My Dragon Age 2 Review

Dragon Age: Origins was a phenomenal game.  Open-ended, non-linear (minus the main story) role-playing in true Bioware fashion.  It was great to customize your party, slay Darkspawn and become the Hero Of Ferelden.  Killing demons, dragons and also helping the Kingdom along the way.  It was immersive, it pulled you in with its claws and didn’t let go.

Dragon Age 2 Hawke
This is you. Or could be.

The lore and mythology of Dragon Age has both width and depth.  The Grey Wardens, the King, the Chantry and the Templars, the Circle of Magi; all had their own agendas and you had to choose your path and navigate the politics as well as the many dungeons inside Dragon Age.  It was massive.  On my first play through as a Human Noble Origin it took me (and I’m a little slow but no turtle) about 50 hours to beat with having only explore 42% of the World (that includes that there are other Origins that are about 10% of the content each.

Dragon Age 2 is much smaller.  There are still hordes of bad guys to kill, of all shapes and sizes.  The main factions are still there, the Grey Wardens aren’t much of it as you play a new hero “Hawke” in a framed narrative.  Your story being told over the course of a decade by one of your compatriots.  You are a refugee from the Blight (Dragon Age: Origins) and have fled the Blight to the city of Kirkwall, a rather unsavory city that doesn’t like refugees.

Kirkwall Dragon Age 2
Kirkwall... What a crapfest in a hand basket.

The story skips forward over the course of the year as you accomplish the main plot missions.  It’s done well, the framed narrative works in this regard.  I was concerned I wasn’t going to feel I was part of the story, but I didn’t feel that way at all.

Your companions are varied, and fit all of the roles you’d need.  Mage, rogue, warrior, etc.  Those are the main archtypes but you are able to customize their skills to fit your need.  Their motivations are particularly clear and choosing the “wrong” answers in conversations or in quests you choose can cause you to gain “Rivalry” with them.  Conversely, appease their moral sense and you will gain “Friendship.”  This is similar to the Paragon and Renegade mechanic from Mass Effect but unlike you having to manage yourself, you’ve got your companions to worry about, individually.  You’ll soon find your favorite set of companions for your adventures, but for their “companion missions” you’ll need to take the applicable companion along for the ride, so to speak.

Dragon Age 2 Companions
See these guys? That's some of your posse. And they know how to bring it.

Graphics and Sound

The graphics are wonderful in the game.  DirectX 11 support really brings a lot to the table in this game.  Reflective surfaces shine, magic effects pop and the game looks crisp and smooth.  The character animations are top-notch and the models are superb.  If you’re not playing in DirectX 11 the game still looks good, but much of the minute detail is gone.

As you’d expect from a Bioware game, the soundtrack is perfect.  It’s very melodious and flowing and easily changes into the drums and chants during combat.  It really is a perfect score for this game.  Inon Zur has outdone himself, the main composer for both Dragon Age games.

Combat

Combat is different than in the original game.  You can still pause the action whenever you’d like and order your companions around (or take control of them if you choose.)   Combat is much faster paced and I, for one, did not like that I could not easily hit the Tab key to cycle targets.  Right-clicking on an enemy will target him just as right-clicking on the ground will move you.  With combat being so fast, I had a tendency to click the ground by accident, run past the enemy and get slashed across my spine for my clumsiness.

Attacks are vicious and instantaneous.  Your skills have a cool down (which can be decreased as you level up).  You can also use “cross-class combos” to coordinate deadly attacks against your opponents.

Gripes

I only have a few complaints about the game.  I know it didn’t review well at “Formal” review sites like Gamespot and IGN but I’m a bit more forgiving than they are.

  1. Repetitive Areas – If you don’t know your way around Kirkwall at the start, you soon will.  There are several main areas of the city and you will visit them.  A lot.  All of the time.  Constantly.  Seriously, you will be the Google Street Car for Kirkwall.  You’ll visit the areas over and over again completing quests.  Deal with it.  A bit annoying but not a deal breaker.
  2. Bland Area Textures – There’s not a lot of variety once you’re in an area.  Darktown is dark and dusty.  Lowtown is dusty.  Hightown has lots of stone.  It’s not ugly but there’s not a huge amount of variety.
  3. Combat – I like that my skills have possibly devastating effects, but I like the combat in DA: Origins much better.  Origins combat was much more tactical.  In Dragon Age 2 I feel like I’m just waiting for a cooldown to expire, like I’m playing an MMO like Rift.
  4. Romantic Entanglements – They are done well.  They fit all types of lifestyles, straight, gay, bi-sexual, lesbian, you name it.  Downside, I didn’t like that Anders or Fennric hit on my male player instantly.  It felt a little “too much too soon.”  Being a straight gamer, I’m satisfied with the two choices that you’re provided as the romance options.  Again, my only gripe was the two guy companions hit on me instantly when they were part of my group, the two straight options did not.
Dragon Age 2 Romance
Whoa... Maybe I should play a female next time. Who is the creep by the door?

I’d give Dragon Age 2 a 4 out of 5.  It’s not as good as the original but it’s pretty damn close.  My only real gripe that bothers me is the scope of the game.  In Dragon Age: Origins you’re saving a country and possibly the world.  In Dragon Age 2 you’re much more focused to one city.

My Initial Rift Review

Does Rift live up to the hype?  Is Rift a “WoW Killer?”  Quite honestly, three days after launch and several days after the “pre-purchase” headstart, it’s too soon to tell.

Rift takes place in a Telara, a world that sits at a junction of the elemental planes.  Because of it’s strategic location it’s been assaulted by different elemental forces and it’s people wiped out.  The god’s of  Telera intervened and resurrected the Guardians (aka your good guys) to fight the invasions.  On the other hand, you have the Defiant, who reject the gods and choose technology as their path to fight the invasions.

Graphics

First off, Rift is pretty.  Prettier than World of Warcraft has ever been.  The visuals are great, the particle effects are beautiful and so far (I’m leisurely playing and only level 15 after several hours of gaming), the character models are great on NPCs, creatures and Player Characters.  Texture modeling and detailing looks superb with glinting armor, embossed designs on clothing and deep design on the models.

Sound

The sounds are pretty top-notch to any MMO.  There’s not a huge variation between sound effects when it comes to the creature death gurgles and such.  Weapon hits and the sounds of battle do sound great, however.

General Game Information

I play on a Player versus Environment (PvE) server and not Player versus Player (PvP) so I can’t speak too much about the second.  PvE balance has always been an issue as well as PvP in any MMO.  At this time I’m hearing alot about Warfronts being mismatched with too many people on one-side or the other.  Just three days after launch there is plenty of balancing that needs to be done on both sides of the game.

Rift is highly accessible. If you’ve played ANY MMO the controls will be familiar.  Most of the key functions for opening the map, or your bags, as examples, are directly ported from your major MMOs like WoW or Lord of the Rings Online.  There are some really great touches however.  My personal favorite is that bringing up the map blocks the screen, like any MMO, but when you move it goes 80% transparent, allowing you to use the map while you move.

Rifts

We have to talk about Rifts.  Rifts are “invasions” that randomly spawn across the zones at, or around, a level commensurate to that zone.  If a Rift isn’t closed quickly it can expand into a full-blown invasion that can quickly overwhelm parts of the area.  The creatures that spawn will ultimately begin to attack areas around the Rift and hamper your ability to complete quests.

Rift allows you, or your group, to quickly join into a “Public Group,” a short-term raid in essence, to combine your efforts and get credit and rewards for sealing the Rift.   You can then attack and seal the Rift with the help of everyone who wants to join.

Downside, if no one is around, these Rifts will basically make your life a living Hell until the server spawns “Guardian” forces to help until it seals on it’s own.

Rift is a fun game, I recommend picking it up if you are looking to scratch your itch for a new MMO.  Exciting combat, raiding, and lots and lots of loot are always good things to look forward to.

Why I Won’t Port My Number to Google Voice

Google Voice is a great application: It’s another phone number, it transcribes voicemails and can text them to you, forward to other numbers and keeps your contacts.  My Google Voice number is an easy way for me to keep my old cell phone number, since I tend to move a lot, and let’s me filter other calls easily without using my cell.

Google recently announced that you can port your current number to Google Voice for $20.  It was released to a select group of users and as of today, January 25th, 2011, to everyone.

I won’t be one of the people porting to Google Voice.  I like having my old cellphone number BE my number.  My close friends and family have it and it’s my primary texting device.  I have an iPhone, and yes, there’s a Google Voice app that I could use, but I like just using my Messaging button and not opening Google Voice on my phone.

Secondly, I don’t want to have to get a new number on my cell.  I can change my Google Voice number in the future, for $10.  If I move, I can just change my number.  It’s cheaper than the $20 porting cost.

Yes, I could port my number and get the same features, but I like the flexibility.  Everyone knows it is my cell.  I give my GV number to everyone else.   That gives me the ability to decide who I really want to talk to on my cell and forward calls to my Skype number or drop them to voicemail.

Google Voice is a great tool.  I really recommend using it for anyone who uses Gmail and has multiple phones they want to use.  It’s a great “central contact” number for managing your communications.

Alloxan and Diabetes

I’ve been reading the much-anticipated book “The 4-Hour Body” by Tim Ferriss and I ran across an interesting article about Alloxan and links to diabetes.

For those who don’t know, I have been following a primal/paleo-diet for the past several months, using the 80/20 rule to keep track of what I eat. Six out of seven days I’m very paleo, minus milk products. I don’t eat refined grains (corn is a GRAIN, people) and very few starches. I get most of my calories from protein, leafy vegetables and fats. Conventional wisdom alludes that saturated fats cause heart disease but there’s no study that proves it. Saturated fats have been a staple of the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years. Grains, barely 10,000 years. I’m going to bet that my genetic heritage is geared towards digestion of fat.

Would you believe that eating primarily fat as my source of energy, an adequate amount of protein, say .4g per pound of lean muscle mass, and keeping carbohydrates under 50g per day, with green vegetables, has not only improved my cholesterol, but i’ve also lost inches on the waist, gut, hips and thighs while at the same time maintaining (and increasing) muscle mass?

Anyways, I digress.

Unbeknown to me, “enriched” products, like flour are treated with Chlorine Dioxide which, when introduced to protein chains, creates alloxan. Alloxan is used in rats to create Type I diabetes, or Diabetes Mellitus.

There have been studies perform to monitor the effect of Alloxan in humans and none are conclusive. I’d rather not chance it. Which works out for me since I don’t eat grains, including flour.

You should check out “The 4-Hour Body” for more additional information.

The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman

PS3 Media Server Configuration

A few days ago, I wrote Part 1 of this series about basic information on PS3 Media Server.  Today I want to go a little more in-depth about the configuration of PMS and some common options you’ll need to configure. (edit: You can also view my PS3 Media Server Configuration Video Tutorial.)

PS3 Media Server will work for most people out-of-the box without any additional software.   If you plan on playing many different types of video and music files you’ll need to install a few other pieces of software.  For simplicity’s sake we’re going to assume you’re running Windows, though the installation process is similar on all supported operating systems (OSX, Linux, Windows).

Getting Started

To get started lets grab the software we will need.

Installation

Install Java first (or update your current version) and then install PS3 Media Server, AviSynth, CCCP and VLC.  You can use all of the defaults or customize the installation directories to where they work for you.  I run PS3 Media Server from one partition and my codec packs and other software are installed on a separate physical disk.  I do not recommend running several codec packs, such as K-lite with CCCP as you could inadvertently be using different versions of stable codecs but still run across strange transcoding and muxing errors.

What Is Transcoding

Transcoding is digital-to-digital re-coding from one format to another, such as converting MKV to Divx.  Transcoding with PMS can be done on the fly while playing a video.  Transcoding can be processor intensive and I only recommend transcoding video if you have at minimum a dual-core processor.  Transcoding with PMS tends to lower overall quality on the desired video.

What Is Muxing

Muxing, better known as MUltipleXING, is combining separate files into one file for viewing.  In PMS, AC3 Audio and a video file can be combined, playing hi-definition audio with your video.  PMS utilizes mencoder and TSMuxer for multiplexing audio with video.  In my own experience with PMS, TSMuxer tends to present a smoother muxing process than mencoder with less stutter and buffering over 803.11N wireless networks.  G networks theoretically support it as well, but I’ve noticed severe degradation and stuttering when attempting to mux audio with a hi-def video (such as Blu Ray Disc rips) over less than an N-wireless network.

Java?

PS3 Media Server utilizes Java to run.  When you launch PS3 Media Server it is “wrapped” in Java, basically the PMS executable launches a file that calls Java with many different parameters.  If you view the running processes under Task Manager you’ll notice Java running and utilizing a large amount of RAM, up to 600+ MB.

Configuring PS3 Media Server

When you open PS3 Media Server after installing it, PMS.exe, you’ll experience a tabbed interface with a “Save,” “Restart HTTP Server,” and “Quit” buttons at the top, like so.

General Configuration

We’re primarily going to be concerned with the General Configuration, Navigation/Share Settings, and Transcoding Settings tabs.  These are the tabs that you’ll use the most.  The other tabs are more for your information, reviewing logs, the readme, FAQs, help and additional information.

Let’s start with the General Configuration Tab.

General Configuration

You’ll want to choose your language and decide if you want to run PMS as a service that automatically starts.  I’ve chosen that option so that it’s always running, especially if I restart my system.  I want it to always start with the computer.

If you have multiple network cards you’ll want to choose the interface you want PMS to use for the network.  I also force my IP Address on my computer to be the active IP address, to ensure that my Playstation can always access my system.  I use a static address on my system so that it doesn’t change.  You should also consider using the HTTP Engine V2 (which is the default) and selecting “Prevent OS from sleeping while streaming” so that your streaming isn’t interrupted by your computer going to sleep for not detecting any use.

The Navigation/Share Settings tab is where you configure your library that you want to watch or listen to.  PMS will also stream audio files (non-DRM), including your DRM-free iTunes files.

PMS Navigation and SharingI select Thumbnails generation so I can see a video thumbnail of the show I’m playing, as well as generate DVD ISO thumbnails.  “Thumbnail seeking position” defines at what second in the video will it generate a thumbnail and can be configured for any time period in the video.

PMS provides the functionality to change muxing and transcoding engines “on-the-fly” from your playback device, so I don’t select “Hide #Video Settings# folder and “Hide #Transcode# Folder.”  Play with these options as much as you wish until you find what makes you happy.

The bottom, under “Shared Folder” is where you’ll add the folders where your media resides at.  I have a hierarchy of folders I store my media at with it separated by TV shows, Movies, etc. You can add as many folders as you wish and switch between them easily on your playback device.

Now lets take a look at the Transcoding Settings tab, Common Transcoding settings options.

Transcoding SettingsIf you have more RAM (I’ve 4GB in my PS3 Media Server system) bump the buffer size up to 600 MB.  That’s the maximum it will use.  I’m hoping in the future that they allow more than this as a 32-bit application can support up to 3.2+ GB, I’d prefer to double the current maximum that the application supports.

PMS will detect how many cores you have, stick with what it finds.  If it doesn’t detect 2 or more cores, and you have a dual or quad core system, bump it up to the correct number.

I utilize 2 channel audio, as I am not running an audio/video receiver capable of surround sound.  If you do, select the audio output you desire that your system supports.  Select the Ac3 bit-rate as well.  If you’re using DTS audio or FLAC (lossless audio) feel free to convert it to LPCM if you have an HDMI receiver.

If you have AC3 audio you can also select to have it remux’d to work with your system.

Under video quality you can change the maximum bandwidth used.  This works well if you’re on a G wireless network or a 10Mb/s wired connection.  Hi-def audio and video are bandwidth intensive.  If you are brave at heart, you can define several transcoding variables, such as keyint, vqscale and vqmin to customize the quality of the video and help save on bandwidth.

Under transcoding you can also disable subtitles and skip or force transcoding on different file types.

On the left, you can re-order the way in which PMS will attempt to use transcoding, muxing and streaming engines.  Use the blue UP and DOWN arrows to find an order that works best for you.  The order you see is what I currently use.  If you find that you’re seeing choppy video, you can change transcoding and muxing options from the playback device #Transcode# folder you see while using PMS or reorder it in the configuration and restarting PS3 Media Server.

One caveat, if you decided to run PS3 Media Server as a service, you will have to use the Services Manager utility to restart PMS and the PMS.exe file to configure it.  The “Restart HTTP Server” button will not work when you run PMS as a service.  To open services manager you can click on Start > Run and type “services.msc” without quotes.  Hit enter.  It will open up the Services Manager program.  Find “PS3 Media Server,” select it, right-click on it and choose “Restart.”  It is more tedious but you won’t need to do that very often.

All of the configuration options in PS3 Media Server can also be adjusted by editing the PMS.conf file that is in the same directory as PMS.exe, where you installed PS3 Media Server.   All of the options in PMS can be configured via the text file and the text file is used by PS3 Media Server when you start it to ensure that it is configured properly.  If you edit the text file and restart PMS the UI will reflect any changes.

To end Part 2, here’s my configuration file.   Leave a comment if you have any questions!

thumbnails = true
alternativeffmpegpath = E:\\Program Files (x86)\\PS3 Media Server\\win32\\dvrms\\ffmpeg_MPGMUX.exe
mencoder_ass = true
engines = mencoder,tsmuxer,tsmuxeraudio,ffmpegaudio,mplayeraudio,mencoderwebvideo,mplayervideodump,vlcvideo,mplayerwebaudio,vlcaudio,ffmpegdvrmsremux,rawthumbs
folders = I:\\PS3_media,G:\\Archived TV And Movies
maxvideobuffer = 600
audiochannels = 2
network_interface = eth5
usecache = true
thumbnail_seek_pos = 3
tsmuxer_mux_all_audiotracks = false
skiploopfilter = false
mencoder_fontconfig = true
mencoder_disablesubs = true
mencoder_mt = true
avisynth_convertfps = true
mencoder_mux_compatible = false
codec_spec_script =
mencoder_encode = keyint=1:vqscale=1:vqmin=1
dvd_isos_thumbnails = true
ffmpeg = -threads 6 -g 1 -qscale 1 -qmin 2
mencoder_remux_ac3 = true
embed_dts_in_pcm = false
itunes = true
audiobitrate = 384
port = 5001
hostname = 192.168.0.197

Fred Astaire Tampa Trophy Ball 2010

The annual Fred Astaire Dance Studio Tampa Bay Area Trophy Ball 2010 was held last Thursday at The Rusty Pelican in Tampa.  The Trophy Ball event is used as a forum to get all of the dancers at the studios together and showcase some of the students are are moving from one level of dancing to another.

I “graduated” out of Bronze I and Bronze II dancing.  Most of my fellow-studio dancers did the same or checked-out of Social and Bronze I level dancing.  I’m very proud of their dedication and passion for dancing and they want to continue to do it like I do.

There were a lot of phenomenal routines done by the other students.  I danced a contemporary routine with my instructor to John Mayer’s “Dreaming With A Broken Heart.”

Next year I’ll hopefully graduate from Bronze III and Bronze IV for my dances.  Then I can work on moving onto the silver syllabus.

It was a fun event a lot of great people, dancing, music and routines.  I can’t wait to do it next year!

PS3 Media Server

The days of a closed television architecture are over.  With the advent of Internet-based radio and television, the need for traditional cable television service is minimal.  DLNA-compliant televisions, DVD and Blu Ray Disc players and next-generation video game consoles like the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 make it possible to archive or download your own videos on your PC and play them remotely on these devices.

My favorite application to do this is PS3 Media Server (PMS).  PMS is a free open source program that will mux and transcode non-compliant video and stream it across either a wired or wireless connection to your Playstation 3 or Xbox 360.

PMS plays many formats, and when configured will also play BRD rips, xvid, divx, DVD .iso files as well as MKV containers.  The Playstation  3 won’t natively play many of these formats and PMS will convert them on-the-fly into a PS3-capable format.

In my next article, I will review what other applications you can use with PMS and many of the configuration options you may need to tune to play your media properly.

The 1992 Jeep Wrangler YJ Rides Again

You know, I didn’t realize it’d take four days in the shop to get my Jeep Wrangler repaired.  I took it to a transmission shop about 2 miles from my house and dropped it off on a Tuesday and didn’t get it back until Saturday.

It wasn’t their fault, apparently I also had a busted motor mount so my engine wasn’t secure on the right side.  So the final tally was just under $700 for the slave cylinder to be replaced, the rear seal replaced and the motor mount replacement.  Of course it was recommended that I have the rotor rotated and my clutch replaced as there was a “little wear” on the clutch gears, but in my mind, a “little wear” on an 18 year old Jeep that has 110K miles on it is definitely acceptable so I passed on that.

This spring I am considering driving up to my parents, taking the engine out at my dads, replacing the clutch and putting a new gasket on the oil pan.  I’d rather drive up there for a day, spend a week at their house and do the repairs that way myself instead of spending $60-80/hr to have it done at a shop.

It’s About Time

Two not-so-important but notable activities are currently happening.  Following back to My House Got Hit By Lightning.

1.  My new 320GB Playstation 3 with Move bundle is on it’s way.  Quite honestly, I never watch TV (but oddly enough pay the cable company for it) and used my old PS3 for streaming media from my PC.  Anything I don’t DVR, I just find via the ‘Net and stream.  For anyone who wants to do the same thing, I recommend “PS3 Media Server.”  PMS (heh not the un-fun female variety) will convert videos on the fly with a bit of buffering.  Anyways, the PS3 bundle comes with the Move package and Sports Champion (which looks sorta like Wii Sports just way better visually).  It will be fun to try out.

2.  My 1992 Jeep Wrangler YJ is finally going into the garage for a much needed clutch repair.  It was a minor leak until the last few months and I have kept putting off getting it repaired.  Let’s hope it keeps at the low-low pricey of $550, as the engine needs removed to replace the questionable slave clutch cylinder.  If it was an external slave cylinder I’d have yanked it out myself and dropped a new one in.  Unfortunately, I won’t get it back until Wednesday, hopefully before my Salsa/Ballroom Bronze check-out (for certification) at 5:30PM.