Jim's Blog Ramblings about novels, comics, programming, and other geek topics


Halo: First Strike (Book Review)

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The third book in the Halo series is title "First Strike." Eric Nylund, author of the first Halo book "The Fall of Reach" returns to finish some of the unresolved plots from the first book. The book takes place between Halo 1 and Halo 2 video games.

The novel also provides the Halo gamer with insights into how Master Chief returned to earth after Halo: Combat Evolved (Halo 1) and how the Covenant discovered the location of earth.


Halo: The Flood (Book Review)

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The second book in the Halo series is titled "The Flood" The book is written by William C. Dietz who's background of serving in the US Navy as medic might have helped him with the characters and background stories.

This book is a novelization of the first Halo video game (Halo: Combat Evolved). I never got a chance to play the first Halo game, so the events of the game were unfamiliar to me. For most other Halo fans, they've probably played the game and remember quite a few events of this book.


Streaming video to your TV via your console

I read about the PlayOn Media Server on LifeHacker last week. It's software that runs on your Windows computer and streams video to Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The PlayOn Media Server streams content from YouTube, Netflix Instant Queue, Hulu, CBS, and ESPN.

The PlayOn Media Server demo works for 14 days and I'm almost half way through the demo now. Since downloading the demo, I've been able to stream a couple of episodes of 24 (from Hulu), some random and mostly useless YouTube videos, and watch a movie from my Netflix account.


Halo: The Fall of Reach (Book Review)

I wasn't too familiar with the Halo series until last year when I played Halo for the first time. I knew it was a FPS (first person shooter) and knew that it involved running around and shooting aliens, much like most other FPS games. Since FPS games weren't my speciality, I had never spent much time playing or reading about Halo.

After I purchased Halo III, I was able to complete the game and learn a little more about the Halo setting. The game was fun and a bit challenging at times. However, since I don't have a XBOX Gold membership I wasn't able to play online versus other players - who probably would have easily killed me anyway.

A few months after playing the game, I noticed the Halo book series at a local bookstore. I thought it might be interesting, but I didn't think about the book series until almost a year later. After bringing only one book to read on my flight, I had finished it and needed a new book for my return flight. So I picked up the first book of the Halo series (Halo: The Fall of Reach) by Eric Nylund. The book is just over 7 years old.


Mass Effect: Ascension (Book Review)

Mass Effect: Ascension is the second novel of the Mass Effect series. The book is based on the game of the same name by BioWare. The author, Drew Karpyshyn, works for BioWare and has also written books on the BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic game.

I read the first Mass Effect novel before the Mass Effect XBOX360 game was released and I really enjoyed that novel. Now that I've finished the first novel and then finished the game (a few times), I have a decent idea of the Mass Effect universe so unlike the first book there wasn't a lot of introduction and general knowledge layout of the universe and species.


A Week of Wii

Last week, I got a chance to play with a Wii for the first time. I've been a recent console convert and picked up a XBOX 360 last year, so most of my comparisons will be versus the XBOX 360 and XBOX LIVE.

At first glance, the Wii interface is much more simpler than the current XBOX interface. (Note: The November 2008 XBOX UI upgrade is supposed to do a complete revamp of the UI. This was written before that update.)


XBOX 360 DRM issues

So far, I haven't needed to return my XBOX 360, but with the high failure rate, I expect that I'll probably be shipping it back sometime this year. With the new announcement of the Mass Effect downloadable content (DLC), I'll be purchasing some DRM (digital rights management) XBOX 360 content for the first time.

Unfortunately, BioWare isn't planning on releasing the content on CD at storefront or from their own online store. This means that when my XBOX gets the "red rings of death" (RRoD), I'll be stuck with the DRM glitch.

I'm a new owner of the XBOX, so I first learned about the problem while reading the Official XBOX Magazine's article titled "Six Resolutions for Microsoft in 2008."

If your console breaks ... the digital-rights management doesn’t detach from the old hardware, and it doesn’t know how to mate with the new machine. The only way to play the XBLA games you’ve bought, then, is to be logged in. That’s a problem for any users who don’t have a home network, who find themselves stuck with trial versions of the games they “own” until Mom’s done surfing the internet on the PC and surrenders the Ethernet cable.

It’s also a pain in the ass for two-gamertag households. Consider this very common scenario: Gamer A and Gamer B live together. (They might even be married — the ultimate multiplayer experience!) Gamer A bought Puzzle Quest, knowing Gamer B would love it — and she did. So they each played independently, until the three red lights showed up. After the console came back from Microsoft’s repair lab, suddenly, Gamer B couldn’t play Puzzle Quest — or any of the games Gamer A bought on his account. Part of the “fix” was to (accidentally? intentionally?) lock out anyone but the purchaser.

I was asking a couple questions on some of the XBOX related forums about this and then a few hours later, I noticed that Jeff Atwood of Coding horror wrote a nice write up explaining that DRM ignorance is expensive.

I foolishly assumed all along that it would be no big deal to transfer that purchased content if I ever purchased an Xbox 360 for my home.

Big mistake.

I didn't realize how precarious my understanding was of Xbox 360 digital rights management was.

Jeff's big mistake ended up costing him about $140 to repurchase all of his content for a second time. Jeff proposes a couple solutions and I really like the method that iTunes uses to manage DRM content where a limited number of machines are registered through your profile to access the content.  Hopefully, Microsoft will come out with a solution this year.

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Halo 3

I just purchased Halo 3 from seeing a great deal (just $37) on the CheapAssGamer.com's Best of the Sunday Ad Video Game Deals blog entry. I've been following CAG for a week or so now and there's a lot of great deals posted there for video games and DVDs. That deal was even better than the Amazon.com used game deals that had it listed around $40.

I've never been a FPS (first person shooter) game lover, but I've played a few and I did okay at them. I've just started playing this game in both solo and co-op modes. I'm a bit lost with the story because I've never played any of the previous Halo titles. Well, I did play one quick session of Halo 2, but I didn't learn much about the story besides shooting aliens.

I guess that I'm just one of those gamers that actually cares to listen to the story/dialog - maybe that's because I'm a RPGer at heart. Maybe I should buy some of those Halo novels (graphic novel, another, and another) to read up on the story...

The game play has been pretty good, but the controls are a bit foreign to me due to the lack of previous Halo experience. The graphics have been superb and I'm looking forward to finishing the campaign after I finish my Mass Effect multiple play throughs.

One of the great things about this game is the Bungie Online Halo 3 community web site. You can upload screenshots from the game to the web site and it keeps track of your character's accomplishments and statistics. The web site also allows you to use your in-game character's customizations as your community avatar.

I really feel that this is the direction new XBOX games should head. Forza Motorsports 2 also has a community similar to this that allows uploads of your customized cars. I'd really love to see more communities connected to your XBOX games like this.  

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Mass Effect: Best Sci-Fi RPG ever?

I finished Mass Effect a couple weeks ago and I'm about half way through my second play through of the game (as of this writing).  I plan on completing the entire game about 4-7 times to play all of the different character classes, get all of the achievements, and finally beat the insanity difficulty.

The game won tons of awards (75+) and continues to score near perfect scores, ratings, and reviews from editors and gamers.

I believe this is the best sci-fi RPG game that I've ever played for several reasons. I think it could even be the best RPG game that I've ever played.

If you have been living under a rock and haven't heard about Mass Effect (and you know what RPG stands for), then you owe it to yourself to check out the game.


  • The Story. Every BioWare game has a great story, but this story exceeded my expectations. I think that planning to make a trilogy helped create some storylines that will flow through each of the three games much easier than if the writer needed to wait to see how successful the game would be before starting on the next version. 
  • Character classes. The six different character classes really seemed to work well together. None of the classes seemed to be added for show and each class holds their own in the games. Combining the three skill sets into six classes really seemed to have balanced the game and make each class a little bit different from each other.
  • Combat. Now this isn't a FPS like Halo, but I really like how the combat system works in Mass Effect. My preferred combat strategy is to get to high ground, take cover, and use a sniper rifle to take out any enemies dumb enough to stand in the open. Then rush into the compounds with my assault rifle blazing. This works well, especially with the multiple weapon types (Pistol, Assault Rifle, Sniper Rifle, Shotgun), tech skills, and biotics skills.
  • Missions & side quests. The missions really seemed to flow together very well. A few side quests are lengthy and involve making moral choices.
  • Voice-overs. The voice overs for every line of dialog in the story makes it feel almost like watching a movie. There are several recognizable actors who took part in the voice-overs including Seth Green (Austin Powers, Family Guy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.) and Keith David (Crash, Halo 3, Armageddon, etc.).
  • The Novels. A prequel novel (written by the lead writer for the game) was released a little bit before the game. This was a great idea for those of us who wanted to be immersed in the game's story. Another novel is due out in a few months that will help bridge the story between Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2. I really hope they continue writing novels to fill in the gaps between the game releases.
  • Commitment to releasing DLCs (Downloadable Content) to bridge between Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3.


  • The graphics are great, but every now and then there's a little bit of texture popping (an effect when an object's texture suddenly changes where there should be no noticeable change between low-res and hi-res textures).
  • Unable to upgrade/customize the MAKO. (see wish list below)
  • Not enough cities (see wish list below). There's only a couple planets that you can visit that have any form of city. The vast majority of planets are just open landscapes with a few small outpost buildings or underground compounds.

Wishes for Mass Effect 2 and/or Mass Effect DLCs

  • The MAKO. The MAKO is the all terrain rover vehicle that transports your group across the planet's surfaces. I'd love to see customizations for the MAKO including the basics such as upgrades. A Combat Scanner upgrade for the MAKO would be great along with almost any armor and weapon upgrade.
  • More cities including landing on Earth.
  • More land vehicles.
  • Space combat
  • Underwater exploration/planet
  • In-game link to online community (upload screenshots, etc. similar to Halo 3 and Forza Motorsports).
  • Fix the 999 saves issue.
  • Increase the level cap
  • New player class - maybe a generalist with a little bit of combat/tech/biotics skills.
  • New squad members - maybe a Salarian infiltrator or Asari Commando
  • Double the play time from around 40-50 hours to 100 hours
  • More native flora and fauna for planets



Getting the band together… Rock Band (Game Review)

As readers can tell, I've been a bit late getting back into the console video games. My last console (before my new XBOX 360) was a Sega, so that tells some users how long its been.

I've looked at the Guitar Hero buzz as something of interest, but I've never been one for feats of coordination or rhythm games such as that. So I never experienced the Guitar Hero phenomenon.

This Christmas (2007) I was treated to a Rock Band night with a few family members (some photos on my Facebook profile for friends & family). Rock Band is developed by Harmonix, who also brought us Guitar Hero I & II (but they didn't develop GH3).

The biggest difference between Guitar Hero and Rock Band is that Guitar Hero is focused on a single instrument (the guitar, duh). Rock Band comes with a drum set, a microphone, and a guitar (with an additional jack for second guitar). The guitar can be either a guitar or bass (but you can only have a maximum of 1 guitar and 1 bass per play).

At first, it took me a while to get the rhythms down. Starting out with old familiar songs such as Wanted Dead or Alive (Bon Jovi) and Epic (Faith No More) helped quite a bit. If you've played Guitar Hero series, then you'll instantly be familiar with the guitars (the guitars of the two games are interchangeable).

I started out with the drums, which I later found to be the most difficult to perform. There's a kick peddle and four "drums". As the notes scroll down the screen, you tap the correct drum(s) and/or kick peddle. (If that's the correct terms...).

At first, I found that coordinate my hands and foot to hit multiple drums a bit difficult. I failed the first few times and needed to be saved by a fellow band member. Luckily, a lot of my family play on expert mode on several of the instruments and could keep the band from getting kicked off the stage almost every time. After a few songs of practice, I was able to score around 85% on the drums on Easy mode.

Moving on to the next instrument, I played the guitar for a bit. I think this was probably the second most difficult instrument. Even on Easy mode, some songs (like Enter Sandman) was just crazy on my fingers. The first two buttons were pretty easy to reach, but the third button played havoc on my finger for at least an hour or so. Finally, I was able to use three fingers (only 3 buttons are used on Easy mode) to reach all of the buttons. I was able to score in the mid-eighties in guitar mode, but usually scored much lower.

Finally, I found my tempo on the bass. The bass uses the same guitar controller as the guitar, but there's a lot less button combinations. Usually, it's only one of the three at the same time with a bit more of an interval between the notes. I was rocking the bass with scores in the high-nineties (97% with 187 continuous correct keys on my best).

Lastly, I skipped singing, but from listening to the others sing, you don't need to be a karaoke master to get a good score here.

I really enjoyed the game and I'm thinking about getting it in a few months after I finish Marvel Ultimate Alliance and Mass Effect. I'm hoping that the rumors are true about the wireless instruments coming out in February 2008. I think that's the only downside of the game is that there's a lot of wires involved and you really need at least 3 people to have a fun time, even though only 1 is required.

My only hesitation is that I don't know if I'll have enough friends over to actually ever have a Rock Band party. Also, right now the song selection is pretty limited. However, Harmonix is putting out a new download every week with new songs (varies from $0.99 per song or a few dollars for a few songs in a song pack). I'm hoping for some Rage Against the Machine, U2, and an expanded 80s selection.

Rock On.

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