Ethereality News & Weblog

February 19, 2013

Dreamfall/The Longest Journey saga continues!

Filed under: Video Games — Rob Chang @ 6:51 am

Finally, after six years of waiting, Dreamfall/The Longest Journey continues! I have never backed a kickstarter project before, until now. How could I not back this project when the intro video had me in tears (of joy)?

Ragnar Tornquist (creator of TLJ saga) is one of those few creators I feel a strong connection to (along with Joss Whedon) because we have such similar sensibilities as storytellers (romantics at heart, but sipping on the elixir of the bittersweet, while soaking in the intoxicating pool of fantasy/sci-fi and have a weak spot for lovable female protagonists). I adored The Longest Journey (my all-time favorite adventure game) when I played it all those years ago, and I really enjoyed Dreamfall. I can’t wait to continue the saga and see how it ends.

While all kickstarter projects have that appeal of supporting the underdog, Dreamfall Chapters is the only one that tugged on my heartstring like no other, because I believe in Ragnar as a creator, and I love the characters and worlds he’s created. But most importantly, it’s because I’ve walked the streets of Stark, seen the wonders of Arcadia, and I long to return to that world.

September 15, 2012

Black Mesa finally released (after seven years)

Filed under: News,Video Games — Rob Chang @ 3:04 pm

Some of you might know that years ago, I was briefly part of the MOD team that worked on the just released Black Mesa MOD. For those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s essentially a remake of the original Half-Life, but completely updated with Source Engine quality visuals, new music, new dialogues, updated graphics and designs for everything (characters, levels, enemies, etc).

Originally, I wanted to compose the score for Black Mesa, but that position was already filled (by the very capable Joel Nielsen). They needed concept art, and although I was already trying to transition into doing music and wasn’t particularly interested in doing concept art anymore, I agreed to help out with concept art because Half-Life was the game that turned me into a hardcore gamer, and as a fan I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

I was only on the Black Mesa team briefly as concept artist. At the time, I was working full-time as the studio art director at iWin, and I was also composing the score for Galactic Melee in my free time. Later I moved from California to China and had to focus on designing and constructing our new home, as well as my new music production studio. I just couldn’t devote any time to Black Mesa, so I had to quit.

Anyway, it was just released today, and I immediately downloaded it as soon as I woke up, and I’ve now played up to the point where one of the scientists told Gordon the soldiers are coming to rescue them (those of you who understand what that means, are snickering right now). So far, it’s been an interesting mix of nostalgia and new discoveries. I can’t really think of an apt analogy, because this isn’t like watching the remake of a movie, a screen adaptation of a book, listening to a cover song, or reading a book based on a movie or game franchise. I’m really enjoying all the additional dialogues and the updated levels, as well as the drastically improved visuals. I currently busy as hell (teaching the current run of Becoming A Better Artist workshop, as well as dealing with our upcoming move back to California, not to mention a bunch of backed up blog posts, photography to edit, and the novels I’m writing), but I’ll try to make time to finish Black Mesa.

I doubt anyone besides fans of the original Half-Life really cares, which is fine, because the reason Black Mesa was created in the first place was to pay tribute to the original game, while contributing something new to it by upgrading it to the standard that the Source engine is capable of. I do hope some of the younger/newer gamers who’s never played the original Half-Life will try it though; after all, it is one of the best games ever created, and Black Mesa improves upon it in every way, except for the voice acting. The soldiers are especially bad; they sound like silly cartoon versions of what uninformed people think special forces operators sound like, and the dialogues for the soldiers are some of the worst I’ve ever heard in gaming in a long time. But to be fair, so many big commercial releases get this wrong too–the NPC enemies say some of the dumbest things to you when you fight them in battles. What is it with bad writing and fight scenes?

Originally, Black Mesa started because people were disappointed by Valve’s release of Half-Life Source, which was nothing like what the name suggests (it used the Source engine, but almost everything about it was pretty much identical to the original–nothing was really updated except for some physics that Source allowed). That was how the seed was planted, and now, seven years later, Black Mesa fulfills the promise of what Half-Life Source should have been.

June 29, 2012

GPS and used car

The next run of the Becoming A Better Artist workshop has sold out again, and we’re going to allow five more students to squeeze in before we cut off enrollment, so hurry if you want to make it to the July run of the workshop.

Ever since I started using a GPS back around 2005, I couldn’t live without one. I’ve become completely dependent on the GPS–not just for driving direction, but to search for nearby shops, parking, gas station, etc, or even to mark where I parked my car so I could find it later if I forget where I parked.

The previous unit we used was a Magellan RoadMate 860T, and it was nicknamed affectionately as our “Guide Dog.” It wasn’t the best GPS–it had trouble tracking whenever we were in a city with large trees or tall buildings blocking it’s direct line-of-sight to the GPS satellites up in orbit. Now in 2012, the seven year-old 860T has been discontinued, and I can’t even buy an updated map for it, so I decided to upgrade.

After doing much research (reading online reviews, and watching Youtube videos demonstrating/comparing different models), I ended up using my iPhone as an GPS, and I have to say, despite my initial skepticism, the iPhone turned out to be an excellent GPS–much better than the RoadMate 860T we used previously.

The top three GPS apps on the iPhone seems to be Tom Tom:

Navigon (now owned by Garmin):

and Magellan:

All three happen to be the three biggest hardware GPS companies on the market. Garmin has its own GPS app called StreetPilot, but since Garmin bought Navigon, I would have to assume Garmin wasn’t feeling very secure in the quality of their own GPS app.

After trying out all three, I settled on Magellan’s app, because it has the features I preferred, such as the audio signal for when you should be making turns, the fast one-touch menu, and more updated POI (Points-Of-Interest) when I tried searching for restaurants and stores nearby.

I used to rely on the audio direction a lot, but now that I’m also using my iPhone as a jukebox while driving, the constant automatic raising and lowering of the music’s volume whenever audio directions are given, got a bit annoying. After trying the GPS without the voice/audio guidance, I realized I really didn’t need it. The visual cues are more than clear enough, and if I was paying attention while driving like I should, there’s no reason to need to voice/audio guidance.

The Tom Tom app is also very good, although at the time when I tested it, the POI search wasn’t as up-to-date as the Magellan app.

Navigon is actually my favorite in terms of GUI design, but it takes forever to bootup every time, so I won’t even consider it.

The amount of data these GPS apps use while navigating is very little, because they come with the maps already installed, so you don’t have to stream the map like some of the cheaper or free GPS apps do. I think a solid month’s of usage only added up to a couple hundred megabytes of data. The Magellan app also allows you to navigate even if cellular data is turned off, while Tom Tom and Navigon both require that you have cellular data turned on.

I got the iOttie One-Touch Dashboard Car Mount for the iPhone, and it works perfectly.

It even has a gel-type suction cup that works on the textured surface of the dashboard, instead of only on the smooth surface of the glass.

I especially like how all the GPS apps I mentioned have iPod integration, allowing you to control the iPod app right from within the GPS app. This makes it easy to skip and pause the music without having to switch to the iPod app. These apps also have pedestrian mode, so you use them while walking instead of driving. I also really like how I can search a POI and then can just call up the place right from inside the GPS app–very convenient. If someone calls you while you’re using the GPS app, it’ll allow you to accept or decline the call, and you can even keep the GPS app running while talking (of course, using a Bluetooth headset is highly recommend, or at least use the stock earbud with the microphone and volume button built right into the earbud wire).

There’s no way I’m going back to dedicated GPS apps, or the criminally expensive in-dash GPS that comes as options for cars. Spend less, get more, and have a GPS like right in your iOS device. An easy choice if you ask me.

If you’ve ever dealt with used car salesmen, you know just how rare it is to find one that didn’t reek of the sleazy “Hey, TRUST ME, I won’t lie to ya!” aura. Well, I had the pleasure of meeting the very first used car saleman who didn’t give off that vibe (and I’ve met many). In fact, he was such a pleasure to do business with because he was honest, sincere, courteous, and not pushy. It helps that he was quite young–only twenty years-old, and was studying at the university when his family business needed his help.

The kid’s name is Alex, and the fact he didn’t naturally gravitate towards selling cars as a vocation (he tried to avoid it) was probably a factor. He also had his own personal moral code that he brought with him to the used car sales business, and it’s very obvious when you talk to him. I felt like I was talking to an enthusiastic, friendly, and honest college kid instead of a jaded, slick, veteran jackal what was just waiting to empty my wallet. I also had a chat with his uncle while there (it’s a family business), and he seemed like a nice fellow too.

If you are looking for a used car and live in the Sacramento area, I highly recommend you talk to Alex, at Sacramento Auto Sales Center Inc.

Oh, and I ended up buying a 1997 Lexus ES300 from him. It’s going to be our temporary ride until our new home closes ESCROW, and my lender allows me to finance a new car (we’re buying a house in Lincoln, California). I put a new Pioneer CD Receiver in the Lexus (the stock CD changer was broken), and with the auxiliary audio input and my iPhone as the jukebox, I think this 15-year old Lexus is actually a pretty comfortable ride. I might even hold off on getting a new car if the Lexus remains problem-free for a few more years.

I finally finished Mass Effect 3, and overall, it was my least favorite of the trilogy. It was the least satisfying in many ways, and had the most WTF moments where you wanted to reach out and smack the game designers/writers. Along with Dragon Age II, I keep feeling like these two games marked the downward spiral of the Bioware we’ve known and loved. It’s very easy to just point a finger at EA and say it’s their fault, and why shouldn’t we? After all, it was after EA acquired Bioware that these recent problems with Bioware games began.

My main issues with ME3 were:

-The Geth and Quarian dilemma felt contrived, as if the writers forced a situation that didn’t feel logical or natural, just to create some kind of dramatic tension.

-The bad voice acting of Jessica Chobot and the old man after the credits really stuck out among the much better voice acting of the rest of the cast. In fact, that reporter character was completely unnecessary and probably shoved into the game as some kind of marketing gimmick.

– The ending sucked. There are countless discussions and articles about this on the web already, so I’m not going to say more–other than that I agree with the people who were pissed off about the ending.

– The Allusive Man’s entire storyline was predictable from the first moment to the last. Was it ever a mystery to anyone that he was indoctrinated? (No, I’m not going to make a spoiler warning about this–if you have half a brain then you’d already guessed from the very beginning that’s what’s happening with the whole Ceberus situation.)

So did I like anything about ME3? Sure. I thought EDI’s storyline was great, and the budding romance with Joker was cute. I enjoyed the combat, and some of the bantering between characters, like when Garrus and James were having their combat experience pissing contest, or when Garrus got me onto the roof of the Citadel and we had our own sharpshooting pissing contest. There were other storylines that I enjoyed. If only the overall framework of ME3’s narrative didn’t have glaring problems, it would have been a solid conclusion to the trilogy.

BTW, this is what my Shepard looked like this time around:

Quickie movie reviews:

Game of Thrones (season 2) One of my favorite shows on TV currently (along with Madmen, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and The Office). I had decided after watching season one that I wasn’t going to read the books and ruin my enjoyment of the TV show. There are tons of other fantasy series I could read that don’t have TV shows or movies being made for them, and I don’t see why I can’t go on enjoying the TV show without any preconceived notions, and read other fantasy series in the meantime.

Season two was just as intriguing as season one, and ended on one hell of a cliffhanger–especially for a huge zombie fan like me.

What I love about Game of Thrones is that you like all the characters, regardless if they are villains or heroes, kind or cruel, smart or stupid. The only character that’s so impossible to like for me is Joffrey–God I want to rip his head off his neck and drop kick it into a pool of lava.

While watching an episode, Elena, who’s been working hard on learning English, suddenly turned to me with a pout and said, “I just want my dragons back.” I was so proud.

Capitalism: A Love Story – There’s nothing in this film you don’t already know if you are educated about modern global economics. If you’ve seen a Michael Moore documentary, then you already know there’s always going to be emotionally manipulative scenes involving one of his predictable, mawkish antics. His messages are never bad–but how he delivers them is what irritates his critics.

Cop Out – This kevin Smith-directed cop buddy comedy had some surprisingly funny scenes, and it’s actually surprising how he finally got a handle on directing after all these years (whereas previously, he was more like a funny writer who did an half-ass job on directing). Red State, the movie he made after Cop Out, also displayed far better directing chops compared to his previous movies.

Baraka – Visually stunning, and there’s a sort of vague visual narrative involving various aspects of our civilization and our relationship with Mother Nature. It’s not the kind of movie you watch for a plot–it’s more like images and sound that form an abstract emotional response that has a defined theme. Definitely not for people who must have explosions in their movies, or don’t have the mental capacity to observe and contemplate on a philosophical level.

Bridesmaids – Hilarious, gross-out bromance movie, but with female characters instead.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher remake) – I have seen the original Swedish version, and thought it was pretty good. although the plot-twist was already spoiled for me, I wanted to see how Fincher would tell the same story. Despite the inconsistent tone of the opening credits that has almost nothing to do with the actual movie stylistically, I enjoyed Fincher’s version. I think Rooney Mara is a better Lisbeth than Noomi Rapace, and I actually enjoyed the fact that Fincher humanized her more in his version, which is more in-tune with the book, whereas in the Swedish version of the movie, Lisbeth was colder and less relatable.

Columbiana – The critics ripped this movie apart, and I didn’t think it was that bad. There are plenty of really idiotic and badly made movies that critics have given higher scores to. Those of you who liked The Professonal/Leon and La Femme Nikita might enjoy this, although it’s not on the same level.

Act of Valor – It’s not a very good movie at all, with wooden acting (by real SEAL operators) and mediocre screenplay, but if you are a fan of special forces and want something that’s realistic and true to how the operators really do their thing in the field, then this is for you.

John Carter – Very disappointing. The story was so compressed, that the characters were switching motivations with lightening speed, instead of actually portraying a credible, logical arc that’s shaped by events and internal struggles. The premise itself is also very dated by today’s standards–sci-fi/fantasy has marched on miles ahead by now, with far more sophistication and inventiveness. The John Carter legacy should have been left in the realm of classic pulp novels. The fact that the literary superstar, Michael Chabon wrote the screenplay, only makes it even more depressing. I honestly expected far more from a Pulitzer and Hugo award winning writer.

Space Battleship Yamato – Another disappointment. It was juvenile, simple-minded, illogical, and stuffed to the brim with insufferable, maudlin melodrama. Compared to the recent reboot and reimaginings by Hollywood, it’s very primitive in every way–be it storytelling, special effects, acting, or directing.

Gantz / Gantz: Perfect Answer – I hate to sound like such a sourpuss, but these were yet another disappointment. Over the years I’ve gotten very disappointed by how shallow and juvenile the whole anime/manga world has become–it’s nothing like the stuff I grew up with. Gantz and its sequel, Perfect Answer, are basically just another situation where a mangaka with no real understanding of storytelling foundations lucks out and makes it big because of the juvenile action and gratuitous nudity he includes in his manga, then the manga is adapted into anime and live-action movies. Like so many other Japanese sci-fi movies, it’s mainly just an exercise in style-over-substance, and whatever little substance it has, is quite simplistic and shallow.

21 Jump Street – Although the comedic take on the famed TV series is a refreshing reimagining, the movie itself was just okay. It’s got a few good laughs but nothing near the level of an “instant classic” like some of better comedies in recent years.

Safe House On its own, it’s a decent action/thriller, although you can’t help but compare it to the Bourne trilogy. As soon as you do that, Safe House becomes just an inferior imitator. The acting is really good though, and that’s to be expected from the caliber of the two leads.

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