What’s the matter with kids these days?

A couple of weeks back, we were given tickets to the Toshiba Classic, a PGA Champions (aka Senior) Tour event here in Orange County. We were in a corporate hospitality box on the 17th hole, which was a nice way to watch the proceedings compared to simply slumming it out on the grass.

The sponsors and advertisers were interesting — apart from Land Rover and Jaguar (to be expected), there was also a Botox tent giving away free promotional items. That, I think, tells you all you need to know about the fanbase at golf tournaments…

At any rate, inside the corporate hospitality box were a couple of kids, probably between 10 and 13 years old. They were golf fans, which I guess is acceptable if you grow up in that upper-crust type of environment. However, they weren’t simply golf fans — they knew players on the Champions Tour and were rooting them on quite vigorously.

I don’t know about you, but when I think of “youth sporting idols,” the PGA Champions Tour is just about the last thing that comes to mind. I may not have been the coolest cat on the block growing up, but at least I was hipper than that…

HAWX and Control Schemes

I played the demo for Tom Clancy’s HAWX recently, and was pretty disappointed in it.

I found the plane to be quite difficult to control (for no good reason), and the “action camera” mode is extremely disorienting. You are forced to use the “action camera” for part of the tutorial, and it’s quite maddening — for a tutorial mission, I found it to be pretty hard!

Flight action game developers seem to love using the Ace Combat control scheme, where your plane’s rudder is mapped to shoulder buttons on the controller. Unfortunately, I feel that this setup makes it very difficult to actually control your plane — it is really hard to yaw and do something else with the triggers at the same time. I much prefer having the rudder control on the second analog stick, as we did in Secret Weapons Over Normandy. The control scheme in SWON maximizes the number of flight controls you have access to at once. In HAWX, the camera control is mapped to the right analog stick. This seldom-used feature effectively wastes one of the main control mechanisms.

While I’m on the subject, SWON (like HAWX) had a “simplified” flight mode. The SWON simplified mode auto-rolled your plane — you essentially flew with the left stick only. The concept behind it was that beginners could “steer the reticle” and concentrate more on shooting stuff (the fun part!) rather than flying. Unfortunately, in HAWX, the “simplified” mode doesn’t seem to be much different from the regular one! The plane is still quite hard to fly.

Like many jet combat games, the combat feels pretty impersonal because of the distances and speeds at which engagements take place. HAWX ups the ante, however, by including targeting/evasion assist modes where you press a button to enter the special mode, at which time you slalom through a bunch of “gates” that appear in front of your plane. When you have passed through enough gates, you will have a good missile lock, or evade an incoming missile, depending on how you entered the mode. The implementation is technically solid, but it really abstracts away the idea of fighter combat — you’re just flying through gates much of the time. There’s no feeling that you’re fighting against another pilot just like you in the other plane.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed. The game looks quite good, but the gameplay seems lacking.

Glengarry Glen Ross: 2009 Retail Edition

The other day, I went to Express to buy some clothes. As it turns out, clothing retailers are still engaged in pretty heavy discounting, even after the holiday season – not entirely unexpected. However, while I was shopping, I was asked if I needed help by no less than five different salespeople – multiple times by two of them. I was in the store perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, and I’ve never had that level of attention while shopping. The cherry on top was the cashier asking who it was who helped me with my purchase – I simply said that I didn’t really need help to pick out what I wanted. I’m guessing I disappointed some, or all, of the salespeople with that one.

The whole experience had a very strong Glengarry Glen Ross vibe to it – I wonder if there was something similar going on, or if it was just that all of the salespeople were highly motivated to keep their jobs (or earn a commission) in these lean times.

Plantronics Discovery 925

Last July, a law requiring hands-free cell phone usage while driving went into effect in California. As a fine, law-abiding citizen, I decided to ditch the somewhat crummy hands-free set that came with my phone, and buy a Bluetooth headset. I don’t often talk on the phone while driving, but I figured that a wireless headset would be more comfortable than a wired one. There isn’t an easily-accessible place to set my phone in my car, which made using the wired hands-free kit somewhat awkward.

After shopping around a bit, I realized that prices in local stores (like Fry’s) were jacked up, to take advantage of the rush to comply with the law. No headsets were on sale, period, and I was thinking about just getting a basic model to avoid laying out a bunch of cash on something I wasn’t sure I’d use often. Fortunately, I decided to check on Amazon, where I discovered that the prices were much more reasonable. I noticed that the Plantronics Discovery 925 was extremely cheap on Amazon – about half off list price, and half off what I had seen it for locally – and it had great reviews, to boot. (Strangely, the other colors are now cheaper still – the gold-colored one is about $15 cheaper than the black one I have!) I ordered one for me, and another for Sandy – about $75 apiece.

After a few months’ usage, I have to say that I’m really happy with it. The sound quality is great, and it doesn’t have a ear-loop that would interfere with my glasses. It’s comfortable, light, and remains in place securely even if I’m moving around or being jostled. The charger case is small, and contains its own battery so you can recharge the earpiece from the case on-the-go. I can also use the voice dialing feature with my phone, making most of my phone calls a truly hands-free experience. It’s convenient enough that I actually use it when I’m at home, too, if someone calls me on my cell phone. I can talk to someone and still do other things like chores at the same time, which simply wasn’t possible when I had to hold the phone to my ear.

Overall, I would say it’s money well spent, and I can definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a Bluetooth headset.

Rez

My first brush with Rez in person was at some “games = art” presentation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts a few years back. (Of course, I had already seen “that article” about it, too, but I wasn’t going to dismiss the game as a gimmick since it had received such widespread acclaim.) The PS2 version was on display, along with some other games of dubious “artiness,” albeit in an exhibition environment that did little to actually showcase its virtues. It was displayed on a small TV, probably about 15”, with the sound turned down quite low. I played a bit of the first level, not really knowing what I was doing apart from shooting things, noted the cool retro visual style, then moved on.

Last year, Rez was re-released as an Xbox Live Arcade title, and when it was part of a Thanksgiving promotional sale, I decided to check it out again. This time, I had the benefit of not only having instructions and a tutorial, but also being able to spend more time with the game. The latter, it turns out, was really the key – you don’t “get” the game until you’ve played through an entire level, in an environment where you can really pay attention to and notice all of the synergy between the gameplay and the audio/visual experience. The music drives the environment art and your character’s animation – in turn, the music is driven by the gameplay, with layers of instruments gradually being added in as you “crack security” throughout the level. Elements of the game are connected to each other in ways that are rarely seen. Your shots are synchronized with the tempo of the music, blending in with the soundtrack, never jarring you as in other games. The base of the landscape acts as a music visualizer. Parts of the HUD, and your character, pulsate in time with the music, and transitions between “layers” (which add layers of instruments as well as change the visual representation of the level) are also synchronized to occur at the start of the next bar. All of this synergy creates an experience that, to me at least, feels very much like being in “the zone,” or that things are all falling into place – a feeling that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced from a game before.

The Xbox version has “improved visuals,” and since I didn’t really play the PS2 version very much (nor the original Dreamcast version!), I don’t know exactly what has changed, but I will say that it looks great, and is very stylish – it’s like an 80s vision of “cyberspace” brought to life. The soundtrack is appropriately catchy, and is a huge part of the game experience. The Xbox version also supports downloadable replays, which will make you realize that, even though you’ve beaten the game, you’re still nowhere near as good at it as the hardcore shooter players. I should note that the game is not particularly tough, and with a little practice, it’s fairly straightforward to get through the entire game.

So, in closing, the hype is true – Rez really is remarkable, with a truly unique audio/visual style, and a stunning final level that proves that a story need not be wordy, or even comprehensible, to leave a lasting impression. Heck, it’s also proof that art direction is timeless (and often sadly lacking in games), even if art technology shows its age. It’s definitely worth at least checking out the demo.

D-League Midseason Report

I haven’t written about the Arsenal yet this season, but me and Sandy are still going to the games. Now that I actually have some time to sit down and write a bit, I figured I would give a bit of a mid-season recap of what we’ve seen so far.

Coming into the season, I thought the Arsenal were poised to get off to a good start. From the pre-season games, it looked like the Arsenal would have a better low post presence than last year, where I felt like they consistently got killed on the boards and didn’t have enough offense down low to be a consistent scoring threat. However, that was a bit of a mirage – the Arsenal started the season 1-5 and have struggled to catch up since. They are in a frustrating situation where they are playing just badly enough to lose many games – and while James White has been among the top scorers in the league (exploding for 47 points a few games ago), he is not quite dominant enough to be a go-to guy in the final minutes of a game. For example, in the loss last night to the Erie BayHawks, he got off his game thanks to some very picky foul calls early on, and didn’t have a great game overall. The Arsenal pulled close several times, but were never able to get over the hump and retake the lead.

The roster has undergone its usual makeover. Noel Felix came into the season looking much improved (much stronger, and having developed more of an outside shot), but tailed off after a good start, got injured, and then waived. Tierre Brown was the starting point guard for awhile, but I think his tendency to shoot first and pass later, which drove me bonkers, finally drove Sam Vincent bonkers too, and he was waived. A revolving door of guards in general has left the offense with some inconsistency and a lack of coordinated ballhandling on the offensive end. Kedrick Brown and Marcus Campbell are back, with their impact being similar to last season.

With regards to the rest of the league, the Idaho Stampede and the Austin Toros continue to be two of the powerhouse franchises. The Bakersfield Jam, the laughingstock of the league last year, is now one of the top teams following an off-season coaching revamp, and the Los Angeles D-Fenders have nosedived into the cellar after an impressive year last year. The races for the division titles are still fairly tight, with several contenders within striking distance in each division, and no teams (except perhaps Tulsa and Los Angeles) completely out of it yet.

It’s hard to say where the season will go from here. Defensively, I feel like the Arsenal have played well enough – not great, but good enough. They force turnovers and awkward shots at an acceptable frequency. What’s really been missing is a fluid offense, one where players are getting free and getting the ball in their hands, instead of one where they simply get the ball in James White’s or Kedrick Brown’s hands and have them try to create a shot or take a mid-range J. It’s unfortunate that the involvement of the Clippers and Hawks in the franchise has been nil, and that the team can’t look for help from the assignment system – that just means that they’ll have to continue scouring the market to try and find ways to upgrade the team for the last half of the season.

One final note: I haven’t checked it out yet, but there’s apparently an Arsenal podcast at radio-arsenal.com. I’ll have to give it a listen, and see if other fans have similar views about the team…

Catching Up

It’s been quite some time since I’ve written anything, so I figured that I needed to catch up.

We went on a family vacation to Honolulu over the holidays, and were there during the post-Christmas island-wide blackout, which was pretty crazy. Power was out for about half a day, but the outage continued to have an effect well into the next day – for example, many restaurants and coffee shops didn’t have baked goods or food produced off-site the next morning, because their suppliers were unable to make it without power! Honolulu was fun and interesting to see, although it definitely felt quite touristy – outside the city, though, that feeling diminished and it was much easier to enjoy the sights without feeling oppressed (for lack of a better word). It was interesting that most of the tourist infrastructure is fairly old – 60’s era – and some of it is starting to show its age. Unlike Vegas, however, developers are reluctant (or unable) to rebuild or drastically renovate their properties. I’ve read descriptions of Honolulu personified as an “aging star,” which seems pretty spot-on to me.

Another interesting observation was how dependent Hawaii is on Asian tourism, in particular the Japanese. In California, and in many other areas of the country, we’re accustomed to seeing Spanish as the standard second language on signs or paperwork. In Hawaii, that second language, at least in tourist areas, is Japanese. It will be interesting to see how the Japanese (and worldwide) recession affects Hawaii, but I can’t imagine that the tourism industry there will be doing well over the next couple of years.

We stayed through the New Year, and as a result, got to see what the holidays are like in an area where fireworks are legal. Practically the whole island was shooting off fireworks in a constant barrage that lasted about an hour. It was definitely pretty impressive, and, because we were watching from the 39th floor, we got a great view of much of the island celebrating. The funniest thing for me was that there were some people out there who were shooting off flare guns, including a simultaneous 5-shot finale at the stroke of midnight.

Life Imitates Hitman: Blood Money

The article: Actor Cuts Throat on Stage in Knife Mix-Up.

I immediately thought of the Curtains Down level in Hitman: Blood Money, where you can take care of one of your targets by swapping out a prop pistol for a real one. (The target is normally shot in the head with a prop pistol, as part of the opera.)

Fortunately, the actor in the article recovered, and the incident appears to have been the result of incompetence rather than malice.

CD Death Watch: Record Store Edition

I’ve made a few posts in the past about the ongoing death of CDs, and, after some haphazard Googling following a bout of watching ‘90s music videos, dug up some news that hits close to home. A music store where I spent a lot of time in college, CD World, recently closed both of its locations. The owner of CD World, which had been in business for 16 years, related the situation in an interesting fashion: “The stores had become like a lovable, old three-legged dog — it was still lovable, but old.”

It’s hard to underestimate the impact that stores like CD World had on my music tastes. For someone who wasn’t rich, but had a decent chunk of disposable income (thanks to the various jobs I worked) and free time on his hands, these stores were a great way to explore new music cheaply. The fact that they had listening stations meant that you didn’t have to buy albums blind – the healthy supply of used CDs and cutouts likewise encouraged musical experimentation. They also stocked tons of imports in an era before it was easy to buy them online, which, given my musical tastes, was fantastic. “Going CD shopping” was a legitimate way to spend an afternoon, because you could really spend time listening to the music and debating its merits with your fellow audiophiles. The music-buying experience at your average big-box retailer is geared towards letting you find exactly what you were looking for, and then getting you to buy other stuff at the store too, to justify the loss-leader CD that you bought. Music is grudgingly accepted as part of their business model – a necessary evil, unlike the record store where music is it’s raison d’être.

The experience was friendlier and more “social,” in a way, than even my later experiences in other music stores, ones with much bigger street cred and stock like Amoeba. Amoeba’s problem is that their stores are perfect for the übernerd who knows exactly what they want – Amoeba’s selection is legendary, and it is generally well-organized and well-maintained – but terrible for someone who’s just looking to explore on their own. The lack of listening stations really dampens my interest in just “going to Amoeba” for the heck of it – I can wander around and flip through the racks for hours, but I’m much less likely to actually buy new stuff (that is, from bands that I am unfamiliar with) unless I can listen to it, or it’s in the bargain bin.

Strangely, for a time even one of the bigger players in the music market understood my concerns. I remember the old Blockbuster Music that I used to go to (formerly Sound Warehouse) had a rather impressive rack of listening stations, manned by a store employee. (One nice thing about Blockbuster in this regard was that their listening stations were well-kept, the headphones were in good condition, and the headphone jacks weren’t always busted, in stark contrast to many of the indie stores. There was also never a wait to use the listening stations, because they had way more CD players than I ever saw customers in the store.) The prices there fell into the “fairly-to-ridiculously high” category (which would eventually doom music retailers like Blockbuster, Sam Goody and Tower Records), but at the very least they understood that providing this atmosphere could encourage people to spend more time in their store, and, sooner or later, buy more stuff.

It’s hard to imagine these kinds of stores ever making a comeback. “Going music shopping” sounds like an anachronism now – with portable digital music players becoming ubiquitous, it’s actually more work for someone to buy a CD and then listen to it on their MP3 player. The artistic significance of albums is gone – consumers frame the music buying discussion in terms of “why should I pay money for the songs I don’t like?”, as if it would make sense to just buy and watch movie trailers since “they contain all the best parts anyway.” It seems that most non-dying CD stores are either downsizing (and trying to subsist on true specialty items alone), or becoming one of a thousand flea market merchants on eBay. Even the infamous Bill’s in Dallas (home of the “no price tags” haggle system/tax dodge) relocated to smaller digs and Internet sales. It’s sort of strange that, on the one hand, the Internet (or digital distribution) has really crushed the traditional CD store model, but on the other hand, it is providing a way for them to survive (and a more “efficient” market for consumers). When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Change is the only constant.

In the meantime, I’ll shed a tear in remembrance of a lot of “wasted” afternoons browsing the racks at CD World.