Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hear Hear for the Holiday Cheer!

Let's take a minute to talk about Ugly Christmas Sweaters and why they are awesome.

During the Holidays, it's easy to get wrapped up in all the excitement, but sometimes we forget to have any fun. At times like this, we can lose perspective on the things that are important. Gift giving is always a good idea, but if you place unrealistic pressure on yourself to buy better and better gifts, you can run into a pretty stressful situation pretty quickly. The solution: the ugly Christmas sweater.
Yes, this is me wearing a women's XL
The entire reason you buy an ugly Christmas sweater is to have fun. This is the best way to deal with any underlying stress. Just relax and enjoy the moment. Engaging in a competition like an ugly Christmas sweater competition, is meant to be fun. The whole point to this kind of competition is to give your group something to participate in together, which is really the whole point of the season - spend time with people and enjoy yourselves. This is the most important thing - have fun with your friends, family members, and coworkers in a safe environment.
My personal favorite picture
Who knows, maybe getting an ugly Christmas sweater will encourage you to learn a new skill. Try sewing, for instance. In fact, ugly sweaters are making a business of their own. Not only is sewing extremely useful, the practice you get from making an ugly Christmas sweater could go a long way towards a other hobbies. Maybe you want to get into cosplaying. Well fortunately, you know how to sew. Think of it this way, if you make a mistake on yourugly Christmas sweater, it's okay, no one will notice. In fact, if you become proficient enough at sewing, you don't really need to buy anything, you can use scraps to make your ugly Christmas sweater.
Seriously, no one would notice.
Wearing such an ugly Christmas sweater puts you among great company, like Colin Firth (Bridget Jones's Diary) and Chevy Chase (National Lampoon Christmas), and it continues a decades-old tradition of spreading holiday silliness and cheer. This is the kind of event that anyone will have fun with and everyone should participate in.

Happy Holidays, everyone!


PS "ugly Christmas sweater" count: 10

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Ten Best Star Wars Games (Part 5)

1. Star Wars: Galaxies

All right! Put down the pitch forks and torches, this is an opinion! However, let me at least try and convince you while I make an argument for this choice as number one. 

Star Wars: Galaxies was truly a one-of-a-kind video game in regards to the Star Wars brand. This game had all the elements in one game. For the combat, it could be first person or third person. In space, the combat felt like TIE Fighter mixed with elements of an RPG – but with more types of ships to choose from, and more customization of those ships. For adventure, this game was wonderful, because you could truly choose your own.  There were a million different things that a player could do in this game, action-oriented and not.

A person so inclined could join the Imperial Army or the Rebel Alliance as a common soldier – helping to battle across contested worlds. You could hunt bounties and become a feared bounty hunter – and those bounties included hunting human players who got a little too big for their britches. If you’d rather go off adventuring with your buddies, there were tons of quests that ended up with challenging bosses that couldn’t be defeated by a lone player. These bosses would, of course, drop awesome loot for a player so inclined.

When fighting on the ground isn’t your style, or gets boring, you could join one of the galactic navies and fly your own ship. There were regular events in which large space battles took place. For a different experience, you could get a gunship and crew, and join the battle on an assault ship, just make sure all the guns are manned and that you have a competent engineer on board to fix the ship’s subsystems when you take a bad hit! Imagine an experience where you are sitting aboard an Imperial gunship, sitting at your station while you unload on rebel fighters, watching them fall like leaves in autumn - only each of those ships is controlled by a human player!

If you wanted to play a game for an experience other than combat, there were a million other things you could do. For one, you could just pick an alternate profession, and spend your days making food for hungry adventurers, among other things. Food was useful in that it provided buffs and bonuses, so some of the wealthiest people I knew in the game were chefs. Don’t want to be a chef? Try your hand at being a politician, a droid engineer, or a weapon smith. Politicians were necessary to build player cities – something this game supported. Yes, there were entire colonies built by players – with roads, stores, police forces, and regular elections. Some of the people involved in the infrastructure of these towns made their entire living governing these cities. There were players who owned their own cantinas. Some of these players became ludicrously wealthy by symbiotic arrangements with all the artisans in their area, making that cantina owner a merchant mogul.

Perhaps you want to do something a little more entrepreneurial like the cantina owner mentioned above? Why not start your own surveyor business where you mine the finest resources for the artisans of the galaxy. You could spend your days mining on the ground with surveying equipment, or you could hire a crew, buy a mining ship, and fly through space mining asteroids (beware the pirates coming to steal your cargo!). Mining was actually a tricky profession, because the resources were not infinite, and would rotate regularly. This made buying in bulk usually a wise investment.

Speaking of buying in bulk, some players became merchants and had businesses as wholesalers, buying resources or items in bulk from suppliers and parceling these items out to the customers for a profit. People could hold those goods until the market changed, or buy enough of the goods to corner the market and affect the price point, making themselves quite wealthy. A person with sufficient time and energy could do the market research and choose the best time to sell their bulk items at a premium. Players could build entire enterprises around this type of business – a business that ultimately needed multiple holdings on multiple worlds. In some cases, needing their own security forces to prevent thieves and robbers from taking whatever they wished and destroying their commercial assets.

Many other things were possible in this game. Players would pay other players to decorate their houses… yes, Star Wars interior decorators. My favorite thing: interior decorating could also be done on your space ship. You could fly your luxury space yacht to the scene of a battle, park at a safe distance, and drink brandy from the lounge area as a space ballet unfolded before you. Interior decorating was so popular that many of the servers had player-run decorating competitions. To put it into perspective, WoW doesn’t even let you own a house. In the majority of games where you can own a house, you can't decorate them in the slightest.

All of this stuff with crafting, starships, houses, and consumable items was thanks to the player base. In fact, the economy would not work without players who were making the items to be used by the other players. This game featured an almost entirely player-run economy, with all the ups and downs that you see in reality. There were genuine feelings of frustration and loss when one of the more well-known weapon manufacturers decided to call it quits. Player-driven economies in games are very highly regarded, and it can be easy to see why. Each person can get a custom-made item that is actually good. Maybe you don’t want to spend 5 hours raiding for one item that the other 5 people in your party also want. Instead, go buy a custom rifle from an artisan weapon smith that only uses the best materials and methods.

It’s true that the game had issues. There was server lag, problems with mobs teleporting, and sometimes the quests wouldn’t spawn correctly - all to be found in every game. Not to mention, there were players that ruined the immersion of the game by doing all sorts of bizarre things. Some things were mundane, like naming themselves “Jewbacca,” or “Furry Face" as a wookiee, but others were less so… there were some seriously awful names. Despite these things, if you want a game that gives you the best Star Wars experience, this one is easily the best choice. Truly, this game is as close to you can get to actually playing/living in the Star Wars universe without having to resort to the pen and paper RPG. Indeed, the game was so good at giving this experience that it persists to this day, despite being officially shut down in 2011There are a few groups that are currently building their own clones of this game, keeping the dream alive. It’s really remarkable what work that has been put into making this emulation of the game a real thing, and it goes to show notable and remarkable this game truly was.

For a similar gaming experience: There really isn’t a game that will scratch this itch in existence anymore, Star Wars related or otherwise. I’ve spent a LOT of time looking, and I haven’t been able to find anything even close, but SOE says their next MMO is for SWG fans... let's see what they come up with!

That's it for this list, I hope you enjoyed it! I'll be going back to "single issues" for my next article, stay tuned. As always, comments are welcome!


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ten Best Star Wars Games (Part 4)

2.      Knights of the Old Republic

Returning to the roots of the Star Wars franchise, Knights of the Old Republic gave players a unique story in an era previously unknown to the franchise. If a Star Wars adventure RPG is what you’re looking for, this is the best of them all. Finally giving Star Wars gamers something original, this game set a very high standard for future games. When you put both of these games together, an epic tale is told where the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance. Similar to the original movie trilogy, these games tell a story that takes us through both sides of the conflict. Again the conflict is between an empire and a republic, but this time we’re introduced to new worlds, new characters, and new stories. What makes this game even more special is that much of the story is done with spoken dialogue.
Characters from KOTOR I
Darths Revan and Malak
One thing that truly sets this game apart is the fleshing out of worlds that had, previously, never been visited. Before this game’s release, we had never been to Dantooine to see the “rebel base” to which they referred in Episode IV. We were also introduced to a more intimate look at who the Sith are and what they really stand for. In KOTOR, we get to see one of the most popular Star Wars characters who ends up being significantly misunderstood for the vast majority of the game – it sets up an excellent twist. There was character customization in a time where this hadn’t really become a staple. These kinds of details set the stage for a very impressive and immersive adventure experience. Influence from this game can be found in many others that followed.

The KOTOR franchise also gave us a much more intimate look at the Force and the organization of the Jedi/Sith Order. Things like Jedi Consular and Jedi Guardian didn’t really exist prior to this game, but they have become a standard in Star Wars games and stories. In the second installment, we were introduced to lightsaber combat in a way that was unheard of. Now there are formal styles, like any martial art. This gave more depth to characters that were on the verge of becoming stale.

I’m one of the few people who will tell you that KOTOR II is better than KOTOR I. This game was the first to really expand the understanding of the force. More importantly, we weren’t given obvious choices which was good and which was evil. On the one hand, you have a decision that seems right, but ultimately results in something that is almost universally considered negative. The decision making has consequences. As gaming ages, there seems to be fewer and fewer games that truly do give the players consequences. In KOTOR II, we’re introduced to decisions that question the abstract… maybe Sith lords aren’t actually evil. Maybe a Sith Lord is someone who uses the Force to advance their own agenda, not just to do evil acts. I picture a Sith Lord could be someone who exerts his power to manipulate a situation the way he wants, not only to cause misery. Maybe a Sith Lord is someone for whom the means are just a way to an end?

By throwing in a system of influence, the makers of KOTOR II added a degree of complexity that was far beyond anything that was needed... but it makes sense. You can elicit the aid of, or get nothing but derision from, the people around you depending on what decisions you make. In so doing, these characters will either aid you or they won't - it all depends on if they think you're doing the right thing. Adding an influence system like this adds depth to the characters and the story, making this game one of the deepest games I've ever played. Rather than just fighting for a cause, we’re given a look at what makes each character tick. Now we are expanding on who is who and why they have chosen a their paths. This is very appealing in a universe that is typically a simple tale of good vs. evil. Maybe the lines aren’t actually so clear…

For a similar gaming experience: Look at “The Old Republic” - a spiritual successor to this franchise. It’s an MMO set a few hundred years later, and has many of the same gameplay features that made the KOTOR franchise so great.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Ten Best Star Wars Games (Part 3)

Continuing the top ten best Star Wars video games from before, I'd like to present to you number three on the list: Tie Fighter

3.      TIE Fighter

When it comes to the Star Warsflight simulators, TIE Fighter is easily the best of the bunch. This game offered us a much more expansive look into the Star Wars Universe, but for the first time offered it from a different perspective. Now you’re not just the Rebel Alliance fighting for good, you’re actually an Imperial Pilot fighting for the Empire in a time when games rarely ventured into "bad guy" territory. Similar to X-wing (its predecessor), this game places the player in the cockpit of a fighter. However this game exceeds its predecessor in both gameplay and story.
This > X-Wing
When you begin playing this game, you’re a rookie pilot flying a standard, unshielded TIE Fighter. Let me tell you, the feeling of actually getting to fly one of these craft for the first time is incredible after seeing it in the movies for so long. Once you fly a TIE Interceptor for the first time, you never want to go back to the X-wing… As your piloting skills improve, you are given access to more powerful fighters, eventually being able to fly shielded craft. The roster of craft available becomes a massive library into which you could delve between missions.

The game takes you through some regular, non-sequined mission in the beginning, but ultimately
takes you through a grand tale of betrayal and heroics. Through the game’s briefings, a few different stories unfold. You begin with helping hunt down the Rebels after the Battle of Endor, switch to pirate duty in the Outer Rim, and eventually help capture traitors to the Empire. At one point, you even help development of new experimental starships; foremost among these craft, the TIE Defender. But your tale doesn’t end here, there’s a subplot of inquisition and secret missions for the Emperor that you’re allowed to take. This game opened up a broader underworld of Star Wars black-ops that had never really been dealt with before… and it was thrilling! 

Entering a secret order of the Empire is pretty cool
So successful was the original TIE Fighter game that there were two expansions – called mission packs. The first of these mission packs, called Defender of the Empire, contained 3 new “Battles” which are really full campaigns. The three campaigns in this first expansion were about fighting a traitorous admiral, and eventually defeating his splinter group. In the second expansion, called Enemies of the Empire, there were 3 battles in which to participate. This expansion wasn’t a stand-alone product like the other, but came as part of the Collector’s CD. These battles started with the traitor admiral from the first expansion and ended up revolving around the construction of the second Death Star. Everything that the player got to do in this game was all from the perspective of what was thought to be the enemy…

We also got to see one of the coolest EU characters
This is really where this game was separate from its original Star Wars brothers. The game had a mature take on the Star Wars universe, which is something that isn’t visited too often – especially with the death of games like 1313. Perhaps most importantly was the gray area that this game introduced. Before all the RPGs that have since been released, was there a Star Wars game that dealt with the details of the universe beyond “Good fighting Evil?” For example, can you still be a hero while working to preserve and fight for the Empire? It’s something to consider, comments below would be greatly appreciated.

In the running for the coolest throne room ever...

More accolades for TIE Fighter

Convenient to the release of this article, it looks like GOG has released TIE Fighter for download. You bet your booty that I'm downloading this gem!

For a similar gaming experience: Look at X-wing Alliance – a space combat simulator that still works on today’s computers. This puts you firmly on the side of the rebellion, but it was a lot of fun to play even still. Who doesn’t want to pilot the Millenium Falcon sometimes?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Ten Best Star Wars Games (Part 2)

 7. Republic Commando

It’s not often that Star Wars games get a gritty, visceral feel. With Republic Commando, they were able to give you that experience in spades. A first-person shooter that gamers would call a “Corridor Shooter,” this game was fast, action-packed, and extremely fun. While playing through this game, it calls Halo to mind with its gameplay. You went from encounter to encounter as you worked your way to the objective. It differs from Halo in one big aspect though: your squad mates. It was a lot of fun playing a clone commander who could direct the squad through different engagements all through the game. There were many different ways to tactically work your way through a droid-infested situation.

Sometimes, being squad leader means you have to get your hands dirty. Some of the best action sequences in the game involved wading through waves of those annoying bugs on Geonosis with your gauntlet spike – punching your way through and splattering bug guts on your visor. Don’t worry, though, your visor actually a wiper of sorts. Melee in this game has a very satisfying feeling that calls to mind the Lancer from Gears of War.

This game puts you in the shoes of this elite clone trooper squad and gives you a different view of the clone wars. Now you’re doing special missions and helping the greater clone army as a tactical squad. It was gritty and fun, and sometimes being a regular trooper in the Star Wars Universe is even cooler than being able to wield the Force.

For a similar gaming experience: Look at Dark Forces, which is the first game in the Jedi Knight series. While the game is old, it still put you in the shoes of a trooper wading through waves of enemies and getting work done without the benefit of the Force.

6. Shadows of the Empire

One of the best titles to come out of the N64, this was an incredible Star Wars game. Similar to Republic Commando in that you had no control over the Force, your mission is no less important. Based on a novel of the same name, the game takes place between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Your mission is to rescue Has Solo from the bounty hunter. Despite your best efforts to remain neutral, you find yourself being drawn into the Galactic War as more than just a mercenary.

Playing the scoundrel Dash Rendar, you feel like you’re Han Solo going around blasting Imperial Troops and running up against bounty hunters like IG-88 and even Boba Fett himself. This game even featured a racing sequence where you take down a swoop gang on Tatooine. Shadows of the Empire has a ton of different gameplay elements rolled into one game, but still manages to keep the Star Wars feel. However, there’s much more to the story than what you see on the surface. Playing this game exposes players to much of the seedy underbelly of the Star Wars Universe. It’s an excellent choice for Star Wars games, because it gives us a variety of Star Wars experiences but feels different enough to be new and exciting.

One of the most memorable things about this game is a giant space battle at the end. While you fly around taking out pirates and imperials alike, the rebels are there to help you get the job done. Your goal is to take out a flying fortress, but the entire time you’ve got CD quality music playing during your battle that was composed for the story. Written by Joel McNeely, the music is easily as iconic as that produced by John Williams.

For a similar gaming experience: Look at Bounty Hunter on the game cube, a third-person action game where you take the reigns as Jango Fett. This game shows how Jango gets involved with the clone army, and how he makes friends with Zam Wessel, the changeling.

5. Battlefront II

When you combine the Battlefield series with Star Wars, you get Star Wars: Battlefront. A multiplayer battleground first-person shooter game set in the Star Wars universe is just what the doctor ordered for many of us. This game featured online capability before anything like Xbox Live or Playstation Network existed. Featuring large ground battles taking place all over the Star Wars Universe, it helped us to experience these large-scale battles for which Star Wars is known. There’s something extremely satisfying about running across the ice fields of Hoth as a snow trooper and blasting all the rebels in their trenches as you escort a hulking AT-AT to its final objective.

For many of us, a Star Wars experience is all about the huge battles in exotic locations. If that battle is in space or on the ground, it doesn’t matter to us – we just want to be there. Unlike many of the other games on this list, Battlefront gave us something extra, it’s not about Jedi vs Sith, it’s about soldiers fighting soldiers. There’s something beautiful about being a normal soldier without the benefit of Force Powers and still managing to perform feats of heroism on the battlefield… especially against enemies that have those powers.

If being a common soldier isn’t your style, the game also let you play as Republic and Separatists heroes and later Rebellion and Imperial heroes for extra fun. Adding in elements like awards, medals, and other game modes, Lucasarts did a fantastic job making the game addicting enough for repeated playthroughs. There was even a reward system based on the number of kills you made in each battle. Battlefront II did a wonderful job bringing the huge, grandiose battles to gamers and letting us slog through the trenches. It’s just like many of us were kids playing with our Nerf guns, pretending we were Stormtroopers assaulting the Rebels at the beginning of Episode IV, only this time, we don’t have to pick up the darts.

For a similar gaming experience: Play Battlefront I – a game that many people argue was even better than the sequel. While this game doesn’t feature the benefit of playing as Jedi or Sith, some people argue that this game has better gameplay and level design. Try both, they’re pretty cheap on Steam.

4. Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight

For the experience of a first-person shooter with Jedi powers, this game is the one that started it all. Released in 1997, it tells you something about how good this game was when you see that there’s still an active modding community. Featuring live-action cut scenes, a CD quality Star Wars soundtrack, and an original story, it’s easy to see why this game was so popular and played by so many.

Highly praised for the use of force powers, lightsaber combat, and puzzles in the game – some have even said that it was the best single player first-person shooter since Doom. This game makes the list for two reasons: story and lightsaber combat. The story is about the mercenary, Kyle Katarn, first seen in Dark Forces (See the end of #7 on the list). He’s a normal guy who learns he has a gift for the Force and learns that his family has a sordid history with the Jedi. His quest begins when he gets his first lightsaber, and from there he has to battle several dark Jedi in order to save the galaxy… but will he fall to the dark side? Gameplay will change depending on which path you choose, and there’s no going back once you start down the path. There are consequences for choosing a light or dark path, and it does change the gameplay as well as the ending of the game.

Jedi Knight introduced us to Kyle Katarn, a character who persisted in the Expanded Universe. His quest reminds us of what we love about Star Wars – good vs. evil, sacrifice, and magic… it’s a space opera video game. This game puts players at the helm of a Hero or Villain, and the story was so good that elements of it appeared in later Star Wars games, and even other sci-fi games. For any gamer interested in a retro experience, this is an important game and had a big impact on later sci-fi games.

For a similar gaming experience: Look at Jedi Academy – this game’s sequel. While the story wasn’t as good, or was largely derivative of this game, the gameplay was improved and the lightsaber combat was phenomenal. A very satisfying gaming experience is going head to head with a dark Jedi, only to fling him off a platform using the Force, and watching him tumble to his death.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ten Best Star Wars Games (Part 1)

 Greetings and salutations! I had hoped to finish this article last month because of Star Wars month, but it took me another month on account of moving apartments (internet down for 15 days) and then travelling out of state. Now, finally, the article is finished. I present to you: Part One of the Top Ten Star Wars Games of all time.

What qualifies as a good Star Wars games is one that's both fun, but also gives a unique glimpse into the Star Wars Universe. The games on this list each tell stories and are games that immerse ourselves in some aspect of Star Wars, much like if we were  to live in that Universe. Before we begin, there are two games I'd like to mention that didn't make the list, but are excellent examples of the Star Wars experience:

Honorable Mentions:

Episode I Racer - One of the best Star Wars games to not make the list, Racer was a lot of fun to play. Played on the N64, it’s a bit of an older game, but that hasn’t diminished any of its charm. This is one of the few games that has managed to stand the test of time – even with the limited processing power of the N64. It’s one of the most enjoyable things to have come out of Episode I, and a recommendation for any retro gamer.

Star Wars Rogue Leader: Rogue Squadron II - This game was arguably the best launch title for the Game Cube. It immediately called to mind the old rail shooter on which it was based. Only this game was bigger, better, and with more gameplay. It’s been said that this game did the battle of Hoth better than any other Star Wars game – and that’s a lot of games. Many of the battles are those seen in the films, and often times clips from the movies themselves are provided. A fun game to play, with a feel like you’re actually playing through the movies, makes this game an excellent Star Wars game.

 10. Empire at War

There is something satisfying about playing an RTS Game in the Star Wars Universe. In this game, you can choose to be either the Empire or the Rebellion, and it’s an amazing feeling building a massive fleet from scratch. If you enjoy RTS Games, give this game a try. From massive fleet engagements, the game lets players go all the way down to battles on a planet’s surface, covering a wide variety of gameplay.

One thing that separates the Star Wars universe from other franchises is the giant battles that take place. This game lets you control those battles both in space and on the ground. The sound and the music help call to mind the grandiose feel of Star Wars that we grew up watching. Even more, we can actually control a fleet of starships as they make war on an enemy world – always something enjoyable.

For a similar gaming experience: Look at Star Wars: Rebellion which is basically the predecessor to this game. Rebellion featured a bigger galaxy but lacked ground battles. Your fleets could be much larger, which is always fun to see.

9. The Force Unleashed

Released much later than many of the other games on this list, the Force Unleashed was one of last, successful games produced by Lucasarts. This game introduced a different way to play Star Wars games – by using the Force. This was an incredible game to play because it was a lot of fun. It really showed what the Force was capable of, which is something that the movies and most of the other games lacked.

Hacking and slashing your way through waves of storm troopers was great fun, especially when a well-timed force-blast will scatter your enemies like leaves blown by a leaf blower. With an interesting main character who worked for the big man himself, the game stands out as one of the better Star Wars games.

For a similar gaming experience: Look at the Force Unleashed II. While the sequel wasn’t as long as the first game, it featured the same grandiose force use and hack-and-slash style that players enjoyed from the first game.

8. LEGO Star Wars

The LEGO Games are delightful fun, and they have a history of being quite addicting. With the Star Wars Universe, LEGO Star Wars brought a very cute take on the original trilogy that we all grew up loving. The game featured great co-op gameplay, and it managed to be extremely fun while it did so.

This game made this list because it's quirks and humor remind you of the fun stuff about the Star Wars films.Watching the little LEGO people mimic and pantomime the scenes from the films with their own special little style is a real pleasure to see. Being the first of this line of games, LEGO Star Wars paved the way for some excellent follow-up games. In addition, this game opened up the market for other franchises under the LEGO banner.

For a similar gaming experience: Look at the many other LEGO Star Wars games, particularly LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga.

Stay tuned for the rest of the list!