Monday, September 17, 2007

joy and sadness


Saturday reminded me of all that was good about college football and, by extension, sports in general. A scorching late-summer day, tens of thousands of fans wearing their school's colors (including those brave souls who dare tread on OUR HALLOWED GROUND in enemy hues), beers and burgers at the tailgate, the student section always standing and leading the noise factor, and - best of all - the home team, your team, blowing out their opponent.

The Ducks made a big push to earn even more recognition with their 52-21 blowout of Fresno State last Saturday. The same Fresno State team that took Texas A&M to the wall in three overtimes the previous week folded over like a house of cards in a hurricane against the Ducks. Even more impressive was the defense - not necessarily for the stats, but for their swarming, attacking style to pressure the line of scrimmage, harass the Bulldogs' quarterback, and shut down the run game. This was an almost-perfect game, and hopefully the team won't sit back on their laurels and pat themselves on the back too hard.


A true rallying and auto racing legend died Sunday. Scottish-born rally racer Colin McRae passed away in a helicopter accident near his home in Scotland.

McRae - and his young son - both passed away too young (McRae himself was just 39 and still racing on occasion - his long World Rally Championship career had afforded him such a luxury as choosing what he wanted to do with his time). He was a licensed helicopter pilot and behind the sticks for the crash.

This was not the first crash in McRae's life - in fact, his nickname while still competing in rally racing was "McCrash." While this had a negative connotation, it also was given with reverence - YouTube clips abound showing McRae rolling his rally racer, kicking it back into gear and continuing to drive its nuts off. A few clips even include when he continued on a stage with just three wheels through the stage, where he could get the car fixed at the end.

Rally racing in general is hardcore - you have to be very talented and very brave to hurtle a four-wheel-drive car down narrow forest roads, sideways - and McRae was legendary for taking that stance even further. While some fans derided him for breaking machinery, those same people (and plenty of others) are heralding him for the dedication he showed in his driving style to press that hard, that close to the edge of adhesion.

Part of my auto racing viewing diet during middle and high school was WRC coverage on Speedvision (now Speed Channel), when Finland's Tommi Makkinen and Colin McRae were two juggernauts fighting for rallying supremacy. Makkinen in the Mitsubishi usually had the upper hand, but McRae was spectacular - seemingly in the lead or out of the rally. All, or nothing.

Racers like that seem to be fewer and fewer. Ayrton Senna was a god in that sense - he seemed to have super-sensory ability at judging that line. McRae may not have had as much ability as Senna, but by hell did he have more talent than most. Though he was moving more and more into the periphery of rallying and auto racing, he didn't deserve to pass on so early in life. He will be truly missed by racing fans and his family and friends.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Man, Greg Oden, why you gotta do a thing?

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Nooooooooooooooooooo. No, no, no, dear god why. Between the Mariners imploding, and Oden’s knee, man, I’m one bad Ducks loss from needing 24-hour suicide watch.

Promise. The excitement of the new “big three,” Aldridge, Roy, and Oden, lasted just three months before it hit its first bump. Well, maybe the opposite of a bump, as it involves the lack of cartilage more than anything else, and I don’t know if that’d categorize as a “bump” or a “dip.” I’ll check up on that.

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But still. Sam Bowie. Arvydas Sabonis. BILL WALTON. Greg Oden? Dear god, don’t tell me he’s the next Cursed Blazers Big Man. Don’t tell me there’s a curse, period, because I’m going crazy enough trying to remain calm.

I’m trying to invoke Jason Kidd, Amare Stoudemire, and Oden’s current teammate – Darius freaking Miles – trying to realize and say yes, you can come back from this with time and the right work ethic. Oden has the work ethic – now he just needs time. He just needs time. It was just a small part of the knee, and hey, there’s nothing else wrong! Nothing else. Nothing else. Nothing…

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Nooooooooooooooooo whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. I think I’m officially wailing over this right now, like some goddamned widow. My first reaction was a jaw drop; the next was just sheer sadness. Writers, like The Oregonian’s John Canzano and the ever-famous Bethlehem Shoals, are musing on the ‘why’ behind reactions like my own, and I think the answer is two-fold.

One, I’m sad as HELL I won’t have the chance to see him play. If he returns for next season, there’s a very good chance I’m in Japan for his rookie year, and that sucks. But the other facet is this humanizes the kid even more. Going through such adversity (especially with the way I’d imagine he’ll go through it) makes him a more sympathetic character, especially because he is apologizing for the injury! Remarkable.

So I’ll go dry out the tear-soaked Oden jersey I picked up earlier in the summer and relax. If Amare Stoudemire can come back strong, and Jason Kidd can put up ridiculous numbers (averaging a triple-double in the first round of last year’s playoffs? Nuts!) then I think a kid who can’t even drink, with a minor version of this injury and a great work ethic, will come out fine.

With some luck, we might all just get through this together.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

new ish: kanye west "graduation"

gotta love the art style for this disc

I wrote a while back about the mind-blowingly cool video for Kanye West's single from Graduation, "Stronger," which aesthetically rips off pays homage to the anime classic Akira and features a sample (and appearance from) French techno gods/robots Daft Punk. here's a link to the video.

Well, the whole disc dropped yesterday, and it is very, very good. Kanye's sound has changed up a bit on this disc - not only in the beats, where synths join into West's repertoire along with his patented sped-up soul loops, but also in the rhyming, with songs that blur the traditional verse-chorus-verse hip-hop structure and the usual number of lines (and quickness of their delivery) in the verses. This may not be new or even all that novel, but it makes the disc sound more interesting, and allows the listener to focus on the music as a whole, happily masking West's pitfalls on the mic.

Don't get me wrong - the man can turn a line or two. However, despite rapping about how he's in the top-5 MCs right now, five off the top of my head (Jay-z, NaS, Common, Talib Kweli, and Lil' Wayne - who appears on "Barry Bonds" on Graduation) rhyme circles around him. He's a great musician, but the next in the line from Rakim to Biggy to Jay-Z? Nope.

Don't let that get in the way of the fun, though. The lyrics go a bit more worldly and are a bit less personal than before, but West still works his way in plenty of times - not only on "Homecoming," his take on what Common did first many years ago with "I still love H.E.R." but also on "Big Brother," "Flashing Lights" and "Champion." The other fun new toy is the use of synthesizers to add to the layers of music and lend it a touch that must be making Daft Punk smile inside their robot helmets. It sounds like Kanye finally heard Discovery and went "that shit be ill," because on "Stronger" and especially "Flashing Lights" the disco/techno influence is heavy. Hand claps and synth bleeps punctuate the chorus, with faux-strings in the background of the beat coming to the forefront in the outro - AWESOME.

If Late Registration is his answer to a traditional Jay-Z album sonically, then this one sounds just like the album cover looks - bright, fun, explosive and full of color.

Give it a shot. While there may be fewer tracks that reach the heights of the last two albums, the whole album is high quality and sounds more mature and like it could have a longer lifespan than the previous two.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

a weekend of highlights

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stop! hammer time!

reason my weekend ruled #1: the Ducks showed up for some serious work last Saturday. I don't think I can say much more that the big sports outlets can say, but I'll add a few brief comments on the two most important areas of Oregon's game.

1. Dennis Dixon came back from playing baseball much of the summer ready to play some football. Maybe his zen-like dedication to a shitty batting average taught him that failure is acceptable? Maybe Chip Kelly's offense suits him better? Maybe he's off (or on) some medication? Maybe everything just clicked? Who knows. I'm watching for aligned stars or seventh signs. I don't care how it happened, but he looks like he's captured his form.

Now, if you can come back to me in November and I'm saying the same things, then we'll be in business. Week by week, he has to prove he can still do it - the problem last year was meltdowns mid-season.

2. The defensive line looked like it could stop somebody for once. "We eat today, coach!" tackle Jeremy Gibbs yelled during a pre-game taped part about defensive coordinator Aliotti, and boy, did they. We all knew the secondary was going to be good, and I felt the linebackers would mature well enough this year. The question is the line, and they looked, err, questionable during the Houston game.

Now, they look like they can put up a serviceable fight. And that's all we need to lock down a lot of teams. If they can keep teams to ~150 rushing yards total in a game, I'm happy.

Highlight #2: Dreamcast Day!

I don't know whether this counts as a highlight or a holiday (or both?), but yesterday was 9/9/07, which marks the eighth anniversary of the Sega Dreamcast's launch.

Why is this so important to me, you might ask? The Dreamcast was the turning point for me. This was where I matured as a gamer - before, I knew what a fighter was, now I was learning move sets for Soul Calibur and Street Fighter Alpha 3. I also started to take racing games a bit more seriously...though honestly, I look back at Sega Rally 2 and Sega GT and shake my head. Test Drive: Le Mans has held up well, though, and still warrants a good play-through, even though somehow I lost my main data save but still have an almost-complete Le Mans race...whatever.

I also matured in my knowledge of games, gaming culture, and the industry. It's no coincidence I started reading EGM in 1998; it's no coincidence that was around the point I stopped paying attention to what the EB geeks were saying at the mall. This was also the rise of the Internet; I remember IGN Dreamcast being a daily stop (back when IGN was still worth it) and lamenting EGM's lack of online presence. Oh, how little I knew about the future. Anyways. Messageboards and news sites on 56K were how I learned what gaming really was, in 2001 I signed up on a forum that I'm still a part of the community for, and I haven't turned back since.

I have the Dreamcast to thank for me being a true, hardcore gamer. Beyond the great games, beyond the innovation, it's left an indelible mark on my life - it made me hardcore. For that I will always remember Sega's little white console that could and it's rather nine-ful release date.

Friday, September 7, 2007

BioShock: Post-finishing thoughts and splitting hairs

It's no secret that BioShock has, in many minds, lived up to expectations and is considered a game of the year candidate in all circles. You know that a game is good when fans gripe about it getting a lowly 90% score from a website (Gamespot being the criminal in that one, if I remember properly). It's good enough to get almost the whole audience to say "YES!" when a fan asked if it was deserving the hype during the 1up Yours live podcast taping at PAX.

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Here, Big Daddy, Big Daddy...I still hear your footsteps in my nightmares.

Yes, we all know it is a brilliant game. But as much as I absolutely love it, it does have flaws. First off, there's not enough of it. Okay, I know that makes me the typical greedy gaming fan, but it's true - it seems like the ending came very quickly. I went from the GREAT BIG TWIST (involving meeting Rapture's maker) to the ending in about four hours, and I was hardly rushing; maybe I feel like there should be slightly more conflict before the ending comes? I don't know. I have no problem with how everything wrapped up, it just seems like it comes too quickly.

the other real problem I found on my play-through is, at least on normal difficulty, once you get close to being fully plasmid'd-up, normal enemies become almost too easy, and the brilliant combat slips to being something of a routine. So you're still whirling around, doing about fifteen different things at once between plasmids, and turrets, and security cameras, and then all the damn splicers...but the chaos and scariness has sapped away. Part of this was due to being focused on a few specific enemies in the storyline (fuck the main bad guy, HARD), but it also was because I felt my no-name avatar had gotten too powerful. Especially once combat and other boosting plasmid slots open up and you have about three bonuses to health in the physical side and a few for the wrench in the combat side, life becomes a lot easier. In one particular section in Fort Frolic, I was one-shotting a series of spider splicers and though it was fun, it wasn't as straight-out frightening as combat is near the beginning when ammo is scarcer and plasmids are weak.

let me address the next point, as already discussed by The Escapist's "Yahtzee" in his online video column: Yes, you never really hurt for ammo, and those Frito Bandito-looking ammo stations are nearly fucking useless. Most every kind of bullet can be found lying around in the world, and any others you need can be made at U-INVENT machines with the other plentiful invention pieces you pick up. The only real limit to ammo is that sometimes one weapon - in my case it always seemed to be the damn shotgun - is out for you, so that means locking and loading with others (often the machine gun - I was almost always full-up on that ammo).

This just means that you can and will put the money toward buying Eve hypos and first-aid kits and trying to stay full on those.

Ok, so the game has some gameplay balance flaws, the enemies aren't always terrifying, the Big Daddies begin to go down easily...and in some cases some of the grand, earth-shattering ideas about new combat aren't quite as earth-shattering as possible. I mean, the trap bolts are only an inconvenience and are neon "FUN STUFF HERE ONCE YOU GET THROUGH" signs in the game, and I never set out traps for my enemies (others might, your mileage may vary). So it isn't 100% completely and utterly raw, unrefined awesome; somebody added baking soda to the mix so you're not getting the pure shit.

Is that such a crime? Maybe I'm sounding like an apologist fanboy, but this is still easily the best game I've played this year, the best single-player action game I've played since Gears of War (at the least), and easily the best story-driven game to come out since Zelda last year. It does 9 things brilliantly but falters on the tenth, so to speak, and though I try to not get caught up in the hype bearing on the other side and being too much a negative Nancy does the game a disservice. It is sheerly, utterly brilliant, an amazing experience worthy of the cinema, but provided better as a video game. I'm so glad I went out and bought it and supported what turned out to be an incredibly worthy piece of entertainment and, daresay, art.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

PAX 07: Gamers set-up shop and launch a raid on downtown Seattle

At least the worst traffic jam I saw all weekend in Seattle was on Interstate 5 heading into the city Thursday evening. That was due mostly to construction choking the city’s main artery down to just two lanes for traffic; however, after my experiences with the previous Penny Arcade Expo location in Bellevue, traffic concerns were legitimate.

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Welcome to nerd nirvana - home for more than 37,000 gamers over the weekend of PAX

Thankfully, the wide-open corridors at the Washington State Convention Center on Pike street in downtown Seattle reflected the rest of the weekend: Great fun with tons of video gamers, and just enough space to be comfortable, enough choice to rarely be bored, and a great community of gamers, volunteers, artists and panelists to help continue lifting the expo toward becoming the top gaming destination in the United States.

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Yes, this was the line to get in Friday afternoon

PAX has quickly become Mecca for those who love video games and live in the United States. It’s everything E3 was – access to new games on a huge show floor, a great sense of community – without the unnecessary booth babes, the booming exhibits, and the glam excess that plagued the show up until its euthanasia last year. What the show is packed full of is enthusiasm and a love of games – from the gamers all the way to the exhibitors, the press covering the event, and, of course, Jerry and Mike, the creators of Penny Arcade.

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Freezepop rocked the fucking house on Friday night

This is my second time attending PAX; I went two years ago in 2005 (unfortunately not the Year of the Ball, but instead the year of mc chris. Sigh). The move to the downtown convention center was needed, in my estimation; even before the influx of fans for PAX 06, the Maydenbauer Center in Bellevue felt a bit cramped due to its design. Plus, the move symbolizes a move into the true big-time, from a suburb of Seattle right into the heart of downtown. Moving on up, as it were.

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Rock Band, my precious and favorite game at the show

The wide-open exhibit hall was home to many wonderful things – personal favorites included Virtua Fighter 5 at the Sega booth, drooling at the rarities inside the locked glass case at the Pink Godzilla booth, the free t-shirts after the gameplay demos of Mass Effect, and of course Rock Band. Oh, Rock Band. Myself and three of my friends (including Nick and Dan) went around the line four times on Friday afternoon like it was some sort of carnival ride and we were 10 all over again. Having actually played it (and seen how badass the song list is, including new additions), I can say: believe the hype. It will drop, and we will all be blessed by the sheer power of rock.

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Nick loves Rock Band and Parappa, can't you tell?

Highlights from the weekend not involving playing games include: the 1up Yours live taping (and meeting a few of the 1up staffers afterward); buying a DS Lite when I already had a ‘regular’ DS in my bag (worth it); sitting in a console freeplay room as Gabe from Penny Arcade was preparing to play a couple fourteen year-olds at Pokemon and they had no clue who he was; Freezepop and The OneUps playing live on Friday night and, specifically, hearing Freezepop end their set with “The Final Countdown”; the Phoenix Wright cosplayers:

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Phoenix Wright cosplayers: SERIOUS BUSINESS

If I’m still in the country next August, I’m going to PAX – period. It has become a must-attend event, especially because I’m a scant day’s drive away. Thanks again to Nick for putting up with me on the drive up and back and Tyler for hosting us – the weekend was far too much fun.

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Chilling out in one of the hallways of the Center

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1up Yours live taping