Review – Pandora’s Star

A great sci-fi book with a rocky beginning.

I finally finished this book.  I actually finished a couple weeks ago but sometimes my posting schedule gets in the way.

I’m going to sound negative about this book in the beginning, but overall I enjoyed it.  That said the first few hundred pages were a real slog for me.  From what I understand, this may just be inherent to the “hard” sci-fi genre.  There was very little in the way of comprehensive exposition on the Commonwealth’s technology and the smattering of alien races.  Hamilton throws that stuff out in dribs and drabs, so nearer to the end of the book I finally felt like I had a grasp on how the Commonwealth worked.  But this approach almost turned me off from reading the book altogether.

The slow drip of expository information was bad enough, but the poor characterization of many of the protagonists was really difficult for me.  There are so many characters in this book and their chapters are spread very far away from each other.  Hamilton did not do a good enough job of giving them individual personalities, so I had a hard time remembering anything unique about a lot of these characters.  They seemed to all have the same personality, and they bled together in my head.  Most of these characters are highly logical people working towards some purpose.  Wilson Kime is building a ship, Paula is chasing Johansen, Kazamir is looking for Justine.  They’re all doing something different, but they felt like the same person.  At times, I lost focus while I was reading because I was so lost or bored.  There’s not much humor or personality in this book at all, and I had a very hard time keeping characters and plot lines straight in my head.  That, combined with the slow drip feed of exposition made the first third or so of the book really hard to get through.

However, it did get better.  The book really picked up for me when the Second Chance left Commonwealth space to head to the Dyson stars.  The arcs that each of the protagonists go through slowly became more and more interesting, and by the end of the book I was fascinated with each one.  The poor characterization was still there, although Paula and Ozzie stand out as well realized individuals by the end.  Ozzie’s journey through the Silfen paths is probably my favorite plotline in the book.  I think it took advantage of the sci-fi setting and did something unique, whereas the other plotline’s followed a more standard sci-fi journey.  Not that they weren’t interesting by the end, but Ozzie’s journey was the most unique and the one I felt myself most drawn to.

This book was exhausting when I started it.  It was really hard to push through the beginning, but now that I’m done I’m glad I did.  I’m really looking forward to Judas Unchained after I finish The Great Ordeal.  I would hesitate to recommend this book to anyone without a love of sci-fi.  It’s a hard book to read, and if you can’t get past the first few hundred pages you’re going to waste your time.  But if you enjoy sci-fi and you can slog through the first third or so, this book gets super interesting and sets up the sequel brilliantly.

I wrote a review of Misspent Youth a few months ago.  I remember seeing many people on Goodreads complaining about the book because it wasn’t like the Commonwealth Saga.  I read that book first before moving on to the main series, and thank God I did.  I would have been hugely disappointed if I read Misspent Youth after anything in the Commonwealth series.  I did not love the book the first time and I had no expectations.  If I had been a fan of the Commonwealth and I read Misspent Youth, I would have been very dissatisfied.

Mass Effect Series

An overview of the original Mass Effect trilogy.

Mass Effect: Andromeda came out last week, and from what I hear it’s huge.  I’m sure I’ll be posting as I play through it, but I figured now is a good time to look back on the original Mass Effect trilogy.

Mass Effect 1

I heard about Mass Effect after it came out.  Apparently, there was a lot of hype around this game before it came out, but I was still in the “honeymoon” phase of dating my wife at the time (not my actual honeymoon) so I wasn’t really paying attention to video games.  A guy at work told me about it and said I should get it.  I picked it up at Best Buy and started it that night at home.  I had just recently purchased the new Xbox 360, and I remember the resolution on the game was so high that my crappy little TV wasn’t able to render the text of the game sharply enough to read.

Mass Effect was a revelation for me.  It was a watershed moment.  It told an adult story set in an infinitely interesting universe, and showed me that video games could be made for adults.  As I mentioned above, at the time I had kind of moved beyond video games in favor of more mature pursuits.  But the first Mass Effect brought me back in a big way.

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These games are set in the nearish future, about 150 years from now.  Humanity has moved deep into galactic space and met up with several other alien civilizations. The player character Shepard is given freedom to explore the galaxy as a Specter, a champion for the human race.  The story involves Shepard discovering an alien conspiracy to kill all sentient life in the universe and preventing it from happening.  The story is great, and the characters are even better.  Tali, Garrus, Wrex, Liara, and several other characters immediately felt like real friends to me.  You recruit these human and alien allies into your crew and go on space adventures with them.  The story is interesting, but the character development and interactions with each other are really what made these games so special.  It was really astonishing to me that a video game was able to convey this level of characterization.

I’ve since found out that this game came as a reaction to the fact that Bioware lost the Star Wars license, and it clearly shows.  The game is set in space, it’s full of aliens, there’s a “force” like power called biotics, etc.  The only thing it’s missing is lightsabers.  The in game codex narrates itself as you hover over entries.  The first time I played through this game I used that codex like a book.  I listened to every single entry, hungry for every last morsel of information I could get about the Mass Effect universe. There are many choices that you make in this game that have implications on the later games in the series.  You can carry over a save file from this game into the next two and your choices are reflected in the world.

The combat, even at the time, sucked. And it definitely hasn’t aged well.  But the universe and characters are so fascinating that after we got married, I got my wife into Mass Effect.  She’s played through all the games several times over herself.  It’s really that great.

Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 is the best RPG I’ve ever played hands down, and probably my favorite game of all time.  I loved the world and the characters of the first Mass Effect, and when the sequel came out, I had a ridiculous amount of excitement leading up to release.  Usually when there is that much anticipation, you are never satisfied with the result.  Mass Effect 2 lived up to the anticipation and surpassed it in almost every way.

First off, all of the ally characters in your ship are interesting and have a fleshed out background.  The sense of characterization is even better in this game than the first, and the allies you get are diverse, interesting, and fully realized.  Each ally has loyalty missions that you can complete to unlock additional abilities.  These loyalty missions also flesh out more of the ally’s motivations and personality.  By the end of the game, you feel like you really know these people.  You care about them like you care about your friends.

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The combat is also vastly improved from the last game.  The first game had terrible shooting and a glut of abilities.  This game pared down the abilities and tightened up the shooting.  It is not the best shooter ever, but it is definitely competent.  It feels great to slow down time, pick off three targets with abilities, and keep shooting.

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The ending to this game is also incredible.  Throughout the game, you pick up upgrades for your ship and your allies.  There is a series of choices that you make in the final mission.  If you don’t have the ship and your allies upgraded properly, some of those allies will die.  If you make the wrong choice or send an ally to fulfill the wrong role, they will die.  I’ve heard you can even fail the mission and have everyone die.  In a series that is built on characterization and player choice, this structure is perfect.  You care about the people in the game and your choices have a direct impact on their survival.  It creates a tense and thrilling ending with high stakes, even if the last boss is kind of dumb.

Again, this game specifically really hit me hard.  I love it.  I’ve played through the whole game countless times.  I’ve unlocked every single Xbox achievement, I’ve romanced every possible character, I’ve chosen every possible combination of choices.  The storytelling and the characters in this game is, for me, the gold standard for what video games can achieve.

Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3  was a letdown.  The returning characters were great as always, but I did not connect with any of the new allies.  The story was also a big bummer.  The ending was ridiculous and tropey.  The biggest strength of the first two games was in their writing and their characterization.  The story in this game went into some weird spirituality thing that didn’t make any sense in the Mass Effect universe.  And the final decision Shepard made was so large and far reaching in the Mass Effect canon that the next game in the series had to move to a new galaxy to avoid the ramifications.  The thing that I loved about the first two games was missing in Mass Effect 3.  The storytelling and the characterization that I fell in love with was gone.  Or more accurately, it was intermittent.

The choices you made in the first two games certainly had resolution, but a lot of that resolution felt forced.  It felt almost like the developers felt pressured to have Shepard run into everyone he had met over the course of two games and have some kind of interaction.  It didn’t feel natural to me. Some of it was good though, in particular the resolution of the genophage side story.

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The side missions in this game are also terrible, and an indication of where Bioware was headed.  Your quest log fills up very quickly with meaningless fetch quests, and they are often obtained by running by someone on the citadel.  There’s very little in the way of meaningful, interesting side content in the game.  When you’re racing around picking up 10 “somethings” that some nameless NPC asked you to pick up (without even having a Mass Effect conversation), it drains any fun out of the side quests.  This was also reflected in Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game they put out a few years later.  That game is filled with filler side content that adds almost nothing meaningful to the game.  I don’t have anything written up for the new Mass Effect: Andromeda yet, but unfortunately it looks like that trend has continued into that game as well.

It’s not all bad though.  The combat in this game is the best out of any of the games.  The shooting was as tighter than the last game, which I felt was the only weakness in Mass Effect 2.  It also made the new multiplayer component really fun.  The multiplayer is made up of co-op, wave based survival maps.  You and several other players survive wave after wave of enemies. If the shooting was weak, this multiplayer would have been terrible.  Thankfully, it’s probably the bright spot in this game.

Summary

The first Mass Effect trilogy is great.  The storytelling and characterization in the first two games is unparalleled, and while the third game forgot what made the first two great, it’s still worth the time to play through.  Mass Effect 2 is probably my favorite game of all time, so if you like sci-fi and shooting, I can’t recommend this trilogy enough.

Malazan Reread of the Fallen

The end of an era. My favorite blog on the internet is getting the axe.

I was planning to have a review of Pandora’s Star and a discussion of the Mass Effect series up this week, but I got the news that the Malazan reread of the Fallen was cancelled.  I wanted to eulogize them a bit, so I pushed back my other posts.  I might have a post up tomorrow, but the cancellation threw a wrench in my post plans and I never really caught up this week.  Back to normal posting next week.

The Malazan Reread of the Fallen is a series of blog posts dissecting chapter by chapter the books of the Malazan series.  The blog has been going for seven years now, with each post being written by Bill Capossere and Amanda Rutter.  Bill writes a recap of the chapter and adds discussiong from the perspective of a rereader.  Amanda is new to the series and writes discussion from the perspective of a first time reader.  This format is perfect for a series like Malazan.  The books are huge, they’re densely written, and they’re very detailed.  Having a recap of the chapters events and discussions from both a new reader and an old reader helped make reading through these books easier and more enjoyable.  If you read about Malazan on Goodreads, the Malazan Empire, or forum posts, you’ll invariably run into someone recommending this blog to help new readers make sense of the books.

On Wednesday, Tor.com announced the end of the Malazan Reread of the fallen.  I’ve mentioned in previous posts how important the reread has been for me in pushing through the Malazan books the first time.  The insight the summaries give after each chapter help fill in the gaps in your understanding, and the discussions from the different perspectives make reading through the books much more accessible.  I would be shocked if the reread didn’t contribute to Steven Erikson’s bottom line.  I don’t know what Tor’s reasoning is for cancelling the reread, but I think it’s extremely misguided.  I know some people are trying to put together a patreon to keep the reread going, but who knows.  It’s just really unfortunate, we’re right in the middle of a book right now and the cancellation came out of no where.  If my posts about Malazan have convinced you to read the books, check out the reread.  It’s a great resource and it’s helped many people appreciate Malazan that much more.

The Grudge – Tool

I can’t believe I haven’t put up a Tool song yet.  Tool is easily the most important band for me and my musical tastes.  They’re a hard rock band which is how I got introduced to them, but their weirdness is what really made them important to me.  Up until I discovered Tool, I was listening to mostly radio friendly hard rock music.  Tool opened my eyes to prog music.  I’m a huge modern prog fan because of Tool.  I listened to Lateralus on repeat in my first car all the way through high school.  Easily the single most important album of my life.  As I was learning to play guitar and learning more advanced techniques, I learned how to play almost every song they’ve ever made.  I can’t recall all of it now, but I still have a lot of that muscle memory in my fingers.  Tool has a weird reputation now, and Tool fans have an even weirder reputation.  That’s unfortunate, because they’re a really smart band that doesn’t take themselves too seriously.

This song is basically the anthem of my teenage angst.  I absolutely love this song, and Maynard‘s scream at the end was so identifiable.  He was screaming all the frustration that I had as a young man trying to figure out how to navigate life.  This song is a classic, and I can guarantee there will be more Tool posted in the future.

Review – Nioh

Final wrap-up on my time with Nioh.

This is more of a wrapup than a review, but I figured I’d keep the format consistent.  I talked a lot about Nioh here and here, so read through all three posts for a more complete picture.

I finished Nioh last week.  I said a lot about it in posts, but I figured I’d wrap up Nioh now that I’ve completed it.

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Nioh is an unabashed Dark Souls clone.  While that can turn many people off, either because of the Dark Souls gameplay or the fact that it is not wholly original, it is an absolutely worthwhile game.  I had a ton of fun with it while it lasted, and it’s huge.  There are five regions in the game, each of them containing probably in the neighborhood of 10 missions.  That’s roughly 50 missions, each of them full of complex and challenging combat.  I came close to finishing all of the side missions, but when I finally got to the end of the game I sprinted to the end.  I didn’t do any of the side content in the last region.

I don’t want to retread too much ground on Nioh, so I’ll just focus on the end here.  The end is comprised of a series of very difficult challenges, with the final mission involving a gauntlet of previously defeated bosses before reaching the final boss.  I think there are 7 total bosses in that last level.  While it does make this last mission very difficult, I think it illustrates one of Nioh’s biggest weaknesses.  The repetition of enemies and environments got to be a bit frustrating by the end.  I got very tired of fighting the same five or six different yokai by the end, and the environments were even less diverse.  By the time I reached the end, I had beaten each of the bosses in that level several times over already.  These bosses had been recycled for some of the side missions, so I think the weird lightning lion boss in the final level was actual the third time I fought him in the game.

I get that it can be hard to consistently design interesting and difficult bosses, but this game is huge.  If they had pared down the number of missions, the game would have felt more focused and the repetition in the enemies and environments might have been less noticeable.

That said, the last mission is a beast.  The lead up to the actual bosses is long and very challenging, and beating 7 bosses in a row is ridiculous.  It took me a few hours just to get through that one mission.  I had a huge sense of accomplishment when I finished, which is what I look for when I play this kind of game.  There is an epilogue mission, which was ok. Just two bosses, and they were pretty tame.  But taken as a whole, that last section of the game was incredibly difficult and fun.

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With all that said, all the things I’ve previously written about Nioh still stand true.  The combat is on par with Bloodborne for me, I just absolutely love fighting in this game.  And I think if the developer makes some adjustments for the sequel, they could easily out do Dark Souls.  Nioh is a great game, and if you love Dark Souls and samurai’s, you should definitely play it.

Crib Measurements

Finally started working on the crib for my baby.

The season is starting to change, meaning my garage isn’t a refrigerator anymore.  I’ve had the lumber for the crib for a couple months now, and a combination of cold weather and procrastination has prevented me from getting to work.  Now that spring is (kind of) here, my wife is on me to get this crib done.  I have all the tools I need, so yesterday after work I got started.  I’m using three different kinds of lumber, pictured below.

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As you can see, my garage is a bit cramped right now.  I’m going to be updating the blog on how this project goes.  My wife is certainly excited that I’m getting started.  I really liked shop in school, but I’ve never taken on a project this big as an adult.  I’m excited and hopeful, but I’m absolutely willing to throw in the towel if what I build isn’t safe.  We’ll get a crib at Target if this goes poorly, lol.