Saturday, November 28, 2009

Even More Left 4 Dead 2 Impression

So I've been paying particular attention to the differences between Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2.

For starters, 2 has much more varied gameplay. At launch, the first L4D had four campaigns that were more or less identical--they all played out the same way but they took place on different maps. The five campaigns in the sequel all have their own unique flavors. Dead Center goes for the zombie-slasher-flick vibe full-bore. It has the most plot-centric progression, it has none-too-subtle nods to other zombie movies (the last half of the campaign takes place in a mall).

Dark Carnival feels like a pretty straight-forward L4D experience, but Swamp Fever has a much more open-world vibe. Hard Rain is probably the most survival-horror of them, and the go-there-and-come-back nature of the level makes it stand out. The Parish in many ways feel like the epitome of what a L4D2 campaign is. The panic events are nearly all in the new gauntlet style, and it has the only gauntlet-style finale, in which you run across a bridge against a head-on cavalcade of infected.

The other substantial difference between this game and its predecessor is that the maps feel much more open--the maps in the original game had plenty of areas to explore, but the areas were tighter-quartered. The openness of the sequel means that the special infected can't sneak up on you as easily and are easier to defend against. They counteract this by throwing even more of them at you. Just this evening I came to a safe room only to be set upon by a Jockey and two Hunters.

Still enjoying it very much, though.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Turkey's Don't, However

Time flies. Thanksgiving is over and now we start Christmas shopping season which will take us at a dead run through the end of the year. Then the '00's are over, and we move on to the teen years of the decade.

Happy Black Friday everyone,

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Try The Veal

It's Thanksgiving, the day of the year when we all get together and remember what we're thankful for. And what, you may ask, am I thankful for?

A goddam four-day weekend.

Happy Holidays!


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Um, Blogless?

Guess what I forgot to do last night. Write an entry for this morning.

This might be an indicator that I'm running out of things to say.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dammit, Jim

Re-watched Star Trek. The more I watch it, the less it stands up to scrutiny, but it's still a damn fun flick.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

It Doesn't Help That "Binging" Mean Drinking To Excess

So apparently Microsoft's new re-branded search engine Bing has 10% of the market share for internet searches. This seems pretty remarkable until you think about how they did it.

You see, they've re-programmed their entire line to use Bing. It's the default search on IE. In fact, on XP the other day, I did a search for a file from the start bar and that popped up a Bing search. In short, Microsoft has dedicated the most popular operating system in the world to using Bing, and after all that effort, they only have 10% of the market.

Pretty pathetic, I'd say.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Vienna Teng and Alex Wong

There weren't many males in the audience at this show (like, could count on two hands), and few of those were under fifty. That said, there were two in the front row: myself and some blond guy. Both of us were at the front of the line to get in, both of us sang along with almost every song, and both of us were utter fanboys.

I've been following Vienna Teng for longer than I've known my wife (and Abby and I started dating almost five and a half years ago). Her music is rich with atmosphere, has wonderfully inventive and intelligent lyrics, and and draws from a broad swath of varied musical influences, wrapping it all around solid pop sensibilities. So you get songs like Antebellum, which uses the Civil War as a metaphor for lovers growing apart, or No Gringo, a song about Americans trying to illegally emigrate to Mexico after some unnamed disaster had left the U.S. in ruins.

I've seen her play three times now, and this time I managed to bring four other people--two of whom had never heard of her prior to my intervention. I could run down highlights, but I don't think anyone would know any of the songs I'm talking about, so I will pause to mention that the Star Wars "cantina" theme found its way into the bridge of In Another Life eliciting some laughter from myself and others. That prompted Vienna to point out that some of her fellow nerds had been "outed". I also inadvertently started a series of awful "Is that a Vienna Teng CD in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?" jokes (answer: both).

But the real take-away from the show was Alex Wong. I've seen him as part of her backing band and heard his production influence on her albums (which gives her latest--Inland Territory--some of its wonderful weirdness), and I knew him to be a competent percussionist, but good lord. He is an incredible musician. He usually played two or three instruments at a time, a typical example being Harbor, in which he played a xylophone with his left hand, a two-piece drum kit with his right hand, a kjone with his foot, and sang backup all at the same time. He would switch instruments or sticks without missing a beat, sometimes flipping sticks around in the air to use different ends during different parts of the same measure. He would grab two mallets in one hand to do a cymbal swell and then discard them for a shaker faster than I was able to keep track. Awed, I am.

And will definitely be seeing him/them/her again the next time they're through St. Louis.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Left 4 Dead 2 Impressions

My expectations for Left 4 Dead 2 were pretty high, but having played through most half of it now, I have to say that the game has so far met or exceeded them all.

The original Left 4 Dead worked with the conceit that you were actually a character in a movie about a zombie apocalypse. The characters from that game were cardboard cut-outs, the stuff of slasher fiction: a grizzled veteran without a war to fight, an energetic yuppie who has been ripped from his life of urban familiarity, a dimwitted thug with a heart of gold, and a hot chick. The quartet fights their way through a city that has already fallen to pieces. The tone of the game was highly stylized, but the panic events and finales had a certain realism to them.

If Left 4 Dead was a slasher, Left 4 Dead 2 is a grindhouse flick. Valve has turned everything up: larger maps, more zombies, more outrageous events in a bleaker and crazier setting. The second campaign of the game takes place in an amusement park where you're chased around by zombie clowns. It ends when you take the stage that had been set up for the band Midnight Riders and set off pyrotechnics to attract a passing helicopter, all while beating zombies to hell with the band's guitars. Bye-bye realism.

For example, in the first campaign, an NPC (non-playable character, for those of you playing along at home) agrees to clear a path for you, which he does by setting off an explosion. He does this under the condition that you go across the street to the store and get him some cola--which will set off an alarm and summon the horde. Before you go, he lets you raid his gun shop, providing a nice kid-in-a-candy store moment. None of this makes any sense if you look at them through a lens of reality, but it works.

In part, Valve gets away with this by giving us more grounded characters. Our heroes have a bit more personality and depth than their predecessors, and there's a level of storytelling layered into the campaigns that deepens the game without interrupting it, all using character dialog and scenery. In many ways, the storytelling elements of this game are dramatically influenced by Portal--with setting and character interactions driving the story rather than plot. Not surprisingly, the game is pretty immersing: the levels are still linear, but they don't feel linear. You're still being led around by the nose, but you don't feel like you are. You feel lost without actually being lost. The background plot is there if you want to find it, but the real story comes from the characters.

In short, Left 4 Dead 2 is what a sequel is supposed to be: a better game. It builds on all the strengths of the original and improves upon the weaknesses. And through all of this, it never takes itself too seriously. There's kind of a push these days to make games "cinematic", but these games often fall pretty flat. It's amusing to me that Left 4 Dead and it's sequel are games that pretend to be cinematic, but focus on being quality gaming experiences. In fact, if they ever made a movie of the campaigns in the L4D franchise, it'd probably be a pretty horrible movie, but it'd be a movie that looked like it had been blast to make.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Missing: A Kurt

As I write this, it is 1 hour and 45 minutes to the release of Left 4 Dead 2. So, if I don't answer the phone, that's why, you know.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Good Music

Thought I'd take a break from all this Beatles talk to about plain old ordinary good music. Of course, when I say "good", I'm referring to the songs from my iTunes list whose titles start with the word "Good".

  • Better Than Ezra - Good
  • The Dresden Dolls - Good Day
  • The Beatles - Good Day Sunshine

And it only took us three songs to get to a Beatles title. Let's see if we can avoid that again.

  • Sarah McLachlan - Good Enough
  • Violent Femmes - Good Feeling
  • Third Eye Blind - Good For You (I effing love this song, by the way)
  • Foo Fighters - Good Grief
  • OK Go - A Good Idea At The Time
  • Weezer - The Good Life
  • The Beatles - Good Morning Good Morning

More Beatles? Seriously? Damn.

  • Good Morning Starshine (from the Hair soundtrack)
  • The Beatles - Good Night

Well, shit. Okay, but Ringo sings that one, it hardly counts.

  • "Weird Al" Yankovic - Good Old Days
  • Green Day - Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)
  • Nine Inch Nails - The Good Soldier
  • Chic - Good Times
  • DJ Rap - Good To Be Alive (man, has anyone even heard of these songs?)
  • The Beach Boys - Good Vibrations
  • Marky Mark And The Funky Bunch - Good Vibrations

Okay, not Beatles, but really freaking funny. To me, anyway.

  • Pink Floyd - Goodbye Blue Sky
  • Pink Floyd - Goodbye Cruel World
  • Elton John - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
  • Imogen Heap - Goodnight And Go
  • Seatbelts - Goodnight Julia
  • Paul McCartney - Goodnight Tonight (doesn't count, doesn't count!!!)
  • Collective Soul - Goodnight, Good Guy



Saturday, November 14, 2009

God Is On The iTunes List

My musical traipsing, upheld somewhat by The Beatles, has brought me to God. Well, to songs that start with the word "God" anyway.

We get:

  • Tori Amos - God
  • Alice In Chains - God Am
  • The Wallflowers - God Don't Make Lonely Girls
  • Nine Inch Nails - God Given
  • Queens Of The Stone Age - God Is On The Radio
  • Cowboy Mouth - God Makes The Rain
  • Moby - God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters
  • Third Eye Blind - God Of Wine
  • Coldplay - God Put A Smile Upon Your Face
  • Alice In Chains - God Smack (originally title God Smash... I kid)
  • Metallica - The God That Failed
Not too many. Not nearly as many as there are "Goods".


Friday, November 13, 2009

Seriously, Though, Let's Get Away From The 'B' Names

I've had occasion to re-watch both of Rian Johnson's films lately, those being Brick and The Brothers Bloom. Apart from a love of the letter 'B', the movies have almost nothing in common.

Brick is a 40's-style hard-boiled noir detective story set in a modern day California high school. It's smart, funny, daring, well-crafted, made on the cheap, and is one of my favorite movies to come out in the last few years.

The Brothers Bloom, I must admit, disappointed me at first. I was expecting something... a little more like Brick, and what I got instead was a screwball comedy fairy-tale disguised as a con movie. And don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed watching it, but I found the ending a bit anti-climactic for a con-movie. That said, upon repeated viewings, it has endeared itself to me and revealed more of its character to me.

And in this way, it's very much like Brick, which I have seen probably a dozen times now, and in which I can still find new nuances and layers to the depth of the story. I'm reminded a little bit of Kubrick, whose films you watched once to see the story and then again to just look at the visuals and admire the craft. Unlike Kubrick, however, Johnson's films don't have the same artistic flare that permeated Kubrick's and often got in the way of the storytelling.

Anyway, I've ranted far longer than I intended to in this post, but I'll close by saying that I'm deeply interested in whatever Rian Johnson is directing next. His first two films are not for everyone, but they're smart, well-made, and singularly unique, so check them out anyway.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

What Is An Arcadium, Anyway?

Over the weekend I had a chance to listen to Red Hot Chili Pepper's Stadium Arcadium from start to finish for the first time in a while--and it's a double-album, twenty-eight tracks altogether. And while the RHCP sound is certainly dominated by Flea's bass insanity and Anthony's raps about sex and geography, this time around I was most impressed by John Fruciante's guitar work. Particularly, listen to Charlie and Turn it Again, in which the guitar layering is most evident. Both songs devolve into guitar breaks for their endings and feature some fantastic melodic hooks.

Of course, the whole album is pretty kick-ass. I think you could have picked four songs at random and called them singles (I love the opener, Dani California, but I couldn't say that it's any stronger than Death of a Martian, which closes the album). I'm also amused by the random trumpet lines that show up in songs (e.g., Turn it Again or Hump De Bump) because Flea, in addition to being one of the most prominent bassists in the world, is an equally skilled trumpet player.

Anyway, nothing profound to say. Just that this record makes me happy.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Steam Powered Fail

Argh, my install of Steam got corrupted and couldn't be repaired, meaning I've lost most of the games I have installed on this computer.

Of course, the beauty of Steam is that I could just uninstall the client and then reinstall it and I've got everything back. But that means I have to reinstall, well, every game I feel like playing that was purchased through Steam.

Which takes a while.

Ugh. No L4D for Kurt tonight.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

There's Also A "Leggy-Blonde"

I love the fact that I can walk into the office and say "Dude, Leather-Boots is Kitten-Liver" and at least one or two people will know what I'm talking about.

This comes from working in an office where we only know people in the building by their physical appearance or vehicles (for those of you playing at home, "Kitten-Liver" comes from a license plate: KTNLVR).

So there's corporate culture for you. And, for the record, Leather-Boots did, in fact, turn out to be the same person as Kitten-Liver.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Some "Random" Entries Are More Random Than Others

Dude, I totally forgot to celebrate Guy Fawkes day. I was gonna, like, blow up some shit... and stuff.

I'll be in Kansas City for the weekend, my only computer an underpowered EEEPC with an uncomfortably small keyboard. So, if I don't respond to comments, that's why.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Don't Tell Me "Rise of Cobra" Isn't Sexual

So Abby and I rented G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra to see if it is as truly awful as everyone says. And the verdict is: yes, it's pretty bad. Thankfully, it's not unwatchably bad. I didn't want to gouge my eyes out or just turn it off and walk away (like we did with Shrink earlier this week). But it hinges on some pretty stupid ideas.

And I blame the director for all of it. The film is a study in poor execution. It hits all the right beats, but it stumbles over itself. There's a grace and poise to some of the action sequences, but there's a whole lot of senseless chaos as well. There are huge special effects sequences, but they all look really, really fake. Every single plot twist was telegraphed; every plot point was overstated. Really, for me the unintentional laughs started with the fancy Hasbro production logo.

Main themes of the script include: becoming evil means dying your hair black and donning glasses. Or burning your face and wearing some kind of mask. What else... oh yeah, science is evil. And intelligent women don't believe in emotions. It's basically an affront against nerds, and who do they think is going to see this movie if not nerds? On a storytelling level, there were no fewer than seven unnecessary flashback sequences (eight if you count Baroness's frequent flitting remembrances of a better time with Duke). Cobra Commander controls the world by brainwashing all of his minions with nano-technology (seriously...). He's the only real bad-guy in the movie. Well, Destro started out bad, then he became a pawn... and Storm Shadow was bad, because his rivalry with Snake Eyes needed to be a plot point for some reason... something to do with honor and swordplay and being Japanese. Seriously...

The film was horribly miscast--Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a fine actor, but he's not menacing. His character was a blatant rip-off of Darth Vader. Channing Tatum looked the part for Duke, but he didn't do anything outside the typical grizzled soldier routine. Baroness was okay--Sienna Miller is not exactly a powerhouse of acting prowess, but she filled her bustier... erm, role well enough (she did quite well when you look at the script--during a terrorist attack she stopped to tell a woman "nice shoes"... seriously...). But Marlon Wayans as Ripcord? Really? You made an action movie and your first instinct was "we need us a Wayans"? That was bad, but not egregious. Brendan Fraser as Sgt. Slaughter was egregious. Jonathan Price (British accent and all) as the President of the United States was egregious.

The design was over-the-top to the point of laughable, like the rest of it. And without any sense of coordination--at the end we have Cobra Commander and Destro and from a distance they looked exactly alike.

I'm sad at the potential--there were lots of little moments that I thought could have had some weight if done correctly. Such as the Baroness's redemption at the end: she's in prison (oh yeah, spoiler alert) and says she'll never get out because of all the horrible things she's done, but Duke says it wasn't really her, they kiss, yay! It could have been a little darker, a little heavier if she had said something instead that all the horrible things she had done really were her--she might not have started out as the kind of person who would kill people, but she is now, and she's not going back. You know, character arc, that kind of thing.

But what should I really expect from a Hasbro production?


Potential alternate title: "Hasbro, Will Travel"

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Aesthetics of Politics (In North Carolina, Anyway)

I'm torn. The worst campaign website in the world went up recently, for George Hutchins in 2010. It's laughably awful. A coworker described it as "clawing up from the depths of Hell to stab him in the eyes".

Part of me feels so bad for the guy. I just want to point out all the horrible, horrible flaws in design and, you know, sentence structure. Clue him in on little things: "Pot Smoking" is not a noun and should not be used as a subject. Use the gerund phrase "Smoking pot" instead. Shy away from the comma key a bit. Believe me, when I'm telling you that you use too many commas, you use way too many freaking commas.

I want to leave comments in his forums, telling him that the poster linking to is fucking with him! And basic web stuff--backgrounds should not be stark red. Words should usually be the same color when they appear in the same sentence. Rather than listing your sentences sequentially, organize them into paragraphs. You know.

And I particularly like this (which I've reproduced sans formatting for the ease of all our eyes):
"America is a Great Nation, due to our Diversity; but ONLY WHEN, This Diversity is VOLUNTARY."
Okay, you clearly do not know how to properly use a semi-colon, a comma, or capital letters. And really, is diversity what makes America great? When did America become a university?

I just want to clutch the poor misguided web-designer to my bosom and tell him "There there, it'll be all right" and outline the various ways that this site is an abomination to the eyes. And at the same time, I'd hate for Mr. Hutchins to take my advice and suddenly seem, you know, like a serious politician.

So, like I said. I'm torn.


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wave Hello (I Hope)

I did finally get my Google Wave invite the other day (I don't remember if I mentioned it here or not). And now I'm stuck with the task of trying to contrive a use for it.


Don't get me wrong, it's really cool, and it's really powerful. Watching the Google demos makes it look really, truly exciting. But watching the Google employees show how they use Wave brings to light a major, major flaw with Wave.

It's designed to be used by smart people. Google's developers and product managers are pretty smart. Most internet users. Not so much.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Of Course, I Do Know Several Robs

So I got a comment on this post in which someone named Rob provided a genuine answer to a rather sarcastic question.

I'm not chiding "Rob" for the info, I'm actually rather glad he responded. First of all, he provided information, rather than simply trolling.

Also, it leads me to believe that every now and then someone actually reads this thing.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Introducing Google Blank!

Anybody else notice the weirdness with Google lately? How they're not showing anything except the logo and search bar until you actually move around the mouse and such.

I don't think there's a joke to it--I think they've taken their philosophy of minimalism and taken it to the next logical step. It's just a matter of time before Google's home page is nothing but a blank screen where you type and magic happens.

Oddly enough, that's more or less the way opening a new tab in Chrome works.

There may be nothing to "get", but that said, I still don't get it.