When was the last time you wormed your dog?

9 08 2012

Worms rob your dog of nutrients and make them feel terrible.

When was the last time you wormed your dog? Chances are, it’s been awhile. You may think your dog is free of intestinal parasites, but the reality is if it’s been more than six months since you’ve had your dog wormed, they probably have worms.

Dogs can get worms from a variety of sources. They can get tape worms by ingesting fleas, heart worms from mosquito bites, and they can get hookworms just by walking around outside (as hookworm larva nests in soil). And before you think worms are your dog’s problem, remember many parasites are opportunistic and would be just as happy in your intestines as they are in your dog’s. The best defense, in this case, is a good offense in the form of regular de-worming.

There are plenty of prescription strength de-wormers out there, as well as brands you can buy off pet supply websites or catalogs. Some vets won’t prescribe the medication unless there’s proof your dog has worms, while others encourage preventative de-worming twice a year.

Mass Effect 3: Why the Final Sequence in the Game is a Failure *MAJOR ENDING SPOILERS*

3 04 2012

Mass Effect fans expected an epic final sequence, full of hard decisions, heart breaking loses, and epic battles in the conclusion to Shepard’s story.

This is your last chance: If you haven’t beaten Mass Effect 3 turn back now, unless you don’t plan to ever play it, or have already ruined it for yourself. While I won’t get into any specific spoilers, I will reveal some specific details on why I think the final mission on Earth is one of the series’ biggest stumbles.

I have been mulling this issue for the past few weeks since beating the game. I’ve read many fan-posts on the game’s forums, fan theories, and I’ve even watched several 20-40 minute long Youtube videos of opinions on the endings. One thing is clear, the ending to Mass Effect isn’t polarizing. It isn’t bad. It isn’t good. What it is, is a failure.

Think about that word. Failure. Bioware failed with the ending, starting from the moment Shepard and company leave the Forward Operating Base. The only evidence of this failure anyone will ever need can be found in the final missions in the previous two games.

Mass Effect’s final mission featured a battle inside, and outside, the Citadel. Shepard faced an army of Geth, Krogan, and finally Saren himself in an exhilarating series of battles set against a backdrop of a Reaper (a massive, sentient space ship nearly 2 miles long) clamping onto the Citadel (the hub of the galaxy, where all government, and economic powers conglomerate). The most important thing about this sequence was that, while Shepard battled the foot soldiers, the space battle raging above him was not forgotten. Scenes of the Citadel fleets and its losses were inter cut with Shepard’s actions and created a sense that Shepard was one cog in a larger war machine, and that the failure of any one cog meant doom for the galaxy. Shepard even gets to makes choices that affect the fleet’s success (ie loss of Destiny Ascension, the Council, and how many ships the human fleet loses) before taking out the bad guy.

Then in Mass Effect 2 we have the suicide mission, one of the most dynamic gaming experiences I’ve ever had the privilege to play. Upgrades for Shepard’s ship, whether taken or not taken, come into play in the approach to the Collector Base and result in the loss of crew members if said upgrades weren’t taken. Then Shepard is forced to choose HOW to utilize the resources (ie Crew members) he’s accumulated through the game. The purpose of Mass Effect 2 is to assemble a crew to take down an entire race bent on killing humans for (at the game’s onset) an unknown reason. Not using your crew members properly based on their skill set (which is emphasized subtly throughout the game) results in the deaths of one or more crew members. In this way, not only is Shepard’s preparedness put to the test, but also his ability to lead—this should have been a pre-cursor to the final mission of Mass Effect 3.

When imagining the final mission to Mass Effect 3 I pictured this: inevitable losses. I knew, KNEW, that crew members would die. How could they not? Maybe I’d make a wrong decision, have the wrong person stay behind to hold back the enemy while I move forward, etc. but I was certain one, or all, of my crew members would die. And why shouldn’t they? I lost crew members on Virmire and in the Collector Base (as I refused to meta-game and make optimal choices post-first playthrough on my main Shepard), and even throughout the Mass Effect 3 campain! Yet none of these scenarios were more terrifying than battling through a Reaper controlled Earth with the massive ships bombarding the planet’s charred surface.

And in the midst of these losses, as Shepard assigned his crew to tasks that would lead to certain death in order to buy him time to get to the Conduit, he would also be directing the fleets he’d assembled above. For example, “Which fleet should distract the Reapers? A) The Quarians B) The Alliance C) The Terminus” And there would be a right decision based on the lore per-fleet, which you can read about in the War Assets menu (another example: using the Quarian/Geth fleets to repair damaged vessels). So I did all that. I read about every fleet, every war asset, and scoured every system for stray frigates, weapons, scientists and sniper teams. Hell, I even got Conrad Verner’s dissertation on Dark Energy!

Directing fleets, commanding troops and being forced to decide which of your crew holds the line in a suicidal bid to buy you time…that’s the kind of ending Bioware insinuated we would get with Mass Effect 3, based on Mass Effect 1 and 2. The utter lack of anything even resembling this is why I consider the ending a failure. In fact, the ending comes about very abruptly…one minute I’m fighting run of the mill Reaper troops, the next I’m staggering through the Conduit and on my way to the final ending choices. Thus, I think a large part of the trouble with the ending isn’t just the last-minute narrative 180, but also the fact that the ending doesn’t feel like a Mass Effect ending.

I have my own opinion of the ending cutscenes…actually, contrary to what this post might dictate, I actually rather like the closing moments. I like how futile, how small, it all makes Shepard seem. How vulnerable he seems, staggering into the beam with obliterated armor. But I can’t help but imagine that if before his armor was melted, he’d lost squadmates and friends who gave their lives to give him a chance to reach the beam, those desperate steps would take on a new, deeper meaning.

If the final battle had happened how I originally envisioned and the confrontation with the Illusive Man was the final “boss”, and the ensuing conversation with Anderson had seen the Crucible fire and wipe out the Reapers as Anderson and Shepard sit dying together, I think that would have been a beautiful ending. Sad, but hopeful. With the Reapers gone, Shepard would have succeeded, and so did the friends and lovers he/she lost. Sure, they’re dead so there can be no epilogue, but their sacrifice was not in vain and in that, it’s actually a happy ending. But, as it is, the ending we have now feels rushed, like a first draft that no one put any much needed red ink and feedback through. Shepard’s crew just kind of disappears at the end and is never mentioned except in a several seconds long (and mind boggling) scene before the final credits. I am a writer, though not a published one, but I have studied under those who are. And one thing I know is that no writer worth their salt writes in a vacuum. Writing is iterative. It takes 3, 6, 15 drafts before anything is even close to perfect. No first draft is indicative of a writer’s true skill, nor is it an example of “artistic integrity”. I think the ending we got was slapped together late in the development, either out of a lack of time or willingness to incorporate improvements into the game/story.

As a Mass Effect fan, I hope Bioware goes back to the drawing board and revises the endings. As a writer, I think what they have is a good start, but needs more detail…more emotion.

How to Help Your Overweight Pet

1 04 2012

Pet obesity is a leading cause of animal deaths in America.

America has a weight problem. Not just the people in it, but also our animals. There are even pet “diet” drugs, which are designed to help pets lose weight by making them feel “full”, just like with human drugs. The fact is, that while drugs may not be needed, intervention is often necessary on the owner’s part.

Before I say anything more, let me admit something: I am as guilty of this as anyone. I had a pair of very fat cats whom I free-fed and let eat themselves into obesity. I didn’t even notice it, really. It was gradual, and over a span of time they were fat, rollie pollie kitties and I was none the wiser. Only when my sister came home for Christmas was I forced to admit to myself what I’d allowed to happen: I had endangered their lives.

Being overweight is plenty dangerous for humans, but for animals its doubly so. Five pounds may not sound like that much to a human but to a cat it’s more than half of their ideal body weight. That would be like a 150 pound person gaining 75 pounds of fat. A 50 pound dog gaining 10 pounds would be like a 200 pound person gaining 40 pounds. Not to mention the health risks in animals who put on some extra weight including: Diabetes (requiring expensive shots daily), joint damage, difficulty breathing (causing coughing, etc after activities as the additional fat in their chest constricts the lungs), heart disease, and many more.

When my sister came home and saw what I’d done, she put her vet school learnin’ to use and schooled me on the art of animal nutrition. Now, my first instinct was to simply cut their food but my sister was insistent on me giving them wet food. After hopping online and calculating calorie counts from their current food and in Friskies wet food, she determined that for them to lose weight and get back to a healthy ~10 pounds, I would need to give them 1/3 cup of dry food each per day, plus half a can of wet food each. Only a month later the results were visible. Three months and counting now, and they look like vibrant, happy kitties.

The point is, just like with losing weight as a human, there’s no easy fix to maintaining healthy weight in your pet. Metabolisms change with age and activity level. Some animals might become more greedy with food when a competitor is introduced to the household. Some animals come from neglected upbringings and will eat up all the food you put in front of them, while others will nibble here and there throughout the day. Even if you know your pet, and their eating habits, you might need to change alongside them if those habits become dangerous and drive them to obesity.

It’s easy to just let a pet eat, but researching a new diet online with calorie calculators will only cost you a few hours at most and give you extra years with your beloved pet.

Mass Effect 3 Review Part 3: The Problems, and my Overall Verdict

31 03 2012

The third, and final, part of my Mass Effect 3 review

Mass Effect 3, contrary to what the first three sections of this review might indicate, is far from perfect. First off, the biggest issue for longtime fans is the import errors they will run into if trying to bring a custom-faced character from the prior games into 3. What this means is, if you created a custom face for your Shepard in Mass Effect 1 and imported it into Mass Effect 2, there’s a good chance that face won’t import properly into 3. Bioware is aware of, and working to patch this issue, but it calls into question some troubling business decisions.

Firstly, this issue has been known of for some time by the fan community, going as far back as when the demo was released at the beginning of February. Players attempting to use a face code from Mass Effect 2 in the demo found that their faces weren’t translating properly to the new engine. Most assumed it was a matter of missing character creation resources (such as nose-types, mouth shapes, etc) that were kept out to keep the demo’s size reasonable, and that the issue would be resolved in the final release. Now we know that isn’t the case.

The grim reality is that the game was shipped with a serious error that everyone involved in production knew about. This whole issue is, frankly, unprofessional and embarrassing. My main Shepard actually uses the default Mark Vanderloo face, so I had no issues on my first playthrough. But my secondary Shep, a Female Shepard, uses a custom face I recreated from my old Xbox copy when I switched to PC. This is a face I logged at least an hour or so creating, then painstakingly recreating. Attempting to import this face from Mass Effect 2 creates a bizarre amalgamation of my female-Shepard and someone who got hit in the face by a large, flat instrument one too many times. Luckily the fan fix worked and repaired Kate Shepard’s damaged looks, but this is such a convoluted fix (and unavailable to Xbox owners without some technical wizardry) that I can’t recommend it to anyone but the hardcore fans (like me).

Another source of frustration is the implementation of your Military Strength. Gathering assets affects this, whether those be scientists, engineers, armies, or war vessels. The bar maxes out around 5000 or 6000 and turns green, which indicates you’ve done as much as you need to do to beat the Reapers and get the best ending.

Not quite.

Your Military Strength is then multiplied by your readiness, and the result is your Effective Military Strength. There is only one way to increase readiness: play the game’s multiplayer, or the iPad game. Your default readiness is 50%, which means your military strength is multiplied by .5. So, if your Total Military Strength is 5000, your Effective Military Strength would be 2500. Your Effective Military Strength is what determines your ending. What this means is that even if you do everything there is to do, you might not be able to get the best ending depending on your decisions throughout the series. This flies in the face of Bioware’s many promises that there was “more than enough” single player content to get the best ending without having to touch the multiplayer. Sure, it only takes 14 matches or so to max out your readiness and the multiplayer is a blast, but some people don’t have the luxury of Xbox live.

With broken custom-face imports, and outright deception by Bioware’s PR team in regards to the game’s  multiplayer requirement, there is something troubling behind the scenes at Bioware. And while the endings have also stirred up their fair share of controversy, I have an entire essay’s worth of thoughts on them that have no place in a review, other than to say that the ending feels like a rush job and is in no way a fitting finale to such a polished, emotional package. But, don’t lose hope Mass Effect fans!

These problems don’t take away from the fact that Mass Effect 3, and by extension the series, is a profound achievement not just in videogames, but in storytelling in general. With a three game story arc that tracks your decisions from one game to the next, nothing has ever come this close to making a game experience feel personal. With fan-favorite characters, personal favorite characters, and debatable moral dilemmas, Mass Effect reaches a kind of story-telling zenith few other stories could ever hope to match. This one is a keeper, folks, and once you beat it get ready to spend hours upon hours at Bioware’s forums debating the endings.


Mass Effect 3 Review Part 2: The Gameplay (No spoilers)

22 03 2012

The last installment in the epic trilogy isn’t afraid to shake up the gameplay.

It’d be easy for Mass Effect 3 to just copy and paste Mass Effect 2’s combat system. After all, the combat in 2 was a massive improvement over 1. But Bioware didn’t rest on their laurels and improved everything from Shepard’s mobility, to the enemy artificial intelligence.

Enemies no longer stand at one end of a room and shoot at you while you’re in cover waiting patiently for you to pop a cap in them while they reload. Now they take cover, hurl grenades to send you scrambling out of the safety of cover, and flank you. On the highest difficulties, Shepard doesn’t last long out of cover even against the most basic enemies so seeing a grenade coming at you is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. Luckily, Shepard has the ability to dodge and roll so avoiding these grenades isn’t impossible.

Also improved is the AI of Shepard’s squad mates. While they still get stuck on walls on occasion, they use their powers in intelligent ways, ie they only use a shield remover ability on an enemy with shields. They also get a damage bonus if you tell them to focus fire on an enemy, which is a nice way to reward players who take the time to give their squad orders.

Worth a mention is the ability to upgrade weapons, both with credits and by adding mods to them. This helps players customize their weapons: do you want a shotgun with more stopping power, or accuracy?

Of course, Mass Effect isn’t just about shooting, it’s also about exploring the galaxy. In Mass Effect 3, Shepard will explore and scavenge systems for War Assets (which strengthen the galaxy’s military for the Endgame response to the invading Reapers) as well as fuel and the occasional side mission. Scanning is improved immeasurably from Mass Effect 2, where players had to scour an entire planet’s surface with a slow moving cursor in order to gain resources for upgrades. Some planets could take upwards of 10 probes in order to be properly depleted. Now, if a planet has anything of use at all, it only takes 1 probe. Thank you, Bioware.

In addition, Shepard will also do a lot of talking. This is a Bioware RPG after all! In typical Bioware fashion, the writing here is excellent. Old friends, old enemies and acquaintances return from past games (if they survived!) and encounters with them play out in wildly divergent ways. My favorite addition to character development is how your crew will move about the ship. For example, James, one of the new characters, can sometimes be found in the kitchen cooking himself some eggs while conversing with another one of your crew. Seeing your squadmates move about and live their own lives and have their own conversations is one of those little touches that adds an immeasurable amount to the credibility of the universe Bioware has created.

Whether it’s talking, exploring, or shooting, Mass Effect has always juggled these three styles of play and managed to maintain a unique feel that few other games aspire to match. Mass Effect 3 is the culmination of all of these elements, and the finest entry yet.

Stay tuned for the 3rd, and final part of this review!

Mass Effect 3 Review Part 1: The Experience (SPOILERS?)

20 03 2012

A saga five years in the making comes to a close.

Mass Effect is my favorite game series. What makes Mass Effect so special is the choose-your-own-adventure style storytelling where the player chooses the outcome. Is humanity an idealistic, self-sacrificing race, or a take-no-prisoners bully who will stand atop a pile of its friends and enemies if that’s what it takes to get ahead?

That’s the core of the series right there: choice. Since Mass Effect 1 players have taken their Commander Shepards, either using a default face or one custom made, to the edge of the galaxy and life and death itself in an effort to save the universe from extinction.

Life and death and how it relates to player choice come into play in a huge way in Mass Effect 3. For example, who survived the suicide mission from Mass Effect 2 will have varying impacts on the story of 3. It might mean missing a side mission, or having a place-holder character take the place of a returning character, or it might mean losing a vital war asset. The implementation of the replacement for returning characters is well-handled, and done in such a way that you might never know who these placeholder characters replaced until you replay the game. Yet, it’s far more rewarding to see a character you helped mentor go on to lead their own unit than it is to see a random character doing the same. The opportunity to catch up with a beloved character is a reward in and of itself.

Likewise, decisions from the previous entries in the series play key roles here. The fate of the council, Urdnot Wrex, the Rachni Queen and The Collector Base all have a tangible impact on the plotline of Mass Effect 3. Throughout the game Shepard earns “war assets” in the form of ships, armies, or resources that bolster the galaxy’s response to the invading Reapers, who are here to wipe out all organic life. Your choices in Mass Effect 1 and 2 will result in gaining more, or less, resources. What I like about this system is that there is no right or wrong choice. While players can make Paragon (good) or Renegade (still good, but a little rogueish and Jack Bauer-esque) choices, there’s no guarantee Paragons will have more assets than Renegades and vice versa. For example, choosing to save the Council at the end of Mass Effect 1 means they will be grateful to you for saving their life, but it also comes at a price: the human fleets will be much weaker as a result of ships lost defending the crippled council vessels. So, in this sense, a choice from a game five years ago has a nuanced, multi-faceted impact on a game that just came out a few weeks ago.

It’s that kind of impact that this game handles especially well. Little decisions dating as far back as five years ago to Mass Effect 1 come into play in ways you never would have imagined. The reward of reuniting with old friends, ending age-old conflicts, and making peace with enemies are all handled with attention and care.

Mass Effect 3’s biggest triumph is how it affects the player. Moments of nostalgia at seeing faces from old side quests reappear, or concern for old friends and squad mates as you realize they’re in danger call up emotions that have no right to be in a videogame. Bioware has thrown caution into the wind in regards to choice and created a tangled web for players to navigate. Yet, navigating this web is a blast, and beneath the veneer of a fun third person shooter, there is an exceptional story that takes thousands of variables into account and assures no two players will have the same experience.

Stay tuned for part 2!

Dear Game Developers 3: Some More Things to Work On

13 03 2012

Like the Energizer Bunny, infinite respawns keep coming, and coming, and coming….

Even in this modern era of innovation, videogames are still plagued by some unfortunate staples from the era when games were run on systems with low processing power. In an era of HD graphics and multi-million dollar AAA releases, you’d think state of the art games would avoid the following pitfalls…but you’d be wrong.

1) Infinite Respawns: Not to be confused with wave based enemy assaults, infinite respawns offend in the form of a never-ending torrent of enemies thrown at the player until they advance to a predetermined point on the game map. The biggest offender in modern memory is the Call of Duty series, where progressing through a level often means sprinting forward and hoping you don’t die before you get past the arbitrary respawn zone before you start killing enemies. If you’re still within this zone, you’ll have to try again…after you kill those enemies again, and again….

2) Brick-Stupid AI Partners: Call of Duty is the big offender here, once more. The draw of the game is that you are meant to be a solder in a platoon/unit/whatever, and you are in the fight with other soldiers. Why then are you the only one who can shoot straight? When there are six other SAS soldiers with me in a fight, it stretches credulity when an enemy can stand out in the open while these six shoot at him and miss over and over. Considering games like Gears of War and Mass Effect 3 aren’t afraid to give you squad mates who are nearly as powerful as the main character, the decision to hinder the AI partners’ intelligence is ponderous at best.

3) Sequels that aren’t really sequels: Yet again I call upon Call of Duty. What did Modern Warfare 3 do that Modern Warfare 2 didn’t? Nothing. The graphics, gameplay and story all feel the same. There’s no innovation, no new mechanics, and no cover system in a game that is in dire need of it. Considering that every enemy in the game takes cover in some way, its exclusion for the player makes no sense other than to save time and cash in on the craze of this soon-to-be-stagnant series.

Game developers are innovating all the time in the realm of story, graphics and gameplay but they cut corners from time to time. When I’m shelling out $60 a pop I expect a bit more bang for my buck than games that feature any of the above problems. Not only do they break immersion, they make me feel like I’m being cheated by developers too lazy to program a proper challenge.

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