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.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

YouTube to Block Internet Explorer 6 Users

Hold up now. I did not say that YouTube was going to block Internet Explorer users. They are going to block users of Internet Explorer 6 (and presumably prior versions). Internet Explorer 6 is the version of IE that came with Windows XP, and it's the last "Classic" version of IE before Microsoft threw the GUI in the blender. IE 7 and IE 8 are both ugly as sin, but that's the least of my concerns with Internet Explorer. IE specifically does not block ads and cannot be made to do so - that's my biggest beef. But I'm using Firefox (actually Portable Firefox) and encourage others to do the same. Or if Mozilla creeps you out (their funky licensing or their rising popularity) and for some reason Google doesn't, they offer a browser called Chrome. There's also Opera, which scared people away by being the last paid web browser (it's since been made free). Fifthly, there's Safari, made by Apple, recently released for Windows. So there are five major choices there. IE 7+, Firefox, Chrome, Opera, or Safari.

The real story here is that many people actually still have or still use IE 6. It actually isn't a bad browser, compared with IE 7 and IE 8. It just needs to be configured properly to be safe (or relatively so). It's not going to do the tricks Firefox can do, but it's not bad to just hit the Net real quick for something, in a pinch, or if that's what's installed at work. The fact that YouTube is not a safe site to be accessing at work is entirely beside the point. I don't know what your job is. Maybe you have a lot of down time and YouTube keeps you sane. I don't know. Don't really care, either.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

'Cash for Clunkers' caveats

Two weeks ago today, I was at work, as I am now, with my last car. On the way home, it died. I later found that it was the head gasket we had just had repaired three months ago. We hadn't even finished paying on the prior repair. That is what you call a lemon: a car that, no matter how much you put into it, keeps costing you more than it's worth.

This past Monday, a new economic and environmental stimulus package took effect, called "Cash for Clunkers", and it's been getting a lot of attention lately. Because of the death of my car, we took my wife's car in. We didn't know about the program, but when we heard we could get $3500 or $4500 off a brand-new car, it sounded like a good idea. A "Clunker", according to the rules and regulations of this program, is a car made in 1984 or more recently and gets less than 18 miles per gallon. Jen's car qualifies; it gets close to 15 miles to the gallon. Or at least we thought it qualified.

Appropriately named "Chuggy" (by me, no less), aside from getting below-average gas mileage, the spedometer did not work (as soon as you started it, it would climb to, and then past its maximum level), there was no panel on the driver's door (to let yourself out, you had to grab the linkage inside the door and pull), the front windows did not go down, the roof was just a sheet that hung down and could not be tacked up, the doors could not be locked, the A/C didn't work due to a missing belt, the car had to be warmed up for at least 5 minutes in the cold, the shifter knob for the transmission kept falling off (we had to put a bag over it to at least catch it), while the gas tank had a cap, there was no cover, the car was white, rust, and steel colored, the bumpers were barely hanging on. Oh, and it didn't like going over 45-50 miles per hour. (For all that, though, it was a very reliable car. Neither of the cars I've had since she's had it have lasted as long.)

But, according to the federal government, Chuggy isn't a clunker. Being a "Clunker", by their definition, isn't actually about fuel economy. The reason Chuggy isn't a clunker is because when it was "brand new", it got more than 18 miles to the gallon (probably about 20-22). 1990 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais, V6, automatic. In fact, most standard passenger cars manufactured since 1984 got better than 18 miles to the gallon when they rolled off the lot. So what is a "clunker"? It's mainly big trucks and sports cars, cars actually designed to get low mileage in favor of performance, whether it's workload or racing. Before the Bush Administration, bad fuel economy did not a bad car make, if it made up for it in other ways. Now fuel economy is first and foremost.

Lastly, you don't get any cash. What you get is a voucher for $3500 or $4500 towards the purchase of a new vehicle, and this is all handled with the dealer. It acts as your down payment, if you haven't got one, which is great for working-class folks who have bills to pay and can't save, but can afford a monthly payment. I'm sure we all know folks like that. ;-) (You read the blog of one...)

So here's how it works. If you want to trade your car in under this program, you need to find out what the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) rated the fuel economy of your car's make, model, and trim when it was brand new. Aftermarket modifications and wear and tear do not count whatsoever. Find this out, because the dealer will find out, and if it's 19 or higher, your car will not qualify, regardless of what it gets now. If your car or truck does qualify, $3500 is taken off the total cost of the car if the new car gets 5-9 miles more per gallon than the car you're trading in. An additional $1000, for a total of $4500, is taken off if the new car gets 10 miles more per gallon than the trade-in. Futhermore, the trade-in must be in the name of the person buying the new car, and it must have been in that person's name for a full year or longer.

We did not qualify, but we were still able to trade Chuggy in for a fraction of what we would have got under the program. Our payments went up a bit and we got a lesser car, but there are things about it I like more, too. (On top of that it gets a little better gas mileage!)

"Cash for Clunkers" started this past Monday. I wondered why Nissan made us sign everything for the 27th on the 24th. I guess that's why. $100 million has already been paid out to car dealerships around the country for Clunker trade-ins alone, and the goverment appropriated $1 billion. So the fund has $900 million left; at this rate, that's another 9 weeks. Maybe less, as word of the program gets out. And Congress is reportedly seeking another $2 billion for the program.

//Update: 3 August 2009: They got it - so there is now roughly $2.5 billion, I'm guessing, available for this program.

This may be what it takes to get the economy working again. Stimulus checks are not the answer, because people either save them, or use them to pay for goods and services that are not financially threatened. Like the light bill - the power company is not going anywhere. So stimulating them is a waste of money. People may buy booze with it, or drugs - or, to be fair, food. Food manufacturers aren't hurting either; neither is the spirits industry. And I shouldn't need to explain why the drug trade doesn't need money. The auto industry however, does need stimulus. And the banks who underwrite their loans. They need help as well. People need to buy expensive things they need because they need them, and they need to buy them from large companies to keep these businesses doing business, and paying their employees, keeping their families fed, their kids off the streets, not committing crimes with their friends. I know all that's a stretch, but that's how a capitalist system works. The only problem is that due to the problems the Republicans left us, people don't have the confidence to make these big purchases, because they'll be worse off if they lose their jobs. The Republicans (and the rich) say "Buy, buy, buy, the more you buy, the more industry will make, fewer people will be laid off, your job will be more secure" and the working class wants assurances. Well, sometimes life doesn't come with guarantees, and you just have to make the most out of what you got. We can make this work.