Monday, August 30, 2010

Game Review: Red Dead Redepmtion

Created by Rock Star Games, Red Dead has been described as GTA set in the Wild West. Since I've never played the GTA series, I can't tell you if this description is accurate. But I know critics loved it, and more importantly, the boys at Penny Arcade liked it...and well, I got to borrow the game for free, so I decided to give it a try.

Normally, I don't review a game before finishing it. Because I pretty much always finish a game that I've started. I'm sure I'm forgetting a few games in my decades-long haze of relentless, somnambulant mediocrity, but I honestly can't recall a game I failed to finish since the legendarily awful Devil May Cry 4.

Which may lead you to believe that I'm going to kill this game, that I hated it more than those mindless drivers who aren't competent enough to steer a car through traffic using their full attention, but still insist on texting their friends at the same time. But that's not the case at's amazing to look at, with a stunning variety of actions available, including (but not limited to) breaking wild horses, driving stagecoaches, riding in a mining car, driving cattle, and playing horseshoes. The world is full of interesting characters and thoughtful dialogue. Weapons include guns, knives, and my obvious favorite - the lasso.

If you played this game for four hours, or eight, or even twelve - as much or more than most reviewers did, I'm sure - you'd be infinitely impressed. I spent my first few days almost wide-eyed at the depth of the gameplay and environment. But sadly, I quickly came to realize that nothing I did mattered.

There's no progression that I could find, so doing one of the many sidequests is essentially pointless. There's no xp, no increase of skills, no bars to move or bubbles to why am I chasing down another outlaw, exactly? Why am I collecting flowers for a crazy old man's dead wife, or finding a lost horse for an equally crazy stablehand into beastiality? I may get some money, but I still haven't found a use for the stuff yet. I may get honor and fame, but again, so what?

The story should be compelling, but the main character is intentionally shrouded in such mystery that I simply don't care. It boils down to one question: Will this outlaw-turned-bounty-hunter with unnamed motivations, hired by secret conspirators for unknown reasons, accomplish his unclear goal? Wow, I can barely wait to find out. I'm on the edge of my...zzzzzzzzz...

And finally, this is hardly the worst sin in the game, but it's possibly the most annoying. Every town has a tavern, and every tavern is full of prostitutes who endlessly proposition you...AND YOU CAN'T HAVE SEX WITH ANY OF THEM. Talking and offering money don't work, apparently it's not within character of this undeveloped mystery man to have sex. Wow, am I ever identifying with this guy. Even if you lasso, hogtie, and carry them to your sex. Dropping them onto a train track with an oncoming engine doesn't change their attitude in the slightest. (BTW - when the train hits, there's a cartoonishly unrealistic splash of blood with no body parts remaining, blah.)

So I'm stuck with a character that I can't customize (except for changing his outfits, woooo!), who is doing things for reasons I can't comprehend, and has no meaningful choices or consequences to his actions. It's a beautiful setting, an amazing engine, and endless amounts of voice-acting and extensively developed side quests...and none of it means anything. I'm not the least bit compelled to keep playing, which is a shame, for all of the care that obviously went into the design of the game.

Time to panic about the Eagles' offense?

Kolb was 0-7 on third down. The OL can't block anyone. Jackson's injured, Maclin's dropping passes, and red zone execution is awful. So we should be seriously worried, right?

Maybe. I don't know, look around the rest of the division. The Cowboys have looked even worse, in spite of an extra week of pre-season preparation. The Giants are listless and piling up injuries.

I might be more susceptible to panic if only the Eagles were struggling, but I find it hard to believe that all three of these teams will be lousy. Elsewhere in the NFC, the Vikings are in flux, and the Bears are stressed. Meanwhile, teams like Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Denver, and Detriot have shown a lot of promise.

That pretty much says it all.

History has proven over and over again that preseason team performance, even if you extrapolate the starters' performance against other starters, isn't predictive of regular season results. This should be a no-brainer, as the starters play only one full game, maybe a game-and-a-half worth of snaps in the preseason. And every year we see NFL teams - good and bad - perform much differently on a week-to-week basis. We can't accurately predict how NFL teams will finish the season after the first real game of the year, so how can we predict how they'll do after a game's worth of practice?

Sure, the Eagles will struggle at times, but we knew that before the preseason. They're one of the youngest teams in the league, trying out a new starting QB. They might have problems on the OL, especially with Jackson injured...exactly as we saw last year. But the Eagles have playmakers on both sides of the ball, and *cough* good coaching, and over the span of sixteen games, those characteristics will be worth more wins than losses. Same with the Cowboys, Giants, Vikings, and...well not the Bears, I just threw them in my example because I have Jay Cutler as my fantasy QB and he makes me nervous.

The excellent news for the Eagles is that they've survived the preseason without any injuries of note, which can't be said for the rest of their NFC East rivals.
The bottom line is this: don't read too much into the preseason. It's the only game going in the NFL right now, and we've been starved for football for so long, that we want it to be relevant...but it isn't. After the first week, half the league will be 1-0, the other half will be 0-1, and the four games before that won't mean a thing.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Eagles vs. Bengals: What Did We Learn?

You know that worst-case scenario you have in mind for the Eagles this season, the one where every off-season move proves to be a mistake and they struggle to win games against mediocre teams?
That scenario looks a lot more realistic after the Bengals' game.

  • The interior offensive line, ignored in the draft and free agency in spite of a series of injuries and failures at the end of last season, was awful. Mike McGlynn, Stacy Andrews, and Max Jean-Gilles were routinely whipped by no-name players. They were mentally and physically beaten, so the prospects for their sudden improvement are dim. If Herremans and Jackson don't get back quickly, the Eagles season could be over before it really begins. Backups A.Q. Shipley and Dallas Reynolds fared no better against the Cincinnati second-string.
  • Sheldon Brown continues to be missed, and I continue to be confused why he was traded. Was he really that much of a cancer in the locker room, that an above-average CB with three years on his contract was dumped for a fourth-round pick? With nothing but Ellis Hobbs and Joselio Hanson waiting in the wings to replace him? Hanson got the start with Samuel injured, and was torched again. This time he was victimized by T.O., a washed-up diva.
  • Kevin Kolb made a couple nice throws, but he had a serious case of happy feet after a protection breakdowns early in the game. There were are least two occasions where he was fourteen yards behind the line of scrimmage and running backwards as he threw. That Eli Manning-style footwork is not going to make anyone forget about McNabb.
  • The Michael Vick Experiment is clearly a failure, but the Eagles remain steadfastly in character as they refuse to admit it. He's so incredibly careless with the ball, the Birds will be unable to win a game if he's forced to start. The most expensive backup QB in the NFL is also one of the worst, and he's all ours. Marc Bulger or Jeff Garcia could have filled in for a year, and surely could do better than 1-5, 6yds, and two picks.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Eagles vs. Jaguars: What Did We Learn?

This statement sounds self-evident, but I'll say it anyway: preseason games never live up to expectations.

The starters only played a handful of snaps, many of the key reserves also took early seats, and we were left watching an entire half of camp bodies like Dobson Collins, Boo Robinson, and Zipp Duncan.

One of the few roster battles that gained some clarity was wide receiver. Riley Cooper made a strong case for the fourth spot, catching a long bomb on his first play in the game. Chad Hall showed he can be effective as a returner, and also made plays as a receiver and tailback. Kelley Washington was solid in special teams, almost blocking a punt. Hank Baskett is now a longshot to make the final cut.

While there weren't many players that stood out either way, here are a few that cauhgt my eye:

Looked Good:
Kurt Coleman - Coleman was everywhere on the field, making sure tackles and occasionally delivering a big hit. He was also victimized on one of the long TD passes as he failed to get enough depth, but that's a correctable rookie mistake. With Quentin Mikell in the last year of his contract, you wonder if the Eagles have an eye on Coleman as his replacement.
Brandon Graham - He didn't get a sack, but he showed great speed on the edge rush. I don't think he'll have a huge impact this year, rookie DEs rarely do, but he can make a contribution. Will definitely supplant Juqua Parker as a starter by next season.
Martell Mallet - If Mike Bell remains injured, he might make this team and contribute. Sure, it was the Jaguars second- and third-team defenses, but he showed decisiveness and enough burst to get through the hole. Not a superstar, but he won't embarrass himself with 10-15 carries a game in the NFL. Buckley is still ahead of him because of this special teams contributions.
Austin Howard - Didn't play as much as I would have liked, and the Jaguars don't have any DEs of note, but he delivered a couple pancakes and otherwise held up well against the pass.

Looked Bad:
Joselio Hanson - Committed a penalty and still managed to give up a touchdown against first-round washout Troy Williamson. I'll say it again: it was a really, really bad idea to trade away Sheldon Brown.
Geoffrey Pope - Also victimized on a deep route by an also-ran receiver, Pope's one of those bubble guys who doesn't figure to make the cut.

Other Notes:
Jackson and Herremans came off the PUP list today, which means there's a chance they could both be ready for opening day...Nick Cole started practicing again as well, but after McGlynn's solid performance against Jacksonville, he may have to fight to keep his second-string center gig...Kolb looked more mobile than I expected in the game, more mobile than the 250lb McNabb was last season...I heard a Washington beat writer describe McNabb's opening performance as 'uneven' an 'inconsistent', he better get used to writing that...two name mis-spellings in my last post, JaMar Chaney and Ken (not Paul) Lawrie were the victims.

Friday, August 13, 2010

What to Watch Tonight

Eagles fans everywhere will be watching Kevin Kolb tonight, naturally. We'll be keeping a close eye on first-time starting center Mike McGlynn, who's been elevated because of injuries to Jamal Jackson and Nick Cole. Are Steward Bradley and Ellis Hobbs recovered from injury? Is Nate Allen the second coming of Wes Hopkins or Macho Harris? Has Asante Samuel learned how to tackle? Is Stacey Andrews the Pro Bowl lineman of two years ago, or will he be getting his Phelps on with his brother?

But alas, all of these questions will be answered (at least for tonight) by the end of the first quarter. The starters aren't expected to play any more than that. But there's plenty of interesting battles for the bottom of the roster to keep fans awake into the fourth quarter.

  • RB - Eldra Buckley vs. Charles Scott vs. Martell Mallet - Buckley is the best special teams player who has run like a truck in traning camp, and he's the only one with NFL experience in this group. But the coaches like Mallet's hands, and Scott's a sixth-round pick. Both of them will have to do something special to supplant Buckley, or convince the coaches to keep an extra RB. Expect Scott to see time at FB and HB.
  • WR - Riley Cooper vs. Kelley Washington vs. Hank Baskett vs. Chad Hall - So far through camp, Cooper has looked like the Eagles fourth-best WR. But he'll need to prove he can play in a game to claim that spot. Washington and Baskett are probably fighting it out for fifth, and their performance on special teams is likely the deciding factor. Hall is a small, quick, punt-return type (think Danny Amendola) who has to show something special to make the team.
  • TE - Clay Harbor vs. Cornelius Ingram vs. Paul Lawrie - Harbor has looked better than Ingram so far in camp, and has a real chance to win the second TE spot. Lawrie is a darkhorse - as the best blocking TE on the roster, he might stick if Ingram doesn't regain his explosiveness after two knee surgeries.
  • OL - King Dunlap vs. Austin Howard - Dunlap's shown little improvement in two full seasons, while the undrafted rookie (Howard) has impressed respected Eagles watchers Merril Reese and Ray Didinger. I'm anxious to get my first look at the kid, to see if he's really an answer at the back-up tackle spot.
  • DL - Daniel Te’o-Nesheim and Trevor Laws - If these two are as good as they've looked so far in camp, they both should dominate against the Jags' backups. I don't think either one is in danger of being cut, so it's not really a battle, but in order to make an impact this season, they should be winning one-on-one battles consistently tonight.
  • LB - Omar Gaither vs. Jamar Cheney vs. Tracy White vs. Keenan Clayton - Cheney and Clayton are young, fast rookies that have a chance to unseat versatile veterans Gaither and White. Both are probably fighting an uphill battle, since Gaither and White are trusted special-teamers, but tonight is their first opportunity to make a statement. I'm also curious to see how the Eagles play Moises Fokou - he went from starting SAM to back-up DE just a few days into training camp, after being praised all off-season for his film study and workout dedication. Not sure if he's fallen out of favor, or if the coaches are just looking for more ways to get him on the field.
  • DB - I don't see any battles here, with 5 CBs (Samuel, Hobbs, Hanson, Lindley, Patterson) and 4 Safeties (Allen, Mikell, Demps, Coleman) that should make the team, barring injury. Lindley and Coleman are both promising rookies who have looked better-than-advertised so far in camp. We'll see tonight how they hold up in game situations.
  • P - Wait, punter? Yes, punter. Ken Parrish vs. Sav Rocca - Parrish can kick-off as well, which gives him an edge, because the Eagles would like to save David Akers' leg for field goals.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Movie Review: Salt

It should come as no surprise to anyone, especially an idiot like me who forked over $9 to watch it, but Salt sucks.

The problem isn't that it's a formulaic action movie, I watch and enjoy those all the time. Critically declaimed* flicks like XXX, Resident Evil, and AvP weren't more intelligent or better acted, but they were far more entertaining. Salt managed to bore me at a breakneck pace. There was lots of action, lots of explosions, plenty of slow-motion, cutaway fight scenes, and a ponderous score to accentuate the gravity of Salt's gymnastic ass-kicking. Yet none of it was even remotely interesting, cool, or funny.

Ok, there's a dungeon scene at the beginning where Angelina Jolie is chained up in just her panties and a bra. That was both interesting and cool. I'll have to keep a closer look out for Leonardo di Caprio, because I'm sure that scene was stolen straight from my dreams. But after that, nothing.

By making agent Evelyn Salt such a mystery (sort of), the writers offer no opportunity to identify with her. We're not sure why she's doing anything, so it's hard to care if she succeeds or fails. Without knowing if she's an evil double-agent, or a secretly good triple-agent, it's impossible to root for or against her. Without an emotional attachment to any characters, I couldn't suspend my disbelief and look past the ever-growing pile of plot preposterousnesses+.

And for chrissakes, the lead role is Angelina Jolie. This black thing is the sexiest outfit she wears in the entire movie (aside from the quick dungeon scene, of course.) Every other outfit is even less revealing. Jolie has done a few serious projects (which I haven't watched) and for all I know she might have legit acting creds. But she's not making $20 million a film becaue she's the next Meryl Streep, she's making that coin because she's one of the sexiest women in the world...and you'd never know from watching Salt. She's never asked to look or act sensually, so even as pure eye candy she can't elevate a wretched script to watchability (see: Wanted.)

So don't go see Salt. Don't Netflix it. Just forget it ever happened, as I will twenty minutes from now.

*Of course "declaimed" isn't a word. But what's a good antonym for acclaim in the phrase "critically acclaimed"? Critically berated? Jeered? Vituperated? None of them have the same ring as "critically declaimed". Hey, if Sarah Palin can make up words, I can too.

+No, that one's not a word either. But say them both out loud: "pile of plot implausibilities" vs. "pile of plot preposterousnesses"'s not even a fucking contest.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cleaning out Old News: Book Reviews

I feel like I might start blogging again, but there's too much old chaff rattling around inside my head for me to focus on a new idea. So I need to do a little housekeeping, dust off the boxes in the attic and clear out the cobwebs.

In other words, another excuse for another half-assed post. But I know you're used to it. If you complain, I'll just delete your comment anyways. And then apologize, assure you I still love you, and lay enough guilt on you to make you believe it was all your fault.

Onto the books:

Superfreakonomics was definitely worth a read, although I didn't like the structure as much as the first one. The sequel was less organized around themes, rambling instead from topic to topic. While some of the facts were definitely interesting, I'd read about many of them before. Without coherent themes to bring them together, some sections of the sequel dragged along ponderously in comparison to the original. However, there were two topics that fascinated me: child safety seats and (of course) global warming.

I've long suspected that child safety seats for children older than toddlers were over-regulated and largely useless. While I'd love to take intellectual credit for this, I suspect it's more a product of my proclivity to see useless over-regulation everywhere. But regardless, it's enlightening to discover not just that these seats are useless, but that we've introduced costly legislation and created a culture of worry without a single scientific study. When the authors looked for data about crashes involving children in seats vs. children wearing seatbelts, they didn't find contradictory or conflicting data, they instead found no data at all. Even more striking was the attitude they encountered when they wanted to run their own tests...crash test centers around the country were almost unanimously unwilling to allow them to rent, and employees there were reluctant to help. When they did find someone who would run the tests, they were forced to place security deposits on the crash dummies because the center was convinced that seat-belt crashes would destroy the dummies...without a single shred of evidence. Almost everything you believe about car seats for children over two, and everything our legislation is built essentially a media campaign waged by car-seat manufacturers and politicians looking for an angle with mommy voters. So even though the car seats had already been tossed from my car, several years before the law allows, the scientific justification to my preconceived counter-notions is welcome.

The global warming section was fascinating as well, and instead of the usual debunking of doomsayers, the authors found a group of inventors who have developed several possible technological solutions to cool the globe, for a fraction of the annual marketing budget of Al Gore's Global Warming Foundation. These inventors aren't your average crackpot, but respected geniuses who in many cases founded corporations and became fabulously wealthy as a result. In their 'retirement', they founded a company that seeks to solve worldwide problems through innovation. One of the simplest, most elegant, and completely natural solutions involves spraying ocean water ten feet into the air, where the salt spray can form the base of additional cloud cover over our oceans. The authors went to Al Gore with the solution, and unsurprisingly, he was unmoved, unconvinced, and utterly unwilling to try. When someone has forcefully and repeatedly predicted environmental armageddon, logically he should be open to cost-effective, environmentally neutral solutions. (If he believed in his dire picture of the future, he should be willing to try anything.) But of course, actually solving global warming wouldn't make Al Gore famous or (more) rich, when he can instead win Nobel Peace Prizes and make millions in consulting fees by playing Chicken Little.

The Big Short is about the recent financial crisis, and the minority of people who saw it coming. Not loud-talking permabears, but money managers who made large financial bets against the subprime mortgage market and turned huge profits doing it. I had planned to try to explain it all in a blog post, but truthfully the author does a much better job than I could. Chances are good I would forget something, use the wrong terminology, or accuse the wrong investment bank (although that's a really wide target.) But even a cynical guy like myself was stunned to read about the wanton disregard for law, ethics, responsibility, and common sense displayed by the criminals and ignoramuses who ruined our economy. Of course, they all got filthy rich in the process, with the punishment falling disproportionately on taxpayers, homeowners, and shareholders. I highly recommend reading this book while the magnitude and consequences of the financial crisis are still fresh in your mind. You will understand what happened, why it happened, and why it will happen again. Amazing read.

Best Served Cold is the new release from Joe Abercrombie, the fantasy writer I raved about after his debut First Law Trilogy. Sadly, he fails to live up to his own standard with this follow-up. The plot is maddeningly deliberate and unimaginative (mercenary is betrayed, swears revenge against the seven conspirators, and kills one at a time), and is hindered by a lack of complex and likable characters. None of the avenging group show more than a moment of morality, none develop emotional attachments to each other, and none display any qualities that I strongly identified with. This is a strange departure from his first trilogy, which was every bit as dark and bloody as this one, yet managed to develop compelling characters that were easy to root for (or against.) Although it was a lame read, I'm willing to give him another chance before I write him off as a one-hit wonder.

Finally, I just finished Take Your Eye Off The Ball: How To Watch Football By Knowing Where To Look. It's basically a guide for fans who want to know more about the preparation and strategy that go into building an NFL roster and creating a gameplan, and how to see those results coming together (or not) on a Sunday afternoon. It was informational, and at least moderately compelling because my wife has decided to read it as well. It wasn't quite the Bible I was hoping for - I would have preferred and even more in-depth look into blocking schemes, defensive line techniques, and gameplan development - but then again, I've been listening to the author for three years on Sirius NFL radio, so I found at least half the book repetitive. I also didn't care for the weird little Question/Answer blurbs with the author's picture that seemed to appear on every page, but overall it was a useful read. I'll be attempting to apply the knowledge when I watch the Eagles this season, and perhaps even blog about the results. I'd definitely recommend it, although not all of the content will be interesting to all fans.