Tuesday, December 25, 2012

LEGO Star Wars Memories

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks Please see this post at https://medium.com/@ianrbuck/lego-star-wars-memories-a38f56ad96

My brothers +Caleb Buck and +Jonas Buck and I have a lot of Legos that we have accumulated over the years of our collective childhoods. Most of those are Star Wars Legos, and we had a pretty intricate story going for our Lego universe. We managed to incorporate almost every other Lego theme that we have as well- Alpha Team, BionicleMars MissionExo-Force, and more than a few ships that Caleb came up with himself. Now that our sisters have started getting into Legos hardcore, it has made us look back at all of the adventures we sent our minifigures on over the course of the last 14+ years. We went on such a huge nostalgia ride this evening that we typed up as much as we could remember. The early stuff is pretty vague, but the more recent events get more specific. So here it is (note that the numbers are footnotes, but Blogger's text editor is really limited so they look pretty bad.)

In the beginning, there were two mighty empires. Well, one was much mightier than the other. But whatever. Each was led by an identical Emperor. Nobody knows how they came to power, or why they looked exactly the same; all we know is that their Empires have been locked in a terrible bloody conflict for as long as anyone can remember. Except maybe Yoda. But whatever.
Over time the Empire led by the Elder Emperor gained the upper hand 1. Their final epic battle took place on Coruscant and it was there that the Elder came out on top. He knew, however, that he would never be able to fully extinguish the Younger Emperor’s influence from the galaxy. Therefore he made an offer that the Younger could not refuse. They joined their Empires into one, with the Elder Emperor taking control of Imperial City and the Younger Emperor taking control of the spaceport 2.
There was peace for a time. The Empire prospered and the people were happy. There were some, however, whose livelihood depended on conflict. You see, the Empire was so efficient at stamping out crime that the Bounty Hunters were out of a job 3. Inevitably they joined together under the leadership of Zam Wesell and declared war on the Empire.
It was clear that the bounty hunters were at a distinct disadvantage in terms of military force. However, Zam Wesell proved to be a very convincing and charismatic leader and it wasn’t long before she drew the commanders of the droid army (General Grievous) and the corporate leader of Sentai Inc (Caker Baker 4) to her side. Together they slowly began to push the Empire back until eventually they took Coruscant and the Emperor 5 was forced into hiding on one of the last planets under his control: Mata Nui.
Mata Nui is a primitive world inhabited by gigantic beings known as Bionicles. The Empire had set up bases in each of the separate biomes: their spaceport was located up on the mountain, the Emperor’s main bunker was in the rocky area, and they maintained a presence in the other biomes to keep the bounty hunters on their toes.
Most of the Empire’s remaining forces managed to arrive on Mata Nui without being tracked by the bounty hunters. However, there was one Jedi starfighter (pilot unknown) that the bounty hunters managed to attach a tracking device to. After sending a Death Shadow to investigate, the bounty hunters attacked in force.
The Battle of Mata Nui was chaotic and epic. It consisted of many separate smaller conflicts that determined the overall state of the battle. Eventually the only stronghold of the Empire’s was the bunker where the Emperor was being protected. And this is where things got interesting.
Time for a little backstory on the internal politics of each faction. The Empire was mostly completely cohesive; the exception to this was the fact that the Jedi were growing increasingly suspicious of the Emperor’s government. However they were unable to do anything about it because of the huge conflict with the bounty hunters. The Emperor in turn knew that having a group of powerful force users that were not directly part of the government could be a serious problem down the road.
Most of the members of the Bounty Hunter army were loyal to Zam Wesell. The exception to this was the Sentai forces. Sentai Inc was a front for a much larger army that hailed from the planet Kichi. The heads of this army were Mr. Black and Mr. White who were the only remaining survivors of their species, the Sosen. All Sosen were force-sensitive, and they had developed a comprehensive set of martial arts. The rest of the army was made up of humans who lived on Kichi. They were completely loyal to Mr. Black and Mr. White. Sentai Inc was created in order to distribute their weapons and technology across the galaxy in preparation for the day when they would seize control.
The Battle of Mata Nui was nearing its end; the Imperial forces were on the verge of being overrun when Mr. Black and Mr. White gave the order to turn on the other Bounty Hunter forces. This timing was chosen to take advantage of the weakened state of the other factions and to maximize confusion and chaos. The rest of the Bounty Hunters were caught off-guard. Caker Baker was the most confused because he had thought that he was in charge of the Sentai forces. He remained loyal to Zam Wessel because they were madly in love with each other 6. This confused things even more for General Grievous, who decided that nobody outside of his droid network could be trusted. Thus the Bounty Hunters ended up splitting into three factions: Sentai, Droids, and the Diversity Alliance.
Mr. Black and Mr. White had underestimated the strength of the Imperial forces. With the Bounty Hunters in disarray, the Empire started to push back. It was then that the Emperor decided to initiate Order 66 7. Most of the Jedi were taken out right away (only one of each character survived; that is, we eliminated all Lukes except for one, etc) but a few managed to escape into the forest. A group of them including Yoda found the Millennium Falcon. Han Solo was a smuggler currently hired by the Bounty Hunters to move ordinance. One of the Sentai turrets had damaged the Falcon as he attempted to flee when the Sentai coup took place. As Han and Chewy made repairs to the Falcon under the watchful gaze of the Jedi, Senator Leia Organa stumbled into the clearing chased by a couple of infantry tanks. She had gotten separated from the rest of the Imperial Army and her personal guard was dead. After dispatching the infantry tanks, the Jedi decided that they couldn’t trust her not to reveal the fact that they were escaping from the Jedi Purge, so they took her prisoner. These Jedi along with a couple of others who managed to liberate their starfighters decided to head to the coordinates of a planet that the Jedi had discovered but had not had time to visit and explore yet. As it just so happens this planet is Kichi.
The Jedi were in for quite a surprise when they came out of hyperspace to find a large fleet of Sentai ships; their surprise was only rivaled by that of the Sentai pilots. They were quickly surrounded and forced to land on the surface of the planet. There they were taken into custody. 8
Meanwhile Sentai’s coup occurred on every Bounty Hunter controlled planet. In many cases Sentai managed to take complete control of those planets, but there are many that remain under Droid control (usually heavily industrial planets). The Diversity Alliance has become more of a terrorist group, operating with small teams of highly-skilled insurgents. In fact the overall warfare will likely depend less on having huge vehicles than it used to because the resources of each faction are spread pretty thin.

1 Because Ian was older and got more LEGOs for birthdays and holidays. Plus Caleb traded a bunch of his Star Wars sets to Ian for all of Ian’s Bionicles.
2 We realize that this is a shit deal, but we made this up when we were really young.
3 The criminals weren’t happy either.
4 He’s not actually the leader of Sentai, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
5 By this time there was only one Emperor and the other one was his decoy.
6 You can tell that they are in love by the pet names they have for each other: “Cakey Bakey” and “Zammy Wammy.” Yeah, we had no idea how love worked back then.
7 And if you don’t know what that is, get out now.
8 Eventually we are planning on having the Jedi joining Sentai after Yoda discovers Mr. Black and Mr. White.
So that is the state of the galaxy right now. We had acquired a nice map of the Star Wars galaxy with lots of planets labeled, and we figured out which faction controlled which planets. But that was several computers ago and the only version we have is really pixelated and you can't read it anymore. Not to worry, we will soon have a nice version that you can read.

We are also planning on starting up a nice site with pages for each vehicle, character, planet, faction, etc all nicely organized so you can find everything. As we continue our story I will post updates on developments and whatnot.

Never grow up!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Bioshock 2 Review

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks Please see this post at https://medium.com/@ianrbuck/bioshock-2-review-99e84369b8bd

For those of you who have played the original Bioshock, you will be right at home in Bioshock 2. For the rest of you, go play the original Bioshock first; if you don't you will be more than a little confused.
A little background first: both games take place in a city called Rapture located on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. It was created as a utopia where you could choose your own destiny without the interference of governments or organized religion. As you can imagine this didn't last, and by the time you show up in the first game Rapture has deteriorated into a big free-for-all. The man who created Rapture, Andrew Ryan, serves as the main antagonist in the first game.

The second game takes place eight years after the first one, which is surprising because I can't believe that the city continued to function for that long. You play as a Big Daddy who has been gone from Rapture for ten years.

The city is now under the control of a psychiatrist named Sofia Lamb, and you have plenty of reasons to hate her. In direct contrast to Ryan's exaltation of the individual, Lamb is all about everyone working together. I find it interesting that all of these people who came to Rapture specifically for self-determination are suddenly working for Lamb.

The first game presented the moral choice of what to do with the Little Sisters that you encountered. Little Sisters collected Adam, which is a resource that you use to purchase upgrades and passive abilities. If you decided to harvest a Little Sister you got all of the Adam that she had, but she did not survive the process. If you rescued the Little Sister she would return to being a normal human.

The end cutscene was different based on what you did with the Little Sisters. In Bioshock 2 there was more to it. In addition to deciding whether to harvest or rescue the Little Sisters, there were several characters who you could decide to spare or kill; different situations surround each choice. I have heard that there are something like 12 different endings to the game depending on what you decide to do. This is one of the significant things that they improved over the original game in my opinion.

Other than that though I felt that the story wasn't quite as good as the original. While it wasn't too difficult to understand where Andrew Ryan was coming from when he went on his rants, I really couldn't understand the reasoning behind Sofia Lamb's plan to create a perfect society. Speaking of Ryan, many of the characters and recordings talked about him and their opinions of how he ran things; clearly Rapture was still living in his shadow 8 years later. I felt like Bioshock 2 was similarly living in its predecessor's shadow, especially because the creative minds behind the first game (read: Ken Levine) weren't directly involved in the second.

The area that Bioshock 2 made huge improvements in was the gameplay. In the original game you had to switch between your weapon and plasmid, but in the second you always had both available to you. This alone made battles much more fast-paced and hectic. There was also more variety in enemy types; the splicers are a lot more deformed, presumable due to the extra years since the first game, and there now brute splicers. They aren't quite as tough as Big Daddies but they fill in the gap between weak foes and really tough ones. The scariest enemy that they added was the Big Sister. They come after you sometimes after you have rescued a Little Sister, and they are tough. They use plasmids and melee attacks, and they are extremely nimble. I couldn't get a screenshot of them while they were alive because I was too busy trying to shoot them, but here is a dead one.

There were new weapons as well: the metal pipe you wielded in the original game is replaced by the Big Daddy's Drill, and I took malicious pleasure in pinning enemies to walls from afar with the new spear gun.

Hacking was also a lot better in Bioshock 2. Instead of a weird Where's My Water? minigame, Bioshock 2 had a moving needle that you had to land in the correct areas to succeed. It was a lot quicker and made a little more sense. They also introduced a remote hacker which made hacking things like security cameras and turrets much easier. As someone who hacked as many things as I possibly could, I appreciated those changes. There was also one upgrade that gave you the ability to repair friendly bots and they each got a name; I loved it because I name all of my electronics in real life, so why not name my virtual electronics as well?

Graphically Bioshock 2 is beautiful. The environment was almost identical to the original, but you can immediately tell the difference when you look at character models from the two games. Thankfully it also looks gorgeous in 3D. There were quite a few times when water would run down the front of my helmet in the game and I would blink to clear my eyes out of reflex.

The one thing that I really didn't like about the game had nothing to do with the game itself. It had to do with this:

The Bioshocks are the only games that I have played that require Games for Windows Live, and it is pretty obnoxious. When I buy a game from Steam I assume that I am downloading the most up-to-date version. Not so here. Luckily the internet at my house isn't a complete joke anymore so I was able to download the update in about an hour. I'm glad that Bioshock Infinite won't be using anything this silly.


Creepy religious connotations.

And see all of my screenshots on Steam.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Hobbit

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks Please see this post at https://medium.com/@ianrbuck/the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-4f110795ecf0

I'm pretty picky about the movies that I go to, especially midnight premiers. The only other movie I went to see at its midnight premier this year was The Avengers. So I was already determined to enjoy The Hobbit by the time we got to the theater.

As you may have heard, this wasn't a direct book-to-movie adaptation; and strangely I was OK with that. It would have been nice to know that they were splitting the book up into three movies though because two-thirds of the way through I started thinking to myself  this is going to be a really long movie.

Obviously The Hobbit isn't an overly long book, so they had to add a lot of stuff to stretch it out to three movies. They spent quite a while at the beginning linking it to the Lord of the Rings trilogy by showing Bilbo and Frodo talking about his adventure and how Bilbo hadn't told him quite everything yet. Then Frodo goes out to meet Gandalf before Bilbo's big party. That part added a good ten minutes or so to the movie right off the bat.

The next thing that they added to the movie that took up significant time was this guy:

What's-his-face the Brown
That is Radagast the Brown. In the book he is mentioned once when Gandalf is asked about his fellow wizards, and never makes an appearance. In the movie Gandalf mentions him and then Radagast gets his own little story arc where he is trying to fight off some darkness that is encroaching on his forest. This ends up tying into Sauron rising to power, thus linking the movie to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. At first I was really confused about why they were adding all of this content, but I just kind of went with it. I really enjoyed Radagast as a character, and overall the scenes that they added didn't detract too much from this Unexpected Journey we were following.

The dialogue was great, very witty. I have seen a few episodes of Sherlock (also very witty) and I was looking forward to seeing Sherlock and Watson as Smog and Bilbo respectively. But then they ended the movie before Smog even has a single line, which was pretty disappointing. The dwarves were a lot of fun, especially when they burst into rowdy song. Smeagol also had some great lines, and he seemed to be a lot more lucid than in Lord of the Rings. I'm not sure if that was intentional, if losing the ring made him worse, but I really enjoyed Bilbo going back and forth with Smeagol and Smeagol going back and forth with himself.

There was one scene that I thought was a little too much of a set-piece. It was the chase through the goblin kingdom; everyone was running around on these rickety wooden bridges and everything kept conveniently working out just right so that the dwarves were always half a step ahead of the goblin hoard. As the place was falling apart it was still spaced out perfectly; it felt like a scripted sequence in a video game, or like the platforming sequences in the Assassin's Creed games. It just didn't seem natural.

That is a pretty small issue in an otherwise superb movie. I would definitely recommend it to pretty much everybody, especially anyone geeky enough to be reading my blog. Take a few friends and see it during winter break!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Assassin's Creed III Review

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks Please see this post at https://medium.com/@ianrbuck/assassin-s-creed-iii-review-ecda9ddc4fa8

Raise your hand if you were looking forward to this game's launch for months before it came out. Those of you with your hands down are liars. This game broke Ubisoft's preorder record (previously held by Assassin's Creed Revelations) and I know several people who bought it; unfortunately none of them got it on PC do I don't have anybody to play multiplayer with. What I'm saying is that there was tons of hype for this game, and I don't feel like it delivered on its promises.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the game a lot; but based on the improvements that each game in the series has made, I was expecting more. They promised a huge, open-world game and I was expecting Skyrim with hidden blades. As it turns out there are only four areas total for you to run around in: Boston, New York, the frontier, and the homestead which serves as your home base. I know that there was plenty of side stuff for you to do in each of those areas, but none of them really seemed meaningful; they didn't add to the lore of the game and they didn't give interesting rewards. Hunting is kind of fun on its own but most of the animals I killed were opportunity kills. The homestead had several buildings and craftspeople that you could do missions for in order to get higher quality goods from. But getting more money wasn't something that I was concerned with; I had my hidden blades, my tomahawk, and my pistol. What more could I need? There aren't any armor upgrades or even medicine to buy like in previous games (regenerating health). I quickly stopped exploring altogether and only focused on doing the main story missions.

The story wasn't a disappointment. It had plenty of twists (some more unexpected than others) and I enjoyed the return to the epic decade-spanning narrative style similar to the one in Assassin's Creed II. It is much easier to understand a character's motivations when you have been following his story from before his birth through his childhood and into early adulthood.

You might notice that I said that the story started before Connor's birth. That is because throughout the first few hours of the game you play as Haytham, Connor's father. Many developers have gotten good at sneaking tutorials into plot-critical missions, and ACIII is a great example of that. Haytham and the other characters from the prologue are great; I appreciate Haytham's frank Britishness, Charles' door-kicking enthusiasm, and Hickey's idiocy. As my friend Katie said after he said something especially ignorant, "I wonder what it feels like to be that uneducated."


I'm not sure why Ubisoft enjoys filling my screen with someone's face, but it happens rather often throughout the story.

I have always found the American Revolution fascinating, and I loved the missions that happened during major historical events like the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the midnight ride of Paul Revere. However, after those early events you stop interacting directly with the revolution. The trailers made me think that you were going to be running around on battlefields, dodging musket balls, and assassinating generals on a regular basis; that happened a grand total of once. George Washington also didn't appear very often. I had been given the impression that he and Connor were going to become friends but he only appeared about four times throughout the game, and they were very brief encounters. All of the other characters seemed to have something to say about him (usually "he's a great man!" or "he is an indecisive leader") but I never got to see him in action and decide for himself. I am looking forward to the King George alternate history DLC.

"Hi there. My name is George Washinton. Now I'm going to disappear for the next 3/4 of the game."
Assassin's Creed III is of course the climax of the "the world is going to end on December 21st!" arc and thus you get to spend some time outside of the animus learning more about the first civilization. Desmond's father is one of the people there with Desmond, and their rocky relationship comes up quite a few times.

I thought that the ending was a little weird. Desmond was given a choice, but the player didn't get to affect that choice. I personally would have chosen differently, but it's not like player choice has ever been something that Assassin's Creed did anyway.

I haven't played any multiplayer, partly because none of my friends own the game and partly because I want to get through as many games in my backlog as possible this winter break. Speaking of which, if there are any games that you want me to review let me know (preferably ones that I already own) and I'll try to fit them into my schedule this month.

The final thing that I found disappointing was the graphics. Every single entry in the series has been significantly better graphically than those that came before it, and I remember them telling us that the textures on the PC version were going to be twice to four times the resolution of the console versions. So imagine my surprise when I find myself face to face with the most pixelated bushes I have seen in quite a while. The game didn't look bad, it just wasn't nearly as good as I was expecting.

I am worried that I am sounding way more negative than I mean to here. I had a blast playing this game, and there are some significant additions and improvements that Ubisoft made. My favorite was the naval missions. These missions were so well done, so fleshed out that they could have been their own game. The experience of being at the helm and shouting out commands to my men so I can line up the perfect broadside is unparalleled. I really hope that someone takes note of it and makes a game that is primarily ship combat of this type. And if anyone knows of a game that is already like this, tell me now.

The other significant addition was much more subtle. The clues system was first introduced to track animals in the forest, but it makes its way into many other missions as well. The idea that the more clues you find, the possible area that whatever it is you are looking for narrows. It extends the idea of eagle vision quite nicely by making it interactive and less arbitrary. Haven't you ever wondered how Ezio is able to see everyone's intentions just by looking at them?

Combat has also been vastly improved. Whereas with Ezio it was often necessary to hold down the block button and slowly take everyone down one by one, with Connor it is much easier to attack and simply block each incoming attack as they came. Many of those blocks would then turn into counterattacks, sometimes even scripted combo kills. Connor attacks with a lot more ferocity and violence than Ezio or Altair ever did, and it feels awesome. It is often much simpler to just stand your ground and kill all of the guards that get alerted to your presence. It ends up looking something like this:

So yes, Assassin's Creed III is definitely worth getting, but make sure that your expectations are realistic before you play it.

As always I leave you with a few more screenshots, and you can see my full gallery on Steam.

EDIT: You can now read my review of the King Washington DLCs.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Assassin's Creed Revelations Review

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks Please see this post at https://medium.com/@ianrbuck/assassin-s-creed-revelations-review-3fb49363744b

I actually finished playing Assassin's Creed Revelations over two weeks ago, but the realities of finals season hit me before I could write a post about it.

As with Assassin's Creed Brotherhood you play as Ezio Auditore, this time in the city of Constantinople. Ezio is now looking for several keys to a vault that Altair sealed centuries ago. Each key lets you relive a select memory from Altair's life, which is where the revelations happen. In this way it gives closure on both Ezio and Altair's stories at the same time.

The game shares a lot of similarities with Brotherhood: the majority of the game takes place in one city where you liberate areas and recruit new assassins who you then send off on missions throughout the region.

Graphically Revelations is definitely the best-looking game in the series so far. It also looks just good in 3D as Brotherhood did before it.

Ubisoft made a few gameplay additions to spice things up. My favorite is the new hookblade, which makes climbing a breeze; it also has other applications like ziplining between buildings (why these ziplines are all over Constantinople I have no idea) and the ever-useful hook-and-run maneuver. Bombs are interesting, but I didn't use them much except when the game prompted me to.

Another nice addition was some backstory for Desmond. As you might know, at the end of Brotherhood Desmond falls into a coma and they put him into the animus to keep him from losing his mind. There you get to play through a few first-person levels that tell us about Desmond's life before he got mixed up with Abstergo. It's nice to know more about the person who you are playing as, and solidifies him as an actual character rather than simply the guy who you have to go through to get to Ezio.

The Lost Archive DLC does something similar for Subject 16, and it was very moving. I would recommend it to those who are interested in good storytelling.

This may have to do with the fact that I completely ignored all side missions during my five hour push to the end of the game, but Revelations seemed much shorter than the previous games in the series. I only spent 19 hours in the game; for reference the amount of time I spent in the other games are as follows:
  • Assassin's Creed: 22 hours
  • Assassin's Creed II: 39 hours
  • Assassin's Creed Brotherhood: 36 hours
I think I have over-saturated myself with Assassin's Creed games trying to finish all of them before the launch date of Assassin's Creed III. Hopefully this does not affect my ability to enjoy the American Revolution through the animus.

Overall I would recommend Assassin's Creed Revelations to those of you who felt that Altair and Desmond felt hollow in the previous games and those of you who are obsessed with plotlines. If you are looking for multiplayer you should definitely get Assassin's Creed III because that is what most people will be playing.

As always, here are some random screenshots to finish off.

For my full collection of screenshots, head over to the Steam Community. Beware of spoilers though.