Saturday, December 22, 2012

Kotas Reviews The Hobbit

Today I saw the Hobbit. First, a little background. The Hobbit was THE book that got me into fantasy literature. I was sick for a week or two one summer as a small kid, and I couldn’t really do anything. I found a copy of The Hobbit amongst my parents books. I read that thing like 3 a row. My grandfather recorded the original animated movie off of HBO or something the next year, and I watched the hell out of that too. Wore out the tape. I love this book, perhaps more than any other book written so far. Be warned, beyond this point thar be spoilers. Skip to the final paragraph for the FACE rating and final word.

This film is not the movie of the book. It is a movie based on the book, and more to the point, it is a movie based on a book as seen through the lens of the previous Lord of the Rings films. This is not a children’s bedtime story, this is an epic tale that is clearly a prequel to an even more epic tale. The themes have been increased in scope, and in doing so have changed some of the underlying nature of them. Bilbo is still our unlikely hero, but he’s much less...bumbling. In fact, the entire set of dwarves, mostly comical figures apart from Thorin in the book, have become more of a rough and tumble assemblage of adventurers. Thorin is an appropriately brooding “King Without a Kingdom but Gonna Get it Back” fellow. Gandalf is, of all the characters, the least changed. Enigmatic, yet with a twinkle in his eye and a penchant for sage advice, as is befitting a wizard.

The opening narration is a particularly good bit of work. Ian Holmes and Elijah Woods reprise their roles as Old Man (er Hobbit) Bilbo and Frodo in the framing device of “Bilbo finally getting around to writing down his story in full.” Both of the actors looked comfortable back in the roles and I enjoyed it. The transition to “60 years ago” was nicely done. I must say, Martin Freeman does a simply wonderful job as Bilbo, always giving off the right impression I would have for the hero in his situation. In fact, the acting is excellent from almost everyone. The dwarves at the party hits all the correct notes from the book, and the cleanup scene is well executed. From this point however, the movie makes some considerable departures from the book. Oh, none of the main story elements are changed, but...well, I’ll get to it.

Take for example the troll scene. I enjoyed the portrayal of our dear friends Bert, Tom, and Bill Huggins. But the scene is different. The dwarves didn’t lose their baggage when a pony fell in the river, instead Fili and Kili are counting up the ponies and realize two are missing. They draft Bilbo to assist in the recovery. The trolls have taken them, of course. Bilbo sneaks in to try and set them free, but due to a bit of bad luck is found out when he tries to pick pocket a tiny knife (for a troll) to cut the rope for the ponies’ pen. Kili leaps in to try and save him...along with the rest of the dwarves. A frightful row ensues, with the dwarves attacking and beating up the trolls with their many weapons, and only stops when the dwarves are forced to surrender or the trolls will pull Bilbo in half. They are in sacks or tied to a spit, but Bilbo manages to stall them for long enough for Gandalf to show up and smite a boulder in twain, revealing the dawn and turning them to stone.

This scene hit all the basic elements of the scene in the book, and served the same purpose. It showcases Bilbo’s inexperience with adventuring, puts the dwarves in a pickle, and Gandalf saves the day. But it is much more the scene it had to be, viewed through the lens of the previous films, rather than a scene from the book. Bilbo was caught this time, not because he was doing something somewhat foolish in order to impress the dwarves, but some rather unfortunate bad luck (grabbed by the troll when he reached for his handkerchief, which just happened to be right where Bilbo was standing to grab the tiny knife) instead of an enchanted coin purse. It is Bilbo, not Gandalf, who keeps the argument going over how best to cook the dwarves, and he does so directly, rather than trying to sound like the trolls. These dwarves are not the comical lot who get stuffed into sacks, but capable warriors put in a tough position (though they are vastly more comical than say, Gimli). Gandalf doesn’t trick the trolls into taking too much time, he straight up splits a fucking boulder to let the sun in. Don’t get me wrong, the scene is actually a lot of fun, but you can see the alterations made in the name of “seriousing it up” a bit for the movie.

Many of the film’s other scenes are in this vein, making things a bit more serious than they would otherwise have been had the other Lord of the Rings films not existed. There is actually an excellent character moment between Bilbo and Bofur right before the orcs attack them in the cave, but it drives home one of the new themes of the movie: Everyone Needs a Place to Belong. The actors play it well...buuuuuuut it is not exactly Tolkien’s writing here. Same with the entire thing with Azog the Defiler, the Primary Antagonist of this film. There is a whole heaping helping of stuff here that’s dolloped on top of the Hobbit to give it some of the epic scope of the previous films. It’s not badly done, but it seems to be a bit of “trying too hard” to make Thorin into the dwarfiest of all dwarves...for actual reasons as opposed to being stereotyped. There’s a bit during a flashback to the fall of the Lonely Mountain where we learn why Thorin has a severe dislike of elves...which isn’t even in the book to begin with and sets up some antagonism between Thorin and the Wood Elf King in the next film...that doesn’t really NEED setting up. It just seems so...superfluous and a little off putting, making out the Wood Elf King to be “kind of a huge jerk”, way moreso than in the book. Hell, Thorin is totally an asshole to Elrond, when in the BOOK he’s a little standoffish, but otherwise seeks council and rests up for a good long time and they part as friends.

Most of the stuff they added in about the “rise of the Necromancer” and so forth isn’t bad. It’s just..rushed. In the book, the Necromancer is a “far away bad guy who’s been around for a long time” and the reason why Gandalf isn’t with the dwarves for everything after Beorn. This time? Radagast the Brown finds out he’s set up shop in an abandoned fortress and is fucking with Mirkwood. Sauruman dismisses the threat, but Galadriel and Elrond do not take it so lightly. These bits are interesting, but again they “serious up the story” because of how epic the OTHER films were. I know I harp on this a lot, but it really, really changes a LOT of the tone and theme of the story.

Ugh, let’s talk Radagast. I should fucking love this character to death. He’s played by Sylvester “I am the Seventh Doctor” McCoy, and does some interesting wizard shit in the name of healing an animal, has a rabbit drawn sledge, and is all around an eccentric character with some clever tricks, underestimated by his enemies and friends alike. But...he’s got shit all over his face. Radagast lets a couple of birds nest under his hat. The character design for this calls for a veritable RIVER of bird shit to run down one side of his head, face and into his beard. This bothers me on a very fundamental level and I could NOT get over it. In every scene he is in, I just could not stop thinking that he’s gotta bowl you over with his foul bird shit stink. No one EVER calls him out on it, even though it is RIGHT ALL OVER HIS FUCKING FACE and is TOTALLY DISGUSTING. Just awful and it made me hate this character so very much. There’s “eccentric old nature loving hermit wizard” and then there’s “crazy old homeless guy covered in shit.” This falls into the latter category.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is Gollum. GOLLUM. This may be the very best scene in the entire film, is when Bilbo meets Gollum. Andy Serkis nails this performance to the wall, and Gollum is absolutely terrifying. He straight up bludgeons an orc to death with a rock on screen! The dual personality from the other movies is played up a little less here, but is still an essential part of the character. This IS Gollum as he needs to be for this film, given the Gollum from the other films. It is brilliant and wonderful. The other CGI character I enjoyed was the Great Goblin, huge warty pustule covered goiter and all. Just a delightful character, and pretty much spot on from the book too.

The climax of the film is the “Fifteen Birds in Five Fir Trees” scene from the book, but it is VASTLY different from the book, as it is the climax of the film. Everyone heroes it up, though Gandalf’s role is slightly downplayed, and the eagles are shown to be more a tool of the wizard then as acting of their own accord. It’s still a pretty fun showdown and puts the movie in a good place to pick up the story in the next one. Bilbo gets to show why he’s the protagonist of the movie and everyone gets a small moment to shine, all ending on a very clever representation of the Carrock, with a lovely shot of the Lonely Mountain in the distance.

On a scale of five frowny faces to five smiley faces I give this a sold three smiley faces. It did not feel like a three hour movie to me and I enjoyed it very much. However, it is very, very different in a lot of ways from the book, and this may bother people. The main themes of the book are here, and there are some additional ones that add a bit of depth and scope, in keeping with the “movie universe” that the previous films created. Definitely NOT for small kids though. It is PG-13 for a reason.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Kotas Reviews FTL

Let's talk indie games today. For those of you who know my history, I don't play a ton of indie games. However, upon recommendation from an old friend picked up a game called FTL on Steam for $10. Did I waste my money? Read on to find out!

FTL was produced as a part of a Kickstarter. It is in fact one of the first successful Kickstarter projects to actually hit the market. It is a strategic space simulator, with elements of Rogue-like style games. What does Rogue-like mean? I'll get into that later. The premise of the game is that you are a crew of three who has discovered vital information for the Federation so that they can turn around their otherwise losing battle with the Rebellion. Who is the Rebellion and why do they fight against the Federation? Who knows, but trust me, they are the bad guys. This game is not heavy on story, though it does have a relatively interesting lore.

When you start, you get to pick your ship, customize your crew if desired, and set off on your epic journey through 8 sectors, trying to stay ahead of the Rebel Fleet and deliver your information to the Federation leaders. The graphics are...minimalist, as befits its Rogue-like origins. You can figure out what everything is, but this game would be right at home on an NES (except for the backgrounds, which are much nicer). Everything is shown from a top down perspective of the inside of your ship, which has the rooms laid out. You have stations for weapons, life support, medical, shields, engines, and piloting. If you have a drone system, you have a room with that in it. There are also subsystems: Sensors, Auto-Pilot, and oddly enough, Doors. Some of these systems can be manned for bonuses, though Piloting MUST be manned if you want your jump engine to work.

Sectors are made up of a number of randomly generated "jump points" that you move through by waiting for the "jump meter" to fill, and then pressing the Jump button. The meter only fills if your engines are not disabled and you have someone manning the Pilot station. When you jump, you get to pick which jump point you go to. Each jump point only connects to a number of nearby jump points. Some will be marked with things such as "Store" or "Distress Beacon", indicating the type of encounter you are likely to have there. If your sensors are high enough, you can sometimes see if a ship might be there too.

When you jump, you receive a text description of your random encounter. If it is a non- combat encounter, you may make a choice to do something, or elect to just jump to the next section. Sometimes your choices lead to positive things, like gaining a crew member or some supplies or Scrap (money). Other times you get negative things like a ship invasion or hull damage. You can also get a "mixed bag" result which gets you a good and a bad thing together.

If a ship is there, they may be friendly, neutral, or hostile. Friendly ships are like any other non-combat encounter. Neutral ships are usually mercenaries that you can ignore, hire, or attack. Hostile ships initiate combat. Combat is a real-time affair, though you can pause at any time to issue orders and evaluate the situation. Weapons start off uncharged, and once they are charged you aim them at the enemy ship. You can target individual systems on the other ship too, though the crew may attempt repairs. If your sensors are good enough, you can see the contents of the individual rooms of the other ship and not just what systems are where. Different weapons have different effects: missiles ignore shields, beams can hit multiple targets but are blocked by shields more easily, and lasers just hit hard. Some weapons cause fires when they hit. Fires are bad because they consume your oxygen and damage systems. If you run out of oxygen, your crew will die of asphyxiation. How do you put out fires? Well, either your crew can (not super effective, but easier to manage for small fires), or you can vent the room with the fire of oxygen. This can be harder to manage than you might think, but through a combination of good door controls and the pause button can be managed.

You can issue orders to your crew to man various stations, fend off boarding parties, put out fires, and repair damaged systems and hull. It sounds complicated, but it is more like "tell your guy where to go, and they will do what is needed", though they may take damage. You can heal your crew by sending them to medical, so long as the medical bay has some power. Power is a constant source of micromanagement, especially before your ship is upgraded. Your crew can be one of several races such as Human, Engi (friendly borg), Mantis (exactly what it says on the tin), Slugs (ditto), Rock Men (ditto), and so forth. Crew that are assigned to tasks get better at those tasks and learn skill ranks if they do things enough, so they will eventually specialize if you keep using the same people for the same things.

Your ship can be equipped with weapons such as ion cannons, missiles, and lasers, along with semi-autonomous drones that mostly attack, but can also do things like repair the hull or systems, or defend against enemy missiles. The rest of the ship can be upgraded too, and is mostly a two step process. The reactor determines how many bars of power you have to distribute, and your level in all your systems (but not subsystems, which require no power) determines how many bars of power you can assign to a particular system. So you might have 10 bars of power to distribute, but you could only put 3 into weapons if you haven't upgraded that system. Lastly, you can install equipment which does things like "pre-charge the weapons for a fight", "heal crew throughout the ship a little bit if medical is online" and my personal favorite "recover drones if you jump after winning a fight", which saves a lot in parts.

Upgrading the ship is accomplished by spending the money of the game, Scrap. You gain scrap via random events or after fights. You can spend it to upgrade your ship, or to buy weapons, drone schematics, hire crew, or supplies like missiles, drone parts, and fuel. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention you have a limited fuel supply for your engines and a jump consumes one fuel? I probably did. Anyway, you have full control over what systems get upgraded, but you are at the mercy of the Random Number Generator (RNG) as to what weapons you will get or have available for purchase.

You can name your ship and your crew, as well as select the gender of any human crew. I recommend not bothering. Why? This game is a Rogue-like and that means a few things. First, no save/reload. You get one save game, period, so while you can resume a game if you stop playing, you cannot reload a previous save ever. Second, perma-death. That's right, if you die, you die. And trust me, you WILL die. A Lot. "But Will, this sounds pretty harsh!" Yes, yes it does. It is okay though because whole games can be played in about an hour or so, and you can unlock new things even if you don't win the game. My first game ended terribly in Sector 4 when I forgot to close the outer vents to the ship and my crew choked to death on my incompetence. The next game, I got a little farther. In fact, I haven't ever beaten the game, though I've seen most everything it has to offer. It has two difficulty modes labeled Easy and Normal. These labels are lies. The actual difficulties are You're Gonna Die and Fuck You. A lot of the difficulty comes from the random nature of the game. I cruised through one game all the way to Sector 8 without any real issues...only to find I hadn't upgraded my ship NEARLY enough to take on the final set of encounters. Other times you'll get jumped in Sector 3 by a pirate ship during a solar flare and both of you will roast to death.

I really, really enjoy this game. The random nature of it means you never know exactly what you are going to get on a playthrough, and the fact that a full game is fairly quick means it is easy to pick up and put down. There is a mildly steep learning curve, but the in game tutorial gives you the basic controls while the deeper strategies will emerge as you try different things. There are a ton of things to unlock (new ships and layouts, several tiers of achievements) that keep things interesting even if you haven't beaten the game. The gameplay is unique and entertaining, reminding me a LOT of some of the other "ship simulators" I played years ago (like Star Trek: Starfleet Captain or Command or something like that), in a compact package. The story is...well, nigh non-existent, but that is okay because this is not a very deep game. What will hook you is the gameplay and the thrill of discovering new encounters you've not seen or choosing alternate paths on different play throughs.

Overall, this is a fun game that was well worth the $10 I spent on it. On a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces, I give it a solid 2 smiley faces. It is a great casual game, but it has a lot of gameplay depth to keep you coming back for more. The story is a bit thin and the graphics are modest at best, but I had a great time with it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Kotas Reviews Wreck-It Ralph

This weekend Charlotte and I went to see Wreck-It Ralph in the theater. We even paid full price. Did you know that two movie tickets for two adults at full price costs $21? Neither did I. Anywho, we got to see previews for the Hobbit, which was awesome, and some other crap I don’t care about.

The movie is prefaced by a little short called Paperman. Paperman is a tale of a man, a woman, and about one hundred paper airplanes. There is no dialogue for the whole thing, but it was very, very well done. To talk further about it is to spoil it, and I wish to not do that. It was very good.

Fair warning, I am going to try to avoid spoilers as much as possible in this review, but a few things may slip in here and there. If you want the summary, just skip down to the last paragraph for the FACE rating and my final thoughts.

Okay, now that that is out of the way, let’s dive in. The opening montage sets up the story of the game. Fix-It Felix Jr. is an arcade game in, well, an arcade. It’s been there for 30 years now, watching other games come and go...and Ralph has been the “bad guy” in the game for all that time. He wrecks the Niceland Apt. complex, Felix Jr. fixes it, Ralph gets thrown off the roof, lands in the mud, and Felix gets a medal. At the end of the day, everyone goes inside for punch and pie, while Ralph goes to live in the dump, next to his old stump, with a bed of bricks.

As the narration closes, we finally see the framing device of Ralph at a support group for “bad guys” called Bad-Anon. Essentially, he is dissatisfied at being treated like a real “bad guy” for just doing his job. I think we can all relate to that, having had to be the “bad guy” once or twice in our lives. Anyway, the support group breaks up and reveals they are all actually inside the Pac-Man game...and can leave it via a giant power strip that connects all the video games. It seems that the characters can travel to the Power Strip (a.k.a. Grand Central Station) and thus move between all the different games in the arcade. That is, unless their game gets unplugged, in which case they either “die” with the game, or remain in Grand Central Station. The other major problem, which is revealed via hearing a “safety warning” by Sonic the Hedgehog playing on a nearby billboard, is that if you die outside your own game, you don’t regenerate and are gone forever.

Ralph, after essentially being shunned by his game mates during the 30th Anniversary of their game being plugged in, decides that he’s gonna go get his own medal, even shinier and bigger than any of the ones Felix has. Thus, he decides to game jump and win a medal in another game. Hilarity doth ensue, and everyone learns valuable life lessons about, uh, virtual life. The main characters have a fair amount of depth for the most part, with Ralph and Venelope having the most while Felix and Sergeant Calhoun have the least. That said, I particularly enjoy Calhoun’s backstory as it is one of the better “video game in jokes” of the movie.

In fact, that is really one of the highlights of this film: All the video game jokes. Most of them are just little visual gags in the background, but they entertain me so. From the Pong lines and blobs running around Grand Central Station to the fact that the protagonist from Tapper is the local barman, there’s a lot for a video game nerd to enjoy. The other source of cheap laughs is the setting of the racing game Sugar Rush, a candy and sweets themed racer where a lot of the film’s action takes place. The myriad of jokes are infinitely predictable, but they are still pretty funny, and there’s even a few Chekov’s Sight Gags to be found.

The film’s flaws are mostly found in the middle acts. A lot of what makes this film clever is the game hopping stuff, and seeing characters out of their element. Jane Lynch’s Sergeant Calhoun is a riot to watch, Ralph is a VERY sympathetic character, and Felix is a likable but privileged jerk ass at times, and all these characters have interesting arcs...buuuuuuut once we get to Sugar Rush, all of these elements become sidelines to the story of Venelope, played by Sarah Silverman. I liked the character well enough (she is annoying...but she’s SUPPOSED to be annoying so it works), but the movie switches the focus to mostly her and that is a bit of a detriment. The end is, well, very, VERY predictable with only one real twist that came as any sort of surprise. Still, the old standby story constructions have served us well over the years, and when presented well can be very, very enjoyable.

This is a fun movie, and I enjoyed it a lot. On a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces this gets a solid 3 smiley faces. It is a kid friendly movie that holds a lot of hidden gems for those of us who grew up with video games and can get behind some old fashioned sentimental entertainment. Definitely the feel good movie of this week.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kotas Reviews Gnesa's "Wilder" Video

I watched Gnesa’s “Wilder” music video for you assholes. For that, you OWE me. You owe me Big Time. First, here is the video. Go watch it. No, I’ll wait. Just go watch it and tell me how long you can sit through it: Gnesa - Wilder (Music Video)

Okay, are you back? How far did you get? My completely unofficial poll consisting of responses to someone’s post on G+ suggests an average watching time of 1 minute, 12 seconds before you stopped watching. I sat through the entire 4 minutes and 7 seconds of this. YOU OWE ME.

Now, on to the review. First, the good parts of the video. Yes, there are some good parts. Gnesa is an attractive lady. The various outfits she changes between throughout the course of the video seem well suited to her. Her makeup seems to be well crafted. Okay, let’s get on to what you really want to hear.

But before we get into that, let me say one thing. I do not have any contempt for Gnesa. She honestly appears to be trying her best and is pursuing her dreams to “make it” as a pop singer. That said, I do feel sort of bad for what is about to happen. Gnesa, I’ll quote Parry Gripp here: No matter how insane or ridiculous they seem, you have to follow your dreams. It’s a shame your dreams are about to catch fire. The bad kind of fire.

Let’s start with the overall aesthetic of the video, which appears to be “Glamor Shots Does Music Videos Now” (totally stole that joke). It starts off with and extreme close up of Gnesa, who kisses to the camera. So far, so good. Then, it shifts to Gnesa against a white background, with nothing else, like a photography background. Next up, Gnesa is to the left side, with a black background, against which some generic lightshow effects are displayed. This imagery is repeated a few times. Occasionally the white background will have a piece of furniture that Gnesa is draped a photography studio. The last type of shot is a fairly extreme closeup of Gnesa that is not well framed at all. There is also occasionally a wind machine that blows her hair around for no reason.

The music is probably the worst and best part of this. First, it is HORRIBLY mixed, often times drowning out the vocals to the point where it is difficult to understand the words (which may be a blessing in disguise). Second, it sounds like a lot of it was taken from a demo recording on a particularly fancy keyboard. Not the $75 dollar Casio special many of us were exposed to in our youth, but the bigger, more expensive brother keyboards for “beginning music enthusiasts”. What does this mean? It means the music sounds canned. Like it was made to generically appeal to such a wide range of musical tastes it is utterly forgettable and bland. It almost seems like fake music, intentionally made to sound derivative and bad. It is also INCREDIBLY repetitive, with the whole song consisting of the first minute repeated 3 more times to pad out the run time.

The “choreography” is...non-existent. Gnesa is about as skilled in the realm of dance as I am, which is to say, “not very”. She can almost keep in time with the music, but not quite. Perhaps her attempt at a “sensual” wiggle will be successful another day. I did enjoy the part where she slowly spins around in the chair. That chair is kind of awesome. That “finger shake” she does occasionally seems out of place too. Like she just threw it in for the heck of it, and the director was like “Yes, that seems fine. Let’s run with that!”. Gnesa also gets this weird look on her face at times, like maybe she is high. I bet this song would be much better if I was high. But I digress.

Now, we get to the vocals. I’m afraid Gnesa lacks just about every quality that a professional singer is required to have. She is out of tune, her range is limited at best, and her voice cuts through my ears like a sonic knife of suffering. Auto-Tune can cover many sins, but this may be too much for it to handle. Seriously, this is a travesty.

The lyrics of the song are mostly incomprehensible, given the terrible mixing job done on this video. I occasionally hear the world “wilder”, which makes sense, given the title of the song. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they are repetitive, bland, and useless. They appear to repeat in the same loop as the music too.

This video is just incredibly horrible, so much so it almost attains a sort of infamy, like Manos: The Hands of Fate or Battlefield Earth. It is so bad it makes me think that maybe it was INTENTIONALLY bad, like on a sitcom when they have someone try out for a talent show and it is predictably awful, but it’s a staged sort of awful. If this turns out to be some sort of viral media stunt to promote a comedy or something I would not be surprised in the least.

On a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces, I give it 3 frowny faces. It is SO bad it is fascinating in a way, like a particularly spectacular train wreck, which is why it doesn’t rank lower. I cannot in good conscience recommend watching this video, unless you just get overwhelmed by morbid curiosity.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Kotas Reviews XCOM: Enemy Unknown

TL;DR - Skip to the last paragraph for the summary.

Recently I ended up purchasing XCOM: Enemy Unknown on Steam. If you'll recall the original XCOM: UFO Defense game, it was a turn based tactical squad game with a ton of micromanagement elements and some pretty hoss simulation sections involving building bases, doing research, gathering logistical support, and especially outfitting your soldiers with endless minutia. A number of people have fond memories of that game. My own memories involve watching someone else play it and getting frustrated when my whole squad was wiped out on the tutorial mission the one time I was allowed to play.

After watching several video reviews, and some gameplay footage, I took the plunge, ultimately buying it through Steam for the convenience factor. There are 4 levels of difficulty: Easy, Normal, Classic, and Impossible. Classic is "true to the spirit of the original", which was quite difficult. Because I SUCK at video games, I set the difficulty on Easy, and left on the tutorial, so I could get used to the game. There are options to turn on Autosaving, as well as something called Ironman Mode. Ironman Mode enables much more frequent autosaving, and also disallows having more than one save game. In a nutshell, you can’t reload a save game when something goes horribly wrong. It’s another way to increase the challenge and I think that anyone who played a Hardcore character in Diablo II or III will appreciate this sort of gameplay.

I turned up the graphic settings as high as they would go and I have noticed exactly zero problems with this, even on my 2 year old gaming rig (which wasn't top of the line when I built it), so most people should be able to play the game pretty well. The animations of the models are nice and fluid, though by no means are they the top end of the graphics spectrum. In fact, they seem like the overall graphics are about a generation behind. The aliens all are distinct and interesting, though the soldiers do sort of all look the same. In fact, they sort of resemble the Roughnecks from that CGI cartoon from about a decade ago. The best part of the game is the Action Cam. What's the Action Cam? Well, when your soldier does something particularly cool, like murder an alien in one shot or bust through a door or something, the camera shifts to a more "action movie" perspective and you see the stuff up close and personal. I think that the Action Cam is just zooming in very close to the in-game models, at any rate.

The story of the game is explained in a number of cutscenes, which roll in response to various in game events. Performing an autopsy? You get a short cut scene for it. Sending out a squad of soldiers? Cut scene. The Council of Vague Rulership is calling? Cut scene. Your Engineers want you to build a particular thing? Cut Scene. The send out squad and mission start cut scenes can get a little repetitive, but you can skip them with the Esc button. The cut scenes use the same models as the regular game, and thus have that same dated, cartoony look. The voice acting is...well, there is voice acting. It’s not the worst I’ve ever heard, but it’s not exactly Bioware quality.

The story advancing scenes are actually kind of fun. The basic plotline is that you are the Commander of XCOM, an International paramilitary force tasked by the Council of Vague Rulership to defend the people of Earth against the growing alien menace. You manage your base, your fleet of interceptors, and your force of soldiers. One of your first real choices in the game is where to have your base of operations. Whichever country (or region, like Europe) you base out of gets you certain bonuses, like discounts on research, more staff for the base, and so on. The tutorial restricts you to United States or Europe, presumably because they make the game a little easier.

Soldier customization is...not super extensive. You can't pick the gender of a soldier (that is assigned randomly when they are generated at the start, or when you hire new recruits), but you can change things like ethnicity, hair style, hair color, facial hair or not, skin tone, voice of the soldier, and name of the soldier. Apparently there are add-on packs, or pre-order bonuses or something that adds a ton more options and things like armor style, armor color and so forth, but my version does not have them. From some gameplay footage I’ve seen, they can get pretty outlandish, allowing for things like brightly colored armor, awesome helmets, and my personal favorite, the pirate hat. I’m sure we’ll be able to purchase these customization options as DLC in the future.

You’ll spend a lot of time in the Tactical Combat view. This is where you directly control your squad of 4 to 6 soldiers (depending on upgrades purchased) as they move through a map partitioned with a grid overlay. The overlay stays hidden for the most part, unless your cursor is moving around, highlighting squares. When you hover over a square, you see the path your soldier will take when moving to that square, along with if any object near that square provides a half cover or full cover bonus, represented by shield icons. Cover is provided in a 180 degree arc in the direction of the shield icon, so you’ll sometimes end up with weird situations where you are standing RIGHT NEXT to an alien, but it somehow has full cover against you, and you have full cover against it.

Each soldier has, in D&D terms, a Move Action and a Standard Action. They also get "Free Actions" like opening a door or interacting with something, if they are adjacent to the something and have a Standard Action left. You can move a certain distance and then Act, but once you use a Standard Action, you can no longer Move. If you want to do a double move, you can "do it all at once" with a Dash, which gives you a bonus to defense while running, but it is a Full Round Action. Some skills can get around these rules, and some weapons require a Full Round Action to use. One of the most used actions will be Overwatch. When you set a soldier to Overwatch, he or she will watch for alien movement and if an alien moves within range, they will take a shot at them, with a slight accuracy penalty. Grenades and Rockets have Free Aim, where you place them in a particular location rather than aiming at an enemy.

All soldiers start as Rookies, who can use the “standard issue” Assault Rifle and Pistol, and as they go on missions and rack up kills they get assigned a class when they are promoted. Class dictates what weapons you can carry and what special abilities you can earn as you increase in rank. The Heavy uses a Machine Gun, is the only class that can use the Rocket Launcher, and can earn skills like Holo-Targeting (bonus to Accuracy for other people shooting at your target if you connect with your hit) and Suppression Fire (penalty to enemy’s accuracy and if they move, you get a free shot at them). They are also pretty sturdy. The Assault uses a Combat Shotgun and a Pistol, and earns skills like Run and Gun (may shoot or Overwatch after Dashing) and Tactical Advantage (bonus to defense for each enemy in sight). The Sniper can use the Sniper Rifle (of course) and Pistol, and uses skills like Headshot (Full Round Action, guaranteed critical and boost to aim) and Gunslinger (additional damage with pistols). The Support still uses Assault Rifles and Pistols, and uses Smoke Grenade (bonus to defense to units in the smoke) and Healer (can use a Medkit 3 times per battle instead of only 1). All classes have a slot for Body Armor and a slot for Miscellaneous Gear such as Medkits, Grenades, Stunners, and a variety of other useful bits.

The other side of the game is base management. Time passes fairly quickly, with every second being roughly one minute in the game’s time frame. The base interface, affectionately called the Ant Farm View by some, allows the clicking of a specific room OR just hitting a button to open that interface. The portions of the base you control are Research (where artifacts are studied, captives interrogated, and technology researched), Engineering (Build equipment, build new facilities, excavate more portions below your base for more room, etc.), the Barracks (Customize soldiers, hire new recruits, view the memorial to dead soldiers, and purchase squad upgrades), the Hanger (purchase fighters, assign them to regions, and customize them), the Situation Room (launch satellites, sell off tech to the grey market, view objectives, see pending requests, launch satellites, and see how panicked the various nations of the XCOM project are), and Mission Control, where you “Scan for Activity”, which greatly speeds up the time so you can watch projects complete, and get various mission notifications.

The first type is an Alien Abduction. You'll be merrily scanning away, and then notifications of alien abductions will appear, and give you a choice of 3 locations to go to. You can see the difficulty of each mission, the rewards for completing the mission and the "panic meter" of the country where the mission is located (which you can also see in the Situation Room). The panic meter is very important. The more panicked a country, the more likely they will "pull out of the XCOM project", which presumably reduces your incoming resources. The mission you choose (and hopefully succeed in completing) will reduce panic in that area and give you the reward listed. The other two locations will have their panic increase. I learned this the hard way when I picked a mission in Germany based on the sweet reward of a fully trained Lieutenant Support soldier instead of on the panic meter (both missions I was considering were "Very Difficult") and India is super pissed at me right now. All abduction missions are "sweep and destroy".

The second type of mission is a "Terror" mission. These pop up periodically and involve rescuing civilians from an alien attack. The map you are placed on has civilians standing still with terror until you move a soldier near them (like, they have to run directly past them or stand adjacent to them), at which point they run to the ship and are "rescued". Of course, aliens are murdering civilians "off camera" and a handy meter at the top keeps track for you. If you succeed in the mission (kill all aliens, rescue 50% or more civilians), panic is reduced across the board.

The third type is "UFO Crash Site" mission, which is a sweep and destroy that you can go to after one of your interceptors shoots down a UFO (or if a UFO just lands). You get lots of loot from these, and your only opportunity to face an Outsider type alien, who are relatively easy to kill, but they pack a wallop. Interceptors are stationed by region, and you can have up to 4 per region. They can be modified to have different weapons, but all other capabilities are shared between all of them. Your interactions with them are very limited, only being able to click a few buttons to add buffs to your computer controlled fighter. It's simple, but it works.

The fourth type of mission is the Council Objective. When the Council of Vague Rulership have a very special mission for you, they will pop up special missions, that usually have more complicated objectives than sweep and destroy, such as "rescue a single person" or whatever. They are rarer than the other types, and I've only gone on one, but they tend to be interesting if nothing else. Alien Abductions and UFO Crash Recovery are most of what you will get, and they are randomly generated in terms of mission name (such as Operation Deadly Moon or whatever), map (wilderness, cityscape, Graveyard, etc.), and enemies.

The interface takes some getting used to, since right and left click do different things depending on context. Normally, left click is "select" while right click is "move to this point". However, sometimes right click is cancel (Esc is always cancel), and sometimes left click is "finish action" or "perform action" instead of select. The hot keys for skills also change, depending on what skills you have and what weapon you are using. So, sometimes the key for “Overwatch” will be 2, but sometimes it is 3 or whatever, which can be very frustrating. There is a “confirm” for all non-move actions, so it’s not too terrible. The camera controls feel clunky, and "mouse move" can be almost detrimental. I dislike the "move cursor to edge of screen to move the camera" style controls, but it just takes some adjustment to this style.

There is a multiplayer mode, which I’ve only just barely played around with. Multiplayer is 1v1 tactical engagements, with each player building a squad of up to six units, using a point buy system. The creator of the game sets the point limit, the amount of time each player has to take a turn, the map, and if the game is Public or not. My one and only engagement ended quickly when my badass sniper got mind controlled by the other person’s crazy strong Etheriel, and shot the crap out of my scout. One thing, there are NOT a lot of games being played right now, so the multiplayer action is pretty thin. It took me 20 minutes to get my one game going, and it lasted all of 5 minutes.

At the end of the day, XCOM: Enemy Unknown provides a solid tactical experience and a lot of alien whupping fun. The graphics may look a little dated, but the gameplay is very enjoyable. Besides, nothing is more fun than watching a soldier you named after a friend shotgun a bug-eyed alien in the face! On a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces, I give it 3 smiley faces. I do recommending trying before you buy, and the demo is freely available on Steam or on the XBOX 360 and PS3.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Kotas Reviews The Amazing Spider-Man

Today I went and saw The Amazing Spider-Man with Charlotte and a bunch of other people. My expectations were kind of mixed, given that I’d heard good things about it and bad things about it. Some of my favorite reviewers (like Film Critic Hulk) have reviews of it that I haven’t read yet, but the gist I got was “not thrilled”. I had avoided most trailers simply by not watching a lot of TV or other movies, so I was sort of going in blind. I set my expectations at “Better than Spider-Man 3”. In this, I was not disappointed. This, however, is not your Daddy’s Spider-Man…or is it? From this point on, there will probably be some spoilers (Hint: Uncle Ben Dies), so skip to the end for my capsule review.

First off, I rather liked the performance given by Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker. One of the comments I’d heard about this film was that it was a bit less “comic book-y” than the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, and in some ways I agree with that assessment. This Peter Parker is still nerdy, but he’s a smidge less awkward socially and a lot less weepy. Now, I LOVED Toby Maguire as Peter Parker in the first film, but I also really liked this performance. In this version, they tone down some aspects of Peter (photography, extreme dorkiness) and turned up others (super science, curiousity), but he’s still the lovable dorky everyman…sort of. The parts with his mother and father at the beginning set up WHY he lives with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and add a bit of mystery to his past…but it doesn’t really go anywhere in this film except as a bit of a MacGuffin and in the setup for the sequel. That is one of the nitpicks I have with this. A LOT of shit is in this to set up the sequels. Occasionally I feel like the writers were saying “Yeah, yeah, you’ve seen this all before. We have to do it because it’s a reboot. You’ll love the sequels!”

So, after that, how were the other performances? Overall, I’d say “Not Bad”. Martin Sheen turns in a good performance as Uncle Ben. I liked that they gave us more time focused on Peter and Ben to see their relationship in action, rather than mostly inferring it as in the previous origin film. The back and forth they have felt more natural to me than the Raimi version, as did some of their arguments. Uncle Ben’s death was handled fairly well, and more realistically than the whole “wrestling thing”, so it wasn’t bad, and of course it needed to happen. The “final voicemail as voiceover flashback” was a nice touch to scoot around the whole “flashback audio” you get so often in these types of films.

Though his part was small, the guy who played Flash Thompson was enjoyable to watch, especially some of the nods to his character in the comics, though a bit inconsistent in portrayal. I think they overdid it a bit in his initial “beat up Parker” scene. Emma Stone turned in a pretty good shot at Gwen Stacy, Peter’s first love, who is finally getting some screen time instead of just “Mary Jane this” and “Mary Jane that”. Sally Field was fine as Aunt May, but Aunt May wasn’t given a whole lot to DO in this story. In the Sam Raimi movie, Aunt May was a core character and a lot of Peter’s grounding influence. Here, she just seems to be…there. “Oh, it’s Spider-Man. Gotta have Uncle Ben and Aunt May somehow.” This is a woman that Peter Parker LITERALLY MADE A DEAL WITH THE DEVIL (Fuck you, One More Day) in the comics to save, and in this film she is just sort of…there.

The Lizard was a good choice for a “first outing” villain. The Lizard in the comics is sort of “Hulk Lite”. Brilliant Scientist turns into Child-like green monster due to an experiment gone awry. It’s a classic sympathetic villain, and the power level is right on par with early Spider-Man. HOWEVER, this is also one of the weaker parts of the film. Kurt Conners (should be CURT, but that’s nitpicking) isn’t as likable as he’s been in other media, or even in the first Spider-Man film. He’s not a BAD guy, but he’s less sympathetic in this portrayal than in others. It doesn’t help that he also gets a case of the “Take Over the World” crazies for what appears to be no reason. I mean, really, if the Lizard part of him is “taking control”, shouldn’t he regress to a more simple viewpoint? This is just setting up the “green serum” as giving you the crazies, so in the next film we have the Green Goblin. Whatever, Chekov’s Mass Aerosol Dispersion System had to come up at some point, right? Overall, I enjoyed the Lizard in this film, but they tried to combine the Lizard and some of William DeFoe’s Green Goblin, and the seams show a bit.

Dennis Leary was a surprise as the initial antagonist for Peter Parker rather than J. Jonah Jameson. Frankly, the Sam Raimi Jameson was damn near perfect and that’s some big shoes to fill…so they didn’t bother trying. The film also emphasizes the “Spider-Man as wanted criminal” aspect more than the first film, and it was a nice twist on it. Leary’s defense of “why Spider-Man is more of a hindrance rather than an aid” speech was a nice jab at the conventional wisdom in comic book movies, and it was appreciated since they were going for a “more realistic” feel.

Let’s talk about that “more realistic” feel the movie tried to accomplish. The CGI Spider-Man in the first film was pretty good, but it suffered from the “too clean” problem. Everything was just a touch too shiny, too perfect. Here, they’ve done a pretty good job of making it look a little more grimy. Spider-Man is not quite as completely bending the laws of physics when he bounds around. He swings around with more weight it seems. There were also some nice practical effects with Peter jumping around that were fun. The Lizard's effects were serviceable, though the CGI tail growing back was pretty lame.

One thing that threw me off a bit was the decision to go with mechanical web shooters rather than organic ones. Yeah, I get it, Peter is smart enough to have built them, but SURELY someone would recognize the product as “OsCorp” stuff? Then it’s simply a matter of looking for someone who buys it regularly who probably shouldn’t…like a HIGH SCHOOLER. Or maybe he stole it from Kurt Conners I don’t know. The change to “DNA weirdness” instead of “Fucking Radioactive Spider” naturally flows to “organic web shooters” and this was just sort of out of place. Hell, it only comes up twice in the film (they don’t work underwater, and the Lizard crushes them at one point), so…why bother? Eh, it’ll probably be made more of in the sequels.

One of the story problems with the film is that it felt disjointed. It seemed to me that it went. “Peter does something. And then Peter does more stuff. And then Peter gets bitten. And then…” Scenes made sense story wise, but the transitions just weren’t. It was a lot of scenes connected by a running story, but not by the film itself (except toward the end, when it all kind of made sense, sort of). It was like "Six Stories in Six One Act Plays, Where All the Stories are Sequels to The Previous Story". This was annoying at times, because a lot of scenes were sort of "half" set up, and then proceed as if they were fully set up. Speaking of gratuitous scenes, the whole “line up the cranes” thing was super, duper cheesy, WAAAAY moreso than the “if you fight one of us you fight all of us” from the first film. It really needed each crane to have an American Flag hanging from it to truly be cheesetacular. The only thing cheesier would have been a scene of Spider-Man swinging into Slow Motion, and shooting a web directly at the audience to justify the 3D effects....OH WAIT, THAT WAS IN THE FILM.

Overall, I’d give the film 2 smiley faces on a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces. It was a pretty good super hero movie that does what it needs to do to set up the “reboot” of the franchise, and it feels very much “by the numbers”. It’s fairly well done, and I liked it. If you’re a comic fan, I recommend checking out a matinee. I still prefer the Sam Raimi Spider-Man over this one, but I can appreciate this reboot as being "not bad". It's not gonna make anyone's top movie list though.

Kotas Reviews Arctic Zero

A while back, a friend of mine talked to me about a dessert product called Arctic Zero ( which claims to be 150 calories per pint. Given how much I love ice cream (and oh yes, I DO love ice cream), I have been seeking out this product locally, and until Tuesday, I hadn't seen it. But while shopping at Kroger I finally spotted it! Man this shit is pricey Like, more than Ben & Jerry’s expensive. But which flavor to choose? Well, the ones available were Cookies and Cream, Chocolate, and I think Vanilla Maple. I chose the Cookies and Cream for my experiment, since it is one of my favorite flavors of ice cream.

The packaging is reasonable. The Arctic Zero logo is sorta meh, but the carton is pretty standard, with “150 calories per pint” prominently slapped all over it. According to the nutrition label, there are 4 servings in this pint, each one clocking in at 37 calories. The lid has solid color rim, that I believe is indicative of the product within. For example, Strawberry would have a red rim, Mint Cookie would have a green rim, and so forth. What color is Cookies and Cream? Grey. Right, well, it wouldn't really be colored...yeah, it totally is a uniform grey.

Why in the hell would you color your weird diet food product, which is ALREADY going to make people leery of eating it, the appetizing color of gruel? Arctic Zero, you are NOT impressing me with your Cookies and Cream. No one, and I mean NO ONE wants to eat grey food. In fact, I was reluctant to dig into this “treat” after seeing it. Also, shouldn't Cookies and Cream have, you know, cookie bits in it? A monolithic wall of grey stared at me from the carton, with nary a hit of fabled “mix ins” that were once written about by Abdul Al-HaagenDaaz in his Dessertronomicon. I prepared a bowl of “frozen dessert”. It certainly smelled faintly of cookies and cream, like someone prepared a very mild perfume that used the scent.

It is not bad, but I wouldn't classify it as good either. The mouth feel is pretty much like ice cream, though it can get a little...well, chewy is the best word but it is hard to describe. It is extremely creamy in texture, and it looks a lot like ice cream. The taste is almost but not quite unlike cookies and cream ice cream. It tastes more like coffee or mocha ice cream than cookies and cream, but the flavor is very, very muted, like tasting a phantom of ice cream. It is not bad,’s like eating frozen vapor that’s been scented with something. It does leave you feeling relatively full. Not “ate a pint of ice cream” full, but comfortably full.

The ingredient list is a hoot. The largest single ingredient is “purified water”, with whey protein concentrate, organic cane sugar, chicory root (???), dutch processed cocoa powder (with alkali!), guar gum, xanthan gum, the ever mysterious “natural flavors”, sea salt, and monk fruit (???) concentrate. This shit is some serious food alchemy let me tell you. It even contains 8 grams of fiber, somehow.

On a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces, I give Arctic Zero Cookies and Cream 0 faces. More than anything, it puzzles me. Who makes GREY food? Still, I’d be willing to give this stuff another go around, if only to try out the other flavors and see if they are as bizarre as this one. Being able to consume an entire pint of something dessert related would make dieting a bit easier on the stomach, if not the pocketbook.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Kotas Reviews Halloween Candy Again

This is another edition of Halloween Candy Reviews. Today’s candidates are Reese’s Peanut Butter Pumpkins and Halloween Oreos.

The Reese’s Peanut Butter Pumpkin is a mainstay of the Halloween Season, in both regular and “fun” sizes. I will be reviewing the Fun Size edition. The packaging is slightly clever, with a pumpkin motif incorporated into the usual Reese’s logo. The candy itself is “sans cardboard” and also the little “candy cup” wrapper that a Reese’s cup usually has wrapped around it. It is vaguely pumpkin shaped, but just an outline. In fact, it looks sort of like a kidney. The flavor is, in my opinion, better than a standard Reese’s cup, because of a more pleasing chocolate to peanut butter ratio. On a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces, I give it 1 smiley. The aesthetics show that they tried to be clever. The execution was lackluster, but the taste is actually a little better.

The Halloween Oreo is a “standard” holiday Oreo, that is, an Oreo cookie with themed components. The packaging is the Oreo Blue with high quality Halloween artwork. A large blue-black cauldron full of orange liquid being stirred by slightly sinister witches, with the Oreo logo slashed over the cauldron and the world “Halloween” appended to it (with an appropriate font of course). Recognizable and well executed. The Oreos themselves are standard Oreos, but with two changes: 5 “Boo-rific” shapes on the cookie portion, and neon orange creme filling. The cookie shapes are nice enough, I guess, but the orange creme just catches the eye and combined with the black of the chocolate cookie presents a striking Halloween color scheme. The taste is that of an Oreo, with a bit more creme that I would expect from an Oreo. A co-worker swears they taste better than regular ones, but I can’t really tell a difference. I give this 3 smiley faces. It’s a classic that has been well themed for the season.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Kotas Reviews Halloween Candy

So, for the Halloween Season, I’m going to occasionally give in to my desires for novelty candy and I will review whatever I happen to eat. Today’s entries: Candy Corn Oreos and Cadbury Screme Eggs.

The Candy Corn Oreo is a strange beast. Most holiday Oreos fall into three categories: themed shapes on the cookie portion, season appropriate colors for the filling, or a combination of both. This one changes up the old ideas by using the vanilla cookie of a Vanilla Oreo and a filling with two different colors. Madness, I tell you! The smell is very sweet and cloying, and resembles candy corn fairly closely, if not perfectly. The flavor is almost but not quite unlike Birthday Cake flavored ice cream, with an overtone of candy corn in the aftertaste. I finished an entire cookie, and I sort of wanted another, but chose not to indulge further since there were limited specimens available and I wanted other people to try them. On a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces, I give it 1 smiley face. I’d eat them again, but I don’t know if I’d go out of my way to get them. Not bad though.

The Cadbury Screme Egg (not a typo) comes in a purple and black foil. It is shaped exactly like a regular Cadbury Egg. The filling inside is tinged green, which I suppose is the Screme part. Now, I expected this to be some eyeball frying neon green, like you see in other “visually different yet otherwise the same” type of treats, but it is sort of...pale? It looks to me like they took the white fondant from a regular Cadbury Egg, sort of half-assedly put a few drops of green food coloring in, and called it a day without even mixing it properly. Not very Screme worthy, let me tell you. It tastes exactly like a Cadbury Creme Egg, which is to say delicious. I’m actually sort of disappointed in these, since they seem to be an afterthought or a cheap, half-assed cash grab into the biggest candy season of the year. There’s just no heart in these. The Candy Corn Oreos were clearly done with forethought and planning. This one gets 1 frowny face for disappointment.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Kotas Reviews Ticket To Ride

So, on Saturday I gathered 'round the table with my pals to play Ticket to Ride. My friend Lara loves that game and has the 1910 expansion, so we opted to play with that.

Ticket to Ride is a very straightforward game. The board is a map of the United States with lots of cities marked and the various train routes between them that you can build. The goal of the game is to have the most points when the game ends. Each player starts with 4, uh..."train" cards, and 3 to 5 ticket cards, along with 45 little train playing pieces. How do you score points? By building routes (longer routes are worth more points) and completing ticket cards.

Ticket cards represent a specific set of locations that must be connected by your various routes at the end of the game. Uncompleted tickets subtract from your score, while completed tickets add to your score. There are "bonus points" for most tickets completed (minimum of 5) and longest contiguous set of routes that add 15 and 10 points respectively.

On your turn you can do one thing of the following things: Pay for a route with train cards, draw two train cards (from the top of the deck, or from the 5 face up cards), draw one wild train card from the 5 face up cards, or draw 4 ticket cards and keep at least 1 of them. This keeps the pace of the game snappy as you only really have one thing you do every round. There's a fair amount of strategy too, as everyone wants to secure those vital but rare routes, because once all routes to a city are filled, too bad for you if you've got a ticket that goes there. This of course also adds an element of "screwing over others". Routes are bought with Train Cards of all the same color. If the route is a specific color, the train cards must match that color. If the route is gray, than any color will do but all the cards must be the same color. The number of cards needed is equal to the length of the route. Wild train cards count as any color.

How does it play? Fast. Most of the board games we typically play take 3-4 hours to complete. In the same amount of time we were able to squeeze in two sessions of Ticket to Ride, despite some people not knowing how to play. The "screw you over" element seems to happen more accidentally than otherwise, though more deliberate blocking occurred in the late game. Our first round everyone drew tickets for the Eastern part of the nation, and we very rapidly filled up that section while leaving the West mostly clear. Competition did get fierce after that, with several "noooooooo" sentiments expressed as rare paths were blocked as people scrabbled to get them before others.

The second go around was more spread out...but had more blocking and strategic route grabbing that ended up locking some people (i.e. me) out of a vital destination (not that it would have changed the outcome of the game). It seems the random ticket draw at the beginning really shapes the pattern of the game, since everyone (normally) tries to complete their initial routes before tackling more. There are a number of strategies (draw a shit load of cards then drop them on successive turns, take all the small stuff "just in case", etc.) to keep things interesting. It is sort of heavy on the math to figure out who won, which can be intimidating for some.

Final Verdict: It's a nice, fast game that involves tiny plastic trains. I like it. On a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces I give it 2 smiley faces, and would play it again.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Kotas Reviews The Dark Knight Rises

Charlotte and I saw "The Dark Knight Rises" today. I won't go into any deep detail, because most of those out there who read my stuff have already seen it. That said, there are probably spoilers in here, so just skip to the end for the final verdict.

The movie opens with some operatives from somewhere who drop the name Bane. The resulting hi-jinks, which are surprisingly slow paced, are supposed to set up the premise of the film: A mercenary named Bane is going to wreck shit, and he's an excellent planner. It does a reasonable job of this, and I liked the scene, but it just felt a bit too slow.

After that, the movie moves on to a Gotham City that is "cleaned up". Organized crime has been brought to heel by the Dent Act, and they are celebrating Harvey Dent Day. Commissioner Gordon has a troubled heart, wanting to confess to the lie he's held onto for 8 years, but finds that the time is not yet right. Batman (and Bruce Wayne) hasn't been seen since that fateful night at the end of "The Dark Knight"...

This is where the film really starts, and I feel that the beginning was a false opening, just given to set up some back story about the nuclear physicist, Dr. I'm Totally Dead Meat and show that Bane is "pretty bad ass". It works, but it feels a bit out of place. It also seems to be the only real misstep of the film. I'm confident that with a few changes of dialog the whole "nuclear scientist" bit could be cut without affecting the story of the film.

The rest of this is a loving goodbye letter to this franchise. We get more of what we expect, and then some. More cool toys (The Batpod returns, The Bat copter thing is freakin' awesome). More light social commentary on the nature of humanity (Bane's backstory, Selena Kyle's heists, the whole Robbery of the Stock Exchange sequence), More Gravely Bat Voice (okay, maybe not EVERYTHING is gold...). More amazing Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. More, More, More, all culminating in the final exit that we've been expecting since Batman Begins. There are a TON of links back to that film in this one, along with several nice surprises and return cameos (I always enjoy Dr. Crane's antics), and this film shows the core of what the Nolan Batman is: Made of Determination and Persistence. This is not the Great Detective Batman, nor the Hyper Prepared Batman, nor the ultimate Combatant Dark Knight. This is the Batman that crawls inside himself to wrench the will to do what needs to be done out, often at great cost. Who returns from his losses, to finally Rise to be the hero that Gotham truly Needs.

It is not often that one gets to say that the first film of a trilogy is probably the "worst" one, but I think this is the case with the Nolan Batman Trilogy, not that any of these films are bad. While I think I like the Dark Knight better, this film is a worthy end. Sure, I enjoyed the Avengers more, but that's because I'm a Marvel Fanboy at heart, and I have my biases.

The Dark Knight Rises is a fantastic send-off to a character who brought Batman as Crime Story to the people, and made them love it. I give it 3 smiley faces on a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces. If you liked Batman Begins and the Dark Knight, do yourself a favor and go see this film.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Kotas Reviews Michelob Ultra Light Cider

So, it turns out that the Michelob company now makes a cider under their Ultra line called, surprisingly enough, Michelob Ultra Light Cider. Why is it Light you ask? Well, it uses Stevia as a sweetenerr and runs about 120 calories a bottle, which is apparently 60 calories less than usual. Who knew, right?

While grocery shopping, we found it at our local Wal-Mart (hey, don't judge) and decided to give it a whirl. Charlotte and I both enjoy a good hard apple cider now and again, and it is almost a perfect summertime beverage. And at $6.29 for a six pack, it was the cheapest cider available.

Most hard apple ciders are a nice golden yellow, and smell strongly of apples. This was decidedly paler, with a much fainter aroma of apples and something else that I took to be the Stevia. Charlotte turns to me and says "Hey, if this sucks, you'll drink the rest of it, right?" I assured her I would make it vanish if it was not to her tastes. We both cracked open a bottle and took a drink. It is almost, but not quite entirely unlike any other cider I've tasted. It is simultaneously too sweet and not sweet enough, and the flavor is what I would describe as "faint". It's not BAD per se, but it is very mild and the aftertaste it leaves is exceedingly chemically, though it is possible I'm just sensitive to Stevia. It tastes like someone once had a cider "a while back" and tried to make a version of it with whatever was on hand, rather than finding an actual recipe. What you get is something that is technically hard cider, but otherwise NOT apple cider.

I will probably be finishing the six pack, but I don't think I can recommend drinking this. It might be worth trying, if you are a cider fan, but if possible just get ONE because you will probably be disappointed. I suppose I'm sort of sad to see that the first foray into hard ciders (as far as I know) by the "big domestic brands" is so very lackluster. It's too sweet for beer lovers, and not sweet enough for alco-pop drinkers and cider drinkers. I give it 1 frowny face on a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Kotas Reviews the Hacienda Casino

While on our way back from Hoover Dam, Jay steered us toward what he called a "locals" casino, the Hacienda. The Hacienda is definitely off the beaten path if you are in Las Vegas, but it is about 10 minutes from Hoover Dam. If you like history, this is yet another place to visit, but only if you are into gambling. The Hacienda has the lowest limits I've ever seen in a casino, with $3 a hand Blackjack, and $1 craps. The video poker was all full pay, but the place was pretty deserted except for what were clearly the "old regulars". Wheelchairs, canes, and walkers abounded and we were clearly the youngest people in the place by a margin of 10 or more years (with James Geiger being the youngest person to walk through the door in an age I bet).

We sidled up to the craps table, where an aged yet clearly experienced dealer was solo manning the craps table...which was blocked off to half a table due to the complete absence of anyone else playing. He had that "seen it all before" thousand yard stare and eyed us like we were in there to pull some sort of scam. Still, he was personable enough and was happy to take our money. Another older gentleman joined us as we began our run of the dice. "Making a fortune at the Hacienda, eh?" He quipped. The game was small, but it was fun, and when you can lose $2 and play for an hour, it's kind of awesome.

Having our fill of craps, we dropped our asses at the nearest blackjack table, manned by a seasoned veteran dealer. She gave us a tired, but reasonably friendly smile and we sat down to bet. The play continued through the shoe, and while she was shuffling she clearly felt comfortable with us, as she told some incredibly off color jokes. I was flabbergasted and just laughed slightly uncomfortably, because the jokes were funny, but really played into not good stereotypes. Still, she could shuffle cards perfectly with one riffle, leaving them perfectly interleaved. It was hypnotic to watch and frankly, I want to be as good at shuffling cards someday. After I lost a little bit of money, I decided to look for some video poker. At first I thought it wasn't very good, so I ended up playing nickel slots for about 20 minutes, while James was off playing some slot machine and winning $5 or so. As we were leaving, Jay informed me of my error in reading the paytables, so I missed out on some fine video poker. I got to get my souvenier chip from there, and we headed back to the Strip. Overall, I give the place 1.5 smiley faces on a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces. I enjoyed the low limits and the skill of the dealers, but the atmosphere was worn and a little depressing, and it was way out of the way. I'd go back, but only if I were going somewhere else along the way.

Kotas Reviews Cirque De Solei's "O"

I finally went to a show in Vegas. Dave's business partner got us a pretty damn good deal on tickets to see Cirque de Solei's "O" at the Bellagio. The discounted ticket was $100, which was not quite half off, but close to it. This should give you an idea as to how much the show cost (I was originally quoted $180).

The show was held at the Bellagio, so we got there early, hoping to grab some dinner before the show. We ended up in some food court area full of overly fancily named places that essentially translated to "adequate food at ridiculous prices!". It wasn't bad, but I don't think I got my money's worth. We eventually moved into the theater proper. Our seats were in an upper balcony along the long edge of the theater, meaning we had a good view of the lower theater seats a well as a high angled view of the stage. Dave, who had seen this show before, said that he liked these seats, because they do a lot of stuff in the theater seat area and he couldn't see any of it before. We were to have an excellent view of these shenanigans.

The show opens with a couple of clowns dressed as sailors (sort of) doing a routine where they push a giant life preserver around the audience. That's kind of fun. The show then starts to spin up as they send in some acrobats and performers to interact with the audience as a elaborate contraption is lowered from the ceiling into the middle of the arena, so a single acrobat can do a neat routine while suspended from it. Then they select a victim from the audience to pull up on stage to read the opening "turn of yo damn cell phone and no cameras" announcement. Then he gets yanked behind the curtain and the show begins!

I will not spoil the majority of the show, but it was absolutely fucking incredible. The acrobats were simply a joy to watch as they flipped, dove, and swung from various contraptions. The contortionists were mind boggling, and Todd commented that they were the best he's seen. The really awesome thing was the stage. For most of the show, it was UNDERWATER. That's right, the stage converted into a 10 ft. pool at times. From our vantage point we could see divers (in FULL DIVING GEAR) moving out of hidden tunnels to do various things and keep the performers safe and sound. They even showed up on stage at one point, for some reason. The story line of the show was...confusing to say the least. There were several "got ya" moments including some really long dives into the pool from somewhere above the stage, lots of flips and dives into the water...and then the stage would drain in a few minutes, leaving an almost entirely dry surface in about 20 seconds for the performers to skitter over...and then it would turn into the pool again!

I loved this show. It was probably the absolute peak of my vacation in Vegas. I give it a well deserved 5 smiley faces on a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces, and I recommend that anyone who travels to Vegas see that show, or one of the many other shows that they have running.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kotas Reviews The Other One and Hotter Than Hale Hot Wings

Today I was taken out to lunch by a friend of mine, Mike. We went to a local greasy spoon called "The Other One". This place is tucked away in a shopping center near the GIANT PUBLIC POOL that resides in Oak Ridge (seriously, this thing is enormous). It is known for its burgers and sandwiches, but also for the "Food Challenges" it has, which I'll get to in a bit.

The menu is "lots of burgers of various sizes and toppings, lots of different sandwiches, some sides, and hot wings." You know, bar food. They have a wide variety of foods to accommodate a wide range of tastes, and I believe everyone who eats there can find something they can nosh on. Examples: The Summit - 1/2lb burger with Pimento cheese, The Tofu Reuben - Exactly what it says on the tin, and the Tank - 2 1/3rd lb patties with cheese and bacon. In addition, they have three menu items of questionable judgement: The Fatman, the Colossus, and the Hotter than Hale hot wings.

The Fatman is 4 1/2lb patties, stacked Big Mac style, with a lot of toppings and a side of fries. If you finish it in 11 minutes, you get it for free, otherwise you get your picture on the Wall of Shame. For the "I want the experience but not the full thing" you can order the little guy, which is exactly the same except it uses 2oz patties instead of 1/2 lb ones.

The Colossus is a 5 lb. burger, smothered in toppings and comes with 6 servings of fries. It costs $70 ($75 with cheese), and is designed for a party of 6 or more people to share and enjoy. I believe it is for parties, and may require a "call ahead" order, I'm not sure. There is no challenge associated with this one that I am aware of.

The Hotter Than Hale hot wings are the spicest wings in the joint, and if you can eat 10 of them in a row, without drinking, and with licking your fingers clean and sitting for five minutes, you win a free combo meal. As an alternative, you can have one wing as a side item for a $1. You can now see where this is going.

For my meal, I elected to have the Brooks Bomber, which is a 1/3rd lb cheeseburger topped with a small variety of cold cuts like salami and other things you'd find on a Subway Cold Cut Combo. I had a side of curly fries, which I were told were "crisp", and a diet soda as a drink. Mike had a Gyro, fries, and an extra tub of tzatziki sauce. I also decided to get a "tester" Hotter than Hale hot wing.

The wing arrived first. Having heard tales of its insanity, I elected to let it sit while I waited for the rest of my food. The scent of the wing was very strong, and I could feel the spice in my nostrils. This would be no ordinary hot wing. The burger soon arrived and it was actually really damn good. The patty was well cooked, the toppings complimented the burger, and all in all it was a delicious, if greasy, dish. The curly fries were fine. They were not "crispy", but were about what you would expect from curly fries, so I'm not sure what was up with the "crispy" description. I elected to preserve the majority of the fries to help mitigate the horrible spiciness of the hot wing, which waited for me to be suckered into its trap.

Because he's an asshole, Mike decided he simply MUST record the whole experience on his phone. Yeah, it's probably going to be on YouTube soon. Hooray? Whatever. I introduced myself, picked up the hot wing, and took a bite. All I could really taste was vinegar, which was clearly the base of the sauce. I chewed a bit, and then the burn started to kick in. Deciding that speed was of the essence, I wolfed down the rest of the wing, which still didn't taste like anything except Hot and Vinegar, and licked my fingers clean of the sauce. That's when my eyes started to water really bad, and I began sucking down my soda at an increased rate. Was it spicy? Fuck yeah it was spicy. It was so spicy that soon even the flavor of vinegar was banished and all I could taste was burning. Soda helped but a little. I tried eating some fries, but they didn't do much to mitigate the problem. On a whim, I dunked one into the tzatziki sauce. That did the trick, sort of. The burning was fierce, and I drank a lot of soda and ate almost all of Mike's leftover tzatziki sauce in trying to put out the flames, while my eyes watered and my nose, sinuses WIDE OPEN, ran a bit. Mike tells me I also turned red.

The Other One is a damn fine greasy spoon with a fun atmosphere and some "gimmicky" foods. I will totally eat there again, though I certainly won't have any of their Hotter than Hale hot wings again. It gets 3 smiley faces on a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces, and I'd bring friends there if they visit, and I can find the place.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Kotas Reviews Smokey Mountain Brewery

Last night before seeing 'Prometheus' (see previous rant), we ate at a local place I'd always wanted to try but never got a chance to called Smokey Mountain Brewery. Their claim to fame is that they are the main source for all the local craft beer sold by the Copper Celler, and Calhouns. All these local chains are owned by the same people anyway, but I'd never tried this particular outlet before.

The atmosphere is..."well, we have all this space, we might as well serve food to go along with our beer". There isn't much aesthetic, though they've clearly tried to "sports bar" it up with TVs at a lot of the tables and big TVs mounted up on the walls. Sadly, it doesn't quite work, but it's probably "good enough". The staff was pleasant and helpful and all around nice.

The menu is mostly bar food, with steaks, ribs, pizza, and some other pasta dishes for flavor. They make a passing stab at a Vegetarian menu but it falls pretty flat in my opinion. The pizza menu is "pizza/calzone". The sandwiches are standard fair, with a couple of "show burgers" like the Ranch Burger (with ranch dressing). Healthy this place ain't. This place is pretty much known for the beer, so I looked over that menu too.

They had about 10 beers available, divided into three categories: Normal, Premium, and Seasonal. They had different names, but that's what they were, and they were priced accordingly. All the basic varieties of beer were present (pilsner, "light", red ale, porter, brown ale, etc) and they came in Pints or Supermugs at decent prices. To go with my meal I got a "supermug" of their Cherokee Red Ale for $6. First, the mug of beer. It was ridiculously huge, holding at least a liter of booze and it was full to the brim. The beer itself was crisp and not too heavy, with a good "beer" flavor. I enjoyed it very much. The neatest thing is that you can get beer to take home, from bottles up to through kegs, if you so wish. My personal favorite sizes were the 64oz Growler and the 5 Liter mini-keg.

Because I was curious I ordered the Pretzels with Beer Cheese appetizer, which was more expensive than I realized, but hey, what the hell. The pretzels were the big soft kind you'd buy at a hot dog stand, and the beer cheese was excellent, as was the honey mustard it came with. I even saved the honey mustard to go with the fries that came with my Chicken Philly Sandwich. The Chicken Philly was decent, but nothing spectacular. Charlotte ordered a personal Calzone, which was big enough that we could have split it and been happy with that and the appetizer. One of my friends ordered the Reuben, which was actually pretty dang tasty. The fries were good, but not super great. Overall, the food was solid.

All in all, it's a good place to knock back a few local brews while munching on some decent bar food. I give it 3 smiley faces on a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces, and I would recommend that if you are in the area and like beer to try it out. Knock off a smiley face if you aren't a fan of beer.

Kotas Reviews Prometheus

Last night, at the urgings of one of my friends, my wife and I went and saw Prometheus. Having avoided just about every trailer and review ever, except for a few offhand remarks that ranged from "I love this movie!" to "Why does this piece of shit even exist?", I walked in with the following expectation: That it would be better than Aliens: Resurrection. Given that expectation, the movie performed as expected. HOWEVER...

This is not a good movie. I know, I know, I'll be annoying folks with that statement, but hear me out. This movie commits a cardinal sin of horror movies: It is boring as shit. This is an hour long tale that was stretched to fill two, and the movie suffers horribly for it. The basic story is not engaging enough to make me care about anything, so it feels twice as long as it should. A lesser sin that this film commits: It's not scary. Sure, there are a couple of jump scares, and some of the effects are neat and gross, but it's not scary so much as icky. There is build up to scary, and it COULD have been scary, but it's just not. It is just icky, and that is why this movie is not good. Now that I've said that, be warned thar be spoilers ahead!


Okay, let's break this shit down. The opening credit sequence is lots of long shots of beautiful landscapes meant to evoke a "raw, untamed world" sort of feel. Then a creepy albino dude drinks a thing that does awful stuff to him, falls into a lake, and disintigrates into black dust that fades away. Others have stated this is meant to represent the alien beings seeding the Earth with the primordial soup that eventually results in the stupid apes known as human beings, but I would argue that any plan that involves "drink some weird shit and be dissolved" is a terrible plan. Consider my suspension of disbelief stretched a bit. This is also the first of many scenes that could be excised from the film with no loss to the story.

Next up is a quick scene that sets the plot for the film: Archeologist Couple finds evidence that People from Space (I call them Space Idiots) have been visiting our world for thousands of years and have left a clue to where they came from in the form of a "star chart that primative people couldn't possibly know about". Where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, something about the Pyramids being impossible to build w/o spaceships...until someone figured out how to do it. Eh, whatever, neat premise, I'm hooked.

The next 10 or so minutes is actually a really really good characterization scene with the character David. David is a creepy, creepy android and maaaan does it show here. This scene calls back to the long shots of people doing normal, everyday stuff on the ship in 2001 and sets the mood of the film. Brooding, slow, and thoughtful. I liked this part immensely, and the actor (whose name I can't remember and am too lazy to look up) does a lovely job here and throughout the film. The acting in this film is actually pretty good, even if the story being told is padded as all get out.

Then we get the requisite "people out of hypersleep" scene that establishes Cherlize Theron's character as not only a bitch, but a hardass bitch. I enjoyed this character, and sort of wished she had been more developed. This is a problem we'll see throughout a lot of this film: Characters not developed enough for me to give a shit when terrible things happen around them or to them. Anyway, time to introduce our characters! The bright eyed-scientist dude (who I don't really care about), the bright-eyed scientist chick (who got ever so slightly more backstory, so I kind of care about her), The Mean Guy (dead as a doorknob), the Nice Awkard Guy (Dead too! Probably paired up with the Mean Guy), The Captain (Heimdall from Thor, also given a bit more development than the others, and probably the best overall character in the film), The Captain's Two Sidekicks (1 dimensional characters who end up being fun), and Random Nameless Extras We Don't Care About And Are Fodder.

Then we get the briefing scene that explains to us everything we already know that the crew of the ship doesn't know, and introduces another character that is obstensibly the driving force behind this but doesn't play a huge role in the film: Mr. Weyland, the Decrept Old Rich Guy Seeking Answers. Now that we have our players, it's time for a bit more development and some atmospheric shots that are well done. They also point out several Chekov's Guns (or Flamethrowers, or Lifepods, or RoboMedicalBays, or..). The first up close views of the Alien Complex are pretty cool, and the tech on display is pretty awesome. Truly the Future. Then they discover alien bodies, THe Mean Guy flips out and leaves, the Nice Guy goes with him, and everyone else gets science-y while David The Paranoid Android does Shady Things...For Science maybe?.

Blah blah contrived action scene. Then we're back to the ship for the revelation that Mean Guy and Nice Guy "got lost on the way back". This is really where I went "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa WHOA. You mean to tell me that with those awesome 3-D mapping robot things that TRANSMITTED A FULL 3-D MAP to the ship, AND have obvious locator beacons and CAMERA feeds...that these two idiots got LOST? My..ASS." Eh, fuck it, they are clearly fodder, because hey, gotta have somethign gross happen in a "No really it's not Alien...but it's Totally Alien" movie! Some science people do stupid science things, the Android does Horrible Thing to Bright Eyed Science Dude, and after a lot of boring stuff, the two Guys are eaten by a Space Cobras in a gratuitous death scene that is slightly squicky, but still kind of dull, because you totally see it coming a mile away. Oh, and the Captain and Cherlize Theron get it on off camera, thus leaving the death of the two Guys unwitnessed, because they don't have DVRs in the Future. /eyeroll

Next day it's time to go get the two Guys, Bright Eyed Science Dude (BESD for short) has an eye leech from the goo that David slipped him in a drink, and he's all "oh man, I'm freakin' out...but I'll wait until we discover the bodies first". They discover the Space Cobra, everyone freaks out, and Cherlize Theron flamethrowers BESD before he reenters the ship because "Holy shit, infected persons maybe shouldn't be let on board." This is supposed to show she is heartless, but I prefer to think of her as "smart" instead. Meanwhile, David the Paranoid Android has discovered that at least one more alien is in Space Hypersleep, and runs home to tell his "Mysterious yet Totally Not Mysterious at all" boss.

Time for pointless body horror! So, Bright-Eyed Science Chick (Or Liz as she is named in the movie) ends up lying on a medbay bed after watch BESD burn to death for being horribly infected. This is clearly traumatic, so David the Paranoid Bastard Android quizzes her about her sex life, and then lets her know she's 3 months pregnant with Horrible Alien Baby, all because she totally did it with BESD right after he was infected, ya know, last night. David's plan is "put her in cryosleep", which as we all know is a terrible plan. Then some nameless extras show up to prep her for the cryo bed, she beats them up...somehow, and runs to Chekov's BioBed to have a Space Cesarian. BioBed is like "LOL only dudes LOL", and is totally trolling her, but she does some Science Stuff and it all works out, even if it is horribly disgusting in every possible way. It is played for tension, but I just...didn't care? I mean, yeah, she's a total badass for walking around after MAJOR ABDOMINAL SURGERY, but there is tension because...Horrible Tentacle Baby is angry at being pulled out. It's icky, but not scary...and merely sets up Chekov's Horrible Tentacle Baby for later. Oh, and Mean Guy comes back as a horrible creature for a pointless action scene.

For some reason, after going through HORRIBLE TRAUMA, she confronts Mr. Weyland (oh yeah, he was totally on board the whole time), and he reveals he's gonna go talk to the one alien left alive. Uh...kay. David will translate (they established how he could do that earlier, so it's cool). Long story short, that doesn't go well, Albino Alien is Not Happy, rips off David's head, beats Mr. Weyland to death with it, and then Cherlize Theron says "fuck this, we're out of here" while Albino Alien gets ready to leave. Somehow, Lizzy figures out he's going to Earth and not Going Home to Let Everyone Know "Hey guys, our horrible plan turned out horribly", and as the alien ship (oh yeah, it was a ship. NO FUCKING SHIT) takes off, the Captain and his Buddies get all Self-Sacrifice-y while Cherlize Theron ejects along with the LifePod. The ship crashes into other ship, which falls out of the sky...and then I just started laughing.

This completely dumb action sequence is the epitome of "fucking retarded". The ship falls out of the sky and lands on an edge...and starts rolling towards Liz and Cherlize. Who then RUN AWAY FROM IT IN A STRAIGHT LINE. I just started laughing, it was ridiculous. Anyway, Liz lives, Cherlize is crushed by the Rolling Ship of Murder, and just as Liz makes it to the lifepod (where she discovers Chekov's Horrible Tentacle Baby is now All Grown Up), David's Head informs her that Albino Dude is coming to kill her...because he totally knows where she is somehow. Seconds later, he bursts into the Lifepod and Liz sics her Babby on him and then flees. Horrible Tentacle Baby then proceeds to do exactly what you'd expect it to do in this film and Face Huggers the whole alien to death. Then the film doesn't end and I got sad.

So, Liz is now upset (and really, who wouldn't be). David's Head calls her and says "Oh, by the way, there are other ships on this planet. Uh, I can totally help you fly one." Liz then leaves, headed to find the Albino Guys and ask them "What the Fuck, yo?" Then the film doesn't end again, and I got sad.

So, back to Horrible Tentacle Baby and Albino Dude. Albino dude twitches slighly, and then (of COURSE) out of his body bursts a proto-Alien. Said proto-Alien was also way too big to fit inside Albino DUde without distorting the corpse, but really, at this point I was just glad to see the credits roll.

This is not a good film. It looks pretty. The acting is good (and in some ways, brilliant). The script is bullshit. It goes for some pretty heavy themes, but it ruins them with lots and lots and LOTS of padding and pointless grossness. There is so much of this film that could be cut and not change the story at ALL. The opening "seeding the earth" sequence. The ENTIRE sequence of Mean Guy and Nice Guy getting eaten by Space Cobras or turning into horrible monsters. The entirety of Chekov's Horrible Tentacle Alien Baby and the aftermath of it. This film is heavily padded and is full of "setup that did not deliver" sequences, ESPECIALLY regarding the Space Jockeys. It posed some really neat ideas, but failed to deliver them in a meaningful way. The character development was bad for all but a small handful of characters, and even most of those got the shaft. This film could have been great, but it collapses under the weight of its own hubris. On the other hand, the acting is excellent. The sets are awe inspiring at times. The special effects are pretty good (nice to see less CGI than usual), and I did think there were some deep themes. It was just presented poorly.

I give this film 1 frowny face on a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces, mostly on the strength of the David character, and the fact that the Captain played a squeezebox. It commits the twin sins of being boring and not scary, and that makes it a bad horror film AND a bad Sci-Fi film too.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Kotas Reviews Magic Wok

Today I lunched at a little local place in Oak Ridge called Magic Wok. This may very well be the epitome of "local hole in the wall" dining, at least in this area. It's about 10 minutes from my house, or 30 minutes from work, located in what must have been some sort of diner or cafe in the long ago before times. If I had describe the place in a single word, that word would be "dilapidated".

You go inside, and it's pretty cramped. There's a bar that divides the place into 1/3rd and 2/3rds respectively, with the kitchen area behind it. The menu has been there since the Carter Administration and may have changed slightly since then. There are exactly 8 items on the menu: Fried Wonton, Egg Roll, Dish with Rice, Fortune Cookie ($0.10), Coke, Tea, and some other beverage that escapes me now. The 4 booths and row of bar stools provide the only seating available at this place, and the booths look like they were acquired from a closed down Mexican restaurant. Oddly, the plants on the table were fairly nice.

Upon entering you will be greeted with a hearty "Hello! Spicy Chicken?" which is less of a question and more of a statement from the sassy old woman who is the sole chef of the establishment. This is Spicy Cashew Chicken, though you can request the cashews be left off. I have seen people order Beef & Broccoli, Sweet & Sour Chicken, Not Spicy Chicken, and Extra Spicy Chicken, but it's all cooked in the same 3 pans with a heaping helping of MSG for deliciousness. In fact, sometimes you get extra broccoli in your Spicy Chicken if the person ahead of you ordered a broccoli dish. Now that is service, let me tell you. The water comes from the sink's tap, and the soda comes from a bottle or a can. I've never seen anyone order the tea, so I have no idea what kind it is.

The food is, simply put, amazing. The Spicy Chicken (why would I get anything else?) is probably the best damn generic spicy chicken I've ever had in my life. The Fried Wonton is full of some sort of yummy meat paste. The Egg Rolls are very large and tasty. The rice you get with your Dish with Rice is the same generic fried rice you've had a thousand times at other little Chinese Restaurants, but it does its job of filling out the meal and absorbing that yummy sauce.

The price is, shall we say, right. For $10, Charlotte and I were both stuffed full of delicious food, and for a buck more we could have also had 3 Wontons or an Egg Roll. You know, if we wanted to be truly decedent. We tipped the couple who runs the place a couple of bucks, but I was told later not to do it as it might seem "rude" or something. I'm not sure why, exactly, but I'll keep it in mind.

All in all, I'd give the place 2 smiley faces on a scale of 5 frowny faces to 5 smiley faces. It ain't fine dining, but if you like Chinese food and are willing to put up with the limitations of the menu, I'd advise you to check it out.