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Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Quick Update: The Week In Review

I'm working this weekend, so I'm just posting this for when things slow down a bit and I can expand on some of the topics listed.

This week has been quite full and exciting. Everything kicked off with a job interview that (if I am the lucky winner) would allow me to focus on the tech side of things, apart from simply keeping up to date by reading the latest news articles. I made it to round two, so we'll see what next week yields. This would add to my current portfolio of freelance writer, editor, culinary alchemist, eBay entrepreneur, and...whatever the heck else I do keep money coming in and have fun in the process.

The next thing really took me by surprise. I've been a staff member and occasional writer for VFXG.org for a few months now, and since my experience is more on the writing/editing/directing side of things when it comes to movies, I was asked to interview Scott Ross about the Digital Domain debacle that's been in the news as of late. The interview was very insightful, the readership increased because of it, and I got to be a journalist for once. The whole thing can be found here.

I'm doing a thing I've wanted to do, but since the concept of journalism collapsed as I was exiting college, it never seemed like a reality. Sort of like turning on your faucet and daydreaming about how you wish you could fetch water from the well. The good thing is that in this day and age (if one chooses not to be ignorant), there are enough sources to check your facts. Because he was the founder of Digital Domain, Scott Ross decided to give me a number of facts that were overlooked by a number of the "major" news outlets (WSJ, I'm looking at you) - and you can't really get more authentic than information that comes from the source, before it gets filtered a million different ways. I like writing things that people can see. Most of my time is spent writing very dry manuals and info guides that are used within organizations. It's good to have an audience.

On the entertainment side of things, MechWarrior Online Closed Beta was announced this week, and I was sent an invitation. The game is gorgeous, and no matter what 'mech I pilot, it walks and moves with all the grace I do in real life - like a goose trying to land on ice, only armed with nuclear warheads. Anyone who likes explosions or the MechWarrior franchise should definitely get this game. My only complaint is not being able to take things for a spin before joining a game. I like to know how to use each 'mech before I start spinning in circles and launching everything at once.

In other news, Torchlight 2 was released last Thursday. With a team consisting of developers from Blizzard North, this is the way the sequel to Diablo II should have been. I'm not just saying that because everything's not brown and red like some late-90s metal album. Torchlight 2 has refined mechanics (I like not having to click on every little gold piece to collect treasure); a single-player mode that doesn't require a constant collection; enough story to justify exploring the game and killing clicking on things; and crafting that isn't too extensive to the point of detracting from the fun. Oh, and skill trees make sense, and allow for a lot of customization. And pets! (Yes, I am aware there were pets in the first Torchlight game, but it's less awkward than your Amazon companion in Diablo II - and you were using that NPC like a mule.) If you don't have Torchlight 2, or you found your Diablo III game gathering dust after the first week, you need to get this game.
More game, less server delay.
Cooking's been rather low-key (or take out) simply because of how busy things have been here, so I have no recipes to share. 

I think that's pretty much it. I did receive everything for my week-long Halloween vacation to Disney World next month, but unless you get excited by looking at plane tickets, I'm going to save the details about that until after I return (and have some caffeine in me).






Sunday, September 16, 2012

Early Autumn Soup

Today was rainy, and there's been a bit of a chill in the air (says the man in the middle of Texas), so we decided to make soup. Once again, in order to show that I'm a little more sensitive to the dietary habits of those who try to avoid animal products, I will offer substitutions throughout this recipe (mostly at the beginning in order to spare you the horrors of cooking meat caught on camera). Those substitutions will be typed in italics, so you can pick them out of the line-up.

To start off this recipe, you're going to need the following:

1 bottle of red wine
1/2 pound of rice
1 quart of beef or vegetable broth
2 pounds of small roasting potatoes, cut into chunks
2 heads of garlic
3 large fresh poblano peppers (avoid the dried ones for the sake of this recipe)
4-6 spicy chicken sausages (cut into bite-sized pieces) or spiced, firm tofu (sauteed)
1/2 pound of stew meat or squash, peppers, mushrooms, cut into chunks
1 yellow onion
A bunch of your favorite herbs and spices, added to taste (I suggest Worcestershire sauce, onion/garlic powder, a little bit of salt (or seasoned salt)
1 can of salsa ranchero (or you can add chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, chile colorado, or anything else to give it a bit more of a kick)

The first step is to pre-heat your broiler. While it's warming up, remove the stem and seeds from the poblano peppers. Scalp the heads of garlic. Place peppers and garlic heads on a baking sheet and brush with olive oil. Shove the baking sheet in the oven until the peppers begin to blister (about 10 minutes). Remove the baking sheet, turn the peppers over, brush everything with olive oil (again) and place then back under the broiler.

Note: You can take this time to chop the potatoes, sausage and other items, or to saute the tofu. It's a good use of time.

Now lets get the pot going on the stove. I recommend a 3-5 gallon pot. Add the broth and pour in half of the bottle of wine (which leaves the cook with a nice bonus), and bring everything to a boil. Next, add the rice, potatoes, and any other vegetables you're using that will need thorough cooking in order to become soft.
This is what it should look like for the next 30 minutes or so.
After about half an hour, test the rice, potatoes and other things to be sure they are tender and thoroughly cooked, and bring the heat down to a low simmer.

Remember the poblano peppers and garlic? Remove the individual cloves and throw them into your food processor with the peppers and the large onion. you want everything finely chopped, but you don't want to make a puree. 

There is no escape!
Once you've run these once whole ingredients through the food processor, add them to your simmering pot, along with the contents of the can of salsa ranchero/chile colorado/your red Mexican sauce of choice. Now add the sausage (or fried tofu).

Now the vegetarians and vegans can rest their eyes for a bit. As a matter of fact, they can just let the pot cook - stirring it every once in a while until all of the flavors have melded properly, and then enjoy.

For the rest of us, we are going to be using our remaining ingredient: stew meat.

For this, you want to make sure it's seasoned with Worcestershire sauce, garlic powder onion, powder - basically, whatever flavors you think would be a nice addition to the soup. Now pan-fry the meat until it's medium rare (remember it's getting thrown into the pot, where it will cook even more so don't over-do it the first time around).
Can you tell we love using our pans?

Now dump the contents of the pan into the pot, and stir everything together. Check up on it every 10 minutes or so until you see something like this:

Now you're ready to curl up with a movie, book, loved one, or simply steal away with a bowl for yourself so you can enjoy the colder weather in comfort. You could also share with good friends - I guess - but some things are just too good to share. That's why you get pictures and a recipe, while I enjoy the real thing.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Vanilla Orange Cheesecake (With Booze)


Warning: The following is not a vegan-friendly recipe. While it comes nowhere near the atrocities I've committed against the animal kingdom with bacon, lamb, and other things that make life enjoyable, it nevertheless contains ingredients which are prohibitive to the vegan lifestyle. To ameliorate this, I have taken it upon myself to remove all of the offensive materials and offer you an alternative recipe containing only the ingredients which are allowed by herbivorous epicureans:

1 bottle of your favorite orange liqueur
1 bag of mandarin oranges

Preparation:

Put mandarin orange segments in a container. Drown them in the booze. Wait 4-12 hours. Consume.

Now that we're done with that, we can move on to the actual recipe.

Last month, when I made a Bailey's Irish Cream Cheesecake, I decided I would experiment with a new type of cheesecake every month. As this month is my girlfriend's Birthday, she wanted an orange and vanilla cheesecake. Using a wonderfully versatile recipe (thanks to the amazing Judith Tarr), a made some modifications, crossed my fingers a lot, and hoped for the best.

The hardware you will need for this recipe includes:
  • A Food Processor
  • A 9-inch Springform Pan
  • An Oven
  • Measuring Cups/Spoons (optional)

The Crust

Perhaps the easiest part of this experiment, I decided to star off with the following:
One of these things is not just for kids anymore. I'll let you figure out which.
1 Box of Nilla Wafers
2 Tbsp. Butter (softened)
2 Tbsp. Ice Water

Open the box of Nilla Wafers and dump the entire contents into the food processor. Add the butter. Mix on the highest setting until everything is pulverized. Add the ice water as it is mixing to help everything firm up a little bit, so you're not pouring out vanilla sand into your cake pan.


Press the mixture into the cake pan until it evenly covers the bottom. You might want to use the bottom of a sturdy glass to press everything down, or (when diplomacy fails) use your knuckles to make sure the crust is pressed into the edges.

At this point, you can start preheating your over to 325°F

The Cheesecake Part (otherwise you'll just be making a big cookie)

To make the eponymous part of the cheesecake, you will need the following:
Not pictured: 5 large eggs, because the chicken was still in interrogation.
5 (8oz.) Packages of Cream Cheese (softened)
1 and 3/4 C. Sugar
3 Tbsp. Flour
4 Tsp. Vanilla (cruelly extracted) 
1 Tsp. Salt
5 Large Eggs

Put all of the ingredients into the food processor (it truly is a magical machine), and blend everything on the highest setting until you have a smooth, creamy mixture. Now comes the fun part. Into the food processor goes...
About 2 cups of this.
...your favorite orange liqueur! You can use Grand Marnier, Tang mixed with Devil's Springs Vodka, whatever you personally prefer. For the sake of this experiment, however, we bought a nice bottle of Orange X.O.
Always make sure there is enough left over for the chef
Once again, turn up the speed on the food processor until everything is thoroughly blended. When everything is finished, pour everything into the spring-form pan (on top of that cookie crust you made a little while ago). 
Looks...pretty boring, actually. But just wait.
Now that the oven is at the right temperature, you can put the cake in to bake. It takes about one hour and twenty minutes so go off and read, watch something horrible on Netflix, have a drink, or whatever you like doing that fills up this time (I suggest getting half-way through the introduction of your favorite Final Fantasy game).

Now that the time has passed, turn off the oven and peek inside. You should have something that resembles this:
Look! You made a thing!
If your cheesecake looks anything like the above picture, then you did it right! Now leave the cheesecake in the oven to cool as the oven cools. This prevents the cheesecake from splitting and forming giant chasms due to the sudden change in temperature. (Many thanks to my mother for this tip, after I made that very mistake with my first cheesecake.)

Topping

As the cheesecake is cooling (for the next 3-4 hours) it's time to prepare the oranges and the glaze that both go on top. For this you will need:

4 Cans of Mandarin Oranges
The Remaining Orange Liqueur
1 Figurative Ton of Honey (give or take one boatload)

Drain the juice from the cans of oranges into a medium sized sauce pan, and dump the oranges in a bowl. 
This image is here just in case you can't follow simple instructions
To the sauce pan, add the remaining orange-flavored booze, and enough honey so that you begin to contemplated how hard the bees worked, and how good exploitation tastes.
Is a honeybee not entitled to its spit? "No," says the man in the kitchen, "It belongs to me!"
Now it's time to pretend you're making caramel. Bring the contents of the sauce pan to a frothy, roiling boil for about 15 minutes. Keep stirring! You don't want this to burn. Rather, you want it to simply reduce and thicken. Turn off the burner and keep stirring as it cools. When you are done, you should have something that looks like this:
Induction: Reduction. Conclusion: Confection.
Now it's time for the Arts and Crafts portion of this experiment. Take the bowl of mandarin orange segments and spiral them outward from the center of the cake. (If you do this from the outside to the center, you will end up with a small mountain of oranges in the middle.)
Almost finished
Finally, pour the glaze on top, marvel at your own prowess, and then stick the cake in the refrigerator to let everything firm up for a bit.
Yes, you are that damn good!
During this time, you might opt to take a nap, read some more, finish that Final Fantasy tutorial so you can figure out which button to press so that a menu pops up on the screen to let you know what all the buttons do, or contemplate your navel. 

After you realize you may have waited too long, remove the cake from the refrigerator, unshackle it from the ring of the spring-form pan, call over those in proximity, and soak up the adulation. Now size up who might give you the greatest praise, or reciprocate in some way, and select that person to receive the first slice. (If you are making this for your significant other''s Birthday, then your motives should be less utilitarian, or it will come through in the taste.)
You know it's good because it's messy.
And there you have it! Vanilla Orange Boozy Cheesecake!























Sunday, September 02, 2012

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (A Review)

I've had a love/hate relationship with the Transformers franchise throughout my life. I loved the cartoon as a kid (I even watched Beast Wars in my 20s, when it was on in the early hours of the morning when I was getting ready for work), and even read the comics. I loved the toys, though for a while I was confused as to when some of my older transforming vehicles got drafted into the ranks of the Transformers. However, when it came to video games and movies, things fell apart for me. The games sucked, and the movies amounted to nothing more than money wasted and time off my lifespan that I could never reclaim.

Dead in the first minute. Not because the player sucks, but because the game wasn't meant for humans.

This past Friday, by sheer luck, I won a copy of Transformers: Fall of Cybertron from ShotGaming.com (and if you've never hear of them, head on over to their YouTube Channel for short, informative, and funny reviews of the latest games on Steam). The game actually looked interesting. Let me clarify - the game had less explosions than a Michael Bay movie, the trailer offered no superfluous "comedy" like the movies, and the visuals looked closest to what 9 year old me imagined the Transformers Universe was like.

I can only hope Skids & Mudflap are offered as DLC.

On Friday night, I settled into my chair and took Transformers: Fall of Cybertron for a spin, and didn't stop until sunrise on Saturday morning. 

Configuring The Settings

When I loaded up the game, I immediately went into the settings menu, to see what I could adjust (because most new games seem to think they know what's best for me, and that usually means skimping on graphics, or some weird gameplay setup that just feels unnatural). The first thing I noticed was the VSync was turned off, which is something I usually have to do with every game I've installed for the past year. The second thing I noticed was that there really wasn't much tweaking that could be done with the graphics. The choices were "Super Awesome" and "Sort Of Awesome" (just lacking enough to make you go out and buy a new video card). Luckily, my computer can handle the former setting, so without much else left to configure (it does support both keyboard & mouse, as well as XBox 360-esque controllers), I started up the game.

The Campaign

The whole concept behind Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is that Optimus Prime and his Autobots are fleeing their homeworld rather than stay on a war-ravaged planet that's running out of energy resources. Megatron and his Decepticons don't want that to let that happen, and thus you have the reason this game exists. 

No video tricks here. What you see is exactly what the game is like.


Throughout the campaign mode, you will play various Autobots, as well as Decepticons, in order to accomplish certain missions to either help your cause or to thwart your foes (depending on which side you are playing at the time). While it's kind of weird to play as one side and then get orders to undo the progress you've made by playing the other, it is still very fun if you just accept it as a convention of the game. 

This Is Not GTA With Robots

When I told my friends that I was downloading the game, one of them asked if it was like GTA, only with robots. To be honest, I was only mildly apprehensive about this possibility. Faced with an open world and picking up missions and discovering secrets doesn't sound like a bad premise for a Transformers game. However, Saints Row: The Third and Just Cause 2 spoiled me on sandbox games where one causes mayhem and destruction, purely to indulge the adolescent joy of setting our toys on fire. 

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is not like that. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of destruction to be had, and for the most part the environment can be affected by your weapons or crashing into things, but not to the point of making a level unplayable, such as "goal point X done got blowed up while you were swatting flies with tactical nuclear weapons.

I was trying to think of games this is similar to, but I was only coming up with the early Battlefield 1943 games, and maybe Star Wars: Jedi Outcast. Each stage is pretty much a third-person tactical shooter with enough places to explore things to find, and alternate routes to your goals, that you don't mind that - at it's core - you're running down a corridor. Slap on the veneer of Cybertron and make everything about giant robots, and you lose yourself in the game and forget about the technical aspect of the level design. It's about having fun!
Metroplex and blazing crotch are here to help!
What I Liked About The Game

I went into Transformers: Fall of Cybertron with very few expectations. The fact that I played the game for about five hours without realizing how much time had passed is a testament in itself to how much fun I was having. But without just saying "is a really cool game!" over and over again, I've decided to stick with the rambling format of these reviews and give you a short list of specific things I'm enjoying (and a few of the things I just didn't care for):
  • Weapons everywhere! - On each stage, there are weapons that can be picked up, swapped out, and upgraded. The ammunition is limited, so you either have to be quick during battle, very precise, or learn to use your fists when your guns are empty.
  • You can transform - No kidding? Yes, by virtue of the Transformers name, you can change into a form other than a robot, but in this game it's not just an aesthetic. Your alternate forms have unique abilities and can do things your bipedal form cannot.
  • Variety of characters - I'v only played as Bumblebee and Optimus Prime so far, but players will also find themselves taking control of Shockwave, Grimlock, and other favorites.
  • It's better than any Transformers movie that didn't have "Dare To Be Stupid" on the soundtrack - No gratuitous explosions. No bad acting from live action people. This is basically the cartoon series you've known and loved brought to an interactive level. Also, Starscream retreats less.
  • Teletran 1 Network - These kiosks allow you to upgrade your characters and weapons. While some aspects can be very intricate (which specific part of the your weapon you upgrade), and every once in a while it nudges you toward buying extra content, I like this method of increasing abilities for the game, because something like experience points just wouldn't fit into this universe.
Why are you reading this and not playing the game?

What I Didn't Like

  • Occasionally Clunky Interface - While most opportunities to converse with other robots or utilize equipment in this game are literally the touch of a button, the response time between pressing that button and the character response feels delayed, or you have to try it multiple times in order for something to happen. I don't mind this so much when talking to other on-screen characters, but when swapping out weapons during combat, it can be a little frustrating.
  • Boss/Mini-boss Fights - I'm not against the concept of such things, it's just that with a character line as extensive as the the one in Transformers, I would like to see characters that actually have names, like Ravage or Wheeljack. I'm not even asking for major characters here, just something other than a generic robot in a boss fight that becomes a regular enemy on every stage once you make it past that level. (Note: I'm only a few stages into this game, but this seems like the pattern. I'll revise this if I experience something to the contrary, later on in the game.)
  • Claustrophobic Levels - Some levels actually do seem rather limited. I understand that Cybertron is a world of machinery where the new stuff was built on top of the old for centuries, but on a few missions there really isn't much more than meets the eye (I'm so damn clever).
Should You Own This Game?

Absolutely. I pick which big releases I pay for very carefully, and the $60 USD price point is still high for me, but maybe not for console gamers or Transformer fanatics. As a PC gamer (primarily), I would hold off for a few months until the price drops, or it goes on sale through Steam. However, if (read: when) you take the plunge, you will not be disappointed. From the stunning visuals, the smooth gameplay, and the multiplayer option which is full of customization and unlockables, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron definitely gets my vote - not just for allowing me to relive my childhood, but also for being a really solid game.


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