Highland Pipes

•January 8, 2009 • 4 Comments

So, in town, there’s this local Irish pub that has their own bagpipe band.  Now, the pipers play Highland pipes instead of Uilleann pipes, but that’s likely because they’re a marching band and it would likely be difficult to march with Uilleann pipes… :p

Anyway, I posted on Craigslist the other day, seeking a pennywhistle instructor and/or other locals interested in Irish Traditional Music (ITM), and got a response from one of the drummers in the pipe band.  He hooks me up with the phone number of the lead piper, and two days later I’ve got a lesson schedule and the website for a recommended practice chanter.

That’s right, folks.  I’m learning to play the bagpipes.  My wife is, I’m sure, thrilled. :)

Penny Whistle – Now with 20% more obsession!

•December 23, 2008 • 2 Comments

So, if you’ve read my past posts, you know that I play a bit of the penny whistle (or pennywhistle or tin whistle or tinwhistle or Irish whistle or … you get the idea… I can’t even decide how I want to type it out half the time).  You also know that I recently had a small (very small) whistle solo part in a Christmas concert.  A funny thing has happened since that solo.  I’ve become fairly obsessed with the instrument.

When I bought my first whistle, it was somewhat on a whim.  I was interested in the instrument, as I’d come to love the sound of it in Celtic music (which I listen to a fair amount of — musical diversity is important!).  I tooled around with it every day for a month or so, then sort of just tinkered a couple or three times a week.  I am in no way a “good” whistle player — no ornamentation, can’t play fast songs, takes me a bit to learn a new song, can’t easily sight-read music for the whistle.

When this bit in the Christmas concert came up, it was originally going to be played by a flautist.  After all, the whistle is a wind instrument and fairly similar to a flute.  I let her borrow my whistles so that she could practice the part.  However, the flautist simply did not have the time to learn the fingering of the whistle and such for the concert.  It doesn’t help that the piece was in C and both of my whistles were Ds.  So, I offered my services, thinking that there was perhaps a 10% chance that I could work up the piece in the short amount of time before the concert.

When I saw that the piece was in C, I immediately ordered a C whistle (OK, 3 C whistles and another D, the D only because it was a set with the C and D).  I borrowed a rather poor wooden whistle in C — it was literally just a tourist thing from the Caribbean — and set about learning the piece while I waited for my real whistles to arrive.  I had the part memorized in about 2 minutes (I told you it was short) and even added ornamentation to the piece.  The end result, I think, it rather pleasing.  I nailed it during the concert, too, which helps.

Since playing that piece in the concert, I’ve been asked repeatedly about the whistle — how I learned it, where I got it, is there other music that uses it.  My favorite comment, by far, was relayed to me by the flautist who was originally going to play the part.  Her son thought the solo was awesome and he really wanted to know what the instrument was.  That was the first time I had played the whistle for anyone but my wife and daughter, and the first time I’d played the instrument outside the home, and the response has been overwhelming.

What this all served to do was renew my interest in the whistle, and since the concert I’ve been working on my playing almost non stop.  It’s driving my wife crazy, I think.  I have to remember to stop playing when she’s trying to nap…  I’ve become an active member of a whistle forum, begun reading books about the whistle, looking into proper recording devices… I can’t stop thinking about the whistle, about how much I want to play it and get better at it.  I’m still not good by a long shot.  I still don’t ornament my playing.  I still only know one or two pieces.  I still can’t sight-read music very well on it.  But I’m getting better.

I’ve begun learning a nice new jig, I’m working on my first reel, and I’m beginning to really think about and practice some ornamentation.  I really want to look into starting an Irish Traditional Music group here in town, perhaps getting others interested in the whistle or other ITM instruments.  I want to start holding sessions at one of the various Irish pubs around.  I want others to be as obsessed as I am!

Of Whistles and Orchestras

•December 9, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I play violin in an orchestra.  Our violin crew varies, but generally we’ll have at least three violinists, oftentimes as many as six.  We have a performance coming up on Sunday, December 14.  During this performance, there is one piece which requires a pennywhistle.  It just so happens that I recently took up playing the pennywhistle.

So, during this one particular piece, which has a whistle intro and outro, I will be playing both whistle and violin.  This poses an interesting challenge: how do I keep the whistle in tune while we work towards the song where I play the whistle?  Worse yet, like I just said, I only recently began playing the whistle, so I’ve never played 1) in public, or 2) with others, much less a full orchestra.  My first time practicing with the full orchestra was just a couple of days ago, and I discovered that I need to work on it.

I can play the part spot on without anyone else playing, but when I get with the group, I have a tendency to overblow, which, on a whistle, makes for some bad notes.  The problem is partly that I’m not experience in playing with an ensemble, and partly that I can barely hear myself over the rest of the orchestra.  I’ve asked around for advice on playing whistle with an orchestra, specifically at the Chiff and Fipple forums.  So, here’s what I’ve got so far.  Feel free to add your own suggestions in comments.

  • Warm the whistle up, tune it with the piano, and KEEP IT WARM

This is, perhaps, one of the trickiest suggestions for me.  Since I play violin, I need to be comfortable and have a full range of upper body movement.  Suggestions I’ve received include sitting on the whistle, stuffing it down my pants (which would work brilliantly, I’m sure, but I do not think the conductor would be amused when I pull a whistle out of my pants in the middle of the concert :), putting it in a small sack with some hot water bottles, wrapping it with a “wheatie,” and blowing air through the whistle before playing the part.

  • Beware saliva buildup

This really still kind of relates to keeping the whistle warm.  When playing a cold whistle, particularly a metal one, your warm, moist breath can hit the cold inside wall of a whistle and condense.  This can cause a buildup of saliva, which can cause all sorts of interesting issues for whistle playing.  Keeping the whistle warm should help alleviate this, but there’s also another trick known as the soap trick.

  • Relax, trust yourself, don’t push it

Perhaps the most “general” advice, but also perhaps some of the most useful.  Somtimes you really just have to quit worrying so much about things and just do them.  “…Don’t try to compete,” one sentence from this particular advice giver ends.  That right there is a big part of my problem.  I feel like the whistle, which is the soloist instrument in this particular situation, cannot be heard, so I’m trying my best to make it louder, which doesn’t really work too well with whistles.  You can make them hit different octaves, tweak the sharpness/flatness of a note, but louder doesn’t really happen much.

So, that’s the advice I’ve gotten thus far.  I’ll leave you with the full quote from the general advice, because there’s a lot of good to be had there.

I’ve had the pleasure of playing whistle in orchestral/concert situations and it’s natural to be nervous, which will tend to make you overblow, especially if you think you’re not being heard amid the other instruments and start trying to compete. The only thing I can say is I learned to play within my own limitations and not compete. In other words, even if you don’t think you’re being heard, don’t try to compete. Take it easy, don’t push it, play within your own limitations and be a part of the whole. You may not hear yourself very well, but it’s amazing how those around you CAN hear it. In concert situations with other instruments, I’ve found that I often have to play whistle on faith because I can’t really hear myself well. I just have faith that I’m part of the mix and do the best I can without pushing too hard.

- Ballyshannon of the Chiff and Fipple forums

RE: Fallout 3 Reviews

•December 3, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I want to get something off my chest.

I purposefully avoided reading reviews of Fallout 3 prior to playing and reviewing it myself.  Having now written my review of Fallout 3, I have been reading several other reviews and I’ve re-read my own review several times.  I am disappointed.  I’m disappointed both in myself, and in others.

I am disappointed in myself for a few reasons.  First, because I did not make it clear that I am still in the process of my first playthrough.  I have not completed the main quest.  I have a feeling that once I do, my opinion of the game will drop a bit, given what I now know.  I also was not aware of the decrease in damage taken during V.A.T.S. (it never really came up while I was playing…).  While in V.A.T.S., the player receives about 10% of the damage normally taken.  I still really like the V.A.T.S. system, and I still feel it does a good job of hybridizing realtime FPS combat and turn-based combat.  However, making the player take less damage while in V.A.T.S. is akin to making V.A.T.S. a one-button cheat code.  Shame on you, Bethesda.  I am also disappointed that I did not stress that Fallout 1 and Fallout 2 are better games (in my opinion) than Fallout 3.  I did point out a few things that I felt were missing from Fallout 3, things that were much better done in Fallout 1 and Fallout 2.  But I did not outright state the following: Fallout 1 is the best game in the series, followed by Fallout 2, and then Fallout 3.

Mostly, though, I’m disappointed in the vast majority of people who have reviewed Fallout 3.  In general, about 90% of reviews are absoulte glowing reviews.  These people seem to think that Fallout 3 is the second coming in video game form.  It’s a good game.  It’s a fun game.  It is not, however, deserving of undying praise.  It does have its faults, and no one seems to admit it or state it.  The overwhelming praise for the game is really undeserved.  Then there are about 5% of reviews that are completely negative.  Here’s the flip side of the 90%.  These are the people who are die-hard Fallout fans.  It’s like people who find and fall in love with an indi band, only to gripe and moan when they finally sign a recording contract with a big label, saying they’ve sold out.  These are the people who feel that becoming a huge commercial endeavour (and success) means the series is somehow dead.  These are the people who knew that they would despise the game from the moment it was announced.  Wake up, people.  Review the game for what it is.  It’s really rather fun.  For those of you following along at home, that puts about 5% of reviews as honest, unbiased reviews.

I will be posting a follow-up review of Fallout 3 at a later date, I just wanted to put this out there…

Ding!

•November 20, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I just levelled up in life… I bought a house today.

That is all, just wanted to say it.  Or type it in a blog… whichever.

Review: Fallout 3

•November 17, 2008 • 3 Comments

Note: This is my first review, and I’m still trying to establish exactly how I’m going to format these.

Intro:

As mentioned previously, I have very loving feelings towards the Fallout series.  I love turn-based tactical combat (Jagged Alliance, X-COM, and Silent Storm also rank among my favorites).  I love post-apocalyptic settings.  I also love cyberpunk settings, but that doesn’t really apply here…

As with many others, I was somewhat concerned when the Fallout license passed to Bethesda.  I knew that one of the things I loved so much about the series, the turn-based combat, was out.  The isometric viewpoint was also, out, as stated almost immediately by Bethesda (for those of you who are not aware, Bethesda is known for its first-person RPGs).  So, knowing that Fallout 3 is not the Fallout that I fell in love with so long ago, how does it stack up?

Nutshell:

Right away I will say that, if you are a fan of Bethesda’s other games, such as Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Obilivion, you will enjoy Fallout 3 (as long as the setting doesn’t turn you off).  If you are a fan of Fallout and Fallout 2, you may or may not like Fallout 3Fallout 3 does do a good job of keeping the spirit of Fallout alive, though.  Personally, to me, Fallout 3 truly is the sequel to Fallout 2.  It’s the third game in the series and it’s quite enjoyable.

The Good:

Atmosphere

Setting foot outside the Vault for the first time, I’m somewhat startled to find that it’s night time.  I’m in an unfamiliar land and I can’t see much of anything.  I stumble down the slope and right into a fence.  I work my way around the fence and keep pressing on until I come across a small band of traders.  I dump some of the excess stuff I snatched from the Vault on my way out, then turn around to be greeted by a giant wall with a robot standing in front of it.  I am informed that this is the city of Megaton.

There are a lot of these sorts of situations in Fallout 3.  You just sort of feel your way around until you stumble upon something great (or terrible, as the case may be… Vault 106, for example).  Decimated buildings, desperate survivors.  Wandering the wastes feels like wandering the wastes.  It’s quite nice.  Well, nice in terms of the game… wouldn’t be so nice in real life.

Travel

In the first two Fallout games, travel was handled via a large map.  It was broken into zones.  Some zones were places to visit, others were just empty wasteland.  Each zone was probably something in the neighborhood of 4 square miles or thereabouts.  This meant that the entire world in the first two Fallout games was rather huge.  It was also sparsely populated.  You’d have a small town here, a tiny settlement there, with lots of empty space in between.  If there were 60 miles between you and your destination, it would take several game days of traveling to get there.  This was all handled with a compressed time scale during travel on the map.

In Fallout 3, on the other hand, travel is handled primarily in first person, walking through the world.   A 60-mile trek through nothingness would be extraordinarily boring.  As a result, the world is kept smaller, and more densely packed.  There’s still plenty of wide-open empty spaces with random encounters in between, though.  What this translates into is, somewhat surprisingly, a better game experience.  It is radically different from the original games, and yet strikingly similar.  Travel times are about the same, and random encounters happen just as often.  Except now, instead of staring at some dull map, you’re experiencing the world.  You truly are wandering through a barren wasteland, constantly checking your periphery for nasty critters (or worse).  It makes journeying in the world fun, instead of just something that has to be done.

V.A.T.S.

Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System.  In addition to being an acronym fitting of the Fallout world (see G.E.C.K.), V.A.T.S. in Fallout 3 is well thought out and well implemented.  As I mentioned above, one of the things I loved about the first two Fallout games was the turn-based combat.  While I suppose you technically *could* do full on turn-based combat in an FPS, it wouldn’t be very much fun and would completely go against the idea behind FPS.  What Bethesda came up with as a happy middle ground is V.A.T.S.

Anyone who’s been following the development of Fallout 3 is familiar with V.A.T.S.  It is a way to pause the combat and target specific body parts.  To some extent, it is capable of turning the combat into a turn-based affair.  When I first started using V.A.T.S., I was disappointed.  You enter the V.A.T.S. screen, pick your target(s) (in the same manner as the first Fallout games, which is great), and then unleash a hail of bullets.  Thing is, while you’re firing in V.A.T.S. mode, you cannot move.  Which prompted me to think of it as almost useless: no more run-and-gun FPS combat.  Instead you just pick your target and stand there while getting shot/smashed.

But therein lies the brilliance of V.A.T.S.  I’ll demonstrate with an example from Fallout 2.  I’m fighting a golden gecko, which can really wallop me toe-to-toe.  Thing is, I’m fast, so my tactic is to jab it with my spear, and run enough paces away to just use up its action points.  This keeps me from being attacked after the gecko moves, but ensures that it stops within spear range of me.  Perfectly safe.  At first blush, you can’t do something like that in Fallout 3 with V.A.T.S.  Except that, really, you can.  There is absolutely no obligation to use all of your action points in one V.A.T.S. session.  The equivalent of my golden gecko tactic in Fallout 3 is to simply fire off one, maybe two attacks, then run away in real-time.  Your action points recharge, and you can repeat.  V.A.T.S. turns real-time combat into a semi-turn-based affair.

Radio

The radio in Fallout 3 is brilliant.  From the 50′s-era music to the news broadcasts, it’s great.  President John Henry Eden, voiced by Malcolm McDowell (one of my favorites), has a firm, reassuring (and mildly disturbing at the same time) message to deliver to America.  Three Dog, voiced by Erik Todd Dellums, updates the inhabitants of the Capital Wastelands on the goings-on in the area.  It’s fun to hear the deeds of your character being discussed on the radio, although this is also one area that I find somewhat poorly done (see below).

The Bad:

Conversation and Game Awareness

The dialog in Fallout 3 is really hit-or-miss.  Some of it is good, some of it is bad.  I remember the first Fallout games really placing a heavy emphasis on great conversation.  One example is the difference in conversation choices based upon your character’s intelligence.  Fallout 2 has a particularly good example of this in the character of Torr.  With a character of normal or high intelligence, Torr is an idiot.  Conversations with him consist of his one- or two-word replies to your fully formed sentences.  If your character has an intelligence of less than 4, though, you can have complex, intelligent conversations with Torr, because you are both of like mind and you understand each other.  On the flip side of that, with an intelligence of 4, your conversations with other NPCs are more like Torr’s conversations with everyone else, to the point that one NPC even complains that you’re “another one.”

I’ve seen none of this depth in Fallout 3‘s conversations.  In fact, some dialog options don’t even make sense.  Your character is bizarrely aware of things he has no business being aware of.  For example, in Megaton, you mystically know the name Maggie before ever seeing said person or even hearing the name from anyone.  The same thing happens with quest information throughout the game.  You just magically know about things.  Clearly more attention should have been paid to this.

Similarly, Three Dog has a mystical awareness of your deeds.  I can understand information finding his ears quickly, but when literally one minute he’s calling you an exemplar, and the next a neutral observer, without anyone having seen you do anything, things are a bit off.  Specifically, he was recounting my recent deeds, and my karma happened to be high from completing a recent quest, so he kept referring to me as an exemplar (my title in game at the time).  I’m attempting to keep my character neutral (mainly because I find I’m a bit of a klepto, so end up neutral most of the time anyway), so I was stealing some random things about town until my karma dropped enough for me to be a “neutral observer.”  Immediately, Three Dog’s back on the radio musing about whether I can be trusted or not because I’m simply a neutral observer.  He must be watching my TV, because nobody but me saw what was going on…

Zones

While moving about the wasteland is done in first-person, there is an annoying cordoning off of large sections of the world into sort of pseudo-zones.  There are areas where, in order to access them, you must enter the subway tunnels and travel in a pretty much linear manner, dealing with whatever baddies happen to be down there, and the exit on the other side to be in another small zone.  Clearly, Bethesda has the streaming-world tech down pat.  Oblivion had a huge world in which you could walk from one end to the other without ever encountering a loading screen or zone boundary.  Even in Fallout 3, a huge chunk of the world is just open and free to roam in.  But when you get into some heavy city areas, you’re forced to navigate via the pseudo-zone system.  Thank goodness you can quick travel once you’ve discovered the areas.

Skills/S.P.E.C.I.A.L/Perks

The Fallout series has a character creation and leveling system that is very particular.  You have your attributes, known as S.P.E.C.I.A.L – Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck.  Then you have your skills, such as small guns, sneak, lock pick, etc.  Finally, there are your perks, which give you some extra little edge.  In the first two Fallout games, your attributes were locked post character creation, which made your initial setup of them incredibly important.  You really had to know what you wanted your character to be.  Your skills were used all over the place, and if you didn’t have the skill to do X or Y, you simply couldn’t do X or Y, and that’s it.  Perks were granted every few levels, and were truly, truly special.

Fallout 3 kind of tosses that out the window a bit.  Skills, S.P.E.C.I.A.L., and perks still exist, but they all seem sort of watered down.  Your skills, for the most part, don’t seem to count for much.  Sure, lock pick, repair, and science still operate mostly like the old Fallout, given that you simply cannot pick certain locks if your skill isn’t high enough, etc.  But the firearm skills seem much less useful.  Even with little skill in a type of weapon, you can still fair pretty well in the FPS combat (just not so much in V.A.T.S.).  Some skills are almost useless, even.  Your attributes can now be increased via a perk, so your starting attributes don’t really mean quite so much.  You even get a perk every level now, so they feel less special.  It’s all there, it just doesn’t feel right.  It doesn’t feel like Fallout.

Difficulty

The first two Fallout games were brutal.  Truly, you were a little sheltered peon trying to survive in a harsh wasteland of gangs and mutants.  You had to watch every step you took, every move you made.  Pick a fight with the wrong guy, and you would be lying dead on the ground in no time flat.  Fallout 2 was even more brutal than Fallout.  Undoubtedly, this turned some people off to the series, but for the rest of us, it was awesome.

Fallout 3, on the other hand, is almost easy.  I’ll likely try on a harder difficulty in my next play-through, but this go-round, I’m on normal, and it’s stupidly easy.  I’ve encountered one relatively difficult battle, and even that I could handle with a bit of “tactic” (read: I ran back and forth in front of a doorway firing at the opponent on the other side).  I mean, the presumably trained security forces in Vault 101, armed with batons and guns, were no match for a 19-year-old geek (lock pick, science, and repair were my highest skills) with a baseball bat?  I should have been mince meat, instead I’m popping the head off the head of security with one shot.  Granted, things get a bit harder once you leave the Vault, since that is the tutorial level, but still.  I haven’t met a raider who could so much as pretend to challenge me.  Pretty much the only time I’ve died is when I stepped on a well-placed land mine or hit a trip wire…

Conclusion:

Fallout 3 is a game in the spirit of the Fallout series.  To some, it may not earn its title.  To others, it’s worthiness was never in doubt.  To me, it’s kind of somewhere in the middle.  Fallout 3 is a great game.  Were it called something other than Fallout, I’d still enjoy it.  Let’s all be perfectly honest with ourselves here, though.  Bethesda bought the Fallout license from a dying Interplay.  While the game may not quite be up to the level of the first Fallout, neither was Fallout 2Fallout 3 is the only Fallout 3 we’ll ever get, and it’s a perfectly good game with many hours of enjoyment to be had.  The team that worked on Fallout 3 clearly know and love the Fallout world, and paid their respect to it.  Bethesda put a lot of hard work and effort into creating a great experience, and hopefully their next Fallout title will be even better.

Memory: My Curse, My Blessing

•November 12, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Note: You may wonder how this relates to gaming.  Just keep reading, you’ll see.

As anyone who knows me really well can tell you, I have memory recall issues.  This generally manifests itself as forgetfulness or aloofness.  I’ll need to do something, and time comes to do it, and I completely forget.  I have difficulty remembering people’s names (seriously… it takes me ages to remember a name).  I forget birthdays.  We all have these issues, I just have them frequently.

I work pretty hard to overcome my forgetfulness, though it still affects me.  Just the other day, I was reading a document for work, and had a question about part of it.  I know, I should have written it down.  Immediately.  Because by the time I finished reading the document, I’d forgotten the question.  Mind you, this was a 6 page document, and my question came somewhere around page 3.  I’ve been getting better, though.  I make myself “to do” lists.  (My wife also makes me “to do” lists.)  I’ve been getting better about remembering names.  That one I’ve really been focusing on… few things are worse than forgetting coworkers’ names.

Thing is, this also has its benefits.  How, one may ask, does bad memory benefit anyone?  Well, my friends, I’ll tell you: entertainment.  When I read a good book, chances are good that, in about a month, while I’ll still remember the general plot outline, I’ve forgotten a good portion of it.  That means I can go back and re-read it and it’s almost like reading it all over again.  Same with movies.  Give it some time, and I’ll forget significant portions of it.  Better yet, it also applies to games.

Now you may understand why this has been on my mind lately.  Fallout 3 just came out.  I absolutely loved Fallout and Fallout 2.  What were they about you say?  Uh… I remember something about a water chip.  I remember the G.E.C.K., but that’s only because I reinstalled Fallout 2 recently and played the first little bit of it.  Prior to that, I remembered nothing about Fallout 2 except the Monty Python bridge encounter.  You know what that means?  I can go back and play through Fallout and Fallout 2 as if I’d never played them before.

If I weren’t so darn busy playing through Fallout 3, I would be all over that…

 
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