Sweatin’ to the Newbies

My arms are sore from the video game playing.

That’s right, playing video games has left me with sore arms. How is this possible? Well, Miscellaneous G™ brought his PlayStation 2 over last night, along with his Taiko drum and (more importantly) EyeToy.

After Taiko Drum Master taught me that I am devoid of rhythm, we connected the EyeToy and started fighting ninjas, popping ghosts, spinning plates, washing windows, smacking ratmen and disco dancing. This went on for no less than two hours as we went through all twelve games included on the EyeToy disc.

Clever, clever Sony, disguising exercise as a video game. By the time the last ninja flew off-screen, I was so worn out that I didn’t feel the slightest bit of guilt over not riding my bike after work (which I will do tonight, mark my words). It’s a pity that both the EyeToy and the Taiko drum are exclusive to the PS2, as the games were enough fun that I’d grab Xbox versions in a heartbeat.

Lo-cal weekend wrap

I didn’t ride my bike at all this weekend. Because I suck.

Actually, I woke up with an upset stomach on Saturday morning and the idea of stopping at the side of the bike trail to allow my breakfast an encore appearance didn’t appeal to me at all. So, I called Bob and wimped out on him.

Later in the afternoon, when the sun was high and hot, I was feeling much better, so I decided to punish myself with some yardwork. I spent two hours and change edging, mowing and cleaning up the lawn. This was the first appearance of the edger this summer, ((As an edger, anyway. I used it as a trencher in the spring, when I was trying to define the boundary between lawn and flower bed in the front of the house.)) and it performed its task admirably. The lawn had so encroached on the sidewalk and driveway that I feared the edge could not be found with anything less than a backhoe. Not so. My little Black & Decker EdgeHog tore through grass, weeds and dirt with ease. Or what I thought was ease. My arms later informed me that it wasn’t quite so easy as it seemed.

Sunday afternoon my in-laws had a house-warming party. My mother-in-law, expecting between thirty-five and fifty guests, prepared food for two hundred. She bought two huge meat and cheese trays and at the end of the party the second one was still in the refrigerator, unopened.

In addition to meat trays, there were pasta dishes (Laura made some excellent ground beef and Italian sausage sauce in the crock pot), pizza, breads and dips (including BLT and white pizza dips, both delicious), chips, beans and more. And desserts. Eleven thousand desserts. Blueberry crumble, chocolate cake, cookies, eclairs, cream puffs and lemon bar.

I grazed almost non-stop from 12:45 until 9:00. The food was incredible, the amount I consumed insane.

Vampire the Masquerade: RedemptionAfter Laura and I got home, I waddled went upstairs and installed Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption on my PC. I bought the game immediately after its release but (you guessed it) never finished it. In the twelfth century the noble Crusader, Christof Romauld, is wounded in battle and left in the care of the nuns at a Convent in Prague. Regaining his strength, Christof descends into the silver mine and destroys Ahzra, unholy mistress of the horrors lurking deep within the mine. On returning to Prague, Christof is hailed as a hero, but his travails are far from ended.

Christof finds that he is smitten with Anezka, the lovely nun who nursed him back to health when all others had abandoned hope. Alas, the Archbishop Geza—who clearly lusts after Anezka himself—declares that Christof’s feelings are an affront to the Lord and will damn both him and the young nun. Geza orders Christof to go out and patrol the streets of Prague after dark, an order that is tantamount to a death sentence. After sunset, the streets of Prague are plagued by undead beasts, including vampire servants known as Revenants. None are a match for the powerful Christof, until he meets a vampire more powerful than he imagined possible. By the time I turned off my monitor at 2:30 this morning, Christof had been “embraced” by Ecaterina, leader of the Brujah clan in Prague. Now Christof, who so valiantly battled godless heathens and monstrous creatures in the name of Christianity, is himself an unholy abomination, doomed to walk in darkness for all eternity, feeding on human blood to survive.

So he’s got that going for him.

Destroy a representative sample of humans…

Destroy All Humans (Xbox)Well, it’s time to return Destroy All Humans to Blockbuster. I’ve apparently completed 22% of the game, which is interesting. Why? Well, because I’ve visited three towns in various parts of the United States of America. Nothing even approaching a major metropolitan area, and I haven’t actually destroyed all the humans in any of those towns (yet).

Last I heard, the United States was populated by right around 270 million people, give or take. Suppose that there are 6 billion humans on the planet Earth (that’s probably low-balling it a bit, but I don’t have time to do a full count right now). Even if we inflate the U.S. population to 300 million, wiping out every last human between Canada and Mexico (plus a handful in Alaska and Hawaii and, hell, throw in Puerto Rico, too), that’s still only 5% of the entire planetary populace.

So how can I be 22% of the way through Destroy All Humans? Something doesn’t add up here. Am I meant to destroy every last humanThose pesky Kulku only needed to “process” eight million humans to fulfill their quota. Amateurs. or not?

Y’know what? I bet the answer has to do with exponents. I’ll just bet.

Let the word go forth across the land…

Yea, be it known that I have just this moment finished the best Subway meatball marinara sub that was ever assembled by the hand of Man.

Size: 12″
Bread: wheat
Cheese: American
Toasted: yes
Vegetables: spinach, pickles, lettuces, banana peppers
Condiments: mayonnaise

Even in the early stages of preparation, I could tell that this was to be a special sub. The Sandwich Artist meticulously selected only the ripest, roundest meatballs from the marinara bath, then he placed four slices of cheese atop the beefy spheres at exactly twenty-seven and one half degrees from the horizontal. The sub was then toasted until only the very edges of the bread were lightly crisped and the cheese melted in such a manner as to lovingly embrace the meat orbs.

Then the vegetables were applied. Spinach, the shape and size of which was perfect to a leaf. Aged dill pickles that would reach their peak at precisely the moment I began to consume the sub. Yellow peppers so succulent and tempting as to moisten even the driest of tongues. And the lettuce. Oh, the lettuce. The Bard himself weeps in Heaven, knowing that what he knew of beauty could not compare to this green miracle.

At this point, the sandwich had already far surpassed anything previously created at 6105 Mayfield Road, but it was not yet finished. Oh, no. One more ingredient was necessary to complete this masterpiece. Blended from the freshest egg yolks, the smoothest vegetable oil and the finest vinegar, the mayonnaise transcended traditional notions of flavor. Once the creamy condiment was applied, the assembly of ingredients was transformed into the ne plus ultra of subs.

Yeah.

It was that good.

American Gods

American Gods

The bookmark I’ve been using to keep my place in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a page from the 2001 Mensa Puzzle Calendar. The page is Tuesday, 10 July 2001. This may or may not be the day I originally began reading the book, but it’s probably pretty close. The book was first published in 2001, and I’ve got the hardcoverHardcover books are a pain in the ass to read, especially in bed. After a while, my arms, hands and fingers get tired of holding up the book, so I rarely read more than ten or twenty pages of hardcovers when I’m in bed (I don’t like to read on my stomach). I know the hardcovers look nice on a shelf and all, but paperbacks are simply more convenient. They’re also easier to carry around.. I suppose you could say that I averaged about a hundred and ten pages a year on American Gods, but that would be an oversimplification.

See, I’ve got BADD. I’ll pick up a book today, read fifty pages or so, then buy another book tomorrow and temporarily abandon the old in favor of the new. As a result, my rate of finishing books is pretty sad. At any one time, I’m partway through at least a half-dozen books, if not more.

Sometimes, I can pick up a book I haven’t finished and dive right in where I left off a couple months (or years) ago. Other times, I have to back up a bit, or start all over again. That’s what I did with American Gods a few weeks ago. I picked it up and started from the very beginning.

This afternoon, eating cold lasagna and garlic breadsticks on my lunch hour, I finished the book. I feel inordinately accomplished right now. Not because American Gods was difficult or unpleasant to read, mind you. It’s just that I so rarely complete a book without allowing myself to be distracted by another that when it happens I want to celebrate. Buying The Once and Future King last weekend could very easily have led to the derailment of my Gaiman train”[M]y Gaiman train” is a very suspect phrase. Don’t think about it too much., but it didn’t.

The basic conceit of American Gods is this: as people from far-flung lands emigrated to America in days gone by, they brought their gods (or rather, a copy of their gods), with them. As the great Melting Pot heated up and different cultures blended together, the old gods and their mythology were forgotten. The manifestations of these gods grew bitter as the rites and sacrifices that made them powerful faded into memory and the people of America created new gods of their own, gods of media and technology.

Now, a storm is coming. The gods, old and new, are gathering their numbers to face one another in a great war. The mysterious Mister Wednesday hires an ex-convict named Shadow to aid him in recruiting some of the old gods, and thus begins Shadow’s travels to and from the places of power in America and his encounters with gods, leprechauns, piskies, and a host of other figures from a host of mythologies.

American Gods is dense with strange and wondrous places—from roadside attractions like The House on the Rock to the idyllic little town of Lakeside, Wisconsin—populated with an array of gods, both familiar and foreign. Despite this, the world Gaiman creates seems hollow at times. His descriptions of settings seem to lack detail in some cases, giving the impression of a rough hand-drawing that was never inked or colored. There is also a distinct lack of incidental characters. In motion picture terms, it seems like the director forgot to hire extras to fill the empty seats of the diner where the main characters eat their breakfast.

As a result, when the “real world” is left behind while Shadow walks along the unseen paths travelled by the gods or finds himself moving through a strange dreamscape, the disconnect from reality is incomplete. The world he normally occupies seems so often surreal that these fantastic side trips seem a little less so.

Still, there are times—such as certain moments when Shadow is in Lakeside—when the world seems truly alive and full, and the reader is fully immersed in the richness of the setting. Perhaps Gaiman is painting a more detailed picture with his words, or perhaps the character interactions somehow make the scene more clear. I’m not sure which it is without going back to re-read several chapters.

That hollowness is my only major gripe with American Gods. I found the idea that these gods-made-flesh were walking among us and simply trying to get by in a land where no one prayed, offered sacrifices to or even remembered them to be fascinating. They lead a dull existence, often caught in a monotonous routine, but when Shadow and Wednesday arrive we see glimpses of their former glory that show us just how far they’ve fallen since the days when someone believed in them.

Shadow wanders in a world that doesn’t quite seem like his home. He has lost everything that was important to him and at first he follows Wednesday simply because it’s what he agreed to do. Soon, he finds that he wants some of what has been taken away from him back and seeks to find a way to regain it. The cause seems hopeless, but he pursues it nonetheless. As he pursues his own goal and does the bidding of Mister Wednesday, he eventually learns that his part in the war between old gods and new is much, much more important than he could have guessed.

Shadow is as defined and mysterious as his namesake. On the surface, his motives are simple and clear, his sense of duty and devotion unflagging, yet what truly drives him, what keeps him going when there seems little point in continuing is a slippery eel to catch. He is at once powerful and powerless, engaging and empty, always sympathetic, never cruel. He does what he does because he said he would, yet there is more to the man than simple, mindless persistence. On the surface, Shadow may look like the stereotypical dim-witted muscle, but he’s never anywhere near as dumb as anyone thinks he is.

American Gods turned out to be every bit as good as I thought it would be, and well worth taking the time to read. From start to finish, it is a satisfying story with a few shortcomings that are easy enough to forgive. It’s a book I’d like to read again when I have time to look up each and every location and character and learn more about the role they play and who it was that made them important in their day.

Freedom Force Finished!

Freedom Force vs. The 3rd ReichFreedom Force vs. The 3rd Reich

I just wrapped up Freedom Force vs. The 3rd Reich, which can mean only one thing: the game was too short. I installed it on 01 August, a mere seven days ago and finished it without using cheats, walkthroughs, user forums, or any other assistance. To complete a game in a week is simply unheard of around here. I demand more!

The nice thing about the game is that I can go back and play it through again at a higher difficulty level and/or using different heroes for each of the mission. Before each mission, you assemble your team of four (usually) heroes. Sometimes, certain heroes cannot be selected for one reason or another, and the Freedom Force roster grows as the game progresses. I definitely favor some characters (I use Bullet just about any time he’s available for a mission, El DiabloEl Diablo was the inspiration for one of my City of Heroes characters, Conflagrante. The two have similar powers and ethnic backgrounds, though their origin stories are quite different. is another favorite and Man-Bot is a walking tank) and shy away from others (Mentor is a wimp in the early game, as is Law), so it’d be a challenge to run through the game with characters I don’t normally use.

Though I’ve only had it for a week, Freedom Force vs. The 3rd Reich managed to suck up hours of time at a sitting. The game combines an engaging story with well-developed (yet very familiar) characters and excellent play mechanics.

The story takes place in both the Silver (1956-1974) and Golden (1938-1954Dr. Frederick Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent had a hand in bringing the Golden Age of comics to a close. Wertham blamed comic books for pretty much everything that was wrong with young people in America. The guy would have had a field day with modern video games.) Ages of comic super heroes. In 1962, the heroes of Freedom Force grow restless after the defeat of the Time Master (in the original Freedom Force game). The reappearance of an old enemy sets in a motion a series of events that leads them to travel through time to 1942 in an attempt to stop Germany from winning World War II. The plot is a good blend of Silver and Golden Age storylines, complete with outlandish, stereotypical villains and over-dramatic heroes.

The characters in Freedom Force tend to be interesting and clever versions of one or more classic comic book heroes. Minute Man is a flag-waving Captain America type, complete with a Bucky Barnes-like sidekick named Liberty Lad, while Man-Bot is a cross between Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk. Law and Order are very similar to Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger, and Bullet is the Flash with a southern drawl. Man-o-War is a fishy cross between Aquaman and Sean Connery and Mentor is a hybrid of DC’s Martian Manhunter and Marvel’s Professor X.

This might seem like mere copycatting, but Freedom Force is more an homage than it is a ripoff. The familiarity of the characters is part of how developer Irrational Games managed to capture the feel of classic comics. Everything about the game owes something to those classic comics, and even the load screen for each mission is presented as a comic book cover (price: 12 cents).

Gameplay is fairly straightforward: select a hero and then give him or her a command (run/fly to a location, attack a villain, activate a specific power). The action can get pretty hectic, and the ability to pause the game to issue orders to your heroes is absolutely critical; without it, the game would be pretty much unplayable. Pausing lets you jump from one hero to another, coordinating various aspects of combat to ensure that each super-powered crusader is doing his or her part in the fight for truth, justice, and … well, you know.

All in all, Freedom Force vs. The 3rd Reich is a worthy successor to one of my favorite PC games in recent memory. Everything that made the first game so enjoyable has been preserved and expanded upon. New heroes and villains (complete with new powers) have been added to the mix. The graphics have been updated, though not to such a degree that they lose that Silver Age feel, and the game features the same wonderful, cheesy voice acting as the first installment. My only complaint is that the story was far too short, though I’m hoping that the wide variety of heroes will give it a decent replay value.