Thursday, August 2, 2012

Review: The Magicians

It's easier to describe what The Magicians is not, than what it actually is.

It's not Harry Potter, where young children enter a high-fantasy magic school. There is a magic school, to be sure, and Brakebills has more than a little Hogwarts about it, but there are no kids here. The students are college-age, enjoying a mixture of terrifying academic work and delayed adolescence, progressing into laissez-faire hedonism. Quentin and the cast of characters surrounding him are caught between a magical world which demands extraordinary precision, and the reality that all-powerful magic which must be hidden away is quite possibly useless.

This coming-of-age tale is interwoven with a fictional set of novels loosely modeled after The Chronicles of Narnia, a land called Fillory in which good and evil are clear, and the final victor is of little doubt. However informed by Fillory the world of The Magicians is, it is much darker, to the point of amorality. There is good and evil but the students frequently have little care for their alignment between the two. To be frank, I flat-out hated Quentin for the majority of the book.

Grossman's writing style takes some getting used to. The prose is simple, direct, with little attempt to develop a voice. The pacing is all over the map. Rather than the rigid, "by the years" formula of Potter or the Percy Jackson novels, the entirety of Quentin's academic career is on display. More to the point, entire years can fly by in mere paragraphs, while the succulent plot points are dwelled on to full effect. This is much like our own lives when viewed in retrospect: days which blur over time, but the key events, the fundamental character-forming moments, those are the things burned into memory.

I wanted to put the book down. I wanted to give up. I wanted to kill Quentin, erase him from my memory, but something about this world kept sucking me in. The payoff was well worth it. The character arc, the plot developments, and everything about the book is off-kilter, but I can't wait to go deeper into Grossman's world.

4 Stars.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Spec Ops: the Line

How many Americans have you killed today?
Dismissed as just another war game, a generic third-person shooter, Spec Ops: the Line is doomed to languish in obscurity. Multiplayer is a ghost town. The first hour of the game screams "you've done this before!"

The Line will become a cult classic, a design document for future projects.

I quite like the game's core shooting, to be honest, so I don't quite get the dismissals. Sandstorm-wrecked Dubai is a near-perfect shooter landscape: outdoors is bleak post-apocalyptica while indoors are the ornate excesses of oil princes. Sure, chest-high walls abound, but bullets matter. Some of the later enemies can soak bullets up, which is a shame, but the vast majority are quite fragile, and ammo is scarce. Nail headshots or run dry and frantically backtrack to find a gun with ammo left in it.

The player is in the shoes of Walker (voiced by the omnipresent Nolan North), commander of a three-man Delta Squad sent to investigate the current state of the city. What happened to the brigade tasked with rescuing survivors? Are there survivors? What the hell is going on?

These questions will be answered...sort of.

There are survivors and the "Damned 33rd" are a presence in the city. A three-man squad shouldn't upset the balance of thousands, but maybe a grain of sand in Morocco caused the sandstorms in Dubai.

Throughout the brief campaign players will be faced with moral choices ranging from bad to worse, bringing players into complicity with the dark tale Yager has woven here. The choices are presented contextually, requiring action on the player's part besides pressing A or B, but sometimes suffered from a lack of clarity. It's a linear action game yet it has choice. The story branches but it's not an RPG. Six hours feels thin yet I wonder if more content would have overstayed its welcome.

Poorly marketed, badly priced at $60, Spec Ops: the Line made my jaw drop numerous times. It's flawed, the conclusion is rushed, but it presents something few shooters have lately: a unique experience which leaves you emotionally shaken. Shaken.

Three Stars

Wine Tasting: Palacio del Conde Gran Reserva 2005

This wine hits your tongue like a needle. A sharp, sour, juicy grape flavor. The flavor is strong enough to power through heavily seasoned steak - and just about any dish you could throw at the wine. Adjectives like "needle" "knife" and "sharp" aren't often used to describe fine wine, but that's the best way I can describe the strong fruity flavors of this Spanish Tempranillo-based wine.

Once the strong, fruity flavors work through the wine is very soft on the tongue. If you prefer your wines with more oak notes this is not the wine for you. Of late I've been preferring wines with bold fruity flavors, so this is really up my alley.

It's not quite perfect but almost....

David: 4.5 Stars

Monday, July 2, 2012

Wine Tasting: El Bombero 2011

Normally I'm not a believer in pairing specific wines to specific dishes. Call it an unrefined palate if you will, but El Bombero 2011 has convinced me otherwise. That's not necessarily a compliment.

An old-vine Spanish wine, it has big body and is silky smooth on the tongue. Where it falls down is a certain sweetness which feels out of balance. As someone who prefers very dry wine, it's a little too sweet to sip on its own, despite not being a "sweet" wine.

Paired with spicy food, however, and it shines due to a strong spicy finish of its own. It's the first red wine from outside of Australia that I've tried which would go very well with barbecue or Tex-Mex food like tacos.

David: 3.5 Stars
Maria: 3.5 Stars

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Wine Tasting: J Opi Malbec 2011

This is the gold-standard. Maria and I have tried a number of wines over the years and by the first sip the J Opi Malbec 2011 was our all-time favorite. More to the point, everyone at the table that night was raving about it.

I'm not a pretentious wine-taster but I'll try and use a little descriptive language without sounding too hokey. The first flavor note is blueberry, a slightly-sweet fruity flavor, but I wouldn't describe this wine as sweet. Instead, it's a very even wine, with an incredibly full body, able to stand up to nearly any food pairing. The finish is silky smooth, the real magic of this wine.

David: 5 Stars
Maria: 5 Stars

Baseline System (June 2012)

Last month I published our Budget Gaming System Guide. The goal with that guide was to present a solid system with some future-proofing built in. $800, however, is not the cheapest possible gaming system you can build and still be happy with. I'm not willing to go as low as Eurogamer's recent budget build but there is room to cut cost without needless performance sacrifices.

Keep in mind that the Baseline provides very little consideration of future-proofing, continued engine development, and upgrade paths. Quality and resolution settings will vary widely depending on the title but certain titles will struggle at 1080p even with lowest possible quality settings.

The Baseline retains Intel's top Z77 chipset, as I've had nothing but mediocre results with previous H-series boards. I've never used a Biostar board before but reviews seem solid. I'd strongly consider upgrading to an ASUS Z77 board but that's partly because I know from first-hand experience that these boards are solid. I've gamed on systems with similar specs and the experience is a marked improvement over console gaming but a great deal weaker than the Budget system. As with many things in life, you get what you pay for in computing power :)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Drawing of the Three: David's Take

Roland continues his journey towards the Dark Tower, a journey that is interrupted by three magical doors. Each door acts as a portal to New York City and allows Roland to take control of three different people's lives. The titular "drawing" naturally breaks the book into three acts of decreasing length.

The first act is a well-told (if slightly familiar) story of a man fighting drug addiction. What makes it particularly strong is the interplay between Roland and his new charge as well as the possibilities and complications made available by the portal. The second act is considerably weaker, arguably the weakest section of the Dark Tower series to this point, but is redeemed in how the third act brings everything together.

The Gunslinger was solid through-and-through but The Drawing of the Three is weighed down by that second act. At the same time, the story it tells is more satisfying than the first book. Previously Stephen King treated us to characters who seemed immortal, unchanging, locked in eternal combat. This time all characters, Roland included, emerge changed.

Three Stars