Archive for June, 2008

>Okay, as a 35+ gamer, I’m into those titles for my XBOX 360 which are fun, different, and not too tough for an old guy to conquer. I don’t actually think I’m that old, I just don’t have the patience and time that a 14-year-old has to try and beat a really difficult level boss for two hours straight. As a gamer since the days of the Atari 2600, I’ll go head-to-head with any 14-year-old, any day.

With such limited time, I like to get my gaming fix in small bursts, where I can advance in the game without too much trouble, and put it aside until the next day when the kids are tucked in bed again and my wife is occupied with something else.

I’ve almost finished Grand Theft Auto IV, which I was addicted to for several weeks, playing whenever I could fit it in, much to my spouses dismay. The storyline is rich and interesting, with a few places where the gamer can choose which story branch to take, and there are plenty of side missions and other interesting achievements which keep a gamer engaged right up until the very end.

Unfortunately, I made it to a point where I had only two missions left and one of my son’s nine-year-old friends accidentally karate kicked my XBOX, causing the disk to scratch to the point where it no longer will load the game. I sent an angry email to Microsoft, as this is not the first time I’ve scratched a game by bumping the console, but they don’t feel that they have any fault in the matter, so I’m out 60 bucks and the 50-100 achievement points I’d earn by finishing the game. Maybe I can rent the title for a night from Blockbuster just to finish it off — but I digress.

GTA IV, despite the controversy and hype, is violent, fun, and engaging. It should only be played when the kiddies are in the other room since the characters drop the “F-Bomb” like it’s going out of style, though, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for immature players. The game is just good, (not clean) adult fun.

Another game which I just sold back to GameStop (God I love that place) is Dead Rising. It’s a zombie hack and slash game with a free-play design. Like many other free-play titles, there are time limits and missions to accomplish. It is inventive, creative, and often fun to play, but where the game fails is in its saving system. I stopped playing the game because I got to a certain point and hadn’t left myself enough time to complete a particular mission that was absolutely necessary in order to advance in the game.

Since there isn’t an autosave feature, and it isn’t always easy to reach a save point as often as you’d like, my only option would have been to revert to a save point so far back that I’d have to fight two difficult level bosses all over again and hopefully leave myself enough time to complete the necessary mission. I still think it’s a good game, but if you buy it, be extra conscious of finding those places to save the game and save often, but be careful, because you run the risk of eating up valuable mission time trying to make it to a place in the game which allows you to save. One way around this would be to switch back and forth between saving on your hard drive and saving on an MU.

For a busy dad like me, though, this one was too time consuming, so I turned it in to buy a few new games like Prey, Conan, and Viking, which I’ll review in the coming months.

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>What not to watch

Posted: June 26, 2008 in Entertainment

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With three children in our household, my wife and I have little time to enjoy watching a movie together. Somehow, amid the chaos of temper tantrums, bottle feedings, and diaper changes, we actually sat down and watched TWO movies over the weekend, one on DVD and the other on pay-per-view.

After viewing both, I was left wondering what exactly, I felt I was missing.

The first film we watched was “National Treasure 2,” which I thought would be fun for us to see since my wife doesn’t like action or horror movies, and this was pretty clean fun the first go-around in the franchise.

Let’s just say she didn’t thank me for renting it. Nicolas Cage, who I’ve loved in past films, looks gaunt and tired these days, and his conspicuous lack of sideburns and strange hair color are distracting. Not distracting enough, however, to deter us from the fact that the entire film was hokey, predictable, and unsatisfying. Jon Voight walks through his role, as he does in so many roles these days, and the remainder of the supporing cast were stereotypes in a film filled with hackneyed movie cliches such as:

– A character gets millions of dollars, invests it poorly, and then has trouble with the IRS.
– The husband and wife are having problems but, after living through an adrenaline filled adventure, get back together.
– The sidekick who never seems to get enough credit finally receives his due when a tip from his book helps to propel the plot forward.
– The main character does something outrageous (like kidnap the President) and gets away with it scot-free.
– A character must go to his ex-wife because she’s “the only one who can help him” after being estranged from her for 30 years. Their bickering is then supposed to be great movie fun!

The cliches went on and on and on like this and it felt like a film that was written by a couple of film students by using a dozen other popular films as templates. It’s too bad, too, because the first “National Treasure” was hokey but in a fun and interesting way. Unless you’re bored and there’s nothing else on the hotel pay-per-view, skip this one.

That same fateful weekend, we watched “Fools Gold” on pay-per-view. My wife enjoys a good romantic comedy, and she enjoyed that other fine piece of cinematic art that Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson made – “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days.”

Well, as I said, she enjoys a “good” romantic comedy, and neither of us cared for whatever this was supposed to be. Think of “Romancing the Stone” meets “Into the Blue” meets…hell, meets “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days.”

But the only thing it shared with the great Kathleen Turner/Michael Douglas film mentioned above was the fact that there was a male and a female lead who end up in bed together. Other than that, it fell FAR short. It was so close in fact, actually to 2005’s “Into the Blue” that it could almost have been the same script with a little light comedy added. Unfortunatley it was even worse than that horrible Jessica Alba film.

The only reasons I could see for these two to even make this movie was an attempt to capture the magic of their previous film together, and also the film’s tropical setting where McConaughey could spend most of his screen time with his shirt off (which he LOVES to do in this one, folks.) You can also tell he REALLY enjoys the constant dialogue eschewed about his sexual abilities. This was truly a vanity piece for Mathhew to indulge himself in, and oh yeah, I’m sure the paycheck didn’t hurt either of the main stars, either.

One other thing bothered me, and that was the presence of the great Donald Sutherland. Not to take anything away from him, because I think he’s great, but he was completely wasted in this one. I think he was bored, too, because he chose to do the entire film with a British accent. Maybe he was able to immerse himself into the film by creating such a layered character that he could forget what a ludicrous plot and horrible execution of it he was involved with.

Again, please skip this one unless you’re stuck on an airplane and its the only thing showing. If you must watch it, at least you’ll get to see Kate Hudson in a bikini for part of the picture, and of course a mostly shirtless Matthew McConaughey, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.

>Pai Gow Poker fun and easy

Posted: June 11, 2008 in Gambling

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(From Destination: Cache Creek magazine)

When you walk the casino floor at Cache Creek on a weekend, you’ll likely notice the Pai Gow Poker tables are full and surrounded by players waiting for their chance to play. Cache Creek Vice President of Table Games Bill Harland says the game is popular for many reasons. “You don’t have to make a lot of decisions, but the game still incorporates poker hands into play and you can play a fairly long time because there are a lot of ties.”

Harland encourages anyone who likes poker to give Pai Gow a try, and dispels some of the mystery surrounding the game. “Pai Gow Poker is easy to play. If you understand the rankings of a poker hand, then you can certainly play. For example, an Ace High hand beats a King High hand, a Pair beats Ace High, and so on.”

At its base, the strategy is to beat the dealer’s two hands with your two hands. “You’re dealt seven cards from which you form your two hands: a five-card hand (back hand or high hand) and a two-card hand (front hand or low hand). The five-card hand must be higher in rank than the two-card.” Adding to the possibility of constructing a winning hand are the Jokers, which can be used to complete a straight, flush, or as an Ace.

If you beat both of the dealer’s hands, you win. If you only beat one of the hands, don’t worry – it’s a push. “There’s a 5 percent commission taken on all winning hands,” Harland reminds new players. You can play the Fortune Bonus of $1 to $25 to increase your winnings, so the 5 percent doesn’t reduce payouts much. Fortune Bonuses pay out for hands such as Full Houses and Flushes, regardless of whether you break them up between the high and low hand.

One aspect of the game that Harland is excited about is the Pai Gow Progressives which were recently added. “For example, today our jackpot is over $425,000 and climbing. To win the jackpot, you must wager $5 on the progressive. If you make the $5 wager on the Progressive and are dealt a seven card Straight Flush, you can call for the Brinks Armored Truck to help you haul away the loot.”

There’s more than one way to win a share of that big money, too. “If you’re dealt five Aces and make the $5 Progressive wager, you take home 10 percent of the progressive amount,” explains Harland. “Someone recently won almost $43,000 on that hand.”

It’s easy for beginners to get a little help on a tough hand. If you’re stumped, just ask about the “house way” to play. “If you have any questions please ask one of our dealers – they’ll be happy to assist,” says Harland.

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I got to see the “The Incredible Hulk” in a media preview screeing in Sacramento with my son this week, going into the film with low to medium expectations, especially after what I consider to be a disaster with the 2003 Ang Lee version starring Eric Bana.

As the new lead, Academy Award nominee Edward Norton struck the proper sensibility for the character of Bruce Banner, the tortured scientist who is struck with gamma rays, leaving him with a Jekyl and Hyde condition which has him alternating between himself and his alter ego “The Hulk” whenever someone makes him mad. Fans of the comic book and multiple animated series, as well as the live action version starring Bill Bixby will enjoy the little touches put into the film paying homage to those other incarnations of the franchise.

Where the 2003 version waited far too long to introduce a good view of the title character, this newest entry gives us a healthy taste of the Hulk right in the opening credits, followed up with the full body views within the first 25 minutes. There were far too few action sequences in the first film, but this one made up for that defecit with good action scenes in the beginning and final fight sequences, and only a bit of a slowdown in the middle, which still did little to detract from the overall fun of the film.

While it would be hard to take down the mega-hit of early summer “Ironman,” I would place “The Incredible Hulk” firmly in third place at this point in the summer movie enjoyability scale, with the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones franchise in second place. I recommend this film to anyone with older grade school children, and thirty-somethings like myself who grew up appreciating comic books, super heroes, and the accompanying animated programs which made growing up in the 70s and 80s so much fun. I’m calling this “the summer of Marvel,” and wish the new movie studio lots of luck as they move on to other projects such as “Captain America,” “Hulk” and “Ironman” sequels, and “The Avengers.”

I look forward to all of them with the same glee I had when peeling open the cover of a new comic book back in the days before cable TV, next generation video game consoles, and computer generated movie effects.

>(From Destination: Cache Creek magazine)

Re-launched in July 2005 by the Sierra Railroad Company, the Sacramento River Train in Woodland is one of the newest dinner trains in the country. Trips aboard the train feature food and entertainment, enjoyed while passengers view the countryside gliding slowly past their window at the leisurely pace of 15 miles per hour.
“It’s a very special memorable occasion,” says Sierra Railroad President Chris Hart. “People are there for the entertainment, but also the experience. It’s like a three hour cruise. What I love about it is the sense of completely getting away from what’s normal and going on a journey with others.”

Fraught with history, the train operates on the 16-mile “Woodland Branch” between Woodland and West Sacramento, originally constructed as a link between the fertile farmlands of Yolo County and the developing city of Sacramento. The Sierra Railroad is comprised of two other trains as well: the Skunk Train which operates on the North Coast of California, and the Sierra, based 70 miles south in Oakdale. Each of them is a working preservation of our country’s love affair with this nostalgic mode of transportation.

Hart says that each trip for the Woodland train includes three phases. “First, we leave Woodland and go across the Fremont Trestle, the longest wooden trestle in Northern California – a mile and a half long. The next portion of the trip, we go along the Sacramento River. For the remaining portion we go through farmland.”
In addition to beautiful scenery, the Sacramento River Train features a variety of daytime and evening trips with food and entertainment. “We run sunset dinners,” says Hart. “We do murder mysteries – a zany, loud, fun show – where you have the actors come right into the cars. And we do a great train robbery that’s more of a daytime barbecue trip with a bunch of western characters. We also do a Sunday Brunch.” Different seasonal and special events are scheduled around holidays such as Easter and Christmas.

With all of these offerings, there’s something for riders of all ages to enjoy. “You show me someone and I think I’ve got a train for them,” says Hart. “We’ve created different trips that we think will appeal to everyone.”
Located 15 minutes from Sacramento and a half hour from Cache Creek, the train boards in Woodland and goes on a 32-mile trip lasting 2 ½ – 3 ½ hours. There are open air and lounge cars to explore, so riders don’t have to worry about sitting the entire time. Trips are offered every week of the year. Call (800) 866-1690 for reservations, or for more information surf to: http://www.sacramentorivertrain.com