I can remember my first encounter with virtual reality way back in the 90s. It was a curiosity more than anything else, something that was available at this one arcade/pizza place in the middle of town. You’d go in and there it would be, two giant platforms containing people with their heads strapped into oversized head gear. On the screens behind them you could see what they were seeing, a crude polygonal world inhabited by the other player and a pterodactyl. I didn’t really think much of it at the time, mostly since I couldn’t play it anywhere but there (and that was an hour drive away) but as I grew older I always wondered what had become of that technology. Today VR is on the cusp of becoming mainstream and it looks like Google wants to thrust it into the limelight.
Meet Google Cardboard, the ultra low cost virtual reality headset that Google gave out to every attendee at I/O this year. It’s an incredibly simple idea, using your smartphone’s screen and to send different images to your eyes. Indeed if you were so inclined a similar system could be used to turn any screen into a VR headset, although the lenses would need to be crafted for the right dimensions. With that in mind the range of handsets that Google Cardboard supports is a little limited, mostly to Google Nexus handsets and some of their closely related cousins, but I’m sure that future incarnations that support a wide range of devices won’t be too far off. Indeed if the idea has piqued your interest enough you can get an unofficial version of it for the low cost of $25, a bargain if you’re looking to dabble with VR.
Compared to the original OculusVR specs most smartphones are more than capable of driving Google Cardboard with an acceptable level of performance. My current phone, the Sony Xperia Z, has a full 1080p resolution and enough grunt to run some pretty decent 3D applications. That combined with the bevy of sensors that are in most modern smartphones make Google Cardboard a pretty brilliant little platform for testing out what you can do with VR. Of course that also means the experience you can get with this will vary wildly depending on what handset you have but for those looking for a cheap platform to validate ideas on it’s hard to argue against it.
Of course this begs the question as to what Google’s larger plan is for introducing this concept to the world. Ever since the breakaway success that was the OculusVR it’s been obvious that there’s consumer demand for VR and it only seems to be increasing as time goes on. However most applications are contained solely within the games industry with only a few interesting experiments (like Living with Lag) breaking outside that mould. There’s a ton of augmented reality applications on Android which could potentially benefit from widespread adoption of something like Cardboard, however beyond that I’m not so sure.
I think it’s probably a gamble on Google’s part as history has proven that throwing out a concept to the masses is a great way to root out innovative ideas. Google might not have any solid plans for developing VR of this nature themselves but the community that arises around the idea could prove a fruitful place for applications that no one has thought of before. I had already committed myself to a retail version of an Oculus when it came out however so whilst Cardboard might be a curiosity my heart is unfortunately promised to another.
The number of games that were mobile exclusives that make the transition to another platform, whether that’s PC or consoles, is vanishingly small. It’s obvious to see why this is as many of the concepts used in mobile gaming like, touch input and interface design, simply don’t translate readily between those platforms. Platform transition issues have always been a problem for developers, as was shown with the consolization of PC games, but the problem space has been well mapped out over the course of the past decade. Mobile games still struggle with this unfortunately and whilst I really wanted to like Deus Ex: The Fall it was a glaring example of the struggles that developers face when doing mobile to PC transitions.,
You are Ben Saxon, an ex-military agent who served with the Belltower corporation during the Australian civil war. Your career with them was ultimately cut short when bad intel sent you straight into the middle of war zone, your entire team lost when your transport was shot down. However in the midst of all the chaos you managed to meet with someone, Jarron Namir, who recruits you into his special operations team called The Tyrants. With your new augs and all the resources you could ever want at your disposal the future looks good, that is until you uncover the truth about why you were sent into Australia.
Deus Ex: The Fall is a game based on the Unity engine and in that regard it’s actually quite impressive. The graphics are comparable to Deus Ex: Invisible War with a few lighting and rendering tricks helping it to feel a little more modern. Compared to Human Revolution though, a game that was released 3 years ago, it looks like a bad rip off. On a smaller screen, say a tablet or your phone, they’d look a little bit more impressive but on a PC it just feels streets behind everything else. This would mean that if you were craving a taste of the new Deus Ex universe and couldn’t run Human Revolution, for some reason, then it’d be a good place to start.
The Fall essentially a cut down version of Human Revolution in almost every sense, from the skill trees to the weapons to the environments that you’ll be playing in. It’s very clear that everything about The Fall was designed with the mobile market in mind with most of the levels and missions broken down into chunks that can be completed in 5 to 15 minutes. The core game mechanics are still there with the stealth functioning largely the same and the gun combat comparable but, again, modified for the mobile interface. Whilst there’s definitely been a non-zero amount of work done on the transition from mobile to PC the unfortunate reality is that The Fall still contains numerous glitches, bugs and weird quirks on game play mechanics that heavily mar the overall experience.
Human Revolution really got the stealth mechanic nailed down tight and it was nice to see that the majority of mechanics had made their way into The Fall. Most of the levels have numerous different pathways snaking through them allowing you to sneak up on nearly every enemy and take them out silently. However there’s a discrepancy between what you can see in first person mode and what the NPCs can “see”, allowing them to sometimes detect you through walls when, from your point of view, there’s nothing that can be seen. Once you’re aware of this it’s not too hard to work around however it’s a glaring reminder of the limitations of mobile as a gaming platform as I’ve never had this kind of issue with other stealth games on PC.
Combat is extremely clunky which, when coupled with the extremely rudimentary AI, makes it unchallenging and ultimately not satisfying. The recoil mechanic functions by zooming your view in and moving it up slightly, something which is horrifically jarring and doesn’t really add any challenge. Now I played Human Revolution as a primary stealth character and I played The Fall in much the same way however the times when I felt like it’d be fun to run and gun instead were stopped dead in the tracks because of how bad the mechanics are. It’s for that reason that I never really ventured into the buy screen as I could get past every section without using a single weapon.
The talent trees contain familiar upgrades including all the hacking and stealth upgrades from Human Revolution. They pretty much all function pretty much the same as they did previously with the main difference being just how quickly you’ll be able to unlock most of them. Much Human Revolution The Fall seems to be optimized for hacker/stealth players as the majority of things are hidden behind hackable panels and in long air ducts.I have no doubt that if you took the time to thoroughly investigate all of the levels you’d be able to unlock every ability without too much trouble as I managed to get ~60% of them before I got bored and just bypassed everything.
As I alluded to earlier The Fall suffers from many issues due to its transition from the mobile version of Unity to the PC. The first issue I noticed was that sounds just refused to play which also meant the subtitles didn’t stay up either. I traced this back to my headphones (a pair of Logitech G35s) as once I unplugged them everything seemed to work fine. It wasn’t limited to that either as the hacking screen would simply refuse to be moved around which was something of a necessity considering how limited the zoom was. I’m pretty sure this is due to the way you’d handle input on mobile (with DragStart and DragEnd events) which doesn’t directly translate to how PCs with mice work (MouseClick even and then track pointer movement). There were also some rendering issues apparent in a couple levels which wasn’t game breaking but was rather annoying.
The story was semi-interesting although it was so simplistic that it was hard to get into it. There are some familiar faces that appear in the previous games which I thought would be a cool way to give some more backstory on them. However they’re really only there to show their faces before the real meat of the game continues so it just feels like a tease to those who enjoyed the story of Human Revolution. Probably the worst part about it is the huge, glaring TO BE CONTINUED at the end which means seems to indicate that this is going to be an episodic adventure although we’re fast approaching a year since its initial release with no more content in sight.
Deus Ex: The Fall is yet another unfortunate example of how mobile-first games simply don’t translate well into the PC world. It feels like the same amount of time and effort could have been dedicated to implement this as a DLC for Human Revolution, something which I think would’ve seen this story done a lot more justice than what it was on the mobile platform. I may be singing a different tune if I had played this through on my phone but the fact is this was made available through Steam as a game for the PC. In that regard it’s hard to not call it as it is, a bad port that needed a lot more work to even be mediocre.
Deus Ex: The Fall is available on Android, iOS and PC right now for $10.49, $7.49 and $9.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total play time with 57% of the achievements unlocked including the pacifist one even though I killed multiple people.
Ever since Microsoft and Nokia announced their partnership with (and subsequent acquisition by) Microsoft I had wondered when we’d start seeing a bevy of feature phones that were running the Windows Phone operating system behind the scenes. Sure there’s a lot of cheaper Lumias on the market, like the Lumia 520 can be had for $149 outright, but there isn’t anything in the low end where Nokia has been the undisputed king for decades. That section of the market is now dominated by Nokia’s Asha line of handsets, a curious new operating system that came into being shortly after Nokia canned all development on Symbian and their other alternative mobile platforms. However there’s long been rumours circling that Nokia was developing a low end Android handset to take over this area of the market, predominately due to the rise of cheap Android handsets that were beginning to trickle in.
The latest leaks from engineers within Nokia appear to confirm these rumours with the above pictures showcasing a prototype handset developed under the Normandy code name. Details are scant as to what the phone actually consists of but the notification bar in does look distinctly Android with the rest of the UI not bearing any resemblance to anything else on the market currently. This fits in with the rumours that Nokia was looking to fork Android and make its own version of it, much like Amazon did for the Kindle Fire, which would also mean that they’d likely be looking to create their own app store as well. This would be where Microsoft could have its in, pushing Android versions of its Windows Phone applications through its own distribution channel without having to seek Google’s approval.
Such a plan almost wholly relies on the fact that Nokia is the trusted name in the low end space, managing to command a sizable chunk of the market even in the face of numerous rivals. Even though Windows Phone has been gaining ground recently in developed markets it’s still been unable to gain much traction in emerging markets. Using Android as a trojan horse to get uses onto their app ecosystem could potentially work however it’s far more likely that those users will simply remain on the new Android platform. Still there would be a non-zero number who would eventually look towards moving upwards in terms of functionality and when it comes to Nokia there’s only one platform to choose from.
Of course this all hinges on the idea that Microsoft is actively interested in pursuing this idea and it’s not simply part of the ongoing skunk works of Nokia employees. That being said Microsoft already makes a large chunk of change from every Android phone sold thanks to its licensing arrangements with numerous vendors so they would have a slight edge in creating a low end Android handset. Whether they eventually use that to try and leverage users onto the Windows Phone platform though will be something that we’ll have to wait to see as I can imagine it’ll be a long time before an actual device sees the light of day.
One of the biggest arguments I’ve heard against developing anything for the Android platform is the problem of fragmentation. Now it’s no secret that Android is the promiscuous smartphone operating system, letting anyone and everyone have their way with it, but that has led to an ecosystem that is made up of numerous devices that all have varying amounts of capabilities. Worse still the features of the Android OS itself aren’t very standard either with only a minority of users running the latest software at any point in time and the rest never making a true majority. Google has been doing a lot to combat this but unfortunately the unified nature of the iOS platform is hard to deny, especially when you look at the raw numbers from Google themselves.
Android developer’s lives have been made somewhat easier by the fact that they can add in lists of required features and lock out devices that don’t have them however that also limits your potential market so many developers aren’t too stringent with their requirements. Indeed those settings are also user controllable as well which can allow users you explicitly wanted to disallow being able to access your application (ala ChainFire3D to emulate NVIDIA Tegra devices). This might not be an issue for most of the basic apps out there but for things like games and applications that require certain performance characterisitcs it can be a real headache for developers to work with, let alone the sub-par user experience that comes as a result of it.
This isn’t made any easier by handset manufacturers and telecommunications providers dragging their feet every time an upgrade comes along. Even though I’ve always bought unlocked and unbranded phones the time between Google releasing an update and me receiving them has been on the order of months, sometimes coming so late that I’ve upgraded to a new phone before they’ve come out. This is why the Nexus range of phones directly from Google is so appealing, you’re guaranteed those updates immediately and without any of the cruft that your manufacturer of choice might cram in. Of course then there was that whole issue with supply but that’s another story.
For what it’s worth Google does seem to be aware of this and has tried to make inroads to solving it in the past. None of these have been particularly successful but their latest attempt, called Google Play Services, might just be the first step in the right direction to eliminating at least one aspect of Android fragmentation. Essentially instead of most new feature releases coming through Android updates like they have done in the past Google will instead deliver them via the new service. It’s done completely outside the Play store, heck it even has its own update mechanism (which isn’t visible to the end user), and is essentially Google’s solution to eliminate the feet dragging that carriers and handset manufacturers are renown for.
On the surface it sounds pretty great as pretty much every Android device is capable of running this which means that many features that just aren’t available to older versions can be made available via Google Play Services. This will also help developers immensely as they’ll be able to code against those APIs knowing that it’ll be widely available. I’m a little worried about its clandestine nature however with its silent, non-interactive updating process which seems like a potential attack vector but smarter people than me are working on it so I’ll hold off on bashing them until there’s a proven exploit.
Of course the one fragmentation problem this doesn’t solve is the one that comes from the varying hardware that the Android operating system runs on. Feature levels, performance characteristics and even screen resolution and aspect ratio are things that can’t be solved in software and will still pose a challenge to developers looking to create a consistent experience. It’s the lesser of the two problems, granted, but this is the price that Android has to pay for its wide market domination. Short of pulling a Microsoft and imposing design restrictions on manufacturers I don’t think there’s much that Google can do about this and, honestly, I don’t think they have any intentions to.
How this will translate into the real world remains to be seen however as whilst the idea is good the implementation will determine just how far this goes to solving Android’s fragmentation issue. Personally I think it will work well although not nearly as well as controlling the entire ecosystem, but that freedom is exactly what allowed Android to get to where it is today. Google isn’t showing any signs of losing that crown yet either so this really is all about improving the end user experience.
Like 64,000+ others I bought into the OUYA dream, both figuratively and literally. Its initial announcement had me skeptical as I really couldn’t foresee any reason as to why I’d want one, but it quickly grew on me and I thought, at worst, I’ve bought myself a media extender that I can use pretty much anywhere. I dropped a decent amount of coin on it, enough to net me a console and 2 controllers, and then patiently waited for that box to show up on my doorstep. I was excited to review it, since it was a new piece of hardware that I helped to create, and I was told I’d get my hands on it long before it hit retail shelves.
I got mine the same day it hit retail shelves in the USA and that was only the beginnings of my frustration with it.
The device itself was well packaged however the additional controller was just kind of dumped in the shipping box along with the additional batteries to power it. After peeling over the various protective covers that seemed to coat every single part of it I wired it up to my television and turned it on. It emphatically shouted “OUYA” at me and then asked for my wireless credentials to hook itself up to the Internet. This was all fine however it seemed to randomly drop the connection every so often, requiring me to sift through the menus to make it rediscover the connection again. This is with the router being only 3m away from it with nothing but air between it and none of my other wireless devices seemed to share the same problems.
Singing up for an account was pretty standard and after that I greeted with a few menu options. I hit play figuring there’d be a couple titles installed just to get you going (there aren’t) and after that I hit up the Discover section (which I guess counts as the shop) where I perused around for some titles. All of the lists that adorned the front page contained a similar mix of games which made them rather useless for discovery so I ended up looking for some titles that I remember being advertised as coming to the platform. After getting a couple recommended titles and all the emulators I could find I sat down to play through a couple of the games and I can’t say I was terribly impressed.
There’s clearly 2 classes of games on the OUYA store currently. The first is the truly free software which if its a utility seems to work great (all the emulators function as expected, but more on them in a bit) and the second is the essentially the free trial version of the game. Now I knew that there would be paid titles on there however I figured they’d be like the Android store, I.E. I’d have to pay to get them. That’s not the case for the titles that I got my hands on as pretty much all of them have the upsell as part of the game or hide behind tricky mechanics like “coins” or other kinds of micro-transactiony malarkey. I can’t say that this endeared any of the games to me but then again if I was a developer I’d probably do the same thing to get more eyeballs on my product.
Probably the saving grace of the OUYA is that the emulators do work since the OUYA has enough grunt to power them however the process to get them working could not be more of a pain in the ass. If you follow any of the guides that come up when you Google “get ROMs on OUYA” you’ll likely end up having to trounce through the settings menu looking for downloaded files so you can side load file manager onto it. If you’re really unlucky (like I was) the APK files will refuse to install which means you’ve got no way to manage the files. Thankfully the USB driver seems to work well enough to recognize thumb drives and read the files directly off them. This is where integration with the Play store would really come in handy as I could just skirt that whole process and use the web interface to deploy files to it. I do understand why they’re not doing that, however.
As you can guess I’m pretty underwhelmed with the whole experience and I’m going to level most of the blame squarely at the OUYA itself. We didn’t get off to a great start when I, someone who was an early backer, got mine when it went generally available. The whole experience after that point was just marred with little issues that just cemented that feeling of displeasure. Sure there are some redeemable things about the platform but honestly it’s nothing more than what I could get with a $6 app and hooking up my PlayStation 3 controllers to my Android phone.
When Google announced the Nexus 4 I was genuinely excited, my Lumia was showing its age and I was eager to get back to the platform that I loved, especially one delivered by Google. However month after of month of delays which had me hanging on the order page every day eventually wore my patience down and I swore that Google wouldn’t be getting any money from me this time around. Whilst I’ll admit that I almost caved when they finally became available I stuck to my guns and kept searching for a replacement handset.
Initially I was sold on the ZTE Grand S as it’s release date wasn’t too far off into the future and it’s specifications were really quite impressive. Still being an impatient, instant gratification kind of guy I kept searching for other phones that had similar specs but would have a release date sooner rather than later. It didn’t take long before I stumbled across the Sony Xperia Z which not only matched the ZTE in every way it was going to be available months earlier. Within a week I had dropped the requisite cash for one and not long after it arrived at my doorstep.
The Xperia Z is by far the largest phone I’ve ever owned with a massive 5″ screen with an even more incredible 1080p resolution (yeah, that’s the same as my TV). For someone with large hands who struggled with the smaller screens on iPhones and my Samsung Galaxy S2 the increased screen real estate is just awesome, especially when it comes to typing on it. The screen itself is none too shabby either with that high DPI making everything look clear and incredibly detailed. It is a TFT screen which means that it’s viewing angle is somewhat limited (which is not usually a problem, but its certainly noticable) and it’s a little rubbish when used in sunlight. This can be combated somewhat by turning on auto-brightness adjustments which is strangely set to off by default.
Despite its size and glass casing the Xperia Z is quite light, especially when compared to the hefty Nokia device that I upgraded from. It’s not on the level of the Galaxy S2 where I’d sometimes forget I had it in my pocket, it’s far too large to forget about. I believe this is due to its rather unique construction where the glass layers are actually quite thin which, whilst reducing weight, does mean that when pressing on the screen you can sometimes cause the LCD to warp slightly which is a little disconcerting. Having said that though I’ve already managed to drop mine a couple times and it’s managed to survive with no noticeable consequences.
The hardware under the hood is great on paper (Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core 1.5 Ghz processor with 2GB RAM, 16GB on board storage) and it doesn’t fail to deliver in the real world either. Out of the box all motions are buttery smooth with all applications reveling with the insane amount of grunt that the Xperia Z has behind it. The only time that I’ve seen it struggle is when I’ve started to make modifications (like a custom launcher and theme) but even that only seems to happen at very particular times and disappears as quickly as it started.
Surprisingly such grunt doesn’t come at the cost of battery life thanks to the massive 2400mAh battery that powers the Xperia Z. Whilst it will gladly chew through all that energy should you give it a reason to (like playing Minecraft on it, for instance) in its default state it’ll last for days on a single charge. I charge my battery every night but most of the time it’s above 50% when I do, showing that it’s quite capable of going for 2 days without requiring a charge. This is all without its crazy STAMINA mode enabled either which disables data connections when the screen is off which I can only assume would increase the battery life further.
The camera is none too bad either being a 13MP Exmor RS chip, similar to the ones that power Sony’s powerhouse pocket cams like the NEX-5. It’s capable of producing some pretty decent pictures, like the one you see above, however like all smartphone cameras it languishes in low light when it tries to ramp up the ISO and just ends up creating a noisy mess. The HDR video also seems to be something of a gimmick as turning it on doesn’t seem to have a noticeable impact on the result video produced. I haven’t done any conclusive testing with it however.
Sony took something of a light touch when it came to customizing the underlying Android OS with their mobile theme being a thin veneer over the default Jellybean interface. They’ve also favoured the in-built applications over developing their own versions of them which is great as whilst Samsung’s apps weren’t terrible they paled in comparison to others, including the stock Android versions. The only application that got a lot of work was the camera app and realistically all that was done to support the not-so-standard features that Sony packed into it. Overall I was quite pleased with Sony’s approach as it shows that they’re focused on providing a great experience rather than attempt to shovel crapware.
However I can’t really give Sony all the credit for that as it really comes down to Android and the third party application ecosystem that’s developed around it. Whilst I hadn’t been gone from Android for long the improvements in many of the applications that I used daily is really impressive and things that felt like a chore on other platforms are just so much better. That coupled with the insane amount of customizability that Android allows has enabled me to make my Xperia Z truly unique to me coupled with all the functionality I had been missing on my Lumia.
Sony has really come a long way with their line of phones, from way back in the day when they launched their first Xperia (which I still have in my drawer at home) to today when they’re building phones that are, in my opinion, best in class. I’ll admit that I was a little worried that I had jumped the gun when I heard the S4 was going to be out soon but the Xperia is not only comparable, it beats it in several categories. The fact that Sony was able to release a phone of this calibre ahead of the competition says a lot about Sony’s development team and I’m happy to say they’ve created the best phone I’ve ever used to date.
I’ve been using my Nokia Lumia 900 for some time now and whilst it’s a solid handset Windows Phone 7 is starting to feel pretty old hat at this point, especially with the Windows Phone 8 successor out in the Lumia 920. However I had made the decision to go back to Android due to the application ecosystem on there. Don’t get me wrong for most people Windows Phone has pretty much everything you need but for someone like me who revels in doing all sorts of esoteric things with his phone (like replicating iCloud levels of functionality, but better) Android is just the platform for me. With that in mind I had been searching for a handset that would suit me and I, like many others, found it in the Nexus 4.
Spec wise its a pretty comparable phone to everything else out there with the only glaring technical fault being the lack of a proper 4G modem. Still its big screen, highly capable processor and above all stock Android experience with updates that come direct from Google make up for that in spades. The price too is pretty amazing as I paid well over 50% more for my Galaxy S2 back in the day. So it was many months ago that I had resigned myself to wait for the eventual release of the Nexus 4 so I could make the transition back the Android platform and all the goodness that would come along with it.
Unfortunately for me the phone went on sale at some ludicrous time for us Australians so I wasn’t awake for the initial run of them and missed my chance at getting in on the first bunch. I wasn’t particularly worried though as they had a mailing list I could join for when stock would be available again and I figured that after the initial rush it wouldn’t be too hard to get my hands on one of them. However the stock they got sold out so quickly that by the time I checked my email and found they were available again they had sold out, leaving me without the opportunity to purchase one yet again. Thinking that there’s no way that Google would be out of stock for long (they never were for previous Nexus phones) I resigned myself to wait until it became available again, or at least a pre-order system came up.
Despite stories I hear of handsets being available for some times and tales of people being able to order one at various times I have not once seen a screen that differs from the one shown above. Nearly every day for the past 2 months I’ve been checking the Nexus site in the hopes that they’d become available but not once have I had the chance to purchase one. Now Google and LG have been pointing fingers in both directions as to who is to blame for this but in the end that doesn’t matter because both of them are losing more and more customers the longer these supply issues continue. It doesn’t help when they announce that AT&T will start stocking them this month which has to mean a good portion of inventory was diverted from web sales to go them instead. That doesn’t build any good will for Google in my mind especially when I’ve been wanting to give them my money for well over 2 months now.
And with that in mind I think I’m done waiting for it.
For the price the Nexus 4 looked like a great device but time hasn’t made the specifications look any better, especially considering the bevy of super powerful smartphones that debuted at CES not too long ago. I, along with many other potential Nexus 4 buyers, would have gladly snapped up one of their handsets long ago if it was available to us and the next generation wouldn’t have got much of a look in. However due to the major delays I’m now no longer considering the Nexus 4 viable when I might only be a month or two away from owning something like the ZTE Grand S which boasts better specifications all round and is probably the thinnest handset you’ll find. Sure I’ll lose the completely stock experience and direct updates from Google but after waiting for so long the damage has been done and I need to find myself a better suitor.
Us PC gamers are always slightly wary of ports. The reasoning behind it is twofold, primarily stemming from the fact that many ports are rush jobs, leaving us stuck with interfaces that were obviously designed for another platform and failing to take advantage of our PC hardware. It’s also partly due to our slight bruised pride from no longer being the platform any more and the issues with ports just seem to be yet another strike against us. Strangely enough though I’ve found ports from the portable market, mostly from iOS and Android, have actually been quite good with Galaxy on Fire 2 genuinely surprising me with how well it translated to the PC platform. Waking Mars is another title that found its fame on the mobile market and now, thanks to Steam’s Greenlight project, has found its way onto the PC.
Waking Mars is set in the not too distant future of 2093 where a team of scientists, including you playing as Liang, have been sent to investigate some of the caves that were discovered on Mars. You’re not going in blind however as some time before your team sent a robot, named OCTO (presumably because it had 8 legs), down to investigate and the pictures it sent back indicated there was life down there. However shortly after sending those pictures communications were lost and whilst his recovery wasn’t a prime directive it did necessitate the need to go down and investigate these life forms further and discover a whole new world that has been lurking underneath Mar’s surface for an eternity.
Unlike most of the adventure/puzzle/point and click adventures I review on here Waking Mars isn’t done in pixel art fashion. Rather its done in a hand drawn style, one that’s very familiar but I can’t place my finger on where I’ve seen it before. Whilst the animation is a bit wonky at times, for both your character and some of the NPCs in the world, it’s still quite passable. The colour palettes are also quite bright and varied which helps to make sure that you don’t get visual fatigue looking at the same sodden brown landscape for hours on end.
The core game of Waking Mars is a cross between exploration and puzzle solving. Primarily your aim is to increase the “biomass” of each section by making the various creatures and plants reproduce in the little section you’re currently in. Initially this just starts of with you planting seeds and watering them (which then makes them produce more seeds) but it grows into a complex puzzle of what you should plant where and managing the different types of soil in order to make sure you can produce the required amount of biomass. Once you reach the required level the door to the next level will open up, allowing you to dive deeper into the cave.
As far as puzzle mechanics go its pretty novel especially when you get further along when there are certain plants that will kill other plants which also spread voraciously if not kept under control. Each room obviously has an intended solution, one that if done properly will see you complete it with a minimum of fuss and waiting. This can be something of a blessing or a curse as early on you don’t have the right tools to undo your mistakes. Thankfully up until a certain point all the puzzles are designed to not block you until you get to a stage where you can generate any number of the right seeds you need, as shown below.
This particular level also demonstrates the potential for emergent game play mechanics that can be lovingly exploited should you have the time to do so. In this particular area I had what I called a Yellow Seed Reactor (the ones that can grow in the acidic ground) where regular green seeds seemed to collect. Also in the same area was a couple of those life forms that eat the green seeds to reproduce and since the seeds will keep coming as long as I don’t pick them up they had a near infinite supply of food with which to reproduce. In the same area there was also one of the acidic plants that reproduces when it eats one of those little things so whenever I needed a couple of those seeds I’d simply travel back there and wait.
Indeed the way I completed that level was by simply sitting there and watching the reactor in progress as there really is no limit to the amount of times those little buggers can reproduce. It can also backfire horribly on you as they run away when you get near them and the collision detection gets a bit wonky when there’s 100 of them together, usually resulting in a mass suicide that drops hundreds of biomass in a second. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was hilarious though because seeing them all explode out only to fall over and die is pretty bloody funny.
Past a certain point however the puzzles start to feel very samey as you’re just repeating the same motions over and over again. Once you’re in the big chamber you have pretty much unlimited access to all the seeds you need which makes most of the harder puzzles moot but at the same time it also means you’re forever trucking back and forth between locations in order to get the right materials ready in order to progress through. This might not have been as much of a problem if I was playing it on my smart phone since I’d only be playing it for 10~20 mins at a time (and its broken up perfectly for that) but sitting down and playing it for a couple hours means the repetition gets to you and doesn’t make for compelling game play.
The story is also semi-interesting although it feels like it was lacking any direction. Your motives seem to wander from investigation to getting back to base camp to investigating random signals at different points on the map, all without a clear sense of direction. There’s heaps of additional objectives to do but there’s no driving force, either in upgrades or in terms of the story, to push you to do them. Again this feels like an artefact of its mobile origins where it was designed to be picked up and played for a bit and then put down again until the next session.
Waking Mars is fun and novel, exploring an idea that all my fellow space nuts would love to be true. The core game mechanic is certainly refreshing after all the exploration/puzzler games I’ve played of late but after a while it starts to look all the same. The so-so story that has troubles with direction and pacing doesn’t help this either but that doesn’t stop Waking Mars from being a game that’s worth a look in. I’d probably recommend it on Android or iOS as it seems to be well designed for that and whilst it doesn’t translate badly to PC I still think you’d have a better time elsewhere.
Waking Mars is available on Android, iOS and PC right now for $4.99, $4.99 and $9.99 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 3 hours played and 47% of the achievements unlocked.
Space sims are one of my favourite game genres. Indeed my go to title whenever I find myself without an Internet connection is Microsoft’s Freelancer, a game released way back in 2003 that still manages to be home to a lively modding community who’ve extended the games’ life considerably. It’s been a while since I’ve seen something of that calibre though with many recent titles like DarkStar One and Sol Exodus not managing to capture me in the same way. Eve Online got close though I’m hesitant to make comparisons between a MMORPG and a single player game as the experience is wildly different. On the surface Galaxy on Fire 2 would be in another world yet again however it really did feel like Freelancer all over again, and that’s a good thing.
Galaxy on Fire 2 isn’t a PC platform native. Whilst its original versions were released for Java (something I’m having trouble finding out if that meant it was actually keyboard/mouse) I was first introduced it as a title that I could use to stress my then shiny new Samsung Galaxy S2 with. After fiddling around with ChainFire3D for a while and eventually getting the Tegra emulation to work properly I was able to play Galaxy on Fire 2 without a problem and really quite enjoyed it. However holding an ever warming handset for more than 20 minutes was a tiresome experience so I never got around to finishing it. You can then imagine my excitement when I saw the title was coming to Steam in all its spacey glory.
You play as space fighter pilot Keith T. Maxwell, out on a routine mission to hunt down pirates and then head back to collect your reward. Unfortunately during the fire fight your hyperdrive is damaged causing your ship to begin malfunctioning. The malfunction then propels Keith forward in time 35 years and far across the galaxy where he finds himself among a newly formed confederation that’s severed all contact from the rest of the galaxy. At the same time a new threat in the form of a wormhole capable species begins attacking at random which Keith, of course, gets roped into helping out with.
I feel like just commenting on how the graphics look on PC would be doing Galaxy on Fire 2 something of an injustice. Taken in the context that the above pictures are a pretty similar quality to what you see on a phone says something about how powerful today’s smart phones really are and just how good Galaxy on Fire 2 looks on them. For a PC sure they’re not that fantastic (the screenshots are done with all the settings on absolute maximum) but in comparison to other recent titles in the same genre they’re actually not that bad and in light of their origins they’re actually quite impressive.
Just like any true space simulator there are a few core components that make up Galaxy on Fire 2’s game play. There’s the full 3D space combat where you’ll battle other enemies in space ships, a commodity trading market (including everyone’s favourite mini-game: mining!) and a set of storyline missions that functions as both a tutorial in the beginning as well as a way to give you game changing pieces of technology in an organic fashion. This level of detail is undoubtedly the reason why I feel that Galaxy on Fire 2 is well above its recent competitors as others would do away with one or more of the aspects which meant a good section of the expect game play in the genre was gone with nothing left to fill the void.
The combat in Galaxy on Fire 2 is pretty decent although its mobile roots do show in its simplicity. In essence most dogfights are the exact same encounter: you’ll get shot at from a distance, find the enemy that was shooting at you then proceed to chase them as you wear them down. The AI isn’t particularly smart and will react in pretty much the same way every time and thus the only real increase in challenge comes from either tougher enemies or by throwing large numbers of them at you. In essence it’s challenging right up until you figure out how to cheat the AI (hint: they can only seem to predict motion in 1 plane of movement) and then after that you’re pretty much just burning time until they all go boom.
There were 2 issues with the combat that I need to mention. The first is the lack of any trajectory compensating reticle, I.E. a little targeting thing that shows you were to aim in order to hit the target that’s moving in front of you. It’s pretty much a given in any space sim (and pretty much anything with a flying component these days) so its absence feels more like laziness than something that adds challenge. Indeed initially it forced me to choose a different weapon type in order to make aiming easier (read: rapid fire) which I felt was extremely limiting. The second issue is the motion of enemies when they’re close to static obstacles. Instead of flying around them enemies will instead hit them, stick to them, and then track along them; that is if they don’t just fly directly through them first. Collision avoidance in space sims isn’t particularly difficult so I can only hope its absence is deliberate for one reason or another.
The trading section is pretty interesting as reading about it on some of the Galaxy on Fire 2 forums shows that it has supply and demand curves so you can create demands in areas and then fill them later on for a huge profit. I personally didn’t bother much with it until I got the blueprint for the Khador drive which requires about $40K worth of materials but retails for about 6 times that which sent me on a trading rampage to try and find the cheapest places so I could start churning these things out. I only ended up building 2 of them in the end and that was enough to get me a ship (a Groza, if you’re interested) that was more than capable of handling pretty much everything that was thrown at me, despite what the forums said to the contrary.
The missions, both the story line and I assume procedurally generated space lounge ones, are pretty simplistic in nature with most of them being not much more than a variation of the “Go here, kill that, repeat” kind of deal. They do mix it up a bit with some of them being disable, capture or raiding pirate base type affairs which helps to keep it interesting for a while but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get repetitive after a while. Indeed I think this is a problem with most space simulators as the grind of working up to better ships and weapons often sees you repeating the same missions unless you find a shortcut of some description (like selling Khador drives).
The story of Galaxy on Fire 2 certainly isn’t bad but if you’re looking for something akin to a space opera like Battlestar Galactica you’re going to be left wanting. It’s fully voice acted with the actors doing a good job of making the dialogue lively but there really isn’t much to it apart from the wry humour and half assed romance plot. It’s enough to carry the game along and I did genuinely want to see Keith and his love interest get together but there was no lasting emotional impact which is usually how I judge a good quality story.
After saying all that you’d get the impression that I didn’t really enjoy Galaxy on Fire 2 but actually I quite did. Sure the graphics and gameplay are somewhat simplistic and the combat gets repetitive but Galaxy on Fire 2 is the closest thing I’ve had to Freelancer in a long, long time. That’s saying a lot as Freelancer was a game made with (I assume) a much bigger budget and was built for the PC from the ground up rather than coming to it after finding wild success on the mobile market. As a mobile game Galaxy on Fire 2 is an incredible demonstration of what the smart phone platform is capable of. On the PC its a great experience for those of us who cut our teeth on other space sims and hopefully Fishlabs will continue to release their titles (and expansion packs) for the platform.
Galaxy on Fire 2 is available on Android, iOS and PC right now for $5.49, $4.99 and $19.99 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on Hard difficulty with 7 hours of total play time and 24% of the achievements unlocked.
If survival horror is one of the game genres that I tend to rate poorly because of my internal bias against them then real time strategy is the genre that I find myself rating consistently higher for the same reasons. This could be some kind of survivor bias that led me to drop many RTS style games early on in their lives before I could make it to the end to review them (Company of Heroes comes to mind in this regard) but it’s probably more due to my gaming roots being firmly planted in this space having whiled away many hours on the RTS classic, Dune 2. You can then imagine my intrigue when Auralux, a game from independent developer E.B. McNeill, claimed to be the very essence of RTS, cutting away all the peripheral elements until the game was refined to its core.
Auralux, like many independently developed games, has had to make choices as to what needed to be included in the game and what should be excluded. For Auralux this means that there is no story to speak of, you are simply a sun orbited by little dots who needs to take over all the other suns in the area whilst competing with 2 NPC suns who are doing the same thing. The introduction to the game is also quite thin on the ground as well but considering that there really isn’t that much to explain it actually suffices quite well. Your missions start out easy but as time goes on they get increasingly more difficult but you’re also blessed with some additional options to make your time with Auralux much more enjoyable.
The graphics of Auralux are incredibly simple with the most complex item on the whole screen being the suns that dot the landscape. It’s akin to many other ambient titles where the minimalistic graphics combined with the soothing background music make for a very pleasing game experience. The simple graphics are also due in part to the fact that Auralux is also available on Android and whilst many handsets are capable of producing much more elaborate visuals than what Auralux has that narrows the potential market for this game significantly. All that being said it’d probably look a whole lot better on a smaller screen so I’m probably being a bit harsh in that regard.
As I alluded to earlier the core game of Auralux is incredibly simple. You start off with a sun that produces little dots that you can use to take over other, unoccupied suns or to upgrade your own if its capable of doing so. Those same little dots are also your battle units and you can use them to take over other suns owned by the other players. That’s essentially it and the rest of the game is played inside your head as you work out the best strategy to overcome your foes and inevitably take over the entire board with your glowy blue goodness.
Initially the odds are heavily stacked in your favour with you usually starting from a position of power strategically. This serves as the tutorial of sorts as whilst the game play is refined down to the absolute basics its still very easy for you to get into a position that you can’t recover from. The games are also slow and methodical at the start, encouraging you to take your time with each move and consider the best path of action before committing all your available units to it. It’s a good introduction to the idea but it eventually starts to wear thin as you sometimes have to wait for a significant amount of time to pass before you’re able to progress to the next stage.
Thankfully the developer behind Auralux realised this and after a few levels you’re able to unlock “speed mode” which allows you to play the exact same game sped up significantly. This turns matches that would last 10~20 minutes into 5 minute affairs something that is definitely required considering how long it can take to build up and move your army around the map. Once I unlocked the mode I didn’t play it any other way and still managed to eek out a couple hours worth of game time and I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything by doing so.
The bulk of the game stays in either the stacked in your favour or equal footing level of difficulty where you can get by with relatively unimaginative strategies. The last quarter or so puts you in situations where the odds are clearly stacked against you, usually either starving you of resources compared to your competitors or putting you in a really non-strategic position. These maps are the ones that require an incredible amount of strategy to conquer and I can say that these maps took up the vast majority of my total game time.
Something that I feel is key to understanding this game (that is only made clear to you in one of the tips that’s quite easy to miss) is that whilst the AI appears to work differently on different levels it is in fact identical across the board. Now it’s not strict as far as I can tell, it will make different decisions when two options are basically equal, but the way it operates stays the same no matter the map you’re on. Considering the matches are essentially a free for all (or more realistically a 2v1) the game then is usually to get the 2 computers to fight each other so you can quietly build up an army and devastate them before they can retaliate.
Indeed the only advantage you have as a human in this game is the fact that you’re able to think non-linearly. The screenshot below is an example of this as the AI has the terrible habit of putting all of its available units on the front lines leaving its production at the rear incredibly exposed, letting me swoop in to get it. Now if you play like the AI does you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose as the AI is very aware of when 2 of its opponents are duking it out and will take advantage of this so the way to win most games is to wait for an opportunity like the one below and make yourself an unattractive target for the other AI. There may be other ways to win but this was the only way I found to win consistently and even then I’d sometimes lose because both the AIs figured out I was an easier target then the other AI, devastating me in a short time.
Whilst the metagame might not be as rich as other RTS titles it’s still thoroughly enjoyable when you manage to pull off an incredibly risky maneuver that gives you the game winning advantage. It’s true that this is probably the simplest game that you could still reasonably call a RTS and whilst that’s an achievement in itself it also means that the variety of game play possible is also limited. The replayability of Auralux isn’t particularly high if you approach it like a traditional game but for a timewaster on a phone I can see it having quite a long life.
Auralux then is one of those curious indie games that, by necessity, strips back all extravagances in favour of a solid core game mechanic. Auralux does it well and I’d struggle to find anything simpler that could still be realistically called a RTS, even from 2 decades when games had to be simple. Whilst I might’ve cursed its name for the apparent randomness and the AIs ganging up on me I came to realise that it’s all part of the higher order strategy required to conquer your opponents. For RTS fans and casual gamers alike there’s much to love in Auralux and I’d heartily recommend a play through.
Auralux is available on PC and Android for $4.99 and free respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with about 3 hours of total play time.