Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force


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Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force is an old video game. It came out in 2000 for Windows and MacOS and a year later for the Playstation 2. The game is based on on the Quake III Arena engine.

You play as Ensign Munro – a white male. There is no other option. It doesn’t really matter much because you spend the entire game viewing the world through his eyes. You only occasionally see him.


At the beginning of the game Voyager is caught in (surprise) some kind of energy vortex that almost destroys it and pulls into another dimension that is full of debris and derelict ghost ships. Luckily Tuvok has trained and put together a team of elite security officers called the Hazard Team. This is where you come in. Apparently everything in this universe is hazardous and you must enter first and make it safe for the others.


Nothing in Elite Force is surprising. When there are bad guys you shoot at them, when there are good guys you don’t. When you get stuck you blow things up. If you hold still the bad guys will kill you. It’s all pretty standard first-person shooter gameplay. What made this game enjoyable however where the particular Star Trek elements that were added to the game, and it’s interesting story.


The game opens with you trying to infiltrate a Borg ship to rescue your shipmates before they are assimilated. The Borg will adapt to your weapons if you try to fight them head on. Sometimes if you aggro one of them you can find a node attached to the wall. Blowing this up deactivates all the Borg nearby. It’s still not a good idea to attract too much attention. On other levels you sneak through a room full of sleeping Klingons, rescue a friend from alternate universe Federation officers-gone-bad, take on an army of defense robots, and destroy the galaxy’s worst ever cockroach infestation… all in the name of exploration and science.


One side note – why are the bad guys in science fiction always insects? Or robots? Or zombies? (Or Borg?) Which are all the same thing if you think about it.


The game has the usual standard array of weapons. All of them have a unique Star Trek feel to them that makes it feel almost a little bit cooler. Instead of the rocket launcher you have a personal photon torpedo cannon. You also have the standard Starfleet Type II phaser, and phaser rifle, grenade launcher, etc. These weapons all look like they could have been in the show, even if they weren’t. There is even a somewhat convoluted attempt to explain why you are capable of carrying nine guns, a helmet, all the ammo, and other gear you have without getting tired. You are equipped with a transporter pattern buffer that stores all of your gear in a suspended transporter beam.


The story of Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force is another good reason to play this game. It is far better than most of the Voyager episodes – which isn’t a great endorsement – and the writing is tight and well managed. Most of the story is gleaned from your teammates talking over the communications channel while you are in the midst of sneaking around apparently-abandoned-except-for-those-monsters-that-we-didn’t-see-on-sensors ships. In fact, listening, not only to your team mates chatter, but also to enemies who don’t know you are there can provide very important clues for getting through some areas. The characters that are not part of the show have interesting quirks. I found that I even laughed at some of their banter at times. Chell is a Bolian technician who is a little jumpy and very gullible, Csokas is hotheaded, Murphy is cool and businesslike.


Voyager was plagued with horrible writing, bad directors and awful producers but the cast was strong and even Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine) learned to act by the end of her first season. All of those actors show up to voice their parts in Elite Force and the actors who played the new characters blended well with the world making it feel real. Every major character shows up, some more than others. My only complaint about the actors would be that the doctor (played by Robert Picardo) – the only character that the writers could figure out what to do with in the show, and by far the most entertaining character – only showed up a couple of times to heal you before missions.


The story does have some head-scratching moments. There is the part where you spend an hour fighting your way through one of those apparently-abandoned-etc. derelict ships, trying to contact the aliens attacking you. You finally get to the end and one of them tells you, oh by the way don’t hurt us we’re your friends, we just wanted to learn from you, by trying to kill you for an hour. These moments are few and I actually found them much easier to take since I just shrugged and said “well, it’s Voyager.”


The graphics were of an acceptable quality for the games age. The Quake III Arena engine at the time was the most powerful game engine around. It feels slightly archaic now but the game is fun in many ways that help you get past the lack of photorealistic imagery. Unfortunately the game slows down sometimes on the Playstation 2. I’ve seen better graphics, and more complex engines on the Playstation 2 so I know it can be done, but sometimes when there were a large number of enemies on the screen the framerate drops below the threshold of being able to tell what is going on. It only happens a couple of times so it’s no big deal.


The reason it’s no big deal is because this game is incredibly easy. Many times I thought I had been pounded until I had to be almost dead and I would glance at my health meter and realize that I had hardly taken any damage at all. That seemed okay for the earlier levels but the game is also incredibly short. There are only about five levels and the game doesn’t ever get hard.


My only other complaint is probably the teammates. While their dialogue is sometimes very entertaining, when there is fighting to be done all they do is get in the way. All of them must have graduated from Storm Trooper training, or perhaps it’s the red shirts they all wear, but none of them can hit anything consistently, except each other. Many times all three of them would try to kill one Borg while I finished off the entire rest of the shambling assault. Then I would turn around to help and they would all be clustered around the Borg grunting every time he hit them. I usually had to shoot one of them to get him to move out of the way so that I could kill the final Borg. I think I would have been better off if they had stayed on Voyager and worked on their hand-eye coordination.


In all, however, I enjoyed this game a lot. It felt immersive and pulled me right into the world of Star Trek. It felt almost like I was really on the Voyager talking with Chakotay in the ships lounge or crawling through the Jeffries tubes shooting at giant cockroaches. As a fun way to pass the time it succeeded. As a new episode of Voyager it probably outdid itself.


(4/5)

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Old Testament And Related Studies by Hugh Nibley


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Hugh Nibley is probably the most respected scriptural scholar among LDS people. He tends to get quoted in the same manner as James Talmage, Bruce R. McConkie, and Neal A. Maxwell. Many church scholars question his sources of information – which are usually from outside the church – and many non-LDS scholars applaud his frankness. He is quoted by members of the church because they think he makes them look smart. He is quoted by members of the twelve apostles because they really are smart – and they understand what he says.


I don’t think I would be far wrong if I said that every member of the church has heard at least a quote by Hugh Nibley (General Conference, Sunday School lessons and Sacrament Meeting talks frequently use him as source material). I have heard of Hugh Nibley all my life. I have read little blurbs that he wrote when they showed up in lesson manuals. I even read an article of his in the Ensign magazine once. I never read any of his books, however, of which there are legion.


“Old Testament and Related Studies” is a collection of eleven essays that Hugh Nibley wrote at different times in his life and for a variety of different audiences. So I guess I still haven’t read one of his books.


Nibley has an abiding disdain for other scholars that shows up in these essays and comes across as mildly arrogant. It can also be quite entertaining as his sarcasm is quite poignant.


Some of the essays were very intriguing, some of them I had to struggle to read and some felt completely pointless. “Before Adam,” in which he addresses the theory of evolution and how the creation of Adam and Eve fit into that, was particularly good. Some Christians, LDS people not excluded, refuse to even think about anthropological theories and other ‘scientific evidence’ because they feel like it undermines their faith. Nibley assures them that science is not out to get them and disprove all their beliefs – although some scientists might be. Instead he brings Christian belief and archeological evidence into focus and explains it in a way that is both scientifically logical and does not lessen the Creation that God describes in the Old Testament.


“Qumran and the Companions of the Cave: The Haunted Wilderness” was also very interesting to me. Partly because it talks about two of my favorite ancient legends: the society at Qumran and the legend of the Seven Sleepers. For some reason these have always intrigued me immensely. Nibley describes the legends and talks about possible explanations for why they came about and what they might mean.


Nibley at his best is sarcastic, funny, entertaining, and educational. At his worst he is dry, arrogant-seeming, and educational. He is always educational. Even if you don’t understand a thing he says (which happens to me quite frequently) at least you will learn a few new words to add to your vocabulary.


Perhaps because of the nature of the book (compiled by others) the essays seem somewhat varied in language. Nibley has an astounding ability to lay out complex ideas and translated information from Egyptian, Arab and Hebrew works so that anybody can understand. Somewhat contradictorily he also has a profound ability to talk way over the average person’s head. This seems to be mostly consistent within each essays so it could be that some essays were written for a more educated audience.


Nibley is always careful to cite sources for the surprising things that he is saying, whenever there is a source to give. Quite frequently he is just speaking straight out of his own head. For a scholar of his (mental) stature this seemed a bit strange.

This book has a lot to teach about Abraham, Moses, Adam and Eve, evolution, creation, Qumran, the Seven Sleepers, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Old Testament, the Book of Mormon, Isaiah and even archeology and anthropology. It is a feast of knowledge.


What many people forget, however, is what I pointed out above. Hugh Nibley was never an apostle like those other great LDS scholars. He was a man gifted with a divine capacity to learn, reason and explain great mysteries of history and doctrine – but he is not the mouthpiece of God. Sometimes he speaks very authoritatively about things that are pure conjecture on his part. Just because Nibley said it does not make it so. Nibley does not teach false doctrines but many times he speculates about mysteries that have not been revealed.


This book is better as a source for a few of Hugh Nibley’s essays than as a book on LDS doctrines and beliefs. I think that everybody needs to read the essay “Before Adam” (yes, everyone) as it would quell all the contention between the creationists and evolutionists… if they understood it. I suspect that neither side would be willing to pay close enough attention. The other essays vary in importance probably according to what individuals care more about. If you are a lover of Isaiah then read “Great are the Words of Isaiah” in which he starts by saying “I have reached the stage where I have nothing more to say.” Then he goes on to talk about Isaiah for thirty pages. If you are intrigued by ancient myths then read “Myth’s and Scripture” or “The Historicity of the Bible.”


I enjoyed this book, though I had a hard time reading some of the essays. I am glad that I read it, I learned a great deal. I’ll plan to read more Hugh Nibley books in the future, as the opportunity permits.


(4/5)

House of Chains by Steven Erikson


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Love him or hate him Napolean made a vast impact on this world. While commanding armies and marching soldiers to their deaths he kept a book which he titled “Book of the Fallen”. In it he listed the names of every one of his soldiers who died in combat.


Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, the series of which “House of Chains” is the fourth book, evokes that same dark morbidity. This series has garnered a lot of controversy lately among fans of fantasy. These books have an incredibly sharp learning curve, one that some people lack the stamina to climb, or just don’t want to. The scope of these books is so vast that it will redefine your idea of the term ‘epic’. Erikson has a world here that feels, if possible, more complex than our own. As most fantasy tries to derive itself from Tolkien’s masterpiece Erikson is veering away from that. Rather than long passages of descriptions about how the world works he lets you figure it out by the way the characters interact (and there is no, “As you know, Bob, …” dialogue either. Characters are unusually tight-lipped about their world for a fantasy book). He also skips over the ‘young, naïve, but secretly royal/magical/both character sets out on a quest’ story and starts the first book in the middle of a war of conquest between two vast empires. As the story progresses events of the past become more clear as characters learn more about them. This is not a quick process. I have read four books so far and there have only been a few answers.


“House of Chains,” the fourth book in this series, is about Tavore Paran, Adjunct to the Malazan Empress Laseen. She arrives on the continent of Seven Cities with an army of recruits with the goal of quelling the uprising there and exacting revenge upon the Dogslayers – a renegade army that hounded a group of refugees across the Holy Desert – and the army of the Apocalypse led by the warrior goddess Sha’ik. What Tavore doesn’t know is that Sha’ik is really her baby sister, Felisin, whom Tavore sold into slavery in order to obtain her position as Adjunct of the Empress. Felisin is now possessed by the goddess and seeks to get her own revenge upon her sister. Armies collide with sorcery and politics brewing in the middle until it becomes a vast, interwoven stew of betrayals and heartbreak.


It is also about Karsa Orlong, one of a race of giants called Toblakai who ventures from his mountain homeland in search of conquest only to find that the seven gods he worshipped his entire life are only the undead remains of an ancient race of Neanderthals called T’lan Imass. It is about Apsalar, the young girl who was previously possessed by Cotillion, patron god of assassins, trying to deal with the memories he left behind in her mind. It is about soldiers, priests, assassins, demons, and war. Mostly it is about desperate men and women struggling to survive.


It is difficult to explain how I feel about this series. It took me until about halfway through this fourth book to finally grasp a hint of the scope of these novels. Erikson has crafted a world, filled with people and beings that have a history so lush and full that I feel like our own world is dull and empty by comparison. Small hints and random questions from the first book are just beginning to come to fruition.


“House of Chains” is the best book in the series so far. Each one seems to get better. It feels very immersive and sucks me into another world. I feel the emotions that characters feel.


One of the most impressive things is that there are no evil dark lords or even clear definitions of evil. Much like the real world every character feels justified in all their actions. Indeed when reading about each character you will see things that despise you about each one as well as things that make you ache inside for them. They are both good and bad, mixed together like like two colors of clay.


Finishing one of these books always gives me a sense of accomplishment like finishing a semester of classes the University. Erikson does not write short or concise books. They are each over a thousand pages and those pages are packed. The complexity of the world somehow bleeds into his prose so that I feel like my brain is working very hard when I read his books. In those thousand pages he splits the narrative up into only twenty five chapters making them average forty pages per chapter. Somehow the chapters feel like wading through a swamp to drag myself to the end.


Erikson, despite his obvious narrative skills and extreme attention to detail, recycles phrases quite frequently. ‘Never the less’ in particular crops up seemingly three times per page, which in a one thousand page novel means… a lot.


His characters sometimes come off as all the same. There is very little joy to be had in this world. It is bleak and brutal and violent and the characters all reflect that. They all speak the same way, and use the same phrases. They often interrupt each other and nod knowingly without finishing sentences or after making cryptic remarks that usually leave me confused about what they were talking about.


The humor in “House of Chains” is, to my point of view, non-existent. Which is okay in a dark fantasy about war and betrayal and the deep, depressing emotional contortions that these characters go through. The problem is that there are parts of the story that are obviously set up and meant solely to get a laugh from the reader. I found these parts completely baffling and occasionally jarring as they didn’t feel like they fit in the story. It is entirely possible that I just lack the sense of humor to understand as all the British reviews I have read praise the humor as one of the best parts of the book.


These books are not for beginners (readers in general or fantasy readers). Their complexity is such that many people who have spent their lives reading Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, and other large scale epic fantasy series are turned away. These books will work your brain in such a way that you will come away feeling like you’ve read a history book, rather than a novel. Indeed, they are history books, ‘whether real or imagined’ as Tolkien said.


Erikson has been compared to the fantasy great J. R. R. Tolkien, which is not warranted, and to Stephen R. Donaldson, which isn’t fair to Erikson. Instead he is something else, his own entity. Which is what he should be.


I greatly enjoyed reading “House of Chains.” Many of Erikson’s flaws in the previous books are being ironed out by the vast amount of experience he get by writing a 1000 page epic every year. If you think that Robert Jordan is complex and hard to follow then this book is not for you. If you like light, happy endings, or clever banter, or good versus evil, or Tolkien reimaginings then this book is not for you. If you like history, imagined history, so deep and vast that it your mind can hardly grasp it’s magnitude then this is a book for you.


(4/5)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


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It’s difficult to know what to say about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I am talking about he film from 2008 not the F. Scott Fitzgerald story of the same name.

The movie at first appears to be aspiring towards drama, mixed up with an interesting, if slightly overused gimmick. After the first hour you realize that the filmmakers never intended to tell an actual story. This is just members of a club patting each other on the back and asking for votes at the Oscars.


The premise of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is that Benjamin is born old and gets progressively younger as he… gets older. As a premise for a story spanning three fourths of a century this could be an interesting story. Unfortunately the problems inherent with that kind of life are never dealt with. There are occasional comments about his hair getting thicker or him standing straighter but nobody ever wonders why he gets younger, including Benjamin Button himself. The entire story would be exactly the same if Benjamin were just a regular person.


The movie echoes Forrest Gump so closely that it appears a shadow of that story, and like a shadow it lacks substance of any kind.


Benjamin lives in the south, raised by a single mother. He meets a girl named Daisy, who he falls in love with even though he is five years older than her when they meet – he looks like an old man and she is only eight or nine years old. He gets caught in World War II, travels all over the world, meets a couple of random people and comes home. The people that he meets are not people who are interesting at all, the events of his life follow no particular order, they are just things, uninteresting things, like a normal life. These things are fine for most people to live in. Nobody really wants to live through the things that take place in stories. But they are incredibly boring to watch.


He comes home, marries Daisy, they have a baby and he leaves her with the excuse that he is just getting younger and she needs a husband, not two children. At this point of the story I struggled to have some feeling about this. Should I be mad that he’s basically a deadbeat making up excuses to leave his child behind? Should I fell sorry for them that they can’t stay together because of his ‘condition’? All I could muster was elation that finally – after two and a half hours – the travesty was almost over.


The utter pointlessness of the story was accentuated by bizarre, random bits of completely incomprehensible madness. There are two mentions of a clock that some old blind German man built that turns backward and several two or three second clips of a man getting struck by lightning for no apparent reason.


Brad Pitt, the star of the movie, has about as many different facial expressions as one of the giant stone heads on Easter Island – which, come to think of it, might have been more interesting to look at… for two and a half hours. Brad Pitt apparently does two kind of movies: Here-I-am-hanging-out-with-my-friends (Ocean’s 11/12/13/etc.) and This-is-my-serious-face-please-give-me-an-award (Meet Joe Black, Seven Years in Tibet). This appears to be the second kind in which he stares open mouthed at the camera in luxurious close-ups so that the audience can admire his CGI-clear complexion. The only thing admirable about this is that he is able to hold that face for several minutes at a time without moving so much as a single cheek muscle. That kind of control is *outstanding!


The rest of the cast, with the exception of Taraji P. Hensen as Queenie, is just as wooden. Cate Blanchett somehow turned a New Orleans accent into a marble-mouthed British parody. The other actors are only briefly shown and have almost no import to the rest of the story. The first time Benjamin sees Daisy as an adult her face is glowing in soft lights exactly like all the female characters in Star Trek the Original Series which made me laugh out loud.


Now the good parts – yes there are some.


Taraji P. Hensen is truly fantastic in this movie. I fully believed that she was exactly who she pretended to be. Every scene she was in was made just a little bit better – unfortunately she was in very few scenes.


Also, I don’t know if it is make-up of special effects but it is done really well. When Benjamin Button is young, he really does look like a very old Brad Pitt. When he gets older Brad Pitt actually looks remarkably like a teenager. It isn’t in the cheesy age makeup way that so many movies do either. He really does look older and younger (depending on which part of the movie it is).


This movie is for two kinds of people: Brad Pitt fans who long to gaze lovingly at a poster of Brad Pitt for two and a half hours while the scenery behind him changes, and modern literati who still think that James Joyce tells great stories.


Personally I wish I could go back in time and pick a different movie to waste my time on – anything has to be better than this.


On a side note, for a really good summary of the story watch the Chad Vader video. You’ll get all the essential information… in about two minutes… and you’ll be much more entertained.


*By outstanding I mean seriously aggravating.


(0/5)

Starman’s Quest by Robert Silverberg


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Lately I have been very curious about ‘old’ science fiction. The classic stories that started the genre and formed it into what it is today. As a result I have read a few books by Andre Norton, Philip Jose Farmer Gordon R. Dickson, and H. Beam Piper as well as a few others.


I’ve enjoyed all of them, they are fun adventures. They all feel vaguely familiar, however, and I wondered why. I think it’s because these writers shaped today’s science fiction so much that their work resonates and echoes throughout our modern stories.


Starman’s Quest is not a long book but there are an impressive number of things that are going on in this story.


The blurb on the back of the book:


In this novel of the future, Alan Donnell, son of a spaceship captain, has a special and compelling reason for wanting to unravel the time-space problem that has baffled men for years. Because time aboard the great starships becomes curiously contracted, a trip to Alpha Centauri affects the men in space as a mere six-week interval―but on Earth, nine years have passed when they return. It has become the custom for Spacers to remain on their ship with their families, living their entire lives within those confines rather than attempting to adjust to the enormous changes that take place on Earth between trips.


Alan’s twin brother Steve jumps ship and takes his chances on a bewildering and hostile Earth rather than endure the restrictive life of a Spacer. By the time the twins meet again, Steve is twenty-six and Alan is still only seventeen. Determined to keep his family intact, Alan braves the

dangerous Earth city and stakes his life on the possibility of making the two ways of life compatible.


Here is an inventive science-fiction novel with real human-interest complications, by a master of the field.


This accurately portrays the events of the first few chapters. Alan quickly finds his brother, brings him home and returns to earth to search for a way to build the legendary hyperdrive so that people are no longer separated by time.


It’s easy to see why Silverberg is so legendary as a science fiction writer. His world fully realized with politics and technology that felt real. Surprisingly this story has aged really well. There are a few instances of mentioned technologies that are outdated but for the most part it still sound like a plausible future for our world.


One of the biggest complaints that I hear about classic science fiction is that characters are left behind in order to have an exciting plot. While this is true of some like Asimov or Dickson I felt like the characters in this book were fully realized. It felt like I was hearing about real people. The character of Max Hawks particularly was complicated with multiple layers of personality that made him fell like a person who had learned to live in the mostly hostile environment of Earth.


The story many times sounds too ambitious and I constantly expected to be disgusted with the implausibility of what was being hinted at. However, Silverberg always twisted the story so that things didn’t got the way I expected or made the characters react in a believable way.


For example, when Alan finds some critical research information he does not have the education to understand what any of it says. So he hires mathematicians and engineers to work for him. Many older stories have the kind of super-human characters that populate Edgar Rice Burroughs novels – not only physically superior but also mentally, morally, spiritually and also very good looking. Silverberg recognizes that real people are not like this and he makes Alan believably competent at some things (but not the best) and completely unable to do other things.


Silverberg’s writing style is open and easy to read. Everything seems to flow together smoothly so that you don’t feel like you have to work to read the words.


My only complaint with this book is that it felt a little bit too fast. Most of the book is told in a third person narrative style limited to Alan’s point of view. We see things linearly as he sees them. Towards the end things suddenly speed up and nine years pass in a single chapter, told from a withdrawn point of view, almost like we’ve pulled away from Alan and are just keeping an eye on him for awhile. This section is very realistic because the things that Alan is trying to accomplish could not be done overnight but it makes the ending of the story feel rushed. In fact the climax felt like it came about two chapters too early and was just a little bit played down. That’s because the real climax comes a couple chapters later but by that point it doesn’t feel climactic because nine years just passed – anything can happen in nine years.


I enjoyed Starman’s Quest. The characters were solid and interesting, the plot had just enough unexpected changes that I never knew exactly what would happen until it did.


(5/5)