Left 4 Dead’s got great strategic scope, but hopefully modders will add even more

February 21, 2009

FROM JASON’S APOCALYPTIC ARSENAL — Despite initially cheerleading for the game, some critics said Left 4 Dead was destined to sparkle and fade in a matter of a month.

Well, two months after install I am still happily slaying hordes of the infected in the sewers under Mercy Hospital and under the shadows of trees in Pennsylvania state parks. True, there are plenty of things I’d love to see added to the game: the ability to build barricades, turrets, trip wires or razor wire, lay land mines, use flame-throwers, bazookas, place oil slicks, plant dynamite, string barbed wire fencing, use rivers and streams tactically, use chainsaws, axes, and baseball bats, set up stakes….

All that may well come when Valve releases its Source Development Kit this spring, along with additional free levels in which to go-a-zombie-slayin’. I’m hoping that some clever fan-boys with coding skills will dream up some brilliant maps with ample opportunities to lay ambush sites and take to snipers’ nests.

In the meantime, Left 4 Dead is still holding my attention quite well. As Tinker-Toy-ish as the game is in its simplicity, it still offers a wide strategical array if you’re willing to communicate with other survivors. For instance, I recently discovered how overlooked and powerful the hunting rifle actually is (see YouTube video above).

Every n00b starts with the machine guns — as was evidenced last weekend when waves of squeaky-voiced 12-year-olds inundated the servers as Steam ran a half-off sale. Those pimply newcomers made all the rookie mistakes. They shot alarmed cars, nailed boomers at close range, and walked through metal detectors. Worst of all, they all went straight for the uzis and assault rifles.

Now the automatics aren’t all bad, but they suffer for a lack of precision and punch. Most seasoned players stick to the auto shotgun, but I’ve found the rifle has enough stopping power to punch through multiple zombies with a single shot, and the versatility to pull one-shot-one-kill from afar with the sniping scope.

Now, the rifle’s not going to do much against a tank (unless you get far enough away to put several clips in him), but it’s perfect for picking off un-alert infected while sitting high above, or zeroing in on smokers and boomers before they can get in range to do harm. It’s even perfect (refer once more to my video) for dropping slugs into a witch while sitting safe and sound across open ground.

So this is the second time I’ve gone all fanboy over Left 4 Dead. The first time, I mentioned that it sports enough strategic nuances to make Sun Tzu proud; at the time, it was a throw-away joke, but since then I’ve taken the time to actually read The Art of War — something I’ve always wanted to do. You should read it, too. It’s short.

Anyway, the bulk of the work focuses on command decisions, understanding your enemy, marshaling troops, and managing them on the field. But in reading the translation, there were several tactical truisms I couldn’t help but apply to Left 4 Dead:

“In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack – the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers. The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn.”

This is true. In game, you can run around shooting the undead until your ammo is gone, or you can lure them into fire, draw them in crowds to pipe bombs, or push them from ledges to their deaths on the pavement or ravines below.

“Should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.”

Remember how Hitler (and Napoleon before him) tried to march into the Eastern and Western fields of battle at the same time, and his forces were ground to hamburger? Waging a multi-front war is a bad idea, and my blood turns to ice when brash young players want to “each take a window and hold them off” instead of bottlenecking. Speaking of which:

“With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy.”

Dead ends are your friend. Get your back against a wall, load your weapon, and let the zombies pour through the narrow openings like Persians onto the waiting swords of Spartans. If Leonidas taught you just one thing, it’s that a very few can hold off millions if the correct terrain is chosen to make a stand.

“With regard to precipitous heights, if you are beforehand with your adversary, you should occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up.”

Seek high ground. It takes time for infected to climb the sides of a truck, or a perch, or a stairwell, or a building. And they can’t attack while climbing, either. It’s true in both swordplay and gunplay — take the high road, and the advancing enemy below will fall into your hands.

“…Those who use fire as an aid to the attack show intelligence…”

This is so elementary: Set up gasoline cans in key zombie rush lanes, wait for them to pour into the gap in numbers, and then ignite the fuel with a single shot. Watch one bullet and a little hydrocarbon wipe out two-dozen infected. Arm a molotov and repeat.

These are all tremendously simple tactics, but the wonderful thing about Left 4 Dead is that the designers left a rich and varied topography where they can be applied in many ways. After all, the game is fairly limited in scope when you strip it down to the essentials — a few select weapons, health packs, and fire. But it’s the combination with the environment that keeps me going back, and I don’t expect my fascination with the game to run dry anytime soon.

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Word-a-day anger in the American Midwest

January 26, 2009

FROM JASON’S LACK OF IGNORANCE — I am going to rant a little bit about people who are willfully stupid.

A co-worker of mine has been trying to expand his vocabulary by having a word-of-the-day sent straight to his phone, and I give him kudos for the attempt at self-improvement. A couple of weeks ago, though, he decided to see whether I  could define “ossuary” (a repository for skeletal remains), and I could not comprehend why he became so angry when I tossed out the answer in an off-handed way without much thought.

He’s brought me a new word each day since, hoping to stump me and getting more irate each time I give the correct definition. It was not the reaction I expected. Competitive, maybe… but actually furious?

I tried to head off his growing head of steam today after nailing “mimetics,” explaining for the fifth time that I’ve got a BA in English. After all, I’m still paying down on the $68,000 I paid to learn those words, I told him.

It didn’t calm him down.

His attitude is frightening. This is a guy — an adult — who finds affront at the very knowledge he is seeking to gain. I could not grasp his outrage that I would simply hold a piece of information.

I tried soothing him by explaining how I pick apart the roots of the word to discover how the word works, first stripping away prefixes and suffixes and then thinking about the (usually) Latin or Greek at the heart. That didn’t work.

I tried to water it down by telling him that “mimetics” is really close to “mime” and “mimeograph.” That didn’t work either.

This is a man who never seized on the idea that you could actually apply the information Mr. Harrigan taught in seventh-grade English, or that anyone could have enjoyed doing so. He refuses to believe anyone would pay attention all those years ago, or care to keep all that “useless book learnin'” locked away and ready to access.

He cannot see the attractiveness of routinely flipping to the Discovery Channel for a quick documentary on the pyramids at Giza or how coral reefs form, or that such a thing to me is as fun as a beer and a football game.

This is a man for whom learning is torture, something to be avoided unless it comes in the near-painless dose of a text message once a day. I just don’t understand that mindset — anything more is unacceptable. I tried imagining what it would be like to be incurious, and I was horrified.

This is the blatant and god-fearing anti-intellectualism of the American Midwest. People here aren’t afraid of the unknown; they embrace it. They’ve been taught that mysticism is good, that their lord is in heaven and in control, and I’ve observed that that kind of spiritual dependence extinguishes the burning need to know more.

These are people afraid to speak precisely for the fear of being labeled “gay.” They avoid interest for fear of being “nerdy.” They refuse to exercise their minds so their friends don’t see them as “stuck up.”

This is why Paul Blart: Mall Cop is number one in the box office. It is why I weep for the future and pit myself so defiantly against the trusting apathy of theism. It is why I am forming a habit of buying neat books I hope will hook the children my wife and I will someday have.

My mother had a very limited education, but she made a decision early to make sure I had easy access to books about outer space, life under the oceans’ surface, and the peoples of far-away lands. It worked. There but for the grace of Mom go I.


Are you smart? A love for ‘Jeopardy!’ is mandatory

January 7, 2009

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

FROM JASON’S CHANNEL 5 — What is the Chang Jiang River? What is Zorba the Greek? Who was Jose de San Martin? What is the square of the hypotenuse?

I think, looking back, that it’s very possible I learned more from Alex Trebek than any other single teacher through high school. The man shotgunned bullets of information into my head, one every 10 seconds or so, 22 minutes a night, five nights a week, for most of my formative years.

Watching Jeopardy! wasn’t exactly mandatory in my house, but there was rarely a reason good enough to miss it (until I started to notice boobs) or the competition it brought into my living room. Ever since I was able to read, I wanted to soak up information. I pored over the Golden Treasury of Knowledge and  a used Encyclopedia Britannica set found at a yard sale.

Those heavy volumes opened my mind early to how to receive and retain information — so I was ready for Jeopardy!’s perfectly empirical, entirely apolitical, soundbite-sized lessons on everything.

The reason I bring this up is that I recently discovered my friends in England, the Continent, and Australia have never seen Jeopardy!.

This blew my mind. It’s a core part of my education, a nightly ritual, and an infallible father figure (in Trebek, although you could say he’s not perfect because he’s Canadian — that dig is for you, Kevin). This is a show that started in 1964, running continuously in its present format for 25 years come September 2009.

Finally, I found an American product I’m proud to export to the rest of the world.

Now, there are some out there who would insist watching Jeopardy! is a geriatric pastime. That is just not true, and I think it’s based solely on the 7 or 7:30 p.m. time slot in which it runs in most markets. But if you can get past the Geritol and Polydent commercials to the meat of the show, you’ll see that if you are to rank anywhere above “Invertibrate” on the Jason Scale of Relative Intelligence, then you need to love Jeopardy!.

What I like best about the program is it’s pacing. Unlike every other game show ever aired, its success lies in the rapid-fire format, the complete opposite of quiz-the-idiot shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

I never got the feeling that I was actually playing along with Wheel of Fortune because the contestants refused to call the letters I would scream at the television. With Jeopardy!, the contestant’s success is irrelevant; it’s all about whether I get the right answer. And that benchmark can be measured every few seconds.

I also like that it’s a pure meritocracy. You either know the answers or you don’t, and you are awarded dollars based on skill, not blind chance. Three people compete; one of them is the best not because of the spin of a wheel but because they are interested in the world around them.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, then I have to say we have very different value systems.

So this is my appeal to you, non-American, non-Canadian readers: Be my friend. Prove it by watching the old-ish epidode I’ve posted before. Become a trivia-phile. Love the Trebek like you would love the Shatner. Show me how much you love to learn for learning’s sake. Be awesome.


Making simple cheese

December 16, 2008

FROM ANDREW’S KITCHEN — So I finally finished the semester. Obviously the first thing I had to do when I got back home was to make some cheese.

Well, to be honest I told Jason a couple weeks ago that I was going to do it, however I believe he shrugged it off because he thinks me a shit-talker.

My first step was to procure a viable recipe for a cheesemaking novice like me. A food blog that I frequent actually had a great recipe that was simple enough.


Here are the following ingredients required in the above recipe.
1 quart whole milk pasteurized (not ultra pasteurized)
1 cup active-culture buttermilk
2 tsp lemon juice or white vinegar, more if needed
3/4 tsp salt, or to taste

Here are some pictures from my adventures:
I set up a skype call so Jason could watch via compy. He took some screens, so maybe he will post them later on.
Jason watching via skype.
The last few curds.
Last few curds.
Draining the whey from the curds.
Draining via cheese cloth
Letting it dry.
More draining.
Finished product!
Finished!

JASON’S EDIT: Andrew isn’t telling you the whole story. He made a real production out of this, and at times he kept shouting, “BAM!” into the webcam while doing an Egyptian strut back and forth.

Okay, so that’s a little exaggeration. But he was blasting, alternately, metal and Vivaldi.

cheese01

Here he is stirring the milk to get it to 175 degrees.

cheese02

Here he is playing an air violin along to The Four Seasons.

cheese03

Adding lemon juice.

cheese05

And finally, staring lovingly at his own reflection on the pan’s shiny metal surface.


Universe Sandbox: Smash galaxies together for fun

July 4, 2008


If you hit up the youtube page for the video, I’ve annotated it for better detail.

BLASTING FROM THE FIREWORKS — Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy recently linked to this excellent piece of software and I’ve just been having a ball with it. The program is called Universe Sandbox and it allows you to manipulate and play with planetary objects. By toying with gravity, time, and the mass/density/velocity of objects, the program can create a multitude of situations teaching users about planetary motion.

Developed by Dan Dixon, Universe Sandbox does a great job of making high school physics fun and interesting. There are so many settings and variables that you can mess with that the game will keep you occupied for several hours. It comes with several pre-made systems ranging from simple moon-planetary orbits to full-sized galaxy collisions. Currently you cannot create your own system files in the program, however they are just XML files so you can write your own if you want to do a little coding (it’s pretty simple if you just look at the other examples).

The game can be a little buggy at times, but it’s understandable for a first release. Also, some of the physics can go wacky if you mess with odd situations (black holes, for instance). Your computer might also take a beating if you set some of the variables too high or have to many objects on the screen at any one time. However, the game looks great and is really easy on the eyes. Multiple color schemes give the game a wonderful look as well as wonderful textures for the planets and objects.

Overall, I recommend you take a look at the game. It’s free to download and all Dixon asks is that if you want to pay, give as much or little as you want. And if you pay at least $25 you get spiffy 3D glasses which allow you to use the stereoscopic setting in the game to see 3D images. I highly recommend you check this one out — at least until Spore comes out.


Fireworks and a ‘history’ lesson

July 4, 2008

FROM JASON’S TIME CARD — You know what’s cool? I got to “cover” my city’s annual fireworks display last night. It was a fluff assignment, and a welcome break from shootings, stabbings, and fiery deaths I’ve been handling lately.

Even better: While I was hanging out with my photographer near the fireworks launch site, I overheard the following (and very edutaining) conversation:

“Grandpa, why do we have fireworks?” asked a sandy-haired young boy who looked about 8 or 9 years old.

Grandpa never batted an eye. There was no ironic smile. Completely convinced of his historical accuracy, Grandpa learnedly replied, “Because in 1774, the British gave American independence and they celebrated with fireworks.”

Hail, the American public education system.


Whoever thought I would be excited about ice?

May 31, 2008

TRANSMITTING AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT, 422 MILLION MILES AWAY — I’m a huge space geek. While I’ve never owned a telescope (never been far away enough from the city for it to be used in a meaningful way), I’ve always been in awe of what scientists have been able to uncover about the mysteries of our universe.

Well, if you haven’t been in the know recently, NASA has sent yet another lander to Mars. Phoenix is assigned the mission to excavate one of the polar caps of the planet to analyze the surface for habitable zones and look for evidence of past life. It’s not a rover like Spirit or Opportunity so it can’t move around, but it’s got tons of awesome equipment.

After it landed last week it’s spent the past week getting it’s equipment up and running and making sure everything is in working order. To our surprise, once it extended it’s arm (a several day process), it captured several pictures with it’s built in camera. Well guess what they found when the took a peak underneath the lander.

What does it look like? Ice! While they aren’t 100% positive, there is a very good change that this could be evidence that we are very close to an ice sheet just a few inches underneath the surface of the planet! We also don’t know if it’s CO2 or water based ice. Scientists believe that the ice was revealed when the retrorockets were fired during landing, removing a couple of inches of dust from the surface. Hopefully this will mean that there is a lot more ice around the area!

Keep updated by checking out the official NASA website and the Phoenix lander twitter. The most recent episode of Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Podcast also has a great interview with one of the Phoenix team members at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

JASON’S EDIT: Andrew and I had a brief but excited discussion the other day about Phoenix and ongoing exploration in our solar system. Neither of us can wait to get some real data on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, which was made famous in 2010 and 2069, the sequels to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Clarke imagined that because of excessive geothermal activity on Europa and theory that it, too, might have vast quantities of hydrogen-based ice, Europa could be suitable for life. Of course it was science fiction, but Clarke (RIP) never did anything half-assed; the science was all plausible.

I’d also like to point out something that Andrew taught me: The photo above is in black and white but many photos being beamed back from Mars are colorized using filters. The shots are amazing, and nothing at all like the red-sky Mars we see in films (QUAID! GET YOUR ASS TO MARS!). Nope, the photos seem almost sunny, which is mind-blowingly refreshing.