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Review: Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars — The Director’s Cut

Broken Sword was a series of adventure games that started in 1996 and has just had its fifth entry released in 2013.  I didn’t play them when they first came out, but the release of a Director’s Cut for the Wii and for iOS has given us all an opportunity to get introduced. The game is worth playing and avoids some of the pitfalls of the point and click adventure genre.  At the same time, the game hasn’t aged well in many ways, and the additions from the Director’s Cut tend to make the outdated elements even more stark.

Shadow of the Templars is an ancient conspiracy tale in the genre of a Dan Brown novel: mysterious assassins going after members of a secret society and everything being tied to events that took place hundreds of years ago. In this case, the assassin is literally a member of the Hashashin order and he’s going after members of the modern Templars who believe they are related to the historical order. Caught in the middle of this are French photojournalist Nico Collard and American tourist George Stobbart. Together they must race to foil a conspiracy which could unleash ancient powers on the world. Continue reading

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Apple Watch is the new iPod

I can understand the appeal of the Apple Watch. Throughout the day, I am constantly pulling out my phone to quickly check the time or the weather or my current location and then putting it back into my pocket. It would be more convenient to simply glance at my wrist which is not only faster but also leaves my hand free to hold something else. Yes, it is a small thing, but many consumer products are built on small conveniences.

There was no way the Apple Watch could live up to some of the hype that was building up before its unveiling. Before we feel too sorry for Apple, though, it’s worth remembering that previous product unveilings really were that good. The original iPhone turned the entire cell phone industry on its ear with a simple innovation that was startlingly obvious in hindsight: stop forcing users to deal with unintuitive and tiny buttons or pens, let them use a big touch screen instead, and let third party developers create software for it. The iPad was less clearly revolutionary, but it created the modern tablet market where only a few feeble products had existed before.

By contrast, the Apple Watch seems to be following in the footsteps of Samsung and Pebble. Is Apple still an innovator, and can the Apple Watch really succeed?

The best comparison is probably to the launch of the original iPod. At the time, MP3 players were nothing new and Apple was entering a field with a lot of competition. But the iPod had a superior interface (the click-wheel) and the backing of one of the most popular music download services at the time (the iTunes Music Store). The iPod was not obviously superior to all the others, but it had enough advantages that eventually Apple was able to rule the market. (It’s ironic that the iPod Classic line has now been discontinued).

Similarly, the Apple Watch is entering an existing product field, and it’s clear that Apple hopes to win marketshare on the strength of its industrial design and supporting software. To help solve interface issues, Apple added a rotating knob on the side called the Digital Crown and a touch screen that distinguishes light taps from firm presses. There are also modules on the side contacting the wrist which provides tactile feedback. These are all features which no other smart watch has (and which Apple has surely patented). In terms of software, the App Store is still widely considered the best and most comprehensive store available.

Of course, there are still important details we don’t know yet (like battery life). But it’s not going to become available until early 2015 anyhow. Unlike some other Apple product launches, the Apple Watch isn’t a clear runaway hit. But all in all, it has as much of a fighting chance as the original iPod did.

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The Titanfall and Destiny of the FPS Genre

When Titanfall showed up at E3, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and a true innovator leading the way to the future of FPS games. Now the launch of Bungie’s new FPS franchise, Destiny, is imminent and the hype machine is working overtime to tell us it will change the FPS landscape forever.

Both Titanfall and Destiny have legitimate claims on showing true innovation in a genre that has become stagnant. But it’s interesting now to think about how differently they go about it.

Titanfall’s main contributions were in its gameplay and controls. The most obvious new feature is the Titans themselves, but there are also numerous other innovations like wall-running, jet packing, and various little tweaks that discourage practices like spawn camping. The game is a joy to play and in many ways feels like a completely new way to play a shooter online.

On the other hand, Titanfall’s campaign mode is so laughable that one wonders why they even bothered. The story is completely inconsequential since, after all, it still has to hang together somehow regardless of which side wins each match.

Destiny aspires to revolutionize the entire online aspect of the FPS genre with a persistent world that players can explore alongside other online players whom the system matches with them. The game is only just now being released as you read it, so it’s not clear exactly how this persistent world is going to interact with other online players. However, if Bungie is clever enough to take advantage of the exploration format in order to find new ways to convey the story, they will have made something truly new. It will literally be an experience that cannot be replicated in any other medium. Movies can’t tell stories this way.

On the other hand, the actual running and gunning gameplay does not appear to be anything new. Of course, I haven’t seen all the abilities that can be unlocked, so there may be something groundbreaking to be found. So far, though, Destiny appears to play pretty much like Halo with some upgradeable abilities and weapons.

On the face of it, Destiny would seem to represent a much more profound change in the FPS genre than Titanfall does. Titanfall adds some neat new tricks. Destiny could change the whole genre fundamentally. And yet, I have a feeling that Titanfall’s innovations will be more widely adapted just for plain pragmatic reasons. Implementing a jump pack, some parkour, and giant robots is relatively easy for an FPS developer to do. Doing something similar to what Bungie is attempting is much harder and even harder to do well. Ten years from now, we may find that Titanfall was the more influential game whereas Destiny was a fascinating one-of-a-kind game that nobody else replicated.

And that’s ok. But I really hope the sequel to Titanfall gets a better story.

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Review: Gemini Rue

One of the encouraging trends brought on by the rise of tablet gaming is the return of the point and click adventure genre. I have fond memories of playing through Grim Fandango with my roommates, and I still think it was one of the greatest games that too few people played.

Gemini Rue is a game in that genre, but it hearkens back to an even earlier time period when characters were splotchy collections of pixels and the use of a floppy disk to represent saving still made sense. On the other hand, the game is fully voice-acted and has a full quality music score.

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Twitch Could Kill Metal Gear Solid

I didn’t know anything about Twitch until news broke that Amazon had purchased the service, but I instantly saw the appeal as soon as I read about it. Like Twitch users, I enjoy watching other people play videogames. The mainstream media has gotten a lot of mileage out of making fun of the concept, but what they don’t get is that a lot of games these days have pretty complex, involving storylines. None of them would qualify as great literature, but I would argue that many of them are at least comparable to Hollywood blockbusters. A number of YouTube channels have drawn millions of subscribers by posting complete playthroughs of various games. If I don’t feel like watching anything currently on my Netflix queue, I will often pull up a playthrough from one of my subscribed YouTube channels.

Here’s the thing, though: after watching a playthrough of many games, I have very little desire to purchase and play those games myself. The most egregious example was Metal Gear Solid 4 which I often joke about by saying, “I played MGS4 on YouTube.” There have been plenty of more recent examples, though. I was watching Lara run through a collapsing tunnel in the latest Tomb Raider game when I realized that the whole thing was almost entirely scripted. Oh sure, the player nominally had control of Lara, but really all he was doing was holding up on the analog stick and watching as stuff dramatically collapsed all around Lara. How much value would I get if I was actually playing that game instead of watching somebody else play it?

A similar phenomenon has happened with the single-player campaigns of recent Call of Duty games. The game all but forces you to walk over to certain locations and then stop and while enemies pop out of pre-determined locations for you to shoot at. Technically you are in control, but really you are just following a script that the developers have laid out for you. How much value are you really losing if you watch someone else play the game for you?

Not all games are like this, of course, and not all Twitch viewers are watching playthroughs just to see a game’s storyline. I would go so far as to say that most premium games are still worth experiencing firsthand. But there are some games which have gotten so tightly scripted that they really only offer the illusion of control on the part of the player. And as Twitch or services like it become more widespread, it’s going to be harder and harder to convince people to shell out for something they could enjoy almost as much by simply watching someone else play it.

Twitch could be the death of Metal Gear Solid as we know it.

Whoa…What Happened Here?

I was not a big fan of California State Senator Leland Yee. If you know him at all, it is probably because he kept trying to censor videogames. I always thought he was merely uninformed and misguided. And I did think he was doing the right thing when he tried to investigate whether a university was overpaying Sarah Palin to give a speech.

But now comes news that he has arrested and charged with bribery and corruption. And not just any old bribery and corruption. He struck deals to illegally import weapons.

Yes, he’s technically innocent until proven guilty, but the evidence against him sounds extensive including discussions with undercover FBI agents. I haven’t thought about Leland Yee in several years, so I can’t even begin to understand what’s going on with him or how long he’s been engaged in this activity. All I can say is: wow. Who’d have thought?

The Veronica Mars Movie: For Marshmallows Only

There isn’t really any reason for you to watch the Veronica Mars movie if you haven’t seen the TV series. If you have the time to watch it, I think the first season is one of the finest seasons of any TV series ever produced. From there, you can decide whether you want to continue on with the other two seasons and eventually this movie.

But for now, if you haven’t seen the show, you can skip the movie and stop reading the rest of this review. It’s not that the movie is overloaded with fan service and obscure references. It will mostly be understandable to newcomers. But any emotional heft from the story of the Veronica Mars movie will come almost entirely from the audience’s connection with characters they got to know over the course of three seasons. Without that prior background, the characters of the Veronica Mars movie will seem woefully underdeveloped.

The movie is an unapologetic love letter to the fans. Since it was funded by Kickstarter, that makes sense. But is it any good? My answer to that question is best summed as: well, sure.

The story picks up nine years after the end of the third season of the show. Veronica Mars has given up sleuthing, has gotten a law degree, and is on track to get a lucrative job at a big firm. She is in a steady relationship with Pizz, the doggedly nice guy who has had a crush on her since he met her in college during the third season. Everything seems to be on track until Veronica receives a phone call from her ex-boyfriend Logan Echolls and we quickly learn two things:

  1. Veronica hasn’t deleted his contact information from her cell phone in all this time.
  2. He’s in trouble with the law again. Specifically, he’s been accused of murdering his girlfriend who is also a pop starlet.

This was supposed to be the old life that Veronica left behind, but she doesn’t hesitate to drop everything and run back. But this relationship is toxic for her, right? She realizes she shouldn’t get too involved. She’s not going to fall back into old habits with an old flame, is she?

Well, what do you think?
Well, what do you think?

Like in the TV show, the murder mystery centers around high school politics and relationships that are more cynical, violent, and corrupt than any real school possibly could be. That was part of the fun of show. The movie expands things out a little by depicting the corrupt sheriff’s department. The movie format also allows Veronica to deliver a single F-bomb (which Logan later lampshades by commenting about keeping things PG-13).

In many ways, the movie’s plot comes across as something in between a case of the week and a season-long arc story that got squeezed into two hours. In the end, I found nothing really special about it. What was interesting to me this time around was how the movie deconstructed the character of Veronica Mars. Back in the first season, she was a revelation. She was fresh, original, and new to the audience with a winning combination of spunk, perkiness, and vulnerability covered by a hard, distrusting shell. Veronica was a character TV audiences had never seen before. It’s been a long time since that first season now, and the movie views Veronica with a certain jaundice that she quickly acknowledges.

To wit: being a teenage sleuth solving these kinds of cases is not normal. In fact, it’s pretty unhealthy. In her characteristic voiceovers, Veronica likens her mystery-solving habit to being a junkie.

In the end, I think that distance and familiarity is both a strength and a weakness for the Veronica Mars movie. We’re happy to see Veronica and Wallace hugging because we know all that they’ve been through together. At the same time, there’s a sense that the movie is relying a little too much on established history to carry itself through. If you were watching this movie without the benefit of having the TV series, you would probably have a very hard time seeing why exactly Veronica and Logan find each other so irresistible. Or why Veronica and Wallace care so much for each other to begin with. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the relationship that comes across the best is between Veronica and her father, Keith Mars. Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni real affection, care, and worry into their interactions with each other, and it only takes a few seconds of shared screen time before we immediately buy them as a loving father and daughter. The same cannot really be said for any other relationship on the show.

And I suppose that’s where we leave it. It’s a new episode of the TV series, and that’s nice enough for what it is. I certainly don’t regret the $6.99 I paid to rent it from iTunes. But to be honest, this is enough. This movie is a much better ending than Season 3 was, and I won’t be needing another fix.

Software Development is Becoming Like Journalism

I came across this article in the New York Times talking about the generation divide in Silicon Valley. It’s very well-written, and I recommend reading the whole thing. There was one part that was a bit tangential to the author’s main point, but it’s what really got me thinking:

There’s a glass-half-full way of looking at this, of course: Tech hasn’t been pedestrianized — it’s been democratized. The doors to start-up-dom have been thrown wide open. At Harvard, enrollment in the introductory computer-science course, CS50, has soared. Last semester, 39 percent of the students in the class were women, and 73 percent had never coded before. These statistics are trumpeted as a sign of computer science’s broadening appeal and, indeed, in the last couple of years the class has become something of a cult and a rite of passage that culminates in the CS50 fair, where students demo their final projects and wear T-shirts reading “I Took CS50.”

I myself have taken an introductory computer science course (at my school, it was simply CS-001). I am not a programmer or anything close to a computer engineer. But here I am running my own website which contains formatting and networking features you could only have dreamed of in the late 90s (I remember what it was like to code HTML manually). This stuff is no longer hard.

Writing software is no longer as obscure as it used to be. Don’t get me wrong. It still takes focused study and education. But contrary to what you might think, most computer programming these days consists of taking components or lines of code other people have written, tweaking them to fit your purpose, and then putting them together. And we’ve now gotten to the point where those off-the-shelf components are incredibly versatile, powerful, and easy to use. There are still companies out there building brand new things from scratch. But most development houses are building an app for a restaurant who wants to create smart menus or creating a system for hospitals to track their patients. Most developers now spend their time thinking about exactly what problem they want to solve or what feature they want to implement and not so much about exactly what piece of code they use to do it.

It’s similar in many ways to how journalism is more concerned with the ideas and stories you tell and not so much about whether you should have used the subjunctive voice on the third paragraph.

App development is not quite as easy as writing prose, but it’s getting closer. And while that’s a good thing overall, it’s worth thinking about what that will mean in the next few years.

Many of the startups that get the most buzz these days rely on building a network—people use them because other people use them. The most obvious examples are the ones that have a social component such as Pinterest, Instagram, and Spotify. But there are others such as Venmo, a system for paying your friends when you don’t have cash on hand. It only works if your friends also have Venmo.

The  future!
The future!

What this means is that many of the startups coming out of Silicon Valley are more about social engineering than they are about resolving a technical issue. The technology behind Venmo is nothing huge. The real difficulty is in convincing enough people to use it in much the same way as modern journalism these days has to convince enough people to read it.

And much like journalism, a lot of services coming out of Silicon Valley give away their product for free which means they rely on advertising for their revenue. I don’t think this is sustainable for journalism in the long run, and I don’t think it is for software development either.

So what to do? The main difference for me is that people care about the quality of the software they use much more than they care about the quality of the journalism they read (sad but true). This should mean that they are willing to pay for quality. And maybe the next bold step for a Silicon Valley startup is to dare to charge for their service.

Actually, Robocop is OK

It comes in black

It comes in black

So let’s get this out of the way first: no, the new Robocop isn’t as good as the original. But that doesn’t mean it is necessarily bad. If they had to remake Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 masterpiece, they could have done a lot worse than this. And after all, the original is not a sacred cow.

Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop was so great because it provided all the violence an action junkie could want while also sneaking in satirical commentary on 1980s America. In between the gory shootouts and executions, the movie also mercilessly mocked pop culture with footage of a really annoying sitcom and fake commercials for a humongous car with terrible gas mileage. We saw urban decay, the indifference of politicians, and the logical consequences of what would happen if we privatized the police force. This was what really made it more than a standard-issue action movie, and the two sequels suffered by taking the whole premise much too seriously.

The new Robocop is much gentler in its criticism, and I think it’s worse off for it. But it still has some subversive things to say. The beginning of the movie depicts a news report from American-occupied Iran as a TV journalist happily narrates about the peaceful Iranians who stand around in the background with their hands up while giant robots inspect them. The targets for this movie are American imperialism abroad, the compliant media, and drone warfare. What it has to say is not particularly new, but you could have said the same thing about the original 1987 movie. I do have to say that in the 2014 Robocop a lot of the most subversive stuff is perhaps presented a little too subtly. My favorite was a headline in one of the news broadcasts which revealed that in this fictional future, Americans are desperately trying to cross the border into Mexico.

The biggest problem with this newer Robocop is that it is PG-13 which means the action just isn’t going to be as hard-hitting as the original. Most of the fighting is robot against robot (or cyborg against robot). Whenever humans are involved, the camera cuts away before we see any bullet impacts. Director Jose Padilha is doing his best, but there’s just no way to make this stuff as compelling and tense as he would be able to with an R rating.

If the satire is toned down and the action is not as good, the one thing the new version of Robocop has over the original is a heart. 1987’s Robocop was too satirical and cynical to generate much emotional pull. We rooted for the protagonist mostly because he wasn’t as despicable as everyone else. 2014’s Robocop makes us root for the main character by focusing squarely on his dilemma and by making two interesting changes: unlike the original, Alex Murphy is always aware of who he is, and his family is still present and plays a critical role in the plot.

This greater focus on character means that the performances of the actors actually matters, and they fulfill their roles admirably. Joel Kinnaman manages to leave some imprint on his character instead of being another bland actor overshadowed by the special effects (like that guy from Pacific Rim or whatsisface from Battleship). His standout scene is when Alex Murphy asks to see himself. Using only his face, Kinnaman successfully conveys Murphy’s growing horror as his robot body is disassembled before a mirror and he sees how little is left of his original body. Abbie Cornish is believably anguished as Murphy’s wife who must remind him of who he is. The better known actors play supporting roles, and they include Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael K. Williams, and Jackie Earl Hailey.

Don’t get me wrong. This movie is not high drama. But considering how underwritten the emotional beats are in the screenplay, the actors manage to fill in enough to make us care without becoming mawkish, and the director allows just enough time for things to breathe before moving on to the next action scene.

There is no question in my mind that Robocop 2014 will be forgotten in a few years whereas Robocop 1987 will remain relevant for many years to come. But for what it is, the Robocop remake is an enjoyable two hours with just enough social commentary and character drama to be more than a brainless action movie. And it makes enough changes and updates that it doesn’t end up looking totally unnecessary. Yes, it’s the product of Hollywood recycling, but it’s not like the original movie was produced with the purest of motives either. I honestly enjoyed this much more than many of the movies leading up to The Avengers.