Thursday, December 31, 2009

Retro-Gaming : Strike Commander

 There are times when I wonder if I play video-games solely for the graphics. It's hard not to be impressed by the visual splendor of modern games; they are quickly coming to match the visuals of modern movies, with the added advantage of being interactive. I admittedly take pleasure from high-polygon models or multi-pass lighting; I won't deny I watch some cut scenes repeatedly just for the spectacle. And is it coincidence that some of the games I've liked least in these past few years were those which had the worst graphics? Am I, I sometimes wonder, a graphics whore?

When doubts such as these begin to cross my mind, there's only one way to resolve my uncertainty. In order to prove that graphics are not a pre-requisite towards my enjoyment, I dig into the gaming archives and pull out a title from years past. Surely if I can enjoy a game from fifteen years ago, then I'm taking more from the experience than simply the visuals.

Thus, I return to the graphically antiquated world of Origin's Strike Commander.

Of course, the irony is that, at release, Strike Commander was one of the most graphic-intensive games of its time; few machines could run it with the smooth frame rates necessary for an acceptable experience. I remember that I had to unStac my hard-drive not only to free up the necessary RAM, but because the on-the-fly decompression caused too much additional overhead; Strike Commander demanded every erg of computing power you could throw at it, and more. Nowadays, I actually have to CPU-limit the emulator simply to keep things from running too fast.

I'm immediately drawn back into the setting of Strike Commander. A large part of this is the awesome soundtrack, an exotic mix of hard-rocking guitar chords and Middle Eastern sitar (or as close to either as the FM-synthesized MIDI can match). The forgotten art of dynamic soundtracks quickly prove their worth; the music always matches the pacing of the action. Less impressive are the talking-heads used to move the story forward; the animation is stiff and unrealistic; the voice-acting is stilted and amateur. The actual storyline - the usual tale of betrayal and revenge- doesn't grab my either.

I love the actual gameplay, though; Strike Commander balances flight-simulator realism and balls-to-the wall arcade action in a unique mix all of its own.  It takes more than just quick reflexes to win this game, but at the same time you don't need to worry too much about airflow and flight envelopes. It's the best of both worlds and I can't think of any flight-sim from that era (or in the fifteen years since then, for that matter) that has struck a balance between the two genres as well as it did. The air-to-air combat is intense and extremely satisfying, whether I engage enemy fighters with missiles or guns. The air-to-ground combat is less so, due to some twitch controls. It's a thrill dodging SAMS and flak, but targeting the bad guys on the ground is more difficult than it should be and lining up for bombing runs is a chore (this game demands a joystick but DOSBox only has limited 'stick compatibility).

As for the graphics? Aged but still capable of getting the point across. DOSBox offers some edge-filtering which I used to minimize some of the "jaggies" but even without the graphics held their own. Whether it's at 1600x1024 or 320x240, splashing an enemy jet is still a satisfying spectacle no matter how many pixels are involved. My only complaints on the visual front were with some oddly warping textures and occasional difficulty in separating the gouraud shaded terrain from the fog-shrouded skies.

I quite enjoyed the retro-gaming experience of Strike Commander. Aside from the occasionally difficult ground mission, the game never stopped being fun and offered numerous action-packed thrills even after all these years. I was also once-again reassured that graphics are not the only thing that draws me to computer games. A classic game is a classic game and can be enjoyed no matter how ancient the visuals.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

District 9 - now on DVD

District 9, Peter Jackson's low-budget sci-fi mockumentary released to theaters earlier this year, came out on DVD in the last few days. As is usual, I didn't bother to see this movie in the theaters (the I find the theater experience to be anything but pleasant) so this was the first chance I had to see this movie.

District 9 reviewed fairly well (90% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, and 81/100 score at MetaCritic). I find Peter Jackson's films to be generally enjoyable and more sci-fi is always welcome, so I went into this movie with good expectations. I wasn't disappointed, although I don't hold the movie in as high regard as the critics.

I appreciated the movie's setting; the gritty slums of Johannesburg were a welcome change from the usual aliens-invade-America; the use of native South Africans enhanced the movie's authentic feel. The realities of low-budget film-making  (a "mere" $30 million, pocket-change compared to the hundred-plus millions usually spent on summer blockbusters) resulted in a low-tech feel; the alien science may have allowed them technology ahead of ours, but not so much that it felt like the usual fantasy pabulum Hollywood feeds us). As a geek, I've always been more partial to "hard" sci-fi than space opera anyway. And as a gamer, I couldn't help but react favorably to the epic battle at the movie's climax; battle-armor with lightning and gravity guns? How could I not love it?

Unfortunately, I was less taken with the characters and pacing of the movie. Ironically, I liked the main character -Wikus, played by Sharlto Copley- less and less as he became more likable. Initially a bureaucratic, self-interested nebbish, by movie's end he has had the customary change-of-heart and sacrifices himself like the typical action-movie hero. What started as a fresh and unique take on the role of a sci-fi movie protagonist ended up completely unoriginal and predictable. Meanwhile, his CGI-rendered alien counterpart was interesting only when he remained alien; contrary to expectations, I rooted for the bipedal cockroaches as long as they remained mysterious and strange. Yet as soon as they revealed themselves to have the same emotions and motivations as the humans who oppressed them they became far less interesting. Finally, the heavies - David James as sadistic Colonel Venter, Khumbanyiwa as the Nigerian warlord and Louis Minnaar as Director Smit - were all too one-dimensional to have any appeal.

The mixed style of the movie worked against it as well. Opening as a mockumentary, it segues into a more traditionally paced film a third of the way through. The transition was somewhat jarring, and made all the more so by the shift back into "mockumentary mode" at the end of the film. The producers never seemed sure whether or not to play it straight either; was the film intended to be a straight-up action film with the usual one-liners and requisite explosions, or tongue-in-cheek message-film (the anti-racism and anti-corporatism themes came on a bit strong in either case).

Still, I have to give District 9 credit for being original in intent even if at the end it does devolve in the usual pap. It relies far more on its own style than on special effects or big-name actors and even if it does not succeed entirely that alone makes it worth watching.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Dell Inspiron Mini 10v

Christmas brought me a new netbook, so now the total count of computers in my house is up to eleven. Although I had no incessant need for an ultra-portable laptop, as the resident geek of the family, I felt it necessary to "do the research" so I could give the family good advice if (when) they come asking about whether they should get a netbook. And anyway, I never turn down the opportunity to play with a new computer!

The netbook in question is the svelte Dell Inspiron Mini 10v. It's a tiny little thing, weighing in at a little more than two pounds. Like all netbooks, it's powered by the Intel Atom processor, the N270, with a top speed of 1600 MHz (it steps down to 600 MHz to save power when running on battery). Although it only has one physical core, it utilizes Intel's Hyperthreading technology so it appears as if there are two cores. I still get a kick seeing two processor graphs in the task manager.  It has only 1GB of RAM, a standard limitation of netbooks that I would otherwise gripe about except that in this case it doesn't seem to be causing a problem. Typical netbook usage does not require a lot of RAM-hungry applications so 1GB is more than enough to scrape by. The Intel GMA950 onboard-video is less capable; for common desktop applications it is sufficient but even rendering low-quality video from YouTube obviously stressed its capabilities. And forget about games entirely; beyond the simplest of titles, this computer isn't up to the task (although it didn't fare too badly with the nine-year old Uplink, which I inevitably install on every portable just so I can play it in public and freak people out).

The 160GB hard-disk may not sound all that impressive compared to the terrabyte-plus behemoths available in more capable machines, but it is more-than-sufficient to hold all my music and data; it may not be able to hold a lot of video but I'm not going to watch that on this machine anyway. The battery pack is an ungainly mass that protrudes from the bottom of the machine; it doubles as a foot to elevate the screen and offers almost five hours of operation on a single charge (nearly ten if you're careful), but it ruins the slim esthetics of the chassis. The system also boasts additional features such as a webcam (with disappointingly poor resolution), three USB ports, an ethernet jack, a 3-in-1 SD card-reader, Bluetooth and built in 802.11g/n Wi-Fi.

The keyboard is surprisingly comfortable. This was my biggest concern about using a netbook -my hands cramp easily on all but the largest keyboards- but I actually find it easier to type on the Inspiron Mini than on my 15" laptop. It is fairly responsive and has good travel. The touchpad is less useful; it is exceedingly twitchy and difficult to perform simple tasks with it. When I can't plug in a wireless mouse, I rely almost entirely on keyboard shortcuts rather than fight with the touchpad. The screen is suitably bright, but the 1024x600 resolution is very tight; for simple text-editing it is acceptable but work with any application with more than one toolbar -including the web browser- results in a lot of scrolling up and down the pages.

Still, none of these issues are surprising given the form factor of the computer; some sacrifices have to be made to fit everything into a 10"x7" package. I spent more time focusing on the the operating system than concerning myself with the hardware. The Inspiron Mini 10v comes with Windows 7 Starter Edition, which is Microsoft's stripped down version of Windows 7, intended for netbooks and "developing markets". The core of the OS is Windows 7, and shares all its strengths (and, depending on your opinion of these things, all its weaknesses). Originally limited to running only three simultaneous applications, this limitation of Windows 7 Starter Edition was fortunately removed prior to release. Nonetheless, it is missing many of the bells and whistles that makes Windows 7 stand out, including the Aero effects, DVD playback, remote media streaming and -oddly enough- the ability to change the background wallpaper.

The last is such an odd thing to remove from a modern OS that I spent much of my time trying to reclaim the ability (the moreso since the default wallpaper is so bland and unappealing). But Microsoft went all out ensuring that end users would not be able to reclaim this capability that has been standard to operating system for twenty years and I was unable to do so short of installing a third-party tool. Despite all the advantages Windows 7 otherwise brings (stability, security) this lack of so basic a feature makes the OS appear backwards compared to its competitors and Starter is thus a poor advertisment for an otherwise impressive OS.  Ultimately, I expect I will either downgrade to Windows XP or switch over to Ubuntu Linux; certainly I have no intention of paying Microsoft for an upgrade for features that should be standard to the operating system from the get-go.

Despite this, I am relatively satisified with my gift. For an ultra-portable laptop, the Dell Inspiron is very capable little machine. Much to my surprise, I found myself carrying it around everywhere almost immediately; its light weight and small size ensured it was never in the way when I didn't need it and was up to almost any task I'd throw at it (within reason) when I did. It will never replace my full-sized desktop -I'm too spoiled by all that raw horsepower to ever be satisfied with such a paltry CPU- but I already find the netbook  to be a more convenient supplement to the "big machine" than a proper laptop.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Why every boy should learn to cook

Over the holidays, I followed tradition and visited family. It's the easiest and best way, after all, to ensure that I get all the gifts that I have coming to me. But a not inconsequential side-effect of this is that I get to see many of my relatives that I otherwise ignore for the rest of the year. Amongst these are my various cousins and -pertinent to this post- their own younger brood.

I mention all this because this is one of the few chances I have to interact with the younger generation; by and large, I rarely have much to do with the under-twenty set. The holidays are that one occassion I get to learn from kids what it's like to grow up in the 21st century. And the question I asked this time was, "Do you cook?"

See, when I was growing up, boys didn't cook. That was "girlie" stuff; Mom cooked; Grandma cooked, the Aunts cooked... but the boys tended to avoid that stuff. This attitude was starting to change during my youth, but slowly. So I was naturally curious whether -given how much family life has shift in other areas- there had been a radical shift regarding food preparation since my younger days.

Well, one piece of data aren't any sort of proof regarding a larger trend, but if my younger cousins are any indication, then the answer is a definitive "no". Cooking is still, for all intents and purposes, for girls.

Wrong answer, boys! Here's why every boy should learn to cook

Eat what you like: Forget that it's a useful life-skill. Forget that it promotes independence. Reason number one that you should learn to cook? Because otherwise Mom is going to make liver and onions and then expect you to eat it. But if you can cook, you get to chose what the meal is. And trust me; if you're doing all the work getting the dish onto the table, Mom isn't going to quibble too much about the content.

Knives and fire: Two things you usually aren't allowed to play with -knives and fire- suddenly become acceptable tools for you to work with when applied to the culinary arts. Chopping meat with tempered steel is every bit as much fun as you might imagine.

Make a mess Who doesn't like to make a mess? Normally, though, the fun of gratuitous spillage is tempered by the work it takes to clean up. But share whatever you are cooking and people tend to reciprocate by offering to clean up your dirty pans and dishes (note: unless they're your friends or siblings; never depend on them to clean up after you. Parents or other adults are fair game, though). It usually doesn't take much more effort to cook for two than it does for one, so make yourself some food, share the extra and get the unlucky recipient to clean up after you.

Junior chemistry Cooking is nothing more than applied chemistry, and learning to cook is a useful step towards learning the "real thing". And why should you care about chemistry? Because you can do all sorts of interesting things with chemistry that will appeal to boys -from Gluep to stink bombs to (once you get older, and if you have a decent AP Chemistry teacher) gunpowder.

Girls dig it Okay, when you're just a young boy this probably doesn't count for much, but as you get older this benefit starts to become more and more important. Girls love a guy that can cook anything more complicated than a grilled cheese sandwich. Women jest about how the quickest way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but I'm not convinced the opposite sex is any different; make them a meal and you're a "keeper".

So, there you have it boys; sex, food, and the option to play with weapons of mass destruction. Sure a few Neanderthal throwbacks might claim otherwise, but as far as I'm concerned, there's no reason not to learn to cook. Open those cookbooks, fire up those burners, and start cooking!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Terminator Salvation - The Whole Story

Terminator Salvation, a.k.a., Terminator 4, was released on DVD today in the USA. Given its poor showing in theatres, that may not be all that exciting to you, but I really like the Terminator franchise so let there be no doubt in your minds that I rushed out to buy the director's cut as soon as it came out.

Terminator Salvation was not that popular with the fans though, and I can understand why. For one thing, it was a significant depature from the series; no time-travel, no Schwarzenegger (except for a brief CGI cameo in the final battle) and the heroes hunted the machines rather than the other way around. The stakes also felt dramatically lower in Salvation; the previous movies were all about the war to keep John Connor alive in order to prevent The Destruction Of The Entire Human Race; Salvation felt like a minor skirmish in comparison.

Still, I liked Salvation simply because it finally showed us the War Against The Machines in all its glory instead of just the snippets we had previously seen in the earlier movies. This was something I had been waiting for since the first movie came out in 1984. Plus, I felt the whole time-traveling aspect of the series was the weakest part of the shows and I was glad that had been finally dropped. So while the acting and the characters (not to mention the action and special effects) may not  have been up to the standards set by the first three movies, the setting almost made up for it.

Still, the story of Salvation felt weak and unfulfilling; the movie felt more like an episode of some action TV show rather than what we'd come to expect from a Hollywood blockbuster and I wasn't too surprised when the movie quickly fell under the radar. The directors meant well, but they just didn't give the audience enough of what they wanted.

Now, oddly enough, this was pretty much my opinion of other Terminator Salvation spin-off products: Terminator Salvation, the video game and Terminator Salvation The Machinima Series. The former suffered from a lack of content; it had too few maps, too few monsters, too few weapons and, in fact,  you could finish the game in an hour or two. The latter probably suffered most from the fact that most people never heard of it, but its story and acting were never going to win it any awards anyway. Still, they were both interesting takes on the Terminator franchise but individually were not very strong products any of them.

However, taken together the story is different; they support and each one makes up for the flaws of the other. The movie didn't have enough gunplay and explosions for you? The game made up for that. The game was too short? Combined with the movie and machinima series and there's a good amount of content. Want that old "hunted by the machines" intensity? Watch the machinma. The three also complement the franchise with added material and characters.

I won't try to argue that, even combined, the trio matches the balls-to-the-wall action of Terminator 2. Still, if you are a fan of the franchise but found Salvation dry and unsatisfying , then see if the additional material from the video game and machinima make you change your mind.  Sometimes the whole taken together is greater than its component parts.