Saturday, November 6, 2010

Robots in Disguise

I think it was back in July that I picked up Transformers: War for Cybertron for the PS3. At the time there wasn't any quality retail releases coming out and this game wasn't on my radar at all. However, after listening to Arthur on the Rebel FM podcast talk about it constantly for a couple of weeks my mind was changed. The multiplayer component sounded terrific and when the reviews hit they were nearly all effusive in their praise. So I decided to take a risk.

When I first put it on I wanted to hop straight into multiplayer but the servers were acting up so I had to start with single player. I chose to start with the Autobot campaign and after an impressive opening cut-scene I was thrust into the war on Cybertron. My lasting impression from that first and only session is that it was very boring. The first level seemed to take an age to complete and the enironment is just so drab. I presume the whole game is looks the same, one boring metallic colour. The fact that you can transform into a car at anytime sounds like fun but driving them is anything but. I was left to hope that the multiplayer would be the saving grace.

It was about three days later that I finally managed to join an game online and I enjoyed it. I played a good few rounds and I think that it works very well as a combat arena type game. My only problem with it is that it started to give me motion sickness, a problem that I have found with quite a few games this generation.

Of all the games I've bought recently I feel that I have done this one the biggest injustice. I've only tackled the single player game once and have yet to return to mulitplayer since my first session. That is not long enough to make a judgement and as such I have kept the disc close to the PS3. I will certainly return and give it another chance but not until the next few big releases are out of the way.

Quick note - Ji Sung Park

It is an over used cliché in football about certain players being unsung heroes and I'm not entirely sure it applies to Ji Sung Park. He has been at United now for a good few years and most fans have learnt to appreciate what he brings to the team, especially over the last couple of years. But today must have been especially sweet for him.

Two goals, the second a last minutes winner against a dogged Wolves defence. Great stuff.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


While I was trying to rebuild my video game collection I was also adding new titles that I could find at bargain prices. When Ghostbusters came out last year it arrived to average reviews, so I ignored it in favour bigger titles like Uncharted 2. So a few months ago with the price having fallen sufficiently I picked it up in the hope that it would provide a few weeks of entertainment. I have to say that the most impressive part of Ghostbusters is how far they went in trying to make the most authentic Ghostbusters experience they could. The voices are all there, the environments look great and the conceit of making you the new member of the team works well.

Unfortunately, what doesn't work for me is the gameplay. I found the first couple of levels rather boring and the controls just don't feel responsive enough. Graphically the game is a little rough around the edges but the big issue was that it was giving me motion sickness. It wasn't too bad but I suspect had I played much longer the effect would have worsened. Perhaps (and I say this without much conviction) one day I will return to it.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

The Wind Waker is one of those top rated GameCube games that I have added to my collection. I managed to get an excellent copy of the collectors edition that included a compilation disc containing versions of The Legend of Zelda, The Adventure of Link, Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. There was also a guide booklet included too, which is also in excellent condition.

The Zelda series is a strange one for me. I have only ever played one through to completion, A Link to the Past on the SNES. Myself and my friend poured hours into that game and loved every minute of it. Since then I haven't played much Zelda but did get a fair portion of the way though The Phantom Hourglass on the DS. I think I like the idea of playing through a Zelda game more than I actually enjoy doing it.

I put The Wind Waker into the Wii a few weeks ago and played through the opening section of the game. One thing stands out above all others and that is the graphics. For a game released in 2003 on an underpowered system, the game looks phenomenal. It is the cell shaded graphical style that gives it the wow factor. In another ten years this game will still look amazing because of the art direction, whereas games like Gears of War that look great now will look terrible in the future. I can't believe there was such a commotion when the game was released over the look of it. The game played exactly like I expected, the same as Phantom Hourglass the direct sequel to this game. I know I finish too many posts saying that I will return one day to play this game. In the case of The Wind Waker I hope that is true.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Crack in Time

A Crack in Time is the sequel to one of my favourite games on the PS3, Tools of Destruction. Strangely though it had taken me the best part of a year to finally go and buy it. I picked it up back in July for a knock down price of €20, I wish all game prices would fall like that after some time on the market.

Just like the first game I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this one. In my opinion it was an improvement in nearly every department over the the first. Graphically the game was even better, which is some accomplishment as the first is still one of the best looking games around. I enjoyed the fact that they opened up some of the levels, making for some rather epic battle sequences. The story was perhaps a little more straight forward in this one but I did enjoy the time travelling portions of the game. A big improvement in this game was the navigation between the planets. Piloting your spaceship around the map was more fun and the space combat was easier this time around.

One of the highlights of the game was the sections that you controlled Clank in the Great Clock. These sections contained some ingenious puzzles, some of which I had to resort to YouTube for solutions. The surest sign that I really enjoyed this game is to look at my b collection. I managed to stick with the game long enough to get the Platnium Trophy, which requires a minimum of two playthroughs. There aren't many games around these days that I will play twice.

I'm looking forward to the next game which has a four player co-op campaign. I just hope I can find some nice people to play it with.

Super Street Fighter IV

I remember my first reaction when I heard that Street Fighter IV was coming to the PS3, 'I didn't even know they'd made Street Fighter III'. That shows how out of touch I am with the beat'em up genre. I haven't played a game like this seriously since Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat II on the SNES and Mega Drive. That type of game just didn't hold much appeal to me anymore. Still I was intrigued by this new game, probably because it seems to be playing on the nostaglia factor by making it look like a spruced up version of Street Fighter II.

I decided that I would get this game if I could get it at a good price and a couple of months ago I came across it for €24 in Game. For a game only a few months old and selling for €40 in other shops I thought this was too good to pass up. I have played it a few times now but I'm struggling to get into it. I still have all the moves from Street Fighter II ingranined in my muscle memory but that just isn't enough for this version. There are so many characters and so much to learn that it is overwhelming. It is a good game to have in the library as it is something that can be returned to on and off, especially with some friends that will remember playing Street Fighter II.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Hernandez brightening up Old Trafford


It has been a good long time since a young player at Manchester United has gotten me excited. I know Rooney and Ronaldo were young when they arrived but Rooney was something of a known quantity, while Ronaldo was hard to like despite his talent. Javier Hernandez on the other hand looks to have quality and a likeable persona.

When his signing was first announced no one paid much attention. His YouTube goals collection, the first stop for interested fans to see new unknown players in action, was impressive but everyone knows you can't trust YouTube tributes. His performances for Mexico during the World Cup in South Africa however made people sit up and take notice. In particular his goal against Argentina was quality, showing pace, a great touch and a good ability to finish. There is also the little reported fact that Hernadez was officially clocked by FIFA as the fastest player at the tournament. Had United found a new superstar for only €7 million?

Hernandez started pre-season in blistering form, including that infamous Community Shield goal against Chelski. His first few appearances in the league didn't go quite so well though. It looked as thought he had fallen down the pecking order behind Owen and Macheda. A couple of weeks ago I had been talking to a colleague and mentioned that I wanted to see Hernandez given another opporunity. That night he came off the bench to score the winner against Valencia in Spain. He hasn't looked back since.

This past week he has scored three goals, two against Stoke and the late winner against Wovles in the League Cup after coming on as a late sub. This brings his tally to an impressive six goals in eleven games. There is a lot of hype and expectations building up around Hernandez at the moment and I just hope he can hold his nerve and continue to progress. At this particular time it is good to see something positive at Old Trafford after the recent Rooney saga and the poor onfield performances this season.

The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan officially unveiled the title of the next Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. My initial reaction - I like it. It's simple and gives the impression that this time Batman might just have a happy ending.

I know that some people seem to be a bit put off with having The Dark Knight as part of the title again but I can certainly understand the decision. I'm sure Warner Bros. wanted to link it to such a successful film in the minds of the movie going public. What better way than to include it in the title?

July 20th 2012, can't come soon enough.

WipeOut - PSone

This is the game that made me believe that the PSone really was a new generation beyond the Mega Drive and SNES. Neither of those consoles could have produced the amazingly smooth and blisteringly fast graphics and then coupled that together with a fantastic soundtrack. Along with Worms, Wipeout is probably the game that I played the most on my PSone. After getting over the steep learning curve the game really opens up. I just think of it as a more mature version of Mario Kart and like that game I have played most incarnations on a variety of systems.

I would be interested to play this now on the PS3 to see how it has held up. But it is probably best to leave it as a memory and when I want to play it, just stick on Wipeout HD instead.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Virtua Racing Deluxe 32X

The final game added to my 32X collection and it also completed the set of launch titles. This is another game that I had played in the arcades before playing this home verison. Looking back at the graphics now they look simply horrid, to say this game has aged badly is a massive understatement. However, back in 1995 they were very impressive and to be fair the framerate is very smooth. This version boasts more cars than the original (three) and more tracks (five).

I do remember playing this game for quite some time and enjoying it but five courses just isn't enough. Especially when they are as short as those in Virtua Racing. Like the other 32X games I've recently acquired I would love to play them one more time. It is a pity that getting a 32X seems out of the question because of the prices being quoted.

Star Wars Arcade 32X

I remember playing this game in the arcade with a friend of mine. It was a really fun experience. The two of us sitting in the cockpit shaped unit trying to make the trench run from the original movie. The thing I remember most was the incredible sound design, Artoo screaming in our ears every time we took damage. Ah, the memories.

Shame then that the 32X version didn't provide the same thrills. It did look like the arcade version but not quite as good. The same goes for the sound too. The effects were all there but because of the poor sound quality on the machine they just didn't sound as clear as they should have. In fact they were pretty grating to be honest. One area were the game did improve upon the original was the number of levels on offer. The game had the original arcade more and also an expanded mission mode. Unfortunately, the game was so hard I never did beat the first two levels so I never got to see what else the game had to offer. At least they still had General Akbar barking out orders on the screen. Who doesn't love that guy. 'It's a trap!'

Doom 32X

As I mentioned in the previous post I had this sitting at home two weeks before I had a 32X system to play it with. So by the time I was sitting down to play it, expectations were pretty high. I can say that I was pretty pleased with the game. The graphics and sound were certainly an improvement over the normal Mega Drive game and I can't say I was too bothered by the infamous border on the screen. I know that people now slate the 32X port as inferior to nearly every other version, including the SNES version but at the time it was great for me. It may have lacked a large number of levels and any multiplayer but I never went on to beat the game so a lack of levels wasn't an issue. On the downside this was the first game that ever made me feel nauseous while playing and still gets me with some FPS games.

This copy of the game is in quite good condition, which is probably about as good as you will find most 32X games at this stage. I had totally forgotten this but the 32X games come in cardboard boxes that slide out on a cardboard tray. I can't understand why Sega would move from the destruction proof hard plastic Mega Drive cases to these flimsy cardboard boxes. The box for this game is frayed at the edges but overall isn't too bad.

I would like to get a 32X again to play Doom one more time. I'm pretty sure it'd would only be one more time too.

32X and three more for the collection

Three more games that I used to own arrived to take their place in my slowly rebuilding collection - Doom, Virtua Racing Deluxe and Star Wars Arcade all for the Sega 32X. I thought I would start this series of posts with a quick review of my 32X experience.

I first became aware of the 32X while watching a promotional video on the Channel 4 show Gamesmaster. I thought it was going to be the coolest thing ever. It would make my Mega Drive twice as powerful, blowing the SNES out of the water and I would be playing arcade perfect ports of all the best games. Of course most people reading this article will know that this isn't how it would turn out for owners of the 32X.

I was promised that I would be getting the 32X that Christmas so in preparation I purchased Doom a week or two before Christmas. I remember my Dad driving me into town to the Virgin Megastore on the quays. I think I am right in saying that there was only three launch titles to choose from. So I had the game now but nothing to play it on. The wait till Christmas was a little longer than usual that year. So Christmas morning finally arrives and I unwrap my new toy. I quickly read through the instructions and started putting this strange mushroom shaped contraption together. If you look back at it now it really was a pretty messy piece of hardware, with several bits and pieces to assemble to get it to work. I eventually hooked it all up, powered it up and then, nothing.

Nothing happened. There seemed to be power going into the unit but no picture on the TV. We had to go out visiting family as usual that morning but I took everything with me to try again to get it to work. I reassembled it all again in my nana's house and it still didn't work. I don't remember what my reaction was to all this but I'm sure I wasn't too pleased. My dad actually figured it out in the end. One of the wires at the back of the 32X wasn't pushed in hard enough, I mean this wire had to be REALLY pushed in to connect. So it was working now and I was happy, and thankfully really impressed by Doom.

One side effect of I had of playing normal Mega Drive games through the 32X was that it would turn NHL 93 monochrome. I'm not sure how long that Doom was my only game but I eventually ended up adding Star Wars Arcade and Virtua Racing Deluxe to the collection. And that was it, just three games ever for the system. I read about some great looking games in magazines like Sonic and Knuckles Chaotix and the port of Mortal Kombat 2. I don't know why I never got anymore games for the 32X. Where they too expensive? Could I not find them? I think the most likely reason is that it was 1995 by this point and the PSone was on the market. It was an interesting experiment but there was just too many flaws with the system for it to succeed in the end.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A week of great bargains

The past week or so has seen me snap up a number of great bargains for my video game collection. This is thanks mainly to the sale on where they were selling a game for EUR1 at noon each day for 5 days. During that time I bought Lost Planet 2 [PS3], Punch-Out [Wii], High-School Musical 2 [DS] and Mass Effect 2 [Xbox 360]. All this for EUR12 including shipping. To top it all off I managed to get Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 [PS3] for EUR10.99 in HMV. Not bad.

The plan is to off load the DS game at Christmas as a present and in January when Mass Effect 2 is released for the PS3 I will trade in my Xbox 360 copy. I am looking forward to trying out the Marvel game, being a fan of superheroes it seems right up my street. Plus I've read that it is a relatively easy Platinum. As for Lost Planet 2 and Punch-Out they might just remain in the shrink-wrap and bolster my collection.

USA Trip 2010 - Chicago [Part 5]

I originally wanted to travel from Boston to Chicago by rail. I realise that would have been a very long journey but we would have gotten ourselves a sleeper car. I think it would have been a very nice, relaxing experience. Sitting on a train watching the world go by while reading a book, listening to podcasts or playing a game really appeals to me. Alas, a few things conspired against the idea. Firstly, the holiday was going to be slightly shorter than planned so spending an extra day travelling didn't make sense and then there was the cost. It would have been four times more expensive to go with Amtrak than it was to fly with US Airways. Those reasons and I didn't fully commit to the idea in the first place, it was something I would have liked to do but I never actually made the decision to go and do it. So in the end we flew to Chicago.

There isn't really much to report about the plane trip to Chicago other than it was a little bumpy. I've recently read that a plane is like a see-saw. The front and the back tend to rock the most so if you sit in the middle it will move a lot less. We were sitting at the very back of the plane to Chicago and my wife was feeling a little unwell and to be fair the plane was rocking a bit. I know in future to try to sit in the middle. After collecting our luggage we got a taxi into the city, it was a pretty long drive because of the heavy traffic. We did spot an awesome Jeep on the freeway that had a very authentic looking Autobot insignia on the back. It is about the only thing on the holiday that I didn't manage to get a photo of. Arriving at the Affinia Hotel it is hard not to be impressed. The building looks brand new, people were on hand to take your luggage and check-in was very efficient. It got even better when we walked into our room. It was a very spacious and modern room. As you enter the room the bathroom was to the right and then you had steps down into the bedroom area. The bed was very large and we had a nice big window, although the view was nothing spectacular as the Affinia building is dwarfed by neighbouring buildings. The only downside to the room was the lack of free wi-fi, something I had become very accustomed to by that stage.

We arrived mid-afternoon and after settling into the room we went for a walk to get our bearings. The hotel is on E. Superior Street which runs perpendicular to the famous North Michigan Avenue and is right on the Magnificient Mile. I was now three for three with good hotels in great locations after NY and Boston. We had missed lunch so we went to a diner and both opted for a nice Italian sausage sandwich. The rest of the afternoon was spent looking around the Magnificient Mile, spotting things that we would head back to over the next few days. Of course I also spotted the local Apple Store that as luck would have it was right around the corner from our hotel. Unfortunately, they had no iPad cases either but they were sold out of iPads too, which made me feel better for buying mine in Boston. I got my picture taken outside the store to complete the set for this holiday. We also went over to the Hershey's Store to see what it was like. Even when those Hershey's Kisses are free I still wouldn't eat them. We kept an eye out for somewhere to go for dinner that night and settled on The Grill on the Alley, by the Westin Hotel on Migichan Avenue. When we got there that night we thought at first that it seemed a little fancy but it actually had a nice laid back atmosphere. I remember that we both really enjoyed our meal there but I can't quite remember what I had. It was some kind of chicken dish with mash that was delicious.

Wrigley Field
Like the hotels in NY and Boston, the breakfast at the Affinia wasn't great. I don't like fruit in the morning, or anything too sweet so I always struggle to find something to eat in the US. We had the fry the first morning but it wasn't great to be honest. That day, the 27th May we had tickets to go see the Chicago Cubs vs. LA Dodgers at Wrigley Field. Now baseball wasn't my first choice, that would have been ice-hockey. However, the hockey season was at the play-offs stage, with co-incidentally the Chicago Blackhawks in the finals. We also missed out on the NBA and NFL seasons so we were left with the MLB to get in some American sports. We took the train to Wrigley Field and got there about an hour before the game. There were thousands of people there all enjoying the atmosphere, which we both found very strange as it was 1pm on a Thursday. Don't people in this city have jobs? After taking some photos outside we made our way into the stadium. The officials there were very helpful in showing us where to be going and we got to our seats with little fuss. We actually had a pretty good view and watched the team warm up and the stadium fill up. As soon as the game started we were lost. We had a very rough understanding of the rules, based on 'rounders' but this didn't help us at all. I was actually surprised at how little the batter was actually hitting the ball. Maybe they were very good or that is what every game is like but it surprised me. It was an enjoyable experience, it was certainly something new but I wouldn't call it exciting. I am glad that we went and I got some good photos and we got to see a true American pastime in action. We stayed for about two and half hours before calling time on our first baseball game.

View from the John Hancock Observatory
When we arrived back we headed to the John Hancock Building. This impressively tall building in the middle of Chicago has the most spectaular view of not just the city but surrounding states. The Observatory floor of the building gives you a 360 degree view of the city and allows you to see up to 80 miles. There is an amazing view of Lake Michigan and if I hadn't known it was a lake I would have been convinced that it was the ocean. We availed of the free multimedia tour that was narrated by David Schwimmer and it was very good as it gave you places to focus on outside rather than just staring at nothing in particular. On the way back to the hotel we bought tickets for the hop-on hop-off tour for the next day. That night we ate in the hotel's restaurant. I got a very simple sounding meal of fish and chips. It was presented very nicely and I found it to be extremely tasty. We had less luck with the dessert though. The menu was very confusing, but basically you had to pick and choose from a huge selection of sweets. We chose five, I think. We expected them to be small but they were actually quite large and not that nice either. When we were finished we went to the top floor to the bar. While we were up their we got talking to an older couple from N. Ireland who were travelling around the US.

The next day we went to get the tour bus for a day of proper sightseeing. As we passed the John Hancock Building and got the history of it the guide told us an interesting story. There is a small one-storey building at the back of the Hancock Building, that is used by very, very rich people who meet up and play poker. When the Hancock Building was relatively new they wanted to expand its grounds and so made an offer to buy the small building. They were refused, so they tried again. Once more they were refused and the owners of the Hancock Building got more aggressive in their attempts to buy. Finally, the lawyers for the Hancock Building got a phone call from one of the regulars at the poker games in the building they were trying to buy. He told the lawyer in no uncertain terms that if they contacted them again with another offer to buy, they would counter the offer and buy the John Hancock Building for themselves and firing the management while they were at it. No further attempts to buy the small building were made.

The Silver Bean
Our first stop on the tour was Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower. The Willis Tower is famous for it's height and the Skydeck, a glass balcony jutting out of the building at 1,353 feet. It isn't so much a balcony as a glass box but it does give some very impressive views and great photo opportunities. The Skydeck is certainly advertised as the 'must-see' attraction in Chicago but in our opinion the views at the John Hancock Building were more impressive. We got back on the bus and headed down to Millenium Park built to celebrate the new millenium but not opened till 2004. The park serves a dual purpose. One to provide more green space for the people and secondly as a giant underground carpark. When we got to the park we went to see Cloud Gate or as it is more commonly known the Silver Bean. The sculpture is a 110-ton elliptical structure of highly polished stainless steel, which reflect the city skyline and the clouds above. It has a 12-foot arch that lets you walk underneath into the concave chamber where you can see your image reflected from a variety of perspectives. Now all that doesn't sound too exciting but you really have to see it. There was such a buzz around from the people there looking at the sculpture. It is hard to conjure into words what it was like but it was certainly one of the highlights of the entire trip. We ate lunch in the park before getting back on the bus.

When we got back on the bus we had a new tour guide, who was friendly, funny and pretty darn hot. The plan was to head over the University campus but President Obama was in the city at the time causing chaos with the city's traffic. We had to take a detour on the way and were diverted onto the freeway. It was pretty exhilarating racing along the freeway on the upper deck of the open top bus. After that we found our way to Navy Pier but by this time it was getting late so we decided to return there the next day. As we made our way back to Migichan Avenue our tour guide was pointing out many locations used in the filming of The Dark Knight. I'm pretty sure I spotted the street that they filmed the truck flipping scene but she didn't mention it. I'm going to assume that I'm right though. That night we went to the Grand Lux Café on Migichan Avenue. It is a very busy place and they gave us a beeper to notify us when our table was ready. We weren't waiting that long and when we got into the dinning area we were up on the second floor. We had a friendly waiter, almost overly so but it was a very enjoyable meal. I went for the chicken and prawn jambalaya and to say it was delicious is to do it a mis-service. During our mains the waiter asked if we would like them to start baking us some desserts, as all the desserts are freshly baked. We were tempted but in the end settled for tea and coffee.

Site of the worlds first Ferris Wheel
The following day we made our way down to Navy Pier, which was about a twenty minute walk from the hotel. It is a very popular attraction for families and it certainly caters to people who like boat trips. Neither of us can handle a boat trip so that was lost on us but we enjoyed the walk around the pier. We got some nice pictures and got a go on a ferris-wheel, that stands on the site of the worlds very first ferris-wheel. We had an enjoyable lunch at the Pier and headed back into the city. Another interesting thing that we got to do was to go and check out the street sculptures littered around The Loop. We got to see four famous works of art that the city of Chicago is proud to display. We saw Alexander Calder's The Flamingo down in Federal Plaza. This whimsical and constructivist (meaning: constructed of big industrial materials bolted together) structure forms a graceful counterpoint to the hard edges and straight lines of the surrounding skyscrapers. This sculpture presented a good challenge to frame the whole thing in a photograph. I managed it, just about, before nearly toppling off the sidewalk as I contorted my body to capture the picture. Over on Chase Plaza there is a 70 foot long mosaic/mural featuring surrealist depictions of Chicago, called The Four Seasons by Marc Chagall. Niether of us were very impressed by this one. I found the colours to be too muted and uninteresting as a whole.

Monument with Standing Beast
Located at the Daley Center is perhaps the most famous, Chicago's Picasso as it is known because the artist gave it no other name. The story goes that he presented it to the city of Chicago as a gift and the only thing he received in return was a jersey of the Chicago Blackhawks with his name emblazended on the back. As I mentioned earlier the Blackhawks were in the NHL play-offs and as a sign of support, statues around the city were all decked out in Blackhawks kit. Chicago's Picasso which to me looked like a horse, had a Blackhawks helmet on its head. My favourite of the four was Jean Dubuffet's Monument with Standing Beast. This sculpture of white organic shapes with thick black outlines sits in the plaza on Randolph. I find it hard to pinpoint what it is about it that appeals to me. Perhaps it is the black outlines, giving it a classic comic-book asthetic that I like. That night we did something we don't usually do on our holidays, return to a restaurant a second time. We went back to The Grill on the Alley and had another very enjoyable meal. I do remember my wife being slightly disappointed that the waiter from the first night was not on duty. I'm pretty sure that was also the night that she beat Plants vs. Zombies, a game on the iPad that had her hooked. If you haven't seen the end credits then get yourself over to YouTube, it is well worth it.

Other random memories from Chicago include a visit to the local Lego megastore where I met such famous characters as Darth Vader, Harry Potter and R2-D2. I'm not sure which night it was but we also ate out at a sports bar, we had had our fill of fancy restaurants. We both got a plate of ribs and they were delicious. Our final day in Chicago was a bit awkward because we had to check-out at noon but the flight home wasn't till around four I think. So we left our bags in the hotel and went out to kill a bit of time. I went to the Apple Store because I still needed to find a case to bring home my iPad. They were still out of stock on the official case so I had to settle for a purple, yes purple carry case. I had planned on replacing it when I got home but I still have it and use it so it wasn't a bad purchase in the end. For lunch that day we went to Gino's East, next door to our hotel. We had very high expectations for this meal because every night we had passed this restaurant the queue to get in stretched down the block. Disappointingly it didn't live up to our expectations. We can't honestly see why so many people would be queueing up to get in. Neither of us ordered the pizza, or the deep-dish pizza that Chicago is so famous for so perhaps we missed out. After lunch we got a taxi out to the airport to take the curtain down on our latest trip to the US.

Apart from the slight disappointment with NY this was a thoroughly enjoyable holiday. Boston is now one of my favourite places in the world and I'd heartly recommend Chicago to anybody. We got to take in some real Americana with the baseball game, saw many famous landmarks, ate some great steak, took some wonderful pictures and have many, many great memories. What more can you ask of a holiday?

Monday, October 18, 2010

USA Trip 2010 - Boston [Part 4]

Copley Square at night
My first impression of The Copley Square Hotel was that it was pretentious. After its recent renovation the hotel is all dark colours, mirrors and very glamorous receptionists. To be fair though it is advertised more of as a business hotel. Still the staff were friendly and the room was very nice. It was smaller than the room in NY but the bed was comfortable, the bathroom spacious, it had free wi-fi and a nice TV for 'The Lost Weekend'. On the way into Boston I had pinpointed the location of the closest Apple Store to the hotel and as luck would have it it was only around the corner. So we basically checked-in, dropped our bags in the room and went in search of an iPad. Again.

I don't think I could have booked a hotel in Boston with a better location. It is located in Copley Square, a nice open space that is very well kept and I have since recognised in the film Spartan. The trendy streets of Boylston and Newbury running parallel to each other are just off Copley Square and it was to Boylston Street and the Apple Store we headed to first. It was a glorious day weather wise and as we wandered down the street we couldn't believe the difference between this and NY. The street was quieter, cleaner and just, nicer. It was only a short stroll to the Apple Store and I made a beeline for the nearest sales assistant. My plan was to buy the 32GB Wi-Fi only version of the iPad, the official case and the camera USB adapter. The sales assistant said that they only had one iPad in stock and it was the 64GB Wi-Fi model. He told me that they were flying off the shelves and thought I'd be lucky to find another one in Boston, or Chicago for that matter. I decided quickly to take it and I got it activated then and there. They had no cases or USB adapters but I was just happy to have found an iPad. It was $100 more expensive than I had planned but with double the memory it was good investment. Nearly six months later I have used about 30GB of space so it was the right decision.

With my business with Apple complete we decided to go wander around the area and see what was around. My wife stopped in Starbucks and got a strawberry and crème frappuccino. It was delicious and started a trend for the drink that lasted the rest of the holiday. We've had one since returning to Ireland but it just wasn't the same. After checking out Boylston Street we headed back to the hotel to go get ready for dinner. We had seen plenty of restaurants around so it looked like we wouldn't have the same problems that we had in NY. We ended up going for Thai that night, Bangkok Blue on Boylston Street. I remember the mains being very tasty but nothing much on the menu for dessert, which is par for the course I find with Asian restaurants.

Freedom Trail map
Our first full day in Boston was set to be a busy one as we had planned to tackle 'The Freedom Trail'. The Freedom Trail is a red brick path through down Boston that leads to seventeen significant historic sites. The trail is 2.5 miles long and it took us most of the day to complete as we had so much fun stopping at different locations. The Trail was originally conceived by journalist William Schofield who was promoting the idea of linking important local landmarks with a pedestrian trail since 1951. The mayor at the time agreed and put the idea into action. The trail starts in Boston Common, the oldest city park in the US and that day it was getting ready to host some hippy protest concert. Just as we left Boston Common we came across another site that I instantly recognised from film, the Massachusetts State House that played a significant role in The Departed. Up until writing this I was convinced that the Park Street Church around the corner was the location used to film the tripod reveal sequence from War of The Worlds but I can't find anything to back this up. We followed the red brick path through several more locations down to Faneuil Hall, one of our favourite places on the whole trip.

Street performers at Quincy Market
Faneuil Hall was originally built to be the city market and now it is home to Quincy Market, one of the most vibrant and lively places in Boston. We had lunch here and checked out a number of shops. We stayed for a good while at this location watching the street performers before heading in the direction of the Bunker Hill Monument. By the time we had crossed the bridge we had been walking for some time and had a choice to make. Do we head to Bunker Hill and back around to the USS Constitution (involved in the Boston Tea Party) or cut it short and just pick one. In the end we decided just to go see the USS Constitution and get some ice-cream while we were at it. The part about the Freedom Trail that we didn't factor in was that the 2.5 mile walk is only one way, we now had to make our way back to Copley Square. For anyone thinking of going to Boston, I would highly recommend going on this walk. Not only to you get an appreciation of a city steeped in a rich history (we found out about aid ships sent from Boston to Ireland during the Famine) but it is an excellent way to get to know a new city. The full list of Freedom Trail locations can be found here.

That night we were pretty drained and planned an early night; this may also have been due to the Lost finale that was airing that night. We went to Uno Chicago Grill on Boylston Street for a pretty standard dinner. A constant problem we had faced in the US with dinners was the portion sizes, they are just outrageously big in some places. This means that there is little chance of having room for any desserts. I remember the dessert in this place well because they had 'mini' desserts listed on the menu. This sounded perfect so I went for the mini apple pie. It might have been mini in the US but it was still pretty big by European standards. We retired back to the hotel room to settle in for the Lost finale, an event I'd been looking forward to. Now, I want to be careful here lest I get sidetracked on some rant about the finale. I felt that the the series up till this episode had been good and the last few in particular had been building some great momentum. It is such a shame that I can't say that I loved the final episode. I can't say that I thought it was bad, it is something that I may have to watch again to make up my mind on. I know one thing I didn't like and that was the crazy number of advert breaks. I think the running time must have been two and half hours in total.

The next day we had a morning appointment at Boston Gliders, a company running Segway tours of Boston. The traffic was pretty heavy so we were a few minutes late in arriving and it was all a bit of a rush to get signed in and down to watch the training video. It was actually the same video from our last Segway tour in San Francisco back in 2007. When they realised we had been on a Segway before we only got some cursory training tips, which was okay as I got accustomed to the Segway pretty quickly but a little more training would have helped my wife feel more at ease. A small group of us, seven in total took off along the streets of Boston on the two hour sightseeing tour. I find Segways fantastic. They are so easy to control, they do all the balancing work for you. All you have to do is learn to relax and enjoy the ride. For those next two hours I just become a big kid again, I'm all ready looking forward to my next Segway experience. The tour took us to many of the locations on the Freedom Trail but you get a whole new experience doing it by Segway. This time we did get to Bunker Hill and we spent some time there taking photos and enjoying the space on the Segway. We were finished the tour by lunch time and went and got a bite to eat in the Cheers Bar at Quincy Market. I'm not sure what the deal was with that place and the show, it probably just licensed the name and likeness. 

One of the days we went to the Boston Science Museum. I had read good reports about it being a very interesting way to spend a few hours so we found our way on the subway to the science park. I'm not sure what we were expecting exactly but whatever it was we didn't find it. We spent a couple of hours there making our way around the attractions, some of which were very impressive. I think the place was too geared towards children, which is a fine thing if you've brought some along but in our case not so much. I was most impressed by the full size model of the spaceship used by Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. I think it was that evening that we got to eat at Joe's American Bar & Grill. It is on the corner of Newbury Street and we had passed it several times, admiring the food being served. I really enjoyed the meal there (the waitress pretty too) but it is most memorable for my wife being asked for ID, something she wasn't too impressed by. I saw onion rings on the list of starters and got them because I thought to myself that they can't be too big surely. Wrong. Each one was the size of my fist but they were finger lickin' good.

As I mentioned in a previous post we had done very little shopping in NY and decided it would be a shame to return home without having at least tried to take advantage of the cheaper clothes prices. So we went to the Prudential Center, the large department store at the end of Boylston Street. We split up for an hour or so and I managed to find myself a couple of t-shirts. We met back up for a frappuccino in Star Bucks and then both went to Newbury Street. There are lots of nice little clothes shops along there that do unique items but some of it is a bit pricey. We both picked up some sports tops; I went for the Bears and my wife went with the White Sox. Throw in the iPad, ModNation Racers and Red Dead Redemption for the PS3, a handful of t-shirts and nice top from Gap and I was very happy with my shopping from Boston. That night we went back to the Prudential Center for dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. We still hadn't figured out how to fit in a main course and dessert though but the couple beside us showed us how it was done. Eat half your main, and then bag it up and order dessert. The main course in the Cheesecake Factory was just insane, it was a very nice chicken dish with corn and mash but it was about the size of four normal mains. Next time we'd just go to the place for dessert alone.

We were sorry to see the end of our four night stay in Boston but excited at the same time to be going on to see Chicago. Like San Francisco before it Boston has joined a select few cities that I would like to return to again. There really is no contest between Boston and NY as to which we preferred, we just hoped Chicago wouldn't let us down.

Part 3

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Quick note

I just realised I passed the 100 posts mark a few posts ago. I would have put up a special post had I noticed in time.

Ah well.

Punch-Out Wii

I picked up another game for €1 in GameStop's sale madness, Punch-Out Wii. There was a lot of press for this game last year, especially on US podcasts but I don't recall ever seeing it in shops here. I never played the original and to be honest this doesn't look like a game I will enjoy. I might just keep it in the shrink wrap. Still for €1 it is a steal.

Mario Kart Double Dash

I picked this game up on eBay to add to my list of must play GameCube (GC) games. I'd read mixed opinions of Double Dash online but the consensus seems to be that it is one of the top rated GC games. It must have been back in May, perhaps June when it arrived but I only got around to playing it a week ago. One of the reasons is that I had to get another GC controller first.

Myself and my wife (a huge Mario Kart fan) sat down and played it for a while and were less than impressed. It is probably a bit unfair on the game to judge it after playing Mario Kart Wii so much. Even though there is little difference in the graphical quality, we missed some of the Wii gameplay mechanics. Another problem is that we had played nearly all of the tracks in Double Dash either in Mario Kart Wii or the DS version. I think Nintendo is just being lazy now with having the same tracks in so many Mario Kart games. That isn't a direct criticism of Double Dash but of Nintendo themselves. I'm hoping that when it arrives on the 3DS it will be full of new tracks. I doubt it though.

I haven't played enough of Double Dash to get to know the ins and outs of the main new addition to the game, two characters to a vehicle. It appears to add a little element of strategy to the gameplay and it is nice to see something new in Mario Kart after all these years. With so many games in my growing collection that I've yet to play or games like Zelda: The Wind Waker that I want to return to I won't be promising to play Double Dash much more. 


Blur is a game that took me by surprise. I had no real intention of getting it until I saw the positive feedback it was getting and checked out some footage online. It looked liked it had some frantic car combat, in similar vein to Mario Kart but with HD graphics. As soon as I brought it home it stayed in the PS3 for a solid three weeks, getting constant play online. 

It had been quite some time since I'd found a game that I enjoyed playing online so much. Blur has that instant pick up and play quality that all good arcade racers should have. The cars handle easily and the weapons are all instantly familiar as they all correspond to weapons from Mario Kart. Three weeks might seem like a short time give a game but as they say the light that shines twice as bright, burns twice as fast. In this case it grew a little tired after a while but for those few weeks it was an absolute blast.

I'd recommend this game to anyone and I wish more people had bought it so those online lobbies would have been full.