Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Quick reviews of the 14 rides I went on at Disney Resort Anaheim

June 10th, 2018

California Adventure

Radiator Springs Racer: Really just a slightly improved and better themed version of Test Track from Anaheim. But overall a better ride experience. The ride I was thinking about doing again the most. A-

Grizzly River Run: Rapids ride, with a lot of tech shared with the Kali ride from Animal Kingdom. But much more intense, and I got completely and totally soaked. B+

Monsters Inc: Ouch. Ageing ride that wouldn’t have been that good to start with. Second rate animatronics, doesn’t do anything beyond the bare plot of the movie, and no thrills. D-

Guardians of the Galaxy: Reskin of the Tower of Terror, which makes an improvement on an already excellent ride. The theming is stronger around a better property, and the ride sequence has been rejigged around what works well (particularly the free fall). A++

Frozen: OK, not technically a ride, and I didn’t review the shows last time I did this. But a pretty good adaption of the movie into a one hour show. No new numbers, but the cast did a good job with the ones they had. B+

Soarin’: Identical in nearly every way to the Epcot version. B


Big Thunder Mountain Railroad: I missed this last time here, so it was number one on my list. Good ride, but probably the weakest of the four ‘mountain’ coasters overall. It’s a strange choice to put a big train out the front of the coaster – adds to the theming, but takes the best seats away. C

Star Tours: I was prepared to ride this one again and again until I got the Last Jedi sequence. Luckily I got it on the first try. They’re better sequences than some of the random assortment for this ride, with a good mix of plot and ‘ride’ mechanics. Plus. a nice tie in to the new Star Wars land (which could be seen from both the outdoor coasters I went on). A-

Indiana Jones: A frustrating ride that is in the ‘could have been great’ category. There’s good tech involved (although it breaks all the time, including when I was in line), and a good underlying property. But the plot of the ride isn’t done well, and the technology doesn’t mesh well with it. C-

Jungle Cruise: Ageing animatronics and some racist caricature in this ride don’t detract from the number one attraction – incredibly corny puns. Great guide helped a lot as well. The only ‘Opening Disneyland Day 1’ ride I went on. A

Matterhorn Bobsleds: Second best of the four mountain coasters, a good thrilling coaster that has a good mix of speeds and turns. A

it’s a small world: A ride that feels even more dated than it is. It’s a song that has become a cliche for annoying, mixed with some very racist stereotypes (although clearly done with no conscious malice). Absolutely no thrills, just a straight line ride. But still some incredibly technology with the sound. D+

Haunted Mansion: Just something slightly better about this than the Disney World version, couldn’t explain why. B+

Space Mountain: Still one of my absolute favorites, a perfect example of how a dark ride can make a mid-range coaster thrilling. A+

Quick Reviews of the other 17 rides I went on in Orlando

September 10th, 2016

While in Orlando I also visited Kennedy Space Centre, SeaWorld and Universal Studios Florida.

Kennedy Space Centre

Shuttle Launch Experience – using a ride vehicle very reminiscent of Star Tours at Disney, a fairly realistic (or so we’re told) simulation of what it’s like to be in a shuttle as it’s launching. A


Manta – coaster with a manta ray theme. Good, fast coaster with four inversions and a top speed of 90 km/h. Fun, but a very constricting and odd ride position took away from it for me. A-

Kraken – nicely balanced coaster, with a good use of scenery in a couple of loops. Seven inversions and a top speed of 105 km/h makes for a nice experience, but it also has a good duration (2 minutes). A

Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin – mainly a story ride similar in concept to Haunted Mansion, but using a much more advanced ride vehicle. But the story told is pretty dull, and the technology isn’t really used to good effect. The finale is good, arriving in the actual penguin habitat for SeaWorld. But even penguins can’t rescue this ride. C-

Journey to Atlantis – another flume ride, although a bigger drop (and bigger splash) than Splash Mountain. There’s an attempt to theme things around Atlantis a little bit, but it’s incoherent and hard to follow. A-

Universal Studios – Universal Studios Florida

Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem – as weak a story as the Despicable Me, but an interesting use of simulator motion technology in a theatre. It worked surprisingly well. B+

Hollywood Ripe Ride Rockit – no discernible theming, just a fairly extreme coaster with a vertical initial climb and near vertical drop. Ultimately just a bit ‘loud’ and not that impressive. C

Revenge of the Mummy – dark coaster with some simulator ride elements. Most impressive part was the use of fire effects (I think I could have roasted a marshmallow on them), but ageing film projections took the shine off. B-

Transformers The Ride: 3D – my biggest surprise, was expecting a pretty mediocre ride (consistent with the movies), but instead got a a really clever combination motion simulator (a la Soarin’) and coaster ride. Good use of effects, and good scene transitions made up for a general lack of coherence in the plot. A

The Simpsons Ride – motion simulator in a projection dome. Showing its age a little, but still quite well done, with the motion simulator given a fair workout. Writing is clearly authentic to the show (good), but mainly the later years (bad). B+

MEN IN BLACK Alien Attack – pretty dull ride only slightly enlivened by being given a gun to shoot at the aliens with. Not much thrill, and the age of the franchise is showing. D+

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – good ride technology, and a reasonably fun ride. Links in directly to the Harry Potter films, but without really making a lot of sense. B

Hogwarts Express – I thought this was just the transfer from one park to the other, but it’s actually far more themed than I expected. Clever use of projections provide a good illusion on being on the Hogwarts Express. A

Universal Studios – Islands of Adventure

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – the best of the Harry Potter rides at Universal. Starts with an incredibly well themed line through Hogwarts, and then onto one of the most advanced ride vehicles around. Similar to Transformers 3D in its combination of motion simulator, coaster and projection domes, but with a (slightly) more coherent story and more movement from the simulator. A

Dragon Challenge – the weakest of the Harry Potter rides, really just a lightly rethemed existing coaster. It’s a reasonable coaster ride, but doesn’t have any real spark. C

Jurassic Park River Adventure – river boat ride with a Splash Mountain style drop. The dinosaurs are just embarrassing, you can see where the rubber is sagging. And the drop itself doesn’t get you nearly wet enough (another hot day you see). C

The Incredible Hulk Coaster – pretty good coaster, with a nice high speed launch. But I found myself banging my head from side to side onto the restraints as it spun around, leaving me walking off the coaster feeling a bit battered. C+

Quick reviews of the 14 rides I went on at Disney World

September 8th, 2016

I’m on holiday at the moment, so a good chance to do something a bit unusual for this blog and do reviews of the rides I went on at Disney World.


Frozen Ever After – Epcot’s current ‘line around the block’ big ride. The only thing this ride has going for it is the Frozen tie in, otherwise it’s a fairly dull water ride. There are some exceptional animatronics, especially Olaf, but it’s not enough. C

Soarin’ – a ‘hang gliding’ ride, now upgraded to include images from around the world rather than only California. The sensation of flight is quite good, although the illusion is broken by the appearance of buildings on the curved screen. The Eiffel tower ended up with a pronounced ‘lean’. B

Test Track – basically a fast coaster (peak speed of around 100km/h) with a car theme. The ‘going fast’ bits worked well, but the ‘swerving around’ bits didn’t. B+

Mission: SPACE – ‘journey to Mars’ simulator, using a centrifuge to generate around 3g forces. The feeling is weird, and made me feel a bit unsettled for 10 minutes or so after the ride. There’s also a weird mix of ‘real’ and ‘science fiction’ in the ride story. B-

Hollywood Studios

Star Tours – The Adventure Continues – one of the only ‘repeat’ rides from my trip to Disneyland a few years ago. There has been some new sequences added to reflect the new movie, one of which I was lucky enough to get. Still an impressive ride with strong story telling and good use of the simulator ride vehicle. A-

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror – not long for this life, with the theming being replaced in California (although the ride will remain essentially the same mechanically). That’s a pity, as there is some excellent theming, particularly in the queue. And the ride itself is a nice mix of story telling and thrill. The freefall feeling during the drops is particularly nice. A+

Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith – good coaster, but why did it need the Aerosmith tie in? It’s a well done dark coaster, a bit wilder than Space Mountain. A-

The Great Movie Ride – very slow ride through animatronic scenes of famous movies, together with some terrible commentary from the driver. The ride vehicle is also very uncomfortable – think ‘pews on wheels’ and you have a good idea. There’s a germ of a good ride here, with some good scenes, but the writing and packaging is terrible. It’s all wrapped up with a two minute add for Turner Movies as well. D-

Animal Kingdom

Kilimanjaro Safaris – a first for Disney, a ride that is really more of a zoo experience than anything else. The Disney innovation and technical excellence is interesting to see in the context of a ride that is really a drive past several zoo enclosures. The commentary from the driver, while annoying, did manage to not ruin the ride as well. B

Expedition Everest – coaster themed around encountering a Yeti. Reasonable coaster, although not the best Disney has. But the theming is terrible – why rely on a Yeti when there’s the fantastic story of climbing Everest to use. C-

Kali River Rapids – a river rapids ride, with basically one real drop and that’s it. Not exciting, and you don’t even get that wet (did I mention it was low 30s in Orlando during this visit?). C+

Magic Kingdom

Splash Mountain – log flume ride themed around Brer Rabbit tales. One of Disney’s absolute classics, with a great mix of story, theme and thrill. My main complaint is that the audio mixing is a bit erratic, so it was hard to hear the story develop. I’m also unclear how ‘being thrown into the briar patch’ corresponds to the big plunge. You will get wet, which was still welcome. A

Haunted Mansion – another classic. When I saw this at Disneyland it had the Nightmare Before Christmas overlay on it, so I was keen to see the original. It’s a lot better, better told story and better special effects. But slow, and not much thrill. B

Under The Sea – The Journey of the Little Mermaid – same basic ride vehicle as Haunted Mansion, this time telling the story of The Little Mermaid movie. Technically well done, with some nice animatronics, but really just a bit flat overall. C+

Trekathon Special #1: Mass Effect 2

February 21st, 2010

Star Trek is a very influential show, and so I’ll be looking at a few other TV show episodes, movies and games inspired by Star Trek as part of the Trekathon.

First up is Mass Effect 2. The best Star Trek game ever made (even though it’s not a Star Trek game).1

In fact, Mass Effect 2 might be one of the best games ever made. It succeeds on every level: gameplay, plot, acting, graphics, sound.

Personally, I think that the plot and characters are the main thing that keeps me coming back. Mass Effect 2 is incredibly selfish, having more strong well define characters in one game that you normally see in a year of releases. As I played I found myself becoming very attached to the characters I recruited for my crew. And that makes the ‘suicide mission’ dynamic of the game, where any character can die in the final act, one of the tensest gaming experiences I’ve ever had. This is’t a case of a mistake causing you to lose a life, it’s a case where a mistake causes a friend you’ve been playing the game with for hours to die.

It’s also the best sequel ever. I finished Mass Effect 1 recently, and the links between the games are deep and complex. Many of the decisions that you made in Mass Effect 1 have some sequel or another here. Other games have tried to do this, but this is the first time it’s been successful.

But finally, Mass Effect 2 is the first the real role playing game. Plenty of games before have aped the mechanics of role playing games. But this is the first time when playing a game that I found myself trying to put myself into the mindset and position of my character in order to make decisions. And the game gives you enough freedom that you feel that you really are making choices, rather than being railroaded down the game developer’s chosen path.

I wish I had the time right now to start playing the game again, just to try and go in another direction and build another character.

  1. OK, quite a few people say that it’s Star Wars, not Star Trek. To respond, I’d say: it’s set in our future, not ‘a long time ago’, it involves a small set of discrete identifiable alien species, and you have a focus on your ship and crew rather than any mystic religion. Sounds like Star Trek to me. 

Game Review: Prince of Persia (reboot)

October 17th, 2009

[Prince of Persia]( is the seventh 7th game in the main Prince of Persia series, and the 12th game overall.

Spoilers in this review, so you’ll have to click through.

Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: Bad Science, Ben Goldacre

October 15th, 2009

Bad Science is drawn from the Guardian column of the same name, as well as the many other things that Ben Goldacre covers on his website. The main focus is on the abuses of science that seem to proliferate in the press and on the Internet. Things such as scares over the MMR vaccine, scares over radiation from mobile phone towers, the infamous Brain Gym taught in some UK schools, and so on. Each topic is carefully examined, the faulty assumptions identified, and the real truth drawn out.

The author has a saying (available in T-Shirt form): “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than hat”. He revels in the complication. When it comes to the oft dismissed placebo effect he dives deeply into the inherent, wonderful weirdness of the placebo. If statistics are required for the explanation of something (often the case in modern medicine) he draws the details out. The combination of detail and accessibility is rare, and is a product of the author’s deep passion for the area.

It would be very easy for a book on this topic to be very depressing. There is so very much bad science out there, so many people profiting from people’s willingness to believe, and so many newspapers more than happy to put the simple answer on the front page, rather than all the footnotes. But I found the book energising, a call to action. It’s a book that brings the scope of the problem to your attention, and calls you to do something.

Of course, I don’t know a lot about science. But the book also made me think about the similar problems that are seen in journalism around economic issues in Australia (and probably elsewhere). But after reading this book I’m very tempted to start my own column on these things: Bad Economics. And that kind of result of reading a book is the sort of thing most authors would dream of.

Game Review: Half Life 2 + Episode 1 + Episode 2

October 13th, 2009

I just finished playing through all of Half Life 2 (at least, all of what’s been released so far) for Rebel FM’s Game Club.

Yes, a little late to the party. But better late than never, especially for one of the best games of all time. I was playing through on the XBox – I’d bought the Orange Box edition last year for Portal, but had never got around to playing more than a few minutes of Half Life 2.

As an experience there are few things that have drawn me in as much as this. Other games have done the same with the strength of their plot – such as Metal Gear Solid, Bioshock, Knights of the Old Republic – but Half Life 2 is one of the few that does it on the strength of character. Alyx Vance is the obvious standout character from the games, but even the minor characters come alive in a way that is disappointingly rare for computer games so far. This is due to a combination of technology, writing and environment that makes this an experience anyone interested in the evolution of computer games should go through.

But as a game, it’s a little harder for me to recommend Half Life 2. If it weren’t for the press of Game Club there are parts that would have made me give up. There are sections, especially in the main game, that go on for far too long. It’s nice to establish a few gameplay mechanics and play with them for a while, but there’s a distinction between escalation (which is fun and challenging) and dragging things out. This is better in the two sequel episodes, although only by a matter of degree. While others found the climactic sequence of Episode 2 a lot of fun, personally I found the new mechanics cumbersome and annoying.

It’s also quite ‘gamey’, something that only distracts me because of the quality of the plot and the characters. Given how strong everything else is, it’s distracting to see the obvious ‘points of no return’, mostly driven by your inability to jump very far. And to have a section, as in one point of Episode 2, where you go from being inside an alien hive to being back in a mine because it’s convenient to the construction of the level is distracting and annoying. It’s an artefact of building the game to be as fun as possible (and hence avoiding backtracking, something the design does well), but it comes at the cost of the sense of place.

I enjoyed Half Life 2 and its episodes a lot. Something that I would say about only one other pure shooter (Bioshock). And I’m looking forward to Episode 3, when it’s eventually released. But I don’t think that I’d ever go back to play them again, and would probably tell most people without an interest in shooters or ‘games as art’ to try before they buy.

Book Review: The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson

October 10th, 2009

I’m a big fan of money.

I don’t just mean in the mundane “it’s nice to spend sense”. Money is a profoundly weird, incredible invention. It is ultimately very hard to explain money, and hard to see how it ever really came into use. The story of money is incredibly interesting.

Unfortunately, that’s not the book that Niall Ferguson has written. Rather than being the story of money, the book focuses on the development of financial markets. Bonds, shares and insurance. Fortunately, that’s a big a field to cover. As with his previous books, the scholarly approach that Ferguson takes gives the details that bring the story to life, although his approach sometimes removes complications to tell a simpler, more coherent story.

This isn’t the same as Niall’s previous books. The list of topics is actually somewhat eclectic: cash money, bonds, stock market bubbles, insurance, real estate markets, public pension schemes, and international financial systems. This is probably a product of the book being linked to a TV series (a pretty good one, actually), so some breadth of topic was needed in order to sustain interest. But that breadth comes at the cost of depth, especially by contrast to some of Niall’s other books. His history of World War I, for instance, goes into fantastic depth on topics such as the bond market’s movements prior to the declaration of war.

I probably would have preferred a book that was more along the lines of his previous work. That’s because I work in this field, and I find it very interesting. But it’s nice to see his voice and tone translated to a more accessible form. So while ultimately I hoped for another book, it’s a book that is easier for me to recommend to others as a result.

Book Review: Discover Your Inner Economist, Tyler Cowen

October 8th, 2009

When I first started reading this book my wife thought it was a waste of time. She said that I was already pretty much in touch with my inner economist.

That’s pretty much true. And overall she was right – I didn’t really get much out of this book.

Tyler Cowen is an economist who I can respect. His work doesn’t always agree with my views, but it’s usually well argued and thought provoking. But what works well in short doses in a blog becomes grating in larger doses. Throughout the book points are belaboured to the point of pain, and the central insight overeexplicated at the expense of subtlety and nuance.

Nothing in the book made me go ‘aha’, nothing changed the way that I was planning to behave. The advice was either obvious, or it was things that I would never consider doing for one reason or another. For instance, the advice on how to motivate your dentist comes down to “supporting their self-image as a good dentist”. The discussion around the problems with incentives is interesting, but the final advice comes across as flat and dull. Perhaps it’s because Cowen is ultimately too honest – he knows the complications that behavioural economics causes in most classical economics predictions. Which in turn means that there is little that can be provided in terms of concrete, usable advice.

So all the book had to offer in the end was a slight discussion of some interesting economics, devoid of concrete advice that might be interesting or provocative, and without the interesting stories found in books such as Freakonomics. Most non-economists would come away from this book with at least a greater appreciation of the complexities of the science, but most professional economists will find little new here.

Game Review: World in Conflict

January 11th, 2009

World in Conflict for PC is a real time strategy game with a new twist on the genre. Rather than emphasise the base building and resource harvesting that have been at the core of the genre ever since Dune II, it emphasises lower level combat, with fewer units and less emphasis on resources.1

So rather than building a base, you’re given a small number of units (purchased from a renewable pool of resource points) and given smaller tactical goals such as covering and securing a point in a town. The range of units is fairly broad (infantry, troop transports, tanks, helicopters, artillery and so on), but there’s no tech tree to manage – everything you can use is available at the start of a mission.

Taken together it’s a much simpler game to play than Company of Heroes or Starcraft. There’s a lot less strategic worrying in the single player game, it’s much more focused on the tactical end. You’re also not fighting alone – there’s normally several AI controlled units on the map along with you, giving you a better sense of fighting in a broader war than you normally get.

I think that all things considered I probably prefer the more complicated version of things. While the tactical micromanagement is fun, there isn’t as much satisfaction from wiping the enemy off a map – you’ve just been following the orders of your unit commander the whole time.

The biggest strength of the game is the setting. You play as US soldiers fighting Soviet troops, moving through the north-west United States, some missions in Mediterranean France, an invasion into Russia, and even fighting on Liberty island. The setting is late 1980s, with appropriate vintage military equipment (and music). The plot is also interesting, although there are some problems. There’s one point in the game where some information appears to be meant to be a secret to your character, but he was just in a meeting where it was discussed. It was like they changed the plot at the last minute and didn’t run all the changes through.

All up World in Conflict was probably the best RTS of 2008. If you like the genre, it’s a must play. If you don’t like the genre, maybe this is the game that will help you get into it, as it streamlines everything.

Oh, and it’s very, very pretty on a powerful enough PC. I found myself pausing and just going ‘Wow’ from time to time.

  1. Dune II was also the last time that the normal paradigm actually made sense. In Dune II you were harvesting spice, which gave you cash and so you could buy units. In every other game, from Warcraft to Starcraft and on, it always seemed much more arbitrary to me.