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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 7, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Books That Save Lives, Computer Game Gifts

Years ago, I was playing Trivial Pursuit at a Watauga College faculty retreat at the beach and I was holding my own ... until my brain went south and I couldn't for the life of me remember whether Budapest was the capital of Hungary or Romania (Bucharest being the capital of the other, I knew).

Naturally, I talked myself into the wrong one. Which was humiliating.

But most of the time, I'm pretty good at Trivial Pursuit. Except the sports questions. There was a time when we had a monthly game with another couple. My wife and I were a great team -- we often led right up till we got the middle, our wheel full of doobers, and our opponents made us answer a sports question.

Then we'd go back and forth in the middle, trying to answer sports questions, until they filled their wheel with cheeses and won. Because the guy on their team knew sports to such depth that he was right about as often as we were wrong in that category -- which is close enough to always as not to matter.

They didn't have a weak category. Very frustrating.

Finding a fairly even match in Trivial Pursuit is hard to do. At my age, I know a lot of answers just because I read the newspaper and watched TV -- there are a lot of questions about things I lived through.

Whereas younger players -- like my kids -- are at a severe disadvantage. Not only did they not live through many of the events, they also got their education in American schools, which means history and geography and literature are like black holes. This despite the fact that they are also news junkies.

It can be frustrating for younger players (and I mean teens and twenties, not nine-year-olds. Nine-year-olds can just go to bed before the game starts) to play against old coots who know everything (i.e., my wife and me). If it weren't for senility, we'd cream them every time.

Well, I have good news. The Trivial Pursuit 25th Anniversary Edition solves that disparity by introducing a greater degree of randomness.

The concept here is that instead of having a single deck of cards that have six questions, one from each category, you have six decks of cards. When somebody lands on History or Sports, you draw a card from the History deck or the Sports deck.

The card will still have six questions -- all from that category. Whatever number the player rolled to arrive at that question, that's the question he has to answer. A 1 or 2 get you an "easy" question, 3 or 4 a "medium" one, and 5 or 6 a "hard" one.

I put those in quotation marks because we've had a few 1 questions that were ludicrously hard, and a few no-brainer "hard" questions. But by and large it works as advertised.

This isn't pandering or even handicapping, as it would be if you had younger players always answering the easy questions. Players have a random chance of getting hard or easy questions, so sport-less players like me have a hope of getting an easy sports question.

And our 14-year-old has answered questions in the 5 and 6 category, too.

The regular game also has a random distribution of hard and easy questions -- but the 25th Anniversary Edition formalizes it and makes it predictable.

There's also a really dumb added feature where you move an extra marker around the board, allowing you to do bad things to other players. But we found that portion of the new game to be completely uninteresting. We don't like doing mean things! We want to compete on our ability to answer questions!

Fortunately, you can just ignore that part of the new rules.

The result is, in my opinion, the first Trivial Pursuit game that it's fun to play with players who aren't all at about the same level of experience and knowledge.

The only problem is that there just aren't enough cards in each category. I don't know why, but time after time we'd cycle through the cards and when we repeated a card, it would happen to be with the same question we read off that card before!

We just decided that was part of the game -- if you got a question whose answer you learned during a previous session, good for you. If you know the correct answer, it counts.

We played this at a four-family gathering at the beach over Thanksgiving, and the younger players wanted to play it again and again, while the older players (i.e., me) still enjoyed every game. This game's a winner, folks.

*

When I'm driving at night, I need audiobooks that will keep me awake. A book that's really good will always do the trick. But I can't always predict which books will be interesting enough to engage me even when I'm desperately tired.

So I usually set out on a long drive with three or four books -- and a series of lectures, just in case I decide to fall asleep and die on the road.

The type of story that works best, I've found, is the mystery/thriller. Horror novels might work just as well, except I don't enjoy them. Can't drive safely when I'm beating my head against the steering wheel.

So, who are the dependable thriller writers?

Dean Koontz works almost too well. His best novels are so engrossing that I don't just stay awake, I get upset. I also get so involved that I miss freeway exits. So I get home two hours later, with an ulcer.

Over the years, I've found that if Michael Connelly or Robert Crais don't have a new novel out on CD, I can dip back into the catalog of writers who are very popular -- so all their books are recorded, and they all stay in print -- but whose work is not so good that by the time I take the trip, I've already read the book.

In other words: Mary Higgins Clark and David Baldacci.

I think that this comes under the category of "darning with faint praise." Or, wait, should that be "darning with blunt needles"? (Sorry -- sometimes I can't resist holey sock humor.)

Mary Higgins Clark comes up with dependably strong storylines, though she often makes writing choices that make me grind my teeth. But that's not bad -- grinding my teeth helps me stay awake.

Mostly, the problem is that she simply has no clue about point of view. She switches in mid-paragraph and has people knowing things they couldn't know. Her villains also tend to be impossibly clever in a diabolical way. Eventually I stop believing in them.

But I still have to stay awake to hear the end, so something must be working, right?

Most recently, her novel Where Are You Now? (read very effectively by Jan Maxwell) has a great premise. When he was 21, college student Kevin "Mac" MacKenzie, Jr. walked out of his room and has not been seen since.

For the past ten years, though, he has called his mother three times a year -- on her birthday, on his birthday, and on mother's day. He says nothing except to assure her that he's fine. It drives everyone crazy and keeps his mother -- now widowed -- from moving, in case he comes home.

Mac's sister Carolyn has grown to adulthood and is now an assistant district attorney in New York. At last, though, she's sick of this game and determines to find him -- even though he keeps insisting that devastating things will happen if he is searched for.

This is one of the best of Clark's books, suffering only now and then from her weaknesses and benefitting greatly from her strengths. Everything depends on relationships and trust, though there are moments of jeopardy, too. I not only stayed awake, I still vividly remember scenes from the book.

David Baldacci tends more toward physical action than human relationships in his fiction. I recently listened to two of his books -- abridged versions read very well by the very manly Ron McLarty. (He reads as if he were sharpening a buck knife between sentences.)

Last Man Standing is the story of Web London, one of the best of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team. Following up on absolutely certain information from an undercover agent, Web's squad is cut to ribbons in an ambush.

Everybody dies -- except Web. Why? Because at a crucial moment, he froze. Not with fear -- he simply couldn't get his body to obey him.

Naturally, others in the FBI suspect him of cowardice -- except that he bears the scars that prove he's a hero. Years before, his face was torn up in a rescue of schoolchildren held hostage by a right-wing fascist group led by Ernest B. Free -- who just escaped from prison.

The ambush of his team was just the beginning. Free is apparently getting revenge on everyone involved in his case. Not just the FBI team that arrested him, but also the prosecutor, the judge, and his defense attorney, all end up dead -- and the methods are clever to the point of insanity.

This book simply doesn't stop -- it's a first-rate thriller.

Simple Genius, Baldacci's novel from the spring of 2007, is not quite so first-rate. This time we're dealing with a sequel -- Secret Service agents Sean King and Michelle Maxwell are still coping with the aftermath of previous disasters, with Michelle picking self-destructive fights with big men in bars.

The storyline puts them both inside a top-secret think-tank where super geniuses are working on encryption. One of the best of them has been murdered, and his fragile young genius daughter may hold the key to what he was working on that got her father killed.

More than Last Man Standing, Simple Genius suffers from happening-to-be-in-the-right-place-at-the-perfect-moment syndrome. It also suffers from why-don't-the-bad-guys -just-kill-them-instead-of -waiting-for-the-cavalry-to -arrive-and-rescue-them syndrome.

But it has a lot of cool scenes with interesting people beating up people or getting beaten up, and as long as I'm in neither role myself, I'm happy and it keeps me awake on the road.

One weird thing, though ... Maybe it's a coincidence that these two Baldacci novels both have strong plotlines in which a main character is under the care of a psychotherapist who hypnotizes him or her and finds out key events in his past.

Baldacci's faith in the efficacy of talk therapy is touching, but not founded on any scientific evidence; and when it comes to "forgotten" or "repressed" memories getting "recovered" under hypnosis ... in the real world it doesn't happen. (See Paul R. McHugh, Try to Remember: Psychiatry's Clash over Meaning, Memory, and Mind.)

But it's a fun soap-opera device -- kind of like having an evil twin -- and for Baldacci, apparently it's enough to find out what happened in the character's childhood. No follow-up therapy -- finding out seems to be enough. Wouldn't it be nice if the real world worked that way?

Look, Baldacci is a better and more consistent writer than John Grisham, who is all over the place -- disastrously bad novels following pretty good ones, except when they follow other disastrously bad ones.

So despite my snideness, I really am recommending both Baldacci and Clark as entertaining writers whose stories are strong enough to remain firmly in memory. Plus, they probably saved my life on those late-night drives. I owe them a thumbs-up!

*

Everybody my wife and I were sending them to has already opened them by now (we told them not to wait for Christmas) so now I can tell you about them while there's still time to get your own:

Racing Grannies!

Yes, on a slot-car track, you get two little old ladies in wheelchairs. They really do race around the track -- and because the tracks cross twice, you can, if you're really sick, make them crash into each other.

I sent them to all my sibs and in-laws who have achieved grannyhood, and they report that the grannies result in savagely entertaining sport. A new wrinkle on NASCAR, folks. (Have four fresh AA batteries or your granny will run out of juice!)

Make sure you warn your kids that real wheelchair-bound grannies should not be raced in this way.

Where do you find them? One place is the What On Earth website

*

I can't believe it. I finally succumbed and switched my phone for a Blackberry.

Now I understand why my best Blackberry-using friend in LA calls it her "crack-berry." The ability to check my email anywhere, instantly makes me keep pulling it out to scan through my latest spam.

Occasionally, though, in the midst of the spam there's something that must be answered right away -- and I tend to get those messages way sooner than I used to.

Plus, it's still a pretty good phone.

My only complaint is that little things like setting it not to beep every @#$% time I get an email (oh, wow, yes, please interrupt my conversation/movie/tv show/nap to tell me that Uno Alla Volta has just sent me a fantastic new offer) are almost impossible to do.

Well, no, doing them is easy enough -- it's figuring out how to find the menu that lets you do it that's hard. Some menus come up when you press the main button, but some only come up when you press the special menu button. And there's no consistent pattern that I can detect.

More than once I've sat there in full knowledge that yesterday I found a particular menu and option, but today I can't find it anywhere in the software.

But I don't care. Even though it takes time to get used to the tiny buttons, especially for my stubby old thumbs, it's all worth it.

The phone it replaced was one that specialized in being a camera. You know what I discovered? Even really good, hi-res photos on my old cellphone were still cellphone photos. In other words, pond scum. If I want a picture, I should take a camera with me.

But my Blackberry puts email in the same tiny box with my phone. It's doing communication, which is what a phone is for. I'm a happy boy. Somebody needs to write a song about that -- it's not fair that Beth Nielsen Chapman's anthem is only for happy girls.

*

If you're reading this issue of the Rhino on the Thursday when it appeared on the stands, you still have time to get to the performance of Handel's Messiah at War Memorial auditorium tonight at seven! Put this paper down! Gather the family and get to the car!

*

I really believe Harris-Teeter is trying to drive me insane.

My wife goes to the Pisgah Church store and, in the spot where for months we've been buying the Tropicana Valencia Orange juice, there's ... nothing. No price tag; no evidence there was ever such a section.

Since we go through about four bottles of the stuff a week (or more), this is not a happy thing for us. My wife asked the section manager and he told us that yes, indeed, our local Harris-Teeter no longer will carry the product. He mumbled something about how they need the space for some appalling product that was as interesting to us as slugburgers. And besides, it was expensive.

It wasn't expensive -- the juice is so dazzlingly good that the price was, in our opinion, shockingly low. After you've drunk this, the orange juice that costs less is crap, so any price is too high.

Later, I complained to an assistant store manager, and this time learned that the decision was not made by the local store manager. Rather, somebody from corporate comes to "reset" the stock.

Here's what gripes me: We bought out the Tropicana Valencia with no pulp every week. As far as we know, except for our month in San Diego this summer they never had send back any unsold bottles.

Harris-Teeter has a completely computerized system. They should know without even coming to the store that somebody was buying all that juice. That makes it profitable -- Harris and Teeter aren't paying for product that takes up space and gets discarded.

But they don't care.

Now, we can still get the juice (unlike other products they've discontinued). But we have to drive to the big store at Friendly Center.

Is it worth it to us? Yes. After all, we drive to Friendly Center every week to buy bread at Great Harvest.

I just wish they'd put up a sign at the Pisgah Church store: "This is a second-rate imitation Harris-Teeter where the really good stuff will get dropped without explanation, no matter how much of it you regularly buy."

But once again they'll get away with proving that my wife and I are definitely not "Very Important Customers." Why? Because the local second-rate Harris-Teeter is only about a mile away from our house -- we walk there all the time -- and because, no matter how Corporate tries to drive us away, even a second-rate Harris-Teeter is better than Food Lion.

Maybe someday, though, somebody in corporate will get the bright idea of stocking the shelves in each store according to the buying patterns of that store's actual customers.

And the store that doesn't slap the customers around is the one that's going to get their loyalty.

Meanwhile, the people in our local second-rate store are perfectly lovely and try to be as helpful as possible.

*

December is a tough time to open a play -- whether or not it has anything to do with the holidays. But the drama department at Weaver is opening their production of the World War II-era comedy See How They Run, starting today, December 11th, and running through Sunday the 14th. Performances are at Weaver on Spring Street, and start at 7:00 p.m. (except for the Sunday matinee, which starts at 2:00 p.m.).

These are talented kids with talented teachers, and the script is a good one -- from an era when the goal was to be funny rather than shocking. I'm looking forward to seeing it. Heaven knows, with the paucity of watchable movies opening this fall, student plays can be a breath of fresh air.

*

Last time I was in Los Angeles, I made the acquaintance of one of the children in the computer game industry (they think they're adults, but they're so young, and make me feel so old, that I have to call them kids.) For his friends, he writes reviews of new games for computers and consoles, and he kindly added me to the list.

His end-of-year Christmas-gift-buying newsletter was so good that I asked for (and got) permission to copy his reviews for you. Even though his day job is marketing games, he still loves playing the good new ones -- even those designed by competing companies. But to avoid offending the people whose games he does not praise, at his request I've withheld his name.

Here in the Rhino I'll give you the bare list; for the reviews themselves, you can check the Rhino online or my review column at http://www.hatrack.com.

Shooters

Far Cry 2

Call of Duty: World at War

Roleplaying Games

Fallout 3

Horror Games

Dead Space

Crazy Games

Mirror's Edge

World of Goo

Braid


{The following appears only on the web version of the column}

Shooters

Far Cry 2

Ubisoft bought the "Far Cry" title from original developer Crytek, handed it off to one of their best internal teams, and basically let them make the game they wanted to make. What came out of that process was a game that puts the original title to shame.

You're basically dropped into a war-torn African nation, and have to survive as a covert mercenary, while the rank and file of both factions want you dead. It combines these gorgeous, lush African vistas with this horrific story of violence and betrayal, whose outcome you help to determine at every turn.

It is relentlessly first-person and realistic. "Extra lives" involve you getting dragged to safety by another mercenary you befriended, who puts his or her own life at risk to save you at the last moment. "Healing" involves resetting bones, prying out shrapnel, and cauterizing wounds.

Yet with all this complexity, the moment-to-moment interface remains simple and accessible. It's a beautiful work of art, the only drawback being the fact that you really are constantly under fire, and risk losing progress simply for looking wrong at a guard post. To me, though, the experience has been well worth it.

Call of Duty: World At War

Historically, Activision has passed this franchise back and forth between its creator, Infinity Ward, and second-stringer Treyarch (who was best-known for the initially-successful but rapidly-declining Spider-man franchise).

Call of Duty: World at War represents the first Treyarch entry in the series that has met the ridiculously high quality bar set by Infinity Ward. It could represent a turning point for the studio, which is awesome -- we don't have enough studios in the industry that are capable of this kind of work.

And the game itself is just loads of fun to play. Call of Duty has perfected this over-the-top sense of being in a war zone, and coupled it with the most intuitive and responsive controls in the genre. Plus a multiplayer experience that is all action, and all reward, with very little to complain about.

Roleplaying Games

Fallout 3

Like Far Cry 2 and Call of Duty: World at War, this is another example of a new developer taking on a beloved franchise that was originated by someone else entirely -- only developer Bethesda had to deal with Fallout fans, who are by far the most rabid cult following in the history of cult followings.

And I'm among them.

The thing that is great about Fallout games, for me, is the fact that you can make moral choices that have a clear, vast impact on the future of the world. The setting is post-apocalyptic, so it's like someone pushed the reset button on the planet, and it's up to you what kind of world emerges from the ashes.

Bethesda absolutely nailed the 1950's vibe of the Fallout universe, to the point where I find myself humming tunes from that era even when I'm not playing the game. The writing is really excellent, too, especially by game standards, and their strategy for adapting the old-school turn-based combat into a modern first-person game is spot-on.

At any time in combat, you can pause the game and single out enemy body parts to target with your weapons, then watch as the character you created uses his own skills to take down your enemies in a moment of bloody cinematic glory.

Horror Games

Dead Space

One of the most polished and complete experiences I've seen come out of the game industry since, and possibly including, BioShock.

Reputedly stemming originally from the same inspiration as BioShock, Dead Space is a horrific journey into a derelict orbital facility that has been taken over by an infectious agent that reanimates dead human tissue to create nightmarish monsters that can only be defeated by, quite literally, cutting them to pieces with salvaged industrial equipment.

It has the pacing of Resident Evil 4: slow and suspenseful, punctuated by quick scares and panicked, frequent frenzied moments of combat, with a few cinematic setpieces that really stick in your memory.

But what sets it apart from that classic is its unique use of the outer-space setting. Space is not just window-dressing in this game. The orbital facility is heavily damaged, and is riddled with places where the air or the artificial gravity (or both) have failed, creating this sense of vulnerability in the face of open, hostile three-dimensional spaces where you get around by jumping from one piece of solid ground to another. Also, the high-tech setting allowed the developers to couch all of their on-screen interface in the real world, placing your health bar on LEDs on your suit, your crosshair in the laser sights of your weapons, and even your interaction prompts and inventory screen on holograms projected near your character. This all fits together incredibly smoothly, and creates a sense of immersion in the horrific reality they've created that might have been lost with a bunch of blinking lights on the screen.

Crazy Games

Mirror's Edge

This year, between Mirror's Edge and Bad Company, developer DICE has proven that they can do a lot more than put out multiplayer Battlefield games every year. Mirror's Edge takes the bane of the first-person genre -- jumping puzzles -- and defiantly insists on doing the impossible -- making a first-person game that is entirely about parkour-style acrobatics.

The result is unexpectedly intuitive and fun to play (though still quite difficult to truly master).

Couple that with an artistic look that is simultaneously realistic and completely visually distinctive (one of the hardest tricks for an art director to pull off), and you end up with this must-have experience that should really impact the way future first-person games handle the player's relationship to his environment.

World of Goo

This game is only available as a digital download (as far as I know) through Steam and the Wii Shop, and I'm concerned that a lot of people who might have loved it will never get to play it.

You start each level with a pile of "goo balls," and your goal is to get as many of them as you can into a distant vacuum pipe. To do so, you must click and drag goo balls so that they form delicate latticeworks, which are acted on by physics, and build towers and bridges to reach your destination.

Different types of goo balls have different physical properties. Some build strong lattices, some build stretchy elastic ones, some only dangle, some float like balloons, some are launched as though from catapults, etc.

The creative engineering challenges are fun to tackle, and the trippy, adorable art style of the whole thing really pulls you in. The final reward is to take all the extra goo balls you've collected across the game, and build the tallest tower you can, comparing the height of your tower, in real time, with other towers being built all over the world.

Braid

This downloadable Xbox Live Arcade game is very simple at its core. It's basically an artsy-looking old-school Mario game -- you run, jump, and stomp on enemies.

Oh, and you can reverse time.

With that one addition, designer Jonathan Blow crafts a mindbending game where each new world adds a different twist to your manipulation of time -- but it's rarely something new that you, as a player, need to learn how to do. Your basic skills remain constant, but the world you inhabit becomes more and more complex and fascinating.

This game belongs in game design textbooks as an ideal example of how you balance simple mechanics against complex challenges, and how you train the player to live and play in your world.

In one world, each time you reverse time, a doppelganger of you reenacts your last set of actions alongside you, allowing you to cooperate with yourself.

In another, your position on the screen is also your position on the timeline, so that as you move to the right, time moves forward, and as you move back, time reverses. In another, time moves exclusively in reverse, and you have to "reverse" it in order to make things happen properly.

In all these places, there are individual elements that ignore the rules. And yet, it all makes sense.

If you have an Xbox 360, you have to download this game, if nothing else, so that Jonathan Blow can get fantastically rich, and spend all his time making another one.


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