Matt McIrvin's Steam-Operated World of Yesteryear

More video games
I got an XBox One for Christmas (with Halo 5), but only got to actually play with it for the first time yesterday, as the first unit had a broken optical drive and I had to send it to Redmond for warranty replacement.

Mostly what I can say at the moment is: man, Halo 5 is a beautiful game. The high-res textures and high frame rate give new games a subtly hyperreal quality; the latest console generation's graphics are approaching the point where human figures can look photorealistic if they're not too close. They seem to be moving away from the brown-and-dusty aesthetic that was prevalent in Halo 4; everything is shinier. After playing so much Destiny, the traditional Halo mechanic of not getting too attached to your weapons takes some getting used to.

I'm not too fond of the XBox One's use of the Windows Metro interface. There are a lot of situations in which it's actually difficult to figure out how to get rid of a dialog or navigate to some visible part of the user interface.

We'll probably end up keeping the XBox 360 around for a while, since the XBox One is not backward-compatible with all XBox 360 games. Also, I'll need a second controller for the One, and, probably, an external hard drive before long (the storage seems to fill up quickly, but at least the XBox One actually allows external USB expansion).

We played through to the end of Disney Infinity's The Force Awakens playset's main story. The story here is a bit shorter than in Rise Against the Empire; there are only two "sandbox" planets instead of three (Jakku and Takodana), and Han's freighter and Starkiller Base are more linear levels. But there's a fairly significant number of side missions and challenges. Like many Disney Infinity levels, this one has an area just for doing trick jumps on a vehicle; here, it's a lake on Takodana (apparently hovering Star Wars speeders can all go on water) that you outfit with stunt ramps.

A cute thing that it took us a while to realize is that both planets in this one have a tiny spherical moon that functions like a Super Mario Galaxy planet, and one player can actually land on it while the other is still dogfighting in space. We also haven't unlocked all of the "Hologame Console" arcade mini-games.

Mystery: Maz Kanata is strangely absent, unless there's some way to meet her that we missed. I was wondering if she was or is intended to be a playable character figure (there is none currently released).

I have altered the plot. Pray I don't alter it any further.
Playing further through the Rise Against the Empire (classic Star Wars trilogy) playset in Disney Infinity 3.0, we got to a point that I think was just too frustrating, especially for a kid's game.
The frustration of *that one mission*, and other, better thingsCollapse )

Disney Infinity 3.0, now with added Star Wars
I got my daughter Disney Infinity 3.0 for Christmas, prompted by extensive pleading.

As with version 2.0, I don't think this is a great value-for-money proposition; the various starter kits only give you one Play Set campaign unlocked (far short of the three you got with v1.0) and you have to buy the rest à la carte. This game can hit parents' wallets pretty hard. But that's Disney for you.

However, the Star Wars-themed Play Set content for this version feels considerably richer than the Marvel-based Play Sets in v2.0, more on par with the clever Disney/Pixar campaigns in v1.0. There are also more Play Sets overall (three Star Wars campaigns, one based on Pixar's Inside Out and a new Marvel campaign), not all of which have been released yet.
More (no significant The Force Awakens spoilers contained herein)...Collapse )

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The following is expanded from a comment I posted on John Scalzi's The Force Awakens spoiler thread.

Unlike the thread linked above, it actually is only mildly spoilery; I don't think it'll ruin the movie for you unless you are practicing a total information blackout. However, I'm NOT going to screen for spoilers in the comments.

Why The Force Awakens actually had me missing the prequels a little... and why I liked itCollapse )

Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem
I just finished this book, which was a bestseller in China and recently won the Hugo for Best Novel (in a year somewhat marred by the Sad/Rabid Puppy mess, though this book was not on the Puppy slate). I don't have a lot to add to James Nicoll's review, which I largely agree with, except to say that even the more "modern" elements of the book read to some degree like an old-fashioned idea-SF story from the mid-20th century (and that I enjoyed it for that). I suspect Cixin Liu was heavily influenced by Isaac Asimov; he explicitly references an Asimov short at one point ("The Billiard Ball"), but I can also see elements of Asimov's stories "Breeds There A Man..." and "Nightfall" in the setup, and his novel The Gods Themselves.

He's better at characters than Asimov was, though motivations still tend to be simple and stark. In real life, I would expect his aliens' propaganda techniques to produce at least as many terrified wannabe resistance fighters as enthusiastic turncoats. I found the sections dealing with the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath affecting, horrifying and fascinating (translator Ken Liu's footnotes do an excellent job of getting a Western reader through the unfamiliar aspects).

Unfortunately, the involvement of the three-body problem mentioned in the title is perhaps the least believable thing in the story, given that Cixin Liu is using a real triple star system that, given its configuration, shouldn't behave like he describes it behaving and should be fairly tractable to numerical prediction (also, he doesn't understand how tides work). That is, the least believable thing up to the final chapters, in which we finally see the extraterrestrial menace without a highly figurative filter and the super-science becomes colorfully goofy, in what Nicoll accurately calls the Edmond Hamilton mode. This is the first volume of a trilogy, and I would expect to see more of this in the later installments.

More Moomins
A couple of years ago, I posted reviews of a couple of Tove Jansson's classic children's books set in the world of the Moomins: Comet in Moominland (in which Moominvalley is threatened by an extraterrestrial impactor), and Moominsummer Madness (a charming adventure set largely in a theater cast adrift on the water). I loved these books when I was a kid, though I didn't read all of them. A couple of the others in the series have become favorites of my daughter by now, but I never got around to reviewing them.

The Moomin books were written over several decades, and the style gradually evolves, from straightforward, if whimsically strange and occasionally wise, adventure tales early on; through more experimentally witty and psychologically complex stories in the middle books; to the melancholy, largely interior narratives of the late stories. Eventually Jansson entirely abandoned Moominvalley for adult mainstream fiction. Comet is from the early period, and Moominsummer Madness (my personal favorite, I think) is a middle book.

Finn Family MoomintrollCollapse )

Moominpappa"s MemoirsCollapse )

Other stuff at Universal Florida
Honestly, apart from anything with Harry Potter stamped on it, I didn't experience a lot of the best stuff at the Universal resort. Partly this was stupidity/lack of research/occasional unwellness on my part; partly it was having to wrangle a frequently grumpy 8-year-old. I shouldn't be too hard on her, though; she was, as always, far, far more intrepid about going on rides than I was at her age. When you're traveling with a kid you expect some opportunities to pass by unseized.

I made some mistakes. Two primary ones.
Read more...Collapse )

Our hotel, the Loews Royal Pacific, was a very nice place with cod-Hawaiian decor and a gigantic pool--I can't really make an apples-to-apples comparison with our Disney trip a couple of years ago, because we stayed at a budget resort then and we sprung for the next level up this time. My one complaint is that there was something in the room that had us all coughing with allergic reactions every night, maybe just leftover seasonal pollen in the air ducts. Fortunately I'd been having trouble back home for the previous week and brought lots of Benadryl. But it did mean that for my first full day at the parks I was not by any means operating at 100%, which cut down on the amount of fun stuff I was willing to do.

The Harry Potter stuff at Universal Florida
This is my daughter's school vacation week, so we spent a few days at the Universal resort in Orlando, a pair of large theme parks (Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure) with an associated shopping/restaurant/entertainment area (CityWalk) and a bunch of hotels.

The obvious comparison here is to Walt Disney World: Universal's the only other theme-park operation in the area that is really trying to play on something approaching Disney's level. They have much, much less real estate, so the scale isn't anywhere near as colossal, but for the visitor, that's not necessarily bad. It's really easy to get around Universal's territory, much easier than in Disney's vast pocket universe.

Universal has a number of renowned big steel looper roller coasters... which I didn't ride. I don't know, maybe I'm slowing down. Part of it, I suppose, is that I was more interested in the park's signature motion-simulator/dark-ride attractions, and they provided more than enough sensory assault for one visit. There were also only two of us adults along to wrangle my 8-year-old daughter. I did ride one very special coaster at Universal, more on which below.

I do solemnly swear that I am up to no goodCollapse )

Much too much video games: Destiny, Titanfall, yet more Disney Infinity
...But on to the ones I actually got for Christmas. For these I really only have first impressions.

I've been spending too much time playing the big game of the year, Bungie's Destiny. I'm only a little way into it (my Hunter is level 7, and the cap for the pre-expansion game is 20), and haven't completely wrapped my head around the many options for network multiplayer play and the byzantine loot system. But I can say that, even on the now-previous-generation XBox 360, it's an absolutely gorgeous game, one of the prettiest shooters I've played. It goes for the blasted post-apocalyptic look characteristic of many such things, but it's very well executed, and I like the strange touches of high-fantasy aesthetic mixed in with the science fiction. People make fun of the narration from Peter Dinklage as your mini-robot friend who looks like a cross between a hovering eyeball and a twisty puzzle, but I think he does pretty well with what he's got.

The worst thing about it is that it requires an Internet connection, and if your connection to the back end isn't absolutely rock solid, you'll be unceremoniously booted out of the game (even if the actual mission you're playing is essentially single-player, which can often be the case).

In some cases this seems to happen as a result of some server problem, possibly just overloading. There are missions I've never played simply because I get a network error message every time I try (and it seems to happen more often with some missions than others, which is what makes me think at least some of it is on the back end).

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Too much video games: Geometry Wars 3 and its antecedents
I've been playing video games a lot lately, partly because of Christmas.

The one I've experienced enough of to write something like a knowledgeable review is Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions, the latest in a series of twin-stick shooters with gameplay that is essentially a refinement of the old Robotron: 2084 formula (move with one stick, shoot in all directions with the other).

History and details...Collapse )


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