Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Jollys' Mix 2009, Disc 5

Wasn't planning on doing this... I had some new songs from a CD swap I took part in through the NaNoWriMo forums (which three people backed out of after receiving their CD...) and some new stuff kicking around... turns out I had more than I thought.

A lot of stuff not on the previous mixes, so it's kinda fresh. Not all brand-new stuff, but that's not always the case anyway.

The usual disclaimer: I'm not selling this. If you want it, get the songs yourself and build it yourself. I don't own the copyright to any of these songs, I only burn these mixes to have good CDs with a high killer:filler ratio (the latter figure being as close to zero as possible).

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Failed NaNoWriMo

As promised at the end of October, I said I was going to write a novel for National Novel Writing Month. 50,000 words in 30 days. 50,000 words is about 175 pages, or how long "The Great Gatsby" and "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" are. 40,000 words a novel does make (so I've heard), but 50,000 is a more well-rounded number, I suppose. That works out to 1,667 words a day, which sounds like a lot, but is really no more than a solid 2 hours of typing.

The site features a word count tracker I used daily to update my word count. I wrote in Firefox, actually (yes, the web browser) in a personal wiki. I would then copy the text to a text editor, which did the word counting.

I stayed ahead of the daily quota for the first half of the month. At home, my computer's power supply gave out, so I had to do all of my writing at work. Then, they had me babysitting rookies at work, including one who refused to do anything but look over my shoulder, so I actually got next to zero writing time for the whole last third of the month. The following chart shows my daily quotas, and you can see where not having a computer at home and people hovering over the one at work nearly halted my progress. Still, I wrote when I could, and finished November at 40,090 words.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

New on Freeware has begun distributing freeware apps in addition to open source apps on their site. Today: Skype and Chrome (and others). Coming soon... a whole lot more.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

You weren't planning to sleep any time soon, right?


Fun blog I found somewhere, they post scary stories and creepy images.

For the past, however long I've been online, I've been collecting pictures that are basically creepy to downright scary. The most effective one I have is actually one of my mother making a face. Out of respect, I don't post it, but I think anybody who saw it would agree that it is scary.

This will be my first blog entry with a jump break.  If you don't want to get the bloody wits scared out of you, don't click "Read More".  On the other hand, if you're feeling brave, go ahead and do so now.

I dare you to try this (NaNoWriMo)

I dare you to try this.

Write a novel. Well, a novella. 50,000 words. Works out to about 175 pages in MS Word.

In 30 days.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cell phone wallpapers #2: Space & Nature

A week ago, I posted some cell phone wallpapers I made.  I won't explain again how to use them; refer back to that other post for instructions.  Or, contact me.  HowardForums is the best resource on the Net for asking for help on phones of any kind; I can really only help with Motorola phones (not smartphones) with a USB connection and/or a microSD card slot.  Anyway, here is Series 2 of my wallpapers for cell phones, focusing on space and nature.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Warning for Amazon customers buying online Microsoft Points

Just thought I'd throw this out there.

If you make a new account, register your credit/debit card, and expect to buy an Online Game Code for Microsoft Points, you're sorely mistaken. will charge your credit card and then withhold the code for "up to four hours".

Friday, October 9, 2009

DLC Week of 13 Oct. 09 - Brütal Legend

This week's a slow week leading up to QUEEN the following week, but there are a few gems in there, depending on what you like. One each by Motörhead, Tenacious D, and Testament from the Brütal Legend soundtrack, one by Black Tide, one by blink-182, two live tracks by Kansas, and one by L7. Oh yeah, I forgot. And two by Joe Satriani. Yes, you read that right. Joe Satriani is bringing his unique brand of guitar pwnage to Rock Band.

Let's have a closer look at the songs, shall we? Click the name of the song to find the best YouTube video I could find for that song.

Blog update: Links, Twitter, no MySpace

Did a little housekeeping on the blog page today and yesterday.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Cell phone wallpapers #1: Trippy

I've been doing cell phone wallpapers for a while, ever since my last phone let me make my own. I'll never pay for another one, since the first and last one I paid for was of pretty low quality. It was a Mustang, I think (the car, not the horse), and when I was able to make my own, I made a few better ones. For free. Now on this phone, I haven't even got one Mustang wallpaper (yet my Xbox 360 profile has the free 2010 Mustang theme).

My wallpapers are formatted for my phone and I'm not offering them in other resolutions. Motorola RAZR/ROKR wallpapers only need to be an aspect ratio of 5:4 in Portrait format, so that's pretty much the only standard I follow. These wallpapers look great on my ROKR slider, and they look better on my wife's RAZR 3 or whatever it is. The flip with the touch screen on the outside that only does like, 2 things. It's a flip, it's basically worthless, but I do gotta say, the screen is sharper. Battery only lasts like half as long, so who cares?

Anyway, here they are. This isn't the whole collection, but it's a start. I'll post a few more later. To use them, click on them to open the full sized image, and then right-click that, and choose Save Image As.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Found something to agree with FOX News on

Normally, I tend to disagree with much that is on FOX News. It's not hard to do really; the network favors the rich, powerful, and white minority of this country so much they don't even try to hide their distaste for the rest of us anymore. And it tears them up, it kills them that a black man was elected President of this country. However, slanted as they may be (fair and balanced, my ass), there is truth to be found in what they say, you just have to look for it. Sometimes when I'm watching the news, I'll watch their channel a little bit, it's not terrible. I just don't agree with a lot of it.

But this I do. I've been following the capture of Chinatown director Roman Polanski in the news. I heard about this story a few years ago on the Net, and never really had an opinion on it. Way back in '77, this guy rapes a 13-year-old girl and flees the country, hiding in France, which doesn't extradite violent criminals to the United States. As the victim got older, she urged the charges to be dropped, I suppose to get on with her life. Now, 32 years after the crime, he's been caught in Switzerland, and may very well be returned to the States to face the music.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Stupid people do stupid things...

...and then blame others for their stupidity. It's sad, really. I have two stories courtesy of our local NBC affiliate, WITN, which show people doing incredibly stupid things most of us would not think twice about, and they're looking for anyone to blame but themselves.

This first one should be an easier sell than the next one. Down in Florida (surprise surprise) a teacher spiked her soda with hot sauce. The parents of the kid who stole the soda are all upset. I suppose it would do to point out that the kid is autistic. OK, he has a learning ability. OK, the teacher knew he'd steal the soda, which is why she spiked it. Still, hot sauce never killed anybody. And still, if he hadn't stolen the soda, he wouldn't have gotten - wait, the kid wasn't even harmed. He was embarrassed. That's it. Anyway, this actually went to trial, and she was found guilty, and faces up to five years in jail. And in 10 years when this kid's legal, he'll be behind bars because, first, his parents taught him it was OK to steal, and the system taught him that if you try to protect your stuff from getting stolen, you can do some serious time even if nobody gets hurt. Freakin' stupid.

Might not be able to convince those of you who have kids, but a couple down in Arizona took some nudie pictures of their kids - three young daughters, it says, ages aren't given - and then tried to develop the pictures at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart called the FBI, I suppose, and the state brought them up on charges, and took their kids. Now they are countersuing the state as well as Wal-Mart for defamation and some other crap. First of all, naked pictures of kids are contraband in the United States, with some exceptions given. Typically parents are allowed a few of their own kids, up to a certain age. Usually a judgment call is made at the photo counter. But it is the policy of any photo lab - and I worked at one, so I know this firsthand - to call the FBI for pictures including any child nudity, and then they make the call. (There is another number for bestiality photos.) Now, I know anyone, say 15 or older, knows their parents have naked pictures of them. It's a given. My mom even sent my wife a couple. Insert eye-rolling emoticon here. But let's be serious. People know that crimes against kids have risen in the last 15-20 years. It's all over the news. More people are aware, and more people are sensitive to rights people never attributed to kids before. And one of those rights is the right to not be photographed in the nude. Pictures don't get lost or disappear anymore. Did I mention that they used a digital camera? They could have printed these pictures at home. Digital cameras are the new Polaroids, they're great for those taboo sex pictures and videos you don't want to take to a lab to get developed. They could have emailed those pictures to all their family members and the FBI likely would never have found out. But no, they took them to Wal-Mart. So they got caught, got busted. But rather than plead their case, they're suing. First of all, Wal-Mart is in the clear. They did their job. They did what they were supposed to do. Now, the state may have overreacted. I don't know. But I'm pretty sure these people aren't going to win their lawsuit. Then again...

Anyway, if you look through the comments on those articles, I post as "Nathan" from "Eastern NC". I pretty much said what I said here, just in 1000 characters or less per comment.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dexter Season 4 teaser, other season premieres

Even if you don't know what Dexter is/all about, have a look at the trailer for Season 4 or just watch it right here. Pretty damn cool.

The Wikipedia article is full of spoilers but will tell you more than you ever wanted, let alone needed, to know.

Long story short, Dexter Morgan is a forensics analyst for the Miami police, and a serial killer by night. Trained by his father, a veteran cop in the same department (but now deceased), to kill anonymously without the cops being able to figure out who did it. His sister's also a cop, but doesn't know about his secret. Through his sister, he met a woman he's dating now, who was abused by her husband. Dexter only kills bad guys, people who have escaped justice somehow. He researches them, using illegal methods, to be 100% sure they are guilty before killing them. The show is seasonal, with each season being a complete story. Seasons 2 and 3 were sequels, not a continuation, of the first season. So it isn't necessary to watch all the seasons, but it does help with back story, and it's neater. Still, Seasons 1-3 were all good.

In other news, Jen and I watched the House Season 6 premiere, and that was really good. The ending could have been better (not to spoil anything, but I was hoping he'd spend the whole season institutionalized - whoops, I guess that was a bit of a spoiler) but the first part was very, very good. I'll have to watch it again, maybe I'll get more out of it. Personally, I'm waiting for another Doctor - more accurately, a Time Lord - the fifth season of the Doctor Who reboot should be starting early 2010, but we have two more specials - a Halloween special, and a Christmas special, before season 5 begins properly. And LOST will begin its sixth and final season soon. I'm just at the end of Season 3, so I hope taking a break to finish Potter 7 and the Dexter books Jen bought me for my birthday will allow me to watch the last three seasons at my leisure, and not have to wait a week for the new ones.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Creative Commons licensed & what it means

If you don't know what all Creative Commons is -- and for the longest time, I didn't -- in basic terms, it's a new level of copyright and licensing for the Internet age. Copyrights and trademarks are highly restrictive and philosophically go against what the Internet is all about. Accepting that, some people got together and made a handful of licenses with simple, visual-cue logos, that someone can glance at and understand.

Take the one on this site, for example. The (cc) part is the same on every license, so you can quickly identify it as a Creative Commons license of some kind. The BY part, "Attribution", means that while you are allowed to reproduce any article on this site, you can print it, put it on your own site, whatever - you just gotta credit me by name and include the URL back here. You don't have to ask permission to use something, which is the whole point of a Creative Commons license. If I post a recipe and you like it and want to share it, you just gotta say where you got it, even if it's a discreet note at the bottom. No further permission and no payment is required. The NC part, Non-Commercial, means you can't sell it. You can't download a bunch of articles and put it on a site people have to pay to access. Or sell them for any price. Not that someone feasibly could, the point is that if they could, they can't. And the ND part, Non-Derivative, just means you can't change it. This part's important. It means someone can't take an article I write, change what I said, and post it somewhere else. They can comment on it (e.g. to say "This is the recipe I found, blah blah blah, but I use 2 cups of this instead of 3 and I add this other ingredient", to use an example) but can't change it.

I don't even know if there's any recourse for violating a Creative Commons license. I've never heard of such a thing. I could be wrong, but it may just be an idea with no real legal backing. Probably so, but it's a good idea, and it's a cut above contacting someone and having to ask for their permission to use something you wrote/made, if you don't intend to profit from it.

As for what it means, nothing new to just read the site. And if you want to repost something, it's easier and clearer how. That's all.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Saying Goodbye to My 20s

So, in 20 minutes, I turn 30 - at least, according to the calendar. At midnight it will technically be the 21st of September, and I was technically born on the 21st of September in 1979, so that'd make me 30, right? Well, not exactly. Close enough. See, I was born at 10-something at night in California. Here in North Carolina, when I was born in CA, it was already the early morning of the 22nd of September. Jen hates when I bring this up. If I had been out here for my 21st birthday, technically I would be able to drink a day early, legally. In another day it won't matter anyway.

I'm always thinking about statistics, the first this, the last that. Jen was the first one to drive the new car. Our niece and nephew (her brother's kids) were the first kids to ride in it (and probably the first people to ride in the back seat). I think we made "Beg" by Evans Blue the first song we listened to in it. That or "The Pursuit" (also by Evans Blue). First place we ate after getting it was Cracker Barrel. Just useless trivia. In January of last year, I promised myself I'd lose a whole lotta weight by around this time. Didn't happen. Diet didn't last long, but I'm eating better. I've given up soda and alcohol almost altogether. I still love some pizza, and macaroni and cheese, but I'm eating the mac & cheese less. And I'm eating salad every now and then. So small changes definitely beat fad diets. The results won't be as quick, though.

When I started my 20s, I had no car and no drivers' license. I was either working in retail or manufacturing in a clean room, but I was either about to change jobs or had just done so. I can't remember where I was when the world was supposed to end, but didn't. The geeks said the world was going to end at the year 2000 to sell computers. The Mayans only wrote their last calendar until December 20, 2012, and they weren't selling anything, but there could be any number of reasons why their calendar stopped so close to the end of this decade, but the guy who did Independence Day and the American Godzilla remake is making a 2012 movie, so somebody's making some bank.

In 1999, I hadn't even had a steady girlfriend, or any for that matter, or any chances with girls and women who were just friends. I'd watched my brothers hit and miss in love and relationships, but never had any of my own. Got plenty of female attention, but only at family reunions and whatnot where every kid in the room wanted to be carried around. So not the kind of attention I needed. Ten years later, I'm happily married. In 1999, I hadn't even been outside the state of California. Now, not only do I live on the other side of the country, I've visited 18 states plus DC and including the state I moved to (North Carolina). I spent almost 60% of my 20s in CA and almost 40% in NC - the move was around my birthday. In just four years here I've had a couple locals tell me I know my way around their home state better than they do. I had nearly shoulder-length hair in 1999, but since 2003 I've kept it buzzed within half an inch.

In 1999, I was using a computer my father - who passed away in 2002 - gave me for graduating high school (in 1998). Now I'm using a computer (at home) that I built myself in 2005. Four and a half years later it's still a solid machine. Tech breakdown of the two computers:

Processor: 200 MHz vs. 2 GHz (2,010 MHz)
System memory: 32 MB vs. 2 GB (2,000 MB)
Video card: 16 MB vs. 256 MB
Total available hard drive space: 18 GB vs. 1.4 TB (1,400 GB)
Optical drive: CD Reader vs. CD and DVD Burner
Floppy drive: Yes vs. No
Memory card support: No vs. Four multi-readers
Display: 15" vs. 19"

So the computer has gotten better, and I was still using VHS for movies in 1999. Now I've replaced my entire VHS collection with DVDs and I'm looking at a move to Blu-ray.

Well, there's midnight. And, life goes on...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Guitar Hero 5 reviewed

The days of Rock Band games being clearly superior to Guitar Hero games are finally over. When Harmonix went to EA and MTV to make Rock Band, Neversoft tried not once, but twice to hold onto the "old" formula of guitar-only play, in both Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock (which came out before Rock Band, to be fair) and Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. Neither game was as good as Rock Band, let alone the last Harmonix GH, Guitar Hero 2. When Neversoft made their full-band game, Guitar Hero: World Tour (aka GH4), which came out around the same time as Rock Band 2, it seemed like they didn't bother looking for what didn't work in the first Rock Band. They kinda just threw something together, and it was a train wreck. Guitar Hero: Metallica, the second full-band game from Neversoft, had better music, if you like Metallica and '80s metal in general. Worse if you didn't, but the gameplay was about the same. Bad. Now Neversoft is stepping up the game with Guitar Hero 5, but have Neversoft learned from World Tour/4 as well as Rock Band 1 and 2? In short, oh yes. In detail, read on.

First impression
It's still Guitar Hero. Sign-in issues that shouldn't exist, do, and will annoy you to no end. Your "band" will develop stupid tricks for doing this stuff "just right". For example, it pays to have the same person sign in first (to be the "leader") every time. Stupidly stupid stuff happens when you don't, but some cool things happen when you do. More on that later. The menus seem bloated with too many entries. However, to its credit, the game goes into a "demo" play when you're at the menu, some song will play, and you can press a button (Y or yellow on the Xbox 360) and you jump right in. If you're on a guitar, you choose guitar or bass, lefty or standard, difficulty, and you're playing. Instantly. Anyone can press Y to join in. Just like that. This is the party mode you've probably heard about. It is quicker than quick play. No loading, no nothing. (No failing, either.)

The Quickplay playlist is far more advanced than Rock Band 1 or Guitar Hero World Tour by a long shot. Like Rock Band 2, difficulty is given, on a scale of ten. (RB1 had a scale of 9, RB2 has a scale of 7, and World Tour had no difficulty notation.) Like other games, a sample of the song plays as you hover over each song. Album covers are not shown, as in Rock Band 2, but the length of the song is given. You can sort by "intensity" for each instrument (intensity is difficulty), total running time, year the song came out, name of the song, name of the artist/band, and maybe a couple others. You can make a playlist of as many songs as you want, it would seem. (RB1 had no playlist, RB2's playlist is seemingly unlimited, but WT's was limited to 6 songs.)

If you're the band leader, you can load and save playlists, too. But you can only load playlists saved when you were the band leader. If someone else was, everyone has to exit out, and that person must sign in first to become the leader, and then load the playlist. You can name the playlists, but Neversoft continues to not support the chat pad; you must enter text arcade-style.

The first thing you may notice is that Guitar Hero 5 lets you play as your Xbox 360 Avatar. Doing this, in fact, unlocks an achievement. In the first hour, too, don't be surprised if you get half a dozen achievements, if you're any good at all. Neversoft's plan thus far seems to be to lure Rock Band loyalists in with achievements and the promise of more to come. I think I have 135-185 Gamerscore with it already?

Anyway, a lot of the "band play" mistakes that World Tour made are gone. Star Power is no longer confusing. Like GH:A and previous, and both Rock Band games, each band member now has their own Star Power. (World Tour tried to "pool" Star Power, and it was just confusing.) Everyone also has their own crowd meter, as opposed to Rock Band's "shared" crowd meter on the left. The score now shows a sort of "band streak" I don't fully understand. GH5 introduces a new feature called "Band Moments", which is like the Unison Bonus in RB2. During a Band Moment, everyone's notes burn in flames for a few seconds. Hit each one and you get a big band multiplier. The band multiplier goes up to 11, between Star Power and Band Moment, if everyone's on the ball.

As such, scores tend to be a lot higher than in Rock Band 2. Expect a million plus points for a decent performance. For a long song with a great performance, don't be surprised if you get a few million. Also, for the first time, you can see each musician's individual score, in addition to the percentage and note/phrase streak. Score-wise, vocalists still get the short end of the stick. An expert guitarist scoring in the low 90s percentage-wise is going to get many times more points than an expert vocalist scoring in the high 90s and getting FCs. Jen complained about the vocals, but not as much as she did with World Tour. Even RB2 has sloppy vocal recognition, in parts, so vocals is bound to be a mixed bag anyway.

The soundtrack is pretty damn good. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana is finally playable. John Mellencamp is finally in a rhythm game, for better or worse, with "Hurts So Good". All kinds of rock, from the 60s to today, is represented in this game.

If you have downloaded songs for World Tour - we do, but only 15 - they will play in GH5, but not right out of the box. You must download a 300MB patch (I have no idea why it's so big, but it IS FREE) which allows downloaded songs for WT not by Jimi Hendrix to work. (Maybe it just re-downloads your DLC in one patch, I don't know.) For $3.50 (280 Microsoft Points) you can export SOME but NOT ALL of your World Tour songs, specifically 35 of them, plus an additional 21 from Guitar Hero: Smash Hits (no, the DragonForce song is NOT one of them, dropping the ball becomes a regular thing at Activision). Still, it sounds like you can get a lot of songs in Guitar Hero 5. And, songs exported from World Tour and Smash Hits will also work as DLC in the upcoming, family-friendly Band Hero Neversoft is putting out later this year (to compete with Harmonix's kiddie offering, LEGO Rock Band).

All in all, Guitar Hero 5 is a good game that, for once, allows Guitar Hero and Rock Band to compete directly. Both Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2 have good features I miss in the other, and they both have a lot of room for improvement. Rock Band will probably always have the larger library, even if Neversoft does figure out how to get the soundtracks of the previous games into the latest one. But Guitar Hero will probably always have the better exclusives. When playing the same song, on the same difficulty, on the same instrument, the track still differs from Rock Band to Guitar Hero, so even the same song is a different playing experience from one to the other. So it is definitely worth buying. And as an added bonus, they're going to give you Guitar Hero: Van Halen when it comes out in December? That's a great deal. And this is coming from a Rock Band loyalist.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight years ago today...

...the world changed forever. Like the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President Kennedy, everyone who lived through these events will never forget where they were or what they were doing that day. Had I been living on the East Coast, I might very well have been awake when it happened, but I was still living in CA, and I remember being home alone, and the phone kept ringing. I wanted to sleep longer, but to do that I had to silence the phone. So I got up, and just as I was about to pick it up to silence it, it rang again. We didn't have Caller ID so I had no idea who it was before I answered.

It was my brother's ex, though they were still together at the time. Later, she'd leave him for another guy, who, as I understand, would later leave her for another girl. Turnabout being fair play and all that.

Anyway, she told me that we as a country had just been invaded and bombed. I told her we were alright, got off the phone, and went to look on the TV. I was pretty sure she had said the World Trade Center in New York City, but all they were talking about on TV was a plane crashing into the Pentagon. I had to go online to get the story in New York.

Since then, I've been distrustful of televised news. They tell you what they want to tell you, with more information after a word from the sponsors. You go online, you set up Google News or a similar service the way you want, and you do it right, and you get the whole story on one page. You use Firefox and Adblock Plus and there are no sponsors, just the facts (and no ads means it loads faster).

We also - Americans in general - learned a lot about the Middle East. I can't be the only one who didn't give it a second thought. It also put the attack in perspective - one attack (well, four - four planes) was such a culture shock, but the Middle East sees attacks like this weekly. Daily, some weeks. So we have to think, if 9/11 was really as bad as we make it out to be, it must be really sad to live in the Middle East, and have this happen all the time. But two factors are in effect: First, we haven't had a terrorist attack on our soil by a foreign power outside of wartime before. This is a new thing. When it happens every day, it's less of a shock. Still sucks, but it's not the epic shock 9/11 was and continues to be. Second, too often Americans think of themselves as worlds better than the rest of the world. Too many of us figure terrorists blowing up terrorists is OK, tending to overlook the fact that, too often, children are caught in the crossfire. Far more children die in their bombings than died on 9/11, that's for sure. Of course, any child killed or harmed needlessly (or at all) is a tragedy. Still, we overlook it when the child isn't American.

It was also former President Bush's finest moment. Never mind that bin Laden and the Bush family go way back, with ties in oil, as well as military (specifically, when Bush's dad, who ran the CIA then, assisted the Taliban in getting the Russians out of Afghanistan) and it was quite convenient that Bush was in Florida at the time. I still think he expected Flight 93 to hit the White House and that his old Saudi buddy told him to be elsewhere. And never mind that Bush gave his Saudi buddy a full month to get out of Afghanistan (and his Taliban crew a month to decide to tell him where to shove his demands). And of course never mind that Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction. The idea of cleaning up the Middle East was not entirely a bad one. Saddam Hussein was a bad man who deserved much more than he got. He and his sons, if an article I read in Time can be believed, raped women, molested children, and killed whomever for fun. I am glad that he and his sons are dead and can only hope that their victims can move on. I do believe we spent a lot more time and more money there than we needed to, and that it was a big part of the recession that the Republicans engineered, but some of the aspects of the war were justified. If only Bush hadn't spent so long over there and tanked the economy doing so, but then again, I wasn't sitting in his chair for eight years. He did what he felt was right based on the information he had, and that's what he'll be remembered for. I only hope Obama can fix it before too long, because I know McCain had no interest in reversing any of Bush's failures - he thought the recession was this country on the right track!

Anyway, I don't want to get too (much more) political. That's all fact, though, if a little biased, based on what I've read and heard. The last bit is straight from McCain's own mouth on the debates, though, which I watched.

So I suppose the point that I've arrived at is that eight years ago today, we all woke up and realized there was more going on in the world that we were aware of, and that we had to recognize our voices, our place in the election system.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Amazon Kindle: Strike Two

Last month or the month before, I wrote in general about the reasons I don't use an eBook reader like Amazon's Kindle, in a response to the controversy surrounding Amazon deleting eBooks remotely (which they weren't authorized to sell in the first place). Aside from that silly mess, my main gripe is that you must pay full price for a book, you can't buy it used, and you can't sell it secondhand when you're done, or even loan it to a friend without loaning out your $300 Kindle, and if you do, obviously you yourself can't read on it until your friend is done. It's a mess.

Now there's a new controversy around the $300 device (and yes, I love going on about how expensive the bloody thing is). If they get stolen, Amazon has the technology to see who stole it, and even to shut it down completely, but in the name of good business (as in, the thief paying for books), they're protecting the thieves' personal information, until ordered to release it by court order.

Talk about stabbing customers in the back, eh? $300 for the device, $25 for books (or whatever hardcovers cost these days, I know they vary), and if it gets stolen, even though they know who did it, they're just going to leave you hanging like that?

Enough's enough, people who have had this happen really need to lawyer up and sue Amazon. They're charging an insane amount of money for a service, basically encouraging theft ("if you steal one, you're just as good a customer as if you'd bought one"), protecting thieves, thereby encouraging it more, and basically they're obstructing justice. Sure, they comply with a court order, but if they know who has your Kindle and they're not telling you, they're an accessory, and at the very least, they ought to replace the Kindle, if it is such a big deal to them to keep the thieves' business.

Seriously, if your Kindle got stolen and Amazon won't help you, call your lawyer. At the very least, file a claim in small claims court. It's under five thousand dollars. If Amazon doesn't send a rep, they forfeit the case... at least, I believe that's how it works. And if they do send a rep, that rep's gonna have a hell of a time explaining to a judge why they're protecting a criminal and, at the same time, why they won't compensate you for your stolen property, when they make millions of dollars, and they're profiting from a crime against you.

...And this is coming from a fan and loyal customer of who has spent probably a few hundred dollars there on books, music, movies, games, Microsoft Points cards, and other stuff! But hey, I gotta call 'em like I see 'em - and this is bullshit.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Playing Rock Band on the computer

Anyone who's been reading this blog any amount of time knows I like Rock Band, and to a lesser extent, Guitar Hero. I love music, and for someone who doesn't have that level of personal connection with music that many people have, I do enjoy listening to music as much as anybody. Though I've never felt the inclination to pick up a guitar/bass or drumsticks, and the less said about my showering and driving singing the better, but there's something about the simulated playing these games offer that I like. I've always liked puzzle games, particularly Tetris and its variants. Manipulating blocks in certain ways to clear them. There was one cool Tetris knockoff for the Super Nintendo that came with the Super Scope - Nintendo's bazooka-looking gun controller, circa 1993 or thereabouts. You got so many shots per block - like 2-3, and if you didn't use all of them, they rolled over. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are kinda like that. You have to destroy the blocks or spheres that come at you - and sure enough, they burn up (GH) or explode (RB).

But a question that has always puzzled me is this: Why can only home video game consoles play these games? Rock Band 2 is available for the PlayStation 2, as well as the PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360, and the Nintendo Wii. Scaled-down versions of Rock Band are on the PSP, and coming soon (December, I think) to the Nintendo DS. A PC is many times more powerful than a PlayStation 2, to say nothing of the PSP and Nintendo DS. (In fact, while no PSP emulator to date has been made that plays commercial games, there are a couple DS emulators out there, so the DS version will be playable on the PC, albeit... less than legally.) All either Guitar Hero or Rock Band are doing is this: They draw models of four main characters, which are fairly detailed. The crowd is kind of in the dark, it probably takes less to render the entire crowd than it does to render the four band members. Then you have the stage, which is relatively complex at times, but it's still no more advanced than a sports game. (Nothing against sports games, but they don't work as hard to draw characters as shooters.) As for the actual... action, you have a multi-channel Ogg Vorbis file playing, with one or more channels tied to each instrument. There's a backing track that always plays, and if one instrument is not being used (e.g. nobody is singing) then that track plays uninterrupted through the whole song, but missing a note causes that track to mute for a second, and failing causes the track to mute until the failed player can be saved. This is all very simple to do behind the scenes. Then it draws the note highway, and colors the fret board for various events. When a bassist reaches a 5X or 6X multiplier or a guitarist is doing a solo, the board glows blue. When anyone's in overdrive, an animated yellow border is applied. As complex as it sounds and as pretty as it looks, the fact remains that the PlayStation 2 can do it, which boasts a mere 300MHz processor, or the equivalent of a mid-range Pentium II. Its other specs pale in comparison to average PC specs as well. So the evidence of the PlayStation 2 clearly states that any PC manufactured in the last six to seven years should be able to run Rock Band 2 without a hitch - if it were compiled for Windows, that is.

So why isn't it? The reason is pretty simple. Video game consoles have copy protection and digital rights management (DRM) PC manufacturers simply cannot get away with. Microsoft and IBM have both tried to force DRM on consumers, and the backlash both times was pretty overwhelming, to the point where they pretty much just gave up. Digital music stores, such as iTunes, are giving up DRM for freely-copyable MP3 files their customers are demanding. Consoles have always been so protected, and gamers have never complained. Console game piracy is very low compared with PC game piracy, though it does happen. The Nintendo DS is probably the easiest to do, as all you need is a microSD (memory card in cell phones - not the SIM card, the other one) to Nitro (Nintendo DS cartridge) adapter. The adapter looks like a DS game but has a memory card slot. Put ROMs on memory card, put memory card in adapter, put adapter in DS, and pick your games from a list. Couldn't be easier. PlayStation 2 hacking requires taking the unit apart and sautering. It's risky, it's tricky, and a lot of people don't do it. Xbox 360 hacking is very tricky and very risky, and all it lets you do is play burned games. However, the Xbox 360 has a killswitch Microsoft can trip remotely that fries the console. Better yet, they'll know why it's broken if you send it in, and won't fix it for you. So it's very much not worth it. So while people do pirate console games (and I have seen Rock Band 2 on torrent sites), it's a minority. Downloadable content, on the other hand, has never been stolen. Not once. DLC for Rock Band 2 is encoded and protected. There is no way to get it for free. If Rock Band were on the PC, hackers would find a way to crack the DLC and share it. Simple as that. Harmonix pays more for these master recordings than Apple does to license simple MP3s and AACs, so they need to protect their investment.

Still, the desire to play Guitar Hero or Rock Band on the PC has not escaped some hobbyists. The most common way to do that is by using Frets on Fire, which is free and open source. There is even a portable version which will run from a flash drive over at Frets on Fire is no Guitar Hero, let alone Rock Band, but it really doesn't try to be. By itself, it's more a parody of those games. They instruct you to hold your keyboard like a guitar (keys facing away from you, backed up against your chest) and use F1-F5 as the fret keys, and Up and Down as the strum bar. Other keys activate the Overdrive/Star Power, and serve as the whammy bar. Trouble is, some songs have power chords (two or more fret buttons must be held while you strum - like red and blue, or blue and orange) and many keyboards can't process more than two keys hit at the same time. You hold F4 and F5 in preparation for a blue-orange chord, and when you go to strum... oops, it doesn't register. Sorry about your bad luck, Padre. The solution is rather amusing. You get a Guitar Hero controller for the Xbox 360, one of the old ones that plugs in via USB, and you plug it right into your computer. Windows will recognize it for what it is and will download drivers from Update, and then the guitar will work as a standard controller. You can even play other games with it. Then, just configure Frets on Fire to work with a joystick/gamepad, and set it up.

Still, Frets on Fire is ugly as sin, but that is not hard to fix. With the FoFix mod, actually a fork of Frets on Fire (it replaces FoF entirely), you can add themes that change how Frets looks and feels. With the Rock Band 2 theme, it tries very hard to look and feel just like Rock Band 2, to the point of being eerie. It should be noted that this is illegal as hell, because it violates Harmonix's trademarks. It uses the Rock Band 2 logo (hell, it uses the whole damn title screen) and much of the graphics. When you're playing, it looks almost exactly like Rock Band 2. I think somebody reverse engineered the PlayStation 2 or Wii version. It's not the game and contains none of the RB2 game code, just the graphics.

Songs are tricky to find as well. Many forums that carry them require you to register, so they can track what you download. You can bet your ass that if they get busted, they'll sell you out in a heartbeat - why else would they make you register? You can probably find some free songs for it, for example Jonathan Coulton is a recording artist who releases his songs under a Creative Commons license. Last year or the year before, he released a song a week for a year. It's silly humor, but it's pretty good. (Check out "Re: Your Brains" - it's coming to Rock Band next week - "Skullcrusher Mountain" is already there.) Anything he's done would be legal to use in Frets on Fire. Other artists... not so much. Some songs come with just the notes, and you supply your own MP3 file. If you hit up torrent sites, you'll get complete tracks. But Frets on Fire doesn't use master recordings; like Guitar Hero, it just mutes the entire thing and/or belches/buzzes at you when you miss notes. Problem is, Frets doesn't un-mute the song after the missed note has passed, as Guitar Hero does. With FoFix and the Rock Band 2 theme, this isn't a problem.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Improving on Rock Band...

Last month, a couple weeks before Summerslam, I posted an article about what the WWE could do to improve its product, primarily for those of us fans, such as myself, who came into the program knowing it's fake, and enjoy it for its technical and production merits as well as the entertainment. I was contacted by a representative of a promotional firm representing the TV station WGN America and WWE suggesting I watch Superstars, WGN-A's hour-long WWE show. I watched and reviewed one episode (and continue to watch it - it's good), then Summerslam comes and I can't help but feel that one of my suggestions - that rules should be respected more - was taken personally by someone high up. Could be coincidence (and probably is - matches are planned and practiced well in advance of pay-per-views) but when I saw that match with Randy Orton and John Cena, and Orton kept cheating, and kept getting called on it... I couldn't help but notice something.

Maybe my luck, coincidental as it may be, will hold for another round. This time I'm taking aim at the music simulation/puzzle game Rock Band 2, having long held that it's not so much a game as a multimedia platform. Harmonix's Rock Band 2, preceded by Rock Band, Guitar Hero 2, and Guitar Hero (more recent Guitar Hero titles were made by a different company), have revitalized the ailing music industry, moving from a scene where pirates stole music online to one where people paid $200 each for a game disc and plastic instruments, and then $2 for additional songs, to play along with them on the screen. But it has been nearly a year since Rock Band 2 came out, and Harmonix is not producing a Rock Band 3 this year, instead focusing on the Beatles-themed Rock Band to come out next week. So one year in and people are still playing this game - is Harmonix just sitting back and letting the money roll in? Actually, no they're not. They put out half a dozen new songs each week, and that takes work. They're building a community of artists and programmers called the Rock Band Network which will allow musicians to build their own Rock Band tracks for inclusion into the game. This should exponentially increase the size of the Rock Band store, which Harmonix hopes to have stocked with 1,000 songs by year's end. Also, there is a rumor of a fabled "Gold Star patch" which notes which songs a player has Gold-Starred (beyond a five star performance rating is five gold stars), and possibly adds support for these new wireless microphones coming out... but little else.

While I certainly don't intend to suggest Harmonix isn't doing enough for its fans, I do have some ideas that would freshen the game up, make it feel new longer, and bridge the gap between Rock Band 2 and the eventual Rock Band 3.

1. Real-Life Rockers
Following the latest Dashboard update, Microsoft is now selling virtual clothing for your Xbox Live Avatar, at $1 for hats and glasses, $2 for shirts, pants, and shoes, and up to $5 for full costumes and "toys" - e.g. your avatar can now wield a lightsaber, or play with a radio-controlled ATV from Halo (yes fanboys, I know it's called a warthog).

Where is Harmonix on this? When you go to play, you have two categories of characters. The ones you've made, and the generic ones that come with the game (I prefer Ol' Smokey). You should be able to buy "Real-Life Rockers". When you own one of these avatars, and you play a song with them as a member, whoever has their instrument defaults to them, unless they've chosen a character they made. (Example: You buy a Nikki Sixx avatar, and select Ol' Smokey as your avatar, and play bass. You play "Saints of Los Angeles" by Motley Crue, and instead of Ol' Smokey, you get Sixx.) Or you can make your own supergroup. Deceased musicians would definitely be used, so for the recently-released Janis Joplin single "Piece of My Heart", you could have Janis herself singing it, and other songs you choose for your set list.

And where's the damn avatar support, anyway? Guitar Hero 5 jumped on this. To be able to use your Xbox Live avatar is trivial. While I'm at it, why can't I use my guy from Oblivion? Microsoft needs to make any company that lets you customize your character export the character in a universal format that any game can use, just because that would be beyond cool. And why can't you use your Oblivion mage or your Madden football player as your virtual rocker? If Rock Band's aim is to let anyone with a home game console be a rock star, why not a mage from an RPG or a sports star? Why even pick up the pen to draw that line? Sure, it's silly, but pick up a plastic guitar and tell me how seriously you take yourself. We don't play games to be serious, after all.

2. Real expansion sets
The Beatles should never have gotten their own game. Neither should Nirvana, No Doubt, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Foo Fighters, and others. What's that you say? Only the Beatles did? Therein lies the problem.

The other bands I named each got whole albums in Rock Band - in Nirvana's case, with the exception of "The Big Three" - "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Lithium", and "Come As You Are", which are probably being held for Rock Band 3 and/or a slow DLC week. $20 for an entire album, which is a good deal, because it's more than the 10 songs that $20 would ordinarily buy you. Well, it's still not enough. If I'm laying down $20 - one-third the cost of the game itself - I don't just want songs. I want Real-Life Rockers (see above) of the entire band, and the opportunity to earn the 250 Gamerscore that paid DLC often adds to a game's total Gamerscore allocation.

That said, the Beatles could have just been an expansion set, albeit a much bigger one. Or they could have done volumes. In fact, Harmonix has said that the Beatles game will be a closed platform - it won't work with downloadable content, and its downloadable content won't work with other games. Have they not been listening to the Guitar Hero fans who have complained about this fatal flaw in the Guitar Hero franchise? It would be unwise to lean towards any of the disadvantages Guitar Hero has when compared with Rock Band; rather, it should be looking at the two or three things Guitar Hero does better, and integrate those features.

3. Unpause countdown timer
The most requested feature in Rock Band - how can I not throw my voice behind it as well? When you resume Guitar Hero World Tour or Guitar Hero: Metallica from a pause (presumably Smash Hits and 5 as well), you get taken back to the paused note highway(s) and you get a countdown timer, so if you had to pause in a hurry, the number of notes you will actually miss is minimized.

Or, hey, how about doing Guitar Hero one better and rewinding 10 seconds? Sure, it could be abused, but maybe scores from songs paused and resumed would not be added to the leaderboards or something.

4. Turn "No Fail Mode" into "Studio Mode"
"No Fail Mode" is stupid. Let me just put that out there. The point of the game is to hit notes, and the penalty for that is the crowd loses interest, and eventually boos you off stage. "No Fail Mode" makes it so if you abandon your controller or the song is just that damn hard (see "Life is Beautiful" by Sixx:A.M. or "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads) you get booed, but you never get kicked out. So I say, drop "No Fail" and rather, have an option to drop the crowd. You get no crowd meter, and no feedback - positive or negative - from the fans (who aren't even there). You can't fail, either, even if you abandon the song from the start. The song just plays, and gives you your score at the end. "Studio Mode" is the best name I can think of; "Basement Mode" works too.

5. Custom Difficulty
If you've never played Rock Band before, could you tell me the difference between Easy, Medium, Hard, or Expert? Many veteran players can't, either. They just know that Easy only uses the first three fret buttons, Medium the first four, and Hard and Expert all five. And that the speed increases as you go up. Fewer notes does make things easier, but slower? Not always. I was playing on drums - doing badly as ever - and my wife suggested I go up to Hard. I was on Medium and couldn't hack it there. Reluctantly I tried - and got twice as far. On drums, Easy and Medium are just too slow. But Hard and Expert have too many notes. There are some good reasons why I can't play the drums right that have to do with my hand-eye coordination and other mental capacities, but part of that also has to do with a hastily-designed difficulty setting. How about letting the player choose the frequency of the notes and the speed they're delivered? The learning curve could be lowered quite a bit without sacrificing gameplay.

6. Better vocals!
This one's below the belt, because until voice recognition technology advances quite a bit, singing in any music game is not going to be tracked accurately at all. It's been said by quite a few on ScoreHero and other Guitar Hero and Rock Band communities: "Either I can sing the song correctly, or I can get points". Some songs require you to scream, others require you to wail, sometimes when the singer himself - or herself - is doing no such thing. Take "21 Guns" by Green Day - does Billy Joe whine and scream? No, he doesn't - it's a very calm song. Yet, you've gotta make yourself sound like a pissed-off Bob Dylan to sing it. It's flippin' stupid. Guitar Hero is far behind Rock Band in vocal tracking, but that's little consolation when Rock Band's sucks to start with. Still, they made a game that incorporates singing - it's on them to make it work right. As opposed to just sweeping it under the rug and letting people just "deal with it".

7. Music video mode and MP3 export
You can actually hack this together in Rock Band 2 with a couple cheats (game modifiers). Turn on No Fail Mode and Performance Mode. Enter Quick Play as a vocalist, and pick your songs, make a setlist. Choose whatever difficulty, it doesn't matter. Start the "game", then go into the pause options and take out the crowd noise, turn the mic volume all the way down and the vocal track all the way up. Resume, and the game will play the songs you've chosen as mock videos. But this should be available from the main menu as "Music video mode" or "Jukebox mode", and rather than letting you choose the difficulty (which means nothing), it would let you choose the arena, and configure other options as well. I mean, iTunes charges $0.99 in the US for songs. The Rock Band Store charges $2, $1.01 more. It's not a lot to be able to jam along with the song, but it should do a bit more, I think. I also think it should export songs you buy - if you like - if you have a 20GB hard drive, you might not prefer this - to the console's hard drive, so you can listen to them in other games. At $2 a song and considering you can't get music off the console, why not?

8. Rock Band Online
What's really hurting Rock Band right now is the fact that, not only is it not a bestselling or top game (program), but not everyone gets online with their game console. But above all that is the fact that Xbox 360 players cannot play with PlayStation 3 or Wii players. None of the three work together on their own networks. So to make online play work, Harmonix needs a central server to play games on. The only problem is that that is not free. Good online play vs. what I hear is shoddy online play is the difference between paid online gaming (Xbox 360) and free online gaming (PlayStation 3). Not dissing Sony, but a lot of people say that. Regardless, Harmonix aren't gonna do it out of the kindness of their hearts at a loss, and we shouldn't expect them to. A nominal fee is reasonable. And this fee would let you play online, not just with owners of the same console as you, but with owners of the other two, as well. I'm not at all sure Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo would support it, though, but it's something worth suggesting. But being able to compete with owners of other consoles wouldn't support the makers of the other consoles, specifically, but would in fact make all of them better. Just ask Activision why they didn't continue their policy of "you can only use OUR hardware" that they used in Guitar Hero 3. It's like the representative said, "How many drum controllers should you need?" (or something like that). Such limited interoperability can only benefit them.

All that being said, while Guitar Hero never attempts to be more than just a music game - and it's a pretty good one, at that - Rock Band is much more - it's a music platform. And I cannot reasonably say that it is "pretty good" at that. Much more than Guitar Hero, but as such, it should strive to be so much better than it is.

So here's my open challenge to Harmonix: Stop competing with that silly little guitar game and shine on your own as something much better.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Oblivion: A closer look at Fighters

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how I finished Oblivion, did everything in the game worth getting points for (which is a good distance short of doing everything doable in the game). Now, being that I'm pretty good with it, I thought I'd pass along some helpful hints on how to play the game better. Now, this isn't a guide - go to GameFAQs for those. A guide is strict and technical. This'll just be a casual read, an overview.

-Your Character-
First of all, the key to beating any RPG, with little exception, is to use a fighter. Mastering an RPG requires you to be a little more creative, and use a rogue (thief) or mage/wizard, and that's where the challenge is. Fighters don't need to be all that creative. Now, Oblivion is very great with character creation. For race, which you choose at the start, look very closely at Nords, Orcs, and Redguards. These guys are built for action. Look at their bonuses and penalties and see which fits you better. (Unlike in Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, and other media, Orcs are not villains in this game. They're like Klingons in recent Star Trek series - rough but still civilized. And socially acceptable.)

As for class, which you choose after the Emperor dies, go custom. For focus, you can choose between offense, defense, and sneak. Maybe not those exact words... choose offense. Then you get to choose a couple stats to get bonuses in. Strength is obvious. Look at Endurance and Speed and pick one. Endurance for being a stronger fighter, and Speed for being a quicker one.

Next you can choose seven attributes. You can raise the others all you want, but raising the main seven is what gets you up in levels, so choose wisely. While you can raise Athletics just by running and swimming and Acrobatics just by jumping, you want to think about balance. The higher your level is, the better the loot will be, but also, the stronger NPCs, including enemies will be as well. Don't make worthless choices (like Alteration - useful for a wizard, but not a fighter) but don't make easy choices. Look at Armorer. You get experience by fixing your weapons and armor. At high levels you can fix magic stuff, which you'll get a lot of. If you repair after every encounter, you will go up quickly, but you don't need to. So you have good control over your leveling. I recommend Armorer, if you couldn't tell. Next pick one kind of armor. Heavy weighs more and protects more. Light, same in reverse. It does you no good to pick both because you'll want to wear all light or all heavy to get bonuses in the skill. If you picked Speed as an attribute, pick Light; if you picked Endurance, go for Heavy. Now pick a weapon type - Blade or Blunt. Swords are quick, axes and hammers are slow, but do a little more damage. Blade gets my recommendation. (There's also Marksman if you want to use a bow and arrow, but a Fighter shouldn't rely on that.) Blocking is good to have. Despite what I said earlier, Acrobatics is not bad, but it does tempt one to jump everywhere (which is faster than running anyway). Even if you're not a wizard, Alchemy is great. Not only can you sell potions for profit, but you can make poisons you can apply to your weapons for one use. Just "use" the poison and it will coat your current weapon with it (but only for one strike, so make it count).

A Redguard with a custom class specializing in Offense, getting bonuses in Strength and Endurance, and having Acrobatics, Armorer, Heavy Armor, Blade, Alchemy, and two others that you think you might use will give you a good place to start.

-Starting Out-
In the beginning of the game, you've got to escape from the dungeon. It isn't too hard if you're a Fighter. The hardest part is the little Goblin community. Rogues and mages must be clever, but Fighters just roll on through. I didn't even know it was hard until I brought a rogue through. Remember, take out the shaman (mage) second, archers third, and everybody else last. First? Well, anyone who gets in your way you take out first. You don't need somebody hitting you from behind.

Once you're out of the dungeon, the main quest should not be hard. However, understanding its effects on you and the world are important. At some point after you start it, gates to Oblivion will begin opening all around Tamriel (the country you're in). At some point, Martin (the Emperor's bastard son) will ask you to complete one of the dozen or so Daedric (demonic) quests and give the reward to him (so he can complete a ceremony -- he won't give it back). Lastly, once you complete the main quest, all of the Oblivion gates close. Those Oblivion gates are annoying, so if you'd rather not mess with them, set the main quest aside. Just know that it will be harder at higher levels.

The best place to start is the Fighters' Guild. Fighters' Guilds in any city not called Anvil or Cheydinhal will send you to those towns. Cheydinhal will send you to Anvil. So make your way straight to Anvil. (The Mages' Guild can be joined in any city that has one; if you're on the Xbox 360, you might as well join Anvil's and get your 10 Gamerscore.) Around Anvil, talking to people will get you various quests from the townspeople. Go ahead and take them. An early Fighters' Guild quest will earn you the permanent respect of a dockside merchant, but he can only give you up to 800 gold per transaction. Get in good with the guy in town, the Peacemakers place, right inside the north gate and to the left. He only deals in weapons and armor though, but he will also train your Armorer skill. The second-cheapest house in the game is in Anvil, too. 5,000 gold and it's yours, do a quest to get it fully furnished. Using Anvil as a base of operations will carry you through much of the game, though if you stick with the Fighters' Guild, you'll eventually move your game northeast to Chorrol. The house there is much nicer, but worth it. (Also, the shop to the left of the south gate has a quest that will get you in good with the owner, so there's that as well.)

The Dark Brotherhood, a fraternity of killers, is also a good place for a Fighter to learn, and has some of the best missions in the game. Simply take one innocent life to get started. Go to sleep, and you'll be visited in the night and given a dagger. Kill who they tell you to and sleep again. You'll be told how to join. That's all easier than it sounds. Killing anybody gets you an immediate bounty of 1,000 gold, whether anyone saw you do it or not. The only exception is when the game tells you to take a life, and those kills will not get you into the Dark Brotherhood. If you can't pay the bounty, you go to jail and lose a lot of skill points, so that is not good. Raid a few forts, Ayleid temples, or caves, loot what's worth something, and sell it to the stores that like you and have a lot of money to spend. Save up 1,000 gold. Find somebody and get their name. Look them up on and make sure they don't have a quest associated with them. Kill them creatively, then turn yourself in. Pay the gold and be on your way.

Being a Fighter does not exclude you from joining the Mages' Guild or even becoming Arch-Mage. In fact, the "last boss" in the Mages' Guild story is very easy if you're a Fighter. He's a good spell caster, but a few good hits brings him down. He wears a robe. Just hack him down. If you're on the Xbox 360, this gets you about 130 Gamerscore (from joining to becoming Arch-Mage). The Mages' Guild is the slowest to allow you to advance, at first, as you have to do a quest for each town before advancing in rank once. Still, once you join the Mages' Guild, you can steal anything you want out of their Guild Halls (with the exception of one desk in each, I think) and make a ton of money. Really, there's no reason not to join. (Don't steal at all from the Thieves' Guild or the Dark Brotherhood though. Or from individual Mages.)

-The Arena-
The best part of being a Fighter is the Arena. Travel to the easternmost district of the Imperial City, the Arena District. Go into the Colosseum, hang a left, go into the training area, and in the "side" training area, talk to the guy on the far right. The really rude guy. Join and fight. None of the fights will challenge you if you know how to fight. Once you'll fight two sisters, and twice you'll fight three people. Not a problem. The only challenging fight is the very last one, against the Grand Champion. My rogue beat him, so it's not hard, just harder than the others. However, if you get in good with the Grand Champion early, he will give you a quest. I won't spoil it for you, but if you do the quest for him, he will train you in three fighting areas (Block, Hand to Hand, and Blade, if I remember right) and when you go to fight him, he's a pushover. Easiest fight by far. But only if you do his quest, which is not hard.

The Arena will teach you a lot about fighting. It's simple really. Get a one-handed sword and a good shield. Come into the center of the arena and watch your opponent. Do the opposite - if he comes in swinging, block. If he doesn't, get him with a quick jab, but block early in any case. Once he hits you and you block it, lower your guard and wail on him. 2-3 hits is good. Once he's ready to deliver another blow, block again. Rinse and repeat. You'll get a feel for how many hits you can get in before needing to block again. Once you win, if you lost more than a third of your health, rest for one hour. That will refill your health. Healing magic and spells are good, too. Bear in mind that blocking and getting hit will increase your blocking skill, and getting hit without blocking will increase your armor skill, if you're wearing all heavy or all light armor. (You must wear Arena armor, which includes footwear, but you can use whatever helmet, gauntlets, and shield you like.) And naturally you will increase your blade or blunt skill with each blow landed.

If you are low level when you start the Arena, you may likely gain 1-3 levels just doing the Arena. Also, the Arena is open from 9am to 9pm. If you get there right at 9am, and don't do the Grand Champion's quest, and never rest, it is entirely possible to complete the entire Arena quest in one day in game time. In real time, about 30-45 minutes. (130 Gamerscore in 45 minutes, vs. my wife getting 25 Gamerscore for playing all 84 of the songs in Rock Band 2 on Expert Vocals for six hours without a break is not a bad deal! Just don't tell her I said so.) However, the Grand Champion's quest is worth doing for the training alone. Never mind that he throws the match.

Be warned, however, that completing the Arena gets you a groupie who will pledge his allegiance to you and follow you anywhere you like, and stay anywhere you like. (Search YouTube for "oblivion adoring fan" for creative ways people have killed him.) However, later, when you're building an army for the main quest, the Adoring Fan comes in handy - as cannon fodder.

-In closing-
The Fighter is the easiest way to play Oblivion, but don't let that stop you from playing a rogue or a mage if that's what you like. Each class has its advantages; the Fighter's are just more straightforward and obvious. This is also the first in a series of "closer looks" at Oblivion. I mainly had this, and a guide on illegal activities planned. Maybe I'll do another one, like on side quests or something. If you liked this and/or it helped you, please drop me a thank-you in the comments. If you want to host it, in full or in part, you can do so as long as you link back here and don't change anything. (I'm going to license the text of my blog under a Creative Commons license (BY-SA-NC) soon, but until I do that, well, that's pretty much what it is. Not interested in submitting it to gaming sites (they probably have better guides) but if you run or represent one, I don't care if you do it, just don't charge for access (ads are fine).

Friday, August 21, 2009

Meet .mogg

And you thought downloading .mp3 files, compressed digital audio tracks, was bad. "Bad" as in illegal, you shouldn't do it. Obviously I don't mean legal Mp3 downloads, just the illegal variety. Anyway, meet .MOGG, or Multi-channel OGG. Whereas MP3 is actually a closed format (despite it being widely traded), Ogg Vorbis is a free alternative. Legally, MP3 decoders (players) and encoders must pay royalties to use the format. Ogg Vorbis doesn't have this stipulation, so it gets used in games. Games that have music, games that have sounds - that covers all of them. Anyway, an OGG is just another kind of music file; see also: MP3, WMA, M4A, AAC, etc.

MOGG is different, though. Sidestep for a moment: When you miss a note in a Guitar Hero game, what happens? The game kind of belches at you, to let you know you messed up. That's because all Guitar Hero does is play the song, and it makes a sound effect (I think it's supposed to be a guitar string breaking?) if you miss a note. That's easy. But what happens if you miss a note in Rock Band? That *note* actually *doesn't play* but the rest of the song *does*. How exactly does that work? Well, Harmonix, the game studio that makes the game, actually licenses the master recordings of the songs, which are a bit more complicated than regular MP3 files. They have all the instruments separated, and that's how Rock Band works. It plays all the channels at once, and if you miss a note, it briefly mutes that channel.

Well, suffice it to say, some .MOGG files have "become available". If you're clever, you should know where to start looking. I cannot say more than that. Legal issues and all. I also know that efforts are under way to reverse engineer the game - I don't think it's so much that people want to get songs for free ($2 is more than fair for a song, considering how the game works) as that they want to import songs into the game that Harmonix hasn't brought out. (If I were involved in the project, some Nightwish would be going in there for sure.) Anyway, without the original master recordings, importing new songs won't be happening - unless people involved in the project are in bands themselves and can supply their own masters. A Rock Band downloadable song, it would seem, is one of these .MOGG files, plus the data files. 12 tracks - three instruments at four difficulty levels. Difficulty doesn't scale, so each difficulty does in fact get its own track. Plus the vocals and pitch/tone levels. Difficulty does scale for vocals (in terms of how far off the mark you can be) so that's its own thing. And the 30 second or so sample that plays when you're looking at the song on the list.

Anyway, I hear that these .MOGG files are quite fun to play around with. Not being much of an audio engineer, I wouldn't know what to do with them, but I imagine it should be trivial to mute channels. You could take out the vocals entirely and have an instrumental song. Be warned, they don't sound as good as you might think, vocals contribute a lot. Someone with Disturbed leaked pre-vocals MP3s of their first album, and when David Draiman is supposed to be singing, it sounds very... simple. Music with lyrics is, it's the solos that sound good because they're designed to be heard without the voice. The entire song is not like that when you remove the vocals. Anyway, you could also listen to just the vocals. Or the vocals plus the drums. Or, if you play an instrument (a real one, not a game controller that looks like one), you could just play that channel and jam along with it.

Your average audio-playing software (e.g. Winamp) won't play these files, but an audio-editor (e.g. Audacity) will.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

WWE Superstars reviewed

Last month, I wrote about my thoughts on what works and what doesn't with WWE. A couple weeks ago, I was contacted by a representative of a kind of marketing group representing WGN America (a TV station) and WWE. They suggested I check out WWE Superstars on that network. I looked for the station when the show was first announced and couldn't find it, and was about to reply back saying that I didn't get the channel, when I thought to look on their website, which pointed me to the right channel. (We have DirecTV, and I still don't understand the need to have hundreds of channels when you can't find the one you want - and they still don't carry MyNetworkTV, which broadcasts WWE SmackDown.) So I set the DVR to record the show. I just watched it last night, four days after it aired. (Better late than never, I guess.)

WWE Superstars advertises itself as a show which matches up talent from all three brands (RAW, ECW, and SmackDown). Because RAW tours by itself and ECW and SmackDown tour separately, I knew there was something fishy about Superstars. There was no way, I figured, that they could do a separate show. And I'm sure this is a no-brainer to anybody who's gone to a taping of any of the three brands' shows. It's relatively common knowledge among fans who look at the WWE from the "backstage perspective" (I really hate to use the term "smark", which means "smart mark", a mark being someone who takes the product at face value (they believe it's real) and a "smark" being someone who knows it's fake but loves it anyway) that these tapings tend to have a "dark match" or two that is not taped, I suppose to justify people paying $50 a seat when they could have just as easily watched the show on TV, not to mention the other perks.

What WWE Superstars does is, it takes the dark matches from all three shows and puts them in a one-hour timeslot. If you're there watching the show live, I imagine the show starts out as Superstars for one match, and then becomes RAW, ECW, or SmackDown. (Fun fact: Did you know that, for ratings purposes, RAW is only one hour long? The second half is rated as "RAW Zone", so if you see "Zone" tacked onto the logo... that's why.) As far as scheduling, I'm still working on the details. I know for RAW, they use the previous Monday's RAW, because I recognized a sign ("Less Big Show, More Gail Kim") that I saw last week on RAW. That's kind of a no-brainer, though, because RAW is always billed as live, so if they shot on Thursday and delayed most of it till Monday - that just wouldn't make sense. ECW and SmackDown are taped together, and I don't know what their road schedule looks like. It's a safe bet to assume that their segments are from the previous episodes as well.

As a show, Superstars is pretty cool, actually. It sounds like it would be a mess. It kind of is. It has three segments - last Thursday had SmackDown go first, ECW go next, and then RAW at the end. For each segment, the announcers from that show call the match. You'll also notice the ropes change color as well. Oddly enough SmackDown used red ropes Thursday; I could have sworn they used blue in the past, but I could be mistaken. ECW's, the middle segment, were silver, and RAW's were the usual red. If it weren't for that sign, I wouldn't have noticed that the second half of the show, dedicated to RAW, was at a different arena than the first half. You probably wouldn't if you weren't looking, but I look for stuff like that.

Superstars isn't any different, really, from ECW, SmackDown, or RAW, as far as the basic idea. It's mostly a recap show, highlighting the drama from the past episode of each show, and one match from each that didn't make it to TV. That being said, what's good about Superstars is that it seems to avoid the stupid "joke" matches. On RAW, there are always a couple matches that either end badly or end with a joke, or are just a joke altogether. Perfect example: the Home Alone ending to the Hornswoggle/Guerrero match. When I watched Superstars, all three of the matches were good.
  • The SmackDown match featured John Morrison and David Hart Smith, and it was a good match, lasted at least 10 minutes, and showed good performances from both performers, particularly Morrison (who it's hard not to call by his last character's name, Johnny Nitro - he's always been good, though). I did call out his current character in my other blog entry as being a cheap ripoff of a deceased rock legend, but that doesn't make him any less entertaining.
  • The ECW match had newcomer Sheamus and Goldust (Dusty Rhodes' son; Cody Rhodes' brother). Pretty good match, a little above average, but not bad at all.
  • Lastly, the RAW match was a mixed tag-team match, with Kofi Kingston and Mickie James against Carlito and Rosa Mendes. Normally, I don't like tag teams, especially ones with lax rules, for example when one team tags out, the other team has to switch up as well (so men can't fight women), but this was alright. Kofi Kingston's good anyway, and I can never look at Mickie James enough. (Yes, my wife knows - she says the same about Jeff Hardy.)
All in all, I have to say that WWE Superstars is a good show. I didn't expect to like it for a few reasons, but it's surprised and impressed me. I wouldn't have taken the time to write about it if I didn't like it, but I probably wouldn't have given it a chance if it hadn't been suggested to me. I don't like the idea of bloggers being paid or otherwise compensated to write articles (and I was not), but if somebody wants to recommend a show or something, chances are I'll give it an even chance and write up what I think about it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Terminator Salvation... is not bad.

After Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines a few years back, I was completely let down by the Terminator franchise, but I had to take a look at this fourth installment desite the teen-aimed PG-13 rating and the lack of James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Dubya's lapdog may be embarrassing the state of California, but in the 80s and 90s, he was actually useful, and made some pretty good movies. Who doesn't like the first two Terminator movies, or Predator, or even Kindergarten Cop?

The first Terminator was a pretty cool movie, but it wasn't exactly great. A plot hole near the end left the possibility of a sequel open, but after 6-7 years, it was kind of a surprise when one was made. Despite being a special-effects showoff, Terminator 2: Judgment Day came out as one of the best action films of the last century. It had the best action sequences out of all four films, and it had the most heart, which really pushed it past just being a good movie, and made it great.

Then Terminator 3 comes out, and they seem to pretend that the second movie didn't happen, or that the ending happened differently. It's less like "this is what happens next" as is common with sequels, and more like "this is what could have happened if what our heroes did in the last movie didn't work". Like the new Star Trek movie, it's best to just classify it as an alternate universe in which the story's not over and the producers can milk the franchise for still more millions of dollars.

All that being said, it's about damn time they made a post-apocalyptic Terminator film. I would have liked to see more of the day-to-day living, how people get by in this new world than just straight-up action, but that isn't bad either. Instead of worrying about the paradoxes of time travel, instead, we have a Terminator who doesn't know he's one who buddies up with Kyle Reese, the hero from the first Terminator, who John Connor sent back to help his mother (and sire him at some point). Also, because it's a PG-13 movie and we're trying to appeal to kids, there's a 9-year-old girl with a funny haircut thrown in pretty randomly. And she has not one line in the entire movie, though Reese says that's because Judgment Day traumatized her. Right. Oh wait, she wasn't entirely useless. She bandages Connor's arm when he cuts it at one point and at another, hands him a flare. (And at least she didn't make the viewers wish her dead, like what happened in the War of the Worlds remake with Dakota Fanning's character.)

Still, Terminator 4 seemed to mostly weave itself into the first two films rather than do anything on its own. Reese's back story is explained, sure, but nothing is accomplished. We have a couple cool chases. The hundred foot high Terminator was cool, as well as the ones built into the motorcycles. All of the cool lines get recycled: "I'll be back", "Come with me if you want to live", etc. They even play Guns n' Roses' song "You Could Be Mine" during one scene. We even have Linda Hamilton's voice as Sarah Connor on a tape John listens to, and everybody doubts his prophecies about the future (and the past now). So it's got all the elements of the Terminator movies, but mostly it's just another action sequel. Still, it's worth watching at least once.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Oblivion, my first completed Xbox 360 game

Just yesterday, I completed The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. As in, I earned all 1,250 Gamerscore associated with the game. 20 years ago, it used to be that grabbing the axe to retract the bridge and kill the dragon and save the princess was all that was required to beat a game. Now there are so many more definitions. I like the Gamerscore answer. I actually beat the main game a couple weeks ago, but I had more Achievements to unlock - each Achievement is like a trophy and worth so much Gamerscore - 10, 20, 30, 50, whatever. So I pressed on until I had my 1250/1250. Xbox 360 games are supposed to only have 1,000, and Oblivion is no exception - the expansion, Shivering Isles, adds another 250. That was what I had to do to get all 1250. The scary thing is that I am actually a long way away from doing everything Oblivion has to offer. More on that in a bit.

Oblivion is a beast of a game, and very open-ended. You start in prison, and the guy in the cell across from you is sure you're going to die. Future uncertain, you wait - not long, even - and then the Emperor himself, Uriel Septim VII, voiced by none other than Patrick Stewart (Star Trek's Captain Picard; X-Men's Professor X), opens your cell and then opens a secret exit. He's being chased by assassins, and must escape - through your cell. He recognizes you immediately - he saw you in a dream. This tells him that today is the day he dies, and he confides in you that whatever you did to get locked up doesn't matter; that isn't what you'll be remembered for. Rather, you have a grand destiny ahead of you. He charges you with the task of finding his bastard son, who doesn't know he's the only heir to the throne. However, once you get out, the world is all yours to travel as you please. The game will point you toward your next objective, but only because the main quest is the active one. Once you receive another - and you can have as many open as you like - you can make it your active quest, and you will be pointed toward that objective.

Aside from helping Martin Septim regain the throne, there are two Guilds you can join. The Fighters' Guild does odd jobs for people, from pest control to personal defense. Basically what you'd expect out of security guards to mercenaries, everything in between. The Mages' Guild will make you think of Harry Potter, perhaps. Same basic idea, except you've got to travel the land, visiting the Mages' Guild Hall in each city to get a "recommendation" from the local Guild Master in order to actually join. Some of these are more straightforward than others. On top of that, there are two "secret" Guilds - to join the Thieves' Guild, you have to read a wanted poster for and then ask around about famed thief the Gray Fox; this leads you to an associate of his. This guild works a little differently; in addition to doing jobs for people who want things found, you move up through the ranks by stealing things from others and selling them to "fences", members of the Thieves' Guild who buy stolen property (legitimate shopkeepers will not). Then there's the Dark Brotherhood, a fraternity of assassins - led by a vampire, no less. To join these guys, you must take an innocent life. Murder is hard to get away with, but the punishment isn't even death. You can either pay a fine of 1,000 Gold, or go to jail. You don't even stay overnight, but you do lose a few skills. You don't have to get away with the murder to be accepted, however, and even if nobody witnesses the murder - or it's an accident, as was the case with me - you'll be noticed. Then, next time you go to sleep, you'll be visited by a member of the Brotherhood, who gives you a dagger and assigns you a kill. Do this, and sleep again. He'll visit again, and tell you how to actually join. The Dark Brotherhood offers some of the best quests in the game. And each of the four Guilds has a finite number of quests, which all end in you ultimately running that Guild.

In addition to all of that and the main quest itself, you can buy a house in each town, except for Kvatch, which is destroyed at the start of the game. And Imperial City, because that house is actually just a shack on the waterfront. And the unmapped villages you come across - they don't count. Just Chorrol, Anvil, Skingrad, Lleyawin, Bravil, Cheydinhal, Bruma, and the Imperial City. The price of each house varies, from the cheap shack in the Imperial City to the mansion in Skingrad. Each house comes with little more than a bed or bedroll, but you can buy "upgrades" for each house in the same city, usually in total for the price of the house again. Fully upgraded, the shack is not really nice, but better than it comes. Fully upgraded, the mansion is very nice, and you can even buy a maid. You can get quests all over the game, from hearing gossip and talking to people of interest, to talking to counts and lords, it seems like every other person has something for you to do. None of them conflict, so you can do everything. Scattered around the land are shrines to Daedric lords - essentially demons - where you can make an offering and do one quest for each of them, for a substantial reward (and in fact, you will have to do one of these, and then give up the reward as part of the main quest).

And then there's the downloadable content. Oblivion gets a lot of flak online because the first downloadable content cost $4.25 and all it did was allow you to buy armor for your horse. People were not amused at what they got, let alone what they had to pay. Then four properties came out - Battlehorn Castle, for fighters; Frostcrag Spire, for mages; Deepscorn Hollow, for assassins; and the Thieves' Den, for thieves. These were $1.89 apiece and, like the houses, came pretty bare until you bought all the upgrades (with the in-game money, not real money). Each also included a quest or two apiece and various other things to do. And Mehrune's Razor, the largest dungeon in the game, which includes an underground village, and ends with you getting a relatively weak sword. Weak compared to what my character currently has, anyway. It'll look nice in my castle, though. But those are the little things. There are two large downloadable expansions. The first is Knights of the Nine, which costs $10. You travel the country looking for shrines to the Nine (the good gods) and you must pray at one of each. Then, you form an ancient brotherhood of knights to oppose a god-killer. This is huge and worth every penny, but don't - and I mean DON'T - do it before finishing the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves' Guild. The reason is, you get some good equipment, but do one bad thing (well, two bad things) and all the stuff you get from KotN - falls right off you. You must be a righteous character to use those things. And the first thing you do, the pilgrimage quest - forgives all your sins. Then there's Shivering Isles, which costs a whopping $30, but it adds a whole new country to explore, so it is worth it as well. The Shivering Isles are home to and the creation of Sheogorath, the Daedric Prince of Madness, and his world reflects that. It's divided into two sections, Mania and Dementia. You end up working for Sheogorath, working to stop the invasion of another Daedric prince named Jyggalag, the Daedric Prince of Order, who Sheogorath describes as "boring".

Anyway, that does sound like a lot of money, but if you buy the "Game of the Year" version of Oblivion for the Xbox 360, it comes with a second disc which installs Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles to your Xbox 360 hard drive (takes up about 1GB). That's $40 of extra stuff, and this pack is only $30. The thing is, it adds 30 seconds to the start of the game to "load" the "additional content", so bearing in mind my warning about Knights of the Nine and its conflicts, it pays to actually not install the expansions until you're completely done with the original game. You're also on your own for the four extra properties and Mehrune's Razor. Also, Xbox 360 games start out costing $60. This is one that is completely worth that, so getting it for $30, plus $40 worth of expansions, is really a steal. It really is $100 worth of game. It's more, actually, I've put 120 hours in and I still want to play.

So is this game perfect? Near about. It's not without its pitfalls, however. Like I said, the $10 expansion quest Knights of the Nine doesn't play fairly if you choose to be a bad guy later. That's stupid. It makes sense, being as that you're an agent for the (good) gods, but for a game that gives you this much freedom, it counts against it. Then there's the extra 30 seconds of loading. That gets old. On top of that, the game itself lags in places it really shouldn't. Around the Net, they say if you press A/green while the game is starting, it "defragments" the "disk cache" which should fix it. It really doesn't. Or maybe I'm doing it wrong, the instructions aren't clear, and everbody's got a different way of doing it. There are a couple of bugs which will halt your game right in its tracks, so save often. Fortunately the Xbox 360 version does this for you, but some crashes like to take the last few saves with them. Some instructions are unclear and you'll find yourself hitting up a site called UESP - it's like the Wikipedia of Oblivion. The game's menu icons are never explained, but they're mostly self-explanatory. A couple of caves are death traps - fall down a hole and you're stuck. Whoops. A dead goblin drank himself to death in there. If you have about a dozen paint brushes on you, you can sort of get back up through the hole - paint brushes don't fall when dropped. Drop one right in front of you and it floats. On top of that, you can stand on it. There are also a lot of useless items you can find, so when going through loot, you have to know to separate trash from treasure. And speaking of treasure, nothing's actually worth what it shows up in your inventory as. First of all, shopkeepers only give you 39% of what something's worth, though you can usually haggle that up to around 55%. The more business you do with a merchant, the more they like you, and you can work it up into the 70s and 80s percentage-wise, but you'll never be able to sell stuff for what it's actually worth. And merchants have a cap - if a merchant's cap is 800 gold, your Daedric warhammer is worth 4500 gold, even if you haggled him up to 75%, he's still going to give you no more than 800 gold for it, because that's his cap. There are a lot of factors, but the most you can get for something is commonly accepted to be around 3,000 gold. Yet they will be glad to take 5,000 or more gold for items they sell, and their cap doesn't go up to reflect their newfound wealth. The most expensive item I saw cost nearly 20,000 gold, and I think it was a ring. But on the other hand, once you've bought all the properties and their upgrades, all you use money for is to repair your equipment. And you can buy spells, I guess, but that's trivial when you get up around 50,000 gold in no time. You stop picking up glass, Daedric, and Ebony weapons and armor to sell for top dollar; you end up only picking up gold and stuff you'll actually use. Because you can only carry so much.

Still, this game has gone above and beyond the Grand Theft Auto games for making a truly open world where you can literally do anything you want. Actually, if fans of GTA (which does include me) can get over the lack of cars, cops, and explosions, Oblivion is actually a very attractive game to that crowd. It is a role playing game, however, and while you can actually control the battles (unlike Final Fantasy's infamous menu-based fights), it's still rolling dice in the background, and of course you have a ton of stats and proficiencies. What works here, though, is that your character learns by doing. Fighting with a sword builds your Blade proficiency, and just running and swimming raises Athletics (jumping raises Acrobatics). Every transaction in a shop raises Mercantile. You have seven major proficiencies; level any/all of these so many times, and you go up a level. Stats (strength, dexterity, intelligence, luck, etc.) can raise zero to five points per level gain depending on how much the proficiencies they govern (e.g. Strength governs blade and hand-to-hand, dexterity governs athletics and acrobatics). If all you did to gain a level was jump and run, you have the option of raising dexterity by a full five points. So it's all very clever.

While I highly recommend Oblivion for the Xbox 360, I can't recommend it for the PC, unless you have a very expensive beast of a computer. Oblivion is very demanding for PCs, and does not look as good. With an Xbox 360 and even a 720p HDTV, as we have, it looks fantastic. You would need a computer costing a couple thousand dollars to play this game, not something you can get at Walmart or even Best Buy. For that price, you might as well buy a nice TV and an Xbox 360 and not have to worry about getting it to run under Windows. PC games used to dominate, but that time has passed. Maybe it will come again, maybe not, no one can say. Then again, if you do have a PC capable of playing Oblivion, there are a lot of homemade mods for it. New weapons and items, new quests, changes to the game itself (for example, one I saw added muggers to towns at night). What most PCs can play, however, is Oblivion's predecessor, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. While not quite as intuitive as Oblivion, I fully intend to play through Morrowind now that I've beaten Oblivion, and now that I feel that I know how an Elder Scrolls game is meant to be played. Also, not to come off as an Xbox 360 fanboy, I hear that the PlayStation 3 version of Oblivion, while just as good, does not have the downloadable content available. I'm not sure if there is a "Game of the Year" edition which adds the big ones or not, but I'm pretty sure the downloadable stuff is unavailable to PlayStation gamers. Still, as it's among the best Xbox 360 games, I'm sure it's among the best PS3 games as well. And hopefully PS3's stronger processor eliminates those slowdowns. One can only hope. Best thing is, Oblivion came out in 2006, and the fans are expecting a fifth Elder Scrolls game next year or the year after. They just made Fallout 3, a futuristic RPG that is said to be a lot like Oblivion. While I can't see myself enjoying a game with guns and radiation as much as Oblivion, I owe it to Bethesda Softworks to give their new game a try, given how much I enjoyed their last one.