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Star Trek Online… I guess I like it!

Posted in 1 with tags on February 11, 2010 by XLCS

First off, if you are a gamer and have no aversion to MMOs, you could do a lot worse for a month worth of play for $40.

I had my doubts about STO before open beta – I figured it was Pirates of the Burning Sea in space. I think one could still argue that case, as there are similarities. But the ship combat is FAR more engaging, faster paced, and fun in my opinion. Away Missions (“avatar combat” in PotBS) are pretty good, better than PotBS by far. However ground missions are not 100% up to snuff with normal MMO fair, although given the overall playability between great space combat and some ground action, this is easily overlooked.

Space combat is spectacular — and granted, aside from infrequent, minimal, and short-lived rubber-banding — is very smooth and enjoyable. Cryptic has done a great job with varied and beautiful space scenarios. Lots of stellar cloud backdrops reminiscent of Hubble photos, good planetary surfaces, and lots of different space debris & asteroid/meteor fields. Big fur balls are exciting and fleet missions involving a couple dozen players are fun. Ship combat is paced very well, so managing ship maneuvering, weapons firing, and special abilities like tractor beams and buffs/debuffs (like “brace for impact!”) is easy.

Ground combat can be a typical group of players (up to 5 in a group) or if you are solo or have a partial group, the remaining spots can be taken by your bridge officers. This is a pretty cool point to bring up… if you have a partial group or are solo, if you leave your grouping options open other players can join you if they happen to be starting that mission at that time. So if you don’t mind company, a partial group can get pick-ups ad hoc – and even if no one PUGs the open spots, your group’s bridge officers will fill in the blanks.  Don’t like PUGing?  Well consider this – while your team mate is incoming or off chasing Orion slave girls, your away team is fully staffed by your remaining team and some bridge officers.  When the rest of the group arrives, [transporter shimmer/buzz] poof!  Your new team members replace the NPC bridge officers with no delay, muss or fuss.  Loose a player to wife aggro?  Beam down an officer.  Good way to keep the action going when players are scattered about or just getting together for a short while.

Bridge officers provide additional abilities in space combat. During away missions they are NPC allies that you control like pets in other MMOs. You basically have unit with particular skills that you level up along with your main character. Ground combat is generally 3rd person, but you can zoom into FPS mode. There is crouching, and placement of bridge officers via waypoints. So there is a low-key RTS element if you choose to play that way.

My character is now 17 (of 40 levels) and to be honest the missions offered thus far have been very enjoyable, full of story but not overly elaborated, and varied. There are even short narrations by Leonard Nemoy at key mission and zone transitions. Overall Cryptic has done a good job of constructing unique, tailored main and side missions.

There is also the Genesis System that provide a mash-up of themes and story lines and devices that, although you can detect common mission structures, obviously utilize well-thought out formulas for their construction that I find commendable. Genesis System really is a good, solid device for producing random but structured missions that make sense and are fun and rewarding. They certainly aren’t simply random. (Some may disagree, but then again some people criticize everything.)

The environments on ground missions, from interiors of buildings and ships to especially outdoors, are great! Vegetation and geomorphology follow pretty natural formulas (albeit science fantasy). Interiors look planned – consoles, containers, debris all seem to be placed logically. Considering that Genesis missions are uniquely generated, Cryptic did a very good job!

The visual and equipable customization of ships, characters, and bridge officers is well done. Characters have a choice of 3 classes – Tactical, Engineer, and Science. The Tactical career provides bonuses and skills geared toward DPS ship and ground combat. Engineers have buffs and debuffs, and can create deployables like turrets and shields generators. Science has healing, debuffs, and buffs.

Any career can choose between the 3 types of ship. You can be a Tactical character with a science vessel, or any other combination. Each ship type has certain slots for consoles that you assign bridge officers to, and that allow those officers to provide you skills usable during space missions. Escorts are fast attack ships bristling with forward facing weapons meant for DPS and favor tactical and engineering consoles. Cruisers are large juggernauts that can take and mitigate damage for themselves and team mates and favor engineering and science consoles. Science vessels favor deflector/sensor/emitter functionality (CC/debuff) and science and engineering console slots.

How you specialize your character, and your bridge officers, determines what skills you have in space or ground missions. So there are a LOT of combinations of skills available to you through both your main character and officers. Characters have skill trees, while you can plug and alternate skills in limited slots for bridge officers. Both characters and officers receive skill points as you level, and you receive skill points periodically during a level and in larger chunks at each level.

So there is a huge variety and customization available when you add up ship choice, consoles, and equipment slots, and character/officer skills and equipment.

Overall I am surprised at the playability and enjoyment I’m getting from STO. It is definitely my #1 game at the moment. I’ve spent more for games that I’ve played far less. I would recommend it to my gamer friends – at least ponying up the $40 for a month worth of entertainment.

Canary in a Coal Mine

Posted in 1 on March 27, 2009 by XLCS

First off I love The Police.  My favorite band, seriously!  So I know the song’s directed at a chick who can’t deal with real life.  But somehow… it seems appropriate to my current take on MMOs.  Or rather, my attitude to what MMOs have evolved into.

First to fall over when the atmosphere is less than perfect
Your sensibilities are shaken by the slightest defect
You live you life like a canary in a coalmine…

Now I started playing MMOs with EverQuest.  One of my best friends and I played it for a good year together and had a friggin’ blast!  It was a great experience, a new experience.  We joined a guild of kind-hearted folks – Sacred Order of Unity.  Yea not the best name, but good folks and a long overdue shout out to Caloak and Nimble. 😉

Anyway, I split EQ for Anarchy Online when the later came out.  I had a sweet gig going with a Bard in EQ, I loved twisting and killing a dozen mobs at once via kiting.  But even though my best friend stayed in EQ, I needed something different.  And Anarchy Online was the first SciFi MMO… awesome!  Unfortunately it was also the first megalag fest ever.  For as cool as it was, the lag was crippling.

BTW, my friend stuck with EQ for a long while afterward and hit the higher-end 50+ content.  EQ had hellacious leveling requirements and the death penalty was NASTY.  Made the game play a lot more exciting, and frustrating, than what MMOs have now.

Shortly after Anarchy Online, an intersting fantasy MMO came out… with Realm vs. Realm comabat!  Keeps and seige and holy shyte!  So there I was in DAoC.  Found a great roleplaying guild, Glastonbury Irregulars, one of the premier roleplaying guilds in fact on Nimue server. About a year went by, and the original crew of the guild faded away as they are want to do.  When the last of the original members left, I was handed guild lead.  The following year was a long drawn out fading of the guild.  A brutal affair in retrospect.  The remaining members were a great crew, but only a handful, and we tried in vain to keep the guild afloat but eventually new MMOs came out and GI (DAoC) dissolved into the ether.

Lesson = when it’s over, it’s over.  Don’t try to keep it going, it’ll just drain your will to rez.

Some of our crew stuck together and formed shards on Planetside and Star Wars Galaxies.  Planetside wound up being a long term, on-and-off affair, easily the longest MMO run we’ve had.  By my account, we were in Planetside for a good 5 years.  But SWG was the true renaissance of Glastonbury.  Roleplaying was reignited, and Stash really made that guild shine and prosper.  Oddly enough though in my case, I had actually purchased a second account for the game… but wound up ditching it early on for real life reasons.

Lesson = when RL calls, you go with it and don’t hesitate to drop a game.

Shadowbane came and we had a good run.  Awesome concept for an MMO, but oh lordy the bugs and server queues were just too much to deal with for long.  First in a long line of subpar MMOs that I left early with no regret.

Lesson = buggy games, no matter how cool a concept, are not worth spending time and money on.

I think that’s about the time that MMOs started becoming something different… less long-term endeavors and more of a run of buggy, blatantly cash-cow business turds that were plopped out to try to get people to subscribe to them.

Then came World of Warcraft.  Best MMO ever?  I dunno, I quite after 4 months.  Loved it up to the point that the Honor System went in.  I had no problem dropping it after HS.  Beforehand, I could be out soloing and run into a Alliance faction character, and have a good 1v1 PvP encounter.  Our guild would go out together and have some pretty good PvP runs.  As soon as they changed the system though, it became a huge PK fest, zergs of level 60’s farming 40’s in lower end zones.  To me, this was way too much BS to deal with as a level 43 struggling now to reach epic level.  Drop?  Aye, and how.

Lesson = No matter how popular a game is, if you think its sucks, it probably does.

Since then it’s been a cavalcade of subpar MMO endeavors… Vanguard was a jewel.  What a turdburger.  Hellgate: London actually wasn’t all that bad, but the PvE line was much too short.  Age of Conan was pretty awesome, until I reached level 40-ish and just became utterly bored with it.  Didn’t even bother getting into the PvP aspect of AoC.  Just couldn’t keep playing it when the content dropped out.  And that’s really what MMOs should concentrate on – content, content, content.  You can play a single-player RPG and have 50+ hours of immersive content, and get your $50 worth no problem.  But why… WHY… keep subscribing to an MMO at $15/month when the content is crap?  Or the game mechanics suck?  Or the end-game is boring?  Crafting?  Um, not for me, thanks.

Lesson = If a game developer keeps telling you everything’s going to be better after release, or if a game seems too good to be true, it’s probably false.

Even roleplay has a limit.  You need something more to the world, the mythos, the content, to keep roleplay up.  Otherwise it’s just Real Life or Sims.  Don’t get me wrong, I love to roleplay – when the environment is conducive to it.  But when the game for all intents and purposes is over, it’s over IMO.

Nowadays it seems like MMOs are developed for about 6 months of content.  Maybe that’s just my gauge.  But the last few MMOs have been like that for me.  I must caveat this with an important personal point. While I do play alts, I tend to focus on ONE character.  I rarely play alts to any level of consequence.  So my time line in an MMO is fairly linear.  I play one character to max level, experiencing the content appropriate for that character.  Then the end game or end of content comes around.  And then… ?

So this finally brings me to Warhammer Online.  I hit 40 with my main recently.  It was completely uneventful.  I enjoyed leveling my main, I had an idea of what I wanted him to be before the game released, played him through and enjoyed the class thoroughly.  I enjoy playing him in RvR, even though RvR has been mostly a amoebic lurching forward and back with little tactics involved.  I wish RvR was a little more like Planetside, with more tactical opportunities.  But that’s a symptom that in general, the end-game in WAR is lacking.  It’s extremely repetitive.  Fort/City raiding is attrocious.  What’s worse is that as I said – leveling my main was actually enjoyable.  There was actually a good variety of things to do in order to level up, PQs, scenarios, RvR, basic quest/hunting.

But once you hit 40… it rapidly becomes repetitive.  You have to farm dungeons for wards in order to be viable for Fort/City raids.  RvR – even though Mythic made it much more complex and varied by increasing the zones – is still just a back and forth leap frogging of BOs and keeps.  Without being able to use group tactics and terrain pinch points and such to mix it up, it’s the same as DAoC’s RvR.  Even by limiting CC and such there’s still the RPG element that allows for imbalances to be exploited.

I’ve been listening to some podcasts that have also foretold the coming drop off.   I think the writing’s on the wall for this Engineer.  I’ve been loosing interest in WAR at an exponential rate since hitting 40.  Now I rarely log in.  I’d still like to play WAR and have good RvR experiences – be able to log in after work and havea n enjoyable night’s worth of gaming.  But… I hear the chirping plea of a waning yellow avian angel…

Canary in a coal mine?  Sure, OK.

Oh yes I cut her from my heart, like a big loud stankin’ fart… to her I shall never return… I met my match, and I got burned…. – Early Cuyler, Squidbillies

Over-stimulation. Not the good kind.

Posted in 1 on March 5, 2009 by XLCS

Alright. Like a lot of my friends my age (cough), I grew up watching “personal computing” evolve from Wolfenstein on Apple II’s to the internet to our current free-form genetic freakshow known as social networking. MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendfeed, Twitter, etc. etc. And yea, I’m one of those who think sitting down at a bar or coffee shop and engaging in conversation, however inane, is far superior to hording a list of names online and being Tom’s friend.

But, I have to admit, I joined Facebook and it has made keeping in touch with old friends whom I’ve lost touch with, or would loose touch with otherwise, a lot easier. There are some upsides to social networking.

I’m also a closet geek, although I’ve not built a computer in several years now and only browse the upper tufts of the greener pastures that I happen to wander onto. Mainly old personae from the now absorbed and digested Tech TV clan. I’m also into news and music aggregators (oh, another techie euphemism!), especially to get a full range of political and musical genre. Keeping up with these by visiting website, reading blogs, DLing pod/vodcasts, etc. turns into a couple hours plus some nights. So rather than try to ingest all this stuff on a regular basis, I figured I’d follow them on Twitter, and shortly afterward using Friendfeed.  Twitter is the aberrant love-child of social networking and some sort of frenzied, hyperactive Chernobylitic beast.  Twitter is hypernetworking, micro-blogging.  Other micro-blogging/posting services are Jaiku, Pownce (bought & undergoing a transformation), Tumblr… they all share in common a streamlined format suitable for short, rapid-fire posting.

IMO they’re hedging their bets on being able to be used on broadband cell networks so people can update, post, etc. from their cell phones.  More micropurchasing to come kiddies!  In the mean time, these services cost nothing, have no advertisement revenue, and in some cases don’t even have a business plan.  Yet they have extremely high valuation based on the free-to-use, no advertising, not-having-a-business plan thing.  In the case of Twitter, they’re valued at $250M!  They do not have a business plan.

How these sites generate so much investment backing is another story, for another blog, to be aggregated and tweeted about at another time… back to the subject at hand!

Now, Ive got plenty of friends on Facebook but my “RL” friends don’t really extend beyond the typical social networking site… if they’ve even gotten that far. Twitter and Friendfeed are definitely for people who either work in the tech industry, or are plugged into a computer all day long and have easy access to this stuff (note that last part, as many companies block social network sites and programs).

So everything was Cool and The Gang for the first week or so. Granted, I couldn’t really attend to the wave of information any better than before, since I still had limited time to actually consume what is now still the same medium of data.  Only now it’s more of a shotgun blast of unfiltered TMI rather than sniped stuff I wanted to pick off.  Really, people think that other people want to know exactly what they’re doing or thinking at any given moment…?  Really?

I guess I’m not a Twitter person.  In fact now I’ve grown to actually despise the so-called “hyper-social” tools. First off – tweets. You tweet, they tweet, we twitter.  Can someone just take the Baseball Bat of Manliness, repeatedly clobber me upside the head, until all this fairy dust is washed from my brain in oozing streams of crimson gore? Secondly, and this is the most important part – a crazy amount of tweets are inane, utterly ridiculous, “OMG I just wiped my ass and my finger broke through the toilet paper!” posts with nothing as remotely interesting as the aforementioned brownfinger.

That’s not to say that all twittering is equal or utterly useless.  A lot of the news & music aggregators, as well as the less self-absorbed professionals out there do post actual useful and informative tweets, even if it’s bit-sized links to something.  But there is enough non-essential, self-absorbed twittering going on to definitely make this hyper-networking the digital equivalent of someone whispering “Who farted?” to make everybody laugh for a brief, uncomfortable moment in the cubicle farm because someone wanted to break the silence of actual productive work.  It’ll probably shake out like the video sites where 99% of content is just time-wasting, brain-numbing, cud for the chewing.

Seriously, here are some very recent, choice tweets from high-profile techsters and pundits who I’m following, hoping to get some breaking news or at least something vaguely interesting:

back in the office (after 2 day move to new apt in SF) tons to do.. email count: 720

About to dye my hair blonde. Pkg “does not rec for med brown hair or darker”. Is my hair med brown? This will either be fun or end in tears.

Blonde ambition update: No tears! It’s lighter but no crazy change. Def strawberry blondish, not flaxen. Took forever! I like it I think.

i rarely eat breakfast and probably should more often. i did today. why is it that im more hungry for lunch when i do than when i don’t?

getting ready to redeye back to nyc — still kind of amazed by duke energy intrvu. *why* can’t the lights stay on in a storm exactly?

And now everybody is twittering, blogging, snarging, blerging, and smurqing (those last couple will be invented soon, sold for millions, and dumped after the personal data is mined, I’m sure). Better yet… this is the kind of stuff that Congresspeople and Senators were doing during the Presidential address the other night!  What the hell?  It’s bad enough when someone in a trend position thinks they’re popular enough to tweet about their toast being too dry, but supposed political leadership… during a f@#%ing Presidential speech?  Even technophobe John McCain somehow manages to twitter quite often.

It’s TMI.

p.s. – That gives me an idea… TMIr, the new nano-blogging cloudspace app for your phone!  Who wants a piece of this startup?  We’ll make p’zillions!

This is the end… my only friend, the end…

Posted in 1 on February 15, 2009 by XLCS

So OK, I’m not going to get into a lengthy discussion of economics, business, or who’s who of MMO gaming.  But I will say this… the economic downtorun is becoming a starker reality for MMOs and gaming in general.

Kotaku just announced that the Aliens RPG that Sega was working on has been canceled.  Recent confirmed rumors that WAR staff have been laid off have also emerged.  Midway of Mortal Kombat fame filled for bankruptcy (Chapter 11 which lets them keep operating).  Granted Midway’s woes are in large part due to Sumner Redstone “selling his 87% stake in Midway Games Inc. (MWY) for about $100,000, plus the assumption of $70 million of secured and unsecured senior debt. The deal resulted in a huge loss for Redstone on his investment in the video game maker, having invested $800 million in the company, but it also set up a substantial tax benefit.

Now, I’m not going to get into a economic thesis on were the gaming industry is headed.  But if Mr. Redston’s business strategy is any indication, big time and not-so-big-time mogels will likely be heading out of the gamng industry in favor of securing their holdings in more traditional markets, and in general the gaming industry is already experiencing a slowing in investments.

Sales have been all over the map lately.  Wii is leading XBOX who’s leading PS3… although Joystiq reported that while the overall console industry is up 13% over January 2008, handhelds are down 83% from December 2008.

For a business sector that absolutely depends on frivolous investor funding through the first 1-5+ years of development before actually releasing a product, this could be the start of a long unwinding of independent titles and concentration of games under more traditional, large-scale companies.  More likely, it will mean a slowing of releasees and potentially some under development currently will go under before they even hit Open Beta.

Your thoughts?

Ramblings of an Engineer

Posted in 1 on February 6, 2009 by XLCS

I like to identify with an MMO career in some way.  It’s important if I’m going to spend months leveling a character.  I’m not really interested in which class is best, or which spec is Uber, or if I win 1v1 or can survive a battle better than other classes.  Sometimes you choose an Uber class, sometimes not.  Besides, in PvP/RvR it comes down to who has the best team (or most numerous…).

The main thing to keep in mind is the long-term… MMOs always balance.  What is Uber today might be not so much tomorrow, and what is sucky by comparison today might be FOTM tomorrow.  Case in point:  DAoC Friar.  I played the class when they were under-rated all the way through them getting buffed and becoming the FOTM darlings of RvR.  I loved the class before and after the adjustments.

Before WAR went live I decided to play an Engineer.  Not just the class, but the Grenader spec line.  My guild and I had RvR’d for years in DAoC, been in I don’t know how many seiges, and I knew what role I wanted.  I didn’t, and still don’t, pay much attention to How-To posts on playing the class, or beating X class with Y tactics, or where to farm or PL.  I like to learn the ins and outs by actually playing the class, becoming familiar with the skills over levels and time, and finding tactics that match my play style and the role I want to fill in the group.  Those How-To’s always point out the obvious if you’ve taken the time to actually play the class anyway, so grats to the Captain Obvious’s and their many legions!  Bravo I say!  Now STFU and go farm

OK, one thing to point out: Engineer was not my original choice.  That was Warrior Priest.  Seemed like a good choice for me, somewhat similar to my old Friar class & I’ve almost always played some form of healer since EQ.  But I left the path of Sigmar for simple reasons.  After years of RvR with my beloved Friar, I needed a different role.  Particularly, range.  But more importantly, Engineer seemed to have the utility I was seeking.

So here we are, almost 5 months after going live.  I do not regret the choice one bit. But, the Engineer is a weird class, really.

Technically it’s a ranged DPS class.  But unless you spec Rifle, don’t plan on being a critshot sniper.  Even then it’s arguably behind other rDPS classes.  I can’t speak for Tinkerer specs, but Grenade spec Engineers play a lot like the old Cabalist in DAoC.  You’ve got to parse out how to leverage your pet, your DoTs, and utility skills to be really dangerous.

This is not a class with clear strategies.  Granted, it’s not the most complex class either.  You can spec Rifle and do the ol’ critshot sniper role – shoot, kill, done.  You can spec Grenade – throw DoTs till your carpal tunnel flares, get massive scenario damage, and no kills.  Hmm.  Try specing Tinkerer.  Doh.  But where is the most Uberest Engineer skill of them all, so everyone who doesn’t play an Engineer says…?  Yep, deep in the Tinkerer spec line.  With Bugman’s Best, a skill that has more use in Roleplaying than on the battlefield (I know, there are decent skills in the tree… but I had to…).

CC abilities – Crowd Control.  People use this to define single target snare, roots, etc.  Not exactly crowds, but whatever.  Engineers get several of these skills.  Most are pretty weak when compared to other MMOs and even other WAR classes.  Engies get knock-down/knock-back, a snare, a root, and of course the despised Magnet.  But honestly, speccing for Magnet is purely for guilds with highly organized groups.  Not a lot of Engies take it since it gimps you in more ways that one “Uber” skill might ever make up for.

What we do tend to take is Stopping Power, which adds a knock-back to our Hip Shot ability.  That one ability opens up all sorts of utility.  Witch Elf on your healer?  Hip Shot.  If you go further in the tree there’s even a disarm skill to spec in, although I’ve found the 2 second cast time is too long in RvR where as long as you’ve disrupted the WE by knocking them down, they’ll get swarmed and killed before your disarm goes off.  If you do plan on going further into the Rifle line, Snipe is friggin mean.  Stay to the rear & pick off WEs from 150 feet.  Yes, Mon-Chi-Chi.  Run.

But know this – Engineers are fragile.  I have nights where I die repeatedly and often and feel like throwing laptop out the window.  Sure you can spec for Toughness and Wounds and get your Armor up.  It’ll buy you a couple extra seconds on the battlefield.  But Engineers are rDPS, and if you forget that, Destro will be happy to remind you.  This means you are always balancing risk and reward.  Get cocky, or leave yourself with no utility to deal with threats, and it’s a one-way ticket to frustration station.

That said, Engineers are great skirmishers.  I’ve pretty much experimented my way into several different roles depending on the situation.  Open RvR, I’m protecting healers and exposing/hunting WEs, and yes, they’re hunting me and usually winning.  Seige, I’m on the walls laying all kinds of AOE hell on Destro from relative safety, dropping turrets, mines, and death on those who would block backdoors and posterns, burning the ram with flaming Napalm.

It’s a fun class IMO.  You probably won’t be the hero, but you can sit back on a keg after the fight and rest assured that you put a little stank on just about everyone on the battlefield.

Ray… Blu Ray

Posted in Glaston Banter on February 1, 2009 by XLCS

Well I’ve had my PS3 for a year now and am just getting around to buying some Blu-ray titles.  Among these are a two volume set of select 007 movies (link). These films have been retouched and remastered one frame at a time, using a huge server farm of Mac G6’s churning out Godzillabites of data.  The end product are movies, some over 40 years old, reproduced with extreme fidelity.

These movies… these movies… (Christopher Walken pause)

These movies are incredible.  Honestly, Dr. No is 47 years old.  They took the original negative, digitally removed blemishes that were on the actual lens, removed odd lighting like fluorescent light flicker, retouched (undiscernably) color loss from archival, all sorts of visual blemishes.  you would think that film grain and such would look cruddy in high def.  But no, Mr. Bond.  They’re sharp, poppin’, it looks like your seeing them on the best movie screen the year they came out!

Now, the only downside: Packaging.  I’ve looked at consumer reviews and you either get “loved it” or “hated it”.  Here’s my experience.  I unwrapped the plastic, revealing a good-looking outer sleeve with “007” on it.  Cool.  The box then had a faux leather disc booklet.  Not bad.  Opened up the booklet… out fell 2 of the 3 discs!  In their infinite widom, after spending untold millions lovingly restoring these original negatives, they placed the discs on foam plugs barely glued on the booklet.  I was rather pissed.  these foam plugs were cheap, and now not only did my new blu-rays take a unecessary fall they were loose in the booklet.  Yea, I’ll reglue the plugs, maybe find a better material.  But come on.

Anyway, caveat emptor.  I had some Best Buy gift cards and impulse bought these for $75 a pop.  You can get them online for $45.

I recommend if your a fan of Bond films and have a blu-ray player, these are the shiz.  Get ’em, get ’em cheap online, and be careful when you unwrap your new Über James Bond collection!  Your friends will be in awe as salt water dripps from Ursula Andress‘s bronzed flesh… rawr!