Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Game Review: Assassin's Creed III (PS3)

Brief intro: Fragrant Husband kindly bought ACIII for me when I mentioned that I accidentally skipped past it because PIRATES. Thanks, babe!

Assassin’s Creed III (ACIII) takes the series to a whole new level. Apart from the now-famous plot twist, ACIII features even more world to explore: the untamed woods of New England, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania – aka the Frontier. The sidequests are absorbing, the history lessons so much more interesting due to your personal involvement, and the protagonist Connor is likeable and grows during the course of the story.

One-sentence summary: ACIII follows Connor, a Mohawk Assassin (double threat!) as he helps the Patriots repel the British during the American Revolution.

Gameplay: 8/10

ACIII boasts the same high standard of action/adventure as its predecessors. The standard CLIMB EVERYTHING mechanic is present, of course, but it’s really the little things that make ACIII shine, like being able to call a horse at any time, recruiting new Assassins, and getting nice bonuses when you complete sidequests. Speaking of, these mini-missions are so fun that it’s easy to get sidetracked into, say, finding and conquering every fort, or hunting for Captain Kidd’s secret treasure, or solving the mysteries that puzzle/frighten hunters.

Hunting features heavily in the game, since a lot of the ground Connor covers teem with various wildlife such as rabbits, beavers, elk, pumas, etc. The animal skins and parts can be traded or used to craft useful items such as cartridge pouches. Crafting in ACIII is a pain in the butt because of the controls, which requires players to scroll all the way from the top of a long list if they want to craft multiple items.

As an aside: I confess to depopulating the bear population in New Hampshire by accident, or really because of…

Glitches!!! ACIII is a very glitchy game. In one instance, I was tracking a man-eating bear and had to lure it out of its cave – except the bait never appeared. I had to go to a message board to realize that it was a bug. Happily, I completed the mini-quest on my third try. But not before killing at least a dozen bears in self-defense, alas.

The sucky controls make everything worse. The worst offender is my perennial complaint about every AC game: during melee combat, my Assassin won’t obey my frantic button-mashing in the direction of someone I just put on the ground. See, I approach fights logically: attack the weak! Instead, the AI will hit an enemy until he falls to the ground, and rather than go for a finishing move, it’ll target the strongest enemy still standing. So then the fallen guy gets up, and the cycle continues.

The other issue I have is how awkward the controls are. Like, to call Assassins you have to tap L2, but to get to their menu you hold L2. The weapon wheel (R2) is a mess, and don’t get me started on that map. And then when I got a ship – excellent ship, might I add, it really elevates the gameplay – the controls were non-intuitive. I’m just glad they worked it out for the next seafaring adventures of the series.

Minus two points for them bugs and controls!

Soundtrack: 7/10
I guess…there was music? Like a mezzosoprano keeps going, “OooooOOOOOOooooOOOO, oooooOOOOAAAAAAAAA!!!” to accompany your typical assassin-y scene. The OST didn’t really grab me, but mostly because I had to keep the volume down because I only play after Junior’s gone to bed. So what I’m saying is, the above score is entirely arbitrary.

Story/Characters: 9.5/10
The story and characters are fantastic! The main characters are compelling and the supporting players are equally interesting. You start the game as Haytham Kenway, and since I had skipped ahead to AC Black Flag before playing this game, I was like, “Haytham, I know your dad!!!” He does kinda boring missions, before, er, having relations and then…[SPOILER REDACTED]

Meanwhile, in the real world, Desmond and his friends from the first AC games are trying to stop the coming cataclysm predicted by the First Civilization. The key is diving into the genetic memories of Ratonhnhaké:ton, aka Connor, the fruit of the aforementioned relations between Haytham and legitimate hottie Kaniehtí:io.

What a time for Connor to be alive! The British are being increasingly tyrannical against the colonies in the New World, and the (land-owning, tax-paying) residents are pushing back and rumbling for independence.

ACIII is a special treat for Bostonians like myself: whenever Connor wanders around town, Hubby and I would read the in-game notes about the locations, like Old North Church and the Boston Neck. Truly a game for history buffs with an affinity for pretend sword fighting! There's a revisionist undertone in the explanatory notes, too. Didjer know that George Washington was not a saint? Oh my!

Excitingly, the player gets to participate in historical battles such as the Battle of Lexington and the Battle of Monmouth, and witness key events such as the Boston Massacre. The battles are no cakewalk; for example, in the defense of a town, Connor has to ride back and forth among gunners and order them to shoot at precisely the moment when the enemy troops are preparing to fire, to catch them off guard. In another case, Connor has to run from cover to cover as an entire army shoots muskets and cannonballs at his and his allies’ position. The challenge makes the victory so much sweeter!

Villains: 9.5/10
Connor’s main enemy is a man who believes just as strongly as he does in saving others, but the aims and methods are different. One advocates freedom and a measure of chaos, the other prefers control and order. Fundamentally, it boils down to trust: the Assassins trust people to do the right thing when given the choice, while the Templars leave nothing to chance and impose their own idea of social order. Both Connor and Haytham have been indoctrinated in these viewpoints from a young age, but at least players see how Connor stands resolute in his principles no matter how they are questioned by his fallen foes. Haytham is more of a mystery.

As for the present Big Bad, Juno is such a creeper that it’s intriguing to see what she’ll try next. She also monologues a lot, which is mandatory for bad guys, so good job there.

Minus half-point for anticlimactic end to the bad guys. If you played the game, you know what I’m talking about.

Visuals: 10/10
OH MY GODDDDDDDD IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL. I could wax rhapsodic about the lush greenery and pristine rivers of the Frontier, or the menacing cliffs of the east coast on a foggy night, or the waist-high snows impeding movement. The visual effects team deserves all the stars, they did a spectacular job.

Bonus Category: Voice Acting: 10/10
Connor’s voice actor Noah Watts nails it. Connor sounds young, stoic, and DREAMY when he orders his crew around. Le sigh. Haytham is the perfect aristocrat, and Achilles is on point as the elderly Assassin Mentor.

Perfect, perfect, perfect.

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TL;DR: A game that lives up to and improves upon the Assassin’s Creed series.

This post brought to you by homemade chewy chocolate cookies!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Movie Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters is a summer spectacle. It's light on plot and heavy on laughs and action -- a perfect escape! This reboot of the beloved 80's franchise stars four of the funniest women in show business today: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon. Their chemistry, including with the hilarious Chris Hemsworth, together with the cameos, soundtrack, and special effects, make for a terrific moviegoing experience.

Probably the biggest thing about the reboot is all the actual ghostbusting. Armed with weapons cooked up by mad genius Holtzmann (McKinnon, who electrifies every scene she's in), the Ghostbusters are on a mission to trap and study the paranormal. This means, of course, that the movie has legitimate scares: spooky doors opening, mannequins moving, a character trapped with a vengeful spirit. While the emotional core of the movie is the physical and emotional reunion between Wiig's Erin and McCarthy´s Abby, even that takes a back seat to findin' and bustin' ghosts. 

Which is what we came for! Wooooooo!

When the threat escalates, the weapons improve and the action amps up. There´s a particular sequence where I had to stop myself from leaping up and clapping wildly after our heroes triumph, it was that exhilarating. And then there was the very funny coup de grace against the Big Bad, which I did not see coming but seems obvious in hindsight. The only problem is that the sound is so overwhelming that even shouted dialogue gets lost in the din. 

While the pacing is brisk, The Ghostbusters takes time to give nods to the actors from the original movie. There were a lot of claps from the audience during the cameos, especially the last one. And there was laughter aplenty, since the dialogue is so ridiculous (in a good way) and every actor has excellent comedic chops, from the four leads to Hemsworth to the various well-known comedians onscreen. 

My beef with the film, apart from the loudness, is the editing. A number of scenes end abruptly, and while everything ultimately builds toward a cohesive story of four friends who save the city, the movie could've used more Holtzmann and Patty (Jones). A more compelling villain would also be very welcome.

Overall, the new Ghostbusters hits all the right notes: it's irreverent, high-energy, and relies on the chemistry and charisma of its team. Stay until the end for the easter egg!

TL;DR: Worth watching in 3D!  

This post brought to you by Boston's Outside the Box festival!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Year with Foster Cats

What follows is a tale of love, loss, and hairballs.

Background 
It all began last August, shortly after we moved into a bigger place so Junior can have his own room. Out of the blue, I remembered my friend Jelly (name altered to protect identity) from grad school and dropped her a line to see how she was doing. The next thing I know, I was on a Skype call with her, agreeing to take care of her “babies” while she was working overseas. Apparently, their current foster mum was not happy with the arrangement.

Even More Background
I’d met Charlie and Maetel when they were kittens, so I thought, “NBD.” They’re purebred Ragdolls, which are known for being docile and affectionate. I even went with Jelly on a couple of trips when she was checking out breeders. So me and these kitties have history, is what I am saying.

Charlie and Maetel when I first met them, six years ago

A Protest
Ever the wiser one, Fragrant Husband said, “No effing way!” We have a baby, he explained, in the patient tones of one explaining to an idiot. Cats are a lot of work, he reminded me. Why would you want to be running around after a one-year-old and two cats?

But in my new-mom haze, the only thought in my head was “KITTIES.” I overruled all objections.

The Pick-Up 
Hubby gave up. We went to the ‘burbs to grab our new foster pets from their temporary digs. These cats were very loved by their mom, who’d lavished them with toys, treats, and furniture, including a 6-foot-tall cat condo. Hubby had a terrific time lashing that onto the car roof in the summer heat, let me tell ya.

Cats circled. Everything else is their stuff.
 
Once home, Charlie and Maetel took the customary 24 hours to adjust to their new surroundings. Favorite hiding spots included under the couch and under the bookcase. Eventually, they started hanging out on their condo, especially once we fenced it off from Junior.

Settling In
The first few months were painful, because Hubby, still miffed at not being consulted about fostering the cats, refused to help with them, apart from buying a pet gate for the bathroom. The cats’ stay also coincided with super busy time at Hubby’s office, so he was barely home anyway. So in addition to caring for a tiny human, I also had to feed and water the cats, scoop kitty litter, and prevent Junior from eating the kitty food and litter.

Honestly, Junior was 99.9% of the work – cats realistically need only 30 minutes a day of care, max. Meanwhile, my newly-upright and mobile spawn was overwhelmingly curious and had to be watched like a hawk lest he use the 6-foot-tall cat condo as a climbing gym, or crawl through the pet gate to play with the “sand box.”

But sometimes, we would have these moments:

AWWWWW


Nadir
I was getting overwhelmed after several months. I asked Jelly when she would come back for them.

Can you keep them for a few more months? she responded. Red flag!

I turned into that girl at work, complaining about my lot in life. Which wasn’t fair to Jelly, since she was paying for the cats while they stayed with us. Still, I resented the uncertainty. Not knowing ties me into knots, just ask my poor husband, who has learned by now not to try and surprise me.

The Silver (Fur) Lining
The cats themselves are darling. Charlie is extremely friendly and will come hang out when we have guests, whilst Maetel literally just sits there and looks pretty. My dad-in-law keeps saying, “Which one am I taking home?” when he comes over. (Mom-in-law: “I’m not cleaning up hairballs!”)

Charlie's the goofy one and Maetel's the pretty one

And Ragdolls are fantastic with young kids. Once Junior got over the slap-happy phase of infancy, he and the kitties got along well. No claws were unsheathed; no blood shed; no allergies emerged. Junior got very good at cat anatomy, and could correctly identify which bundle of brushed fur belonged to which cat. And he was always eager to give them treats.

Yes, there was the near-daily vomiting by Maetel and the occasional hairball from Charlie, who hates being brushed, but these are typical cat behaviors. NBD. Even Hubby grew to love the kitties, despite being frequently surprised and dismayed at the sheer volume of their hair in the most unlikely places, such as on the to shelf of the closet. All over his dark suits, obviously.

The Move
Then we decided to move to a quieter neighborhood. We found a terrific place, but the catch was that it was pet-free.

I told Jelly and she said she’d found someone else to take them. Great! Said person even came over to check out his two future housemates. But alas, this arrangement fell through.

So I cast a net. My buddy Crispy pointed me at someone, so we schlepped the kitties to the north to meet their prospective new parents. Also alas, a family emergency had just occurred and no one was home. And anyway, it seems they were hesitant about keeping the cats long-term since they already had two cats of their own.

Who wouldn't want this???

Or this???

But third time’s the charm, as they say. My buddy Special K volunteered her services. Her beloved dog had met the cats plenty of times, since she always brings him when she and her fianc√© visit. But she also had half a set of ninja turtles. “Are you building a menagerie?” I joked.

She was serious, y’all. She didn’t want them to go to a shelter, which is where I would’ve had to leave them if no one wanted them. And they would very likely have gotten a disease and/or separated as a result.

Special K is a true friend and a lover of animals – back off, she’s taken!!!

Epilogue
This past weekend, Special K, Vitamin B and Henry came for dimsum, board games, and the kitties. After two cutthroat rounds of Monopoly Deal and two rousing rounds of Istanbul – while K and B kept checking on their Pokemon Go – it was time for the send-off.

Hubby had hurt his back, so his default role was management, while we were labor. From his perch on the sofa, he barked out instructions such as: “Get both cats at the same time! We don’t want them to hide under the bed!” and … actually, that was it. And good advice it was, too!

We somehow shoved the cat condo into their Jeep, and everything was easy after that. Our little family, back down to three members, waved goodbye as they drove away.

Thus endeth our year of fostering two cats.

Looks like Maetel is settling in well at her new home.
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This post brought to you by IT'S ALMOST LUNCHTIME!!!

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)