Andy Laub

Andy Laub is a designer & developer in the Twin Cities.

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Nine Nineteen »

How I went from a grey bike with wings to a grey bike with wings.

Prologue

Last year I bought a Buell Blast (aka the Hardliest of Davidsons), a bike with half a motor that was more fun to ride than it had a right to be. Then I spent a bunch of time (and money, but mostly time) making it better. This is great, I thought. I definitely don’t need to go faster than this.

As it turns out, that’s not entirely true. As the warm weather hit this year, I started to fantasize about something a little different – a bike that didn’t require me to hold on for dear life while doing a “leisurely” 70 on the highway. I figured I’d give the Buell one more summer while I searched for the perfect replacement – I still wanted something relatively inexpensive, but… bigger. And with more cylinders.

I found one candidate within relatively close proximity – the mileage and price were right, and the color was… tolerable. Because it wasn’t the color I would’ve wanted, I hemmed and hawed on it for a week or two before finally calling. It was still available! But wait… the owner had purchased it from his brother, and their was a lien on the title.

Don’t worry, he said! His brother had just called the bank and they were sending the lien release, so he’d have it soon. We agreed that it would be best to wait until it arrived before I went to see the bike. I knew that if I saw it, I’d be too tempted to shove money into his hand-hole and drive it away – an impossibility without the proper paperwork.

I waited, but I am not a patient person. I made calls about other bikes – one of which I was ready to buy until I received a text from the owner: “Hey sorry man I went to the dealer and they gave me almost what I wanted for my bike so I traded it in.” Jaw, floor, etc. I was so pissed – I had psyched myself up for this new option and now I was back to square one.

Back to waiting. Another week passed, with intermittent texts between me and the owner of bike #1 – me letting him know I was still interested, him letting me know that there was no news. It was a little after the 2-week mark when he called to let me know that his brother finally got ahold of the bank and they were sending out the lien release paperwork.

Wait… what? Didn’t that happen already? I should note at this point that during the entirety of this process I was doing near obsessive amounts of research trying to figure out other ways to release the title, none of which turned out to be viable options. So when I found out that the first time his brother had called, he had only left a message, I reached my breaking point.

Part I: The Hunt Re-begins

I should also mention that at the same time, my other half was getting the itch to ditch his Buell for something even shinier and newer-er. Suffice it to say that there was a bit of drama about that, and suddenly 600cc’s didn’t feel like the right choice anymore.

That’s how I found myself in Minneapolis (three hours from home) on a Wednesday evening, handing over cash for a bike that… was not the most attractive thing (at the moment). We had planned to run over, pick it up, and get back out of town by 5:00 or so, avoiding cold and darkness for most of the trip home.

That…is not what happened. When my sidekick stopped at the side of the road to figure out a route out of town, I made the horrible mistake of turning off the bike. And then it didn’t turn back on. Fortunately we were able to jump start it with little trouble, but the first priority now was to track down a replacement battery. Looking back I’m not sure why I thought this was the best course of action, but you know what they say about hindsight. We found a great little shop only a couple miles away – and I managed to stall on the way there, resulting in me temporarily abandoning my newly-acquired friend on the side of the road.

But at least we got a battery! Except it turned out that the problem was not the battery! And everyplace was now closed! I tried calling Uhaul, from whom I would’ve gladly rented a motorcycle trailer in exchange for not having to ride for three hours in the dark on an unfamiliar bike. I was pretty thrilled when they a) couldn’t find our local office (where I would’ve returned the trailer) and b) bounced me around just long enough for the Minneapolis office to close and no longer accept reservations. For about twenty minutes my world slowly compressed as I tried to figure out how I was going to get this expletive home OH GOD I’M STUCK HERE.

Part II: Fuck It, Let’s Just Do This

It was somewhere around this point that I remembered that the item in question was a vehicle still perfectly capable of moving under its own power. We hooked up the jumper cables yet again, and the bike immediately came back to life with that weird uneven idle that inline-four bikes seem to have. Our first stop was a gas station a few miles away where we’d fill up and then I’d make my inaugural trip onto the highway. It would be inaccurate to say I’ve never been so stressed out on a motorcycle – while unfamiliar with this particular bike, I was no longer terrified of riding in traffic like I was on those first couple of days with the Buell. I was just very very worried about stalling, as each mishap would cost valuable time.

But we made it to the gas station, where I spent a lofty $9.36 for my first tank of gas and inevitably splattered it everywhere because I am amazing. From there the story begins to blur. I remember that first twist of the throttle onto the highway, where the bike happily chugged along at 75 and was eager for more. I remember the sun beginning to set as we drove through Hudson (Wisconsin), and the weather beginning to cool dramatically. I remember seeing some motorcyclists look over at me from the opposite side of the highway to see what I was riding, because I like to do that too. And I remember pulling into the gas station / rest stop / hotel outside of Eau Claire that marked the halfway point of our journey and being nearly frozen to death. We decided to grab some dinner after refueling (just $7.16 this time!), and I shivered my way through some hot chocolate and a grilled cheese sandwich. And cheese curds – always cheese curds.

The last hundred miles were weird. It somehow managed to feel colder and darker, and the whole experience honestly made me feel a little stir crazy. At 60 miles from home I tried counting to pass the time, and at 30 miles from home I had resorted to singing songs from community theatre shows I’ve been in. It was nearly 11:00 when we arrived back in Wausau. Waiting on the doorstep was the motorcycle jacket I had recently ordered, which would’ve really come in handy. I have great timing.

Part III: Assault With Battery

The next day I dropped the bike off at a local shop to diagnose the starting issue and generally look the bike over. They installed some new tires and recommended a new Regulator/Rectifier to solve the problem. I decided to order the part and install it myself, and… nothing. Another drive out to the shop confirmed that it didn’t seem to be a defective part, and a trip to a (much closer) auto shop confirmed that both batteries seemed to be bad. Awesome!

I boxed up the new battery for my inevitable trip back to Minneapolis, reinstalled the old battery, and hooked up the charger. Lo and behold, THAT battery actually starts the bike – something the new one could never manage to do. Either the new battery was defective from the start, or not fully-charged, or both, but suffice it to say it was a complete failure. And because I am a genius, I made the assumption that dead battery = bad battery, something which didn’t seem to be the case. I still don’t know if the R/R was actually defective, but at least I have a new one!

Epilogue

So it seems this motorcycle and I got off on the completely wrong foot – what was supposed to be a fun adventure turned into something significantly less fun. At the same time, it did make for an experience. The bike, one I’ve been smitten with for nearly ten years, is now happy and healthy, and I’m totally in love.

Important Doughnut Philosophy »

And that’s why Krispy Kreme closed in our town.

I love cake doughnuts; they are my favorite type of ‘nut. To say that I love them indiscriminately, though, would be inaccurate. I can take or leave an average cake doughnut, but a well-made example is practically a work of art. I especially enjoy the chocolate-frosted (but not double chocolate!) variety, but would happily eat a (dozen) plain just the same. That’s a sign of a great doughnut.

Frosting on cake doughnuts, as you may have inferred, is nearly always a welcome addition. Again, chocolate wins the day here, but caramel, vanilla, pumpkin, etc make for acceptable substitutes. It’s important that the frosting be just on the verge of being a shell; so that it crumbles a bit as you’re eating it and isn’t gooey enough to dirty your hands.

From here we can proceed to garnishes like nuts, sprinkles, or coconut. Again, these are welcome (but not critical) components – the additional texture just makes for a more satisfactory experience, in my opinion.

But no glaze! That’s where I draw the line, and a doughnut with glaze is like a sundae with so many toppings you can no longer tell where the ice cream is. At that point it’s no longer a doughnut so much as a glaze delivery system. Glaze an average cake doughnut says “well, this is the best we can do”, and on a great doughnut it’s just a travesty.

Robot in the house »

2400 words about Android.

I (still) can’t make the case for an iPad – not yet, at least. I think it’s a brilliant machine and it’s certainly the best in it’s class, but it remains comfortably outside of “impulse buy” territory.

Still, I was starting to get a hint of tablet envy. I think the seeds were sown when my dad brought home a budget tablet obtained in the Black Friday craze, which I promptly convinced him maybe wasn’t the best idea if he was serious about getting a tablet that actually worked. He agreed, and a couple weeks later committed to a 10″ Acer Iconia – Acer’s bulkier, cheaper, Android-powered iPad alternative.

At the same time, I started scouring the internet for sweet deelz™, thinking that if I was going to join the tablet revolution it would have to be at a price point somewhere more in the territory of a Kindle Fire. Initial reviews of the Fire, unsurprisingly, were (har) lukewarm, and using one in person left me cold (double har) so I let it go. Instead I bought an HTC View at a very deep discount from a site I’ve never heard of. After a couple nerve-wracking days of wondering whether it would actually ship, it did, and arrived in my hands not long after.

Hardware

The View is essentially the Sprint-branded version of the HTC Flyer, a 7″ tablet sold both through GSM carriers with 3G and at Best Buy with wi-fi only. The Sprint version gets different CDMA radios capable of 3G and 4G (which I didn’t care about) and a black case instead of silver (which I did care about – it looks pretty great). Unlike the Flyer, the View is only available in 32GB form, but all of them were shipped with Android 2.3 (aka “not Honeycomb”).

The View has an aluminum chassis and as such feels solid and mostly well-built. Bits that aren’t aluminum are finished in a nice soft-touch material, and branding is minimal and tasteful. There is a bit of the tumor on the bottom back of the slab and I’m not sure if that’s an ergonomic decision or a functional requirement. My only complaint is that I’m just not a fan of the volume and power buttons – they’re okay but they don’t feel as well-built as the rest.

Devices that run Gingerbread require hardware buttons for Home, Menu, and Back. In a clever move, HTC made these buttons capacitative instead of hardware, and included two sets of them – one for landscape and one for portrait orientation. The buttons are hidden behind the glass screen and only illuminate when their respective orientation is active; it’s very slick.

While it’s not easily mistaken for an Apple device, I’ve been pretty pleased with the overall aesthetics and build quality. If I had to make one complaint, it would be that the wireless seems somewhat weak, to the point where I need to turn wifi off and back on again to get it to find our router.

Software, Part 1 – Gingerbread

Around this same time rumors were flying about an official update to Honeycomb (Android 3.2, the tablet-specific version) being released for the HTC tablets. Initially, though, I was stuck with Gingerbread, originally intended only for the HTC’s smaller brethren. Given its diminutive size and comparatively lower resolution (1024×600), this actually worked pretty well. The status bar at the top of the screen used precious little space and, not unlike iOS, the HTC Sense version of Gingerbread includes a quick launch bar along the bottom of the home screen.

Initially there was a lot of fumbling, and a lot more Droid Sans than I’d ever like to see in one place again, but overall I had little to complain about. I spent a fair amount of time just messing around and getting my bearings, and then seeing what there was in the Android world that I couldn’t do on a comparable Apple device.

There are a couple of interesting things that apply even to a stock, unrooted version of Android. One that stands out to me is the file system, or rather, the fact that there is a tangible file system that you can browse and manipulate (to an extent) just as you’d be able to do on a “normal” computer. I was able to download a .zip file of music, unzip it, and copy it into a music directory, where it then showed up in the music player. Neat.

I also like the direction they’ve taken with the home screen. In addition to your standard selection of app shortcuts, you can also deploy various widgets that allow you to perform simple tasks (checking email, an RSS feed, your calendar, or the weather) without having to go to an app. It’s really a smart idea and a great use of screen real estate.

Android (in stock form!) also allows apps to be sideloaded simply by changing an option in the settings. This means that you can find an .apk file (the standard format for an Android App) on the internet, download it / copy it to your device, and install it without having to ever interact with the Android Market. For nerds (like me) this is a pretty cool thing to be able to do – more on this later.

There are some other fundamental differences, but one of the more practical examples is how – and I’m going to try to effectively regurgitate this explanation – Android allows apps to more easily interact with each other while iOS keeps it’s apps in “silos”. Put more simply, if you install something like a different browser, the OS acknowledges its existence and you’ll be given the option to use it as a default app for a given action. You only see this level of integration in iOS on the built-in apps, because Apple doesn’t give access to that sort of thing to 3rd-party developers.

Overall, there is a lot to like about Android, and I enjoyed my experience with Gingerbread, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t excited to get my hands on Honeycomb.

Software, Part 2 – Honeycomb

The rumors turned out to be true, and not even a week after receiving my View the official Honeycomb update was available. Of course I downloaded it immediately, and prepared to be taken to the next level in tablet awesomeness. At least, that’s what I was hoping would happen. Having played with HC a tiny bit on my dad’s Acer, I was pretty excited to get ahold of it and see what kind of usability improvements HTC would make, and how the experience would be more optimized for a tablet as a whole.

Sadly, the result wasn’t nearly as nice as I had hoped, for a number of reasons. Honeycomb itself isn’t exempt from criticism, and most of this criticism revolves around the status bar. No longer does it live unobtrusively at the top of the screen; now it is a fairly wide black bar at the bottom. Like the status bar of old, it has time and notification information as well as wireless and battery levels; these live on the bottom right corner. On the bottom left corner are new global buttons: Back, Home, and App Switcher. And sometimes Menu, depending on where you are.

If this sounds like it’s redundant, you’re right. Devices with Android 3 or later no longer require physical buttons, as they’re now built in to the OS itself as onscreen UI elements. Fortunately HTC was prepared for this – remember those capacitative buttons I mentioned earlier? Once Honeycomb is installed they essentially cease to be. Even after only a week using Gingerbread I had become extremely reliant on said buttons. Most confusing to me is the complete elimination of the Menu button from the home screen, as I was used to using that to get to some quick and useful tools like the task manager.

The other issue with this is simply the extra screen real estate that this will always require. It’s impractical to try to hide this bar within certain applications because the bar is your only way to get out of the application; there’s no other emergency exit like iOS devices’ Home button. One issue with this is that it simply takes up what seems like a lot of space on a screen with only 600 pixels on a particular side. A bigger issue is that it becomes difficult to have any sort of quick launch docked at the bottom of the home screen because there’s already important global UI there and it ends up a cluttered mess.

In a less cluttered world, I would be using this space to make minor and subjective gripes about the Honeycomb look – while I really like Google’s intent with the Holo interface overall, The icons and font in the status bar seem like they’re still trying to a little to hard to be XTREME.

Weirdly, though, I can’t complain about that because it’s time to talk about HTC Sense. It’s become commonplace in the Android ecosystem for OEM’s to add their own layer of UI over the top the stock operating system. In some cases this is as simple as throwing a couple extra widgets, but with HTC it’s much more widespread and as a result, disastrous.

HTC’s devices all ship with Sense UI layered over the top of the standard software. Aside from the iconic flip clock / weather widget, I’m not sure exactly what Sense does that benefits me. I can tell you they’ve done their best to overlap the standard Holo interface with as many heavy gradients and round corners as they can muster, and replaced the handsome and subtle stock iconography with their own colorful illustrations – they even went so far as to replace the web browser with their own abomination. It’s sad, because the widgets that they include are really functional; they’re just generally unattractive and contradict Google’s own design philosophy – just like the rest of Sense UI.

There’s a lot of talk about fragmentation when Android is brought up, and this extra layer of junk on top of an already complex OS isn’t helping things. It’s especially frustrating when I see that Google, finally, is actually trying to design things, and yet most people won’t be able to experience that design in its intended form. The Sense/Honeycomb experience is truly ridiculous, because there’s this awful layer that you can’t turn off, and yet it also doesn’t cover everything so you’ll frequently see bits of plain Honeycomb showing through, teasing you.

Software, Part 3 – Rooting

During this entire saga I had become fairly addicted to the Flyer/View forum on XDA Developers – it’s been a tremendously useful source of info for all things HTC and Android. So in retrospect it seems that my decision to root was inevitable.

For now I’m running basically the same software as before with some minor differences; once you have root access you’re able to make changes to the core files you otherwise wouldn’t be able to modify. So far my experience with this is limited to replacing the HTC web browser with a stock Honeycomb browser (which also requires removal of some other system files), removing the Sprint-flavored boot animations, and removing the program that nags for wireless (3G/4G) access since I don’t intend to use anything other than wifi.

The beauty of Android is that there’s a pretty vibrant developer community even for less popular devices like the View (especially thanks to a bunch of fire sales in December), and so for now I’m keeping an eye on two different projects that involve basically removing as much of Sense as possible in favor of a more stock experience. In my ideal world, some wonderful genius(es) would figure out how to build a useable version of Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4).

Alternately, I will lose interest and end up buying something else.

Applications

For the most part the things you can do in Android and the things you can do in iOS overlap considerably. It’s true that there some genres of apps that simply don’t exist in iOS – things like task managers and custom launchers. I’m happy enough with iOS that I don’t feel distraught by that. However, there is one killer feature that doesn’t exist on iOS: emulators. As it turns out, a seven inch screen is the perfect size for playing backups of some of my favorite Game Boy Advance and Super NES games. Super Metroid comes to mind, perhaps with the Super Zeromission patch that brings some new territory to an old friend.

Some additional recommendations:

TL;DR

I bought an Android tablet. It’s pretty good but the software leaves me a little cold in its current iteration and I’d really like to have a more “pure” Google experience. At any rate, it’s a really fun toy to mess around with if you’re into that sort of thing.

What it’s not is any kind of worthy competitor to the iPad if you’re not into that sort of thing. People who don’t find joy in just poking around with technology and hacking things apart are better served by a platform that doesn’t inherently allow for that. There’s a messiness to it that I don’t see in iOS – it’s more wild and uncivilized.

The thing is, even as a self-professed nerd and gadget aficionado, I don’t want that messiness in a device that I have to rely on. As I said before, the HTC is a fun toy and an interesting learning experience, but I need my phone to work consistently and 100% of the time, and I need to know that it won’t simply be forgotten about by the OEM when the next big thing comes out. I like the comfort of knowing that if I buy a new iPhone or iPad I will have the latest and greatest iOS device for a full year before something new comes along and starts receiving the majority of attention, and that’s simply not a guarantee that can be made for any Android device.

I’d rather have a device I rely on be 95% perfect for its whole life (iOS) than 75% with the promise that eventually it could be 100%.

RAGE »

Spoiler alert: this game is not worth it.

I’m sorry. RAGE wasn’t on my list of games to play, but I was desperate for something to fill the gap between Forza 4 and Gears of War 3 and I had a very good reason for skipping the new Deus Ex game (because I forgot about it).

So I ended up with 3 discs of overwhelming under delivery. Based on the box and title, RAGE (all caps, but for good measure picture an anarchy symbol instead of the “A”) seems like it should be a high-energy hybrid of Borderlands and Fallout, both games that I really enjoyed (ahem… eventually). The premise certainly sounds familiar: lone wanderer emerges from facility where he was isolated from society for decades due to impending apocalypse and is greeted by post-apocalpytic world containing bandits/mutants/evil overwatch.

Of course you immediately turn into peoples’ errand boy. Listen, game developers, I understand that this is the mechanic for 99% of games out there, and there are even times here when it works. Want me to take those supplies to a neighboring camp or go talk to some guy for you? I can do that, just let me know when and where! Oh… you want me to plow through an entire gang of bandits with a pistol because you don’t like them? That’s… okay, what?

There’s a thing called context, and this game doesn’t have it. I’m not a super soldier who descended from the heavens to save the world. I’m just some random guy who stumbled out of a vault spaceship that had to be saved from those same bandits about 10 minutes ago – giving me a pistol doesn’t suddenly make me your conquering hero. But this is a thing that just keeps happening. Go wipe out [enemy group] in [location]. I won’t say the combat is bad, but it doesn’t seem to have any real meaning. None of the groups you fight ever go away; you just end up getting distracted by different groups.

As the game progresses you hop from person to person, doing what basically consists of that same mission over and over. I think there is only one location that you actually visit twice via the story missions, but the side missions of the game generally seem to send you to the exact same place you just were again instead of introducing anything different or interesting. Later in the game you inevitably meet a resistance group that does what any good resistance does in games like this: sends you, the guy they just met, on a bunch of “critical” missions while they hang out in their secret base (pro tip: that airship dock may be a giveaway as to the location of your hideout).

It is at this point where I wish games like this had a “fuck you” button, because I could press it and the game would eject itself and walk its sorry ass back to the video store so I could go back to doing something worthwhile. Because no such invention yet exists I finished the game and, to quote myself when I was telling Abe, “it was a bunch of bullshit”. RAGE had a solid chance to make up lost ground on the second disc (how a game that has less than twenty hours of gameplay in a mostly linear environment can require two discs is beyond me). They tease with some information about how overwatch has had a hand in creating the mutants, but you never resolve that. And there are tiny snippets of the game where you actually end up fighting alongside others for the same purpose, whether it be clearing out bandits, escaping from prison, or capturing a power station, and those are the parts I wanted more of. That’s what the endgame should have been.

Instead the final missions are solitary and feel inconsequential. You fight some stuff, and then watch an impossibly short cutscene (HOW IS THIS GAME TWO DISCS) in which the game halfheartedly tries to convince you the world has been saved because you’ve sent a signal to all of the other arks to “awaken” them. It’s not like anybody who already came from an ark was almost attacked by bandits or abducted by overwatch. I’m sure they’ll be totally fine.

Doing Science »

If you have not played the Portal games, PLEASE PLAY THE PORTAL GAMES.

As a sporadic gamer, it’s generally pretty easy for me to keep a running list of games that I want to play eventually and then just play each when I get the time. For the most part, this works fine, but it’s also important to add an asterisk next to games that need my immediate attention.

There are a few reasons for this footnote, but the most important of them is that the game has BIG DEAL potential. This does not happen very often, but when it does it’s important to play the game sooner rather than later before it manages to become a pop culture icon and spoilers references become omnipresent.

Portal is a great example of an unexpected BIG DEAL. People who have never played the game have heard Still Alive and are aware that the cake is a lie. That precedence coupled with a new co-op mode and a sale at Best Buy (also Amazon) led to my recent purchase of Portal 2, and I have no regrets.

All I can really say is that the game is absolutely amazing. There is nothing I dislike about it: gameplay, graphics, audio, music, story, writing, and acting are all top-notch. Pack it in, other games of 2011. Portal 2 wins everything. If you felt pretty well-versed on Aperture Science after completing the first game, this new installment will blow your mind with how much you didn’t know. It’s a wonderful piece of storytelling and a welcome bit of comic relief in the generally-dismal universe of Half Life.

You knew that Half Life and Portal (and therefore Black Mesa and Aperture) coexist in one cohesive universe, right? This is not new information, but it just… so good. Nerdgasm.

This is a BIG DEAL.

Totally Accurate »

Disclaimer: I love my Mac and I love my Xbox 360.

We went to the MALL OF AMERICA over the weekend as part of our occasional “let’s pretend we’ve never been to Minneapolis before” thing that we like to do (we also went to IKEA!), and while it was enjoyable enough (and at least good exercise – did you know that a lap around the mall is over half a mile?), we basically only spent money on lunch and that was it.

But I did make one very important observation. We had been warned before visiting that Microsoft has done what we in the biz call “copying Apple” and opened one of their famed(?) Microsoft Stores at MOA. Not particularly humorous – I don’t dispute that a branded store for a company with as many products as Microsoft is useful, and putting it in one of the biggest malls ever makes sense. The issue at hand is where in the mall it is: across from the Apple Store.

Seriously.

The problem here is that Microsoft’s stores, as implied above, borrow heavily from the book of Apple in every way; it really is like they took an Apple store and changed the logo. That wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t immediately from their “inspiration” – it was like looking in a mirror. Well, maybe a funhouse mirror. We even noticed that both (at least on the Saturday we were there) have greeters positioned front and center – I like to imagine they spend their day staring each other down when not dealing with shoppers.

But that’s not all! My most memorable mall moment is walking into the Microsoft Store after a brief visit to Apple: immediately upon entering, the floor slopes upward about 6 inches for no apparent reason and with no warning. it’s a little jarring, to be honest, because no other stores that we visited do this. I’m not going to get all melodramatic and say it’s a safety hazard – it’s just weird. I guess they must have done it so they could run wires, but what a lazy way to do things when you have that kind of money to spend.

Then I realized it’s all a metaphor, man. That little jolt you get when you enter the store is preparing you for every little nit you’ll have to deal with when using their products. Sure, they’ll get the job done, but you’ll be complaining the entire time about the dumb little shit you have to deal with while doing so.

Armorall »

Someday I’ll play Crysis 2. But the internet will probably be dead by then.

Remember how I said I was going to play Crysis 2? I still am, I promise. I just… it hasn’t happened yet. I had planned to rent it shortly after finishing up Bulletstorm, but it was still nowhere to be found. In the meantime, reviews of Bulletstorm led me to Vanquish, a game released last year that is basically what happens when you combine Gears of War and Bulletstorm, then take Epic out of the equation and replace them with Sega.

The result is a third-person shooter in which you run around on a space station and shoot communist robots. Similar to Bulletstorm, there’s a button that lets you slide around on the ground, and also sort of do things in slow motion. And you have a gun, but your gun is special because it’s every gun (more on that later). Also there’s a button that you press to smoke a cigarette, in case you need to be reminded that this game is very, very Japanese.

This sounds like it could be a recipe for disaster, but the opposite is true – Vanquish is a very fun game. Unlike the plodding, cover-reliant pace of a typical shooter, the goal here is speed. I’ll admit that I relied on cover more than the game probably would’ve preferred, but the mechanics are there to keep you in motion a good portion of the time; rarely are there locations in battle that are truly “safe” so you have to use your maneuverability to your advantage.

I mentioned you have what is basically the gun. Your amazing, one of a kind suit of armor is impressive, but your gun? It can look at other guns and mimic them. Remember in the Transformers movie how the robots scanned the vehicles and then turned into them? That’s what your gun can do. Except it’s a little retarded, so it can only remember three guns at a time. I don’t know why that distinction exists, but it does.

But your gun can upgrade itself. If you scan another copy of a weapon you already have, the first result is your ammo refills. If your ammo is full, you get a little mark next to that gun. Three marks and you get a star, and each star is an upgrade (ammo capacity, power, etc). But don’t die, because sometimes you’ll loose a mark if that happens. I’m not really sure how the logic for that works – sometimes marks were lost, and sometimes they weren’t, and the same weapon wasn’t always affected – but really, don’t die. It’s bad for your points.

Did I mention the points? This game has them! I’m pretty sure they’re a way of telling other people how great you are at this game. Or in my case, how great you aren’t. But at the same time, the game also has giant enemy crabs, whose weak points you can attack for massive damage. Then they turn into giant humanoid robots.

In short, you should probably try Vanquish if shooting things is something you enjoy. It doesn’t really take very long, and it’s very shiny.

Definitely Epic »

Bulletstorm was not my first choice, but it turned out to be a very good (albeit familiar) choice.

I didn’t mean to rent Bulletstorm. Okay, I did, but it was not at the top of my gaming to-do list, nor (until yesterday) was it even on it. I’ve been itching for something new to play after finishing up Black Ops and that driving debacle game, and because Brink and LA Noire are still over a month away, I had to psych myself up for something I could play now. Crysis 2 was the immediate the frontrunner, but after many fruitless visits to the video store, it became clear that I should find something else to occupy my time.

I didn’t care for the demo of Bulletstorm until I played it the second time. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, and by that I mean “maybe I just didn’t want to be distracted by another game so I convinced myself it was nothing special”. Or maybe I just wasn’t doing it right, because I had a whole lot more fun when I retried it. Happily, Bulletstorm isn’t nearly as difficult to get ahold of, so I was whipping guys around and shooting them in the face in no time.

Let’s take a couple of steps back. If you’ve seen any of the ads, you’ll remember Bulletstorm as being the game that encourages you to “Kill With Skill” – in other words, you’re rewarded for finding creative ways to dispose of your opponents. The most prominent mechanism in this involves your leash – an electric whip attached to your wrist that you can use to latch on to enemies and objects from a distance, pulling them toward you (and in doing so putting them in a sort of mini-Bullet Time) so you can more easily target strategic areas (like their butts). The rest of your arsenal is somewhat more conventional but still fun to use, and the points that you receive from killing guys are used to restock and upgrade your weapons.

This whole system, while creative, is a little disconcerting at first because to some extent it requires that you forget some of the things you know about shooting games. While you can certainly make your way through the game with a series of headshots from your assault rifle, to do so would be to forego everything that it’s about. While it initially seems as though ammo is hard to find and somewhat expensive to buy, you soon realize that a) you’re able to kill a LOT of enemies without using any ammo at all and b) you’ll get a LOT more points for doing so, effectively making ammo that much easier to come by when you do end up needing it. The environment in this game tends to be just as lethal to your opposition as your own sidearm – never has rebar been such a deadly force. Or cacti. Or random, dangling electric wires.

And, as advertised, that’s what makes Bulletstorm fun and special. It doesn’t hurt that it’s made by Epic, the folks behind the Gears of War series, and it certainly shows. I like to think that the game takes place in the same universe as Gears, since the aesthetic is nearly identical (big burly guys and lots of masculine gadgetry). However, the mood here (on the resort planet of Stygia!) is distinctly lighter, as is the overall setting. The weather is generally bright and sunny, and you’ll spend a lot of your time outside (or sort of outside, since this resort is comprised entirely of structures that are on the verge of or in the middle of collapse). There are a couple of Gears-like moments where you’ll end up in a cavern or sewer, but they seem to be there only to remind you of how little time you spend in them. An objective like “find your way out of this cavern” would end up spanning multiple acts in Gears of War, while doing the same here means you may not see the sun for nearly ten minutes.

Also interesting are a couple moments where it seems inevitable that the game is going to throw one of the typical shooter cliches at you (ridiculous boss fight, drawn out puzzle sequence), only to send you on your way instead. The game seems to prefer that you don’t remain in a given place for too much time, and instead pushes you along with relative efficiency and urgency – a rare and fitting move since the events all occur within a few hours. I will say that there seemed to be a disproportionate amount of falling through or off of… stuff. That’s a shooter cliche too – especially in the Gears franchise – but in this instance I honestly think they wanted to see how many times they could fit that into the story.

With all this, it would sound like there wasn’t anything not to like. While that’s somewhat true, I can name a few things:

  • There were two distinct times where my teammate needed to perform a particular action to drive the story and failed to do so. The first time this happened I had to restart the chapter; the second time (later in the game), I was able to resolve it by restarting from the last checkpoint.
  • While it’s nice to have them around, teammates rarely became the focus of attacks. One particular enemy can only be downed by shooting him in the back, which is impossible because he devotes all of his attention to me and me alone.
  • One particular class of enemy in the middle of the game completely takes the fun out of combat, in that you can’t use any of the techniques that are the foundation of the game itself. I don’t mind it so much in hindsight, but it was really irritating at the time.
  • While occasionally entertaining, the profanity can get a little stale. Also the main guy kind of sounds like Tim Allen at times.

So while Bulletstorm represents a new IP, it really isn’t an unknown quantity. Think of it as a first-person, lighter-hearted version of Gears of War and there you go. The setpieces are colossal and fantastic, and the combat is a lot of fun, so I definitely look forward to future installments.

Test Drive: Test Drive »

I was going to try Black Ops but it didn’t have any cars in it, and I’m really in a car mood right now.

I realized after returning Gran Turismo 5 that perhaps part of my problem with it is that it just wasn’t the game I was looking for at the time. I like “owning” cars and being able to drive them around, and sometimes it’s nice to be able to do that in a non-competitive, non-track setting. Understandably, this is a feature absent in both the GT and Forza series’. It’s a logical omission; adding in something like that completely changes the scope of the game to something more along of the lines of a free-roaming arcade racer, like Burnout, Need for Speed, or, in this case, Test Drive Unlimited.

I wrote years ago about the original iteration of the game, or the demo, at least, and was not particularly kind:

Test Drive Unlimited is on [this list] for wasting two hours of my life. Those familiar with the demo will realize I played it to the maximum time limit twice, which is indicative of how crack-like it is. I play and play, and all I can think is “I’m totally wasting my time on this,” a feeling reminiscent of Driv3r which (surprise) is from the same company (Atari).

Harsh words, but the game just didn’t do it for me. Still, I really liked the concept (it’s billed as a massively multiplayer online racing game), and with the release of the sequel this past week, the least I could do was give it another chance.

I’m glad I did. Test Drive Unlimited 2 takes the formula from the original game and just adds more stuff – which, in a game where personalization is a big deal, is always a good thing. Most notable is the addition of off-road areas, and the inevitable SUV’s to traverse them. The car list has also expanded, as has the territory you’re able to explore.

Because I haven’t gone back to try the original, I can’t say for sure whether they’ve changed the handling of the cars. Regardless, I’m happy to say that the physics work, and don’t generally get in the way. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but it is a good thing. There is a lot to like in the world of TDU2. The graphics aren’t anything revolutionary but are still attractive, and every car features a full assortment of driving views (cockpit, roof, chase car, etc). Convertible tops can be raised and lowered, as can windows. The map holds a wide variety of destinations, and when you enter these areas you are able to walk around in first-person view. This is especially interesting in the car dealerships, where you can open the doors and start the engines of the cars for sale.

All in all, it’s a fun enough diversion that I ended up ordering it. I hope I don’t regret that decision, and here’s why: the game, as fun as it is, has a couple of show-stopping bugs that desperately need fixing. One of the two biggest issues is the unstable servers, which causes the game to hang when starting, and if the servers are down the only way to play the game is to disconnect from Xbox Live. This is a big deal for a lot of people, considering the main point of the game is to be able to race online. However, I spent my time in the single player campaign and am somewhat reluctant when it comes to online play, so I didn’t feel as though I was missing out on anything major. Obviously it’s an issue that needs to be fixed, and the TDU2 team is addressing it.

The more frustrating of the two bugs for me is that it’s incredibly easy to end up with a corrupted save game (ask me how I know). TDU2 tends to save very, very frequently – entering a shop, exiting a shop, entering an event, pausing the game, etc, etc. The problem is, when you want to end your session, you need to worry about whether the game is saving or not, and when you press the Guide button (which brings up the system-wide menu on the 360), the game pauses… and saves. If you’re not aware of this, you’ll quit the game in the middle of the saving process and possibly lose your data.

This is a completely ridiculous issue. Listen: I understand that launching a game is stressful on servers, and so I get that there will inevitably be downtime with things like that. However, save data isn’t tied to server activity and therefore this is a problem that never should have made it this far. It’s compounded by the fact that there’s no way to quit the game properly – believe me, I scoured the pause menu in search of a “Quit” option and came up empty-handed, and as a result, I simply quit to the dashboard and ended up losing 3 or 4 hours of gameplay. And do not get me started on having to watch those (unskippable) cutscenes again. Absolutely, mind-blowingly terrible writing.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the issue that has me most worried about resuming my game when it arrives. I’ve been very careful not to quit while the game is saving but I’m paranoid about losing my data again; the sooner they can fix this problem, the sooner I can give Test Drive Unlimited 2 the recommendation it deserves.

I Finally Played Gran Turismo 5 »

…and all I got was 10 hours of frustration?

I’ve been finding myself with a little extra free time lately, and given that I’ve pretty much sapped any remaining enjoyment from all the games in the house, renting something seemed to be in order. I’ve had my eye on Gran Turismo 5 since it came out, but my devotion to the Forza Motorsport series and previous sour experiences made me reluctant to run out and buy it without sampling it first.

Boy, am I glad I did. I’ve been playing both Forza and GT since their first iterations, and I feel totally confident in saying that Turn 10 has made more progress and improvements on the Forza series since its introduction in 2005 than Polyphony Digital has since the first Gran Turismo in 1998. Graphics on both have improved with each successive installment, as expected, but aside from that GT5 feels like the same game I played in high school. It’s like PD spent so much time working on making the cars look good in high definition (more on that momentarily) that they ran out of time to do anything else, like develop a consistent, useful, and attractive UI instead of just throwing in the same piecemeal menus they’ve always had.

It’s true, the game can be eye candy. This is provided that you’re driving one of the 200 “premium” cars and not one of the remaining 800 “standard” cars. Yes, there are two different car formats. GT has a long history of including more cars than any of its competitors and GT5 could not be the exception to that rule, so the result is that about 20% of the cars have a much higher polygon count and a modeled interior. The rest are “updated” models that were used in previous GT games. On the surface they generally don’t look too bad, but unfortunately the deficits of the standard cars don’t end there. Standard cars also can’t have any visual modifications applied to them. Most notably this affects the (painfully small) selection of aftermarket wheels, but also applies to any aerodynamic goodies you may have been longing for. The game’s photo mode is also exclusive to premium cars.

But enough about the cars – isn’t the racing fun? Well… sure. It’s okay, but I don’t enjoy it as much as Forza. That’s a subjective thing and I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you that Forza’s gameplay is better. The main issue with any racing game, especially more sim-oriented ones like these, is that you’ll likely be spending as much time in the menus and in your garage as you do racing. And as I said before, the menus and UI are really where GT5 could have used some attention. There are little things that are just wrong, like having an inventory of paint swatches (I don’t really know how this works), or not allowing you to proceed to the next race in a series after winning the current event, or being told that you can’t change your driver’s uniform (suit and helmet colors) after you start the game. What an odd decision to make so final.

Speaking of starting the game, let’s talk about what happens when you put the disc in for the first time. Forget that it recommends a 50-minute installation; Forza 3 has an entire disc of content to install so I call it a wash. But I did spend 15 minutes watching various updates (a noted PS3 weakness), prompts, and restarts before the intro video even started rolling.

Finally, I was able to actually play the game, and by “play the game” I mean “start navigating menus”. Like Forza 3, GT5 has a narrator to somewhat guide you through the beginning of the game. Also suspiciously like Forza 3, GT5′s narrator is a male with a British accent. After filling in some initial profile information and choosing (irrevocably!?) your driver’s apparel, you’re told it’s time to buy a car. Except that you are only allowed to drive cars that are at or under your current level (zero), so your choice is somewhat limited. Honestly, I’m not sure whether you can buy outside of your level – if so, that alleviates one major gripe, as I would’ve bought a level 1 or level 2 car and done the initial license tests until I could use it.

Yes, there are license tests. No, they’re not really that fun. Yes, they’re required if you want to advance to any of the mid to high level races. Fortunately they’re not tremendously difficult if you have some previous console racing experience, but they do expose a couple more flaws with the game – namely that the ghosts are somewhat broken. The purpose of a ghost is to represent a previous effort to complete the challenge; you can use it to gauge your progress as you move incrementally closer to your goal. Or you would, if it worked properly. There are two problems with ghosts in GT5:

  1. It will only record the ghost when you receive a trophy for the first time, instead of automatically saving the fastest. You can back out to the menu and return to the challenge to get around this, but that’s ridiculous for what is essentially an AAAA game.
  2. When racing a ghost, they have a tendency to disappear if your car gets too close (nearly overlapping), so you can’t actually tell where the ghost is.

Finally, PD also bowed to pressure and added the racing line, a feature I first experienced in Forza. Essentially it’s a dotted line on the course that gives you an idea of the best way to traverse the various corners. It also turns red in areas where you need to slow the car. But being used to the Forza version, the GT version seems foreign to me. There were a lot of instances where I didn’t feel like I was in the right place or where their recommended braking area or distance was suboptimal in that it didn’t slow me enough or slowed me too much to remain competitive. It’s almost something that’s better left turned off, which entirely defeats the point.

With all that in mind, I didn’t harbor much regret when I slipped the game back into the return slot at the video store. At some point down the line I’m sure I’ll own it, but to me it doesn’t feel like a $60 (or $50, or $40) game. It’s a title that’s putting a lot of weight on previous games and sentimentality, and we’ve all seen what happens to games that go down that road.

Undid »

See? If you just avoid doing things eventually you won’t have to do them anymore.

Somehow I ended up on an old post I made shortly after getting the Saab, about the things I planned to do to it (strikes added):

  1. Alignment, check-up, oil change – scheduled for Monday.
  2. Wash, wax, buff out the small clearcoat scratches – as soon as the weather gets nice.
  3. New speakers – as soon as I can figure out how to fit the back ones.
  4. De-badging – I’m thinking I might remove the “SAAB” and “9-3″ from the trunk, but I’m not sure yet.
  5. Possibly get some smoked side markers to replace the amber units – I don’t think this would be complicated but I’m on the fence about doing it at all.
  6. Replace the black interior door handles with chrome ones – if I can freaking find any.
  7. Replace the lower center console – the current one has a hole drilled in it and some scratches, so if I can find a cheap one it might be a weekend project.
  8. New tires – maybe around fall, and these would possibly be accompanied by new, larger wheels as well.
  9. Look into getting the one larger scratch buffed out – we’ll see how the car holds up before I decide whether professional cosmetic work is worth it.

Huh.

Curation »

Sometimes less really is more. Or at least better.

Sometimes I’ll look around and think I have too much stuff. And it’s true – I have a lot of stuff. We have a lot of stuff. No, it’s not an episode of Hoarders when you walk in the house, but it’s just… a little overwhelming sometimes.

Most of the time this feeling comes and goes, but occasionally it reaches critical mass and drastic measures are required. There was a period of time after buying my LeMond in which I owned three bicycles. I don’t think I ever tried to convince myself that this was logical; I think I just tried to ignore it. At a certain point it became clear the Bianchi was purely excess and was no longer a necessary possession, so I sold it.

When I was still in school and basically didn’t have any money, being able to own things was a sort of goal. And while owning things continues to be nice, I’ve also become somewhat attracted to the idea of only owning the “right” amount of things. In essence, carefully managing both the quality and especially quantity of what I have.

That’s why I’m willing to take somewhat of a hit when selling an old (in the sense of having been made redundant) bicycle or iPhone or television. True, making a little extra money is nice, but whoever buys whatever I’m selling is also doing me the favor of getting it out of my life.

At some point in December my left brain and my right brain finally got together on something and concluded that owning two cars is neither practical nor enjoyable. The Miata was fun for awhile, but I really just got kind of sad when thinking about it because I didn’t feel like I was being a good owner. And of course, having two cars means maintaining and insuring two cars, and while the Miata was never a burden, it was definitely excess.

So I sold it. Or planned to sell it, anyway. At the same time, the Saab has been getting long in the tooth, and without the Miata my sole car would be one with an automatic transmission and a lot of miles. So I decided to sell that too. This could have turned out really badly, with one or both cars languishing on Craigslist until I desperately accepted the first offer I received. Worse, I’d miss out on a car that I wanted to buy because of my self-imposed “all cars must fit in the garage” policy.

Miraculously, this was not the case. In what has to be the best Craigslist experience I’ve ever had, I managed to buy a car and sell two others in a span of four days, and actually be pretty pleased with how it all shook out financially. But what really makes me happy is that instead of having two marginally good cars, I now have one car that I can really get excited about.

Video Killed the Instant Messaging Star »

Two video-chattin’ protocols are picked to live on a Mac; can they coexist or will they stop being polite and start getting real?

When Apple announced Facetime as part of the iPhone 4′s myriad of parlor tricks, I wouldn’t say that excitement was my first reaction. Cautious optimism might be a better description: video chat is obviously a very cool and useful feature, but who would I even Facetime with?

A few months and one iPhone 4 later, I had still only used the feature a handful (har) of times. So when Facetime for Mac was announced in October, I was pretty happy to see Apple expanding the system across their other hardware. I was quick to download the beta and happy to see that it basically works as expected. At the same time, I had a nagging feeling that there were better ways to video chat with someone (probably because there are better ways to video chat with someone. Facetime is great fine for phone-to-phone or phone-to-Mac chat, but what about Mac-to-Mac? Or Mac-to-Mac-to-Mac?

It makes me wonder what Apple’s grand plan is for iChat. It’s standard on every modern Mac but is often overlooked; I suspect most users who rely on instant messaging (myself included) install a multi-service client almost immediately, while the rest have no need for any client whatsoever.

And that’s sad, because iChat is a pretty neat application for a few reasons:

  1. It’s had video abilities for years, so you can have a discussion with one person or multiple people simultaneously.
  2. Screen sharing lets you share what’s on your computer screen with somebody else (or vice versa) – perfect for giving a tutorial or presenting a document. And it works with audio chat!
  3. It’s still an IM client, so you can send links, files, or just message in realtime without resorting to email.
  4. Facetime doesn’t have any way of indicating whether the person you want to talk to is available because it’s still based off the notion of a phone call. In contrast, instant messaging revolves around availability status.
  5. It’s on every modern Mac. And it’s free.

I’ll admit to being a bit of an instant messaging (and to some extent IRC) romanticist. I feel as though I write better than I speak, so the notion of being able to type in realtime has always appealed to me. Interestingly, it seems like instant messaging these days has become more of a business tool, probably a result of those of us who grew up with it (sort of) finding it to be a tremendously versatile medium for communication, and because the younger generation has (logically) moved on to instant messaging in its place.

But what of iChat versus Facetime? For now the two occupy somewhat separate spaces, but Facetime on the Mac is encroaching ever so slightly on iChat’s territory, and bringing with it some strange new standards.

Apps for All (Except Me) »

The Mac App Store is here. Why am I not using it?

If you own a Mac and you did your software update today, it’s likely you’ve had a bit of time to play with the new Mac App Store. I know I did, and the first (and only) thing I downloaded was Twitter for Mac, replacing Tweetie as my desktop Twitter client of choice. I won’t get into a written comparison (but here’s a side-by-side if you’re curious) since it’s not that big of a deal to me.

What did occur to me after browsing the App Store further was that I don’t really care that much about it. Obviously it’s a new and different way of acquiring desktop software, and I think it’s a good idea, but I’ve probably downloaded more apps for my iPhone(s) than I have for any computer, ever. I just don’t go out looking for new Mac applications very frequently once the need is filled, and new needs come along very rarely.

I’m willing to say that most of my needs are filled on my phone as well, but the two simply aren’t comparable environments. The need I’m generally still trying to fill when I browse the iOS App Store is that of a diversion – something that no one app can necessarily fulfill. When I’m at home on my Mac, I don’t need diversionary software because I have full-bore internet, a a big screen on which to view it, and unlimited bandwidth. On the phone, however, I’m probably more likely to be playing a game that works well on the small screen and with infrequent network usage, and the web is generally relegated to tool-status like many other apps.

None of this is to say that the Mac App Store isn’t a great success; I just don’t see myself as a frequent visitor. On the other hand, it’s already making for some great entertainment in and of itself.

Defining Moments of 2010 »

See you in 2011.

I did this before. Here it goes again:

As January hit Wisconsin, we were running down the middle of the street trying not to fall on our asses. Now that I think about it, that’s a pretty good metaphor for the year.

February took us to Chicago with some friends who used to live there, and we did all kinds of good stuff.

In March I bought a camera and took some pictures.

April was not so great, but in retrospect it was actually not so bad either.

I read a lot of books in May.

In June I loved the iPhone 4. And I still do.

I relaunched this site in July. (Side note: wow, that was only July?)

I rode my first ever half-century in August, which dovetailed nicely with my first ever 500 miles run in July.

On the subject of running, I ran a 10K race (off road!) in September. So much fun!

I accidentally another play in October. Is that bad?

In November, Conan came back and I made a pie. Both were delicious.

December. Miami.

Novelty »

Without number eight, I’d have to wait another 5 hours to post this.

The top ten things I’ve seen in the last 72 hours:

  1. Miami Beach, daytime
  2. Miami Beach, nighttime
  3. Exotic cars being driven ever so casually
  4. Exotic cars for rent, should you only need that Rolls Royce for a day
  5. A submarine (from the air)
  6. Cruise ships (from the highway)
  7. The Atlantic Ocean (from the beach)
  8. Free in-air WiFi
  9. The Miami Opera House, because it’s so cool-looking
  10. The Miami International Airport, because it’s so huge*

*I didn’t fly into or out of MIA, but it’s worth mentioning that I was on the phone for about ten minutes at one point and we were driving past the airport the entire time.

Mutually Exclusive »

The iPad ain’t no notebook (and vice versa).

When the iPad landed there was no disputing its novelty, but at the same time I wrote it off as “…a larger version of a device I already didn’t have a use for.

Harsh, I know, but true. I could never really wrap my head around the iPod touch (a device made completely redundant by my iPhone), but as I’ve spent more time playing with iPads and seeing the new apps that are being made available, I’m starting to “get it”. It’s the size.

An iPad is an ideal away-from-desk computer. There are some instances where I’d like to relax and watch a video that lives on my desktop, or read an article while watching TV, or reference a game as I’m playing, where all I basically need is a screen. For now the iPhone is an adequate solution, but the extra screen space would be a welcome addition.

The thing is, I’m also finding myself more and more in need of a computer I can take with me to meetings, some of which are not local and thus require more flexibility from such a machine. It’s this away-from-home situation where a “normal” notebook computer still shines; I know that in a pinch I can browser-test in Windows, edit a file in Creative Suite, or do something as basic as charge my phone. Preparation is the keyword.

In a perfect world I’d own both of these devices in addition to my iPhone and Mac Pro which would leave me consistently covered for all scenarios. And while that day may eventually come (and probably sooner rather than later), for now the away-from-home computer has taken priority and that’s why I ordered an 11″ Macbook Air.

Impatience: an Addendum »

I forgot to mention this accidentally on purpose, probably so I’d have something else to write about. OR DID I???

I realized after posting that I left a major sore point out of my diatribe regarding Red Faction. It’s true that I found the game to be somewhat difficult (even compared to the similar Saints Row) for reasons mentioned, but honestly that wouldn’t have been such an issue if the game had a better system in place for checkpoints and mission restarts.

When I fail a mission/objective in a game, my first thought is okay, how much progress did I lose? In some instances I am pleasantly surprised, but Red Faction is not one of those instances. I can recall exactly two times where failing a mission allowed me to restart from a checkpoint instead of at the beginning. In all other cases, the game doesn’t even quickly revert to the beginning of the mission, but to your pre-mission status. I suppose it does this to let you (re-)prepare adequately for the mission (assuming you weren’t the previous time), but I don’t think that option is important enough to justify this as the default behavior.

I wrote about this a looooong time ago, but a big gripe I had about Gran Turismo 3 was that when you failed a licensing objective (admittedly a small part of the game), you were unable to immediately retry. I disagree with this (and apparently so did the GT time because they fixed it in Gran Turismo 4), and will continue to assert that the default option after mission failure is to immediately restart from the last checkpoint (or the beginning, assuming no points have been checked). Games difficult enough to require multiple efforts to complete an objective (ie. all of them) that don’t follow this rule are generally stupid and wrong.

Minor secondary forgotten gripe: the load times are pretty painful.

Good Riddance »

How do I keep ending up in situations where I am apparently the lone savior of the city / state / country / world / universe?

As if it’s not abundantly clear, I’m apparently back in the proverbial video game saddle, as they now consume a good portion of my free time. My Fallout 3 mania has pretty much run its course and has given way to a couple of other distractions, in no particular order:

  • Fallout: New Vegas
  • Red Faction: Guerilla
  • Rock Band 3

I’m not going to talk about Rock Band right now, except to say that when played as a game it’s on the unfun, grinding side of the spectrum, whereas when played as a diversion (that is: with people) it remains one of the best things ever. And while I’m sure I’ll eventually have a lot more to say about New Vegas, I’m only about an hour into it so that’s best left on the back burner for now.

So let’s talk about Red Faction. It’s one of those weird games that kind of clawed its way to the edge of my radar and just hung there, refusing to leave until I gave it the attention it felt was deserved (see also: Indigo Prophecy). My initial take after playing the demo was “Saints Row on Mars” given that the developer and scope of the game are the same, just with a different setting and protagonist. To be fair, I prefer the controls of Red Faction to those of its ghetto brother in that it uses the triggers for driving instead of one of the face buttons.

The premise of Red Faction is certainly intriguing: you’re a demolitions expert (I guess?) on Mars, helping a group of rebels overthrow the corrupt and abusive government. So far it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before on a million other planets, but this game’s novelty comes from its completely destructible scenery. Smashing some buildings around with your hammer is pretty neat. Also blowing them up.

But after that, the game becomes a chore. A minority of the missions are enjoyable, but for the most part I often found myself asking “why me?” I’m some random guy who just came to Mars to keep a low pro with my bro bro my head down and live with my brother. Then my brother gets killed up and suddenly I’m the savior for this entire guerrilla movement that I wasn’t even aware of until five minutes ago. I have no special qualities but the Red Faction is sending me, alone (generally), on missions that nobody in their right mind would expect one person to be able to accomplish.

I’ve had this feeling before and it’s usually found in sandbox games – even the mighty Grand Theft Auto series is guilty of it to some extent. But it stands to reason that you probably wouldn’t send some random new guy out on what you’re telling me are incredibly crucial missions for your cause without any backup whatsoever. That… makes no sense, and that’s what made the game such a drag to play through.

There are some side missions that involve you capturing or defending a checkpoint from/against the bad guys, with a little gauge on the top right that shows you how many people are left on either side. Those were fun, and felt truer to the spirit of the game than anything else, core missions included. Unfortunately, that little slice of enjoyment wasn’t able to compensate for other annoyances:

  • Your max ammo count through the entire game is pathetically low. I can carry a rocket launcher around but a few extra clips for the assault rifle is too much to ask for?
  • Buildings don’t always collapse when they should. That three-legged structure will surely fall after I destroy two of the legs, right? Right? Couple this with the fact that one of your main goals is to destroy certain buildings, often under heavy fire, and you have a recipe for disaster.
  • The enemy solders are obscenely well-armored, further exacerbating the ammo issue.
  • The guy giving you missions is the same guy from Crackdown, where he was equally annoying to listen to.

But even despite these nagging issues, I slogged through the game. I don’t know why I do that to myself; I’m sure my blood pressure goes through the roof in situations like this but I feel that because I have it I should finish it for my own sanity (see also: Dead Space). Now that I’m done, I just have two words.

Expansive »

Yes, it’s another Fallout post. Also Mass Effect.

I didn’t mention it in my last post, but I am pretty comfortable putting the Fallout franchise on the same level as Mass Effect in terms of how well-developed the universe is. It’s a pretty good indication of my appreciation for the franchise if I’ll spend hours on their respective wiki’s just, well, absorbing, even after the game has ended.

Fallout is particularly interesting because the future as envisioned there (2277 in this case) requires a significant departure from our current universe beginning in the 1950′s, while ME (set in the late 2100′s) is an imagination of where we as a society could go from where we currently are.

Because of the sheer amount of stuff offered by both universes, the series’ are both ripe for downloadable content. And while usually the DLC I acquire is done so with the intent to do things (additional missions in Borderlands, or wanting to drive more, newer cars in Forza), the DLC in these games was appealing because it offered a chance to see more of the universe, even just a small slice; and that’s what this post is really about. Without trying to sound too dismissive, the Mass Effect team likely has a much easier time with DLC, since they can add a new planet, or a new location to an existing planet, and not have to worry about it fitting to deeply into the context of the current game.

Fallout, on the other hand, has a somewhat less range to work with (you are in the DC area, on foot, with a finite number of different “factions” to deal with) and yet it manages to skirt those limits on more than one occasion. This creativity is welcome, but also makes for an inconsistent experience across the five different expansions. That doesn’t mean they’re not fun; they are, just to varying degrees:

  1. Operation: Anchorage was the first piece of DLC for Fallout 3, and basically takes you out of both DC and 2277 by putting you in a simulator where you repel the Chinese invasion of Alaska in 2066. It’s kind of a cheat, but still quite enjoyable. Interestingly, it felt like Call of Duty as imagined by Fallout – that’s not to say it wasn’t fun, but it removed a lot of the attributes of combat that I had been used to up to this point (weapon degradation, scrounging for ammo and weapons, super mutants). Still interesting, but very sterile.
  2. The Pitt, then, is practically the opposite in every way. Where Anchorage is bright and clean and always daylight, Pittsburgh has been cast into a reddish darkness, illuminated only by the flames from surrounding smokestacks. Upon arrival you’re stripped of all your possessions and must work your way out of slavery. Of all the DLC, the pacing on The Pitt felt the weirdest to me, though I’m willing to accept some of the blame for that because I spent a lot of time in the steelyard collecting ingots.
  3. Broken Steel is easily the best of the bunch. Most notably, it allows you to continue playing after you complete the core story, something not formerly allowed. It also boosts the level cap from a measly 20 to a majestic 30 (sorry, nerd-talk), and adds some additional enemies for you to worry about (and I mean that sincerely – they’re badasses). As if that’s not enough, it is the only expansion to lengthen the core story and get a taste of life after the initial game’s climax. This is far and away the one I’d most recommend, but the general consensus is that features it adds should’ve been there in the first place.
  4. I was most skeptical of Point Lookout, which takes you to a swampy wasteland along the coast of Maryland. For the most part things played out pretty normally (considering the context), but I will give it credit for introducing one of my favorite side missions of the whole game — one in which you follow the trail of a Chinese spy stationed there before the bombs fell. Point Lookout (the place) is also the largest and most diverse area to be featured in any of the DLC.

That said, I’d still recommend that anyone looking to play the game look for a deal on the Game of the Year edition, which includes all five add-ons (the fifth, Mothership Zeta, sounds intriguing but I haven’t yet played it), but if you are just looking to add to your existing copy, don’t rush to the Xbox Live Marketplace (or the Playstation Store) just yet – Op: Anchorage and The Pitt are available on a physical disc, as are Broken Steel and Point Lookout.

This is notable for one reason: physical games are available used, which means you may be able to get the four mentioned above for significantly less than you’d have to pay to download them. Had that not been the case I probably would’ve skipped the first two altogether, even though they were interesting. I’ll likely pass on Mothership Zeta for now, opting instead to prepare for the imminent arrival of New Vegas in my mailbox.

Second Chances »

Or: how I learned to stop worrying and love a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

This is a post about Fallout 3. It is a highly-acclaimed video game that came out almost exactly two years ago for a multitude of platforms, and one that I purchased on its release date.

It’s also a video game that, somewhat indicative of the time, I picked up only briefly and then almost immediately gave up on. Oh sure, I made it through the prologue and into (out to?) the wasteland, but from there the game became so overwhelming in so many ways that I just didn’t feel like dealing with it.

A year later, or somewhere thereabouts, I tried it again, made some incremental progress, then likely got distracted by something else and continued to write it off as “not for me”. Despite certain insistences that is in fact very good, and I should give it another chance, I couldn’t commit.

But New Vegas pushed me over the edge. Maybe. You see, after what basically amounted to a one-night stand with Splinter Cell, I was looking for a game I could settle down with for awhile and really get to know. All the hype about New Vegas rekindled my interest in the Fallout franchise, and I vowed that I would give Fallout 3 an honest-to-God second chance.

And this time, it just clicked. Much like my picked-up-and-put-down experience with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, I opted to start over from scratch and basically just not be such a pansy when it came to fighting this time. I also took advice from the internet and chose my skills a little more carefully, as I didn’t realize how critical certain abilities are when I started the game before.

I had also previously described Fallout 3 as “Borderlands, but much more lonely and dismal.” While that holds true somewhat, there is still a sense of humor woven into the game that keeps it enjoyable versus depressing. And while the loneliness is somewhat overwhelming at first, after awhile I wouldn’t want it any other way. Put another way: there are opportunities throughout the game to acquire a follower, but I’ve avoided them. Mostly this is because I don’t want to be responsible for their deaths (which are, logically, permanent), but also I’m kind of a badass so I don’t need their help.

Once the balance of terror vs. curiosity shifted in my favor, the game became a lot more fun and interesting. I didn’t worry about stumbling into the “wrong” place, because such things are encouraged and rarely lethal if you’re prepared. There’s still an ever-present threat of not having enough ammo (merchants only have finite amounts) and the degradation of weapons and equipment (which are repairable but not without some hassle), but it doesn’t feel like tacked-on difficulty; instead it really does fit with the overall theme: if you don’t succeed, this could very well be the fall of humankind and the decay of everything associated with it.

Whoa.

Miscellany

  • V.A.T.S. (the combat assistant) takes some getting used to, but it is tremendously useful when you figure it out.
  • Maps and fast travel are lifesavers.
  • I am using the Fallout Wiki probably way more than I should.
  • The Broken Steel add-on is crucial.
  • Dead Rising, on the other hand, was not better the second time.

Just Right »

Tom Clancy saves the day.

For most of summer I was in a video game lull. This isn’t exactly atypical; time not spent in front of the computer generally ends up being spent outside or doing basically nothing. The exception was Forza 3, which I finally finished; but even that had become more of a task that I gave myself versus something I did for recreation.

As fall approached I felt like I wanted to play something, but I wasn’t sure what. I wasn’t quite ready to jump into a game that I knew would eat up weeks of my time (nor did such a game even exist that I wanted to play). Usually when this happens I find myself delving into the back burner for “games I kinda sorta was intrigued by or enjoyed tolerated the demo of”, and that’s how I ended up renting Splinter Cell: Conviction.

I had played the Conviction demo when it first hit Xbox Live and found it rather… fun. At the time I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to force myself through a game that required any sort of stealth, and I also didn’t feel like committing another control scheme to memory. On the other hand, the graphics and presentation seemed top notch, and the story… well, I haven’t played any of the other games in the Splinter Cell franchise so I couldn’t really follow anything with the limited objectives provided by the demo.

It took me an hour or two of playing the full title to re-engage my light-stealth-third-person-shooter mindset, but after doing so and getting a handle on the controls, I began to enjoy the game immensely. It sounds like this newest iteration is a departure of sorts from the traditional Splinter Cell manifesto; being detected is no longer the game-ending circumstance that it would’ve been in previous episodes. Instead the game feels somewhat like a modern-day Assassin’s Creed — stealth is certainly the best way to accomplish the task at hand, but it’s generally not the only way.

Honestly I can’t really say much about the story; it’s interesting enough but I assume it would’ve been more meaningful if I had a relationship with the characters that would’ve been achieved via the earlier games. Suffice it to say that it gets the job done and doesn’t leave me much room for complaint. And really that can be applied to Splinter Cell: Conviction as a whole. It got the job done (admirably, I might add) when I just needed something to occupy me for a couple of days.

Apps for All »

If my recent history is any indication, I apparently only become literate after Apple events.

I haven’t spent a ton of time talking about iOS apps here, but it should come as no surprise that like most iPhone/iPod/iPad users, the downloaded apps on my device of choice far outnumber those that were there originally. While I didn’t share same the OMG NATIVE APPS mentality that many did, I also didn’t become an iPhone user until after the App Store was an established foundation of the platform.

Suffice it to say, the App Store is an important facet of iOS as evidenced by the enthusiasm for it exhibited by both consumers and competitors. Those who make the excuse that apps are unnecessary when you have the web are doing just that: making an excuse. So it was no surprise when the iPad launched with the App Store already implemented, but it did bring into focus the gap between iOS and OS X.

With today’s announcement of the Mac App Store, that gap… is still there, but it’s also different. I noticed that Apple is positioning the different fragments of iLife and iWork as Mac Apps (which refer strictly to those available on the Mac App Store for the purpose of this post). Given that they’re treated similarly on the iOS App Store, that makes sense. What I’m curious about is how this new delivery system will affect the current crop of applications. There are a few in my dock that seem like natural candidates for such a thing; Adium X, Flickr Uploadr and Transmit come to mind, to name a few. However, given that we can simply download them from their respective websites, I have to wonder what added advantage the Mac App Store could offer.

It’s not that I don’t think it’s a good idea; even as a tech nerd, the idea of having what are basically “1-click installs” for all of these Mac Apps is appealing to me, and the familiarity bred by the iOS App Store means users will likely feel right at home doing the same on their OS X machine. Plus it’s one more way to get applications on your hot-sauce MacBook Air or Mac mini server. And the developer has the advantage of added exposure and being able to push updates through a more automated system.

But speaking of updates, don’t iOS Apps have to be submitted for review with every update? While that just may be part of the package on iOS, it’s very different from current OS X environment where they’re free to push updates whenever they finish them. Considering that apps are still distributable the old-fashioned way and the developer is well-known (Panic, for example), they may opt out of the Mac App Store environment completely. And is there some set of unique guidelines for Mac Apps versus “normal” applications?

Furthermore, and this is something that’s been weighing on my mind since the advent of the iPad, it’s obvious to me that Apple wants to somewhat unify the iOS and OS X experiences. I’m not saying they want to start forcing multitouch on OS X users (at least, not yet), but it is logical for them to integrate similar visual cues and behaviors on both sides (just as they do with their hardware). But I think having such similar buying experiences across two (three, if you treat the iPad as its own) platforms may confuse the issue – especially since you can buy apps for any of the three on your Mac.

I initially started typing this paragraph with the intent of naming some of the apps on my phone that I wouldn’t necessarily need on my Mac, but they’re actually mostly inherently useful in some way. That, then, begs the question – why can’t I use the theoretical copy of Pages that I bought on my imaginary iPad on my Mac too? From a technical standpoint I understand that they’re two different environments with different specs and requirements, but I don’t expect that to be as clear to the typical consumer. I guess we just need to think of the Mac as a PS3, for example, while the iOS devices are PSP’s. We may see the same titles on both but we’ll need to understand that they don’t work across the two devices (unlike the iPad’s “backwards compatibility” of sorts).

Don’t get me wrong; I do look forward to seeing how the Mac App Store changes the OS X experience. I am just not 100% sold – yet. Now that new MacBook Air, on the other hand…

So Right, Yet So Wrong »

Here are some things about Volkswagen.

At any given time over the last fifteen years I’ve held wildly varying opinions of Volkswagen, from thinking they could do no wrong with the introduction of the A4 Golf and B5 Passat in 1998-1999 to thinking that wrong is all they could do with the successors of those cars (although in fairness they actually were better). Now I’m somewhere in between. On good days I think of cars like the new GTI and… well, that’s really it.

The worst of the modern VW lineup is easily the Beetle. It was an alright car when it came out but always suffered from being packaged incredibly poorly; you could get essentially the same car in a VW Golf or GTI but with the interior space arranged in such a way that it’s actually useful (unless you really needed that extra 8 inches of headroom above the front seat).

But such are the demands of retro design, and the success of the New Beetle meant more old-new cars couldn’t be far behind. Most notable is the resurgence of the entire MINI brand, followed later by Fiat’s (soon-to-be-US-bound) 500. However, the thing about the MINI and 500 is that their original shapes weren’t that different from that of a modern two-door hatchback, meaning that unlike the Beetle the packaging remains inherently practical. A Cooper still has a moderately useful back seat (in terms of headroom) and cargo area, two things that can’t be said for the Volkswagen.

Which is why VW still has to offer overlapping small cars in Europe, where things like that are actually important. While the US lineup bottoms out at the Golf (size: medium), VW Europe continues to move down the scale with the Polo (size: small) and then the Fox (size: extra small). On top of that, both are thousands of pounds (yes, pounds) cheaper than the Beetle, and are infinitely more useful.

But instead of throwing us a bone and federalizing the Polo (a car that’s eminently practical but also enjoyable to drive) for the US, VW has determined that YES, they do need to build a New New Beetle because the old New Beetle was just so good. Sadly, the new car will be just as stupid, and I will be just as bitter.

It’s not (for) you, it’s (for) me »

Won’t somebody think of the children?

Today fall was in the air. Students (and teachers) are headed back to school, the weather this morning was – dare I say – crisp, and of course, Apple kicked off September right with their annual iPod event.

Since the advent of the iPhone these announcements haven’t meant a whole lot to me – it’s been my primary iPod since the day I got it and it’s the only device I have with me most of the time. However, running has given me a newfound appreciation for a smaller breed of iPod, a lightweight, pared-down option that I simply never had a need for in the past. Currently I’m running with a third-generation “fat” nano. Size and weight-wise I have no complaints, but I will admit to the clickwheel being somewhat finicky at times, the fact that it (like most other iPods) requires the additional receiver for Nike+ functionality, and the issue of storage when I’m lacking pockets (solution: armband).

Which is why the new iPod nano is amazing. As is usually the case, commenters on sites like such as Engadget are quick to point out the device’s shortcomings; namely that it no longer plays video or takes photos. The common sentiment is that kids like it for that sort of thing, which shows that these people are missing the point: this isn’t for kids.

There was a time when an iPod nano was the de facto teenager accessory, but as iOS has gained more attention and the devices are quickly becoming ever more competent and affordable, the iPod touch is the logical heir to that throne: the popular iPod. While the old iPods had “games” and “apps”, the touch actually makes good on that promise. And granted, the price difference is somewhat significant, but the difference in capabilities between the iPod touch and even the old, video-enabled nanos was even more pronounced. Many may even find (or have found) that the extra money is better spent there than towards a DS or PSP. And now that the touch has a (HD!) camera, the nano couldn’t/can’t compete.

Which is fine, actually, because the old lineup didn’t make sense in that regard. Apple is finally making it clear with broad strokes that if you need or want to do anything other than listen to music, get an iPod touch. Easy decision. And for those of us who only want music, and would like it in the smallest possible package (with a screen, please), this new nano is a godsend. While I’m wary of the touchscreen, I’m ready to believe it can’t be worse than the crazy scroll wheel on my current iPod, and happy to acknowledge that all my other concerns have been addressed beautifully.

And duh, Apple wants the popular iPod to be an iOS device.

Edit: as it turns out, the Nike+ receiver is not built-in, which is enough of an issue for me to downgrade this to “not sure if want” status.