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Esotericus Blog

WoW Cataclysm: First Thoughts

I'll admit I was skeptical. When my mage first breathed life in Elwynn Forest almost six years ago, horrors such as Hogger ensured that he died at least five times before Level 10. When he first blinked into Hellfire Peninsula in 2007, Fel Reavers squashed him at least twice before Level 61. Northrend was kinder, and his first death occurred after I foolishly attempted to solo Prince Valanar atop Naxxanar at Level 71. Playing in the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm beta, however, he was eight bars into Level 83 before he even fell under 60% health. By then, he had never grouped and never even bothered to train First Aid. I wanted to attribute this success to acquired skill or just plain dumb luck, but in the end I couldn't shake the feeling that World of Warcraft had simply become too easy.

It's a concern shared by many Vanilla-flavored veterans such as myself, and newer players no doubt get sick of hearing about the way things used to be. Back in our day, we like to say, epics were actually epic and exalted reputations were actually deserving of the name. I spent virtually all my time in Vanilla in Risen on Alleria, which achieved some substantial notoriety through such achievements as the U.S. first kill of Kel'Thuzad (back when he wasn't a pushover) and the world's first successful execution of Heigan's dance. And we fought hard for all of it. Being in a high-end raiding guild in those days meant sacrificing both evenings and relationships for the all-important server first, and this in an era without achievements. Raiding meant hours of testing strategies, possibly receiving one upgrade every two weeks, and working in sync with a group of raiders whose skills and personal quirks you knew as well as your own. I can't say I'm proud of all that time I gave to Blizzard, but I remember some runs through Blackrock Depths in 2005 much more than I remember whole months in later expansions.

By contrast, owing to the use of tokens, smaller raids, and plenty of epics in instances, Wrath of the Lich King allowed me to become extremely powerful even with only a fair amount of commitment to my guild. I can't say I frown on this too much: the casual focus allowed me to enjoy WoW while holding down a full time job and dating (and eventually marrying) my future wife. At times, however, it seemed a little extreme. Indeed, these days, most of us can fairly confidently enter Icecrown Citadel with a random group of people we've never met before, amass a stash of epic loot and tokens, and possibly even down the Lich King himself. The argument could be made that certain heroic encounters in the recent expansions are much more difficult than anything we faced in our beloved 40-mans, but the fact remains that it takes much less effort to get to that point.

At first glance, this nod to casuals seems taken to extremes in Cataclysm's UI, and players on live received their first glance at these changes yesterday. Gone are the days when you had to spend hours looking for a quest objective à la Mankrik's wife. Instead, taking a cue from several popular addons such as Questhelper, the names of enemies in your quest log are highlighted in bright red or yellow above their heads (as in PVP) and, a carry-over from WOTLK, their locations are conveniently marked on your maps. Formerly fairly complicated stats such as defense have been removed, and when certain spell procs are ready (such as my mage's Hot Streak), a handy graphical notice pops up around your avatar to let you know it's time to let loose. Flying mounts occasionally seem to remove the challenge of fighting your way to an objective, and health increases astronomically at each level, so at Level 85 I had just under 75,000 hit points as a mage. All in all, however, questing itself in Cataclysm is a thoroughly enjoyable affair (more on that later), particularly owing to the heavy use of phasing, and I'll be quick to say that I believe the upcoming expansion has some of the most interesting and memorable quest lines ever implemented in the game. I was having a great time, but I couldn't help but feel I'd be heading back to the same old grind once I reached Level 85 and that the dumbed down stats and interface would make gearing up and improving my stats feel more like Mafia Wars than World of Warcraft 1.0.

So you can imagine my surprise when I first entered a Cataclysm instance and found my perfectly capable group almost wiping on the first pull. I was floored, literally and figuratively. In my case, it was the Stonecore, a level 82-84 instance carved into the side of the Temple of Earth in Deepholm. Long accustomed to the Northrend drudgery of AOEing trash mobs on the way to a boss, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself needing to whip out my long-neglected Polymorph spell to keep things under control before each pull, which is closer to how it was in Vanilla (as opposed to the AOE Thunderclap fest. etc. in WOTLK). Even more surprisingly, I found myself staying in my frost spec to keep from dying. By the end, our Level 85 tank with an ICC title had been smacked around the map, we had wiped three times, I was having to think, and I was loving every second of it. And, mind you, this wasn't even heroic. That's a whole other exciting nightmare.

With some easier exceptions (hello, Vortex Pinnacle) on the way to Level 85, this scenario was repeated many times over, from Blackrock Caverns to the revamped heroic Deadmines. Friendships were forged in instances, much as they were in the old days, from having to rely on the skill of another player as well as your own for survival. And as for questing? By Level 84 I was somewhat struggling to complete quests, and I often had to strategize when approaching a group of quest-related enemies. While this is partially related to fewer implemented upgrades at this stage of the beta, there seemed little doubt that Blizzard was making you work for those last couple of levels regardless. In other words, Blizzard seemed to ease you into the new changes, making you prepared for the heavy hitters when you encountered them. This is WoW as it used to be and should be, and by the time I was traipsing across the Twilight Highlands, I couldn't care less that I knew where to find the mob from the map. If Blizzard can keep this up, then I'll be playing again for a long time.

At this point, then, Cataclysm appears to be neither too casual nor too hardcore, but more of the perfect medium that I believe Blizzard's been looking for this whole time. For former diehards such as myself who've reluctantly enjoyed the more casual side of WoW over the last couple of years, this seems like just the thing we need to fully enjoy the game again. Whether or not the game will remain as challenging come live release remains to be seen, but so far it looks like making everyone happy sometimes just takes destroying the world and remaking it. To old hardcore players, I say: come back, there's a lot of stuff here worth checking out. To casual players, I say: it's a little more challenging, but not enough to frighten you away. To my wife, I say: Don't worry, I'll never miss dinner for a raid.

1980s Video Game Culture Caught in Comic Book Ads

My wife is awesome. As one of my birthday presents in June, she brought home a huge stack of comic books dating from 1988-1989 that someone had left in the giveaway pile near her office. Surprisingly, almost all of these were in mint condition, and whoever left them apparently once had a devoted crush on the Uncanny X-Man, Web of Spiderman, and the Inferno crossover storyline, which featured more character transformations than an episode of Transformers. Best of all, several issues from the pile are worth about $40 today, so it turned out to be a much better birthday present than either of us had realized.

Choosing a controller used to be serious business.

It's possible I already have many of these comic books along with hundreds of others in a big box in a closet in my parents' house almost 1,200 miles away, but I haven't opened it in years. Alone they sit, collecting dust and value, until the day when I'll undertake an epic quest to hunt them down and transmute them into the magical force that will annihilate the tyranny of my graduate student loans. Hopefully, anyway. Back in 1988, however, comic books made up one of the twin suns of my world. I was nine years old, a wheeler and dealer of comics books like these, and, perhaps above all, a rabid gamer. For me and thousands of other similarly geeky 80s kids with Coke-bottle glasses, comic books and video games went hand in hand.

(Left) Pre-Internet game ordering! Note the mislabeled games.

Looking through these comic books today, I'm reminded that the 80s were such a great time to be a kid. Comic art was suddenly filled with groundbreaking art and stories, cartoons took on a life of their own, toy companies were in an arms race to outdo one another, kids were still extremely interested in paper-and-pen D&D-like games (and board games, to boot), and video games were visibly evolving as every month went by. Everything was new, fresh, and full of wonder, and there were world-shaking product releases several times a year as technology advanced astronomically in several fields.

Today, it's shocking that these ads for the video games in these comic books are "only" twenty-two years old. Flipping through, it's easy to smile at the claims of "jaw-dropping graphics" and LCD games being cutting edge, but at the time, we read these ads with wide-eyed wonder before exploding into movement and begging our parents to get The Next Big Thing. Looking through them is a rare opportunity to drop into the early days of the video game industry, when gamers and game companies explored and perfected the interactivity between games and players and when 8-bit and Nintendo were undisputed kings.

In 1988, "arcade-like graphics" was one of the big hooks. As anyone who grew up during the period knows, however, this was sometimes quite a stretch and it seemed like the developers were all too aware of this. Sadly, In an age before the Internet, ads in comic books (and magazines like Nintendo Power, if you were lucky) provided some of the only means to find out what a game looked like aside from playing it at your buddy's house, and knowing this, it seemed like developers took every step possible to avoid putting screenshots of NES arcade ports in an ad. Take the above. In the ads for Operation: Wolf, Gun.Smoke., and 1943: The Battle For Midway, the advertisers play up the success of the games in the arcades ("The World's #1 Arcade Game!" "Players pumped in millions of quarters!") while neglecting to show you how poorly the graphics of the NES version compared to what we played at the mall. Only Gun.Smoke has the guts to do so—"With all the dazzling graphics"—but they've made the screenshots extremely small to avoid the awkward comparisons and taken your attention away from the game itself with the tough-guy photo. Turtle freak that I was, I remember feeling mixed emotions upon receiving TMNT: The Arcade Game. While the game replicated much of the feel of the arcade version, it failed to take my breath away like the arcade game, which looked like Michelangelo was about to hop out of the screen and stuff a slice of pizza in my mouth. Until console games were able to capture the arcade magic, the arcades would still hold an advantage over games at home. Largely kept in the dark when it came to how an arcade port looked in the days before the Internet, we were, in many ways, a hostage audience.

Obviously, this wasn't such a bad thing, and many console-native games, such as The Adventures of Bayou Billy, played up just how awesome they seemed by plastering the page with screenshots and highlighting all the different gameplay methods that could be found in one game. These console-native games were among the favorites, partially because we had nothing to compare them to and because they were built around the system. Arcade games ported to the NES, however, seemed like wimpy, pimply cosplay versions of godly animated superheroes. Other games, such as Metal Gear, played up how just much there was to pick up and use, which had a lot of impact in an age when many of us still had the minimalist Ataris hooked up to the TV.

The year 1988 was the twilight before the dawn of GameBoy, which would redefine portable games forever. Portable games existed during this period (including in watch form), but they were such simple affairs that they almost seem embarrassing today, even knowing how much I wanted them when I was a kid. Among the most notable of these were the Nintendo Game and Watch and the Tiger LCD video games, both of which featured an LCD screen (similar to a digital watch) with a permanent background that could be used to give you the "feeling" of the real game. While these could be fun, most of the time they were annoying affairs that required a second for each fractured movement, resulting in much clenched teeth and yelling of "I TOTALLY got that, stupid game!" Worse, since I was a little Texas boy, on a couple of occasions I realized that they didn't like heat very well after pulling them out of my roasting bag and seeing the ink smeared over the screen. I remember switching it on anyway and simply watching Mario, the only thing still visible on the screen, jump up and down, while I pressed the buttons determined to play even if I couldn't see past the smear. Nintendo's ad made it seem like the advances of the Game Boy were already here; the Tiger games appealed to you through the art on the device.

I may upload and write about a few more of these at a later date, but for now I leave you with this awesome artifact: In the days before Everquest and World of Warcraft, some people did their fantasy gaming on the phone. Now that's hardcore.

Any other thoughts on all this? I'd like to hear them!

Design Exhibit: Apothecary Labels for Fragrances

This has nothing to do with video games, but I recently designed a series of labels for my wife's fragrance line on Etsy that I'm quite proud of. You can see how they turned out above.

As you can tell, a lot of the stuff she sells is very influenced by Steampunk, so I wanted to give the fragrance bottle a late 1800s apothecary feel (with just a touch of modern elegance).I design a lot of things for work, but this is one of the few projects I've done recently that I think are worthy of sharing.

Also, shameless promotion: if you'd like, check out the jewelry and fragrances at my wife's Etsy shop here. Buy something. Find a girl. Score.

Final Fantasy XIII Review

Final Fantasy XIII knows it's beautiful. Whether it's flashing split second masterpieces of technical beauty in the form of carefully individualized scuffs and creases on leather holsters or flirting with eerily realistic depictions of hair swaying in the wind, Square Enix's latest creation seduces its players with one jaw-dropping display of beauty after another. At times many of the characters you encounter throughout the weeks-long adventure look like flesh-and-blood actors, at last signaling a departure from trips through the uncanny valley that have plagued games in recent years, and, most amazingly of all, these wonders are achieved without any noticeable drops in frame rate or graphical sacrifices. Many games are content to restrict something approaching this level of detail and technical prowess to cut scenes, but in Final Fantasy XIII you'll encounter many moments when only the appearance of health bars informs you that the cut scene is over, so seamless is the transition.

Final Fantasy XIII consistently maintains its devotion to gorgeous, meticulous detail.

The first five minutes set the tone and pace for much of the rest of the game's story, since the two characters you first encounter--Lightning, a distant and strong-willed soldier and Sazh, a congenial pilot with a baby chocobo nesting in his afro--soon find themselves looking down a very straight and narrow path stretching far into the distance with nowhere to go but forward. For almost thirty hours Final Fantasy XIII insists on this bold linearity, and flipping on the mini map often reveals a single ruthlessly straight line. Almost without exception, it's an extraordinarily beautiful line, but one that leaves little if nothing to the imagination.

In short, it's not long before you realize that Square Enix has a story to tell you, and it's clear you're going to hear it their way whether you like it or not. Unlike its predecessors, Final Fantasy XIII has no interactive towns filled with hidden NPCs and shops, and virtually all illusion of choice has been tossed out in favor of a relentless, fast-paced story that leaves no time to stop and frolic with the chocobos. Instead, you're thrown directly into the middle of the plot, sporadically learning what's going on through a lengthy series of fairly well placed flashbacks and character pairings. It's a bold move, and one that lovingly complements the HD capabilities of modern consoles, but it also distances the game from its beloved RPG format and nudges it into territory more appropriate for games such as Heavy Rain.

The journey begins on the comfortable, structured world of Cocoon, a rich and luxurious blanket of routine spread over a dark hidden belly of mechanical ruins and latent danger, complete with an oppressive religious and military structure. Literally a world away is Gran Pulse, a wild and untamed planet spoken of only in tones of fear by the residents of Cocoon, who have long lived under the assumption that Pulse is uninhabitable. Chaos erupts when the game's six main characters come into contact with a fal'Cie--mechanical beings with god-like powers--originating from Gran Pulse. This encounter curses all six with the gift of magic, rendering them l'Cie, and their transformation immediately brands them as enemies of the entire world of Cocoon in the eyes of the people. As l'Cie, each is now required to fulfill a "focus" before an unknown deadline, and the reward for achieving it is barely more desirable than the punishment for failing. What follows is a long and difficult quest toward redemption, control of one's own fate, and the inevitable opportunity to save the world.

Lightning, mentioned above, becomes the story's heart and soul, although her characterization occasionally falters in the face of attempting to keep up her tough, determined soldier aura. Her five companions, while endearing, exude an unmistakable aura of stereotyping. This is particularly apparent in the character of Sazh, whose very existence could foster a dissertation on the perception of African-American culture as seen from Japan. Then there's Snow, a Viking-blonde self-proclaimed "hero" who looks and sounds as though he was meant to be an "X-treme" surfer dude in another life, and a vengeful white-haired boy named Hope, whose name predictably provides numerous opportunities for eye-rolling wordplays by his fellow adventurers. Later in the game you'll join up with the sultry Fang, a no-nonsense fighter who often finds herself at odds with the motivations of the rest of the party, and finally, there's the frisky Vanille, whose frequent breathy pants and squeaks in combat ensure that anyone hearing the audio only might think you were watching a raucous smut film.

For almost thirty hours, narrow paths like this will be the most you can explore.

In the hands of another company, characters such as these may have been a recipe for disaster, but Square Enix has successfully used them to create a story that manages to hold your attention for the days you'll be playing. Voice acting is excellent, fluid, and realistic, although you'll occasionally wince at some sugary lines that may have come out better as text on the blue screens familiar to the series. Masashi Hamauzu's memorable score excellently complements many of the missions and occasionally rises to true greatness. Throughout the first thirty hours of playtime, you'll follow Lighting and the gang as they group up, split up, and reunite in a plot that slowly--and occasionally clumsily--builds to a satisfying crescendo. And halfway through the game and at the end of that long, relentless corridor you'll suddenly find yourself staring wide-eyed across an open, windswept grassland with no visible path in sight.

The effect, quite simply, is staggering, and there's a very real emotional impact. After thirty hours, the metaphorical reasoning behind the linearity of the previous levels is suddenly evident. Cocoon, true to its name, was comforting but restricting, whereas Pulse is ripe with possibilities. There's every indication that this is the desired perception, since the characters immediately start calling Cocoon as restrictive as a "chocobo den" by comparison, and one character, while staring across the open landscape, states that "I think it's safe to say it won't be boring here." Indeed, the most palpable emotion one feels upon arriving at the scene is one of freedom; and after so long of being told what to do, the feeling is, quite frankly, unsettling. Square Enix should be congratulated for creating this sensation so perfectly, though it's worthwhile to wonder if they couldn't have achieved it sooner.

At the heart of Final Fantasy XIII is a fast-paced update to the series' Active Time Battle system that relies on "paradigms," which amount to various combinations of roles for each character in your party. Learning this system will unfortunately take several hours, owing not to any intrinsic difficulty but to Square Enix's insistence that you are only introduced to a new aspects after beating down fifty enemies using the simple technique you learned an hour ago. Battles take place in real time, so success depends on switching out the roles of each character frequently to adjust to the situation in "paradigm shifts." Roles include Ravager (magic), Medic (heals), Commando (physical damage), Sentinel (the tank), Saboteur (debuffs), and Synergist (buffs). The goal of every battle is to finish it as quickly as possible, and a chain gauge fills according to how effectively you use your physical and magical attacks. By filling the bar, you "stagger" the enemy, allowing you to burn it down with endless criticals while the bar drains back to zero. Much of the fun and challenge of Final Fantasy XIII comes from attempting to fill the gauge while also switching paradigms as needed. Full health is regenerated after each successful battle, so you're free to focus wholly on the battle at hand without worrying about keeping your entire party at full strength in order to survive future battles.

"Staggering" your enemies is the key to winning every battle.

This system is complemented by a Gestalt Mode in which you summon Eidolons, which are Transformers-****beings that can temporarily act as another fighter or morph into a vehicle that allows for visually spectacular attacks. Unfortunately, Eidolons often come off as eye candy to break up the monotony of long battles as their damage output is usually not enough to justify breaking a well-timed series of paradigm shifts.

While the battle system may sound complicated, the effect is greatly lessened since you're only ever in control of one character at a time. Your one or two companions (depending on the circumstances) will automatically act out whatever roles you have assigned them through your paradigms. In fact, by casting a spell known as "Libra" that reveals all of your opponent's weaknesses, it's possible to put most of the battle on autopilot since your companions' startlingly intelligent AI will automatically adjust as necessary after the spell is cast. For training purposes, combat is an easy process in the first few hours of the game, and may alienate players who will find themselves believing that all strategy has been removed. Indeed, the early linearity, the ease of combat and the breathtaking visuals all seem calculated to make the game as accessible to new players as possible. By the end of the game, however, you'll find that often the auto commands are not enough, and that it's best to stay in practice when it comes to your character's abilities. Combine this with the need for frequent paradigm shifts, and you'll find that the last several hours of the game are frightfully challenging. Indeed, somewhere around the game's halfway point, the combat overtakes the story as the most satisfying feature of the game.

Character advancement mirrors the advancement of the first part of the story: it's beautiful, it's linear, and it's free of choice. Each character trudges through a large part of the story with skills in three of the six available roles, although later you're given the opportunity to assign other roles to them. There's little point in doing this, however; instead, it's a much wiser to keep them in the roles the game originally assigned them and level these to the max.

Advancement is accomplished by a beautiful but simplistic menu known as the Crystarium, which accords the character the chance to upgrade to new stats and abilities after each battle following the accumulation of crystogen points. While the Crystarium initially looks complex, filled as it is with orbs and energy lines reminiscent of models of atomic structure, maxing out your character is essentially just a case of using the crystogen points to fill up to the next orb. It's a textbook case of form over function. By the time you encounter a level's boss, you'll almost always have your Crystarium maxed out until well over the game's halfway point, so there's no need to worry if your stats are right for the fight. If you don't, compensation is usually just a case of turning around and whacking on some respawned baddies before attacking the boss. In keeping with the game's relentless dedication to accessibility, any strategic or thoughtful allocation of points has largely been tossed to the side in favor of this bare-bones "fill 'er up" approach.

Upgrading weapons is slightly more complex. While there are no brick-and-mortar stores for the characters to use in Cocoon and Pulse (which makes sense, in a way, since every character in our merry band has been branded as an outlaw), weapons and items are instead upgraded at stores at the many save points throughout the game in the form of menus with shop-like names such as Moogleworks and Unicorn Mart. Components for upgrading items drop from virtually every enemy encounter, and when you run out, you can always acquire more from the menu shops.

Ultimately, while beautiful and engaging to the very end, Final Fantasy XIII leaves you with the impression that the developers spent as much time finding their focus as the characters. This is hardly surprising from a franchise known for persistently reinventing itself, but in their attempt to make the game accessible for everyone Square Enix has made a merely enjoyable game out of what may have been a masterpiece. On some levels, removing the clutter accumulated from years of expanding the conventions of the JRPG in favor of a more streamlined, accessible ****is a welcome step in the right direction, but the gaping void left by the absence of a comparatively open world, character choices, and interactive towns removes much of the joy of previous games.

More elementary school than MIT physics, the Crystarium is much simpler than it looks.

With Final Fantasy XIII, the series finds itself at a crucial crossroads. In future games, it could attempt additional reinventions, possibly resulting in pale and poor versions of what the series used to be, or it could stick to the accepted conventions of the series and genre, thereby creating popular games but stagnating in the way of development. Fittingly. it's a situation that's mirrored in the game's story of the hulking and demented Cie'th—l'Cie who failed to achieve their focus—and the crystallized prisons of l'Cie who succeeded.

For now, however, Square Enix's reimagining of its popular series has resulted in a gorgeous, compelling, and enjoyable creation that strikes just shy of the immortal greatness of the series' masterworks. While Final Fantasy purists may balk at the bold steps taken here, Final Fantasy XIII proves that the JRPG is alive, well, and capable of adapting. It's certainly a trip worth taking all the way to the end.

Score: 8.0

How I Learned to Like Transformers

As a kid in the 1980s, I never really was a fan of the Transformers. I'm not really sure why. No, I was too busy finding broken shovel handles and beating the living hell out of dirt piles in the back yard while acting like I was Donatello, the nerdy but butt-kicking ninja turtle. If anything, it gave me an excuse to eat more pizza.

Transformers fanhood instead went to my best friend, who would show up to class with a new Transformers toy every Friday for Show and Tell with what seemed like frightening religious dedication, and I learned more about each character's abilities and motivations from these mesmerizing sessions than I ever actually learned from the TV series or the comic books. The girls in our class would timidly shield Their Little Ponies and Care Bears every time a gun suddenly appeared on Megatron, since my friend was so passionate about his toys that they seemed like they'd actually start shooting. If he still has all those action figures, I imagine he could get enough cash to start filming a Transformers film of his own.

Above: Something tells me I was watching Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers when this happened. Is that bad?

Flash forward about twenty years. Michael Bay's Transformers movie comes out, surprisingly entertaining enough, but occasionally ruining what few memories I had of the series with images like Bumblebee peeing on a guy like some drunk wino on State Street. And since one pee joke is never enough, we also have to see a trembling Chihuahua peeing on Ironhide in the same film. Even so, I actually really liked the first movie and it stirred some interest in the series, but I have many more memories of Megan Fox than I have of Optimus Prime. I suspect that was the intention all along. (Also, my wife has always been a Transformers fan, and she has a cousin who collected the action figures even more religiously than my best friend, and he actually later used the collection to earn himself a little cash toward his engineering degree. My wife thought the first movie was awesome, and she insists I say so in this article.)

The second movie, as we all know, was a dismal wreck. I just happened to watch it at a drive-in movie theater (yes, they still exist!) in the far west suburbs as part of a double feature with G.I. Joe. Truth be told, it was hard to tell when one movie ended and the other began, and there was so much boompow going on that the speakers might as well have just been spouting static. When one of the reels burned halfway through the film—resulting in a loss of about 20 minutes of viewing time—we weren't even aware that we'd missed anything when the action started again.

Now, flash forward to last Thursday. A friend of mine from Canada had been all but begging me to get Transformers: War for Cybertron for a couple of weeks, even resorting to saying that it was on his short list for Game of the Year. Of course I scoffed—it was a Transformers game, after all, and it's all but gospel that games based on toys and the like are usually punishingly bad. I even checked the calendar to make sure it wasn't April. On a whim, I ordered the game from GameFly, and the popularity was such that I had to wait over a week before I received a copy. Expecting to shut the game off in about an hour, I popped the disk into my system and, well, was pretty much up all night.

I loved it.

Oh, sure, the plot has more MacGuffins than Scotland, and the combat largely draws from well-established shooters with little inspiration. The enemies can get repetitive, the lack of a real cover mechanic flat out sucks, you're CONSTANTLY hunting down extra ammo, and your AI compatriots might as well be plastic Hasbro toys you brought along for the ride. Yes, yes, I get all that, and if I were called on to give it a review I would give it a sound thumping. If you're simply interested in playing the ever-evasive Good Shooter, you'll probably be better off avoiding War for Cybertron.

But this is truly a fan's game—with all the good and bad that entails—and while playing, I got caught up in the nostalgia that all of us 80s kids are prone to. The intentionally cheesy lines are used to perfection and at all the right times –"Lord Megatron!" "The pleasure is all yours!"—a welcome throwback to the days when cartoons like this weren't afraid to take themselves less than seriously. By the end of the night, my wife and I were killing ourselves by mimicking the lines in other situations—"NOBODY makes delicious blueberry muffins like STARSCREAM!" (that's my wife's)—and laughing at some of the situations the characters found themselves in. While intriguing at times, the plot definitely has that 80s-cartoon feel, which was no doubt intentional and all the more enjoyable for that fact alone. Transformers, I realized, was fun.

Above: I'm quite sure environmentalists see something like this in their worst nightmares.

I think what hooked me most was the interaction, since playing a game so lovingly fan-based as this forces you to focus on the action and the characters. Indeed, this interaction is one of the main things that sets video games apart from passive forms of entertainment like movies. Unlike many shooters, there's almost constant dialogue between characters, ranging from story-based lines in mid-movement to often laugh-out-loud lines when you pick up extra ammo. This makes the War for Cybertron seem like a long cartoon just as much as a game, and while I'm already forgetting some plot details and some combat situations, I still find myself smiling at some of the lines. For someone with even a smidge of interest in the 1980s series, this goes a long way toward making the mistakes above forgivable. Suddenly, mouth open wide, I cared about why Starscream had teamed with Megatron—admittedly in a weekday afternoon kind of way. Suddenly I found myself wondering how Optimus and Bumblebee were going to get out of one predicament with no weapons. I was playing a game that gave attention to characterization and the interactions between only on the Transformers themselves and not on the best shot of Megan Fox's rear. I know it was cheesy, but by the Allspark, I cared. Going back over my memories of my best friend's passion for Transformers that I had always politely ignored, I suddenly felt like I had missed out.

By the end of the night, I somehow ended up in front of the computer, combing through pages on Amazon looking for the best deals on boxed sets of the early cartoon series and an Optimus Prime figure for my office. What was wrong with me?

Toward the end of the day on Friday, a message popped up on Facebook from one of my cousins in Texas asking if I was going to see the filming of Transformers 3 here in Chicago. Wide-eyed surprise. I look out my office window out towards Michigan Avenue, and sure enough, trucks for movie crews packed the streets and smoke was rising from the area around the Michigan Avenue Bridge. I ran Google searches for more information. So close! How could I not be aware of it? It turns out that Michael Bay and company would be in town for a good part of the week filming key scenes for the new movie, mainly on Michigan Avenue and Wabash Avenue. Since thoughts of War for Cybertron had flitted through my head for most of the day, it seemed like too great of a coincidence. Suddenly I couldn't leave work fast enough. I finished my assignments for the day, cursing that for some reason I had left my good camera at home and was equipped with only my iPhone 3G pinhole.

Above: Wreckage for Transformers 3 in storage in a Chicago parking lot.

Pioneer Court was a glorious wreck. (For fans of Resistance 2, this is near where you emerge from a Chicago building and see the big alien for the first time. It's one of the most beautiful spots in any American city.) Warped arms of steel and blocks of concrete jutted from the street. Burnt-out cars lie wrecked on Michigan Avenue. Smoke drifted up towards the spires of the Tribune and Wrigley buildings. Nearby, one draped under tarp, were the cars meant to represent Ratchet, Bumblebee, and other Transformers. And off in the distance, yelling into a megaphone (that's right, megaphone), was Michael Bay himself. It was a moment of open public geekery that I hadn't experienced since Trilogy Tuesday back in 2003.

Above: Wreckage in Pioneer Court.

Of course I was conflicted. Here in the midst of my Transformers rediscovery was the man that many believe had simultaneously revived and harmed the franchise. Yet all this thrilled me. After listening to various people in the crowd, I learned with fascination that this new movie is supposed to be "much more character-based" with "less explosions." A group of people my age—geeked out in Decepticon and Autobots shirts—said that the new movie was supposed to be the most faithful to the original series. Indeed, in an interview with USA Today, Bay himself says that the "dorky comedy" will be gone in the next film and that the characters who die will stay dead. While it's highly doubtful that Bay is going to pull a Return of the King out of his hat, I'm ready to give the films another chance on this basis alone.

Meanwhile, back on Michigan Avenue, crowds thronged to watch Shia LaBeouf, The New Girl (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), and a bunch of buff guys in S.W.A.T. outfits run back and forth across the Michigan Avenue Bridge. Cheers went up each time they made it to the other side as though the Cubs had just hit a home run. This was repeated with greater intensity when they switched to doing the same thing with the cars. It was obvious that the whole crowd loved this. Movies and television shows are filmed in Chicago fairly often, but only rarely do they get this kind of reception.

Above: The best shot I managed to get of Shia LaBeouf.

As you might imagine, however, there were no Transformers. People joked (rightly) that in post-production they were going to have to put them in and take us out. Still, with the wreckage nearby consisting of recognizable parts of buildings and overturned CTA buses, it was at least possible to imagine a bunch of giant robots slugging it out down the Magnificent Mile. Particularly with the wreckage in Pioneer Court, it was easy to believe that they were just around the corner or perched on the Tribune Building just out of sight. We all saw the cars, of course, but there were no scale models of Optimus Prime or anyone else. I enjoyed it all enough that I brought my wife back the next day to see the set. And when I got home that night, my experience on the movie set made me enjoy the game even more.

Whatever its failings as a shooter, Transformers: War for Cybertron made me get Transformers and prepared me for the intense interest I had on the set last Friday and Saturday. I may still not love Transformers, but at least my interest is strongly piqued. That's a rare success for any game. Had War for Cybertron ironed out the kinks in the combat and perhaps worked on the story a tad more, I'm quite sure this game would have been more of a masterpiece for the Transformers universe than any movie could be. Will I start memorizing character names and debating the various strengths of Starscream's different appearances over the last two decades? Likely not. Do I believe that everyone will have the same experience I had? Laughably out of the question. Will I sit down and watch all of the 1980s cartoons from start to finish? Well, quite possibly. By becoming part of an extended episode of the old series, so to speak, complete with breathtaking 21st century visuals and updated character models that nevertheless strongly recalled the Transformers' original forms, I suddenly saw the original series in a new light and was curious to see where the story goes next.

In short, the strides taken to recreate the feel of the original cartoon series both by High Moon Studios and hopefully Michael Bay are a good thing for the Transformers, and it's good to see that they received the same fan-inspired attention that Batman received in the form of Arkham Asylum. (And before you nuts in the back start protesting, I'll add that I don't believe War for Cybertron is anywhere near as good a game as Arkham Asylum.) High Moon Studios and others are simply realizing that you don't have to completely reinvent a popular comic book or cartoon franchise to be successful with it; instead sometimes it's better just to give the fans what they want, and it's especially helpful to have developers who actually enjoyed the series—as seems obvious with War for Cybertron. With games such as this and the new, supposedly character-driven Transformers film, maybe there's a bright future for the Transformers after all.

At times I believe that the intense interest is just a personal fad, similar to a love affair my wife and I had when she made me revisit the Thundercats two years ago, and perhaps part of my sudden interest can be attributed to Transformers overload springing from the uncanny timing of Transformers 3 being filmed in here in Chicago. But I know one thing--it took over 25 years, but War for Cybertron created at least one new Transformers fan. I for one can't wait to see what the sequel has in store.

Roll out.

Photos From a Gamer in Paris

I admit it. I was lazy. I spent a whole week in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and I don't have very many photos to show for it. Part of this had to do with the fact that I was ridiculously comfortable there—it often seemed like a version of Chicago where people spoke French. Part of this was a result of my shoes falling apart on the second day because I chose to wear my older, "nicer-looking" pair over the normal, comfortable walkers I wear in Chicago. Bad idea. The tiny holes in the soles of both shoes became canyons and caused bad blisters to show up on my feet that still haven't healed.

But I did take a few photos, and what you see here are what I consider the best of my efforts.

The shot in the upper left was something of an accident; it was actually something of a snapshot since I was starting to get a little guilty walking up the Rue des Martyrs in Montmartre without taking very many photos. As soon as I saw it in the view screen, though, I fell in love with the shot. It's my personal favorite of all my Paris photos.

In the middle is a man my wife and I met near the Abbesses Métro station (around which the syrupy film Amélie was set), who was shuffling around in such a way that it seemed he was just begging to have his photo taken. After we had built up the courage to speak to him and take photos of him more directly (for a tip of 8 Euros—hey, it's all I had on me), he pulled out a little book of photos from him from all over the world. Apparently he makes something of a modest living from people doing this very thing.

In the upper right here you have a standard Montmartre scene; indeed, this was taken right across the street from the famous Moulin Rouge (which is not placed anywhere near as prominently as Baz Luhrman would have you believe). Sex toy shops and strip joints abound around this shot, but impressive buildings like this ensure that even areas such as this in Paris are filled with breathtaking beauty. A similar collection of raunchy stores in Chicago would have thugs lurking in the shadows, a gallery of different ways to bar your windows, and mysterious glistening puddles all over the sidewalk.

In the upper left you'll find the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, the short but scrappy cousin of the much more massive (and famous) Arc de Triomphe, far in the distance. If you look closely at the larger version, you can see the 3,300-year-old Obelisk of Ramses II poking up in the Place de la Concorde, the very place where they lopped off all those heads in the French Revolution. Finished in 1808, the arch is covered with boasts regarding Napoleon's victories.

In the middle you'll find a nice shot of a street in the Latin Quarter near the Odéon opera. Yep, that's about it. I just thought the colors were purdy.

On the far right you'll find the Panthéon, which was finished in 1790. It was originally meant to be a church, but then that pesky revolution thing broke out, so now it's the tomb of several famous Frenchies including Voltaire, Marie Curie, and Alexandre Dumas. This was more or less the view from the front door of our hotel, which was, well, awesome.

Above is the statue of Louis XIV in front of the Louvre, complete with a pigeon crapping on his curly head. Again, just purdy. I'll say this about the Louvre, though—my wife and I spent many evenings in the courtyard there, cooling off our feet in the fountains around the pyramid and enjoying the peaceful ambiance around us. If you tried to do the same thing in the States, you'd be fined in seconds.

Voilà, c'est tout. If you want to see all of my Paris photos, click here. Comments and copious purchases of prints are appreciated.

Also, Happy Fourth of July, everyone! And Happy Belated Canada Day for those up north.

Death of a Blockbuster: A Unique Method of Reviewing Video Games?

Today the Blockbuster Video at the corner of State and Huron in downtown Chicago is going out of business. As a newly devoted aficionado of both Netflix and Gamefly, I feel somewhat guilty about this since this used to be my stop for both movies and games before I discovered the joy of rentals by mail. The staff were always nice and helpful, but I suppose this is just another indication of how far we're moving away from brick and mortar establishments when it comes to items like movies and video games. But enough commentary.

The location began their closing sale almost a month ago, and everything in the store (including fixtures and the like) has been marked down, made unavailable for renting, and put on sale in order to clear out their inventory. As you can imagine, this is an excellent opportunity to buy video games, particularly in downtown Chicago where there are no nearby GameStops and a rather lackluster FYE (game-wise) in the Loop.

Originally the PS3, the XBOX 360, and the Wii all had separate complete rows full of both new and old popular games, but over the last month the sale has been successful enough that all video games are now on a single rack that has been split into three categories for each of the systems. I can personally attest that the PS3 row used to be good enough that I felt little desire to buy or even use GameFly since they basically had everything I wanted. Yesterday I visited the store one last time hoping to pick up some other gem like my ridiculously cheap copy of Grand Theft Auto IV, and I realized that seeing what's left after a month of a clearance sale and on the second-to-last day of business revealed a lot about which games people want to buy and possibly even a very rough editorial on the current state of the gaming industry. Above all, I believe that looking at these shelves a day before the shop's doors close forever reveals what games players are actually interested in.

There are, however, a couple of things to keep in mind. This store is basically located at the junction of the River North and Gold Coast neighborhoods, which are both two of the wealthiest districts of the city. The Gold Coast in particular is considered one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the United States. Children are not as common as they would be farther out since this area has many young, single people and the population density is very high. Also, as is common with rental stores, there are more likely to be multiple copies of new games than older ones.

Above: The PS3 shelf

Somewhat surprisingly, the PS3 shelf was very empty. I actually expected this to be more true of the XBOX shelf since everyone says it's so much more popular, but I suspect that, quality aside, many people in the area simply have a PS3 because it originally cost more and thus seemed more like a status symbol. (Keep in mind that both systems originally had their own rows.) What was mainly left was a sampling of rather old games (such as Resistance: Fall of Man) and a lot of copies of Bioshock 2 and multiple copies of Army of Two (both the 2008 and 2010 releases). I'd been in the store a couple of times before the sale started, and I can attest that this is about how many copies of Bioshock 2 they had in the first place. If this is any indication, it seems that many players (like me) were ready to just let Rapture sleep with the fishes. I'm honestly surprised that InFamous and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 were still available, but by and large the rest of the games seem like the games you would expect to be left behind after a month-long sale.

Above: The XBOX 360 shelf.

XBOX 360
By comparison, the XBOX 360 shelf was packed. And, sports games and other niche titles aside, there's really an astonishing lot of quality titles here. There are still two copies of Grand Theft Auto IV (one could make the argument that most people have already played it by now), at least four copies of massively praised Mass Effect 2, a copy of the stellar Orange Box collection (never expensive to begin with), one copy of the addicting Dirt 2, and one copy of the entertaining hack 'n' slash Darksiders. Dante's Inferno, while divisive, makes a surprise four-copy appearance here (surprising in that all copies for the PS3 had been bought), and this year's XBOX exclusive Alan Wake sits lonely at the top. Also surprising is that our old friends from the PS3 side--Bioshock 2, COD: MW2, and Army of Two--make yet another appearance here, seemingly revealing that players have found little to interest them in these titles. It seems that, at least in this neighborhood, interest in the PS3 far outstrips that in the XBOX360 since these are perfectly buyable games, especially during a sale. On a personal note, I'm surprised to see Split/Second here since this was the very game I came to buy for myself for the PS3. I was told that it sold out on the very day the sale started.

Above: The Wii shelf.

And so at last we come to the Wii, the emptiest shelf of them all, which is well in line with its present market dominance. I don't own a Wii, and my friends' children are usually playing decidedly non-adult games on them when I get a chance to see one in action, and so I have very little to express here except deep amazement at how popular the system is. Unless I'm greatly mistaken, it looks like the locals have largely picked the shelf clean of all the best titles and left the chaff. I'll leave the Wii commentary to you.

While well-reviewed, it seems obvious here that Bioshock 2 was far from the big hit that it was hoped to be. After having almost a month to pick up the game at a reduced price, players still didn't feel any desire to take the game home with them. Similarly, the oft-praised Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 apparently isn't that big of a hit here in that the only copy available for either the PS3 or XBOX360 when they were still available for rental still sits waiting on the shelf. While completely sold out for the PS3, Dante's Inferno had an almost embarrassing four copies available in the XBOX shelf for a game that's been out for a while and the deeply praised Mass Effect 2 had a similar showing. Again, much of this could be attributed to the mass quantities of games Blockbuster buys for rental purposes, but, from memory, they couldn't have had more than two other copies of either game. As such, I think what we're seeing is a group of games that were flashy upon release, but their appeal has faded over time, simiar to movies that you don't mind seeing in the theater but wouldn't rent or buy when it's released on DVD.

Also, if this sale is any indication, the PS3 is certainly coming into its own. In this neighborhood, at least, the PS3 seems to be more popular than the XBOX and the tide might be shifting a bit in terms of favored consoles. Or, again, maybe it's just the neighborhood. As always, though, the Wii reigns supreme, and I wouldn't be surprised if virtually all copies for this system are gone by this afternoon if they slash the prices even further before closing the doors. What are your opinions? Is it truly possible to draw conclusions about the gaming industry from sales such as this?

Edit: A very good point that's been brought up in the comments is that one possible reason why good games are still available is that many people probably already got them at release. I kind of referred to that in my aside about Grand Theft Auto IV in the XBOX paragraph, but I didn't flesh it out at all.

And now for something completely different...
If you haven't already, be sure to check out this awesome video of violinist Teppei Okada providing the soundtrack to a game of Super Mario Bros. with his violin. Special thanks to WhiteSaber for the link.

A Trip To Paris: Day 1 (June 5)

The French, I've decided, have an entirely undeserved bad rap. Perhaps I've arrived at this conclusion because I can speak French. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, by heritage, I'm partly French and am thus unconsciously more inclined to forgive them. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that people in America already find me a little rude (no matter how hard I try to prove otherwise).

At any rate, I knew I was in for a week of surprises from the very moment we sat down on our Air France flight. Seated comfortably in two seats by the window, we first noticed how tangibly quiet the plane was despite the fact that it was packed. There was no large man yelling five rows back as though he were in his back yard on the Fourth of July complaining about taste conflicts between beer and hot dogs. There were no annoying kids who thought there was a Dance Dance Revolution interface on the back of my seat. No, the silence was such that we were embarrassed to even whisper to one another. The passengers, almost all French from the snippets of conversation I could hear, lost themselves in reading books or magazines, learning how to use the view screen in front of them, or they conversed with their loved ones in completely inaudible tones. This was, in short, far different than any domestic American flight I've been on, and I don't remember being similarly affected by my flights to Italy, Greece, and the United Kingdom and Ireland in previous years.

In a nutshell, the flight over was blessedly quiet and uneventful. Gamers will be pleased to know that they had a built-in gaming system in each seat, although I didn't spend much time with them since most of the games were simple and took half the flight to load (think Chess, Gauntlet II and the like). Instead, what really got my attention were the movies. Perhaps the fact that the World Cup was about to begin had something to do with it, but so many of the French movies I watched in flight to refresh my French had to do with soccer. There was a French movie about some Hungarian kid in France who kept switching football clubs while some classically handsome agent frowned with disapproval. There was last year's Invictus with Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman. (I didn't watch long enough to learn if the soundtrack simply featured the incessant roar of vuvuzelas.) Most unique of all was a bizarre French comedy in which a dog becomes a footballer as a human, and hijinks ensue when a woman tries to sleep with him. Yes, you read that right. I can't say I didn't enjoy it.

Most surprising of all was the food. Air France presents you with a meal that surpasses the fare found in many restaurants, complete with baguettes, wonderfully cooked and tasty meats, gorgeous vegetables, and deliciously mouthwatering desserts. Oh, and the wine's free. I downed one little bottle and, a little embarrassed, I asked for another and received one without the slightest grumble. While not particularly tasty, the wine was noticeably strong.

Above: Watch out, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft.

After arriving at Charles de Gaulle, we approached the city via the RER, which is basically the long-range commuter train for the area. After the luxury of Air France (and we were in coach, mind you), the RER was something of a letdown. For one, the windows were open and there was no air conditioning, and within moments I could tell that our time in France was already going to be much hotter than I had expected. Score one for Chicago's El. Nestled in a plastic seat that looked like it was reapportioned from a defunct amusement park ride, I started sweating in my Irish flat cap and my black blazer. Looking out the window revealed nothing but a never-ending graffiti museum with a surprising amount of angst expressed in English, and occasionally views of grim-looking suburbs that oozed an ambiance of discomfort not so much from the buildings (which were actually rather charming) but from the shabby signs and bars on the windows. This inexplicable urge to deface such a beautiful country was also found on the train itself. With much more frequency than the El, you could find little scribblings even around the screws on our plastic seats and on the walking mat on the floor. (I was to later notice that French graffiti writers by and large only do this to areas that can't be seen by most of the public—such as the backs of buildings or retractable storefronts. They're polite that way.) I wanted to lean over to my wife and say, "Well, this doesn't look so romantic," but I held back, knowing all too well that my native tongue is perhaps the only one that could be understood even by some tribesman in the deepest jungles of Borneo. And of course, French was out of the question.

This, I learned later, was Aulnay-sous-bois, which, despite its serenely beautiful name, was one of focal points of the 2005 French suburb riots when restless people all over the country took to torching cars and buildings. Unlike the status quo in the States, the suburbs in Europe usually seem to be the crime-infested areas, and it was while passing by Aulnay that we had our first sight of a possible pickpocket. I'd read tomes on the subject before coming (largely spurred by a healthy awareness of them from my time in Italy), but I was surprised to see someone so soon. Being city folk ourselves, my wife and I had courteously sat opposite each other with our bags between us to allow other people a seat. About two stops in, a woman sat down next to us and immediately made a show of spilling stuff from a tiny handbag near our luggage. Watching her through my sunglasses, I saw how her hands kept getting closer and closer to our bags even though there was obviously nothing there. This went on for several minutes. Eventually, after some subtle gestures from us, she got the point and got off at one of the next stations.

Finally we went underground, passing stations that actually made me feel a little better about Chicago's subway stations. After arriving at the Luxembourg station, a dingy place that belied the beautiful area directly above it, we walked above ground and I saw my first sight of true Paris where Boulevard Saint-Michel meets up with Rue de Médicis. I can't speak for my wife, but I somehow felt like I was in comfortable surroundings again, and at first, all I could think was that I needed something to drink. After grabbing a Coca-Cola from a street vendor on Boulevard Saint-Michel (which also, incidentally, was my first ever conversation in French with a real French person and it went flawlessly), we realized that we still had several hours before our hotel would admit us, but, especially since the heat was already increasing, we decided to check our bags at the Hôtel des Grands Hommes, a pleasant 18th century building on the Place du Panthéon where we'd be staying the week. They let us check out bags and, after an awkward tipping moment, we made our way to the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg. Finally, here among the trees and shade, we found a place to relax beside the Medici Fountain, built in 1630 by Marie de' Medici and restored by Napoleon. All around us we could see the people in the park, the cars zipping down the Boulevard Saint-Michel, and the pigeons scurrying across the grass hoping for food. What most surprised us is how quiet it was. In Chicago, this same scene in Grant Park would have been full of cars honking, and the very moment you started to smile and look content, some "homeless" guy would come up and harass you. Not so here. We heard not a single honk or tire screech, and everyone around us took delight in the day. Parisians and tourists alike (more of the former) enjoyed the day without interruption.

Above: John Marston aims his sights on a Parisian.

Realizing that we should actually do something with our time, we walked toward the other side of the park along the front of the palace. Along the way I came across a young man sporting a Texas A&M cap and shirt, and I called out not ten feet from him, "Hey, A&M! Good to see another Texan out here!" I had already encountered many astoundingly polite French people, and I was in a good mood. The man, however, looked at me as though I were a scorpion that had only been born so I could be squashed and ground slowly under his crap-stained boot heel. "I'm, eh-heh, I went to UT myself." Another dark look. Darker, I think. We walked on with a shrug and my estimation of the storied "friendliness" of my home state went down another notch.

The other side of the park was even more enjoyable, and we spent time watching a little donkey-driven cart take children up and down the Rue de Fleurus and a sparring match in which two Frenchmen beat each other up while a cute blonde couple picnicked a few feet away. Catering to our respective biological dispositions, Evonne sat in the sun and I sat in the shade, occasionally standing up to kick a soccer ball back to a father and son playing nearby. All around us native French people enjoyed the day in shorts and T-shirts (looking good in them, I should add) that complemented the surprisingly hot weather—a long shot from the myth we've all heard that French people all wear black and dress like they're going to a gala while they're hacking meat at the boucherie. I also noticed for the first time that French authorities abhor the notion of actually sitting on the grass in order to preserve the landscaping—indeed, I believe a small section of the Luxembourg Garden is the only place in the entire city I encountered where one was actually permitted to stand or sit on the grass. This is a commendable practice, but I submit that the Parisians really need to add more benches to parks in the city, and I can only surmise that their absence is meant to dissuade vagrants.

We next made our way to one of the spots that I'd longed to see for many months, chiefly so Evonne could see a real piece of Roman history. To the east of the Panthéon in a district seldom visited by tourists, you can find the Arènes de Lutèce, a 1st century Roman gladiator arena built in what was formerly the outskirts of the Roman city of Lutetia. Once upon a time it could hold over 15,000 spectators, making it one of the largest arenas of its kind, although what you see today gives very little indication of its form aside from the shape of the actual arena itself. For most of its history of the arena was buried and forgotten—much of the stone was carted away by barbarians in 280 A.D. for fortifications elsewhere—but it was discovered again during a surveying project for a tram depot. We walked in through one of the main entryways, and for a moment, as we stepped from the shadows and onto the floor of the arena, we received a fleeting feeling of what it may have been like to step out onto that floor to fight almost 2,000 years ago. By now the sun was beating down, and we enjoyed the shade and the view from a park bench, taking a tiny nap since the jet lag was partially catching up with us. Nearby, in the area where the stage would have been, several children played in a picturesque water fountain and, feeling dehydrated, I waited for them to leave so I could have my own sip. Once I did, I cupped the water in my hands and was shocked that the water was so ridiculously good. I don't know what I was expecting—perhaps the taste of old, rusty or leaded pipes or flecks of rust or something worse getting caught in my throat—but I'll always cherish the taste of water from Parisian fountains.

More later. In the meantime, if you want to check out my photos, click here. Much like this travelogue, it's a work in progress.

The Chinese Killed My Mage!

A couple of you have been asking me for a proper review of Red Dead Redemption, but the truth is I was too busy playing it until two nights ago to be bothered with it. That, and my day job has been keeping me really busy. I finally beat it (yes, even to the real ending, which I rather regret) after getting Legend of the West and virtually all of the outfits. As of the final shot, I think my completion rate for the game stood at 95%, which ain't too bad at all, I reckon. (Also, Legend of the West was hard as hell--dude, where's a trophy?)

Anyway, I expected that would be my post for the day, but when I arrived at work this morning I noticed that there was a big, bad message that my Gmail account had been accessed from China. After fighting off a heart attack for a couple of seconds, I went about changing my passwords, making sure nothing had been pulled from my bank account, and then pondering exactly what had happened. The rest of the day went on as normal.

The answer, however, came a few seconds ago with an e-mail from Blizzard stating that my World of Warcraft account had been closed due to a "Terms of Use Violation" for "Exploitative Activity: Abuse of the Economy." Specifically: "This account was closed because one or more characters were identified exchanging, or contributing to the exchange of, in-game property (items or gold) for "real-world" currency. This exchange process negatively impacts the World of Warcraft game environment by detracting from the value of the in-game economy." I haven't played World of Warcraft for almost half a year now, the account is (or should be) inactive, and the game isn't even installed on my computer, so I have no idea how it happened. Mind you, a part of this kind of makes me happy since I've written several forum posts about the problems with WoW and that the grind just kind of got old for me, and I seriously got tired of feeling obligated to a game.

Above: Taken in 2006, back when Naxxramas was actually hard.

Still, the loss of my mage hit me hard in the gut. Unlike most players, I've played the exact same character since November 23, 2004--the very first day WoW was released. I started out as a human mage on Alleria, and spent most of my time as such until a decision I made on a whim to become a gnome right before I quit. In his day, my mage was easily one of the best PVE mages on the server (possibly the world, for that matter, as a result of being in a high-profile guild). Back when we had the PVP ranking system, I had the Knight-Champion rank (which I actually planned, knowing they would be removing the titles). I met many of my gamer friends that I know in real life through him. By the time I quit, I had finally mastered the art of making money in the game and had kind of become a hardcore auctioneer while I raked in the dough with alchemy and jewelcrafting. I was playing my mage when you could still raid Scholomance, and I'd seen the opening of Icecrown Citadel. In short, it was a very long WoW career. So proud was I of my character that I even had a FigurePrint made (although I now wish I'd been wearing a different set). More can be read here.

Part of me is happy it's over and that the temptation's gone forever, but some WoW friends have informed me that it's still possible to get my account back if I just keep bugging Blizzard. At this point, however, I think it may be best to let sleeping mages lie.

Since I'm talking, I might as well add that I'm heading to Paris Friday morning, so I'll be disappearing for a week. We'll be staying at a very nice hotel on the Place du Panthéon in the Latin Quarter, and much of my trip will be spent seeing medieval landmarks that I've always wanted to see, ranging from the Musée de Cluny and the Basilica de Saint-Denis to, of course, Notre Dame and Sainte-Chappelle. I wanted to make the trip out to Mont Saint-Michel (which the hardcore nerds out there will recognize as the inspiration for Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings movies), but I don't think we want to spent so long on a train. Instead we'll be going to Provins, a charming medieval town that was the host of many genuine medieval fairs. They've taken the idea and run with it, and you can see several reenactments under the shadow of the best-preserved medieval walls in Europe. Unfortunately, we'll arrive a weekend too soon for the giant festival.

When I get back, expect a few travel articles on Paris! This will also be an excellent time to jump start my photography, which I've let fall by the wayside lately.

Above: Shameless self-promotion.

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