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Friday, February 28, 2014

Review: The Wolf Among Us Episodes 1 & 2

If you're an old fogey, you'll remember the old point and click adventure games: you know, you click on a graphical environment and you have dialog, picking up items in your inventory, etc. Well, Telltale games have brought them back on modern machines, including tablets, PS3, PCs, Macs, etc. The twist they have on them is that they release episodes on a regular schedule, and they're more like interactive comic books than they are like adventure games. For one thing, you can't actually affect the outcome of the episodes (unless you die and then you get a game over screen and restart). Secondly, adventure games were long, taking hours and hours to finish, while each Telltale episode's designed to last at most 1-2 hours, about the length of a movie.

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of the Telltale approach to games. I tried The Walking Dead on my Vita for about an episode and a half, but it's quite obvious that the Telltale games doesn't employ any Silicon Valley engineers (they're in San Rafael). The game loads every 10-15 minutes, and the loading time is pretty long, considering how little content is in each segment of a game. Unlike a video, you can't actually play these games at double speed, which is annoying because in a very slowly paced game like The Walking Dead you get pretty annoyed at having to slowly point and click at everything. I got bored to tears and switched to playing more interesting games.

Well, Sony had The Wolf Among Us for sale at $9 this week, and I decided that this was about the same price as the Fables comic, so if it had about as much content it was a reasonable price. Prior to this sale, I wasn't even aware that there was going to be a Fables game being worked on. This is probably how Telltale's business model works: they don't really sell to people want to play games, as much as they sell to people who are already fans of the licensed property and want more of the comic book or the TV series. I wasn't a fan of the Walking Dead comic or TV series (I actually did read several issues of the comics, and they were so lackluster and filled with cliches about the Zombie apocalypse that I didn't bother reviewing them for this blog), so I couldn't get invested in the game, but Fables? Count me in! I was also hopeful that the PS3 wouldn't suffer the loading time issues involved in the Vita version.

Set prior to the events of the comic book series, you take the viewpoint of Bigby Wolf, who's easily one of the best characters in the series. As sheriff of fable-town, he has to investigate all crimes involving the Fables in New York, and while this case starts innocuously enough, it soon degenerates into a murder mystery. The characters are well depicted, and you do get to meet almost all the characters you've met earlier in the comics. Unlike The Walking Dead on the Vita, The Wolf Among Us on the PS3 with a hybrid 7200rpm SSD actually loads pretty fast. I don't really know whether it's because I'm more invested in the story, or that the game actually has less content, but I went through each episode fairly quickly, and it didn't feel like a burden. Furthermore, "playing" the game at 1080p on a big screen TV is a better way to experience this than on a small screen.

The game does have more action sequences than The Walking Dead, and they come on fast, so you do need some reflexes to be able to "play" this interactive story. The mystery is fair, and I figured out who the murderer was before the reveal, which felt pretty good. The downside is that the game is still fairly glitchy, and froze up once, forcing me to replay a section I'd already played. For $9 for 5 episodes, this is money well spent. I'm not sure I'd pay much more. Nevertheless, if you're a PC or Mac owner, a Steam sale is bound to come up sooner or later and you can snag it at $5 or less than. Recommended, but not at full price. And if you've read this far and haven't read the comics, go buy and read them right now!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Review: The Last of Us

The Last of Us is a weighty game. It lets you know this the moment you start it up, because to even start a new game requires lots of disk churning and whirling. I once timed a game startup at 15 minutes, though after the game got cached onto my hybrid SSD startup became a much more manageable 3-4 minutes. The characters move as though the weight of the world is on their shoulders as well. Joel, the main viewpoint character, grunts and moves slowly, and even on the occasions when you play Ellie, the girl he's supposed to protect, she doesn't quite dance, either.

The first 80% of the game absolutely drove me nuts. Part of it was my own fault, and part of it was the game's. I'd read many reviews saying that this was a game where you could stealth your way past a lot of enemies, and so I set out to do precisely that, only to be frustrated time after time by an exit that required making noise and therefore led to my having to kill every moving object in the arena. This was my fault: I shouldn't have paid any attention to reviews.

And then sometimes I would try to stealth a section and for no apparent reason monsters would descend upon my location and the game would frustrate me no end. I couldn't apparently shoot my way out of the encounter, nor could I find a way to avoid the monsters! This was the game's fault. In many ways, the first 80% of the game felt like the first day you attended an English class that wanted to teach you LITERATURE. Until that day, you enjoyed reading, and you loved stories. What that English class taught you was that LITERATURE means you can't have any fun reading whatsoever. The stories would have to be insipid and boring, like The Merchant of Venice, instead of Flowers for Algernon. You would have to read Things Fall Apart instead of A Wizard of Earthsea. In many ways, The Last of Us does for action games what The Merchant of Venice would do for Shakespeare: make you hate it. Instead of the beautiful state of flow you can achieve in Among Thieves, you got a character, Joel, who plodded instead of ran, couldn't aim a weapon straight, and of course, ran out of ammunition at every opportunity. Even the "realism" rankled, because your enemies would shoot infinite bullets at you, but when you finally killed one you'd try to loot his body and discovered that he'd apparently used his last bullet just before you killed him. The first 80% of The Last of Us felt like I was being made to atone for years of being a rat-bastard DM. And yes, I was playing the game on EASY mode! Nowhere did the word fun enter into the game play. I played the game hoping for a payoff, but watched in despair as the hours racked up on the PS3 without a sign of me becoming actually good at it.

Then in the last 20% of the game everything finally clicked. First, I'd finally upgraded Joel and his weapons to the point where I didn't feel like he was incompetent at everything. He still ran out of ammunition frequently, but I finally learned that nail bombs were for humans and Molotov cocktails were for monsters. The repetition finally drilled everything into me. Then the game switched me over to playing Ellie, the girl he was trying to protect, and her encounter with the enemy David sent chills up my spine, tingling with suspense. That's followed by a gorgeous sequence in Salt Lake City where every cliche would have had Joel running after Ellie as she ran head-long into danger, and instead... we got giraffes in a beautifully rendered post-apocalyptic urban setting. Make no mistake, this game is gorgeously rendered. Naughty Dog has managed to motion-capture and program its way past the uncanny valley of character animation and facial expressions. Every nuance of the characters, from body language to little ticks and smiles is rendered in such a way that the game feels very much like a feature film, and I'm not talking about the cut scenes. If this is what Naughty Dog can manage with an 8 year old CPU/GPU combination and 256MB of RAM, I can't wait to see what they do given modern technology and 8GB of RAM.

There are minor glitches in the game, though the most glaring one was the stealth-kill button when you play as Ellie. The game prompts you to push the triangle button, but it really should be the square. This bug cost me no small amount of frustration.

What's more, the game does all the right things in terms of story. For instance, I agree that one of the problems with Tomb Raider was the character called Sam. Naughty Dog could have gone that way, with you having to rescue Ellie all the time, but in fact, didn't. Not only does Ellie rescue herself, but during combat she frequently helps Joel, which is one of the reasons the relationship between Joel and Ellie is believable. By the end of the story, you understand that these two will do anything for each other. On top of that, the story is extremely self-aware: the violence is brutal, and the game doesn't shy away from it, and Ellie gasps when Joel does something particularly nasty. The game does for the zombie game what Unforgiven did for Westerns.

The soundtrack is also well done, full of quiet beauty, and quite unlike anything else you might have heard in video games. I was content to let the ending credits roll and just listen to the music when the game was over, but rather than feel satisfied that I had done something, I just felt relieved that I didn't have to play this game any more.

Thus, I am left with a dilemma. As a technological tour de force, this game is a must play. For the moments of beauty in a post apocalyptic world, it's clear that the teams of artists that worked on this game did not waste their time. With great voice acting and a reasonably decent story (though unfortunately I spotted the plot twists miles away), the characters draw you in and make you believe in Naughty Dog's creation in a way that lesser games struggle to do. But is the game play fun? Not really. It's repetitive, and the amount of work you have to do to gather objects, etc., overshadows the moments of brilliance. And you really just care about the story, you could just watch the entire game on youtube. Nowhere does the game actually let you make substantial choices, so you wouldn't be missing much.

If you haven't played games for awhile, play Among Thieves or Tomb Raider first. Both those games excel at putting you in flow, and being fun. Then when you have had enough fun, and want to eat your vegetables, play The Last of Us. And in this case, it's OK if you never get to your veggies. You won't get constipated if you don't.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: Ghost in the Wires

Ghost in the Wires is Kevin Mitnick's memoir of his time as a hacker and fugitive from the law. It's great reading and very entertaining, not least because it can be read at several levels.

As a thriller, it's every bit as much fun to read as it was for me to watch Catch Me If You Can. Mitnick (or at least, his co-author) brings in entertaining details about how he socially engineered Novell, Sun, DEC, the various phone companies, and security expert Tsutomu Shimomura. The book's very light on technical details, and it's not clear if Mitnick actually did anything with the gigabytes of source code he downloaded from the various companies he hacked except for VMS, which he did write a number of exploits for. What's clear, however, is that no amount of computer security is going to help if you fall for social engineering, which would be very difficult to inoculate against in any organization with any semblance of cooperation between departments.

Now, if you treat this book as a work of fiction, it's also fascinating because Mitnick's clearly an unreliable narrator with a singular goal: to make you believe that he was doing what he was doing for fun. It's quite clear that he enjoyed duping people (social engineering is just another term for "lying," as he admits in this book), and hacking into police chatter, and his consistent attacks on certain individuals clearly violate their privacy in a way that would repulse most people who stopped to think about it. Given his personality, it's not surprising that it took about 8 years in prison for him to change his ways.

What's amusing to me is that Mitnick himself was socially engineered on numerous occasions, by "friends" and people otherwise close to him. He called these people "betrayers", but the fact that he went back to these "friends" several times after being betrayed showed that he himself was a poor judge of character, largely because lying was so much a part of his personality that he couldn't fault his friends for doing it to him!

Are there any useful bits in the book? Yes. The last section includes a list of tips on improving your personal security. Again, it's pretty amusing, since he claims that Windows is actually more secure than OS X, it's just that Windows is far more popular so there are more people trying to exploit its vulnerabilities. (It's notable that Mitnick never hacked any Windows systems himself, nor does he runs Windows personality) He does note that ChromeOS is very secure by virtue of not having anything to attack.

In any case, I'll recommend this book for anyone interested in any of the topics he discusses, as well as anyone who loves heist movies.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Review: Batman - Arkham Origins

I don't usually review current games, since I have been away from video games for so long that I have a backlog that's cheap. But Arkham Origins came with the PS3 I bought to replace one broken by my son (he fed 2 disks into the blu ray player at once), along with The Last of Us. I fully expected to play and enjoy The Last of Us, but found myself getting stuck early on in the game, and after finishing Arkham City, decided to try Arkham Origins while I still had my Batman reflexes.

Arkham Origins has its problems, partly because the game designers/writers on the game made a major change to the boss fights. Shamus Young's analysis on this game is spot-on, and I'll defer to him on this point, since I have nothing to add:
The rule in movies is “Show, don’t tell”. The rule in games is “Do, don’t show.” The writer is yanking control away from the player at the very moment they want it most: The moment of victory. I realize it’s not as exciting for a viewer to sit there and watch the fight end in button-mash beat down #7, but this is a game, not a movie. The focus should be on making something fun to do, not just fun to watch.
Regardless, however, I found the game relentlessly playable. There are several factors for this. First, I was already familiar with the game from previous games in the series. This is a big part of the reason why sequels are so popular in games, movies and novels. Once you've invested in learning about the world and how to navigate it, it's so much less effort to play another game in the series than to learn a whole new UI. Secondly, the game doesn't try to be too challenging, especially in easy mode, which is a problem I've had with many other games. Finally, Arkham Origins now has a new crime-investigation mode which while shallow, fleshes out the "Batman as Detective" angle much better than it did before, adding fun to an aspect of the game that was previously just "follow the augmented reality markers." Given that Rocksteady's a critically acclaimed publisher while Warner Games Montreal are new to this, that's a significant improvement and one frequently overlooked by critics of this game.

Finally, the game is short enough that I never found myself wondering why I was wherever I was. While Arkham City had tons of information overload, I never felt that way in Arkham Origins because the story clearly pointed me onwards in many ways. The story is also better than previous games in that Batman actually changes and develops as a character. In Arkham City, he tolerates huge losses near the end of the game, but he seems as unflinching as Judge Dredd would be.

My biggest problem with the game? The fact that you had to fight Bane too many times. You fight him no less than 3-4 times in the game as a "boss", and I think once is plenty. Sure, the mechanics is different in the last Bane fight, but why couldn't they have picked someone else?

My take on Arkham Origins is that it's gotten a bad rep simply because Rocksteady was a tough act to follow. But many critics overlook that it's a better game than Arkham City in many ways. Arkham Asylum's still the best game in the series, but I wouldn't pass up Arkham Origins or treat it as a lesser creation compared to the other two. Recommended.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Review: New York Times for the Kindle

There's no question that the Kindle is by far the best device for reading, especially long form reading. But the Kindle's New York Times is more expensive than buying the paper newspaper or subscribing to the website. At $20/month, it's $5 more than the web-only digital access subscription. But the price difference could be worth it if you end up reading more. The New York Times offered a one month long trial, so I picked it up, since I expected to cancel it within a month.

Reading on the Kindle is very different from the web-site. For one thing, there are no ads! There's absolutely no distraction whatsoever from the content. As a result, you sweep from one story to the next in record time, and what would take an hour to browse through on the paper version would take about 15 minutes. This is despite the interface on my basic Kindle being less than ideal: you have to use the directional pad to move from article to the next, and one section to the next. Woe unto you if you were to accidentally switch sections if you didn't intend to. You'd lose your place in the paper and then have to restart your browse.

One of the unexpected difficulties I ran into was that you can't directly share articles from the kindle to any of the social networks. All you can do is "clip the article", whereupon it would show up as a text file called "My Clippings" which you can read by attaching your Kindle to a computer via USB cable. So what this means is that I'd read the day's paper, clipping articles I found interesting, and then when I had time, I'd link my cable to the computer and then share those articles by searching on Google and clicking through. This is additional effort, but not necessarily a bad thing: it forced me to curate the New York Times articles I shared more carefully. On the other hand, I could easily see myself not doing it for a while and then accumulating a backlog of articles that's never shared. Given the time spent doing so, it also meant that my shares would be delayed by significant amounts of time, possibly days or weeks.

By far the biggest problem with the Kindle version, however, is that just like a delivered dead-tree paper, it's yesterday's news. The up to date web-site is more timely, and has more interesting news. The printed page also has some advantages. For instance, the page on FPS on Sunday's New York Times looks much better on the page than on the web, and never finds it to the Kindle version. You also don't get the Sunday review of books, which I discovered after the fact to be an actually useful addendum to the New York Times.

Whether you should get the Kindle version of the New York Times depends very much on your reading habits. I think that it could be worth the $5 premium simply because of how much better the Kindle version reads. Nevertheless, missing the photos, additional content, and having mostly yesterday's news would probably be a turn-off for most readers.