that each dragon type has its antithesis and will not be able to directly breed with dragons of the opposing type. Feed your dragons and raise their levels and then let them compete in the Colosseum for big prizes! And so on.  You can see how easily this game piles on the fun and injects itself into the addictive part of your brain.

Honestly, the game is brilliantly constructed to make sure the fun just keeps coming.  You start with the plant dragons.  Plant habitats build quickly and their dragon eggs hatch quickly so you will be up and going within minutes of starting the game.  The "tutorial" portion is pretty painless and over soon and if you know your way around these games you can work it to your advantage.  Soon after getting your plant dragons going, you'll raise your level high enough to unlock Earth Dragons and habitats and shortly after that Fire Dragons.  So within the first day of starting the game you will have at least 3 kinds of dragons to play with.  After that point the game keeps a steady stream of fun going by introducing new types of dragons, new game play elements, and pretty regular updates.  And then there are the rare dragons!  These are dragons you can only obtain by breeding and only then with some random chance and luck.  Seriously, how are you still reading this and not downloading this app right now? Oh, of course, you already have it.  Silly me.

"But what about the "In-App Purchase" part?  You haven't mentioned that," you say.  See, that is perhaps the most brilliant part of this app and maybe why it is #1 in In-App purchases.  The In-App purchase in this game centers around "gems" that you can use to speed up egg hatching, breeding, and pretty much anything else in the game that takes time to do.  You can also use the gems to buy dragon eggs, particularly rare ones.  But unlike other In-App Purchase games, you NEVER have to buy a SINGLE GEM to get everything the game has to offer.  Unlike similar apps, gems are relatively easy to come by in this game.  You can win up to 5 every day from the Colosseum, your friends can you give one gem per day, or you can spend real money on them.  But you never HAVE to spend money.  If you are patient you can build up enough gems over time to buy pretty much anything in the game you need gems for.  To  my knowledge there are only a handful of things in the game that can only be obtained via gems, hatchery upgrades, the special breeding island, the gem tree, and maybe a couple of other things.  Unlike so many other apps (looking dead square at YOU Trade Nations), you don't HAVE to spend real money to get the very most out of this game, which to my mind makes me much more likely to spend money on this game.  If you make something optional instead of obligatory, then the chance of the human being responding favorably to it is far more likely. (Now go take your PSYCH101 test and pass it, you can thank me later)

Playing this game is a mix of raising dragons, decorating your islands, breeding dragons, and most importantly gaining experience so you can raise your level and unlock more cool stuff.  Experience is gained in many ways including clearing brush, building things, growing food and clearing Goals the game sets up for you. These Goals are a nice touch as they give you some general direction in playing the game.  They can also reward you with bonus food or gold! One of the most profitable ways to make money is to sell dragon eggs you don't need.  Particularly rare dragon eggs (Mist, Willow, Sun, Rainbow, Moon) can fetch one or two million gold each!

There is a whole special island for dragon hanky-panky
One of the most interesting facets of the game is the breeding.  One would be tempted to turn this Closer Look into a DragonVale Breeding Guide (that would be me), but one would do so in vain.  Breeding in DragonVale does follow basic logic, but there is no set of definitive "how to breed" rules.  A Tree Dragon is the hybrid result of breeding a Plant Dragon and an Earth Dragon; that is a fact.  But a Moss Dragon is also the hybrid result of breeding a Plant Dragon and an Earth Dragon.  How do you determine which one you'll get?  You don't.  Electronic Mother Nature rolls the dice and you get one or the other.  A breeding guide would be redundant, except in a very few cases and we'll get to those soon.  The random element to the breeding aspect of this game keeps it fresh, fun, and occasionally maddening, particularly when it is two days to Valentine's Day and you are frantically trying to breed a Love Dragon before the window of opportunity closes!

So instead of trying to construct anything like a Breeding Guide, I think it would be better to just put together an Official Tour Guide to the Wonderful World of DragonVale and take a look at the many interesting things the game has to offer.

Raising Dragons
The heart of this game is raising dragons and constructing awesome habitats for them to flourish in.  There are 8 basic kinds of dragons that you can raise: Plant, Earth, Fire, Cold, Electricity, Water, Air, and Rare.  Each type of dragon has its own special habitat and most rare dragons have their own habitats as well.  Hybrid Dragons can live in any habitat that is part of their make-up (i.e. Magma dragons can live in Fire or Earth Habitats).  Most dragons are either base dragons or dual hybrids, but there are a few very special, usually limited time offer, dragons that are multiple hybrids of three or four kinds.  The aforementioned Love Dragon is a Fire/Plant/Electricity hybrid.
Raising Dragons requires you to build farms and grow food to feed and mature your dragons.  The higher your level of dragon, the more money it can generate (from seemingly purposeless guests that wander your islands).  Building farms and harvesting food is simple and so is growing your dragons.  Later in the game you can build type-specific shrines that will unlock higher levels your dragons can grow into.  There does not appear to be a rare dragon shrine.
The game is wide open and you are free to raise whichever kind of dragons you choose.  That is definitely part of the appeal.

Although your dragons are already bringing in money on a regular basis, there is an even better way to make them work for you.  Once a day you can enter one of your dragons in competition in the Colosseum.  Your dragon can take home gold, silver and bronze medals.  Each medal rewards you with Gold, Experience, and precious gems.  At its very best, you can take home 5 gems a day this way.  There is no big secret to winning at the Colosseum, but it seems like high levels and pure types do better than hybrids and child-dragons.  The type of event changes every day and there does not seem to be a rare event although rare dragons can compete in any event.
I mark my gold medals with flags because I'm a dork.

Fountain of Youth
At higher levels you will gain access to the Fountain of Youth.  This "building" will enable you to revert your higher level dragons back to their post-hatching form.  Sometimes dragons are just cuter in their pre-adolescent stages.  This is definitely true for the Quake, Lightning and Magma dragons.  The Fountain of Youth effect has no detrimental side effects on your dragons; the change is entirely cosmetic.  You can still raise them up to higher levels and breed them.  This process does take time, however, and your dragon will be out of commission during the transformation.
Fountain of Youth on the left, Hibernation Cave on the right.

Hibernation Cave
One thing DragonVale does limit you on is the number of habitats you can have at one time.  As your level goes up, you often get +1 Max Habitats increasing your total number, but raising levels can take time and overcrowding can quickly become an issue if you are breeding dragons left and right and looking to keep them; you'll find great refuge in the Hibernation Cave.  Available at higher levels, the Hibernation Cave will allow you to stow extra dragons away for later enjoyment.  True, you don't get the make any money off these dragons as they are effectively out of play, but you get to keep them and they will be minty fresh when you pull them back out.  You can upgrade the Cave with gems to increase the capacity. 

Shrines and Boosters
Don't think the game is over just because you maxed all of your dragons out a level 10.  After unlocking all of the habitats you'll gain access to the shrines.  There is a shrine for each kind of dragon and when you honor that shrine you will be allowed to raise your dragons past level 10.  Honoring a shrine is easy, kind of.  All you have to do is raise 50 dragons of that type to level 10.  That sounds like a lot, but hybrids can count for two shrines at once so that will help cut down on some of the grinding.  Higher level dragons earn gold faster and get physically bigger.  They also get a little ball over their head representative of their dominant type.  Just remember, feeding higher level dragons consumes a bounty of food, so keep those farms a growing!
Shines change color when you reach 50 dragons at level 10
Speaking of earning gold (I did!  Three lines ago!), to help your dragons maximize their earning potential, you can also erect boosters for each type.  When these boosters are built they will enhance all dragons and hybrids of their type so that they earn 20% more gold.  But just as each type of dragon has its antithesis, not only will each booster enhance dragons of its type, it will also diminish dragons of the opposing type.  Therefore if you have cold dragons and fire dragons living on the same island and you build a fire booster, your cold dragons will earn less gold as a result.  This creates real havoc when you have hybrids like the Frostfire dragon who is both cold and fire!  The display says that the detrimental effect takes precedence, but there is clearly some kind of cancellation when you have a dragon of two opposing types being boosted.  Thus, your Sandstorm dragon will not loose all of its boost if you have a Air Booster built.  Boosters are excellent, and while some look a little odd, I strongly recommend building one of each type on the islands where you have habitats of that type.

RARE Dragons!

This is what we all play for!  The rare dragons!  Only available through hefty gem prices or through very lucky breeding, the rarest dragons are highly prized and very, very cool looking.  While luck does play a big part in getting a rare dragon, there are certain factors that can influence your chances of landing that oh-so special egg.  In what is a really nice touch, your chances of breeding a Sun Dragon are dramatically increased if you breed dragons in the day time.  Likewise, getting a Moon Dragon is helped greatly by breeding dragons at night.  The Rainbow Dragon is perhaps the most elusive and the internet is aflush with theories about which dragons yield a Rainbow.  I have not seen anything definitive that proves any of those theories true, but if it is working for you don't question it.  I've bred three Sun Dragons and all of them came from different pairings.  I will also say that the special Breeding Island doesn't seem to significantly improve your chances either, no matter what the game tells you.  However, it does double your breeding capacity and that goes a long way. The only real way I know to get the three base rare dragons is to breed and keep breeding your dragons, and eventually you will get that happy message telling you that your breeding time is 48 hours.  Then it is just a matter of waiting the process out to see what kind of dragon you'll get.
And then there are the specialty rare dragons that are released as temporary offerings generally associated with a coming holiday or season.  I've been playing since December and I've seen Bone Dragons (which I assume are from Halloween), Reindeer Dragons, Panlong Dragons, Leap Year Dragons, Love Dragons and Cloverleaf Dragons.  I can only assume they keep them coming.  These dragons are generally hybrids, with the exclusion thus far of the Leap Year Dragon, meaning that your chances of getting them are slightly better since you have some illusion of control.  Take the Reindeer Dragon for instance.  It is a hybrid of Cold and Plant, two things that don't generally mix.  Thus, you will not be able to get a Reindeer Dragon by breeding a Cold and Plant dragon.  The result is trying to figure out which hybrid mix will give you the best chance of breeding a Reindeer.  Originally, I thought that the flag indicators on the dragon's profile gave some indication since they seem to indicate a dominance in type (i.e. the Crystal Dragon lists Lightning then Earth whereas the Quake Dragon lists Earth then Lightning).  However breeding experience has disproven any meaningful correlation between the profile listing and the breeding result.  This might sound annoying, but it turns out to be a lot of fun and keeps the game fresh and new.
The Moon Dragon is maybe my favorite!
So there you have it!  Everything that is cool and fun about DragonVale.  If you aren't already having a blast with this app, go get it!  Then, when you figure out the best recipe for breeding a Sandstorm Dragon, come back here and tell me, I am desperately chasing a second one and cannot seem to find the right mix!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Marvel Movie Project #22: Punisher

The one problem that plagues the previous three films is a failure to capture the essence of the character or the spirit of the comic book they are based on.  If you want a film that defines this problem and then takes it to the next level, then look no further than the Punisher.

I feel like a broken record doing this, but stay with me here.  Frank Castle is a man on a mission. His wife and kids were murdered after witnessing a mob hit.  Frank never knew who killed his family, but he knew the mob was to blame.  From that day on he waged war against crime of all kinds, particularly going after the organized variety.  He is a dark, gritty anti-hero seeking revenge against the faceless enemy that took his family set against the seedy backdrop of the New York City underworld.

So of course let's move the character to sunny Florida and have him take down a corrupt night club owner.  But to keep the gritty NY feel, let's have him live in a tenement building dropped in the middle of a marsh.  We're not missing the point at all.  Seriously.

From the very start this movie asks us to do something we simply cannot do: take it seriously while swallowing its over the top plot and scripting.  It wants us to take it seriously because it tries to make Frank Castle a tragic character that we must cheer for as he struggles to overcome the loss of his family (his entire family, ENTIRE).  But it never gives us a fair chance to do that because his serious character is set against the most ludicrous situations and locations you can imagine.

The insanity starts right away as the character is being set up.  In the comics Frank Castle's wife and two children were gunned down in Central Park by the mob.  It's simple, it's believable, and it works.  So instead of that, this movie decides to kill everyone who was ever remotely related to Frank in a gangland style execution on the sunny beaches of Puerto Rico.  It's not simple, it's not realistic, and it does not work.

As if that weren't enough, we are then expected to believe that John Travolta is a major crimelord who launders money through his corrupt nightclub business.  Travolta is so over the top from his very first appearance in the film that there is absolutely no way he can be on screen without getting unintentional laughs from his scene chewing performance.  Casting Travolta as the main villain completely undermines every opportunity for antagonism for our tragic hero.

Next we move Frank into the only brownstone built below the Mason-Dixon line for the sole purpose of paying weak homage to something very cool in the then-current Garth Ennis Punisher comic book.  The characters of Joan, Spacker Dave and Mr. Bumpo are so incredibly well crafted in the comic that the shallow reflections presented in this film are almost an insult.  I totally get that they were trying to capitalize on the masterwork comic that was concurrent with the film and that they had such an appreciation for the high quality of it that they wanted it in the movie, but you cannot do in two hours what you can do in twelve issues and cardboard cut-outs of deep and thoughtful characters does not a tribute make.  So instead we get what feels like a comic book on film. The super-hero syndrome strikes in a movie that should never suffer from it.  The Punisher is not a super-hero of any kind.  Any chance there was left to have grit in the film is lost in this muddled attempt.
This has meaning in twelves issues you cannot get in 20 minutes

So while Frank is living in this absurd apartment that feels more like Willy Wonka's father's house after Willy leaves home to pursue his candy career, he is plotting revenge against the very man that ordered his family's (his ENTIRE family's) execution: John Travolta.  The following scenes are the only well constructed part of the film.  Frank's plotting and systematic take-down of Travolta's men is smartly done and is reminiscent of a good crime drama.

Too bad it has to come to a climax in the corniest ending in film history, or at least a top contender.  I would offer not to ruin it for you, but you cannot ruin poop.  The film ends with Frank dragging a screaming, hammy Travolta out into a car lot near his recently ruined and exploded nightclub.  There, he attaches Travolta to the back of a car packed with explosives, puts the car in drive, and points it at the other cars in the lot.  As he walks away from the scene, the car explodes setting the entire lot ablaze, conveniently in the shape of the Punisher skull emblem.  Groan.  I won't bother to mention any of the details about how unrealistically close the cars in the lot are parked or how long the Punisher must have been milling about in the lot earlier in the day to methodically lay out the chemical that burns in the shape of the skull.  Nor will I ask what chemical that might have been that could remain so flammable for so long while Frank was inside taking out the bad guys.  I won't mention it because you don't need me to in order to understand that this movie is miserable.

The only reason this film doesn't hit rock bottom is because it does have a plot and there are a few moments of clarity during which the movie doesn't completely suck.  Skip this one and go pick up a trade paperback of Garth Ennis' incredible Punisher story instead.

Aimee's Take:

As usual, I don't have much to say about how horrible this movie is. It's horrible. It's too long. 

But most distressing--it is is painfully unrealistic. No, I'm not talking about all the special effects and the everlasting-six-shooter syndrome. What I am referring to is the horrific massacre of Frank Castle's entire family. I can understand the "wrong place, wrong time" shooting of his nuclear family by the mob. Tragic and damaging. Enough to take a good man and make him take justice to the streets. Understandable. He's going to be messed up from his experience, but I can see him going to that place.

What I absolutely cannot understand is how on earth Frank Castle watches the systematic killing of every person he has ever called family--extended or otherwise--and then gets up and becomes functional again. Ever. I mean, what we are talking about--what WE, the audience witness!--is every member of the family, gunned down or run over or otherwise killed brutally. We start with Grandma and work our way down to minors--cousins, nieces, nephews--children and the elderly. Sons, daughters, in-laws, delivery boys, unrelated service techs, people who Frank once greeted in the subway... everyone. I don't know the body count on this one scene, but it's enormous. There's no justice that's going to make it OK. He is going to survive this and grapple with horrifying, debilitating PTSD, survivor's guilt. After healing up, his next stop is the mental hospital. I'm not saying he couldn't be functional, but there's just no way this man can do anything right away. The trauma is TOO great. His ENTIRE support structure not only evaporated in one afternoon, it exploded and left to bleed all over the family home. And in his mind, it's HIS fault--he's the one that put everyone at risk with his career. Maybe in 15 years, he'll be able to live independently again. I'm guessing that the more likely outcome is that he swallows some pills or drinks himself to death before that happens. And I think he'd be within his rights to feel that desperately sad. Dealing with the brutal, unexpected loss of three family members would be tragic and difficult to move on from--but people do it. I honestly doubt that this man is going to move on from the loss (that he brutally witnesses!) of 30+ people. 

There, the movie is invalidated. I didn't want to carry on watching it after that scene. There's no way Frank would have wanted to keep living after that massacre. It's too much.

Nothing Travolta does can redeem it, and there's nothing remotely interesting or Punisher-like about the rest of it. In the comic, Frank kills Harry Heck before he even tries to find the Punisher--and I like that. No need to have a confusing singing-telegram assassin followed by a bizarre car chase. In the comic, the Russian is hilarious--he's actually a character! Later, Frank smothers him with Mr. Bumpo and then shows up at the villain's home carrying his severed head. That is gritty, with enough camp to soften the blow. What we got was all camp. This movie is ALL ham and no substance.

Where is Dolph Lundgren when you need him?!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Marvel Movie List #23 Ghost Rider

You're not really surprised are you?  This movie was doomed before a single megabyte of film was computer-generated.  The character of Johnny Blaze is that of a brash young stunt cyclist who regularly defies death in the pursuit of fame and the cheers of a titillated audience.  What contemporary actor working today best exemplifies these qualities?  Which actor could best bring such a vibrant character to life on the silver screen?

This guy?  Seriously.  This is just mis-casting at its very purest.  And it speaks to fundamental failure by anyone involved with this project to understand the nature of the character they were working with.  You simply do not cast an actor, any actor, over 35 years old to play a character like Johnny Blaze.  You've got plenty of talented young actors out there who would be perfect for the role.  What about that new guy playing Captain Kirk?  (Ok, bad example, that guy should be doing nothing but making more absolutely awesome Star Trek movies for me to watch.  Nothing but.)  You get my point.
Look, I'm not going to waste all of our time stating the obvious.  Whether you find Cage to be an innovative actor who constantly pushes the envelope with fresh choices and character interpretations (I typed that without laughing, I promise), or you find him to be a caricature of himself who hams it up and has no clue how to generate depth or meaning, he is simply the wrong actor for this role.  Why the producers didn't just stick with the much better young actors who played young Johnny Blaze and his girlfriend is beyond me.  (Oh yeah, Eva Mendes is in this film too for some reason)

Speaking of characters and roles, this film understands neither.  Ghost Rider is the Spirit of Vengeance.  He is the Blaze character described above possessed by Zarathos, a demon who seeks to punish those who take advantage of the innocent.  Thus, Ghost Rider's earthly mission is to seek out those who do wrong and protect those who are guiltless.  Part of his power set includes a debilitating "attack" called the Penance Stare, wherein he forces a person to relive all the pain they have caused others.  This attack often leaves the target in a catatonic state from the shock of experiencing all of that pain.  In addition to that he can also channel and control hellfire and employs various implements, most famously two lengths of chain, to fight against those who would do evil.
Watch Ghost Rider and tell me where you see any of that.  You don't.  Instead you get the Special Effect running around chasing cardboard villains.  Granted, Blaze alone isn't a terribly deep or compelling character, but add the Zarathos element and you have the makings for a dark anti-hero who evokes themes of spirituality and morality.  Instead we get a jellybean drinking, raging schizoid who becomes a Special Effect that does everything a stereotypical super-hero might do.  Snore.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the plot does nothing to challenge any of the characters in the film.  Instead, the plot meanders about for what feels like 3 hours in order to have Ghost Rider run around trying to prevent his adversary, Blackheart, from creating hell on earth by capturing a thousand souls.  To do this he has to fight some forgettable minor foes, track down an Old West Ghost Rider (their ride is the coolest thing in the film), find some ancient contract or something, and then have a showdown with Blackheart, kind of, to win the day.  I guess that would be ok, if it had anything to do with the heart of the character, or if any part of that journey was interesting.  This sounds like a movie, but it doesn't sound like a Ghost Rider movie, at least not if you are familiar with the character. Again, the Special Effect riding alongside the Old West Special Effect is the most exciting part of the film. This should not be.

Ghost Rider has no likeable characters, forgettable performances by pretty much everyone, a totally mis-cast main character, an overly complicated plot that drones on for far too long, and no real depth or substance.  You tell me why it is #23 on this list.  It is saved only by the Special Effect and the very cool homage to Hamilton Slade (the original Ghost Rider).

Aimee's Take: I'm going to make this short. You can probably just assume that I share all of the above opinions, and more. I'm not a tremendously huge Ghost Rider fan, but I can pin down exactly two things wrong with this movie that make it unwatchable.

The cast is just bad. Just bad. Nicolas Cage is too damn old to be in this role. Eva Mendez is bitchy. Both of them should have sat down with whoever was in charge of this thing and advised them that the two young actors from the first fifteen minutes should be in their roles for the entire film. As a closing argument, I give you this, which sums up everything I feel about hearing that Nicolas Cage is in a film I'm interested in.

And the other thing? I can't figure out what the plot is. Hard to be invested for a couple of hours when you really don't understand what you're looking at. I know Johnny made a deal with the devil, and it resulted in him drinking jelly beans from a martini glass. At some point he gets attacked by things, becomes Ghost Rider, and then has to get a list out of a shovel. I just don't know why I care.

That's all I got. It's a bad movie.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How I Lost 200 Hours of my a Woman.

Who's that girl?
That's right, a woman.

Let me tell you about her.  Her name is Ceolairah (you would say it Solara).  She is a working girl who does odd jobs all across the country, so, naturally she travels a lot.  She isn't particularly wealthy, but she does own property in some major cities.  I cannot really tell you too much about her past, but from what I understand things weren't always as good as they are now (there may have been some jail time early on, but for what is not clear).  She was born and raised in an arid climate near a desert and as a result rarely gets sick, which is a good thing.  She has no particular religious or political affiliations; she just kind of does what she feels is right based on the situation at hand.  Perhaps because of this, she is quick to make new friends and rarely comes into town without someone waiting to see her about something or other.  That being said, she has always kind of been a loner, not really needing or asking too much from her friends or her family (if she has any, I don't really know).  And yet, I get the sense that she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders sometimes.  Not to get melodramatic, but it is almost like she has some bigger destiny or purpose out there that she is chasing. I certainly think she is destined for great things!

Ceolairah is a complex and amazing woman with more depth and subtlety than one might expect when they first meet her. She is strong and fearless, she is noble and yet cunning at times, and no matter what, she always comes out on top of the situation.  Maybe that is why I have been so enraptured with her for the past several months.  Maybe that is why I have done everything in my power to spend time with her at every opportunity since I met her.  Maybe that is why as soon as I am done typing this, I am going to go meet her again.

But Ceolairah is not like other girls, my friends.  Oh no indeed.  Ceolairah hails from a world not like ours, for Ceolairah is a child of Skyrim.  Yeah, that's right, I took two whole paragraphs to rope you in for that big, super nerdy payoff.  And now you have to live with it (sadly so do I because I wrote it and took about 3 times as long to write it as you took to read it).
Ceolairah at home in Riften, ready for battle

200 freaking hours of my life (and counting...) I have sunk into this ridiculous game.  200 hours.  If someone sentenced you to 200 hours of community service, you would just pay the fine or take the jail time.  And yet willingly, no, eagerly, I have spent 200 hours completely engrossed in this absolutely incredible world...errr... I mean game.  And when I say engrossed, I mean like basement dwelling nerd level engrossed. It is sad. Really really sad.  I have not been pulled into a game like this since way back in the days of Might and Magic VI (during which my girlfriend and I literally pulled the couch up to the PC and took turns playing while the other would sleep).  Maybe I am a sucker for deep RPG's like this, but boy did this game zero right in on what appeals to the big fat nerd inside of me.  And as before, I will blame it on a woman, but this time that woman is my wife.

It's her fault.  She's the one that said, "that Elder Scrolls game looks really good and everyone is going nuts over it, can we please buy an XBOX360 so I can play it?"  I wondered if any one game would be worth buying an entire system for, particularly in an era when the XBOX360 stands for everything that I feel is wrong with modern video games.  But, she insisted and I relented.  At the time I was busy wrapping up LoZ:Skyward Sword (probably the most epic Zelda game ever and contender for best Wii game ever and maybe best adventure game ever), so I didn't have time to get involved with this new Skyrim game.  But the wife played it and she got sucked into it, big time.  She was playing Skyrim on the living room TV and I was playing Zelda on the gameroom TV and we were two huge losers that rarely saw each other for about 3 weeks. I am just thankful I married a video game geek like myself, otherwise I have a feeling I would have been packing my bags for Skyrim in the near future...

Finally, I began my Skyrim adventure.  Trust me, I was entirely ready for this to be a disappointment.  Modern video games on the power systems always make me nervous because I don't really buy into the philosophy that gave birth to the power systems.  I am not a graphics whore and I don't dig online play. But the response from the wife was good and the game looked very interesting.  Kids, I had no idea...

Maybe I am new to modern gaming, but this game is incredible.  It is the best RPG I have ever played.  The game is huge, the world is immersive and the adventure feels endless.  This game offers the fantasy RPG nerd pretty much everything they want.  Open exploration is the name of the game.  Even though the game starts you off with the foundation of the game's two major quests, one political and one epic, after you escape your pending execution you are pretty much free to roam.  You can make your choice and follow the faction of your choice, you can head for the nearest town, or you can just strike out on your own and see what the world has to offer.
How freaking cool is this???

And oh my, what the game has to offer.  There are dungeon crawling quests, heroic quests, good deeds, evil deeds, assassinations, thefts, and general bitch work.  In addition to all of that you can learn all kinds of skills from blacksmithing and weapon enchanting to alchemy and pickpocketing.  There is so much to do and so much to learn that it can be a little daunting at first.  But fear not, just pick the first quest in front of you and let the good times roll.  You do have to be careful, however, because there are a lot of quests out there; one estimate put it up there in the four digits.  If you are not careful your quest log can get so full you'll have a hard time figuring out just what to do or where to go next!
While some of the quests can feel a bit repetitive, particularly if you complete a series of barrow quests, which are basically dungeon crawlers where you are seeking an object, back-to-back with noting else in between, but if you mix up your experience you can almost entirely avoid quest burn out.  Quest burn out won't set in for a while, though, because the game manages to keep the level of newness and fun very high and there are cool new things to see and find around pretty much every corner.
More than just Tundra, baby!

Which was another concern of mine.  Watching the wife play, I noticed that this game was dark, visually.  Lots of snow and earth tones, I feared the game was going to be drab and dull and monotonous.  Wrong again.  While Skyrim is a cold northern land, the geography is wildly diverse and features a wide variety of landscapes ranging from the obvious snow capped mountain to steamy hot springs.  You can explore everything from forested groves to sunken ships.  Yes, I said it, sunken ships!  There are pirate coves and entire subterranean caverns illuminated by phosphorescent fungus.  Plunge deep into the heart of ancient ruins of the Dwemer (apparently the dwarves of Skyrim long vanished from the face of the realm) and ascend the frozen peaks of the highest mountains to seek out the homes of Ancient Dragons.  It is rarely dull picking your way across the landscape of Skyrim.  So much to see.
Yep, that's a sunken ship.  And it's not the only one...

But all of that isn't just window dressing.  The game is deep and the world is even deeper.  I'll give you the extreme example right off the bat:  there are books, lots and lots of books, in Skyrim. These books are not just quest items or ways to learn spells, these are actual books.  Someone, somewhere at the creative offices of Bethesda sat down and wrote books to include in this game that amplify the stories and lore of the world.  I am not kidding.  You can probably spend 25 game hours just sitting down and reading all of the books.  Some are short, only a few pages deep, but others are virtual novellas.  These books cover pretty much anything you would want to know about Skyrim from history and mythology to treatises on combat and alchemy.  There is an entire library devoted to writings on the aforementioned Dwemer!  The available knowledge about this imaginary land is so deep it borders on Tolkien.  Don't feel obligated, you are only actually required to read maybe a handful of books to fulfill quests, but the knowledge is out there if you want to know more.
And it's not just the literature that fleshes out the world.  The NPCs are much deeper than your standard RPG fare, and even the stock guards will have different things to say based on what is going on with your character progression or the major game quests.  There are nine major towns in the game and many smaller farms, mining colonies, and villages all rich with characters to meet, interact with, do favors for, and possibly even marry! It feels like the game is actually designed with the purpose of absorbing you into its world.  I would wager that it is difficult to play this game for any amount of time and not be drawn into it.  (If you don't believe me, check out Skyrim mom).

Let me give you a sample from an average day in Skyrim.  I start the game in my house in Riften, the lake town in Skyrim known for its connection to the Theives Guild.  Yes, that's right, I said "my house," because in Skyrim you can own property in many of the nine principle towns.  This usually requires a sizable amount of gold and the completion of several quests specific to that town, but once you purchase a house you own it, you can sleep there, store your gear, and even decorate and upgrade your houses to include things like Alchemy Labs and Vegetable Gardens.  I know; it is very cool.
So anyway, I start in my home in Riften and I decide that today I want to explore some Dwarven ruins.  It just so happens that yesterday a woman in town begged me to take a strange artifact from her and return it to a Dwarven ruin located nearby.  So, I take a moment and scout out the local shops to see if anyone has any arrows I can buy, and then I head out for the ruin.  Not too far from town I am stopped on the road by a thief who demands all my gold.  I have the option of fighting him right there, trying to persuade him to leave, or intimidating him into just leaving me alone.  He doesn't take kindly to the intimidation and so I am forced to pull out my warhammer and decapitate him on the spot (yes you can do that and it is very, very cool).  Semi-random encounters like this make up a lot of the ambient charm in Skryim.  Having dispatched the thief, the rest of my journey to the ruin is fairly uneventful.  I run from a few angry bears and wolves, but other than that, no major problems.  I spend the next few hours plunging into the depths of the Dwarven ruin ferreting out the secret of this mysterious artifact.  The end result is that I get a permanent status effect called Ancient Knowledge that improves my Smithing Skill by 15% and gives me a bonus when wearing Dwarven Armor.  Time well spent.  During this time I also improve my lockpicking skill to 98 and find all kinds of goodies in the various chests and on the bodies of my fallen enemies.

Upon leaving the ruin, I immediately find myself in trouble.  The ground is shaking and there is only one (or two I suppose) reason for that:  Dragon.  An Elder Dragon to be exact and he is right over head.  I pull out my Dragonsbane sword, specially enchanted for killing dragons, and get ready for battle, but before I get the blade unsheathed, I notice that the beast is not after me at all.  It has apparently raised the ire of a passing Giant and is engaging him in battle.  Again, this is one of those ambient moments that make you think that maybe you are looking into a window on a real world.  Wild animals, dragons, giants, and other humans (like bandits) are not just enemies to you; they will in turn attack each other and sometimes have particular axes to grind.  There is one Orc stronghold that is relentlessly beset by Giants.  So occasionally you can get someone or something else to do your bitch work and you can reap the benefits.  In this case, the Giant is taking a pretty good chunk out of the Elder Dragon, which is a good thing.  So instead of barging into the fray, which could get me killed by either or both of them.  I decide to wait out the winner and then take on whichever that might be, hoping that the previous battle will have sufficiently weakened the victor.  It takes a minute, but finally the dragon wins, however it has been pretty severely injured by the Giant and cannot fly.  This makes it easy pickings, so I pull out my bow, crouch in the nearby stand of trees and zip a few arrows toward the dragon.  This gets his attention, but does not kill him, so he turns my way and lets out a blast of frozen breath that slows me down and does some damage.  As I am recovering the dragon is now upon me, so I draw the Dragonsbane and let loose with a power attack!  This just happens to be enough to finish the monster and I am treated to an awesome cutscene of me putting the dragon down.
That's me killing a dragon!
 After relieving the dragon of the two arrows I put into its hide (oh yes you can!) as well as few hundred gold he was packing around and several of his bones and scales, I decide to make my way back home to Riften; after all I have treasure to unload.
Back in Riften, I drop by the house first; since I spent so much time fighting dragons and exploring, it is around 10pm when I get back and the shops are all closed.  Once home, I take a few of the items I picked up and place them in one of my storage chests, a couple of others have new enchantments I need to learn so I take them to my Arcane Enchanting table and deconstruct them to learn their enchantments and while I'm there, add a few enchantments to raise the value of a some items I plan to sell.  Finally, I place a really cool helmet I found, but do not currently plan to wear, on my dressing mannequin for display (I know it's nerdy, but trust me this is so cool).  Housekeeping complete, I hit the sack and sleep until morning.
The shops open around 8am, so I take the things I plan to sell around the various vendors and see who can take which items off my hands.  The shopkeepers do not have bottomless wallets nor does every shopkeeper buy or sell every kind of thing (at least not until you master the art of Speech), so you cannot simply unload everything on one guy. I manage to get rid of most everything and now I have enough money to pay one of the warriors who lives in town to train me in the One-Handed Weapon combat.  Once my training is complete (you just pay and it raises your level) I make my way over to the Temple of Mara, a religious institution in town.  The various temples in Skryim can give you temporary status upgrades that offer various benefits.  After receiving the blessing of the temple, one of the acolytes tells me about a ghost who is wandering the prairie seeking out her lost husband.  The acolyte bids me to find this ghost and help reunite her with her lost love.  Before setting out, however, I need to stop by the Blacksmith and craft myself a new pair of Dragon Gauntlets with the bones and scales I collected, and so the day goes on, you get the idea...

There is so much to do in this game it feels like it will never end, and I guess it really doesn't have to until you literally do every single quest that is offered you and max out every single skill available.  You can spend your time crafting weapons, killing ancient Dragon Priests, you can become a vampire or werewolf, you can raid bandit camps and be the hero of the town, or you can lurk the dark passageways as a lethal assassin.  The game is completely wide open.  Completely.  You can do as little or as much of the main quests as you like.  You can pay as much or as little attention to the world as you like.  The little sample given above doesn't even begin to illustrate just how diverse your experience can be.
Breathtaking views of amazing landscapes!!
And therein also lies Skyrim's biggest appeal:  replayability. I have spent well over 200 hours with this game, I have done countless quests, I have explored as much of the map as I think it possible, I have completed the epic quest, and yet I cannot wait to start the whole game all over again and this time be a totally different character.  Ceolairah is a noble, brave warrior who does what is right and does not take sides in the political upheavals of the world.  She pursues her destiny and helps those in need, living and dying by the edge of her blade, the tips of her arrows, and her unmatched Sneak skill.  I have really enjoyed playing the game with her character.  But next time, I am planning to be a devilish Kajiit (cat-man) who is an rebellious assassin who is an unmatched thief and master of the magical arts.  And I as jazzed about that as if I were starting the game for the first time, maybe more so.

200 hours, people!  Two hundred very, very, very nerdy hours.  I came home early from work, I passed on hanging out with friends, I retreated into my inner nerd just to play this game.  It is that good.  Honestly.  If the game has a downfall, it is the absurd load times and buggy nature that I feel are kind of the trade off for a game this deep.  Those things are annoying, but I was having so much fun and in such awe that I was more than willing to forgive these minor grievances.  If anything the long load times were great bathroom breaks and opportunities to refill my water glass.  You know, the essentials.  Look, I played Skyrim so much I literally dreamed about it...more than once.
Ceolairah at home as the Archmage of Winterhold College

So if you wonder why there haven't been many updates to the blog lately and feared that I had given up, fear not!  I have just been distracted by a very intriguing young lady and her adventures in a snow covered land.  And if you love RPG's even just a little bit, you owe to yourself to give Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim a long look.  Just remember to pick your kids up from school and pay the electric bill, or things could get really tricky...