[Videogames] Happy Fallout Day (10.23)!

Today is a special day for Fallout fans. This is the day when the bombs fell on the US in 2077, following the fratricide Sino-American War and setting the deadliest and shortest War of all human history: The Great War (10.23.2077-10.23.2077). It only took two hours to reduce the US into a nuclear Wasteland, whereas little is known from what happened to the other belligerents.
The Fallout lore is in that sense a very interesting piece of storytelling as we through the game witness lost lives in their last moment before the nuclear blast: those who were able to take shelter in the Vaults (without realizing they will become part of a social experiment without their consent), those who “doomsday prepped” in their cellars and in their shack, those to desperately tried to take refuge into the Pulowski shelters and some in the military that were sheltered into their barracks and forts, disconnected from each others. There were few lucky ones, protected by a giant dome over a piece of the Las Vegas strip that got spared, thanks to an enigmatic benefactor known as Mr. House.
Finally, those that did not have much luck and died within second from the huge thermonuclear blast, burnt by the huge shockwave and incandescent temperature from the explosion.
Those who were taking shelters in sewers, subways and other improvised shelters had yet to die from the intense radiation. But those who did not die will become extremely mutated and malmed, become dead men walking commonly referred as “ghouls”.
Yet mankind, at least in the US, was able to survive and slowly try to rebuild from the ashes, but only by being brought back into the stone age. Some maintained the chain-of-command from the military, creating what will become the Brotherhood of Steel and beginning their Sisyphean quest to gather and hoard technology and knowledge from “the primitive”. Some went into a revived form of tribalism, living from looting and from conquering new territories. Some revived evolutionary old traits of human society by bringing in bartering and crafting as a source of living. Some lucky ones had just to hop out their vaults and recreate Paradise on Earth thanks to the Garden Eden Creation Kit (GECK), living in a vaulted community.
This is what makes Fallout such a great franchise, witnessing the plight and resilience of humankind, trying to rebuild the wastelands on the ashes of the Pre-War civilization. I will be unlikely living that day but my children may live it and only the future will tell us if this date will fall into the basket of cranked Sci-Fi predictions or if it was good at predicting it.

 

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[Videogames/Xbox360] Mass Effect 2 & 3 (95% and 85%)

The nice thing about the Holidays break is practicing “hygge” (a Danish term referring to cocooning), especially when it is cold outside and nights are long. What a appropriate time to dive into Mass Effect 2 and 3?  I loved the first Mass Effect (https://scientistabe.wordpress.com/2015/08/29/videogames-mass-effect-xbox360-95/) and I recently acquired the whole trilogy at once to keep my collection slick, yet I did not have time to play with Mass Effect 2 and 3. Since they are both connected, I decided to review both of them in the same time.

Plot:
The game starts sometimes after the original ME. Shepard is still onboard the Normandy, carrying on the usual job after taking care of Saren and taming the Reaper menace at the Citadel. If you remember, you saved the Citadel from Saren and brought on the threat of the Reapers and Geths on the table to the Council. Now with several members of the Council dead and the Citadel gravely destroyed, they finally got a taste of their own medicine and decided to increase the awareness on the Reapers.
Suddenly, a giant spacecraft (that will be later identified as the Collector base) coming out of nowhere blast through the Normandy and tearing it apart. In a swift move, Shepard throw Joker into an escape pod and send him into safety. With his space suit only, Shepard is sent into space and quickly suffocate from the lack of air.
A mysterious crew, under the flag of Cerberus, recover Shepard body and resuscitate him using a unknown technology called “The Lazarus Project”, a 2-year and 4 billion credit project that involved Miranda Lawson (a key teammate and romance partner) and medical officer Wilson. Two years elapsed and you wake up as Shepard amid the destruction of the medical station. Shepard get the help of Jacob Taylor (another selectable teammate) and officer Wilson, trying to escape the station. Just before able to escape the station, Miranda comes in and shoot Wilson, labelling him as traitor and escape the base to meet with the Illusive Man, the man behind Cerberus and also what will constitute “the man behind the curtain”. Nobody knows who he is, some people even question if he is a human being or a cyborg (due to his eyes). The Illusive Man acknowledge you of a particular mission: investigate the attack and disappearance of colonists on the Horizon colony from insectoid creatures nicknamed “Collectors” (such creatures are acting as harvesters for the Reapers). As you arrive and repeal the Reapers attack, you get a chance to reunite with Ashley Williams (from ME), only for a time that she appears surprised and skeptical of your affiliation with Cerberus. You learnt from Ashley that Cerberus is considered as a mercenary organization with shadow activities and questions your real intentions.
After this first mission, you get back into friendly waters. You get reunited with the Normandy SR2 spacecraft, a replica of the first Normandy equipped with EDI (an AI interface). It also hold Joker as the main pilot. During different missions, Shepard will recruit different members of his team including old friends as Tali  and Garrus (from ME), but also new characters including Mordin (a Salarian involved in the xenophage responsible of the Krogan genocide), Thane (a Drell Assassin that has some similarities with “The Crying Freeman” main character of the eponym manga), Jack (a human with supra-natural biotic abilities due to Miranda’s father experimentation on her), Samara (a Asari member of the Justicar order), Legion (a reprogrammed Geth that has separated  and Grunt (a Krogan warrior). As the team gets assembled, Shepard got knowledge of an abandoned Collector ship by the Illusive Man, such ship may provide the key to travel into the Omega 4 system. Turns out that this ship was a ambush but also that the Illusive Man was aware of such ambush and kept Shepard out of this critical information. Shepard learned from the Collector expedition that he needs an IFF to safely travel through the Omega 4 system.
While Shepard is looking for a IFF into a derelict Reaper, the Normandy is hijacked by Reapers, with Joker only the last person to escape the harvest. As Shepard heads back and find Joker alive, he decides to head to Omega 4 to rescue the Normandy personnel. After rescuing those that were alive and not turned into husks (Human-reaper hybrids), Shepard faces and destroy a Human-Reaper machine and the Collector base. As Shepard reports back to the Illusive Man, Reapers appears from remote places in the galaxy, bringing the cliffhanger to ME3.
ME3 starts six months after ME2, with Shepard detained in a futuristic Vancouver for his affiliation to Cerberus. As Shepard is informed by Anderson of the loss of communication with colonies of the solar system, a giant Reaper appears in the sky, breaking  havoc into Vancouver and bringing Hell on Earth. Shepard is reinstated in part of the Alliance, joined by Ashley and James. As Shepard heads to leave the solar system, Admiral Hackett ask Shepard to head first to Mars as Liara (another key character of the original ME) has found the blueprint of the “Crucible” an ancient Prothean superweapon that could defeat the Reapers. This expedition results in Ashley severely wounded and by the capture of “Eva Core”, a female Cerberus android with its own AI. EDI decides to integrate itself into this android, giving a physical appearance to EDI and accessory a girlfriend to Joker :).
The plots revolve in many battles on different planets against the Reapers to bring together the different alien races into the alliances. Some of them brings victory to their people (giving Tali and the quarians finally their planet back) but also a loss of several of these planets (Asari, Krogan and Turian). The plot resolve about two major items: fighting off Cerberus and gaining expertise and effort for the Alliance for the final battle.
The game ending follows the same trajectory: final assault on Cerberus HQ (with the killing of the Illusive Man’s henchman Kai Leng),  return on Earth as the Citadel warped over Earth and beamed through a devastated London, the attachment of the Crucible to the Citadel and the final encountering with the Catalyst: a child-like AI that is part of the Citadel and the creator of the Reapers. Your decision will result in slightly different endings: Controlling the Reapers, destroying the Reapers or blending synthetic and organic lives.
The ending sequence also let open for future iterations in the ME franchise.I don’t want to spoil it but after watching the ending sequence (and let the credit sequence scrolls!), it suddenly make more sense on how ME: Andromeda append to the trilogy.

Gameplay: Overall the gameplay is great, although I thought it was better in ME2. The UI is sleek and play as a FPS like ME. ME2 maintains the exploratory feature that was part of ME, with the Mako replaced by a small hovercraft in ME2. As a compensation, you can scan  planets for extracting minerals necessary for different upgrades during the game.
However, ME3 has greatly reduced this interactions, with no more scouting on planets and probing only for recovering artifacts. Another annoying issue I had with ME3 was the lack of trading options. In ME, you could sell your old guns. In ME3, it is no more the case, you have to spend your money on any weapons. ME2 was providing an array of different missions, whereas ME3 are pretty streamline, with very few relevant missions.
Another masterpiece of ME series is the soundtrack composed by Jack Wall (ME and ME2) and Clint Mansell (ME3), purely electronic and synthetic music, nicely matching with the futuristic theme that have this very “Daft Punk” sound. reminiscent of their audio work on “Tron: Legacy” and from the Moog synthesizers that were produced in the late 70s-early 80s. I have played the vanilla version, not much DLCs were added for a reason. First, to my biggest disappointment the Trilogy is not a “GOTY Edition” that includes the DLC, second I found outrageous that you have to pay top price for these DLCs even if they are 5+ years old, with no season pass available. Bad EA, bad! Lets put this aside and discuss the plot (ME2 and ME3 combined), again a very excellent plot although the ending was disappointing but still good.

Summary:
If you like 3rd person action shooter coupled with adventure, love SciFi and have been bathing in Star Trek universe and similar (Babylon 5, Serenity), you are missing something big. You should definitely grab your edition. If you can grab the trilogy, just go ahead and grab it as it will save you some $$$. However, also checkout in Gamestop clearance bins, you may save $$$ by buying them separately (ME3 was the cheapest of all three). For the DLCs, I am reluctant to pay for them. It is just outrageous that after 5 years, EA will charge you $ at top price for them and offer no season pass for getting all of them at decent price.

“This is Commander Shepard and this is my favorite Sci-Fi game trilogy on Xbox360”

[Videogames] Mass Effect: Andromeda gameplay footage

If there is a sci-fi game that I really enjoyed these last couple of years, it is certainly the  Mass Effect series (you can search and find my glowing review on Mass Effect a couple of years ago). It was providing the right amount of exploration, FPS and adventure within a single game, surfing on thematics that someone acclimatized to Star Trek or Babylon 5 would know.
The fourth installment, named Mass Effect: Andromeda has been a well-kept secret on the gaming experience. It marked a huge break in the franchise with the absence of Shepard (the main protagonist of the series) and the introduction of a new main character.
Bioware just released a couple of days ago a gameplay footage of the game scheduled to release in spring 2017. What I can tell, the game looks fantastic and really excite me to get back into it!  A huge feature of this game is apparently the planet exploration and terraforming, resources and crafting. The planet exploration was already part of the Mass Effect but was only superficially explored. Enjoy the video.

[Comics/Movies/Mangas/Videogames] Ama-Con 2016 #AMAcon16

Today was the first day of the Amarillo Comic-Con (#AMAcon16) also known as Ama-Con 2016. What makes that comic-con special? It is held and organized by the Amarillo Public Library. Who said that a public library has to be bored? I found this is a very nice way to have kids interested to read, to read anything because reading matter. Comics, mangas or novels, reading is best. It is also bringing some fun in Yellow City and it is a great getaway for the kids and have them pose with their favorite heroes cosplayed by motivated persons that spend a good amount of time and skills to get their costume sets. Some are super-impressive and I have to admit I felt a bit jealous to see how some folks are talented in costume crafting.

A nice thing about the Ama-Con is you have different sessions ongoing, between wandering around booths and buying some stuff (yeah I finally put my hand on some Saint Seiya stuff, I purchased a Mexican knock-off of Sirento Siren for those who knows from the Poseidon saga) but there were also some retrogaming tables with TVs and consoles plugged in (personal attack: I was fairly disappointed by the absence of any SEGA machines. SEGA does what Nintendon’t), coloring workshops and also some projections.
I attended two projections between the two busy days.
The first one (and the most heart wrenching) was the documentary “Thank you for playing” by David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall retracing the story behind the game “That Dragon, Cancer“created by Amy and Ryan Green, parents of Joel, an one-year old child suffering from a pediatric brain tumor. It was definitely emotional because of my point of view as a scientist and my exposure to brain tumors via some collaborations.
It is hard to watch it because you know as a father and as a scientist  what does it means and what are the odds of beating off that disease. The documentary is like an adventure game, where you have a quest, faces dead-ends and decision-making. I will spoil the game but I will not play it because I fear I could not tolerate the story. You see, the author explains that we see video games as an escape pod of our daily lives. But as I feel from the author, it helped the Dad in it to cope with his son condition and use this vector as a catharsis for his emotions and feelings. It is an example of how video games have been matured and are now more than just simply leisure activity but can help put words and actions into emotions and maybe help other parents deal with the same situation.
The second one was more cheerful (but also shortened up, due to some technical glitches) was a documentary about “Cosplay: building a secret identity“. This documentary was filming and following persons that make a living out of their hobbies and their talent in cosplaying. I am a very novice in the field but you had apparently some big names in the field and have some cameos like Grant Imahara (Mythbusters) describing his idea of cosplay, but also other average people showing their passions and dedications. One of them was this mommy cosplayer that has been cosplaying as Miranda from Mass Effect 2. Honestly, it was fairly impressive to see “an amateur” being able to reproduce a virtual costume into reality.
It is simply amazing to see how many have being doing it purely from a “self-taught” and didactic point of view, without attending any art schools of having a B.A. and still almost play equals with seasoned and trained persons that make this for a living.
In my culture, being a nerd is considered taboo and almost a sign of mental disorder. You are expected to show virility and a form of machoism in your daily life. If you are still nurturing any form of culture (taste of music, hobbies…..), you are considered as immature and not-serious.
Yet, I feel my nerdiness is part of my social fabric, as part of being a scientist. Seeing how the cosplay is a well-accepted hobby in the US, with kids and grown-ups alike, even grown-grown-ups having a skin in the game, being a sort of relieving activity. This weekend I finally decided to take the dive in, building my first cosplay with my modest means and my blatant lack of handcrafting skills.
I have uploaded some pictures I have taken during the two days of the convention. I am not an expert, all where taken with my iPhone in a snap, asking the interested persons if they would not mind a picture taken.

[Videogames] Bioshock: The Collection (Remastered) coming this september on XB1, PS4 and PC.

2K games just announced a very good surprise that was a long speculation: a remastered edition of Bioshock series (including the original Bioshock, Bioshock 2 and Infinite) for current generation consoles and PC.
It will be a pleasure to dive again into the Rapture and rediscover a game with a groundbreaking story, critical decision-making and a remarkable gameplay experience.
“A man chooses……..a slave obeys”. “Would you kindly?”

Source: Remastered BioShock: The Collection Coming September 13, 2016 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC

[Videogames][Retrogaming] Happy 30th Birthday Sega Master System

Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the SEGA Master System, the first video game system that was distributed by SEGA outside Japan (there was the SEGA SG1000 before the Master System and the Japanese version was named the SEGA Mark III).
For me it was my first love with the 8-bits consoles post-Atari (my first console I got my hands on was the Atari 2600 when I was 4). It was through my BFF that I got introduced. It was the console of the misfits, the console of the nerds, the console of the alternative when everyone was mainstream with the “Nintendo Entertainment System”. What made it so special? I have my bunch of reasons.
Firstly, the colors. You can argue as you want but the color on the NES were fairly ugly despite having a palette of 54 colors. The Sega Master System had 32 colors with 64 colors using a raster effect. The problem with game licenses were kind of having the right cards in your hands, but some editors have published in both consoles. Lets see the comparison of Double Dragon between NES and Master System:

Secondly the sound chip. I found the SEGA sound system much more appreciable on the ear than the NES. Being greeted by the SEGA Master System was an enjoyable experience: 
If you were in Japan or having a Japanese SEGA, some versions were greeted with the Space Harrier theme:

What I really despised is the decision to remove the FM Synthesizer from the US and European version of the Master System and was sold separately as an FM Module. To give an idea of what we missed, there is a video comparing the same game without and with the FM Synthesizer:

It makes such a big difference, that makes the gaming experience even more enjoyable.
Thirdly, the games proposed. Yes, Nintendo was all about Mario and Zelda, as well as Castlevania. Yes, Alex Kidd never reached the cult status of Mario. But if like me you grew up playing on coin-op games, arcade games (back in my days it was during carnivals and fairs we had a chance to play arcade games), this was the console you wanted to have. All SEGA hits built on the System 1/16 and the subsequent different iterations (Shinobi, Golden Axe, Altered Beast, After Burner, Out Run, Space Harrier, Super Thunderblade, Hang On, Fantasy Zone…..) as well as third-parties that have dual licenses such as Taito (Rastan), Irem (R-Type, Vigilante) it was back then the only way to play these games at home.
Another remarkable thing is the popularity of the SEGA Master System in Europe, in particularly in France. Here is a French commercial from 1989/1990 when the SEGA Master System sales was full-sail: http://www.ina.fr/video/PUB3784122096. It was fairly popular that one TV game show called “Le Chevalier Du Labyrinthe” was offering a SEGA Master System as a prize:

If I have to put a game list I really loved to play on the Master System (arcade ports excluded, I would recommend the arcade version through MAME), here would be my list:
Alex Kidd in Miracle World
Astro Warrior/Pit Pot
Golden Axe Warrior
Phantasy Star
Fantasy Zone II: the Maze
Ys Adventure
Asterix

Nowadays, the SEGA Master System can be found. I have starting collecting my consoles here in the US (and plan to migrate my collection from France to the US next time I travel back to France). What I can tell? The price are going high fairly crazy, I believe we have a generation of retrogress now getting into full age and with the $$$ to afford it. I am scouting the Goodwill bid site (www.shopgoodwill.com) and the Master System naked (no games) are easily going for $60-100 especially if it is complete in box (CIB). I am not even not talking about the version 2 that is probably go even higher. To give you an idea, Goodwill got this stuff donated and in a regular store it would have been gone for $5-10 as is. I feel Goodwill found a way to make some easy money on folks. Games usually range between $5-10/game but I have seen some lot going to $100 (like Phantasy Star). If you like some exotic variants, you should go visit Brazil where SEGA under the distribution by TecToy got a real popularity there and even Brazilian-specific games.

[Videogames] Mass Effect (Xbox360) – 95%

There are sometimes you buy some games in a clearance bin at your nearby video game store, simply because it is cheap and feel “well if it is bad, I would not have spend much money on it”. But sometimes its end up like a book. You picked up because of the cover, start to read it……and BANG you are stuck with it for a few days!
Mass Effect is exactly this kind of game. It went completely under my radar for various reasons and thought it was an “Halo-like” FPS, brainless game. See, target, shoot neural circuit loop. Indeed with this one I was plain wrong. Man, this game was a complete delight to play. Knowing Bioware from Baldur’s Gate and from Star Wars: Knight of the old Republic (KOTOR) if you were in the PC gaming back in the end 1990s, you know the staple of this studio: pieces of well-crafted engaging RPGs.
I will not talk too much about the plot but you are Jack Shepard from the Alliance, a distant future (2138, I would rather say 5138 because I don’t see how we will get into this level of technology in a bit more than 100 years). You start the game with a first mission to investigate the loss of communication with a Earth colony base in a planet. Of course, things get quickly sour and you face the threat of a enemy thought dead, the Geths. You quickly realize that these Geth are under the control of Saron, a renegade Spectre (something equivalent to Navy Seals, when you want to solve discrete international crisis without having to deal with the diplomatic channel) that capture an ancient technology from the Prothean, a ET race disappeared 50’000 years ago in an apocalyptic manner. You can imagine having a doomsday technology in the hand of a renegade.
You start the story pursuing Saron but you also discover the great depth of this game. This is not a game, this is an interactive movie in which you have to make decision that will affect the storytelling. After your arrival at the Citadel, the central headquarters hosting the Council, a honorary council made of aliens seeing humans a “second-class citizens”, you have to face the challenges of politics, the revolving backdoors and intrigues linked to such governance. You have to accomplish quests that further deploy some dirty games of politics including corruption, conflict of interests, influence. You also have to deal with the underworld of such system made scoundrels, spies, hackers.
It is very captivating as you read the story slowly unfolding that I feel very similar to those who like “Star Trek” or have been watching “Babylon 5”. Decisions and verbal tones in dialogues (through an ingenious wheel of dialogue) really affect the outcomes.
In addition to this aspect and the action of the game (a well designed team-based FPS), you have also a whole universe open to explore. You can travel to galaxies, systems and planets. In some aspects in you ever played “Starflight” before, you have the same feeling of exploration, planet survey, mineral harvesting, artifacts discovering.
I played this game for a good two weeks, spending my nights and weekends on it. It was truly a great experience. This game came during the early days of the Xbox360 (it came somewhere in 2008) and in 2015 it felt still very fresh and modern, although you can feel the Xbox struggling to keep on frame rates for certain scenes.
If you love science-fiction with extraterrestrial exploration, complicated storyline plots and never played this game, you should. I would even recommend to directly invest in the trilogy package if you have ever have a chance to put your hands on. I have to take some break for the next few weeks (teaching and grant writing season kicked in) but I already eye on “Mass Effect 2” to continue the story plot, as “Mass Effect” ending only opened up a new story to read.