Friday, August 2, 2013

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review

I was a blog reader like you, but then I took an arrow in the knee.  

Skyrim in the 5th installment of the Elder Scrolls games by Bethesda, set about 200 years after the events of Oblivion, the 4th game of the series. Like the other Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim takes place on the fictional continent of Tamriel, only this time in the region of Skyrim (which resembles a medieval period). Dragons have returned and the player-character, destined to be dragonborn, is the only one that can defeat Alduin, the dragon who is prophesied to destroy the world. Oh, and player-character is placed right in the middle of a civil war and he has to choose which side to fight for, the Imperials or the rebel Stormcloacks.  

The game utilizes an open world style game-play. The dragonborn is free to go wherever he wants, whenever he wants. While there is a linear main story-line (the dragonborn can’t advance the story until the previous quest is competed), there is no timetable on when the main story-line has to be completed. In fact, there are actually more side quests to complete than the main story-line. Most side quests come from the different guilds, including the Thieves Guild, the Companions (similar to the Fighter's Guild), the Dark Brotherhood (a group of assassins) and the Mages Guild (in the College of Winterhold). As well as additional quests from 3 downloadable contents, Dawnguard, Hearthfire and Dragonborn. This is a great feature as sometimes the side quests are more enjoyable than the main story. Also, some of them are repeatable, which means you can continue playing even after the main story-line is completed.

The main quest starts the dragonborn as a prisoner, along with a thief, Rolaf (a member of the Stormcloaks) and Ulfric Stormcloak, the leader of the rebellion.  The dragonborn is about to be executed until Alduin interrupts, causing a distraction to allow an escape.  The escape acts a tutorial, with either Rolaf or Hadvar (an imperial member) telling you what to do and fighting the opposite side.  Soon after the escape, the dragonborn has to fight a dragon.  After defeating and absorbing the dragon's soul, the dragonborn must fulfill it's destiny by learning from the Greybeards.  Throughout the game, the dragonborn leans words of power that con only be unlocked with dragon souls.  These words of power are shouts that can be used as an added element during combat (such as fire breath or whirlwind sprint). 

Probably the most commended feature among fans is the leveling and perks.  No longer is the player required to chose a class and play a certain way.  Instead, the game adapts to how the player chooses to play.  The more of a skill is used, the higher you'll advance in that skill.  Therefore, it's possible to be a thief who also uses 2-handed weapons or a mage who also uses archery - even though those skills are from different classes.  After a level is completed, a perk can be added to a specific skill to further utilize that skill.  There are a total of 18 perk trees that can be broken down into 3 different classes:

The Mage:
- Alteration
- Conjuration
- Destruction
- Illusion
- Restoration
- Enchanting

The Warrior
- Archery
- Block
- Heavy Armor
- 1-Handed
- 2-Handed
- Smithing

The Thief:
- Alchemy
- Light Armor
- Lockpicking
- Pickpocket
- Sneak
- Speech

Additional skill trees are included in the Dawnguard DLC for Vapirism and Lycanthropy.  Yep, the player-character can become either a vampire or werewolf for an added offensive weapon.

Weapons and spells are used against enemies and some puzzles.  One of the changes from previous games is the strategy of fighting an opponent.  The player-character can chose to duel wield one-handed weapons (swords, axes and maces), use a spell in one hand and a weapon in another or use two spells, including the same spell on both hands.  Destruction spells include fire, frost and sparks while restoration and ward spells can be used for defense.  Spells are unlocked by reading spell books hidden throughout the game.  Books are also used to unlock certain quests and can also be used to increase certain skills.  Some books are also there just to expand on the universe while not doing anything specific.  The player-character can also use two-handed weapons as well as the various bows and arrows.    

Alchemy is used to create potions and poisons using ingredients that can be picked up throughout the game.  Ingredients include flowers, bone meal and even vampire dust.   Smithing is used to create armor and weapons while enchanting can be used to put magical spells on them using soul gems (like fire, sparks or even fortify skills like waterbreathing).  The most prized of this is that dragon armor and weapons can be created, given the player has 100 skill in smithing and enough perks attributed to it and the dragon bones and scales (that are collected after defeating a dragon) to do it.  

Repeat gaming is exceptional.  There are a total of 251 perks, but the player can only use as many as 80 in one game, meaning the player can use different perks and experience a slightly different game style.  Quests can also have different outcomes depending on the way the player answers certain questions, leading to different adventures.  PC users can also install different mods that can give even more diverse gaming experiences.  A person can literally put in hundreds of hours in and still not get bored.  

The graphics and music are great.  There is a certain realism to them.  Even in low-res, the graphics still look amazing.  Check it out here:

The score is especially great as they add to the tone of playing, whether it's the chanting when you level up or the intense dragon fight song.  Take a listen:

Even when in the taverns, the bards sing little songs as encouragement to the dragonborn.  Listen:

Even though I'm only about half-way through the game play, this game gets a perfect 10/10.  A must have for any gamer.

Slow, hot and sticky...

It’s been a while. I hope your time away was as tasty as mine :)

After some discussions with the good folks on my home away from home, which I suppose I go to while at home… the message board (again try it, we don’t bite unless you ask) I’ve decided to do another post on one dish like I did with burgers. This time, we’re having ribs.

Ribs are a dish that pretty much 100% of the non-vegetarian/vegan people will admit to loving if they’re done right. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard anyone say “Oh man, ribs again? I hate those”, can you?

Anyways, before I get into the actual cooking methods for ribs, of which there are many, I thought I’d share some of my personal tips for preparing them.

I personally prefer pork ribs over beef, but that is just my preference. If you prefer beef then go with them of course. The first thing you should do when you get your ribs and take them out of the package is remove the membrane. The membrane is a white layer located on the backside of the rack of ribs. It is fairly simple to remove, just pull up the corner with a knife and then grab and pull. It may take a little force but it will come right off. Some people leave the membrane but I find it just makes the one side of the ribs tough to eat. It also acts as a barrier that stops flavors from marinades, sauces, rubs and smokers from seeping into the meat. I’m all for removing things that make food tough to eat and block flavor.
After the membrane is removed it is time to decide how big you want your servings to be. The easy way out is to leave them whole. I cut my ribs into roughly 6 inch lengths. I do this for two reasons, first is to make them fit better in my smoker which is my cooking method of choice and the second is that it seems to be a serving size that appeals to a lot of people. You can just take 2 or 3 if you’re a big eater or leave it at 1 if you’re not.

Now you need to decide on marinade, dry rub or leave it alone. If you marinade you have almost unlimited choices. The easy method is to buy a marinade or just thin out a BBQ sauce. Or you can make your own with any number of combinations of ingredients. The same can be said for a dry rub which is basically a marinade but with only dry ingredients. I stay away from salts when making rubs for the same reason I don’t put salt in my burgers, it will dry out the meat. Put your salt on at the last possible moment if you’re going to use any at all. I like to leave my ribs in marinades over night so the flavors can really sink in and I put on dry rubs about an hour or two before cooking begins. Not a rule by any means, just my method.

Time to cook the ribs. The one rule for making fall-off-the-bone fantastic ribs is “low and slow”. That means low heat (170F – 180F) for a long time (4-6 hours or more). If you’ve ever had tough, chewy ribs I can almost guarantee you that the cook simply cooked his/her ribs WAY too fast. The reason for this method making the ribs tender is that they are full of collagen, which is a tough fiber in the muscle that melts into a gelatin at 160F. However this process takes a while and if you heat it too fast the collagen will not melt before the meat is cooked and it will stay tough. Slow cooking actually cooks the meat more thoroughly and dries it out a bit in terms of water content. However the gelatin produced when the collagen melts makes the meat pull apart easily and gives it a fantastic silky, moist and tender texture. This holds true for any meat you slow cook such as a beef or pork roast for beef on a bun or pulled pork and it can make the toughest cuts of meat come out fantastic.

That said; let’s look at some actual cooking methods for the ribs. 

Slow cooker – Put in your ribs, put in your sauce, set it on low and forget about it for a few hours. I’m not a fan of this method but I don’t like slow cookers as a rule.This is a effective method for busy people who want tasty food but don't seem to have the time. 

Braising – Braising is slow roasting in liquid. It is a method used a lot for pot-roast or pulled pork and works amazingly if your heat source is the oven. Choosing a good braising liquid is important as it will seep into the meat as you cook. If you marinade your ribs then braise them in your marinade. I know people who braise ribs in cola, seriously. The cola helps break down the ribs a bit and the sugars add tremendous flavor. Not heart healthy I suppose but the flavor is fantastic. Anyways put your ribs in a roasting pan with your braising liquid and any other flavor enhancers, set it to 160-180 and let her rip for hours on end.
Stove top boiling – I’ve seen people bring a pot of cooking liquid (again whatever you choose) to a boil and add the ribs and keep it at a simmer for a while. I’m not a fan of this method as I think it cooks too quickly and keeps the ribs tough. Some folks swear by it, to each their own.

BBQ – I love my BBQ but I only use it as a finishing touch for ribs. The BBQ simply cooks the ribs too quickly to be effective at making them tender. I’ll get back to this in my recipe at the bottom.

Smoker – I use a digital smoker which I can set my cooking temperature, the amount of smoke, how long I cook and how long I smoke. I love this machine. I personally smoke my ribs for at least 4 hours at about 180 F. Your choice if you want to dry rub or sauce the ribs prior to smoking and of course it is your choice as to your flavor of wood used to make the smoke.

That is all I have for the moment. In honor of this post here is my recipe for ribs

TheeDogg’s Damn Near Bacon With a Bone in it Ribs.

Ingredients: Ribs:
2 Racks pork ribs                                                     Garlic powder
Chili Powder                                                             Black pepper
As much wood as needed for 5-6 hours of smoke for your smoker

  1. Remove membrane from ribs and cut into roughly 6 inch lengths
  2. Pat dry with a paper towel
  3. Apply spices to taste
  4. Preheat smoker to 180F and prep wood for smoke
  5. Put ribs in smoker and smoke for 5-6 hours changing the order of the racks roughly every hour
  6. When almost done (5-10 minutes left) preheat grill to medium high
  7. Apply hot and sticky sauce generously (recipe for sauce below)
  8. Grill for a few minutes per side until sauce is starting to brown
  9. Eat and then come back here to leave a thank you comment for me giving you the recipe for the best damn ribs you've ever eaten

Hot and Sticky Sauce

Ingredients: Sauce:
1 cup ketchup                                                        2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar                                      1 tsp dry mustard
½ tsp cumin                                                           ½ cup brown sugar
3 tbsp Sriracha hot chili sauce                                2 tsp chili powder

  1. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan
  2. Bring to a boil over med-high heat
  3. Simmer together for 10 minutes, stirring often to avoid burning

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Monthly Dose of Westeros-Part 3: The Lannisters and King's Landing

Since Game of Thrones is currently on an eight month break, I will be providing my thoughts and predictions for one storyline every month until the show’s return. Since I have read the books, I know what should happen, but several plots seem to be taking turns away from the original material, while others are almost spot on. I will examine these apparent changes/accuracy, and do my best to avoid spoilers in “A Monthly Dose of Westeros”.

And now, the family everybody loves to hate: the Lannisters. This will end up being a mega-post as it will focus on a whole bunch of characters. I’m mostly going to focus on the three Lannister children (who are all POV characters in the books), but also a few other important characters such as Joffrey Baratheon, Margaery Tyrell, Brienne of Tarth, and Tywin Lannister.

I figured it would make the most sense to start off with one of the books’ most important, famous, and popular characters, everybody’s favorite dwarf, Tyrion Lannister. Most of the way through episode 9
The god of tits and wine himself
of season two, everybody thought things were going alright for Tyrion. Pretty girl, Hand of the King, good friends to protect him. The only thing he had to deal with was his sister. And then that very sister paid a man Tyrion thought he trusted to chop his head off during the battle of Blackwater Bay. Of course, that did not work so Tyrion now gets to live with a beautiful scar. Things just keep going downhill for Tyrion by season three; he’s demoted from Hand to Master of Coin, he doesn’t get any credit for his part in Blackwater, and he’s forced to marry Sansa Stark. Oh, also, his father tells him that he was on the verge of killing him when he was born. Father of the year 274 AL. The end of season three shows Tyrion trying desperately to make Tywin understand that the northerners will not forget the brutal murder of Robb and Catelyn Stark (starring Walder Frey and Roose Bolton, directed by Tywin). Tywin then yells at him for not getting Sansa pregnant by now and
Best wedding ever?
Tyrion returns to his wife to find her crying over the deaths of her brother and mother. Tyrion is the "only one" of a lot of things: he's the only one who talks any sense is King's Landing, he's the only one who cares about Sansa's well-being, he's the only one who has the balls to stand up to his father, he's the only one who takes advantage of the fact that he can yell at Joffrey with no consequences. Nobody realizes how necessary Tyrion is, except for maybe Varys and Bronn, but I think we can all agree it's time he gets his due. We’ve already seen so much Tyrion that there isn’t much else to cover in this post, as we’ve already been presented with his flaws and strengths, while his siblings are taking on a more important role in the show now.

It didn't take long to go from this...
Almost the polar opposite of his brother, nothing goes right for Jaime Lannister since his capture at the hands of Robb Stark. He made a bunched of failed escape attempts, had to be secretly freed by Catelyn Stark, lost a hand, and made an awkward friendship with Brienne of Tarth. By the end of season three, Jaime finally returns to King’s Landing after a very eventful buddy trip from Riverrun with Brienne. We had one short glimpse of him, with the only word spoken in the scene (not by a market vendor) being “Cersei”. In the book, Jaime returns much later, after one of the book’s most important events. Assuming he will be present for it in the show, this could explain why his arrival was changed so much. this
The books show Jaime returning through the main gate of the city recognized by many people and celebrated, whereas the show brings him through a side gate, not recognized by anybody and pushed aside as a “country boy”. In my opinion, the writers made his arrival like this to show how much Jaime’s star has really fallen. He was captured, shamed, crippled, and dirtied. Nobody knows who he is because he is not the Jaime Lannister everybody knew. He isn’t the arrogant Kingsguard man who can beat anybody in a fight. His loss of a hand and friendship with Brienne has humbled Jaime and changed who he is and what he stands for. Jaime's complete rehabilitation is, in my mind, one of the most amazing changes in television/book history. We see a guy who throws a little boy out of a window in the very first episode of the series go from despised to a fan favorite. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau does an absolutely wonderful job of portraying both sides of Jaime, especially during the scene when he tells Brienne why he really killed the Mad King Aerys Targaryen, one of the season’s best moments. 

Another change that was made was Jaime and Cersei’s reuniting. In the books, Jaime goes to Cersei in the sept and they engage in...activities...right away. It’s possible that this happened in the show and they just did not show it, but due to the timing of Jaime’s return. Cersei also does not notice Jaime’s stump until he shows her, but in the show it was right there for her to see. Either way, she is amazed to see her brother/lover again. Unfortunately, Jaime’s personality changes will also change his relationship with his family in the next season. Jaime’s complex personality is what made him one of my favorite characters from the books, and I really hope the writers are able to show enough on screen to make him a favorite of non-readers.

And now we get to one of the most complex, evil, and terribly depressing characters in the
show...Queen Cersei Lannister. We all know Cersei wants power and for the majority of the series, she has had it. Her son is the king, she is the queen regent, and that puts her basically in charge of the Seven Kingdoms. She assumes she's smarter than Tyrion, so she acts like she as all the power during his reign as Hand of the King. Unfortunately for Cersei, Tyrion was the only link to any power she had. After her brother's wound at Blackwater and her father's arrival, Tywin takes over as Hand and takes any power Cersei had away from her. On top of that, she has to deal with the arrival of Margaery Tyrell. Since the Tyrells helped to win the Battle of the Blackwater, Ser Loras asks Joffrey to marry his sister. Due to this arrangement Sansa is free from her betrothment to Joffrey and Cersei's world is turned upside down.

Margaery Tyrell is a smart, beautiful girl and she knows how to manipulate Joffrey more than Cersei ever has. Cersei never had to worry about Sansa
No touching!
marrying Joffrey because Sansa was easily manipulated. Margaery is, instead, a master manipulator and uses Sansa’s information about Joffrey to get in his head and start to pull him away from Cersei. So now, the woman who everyone had feared is now losing her power, her son, and her title. Something very important in the books that, if I recall correctly, is not mentioned in the show is a prophecy Cersei received as a child. She went to visit a woods witch with her friends and this foresaw Cersei’s future: she would be a great queen until a younger, more beautiful one comes to take her place. It seems that Margaery is here to fulfill that prophecy. Not to mention she was almost forced to marry Loras Tyrell.

Here are my predictions for the Lannister children’s storylines next season:

Season three had less Tyrion than the first two seasons, but that’s mostly because his most important contributions to the book were not in the first half. Season four will bring a ton of Peter Dinklage to our screens and absolutely should put him up for a bunch of awards. It’s impossible to give a preview of Tyrion’s story in the next season without giving away major, major spoilers, but if the writers do it right, there will be a lot of fighting, a lot of wine, and a lot of Tysha mentions. He even makes a new friend! Oh, and I want everybody to think about Tyrion’s life up to this point and remember...a Lannister always pays his debts...

I have no idea how Jaime’s story will start out. He’s home earlier than in the books so there will be some certain changes. He'll be present for events that he was not present for in the books, which hopefully won't affect them too much (if at all...). Jaime’s actions later in the season will surprise many people, as he helps one of his siblings out in a huge way and betrays the other. I’ll let you speculate which is which.

Cersei is going to lose more and more power over Joffrey, lose more and more power in general, and eventually start losing her mind. I mean, who wouldn’t at this point? There are some shocking moments coming up in the next few seasons for Cersei, and since she is a POV character in books 4 and 5, look for her character to become even more prominent in the coming seasons.

As for other important characters in these storylines, Brienne will begin a new mission later, but will stick around King’s Landing for a while.

Varys continues his spider thing. Littlefinger continues to hang out in the Eyrie, at least for the beginning of the season. Pycelle keeps being old. 

Tywin will continue to control everything. 

Margaery is even more influential over Joffrey, the two get married, and all I have to say about Joffrey is: don’t worry everybody.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Wolverine: We Can Do Better

Darren Aronofsky was supposed to direct this. Goddamnit.

The reviews for this movie have actually been quite good, and I was excited to see how it would fit into the burgeoning canon of X-Men films Marvel has been making for about a decade now. In fact, it was supposed to rewrite some source material issues from 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine and help play into the much-anticipated 2014 release, X-Men: Days of Future Past.
The movie was a letdown, given its hype, and I feel foolish for expecting more, frankly.

Logan has retreated to the Canadian wilderness following the events of The Last Stand, and is considerably troubled by the death of Jean Grey. As he tries to forget his past, an acquaintance from the Second World War summons him to Tokyo to repay a great debt, and Logan is forced to confront his past, and deal with The Wolverine, in more ways than one. Here's how I scored it:

Story: 2/5 - Toward the end of the movie I began scoring these categories in my mind, and I was about to give this a 3. The story is actually pretty fun for most of the movie, but, without saying much, the twist is predictable and a bit silly, and it dredges up a ton of questions that really break the suspension of disbelief at the worst possible moment: the climax of the film.

Writing: 2/5 - I would let a Wolverine movie get away with a lot in this category, but they only refer to the character's tropes once or twice, Bub. It is cut-and-paste action film dialogue, and while I appreciated the story and the conflicts inside of Logan, the characters struggle to articulate any of it effectively because they come out sounding like your six-year-old cousin's action figure dialogue.

Acting: 3/5 - Hugh Jackman refuses to let an audience be bored. He is one of the most fun actors in Hollywood, and he was born for this role to boot. That being said, he was basically the only white actor in the movie, and the draw on East Asian talent is a mixed bag. There were a number of veteran Japanese and Korean actors that did a solid job, but the producers made the decision to cast Japanese models for the female parts, and they really underwhelm (though Rila Fukushima puts forth a game effort). Still, I could just watch Jackman run around in mutton chops making sarcastic remarks for two hours.

Aesthetics: 2/5 - The action scenes were uninspired and the shots were uncreative. Even the score seemed out of place at many points, and, except for one shot of Jackman chopping wood in a muscle shirt while wood chips spray the audience, the 3D is completely wasted. Enjoy your $3 you hacks. Fuck you, 3D.

Final Score: 45%