Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Starpocalypse 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/starpocalypse-review-584dd4253d9b

I've been a big fan of SMBC Theater for a few years now, and I have loved every minute of it. Last year when they announced that they would be focusing on one project for a while instead of coming out with regular sketches, I was simultaneously excited and bummed out; on one hand I wanted to see what they could do with a longer production time and a budget, but I would have to go a year without their comedy sketches. When announcements about Starpocalypse started popping up on the webcomic, my excitement was rekindled.

Starpocalypse is a 40 minute comedy epic about the human race abandoning religion, philosophy, and art; an alien who thinks she is god; and orgasms. I was looking forward to more of SMBC Theater's fast-paced, intelligent humor (like in Problem Solved and Dating Solutions) but it was all overshadowed by sex jokes. There were good moments, but when watching with a group of friends who haven't really seen much SMBC, it gets a little awkward. The orgasm button gag could have worked well in one of their five minute sketches, but 40 minutes of revisiting that and similar jokes was too much. I don't blame SMBC for this; after all, this is the first long-form production that they have done.

I was pretty worried at the beginning that they were just going to be making fun of religion throughout the whole thing. Fortunately this is not the case as they quickly turn around and make fun of the society that has abandoned religion as well. Basically nothing in this production is sacred, and that's a good thing.

If I could pick between having Starpocalypse and having a year's worth of SMBC Theater sketches, I would definitely pick the sketches. I love their sense of humor, but it is best digested in smaller chunks. I think it will be a while before I go back and watch this one. If you are already a fan of SMBC Theater, you will enjoy Starpocalypse. For everyone else, go check out their YouTube channel and watch some of their sketches. I guarantee you will love those.

Assassin's Creed IV 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-iv-review-6cc6e5fc18a9

When I finished with the disappointing Assassin's Creed III I vowed that the only thing that could get me to buy the next one is if they made it almost entirely naval battles. Looks like Ubisoft was listening. I'm very happy to say that Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag may be my favorite Assassin's Creed game of all time. It is certainly the one I have spent the most time playing, at almost 60 hours. It's competition is of course Assassin's Creed II, which had a great cast of characters and a story that spanned several decades. Black Flag's story is not as strong, but there are plenty of great characters and tons of open-world activities to entertain you in the meantime. It also doesn't hurt that pirates were one of my minor childhood obsessions.

The key to including side activities in a game is to make them enjoyable. Black Flag succeeds so well in that area that I focused most of my time plundering ships, taking over forts, and doing assassin contracts rather than advancing the story missions. This lead to several amusing moments where I played story missions clearly intended to teach me how to do a side activity (take over a fort, for example), only I had already done that activity several times on my own. Some side activities are better than others; attacking and boarding ships never really gets old, but I only hunted when I absolutely needed a particular pelt to craft a piece of equipment.

The downside to making an ambitious open-world game like this is that it may have been a little too much for the developers to handle. There were numerous times when my movement would be impeded by invisible obstacles, and there were occasional objects getting stuck inside walls. None of this was a game breaker, but it is something you notice. My favorite was in a scene where Blackbeard was being very menacing, very serious, and then a bug changed the tone of the whole scene.

If you play Black Flag simply for the story, you probably won't think it is an amazing game. It's biggest problem is that it lacks direction. It tried at the end to bring everything together with a fairly emotional scene in which Edward reflected on all the people he had lost on the way, but it didn't feel like enough. The real magic happens while you are just having fun sailing around, fighting royal convoys and pirate hunters, getting caught in storms, and listening to your crew sing sea shanties. Speaking of which, the soundtrack is once again wonderful, and it keeps getting stuck in my head while I am away from the game.

I have read a lot of people complaining about the modern-day story that the game advances every once in a while. I didn't mind, but I think that may have to do with my unique perspective: I'm a computer science student, and Abstergo Entertainment is somewhere I could totally see myself working at in a couple of years. I enjoyed just walking around looking at all the nice equipment they have.

Visually Black Flag is a beauty. My biggest complaint about Assassin's Creed III's graphics was the resolution of their textures, and that problem has definitely been fixed. I suspect that the new generation of consoles had to do with that.

Assassin's Creed is the only annual franchise that I have been able to get behind, and I think the key is variation. The unifying element is freerunning, but there have been many twists and additions to it that help keep each game feeling fresh. Couple that with the fact that there are many different settings for them to choose from, and I predict that this series will continue on for quite a while.

$60 is definitely a reasonable price for this game, and I also feel comfortable recommending it as a jumping-in point to the series for those of you who have missed out on it until now.

EDIT: you can now read my review of the Freedom Cry DLC.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Dream: Computer Science Students on a Ship

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This dream is clearly a mashup of several things that I have been thinking about recently; namely, Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, Computer Science, and summer jobs.

In my dream the Computer Science department here at the University of Minnesota Morris has a summer job training program. The only option in the program is to crew a sailing ship with a bunch of other Computer Science students. I am fairly certain that most of my classmates were there and +Nic McPhee was the captain, but I don't remember clearly. What I do remember was sailing around trying to find good places to harpoon the sea animals we were after (note: I do not condone hunting sea life, but it is one of the things you do in AC4, so it was on my mind.) We found a big group of seals that somehow looked exactly like the big dogs in Dragon Age: Origins. We caught a bunch of them and went on our merry way. We also sang a lot of sea shanties, which I now realize has a lot of similarities to camp songs: they are all call-and-response, and singing ability matters a lot less than volume and gusto. Sailors are such children.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dream: An Epic Staring Contest

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/dream-an-epic-staring-contest-7d35b9be0bcd

In my dream Hawkeye was training someone on how to fight with a knife (it was just like that scene in Secondhand Lions). Hawkeye started talking about how good his eyesight was, and he brought up this city in the sky that only he could see. Obviously he was talking about Asgard. To prove it, he looked up at Asgard, and at that exact moment Heimdall happened to be looking at Hawkeye. Their eyes locked...and the most epic staring contest of all time began.

Personally I'm betting on Heimdall.