Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Game Review: Uncharted 2

I had a great idea for a blog post yesterday. I can't for the life of me remember it now. Wish I had written it down. Oh well, perhaps later it'll hit me.

Anyway, in an attempt to not completely neglect this blog, I decided to write something. So I'm going to do a quick rave about Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

I do not own a PS3. I have a 360 and have enjoyed it very much, though I've been a Sony fanboy since 1995 (PS1 release). I'm not fanatical about either system at this point. However, I will say this: Sony managed to nail the single most impressive game I've ever seen as an exclusive to their console.

I realize I'm behind the times on this. The game's been out for quite a while, and it even won game of the year in December's VGAs (Video Game Awards). So this is not exactly news. However, a friend of mine got it a couple months ago and, after playing it through entirely in one weekend on his own, invited me over so he could watch me play through it entirely again.

I can't remember the last time I've been this impressed by a game. I think it'd have to be Final Fantasy VII, which completely redefined presentation and story telling in RPGs (with amazing CG cutscenes, 3D graphics, beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds - it was a feast for the eyes at the time). In the over 12 years since I first booted up FF7 in December of 1997 I haven't been this jaw-droppingly-impressed by any game. Yes, there have been some awesome games since then. Metal Gear Solid (1 and 2), Final Fantasy X and XII, and Gears of War have all had amazing art direction and presentation. I might give God of War credit for truly filling the gap from Final Fantasy VII to Uncharted 2, but that's it.

Uncharted 2 sets an entirely new standard for games - one that no other game seems to even approach. I'm actually fairly angry at the game: so often now, I play something and can't help but think, "Man, this is cool, but nothing compared to Uncharted 2." The best games of this past year (Arkham Asylum, Modern Warfare 2, and Assassin's Creed II) can't hold a candle to Uncharted 2's presentation. Truly, there has never been a game this close to a real action movie. Sony runs an awesome ad where a guy complains that his girlfriend watches him play Uncharted 2 because she thinks it's a movie. That is truth in advertising folks - I've seen it happen with wives and even parents. It's really that good.

What makes the game that amazing? Honestly, the mechanics of the general game aren't all that astounding. The cover-and-shoot gunplay is fine, but not as good as Gears of War. The hand-to-hand combat is super simple and looks like Final Fight next to Arkham Asylum. The climbing segments are nice, but not nearly as smooth as Assassin's Creed II. The puzzles are...well, kinda crap, and definitely don't compare to the good puzzle games like Ico or Braid. Even the pacing is a little odd, bouncing back and forth from crazy gunplay to long, drawn-out climbing segments. So what's so great about this game that I'm just rabidly raving?

Simply put, it's the presentation. Never has a game had voice acting, animation, mocap, set design, cinematic gameplay, or just plain scenery as amazing as this game. It truly feels like a big budget Hollywood film. There are incredible action sequences that had me laughing giddily. There is a decent, if somewhat convoluted, plot that is played out by professional actors with strong writing behind them. The game is wildly entertaining, from snarky quips to crazy explosions to drop-dead gorgeous set pieces. I was at one point climbing along a speeding train with bullets whizzing by my head, and I got distracted looking at a mountain off in the distance.

Truly, no other game has gotten me as excited about the future of this industry as this one. The budget for it was probably astronomical (the credits list looks like a Peter Jackson film), and we'll likely only be treated to a game or two of this caliber a year given recent sticking points in the industry with pricing and financial models. But if we can get even one Uncharted 2 every few years we will be very lucky indeed.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ambiguous Language 101

George Carlin liked to look at language and point out amusing inconsistencies. In one routine, he mused (slightly paraphrased and edited for our younger readers):

"'Get on the plane,' the attendant said. 'Get on the plane?' I replied. 'Screw you, I'm getting in the plane!'"

Well, over the past 2 weeks I ran a plane-language (ha, ha ha...) poll and got a whopping 13 votes (which would be almost all of my readers!). The question was:

"You're getting on a bus or a plane. There are two seats on one side of the aisle. The person you're with says she wants to sit on the outside. What seat does she want?"

The possible answers are aisle or window. Much to my surprise, I was significantly out-voted on this one 9 - 4 (or, well, 9 - 3 if you don't count my own vote!) in favor of the aisle. This is not something I look forward to admitting to my wife, who insisted that she clearly wanted the aisle seat when she said she wanted to sit on the outside.

I've conducted this survey with a number of people in person, and it seemed to almost be a male/female split in responses. May have just been a coincidence at the time, but it's certainly an interesting question to ask a group of people, if for no other reason that you're almost sure to get different replies and yet have everyone be rather certain that they're right. Of course, it's purely a question of perspective - are we talking about the outside of the seating arrangement (where one seat is against a wall and the other free to move), or the outside of the plane?

I'm going to put up another poll today and run it for a week - will be interesting to see how this one goes too. :)

Poll Results:

Saturday, January 16, 2010

You Need A Minty-fresh Budget

So, this article is one of the first articles I wanted to do when I started up my blog, but it seemed like a waste when no one was reading it. Now, with a double-digit number of readers, I think it's finally time to do a legit, useful advice column! Also, as a preface, none of the links given in here are referral links and I make nothing off of people signing up - this is purely a personal, honest recommendation from a user of this software.

About a year ago, I realized that I had no idea what my money was doing. I maintained a positive balance in my bank and paid my bills, so things were doing fine, but I had no idea why they were fine. I couldn't tell you how much I was spending on food or what I had set aside to buy video games with. It was entirely fly-by-your-seat-and-hope-for-the-best money management. Frankly, this was fine in college. By the time I got a wife and a house though, it became apparent that we could be on the brink of bankruptcy and I'd have no idea.

I set out on a quest to figure out how to deal with my money. In this process, I went through a lot of financial software, both free and paid, and read a lot of reviews, attempting to figure out the best way that I could manage my personal money (I would not recommend this to businesses). In the end, I discovered a two-pronged approach that is absolutely perfect for me.

The first tine of my fork of budget-management (not really sure where I was going with that metaphor...) is, an entirely free online financial aggregator. If you only have one bank account and no other assets or debts, and never use a credit card, then isn't really needed. However, I had a number of bank accounts (joined with my wife's personal ones) as well as a mortgage, a Paypal account, and a credit card. very slickly combines all of this financial data into a single webpage.

It's quite brilliant, really. You just give login credentials to their (secure) server, it checks for recent activity automatically, and always keeps all of your accounts up to date. It has excellent charts and graphs and combines your spending trends across all accounts, making it much easier to see where your money has gone. In case you're worried about security, this is a venture-backed, industry-reviewed, recently-acquired-by-Intuit company. If nothing else, if things go wrong there are big companies with lots of money that you can sue. :) One quick word of warning - some banks apparently charge a fee for "electronic access" to account info. I mentioned this in a previous blog post, but Wachovia charges me $6 a month for to check the data. Suntrust on the other hand doesn't charge a dime. Just make sure you keep an eye on it.

However, as great as is as collecting all of my data (and insisting that I'm worth less than nothing since it deducts my mortgage from my net worth...sigh...), it doesn't help me much with budgeting. Basically, it's great at looking backward, but very weak at looking forward. (I'm sure users/employees will point out that there is a budgeting widget in, but I'll respond that it is woefully inadequate, especially compared to what I'm about to discuss).

So, you need a budget. No, seriously, You Need A Budget, also known as YNAB for short. In my search for a budget, I kept coming across YNAB being mentioned here and there, with really good reviews. I checked out their website and, honestly, it looked like a cheap scam. So I ignored it for a while. But it kept coming up, including an incredible, glowing consensus review on (please note, I give that link only to show the reviews - that is the old version and no longer sold). I bit the bullet and downloaded the demo. Turns out it wasn't a cheap scam, just a victim of bad website design (an ailment that has been recently fixed, or at least improved). I was immediately hooked.

First off, this is not free software. The new version, YNAB 3, retails for $59.95, and is currently in beta. I've already purchased my copy and am in the beta stage with it, and it's a fantastic piece of software. Secondly, if you're a spreadsheet wizard, you can do most of what is offered here (in fact, the original version was sold as an Excel Spreadsheet file). Not all of it, but by and large most. That said, this is a very slick piece of software that pushes you into good spending/saving habits and makes you adjust yourself when you miss your targets. It is simple, easy to use, and very effective. There's also a large and helpful forum of users that the YNAB creator is surprisingly active in.

The basic idea, like most budget software, is to use a modified "envelope system", where all of your money each month is put into a labeled envelope for a particular purpose. Thanks to this setup, I can now tell you exactly how much I budget for eating out, groceries, fun money, clothing, vacations, internet, water, etc. every month. I know where my money is going, and that is incredibly liberating. It lets me spend my "fun money" without feeling guilty or worried that it might cause me to not be able to eat one day, because the money is already allocated for that purpose.

The new version of YNAB is quite cool, with a few significant improvements over the previous edition. The biggest for me is the move to Adobe Air, which means it is OSX-compatible now (no more booting into Parallels to do my budget - whoo!). Beyond that, it has a nicer interface and much better reporting tools. There are a few other improvements too, including some nice tools for splitting transactions and dealing with reimbursements, but either way it looks solid (with a few minor bugs here and there, but heck, it's still in beta).

The one downside to YNAB 3 is that it isn't It doesn't automatically grab all of your financial transactions and enter them into the register. It can import summary files from your financial institutions if you wish, but I actually prefer entering them by hand anyway - it's my version of balancing my checkbook and making sure there aren't any surprising charges. This is where my title comes from - and YNAB play along very well. I pull up, go through the transactions, and enter them into YNAB. It's a therapeutic experience for me - I spend a few hours a month, go through all the numbers, balance everything out, and see how we did. I'll admit, it wouldn't be as much fun if you were having financial difficulty, but it'd be all the more important.

Using these two tools, for a grand total of a one-time $60 fee, I'm able to know exactly where my money is, what I have saved up, and what I can spend on everything. I have much greater control over my finances and would heartily recommend this solution to anyone. Please leave comments if you have any questions - I'd be happy to help!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Google HAXORZ!11!!

I wonder how many people have done a double-take at this headline:

Hmm, I've got to figure out how to format this blog to be a little wider... Anyway, the full title reads "Google Hackers Targeted Source Code of More Than 30 Companies".

"Google is hacking other companies?!" No, the hackers that hacked Google also hit other companies. But this title really crosses the line from ambiguous to misleading. I can't believe a Wired editor didn't notice that one - even the second comment on the page has already mentioned the goof.

In any case, the real story is actually rather interesting - Google is making some bold, high-integrity moves. Check it out on the Google blog post.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My first Flash game release (no, not CellCraft)

So, after sitting on this game for, sheesh, months I guess, I finally decided just to put it out there and see what happens. Right now it is only released on, though I intend to push it out to a number of other big portals to see what happens.

The game itself was primarily an experiment, written over a few weekends to become more familiar with AS3. I don't have high hopes for it - the game is pretty shallow and won't hold interest for more than a few minutes for most users. But heck - it doesn't bring any entertainment to anyone just sitting on my harddrive, so I published it. Also, I've implemented Mochi's APIs so I can learn about how they work and what kind of tools, stats, and CPM I can gain with Mochi's services.

Anyway, if anyone wants to check it out, it's currently up here: I decided to make a new account called PecProductions, rather than unfairly leveraging my Phoenix00017 account on Kongregate. Check it out, give it a 2/5 as it probably deserves, and leave a comment. :) Also, thank you to FuzzyBacon for helping with alpha/beta testing on it!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Personal insults from the banking industry

So yeah - I'm working on doing my budget (I'll be doing a blog post about that soon with some recommendations on financial software) and I just entered the interest that we earned on our checking account. After seeing the number, and doing a quick bit of division, I decided I needed to blog about it. Yes, it was that bad.

I understand that times are tough and interest rates are down. Fine. However, let me give some background on this account. We have a mortgage through Suntrust on our townhouse. In exchange for owning our soul, they offered us a premier, "interest-bearing" checking account as a sort of consolation gift / we-want-more-of-your-soul gesture. I happily accepted their offer, figuring that moving all of our money into an interest-bearing checking account instead of my current non-interest-bearing account was a clear win. Instead, it turned out to be an insulting smack in the face.

How can giving me free money be insulting? In the same way that leaving a one-penny tip for a waiter is insulting. If the amount is small enough, it is an attack on my intelligence to call it interest. I calculated my monthly interest rate to be roughly 0.002%, or annually about 0.024%. So, if I had $10,000 in my "interest-bearing" account, I would receive about $0.20 a month, for a whopping $2.40 a year in interest. Carry that out a few more decimals, and a million dollars nets you only $240 a year in interest. That's just...amazing.

On a similar note, this is the same company that, after taking out a mortgage for the full price of a house, sent me a dollar bill to convince me to fill out a survey for them. A freaking dollar. Wow, geez - I just signed away tens of thousands of dollars to you guys, and you want to bribe me with a dollar to fill out a little survey? How 'bout you keep your lousy dollar and put it towards my principle? Seriously, does that type of thing actually sway people to fill out surveys? $10, sure. $5, maybe. But $1? It actually put me in a worse mood while looking at the survey. I wonder if their average survey response would increase if they didn't offer an insultingly-low bribe with it?

Anyway, I was ticked off and wanted to rant, which is the primary reason I got this blog. That, and apparently to neglect it - thank you to the few readers who have prodded me to write more articles. Hopefully I'll get a bit more regular about it in the future. :)

I'll say this for Suntrust though: they're not nearly as bad as Wachovia, who decided that they were going to charge me $6 a month to check my account status with a website. Yes, in order to get a few kilobytes downloaded on the web I have to fork over a $6 electronic access fee, per month. I can get...Amazon Prime free 2-day shipping for the same price. Holy crap - that's ridiculous. Get with the...90's, Wachovia. Seriously, that's just sad - I'll be closing my account with you guys very soon.

Also, just a few days ago my wife hit me and informed me that it was for something I did in October. I had no idea what was going on. She just now clued me in that apparently it was from my October 13 blog post where I said she was "kinda" a person/follower. Yeah, a smack from 3 months ago. That's entirely reasonable...

I've also added my first poll to the blog. Check it out on the right side near the top. I'm quite curious to see how it goes. :)