Tuesday, 21 June 2011

It's all about the cooking!

There are very few "reality" shows I get into, and Masterchef Australia is one of them. This is really strange since I don't cook at all, but am slowly being encouraged to try. Prior to watching it, I didn't know who Heston Bummenthal was, nor Nigella Lawson, Tetsuya, Adriano Zumbo, Matt Moran, Gary Mehigan, George Calmobaris and certainly not Matt Preston among a host of other names. I didn't know that there are people who can hold hot pieces of iron and meat straight from the oven with their bare hands, or that something called a croquembouche was a desert. I didn't know what the terms molecular gastronomy, shucking, and caramelisation meant. I didn't know there were an almost infinite amount of ways to prepare food, and that there were crazy chefs who worked out things that needed to be cooked then baked then frozen then cooked again then fried - what the hell man, was that just trial and error? O_O

And then came Masterchef Australia. A spin-off of the original Masterchef UK (some of which I also watch now), the Australian version focuses quite a bit more on the amateur cooks themselves rather than the cooking. This makes it somewhat less impressive for foodies sure, but I think grabs quite a few more of the non-cooking demographic like myself. The format is ye olde contestants facing a variety of challenges which sees them depart one at a time and the last one standing wins. It's a formula that seems to be working too, as it is now in the 3rd season of the show, with a very awesome Junior Masterchef season thrown somewhere in the mix as well. It also airs 6 nights a week during primetime which gives you an idea of how much pull this "little cooking show" has.

While there certainly is a lot of cooking - there's quite a bit of this too:

If you haven't seen any of it yet, you can find all their episodes online on the main MasterChef Australia site.

Just as amusing as the show itself are the forums that recap it daily, giving their own (usually hilarious) spin on the transpiring events. The two I visit most often are Reality Ravings and Shuckittome. Definitely something to have a little taste of if you haven't already! ;)

Friday, 17 June 2011

MMORPG Korean Anime Heroes in Celtic Shakespearean Fantasy!

If that title elicited a "wtf" response from you, then you probably have never played Mabinogi. Developed by DevCat (Korea), this games sees players as cute, simple anime-styled characters which is very different to the crips character rendering of a game like Rappelz or even World of Warcraft. However if this doesn't bother you, this little gem offers loads of content and a dazzling amount of things to do with ever expanding content. While the main story arcs dealt with a very loose transtlation of celtic mythology, recent adventures have found players reliving parts of Shakespearean plays! If that sounds too wierd for you, don't worry - there's lots of other things to do! :P

Perhaps my biggest gripe about Mabinogi is that servers are separated by world regions. So while there are servers for Korea, Japan, China (I think), North America (where I play) and most recently Europe - you are restricted on where you can play which means my guildmates in London and Switzerland cannot join me on Mabinogi NA nor can I join them on Mabinogi EU - at least not without the use and hassle of 3rd party products.

Like a number of other MMORPG's while majority of the content is free, there is a "cash shop" where you can spend real money on some exclusive items, additional character cards, and uberly cute pets. All the storylines and quests ARE freely available though so if you can get by without a mount, a house in a city (you can have a house on your private estate though), and little gems that can summon a well endowed magic girl to ressurect you (these become handy later on), you can play through all of the content for free.

If you decide to try it out (on Mabinogi NA at least) I strongly suggest making a human character as your base, as you can get one free elf and one free giant when you reach their cities later on. You will want to visit and research skills on Mabinogi Wiki too, as there are interesting quirks to ranking them up. Also the skills need to be practiced enough times before you are qualified to gain rank in them. Sword mastery for example may dictate you need to kill one hundred awful creatures and one boss monster before you can rank it up, and what determines what exactly are awful and boss monsters is your own level. In the example I just gave, a brand new player may only have to kill 100 wolves and 1 bear to complete that, whereas a level 1000 player would be looking at 100 demons and 1 dragon to achieve the same requirement.

"Level 1000!?" I hear you exclaim. Yup, and those are the mid-level players like me. The true vets are around level 4000 in my server cluster. I'm sure there are those in Korea who are OVER 9000! What then can pose you a threat when you have all those zeroes in your level count? Everything, and at the same time - nothing. That's because of the combat system present in game which I absolutely love. It's a rock paper scissors affair where using the wrong skill or mis-timing your strike often leads to a lot of ouchies heading your way.

As an example Your normal attack can be deflected with defense, but if you know that's what your foe is doing you can use a heavy hit and smash through instead. However if you used the heavy hit and your enemy goes for a standard attack, you will be the one taking damage as the standard hit swings faster. Throw in around fifty more battle related skills and you get the idea. Much more fun than the "use special 1", then "use special 2" while special 1 cools down employed in many other MMORPGs.

This means that having skilled characters just means they can dish out and take more damage, but a low level character in the hands of a skilled player with enough potions to keep his stamina (and/or mana) up can beat the same level of opponents, just at a slower pace. Ofcourse this means lag favours the monsters and you will have to read your foes and time your actions well. :P

There are almost as many non-combat skills available too, such as fishing, cooking, tailoring, blacksmithing, refining, alchemy, handicraft, carpentry, etc. Some have their own fun mini-games to complete and special events (on Mabi NA at least) seem to run every fortnight, making sure that people don't run out of things to do. Some  people even ignore all of this and just use it as a glorified chat server or just collect pets! 

If you want to give it a try, Mabinogi is free to play. Just google it up for your region. If you happen to join Mabinogi NA and pick the Ruairi server, you may run into Josephsky - thats me! ^_^

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Lost in the company of zombies

Usually when you play a first person shooter, you envision your character to be some sort of youthful to middle-aged, fit soldier or explorer type. Not so in Necrovision: Lost Company. This game puts you in the shoes of Jonas Zimmerman, a somewhat psychotic aged german scientist during WWI. This doesn't stop him from kicking ass though - not in the least! Being old doesn't mean you can't run around with 2 pistols, 3 rifles, 1 shotgun, 1 SMG, 1 BAR, 3 HMGs, 5 grenades, 5 bayonetts, a gasmask, and a club or shovel for starters. He can also literally "kick" on top of all that!

Yes. Apparently there was some wierd sh!t going on in WWI.
Also, not Jonas Zimmerman.

Partially due to a plague he created, zombies and possessed men now wander around and pose the bulk of your main opponents in the game, with more horrors further in. Their AI is not that great (they ARE zombies afterall) but they come at you in large waves. Despite being a "horror-shooter", there are few "BOO!" scares and most of the horror simply comes from being surrounded by scum most of the time. And that's what makes it fun!

The combat is fastpaced and enemies numerous, giving you ample opportunity to use all of the gear the good doctor can carry with him. There's also a fun dual wield system where you can mix and match which two one-handed items you will use simultaneously. You also have an adrenaline meter which fills as you kill foes and can be used to slow time (for a very brief period) and performing specific enemy-killing combos refills this meter faster.

On top of the main story you will be unlocking extra challenge maps as you progress, and they really all are quite difficult timed tasks with some very worthwhile rewards if you can beat them. Unfortunately multiplayer wise only has the standard set of PvP options with no coop at all. I also highly recommend a three button mouse (or one with a rollerbutton) if you don't have one as you will want the middle "melee" attack on the last stages of the game.

I went through single-player on the hardest difficulty which does not let you save the game (there are checkpoints though), and got through it in four nights. Players with experience from other shooters will probably want to do the same as I found it just challenging enough without being despairingly impossible in the tough parts.

While the graphics are not as crisp as they can be (compared to other shooters), they are detailed enough and I thought the sound and voice overs are well done. Control wise, the doc moves pretty smoothly around the large and well-designed maps. You get to drive around in a tank and pilot a plane too, though the plane handles very arcade-ly. All in all, despite being a far cry from Halo or Call of Duty it's a fun and decent game if you like the genre.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

That Happy Cat

It's not often that I browse through a manga shelf, pick up a book I've never heard of, at random, then finding myself stuck reading before finally admitting that I need to buy it right then and there. Yet that's exactly what happened when I stumbled upon "Chi's Sweet Home" (volume 1).

Chi's Sweet Home is the story of a stray kitten who winds up being taken in by a small family living in an apartment where no pets are allowed. From what I've seen that's all there is to it, and the artwork is pretty simple compared to the more popular series of Bleach or Naruto. I think even Dragonball was better illustrated, but Chi herself is fantastically cute (way moreso than my crappy fan-art attempt) and very very endearing.

The series seems to geared towards kids and cat lovers as I don't think it would even reach a PG rating. The most violence present that I've seen is Chi scratching stuff! It also and has an animated version you can find on youtube, with each "chapter" running around 5 minutes.

If you have a soft spot for cutesy things or just want to see what this is all about, I recommend watching the first two episodes on Youtube. Then you can see if Chi makes you smile too. :)

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The good old days of yore: Ultima Online

UO was the first MMORPG I got into and for eight years it provided the platform for many fantastic adventures and meeting both frustrating and friendly players alike from all across the globe.

Released in 1997 its eagle-eye perspective on the world and graphics are considered subpar against its more modern competitors these days, but in terms of content it had everything. Want to build a house? Ride a horse? Sail a boat and explore the seas? Tame a dragon? Be a humble farmer content at planting crop and shearing sheep? A brigand hiding on the outskirts of civilization? A carpenter who enjoys building tables while in the deepest pits of the earth surrounded by large and dangerous monsters? Sure! You can do all of that and much more!

The interface is also quite easy to use, and combat is not much more difficult. Text appears above the character who spoke it which makes it easy to stay in the action and not have to look down at a chat log that just holds all the conversations happening around you (though that function is available too). As an example, my grandfather who is over 90 years of age still plays it and enjoys his hunting trips into Destard to keep the dragon population in check. Origin was also pretty good at removing various bugs throughout the years, like the silly one below:

Furthermore, the rise of thousands of unofficial "free" shards made the game accessible to even the most peniless of school kids (like me at that time). Some of them added their own twists to the world while others tried to emulate the already numerous official servers. Being a bit of a internet cheapskate scallywag urchin I stayed on the free shards with my brothers and our guild "Dragonarm".

We ventured through lands teeming with people, some mostly filled with scum bags, others filled mostly with noble folk. Other worlds seemed to have been overrun by monsters with rarely another player to be seen. Some worlds used the many large standard maps that come with the game, others restrict it to just one or two sections, while others still do away with it all together and have their own unique landscapes. I found that generally the worlds that enforce RP (roleplaying) have less player scumbags than those that don't, and pretty much across the board death in game is a hassle as you could potentially lose all your stuff (either to looters, monsters, or decay) and ressurection is only available in select places if you don't have team mates with the appropriate skills nearby to aid you.

On one shard with strict RP, death also had the chance of being final. The more you died the more that chance increased where you would never again be among the living and would need to start a new character. That one was a bit too hard core even for my guild! :P

My grandpa, perhaps the oldest UO player at over 90 years of age!

With the client available online for those who look hard enough, there is something in it for everyone and many new friends and maybe some new foes to be met online as well. If you think this is something you'd like to try, here are the free shards that I've visited that are still standing and are good places to start:

Shadowcove - custom map, friendly folk, no PvP, no custom housing but you can buy houses in towns.

Age of Avatars - standard maps (large), lots of custom baddies, rare to run into people though so you need to know what you're doing.

DarkAge 2 - strict RP, custom map, potential for Final Death. Hardcore roleplayers only! :P

Friday, 3 June 2011

Winter is Coming

Game of Thrones is a fantastic fantasy series based on "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels written by George R. R. Martin. I haven't read any of the books but I can tell you now that the series is bloody amazing. A strong cast, high production values and an intriguing story hook you in right from the first episode. For me, the first 5 minutes of the first episode. I like my spooky forests! :P

As an incredibly broad overview, seems to me there are two main plot points. The first one at the foreground is the current King seems to be completely incompetent at Kingly duties (in more ways than one) as those around him (and some further abroad) secretly (and not so secretly) maneouver for the crown. The second one being foreshadowed is somewhere in the far north supposedly some horrible beasties are waking up as winter approaches, and winter in this world can last for many many years.

While everyone, even the child actors, do a great job at their roles it is Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister "the imp" that is a great standout for me as he totally steals the show whenever he's on screen with some of the best dialogue. Also a big plus for me is that there are cute doggies.. erm, I mean dire wolves... that make an early appearance. I think my brother has one of these in his house!

Still its definitely not for everyone and is aimed strictly at an adult audience. They do not shy away from gore, adult themes, strong profanity, and in some cases soft porn. Nudity, including the full frontal kind for both male and female is present so make sure the kiddies are away or asleep before watching. Keeping track of all the characters can get a bit tough at times but if you like it that much (as I do), all the episodes are worth a rewatch or three anyway. ;)

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Bargain at the Borders

With my local Borders store closing down recently I managed to snag some pretty good discounts on a number of books, then went and wasted $20 during a minor unrelated accident while opening a brand new USB cable... I sort of cut through the wire while opening the packaging? *sigh* Finesse really isn't my thing. Anyway I thought I'd share my thoughts on a few of the items I got...

Created by Mike Schwark & Ron Kaulfersh this comedy manga is set mostly in the fantasy style kingdom of Dikay which follows the adventures of the titular character Van Von Hunter on his quests to defeat evil stuff. I must admit I am a bit of a VVH fan having followed their online comic while it was still being updated. Sadly while their site is still there, it looks like it hasn't been updated in years.

The art is well drawn, has quite likable characters, and pretty funny jokes when they stick to their original content (a number of parodies make appearances and not all of them do so well). Story wise what I've seen runs pretty shallow but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Definitely works for light and entertaining reading aimed at the PG anime watching or manga reading audience. If you are not sure if this is for you, just browse through the pages they do have online and you will quickly find out as the books are in mostly the same vein (though I think some characters are missing between the web and manga version).

An inbetween from the old choose your own adventure stories and D&D, these books let the reader (and the luck of the dice) decide how the story unfolds. From what I've seen they are well written and have nice illustrations every now and then. The player character has three simplified stats: "Skill" which is your character's fighting and physical prowess, "Stamina" which is your HP or life, and "Luck" which is tested often and is always running out! Other than that you have a backpack of equipment and a very good chance of having many, many unhappy endings! :P

You will really need a paper and pencil, eraser (or pen and lots of papers) and a few hours to sit through some of these. Though the 2 six sided dice aren't required I would strongly recommend them.

These are the books I have tried...

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
A good introduction to the series I thought. The monsters weren't too tough, common sense usually prevailed, and you got ample opportunity to heal up in various "rest" rooms. My main gripe with it was that the deeper part of the dungeon is a pretty complex maze that takes you around in circles, and by the time I found the exit most of the initial enjoyment I had was well and truly sapped away making what were supposed to be epic boss fights afterwards feel more like annoying "ahhh get it over with already" moments. My end result was I killed the warlock but was short one key of opening his treasure box which I felt was a just reward for an idiot whose sole purpose in entering the dungeon in the first place was greed. Its not like the warlock or any of the denizens in there were bothering anyone which kinda makes the player character the antagonist in the whole thing.

Deathtrap Dungeon
The player character being an idiot continues in this book, the premise being that some psycho decided to build this horrible place and hold a tournament to see who could be the first one to solve it and ofcourse because NO-ONE has ever escaped alive, you decide it would be an awesome idea to give it a try. :P

The dungeon itself is aptly named and a lot harder than Firetop Mountain with many sudden death areas which you can only guess your way past. As if that wasn't bad enough, the enemies in here are quite more challenging to beat and I didn't actually manage to find ANY rest points which lead to the occasional combat death too (bring the healing potion, you'll need it). The dungeon also features a very annoying dwarf who I greatly enjoyed killing and a more annoying gnome wizard boss whom you cannot even fight. My end results either resulted in my varied gruesome deaths to insta-kill sections, a few combat deaths, but more often than not being trapped in the dungeon forever since I failed to find a required item.

There was a bit of this going on too:

My current favourite. This sees the player character as a seasoned hero and actually starts with the main bad guy stirring up trouble and threatening all of the nearby lands, causing you to go into action. This book has a few more rules than the others and is about twice the thickness as you are not "stuck" in one large maze but instead can travel around quite a fair bit which leads to a longer playing time. It also gets rid of the "rest areas" rule which works well with its "open" travel. Insta-death sections are few and far between, often giving you the chance to save yourself before hitting a game over. It also adds some timed sections which I felt was a good addition. Lastly the final boss fight is quite epic and fun too and thanks to good luck I finished this one properly, saving the day and all that.

If you'd like to try your hand at any of these or one of the many I don't have, visit www.fightingfantasy.com and have a look. :)