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Holiday Awesomeness

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Just a bit of awesome for your holiday weekend.

Book Review: The Lost Symbol

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There is very little I can say about this book without giving anything away, so this will be a short one.

The Lost Symbol is not a bad book.
The Lost Symbol is not a bad Dan Brown book.
The Lost Symbol is a bad Robert Langdon book.

Brown has a great tradition of taking 100% factual evidence and creating amazing fictional stories out of it. The Lost Symbol has everything you want from a Brown book: shadowy conspiracies, secret organizations, bizarre plot twists and stunning revelations.

However, we've come to expect more from Brown's Langdon novels. I, personally, love trying to solve the puzzles along with Langdon and reveling in his knowledge of obscure references. However, The Lost Symbol has very little of this. Langdon only solves about 2 or 3 riddles across the story, and even then, he has his hand held through it.

Honestly, you can't even call this a Langdon novel, since most of the story is told from the point of view of other characters. Sure, it's nice to see different points of view on the story, adding depth to the mystery. However, when half of your book doesn't involve the main character, that's a problem.

Lastly, it almost feels as if Brown is overly preachy as the book winds down after the climax. The constant repetition of the potential of the human race just gets annoying, especially after the disappointing story.

Again, it's not a BAD book, I was just expecting much more.

Get to Work, People!

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As previously mentioned, I'm pitching in with Sideshow and Syrana as part of Azeroth United's Child's Play charity drive through the #IBlameSyrana hashtag on Twitter.

We have met our original goal of 500 Tweets, so it's time for Syrana and I to pay up.

As a thank you for all involved, Swag Dog has donated several coupon codes. So, head on over and use code "childsplay455" to save 25% on your purchase between now and Saturday the 29th.

But it's not over, folks. Fulguralis and Fuubar have raised the bar, sponsoring the next 500 Tweets, and recently Pix has recently offered to sponsor a FURTHER 500.

We reached our first goal rather quickly, but have until December 13th to blame Syrana almost 1000 more times.

I know she's done plenty of things to everyone out there, so step it up, people!

Corruption, Part 4.5: Sylphine's Story (Cont.)

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(Read the previous entry here or refer to the Fiction Index for a full listing.)

Sylphine has paused for an extended period of time. She adjusts the candle, picks a stray thread from the hem of her robe, almost as if unwilling to go on with the story. Finally, taking a deep breath, she continues her tale.

Mother was wrong. I would never see her at all after that night.

Though on the cusp of womanhood, Rina was not ready for the loss of another parent. While not at my studies or performing chores, I tried to spend as much time with her as possible.

One night, while Rina was sharing my bed, it happened. A scream jolted me from dead sleep. Instantly, I knew something was wrong. It was as if a part of me, a small feeling always in the back of my mind had disappeared.

Rina barely stirred. Perhaps my magical training made me more attuned to certain things. I decided to let her rest.

Tomorrow, I would have to tell her than mother was dead.

Though Sylphine's story has been full of tragedy, this is the first time tears appear in her eyes.

But no, that was not enough. No flame was present in my room, it was pure dark. Although I would have thought it impossible, the room grew even darker. A wave of revulsion struck me, one unrelated to the loss of my mother. Something dark, something sinister, something evil had come to our sanctuary.

The next morning, I broke the news to Rina. The poor girl was inconsolable. I tried to bring her breakfast, but she would not eat. I decided to skip my studies that day, so as not to leave her alone.

I should have known that would not be allowed. Fara soon came to my door to summon me as well. "I know nothing of your mother, but it doesn't matter. Your training stops for nothing."

"But, Fara, can't you see my sister needs me right now?"

"Your sister is old enough to take care of herself. If she can't pull herself together, then perhaps she isn't strong enough for this world." Fara could see the anger and defiance in my eyes. "Girl, you are not a full Warlock yet. You WILL report for your training. If you do not, you will be severely punished. More importantly, I will be punished for failing to bring you, and that is something I promise you will regret."

I gave Rina one last hug and stormed past Fara. For the first time in my life, I was beginning to regret coming here. I did not give my full effort that day in training. As punishment, I was forced to stay later than usual. By the time I returned to my room, Rina was gone. She had returned to her own quarters and would not answer her door. I worried for her, but assumed she was sleeping, let her be.

Life changed drastically after that. My teachers were pushing me harder than ever before. My sessions were extending longer and longer, forcing me to work harder and harder. There were days when I had to choose between sleep and food, my free time was so little.

Worse, I was losing Rina, as well. She had taken to sleeping in mother's bed instead of her own. Rarely did she leave her room any more, and when she did she never spoke.

Just when I was reaching my breaking point, I received my first bit of good news in the months since mother disappeared. I was being raised to full Warlock.

You see, among Warlocks, power is secondary. I had plenty of power since my training started at fifteen. Only now, nearing the age of nineteen, had I gained the amount of control necessary to be considered a true Warlock.

The ceremony is unimportant. I'm sure you experienced something similar when you became a Paladin. What I do remember is the Grand Master. Grand Master Warlock Therin sat at the far end of the hall. He never said a word, but his presence overpowered the room. The torches near his seat seemed to shy away from him, as if the light itself were afraid to touch the Grand Master.

Freed from my status as an Adept, I was granted more freedom. Areas of the Sanctuary that had previously been off-limits were now open to me. Most notably, the library. I was encouraged to read the texts contained therein, so as to better understand the options available to me. From this point on, I would be studying on my own. No less would be expected of me, but I was free to choose my own path, unsupervised. I had demonstrated the control necessary to be a Warlock, if I pushed too hard, the fault was my own. Recognizing several titles in the library from Mother's bookshelf, I brought them back to my own room.

Though I could choose the path of my studies, I was still expected to dedicate the same amount of time to them. Rina was becoming increasingly distant.

Learning to summon further familiars, submitting them to my will, as well as memorizing complex incantations was consuming my life. I now know why Warlocks are so emotionally detached. I had not forgotten my sister, but no longer worried about her. She was old enough to choose her own path in life.

My work had not gone unnoticed, apparently. Within a year of being raised, I was summoned to an audience with Grand Master Therin. Fara showed none of her usual smugness when she delivered this message.

I went not to the Meeting Hall, nor Therin's study. Instead, I reported to the Summoning Room in the basement. Not only was the Grand Master present, but the rest of the Inner Circle, as well. The atmosphere in the room was almost oppressive.

Never in my life will I forget what happened next. Grand Master Therin spoke to me directly. His voice was not human. His tone was low, almost a whisper, but with a serpentine quality to it.

"Ssylphine, I have been watching you clossely ssince you arrived here with your mother. You are a very sspecial girl, my dear. You are being given a rare opportunity to help our order., the ssame opportunity we gave your mother."

Horror-struck, I was almost unable to reply. "You-you k-killed my mother!"

"No, young one," he replied. "Casssie gave herself willingly. Unfortunately, she wass found lacking. The ritual did not go ass planned. She wass able to ssusstain the portal long enough for mysself and the resst of the Honor Guard to come through, but burned out before our masster was able to crosss over."

I did not understand what was going on.

"You musst realize by now that we are no longer Therin and hiss circle. Therin wass a valuable minion, but I needed a hosst, and he will sserve."

"Mom would never do such a thing."

"Of coursse not. At leasst, not voluntarily. Casssie was merely a ssubsstitute for our original ssacrifice."


"Yess, dear. We wanted to usse you to open the portal."

Now, I was truly too terrified to speak.

"Oh, no. Don't worry your pretty little head. We've found ssomeone much more ssuitable for our purposse."

The being that used to be Therin raised his hand, motioning somebody into the room.

"Sylly!" Rina cried out, "What's going on? What's wrong with these people?"

"RINA!" I shouted, "Let her go, you monsters! I'll do anything you want. Take me."

"Sso much like your mother. I'm ssorry, dear, but little Rina here iss pure enough to allow uss ssuccesss. Unlesss..."

"Unless what? Name your price, demon."

"Unlesss you could bring uss one more pure. A Paladin would be ssatissfactory. You have until one week before the moon iss full."

So you see, I was left with no choice. I regret tricking you, and the horror that demon may unleash, but I will do anything to save my sister. She's the only family I have left.

I'm sorry, Paladin, but the full moon is in exactly seven days.

With that, Sylphine extinguishes the candle and walks away.

Corruption, Part 4: Sylphine's Story

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(Read the previous entry here or refer to the Fiction Index for a full listing.)

I suppose my childhood was a normal one. Dad worked with a trading caravan, running supplies to Lakeshire and other nearby cities. Mom stayed home with Rina and I. We were happy, living in our small house in Old Town.

I'll never forget that Autumn day. It was three weeks before my fifteenth birthday, Rina would have been nine at the time. Dad's boss came to our house. Rina and I watched from upstairs. He didn't stay long, but when he left, Mom fell to the floor crying. Rina ran down, but I was too scared. I knew Mr. Sarker would not be bringing good news.

Dad's caravan was ambushed by Defias on its way to Sentinel Hill. He wouldn't be coming home.

Sylphine pauses for a moment, lost in thought.

It would only get worse. Dad was a driver, not a guard. As such, Mr. Sarker claimed we weren't entitled to monetary compensation. We had no way to feed ourselves, no way to pay our rent.

We managed on our own for a little while. Mom would bake bread to sell, or make some spare money repairing tattered dresses. I even went down to the Trade District and sold flowers to shoppers. It wasn't enough, though. We would soon be living on the streets.

At dinner one night, I asked Mom what her life was like before she met Dad. She wouldn't answer, but quickly cleared her plate and left, asking me to look after Rina. Over the next few days, we rarely saw Mom. She would come home late at night, almost early morning, sleep for a few hours, cook us some food, then disappear.

I was old enough to worry than Mom was doing something... disreputable.

After several weeks, just as our savings were running dry, Mom came home with a smile on her face for the first time in months. She found us a new place to live, and said we wouldn't have to worry about money any more.

The next day, we packed up our remaining belongings, those we hadn't sold to buy food. I was worried we would have to walk a long distance to our new home, but was surprised when we headed straight across the Trade District, instead of heading for the main gates of Stormwind.

We were living in the Mage Quarter?

Before long, we were standing in front of what was to be our new home.

"We're living in a TAVERN?" I asked.

Mom stood there for a moment, then said, "Rina? Why don't you go pick some flowers right over there. I'd like to talk to your sister for a bit. Come sit down, Syl."

Confused, I joined her on a nearby bench.

"Sylphine, it's time you learned where I've been these past nights. When I was about your age, I started learning how to use magic."

"You were training to be a MAGE?"

"No, dear. My training was not in the Arcane. I joined a... family... where I learned to use Fel Magic." I opened my mouth to respond, but Mom went on. "Let me finish, dear.

"I spent several years living with my new family, until I met your father. These recent nights, I have reconnected with my brothers and sisters. They have offered to let us live with them, below this tavern, here."

"So, we're living with Warlocks now?" I asked.

"'Living with' isn't the right phrase. I'll be lending them my power. It has grown dormant over these long years, but I have rekindled it. And you, Syl, you will be training to use it yourself."

"But, I-"

"I'm sorry, dear, but this is not open for negotiation. These are the terms I was given for our living here, and if we don't agree, we have nowhere else to go. I have asked them to leave Rina out of this, at least until she is old enough to decide for herself. Please? I know Warlocks are painted in a negative light, but am I a bad person? We are merely misunderstood. Now, go fetch your sister, it is past time I introduced you to your new family."

And so it was. I was angry that I was not given a choice, but in time I realized that there was no choice. I started my training, working with a different teacher every day. Mother was right, Fel Magic is not inherently bad. Is it dangerous? Yes. If you are not careful to exert your will over the energies, they will consume and corrupt you. Swords are used to kill people every day. Does that make the swords evil? Fel Magic is a tool.

I grew to love my studies. Apparently, I was very attuned to the forces. Within three years, I was ready to summon my first familiar. After days and weeks of failed attempts, I finally managed to conjure an imp from beyond the Void. Ecstatic, I ran to my mother's room to tell her the great news.

Mom tried to smile, but it was forced. Something was bothering her. "Sylphine, my lovely daughter, we may not see each other much after this night. I have been chosen for a very special ritual, and I will be spending a great deal of time with the Inner Circle. I am very proud of you, and all that you have done for me and your sister. Please watch over your Rina, she will need you."

Before I could respond, there was a knock on the door, and Fara, one of the lower-ranking Warlocks entered the room. Not a word was exchanged, but mother rose to leave. She embraced me and whispered in my ear, almost as if she did not want to be overheard, "Keep control. Don't let others use your power."

And then she was gone.

Micro Mini Mayhem

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Earlier this month, Blizzard announced their Pet Store.

Twitter exploded, blogs went nuts. Some people hated it, some loved it and raged at those hating it. Calm discussions were few and far between.

It wasn't pretty.

Now that the dust has settled, it's time for me to chime in.

To begin with, I have absolutely no problem with the concept of the store. Instead, my issue is with the pricing.

If you feel that $10 is a good price for a cosmetic addition to your character, then that's great. I'm sure you'll be very pleased with your purchase.

While I am more than able to afford the $10, I don't feel that a purely cosmetic upgrade is worth that price.

$5 for extra missions and gameplay in Mass Effect? Sign me up.
A couple bucks for a Guitar Hero song? No problem.
$10 for extra maps in Halo or Call of Duty? A bit more than I'm willing to pay, but a fair price, given the amount of development needed.

How do these differ from the mini-pets? The all do something, add content to the game. To me, that makes them more worth the price.

So, what would I consider a good price for these pets? Let's look at some other online games that offer similar services:

$10 gets you a large selection of costume pieces, as well as emotes and powers in City of Heroes.
Free Realms offers a huge shop, with costumes, pets and weapons that run anywhere from $1-$5.
Even World of Warcraft, itself has offered transactions already, costing up to $30.

The thing that sets these transactions apart from the WoW mini-pets, is there's a balance between offsetting production costs and still offering a fair, but profitable price. Those WoW transfers cannot be a simple thing to get right. That's a lot of tech to manage.

Seriously, how much did it cost Blizzard to create each of these pets? 3 guys working 2 weeks? Granted, they're AWESOME pets and do far more than just stand there. Let's assume 10% of WoW's vaunted 10 million players purchase a single pet. That's $10 million. Let's say half of those are Pandarens, which gives half to charity. That's still $7.5 million. For, what, a couple hundred thousand dollars of investment, between development and distribution? Something tells me that profit number is MUCH higher, though.

One argument I'd like to shoot down is the loot cards. "I spent hundreds of dollars getting my Spectral Tiger, $10 for a panda is nothing."

No, you did not spend hundreds of dollars on a mount. If so, UR DOIN IT RONG. You spent hundreds of dollars on trading cards, the mount is a BONUS. I bought crap-tons of those things. Why? Because I liked collecting them. The in-game items were nice (I LOVE my turtle), but not the reason I bought them. $3.99 is the market price for a Booster Pack for a Trading Card Game. The WoW TCG is an amazing value at that price, offering roughly DOUBLE the amount of cards compared to other games.

That, right there, is my main issue with the pet pricing. Blizzard has shown in the past to give amazing value for its products. They released content updates for Diablo II almost a full decade after its release. WoW has received several expansions worth of content, while only charging for two. If they were charging half the price for the pets, I think they could sell more than double the amount. In addition to making more money, Blizzard would be staying true to their business philosophy.

Does the recent Activision merger have something to do with this? I despise Activision enough to believe it's a definite possibility.

Links! 11/13

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The new patch is available for Torchlight.

A Borderlands PC tweak here. Items in the game can have more stats than displayed. Use this to decrease the font size and make them visible.

Joe (LodurZJ) posted a review of Champions Online over at For the Lore. Seems pretty in-line with mine, though he's played more extensively.

Where Does WoW Go from Here?

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So, 3.3 and Icecrown Citadel is currently on the Test Realm. It will likely see live by Christmas.

Cataclysm will definitely be out at some point next year. With Starcraft 2 slotted in the Spring, it's highly unlikely we'll see it in the first half of the year.

I've been told Blizzard says they want Cataclysm out before next year's Blizzcon. They seem to be rather far along in the development, based upon what they showed at this past Blizzcon. That said, with Blizzard, I'll believe it when I see it. Theoretically, they also expect to have Diablo 3 out this year.

However, let's ASSUME Cataclysm will be out by this summer. Let's give it until July, which is eight months away.

Blizzard has said that Icecrown Citadel is the end of the Wrath of the Lich King storyline. Where does that leave the game over the next eight months? Blizzard obviously can't go that long without updating the game. The community would riot.

I'm sure November/December WILL mark the end of Wrath. I doubt we'll see a Sunwell-style extension of the story. It's kind of hard to top taking down freaking Arthas. Who's to say, though, that February/March won't mark the beginning of Cataclysm?

Whether it's 3.4 or even 4.0, I'd say the odds are good that we'll see the start of the Cataclysm story well before we even think of the expansion. There are two things that make this theory strong in my book.

First, the Chamber of the Aspects in Dragonblight. Thus far, only one of the five wings, The Obsidian Sanctum, has been utilized. Since Deathwing is the central character thus far in Cataclysm, it would stand to reason that the other Dragonflights would be part of the build-up. How? I have several theories, perhaps to be explored in a future post, but those portals are down there for a reason.

Second, there's the sheer scope of the Cataclysm itself. The event will change the entire game world of Azeroth and Kalimdor, in addition to the new zones being added in the expansion. Since Blizzard has said they want players both with and without the expansion to experience the Cataclysm. This will require a MASSIVE overhaul of the game files, all through patching. Unless Blizzard wants to release a single GIGANTIC patch, I would hope they'll do it in a series of smaller patches, slowly changing the game world along the way, as the Cataclysm progresses. Each level of change will have accompanying story elements. Perhaps it will evn be possible to level a Dwarf Shaman through the newly-redesigned zones BEFORE the expansion even launches.

This would be a brilliant move on Blizzard's part. Players like myself, who are currently inactive in the game, waiting for Cataclysm, will be more likely to renew their accounts sooner than expected. As we all know, Blizzard likes money.

Revenge of Links!

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It's been a long time since I've done a weekly links post, and I think it's about time I got back into the routine.

70 Tips about Torchlight for Newbies, Part 1 and Part 2. Read it. Play it. Love it.

Announcement: World of Warcraft Raid for the Cure - Join BBB in the fight against breast cancer.

Assassin's Creed - Lineage (Part 1) - An awesome video bridging the gap between the first and second games.

Also, check out Episode 7 of For the Lore this week for me and the boys talking about Borderlands.

Champions Online Impressions

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This past weekend, Champions Online offered a free trial of the game. Who am I to turn down free stuff? Besides, I LOVE comic books.

A few months ago, I tried out City of Heroes. It was fun, but didn't really capture my attention. Too grindy and repetitive. Champions Online is the next evolution of the City of Heroes formula.

It was really fun!

Character creation was amazing, as expected. You can see my creation above, but check out that dude behind me! That's all default options, there. There is no in-game store yet.

Unlike, CoH, Champions has no classes. You can build your character however you want, with no restrictions. Of course, without clearly-defined roles, this basically makes everybody DPS. You actually have to TRY to make a tank or healer. We'll see how this works out as the game goes on.

City of Heroes has expanded its power set over the years, so Champions can't match it in quantity. You can select from many pre-made power sets, or customize one of your own. Basically, you just choose a primary and secondary power from any of the pre-made sets. Some work well together, others don't. I chose the pre-made Arcane Sorcery set. I could have taken a combination of any two Sorcery trees and done well. However, I can see some potential difficulty if you choose from two wildly different power sets, as higher-level skills are unlocked depending on how many you've selected previously in that tree.

My Arcane build was a blast. Your primary attack is a "building" attack, increasing your Energy (mana). Your secondary attack uses this Energy. Mine was a ranged attack that "charged up." The longer I held the button, the more damage it did, and more Energy it consumed. I later gained an absolutely BRUTAL skill that set up little land mines around me and a channeled healing skill.

All, in all, very fun to play.

And the travel powers! Ice slides, web-slinging, rocket boots, you name it, it's here. I chose Teleportation, as it fit the Dr Strange-type character I was working around.

I found gameplay to be fun, varied and balanced. You actually FEEL like a superhero. You can rescue civilians, take down thugs and even return lost pets. You feel suitably powerful. Minions go down quick, while Villains and Super-Villains feel like a challenge. There's a solid risk-vs-reward balance. Additionally, the addition of a block button gives battle another fun layer of complexity.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to what you like. This is a game for comic fans. The art style and scripting really feel right. However, that style can be a turn-off to non-fans. Well, to each his own. Some people out there don't like the fantasy-style games.

I would suggest to anybody out there interested to definitely give this game a shot. It is a great game. The core gameplay is solid, and it's just FUN.