Nerd Fuel: Starbucks – Vanilla Caffe’ Latte

It’s been over a month since I’ve had a coffee review. But, this time I’m back with something a little different.  One of the big features of the Keurig 2.0 machines was the official support of different “artisan” pods. Technically speaking, the machine is supposed to handles brews of various strength and even alternate beverages like hot chocolate and tea. Since the release of K2.0 machines, I’ve noticed an increase in a number of vendors that sell these fancy “cappuccino style” drinks. These usually include, along with the usual K-cup, a flavor/froth packet and sometimes even a drizzle of some sort.  These have always seemed a bit gimmicky to me, but I decided to take the plunge and give one a try.

For my first foray into the world of coffee packets, I picked up a box of Starbuck’s Vanilla Caffe’ Latte. Now, I’ve tried Starbucks coffee in the Keurig machine before and so far the verdict is still out. I really enjoyed their Holiday Blonde Roast, so I decided to give this box a chance and see what the fuss is all about.

The way this works, you open and empty a packet of flavoring/froth powder into your empty mug, then dispense the K-Cup pod normally. Once it’s full, you stir. This is supposed to produce a foam, like one would expect from a desert-type cappuccino. Sadly, there is little to no foam. So, I suspect this packet contains mostly sugar and other flavoring.

The coffee itself is very mild. It has a hint of that classic “gas station grade” cappuccino taste, with a pleasant vanilla underpinning. It’s nothing remarkable, but to be honest, it’s not at all bad. This would make a nice dessert coffee, but it doesn’t really scratch that caffeine itch many drinks will want first thing in the morning.  In my opinion, this seems more like something for the kids than something a really coffee fiend would enjoy.

These specialty drinks tend to be a dollar or more per box than the standard K-cup pods. With that being said, I’m not really sure these are worth it. The gimmick doesn’t pan out.

Score: 2 out of 4

Would Purchase again?: Doubtful. Not a band drink per se,  but not worth the premium price. You can get the same flavor from a can of instant cappuccino (stir-in) for a fraction of the cost.

My Experiences as an “MMO Girl” (Part 2)

My nearly six-month experiment came to a close earlier this month when I officially retired “Chichi” and restored Kijimuna to his former glory.  For those of you that may have missed the original article; back in January I wrote a piece about my attempt to see what gaming is like through the eyes of a female. Having spoken with several girls I know in Final Fantasy XIV, I decided to quietly moonlight as a female character for six months to see just how different, if at all, I would be treated.

If you read my original article, you’ll learn that aside from people being just generally nicer, my initial experience was not all that different. Back in January, I wrote that I had not encountered any harassment or sexisim, etc. So, now, six months later has that changed? Well, the answer is both yes and no.

In the months since my original article, I finally consented to joining a free company (guild). I decided to pick one of the largest on the server. From my personal experiences, larger MMO guilds tend to be busy and impersonal. People come and go all the time. I didn’t want to become close to anyone or have to lie about my identity, so a large guild would allow me to simply be another face in the crowd. This worked well for quite some time. Then, one day I volunteered to join some members on a trial (big monster battle). This event marked the first time since I started playing a female character that I was “hit on”…

As I stood there, healing my companions, a member of our party made a semi off-color comment about how well Chichi was able to “handle her staff” and would I like to see if I could “handle his”. This was quickly dealt with as Chichi informed him that if he presented his staff to her, she would snap it in half and sheathe the two pieces in a very uncomfortable place. This person later apologized to me in private for his behavior.

A few weeks later, another person seemed to become infatuated with Chichi. He followed me around and volunteered to help me with whatever I was doing. At one point, he even offered to pay for a private house so Chichi could have her own dwelling. For those who do not played FFXIV, let me tell you this is a VERY generous offer. Housing is scant and expensive on nearly every server in the game. I politely declined the offer.

As my time playing as Chichi drew to a close, I found myself realizing that I was going to miss her. Chichi had come to grow on me. The character was simply adorable. I entertained the thought of just continuing to play her, but I also missed playing as Kijimuna, a character I created almost 7 yeas ago. So that I wouldn’t have to completely say goodbye, I came to a compromise. I hired a new in-game “retainer” or virtual companion and named/modeled it after Chichi. So now, even though Chichi is no more – a part of her still exists in the world of Eorzea.

So, after six months of playing a female character incognito, what are my thoughts?

Well, overall – even though I never actually presented myself as a female, acted flirty or feminine, the majority of players did seem to treat me nicer that they did when I would play a male. As I originally observed, many players were more patient and helpful. Aside from one sexual remark by a single individual, I was never objectified or harassed.  Perhaps this was because I never did come out and claim to be a woman. I really can’t say. But based on this experiment, albeit unscientific as it was, I was relieved to see that players perceived to be female are not the subject of sexual harassment day in and day out.  I’m not claiming that women gamers tend to to cry wolf about such topics, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be quite as bad as one might think by simply hanging out on twitter for five minutes.

When dealing with other players in any multiplayer environment, it’s always wise to remember the wisdom of Rufus from Bill and Ted’s Excellent adventure… regardless of who you are or who you are dealing with, “Be excellent to each other”.

Dungeons & Dragons: Father and Son

One subject that I don’t discuss as frequently as I like is Dungeons & Dragons. I try to stay up to date regarding the latest supplemental material and core books, etc. But It’s been several years since I actually made a post about the current state of the game.

If you look back on this site, you’ll see my very first entry regarding Dungeons & Dragons is when I discussed the upcoming release of what is now known as Fifth Edition. Dungeons & Dragons has has a tumultuous history. But I think it is safe to say that D&D 5E has ended up being a smashing success. In my opinion, Wizards of the Coast (D&D’s parent company), has finally hit on the right formula. No longer are the bookstore shelves packed will useless, poor quality supplements. Instead, every single release is filled with quality, well tested material. Any “up in the air” play-options are instead posted online in a series of articles called “Unearthed Arcana”. Players are encouraged to download these game options for free and try them out. This allows 5E players to customize the style of the game they are playing, without weighing down the core rules with countless, redundant options.

Recently, my 13-year old son expressed a serious interest in the game. So, I began a search to find a new group of players that are family-friendly. I’m happy to say, I found what I was looking for! For the last month or so, my son and I have been spending our Saturday Nights at a local game shop playing D&D.  It was a bit of a proud moment when I gifted him with his very own copy of the Player’s Handbook… I still remember my father buying mine for me. So far, he has really enjoyed the game. Plus, getting out and meeting new people has also help foster some valuable social skills.

When I started playing again a few years back, I found myself participating in some official, sanctioned games. These days, I no longer concern myself with that. Currently, our DM is running the “Out of the Abyss” adventure, which is an actual official D&D story, but we’re not actually participating the “Adventurer’s League”.  It’s a much more relaxed and laid back atmosphere.

I plan to begin posting a little more regularly about my D&D adventures. I’ll also be covering some of the books that I previously decided against reviewing on the site. Aside from the PHB, DMG and MM, there’s really only been two other “source books” released – the rest have all been hardback adventures. So I had originally planned not to really spend my time on those. But, to keep things chugging along, I have changed my mind about that.  So, sometime within the next month I’ll start discussing some of these. Stay tuned!

Record Shop: Nirvana – Nevermind

Welcome to the first official RetroSensei’s “Record Shop” post. In case you’ve missed my previous post and you’re wondering what all this is about, you can read a bit about this new project:  HERE.

As I mentioned in that previous article, I’ve always been a fan of music. For most of my childhood I enjoyed pop and and top-40 hits. I started buying and collecting music starting around age 12 or 13.  Around that time, I was a fan of artists like MC Hammer, Madonna, Technotronic, Boyz II Men, etc. I largely ignored rock music at this time in my life. To me, it all sounded the same. Hair Bands were still in fairly heavy rotation and they really just seemed to be a dime a dozen. By the time I was 14, I had just returned back to the United States after living in Japan for 3 years. I once again found myself with access to American cable television – that meant Mtv. I remember vividly tuning to Mtv upon my return and seeing the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.  I had never really heard anything like that song before. The verses were hypnotic and mellow, but they were followed by a ripping, screaming chorus. I found the song enjoyable, but at the time I didn’t pay it much attention. My excitement and focus was still currently on the brand new “Dangerous” album by Michael Jackson as well as an upcoming record by SNAP! (yes, the “I got the power” people)…

Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was released in the fall of 1991. It is actually their sophomore album. But it is the record that introduced them to the world.

It wasn’t until the video for “Lithium” hit the airwaves that I really started paying attention to Nirvana. This song followed the same formula as “Teen Spirit” – slow verses, with a rocking chorus. But to me, I found the song much more appealing. The next song by Nirvana that caught my attention was “Come As You Are”.  This was really interesting music. It wasn’t like the other rock and roll that was in heavy rotation at the time. I found myself tuning my radio to the local rock station in hopes of catching one of these songs on the air.

Eventually, I grew tired of waiting on the radio and I spent my allowance on the Nevermind CD. This record changed my entire perception on just what music was all about.

Up until now, I experienced music somewhat passively. I enjoyed it, and occasionally found it insightful and moving. But I was never really inspired by it. Now, I’m not going to claim that the majority of the songs on “Nevermind” are profound. To be honest, most of Kurt Cobain’s lyrics are trash, in my opinion. But there’s certainly a raw energy and passion behind the music as a whole. Songs like “Breed”, just fill you with energy and make you want to “rock out”. Listening to some of these tunes made me was to pick up a guitar and scream my head off, just like Kurt Cobain was doing.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened. This record made me want to learn how to play the guitar. For Christmas that year, I asked my parents for one. Upon receiving it, I went to my local music shop and signed up for lessons. After a couple of months learning the basics, my guitar teacher asked me to bring in a song and he would show me how to play it. Naturally, I turned to “Nevermind” and I picked a tune that sounds pretty easy to play. That song was “Polly”. It was the first song I ever learned to play to completion.  Being able to play a real song from start to finish is major milestone for a new musician. That was the moment I knew that I could play this instrument. Being a guitar player changed my life. Up until that point, I had always been an awkward nerdy sort of kid. I was the little guy that was picked on and teased. I didn’t like sports, instead I was interested in things like Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, and video games. Learning to play the guitar gave my a skill that grew into self-confidence. Not to mention, it was a pretty cool skill to have. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you can pick up a guitar and rock out – that’s cool. Within a few years, I had completely changed my social situation. I went from the “always nerdy dork” to the “slightly nerdy rocker”. My social life improved. My romantic life improved. All thanks to music.

If Nirvana’s “Nevermind” didn’t exist, I may very well have never picked up that guitar.

So that’s what this album means to me. There’s a good chance that many of you reading this are intimately familiar with this record already. It was one of the biggest selling albums of the 90’s. But, if not, let’s take a look at the record track by track. If you have a music stream subscription or if you own the record and just want to take a trip down memory lane, put it on and let’s listen together.

  1. Smells Like Teen Spirit – This was Nirvana’s first single of the album and arguably their most popular song.  The song starts with a catchy clean-guitar chord riff, which rapidly switches to screaming distortion. Just as you start to get into it, it fades into a slow, mellow groove for the verse. As the chorus launches, we’re back to that ripping, tearing riff that opened the song. This is the formula that made Nirvana famous. They revisit this “verse-chorus-verse” pattern many times over their career.  This song is a classic. It single-handedly changed rock music forever.
  2. In Bloom – This is a moderate tempo tune that once again follows what I call the “Nirvana Formula”.  It was another hit single and it’s a catchy example of classic Nirvana
  3. Come As You Are – This is another favorite. The hook catches you from the very beginning and carries you through the rest of the tune. The guitars here make heavy use of the “Chorus” effect, this is an effect that gives a shimmering “wavy” underwater sound to the tune. This is a very radio-friendly jam.
  4. Breed – This is a rip-roaring powerchord rock fest. This might be the one song from the record that really made me want to pick up a guitar and let it rip. It’s the perfect melding of metal, punk, rock, and even pop. Fantastic tune.
  5. Lithium – Another “Nirvana Formula” tune. Detuned guitar, mumbled lyrics, with a ripping chorus. Another hit single.
  6. Polly –  Here, mid-way through the record we get our first break. Unlike everything else on the album thus far, we have a mellow acoustic tune. The song is played on a dead-pan, flat sounding guitar. As terrible as that might sound in print, it worked well in the song itself.  This is a fan favorite.
  7. Territorial Pissings – This is an odd one. The song starts off with the wacky screeching of Nirvana’s bassist, reciting the lyrics to the old hippie classic “Get Together” – this is followed by a slamming verse-chorus-verse progression. Starts off weird, ends up being a real headbanger.
  8. Drain You – Of all the songs on “Nevermind” this one is the closet to a pop song as you’re going to find. It’s catchy, upbeat, but riddled with strange lyrics. It seems like Cobain was flipping through a medical journal and just writing nonsense. But, it works and it’s a great song.
  9. Lounge Act – Here we come to what many consider to be the first “throwaway” track on the album. It’s a catchy tune, and not a bad one, but it’s not as memorable as nearly anything else on the record. That being said, this is not a bad song at all. So, it’s really a testament to just how good this record is.
  10. Stay Away – Again we have another not-so-memorable tune. But still, it’s headbanging, rocking toe-tapper. If the “filler tracks” on the record are this good, that’s how to you know you have a real winner.
  11. On a Plain – As the album starts to wind to a close, we get one last catchy power-chord jam. This is an often overlooked gem on the record, at least in my opinion.
  12. Something In The Way – This is the albums’s final official track.  It brings the record to a mellow, slow-paced close. We’re once again treated to that flat, detuned acoustic guitar. This time, accompanied by a string section of all things. It’s a melodic, groovy song. A truly fantastic way to end what is a spectacular album.
  13. Endless, Nameless (Hidden Track) – Ahhh. It just wouldn’t the 90s without a hidden track would it?  This song is not included on all copies of the album, but the majority of them will have it. This song is usually tacked on to the end of track 12 after several minutes of silence.  “Endless, Nameless” is the official title of the song, and it’s a complete chaotic noise fest. Roaring guitars, screaming, wailing, sheer anarchy. I used to be absolutely enthralled by this tune. It was like… “Here’s this great record. I hope you enjoyed it. So, we’re going to end it by just screaming in your face and breaking things.”  Wow.

It’s likely that most readers to this site are probably familiar with Nirvana in some capacity. But if you’ve never really sat down and gave them a listen, Nevermind is a great starting point. When listening to albums, I always suggest enjoying them on a nice Hi-Fi stereo system, or on a portable device with a good pair of headphones. When listening to classic records like this, I prefer the original release to many of the “remastered” editions. Often times, remasters are overly loud and actually contain a lower level of quality than the original album. There are exceptions to this, but in the case of Nevermind, the original CD is what you want.

When listening to a record, always listen from start to finish. Unlike pop albums, many good rock records are sequenced in a certain order. Some songs tend to be more enjoyable when following the song preceding them. Put the record on while you’re driving, or doing house work. Let it play in the background. Listen it to a few times. Some records need to grow on you. Don’t skip around. Even if a particular song doesn’t grab you right away, let it play through. Your opinion may change.

I hope you enjoyed my take on this album. It’s one that has meant a lot to me over the years. Maybe it carries, or can carry some special meaning for you as well.

Welcome to the Record Shop!

The above image is something that many young people today are unfamiliar with. The joy of stepping into a well stocked record store, filled with both new and rare tapes, CDs and albums is one of the fondest experiences of my youth. Sure, there are still great record shops to be found. But these days, most teens and even adults like myself tend to consume music digitally. I recently made a post on this site indicating that I plan to start sharing my love for music. In true RetroSensei style, I’m going to be going back and talking about music that meant a lot to me personally over the years. It’s my hope that I might help spark an interest in an artist or even an album to those of you reading, and thus, help you discover a new world of music.

This is going to be a project of sorts. One that will continue for the foreseeable future. A few times a month, I’ll be discussing a particular album – how I encountered it, what I think of it, and what it meant to me. If you’d like to participate, I’d recommend that you subscribe to one of the many music streaming services out there. Most of the records I’ll be discussing should be available to listen on nearly any of these services. However, there may be a few “deep cuts” that I discuss from time to time that might not be so easy to come across online. I’m posting links at the bottom of this post to some of the more popular music services out there.

The first real post will be coming within a week. However, I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss a little bit about my musical upbringing.  I’ve been a music lover for as long as I can remember. When I just little child, one of the first gifts I remember receiving was an old Fisher Price record player. My mother would let me listen to her old 45s. I remember listening to singles by Neil Diamond, Elton John, The Doors, etc.  Years later, I discovered my father’s LP collection which included gems such as Grease and Saturday Night Fever. He had a massive collection of Beach Boys, Olivia Newton John, and Righteous Brothers.  The first record I remember wanting for myself was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. I wore that record out.  Oddly enough, the second album that actually remember personally owning was Twisted Sister’s “Stay Hungry”.  (I really liked “We’re Not Gonna Take It)

For most of my early grade school years, if I wasn’t listening to my parent’s old record collection, I turned to the radio. The 80’s was great time for pop music. I can recall vividly hearing hits like “Caribbean Queen”, “Rhythm of the Night”, and “I Just Died in Your Arms” on the radio.  The 80’s were also the age of Mtv. Videos were everywhere; Van Halen, Madonna, – all of it. It was a good time to be alive.

As I got a bit older (I’d say around the ages of 11-14), pop music and early hip-hop held my interest. I didn’t really care for a lot of the hair metal that was big at the time, but stuff like Madonna, MC Hammer, and Paula Abdul could always been found in my CD Player. In those days, I was living overseas on an Air Force base in Japan. When I returned home to the US, I found that the music scene had changed drastically. I came back to an era where rap music had started to become “gangsta”. Naughty By Nature and 2 Live Crew were dominating the space where C+C Music Factory and Vanilla Ice used to be.  Then, one day I turned on Mtv and heard a song that changed my life forever: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.  For the first time in long time, a rock song had captured my attention.  I recall tuning in to the local rock station in hopes of hearing it. This resulted in me being exposed to other great music; Pearl Jam, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Stone Temple Pilots.

The alternative rock/grunge scene of the early 90’s pulled me in, and in many ways – never let go.

I hope you guys will enjoy my retro record reviews. If you want to listen along with with me as I post, any of the fine music streaming services below should be a good place to start.

             

 

Spring Cleaning 2017

So, I feel it’s time for a little update.

My game playthroughs are still on track. I actually plan to have the N64/PS1 era finished with the end of this year. Next up in my queue are Planescape Torment for the PC,  Resident Evil 3 and Final Fantasy Tactics for PS1, and Majora’s Mask for N64.  These are my current “Must Plays”. Once these are out of the way, I’ll be taking a look over my library to see if there are any other iconic games from the era before moving on.  Next up will be a handful of portable games (ie: The Zelda Oracle titles, 2nd Generation Pokemon, etc). When this blog first went live, I talked about the history of video games as experienced through my eyes. I discussed coin-op games like Centipede and Asteroids. This carried over to the Atari 2600, then the NES. I’ve covered a lot of ground in the years that I’ve been writing here. At this point, we’ve reached the half-way mark to catching up to the present day of gaming. Once this occurs, I’ll be playing and reviewing games as they are released, with the occasional retro-review thrown in.

Since the inception of this blog, I’ve slowly expanded the content from being just about video games to other forms of Nerdery.  Sometimes I write about comic books, Dungeons and Dragons, and of course Star Wars. Last year saw the introduction of my “Nerd Fuel” coffee reviews. During my New Year’s update, I also teased that I’d be expanding the subject matter even further. RetroSensei has always been a site about things that interest me. Nerd Culture, Video Games, etc. So, in keeping with that tradition, this year will see the introduction of a few other of my passions: Film and Music.

Film has always been a centerpiece of nerd culture. From B-Movies to blockbuster Super Hero flicks, nerds have taken over the world. In the coming weeks, I’m going to start discussing and reviewing some of my favorite nerd-friendly films. Sci Fi, Fantasy, Horror, etc. If you’re reading this site, you likely share my interests in a number of these subjects. So perhaps you’ll enjoy seeing my perspective, or better yet, maybe you’ll be introduced to a movie or show that you never knew about.

The same applies to my love for music. I don’t write about this often, but during my teenage and early adult years, I played in a punk rock band. My love for music knows no bounds. I enjoy everything from jazz to folk, r&b to metal. You name it. – But, rock music in particular is a passion of mine. It’s a passion that many nerds over the years have shared. If you conjure a mental image in your mind of nerdy grognards from the 80’s huddled over a table, rolling dice in a D&D game – what are they wearing? Most people will answer “rock t-shirts”. Grateful Dead, Metallica, Jimi Hendrix, the list goes on and on.  Starting soon, I’m going to begin sharing my passion for rock music. I’m going to be diving into my archive and discussing albums that have inspired and touched me over the years. Again, I hope some of you enjoy revisiting these with me, or better yet, if you’re a young reader – perhaps I can introduce you to a new world that you’ll love as much as I do.

So, there’s a lot of good stuff coming soon. I also have a few other plans for the site that I’m not ready to reveal yet. So stay tuned.

Nerd Fuel: The Original Donut Shop – Vanilla Cream Puff

My last Nerd Fuel post saw the unseating of a champion. My long favorite coffee, “Donut Shop” was tossed from it’s top spot and replaced by Community Coffee’s Cafe’ Special.  Despite no longer being my personal favorite, Donut Shop is still an outstanding coffee. To date, I’ve discussed both the Original Flavor as well as their “Dark” variety. But there’s more Donut Shop out there to enjoy, so for this week’s purchase, I decided to go with one of their flavored offerings: Vanilla Cream Puff. Because, who doesn’t like vanilla?

To start, let me say that this coffee smelled absolutely delightful as it was brewing. It filled the kitchen with a delicious, creamy aroma. This carries over very well to the mug. But, as I feared, the flavor is very artificial. It can be improved with a little rich creamer,  but like many flavored coffees – it tastes fake and overdone. That being said, of all the “fake tasting” coffees out there, this is one of the more drinkable that I’ve come across. It’s not unpleasant, and in some ways it is actually enjoyable. But, the biggest gripe here is that the natural flavor of the coffee is drowned out by the over-sweet manufactured flavoring.

This is a good example of a coffee that works better over ice than in a mug. To me, most flavored coffees actually fall into this category, but there have been a few notable exceptions.  In a nutshell, this does not make a good everyday cup of joe. But, it’s not bad as a dessert coffee or if you’re making a shake/iced coffee. This is one for the kids.

Score: 2 out of 4

Would Purchase again?: Unlikely. While it’s not the worst flavored coffee I’ve come across, there are other options out there that do it much better.

Star Wars: Aftermath – Empire’s End

February 2017 saw the release of the final novel in the Star Wars Aftermath trilogy; Empire’s End. This is the series that bridges the gap (somewhat) between Episode VI and Episode VII. Over course of the these three books, we’ve been introduced to new characters as well as been able to peek in on a few of our favorite personas from original trilogy.

In retrospect, I was a bit cold on the original Aftermath. I didn’t care much for many of the new characters introduced, and I didn’t like the way the story seemed to jump all over the place. With the release of “Life Debt”, I began to feel a little more at home in Wendig’s post-ROTJ era, but still had my reservations. Now, I’m happy to say that I’ve actually come to enjoy several of the new characters he’s introduced. To me, Empire’s End is easily the best of the three novels in the series.

Those curious about the secret identity of Supreme Leader Snoke in Episode VII, will still be disappointed. Despite what many readers suspected to be a major tease regarding that character’s origins – nothing about the character is actually revealed. What we DO get in this story is a lot of background info on the planet of Jakku, as well as the Emperor’s plans post-mortum. It seems like Lucasfilm will be unlikely to give us any major revelations outside of the actual films,  but we’re certainly getting plenty of hints and breadcrumbs.  But YES – in this novel, you will finally see the fall of the Imperial Remnant and the reigns of power being handed to the New Republic. This alone, makes this novel worthy of your attention.

I’ve been an open critic of Chuck Wendig’s writing style in the past, and I’m happy to say that he seems to have really toned it down in this novel. This books reads much more like a started fantasy novel in terms of verbiage and standardized punctuation. To me, this one actually feels like it was written by a professional author and not some amateur who’s looking to make his name by being different and daring.

If you’re a serious fan of Star Wars and you love to consume every morsel of new information out there. This book is a need-to-have.

Story: The bulk of this book follows the characters that we’ve come to know from the other Aftermath novels, as well as longtime fan favorites. This story, when combined with the other three books, puts a nice end-cap on the events that occurred in Return of the Jedi, and helps set the stage for what we eventually see in The Force Awakens. However, even thoug ha lot of answers can be found here, fans are still left asking plenty of questions.

Recommended:  FOR HARDCORE FANS.

Review: Baldur’s Gate II (Enhanced Edition)

Finally, I bring you my review of the final chapter in the Baldur’s Gate series. For those that are interested, and might have missed it, I reviewed the enhanced edition of the Original Baldur’s Gate back in September. This was followed with a review of Beamdog’s official DLC: Siege of Dragonspear in January of this year. Now, after what seems like eons of time spent in the Forgotten Realms, I’m proud to share my thoughts on this remastered, classic CRPG.

First, a bit of a history lesson. Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, is the sequel to the extremely popular PC game, Baldur’s Gate. It was released two years after the original and closely follows the formula that made Baldur’s Gate such a smashing success. The sequel used the same game engine, with some additional polish and refinements. Baldur’s Gate II continues the story of the original title. In fact, players of the first game are even able to carry over saved data to the sequel. A year after the original Baldur’s Gate II was released, an expansion pack; “Throne of Bhaal” was also made available. This expansion extended the storyline of the original game, and added a new optional area.   In 2013, Beamdog Studios gave Baldur’s Gate II the “Enhanced Edition” treatment as well.  This update combined both “Shadows of Amn” and “Throne of Bhaal” into one package. It also includes a new third scenario “The Black Pits II” (which itself is a sequel to the additional scenario found in the first Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition).  The Enhanced Edition also modernizes the game for today’s computer systems. It adds widescreen support, updated multiplayer functionality, and cross-platform compatibility. Also worthy of note, just like with the initial release, players can import saved data from both Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition and Siege of Dragonspear into Baldur’s Gate II Enhanced Edition.  –  Being the most accessible version of the game, it is the enhanced edition that I’ve spent the last several months playing for this review.

While there many enhancements and differences between the original Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II,  the differences between the two Enhanced Edition are much less obvious. Both games actually run on a modified version of the BG2 engine. So the actual changes from one EE game to the other are mostly cosmetic.

The story of Baldur’s Gate II, starts shortly after the events of the first game. If you’ve played Siege of Dragonspear, the events of that game actually fill in the gap between BG1 and BG2. When the game starts, the main hero and his companions find themselves being held prisoner by a mysterious magician. The first goal in the game is to get your bearings and escape from captivity. Shortly after doing so, one of the lead characters is “arrested” by an order of powerful wizards. The focus of the game then turns to finding a way to rescue this individual. This thrusts the players into the middle of some major political intrigue. Naturally, things are not as simple as they seem at first. As you continue to play and explore the world of Baldur’s Gate II, you will find yourself immersed in the rich and vibrant world that is Forgotten Realms.

Fans of Dungeons & Dragons will feel right at home. This game, just like the original Baldur’s Gate is based on the core Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition rules. Also, the Forgotten Realms setting is a D&D mainstay. Just like with the first game, players can create and will encounter characters based on classic D&D races and classes. Also, much like a real game of D&D, players are able to explore and do as they please. The main scenario of the game is ever present in the background, but there are endless quests and side-stories for players to pursue and enjoy.

The game is filled with classic D&D tropes and cameos. From things as mundane as talking swords to legendary magical items, fans of D&D will be sure to finds references to some of their favorite places and characters

Like the first Enhanced Edition game, this one features a number of difficulty levels. All of the original options are included, as well as the new Story Mode (super easy) and Legacy of Bhaal (insanely difficult). Being nearly identical to BG:EE,  this modern version of Baldur’s Gate II also suffers from some of the same strange issues. In the 70+ hours I sunk into this game, I observed a number of odd glitches and behavior. For example, the party AI is often troublesome. Characters do not stay in the selected formation, they wander off in odd directions, and sometimes during battle, even when selected, they just stand there doing nothing instead of executing the actions requested of them. I even encountered one serious game-breaking issue towards the end of the title that caused me to have to reload a saved game and redo over an hour of play. To be specific, upon a defeat, an NPC did not yield an item needed to progress in the game… serious glitch. Also, the Steam version of the game seems to have some issues activating achievements correctly all of the time. But, when considering the absolute vast scope of the title, it would be nearly impossible to squash every potential bug. Despite encountering a few glitches, the game is overall very stable and enjoyable.

For my playthrough, I enjoyed the game in a single-player setting. But, it is important to note there is a multiplayer option. This is certainly welcome and in fact, can be a very rewarding way to play. The only downside is that a game of this size would require some serious organization and commitment between friends in order to really make the most out of this option.

In a nutshell, fans of the original game will certainly find themselves right at home with Baldur’s Gate II. As will fans of D&D and other CRPGs of the era. For younger and modern gamers, a title such as this can seem rather daunting and perhaps even a bit overwhelming.  As with many older games, there’s little to no handholding. And, with a game of this size and complexity, that can only make things seem even more challenging.

That being said, if you like western-style RPGS, and open-world games like Fallout, Skyrim, etc – this might be a series that you should consider. Baldur’s Gate II not only continues the story of the original title, but the Throne of Bhaal chapters even put a final end to story as a whole. Playing these games through to completion is very challenging, but also extremely satisfying.  Having only dabbled with the original game back during it’s release, I am proud to have finally played both entries to their completion. Both games are simply works of art. Now, with the Enhanced Editions available, these gems can once again be enjoyed by retro gamers like myself, as well as new players who may be unearthing them for the first time.

Difficulty: Variable–  Baldur’s Gate 2 features a number of options when it comes to difficulty.  Easy, Normal, Core Rules, Hard, and Insane. The Enhanced Edition also adds options for “Story Mode” and “Legacy of Bhaal”. The latter options making you either invincible or cranking up the difficulty to a point that makes the game nearly impossible.  I’m proud of being able to have completed the original game on this new insane difficulty, but I must admit that I was unable to even get through the first half of BG2 on “Legacy of Bhaal”. With the increased characters levels, seemed to come even more challenging opponents. “Core Rules” was my go to on this title.

Story: As one might expect with a Dungeons & Dragons title, the storyline is everything here. BG 2 extends the lore and storyline of the original game and brings it to it’s ultimate conclusion. Main scenario aside, this game is filled with side quests, background lore, and even character romances.

Originality: Being both a remake and a direct sequel to another game, certainly costs any title a little bit in the “originality” department. But BG manages to keep a fresh feel by presenting the player with totally new areas and cultures to explore. The storyline is also engaging enough to keep things from getting stale.

Soundtrack: Just like with the original Baldur’s Gate, the music in the game is overall very well done. It has a classic western RPG feel to it. It does lack a bit in diversity. The voice acting is also a mixed bag. Some of the characters are spot on, while others just sound silly and out of place. Again, this game suffers a bit from when I call Repetitive Sound Syndrome. NPCS and party members have a habit to repeating the same phrases over and over to the point of being annoying.

Fun: If you’re a fan of CRPGS and/or Dungeons & Dragons, you’re going to have a blast with this game. However, many players many simply not have the patience for the old-school style found here.

Graphics: At time it was released, Baldur’s Gate was top of the line. Today, even though a lot of work was put into modernizing the Enhanced Edition it looks quite dated. Yes, the new textures are beautiful, but the character sprites suffer a bit.

Playcontrol:  While most point-and-click games are pretty simple to control, Baldur’s Gate suffers from terrible AI. It is not uncommon for NPCs to get stuck on terrain, walk the wrong way, etc. I also frequently struggled with being unable to enter buildings due to all of my characters crowding around the entry way. Also, the new edition  of the game is not without it’s share of bugs that can interfere with your progress. These are largely the same complaints I had with the original Baldur’s Gate EE.

Downloadable Content:  No – At the time of this writing, no DLC has been announced for BG2 EE. The game comes complete with both BG2 and it’s original expansion.  It also contains a new third-scenario “The Black Pits 2”.  Which, is really a continuation of the “The Black Pits” chapter found in the first BG:EE.  Overall it’s a pointless little add-on, but still worthy of a look.

Mature Content: Fantasy Violence, Mature Themes

Value:  This game currently sells for $20. Considering the amount of content packed into the title, it’s a steal at that price.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Baldur’s Gate 2 Enhanced Edition is a must-have for both fans of the original game and for fans of CRPGs as a whole. It’s a classic game packed with tons of content. Even with some of the glitches and faults of the remake, the redeeming qualities of the game outshine any faults it might have. For some of the reasons outlined above, I can’t claim to give it a perfect score, but it comes damn close.

Available on: PC (Steam and GOG)

Nerd Fuel: Community Coffee- Cafe’ Special

It’s been a month since my last Nerd Fuel post, so I figured I better get crackin’! For this review, I decided to stick with a traditional, non-flavored coffee. I wanted to try something unassuming, so when I saw a box of “Community Coffee”, I thought – why not.

Community Coffee is a brand that I’d never tried before, but it’s a longstanding favorite for many coffee drinkers. I picked up a box of the Cafe’ Special, which is essentially Community Coffee’s “house blend”. This is a medium roast blend, that’s right on the line between medium and dark… it’s mild enough to be enjoyed by nearly anyone, but it has just enough roast to it to bring out a hint of that dark, rich flavor. To be quite honest, upon purchasing this coffee, I didn’t expect much. But I’m pleased to say that I was quite impressed with the smooth, balanced and even complex flavor of this coffee. So much so… that I might have to crown this as my new favorite general purpose blend. Yes… I daresay that this coffee rivals my longstanding favorite: Donut Shop.

Cafe’ Special is one of those coffees that is “normal” enough to enjoyed by your grandparents, but also rich and complex enough to satisfy your modern hipster. So, if you’ve just bought your first Keurig machine and you’re still looking for a standard go-to, this might one worth trying.

Score: 4 out of 4

Would Purchase again?: Yes. Currently, Community Coffee Cafe’ Special is my new mainstay, general purpose brew.  I know it seems like a generic, everyday brand of coffee…  but as they say: don’t judge a book by it’s cover.