Reamde by Neal Stephenson – Book Review

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*Spoiler free*

Recently, I reviewed a MMORPG themed book from the World of Warcraft franchise, and gaming wise, there are plenty of books out there. Reamde, however, hits the gaming book genre from a completely different angle.

Unlike other gaming books, that typically show you the world solely through the eyes of the in-game characters; Neal Stephenson’s Reamde shows you the world through the eyes of the characters, the players and the developers themselves, inside the screen and out.

MMORPG games connect people the world over and often, when you’re playing, you have no idea who’s on the other side of the screen, playing alongside you. In Reamde, Stephenson experiments with how far away your in-game actions can be felt, and shows just how far that concept can go.

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So, how far away can your actions be felt in a MMO? If Reamde is anything to go by: very. Stephenson takes you around the globe, seeing the game at the hands of American fans, English authors, Chinese hackers and Russian crimelords, showing that a couple of bad decisions in online gaming can change your life forever.

Neal Stephenson has done his best to research everything in his book, from computing and gaming terminology to English and Chinese culture, to ensure he provides an authentic experience to his readers and, despite doing a great job at it; he may have been slightly overly-ambitious, and to a learned reader, some of the terms and facts he throws in either miss the mark, or appear unnecessary, as if to say “look at how much research I did” and nothing more. This hardly hinders it, though, and once you see past some of the minor content, the writing itself is very well constructed and entertaining throughout.

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The book splits into several sub-plots quite early on, so you’re constantly seeing a change in scenery, but you never feel lost, and the constant changes serve as a great mechanic for separating the giant and complex book into easy-to-follow chunks. Again, this has a downfall towards the end, as the different storylines begin to emerge, and it slows the ending down with repetition and deja vu. A lot of other reviews of the book complain about the size of the book and argue that it could have been halved, but if you invest in the characters and treat the book as a thriller; you find yourself encouraging the detail, and using it to place yourself into some of the tough, seemingly inescapable scenarios that the protagonists have to face.

As a gaming book it’s truly unique, and despite a couple of hurdles was an incredibly enjoyable read, with some great, engaging characters and some unlikely scenes and twists from start to finish.

A rare find, as far as gaming books go, and a must read for fans of the genre.

World of Warcraft: War Crimes – book review

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***This review is spoiler-free to up-to-date fans of the World of Warcraft in-game plot and will only mention elements of the new book that can be derived from the game and the book cover. Read with confidence***

Videogame based books are a lot like videogame based movies…or movie based videogames. When it comes to picking one up, there’s a high likelyhood that it’s a bad one. Any media crossover like this runs the risk of providing its developers with a cushion of safety – they don’t have to make it the best game/book/movie ever, after all; it already has a brand and a committed following before it comes out! This guarantees a scintilla of launch-day success, due to fans of the franchise showing their support, regardless of how it’ll play out. As a result, the plots of these crossovers is typically a poor, recyled cookie-cutter story, with misplaced, misinformed lore, and continuity errors, where merely they’ve replaced “Romeo” with “The Orc”, and scattered around a bunch of buzz words to keep the franchise fans’ interest. We all remember the great Mass Effect book burning of 2012.

Christie Golden’s World of Warcraft series is not that kind of book. She’s been writing Warcraft lore for over a decade, and you can tell that Blizzard have a huge deal of faith in her, granting her a vast breadth of creative license to stitch together different events from the realm, immortalizing characters and moments along the way.

Even to some of the most committed World of Warcraft players, Azerothian lore can break down to a simple dichotomy of Alliance vs Horde, but there’s so much more there than a good vs evil story, and the novels are a testament to that. I, admittedly am one such player, a “dialogue skipper” that just wants an objective and something to fight. If, like me, you have a habit of jumping from event to event without stopping to take a look around, I’d fully recommend reading the World of Warcraft books; they’ll change the way you look at the mmo and you’ll quickly find yourself immersed in the realm amongst the Bloodhoof’s and Proudmoore’s, making them more than just mission-giving NPCs.

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World of Warcraft: War Crimes begins where the in-game expansion, Mists of Pandaria left off, and acts as a precursor to the upcoming, Warlords of Draenor storyline, which is promising to give the Horde its “finest hour”.

The book documents the trial of the former Warchief, Garrosh Hellscream as his atrocities are weighed up by the Alliance, Horde and Pandaren, in order to decide his fate. As you can imagine, that makes this book relatively dialogue heavy and lean on the action scenes. What it lacks in action, however, it makes up for in emotion, as you look into all of the key figures of Azeroth as they discuss their own interpretations of right and wrong, and each cope with the aftermath of Mists, Cataclysm and the Wrath of the Lich King.

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I picked up the audiobook version on Audible, which was narrated by the award-winning Scott Brick, who is fast becoming my favorite narrator; he could probably read a Volvo owners manual and still invoke some kind of emotion from the listener. I was expecting his voice to struggle in a fantasy environment, but his voice acting makes each character stand out, sound authentic and come to life.

The plot is quite heavy, due to some of the horrible things that have occurred to the characters at the hands of Hellscream, and as they recount them in court, some of it can be quite tough to hear. Whether you’re on the side of the Alliance or the Horde in World of Warcraft, prepare to be surprised; because in War Crimes, you’ll find your allegiance continuously shifting sides as accusers and defenders begin to show their true colors.

As much as it is a precursor to the Warlords of Draenor expansion, the focus is very much on giving Mists of Pandaria a full and proper send-off and fans of Warcraft-old will be given plenty of opportunities to reminisce on Pandaria’s highlights.

Christie Golden has done an excellent job with War Crimes, in creating a near-perfect book, despite running several gauntlets. She has based a book on a popular, lore-filled franchise, provided little to no action in a book aimed at an action-hungry community and made the main theme of the book martial law…and came out the other end with a book that all fans will be thankful for.

Happy Free Comic Book Day!

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Happy Free Comic Book Day! Support your local comic book store today by heading in and seeing all of the shiny pop-culture it has to offer. If you’re not part of the “Wednesday crowd” already, today is a good chance to go see a comic book store at its busiest. Look around and bear in mind that in most large stores Wednesday mornings hold a similar kind of buzz, where you’ll meet like minded people and can chat about what’s going on in the 616.

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As the title suggests, if you turn up today, you’ll get a pick of some free comics, and often some free posters, badges, stickers etc to boot. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already too late to get into the queues for the rarer, more sought-after stuff, but most stores will stock enough to keep fans at bay til closing time.

For a list of all of the comics that’ll be free today, click here.

Personal favorites include the Skottie Young Teen Titans Go cover, Street Fighter #0, the Sonic The Hedgehog x Megaman Flip Book and the 2000AD Special.

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Dustforce – Xbox 360 review

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Dustforce has been out on the PC since 2012, but last week, it finally swept onto the Xbox Live Arcade scene, and I had to give it a go. I’d never played the “Sweep ’em up” before or, admittedly, heard of it, but seeing the Capcom label on an XBLA title again easily warranted the $9.99 price tag for me, and I feel that it was a good, safe gamble.

Reading other reviews; I’m seeing a lot of comparisons to the likes of Super Meat Boy and n+, and although it is similar, style-wise, it feels much more like its Capcom cousin, Strider. I’d hazard to guess that the developers are fans of both Strider, the Trials series and Super Meat Boy, and, most likely, perfectionists, who aren’t satisfied with merely reaching the end of a level, unless they’re absolutely sure they’ve seen everything that can be seen on it. This seems to be the major attraction to Dustforce, and if you’re an acheivement hunter, a perfectionist or a level completionist; this was built for you.

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In Dustforce, you play the part of a humble, yet ninja-move-equipped, janitor with the aim of ridding the world of dust, which is on the walls, floors, and ceilings; turning NPCs and inanimate objects into monsters and Fantasia-like foes.

Your job is to clean, as quickly and perfectly as possible. You’ll be graded on how much of the level you’ve cleansed and by how smoothly you did it. The latter, known as your “finesse” rating will be the one that pushes you forward. Your momentum and fluency in the game are harshly penalized for bad form; which will add on precious seconds and making things just feel plain clunky. This removal from the ninja side of your janitor will grate on your every time you mess up, urging you to reset over and over again…in a good way.

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It’s a very pretty game, and becomes prettier the better you play, as you skip and slide around each 2D map, eventually getting to the point where you’re relying on twitch reactions and muscle memory to fire out impressive dash-jump-attack-slide combos to weave through obstacles, before your feet lose traction on the dusty walls.

Despite it being a dynamic game, they’ve married it up with a hauntingly beautiful, minimal soundtrack and very subtle sound effects; if you were to only listen to a game of Dustforce being played, you’d think it was Fez, or something by Nintendo. This might sound ill-fitting, but it seems to help encourage your perfectionist ways. Wheras games like Trials Evolution scream hard rock into your ears with explosions and engines revving until you feel the need to put teeth-marks in your controller (it happens…), the soft backing of Dustforce really helps provide some sticking power on the tougher challenges.

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Finesse and level completion will combine at the end of each level, with notable scores earning silver and gold keys; gaining you access to tougher challenges. On top of this, consistent dusting can accumulate and grant you the ability to throw out a five-point-palm-exploding-heart-technique of a combo, smashing any threat in sight, rather rewardingly. Whatever this game set out to do, it’s your desire to turn your janitor into a ninja that’ll push you through, and much like all of the great XBLA games, will see you playing the same things over and over again in the hope of gaining those all-important S-Ranks.

It’s not the greatest platformer, or the smoothest, but the soothing movement, the cutesy, clean artwork, and the 50+, challenging, perfection-craving missions mean that, provided you’re that type of gamer, you’ll get more than your money’s worth with this one.

 

Teaching an old clock new ticks

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I came across this 1950’s Smiths Westminster mantel clock at my Grandmother’s house. She told me she’d over-wound it a few years ago and wanted it fixed. I’ve never worked on anything as pretty or precise as a clock or watch, but ever-keen; I took it on-board. The clock belonged originally to P.G. Dodd; my Great-Grandfather.

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He was presented it after serving 45 years with the Great Western Railway, which connected London with Southwest England and Wales in the 19th and early 20th century. Up until a few years ago, this clock was the closest clue my Grandma (known by the family as “Ma”, in a broad, Shropshire accent) had to knowing her Dad’s full name. Back then, of course, she would have heard him being called “Phil”, but most likely referred to him as “Father” or “Papa” or something equally, quintessentially British, I’m sure. Different time.

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Thanks to my Dad delving into ancestry.com we learned, a couple of years ago, that his full name was in-fact Philip George Dodd.

The clock itself has seen better days. The chrome is peeling, the wood is chipped and it suffers from a cracking in the lacquer; synonymous with Smiths clocks of the time. My hope is to restore it, hopefully so it looks and sounds as good as new. The clocks are quite valuable in their original state, but since this clock holds such sentimental value, keeping it alive is more important than keeping it collectible. Even so, I’m hoping to restore it using original parts and traditional techniques, in order to keep it authentic.

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My roadmap for the restoration:

  • Repair and service the clock movement
  • Find an original, Smiths winding key (it currently has a third-party replacement)
  • Clean face and hands
  • Sand and refinish case with tobacco burst
  • Restore chrome facia
  • Polish and oxidize plaque
  • Retune chime and calibrate pendulum
  • Remove the “drop” from the back door and tighten latch

It’s a pretty tall order, and virtually everything on the list is beyond my ken, at present, but hopefully I’ll get it up and running shortly.

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Opening up the back, I found the key, a pendulum, and a catalog snippet for a new clock movement…from 1996! I’m guessing Ma’ has been looking to fix this for some time! There was also a key in the back, seemingly from a different clock, but it fits this one perfect. I’d like to get a real Smiths key, complete with the maker’s mark for it though, ideally.

Thanks to some preliminary tapping, prodding and meddling, the chime can now be triggered, although the pendulum won’t maintain its tick and, as mentioned, the springs feel out of place. So, my first port of call is to remove the movement and take out the springs. From what I’ve learned so far, the springs are prone to dislocating or shearing. If it’s the former, all this may take is some wiggling to get it back in order. If it’s the latter; the hunt for an old clock spring begins…