Monthly Archives: October 2012

Hotline Miami Screenshot Wallpaper Mask Selection

Hotline Miami: Pick Up The Phone, It’s Time.

If there’s one type of game that hasn’t seen much of a revival thanks to the indie development explosion of the last couple years its the top down style of games that was made popular by the Grand Theft Auto series. It should be no surprise really as these kinds of games tend to be quite limiting in what they can do thanks to the fixed perspective, often limiting them to puzzle type games like To The Moon or the aforementioned predecessor of one of today’s most successful third person shooters. Hotline Miami then is the first game in this style that I’ve played in quite a long time and it does not fail to disappoint.

Hotline Miami winds back the clock to 1989, dropping you (funnily enough) in the tropical megalopolis that is Miami. You play as an unnamed man who’s a contract killer, receiving all sorts of weird coded messages on your answering machine that are the location of your next target. At every scene the ritual is the same, you go to your car, don a mask to conceal your identity and then proceed to unleash all sorts of hell upon the people contained within that building. However as the game goes on your world begins to slowly unravel and you start to question what’s real and what isn’t.

As I alluded to earlier Hotline Miami does feel a lot like the original Grand Theft Auto did back in the day with the top down perspective and pixelart graphics being the main factors behind this. However unlike Grand Theft Auto you’re not limited to simple up/down/left/right movement and thus the game plays a hell of a lot more smoothly than it or any other top down game I’ve played in recent times. This is also probably due to the fact that it uses the GameMaker engine underneath which supports DirectX which ensures that no matter how much action is on screen you won’t experience an ounce of slow down.

The developers behind Hotline Miami have described it as a “top-down fuck ‘em up” and that description could not be more appropriate. The aim of any level is to clear out all the enemies out of a particular section and there are several ways to go about it. You almost always start off with nothing so your first victim will likely be taken down by the liberal use of your fists applied directly to their face. After that you’ve likely got your hands on some form of weapon which you can then use to dispatch enemies at a much faster rate. Of course there’s also a myriad of guns available should you be able to pry them away from their current owners but the use of them has a price.

Hotline Miami also incorporates stealth as a game mechanic which, depending on the level, you will almost certainly have to make use of from time to time. This also means that the use of guns will attract all enemies within a certain radius to you which can be both a good and a bad thing depending on the situation you’re in. It’s actually quite a neat little mechanic as there are many levels that can be easily breezed through with a knife but will be hell if you try to use any kind of gun, something which I found out after repeating a single section dozens of times.

There’s also a rudimentary levelling system in Hotline Miami which is based off of your score given to you at the end of each level. Now I couldn’t quite figure out how the scoring system worked (as the above screenshot shows I always seemed to score above the total points, unless that isn’t it) but it did appear to be directly related to when I’d unlock something. There are 2 kinds of unlockables in Hotline Miami: masks and weapons. Whilst the latter is somewhat out of your control (weapons are all randomly generated) the former can put quite an interesting twist on how levels play out and can be crucial to certain play styles.

The masks will confer some small benefit to you which is loosely based around the animal/thing they’re based off of. Most of them are simple things like extra ammunition or faster executions but others can be nigh on game breaking in terms of the benefits they bestow. My favourite by far was Don Juan as that one turns doors that you open onto enemies lethal which usually allowed me to fire off a single shot, run behind a door and then proceed to eliminate the entire room with several doors to the face. Playing that way might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it was pretty damn fun racking up massive combos in that fashion.

What really lets Hotline Miami down though is the bugs and crashes. I noticed at the start that it asked me if I wanted to disable SteamWorks as a few people were having trouble with it and at the time I thought I’d keep it on just to see how it played out. After about an hour or so I got a (handled) exception and the background sprite failed to render which wasn’t game breaking as I had just finished the level at that point. However after that I started getting unhanded exceptions on a particular level (I think it was “Clean Hit”) and they persisted even after multiple restarts and disabling SteamWorks.

The only way I was able to progress was opening up the saves.dat file which was thankfully not binary and had a pretty easy to decipher structure. Essentially I unlocked a couple levels ahead of myself so I could skip over the level that was causing it to crash and whilst this let me play the next two levels the crashing started happening again much to my disappointment. I’m not the only one experiencing this either and thankfully it looks like the developers are onto it. If I’m honest it would probably be worth waiting for the update before playing it again as it can be extremely frustrating losing your progress in a level, even if it might not take that long to get back there.

The story of Hotline Miami is a surreal experience with the initial encounters being relatively normal (save for the talking to the masked men section) but they slowly morph into what seems like a fever dream that your character is experiencing. It’s intriguing mostly because of all the little clues scattered throughout the game that seem to hint that your character is coming unhinged and you start to question what’s real and what’s not. I haven’t had the chance to finish the game fully due to the extensive crashing (I’m up to the last level, however) so I can’t comment on whether it concludes well or not but suffice to say the story is much more than something tacked on at the end to keep you playing.

Hotline Miami is a brutal, psychedelic beat ‘em up that excels in making over the top violence extremely fun, to the point of you worrying about what kind of person enjoying this game makes you. Whilst it might be plagued with crashes that will frustrate many Hotline Miami really is good enough to make you want to keep playing, something which surprised me as I’m not usually that tolerant. If you’ve been pining for the days of the original Grand Theft Auto then Hotline Miami is right up your alley and I dare say that you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more.

Rating: 8.5/10

Hotline Miami is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was approximately 2 hours with 9% of the achievements unlocked (probably more due to the lack of SteamWorks and plethora of crashes).

 

The Dystopian Singularity Future Might Be Really Colourful.

Think about about any of the cyberpunk/dystopian futures that you’ve come across and there’s one thing that they all have in common: the seemingly drab, million shades of brown colour palettes. Now that’s probably the most accurate representation of what would happen in those circumstances what with the downfall of society and all but if some of the latest research to come out of Portugal is anything to go by our future robot overlords could be sporting all sorts of pretty colours.

You know, in order to co-ordinate better so they can eliminate us fleshy meat creatures from the planet:

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Whilst the technology is a long way from creating a terminator covered in disco lights it is a rather interesting bit of technology, especially with the cross over between a flying control robot and its minions on the ground. Most systems I’ve seen like this before usually rely on a whole bunch of pre-programmed routines with one of the swarm making itself the leader of the pack in order to make the decisions. Whilst this isn’t too different from that due to the use of a flying master the selection process for targeting a specific robot on the ground is pretty ingenious, especially considering how simple it is.

One thing I’m wondering about though is how effective such a system could be in a much noisier environment than their pristine lab environment. Differences in colour are pretty easy to detect when there’s a high amount of contrast like there is in that environment however it starts to get tricky when there’s a whole bunch of other, similar colours in the near vicinity. There’s also the issue if they use it outside that there will be a lot of ambient light that has the potential to make the flying robot’s job a lot harder. These aren’t insurmountable issues though and you could probably solve both by just ramping up the brightness of the rings or some clever engineering tricks with the light sources (like using specific frequencies and filtering out everything else).

Still be on the lookout for any vaguely human shaped things covered in LEDs. No telling what it could get up to ;)

The RPG Genre, Like Its Medium, Has Grown Beyond It’s Traditional Roots.

If we spin back the clock a couple decades we find ourselves in a time when games fit quite easily into all of their genres. If you were told that a game was a Real Time Strategy you could be pretty sure it’d contain units, resources and buildings that you needed to build up in a strategic way in order to win. First Person Shooters were just that, you holding a gun and running from one end of a level to another ensuring that anything that got in your way didn’t stay that way for very long. Role playing games would have multiple character classes, pages of statistics and long running stories that would carry you through from the start right up until the end. Today however those kinds of boundaries aren’t so well defined with many games blending elements from several different genres which calls into question the use of these broad genres when classifying current generation titles.

Jonathan Holmes of Destructoid fame then asks if its time for us to retire the term RPG as it no longer seems to be a good fit for the games that fall under that genre. He makes a good point too, many games that include rudimentary aspects of RPG titles like levels, classes or statistics often get categorized as RPGs alongside other titles that seem far more deserving of the classification. Now that games are garnering bigger budgets and technology has advanced exponentially since the term was first used in the video games industry I’d have to agree with him that the use of the general RPG term is probably outmoded but we’re a long way away from retiring it completely.

For me personally if a game is to have the RPG moniker applied to it there has to be a couple attributes for it to qualify. Primarily it comes from being able to customize your playstyle to a fairly high level which is usually achieved through the use of classes or talent tree specializations. This, in effect, is what allows you to define your role in the game whether it be from a fire slinging mage to a half cyborg engineer who uses all manner of machines to do his bidding. Stat building, levels and all the other means to this end are really ancillary to the goal of being able to craft a role that you want to play within that game universe and that, in my mind, is the loophole that allows other games to have aspects of a RPG yet not fall into that genre.

However I feel that the term RPG is too broad to encompass everything that now fits under its original definition and that’s where the liberal use of prefixes is warranted. Whilst saying a game is a RPG might conjure a particular image for some and not others you’d be hard pressed to misunderstand what I mean when I said a game was a FPS RPG, action RPG or MMORPG. Each of these sub-genres each has a much more distinct set of guidelines for a game to fall under its umbrella and I feel is the proper way to identify games that blur the traditional definition of a RPG. In essence this means that the term RPG becomes a broad category that encompasses all of these sub-genres and can no longer be used to refer to a single category of games based on its original definition.

The redefinition of the RPG term is a sign that the games industry has grown beyond its traditional roots where everything fell neatly into the categories as we had defined them. I think that’s a wonderful thing as it shows that game developers are experimenting with game ideas that cross genres, blending elements from both in order to create game experiences that are truly unique. Indeed with all my reviews there have been many times when I’ve struggle to pin games down to one genre and that’s not just limited to RPGs. We may no longer be able to use the term to refer to a specific type of game but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the term entirely as the RPG ideals are still valid in today’s gaming industry.

iPad Mini Product Shot

The iPad Mini is Apple’s First Reactive Product In A Long Time.

I wasn’t going to write about Apple’s latest release in the iPad Mini and  iPad 4 mostly because there wasn’t really anything to write about. The iPad 4 was a bit of a shock considering that the 3 is barely 6 months old and was a pretty significant upgrade over its predecessor so you wouldn’t really think it needed a refresh this early on. The iPad Mini was widely rumoured for a very long time, so much so that blogging about it would feel like I was coming incredibly late to a party that I didn’t really care about in the first place. Thinking about it more though the iPad Mini represents a lot more than just Apple releasing yet another iOS product, it’s a sign of how Apple is no longer in control of the market they created.

Steve Jobs famously said that a tablet smaller than the iPad wouldn’t make any sense as it’d be too small to compete with regular tablets and too big to compete with smart phones. With Apple’s relatively long development cycle its likely that he was aware of the iPad Mini development but I don’t think the idea for its creation came from him. It was easy for him to make judgements from atop the massive tower of iPad sales that he was sitting on at the time however I don’t think he expected them to be as successful as they were. None of them can match the iPad for total numbers sold yet but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a niche area that Apple was failing to exploit.

It all started with the Kindle Fire just over a year ago. The tablet was squarely aimed at a particular market, one that didn’t want to spend a lot on a tablet device and was happy to accept a lower end device in return. This proved to be wildly popular and as of this month Amazon has shipped over 7 million of the devices putting it second only the iPad itself in terms of sales. This in turn drew other companies to the small tablet form factor with the most notable recent addition being the Google Nexus 7 which as of writing has already sold an estimated 3 million units world wide. Apple can’t have been ignorant of this and saw that there was a rather large niche that they weren’t exploiting, hence the release of the iPad Mini.

For a company that’s been making and dominating markets for a decade now the iPad Mini then represents the first product Apple’s created as a reaction to market forces. Whilst we can always point to technology companies that did what did before they entered the market they’re usually no where near as successful. With the small tablet form factor sector however there are multiple companies who have managed to make quite a killing in this particular space prior to Apple entering. You could argue that Apple still owns the tablet space as a whole (and that’s true, to a point) but when it comes to form factors other than those of the traditional iPad Apple has been absent up until this week, and that’s lost money they’ll never recover.

Comparatively it’s a small slice of the overall tablet pie which Apple is still getting the lion’s share of. Even though they might’ve lost 10 million potential sales to a niche market they weren’t filling they still managed to ship 14 million iPads last quarter. Their figures for this quarter might be down on what people were expecting however with the release of the new iPad and the iPad Mini right before the holiday season it’s very likely that they’ll make up that shortfall without too much trouble. Whether that will translate into dominance of the smaller form factor tablet market is up for debate and realistically we’ll only know once next quarter’s results come in.

Whilst I don’t believe this is the beginning of the end for Apple it is the first product to come from them in a long time that, as far as I can tell, is a reaction to the market rather than them attempting to create one. That’s a very different Apple than the one we’re used to seeing and whilst it isn’t necessarily a bad thing (dominating semi-established markets seems to be their bread and butter) it does make you wonder if their focus has shifted away from market creation. I don’t really know enough to answer that but if you were still wondering what Apple under Tim Cook would look like then you might be seeing the beginnings of an answer here. Whether that’s good or not is an exercise I’ll leave for the reader.

Blocks That Matter Screenshot Wallpaper Trapped Slime600px

Blocks That Matter: They Really Do.

They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and if there’s any truth to that then Notch, creator of  Minecraft, must be feeling awfully flattered. Whilst there’s only been a few outright copies that have looked to capitalize on Minecraft’s success there’s seemingly an endless number of games that have drawn inspiration from it. From games like Terraria which translated the idea into 2D and then added its own flavour to others which have taken the block/mining/building idea and put some kind of twist on it. Blocks That Matter is the latter, being a 2D puzzler that uses the idea of mining and placing blocks as the main game play component.

Blocks That Matter puts you in control Tetrobot, a small white block with arms, legs and a drill who’s capable of mining blocks and placing them anywhere on the map. You’re the creation of 2 struggling game developers who, instead of working on their latest title, were working on you. This drew the ire of a mysterious individual who kidnaps the developers and forces them to complete their game. You are their only hope for rescue and in order to make it to them you have to navigate your way through various puzzle areas in order to reach a portal that will transport you closer to them.

Whilst there’s nothing particularly amazing about the graphics of Blocks That Matter I did find it quite visually pleasing, mostly because of the neo-retro aesthetic that’s consistent throughout the entire game. There’s a definite homage to the classic platformers with many of the tile sets bearing a striking resemblance to the games that inspired them. That being said whilst it might be inspired by several different games of yore Blocks That Matter still has its own distinct style about it and I certainly never found myself thinking I was bored with it visually.

As I alluded to earlier Blocks That Matter draws inspiration from Minecraft for one of its main mechanics but it also combines aspects from another game to give it a challenging bent. Whilst you’re free to mine and collect certain types of blocks (a selection which gets expanded as you progress) you can’t simply place any block wherever you want. There are 2 simple rules to placing blocks: the first is that it must attach to another block or a wall somewhere, meaning you can’t just place them in the middle of the air. The second, and by far the most challenging aspect, is that all the blocks must be placed in sets of 4 meaning all the shapes you can create are in fact are tetrominoes (the pieces found in Tetris).

In the beginning this doesn’t present too much of a challenge, especially once you figure out certain ways to construct things that will allow you to recover the majority of your blocks whilst getting one of them into the position you needed it in. There’s also some areas where Blocks That Matter shows off some emergent game play aspects because of this as if you manage to save enough blocks you can effectively get yourself anywhere on the map without too much trouble. This idea of block conservation becomes key in later levels as many of the puzzles will be incredibly difficult unless you have a certain number of blocks spare.

This becomes even more important when you’re given the skill which can destroy any type of block (useful as there’s many block types that you will simply never be able to drill) as long as they’re in a row of eight or more. Quite often you will be able to make rows with a certain minimum number of blocks, however should you simply rush into it you’ll end up wasting blocks that you didn’t need to. Finding these little block advantages isn’t necessarily required if you’re just trying to get to the end however should you want to mine the block that matters (the little treasure chest shown in the bottom left hand corner in the screenshot above) every block counts as most of the time you’ll need all of them to get to it.

For the most part the puzzles are challenging and rewarding upon completion, especially when you manage to get through them the first time through. However I feel there’s a critical flaw in the way most puzzles play out. You see it’s quite possible for you to get yourself into a situation where you will not be able to complete a level (like being trapped under undrillable blocks). Don’t worry you can suicide yourself and restart the level, all good right? Well whilst that does get around the sticky problem of having to playtest everything so thoroughly that the players can never truly bugger themselves up it does mean that challenges you once completed get undone, forcing you to replay that section of the level. When you make a simple mistake right at the end of the level having to replay it all from the beginning isn’t that fun, especially if that “mistake” was misplacing a block which you could no longer recover.

The puzzles also start to get a bit samey after a while, even with the additional upgrades that add different game mechanics. There’s just over 40 levels in the adventure mode and another dozen or so in the bonus section but by about the halfway point you will have seen most of the tricks. From there on it’s just a matter of making your way through them, conserving blocks and figuring out which types need to be saved and which can be turfed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there’s a lot of people who will enjoy that kind of challenge, but it certainly lost me by about level 34 or so, to the point where I didn’t bother playing through until the end.

The story is also a little strange as it takes the 4th wall, smashes it into pieces and then proceeds to dance on its bloody corpse for the rest of the game. The characters are Penny Arcade style spin offs of their creators being 2 independent game developers which mirrors Swing Swing Submarine’s actual development crew. It’s a rather light hearted affair and really only there to give you some modicum of motivation to keep doing what you’re doing but I couldn’t help but feel a little awkward during any of the plot points thanks to that 4th wall chicanery.

For a game that’s essentially a mash up of nearly every game that my generation grew up on Blocks That Matter does a great job of creating its own unique experience using all those elements without feeling like a cheap imitation. The puzzles are challenging, artwork unique yet familiar and the overall experience is smooth and trouble free. The story and having to repeat challenges ad nauseum are where Blocks That Matter lets itself down and whilst there’s no easy way to fix the story the addition of a quick save system would go a long way to making those long, complicated puzzles towards the end much more enjoyable. For fans of puzzlers or just those of us who grew up on all the titles that Blocks That Matter pays homage to there’s a lot to love in this game and is worth paltry price of admission.

Rating: 7.25/10

Blocks That Matter is available on PC and Xbox right now for $4.99 and 240 Microsoft Points respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 4 hours played and 28% of the achievements unlocked.

4 hours played, 28% of the achievements unlocked.

L'Aquila Earthquake Devastation

Jailing Scientists Doesn’t Help Anybody, Italy.

I have a bugbear for people who believe they know better than those who’ve made a career out of being experts in some field. For me in particular its doctors as I know that I’m rubbish when it comes to figuring why things are happening in my body so I defer to their expertise. People I know seem to harbour a deep mistrust for them however, believing that everything they’re telling them is wrong and only they have the right answers. Whilst everyone has a story of when a doctor might not have got things quite right they always seem to forget the times when they got them spot on, which I’ll argue is more often than not.

The reason why they don’t get it right 100% of the time is due to the very nature of medicine and, more generally, the principles they and all other science based professions engage. For highly complicated systems like the human body it’s nigh on impossible to control for every input and thus we instead rely on statistical models that pull from large data sets so we have a good idea of the effect something will have given a certain input. These models are far from perfect and this means that edge cases won’t respond in the same way but that does not invalidate the model, it merely identifies another factor that needs to be incorporated into it.

It was these very principles that lead a group of scientists back in 2009 to make a prediction that there was a low risk of an earthquake in the small town of L’Aquila in Italy. Months prior to them making the prediction L’Aquila had been rocked by many small tremors which is what caused the local government to convene a panel of experts to determine whether action was warranted. L’Aquila lies on a fault line and using seismic models they had available at the time the scientists concluded that the risk of a larger quake was unaffected by the recent tremors, but there was still a risk. Forced into the situation of giving a yes or no answer they opted for no as earthquake predictions of that nature are incredibly disruptive events for all involved. Unfortunately for them not 6 days later a magnitude 6.3 quake hit L’Aquila and over 300 people lost their lives.

When something devastating like this happens it’s human nature to look for someone to blame. The people of L’Aquila turned their sights on the scientists and politicians who had were involved in making the predictions and yesterday saw 7 of them convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 6 years jail, 2 more years than what the prosecution was asking for. The conviction is assuredly done in order to placate the larger public of L’Aquila who are still struggling to rebuild after the quake laid waste to their town and many of them are seeing this as some small form of justice for those who perished.

This could not be further from the truth.

The predictions they made (which were then announced by a government official with no seismological experience) were based around the models and data they had available at the time and all of them pointed to there being no increased risk of a large quake at that time. Whilst there’s an argument to be made that in the hours leading up to it models in use then would have predicted a massive increase in risk (on the other from 1 in 200,000 to 1 in 1000) that doesn’t change the fact that the prediction they made was sound. To turn around and prosecute them means that in future all scientists who are approached to make predictions of this nature will err on the side of caution and any mild risk will turn into an absolute or, more chillingly, they’ll simply refuse to make any prediction at all lest they face litigation.

The fact of the matter is that there are many factors that lead up to this disaster being as bad as it was and laying all the blame on the scientists who made a prediction based on good data and science shows that they were only looking for a scape goat. There are numerous other individuals who could be held as equally responsible for this such as the builders who built and maintained those houses (magnitude 6.0 proof buildings can be easily constructed, just ask Japan), the regulators who didn’t mandate certain construction standards and anyone else who could be tangentially involved. We won’t do that though because it sounds like madness yet throwing scientists in jail seems reasonable, something which I will never understand.

I am so sorry for the losses the people of L’Aquila have had to endure but blaming the scientists for this is not the right course of action. Instead they should focus on ensuring that the risk is fully mitigated rather than relying on predictions that can and will be wrong from time to time. From now on no scientist in their right mind will make any predictions unless they can be granted immunity from prosecution and when that doesn’t happen they’ll simply refuse. It is one of the most chilling effects modern science has experience in recent memory and I can only hope that the verdict is overturned.

Not just for the scientist’s sake, for the sake of science at large.

RBA Cash Rate Historic Graph

I’m Not Sure Another Rate Cut Is Warranted.

If you’re a home owner with a variable rate mortgage the past year has been pretty kind to you with the RBA slashing a good 1% off the cash rate, an extraordinary amount of breathing room for many people. It’s also provided some relief for those who dived head first into the property market at the bottom of the Global Financial Crisis, taking advantage of the cheap rates, and over-extended themselves with a loan that was too big for them to handle comfortably. This in turn should be putting an upwards pressure on inflation as people spend more thanks to their incomes being freed up from mortgage payments however it seems that the past year of cuts wasn’t enough and the Reserve Bank of Australia might be lining up to cut rates yet again.

Futures markets have been pricing in a rate cut with a likelihood of 85% which means they’re almost certain that the RBA will cut rates in November. There are several plausible reasons for this like the government returning the budget to surplus and inflation coming in below the RBA’s target however some of the other reasons cited have me a little confused. Weaker currency prices aren’t fixed by rate cuts, they will actually make the currency comparatively cheaper, and citing them as a reason to cut rates would be counter-intuitive. I might be misinterpreting what the article means however as the currency trading rates are only casually mentioned.

The reason why this rate cut and not the ones preceding it have got my attention is the fact that with 1 more 25 basis point cut to the official cash rate we will officially be equal to the rates we saw back when the GFC was in full effect. Now we’re not exactly in the best of times at the moment with the Eurozone Crisis still playing out however we’re not in the midst of a global recession either with most developed countries, including the instigator of the last crisis, having several quarters of positive growth under their belt. The unemployment rate, whilst still being far above its pre-GFC minimum, has remained fairly steady in the 5% range over the past year as well which makes it even more confusing as to why the RBA would look to cut rates at this time.

Looking at their decision for this month where they cut 25 basis points off the rate it’s clear that they’re taking a pretty long term view and I’m not sure what’s changed in the weeks since then that could lead them to believe that they needed to drop rates to a record equalling low. The softer global economic outlook, lower commodity prices and low inflation are all valid reasons to drop the rate however they really haven’t changed in the past month and if another drop is warranted so soon after the previous one it could have easily been rolled into it, giving a single cut of 50 basis points. The RBA is usually reluctant to do rate cuts of that magnitude however (last time it happened was at the start of this year and prior to that it was the massive cuts due to the GFC) but the flip side of that is that the markets usually react better to larger cuts. I’m no economist though so there might be some deeper strategy to this that I’m just not seeing.

Considering the relative economic positions between the peak of the GFC and now it just seems odd that we need to have the cash rate at the same level. The global economy not hurting anywhere near as bad as it was at the same time all those years ago and whilst there are indicators that suggest a rate cut might be warranted it seems over zealous to drive them down to the same levels as when we were on the verge of recession. I’m most certainly not going to complain however as it only means good things for my current investments but I’m more interested in the underlying factors that might drive such a cut. I guess we’ll have to wait until November 6 to find out as anything up until then is going to be firmly in the realms of speculation.

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My Obsession With Well Engineered Things.

Of the numerous memorable experiences I had working at the once great Dick Smith Electronics chain (serving a pimp who paid with notes removed from a gold money clip shaped like a dragon being among them) there was one that really stuck with me. I remember a man coming into the store who was looking for spray to freeze components, something which we stocked back then. I’m not sure what started the conversation but I do remember at one point mentioning that you could use it to cool a CPU in a PC if you were so inclined although you wouldn’t have much time to run your benchmarks with just a single can. As it turns out he was an electronics engineer and me, being halfway through a computer engineering degree at the time, instantly hit it off with him.

Among the cooling talk it came up in conversation that I had just recently built myself a water cooled PC rig, mostly for the street cred I’d get from overclocking the bajeezus out of my AMD CPU. He laughed and remarked on how he no longer bothered to do that any more but he did say that back in his day he used to do the same thing. We then got on to talking about product quality and what he said after that, whilst not changing me immediately, stuck with me:

When I’m trying to figure out if a motherboard is good quality I’ll pick it up and look at the engineering went into it. You can tell if components are laid out logically, if there’s high quality components and heaps of stuff just by having a good look at it.

For someone who had fed himself a steady diet of reviews, forum posts and benchmarks to determine the quality of a product the idea of simply looking at something to determine the value seemed kinda strange, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Over the years that idea grew into something of an obsession and I started to look at all the products I wanted to buy with an engineering eye. From there it’s grown into a passion for well engineered things and should anything cross my path that I can see has had a certain level of engineering prowess put into it I can’t help but feel myself be drawn to it.

The coffee machine pictured above (the Breville BES900 if you’re wondering) is the latest product to tickle my engineering fancy just right. Now I’m sure that sounds a little strange, I mean I’m no coffee geek and traditionally coffee machines are the most technically thrilling pieces of technology, but I was in the market for one and my highly experienced Melbourne friend (I have friends with coffee cred, see) recommended this one. Breville isn’t exactly the name you’d first associate with high tech either so on the surface pretty much everything about this was lining up to be a mundane adventure into the work of kitchen appliances.

I could not have been more wrong.

I can wholeheartedly attribute my current geek lust for this particular appliance to the hands on preview from the people over at CoffeeGeek. Whilst things like the boiler system, temperature controls and all the other bits that go into the coffee making side of it are impressive in its own right there’s a whole bunch of things that just scream good engineering. Overfill the reservoir on the top? No worries it has a drain into the spill tray in the bottom. Got the machine butted up against the wall but want to get to the back? There’s a switch on the bottom that extends wheels out so you can just spin it without having to lift the whole thing up. I really could go on but the guys at CoffeeGeek did a much better job than I could showcasing just how much solid engineering went into it.

And it’s pretty much for that fact only that it’s my current obsession. I don’t drink a whole lot of coffee and up until now my $10 special plunger has sufficed but every time I use it I can’t help but think about the beautiful piece of engineering I could be using instead. Soon one of them will find its way into my home (via those credit card points which are useless for pretty much everything except things like this) and I’ll be able to revel in its well engineered beauty in person. Until then I’ll satiate my inner engineering with specifications and pictures of its various bits and pieces, something which I never seem to get tired of.

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Dishonored: Trust No One.

There are few games where I feel confident in saying that the stealth aspect was done well. For recent titles it has often felt like something tacked on at the end after everything else had been done; a mini-game that serves to break up the monotony. It’s a real shame as many of the games that I played during my formative gaming years like Deus Ex, Thief and the like, had stealth sections that were superbly done. It seemed as if the game developers who were behind those titles just simply up and vanished, leaving behind those with only a modicum of understand of how to make stealth games enjoyable. Dishonored isn’t one of these titles and it makes me incredibly happy to put it in the same category as those seminal stealth titles.

Dishonored takes place in the Neo-Victorian steampunk world of Dunwall, a city that’s been ravaged by a plague of unknown origins turning many of the city’s districts into wastelands infest with rats and those on the brink of a gruesome death. You, as Korvo Attano, serve as the high empress’ body guard who was sent on a mission to get aid for the suffering town. However upon return the empress is murdered in front of you and her daughter taken away, leaving just you to take the fall for that horrendous deed. Dishonored then follows your story after your fall from grace as you fight to recover the empress’ daughter and clear your name.

To be completely honest I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed with the graphics of Dishonored. Whilst I had abstained from watching any gameplay videos so as to not taint my first impressions of it from the announcement videos I remember watching my expectations were built up around the idea that it would be a pretty modern looking title. This is not to say that they’re terrible graphics, far from it as you’ll see in many of the screenshots that follows, there were a few things that were so jarring that my immersion was broken completely. Talking to the NPCs comes to mind, although that could be from the camera locking to their face Oblivion style and having them death stare you down whilst you talk to them.

As I alluded to in the opening paragraph Dishonored is one of the games that does stealth right. Realistically there’s actually 2 completely different games to be played here (maybe 3, even): the first is your typical hide in the shadows and make your way to the objective and the second is a RPG/FPS hybrid where you can run and gun your way through it (the third type would be a varying mix between the two). Both of these play styles are completely viable too and in fact it would seem that you’d actually have a much easier time playing as the run and gun style rather than taking the stealthier route. That being said I found the stealth to be far more rewarding than hacking my way through everyone, but at no time did I feel forced into taking one option over the other.

Stealthing around is quite fun as whilst you’re not given a completely open world to explore like in Thief the sections you’re let loose in are quite detailed with multiple pathways to goals and endless places to explore for additional treasure. The magical abilities you can unlock as well (by searching out runes scattered across the levels) can enable you to do some really amazing things like taking possession of rats and then using them to get into places that would be otherwise inaccessible. It’s also quite thrilling to be hiding just inches away from enemies, watching their movements, moving in to strike and then later hear their allies remarking about where they might have gone.

Going toe-to-toe with every enemy you meet is surprisingly viable, something I didn’t really expect from a game that marketed itself primarily as a stealth based action game. The primary means of dealing out damage is a good old fashioned sword that comes hand in hand with the awkwardness that always plagues FPS games that try to include them. However you’re also given a great selection of other weapons to use such as a gun, crossbow, grenades and things that are essentially proximity mines that fling shrapnel everywhere. Considering the ridiculously plentiful ammunition that’s available everywhere you could very well play this entire game without having to bother with stealth at all and one of the achievements, Mostly Flesh and Steel (complete the game without any additional supernatural powers), seems to encourage this. There is the fact though that the more people you kill the more devastated the city becomes (and the darker the ending will be) so playing run and gun will have some consequences, but it does give Dishonored a decent amount of replayability.

There’s a 2 sided upgrade system that functions as Dishonored’s levelling system and up until a point it works quite well. The primarily upgrade system are runes which allow you to unlock and upgrade supernatural powers. Most of them are incredibly useful and primarily geared towards the players who prefer stealth over brawn. The second upgrade system is the mechanical one enabling you to improve all your non-magical powers as well as doing things like reducing the amount of noise your steps make. In the early game these upgrades can be the difference between finishing a mission and struggling with it endlessly but past a point there’s not much return on investment in tracking more runes or gold down.

For instance  since I was playing as a stealth character nearly all the mechanical upgrades were pointless to me and since they use gold instead of runes I ended up having a pretty big surplus for most of the game. This is not because I tracked down all the gold I could find, far from it, its just that once you know what play style you’re going you can min/max your upgrades to make you perfectly fit for such objectives. For me this happened about half way through but a determined player could craft the ideal character after the first 3 missions or so. Sure I still invested in upgrades after that but they didn’t make a huge difference in how the game played for me and I could have just as easily left the runes and gold unspent.

Which brings me to another point. When I was first doing research on Dishonored (mostly looking for average play times) I found an article that said a direct run through would clock in at about 12~14 hours but also that players looking to explore would probably double that as there’d be a lot to find. Whilst the play time is incredibly inaccurate there is some truth to the exploration aspect as you can find many unique encounters if you’re willing to run, blink and jump all over the place. However most of the time the reward isn’t particularly worth it, usually being potions or ammo, and after a while I just stopped seeking them out as I was always maxed out on nearly everything and the only thing I couldn’t find I could buy in unlimited supply anyway. I’m sure there are many people who will get heaps of enjoyment out of seeking all these things out but for me it just didn’t feel worth it after about halfway through Dishonored.

The story of Dishonored is better than most games of similar calibre even if it’s something of a rehash of the typical falsely accused man who’s out to clear his name and make everything right. You at least have some form of agency in that your choice of actions influences both the world around you and how certain characters react to you which is what puts it above other games in the same genre. That being said I didn’t really feel anything for the characters or have a deep emotional involvement in the plot and I think that’s because of one simple thing: the terrible voice acting.

Nearly all of the lines delivered are flat, read in an almost emotionless monotone. It’s rather confusing as the written passages and notes scattered everywhere are quite good, so the writing itself isn’t bad, just the delivery. This is made worse by the canned questions and responses that are obviously heuristically lined up (“Shall we meet for whiskey and cigars tonight?” “Indeed, I believe it is so.”) but never seem to work quite right. There are some stand outs like Lady Boyle’s playful banter and the final soliloquy by the captain but apart from that everyone else could just as easily be a text to speech generator given their delivery. I’m not asking for L.A. Noire levels of emotional craziness but a little more emotion in the lines might’ve made me a bit more involved in the story than I was.

I was asked my opinion of the game several times over the course of playing it and it was interesting to see how it changed over the course of my play through. Initially I was disappointed, I had gotten swept up in the hype again and the initial impressions didn’t match up to my expectations. However as the game went on I found myself enjoying it more and really got into the stealth aspect of Dishonored. It’s probably not game of the year material as many of the major review sites would have you believe but it is an incredibly strong title and in a world where new IP is the hardest thing to market it’s really refreshing to see something like this come to market. For those of us who yearned for the return of the Thief era stealth games Dishonored pays excellent homage to them and is well worth the price of admission.

Rating: 8.75/10

Dishonored is available on PC, Xbox360 and PS3 right now for $79.99, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on the second hardest difficulty with around 8 hours played and 40% of the achievements unlocked giving the Low Chaos ending.

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Windows 8, Games and The Critical Miss of Expecting The Desktop to Disappear.

If you were to believe what some games industry big wigs were saying you’d be lead to believe that Windows 8 was the beginning of the rapture for games on the Microsoft platform. At first it was just a couple developers, big ones in their own right (like Notch), but when someone like Gabe Newell chimes in you start to take notice as distributing games on the Windows platform is his bread and butter and he doesn’t say things like this lightly. However as someone who’s grown up on the Microsoft platform, from the old MS-DOS days until today where I’m running Windows 8 full time on my home PC, and has made his career on their products I still can’t help but feel that their concerns are misplaced as they seem to hinge on a fundamental miscalculation about Microsoft’s overall product strategy.

Those concerns are laid out in lengthy detail by Casey Muratori in his latest instalment of Critical Detail: The Next Twenty Years. In there he lays out the future of the Microsoft platform, drawing on the past few decades of Microsoft’s developments and using them to draw conclusions about what the Microsoft ecosystem will look like in 2032. In this world the future of games on Windows seems grim as all the current AAA titles don’t meet the requirements to be present on the Windows Store and the desktop interface is long gone, effectively destroying the games industry on any PC running their operating system.

It’s a grim future and the number of people worried about this coming to fruition seems to increase on a daily basis. However I believe that some of the assumptions made ignore critical facts that render all this doom and glooming moot, mostly because they ignore Microsoft’s larger strategies.

Before I dive into that however let me just acknowledge that yes the Windows Store doesn’t seem like it would be a great place for current games developers. Realistically it’s no different from Google Play or the iOS App Store as many of the requirements are identical. Indeed all of the platforms strive for the same “family friendly” environment that’s bereft of porn (or anything overtly sexual), violence and excessive profanity which does exclude a good number of games from making their debut on the platform. This hasn’t stopped countless numbers of companies from profiting on this platform but there is no denying that the traditional games industry, with its love of all those things these market places abhor, would struggle with these guidelines.

The fundamental misstep that many games developers appear to be making though is thinking that the Windows Store and the guidelines that come along with it will be the only platform available for them to release games onto the Windows operating system. Looking back to previous examples of Windows does show that Microsoft puts an end date on many technologies however I don’t believe that the desktop will be among them. Sure you might not be able to write a DOS game and have it run in Windows 8 but you can take a MFC app built in 1992 and run today (with the biggest challenge there possibly being recompiling it, but the same code will work).

The reason for the Metro (or Modern or whatever they’re calling it now) interface’s existence is not, as many believe, a direct reaction to the success of the iPad/Android devices and Microsoft’s failure to capitalize on it. The Metro interface, which is built upon the WinRT framework, exists primarily to provide a unified platform where applications can provide a unified experience across the three major screens which users interact with. The capabilities provided within that framework are a fairly comprehensive subset of the larger .NET framework but it’s not fully feature complete as the instruction set needed to be cut down in order for it to be usable on ARM based devices. Whilst it still has access to the goodies required to make games (you can get DirectX on it for example) it’s still not the default platform, is just another one which developers can target.

If the WinRT/Metro framework was Microsoft’s preferred direction for all application development then it wouldn’t be the bastard step-child of their main development technologies, it would become the new .NET. Whilst it is going to be the framework for cross platform applications it’s most definitely not going to be the platform for native development on Windows PCs. The argument can be made that Microsoft wants to transition everyone to WinRT as the default platform but I’ve seen no evidence to support that apart from the idea that because the Metro UI is front and centre that means it’s Microsoft’s main focus.

I find that hard to believe as whilst Metro is great on tablets and smart phones it unfortunately struggles in a mouse and keyboard environment as nearly every review of it has mentioned. Microsoft isn’t stupid, they’ve likely heard much of this feedback through other channels and will be integrating it into their future product strategies. To simply say that they’ll go “Nope, we know we’re going in the right direction and completely killing the desktop” is to be ignorant of the fact that Microsoft works extremely closely with their customers, especially the big organisations who have been the most vocal opponents of Metro-first design. They’re also a pretty big player in the games industry, what with that Xbox being so darn popular, so again I fail to see how they wouldn’t take the feedback on board, especially from such a dedicated audience like us PC gamers.

I’d lend some credence to the theory if the desktop environment hadn’t received much love in Windows 8 in lieu of all the work done on Metro but yet again I find myself coming up empty handed. The UI received a massive overhaul so that the styling would be in line with the rest of Microsoft’s products and there have been numerous improvements in functionality and usability. Why Microsoft would invest so heavily in something that will be slated to be removed within a couple generations of Windows releases is beyond me as most of their deprecated technologies receive no updates for decades prior to them being made obsolete.

And the applications, oh don’t get me started about Microsoft’s own applications.

Whilst Metro has some of the basic applications available in it (like Office and….yeah Office) all of Microsoft’s current catalogue received a revamp as desktop applications, not Metro apps. You’d think that if their future direction was going to be all Metro-esque that more of their staple application suites would have received that treatment, but they didn’t. In fact the amount of applications that are available on the desktop vs the ones available on Metro makes it look more like Metro was the afterthought of the desktop and not the other way around.

If Microsoft’s future is going to be all Windows Store and WinRT apps there’s really no evidence showing to show for it and this is the reason why I don’t feel sympathetic to those developers who are bellyaching about it. Sure if you take a really, really narrow view of the Microsoft ecosystem it looks like the end is nigh for the current utopia of game development that is Windows 7 but in doing so you’re ignoring the wealth of information that will prove you otherwise. The Windows Store might not be your distribution platform of choice (and it likely will never be) but don’t think that the traditional methods that you’ve been using are going anywhere because if Microsoft’s overall strategy is anything to go by they aren’t.