Monthly Archives: September 2010

Civilization 5: Build an empire to stand the test of time?

Tiffany,

I can still remember the day that I purchased my first computer. It was a very happy day, indeed! It was a white Packard Bell with a 386 processor, 120 megabytes of memory and two floppy disc drives. The fan was louder than hell and the machine took forever to load up, but I loved it dearly. Of course, having a computer meant that I had to purchase computer games to play. One day, my mom and I took a trip into Portland to do some shopping. We ended up at Lloyd Center, one of the city’s shopping centers. I was on a mission to find accessories for my computer, and find them, I did!

As I perused the shelves of the game store looking for a game, I came across Sid Meier’s Civilization. I carefully examined the box and read every bit of text on both the front and back covers – I was especially careful to make sure that the game would run on my system. Tiffany, you might not know this about me, but I tend to look at items I want to purchase multiple times before I actually decide to purchase it. And, this was no different. I must have looked at the game at least three times before my mom and I were ready to leave the mall. But, on the way out to the car I had a shopping bag in hand with Civilization tucked inside waiting to be played.

Box art for the original Civilization

When I got into the car, the first thing I did was unwrap the game. Back in those days, computer games came in insanely huge boxes. So, unwrapping them actually took a bit of effort. The first thing I noticed in the box was the game manual. It was easily over 100 pages long and at that moment the words of the store clerk who sold me game came to mind: make sure you have some time to dedicate to this game, because you’re going to need it! He wasn’t kidding.

We lived about an hour and half away from Portland, so on the way home I had plenty of time to read through the manual in the car. The more I read, the more excited I was to play this new game. And, when I finally got to play Civilization, it did not disappoint. My experience playing Civilization sparked a romance with PC gaming that has lasted more years than I care to disclose.

I have played every version of Civilization that has been released. I have enjoyed some more than others, but each new iteration of the game has sparked my love of the series and rekindles my romance with PC games in general. So, it was no surprise to me that on the day Civilization V was released, I greedily snatched up a copy. Tiffany, that was after we had lunch together and went shopping, remember?

Civilization V box art

When I opened up Civ V, I was taken back to the day I opened the original Civilization game. Unlike the original game, Civilization V didn’t have any game manual whatsoever. Nothing. A fold out map of the technologies you can research was included, but I’ve never found those very useful. Who has the time and space to unfold a poster-sized technology tree for a video game? And, would you really want to? What would your neighbors think? It’s just not sexy.

No friends, this isn't sexy either.

Now, the death of the video game manual is nothing new, but for a gamer who has been an avid supporter of this series since its inception, it feels like I am being cheated. After all, no game is so simple as to not need a manual. And, for first-time players, providing a game manual is the least the developers could do. Besides, I feel like not including a game manual is just cheap ploy to get me to purchase a cheesy strategy guide. Yeah, well, I am not buying it.

But, enough about manuals – on to the game. My intent here is not to provide a comprehensive review of the game. Rather, I wish to share some general observations on some of the game features and mechanics. Hopefully my observations will spur a conversation in the comments section (hint, hint). Civilization V has made a number of changes to the series – some good, some not so good. The first, and most obvious change players will find is that they have changed the grid on the map from square tiles to hexagons. This allows more freedom of movement with your units and adds a level of strategy to the military component of the game.

Furthermore, they have instituted a new system that only allows players to occupy one military unit per tile (1UPT). This prevents players from amassing huge armies (or ‘stacks of doom’ as they are often called) on one tile. This system is a great idea in theory, but in game terms it’s not all that great. While the new 1UPT system adds a chess-like strategy component to the military game, the computer AI is unable to use the system effectively. In fact, I have found military conquest in Civ V to be easier than in previous versions of the game. This is highly unfortunate given that Civ V tends to focus more on the military aspect of the game and drives players down a path of playing a military conquest  game, rather than a cultural or diplomatic game.

Indeed, what is culture Comic Book Guy? Civ V has me wondering.

Civ V’s military strategy also disappoints in that any land unit now has the ability to transform itself into a boat and sail around the world. There is no more need to build troop transports in order to move units across the ocean. To this, all I have to say is WTF? In previous versions of Civ, it used to be fun to back up and corner enemy units along the coastline. Now, that level of strategy is obsolete since any unit is ‘more than meets the eye’ and can transform into boats faster than you can say ‘Autobots, transform!’.

I'm a cannon, now I'm a boat! Wait, now I am Optimus Prime!

Graphically, there have been a number of changes to the game as well. I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the game’s graphics, but the game is much more stylized than any of its predecessors. For that, I have to give the game props. The game takes on an art-deco feel and for the most part, the style works well for the series – and being a gay guy who likes old Hollywood, I can dig it. The actual game map is a bit of a disappointment, however. Colors are muted, textures such as trees that were once animated 3-D objects in Civ IV are now painted and lifeless. Roads and railroads also render poorly and don’t flow in a logical fashion. Furthermore, cities that are built near water tiles will often place buildings on water tiles. In one game, I had a city build a colosseum in the middle of the ocean. It was like having Lex Luthor and his cronies at the Hall of Doom lurking right outside my city waiting to spring a surprise attack. So, while I approve of the art-deco approach, the game has a number of graphical bugs that are simply unacceptable for a world-class franchise like Civilization.

I think I speak for myself, don't you?

In conjunction with the art-deco graphical style, Civ V has created a more streamlined user interface (UI) that I want to like, but ultimately find myself continually frustrated with. While I appreciate their attempts to not overload the player with too much data, the developers have ended up providing the player with not nearly enough information. For example, statistics on rival civilizations are almost impossible to find and city management is over-simplified to the point of not being enjoyable. Managing your budget, happiness and production have are now mostly automated or largely dependent upon what city improvement you build.  However, it’s not always clear exactly how these new mechanics work. Additionally, trying to access information on what world wonders have been built, what rival civilizations think of you, and what the top cities of the world are have been completely eliminated from the game. That’s like, so not cool, man!

There are a number of other issues I could discuss, but the last one I will mention is diplomacy. In short, the diplomatic functions included in the game don’t seem to work, and some diplomatic functions are strangely absent. For example, you can no longer trade technologies with rival civilizations. This particular function was one I often use as a player because it’s a great way to bolster up weaker rival civilizations when they are threatened by larger, more powerful ones. Further, in Civ V I have gone to war with many civilizations who will, on the turn following a peace treaty with me, ask to form a pact of cooperation with me. That’s like if Gargamel were to one day suddenly have a change of heart and become best friends with the Smurfs. It simply isn’t going to happen.

No, really! I want to be friends now, seriously!!

All told, I think Civ V has a long road ahead. While it does incorporate some unique changes to the game, it fails to deliver on some very basic levels. While the new hex system, military combat system, and streamlined UI all have potential to make Civ V a great gaming experience, those features simply fail to deliver a gaming experience that is fun, interactive, and sustainable. Additionally, diplomacy and interactions with rival civilizations is simply an unenjoyable experience. Negotiations with civilizations are rarely satisfactory and players never know what the long-term consequences of those negotiations are.

Hey Civ developers, did you hire Obama to program your AI? Just curious.

I have been keeping a close eye on the forums over at Civfanatics. It appears that Civ V has polarized the Civilization fanbase in a number of ways and that I am not the only one left scratching my head in disbelief. Many seem to love it, and many, like myself, are not yet sold. The potential here is great, but I can’t help feel like the game, in its current state, is incomplete. So although my love of the series continues to be strong, I must admit I am disappointed.

Undoubtedly there will be patches and expansion packs to come. With that in mind, in what direction should Civilization V go next?

Update: Steam just finished downloading the latest patch the game. Can’t wait to see what’s new!

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OMD and the meaning of music; part 2

Tiffany,

When we last left our hero, (me) I was just getting ready to listen to ‘History of Modern’, the new OMD album, for the very first time. I had my headphones on and a fresh cup of coffee in hand. For this blog entry, I had planned on writing a track by track review of the album, but I have found the process incredibly difficult to do. Instead, I’ve decided to share some general thoughts and impressions.

Of course, it goes without saying that my biggest fear in buying this album is that it would suck. Let’s be honest, how often do our favorite bands from our youth tend to get worse with age? Even worse, how many of them don’t seem to recognize that fact? I am still recovering from the atrocity that is Duran Duran’s worst selling record of all time, Red Carpet Massacre. Duran Duran goes ‘urban’? I think not. Anyway, I wondered if after 14 years, would OMD still be able to make good music?

The first day I listened to ‘History of Modern’ I listened to it over and over again – each time listening more and more closely to each track, each arrangement and every note. The more I listened, the happier I became that my old friend had not only returned, but had returned in top form. Truth be told, ‘History of Modern’ ranks highly among the other albums in OMD’s glorious discography. In fact, it’s arguably their best album since ‘Architecture and Morality’ was released in the early ’80s. That’s saying a lot.

History of Modern promo shot of OMD's Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey

‘History of Modern’ opens with a raw, energetic number called ‘New Babies: New Toys‘. After I listened to this song, any doubts I had about OMD still being able to write and record quality music quickly disappeared. It blends edgy guitars and buzzing synth melody that knocks your socks off. It’s a side of OMD that is rarely seen, but it’s a fucking fantastic side! In my opinion, it should be a single – it’s simply that good.

Paul Humphreys

What I like most about this album is that OMD are true to their roots, but the album is very modern – this is not completely about nostalgia. This is not 1982 take two. At times, the album is experimental with songs like ‘New Holy Ground‘ that use the sound of a woman walking in heels as the beat, and the gorgeous, eight-minute long ‘The Right Side?‘. At other times with songs like ‘The Future, the Past and Forever After‘ and ‘Sister Marie Says‘ the album is just the damn good, unapologetic pop music that OMD is known for.

Andy McCluskey

Andy McCluskey

For me, one of the things I love most about OMD is their use of choir oohs and aahs. I simply melt at what these men can do with a choir sample. And, in that respect, ‘History of Modern’ doesn’t disappoint, either. OMD’s use of choirs on this album is in many ways more inventive and beautiful than on any of their previous releases. For proof of this, one need look no further than ‘History of Modern (part 2)‘ and ‘The Right Side?’; both are simply stunning pieces of art.

OMD

All told, the new OMD album is a triumphant return for one of the most innovative bands in the electronic music movement. They are a band that has played an enormously important role in my life. They inspire, they rekindle fond memories of friends and my grandfather, and I will always be indebted to them. Welcome back, friends!

OMD and the meaning of music; part 1

Tiffany,

I talked a little bit last week about the release of the new OMD album, ‘History of Modern’, but would like to spend a bit more time talking about OMD today.

The music of OMD has played a number of important roles in my life over the years. For me, OMD is not so much about music as it is about an entire experience. I will do my best to explain what I mean by that in this post. I mentioned before that I first fell in love with OMD when the movie ‘Pretty in Pink‘ came out. Their song ‘If you leave’ was one of the standout tracks on the movie’s soundtrack, and was a huge radio hit here in America. For some reason, I remember riding the bus home from school with that song playing on the radio. I thought to myself that ‘If you leave’ was one of the coolest songs I had ever heard. To this day, I still think that is true – it’s a prefect pop song.

OMD's 'If you leave'

I later reconnected with the band around 1993 when they released their ‘Liberator‘ album. That particular record is not one of my OMD favorites, but it was good enough to rekindle my romance with the band. At that point, I began to purchase any and all OMD records I didn’t already have. Finding the album ‘Pacific Age’ turned out to be a particular challenge given that the album had been deleted by the record company. But, on a weekend home from college I was dumbfounded when I found it searching in a discount bin at a K-Mart of all places. Probably the only think K-Mart has been good for…well, that and Martha Stewart!

When I was on campus at the University of Portland, I spent many Saturday afternoons at my favorite record store in Portland (2nd Ave Records) searching through boxes and boxes of LPs and CDs trying to find rare or imported OMD albums. My heart would leap with joy when I would find something new. I must admit that there was an element of rivalry in this, too. My friend Joel and I both loved the same bands and we would often try to ‘one up’ each other with our latest finds. In fact, the rivalry was such that the staff at 2nd Ave Records began to recognize me as ‘that OMD guy’. I would like to think my enthusiasm for the band was charming to them.

OMD's 'Everyday' - One of many 2nd Ave finds!

It was also during this time that I remember hanging out one day in Portland with two of my old best friends from High School; Jacob and Josh. We were blasting OMD’s ‘Dollar Girl’ in Jacob’s car as we cruised down the avenue. Jacob and Josh didn’t really like the same kind of music as me, but they let me have my moment and I loved it: the bass was pumping and we didn’t have a care in the world. Sadly, a few short months later, Jacob unexpectedly passed away. I will always remember that time in his car together as one of my fondest memories. To this day, I often think of him and Josh when I listen to that song.

In 1996 I took a vacation to visit my grandparents in Long Beach California (my birthplace, by the way). This was shortly after my father had passed away. One day, my grandfather and I spent our time record shopping together. He was big fan of classical music, movie soundtracks and being a Scot, traditional Scottish music. We went to many music stores on our journey, having long conversations about music as we went from shop to shop. He took my interest in music more seriously than anyone else. And, as luck would have it, that day in the Virgin Megastore in Newport turned out to be a goldmine of finds for me. There, sitting in the import bin was a copy of OMD’s latest album ‘Universal‘. I eagerly snatched it up along with copies of the album’s debut single ‘Walking on the Milky Way’ and couldn’t wait to get back to my grandparents house to hear the new album. Little did I know at the time that ‘Universal’ would be OMD’s last album until this year’s ‘History of Modern’.

OMD's 'Universal'

I was devastated when OMD retired after Universal failed to generate the commercial buzz the band had hoped for. I had not realized just how important they had become to me. I was a young guy trying to figure himself out: who was I? Was I gay? What did I believe in? Was it ok to be me? Why did my father have to die? I didn’t know the answers to any of those questions. But, I all knew was that when I put on an OMD record all my problems melted away. All I felt was music – glorious music!

Even though OMD had retired, I continued my hunt for rare OMD material and continued to play their records with just as much passion. I felt like I had won the lottery when I purchased a deleted copy of OMD’s single ‘Sailing on the Seven Seas’ because the word ‘Orchestral’ had been misspelled as ‘Orchstral’ on the spine of the CD. I treated each new purchase as prized possession and I cherished every new b-side track I found as if it were a rare gemstone.

Front Cover of OMD's Ltd. Edition CD single 'Sailing on the Seven Seas'

In the meantime, I began writing my own electronic music on my computer. I would sit in the dark and listen to OMD songs over and over again and ask myself ‘how the hell did they do THAT?’ and then do my best to figure it out on my computer. For years I have been tinkering away at my computer trying to write an OMD song but always failing. Whenever I sit down to write, OMD is always in the back of my head and I am always trying to emulate them. I will never write anything as good as OMD, I am simply not that talented; but, I sure do enjoy trying.

During 2005 when it was announced that OMD would be reuniting, I was a like a compass near north. At that time, the band expected only to tour together, not write. But, words can not describe the emotion I felt when I heard the band had decided to return to the studio and write a new record. It was as if a long lost friend who had helped me through some really tough times was returning.

The day the album finally arrived, I told my partner that I would be spending the majority of the day listening to the album. There would be no talking, there would be no phone calls, there would be no interruptions whatsoever. And, I was damn serious! My day was for OMD, and nobody else but OMD. First, I unwrapped the box, and took pictures during the process. I carefully removed the LPs, examined the gate-fold artwork, and then made my way to the CD, carefully unwrapping the shrink wrap. I practically sprinted to my computer to download the tracks to my i-Tunes library so I could begin listening. To prepare, I grabbed a fresh cup of coffee, put my headphones on and eagerly awaited to push the play button…

OMD's History of Modern box set

The end, Part 1

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What Tad will be talking about this week

Tiffany,

I am sorry to hear that you are under the weather – I guess I was still contagious after all when we met for lunch last week! If it is any consolation, I have enjoyed reading the comments on our blog and at Reddit regarding your post on DADT. You certainly know how to rile up the crowd!

Tiffany, I just want to share a quick update on topics I will be blogging about this week.

OMD

For starters, my boxed-set edition of OMD’s History of Modern arrived in the mail and I have lots to say about it! I am currently drafting a review of the album and will post it later this week. Have you heard the new album, Tiffany? I should let you listen to it so we can discuss it with our readers in greater detail here on the blog.

Civilization V

Next, I picked up a copy of the highly-anticipated Civilization V and have been spending some time with the game. Now, I have never reviewed a video game before, and the thought of reviewing a Civilization game is a bit daunting to me. But, I would like to spend time talking about the game. I’ve been having fun talking about the game on Reddit, so I look forward to brining the conversation to our blog.

P90X

Lastly, I have started my second round of P90X this week! I started P90X a little over three months ago and began with the ‘lean’ version of the program. I did this because I wanted to lose weight and build lean muscle mass. In the process I lost about 25 pounds and I’ve never felt better. Now I want to build tone (watch out, Aussie boys!) and definition. I will be sharing my P90X experience here on our blog. Tiffany, I know you have been wanting to start the program, so now is your chance. And, for our readers who are interested in P90X, I hope my experience will inspire you to BRING IT!

Looking forward to the conversation,

Tad

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Could the nature of DADT politics be partially economic?

Dear Tad,

Recently, as most of us already know, we witnessed the United States Senate once again throwing gay Americans under the bus. We know this fight continues in the court system, with the Witt case being the most prominent example. However, what is the real fear behind the US Military not being able to repeal this law? Could it be, due in part, economic? Could we be so cynical as to believe that the US Government essentially would not want to fund the spouses of gay service members?

Imagine for a moment, if you will, the very possibility that allowing gay Americans their human rights might mean having to shovel out quite a bit, where the good ole Greenback is concerned. I am not saying this is the only reason for the government’s reluctance to repeal DADT, but might it be that we just don’t want to pay for these additional people on the government payroll? The truth is, if you allow gay service members to serve then you get into the murky business of whether or not to allow their spouses or significant others to be recognized, monetarily.

Now, everyone knows, from having read my earlier post this week, that I am not a big advocate of gay marriage (as based upon the current heterosexual model), but I do support the rule of law. I do think that, given all of the domestic partner laws around the country, the US Military may very well have to consider allowing the spouses of gay service members their due, just like their heterosexual counterparts. It would look pretty bad, if gay people may serve their country, but their spouses were unrecognized, financially. How would that work, legally? We can all see how difficult an issue this is, when we consider the very real possibility that the US Government would have to allow for financial supports of gay service members’ spouses/significant others. This could cost the US taxpayer plenty of money (which I, for one, am willing to spend).

As anyone knows, who has had service members in their families, the benefits of being in the service can be myriad. One has to consider the insurance for service members for their spouses should they be killed in, say, Iraq. My family has served in every conflict that the US ever had. I follow the Army Times and other publications and I know that some service members’ families, in fact, probably just about all, receive as much $400,000 should their loved ones be killed while on active duty. If gay service members are killed, their spouses/significant others could potentially receive such monies and, boy, would that cost a bundle! Because, I’ll tell you right now, there are more gay people serving in the US Military than anyone can imagine.

Consider for the moment the cost of paying for gay spouses in the military—it staggers the mind. I can see the hesitancy on the parts of so many members of the Senate. Good Lord, do we really want to tax people more to pay for these homosexuals? I can understand that view as greedy and short-sighted as it is. I can also understand the view of a gay person serving who deserves as much as any straight soldier to be recognized for his or her efforts in the defense of his or her country. These are our defenders. When we deny them basic human rights, we do our nation a disservice.

It is rumored that General von Steuben from Germany, right hand man to George Washington during the Revolution and the author of the first US Army book of rules and regulations, was gay. What if he was? I could care less. If had not been for him, we might not be free today to express ourselves in this beautiful country. I would hope that all Americans would value their soldiers, sailors, marines and coast guarders and give them all the same fair treatment. It’s the least we can do for people who serve our country. And remember, the next time you see some dashing lad in uniform that a lot of gay people tend to gravitate towards careers with the most fabulous costumes and uniforms: the clergy, Hollywood, and the military.

“This land is your land, this land is my land…,
this land was made for you and me…”

Yours,

Tiffany

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Maybe Tiffany isn’t allergic to the wedding ring after all?

Dear Tad,

Bravo, my dear boy, bravo!! You make one of the best arguments for gay marriage I have seen yet. Perhaps, you are right, perhaps, I can be persuaded. Once you read my post on gay service members in the US Military that I will be adding to the blog shortly, you may see that we agree more than you know. And, since you put it that way, I suppose gay people should want marriage, I mean, especially, given the opportunity to be married by Elvis and all. I would never want to advocate depriving anyone of that happiness!

And by the way, I agree whole-heartedly that people should be able to frame the debates how they like and have what my quarreling family members call, spirited conversation! The freedom of speech exists in this country for a reason, use it!

I wish you a pleasant day!

Yours,

Tiff

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Hello, gay people have ring fingers, too!

Dear Tiffany,

One of the things I like most about our friendship is that we don’t always agree on issues, but we are always able to have lively, civil conversations with each other when we disagree on something. Civil discourse is something lacking in our current political and social environment, isn’t it? Teabaggers, Mosques and Gay Marriage, oh my!

First off, I think I see where you are coming from on the gay marriage debate. I interpret your post as suggesting that if we are going to allow for gay marriage, then maybe we should take time to really look at what the institution of marriage represents and consider removing some of its discriminatory values and boundaries. In many ways, I don’t disagree with that. To use your example, why should single people be penalized for not being ‘coupled’? Why does the act of marriage suddenly entitle people to rights that they would otherwise not have access to? I think those are very good questions worth examining and debating. If redefining our marriage helps dismantle some discriminatory power structures in our society and allow more people to share a piece of the wealth, I am all about it.

That said, the biggest issue I have is that you argue that LGBT people should fight for the establishment of a separate institution, the civil union, rather than marriage. Now, given that we are Americans, our country has a long history with the issue of separate but equal institutions. In 1964 , ‘Jim Crow’ laws that promoted segregation in our society were deemed unconstitutional by the Civil Rights Act. Since then, segregation of schools, public transportation, public facilities, etc has been illegal. I think creating a separate but equal institution for gay marriage is equally unconstitutional and violates the Civil Rights Act.

Moreover, if we create a separate institution for marriage, are we not ‘othering’ ourselves? Was not the Civil Rights Act a pivotal moment in the dismantling of white power structures for the betterment of all people? Do we not create a marginalized community by creating separate but equal institutions? Do we not cave to religious institutions that are all too happy to deny LGBT people rights simply based on who we are? In my mind, we do. I am not sure I willing to take any of those risks.

Tiffany, I think your views on gay marriage should be part of our current debate. But, I think working within the framework of the marriage institution we currently have is more effective than creating a separate institution. Besides, as long as any old frat boy can fly to Vegas, get drunk and marry any woman he wants by some cheap Elvis impersonator, I’m not giving up the fight to slip a ring on my partner of nine years and live together in wedded bliss!

Kind regards as always,

Tad

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