Monday, November 13, 2006

Gears of Joy

This past Saturday I picked up Gears of War for the XBOX 360 and had a gaming session that didn't end 'til I finished it early Sunday. I really haven't done that with a videogame since the weekend Halo 2 debuted a couple of years ago, since guilt kicks in whenever I spend over an hour or so on a game console. I had no such guilt during the play time of Gears, however, and felt oddly accomplished and relieved once I was done with it. I really have to allot more time to the playing of videogames as my game pile grows larger and larger as the days pass. There's just so much other stuff to get done... *sigh*

I won't go too much into the tech aspects of the game as you can read about that on any online gaming site, other than to say it's probably the best looking game yet on the 360 and is a great showcase for my HDTV and 6.1 surround sound setup.

Yeah, the visuals and sound are amazing, but it's the gameplay that kept me going hour after hour. Although it plays somewhat like a 1st person shooter, like Halo or Call of Duty, Gears is in 3rd person, where you can see Marcus, your futuristic soldier, in front of you at all times. As such, the camera hangs behind you, as was done in Resident Evil 4, and is very fluid - it bobs and sways with your movements, and tilts at a low perspective when you run, giving it an amazingly cool CNN War Coverage/Black Hawk Down effect. Also the 1st person "run and gun" mentality must be replaced with one of the "stop and pop" variety. Basically, if you go out guns blazing, you'll be mowed down by Locust (the baddies) fire soon after. No, you'll need to make use of every boulder, car husk, burned-out sofa and concrete slab you can take cover behind, and wait for a break in enemy fire before you can reveal yourself, take aim and blow some aliens away. Then dash out and gain ground to another bit of cover, pause, and more shooting, until the area's cleared. I found this "stop and pop" action to be a lot of fun, and it didn't bore me the way more traditional shooters do after awhile. It was a little more strategic, a little more methodical, and a little more dramatic.

One area this game doesn't touch Halo in, is the story. I'd listened to podcasts of the developer, Cliffy B., talk about how he was inspired for this game by non-typical movies such as Schindler's List, American History X and Se7en, rather than the expected Aliens and Terminator movies. I took this to mean that the story would be inspired by these movies as well, not just the visuals, and the awesome, epic, emotional nature of that "Mad World" trailer before the game's launch continued those expectations, but really, that inspiration really only pertains to the visuals, and mood, here and there. Not a bad thing, I suppose, but I was expecting more than a "B" 80s action movie plot, with dialog to match. I was pretty sick of big dudes swearing constantly and yelling, "Let's do this!!!" by the end of the game. Yeah, there is a little back story to be gleaned from the dialog in places, but not much. I'm glad I picked up the Limited Edition version of the game that comes with a tin case, since an included "making of" DVD and a pretty cool little book, "Destroyed Beauty" flesh out the story a bit more. Overall though, the narrative could've used a lot of work, and could've made a great game truly awesome. As it is, I'm not as interested in a Gears of War sequel as I should be.

Other than the story and dialog though, the game gets just about everything else right. The gameplay, sound, visuals and atmosphere are just amazing and I recommend Gears highly to anyone who loves shooters and action games. The single player mode is on the short side (8-10 hours on the normal, "Casual" setting) but the game's good enough to make me want to go back and play it again on the "Hardcore" setting. I'll definitely play it co-op with friends in the near future, and I haven't really even touched the multiplayer yet. For me to want to go back and play a game again speaks highly of it, as that unplayed pile of gaming taunts me still...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Octoberfest II

Continuing my last post's recounting of my Halloween celebrations last month.

The day after going to Universal Studios (again), Mike and I drove down to Anaheim for Knott's Scary Farm's Halloween Haunt. This has been a tradition with Mike and I for about 16 years now. We used to drive down, wait with a huge mass of people for the park to open, then squeeze through the metal detectors and wait in long lines to get through the mazes and rides. Now, since we're both a little older and have better paying jobs, we buy a package deal which nets us: a commemorative shirt; hotel stay; spooky dinner; early park entry. We usually get to the hotel early and take a nap or Mike watches the college football games while I play portable videogames, then go down to the buffet and walk to the park to get in about an hour early. We hit all the mazes and rides we can before the rest of the people get in, then hit the shows and round off the night with funnel cake. This year wasn't much different except our room wasn't ready so we took naps on the couches of the hotel lobby and I played some DS while Mike went to the bar to watch the game. Knott's is definitely the best when it comes to these theme park Halloween events, and this year didn't disappoint.

The next Saturday was when the Halloween parties went into full swing. This time I was with Michael Cornacchia, and our first stop was for friend Mark Reilly's 4th Annual Spooktacular at his place in Hollywood. Mark threw the party with his roommates and girlfriend, Stacy. Costume was mandatory and since I hadn't preconceived one, I went with my old standby: The Crow. Since I'm half white, half Asian, and my hair's long at the moment, I really didn't have any other choice -- I mean, I barely even need makeup. When we got there at around 10:30pm, the party was already in full swing, with Greatest American Heroes, Nacho Libres and Nintendo characters spilling out of the house and onto the lawn. The place was packed and it took many minutes to get through the living room to the kitchen to drop off beer and pick up some taquitos. Some partygoers went all out on their costumes - my favorites of which were Mario and Luigi, although seeing Mario downing a Bud and Luigi burning through a Parliament dulled the magic a bit.










After some taquitos and alcohol, we left the Spooktacular and made our way over to La Cienega in West Hollywood for the Southern Discomfort - A Sinister Soiree party hosted by Michael's brother, Chris Cornacchia and friends' Amy, Bevin, Charity and Ronya among others. They rented the House of Petals venue, dressed the place up in "devilish decor", had a dj pumping tunes, and invited a ton of people, all in costume for the event. When we first arrived and were let through the gate, the first people I bumped into were the awesome couple, K.P. and B.Lee - fully decked out in Matrix gear, playing dodge ball with a team of guys wearing Dodge Ball (the movie) uniforms. Not sure who won, but it was fun to watch. Mike and I hung for awhile, then walked down a few blocks to Norms and got breakfast.

The day after, I met Fig and a couple of his friends, Heidi and Erin, down in Long Beach to check out, *deep breath*, Queen Mary's ShipWreck 12th Annual Halloween Terror Fest. I hadn't been to the Queen Mary's Halloween event in a long time, probably at least 5 years or more, so I was happy to see they've upped their game since the last time I was there. They had four mazes on the ship and three off, with a big dance party in the "Dome of Doom" where the Spruce Goose used to be housed. They could still do a lot more with it, but since winding your way through the dark bowels of the Queen Mary is already pretty creepy, I found it to be fun, even when a monster followed us out of the ship to get me in trouble for taking pictures in the maze. Management wanted me to go back to the car to drop the offending piece of gear off, until I played dumb and pulled my Treo out, which they found to be "maze safe", since it didn't have a flash.

A couple of days later on the 31st, when Halloween finally came around, I drove to Valencia for Mike's (my brother-in-law) and my annual, Mr. Spooky's Haunted House for the kiddies in the neighborhood. Every year we make the garage of his house into a creepy den of evil, complete with skeletons, strobe lights, fog and sound effects. I play Mr. Spooky, a 2000 year old disembodied spirit who teases and taunts the kids into entering our terrifying domain in search of candy. Mike and I usually get loaded outside while my sister (his wife) makes tons of food for family and friends inside. It's always a good time and I hung out there until about 10:30pm when I left to go meet up with some friends who were partying in West Hollywood. Unfortunately, by the time I made it out of the Valley, the area around WeHo was so completely packed with people and cars, it took me what felt like hours to get even close to the neighborhood. By the time I made it to my apartment, my friend Mitch was already passed out back at her place and my other friends were wrapping up their festivities.

That night I slept quite soundly, content in the knowing that Halloween was behind me. I had a great October, and loved hanging with friends and partying, and dressing in costume, and eating candy, but enough. Seriously. At least until next year.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Octoberfest

Well, yet another Halloween has come and gone and all I want to do is to curl up in a ball and sleep for a week. There's only so much Halloween fun I can take and I reached my limit about a week before October 31st even got here.

The festivities started the first week of October when my brother-in-law Mike and I went to Magic Mountain's Fright Fest in Valencia. My sister Laura, and friends Elena, Steve, Don and Debbie also came along for the scares. This event is usually a good warmer-upper to the Halloween season as Magic Mountain generally doesn't have a lot of scary stuff to check out which means you can get through the whole park pretty quickly. In that way, this year did not disappoint. However, in lieu of there being few scares via mazes or spectacles, we usually take to the roller coasters to fill the time, which, this year, were either not working (as was the case with Tatsu, which broke down after we had stood in line for 40 minutes) or understaffed (as was the case with The Riddler's Revenge, which took over an hour to ride as it seemed they only had one car going on the tracks at a time). Overall, lame. Although I'm sure we'll be back next year.

The following Friday I went to Universal Studio's Halloween Horror Nights with friends Kurtis, Kellie and Mitch. Kurtis had won the tickets by calling in to local radio station KROQ (I heard his call. Didn't realize it was him) so we all got in for free. We huddled in a light, misty rain, with the other KROQ people before being herded onto a tram (MC'd by KROQ DJ Psycho Mike and a Universal employee) which took us directly into the park, allowing us to bypass the entry crowds. Cool.

The tram ride was decidedly PG-13 as we were regaled with True Hollywood Stories of a young starlet throwing herself off the Hollywood Sign, an actress being eaten by a starving pet after a fatal bender, and an Old Hollywood Star being killed with a black dildo forced down his throat. These more mature stories were told only to us KROQ folk, as we soon found out an hour or so later as we were waiting in line for The Mummy ride. For some reason, known only to him, Kurtis suddenly turned to an African American couple behind us and asked, "So, on the tram ride, did they tell you about Ramon Navarro being killed by the black dildo being shoved down his throat?" I don't remember the couple saying anything. They just exchanged nervous glances and tried to ignore the question. Kurtis pressed on. "Did they? Because on our tram they told us about this BLACK dildo that killed this guy." One of them shook their head "no," slowly at this point, obviously trying to get the crazy man to drop the subject. "Seriously. A BLACK DILDO." Kurtis then turns back to a horrified Kellie, Mitch and me. "Right guys? Remember the BLACK DILDO!?" I look at him like I have no idea what he's talking about and say, "Noooo," quietly. Kurtis then tries to get Kellie and Mitch to back him up. "Tell them! The BLACK DILDO!!!" It's at this point that the line starts moving and the three of us turn from Kurtis and just walk away.

After The Mummy, someone had the bright idea to go on the Jurassic Park water ride, and for some reason, it sounded like a good idea at the time. Now, to make it scary, Universal decided to turn off all the lights during the ride, which made the whole thrill of seeing animatronic dinosaurs a completely futile endeavor. I could hear them and get splashed by them, I just couldn't see them. They might as well have sat us all on a waterbed in a dark room for five minutes since the experience would've been the same. Until the drop at the end, that is. For those that haven't been on the ride, you're basically in a large boat that goes by harmless Brachiasaurs and Hadrosaurs, all the while being spit at and chased (kinda) by Dilophosaurs, Raptors and a big Tyrannosaur. At the end, you must escape the Jurassic Park complex by plummeting down a big chute, at the bottom of which you get splashed by water. Unfortunately, I didn't get splashed so much as drenched. And it was cold out. And I was wearing layers of clothing that took a long time to dry. And I had friends that were pointing and laughing and taking pictures (Mitch!!!).

We all got kinda bored with the park soon after, exited and had drinks and dessert at the Hard Rock on CitiWalk. Fun.

A week later, I found myself back at Universal Studios again, this time with Mike. The tram ride was better than the previous week, due to Universal putting some scripted scary elements outside the tram that weren't there the first time, even if the banter from our guide was strictly PG. No mention of BLACK dildos this time around, and I really didn't miss it.

It wasn't too crowded and Mike and I got through all the mazes, rides and shows pretty quickly. I think we entered the park between 7 and 8pm, and were done by 11:30pm. Universal really doesn't do too much to the park to transform it into a "Horror Night" and while better than Magic Mountain, it's just kinda mediocre.

This was going to be a quick post, but it has gotten to be much less so. I gotta go and vote though, so I'll post this up now and finish the rest later. Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion of Octoberfest - I promise not to mention dildos, BLACK or otherwise, for at least a couple of weeks.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

My Bad

Sorry I haven't blogged in awhile. I'm not sure why it's been so long. I have lots to write about; tons of changes going on, I just haven't been typing the words. Weird. I'll have to rectify that immediately.

I'm sure I've lost some readers during this unscheduled hiatus over the past few weeks, so thanks for sticking with me if you're still reading this. I promise to post again and be back to regularly scheduled programming very soon.