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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review: NXR-RH3001 Professional 30" Under Cabinet Range Hood

After our recent remodeling I now have a deathly fear of home improvement projects. Unfortunately, our microwave range hood's microwave function went dead recently, and our remodeling also left us with some ridiculously sensitive smoke detectors, so I went crazy and bought the most powerful range hood Costco has: the $500 800 cfm "Professional" model.

Being tired of remodeling, we paid someone to do the install. He had to make a couple of trips to Home Depot since the hood didn't come with all the parts, but we kept going instead of returning it because he said he had experience with the unit and thought it was an excellent choice.

The hood extends down quite a bit more than the microwave did, but that's not a bad thing: it just means that the hood is closer to the cooking pots and what not. The lights also work better since they're closer to the stove.

At full 800CFM, the thing isn't excessively loud, and was indeed the same noise level or less than the microwave hood it replaced. What's most important, however, is now when I get out the blow-torch to sear steaks, the house's smoke detectors don't go off, and you can visibly see the hood sucking up all the smoke and grease.

At lower levels (the hood has 4 different motor speeds), you can barely hear the device.

Recommended. Should have done the upgrade ages ago.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: Never Alone (PS4)

Never Alone is a puzzle-platformer whose primary purpose is to provide cultural understanding of the Inupiat Alaskan natives. The game tells a story (in the Inupiat language with subtitles provided) about a girl who sets out to free her village from an eternal blizzard. The story is well told and full of atmosphere, with cut-scenes provided through faux-historic pictograms. It's pretty, and part of the reason I kept playing even though I don't usually enjoy platformers.

The game is clearly written to be played with two players at once: if you're a solo player, you'll have to flip between the two characters (the girl and her arctic fox) in order to get through some of the puzzles. Because certain puzzles have a time limit (especially near the end of the game), this could lead you to repeat sections over and over until you get it right, which can be frustrating. Fortunately, the game's checkpointing system is fairly well thought out, and you usually will not repeat any puzzle which you can do once.

The closest comparison game I'd compare this to is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Both use a puzzle platformer to tell a story, and because the game has a goal other than to provide extended play time or to challenge the players, the puzzles are straightforward.

As a single player, however, the approach of Brothers is the considerably better one, with the controls for Never Alone never really feeling comfortable, and frequently awkward. However, what the game excels at (and this is an excellent reason to play and experience the game) is mapping the platforming adventure to the environment of the harsh arctic circle. Frequently, the most dangerous part of the game is the environment, not the polar bears or the enemies, real or mythical. Furthermore, the game ends just about when it starts to wear out its welcome (3 hours 10 minutes is the average), a rare demonstration of restraint amongst video games.

I got this as part of the Playstation Plus subscription. I can't imagine paying the full $14.99 price for this game, but considering the other PS+ games that never get played more than a couple of times, I'd say that this game is considerably more respectful of my time than other games, is beautifully rendered, and therefore worthy of your consideration if it were to be suitable discounted (it was recently on sale on steam for $6.99, and on PSN for $6.00). Considering that it includes 24 videos that essentially form an hour long documentary about the Inupiat Eskimos, that would be a very attractive price if you have an interest in the topic.

The game is available on XBox One, PS4, PC, and Macintosh.


Monday, July 27, 2015

Review: Joss Whedon: The Biography

I generally enjoy Joss Whedon's work. I hesitate to call myself a fan, since I don't like all of his work. For instance, I enjoyed Buffy, but I found Dollhouse too silly. I disliked the fakeness of using Mandarin in Firefly, but I enjoyed the series anyway. But I was curious enough to check out a copy of the Joss Whedon biography from the library, despite it being a major pain in the neck to read, because my library provided the ebook on hoopla, a library ebook provider that cannot seem to get session management right.

The book covers Whedon's early life right until Agents of Shield (which I still haven't gotten around to watching). The early part of the book's very well done, with interesting exposition, and a largely unvarnished picture of a bright and talented, yet unmotivated student muddling through school until he found what he loved. Then a great teacher he respects turns him around, and he embarks on the typical career path of the late 80s: moving back with his parents.

Since he's a 3rd generation TV writer, he did get a leg up on everyone else, but he also got screwed, just like many other talented folks. The story of how he rewrote almost every line on Speed but then was dropped from the credits page is poignant and reflective of how the rules can screw you if you don't know them. The detailed story behind his work on the first Toy Story movie was also fascinating, and I enjoyed the account from both sides (with Whedon the script-writer envious of the animators, while the animators were in turn in awe of his ability to tighten up dialog).

From then on, the book, however, stops being interesting, mostly because almost everything is fairly well known (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Dollhouse, Serenity, The Avengers aren't exactly stories you would have missed unless you were living under a rock somewhere). The opportunities for Pascale to shed light on the issues Whedon might have had with Gellar are completely dropped, for instance. (It's quite clear that Gellar isn't in Whedon's inner circle, which considering how often he enjoys using the same staff in different productions means there's something there that's not reported)

The tone of the book also shifts clearly into fan-mode at this point. I fully expected there to be a chapter on how Whedon walks on water in the later portions of the book.

Whedon's in his 50s now, and I'm wondering if it's still too early to pass judgement on his work. In any case, however, this book is not the source to go to for that. It's clearly written too much from a fan's point of view, and has too many holes in it. In any case, Whedon's clearly successful, and well worth following in the future.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Review: The Last of Us - Left Behind DLC (PS4)

I normally don't buy DLC content. Invariably they're either set too difficult (typically only hard-core fans buy DLC, and they want a challenge), or don't add much to the story or single player experience. But my recent play-through of Max Payne 3 made me long for more Naughty Dog content, and that in combination with a recent sale that allowed you to buy Left Behind as a standalone game on the PS4 game at $5 allowed me the indulgence of the DLC.

My previous year's review of The Last of Us was ambivalent at best. But some of the most scintillating moments of the game was when I was playing as Ellie, the character Joel was tasked with protecting. (At the end of The Last of Us, we finally realize that rather than Joel saving Ellie, the game was about Ellie saving Joel) In the entirety of Left Behind, you get to play as Ellie. The story composed of two separate sections, each alternating with the other. In the opening sequence, you open with Ellie desperately trying to find supplies while Joel is incapacitated (this isn't much of a spoiler). In the flashback, you play Ellie before she meets Joel about the events that lead up to her ultimate need to be transported.

The two stories intertwine and alternate, and reinforce each other. More than anything else, what Left Behind oozes is self-confidence. What other game would provide a good half hour of "game play" where you're two kids fooling around in a deserted post-apocalyptic mall where there's no way to fail, but isn't a tutorial? This is video-game storytelling at its finest, with you building and discerning the relationship between characters directly through interaction. The game isn't heavy-handed, and the lack of consequence of failure actually frees the player to enjoy the contrast with the main storyline's seriousness.

The serious game play is well done, and arguably much better than in the main version of The Last of Us. Ellie gets to play the zombies and clickers against the party that's hunting for her, and intelligent play can be used to great effect. I still died a couple of times, but unlike in the original game, I never felt it was unfair or I was misled. The amount of stuff I could scavenge still felt parsimonious (despite playing the game set on easy), and I still felt like I was being forced to atone for being a rat-bastard DM, but twice I managed to get the Zombies to prey on the Bad Guys was far more satisfying than the grinding I had to do in the original game.

The other interesting to note is that I played the original game on the PS3, but Left Behind on the PS4. (There's no save game state that carries over between the two, so it's OK to play that way) The PS4 version of the game is significantly faster to load and start, and also has better models, but not so much so that I'd forgo the game on the PS3. In fact, I'd say that by far the most important feature of the game is instant resume, which I love given that I often get interrupted and have to turn off the PS4 to do something else before coming back a day or so later. (I also have the PS4 hooked up to a 5.1 surround sound system rather than merely stereo, and that also makes it impressive, but the PS3 would also happily hook up to a 5.1 surround system as well)

It's unfortunate that the full emotional impact of the DLC can really be felt after you've played The Last of Us (though I'd say that the promotional material overstates the spoilers in Left Behind: you can safely play it the minute you get Ellie as a playable character in The Last of Us, and in fact, it's probably best played that way), but if you've already played The Last of Us, Left Behind will leave you feeling even more impressed than at the end of the original game. Highly recommended.

NOTE: if you have a PS4 and haven't played The Last of Us, Amazon sells it in digital release for $14.45. The full game includes this DLC, which is a bargain if you have never played it before.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: Mindhunter

I have finally succumbed to the failure of the avid book reader's memory. When I saw that the kindle edition of Mindhunter was at $1.99, I tried the sample and read it, and enjoyed it and bought it. Two chapters later, I realized I'd read it before: somewhere in 1993, before I had a blog (well before blogs existed), which is why a search for my own review of Mindhunter never surfaced it.

Nevertheless, I didn't mind too much, as the book was a great read and I ploughed on through the book reading each chapter breathlessly.

Ultimately, this is a non-fiction account of a detective's cool magical trick: that of being able to profile the criminal through thorough examination of a crime scene. When you read newspaper reports about how the police have determined that the killer was a "white male, age 30-35, drives a volkswagen, has a high school education, and probably smokes and drinks and has a beard", and then wonder "how the heck did they do that?", this is the book for you.

John Douglas was one of the pioneers in the FBI Investigative Support Unit, and did the early research and studies on what makes serial killers tick. As a result, we get first hand accounts of how he profiled and helped to capture (and in some cases failed to capture) the serial killers that he was brought in to investigate.

A lot of the profiling comes from an understanding of the background of the killer: the kind of person who could commit most of these crimes is pretty dysfunctional, and hence can only fit into certain backgrounds. There's also some interesting statistical analysis, for instance, killings rarely cross racial boundaries. Furthermore, what's interesting is how the killer often tries to inject himself into the police investigation, leading to some proactive methods by which he can be caught. And of course, it's almost always a male serial killer. Though there are a couple of chilling examples of women killers in the book, they almost always target their immediate family rather than strangers. (There's one example in the book of a woman hiring a hit-man to take out her FBI agent husband to get the insurance money)

The book does have a hidden agenda: Douglas is very much pro-death penalty, and after reading the book, you can see why. There's no way you could handle the thousands of horrifying cases he has without coming to the conclusion that certain criminal types just cannot be turned around: by the time the killer has committed multiple murders, there's nothing that can be salvaged from his psyche. Furthermore, because such personalities are very focused on returning to prior behavior, they're capable of fooling psychologists, social workers, and others into thinking that they've been rehabilitated. When such people are let out on parole, they inevitably kill again. Reading this book makes you think that maybe the Batman comic books aren't so silly after all, where the super-criminals inevitably get let out of prison to repeat their crimes.

Douglas is also unsympathetic to the insanity plea. He notes that none of the "criminally insane" ever feel so compelled to act that they commit their crimes in front of a uniformed police officer. In several cases, he notes that the serial killers would visit a location with the intent of committing their crime, discover that conditions weren't favorable, and back out. This meant that when they committed their crime, they were in full control of whether or not to go through with it, and that they knew that it was wrong, but committed the act anyway.

In any case, the book is compelling reading, and well worth the time and $1.99. Pick it up!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Review: Max Payne 3 (PC)

I will admit that I'm one of those people who always power down his desktop whenever he's not using it. The reason is that my desktop is power hungry (idles around 150W). But with Google Photos recently providing unlimited storage, I decided to just keep the desktop on and upload all 66,000 photos (including many in RAW format) into the cloud. Since the PC was already on all the time (the process is taking weeks!), this reduced the mental barrier against playing games on the PC, and hence I ended up playing PC games that I never got around to doing so. This is an entirely irrational decision, because the difference between running the 7870 GPU idle and loaded is more than the cost of powering up and running the PS4 (which has essentially the same GPU!).

I'd picked up the Max Payne 3 and GTA IV package for $3 a year or so back. GTA IV was completely unplayable, especially after the delectable Sleeping Dogs: the characters were detestable, the controls were sloppy, and the driving unbearable. Max Payne 3, however, is essentially a cover shooter (or at least, on Easy you can play it like a cover shooter), which is one of my favorite genres, so I played it through to see what the incredibly high reviews were about.

The game is long, but a lot of it is because of incredibly long cut scenes. From reading the forums online, apparently these cut scenes were a result of the previous generation consoles taking so long to load assets from disk that they had to put in movies so you weren't staring at a loading screen for a long time.

The shooting part of the game is just fine. Apparently though I was playing it wrong: you're supposed to treat it like a running shooter rather than a cover shooter, but whatever. The flaws in the game, however, turn it into a frequently frustrating experience. Unlike Uncharted 2, the game wrests control from the player all the time, leaving one with a feeling of a complete lack of agency. This is compounded by the game's collectible system: frequently, what you're supposed to do after a fight is to run around the room picking up ammo and collectibles. But if you were to stumble into an exit zone (which aren't clearly marked), then suddenly the game takes over and you're driven into a cut scene where you're not allowed to retreat and explore. This is annoying as heck if you ran down your ammo shooting the previous room and then are moving into the next room with a huge disadvantage. Even worse, it means you're pretty much guaranteed to miss clues that advance the story.

Fortunately, on easy mode, if you die enough times, the game gives you more and more health packs and ammo until you can finish the scene.

The story has excellent production values, with excellent voice acting, but the plot is ridiculously predictable. You could tell who the bad guy is within the first hour, and everything else is just an excuse to gun down lots of other people. There are no puzzles, and the pacing is extremely uneven, with some shooting scenes ending and transitioning almost immediately into another shooting scene, while you sometimes go through long cut scenes only to endure a pointless wandering around before stumbling onto another fire fight.

The game's technical implementation is nice: you can play either with a controller or with keyboard and mouse, with the mouse giving you far more control and faster action at the expense of it being in a pain to enter bullet time. But you don't have to choose your control scheme: you can switch between one or the other at will, and the game picks it up and moves pretty nicely despite all that. I ran Max Payne 3 at my monitor's native resolution of 2560x1440, and the GPU wasn't maxed out the entire time, though (as expected from an extra 200W of power draw) the room did get warm.

What's interesting is how little the CPU of my 6 year old Core i7 920 was taxed: despite the uploading to Google Photos in the background, I never noticed any jitter and slow down due to the number of background processes running (including the web-browser). In daily use, I notice the web browser slowing down as I can frequently out-type the blogger text-edit field! Clearly the web-browser guys can learn a lot from the video game guys about interactive application performance and latency.

Of course, for $3, I got my money's worth, but I can see now why the Uncharted series is so revered: even Rockstar games with (essentially) an unlimited budget cannot hold a candle to what Naughty Dog did on a relatively tiny budget. Though I guess if you're a PC-exclusive gamer without access to a PS3 or PS4, this is as good as it gets.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review: The Annihliation Score

The Annihliation Score is Charlie Stross' latest laundry novel. I gave up on the Laundry series after The Apocalypse Codex, but the kindle sample for this latest installment was intriguing, and filled with enough changes that I bought it and read it.

The first change is that Bob Howard is no longer the protagonist/narrator. Instead, we get his wife, who's a much different character. The opening is entertaining, but unfortunately after a while Mo whines just a bit too much for me to enjoy the narrative. She's self-centered, unappreciative of her husband, and obviously headed towards a nervous breakdown as she becomes increasingly neurotic.

The series pivots towards superheroes as the latest manifestation of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the rise of the old ones. A series of super-crimes results in the authorization of a government-mandated super hero team to fight crime. This could be fun and funny, but instead Stross chooses to emphasize the bureaucracy and cross-functional coordination mess (with Mo as the director) rather than the fun. And then he ends the novel with a reveal that actually undermines the entire premise, tying it off back to the laundry.

I bought the book hoping that it'd be a good change from the series so far, but it seemed to be a sideways shift, rather than a quantum leap in quality or even a major change in setting. As an airplane novel it's serviceable and probably much better than the usual dreck. Compared to the early laundry novels, it's disappointing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: Exploring Calvin & Hobbes, An Exhibition Catalog

I'll admit that I'm a sucker for deals, so despite having had lousy success with comics in the past on the Kindle store, I picked up Exploring Calvin & Hobbes for $1.99 when it went on sale. So this is as much a review of the Kindle Cloud reader as it is the book.

As a book, this is decent stuff for $1.99. You get a long interview with Bill Watterson (which is unusual, since he doesn't usually do interviews). There's a lot of good stuff in there, especially his indictment of modern childhood:
Really, I suppose the biggest gift my parents gave me was a lot of time. There was never a sense that I should be doing something else. If I was up in my room drawing, nobody bothered me. That kind of time is just indispensable. It's not a luxury, it's an absolute requirement. You've got to mess around---it's the only way to figure stuff out. (Kindle Loc 15)
I drew a couple of strips where Calvin and Hobbes are sitting alone in the car while Calvin's mom or dad shops. My parents did that all the time when we were kids, but if you did it now, someone would call the police. I imagine today's readers wonder what's wrong with me that I'd draw something like that. (Kindle Loc 36)
 The book's marketing literature talks about how there are various notes on the panels, but disappointingly, those are the curator's notes, not Watterson's. By far the most frustrating thing about the Kindle Cloud reader is that it doesn't let me highlight text, or even copy/paste quotations (i retyped all the above quotations!). Needless to say, the search functionality is also missing, as is bookmarking. This makes me glad I didn't pay full price for this (or any other comic), as obviously my basic Kindle is useless for reading comics. What's annoying is that the full blown Windows client doesn't work on comics either!

If I was running Windows 8, I suppose I could attempt using the Kindle App, but as it is, I'm forced to browse back and forth to extract the quotes I reproduced above, which was quite frustrating.

Nevertheless, the long interview was worth the $1.99, and the extra cartoons and notes are just icing on the cake. Recommended for Watterson fans, though I suppose you could just check it out from the library for free.

Regardless: don't pay for Kindle comics. They're just not worth it. Sad to say, pirated comics probably deliver a much better user experience.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Review: Entwined (PS Vita)

Entwined is a Playstation exclusive art game. I imagine whoever picks the games to fund must have a fun job: it's a lot like being a VC in that you're largely picking teams on their potential, but the stakes are a lot lower, and the results are more about fun and diversity than purely about making money.

Not to say that the money isn't good. For instance, when Sony picked flow, Flower, and Journey to fund for the PS3, they ended up backing a game studio that's generated an experience that's unique among games, and that success was so profitable that Sony went on to port the game to all their other platforms.

I'm sure the same kind of thinking went into funding Entwined.  By essentially hiring fresh graduates from CMU, and pairing them with some veterans, they hoped that lightning would strike twice. Entwined uses a unique mechanic: essentially, you use the twin joysticks on the controller to control two different characters. Your characters then need to capture balls by running into them, and stay in certain zones that represent some form of tunnel. If you miss those zones, you lose energy (as displayed by a bar in your HUD). When you max out both characters' energies, they merge and you're rewarded by a free flight where you capture more colored balls with no chance of losing energy, and then it's onto the next level (there are 9 levels in all).

The game's hypnotic in a sense, as you gain tunnel vision while playing through a level. The music's beautifully written and complements the patterns. It's a very simple game, yet it commands your entire attention as the patterns you have to fly the characters in can vary, sometimes by moving in the same direction, but also sometimes flying in opposite directions or in complementary patterns. You can't ever die or lose completely, but as the levels get harder it's harder to sustain maximum energy, and so the game can get frustrating.

Unfortunately, the game doesn't quite work. There are two major flaws: first, the controls are very finicky, requiring you to hold tension in the joysticks for the entirety of a level. Since I first started playing this on the Vita, I thought it was because the Vita's joysticks were so small that I hurt my thumb. But when I switched to the Playstation TV's Dualshock 4, I suffered from the same issues. Playing more than one level at a time on this game is just asking for trouble.

The other part is the lack of story: both Flower and Journey had excellent stories with which to motivate the player through the experience. The visuals were beautiful, as was the music, but neither games suffered from the same frustrating control problems that Entwined did.

I didn't consider Entwined a waste of time, but I also picked it up as part of a Playstation Plus subscription. I can't find myself recommending this game to anyone who'd have to pay full price ($15). And even at a discount, you're better off playing Flower or Journey instead. Nevertheless, it's a good change of pace from the usually shooty-shooty bang bang games.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: Deadlight (PC)

The funny thing about PC gaming is that it's filled with deals, humble bundles, and what not. Because of those deals, I sometimes end up with games in my Steam library that I have no memory of how or why I bought them. Most of them turn out to be pretty crappy, while an occasional few turn out to be gems. Deadlight is one of the latter.

Deadlight has two things going against it: first, it's a puzzle platformer, and I usually dislike platformers. Secondly, it's got zombies. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty much done with zombies, and that's by itself a turn-off nowadays.

Against that, it has several things going for it. First of all, the art is gorgeous. This has to be one of the prettiest platformers I've seen. Most indie platformers for whatever reason take pains to look like retro-games from the 8-bit era, but I didn't pay for a high end video card to stare at pixelated garbage. The music is also well-executed. Far more importantly, however, is that the game's puzzles are logical. There were very few places where I couldn't think through a puzzle and figure out what I'm supposed to do. (Only 2 locations required me to youtube it, and after the reveals I did a face-palm every time) Because of this logical nature, I found myself drawn into the game, playing on and on for just one more level until I got to the end!

The story's fun, and even justifies some of the extreme platforming. Some of the reviews on Amazon complain about the latency of the controls, and indeed there are several sections where being off by a few milliseconds would force you to restart, and you'd just have to play over and over again in order to get through it. That's not so fun. But if even I can do it, it shouldn't impose a challenge for most players. It could also be that if you have a less than capable PC, the latency could be so bad that the game's unplayable. (I played with an XBox 360 wired controller: it's entirely possible that the game is worthless with keyboard and mouse, since it was originally designed for the XBox 360)

All in all, a worthy experience. There's no need to pay $15 for it though. Just get it as a humble bundle or steam sale, and don't pay more than about $5 for it. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Review: The Order 1886 (PS4)

After the 25 hour epic Sleeping Dogs, I was in no mood for anything long. Fortunately, Amazon had a sale on The Order: 1886 for $19.95, so I placed an order. The Order 1886 has been severely criticized as having relatively little game play (i.e., a short game), while being heavily theatrical. I've learned that jaded game journalists who've played a ton of FPS twitch shooters tend to be very critical of games like this, but Among Thieves for instance was one of my favorite games on the PS3, so I tend to discount their criticisms, and just wait for a sale.

The Order: 1886 is a gorgeously rendered game.So much so that I actually bothered to learn to use the PS4's screen capture capability so I could upload a scene that looks like a gorgeous HDR photo:
The lighting, detail, and shadows are all perfectly rendered in jaw-dropping, stunning detail. The artists, voice actors, and musicians are all to be congratulated for the prettiest game I've seen on any platform yet. In many ways, the game evokes Myst, with vista after vista filling your eyes as you wander through the world it renders. You can hear your PS4's fans spinning away as the machine works away at giving you this output.

The game's background mythology is interesting: The Order, the Knights of the Round Table descended from the days of King Arthur himself, is charged with defending the empire from half-breeds (lycanthropes, vampires, and the like). The knights themselves are long-lived due to the powers of the grail, and are armed to the teeth by the likes of Nikola Tesla. You play Galahad, who investigates a mystery only to uncover corruption within The Order itself.

It's a nice setting, but I'm afraid the story doesn't do much justice to it: Galahad himself is unbelievable in how (I don't understand why writer after writer uses this stupid trope! On The Steel Breeze suffers from the same problem) he holds everything close to his chest, without even trusting his closest friends. As a result, when the betrayal comes, there's no one left to defend him. This makes no sense, and also telegraphs the plot from miles away, since the bad guys are so obviously protecting secrets.

The game play is very much like that of Uncharted (3rd person cover-shooting), but too filled with QTEs. Worse, the game commits the crime of taking control away from the player frequently at critical junctures, robbing him of both sense of control and sense of triumph.

Net net: unfortunately, the best thing about this game is that it's short, so it's not a waste of time. If you treat the shooting as the price you pay for being able to walk through the visuals, the game's pretty acceptable. It's definitely competent, and doesn't have the insane difficulty spikes that spoiled Drake's Deception for me.

In any case, I'd say that it's worth waiting for the price to drop to $10 or $5 before picking it up, though if you're looking for something to tide you over until Uncharted 4 comes out, $15 wouldn't be unreasonable.

Mildly recommended, mostly because it's so pretty.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

6 Months Followup: PS4

I've now had the PS4 for 6 months, and it seems like a decent time to follow up. At that time, I said that it was a terrible time to buy a PS4, since the game didn't have decent media features, and there weren't a ton of must-have games out yet. The PS3 was a better deal at the time.

At this time, I will revise my opinion, and recommend the PS4 over the PS3 now. What changed? Sony added the following features to the PS4:
  • Game suspend and resume. This is huge! I didn't realize how big a feature it was until it launched, and now I couldn't live without it. For one thing, it makes long games no longer a chore: even if the game doesn't provide a decent save feature (or good enough save points), you can always suspend the game, use "Rest Mode" on the PS4, and then resume uninterrupted the next time you boot up. Because the PS4 (especially with my Hybrid SSD upgrade) boots so much faster than a PC, it's become my favorite gaming box. Yes, the PC can hibernate (potentially), but I have yet to be able to do so consistently. Rest Mode does consume more power than a full power-off, but it's still cheap compared to my PC, which can't consistently hibernate without randomly turning on and draining power like crazy.
  • The PS4 now supports DLNA and full on MP3/MP4/MKV/AVI support. This is very much welcome and now brings the PS4 up to par with the PS3. By the way, what this means now is that if you have a remote play capable device (including several Xperia phones, tablets, and the Vita), you now have access to your entire media library while traveling anywhere you have an internet connection. No monthly fees like Plex.
Visit any video game web-site and there'll be a bunch of people complaining that the PS4 has no games. The reality, however, is that there are plenty of games out now for the current generation platform, and the PS4 is arguably the best experience for those not willing to sink at least a thousand dollars into a desktop PC. And even that desktop PC, if it has to drive a high resolution monitor, might still not offer a nicer looking visual than a PS4 connected up to the TV. (The reason is that you tend to sit much closer to the PC than to the TV, and optimal viewing distance calculators will tell you why you need higher resolution whenever you sit closer)

There are folks who'd claim that you can build a gaming PC for about the same price as a PS4 (about $400). But every build I've seen neglects to include a Blu Ray player, for instance. We use the blu ray player quite a bit, so I'd say that the PS4 is still great value for money. And of course, you'd have to add another $50 for a Steam controller if you want the couch experience.

On top of that, as console programmers start to use the 8GB of DDR5 available on the PS4, I think we'll start to see low end video cards start to suffer from lack of VRAM. I think those who were disappointed by the relatively low-end specs of the PS4 are underestimating the bandwidth requirements that will be an issue in future games.

Add in remote play (coming to the PC in the fall in the form of SteamLink), a great controller, and the fact that you can current play Arkham Knight on the PS4 with a great experience but can't yet on the PC, and I think that Sony has made a compelling story for the PS4.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Review: Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition (PS4)

Sleeping Dogs is an open world game set in contemporary Hong Kong. The core game play is a Batman-style brawling mechanic with a side-dish of over-the-shoulder 3rd person based shooting. This is a striking combination of two of my favorite mechanics, and the game was on sale (both on Steam/$7 and on PS4/$15).

I bought this game after reading great reviews, and sat down to play it. And play it, and play it. The game's core mechanic as I mentioned before, was great, but what dropped my jaw is the story. If you're an Asian American male, by this point you're used to mainstream media constantly making Asian males (even protagonists played by Jet Li, for instance) effectively de-sexed characters:
Gene Cajayon, the Filipino American director of the 2001 film "The Debut," the first Fil-Am movie to be released nationwide in the United States, talks about the revised ending for the action movie "Romeo Must Die," a retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" where the R&B star Aaliyah plays Juliet to the Chinese actor Jet Li's Romeo. The original ending had Aaliyah kissing Li, a scenario that didn't test well with an "urban audience." So the studio changed it. The new ending had Aaliyah giving Li a tight hug. Says Cajayon, "Mainstream America, for the most part, gets uncomfortable with seeing an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light."
Well, the writers over at United Front Studios never got the memo. Wei Shen, the protagonist of Sleeping Dogs is virile, manly, and mould-breakingly gets laid with every date (NOTE: Like every video game out there aimed at a mainstream audience, there are no explicit sex scenes, but the dialogue heavily implies what's going on). No wonder the Publisher Square-Enix declared the game a financial failure despite it's amazing critical reviews. Shen is a Chinese American cop from San Francisco on loan to the Hong Kong police department because of his childhood connection with certain Triad members. As he infiltrates the gang and organization, he becomes torn between his personal loyalties to his childhood friends, his duty to the police organization, and his rising position as a "red pole" in the triad. This is a fairly familiar story to anyone who's watched any number of Hong Kong movies, but it's very well executed. In particular, Wei Shen is true to Chandler's statement: "the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world." The ending is satisfying, even if some aspects of it are predictable, and everything feels true to character. When Wei Shen goes to sleep, he wakes up with memories of recent events haunting him. You cannot help but empathize with what he's going through in order to do this job.

The game is very authentic. For instance, the opening of the game starts in Cantonese. And this isn't lousy Firefly-style acting, but the real deal. The accent is authentic, and by the end of the game you would have learned several choice Cantonese curses if you've been paying attention. Most of the storyline is in English, however, though certain characters who could never speak English would only speak in Cantonese while Wei Shen continues to reply in English (subtitles are provided for the non-Cantonese speakers, of course), which is completely acceptable.  Much of the English is also mixed in with Cantonese by the NPCs in authentic fashion. This is good stuff, and I did not expect it at all. Even the food you can get in the game (Pork Buns, Xiao Long Bao, etc) is authentic. And yes, every time you see Chinese characters in this game, they're correct!

The other parts of the game involving driving, car chases, gunshots and the stuff of epic movie-making, Hong Kong style. There are also side-missions where you do policeman-type duties (hostage crisis, car chases, and drug-busting, as well as serial killer investigations, etc) I didn't care too much about racing, so I didn't volunteer for too many races, but the ones I did were fun and more importantly to me, not set so hard that I got too frustrated. Even the collectible portion of the game isn't too frustrating, with the mini-map unlocking fairly early as a reward for going on dates with various women. As you unlock various martial arts moves and driving and shooting improvements, Wei Shen becomes more and more of a bad-ass. He can jump from a car to another to hijack another car. He can parkour with the best of them. At the highest level of martial arts, he starts making Wing Chun moves like Ip Man, one of my favorite modern martial arts movies. (There's even a costume to go with that!) Did I already mention, and he's good with the ladies? Oh, and he also has to do Karaoke a few times. One of the times he has to do it badly deliberately, and the animation is hilarious.

Speaking of combat: the game really comes into its own in the hand-to-hand martial arts combat. It's very reminiscent of the Jackie Chan movies where you can grab a person and use the environment to attack him. It beats the pants of all the other Batman-like games, including Shadows of Mordor. The opening foot chase sequence is also a lot of fun, and it's a pity that foot chases through a busy urban environment aren't used to as much effect in other games.

The game does have a few weaknesses. The early missions are exceedingly hard if you didn't run around and avail yourself of at least a couple of health upgrades, and drink/eat health and damage potions. This goes away fairly rapidly, but do spend some time looking for and upgrading your health and damage before going on any of the early missions. One of the DLC missions, Wheels of Fury, has a mission that stutters at sub-optimal frame rates, causing me to have to replay it a few times (it unlocks a car that even my wife said was a cool-looking car). The women Shen dates are all effectively one night stands,with no character development. In fact, one of the side mission has Shen stalking one of the women to see her cheating on him (she does, but yes, it's still a creepy thing to do and out of character for Shen) without there having any indication that there was a deeper relationship going on. Finally, the climax boss fight nerfs your hard-earned Dim Mak martial arts skill, which I thought was cheesy.

But these are nits. When I sat down to write the review of this game, I thought I'd write something like: "If you've ever complained about the portrayal of Asian men in media, put your money where your mouth is and buy this game." But now that I've thought it over, I realized that the statement would have been a disservice to this game. This is a superlative experience, well designed and executed in almost every way, and easily the best game I've played so far this year. That it's a few years old and hence relatively cheap makes it an amazing value. That it breaks every male Asian stereotype and makes mainstream America uncomfortable is simply icing on the cake. It deserves more success than it has had, and I have no compunctions about tagging it with my highest recommendations.

This one is worth every minute of its 25 hour+ play time (not including extended DLC content that comes as part of the definitive edition), and every penny of its full retail price ($18 on Amazon without any discounts). Buy it, and you'll play the heck out of it.

The definitive edition comes with 2 DLCs that are separated from the main game: Nightmare in North Point, and Year of the Snake. Both DLCs got lackluster reviews, but mostly for being short (90 minutes each). This is no big deal since you're getting it all packaged with the game anyway! Both DLC are somewhat interesting, though it's interesting that since I played them both after the main game they had a milder impact, since I didn't expect to be able to use any of the perks earned in the DLC in the main storyline! In any case, the lack of the RPG aspects in the DLC (you no longer earn any points towards powering up Wei Shen) means you're less likely to do side quests, but on the other hand, the game's core game play is still fun that the game hardly needs to bribe you into picking up the controller and playing the heck out of it. I wouldn't buy the DLC if I had to pay full price, however, so only pick it up if you're picking up the definitive edition for the PC or PS4.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Review: Superman - The High Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero

I will confess that I've always been much more of a Batman fan than I have been a Superman fan. Most of the reason is that from a literary point of view, there's nothing that Superman can't do, and the power-creep that's happened over the years means that I can't ever read a Superman story without feeling like he's not even threatened. And cynical me, I never believed that he would stay dead during the "Death of Superman" sequence.

Larry Tye's Superman is not so much a Superman story, however, but a story of the people involved in the media empire behind the work. It's a much more interesting story than most Superman stories. For instance, I knew that Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel were Jewish, but I didn't know any of the background behind Mort Weisinger and Julian Schwartz, who edited and published most of the Superman stories I remember reading as I grew up.

Furthermore, I never actually understood the stories behind the legal battles between Shuster and Siegel and DC Comics. Tye laid it all out, and I'm afraid nobody really comes out of it smelling good, but the facts are all there. I also never watched any of the early Superman cartoons, TV series, or even some of the later ones (such as Lois and Clark).

In recent years, Superman's movies and reboots have been unsatisfying to me, so I haven't paid any attention to them. This book won't change my mind, but it does explain to me why America has consistently found Superman to be an important part of its zeitgeist.


Thursday, July 02, 2015

Review: Playstation TV

I wasn't going to buy a Playstation TV, but a recent deal at $40 made me try it. The PS TV is basically a Playstation Vita with no touch screens or cameras but a HDMI output port. The missing touch screens essentially mean that the PS TV is incompatible with many Vita games, including many that make full use of the PS TV's features. The use of a PS3 or PS4 dual shock controller , however, means that you can use the PS4 remote play feature without using the awkward touch-screen substitutes that the PS Vita requirement, so that's a worthy trade-off. The HDMI output also means that you can use a large monitor or TV as a display, which is very nice.

Note that by comparison, the Steam Link, which enables similar remote play functionality for a gaming PC, is about $50. By contrast, the Steam Link doesn't come with a controller (and neither does the PC), which means you pretty much need the $50 controller. If you have a PS4, of course, you already have a controller.

In practice, set up is tricky. It turns out that by default, if you enable "direct link", the remote play tries to use a WiFi access point that's generated by the PS4 to directly connect with the PS4. This works if you set up the PS TV close enough to the PS4 that the connectivity is strong. However, if you setup the PS TV just at the edge of the PS4's wifi range, the connectivity sucks and your latency, display quality, etc just goes to hell.

The corrective action needed is to disable direct access, but you can only do that from the PS4 via the configuration screen for remote play. It's a bit counter-intuitive, and Sony should have enabled that kind of control from the PS TV. Once that's been resolved, you can either use your general Wifi network, or directly plug into the ethernet port for real remote play.

Remote play is fairly acceptable. There's significant input lag, which isn't really visible for most slow games (such as any strategy games, etc), but is significant in Sleeping Dogs during driving sequences, for instance. Strangely enough, in that game, the shooting and martial arts sequences don't seem to suffer from the lag whatsoever!

One interesting thing about plugging in the PS TV to a computer monitor is that the HDMI output is also intended to carry sound. However, you can get around that by using a bluetooth headset, which works very well.

When playing local games (e.g. Sonic Transformed), nearly all the input lag goes away. However, the lower resolution of the source material is also immediately apparent on a 1080p display. It's a trade-off in either case.

All in all, the PS TV is a good way to access your PS4 remotely. At full price, it's not a good deal, but at a discount ($40 or less), I think it's a useful accessory to a PS4 in a household with more than one TV, or where the PS4's main display might be used for other purposes on a semi-frequent basis. The local play feature is icing on the cake, but beware that not all Vita games (including many that I consider are best examples of what the Vita is capable of) are compatible with it!


Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Review: Velocity 2X (PS Vita, PS4)

I picked up Velocity 2X as part of the Playstation Plus free games package, and was surprised by how much I played it, and hence feel confident enough to write a review for it, despite it now looking rather unlikely that I will finish the game.

Velocity 2X is an unlikely combination of 2 genres: the space-based vertical-scrolling shooter, and the side-scrolling platformer. The two of them work together in interesting ways. For instance, you might start one puzzle in space ship mode, only to have to dock and go into side-scrolling mode in order to complete the puzzle.

The game does a fairly good job of bringing you up to speed with the controls: first, you start with basic shooting and teleporting, and then puzzles(gates), bombs, and then bookmarks are introduced. The bookmarks enable the developer to construct complex levels where you'll have to backtrack in order to achieve higher scores and explore the entire level. The side-scrolling mode has its own puzzles, as well as tools, so you get introduced to them as well.

The game's well done, in that the difficulty level isn't set high, and it only gets hard if you want to say, pick up every crystal, or finish the level in the fastest possible time in order to achieve a gold medal or what-not. I'm largely immune to this types of in-game lures, but if you're not, then you're probably going to replay levels over and over again in order to hit those achievements.

Where the game falls down, however, is that it level-locks later levels to a total achievement score! That effectively forces you to go and replay levels until you get enough points to let you keep going in the game. If this was a mobile game, I'd expect there to be a micro-transaction engine reminding you over and over again that you can buy your way past those artificial barriers. Unfortunately, this is a full-priced game with a retail price (on amazon for $19.99) for the PC version. (I'm sure you can find it for $5 on a steam sale) That makes me scratch my head. Why would you punish your purchasers by locking out content in order to grind the same levels over and over again if you've already got their money?!!! Clearly the game designers think that the only people who might buy such a game are those who have an infinite amount of time to replay content they've already played once.

Because of this stupid decision, I can't recommend the game at full price. If you can get it for under $5 on a steam sale it's worth a shot if you think you'll like the combination of elements, but otherwise, it's a take-it-or-leave it game. That's a pity, because without the cap, I'd probably play the game to completion. As it is, I'm stuck in one of the later levels with no desire to replay all the previous levels.