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    Games I Like: No Man’s Sky


    2016 - 09.20

    My third ship in No Man's Sky, the Green Meanie

    I like No Man’s Sky. That’s right, I said it. I’ll go a step further too: I like No Man’s Sky right now, one month after the PC release. This is not a popular viewpoint so let’s unpack it.

    Expectations can make or break the perception of music, movies, or videogames. From the very start this game had colossal expectations placed upon it, and I think that’s reason #1 behind the largely negative perception of the game right now. As documented previously I definitely rode the hype train hard on this title, but having put in well above 70 hours over the last month, right now I’m feeling like I actually got what I came for.  (Note that all screenshots in this post are captures that I took during my playthrough.  All were taken in 4k resolution although some are cropped; click to view them full size)

    red mountains and blue seas in No Man's Sky

    Solar eclipse (and moon!) over distant mountains in No Man's SkyReason #2 behind the negative perception of the game is that there’s a lot of things which were shown in trailers and talked about by the developers that were simply not in the game at all. You could call that a lot of different words. Mine would be strange and disappointing. Disingenuous might be another. But before we get too bogged down in the name-calling which inevitably results from dwelling on this for long, let me just back way, way up, and look at this whole thing from a top-level, macro perspective:

    No Man’s Sky has delivered a universe-sized universe and it’s magnificent. The thing I want to focus on more than anything else is the aesthetic, because that’s what drew me in long ago when I first heard about the game, and that’s what held my interest when lots of other space games started coming out but I refused to play them, intentionally waiting and keeping my outlook fresh. The look and the feel of No Man’s Sky is what keeps me playing now and it’s what blew me away when I picked up the mouse and keyboard for the first time. None of the other space games that compete in this same genre have this stunning artistic style to them. Right off the bat when you start playing the game it’s magical. Most players agree with that. And importantly, in regard to the overall aesthetic, the final game we have now is exactly what was shown in the trailers.

    Sunset on some ruins in a lush jungle world in No Man's Sky

    One of my favorite friendly dinosaurs I've encountered in No Man's SkySo my individual perception is admittedly slanted. One, it was mainly the look, the feel, the style I saw in the trailers that I wanted to get, and I got that. And two, I haven’t been playing other space games or really that many games in general. Witcher 3 was the only other game I’ve been putting serious time into during 2016. Ironically the contrast could hardly be stronger between these two games. Witcher is story-driven with huge set-pieces, has a lengthy list of characters, and is hand-crafted in practically all aspects. On the other end of the spectrum No Man’s Sky has only two reoccurring characters and turns you loose in a randomly generated universe that essentially has no objective at all! Sure, there are things you can do, but really when you boil it down, those objectives are not what you’re playing this game for. (“Wait a minute… we’re not playing the game to try to beat the objectives…???”) And that right there is what I think totally throws 95% of people off about this game!!

    I’m going to come back to that idea in a minute but first let me say this: I do think the main criticism being leveled at the game (boredom) would be there no matter what. If they added randomly generated fetch quests for NPCs, if they made the overall upgrade grind thirty times longer and more complex than it is now, if they made the periodic table eight times bigger, if they populated space with twenty times more bounties/battles/traders/cruisers—if they did all that and more, people will always get bored at some point.

    The "Wild Spineyback" forages in the dense tall forests of Big Things 50% modded No Man's Sky

    Just another amazing vista in No Man's SkyLook at a game like Skyrim. It’s packed to the gills with scripted quests, books to read, skill trees to expand, or just broadly speaking, stuff to do that some other human being took hours and hours to create for you. And still people say they’re bored with Skyrim because they exhausted all that or did enough of it that they felt the underlying repetition even though new tasks remained. So people start a new character and “roleplay” within the world of Skyrim, imagining boundaries of what their character will or won’t do, what their personal goals might be, and charting their own specific path through the world. In my own playing, this mentality is how I’ve had the most fun in No Man’s Sky.

    I would say this Skyrim roleplaying behavior, especially when taken to the extreme, is somewhat of an anomaly in the entertainment medium of videogames. Almost always, a game is telling you where to go and what to do. Sure you have choices and probably many other diversions but these ten quests and these five ways to build your character, these are what you’re supposed to be doing. Games constantly remind us, condition us to expect this framework. Broadly speaking, “task-completion” and “character-building” are the very foundation of practically all video games. And we expect that games will acknowledge this progression with a constant stream of trophies and points and pats on the back. This is the nearly universal “gaming mindset”. I do activities x, y, or z and the game tells me good job. Sitting on the couch and inventing some other activity for yourself that’s not an actual part of the game’s checklist—that’s not a normal game-playing behavior.

    For instance, visiting the inn and staying five nights there, talking to every NPC and inventing lines of dialogue or jokes that your own character may have said to each of them, that’s not something Skyrim tells you to do. Sure, you can do it, but the game doesn’t interact back with you when you do that. It doesn’t give you an achievement, it doesn’t unlock any new items, and moreover the game isn’t even aware that’s what you were doing. But those kinds of behaviors are what keep Skyrim fresh to many players out there, the kinds of activities that demand input from the players own imagination and a willingness to accept there will be no positive reinforcement for playing that way.

    Nothing like the feeling of blasting through space and landing on an unknown planet in No Man's Sky

    No Man’s Sky is a roleplayers game straight out of the gate. In this game it’s the opposite of what we normally expect. All main quests are all optional. Developing your character is optional. Both of these things, things which are usually the pillars on which nearly every game stands, are only excuses to drive the true “goal” in No Man’s Sky, which is simply wandering and finding something you personally think is weird, cool, or beautiful.

    The game doesn’t acknowledge when you succeed at that. There’s no points rewarded for seeing something cool. And I kind of love that. It’s true to life and it’s true to great art as well. When Wee Bay throws the soda can in The Wire, there’s no musical cue or camera zoom to blatantly telegraph “hey pay attention to this, this was the special moment that’s more important than all those other inconsequential moments! We’re going to bludgeon you in the face with obviousness right here because otherwise we’re afraid you might be too dumb to follow along!” When you succeed in real life it’s often just quiet moments in solitude where you did something right, possibly not realizing how important it was until later. And when you succeed at finding something really neat in NMS, there’s not much, if any, reward built into that from a game mechanics or player feedback standpoint. Seeing something cool IS the reward.

    The Majestic "Struttin Werewulf" in his natural habitat in No Man's Sky

    Chock full of life and giant green sunflowers on this arid planet in No Man's SkyAnd the universe is huge. So huge. It’s so indescribably huge. And you’re so tiny and mostly alone. The universe does not care at all about what insignificant resources you’re trying to scrap together to fix some broken thing you’re stuck on today. To the universe it doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail in your small little goals, and when you succeed and raise your hands to the sky in triumph there’s just silence. You have to find your own meaning in things. You have to decide what matters to you personally and set your own goals. Then find your own motivation for completing them, and develop the ability to enjoy the good moments when they happen. The cosmos simply will not spell everything out for you. All that’s true to life.

    To me, the point of No Man’s Sky is to find beauty or majesty and capture that. With a screenshot or with your eye or with your sense of wonder. That’s my goal when I play. It’s an exquisite universe full of things worth seeing, no other game looks quite like it, and whatever you see is uniquely yours. Sure lots of other people will see very similar things but never ever will someone see precisely what you saw, in the context you saw it. It’s impossible! And that, like life, is what makes it special and worth experiencing.

    The No Man's Sky spaceship design aesthetic is just off the charts

    MASSIVE dogfights in modded No Man's Sky! 171 fighters in this battle!

    Would it be a better game if it had rogue planets in deep space, working portals, orbital mechanics, desert planets, binary stars, and all that other stuff people are clamoring for? Hell yeah it would be! But would those things change the overall feeling I get while playing, or drastically alter the moment-to-moment of what I’m doing in the game? Well, no, probably not. They’d expand the replay and immersion yes, but their absence doesn’t kill the feeling I have when I crest a ridge and see a forest of blue trees with dragon-like creatures flying above the canopy. Whoa. It’s that feeling that we’re here for to begin with. And I think it’s amazing how many people have glossed over this. We all want more replay, yes, but stop and appreciate this feeling that’s being created right now, as-is. It’s fantastic.

    At this moment in time the fan community is enraged, fixated on what’s absent rather than what exists. I understand the reasons why and I even agree with those reasons but obsessing over a hypothetical future and ignoring the present moment is the life-trap that Buddhists struggle to overcome. The present moment is sublime, if you can pause and truly see it. It’s like what astronaut Edgar Mitchell said about how our political squabbles seem so trite when you view the universe from a bigger lens, and how he wanted to take the political squabblers, “by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch!’” Look at it! The grandeur of the cosmos. Every time I hear some infant crying about lies or refunds or after 60 hours why they’ve given up on the game and it was only worth $20 I want to grab them by the scruff of the neck, show them the incredible screenshots and the wonder I have felt on my journey and tell them Look At That You Son Of A Bitch! They built a whole universe for you–a good one–and all you do is complain. It’s possibly the coolest-looking Sci-Fi random world generator ever made. In the words of Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction, “What we saw was a miracle, and I want you to acknowledge that!!”

    Spaceship #2, my favorite so far, "The Creamsicle" in No Man's Sky

    Starry skies on a "dark-space" system in No Man's SkyIt’s human nature to want more and to constantly be thinking of ways to make things better. It’s a strength that drives improvement but also need to be balanced against the knowledge that these tendencies are also handicaps that prevent us from enjoying what IS. By this point I’ve easily read 20 peoples different lists of what they wish MNS had in it or ways it could be better or features that they are hoping for. And I could make my own but I’m resisting that urge because let’s face it, Hello Games is 15 people, this is an indie game, and there will always be another list of “ten great features that could save No Man’s Sky”. Forget all that.

    So back to what I was talking about with expectations and the “gaming mindset”. People expect a firm list of goals, a questline, and a character expansion tree all of which will score points which are the end-all-be-all of playing every game ever. Before the game came out everyone kept asking the question “but what do you do in No Man’s Sky?” Many times the creators answered that question it was followed with the statement “Or you could NOT do that”, the subtext of which was that those proposed activities were not the real point of the game. Which turned out to be the underlying truth I think. The point is to be in the universe and to see it. To enjoy that.

    No Man’s Sky is sort of like the videogame equivalent of the movie Koyaanisqatsi; an ambitious, beautiful art piece that ditches all the usual tropes that bring people in.  No real dialogue, no real plot, no characters, none of that stuff.  It’s all up to you to find something for yourself within it.  Can a film be considered a great film if it’s purely incredible photography and practically nothing else?  Absolutely it can.  But if you walked into the theater to see Koyaanisqatsi and you were expecting a rom com instead, you’d almost surely hate it.  One it’s expectations and two, I think to even appreciate a film like Koyaanisqatsi you sort of have to know a little bit about what it’s trying to do and maybe even have someone else explain what you’re supposed to be getting out of it first.

    Dinosaurs surround my ship on a toxic mushroom world in No Man's Sky

    The underwater scenes in No Man's Sky can be quite striking tooPersonally, I predict that this game will be seen as a landmark title once the dust has settled and the years have passed. Right now there’s a ton of confusion over what it actually is, and that’s muddying the water. I think it’s going to be a lot like Mirror’s Edge. When that game came out it got lots of bad reviews in the game journalism world and negative attention in general, centered around how the combat was awful. But this was an intentional choice by the designers! In most games containing combat you’re supposed to do that, but in Mirror’s Edge combat is the quicksand that drags you down, something to be avoided unless it’s a last resort. So people took a long time to wrap their heads around that! People hated on it and hated on it until enough time went by that the haters just moved on to something else and the voices singing its praise won out. Maybe it’s a niche audience, maybe it was never meant to be grouped in with so many other AAA titles out there, maybe it’s just a little different and you need to go in expecting that to properly enjoy it… Sound familiar?

    Me, I’ve been loving my time in the Euclid Galaxy. I’ve seen more badass, sleek looking spaceships than I can remember, more strange dinosaurs, creepy insects, and peaceful forest animals than I can think of names for. The plant life is often times cooler than the animal life: vast meadows that flow in the breeze, space cacti, weird neon things that grow on toxic planets, giant 200 foot tall mushrooms, and all manner of trees from familiar to exotic. Then there’s the stuff that strikes you as you look around: the huge planet that hangs in the sky when you’ve landed on a moon, the sunset over a sea filled with schools of what look like banana-peels, the two spaceships which sail overhead as you walk out of a bioluminescence-filled cave, the feeling of sudden alarm as you jetpack over a deep ravine you didn’t realize was there. The visuals of No Man’s Sky are spectacular, end of story, full-stop.

    That feeling of safety inside a cave, and the cool view when you step outside it in No Man's Sky

    The wonder is real, and the Red-Dead-esque moments of captivation at the vistas are there. But if you’re pillaging through without slowing down to look around and smile at these little bits as you go along, too obsessed with 48 slots, too possessed by the grind, too hung up on all those video-gamey mechanics that prevent you from actually seeing what’s right in front of your face–you’re gonna miss the magic. That’s a fact, jack. First and foremost No Man’s Sky is a world generator, second an arcade-style space shooter, third a survival game, and lastly a resource-management trader/crafter/upgrader game. Sure, each of those categories could be more fleshed-out with deeper choices and consequences, but as it is today, it hasn’t stopped me from having fun.

    I just might be part of some specially-geared sub-set of players who always relished the exploration more than the explosions in GTA, or in the minority who felt “the map” was the true main character in so many plot-driven open-world adventures (yes, even Red Dead), but c’mon, the firehose of gorgeous scenery this game engine is delivering cannot be denied and that’s not nothing. If Hello Games can put their resources into polishing what’s here and expanding the busywork for players in this universe over the next year, I think history will still be kind to this intergalactic trip through endless book-cover scenes.

    On a verdant planet, goodbye from No Man's Sky

    No Man’s Sky moves from Dream to Reality


    2016 - 07.27

    One year ago today I put up a post about a forthcoming game that I am very excited about called No Man’s Sky.  One year after that posting, the release of the game is now imminent on August 9th.  There’s been a lot of attention on this game and a lot of hype about the boundaries it promises to break, so before it drops and we all find out what surprises it truly holds I want to wax philosophical one last time.

    One of the comments I heard that made me pause the longest was a person saying they hadn’t been this excited for a videogame release since Super Mario Brothers 2.  Just let that sink in for a second. Super Mario Brothers 2 came out for the NES in 1988.  Almost 30 years ago.  Which also says something maybe about the age-group of people who are really fired up for this game, and why.

    If tomorrow there was a Call of Duty game released which attained perfect review scores and was praised for design of the highest caliber with exquisite attention to detail and peerless action, I doubt I’d play it.  Why?  It’s not because I’d doubt the reviews, it’s just because… I’ve “done that.”  Not only have I done it, I have done it so many times, that it’s been done, completely.  Done into dust.  I’m simply finished with doing that.  Over.  Finito.  This can happen with any genre within an art form.  Like heavy metal music.  There was a time in my life when I was totally into it and now the page has turned and I just can’t stomach any more.  Maybe it’s because you become so familiar with the common devices and the tropes of the genre that even what’s new doesn’t feel new anymore?  A new Metallica album?  I just can’t.  It might be new, but it sounds so familiar.  What’s new is no longer new.

    This kind of fatigue has set in for me, and a lot of other players my age when it comes to games.  On top of that, as we grow older life expands to fill your free time.  Obligations, other hobbies, working, or broadly speaking other parts of life that you want to do—they all fill in the gaps and free time spent playing games gets put onto a smaller and smaller portion of the backburner.  And yet we still never forget this medium because we experienced the magic that it can contain.  We have seen, and felt that alchemy.

    There was an excellent, far-reaching piece at Kotaku (which feels strange to say, given their recent track record) discussing why No Man’s Sky is the most necessary game of 2016—a great read even for the mildly interested.  While that author focuses on world events and social norms my own reasons are simpler.  Personally the last game I felt this excited for was Red Dead Redemption.  One, because it was a very underserved segment of the gaming market (westerns) and maybe two, because I was moving to Texas right as the game was coming out.  Red Dead promised to do something new: put you “there” in the wild west.  And when I played the game, that’s exactly the aspect which made it so great.  In Red Dead it’s all about the little moments between the action.  When you walk up to the edge of a cliff to take in the scenery and a hawk flies over your head with a searing call.  When you camp out in the wilderness and see a bold sunrise above the rocks in the distance.  When you pause your horse to get your bearings and some faint trumpets remind you that you’re in Mexican territory.

    Little moments of color like those are what made Red Dead.  Before its release skeptics were panning it as GTA with horses.  And sure, there were plenty of action scenes where that’s pretty much what it was, but it also had its own tone going on, much different than GTA’s.  I never wrote about Red Dead on here, mostly because it was so loved and so praised by the gaming community that to heap a bunch more words onto that bandwagon didn’t seem necessary.  But action isn’t what made Red Dead—in fact it could have had far less action with worse mechanics and still been practically just as good, because the main strength of the game stood on atmosphere.

    That’s the connection between Red Dead and No Man’s Sky: Atmosphere.  Moods.  For me personally, that’s the biggest unknown question about what it can provide.  With No Man’s Sky, the creators have deliberately withheld a ton of information about the game, even this close to launch.  Nowhere is this more glaringly obvious than the most recent trailers put out by Sony.  The whole premise of the “Fight” trailer is to showcase combat, yet we’re presented with 1 second quick-cuts showing just teasers.  Really?  Even with less than 20 days remaining until release we’re keeping things this close to the chest?  And the creators keep conflating the words galaxy and universe, in what I can only assume is either a running joke or more likely, a deliberate obfuscation of these terms to avoid any hint of what the “journey to the center” actually means.  This is in stark contrast to the information-rich, National Geographic documentary-style trailers that preceded the launch of RDR, which were some of the best gaming trailers I think I’ve ever seen.  This kind of secrecy right up to the 11th hour is maybe a red flag, but I’m going out on a limb and trust that Hello Games knows what they’re doing and just want to keep it fresh for individual players to discover.

    Putting all those questions aside, the thing I’m most excited for in this game are the vistas.  The dramatic scenery and strange discoveries.  And that is the very beating heart of the game, the core of what it promises to deliver.  I gotta say I’m knocked out by the fantastic aesthetics of the buildings and the spaceships in this game and I will definitely spend a long time hunting neat looking stuff for screenshots.  Procedural generation will also lend a strange sense of responsibility to actually “experience” your experience since everything you see will likely be yours and yours alone.  It’s guaranteed that new designs will always keep coming and something really rad will be truly rare to the point that a sweet looking spaceship might literally never be seen again, by you or anyone else!  Let alone something even harder to find like a neat cave or a cool nocturnal creature.  Given the sheer vastness of the NMS universe, even the most beautiful, enchanting planet you find will probably never be explored again.

    Which brings us back to the idea of “new.”  With that stupefying number of eighteen quintillion planets available to explore in this universe (Wait, galaxy? Universe?  Galaxy?), how many hours can we pour into No Man’s Sky before what’s new no longer feels new anymore?  How much exploring will it take before the feeling of predictability sets in, and I begin to think to myself okay, here’s another new Starfighter design that I’ve never seen… but I’ve pretty much seen that design before in a slightly different paintjob or with different wings.  Answering that question is perhaps the main journey of No Man’s Sky and getting there, almost with zero doubt, will be a fascinating, entertaining time whether it resides at the center of the 1st galaxy or my 5th.

    But backing up a step further, that journey isn’t the only factor in the longevity of NMS.  Obviously games don’t live or die by freshness, as the latest incarnation of Call of Duty 17 can attest.  Like in Red Dead, it’ll be the thousand little moments along the way.  The quiet moments between the action where you pause to look around, finding yourself transfixed by some calm scenery.  The sound of the wind as you stand atop a small hill on a planet of blue colored grasses.  The eerie stillness of a cratered moon, devoid of life.  The distant calls of three-headed dinosaur-like beasts moving in a herd on the horizon.  The feeling of relief as you find a cave to flee nocturnal predators on a planet where you explored until nightfall caught you off-guard, far away from your ship.  And the feeling of safety as you finally return to your ship, your spacefaring horse of steel, chock full of goodies you snagged on a dangerous planet, ready to escape to the nearest space station and cash in.  These moments are my hopes for the game.  We’ll see if I can find them among—without hyperbole—the largest explorable universe the medium of video gaming has ever produced.

    PS3 Round II


    2015 - 07.31

    So for many years now I’ve been playing games on my Playstation 3. It’s an original 60gig “fat” system, the very first model introduced. Sadly two months ago it gave me the so-called “yellow light of death” which means that the main BGA inside it has cracked solder balls from a slow temperature stress over time. I was able to use the so-called hairdryer-trick (which is exactly as scientific as it sounds) to briefly revive it; enough time to copy over my save games, eject a disc, and get a little nostalgic.

    The oldest save file? Ratchet and Clank from 4/17/07. Wow. Eight years. Has it really been that long? Though it sounds odd to say it, rewinding through the save files and being reminded of all the games I had played over the years was quite a trip down memory lane. Certain games I maybe only played for a short time, and carried a strong association with whatever else was going on in my life at the time. It’s a bit like hearing a song you haven’t heard in forever… something that reminds you of a smell or a place you once lived, or the way life used to feel back then.

    It’s sort of funny, the way your mind forms these connections and loops nostalgia through it. I also feel some connection to the system itself because in my last job I had taken a business trip to Japan and the two weeks I spent there were visiting Sony and Toshiba, working for the manufacturing plants that were building the Cell processor (CPU) and the main graphics chip for the PS3. And this was during the early days of their manufacturing as well, so it would have been these “fat” systems they were struggling to build, with all the growing pains of scaling production up on a system destined to sell millions of units.

    But all things have a season and the fat PS3 has served me well. When it went down, I decided to go on a videogame sabbadical until after the MRHA conference, since I knew I wanted to focus my free time on some model RR work for their model contest. Now that this is complete, I went out to buy a new PS3, only to discover that new units are no longer being produced. I settled on a used “SuperSlim” unit–the 3rd generation of the console.

    My videogame pace seems to grow slower and slower with each passing year but I gotta admit it was very exciting to get a new (to me) console! I’m sure it will provide many nights of enjoyment……

    Pre-Release Hype: No Man’s Sky


    2015 - 07.27

    I just want to go on official record as having raised my alert status to super-mega-stoked for this PC/PS4 game which might get released later this year called “No Man’s Sky.” For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, the game is a sandbox/exploration game where you begin on a generic planet and start hunting for resources. Eventually you find a weapon and a ship, which frees you up to either explore more of the planet… or leave and go find another planet to explore. It is an incredibly open concept just at this level, but here’s the kicker: everything in the game is procedurally generated. That loosely means that your computer is “inventing” everything on-screen as you go. It has a broad set of rules regarding what types of air/plants/animals/stuff should appear on a given planet which is situated a given distance from its star, but that’s it. No one has “designed” these worlds–they are the output of a complex mathematical system.

    The information (and the names of all the things you encounter) are cataloged on a central database that all the other players are feeding into, so effectively a whole universe (yes, with multiple galaxies) is being created/populated by the players of this game as they explore it. Hooooo. I mean, there’s an idea that’s never been done before in gaming, at least not on this level. It’s a heady concept and I’m captivated by the idea.  And the scale of it all is preposterous: the creators estimate the universe contains 18 quintillion planets.  That’s 18,000,000,000,000,000,000… and no that’s not a typo.

    At this stage there’s still a lot which is unknown about how the gameplay will flow, but it seems heavily influenced by the game Journey… a sparsely populated but strikingly beautiful landscape that appeals to explorers and open-world fans. That’s me! I eagerly await this one. There’s a lot of great videos including long gameplay ones if you search on youtube but I really like this one for the pure excitement value:

     

     

    First Impressions on the Samsung Gear VR


    2015 - 01.03

    Gear VR

    This thing is… compelling. Awe-inspiring. Thought-provoking. I feel lucky to have it. It’s a virtual reality headset that uses a Samsung Note 4 smartphone as the processor/screen.  This is my first experience with real virtual reality–never tried Nintendo’s Virtual Boy from back in the day, and I’ve never put on one of the Oculus DK1 or DK2 headsets. Honestly my expectations were kind of high going in… and it delivers. Something you see is going to make you smile, something else you see is going to force you to shout out loud. It’s a glimpse into the future. Sure there’s nitpicks or quirks here and there but overall, dang. We’re living in the future. This is the next “thing”. It’s hard to even describe it. That’s my biggest takeaway: this is a new medium. Like movies, music, photos, paintings–those are all artistic mediums of capturing stories. This is a whole new medium of telling a story. VR.

    Right now this is a somewhat exclusive club: the Gear VR only works with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. I had the Note 2 and loved it, so when my 2 year upgrade time rolled around, the Note 4 was a logical choice. Once I read that Samsung had partnered with Oculus to create a virtual reality headset accessory for it (wait, what?!), the deal was sealed. I picked this phone just so I could get the Gear VR.

    The hardware is refined and still young at the same time. On one hand, a lot of technical challenges have been addressed; head tracking is smooth, responsive, and accurate. Overall it’s comfortable enough for long sessions and there is some great content already here. The screen on the Note 4 is pretty great! It’s been interesting to read reviews of the device around the web. One observation about these reviews needs to be emphasized: anyone who cares enough to make a review of the Gear VR is probably a MAJOR gadget geek. That is to say hyper-critical of technical minutia and hung up on details that honestly have little effect on the overall experience. Many reviews say the pixel count is still too low, the content isn’t there yet, that it’s not comfy enough, or that motion sickness may be an issue for people. Alright yes, there is something there which may disqualify the whole deal for certain people. And yet–guys, if we can stop fixating on pixels, there is something utterly mind-blowing going on here!!

    You can put on these goggles and stand on top of the Empire State building. You can go to Egypt. You can go to MARS. You can explore imaginary worlds or sit inside of a IMAX theater on your couch at home. You can dive with dolphins and tour the solar system. You can watch a ballet performance from on-stage and share dinner with a family in Mongolia. You can literally do all of those things straight out of the box with this device. And it’s all happening ON YOUR PHONE. With no wires.

    Man.

    Let’s highlight a few of the things that resonated with me during my first couple weeks with this spiffy device…

    The included 360 photo library:

    There’s TONS in here. Each photo seems crisp and although you can see the individual pixels of the Note 4 screen if you stare at it, when you move your head around, the sharp resolution of the original image is clear, since the original has more pixels in it than the display can physically render. Some of my favorite photos I already described but there are plenty of them to examine, with each photo being rich enough that you can stand inside of it (yes, wrap your head around that!) and study all the details for quite some time if you want to. Ancient Amphitheaters, coral reefs, beehives, the top of the Eiffel Tower, Buddhist temples, the ruins of Chernobyl, take your pick. There’s whole worlds inside here, and you magically teleport around the globe at the flick of a finger. JEEZ.

    Strangers with Patrick Watson:

    I keep coming back to this 360 video, where you sit in the studio-space of a lone musician and he plays you a tune on the piano. What makes it are the casual, seemingly unscripted bits: the sounds of traffic from outside, the way he scrounges for a cigarette before he begins. Then he starts the song over because the drum machine is too loud and asks his dog, “yeah, that’s too loud isn’t it?” As he appears to finish, his phone rings. He grabs it, sees the name and laughs before hitting decline and continuing to sing a last final outro. It feels like a real moment. Believable. It puts you THERE. More than the other movies (which were all awesome in their own ways) this video showed me the possibility of what immersive VR video could bring. I wanna see the inside of a smokey jazz club or get strapped onto a guy in a birdman suit with this… the potential scenarios are dumbfounding.

    Playhead:

    It’s a game similar to Frequency, or Guitar Hero where you have note lanes you have to do things in conjunction with. Only now you’re inside of it! It’s the first music-based titled I’ve played and like “Strangers” above, this one shows you the promise of what’s possible. The whole experience is not very long, but the song is cool and there are two sections where you emerge from the note lanes into an expansive open landscape with cliffs on either side of you, a winding river far below, and eventally a rising pyramid before you. All this seems to groove with the music in a real neat way and it feels good! I look forward to more levels within this game or more games like it.

    Darknet:

    Okay, here’s the meat. Darknet is a slow burn, starting out as a nifty hacking puzzle game that borrows from many cyberpunk influences to create a dazzling world of stylized computer networks you stand inside of. At first it seems easy and bite sized. But then you complete your first hack and you do another one, and another one… and the brilliance of this game slowly reveals itself. It keeps getting harder and the time alloted doesn’t get longer. You unlock new options and you start to see there’s a lot of subtlety to how you can approach the puzzles, which have themselves added on new roadblocks. More than anything else on the Gear VR, this one has legs as an addictive way to spend time. The music sets a pitch-perfect vibe and when you experience that barely-made-it hack that only gets beaten in the last minute, the bug will bite you. If Gear VR has a “killer app” so far, this is it. As I write this, I’m excited to get back in and hack some more!

    looking at the inside of the lenses with the phone in... you're looking at the matrix code although it's too distorted to see from this distance.
    Returning back to the overall device, Oculus has been posting updates to the available content every Tuesday, which is fantastic! Each batch of new VR jams is a set of other dimensions to step inside of… because in VR a photo is not just a photo, it’s a place to be. It’s a new frontier in the way we view things. The content and the experiences may be just a few drips from a tap that’s slowly opening but what’s here already is mesmerizing, spellbinding. It really does feel like a kind of magic trick. It’s exciting to be in-on-the-scene here, with this technology that really feels like it is on the cusp of exploding. When you stand inside of it, it sweeps you up and you want to show it to other people. Everyone should see this. It amazes. And you wonder “why is this not everywhere?!” Pretty soon it will be. It just has to.

    I want to believe


    2013 - 10.18

    There’s been several leaks recently concerning the existence of something which has never formally ‘confirmed’ to exist. After seeing it online, I had to recreate this poster IRL to show solidarity. . .

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    Games I Like: Mirror’s Edge


    2013 - 07.10

    I’d like to step back in time a few years to highlight a game that got overlooked at the time but is still as hip and worth-playing today as it ever was: Mirror’s Edge. This review is also prompted partially by the news that–who would’ve ever guessed it–this game will be getting a sequel! So let’s talk about Mirror’s Edge, an off-the-wall concept fit to run against the big dogs of the gaming world…

    You play this scrawny girl who lives in a not-too distant future police-state dystopia somewhere in Asia. Your job is to deliever sensitive information between subversive elements of society that are too risky for plain old electronic transmission. You can shoot a gun in this game, but you cannot reload it. That should tell you something already… When you see enemies you can punch them, but you’d be better off to just RUN. Yeah. In this game you can run in ways unlike any other game you’ve ever played.

    “Parkour” is the fancy word used to describe the art running ON walls, jumping off walls with special shoes to reach higher ledges; moves which generally seem to defy gravity but are possible if you’re a fearless (!) and lightweight badass. The game will teach you a series of moves at the beginning, then set you loose along sun-saturated rooftops with an aesthetic palette of mainly white, punctuated by bold neon colors.  I include the below video just to show that parkour is actually a real thing that people do, in actual real life:

    At the time it came out, this game got a lot of bad reviews. I think the reason for this is because those reviewers were trying to classify this game into the same categories that 90% of new releases will fall into. This game does not have a pre-existing category. It’s 1st person parkour with transitive flashes of shooting or punching. People complained about the combat being hard. Yep. That’s the idea. You want to dodge combat wherever possible, and when you have to do it, you’re a scrawny Asian chick with no body armor… so yeah, you can’t absorb bullets like most games allow. This does lead to some tough sequences near the end of the game when combat is unavoidable, but if you’ve been taking the game’s cues along the way, you should have a refined ability to find a pathway where you can take on your foes 1 or 2 at a time, dispatching them as fluidly and rapidly as possible.

    Another polarizing thing about the game is that the storyline is largely told through “anime-style” animated cutscenes between missions. I thought this was effective and enjoyable–this coming from a self-proclaimed anime-hater. The dialogue is heavy with hip-slang and in large part the voice acting is top shelf. The lead actress is particularly spot-on. Ambient/IDM artist Solar Fields polishes things off with a pitch perfect soundtrack for rooftop chases.

    I totally adored this game and found it to be a startlingly crisp breath of fresh air amongst a sea of sequels and recycled ideas. This is the antithesis to your “Call of Duty 72: Yet Again” type release. Shame on the gaming press for squashing such originality, even if they disagreed with some artistic or gameplay choices. This thing doesn’t fit the mold, and that’s what so great about it. You’ll never play another game quite like Mirror’s Edge.

    If I had one criticism, it would be simply “I want more”. The game is short. And with the page-turner of a storyline, you are going to literally fly right through it. The highlights here are very memorable though: sliding down the sloped roof of a skyscraper while a helicopter shoots at you, and running along the outstretched beam of a construction crane and leaping from one rooftop to another across a chasm of city street hundreds of feet below. It’s actually hard not to wince when you fall off the 82nd story of a building, even knowing that you’ll soon respawn. That’s awesome. The action in here is undeniably unique and genuinely tense in its best moments. Even a seasoned gamer will have instants where you look at what just happened and say, “Wow. I really just did that?!” This is at the root of what still makes it worth playing today. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go start up a new game right now….

    Games I Like: Sleeping Dogs


    2013 - 07.07

    I’ve written plenty of times on here about my love for Grand Theft Auto. GTAIII is the progenitor that spawned generations of spin-offs; just about any open world game that incorporates driving, social satire, and a nice violent plot owes something to this series. I’ve played each one religiously and thoroughly, mining for the hidden secrets, striving to reach that one obscure area of the map just to say I’ve been there, and replaying them all to hear the dialog and watch the story unfold again. GTA IV was the entire reason I bought both a Playstation 3 and a projector.

    So it’s with all that taken into consideration that I say this: the king has got a serious challenger here.

    Sleeping Dogs was made by Square Enix, a well-renown Asian studio if you’re unfamiliar. The game is set in Hong Kong, which adds the quirky twist that all cars drive on the left side of the road there. What’s incredible about this game is that it seems like the people who made it have been playing all the other great games recently and taking notes on what makes them fun: Sleeping Dogs convolves the fluid hand-to-hand combat of the recent Batman series, the tense footchases from L.A. Noire, the upgrade system to learn new combat moves from Assassin’s Creed, and even a little bit of being able to choose between being good/evil (aka cop/triad) from games like Mass Effect. It’s a little bit of everything–and some well-chosen bits at that.

    Since it’s impossible not to compare to this game to GTA, I’ll go on to point out that some of the major annoyances of that series are absent here: you never seem to find yourself stranded on an empty street with no cars in sight. There are rarely unreasonable obstacles that will maddeningly stop you dead in your tracks if you drive into them–like a 3 foot fencepost that can suddenly halt a garbage truck traveling at 50mph. Or a row of shrubs seemingly made of concrete. And–and!–best of all: the driving mechanics are such that you can actually… Drive! Tapping the e-brake will send you skidding around a corner from which you can deftly recover and thread through traffic like a stuntman. This is Driving, with a capital D, that will make you feel like a badass again. GTA IV, for all it’s amazing successes, had one abysmal, unforgivable failure at it’s core: every car you drove felt like it was driving through mud. I don’t know what in the holy hell they were thinking with those driving mechanics but seriously, I hope someone at Rockstar is playing this game and taking notes. It’s a testament to how amazing the GTA games are–that a shortcoming so central to the gameplay could be overlooked in light of all the other ways it shines… but man you guys… Driving has been going downhill in every entry since Vice City.

    Sleeping Dogs only goes further and gets better from there: you can wash your hands in the sink. People standing outside your apartment have conversations that tell a continuing storyline about their lives. When you set a destination on your map, little arrows appear on the street where you’re supposed to turn, so you can concentrate on driving instead of the minimap. You actually get lucrative rewards for obtaining the myriad of “collectibles”. Like health upgrades or more special moves. You can do badass tricks like jump from one car to another to perform an “action hijack” on the freeway. You can shoot in slow motion when you jump over obstacles. And you can kill your opponents in hand to hand combat with a slew of entertaining and/or gruesome “environmental attacks”. My personal favorite was slamming a dude through the glass of a wall-sized fishtank in a nightclub, in a huge explosion of broken glass, fish, and lots of water. Now that was a gratifying finishing move!

    The voice acting is top notch. The music is awesome. The plot draws you in but doesn’t glue you to the story so much that you’ll forget there’s tons of cars to try, clothes to wear, types of food to eat, favors to do, girlfriends to call, hidden little spots to discover, security cameras to hack, health shrines to visit, street races to win, lockboxes to fight for–the list goes on! It’s worth re-mentioning that the left-hand-drive in Hong Kong is a novelty that doesn’t wear off from start to finish. And the Asian ‘vibe’ is really recreated with panache. From the banter of pedestrians on the street, to the dingy high-rise apartment complexes on the horizon, water-stained by the Pacific rains, to the colorful advertisements everywhere, and to the lively feel of the night market where you find yourself early on in the game–if you’ve been to Asia, this will all ring familiar.

    Sleeping Dogs deserves some real recognition. Going forward, this will be a touchstone for me in open-world crime/driving games. The bar has been raised. You can’t realistically say it’s “better” than GTA IV, in the same way that you can’t really say that a top-notch steak is better or worse than a top-notch lobster. It depends on what you’re hungry for. But I can say this for sure: In some ways it feels like GTA is made in a bubble–oblivious to all the new gameplay mechanics and tricks that everyone else is inventing, Rockstar seems content to simply iterate and make the same game over again. Yeah it’s a winning formula, but the locations are the same, the combat has really not evolved, and the same tired complaints never seem to get addressed. Sleeping Dogs is like a mash-up that folds in the best parts of many superb titles into one colossal experience. It’s got polish. It’s got style. You gots to play this. This is the real deal people. The Dai Lo.

    When GTA V drops this fall I know I’ll be playing it upside down and sideways for as many hours straight as I can before passing out in exhaustion. And I also know that, without question, there’s going to be moments where I say to myself “maaaaan, Sleeping Dogs did this so much cooler.”


    Games I Like: FEZ


    2013 - 05.20

    Over the last week I’ve been playing and greatly enjoying the retro-gasmic puzzle platformer named FEZ. Anyone with a nostalgia for 8-bit art really needs to check this one out. Until recently it was an xbox exclusive, but last week it came out on PC, so it’s acceessible to just about everyone now.

    What’s great about this game? Visuals and sound. Atmosphere. The music–enchanting. At times it really took me back to a place from my childhood when videogames, despite the simplistic graphics, were straight-up magical portals into mystic lands. There’s been many points at which I had to stop and just take in the music. From a production standpoint it’s interesting too. Sometimes it’s clean synths; sines and square waves. Then they apply some bitrate reduction to that and it sounds like an Atari glitching up, in a good way. (The artist who produced it, Disasterpeace, is a well known chiptunes artist.) Sound effects are spot-on too. When you open a locked door there’s this noise that’s like holy crap, we are unlocking some real serious stuff here.

    And dat art design! Wonderful, colorful pixelated graphics. The effect when you warp: super rad. Levels change between day and night. Little birds fly around. 8-bit inchworms. Waterfalls. Then the elephant in the room: you’re in a 3D world which can be viewed from 4 different 2D perspectives. You keep rotating until you can get where you want to go, a concept which is much easier seen than explained. This simple mechanic is the foundation of a fantastic platformer. At it’s root, this is a good GAME.

    If I had one criticism, it’s that there isn’t enough dialog, aka there’s not much of a story. The worlds are mostly devoid of others to talk to, and your helpful hypercube companion only chimes in very occasionally. Some strangers telling tales or runes with ancient lore written on them would deepen this universe considerably. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP had that in spades, but with much more “casual” gameplay mechanics. As a friend of mine who loathed “Diablo” once said, “all you do is click on shit!”. FEZ has some challenging jumps–and thankfully if you die it just takes you back about 2 seconds. NICE. Somewhat reminiscent of the ‘rewind’ from Braid.

    Level design is also pretty unique. There’s a 3D map which helps you keep track of where you’ve gone and how to get back to previous levels. So far I’ve been breezing through and collecting all the cubes has been a cinch. But I get the creeping sense that if you wanted to complete this game 100% it would be dastardly hard… indeed reviewers have confirmed as much. For every cube, there is also an “anti-cube” (colored blue instead of gold). So far I’ve found 18 cubes and 2 anti-cubes, which begs the question, where the heck are all the anti-cubes? Then another question, do I even want to know? There is a complex-looking system of hieroglyphs in the game which presumably must be decrypted to find out. We’ll see about that. There’s some kind of funky secret thing going on with the owls too.

    One little detail I love is that the loading screen for this game is that of a rotating tesseract. Like the characters inside the game, who can only see in 2D, we are restricted to seeing in 3D. A tesseract is a 3-dimensional shadow of a 4-dimensional object, just as a square is a shadow of a cube. THAT gets your mind thinking.

    Anyway, if you dig retro platformers, this thing is a slam dunk. On fire. Stop reading this and go buy it now, it’s like $9 on steam. You can thank me later. Enjoy!

    SimCity 2013: The Phantom Menace – putting the “limited” in Limited Edition


    2013 - 03.21

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    So I wrote a little blurb shortly after the launch of Simcity, but the news on this game has been evolving so rapidly that what I’d written felt irrelevant before I could even publish it.  It’s been a strange tale.  I haven’t actually bought the game yet, and that turned out to be the right call.  As I’ve observed the commotion, my feelings on the game went from major excitement, to pessimistic disappointment, and eventually to my current ambivalence.  The pre-release hype made it seem like this was going to be a return to the glory days of one of the best franchises in all of gaming, and then the reality set in at launch: servers were crushed under the initial load, then once people finally did get started playing, the gameplay was revealed to be broken on multiple levels.  I was super excited about this one for months on end, and now I wonder if I’ll even get it….

    I won’t even begin to chronicle the plain-out-weird tale of corporate-newspeak from EA/Maxis and their apologetics for why the game absolutely had to be online-only.  That story will probably go down as a textbook example of how not to handle a PR meltdown.  The superbly-written and eminently-thoughtful gaming blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun has had unbeatable coverage of the whole fiasco, which is certainly worth perusing, if you’re interested.  Besides, they’re the best PC gaming blog in the biz today, check em out.

    A couple weeks in, it sounds like most (but not all) of the server-related killjoys have been addressed.  But perhaps more nefariously, the game’s underlying AI seems to have deep problems with pathfinding.  Epic traffic jams that span whole highways between city.  Fire trucks stuck in the station, or simply never arriving.  Pedestrians wandering in circles endlessly around the same intersection, blocking all traffic.  Trade frozen.  Bus pileups as far as the eye can see.  Once your city gets big enough, these unfixable problems begin to break it. 

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    There are other weirdnesses that make no sense: it’s possible to build nothing but roads and residential zones, and end up with a 60k population… in spite of the fact that your city has no commercial zones, industrial zones, power, water, sewer, trash, police, hospitals, etc etc. 

    People have have also lamented that city size is much more restricted than it ever was in SC2k and that disasters cannot be disabled.  Those are overshadowed further by the downright baffling design choice that you can’t even save a copy of your city… which used to allow experimentation with the freedom of restoring to an earlier save-state.  Your city data is not stored on your local computer, apparently?  You have no possession of the content you create now.  That’s just… deeply unfortunate. 

    In spite of all this, odds are I’ll end up buying this game in good time, assuming they can fix the worst of the pathfinding problems.  I’m glad to be reading all this trash-talk before I ever touch the thing.  No game has a soft spot in my personal Venn-diagram of nostalgia/videogames the way Simcity does.

    I remember as a grade-school kid, staying after school for hours to play the original Simcity in the computer lab, since home computers were a rarity in those days.  One time no one knew where I was, and it even prompted a moment of panic until they found me at the PC, just building my city again.  Then when my best friend got Simcity for his SNES we played the dickens out of that, even with lots of other games vying for attention.  We would take turns building and strategizing, laying on the living room floor for hours while his parakeets cheeped and that same music looped over and over.  SimAnt was another addictive one for me when we eventually got our first home PC.  Taking over the whole yard and eventually forcing the humans out of the house was strangely gratifying, and the game somehow made ant-trivia fascinating.  Then fast-forward to junior high when Simcity 2000 (aka SC2k) came out… whoooo, I don’t even want to know how many hours went into that.  One of the all-time top-10 on all platforms, if you ask me.

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    So it’s tough not to approach a new Simcity with giddy overenthusiasm, reminiscent of how I probably felt in the theater watching Star Wars The Phantom Menace for the first time.  Sure, all your favorite tropes are here, but uhhh, you’d better tame those expectations: childlike wonder is by no means guaranteed!

    And how could it be, really?  Part of what made Simcity 2000 such an amazing powerhouse was the fact that I played it at a point in life where I was old enough to grab my bike and ride off to any part of town, yet too young to be expected to work; a moment in life when free time was endless, and the relatively-new world of 3D videogames was a fascination with few rivals.  There was all the time in the world to build that perfect masterpiece, then realize all the oversights you’d made in dreaming it up, tear it all down, start over, and build the real masterpiece this time… ad infium.

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    Looking at the screenshots of people’s creations (those who have been able to play) brings back a wash of fond recollections of the old Simcities.  This series is sort of the original and greatest “sandbox” game.  One with no win or lose condition, no time limit, no missions to complete, just your imagination.  I really look forward to spending some time in Maxis’ latest iteration of that wonderland I used to get so lost within–I’m just tamping down my expectations.  This is Simcity: The Phantom Menace.  And thanks to the wonder of modern technology, you can’t actually BUY it.  You can only RENT it from Electronic Arts.  That is, when they decide to eventually shut down the servers for good in some years time, that’s it, everyone’s done.  There will be no dusty box in the closet with a CD in it that will allow you to reinstall a working copy.  Nor will there be a stack of 3.5″ floppy disks that got lost for years, only to be found under the bed one day, allowing some magical time warp back to your old experiments, quirky half-successes, and weird ideas.  Those save games kept that time portal open, in a way that few toys could–your LEGO creations could never rebuild themselves into a badass spaceship you created that one time, and the particles in the real-life sandbox of your backyard can never reassemble into the sweet castle your pal Jake made with his tower-shaped bucket.  There is a euphoria in rewinding.

    Those days are gone.  The future is here, and what’s new isn’t always better.

    Instead of a sarcastic “Thanks EA” I’m going to do my best to simply enjoy Simcity 2013 at face value.  It’ll never be able to touch SC2k in terms of pure addictive thrill.  And when it’s over it’s gone forever.  I’ll make a point to enjoy it in the moment, going in knowing that’s a very pretty, but ultimately much smaller, more limited world than my nostalgia wants to paint it.

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