Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Nerd Culture is a stock that is currently rising. Everywhere you turn people are embracing retro nostalgia and pop-culture icons of yesteryear. Video games are mainstream. Dungeons & Dragons is mainstream. Horror, Sci-Fi, Fantasy – all genres that were once coveted only by the nerdiest among us are now celebrated en-masse. For proof of this, one needs to look no further then the smash box-office hit Ready Player One. This film is nothing more than a huge amalgamation of video games and retro pop-culture.

Of course, the film is based on a book of the same name. I first read this book about six months ago at the suggestion of my oldest son. At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had never heard of the novel. But upon taking up his suggestion, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Let me say up front, that having both read the book and having viewed the film, they are very different. The film follows the basic plot of the novel, but strays off on its own path. While similar, the book and the film are two completely different experiences. I like the film just fine, but the book seems the have a charm that feels a bit more personal. It just works a bit better in my opinion. If I had to guess, I imagine that many of the differences had to do with licensing issues. It’s easier to get certain things in print that it is to get them on the big screen.

In a nutshell, the story of Ready Player One takes place about two decades in the future. War, pollution, and political unrest have turned the world into a pretty unpleasant place. To escape reality, a majority of the population retreat to a V.R. world called “The O.A.S.I.S”. This virtual world offers both entertainment and even job opportunities. When the founder of the O.A.S.I.S. dies, it is revealed that he has hidden a secret Easter Egg in his program. Whoever can find it will inherit his fortune and control of the O.A.S.I.S program. Of course, people go nuts looking for clues in hopes of winning the contest. Hunters begin studying every aspect of the creator’s life and interests in hopes of uncovering some clue that will lead them to the prize. This results in a resurgence of popularity in late 70’s and 80’s pop culture. However, five years after his death no one has come close. The biggest competitor still looking for the egg is the corporation that currently manages the O.A.S.I.S. Their hope is gain complete control of the virtual world so that they can monetize it. Eventually, one young man manages to uncover a clue that leads him on the path to claiming the egg. But the closer he gets to winning the more danger he finds himself in.

It is said that Richard Garriot, creator of the Ultima video games series (who’s book I recently reviewed here), partially served as the inspiration for James Halliday (the creator of The O.A.S.I.S). But honestly, I also suspect that D&D founder Gary Gygax was just as big of a muse. In fact, the book makes several mentions of Dungeon & Dragons. Naturally, this resulted in more than a few smiles from me as I thumbed through the novel.

If you’re like me and you tend to get hung up reading only specific authors or books from various fantasy series, it’s important to switch things up from time to time. Ready Player One is a great change of pace. As a child of the 80’s this book is a great nostalgic trip. I recommend reading it before going to see the film. This one is recommended.

Story: Entertaining and over-the-top. The writing style can be a bit iffy at times, but the book itself is largely enjoyable. The more versed you are in pop-culture the more you will get out of this one.

Recommended:  This book is a must-read for nerds and pop-culture fanatics. Retro grognards like me will find a lot to enjoy. That being said, the book has found a solid audience with mainstream readers as well.

R.I.P. Art Bell

It was a late fall night in 1997. I was driving home from my drummer’s house after an all-night rehearsal. The tape deck in my car was on the fritz and none of the FM stations were playing anything of value. I was groggy and the rhythmic passing of the dotted lines on the highway were lulling me closer and closer to the danger zone. Out of desperation for something to keep me awake I switched the radio dial to AM and began to spin through the stations. That was when I discovered him.

A baritone voice boomed through the speakers, “Wildcard line, you are on the air!”

What followed was some of the most interesting  radio I had ever experienced. A caller claiming to be a government employee working at Area 51 had called the talk show. His voice was panicked and only grew more distressed as he continued to speak. He was issuing a warning to the listeners. The host, Art Bell, remained calm and patient and attempted to ease the caller. That’s when the feed was cut. The show went silent. After several long minutes a commercial aired, it was followed by the voice of Art Bell. He explained that a loss of signal caused his broadcast to go off the air temporarily. (As it was later revealed, the entire radio network that hosts the show lost their satellite signal). It was riveting. Was it a hoax? Was the caller a simple joker who just happened to be followed by a consequential network outage? Or was it something more nefarious… a government conspiracy? Over the years, this odd string of events has today become a bit of an urban legend. But needless to say, it kept me awake and alert for the rest of drive home.

From that moment forward, I was an Art Bell fan. His shows Coast to Coast AM and Dreamland were almost required listening at my home. If was up after midnight, Art Bell and his paranormal talk show was on my radio. Art was my companion for many late night gaming sessions, believe me.

As the years went by I stood by Art and his many retirements, jumps to other networks, and eventually the founding of his own online streaming service. Sure, I’ve rolled my eyes at some of the personal dramas surrounding his later years. But, there has never been anyone like him on the air.

From the subject matter, to his iconic voice. Everything about Art Bell made him perfect for overnight radio.

This morning I woke up to news about his passing.  The ride is over, but his fans will never forget it.

Manga: Dragon Ball

It has been a rather busy month so I haven’t had time to make a post until now. What have I been doing? Well, when I haven’t been drilling my way through Xenogears (a really really REALLY long game), I’ve been jumping between RIFT and FFXIV. Also, last week my family went on a Spring Break vacation. During that downtime I managed to get a little reading in. So, as promised I’m here today with my first ever manga discussion: Dragon Ball.

Last month I talked a little bit about my experiences with manga. I was introduced to it during my stay in Japan, but I never really took the time to sit down and enjoy the format until many years later. The first ever manga series that hooked me was Chobits. (I’ll talk about Chobits in greater detail in the near future). When I was done with it, I found myself clamoring for more. Unsure what to read next, I thought back to my days in Japan. Back in those days, the only English-speaking channel was operated by the US military. More often than not, it offered little in the way of kid’s entertainment. So, my friends and I would often flip our televisions over to the local Japanese stations and check out whatever it was they were watching. At that time, Dragon Ball Z was all the rage. Yes, I can claim to have watched Dragon Ball during its initial run – IN JAPAN! (How many weaboo points does that get me?) Now, neither I or my friends really had any idea what was going on, but it was cool to watch nonetheless. With this in mind, I chose Dragon Ball as the next manga series to dive into.

At that time, I read maybe the first five or six volumes of Dragon Ball before monetary constraints put an end to my Manga purchases. But, I enjoyed every second. Recently, I acquired the entire collection. So what is Dragon Ball? Well, it initially starts out as a childish retelling of the ancient Chinese fable “Journey to the West”. But it doesn’t take long for the story to go off the rails and develop into its own thing.  One recurring theme in the story are the “Dragon Balls” themselves. The Dragon Balls are seven magical stones. Whoever can collect all seven of them is able to summon a mystical dragon who can grant any wish. The story begins when a young girl named Bulma encounters a strange orphan boy while she searches for the Dragon Balls. The boy, Goku, is in possession of one of the balls. The earliest stories in the Dragon Ball series focus on the adventures of Goku and Bulma as the search the world for the missing balls. During this time, Goku encounters an old kung fu master, The Turtle Hermit, and abandons his search to become a disciple. At this point, the focus of the story shifts to Goku and his mastery of the martial arts. (Astute readers of this site will undoubtedly recognize that I have adopted The Turtle Hermit referenced above as my avatar on this blog.)

Admittedly, the actually plot line is pretty darn weak, especially in the later volumes. But, that doesn’t detract from the fun. If anything, the shallow story and innocence of the lead character is part of what makes this story so entertaining.

The original series runs for sixteen volumes. After that, the title switches to “Dragon Ball Z”. In Japan, there’s no distinction between Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z in print, that’s strictly a branding that is used here in the west.

Dragon Ball starts out rather childish, but ramps up in maturity level pretty quickly. By the end of the sixteen-volume series, the target audience seems to shift from children to teenagers. That being said, there’s actually a noticeable amount of mature content in the book from the very beginning. This may seem a little strange considering the books are marketed to children, but keep in mind that Japanese culture doesn’t tend to be nearly as conservative about some things.

All in all, Dragon Ball is an addictive enjoyable manga series. I look forward to continuing my way through Dragon Ball Z and finally seeing what all those old cartoons were about.

 

My Tech Picks (Spring 2018)

Wow! It’s been a whole year since I did a Tech Picks post! As always, there’s been a few changes but a lot has also stayed the same. If you’re curious about the technology I use on a daily basis, here’s the breakdown:

Computer Platform:  Windows PC – As expected, Windows is still my platform of choice. As much as I miss my old iMac, Apple desktops are just not viable for gamers at this time. Windows remains a solid and stable option, but they continue to baffle me with off-the-wall decisions and wishy-washy business choices. I’ve been both a PC and a Mac owner, and I can tell you without hesitation, the only thing keeping me on the PC platform is upgrade-ability and the level of customization that a PC provides.

OS: Windows 10 ( 64 bit Version 1803) – Just in time for this post, Microsoft has signed off on the latest version of Windows 10. This version, officially known as “Windows 10 Spring Creator’s Update” is very similar to previous version. One of the biggest changes is the introduction of the new “timeline” task switcher, which is very similar to the “continuity” feature Apple offers in OS X. There’s a few UI and cosmetic improvements that some users will notice, but most of the big changes in this release are under-the-hood. While the official release is not until 4/10/2018, build 1733.1 has been signed-off internally by Microsoft as the “gold” release. It is available through the insider channel now, and will be rolled out to most users in the coming weeks.

Hardware: If you’re a frequent reader to this site, you’ll know that I recently built a whole new rig from the ground up. Despite the huge Meltdown/Spectre ordeal, I’ve remained in the Intel camp. My new box is as follows:

CPU: Intel i7 8700k @ 3.7ghz (4.7 turbo)

Mainboard: ASUS Prime Z370-A

Physical RAM:  16gb

Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 (6GB)

Sound: SoundBlaster Z

Storage:  Main:  Seagate 2TB Hybrid “Firecuda”     Secondary:  Seagate 2TB Hybrid (generic)

Media:  External DVD RW &  USB Memory Card reader

Power: 750 watt PSU

Monitor: ViewSonic VX2457-MHD 24″ (2ms 1080p FreeSync Gaming Monitor)

Mobile: Android  – Google Pixel XL 2 (Android Oreo 8.1) – Since my last post I have upgraded from the original Google Pixel to the Pixel 2 XL . Overall, I’m very pleased with the phone, but truthfully, if I could do it again I’d probably have chosen the regular Pixel 2. This phone is just a TAD too big for my taste and the I feel like the screen on the Pixel 2 is a bit better. But, I was able to jump on a deal and I managed to get a couple hundred bucks off on a new phone, so I took the plunge.

Tablet: Microsoft Surface – No change here. My personal needs for a tablet are very limited. I mainly only use a tablet for reading comic books and doing some light searching while in the living room. For my purposes, the original Windows RT surface is perfect.

e-Reader: Kindle Paperwhite – No change.  The Kindle Paperwhite is an elegant and universal option that serves my needs perfectly. Yes, there are newer Kindle options available. But the Paperwhite remains my go to device.

Virtual Digital Assistant: Google – I make full use of the Google Assistant that is available on my Pixel.  This is true both in speech and with the Google Assistant chat bot. I use my phone for 100% of these needs. MS has made some headway with Cortana on this newest release of Windows and even the version of Cortana available on Android has seen some considerable improvements. But at this time, I can find no reason to switch from Google Assistant to Cortana or any other AI.

Web Browser: Chrome– While Microsoft continues to improve Edge with each new version of Windows, it still lags behind almost every other browser available. The newest version of Firefox offers some compelling features, but Chrome continues to be my browser of choice.

Search: Google – Google remains my go-to for searches. I’m not a fan of some recent changes made to Google Images, but I still tend to get the best results from Google compared to other engines.

Email and Calendar: Google/Gmail – Widely supported and extremely efficient. Google works for me and I have no qualm with Advertising ID sharing or any other aspects of Google’s business model.

Office Suite: Microsoft Office 2016 – Nothing beats it. As far a desktop application suite, Microsoft office is the best.

Cloud Storage: OneDrive and Google Drive – As a Windows and Office user, I’ve found OneDrive to be a very convenient online storage solution. It integrates well into both Windows and Office 2016. OneDrive works great with Android and other platforms as well. These days, I use OneDrive mainly for PC Back ups, and I use Google Drive for photos and general storage. But, both are within arm’s reach at any time.

PC Gaming Services: Steam – No change. For PC games, I’m pretty much a Steam only guy. I have recently been making more and more purchases on GoG.com due to their vast catalog of retro games. But nine out of ten purchases are still done on Steam.

Music Management:  MusicBee – No change here either. I have a large digital music library, all tagged and sorted. To manage such a huge collection, I need the help of software. MusicBee is my music manager for the desktop. It integrates with my phone and makes it easy to transfer files to Google Play Music on my device.  For streaming, I use Google Play Music, Sirius XM and IHeartRadio. I still keep and maintain a local MP3 collection, but I enjoy the vast stream-able library that Google Play Music offers – I turn to the other services for live media.

Wearables: Fitbit Blaze–  I’ve recently upgraded from my old Fitbit Charge HR to a Fitbit Blaze. I like the functionality of guided exercise routines and the ability to receive text message notifications. I do predict at some point I’ll have to look into something else. I’m feeling the call the Smart Watch… We’ll see how long I can resist.

Home Gaming Consoles:  Currently at our house we own the following: Nintendo SwitchWii U, PlayStation 3 (First Gen), PlayStation 4, Xbox 360  (and there’s a spare Wii in the closet).

Mobile Gaming: Both my children and I have a Nintendo 3DS. I also have an old PSP.

Everquest

As many readers of this site will know, I’m a huge fan of fantasy role playing games. Both traditional pen and paper games and video games. When it comes to video game RPGs, my first taste of the genre came in the form of Wizardry, an old school PC game. From there, I moved on to Ultima and eventually to Final Fantasy. For many years, these three franchises continued to flourish and I would hop from one game to the other. Eventually, the Wizardry series fizzled into obscurity and the makers of Ultima had turned their attention to Online gaming. My initial experience with Ultima Online was not that promising, so for me, Ultima was now dead in the water. I enjoyed Final Fantasy, but I knew deep down in my soul that I wanted a gaming experience that captured that classic medieval Dungeons & Dragons genre of fantasy that I had originally found with Wizardry. Just when I thought all hope was lost, some friends of mine introduced me to a game called Everquest.

It was early 2000 and Everquest was the hottest online game in existence. It was not the first true MMO, that honor probably goes to Ultima Online  (or some would argue, Tibia). But, it was the first true 3D massive multiplayer online roleplaying game. I had several friends who had been raving about the game since it was initially announced. Then, upon its release in 1999, several of the them took whole weeks off of work just to dive in and play this new game. At that time in my life, gaming had been downgraded to a casual way to pass time. It was not a full time hobby of mine. So, for almost a year I avoided the Everquest craze. Then finally, a friend of mine showed up on my doorstep with a copy of Everquest: The Ruins of Kunark. The box contained both the original game as well as the new Ruins of Kunark Expansion. I was given the game as a gift on the condition that I would play with him and his friends for one month.

At first, I was completely enchanted with the game. The graphics reminded me of some of the later titles in the Wizardry series, only better. The music was delightful and awe-inspiring. The game even had an atmosphere that matched exactly what I was looking for. My only initial complaint was with the complexity of the user interface. I had spent a little time with Ultima Online, so the vast array of menus and options were not new to me, but Everquest had more windows and widgets than anything I had encountered thus far.

I remember enjoying my first few days in the land of Norrath. I was captivated by it. The world was large and full of mystery. Absent was the hand-holding that is often found in modern games. You were thrown right into a living, breathing world that was populated with other players. Your only guide was an instruction manual included in the box (which offered little more than basic instructions). To REALLY learn how to play, you had to rely on other people. In fact, it didn’t take long understand that it was actually the interactions with other players that really kept you hooked. Sadly, in my case, that’s also what led me to abandon the game after only a month in.

My friends played on a PvP server. As a result, you could be challenged by other players whenever you’d venture far enough into the world. It seemed that every time I’d step outside of the confines of my starting area, I would be bum-rushed by a hostile player. It got so bad that I eventually lost interest in playing. By the time my initial 30 days was over, I uninstalled the game and swore off of MMOs. My experiences with PvP in both Ultima Online and Everquest had sealed the deal as far as I was concerned. In fact, I wouldn’t touch another MMO until the release of Final Fantasy XI, three years later.

I tasted just enough Everquest in its early days to learn what it was and how it worked. I could see the charm that enrapt so many players, but I had become so frustrated with being ganked that I became disgusted. In truth, had I been playing on a non-PvP server, it is very possible that the game would have hooked me. If that had happened, I very well may have played it for years to come. Today, Everquest is nineteen years old. It’s still online and has a jaw-dropping twenty four expansions under its belt. The base game is now Free-to-Play with an optional subscription model. For me, the thought of getting back into a game when I’ve missed so much of its history was largely unthinkable.

Recently, I started participating in a special “progression” version of another MMO, RIFT. I found myself enjoying this “fresh start” version of RIFT so much, that I decided to take a look and see what other MMOs were currently offering something similar. To my surprise, I found that Everquest has just launched a new Progression server of their own. So as you might guess… I decided to go ahead and dip in a toe just to see how things felt.

Next thing I knew, I found myself back in the world of Norrath. Of course, I spent so little time there originally and it had been so long since I last played that I remembered nothing. I was completely lost. But, for the most part, this “vanilla” version of the game was just like I remembered. Yes, the graphics were a little more detailed and the the UI was a tad more modernized, but this version of the game is very much like I remembered. The biggest exception has to be with HP and MP regeneration. I seem to remember having to rest and heal HP between encounters originally. But now, they recover automatically.

Being a “progression server”, new content and expansions are added to the game every twelve weeks. At the end of the cycle, the content in the game will match what everyone else is playing on the live servers. After spending a week in this time-locked version of the game, I decided to take a peek at what the current version of the game is like. Needless to say, the modern version of Everquest is very different.

In the live version of the game, there’s enhanced graphics, a better tutorial, and a slew of additional races and classes to play. The “Planes of Power” expansion makes it easy for players to travel across the world in an instant, whereas the original version of the game makes traveling difficult and time consuming. The live version of the game also features an in-game store that allows players to buy items, gear, etc. (Something I generally disagree with unless these purchases are restricted to vanity items only).

I enjoy retro games. So for me, the fun in this little walk down memory lane has more to do with the look-and-feel of the game than with the content. It’s simply too late for me to become emotionally invested in a title as vast as Everquest at this point. I don’t see myself continuing to pay $15 a month or investing the time to reach the end of this progression server experience. But, I’ll enjoy it for a while. I simply owed it to myself to take another look back at a game that served as the inspiration for Final Fantasy XI, arguably my favorite game of all time.

If you’re a fan of any modern MMO, be it World of Warcraft, RIFT, Final Fantasy XIV, etc – all of these games owe a debt to Everquest. This is the game that made them all possible. These days, EQ is almost unrecognizable from what it once was. Add-ons and changes have taken a lot out of what once made the original game magical for so many. But, perhaps it is still worth a look for those fantasy online gamers who want to explore their roots.

RIFT Prime: Launch

RIFT Prime is here! As previously mentioned on this site, Trion Worlds has launched a vanilla/progression server for their Free-to-Play MMO RIFT. Having played the original game at launch, I decided to check out this experimental server to see if I could recapture the magic that I felt during the game’s release. I’ve now spent a whole week on the Vigil server and I’m here to share my initial thoughts.

First, let’s talk a bit about what exactly RIFT Prime is. RIFT Prime is a special “progression” version of RIFT. This version of the game is restricted to a single server. Unlike the main game, which is Free-to-Play, Prime requires a subscription. (Just like the original version of RIFT did). For the most part, the content in Prime will mirror that of the vanilla version of RIFT. However, some quality of life improvements from the current game will carry over. The RIFT Prime server is expected to last for approximately a year before characters created there are transitioned to the main game. As time goes on, content from RIFT’s version updates and expansions will be added, but at an accelerated rate. The idea is, to allow players to start fresh and be fully caught up with the live version of RIFT by the end of the Prime server’s lifespan. It is currently unclear if Trion will enable the special World Event content that followed RIFT’s original patches and version updates on the Prime server. We shall see.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve played RIFT. I noticed right away that the game is now downloaded through Trion’s GLYPH launcher. Downloading GLYPH and installing the game proved to be no trouble whatsoever. However, as expected there was a considerable queue to actually log into the game on day one. Thankfully, this tapered off after the first few days.

Being back in RIFT and seeing it just like I remember was a bit of a surreal experience.  With the exception of some UI changes and being automatically placed in a “starter guild”, almost everything was just like it was the first time around. Sadly, one notable exception to this is the maturity level of the public chat channel. Trolling and outright trash-talking are unfortunately all too common in MMO games. But they tend to not be as bad when content is stuck behind a pay wall. I was shocked at the number of obvious trolls and the immaturity level of the public chat once I emerged from the starting area. It was just as bad as anything you’d find on a free-to-play game.

Social complaints aside, my biggest gripe thus far with the game has been the handling of previous purchases. For the sake of this progression server, Trion Worlds has locked existing players out from their previous account-wide purchases. Meaning, if you have any RIFT Store or Collectors Edition mounts, pets, costumes, etc on your account – they are not accessible in RIFT Prime. I don’t have a problem with this move, in itself. But, what Trion has done is made many some of the old CE mounts and pets available for sale on RIFT Prime store. Now, if the idea behind this is simply to allow new players starting in Prime a way to add these vanity items to their collection, that’s fine with me. But, if it is being done as a way to tempt existing players to spend real money on loot that they’ve actually already bought… that’s a problem. Already I’ve talked to several players who already own the Ancient Tartagon mount on their main account and are planning on shelling out real money to buy the same mount again. Why?

The problem is compounded by the fact that Trion has not been very transparent about what exactly is going to happen when RIFT Prime ends. At that time, when our Prime characters are moved over to RIFT Live, will our old account-wide purchases than be unlocked? If so, it’s a bit of a non-issue. But still, why not be clear about this up front?

The one good thing about this Prime version of RIFT is that there is no Pay-to-Win items available in the store. Everything for sale on the Prime Store is either vanity or account related. This is a move that I approve of. I sank enough money into RIFT back in the day before it went Free-to-Play that I don’t really plan on spending a lot, if any, in the Prime store. So far, the only purchase I’ve made was the Progenitor Pack. This optional purchase grants you a total of sixty days subscription time, a special mount, vanity cloak, title, and portrait frame. If you plan on paying the subscription for a few months, this pack pays for itself.

As far the game itself goes, I’ve actually had a blast playing through all of the early content and quests. RIFT is a faction-based MMO. This means that all players are split into one of two factions. These two teams compete against each other for control of the gameworld. In the Live version of RIFT, I always played as a Defiant. So, for this outing I decided to go with the Guardian faction. There’s just something about the aesthetics of the Guardian starting areas that I enjoy. They have a more “fantasy” feel to them and they are lovely to look at.

The first few days of RIFT Prime saw a slew of activity in these areas. Rifts were being taken down in record time, as were zone events and elite monsters. It felt very nostalgic to see so many players actually “playing the game” in these locations. Flash forward to a week later, and the population has already evened out a bit. But, there’s still more than enough players around to get things done.

Due to time constraints and having to multi-task between various games, it took me a little over a week to reach the Guardian capital. This city serves as the central hub for pretty much the rest of the game. I’m unsure at what pace Trion plans on adding new content to Prime. But I’ll be sure to provide updates at the “progression” continues.

 

 

 

RIFT Prime

Several years ago, I made a two-part post on this site regarding my experience with various MMOs. ( You can read them using the following links:  Rise of MMOs part 1 & Rise of the MMOs part 2 ). In these articles I elaborated a bit on some of the multiplayer online games I’ve tinkered with over the years. One of the games I touched on in that post was RIFT. RIFT was a game that I got to experience from day one. I played it well into its second expansion. RIFT was released during the time between the original version of Final Fantasy XIV and A Realm Reborn. During this lull, I found myself in search of a new MMO, RIFT was the obvious choice.

At release, RIFT borrowed very heavily from World of Warcraft in terms of design and playstyle. But it presented a world all it’s own. One of the more unique features of RIFT are…. rifts. Rifts are essentially random portal/events that pop up in the open world. Some rifts are more frequent than others and the appearance of a rare one would often result in players stopping what they were doing to come participate.

I have fond memories of very first point release for the game. There was a server-wide special event that occurred as the evil goddess descended to do battle against players. It was exciting, yet very flawed. The servers had a hard time keeping up with the load and as result, many players found themselves unable to participate in the event. This resulted in many people missing out on one-of-a-kind achievements and titles. The community was livid. The mismanagement of the event saw the first mass exodus of RIFT players.

One of my fondest memories of the game was participating in the first ever Extra Life event. This was a special marathon session where gamers would accept pledges for charity and play RIFT for 24 hours straight. We played alongside with the game developers and even earned special titles and rewards.  Good times.

The early days of RIFT were lots of fun. As time went by, things started to settle down and as happens with most new MMOs, players began to migrate elsewhere. Trion Worlds, the developers of RIFT, tried to keep things interesting by releasing free content and new paid expansions. But after a while, RIFT’s population took a major hit. Eventually, the game moved to a Free-to-Play model. It was during that time that I finally said my farewell.

These days, RIFT thrives as a F2P game, but it is barely recognizable to old players like me. Even if I wanted to try to get back into it, I’d be completely lost. That’s why the rumors that Trion was going to introduce a classic version of the game caught my attention. It wasn’t long before I realized that the rumors were actually true, RIFT Prime was happening!

This version of RIFT launched on 3/7/2018. Like the original, it will only be available by subscription and will start out with the vanilla version of the game (but, with many of the modern quality of life enhancements). It’s going to be handled in a progression format, but at an accelerated rate. You’ll be able to relive all of the content patches from day one, up to the modern version of the game. Eventually, the RIFT Prime experiment will end, and you’ll be able to import your character to the regular version of the game.

I find this entire concept very appealing and I’ve decided to participate. It has been many years since I last set foot in the world of Telara. Tonight, I’ll be taking my first step back in. As a result, I’ll be posting my progress on this site.

UPDATES

March 2018 – Launch

 

Project: PC Upgrade – Final Results

The day has arrived! After almost a decade I’ve finally built a new PC. In my last post on the subject, I discussed my options; would I stick with an Intel processor or would I venture off and try one of AMD’s new Ryzen CPUs? Would I stay a loyal Nvidia user or jump ship to ATI? Well, the time to reveal my decision is here….

After doing a lot of research, I decided to ultimately stick with Intel. Despite the whole Spectre/Meltdown debacle, the latest generation of Intel chips still seemed to be the way to go. Despite having a larger core and thread count, the Ryzen 7 still comes up short in terms of most performance benchmarks. The only exception to that seems to be with workstation-style tasks. But for day-to-day use and gaming, Intel is still the king.

Following my personal rule of “build for longevity”, I did decide to go with Intel’s new Coffee Lake chip. In fact, I ultimately decided on the i7  8700k. At the time of this writing, this is currently the fastest Intel CPU on the market. Despite being the “latest and greatest”, this wasn’t an easy choice. The 8700k is famous for running pretty hot. So if I decided to experiment with overclocking (something I don’t usually do), heat issues could potentially be a factor. With this in mind, I decided to spend a little extra and go with a high quality cooling tower from Noctua instead of sticking with a stock Intel fan.

Noctua fans are world renown for their quality and durability. Plus, they are quiet as a mouse. I know many people would have considered going with a liquid cooling solution. But again, I don’t typically overclock. I build my PCs for longevity and I’d rather get my power by purchasing top of line products rather than pushing more performance out of a chip than is expected. Of course, that being said, I built my entire system with cooling and airflow in mind, so I may experiment with some very mild overclocking in the future. By my calculations, I should easily be able to get about 20% better performance with just some minor tweaks that shouldn’t result in that much more heat.  We will see.

For a mainboard, I went with the ASUS Prime Z370-A. Unlike their “ROG” boards, the “Prime” line from ASUS are geared towards middle of the road users. It features all of the customizability options without some of the extra flashiness. Option-wise, it contains all the slots and ports that I needed for my purposes, and still offered enough options for future upgrades.

Due to budget constraints, I stuck with a hybrid SSD/HD instead of going full SSD for storage. I was able to add a second 2TB hybrid disk to my rig for only $90 as opposed to $300 or more for a SSD solution.

I ended up keeping my existing Sound Blaster Z card in this rig. Since I actually do a lot with audio production from time to time, I prefer to use a real soundcard to on-board sound. But I couldn’t see enough in Creative’s new Sound BlasterX AE-5 card to make me consider an upgrade. The Sound Blaster Z is still plenty for me.

I also ended up retaining my old Corsair CX750 Power supply. This thing is a medusa of cables, however. So I seriously considered going with a new modular PSU. But in the end, I was able to route and tuck away any excess, so cable mess wasn’t an issue. This is an important part of system building that people then to overlook. Proper airflow in a gaming PC cannot be dismissed. When building a PC, I always make sure to route wires and cables behind the back panel and secure them with cable ties.  Any unused wires are also secured and kept out of the way.

To ensure optimum airflow in a PC, you also have to make sure you have the right case. For me, I decided to go with the Corsair Carbide Alpha. This chassis had plenty of room for my needs, it also features two front intake fans and one rear exhaust fan. The intake fans feature a three-way speed switch on the front of the case. – Now, I know some would admonish me for this set-up considering I dropped a big honking CPU cooling tower right in the middle of airflow lane. But surprisingly, this does not interfere with the case’s ability to “breathe”. The Carbide Alpha features venting on the back card panels as well as the ceiling of the case. The air circulation is not impeded by the large heatsink/fan in any way.

The new case design did mean having to finally let go of my internal DVD drive habit. This is something I’ve been reluctant to do. But I managed to pick up an inexpensive USB DVD Burner and so far it’s worked out better than expected.

For a GPU, I did decide to upgrade my old GTX 960 to a GTX 1060. I know that is only a modest step up, but right now with the ongoing crytpo-currency craze, GPU prices are just too unreasonable. There was no way I could afford a 1080 or one of the AMD Vega 64s at this time. For the curious, my card of choice was the MSI GeForce GTX 1060 6G OCV1.

I also took the opportunity to upgrade some of my peripherals. I ditched my aging Logitech Surround speakers and went with a newer 2.1 speaker system. I chose the Soundblaster Kratos S5. These speakers are a popular for their 24bit USB connectivity. But, considering I use a good quality sound card, I actually connect them directly with an audio cable instead. Soundwise, they are amazing. The volume range and clarity is exceptional. My only complaint lies in the volume knob that’s hard-tied to the speakers. It seems a bit finicky… At its lowest setting, sound can still be heard through the tweeters. It doesn’t seem to have a “true-zero” position.  I often listen to music at low volume when I work, so being able to turn the volume down to nearly nothing is important to me. For now, I’ve had to rely on a combination of using the OS volume controls in conjunction with the speaker knob… not an ideal solution. But it allows me to have a sound-neutral setting on the knob.

Finally, I also decided to take the plunge and jump on the hype-train that is Razer. For years I’ve heard people tout the benefits of Razer mice and keyboards. But, I never really believed they were that different. While shopping for components, I found an old holiday bundle on sale and decided to bite the bullet and give at go. It included a Cynosa Pro keyboard and a Deathadder mouse. I have to admit, that I was shocked at just what a difference these products make. Until now, I was using a cheap Logitech Mouse and Keyboard combo. It switch has been night and day. That being said, the Cynosa pro isn’t a mechanical keyboard like many of Razer’s products, but quality difference is still undenyable. I can’t recommend this simply upgrade enough.

The cherry on top to the whole project was the purchase of a quality office chair with lumbar and neck support. I use my home chair for work and play and I’m often in it 10 hours a day or more. Truth be told, this was probably the most important purchase of the lot.

In the coming weeks I’ll be doing a full “My Tech Picks” post that will elaborate a little further on some other changes to my overall gear and rig. Stay tuned!

Record Shop: Stone Temple Pilots – Core

The early nineties was the golden age for alternative rock music. Bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana were dominating the scene and new groups were popping up so fast that it was nearly impossible to keep up. A large number of these were obvious copycat bands that were simply trying to ride the coattails of more famous acts. Groups like these would disappear just as quick as they could spawn. Stone Temple Pilots was often accused by critics as being one of these copycats. Their hit song Plush certainly sounded a lot like what Pearl Jam was doing at the time. The production of the track all the way to the vocal style just felt very “Pearl Jam-ish”. But those who took a moment to listen to the other songs included on their 1992 album Core, would be quick to discover that’s where the similarities ended.

As time would go on, Core would eventually come to be heralded as one of the best rock albums from the nineties. This is a proclamation that I fully stand behind. For a debut album, Core is an impressive feat. The songs are powerful, compelling, catchy and well-written. This record first caught my attention with the release of the single, Plush. This song was a freaking monster when it was released. It was all I needed to go out and buy a copy of the CD. Once I settled down to digest the entire album, what I found was an amazing example of artistry. This was not the typical grunge “flavor of the week”, this was rock and roll – as it was meant to be. Real, unbridled, in-your-face ROCK.

Let’s take a closer look at the album track-by-track.

1: Dead and Bloated – The album starts off with the semi-muted sound of Scott Weiland’s voice shouting the opening lines to the song. This is followed by two powerful whacks to the snare drum… then the whole band kicks in. This opening jolts the listener to attention and the track never lets go until the very end. The verses are catchy and the chorus is melodic and beautiful, yet still hard and abrasive. This song does a great job at defining the overall sound of the Stone Temple Pilots. It’s a fantastic opener to the record.

2: Sex Type Thing – This is actually the first single from the album. It’s a powerful, crunchy rock track that takes the momentum from the first song and actually cranks it up a notch. This song came under a bit of scrutiny during it’s original release. It was claimed that the lyrics glorified rape and violence against women. However, as artists tend to do, Weiland actually illustrates absurdity and cultural problems by personifying them in song. This has been a staple of rock music for as long as it has existed, critics and media still don’t get it. Controversy aside, this is a fantastic track and one of my favorite STP songs.

3: Wicked Garden – This song is another fan favorite, despite never being officially released as a single. This is a powerful track that really illustrates the songwriting prowess of the band as a whole. Everything from Weiland’s vocal delivery to the cohesiveness of the DeLeo brothers is on display here.

4: No Memory – This track is a short instrumental segue. Some would call it filler, some would claim it is nothing more than an intro to the next track. In truth, it’s really nothing special on it’s own, but it does serve as a nice intro to the next song, Sin.

5: Sin – This is probably the first real track on the album that some would consider forgettable. Sin is a mild-tempo rock song. It’s well written but not overly spectacular. It fits in very well with the rest of the album, but when compared with a number of other tracks on Core, it doesn’t shine on its own.

6: Naked Sunday – This song is a bit of a forgotten gem. This is a powerful tune with a great vocal delivery but it tends to be overlooked by many due to the large number of other hits on the album.

7: Creep – This is the first acoustic track on the record and also the third single. It is important to note that the single version that’s usually heard on the radio features a slightly different vocal delivery towards the end of the song. This radio version is a bit of improvement in my mind, and to me, is the definitive version of the track. That being said, the album version is still great. It’s certainly one of the highlights of the record.

8: Piece of Pie – Like Naked Sunday, this is a great track that is often overshadowed by the rest of the record. It’s groovy and very well done. But, it has a difficult time rising to the top of the pack.

9: Plush – This is arguably the crown jewel of the album. This was the second single and one of the biggest hits for STP. This song originally drew a large comparison to Pearl Jam by critics, but as time has gone by, these criticisms have largely faded away. Plush is a powerful, well written staple of nineties rock radio. It is an unforgettable classic.

10: Wet My Bed – This is an odd little throwaway track. It features some interesting production qualities, but is ultimately forgettable.

11: Crackerman – After a handful of mild-tempo songs, Crackerman cranks up the power and delivers some more driving rock and roll. Again, despite not being a single, this song received significant airplay and is another fan favorite.

12: Where the River Goes – The album closes with a bit of a wind-down. This track still features a thick and heavy sound, but it brings the tempo down a bit. It’s not anyone’s favorite song, but this track serves as a good finisher to what is a great album.

Core is an example of rock and roll done right. The nineties were an odd time for rock music. It was easy for bands to get stuck with a specific label and to focus on singular type of sound. During a time of grunge, STP reminded the world that sometimes it is okay to just “rock”.

When listening to albums, I always suggest enjoying them on a nice Hi-Fi stereo system or on a portable device with a good pair of headphones. The production of this record is great and still stands the test of time. There is a new 25th anniversary deluxe edition that doesn’t fall victim to the wiles of over-compression, like so many modern releases do. Either version of the album would serve well for a new listener.

When listening to a record, always listen from start to finish. Some songs tend to be more enjoyable when following the song preceding them. Put the record on while you’re driving, or doing house work. Let it play in the background. Listen it to a few times. Some records need to grow on you. Don’t skip around. Even if a particular song doesn’t grab you right away, let it play through. Your opinion may change.

Project: PC Upgrade

WARNING: This post is going to be very nerdy and technical.

The time has finally arrived… I am building a new PC.

It’s been a year since I last made a “My Tech Picks” post. But if you follow them, you’ll know that my personal PC is getting a little long in the tooth. In fact, I built it back in 2010.  Over time, I’ve made a few upgrades here and there to various components. (Video card, hard drive, monitor, etc). But I’ve been rocking the same core system for the last eight years. A few months ago, I went to purchase the latest Wolfenstein game on Steam and I noticed that my PC didn’t meet the minimum requirements to run the game… It’s time for an upgrade.

My current CPU is an older  Intel Core i7 950.  This was one of the first generation Core i7 processors (AKA: Nehalem). Today, the Core is still Intel’s main product, but we are currently in the 8th generation (AKA: Coffee Lake).

I always build my own PCs. When I do so, I build them for longevity. So my personal rule of thumb is to go with the best components you can get without having to take a second mortgage on your house. This is especially true when it comes to the CPU and mainboard. Most everything else can be swapped out with relative ease. So I always try to get the very best processor available. Well, a lot has changed in the last eight years since I built my last computer. To so get started, I have a big choice to make: Do I stick with Intel or will I go rogue and snatch up an AMD processor?

Over the years I’ve built a number of PCs. I tend to prefer Intel processors since they usually outperform whatever AMD is offering at the time. In fact, of the eight PCs I’ve built for myself, only two of them have ever contained AMD chips. To be honest, Intel usually outperforms AMD in nearly every benchmark. But, AMD typically offers their CPUs at a much cheaper price.

Today, things are very different. Both Intel and AMD’s latest CPUs are priced about the same. Also, this time around, AMD’s Ryzen 7 processor boasts some serious tech-specs that put the current Core i7 to shame (at least on paper).  The latest Ryzen 7 1800x features 8 cores and 16 threads versus Intel’s  6 cores and 12 threads. But, Intel still takes the lead in clock speed. Then, there’s the whole Spectre/Meltdown controversy to consider… Intel is susceptible to both and AMD users only have to worry about one.

When it comes to graphics, I almost always use Nvidia products. I’ve owned a few ATI cards over the years, but I’ve generally been dissatisfied with them. ATI cards almost always tout better specs, but they tend to fall short when it comes to their driver performance. But, things are different this time around. ATI’s latest card the Vega 64 is a BEAST. It delivers top of the line technology at a mid-grade price point. Not to mention, my current monitor supports Freesync technology. This is a big plus if I own an ATI card. Of course, the biggest problem is actually getting my hands on one. The Vega 64 cards are supposed to retail for $500. But due to the crypto-mining craze, they are literally sold out worldwide. The only way to get your hands on one is to dish out over $1,000 to a reseller and even then, they are still nearly impossible to find.

This problem isn’t isolated to just ATI cards either. Almost any GPU is going to come with an inflated price at the moment. And there’s really no end in sight for the shortage. Some experts say prices should normalize in the fall of 2018, while other predict it might go on for two-three years. Literally speaking, this is the worst time in history to try to build a gaming PC… But I won’t let that stop me. Worst case scenario, I could always keep my Geforce GTX 960 and wait for things to settle down. But, I think I can find a few mid-grade cards at an affordable price that would still be an upgrade over my current setup.

I plan to build within the next couple of weeks. So which will I choose? Intel or AMD?  Nvidia or ATI?

I’ll be making an announcement on the site later this month.