Monthly Archives: November 2012

Deadlight: Trapped In A World of Your Own Darkness.

I think my angst around survival horror games stems from the many, many hours I lost to the genre back when I younger. There were many nights when my brother and I would sit down in front of the TV, fire up the PlayStation and proceed to play Resident Evil for hours on end. Those familiar with the game will know that much of the tension created in that game comes from the fixed camera angles and not-so-great controls leading to many reloads and undergarments in need of replacing. Long time readers will know that my recent forays into this genre haven’t been great with both of them failing to impress me. Deadlight looked like a fresh take on the survival horror genre and thus I was intrigued to see if the genre could redeem itself to me.

The year is 1986 and the world has been decimated by a virus that reanimates the dead into flesh craving zombies (or Shadows as they’re called in Deadlight). You play as Randall Wayne, one of the few survivors who’s been separated from his family and is searching to find them again. You’ve managed to team up with one of your friends, a police officer and a pair of sisters and were making your way to Safe Point, a rumoured safe zone set up by the military. The opening scenes show one of the sisters badly wounded by the Shadows and you are forced to do the right thing. The gun shot attracts a nearby hoard of shadows to you and in the commotion you get separated from the group. So begins your adventure to find them again and hopefully, your family.

Deadlight is quite visually impressive as when I first looked at some of the screenshots it looked like it had a kind of Trine feel to it with the 2.5D environments. If I’m honest they’re actually done a lot better than Trine as the environments are very detailed and even form part of the game play with things like Shadows lingering in the background shambling over to you. Also unlike most survival horror games which favour noire colouring or muted palettes Deadlight instead favours a more varied set of colours which helps greatly in not making it visually boring. Overall it’s done quite well, much better than what I expected when I first looking into playing Deadlight.

Deadlight is a platformer with the vast majority of the game play consisting of you getting from the left hand side of the screen to the right hand side. Of course it’s never quite that easy with many obstacles blocking your way requiring you to either take a specific path or wade your way through a trough of Shadows in order to make progress. Like many games of today Deadlight also makes heavy use of its physics engine to drive most of its puzzles with many of them requiring you to knock something down or move something in order to give yourself a leg up to the next ledge.

It’s usually at this point in the review of a platform where I’ll gripe about how the jump/grab mechanics are screwy in some particular way but for Deadlight I can’t really say that. Sure there were many moments when I pressed something and didn’t get the result I was expecting  but there’s no one point where I couldn’t figure out what I did wrong in order to cause my untimely demise. For a platformer this is a pretty big achievement as pretty much all of them suffer from some kind of issue that makes the platforming sections tedious but in the case of Deadlight all the frustration was born simply out of me fat fingering the keys rather than some glitch in the code.

There’s also combat in the game taking the form of you either swinging an axe at your foes (which is limited by the blue stamina bar in the top left hand corner) or the tried and true zombie killer favourite of a couple different guns, all of which are lethal if aimed at the head. The axe is also quite capable of dispatching enemies however you either have to spend what feels like an eternity wailing on them or knock them down first and then finish them off on the ground. The guns are far more effective however, like any good survival horror, the ammunition is in pretty limited supply (unless you know where to look, of course).

If I’m honest the combat was one of my least favourite parts of Deadlight mostly because of how tedious and unnecessary it felt. The axe is the perfect example of this as it’s not particularly effective when you need it to be (I.E. surrounded by Shadows) and it’s much, much easier to just keep running and knock them down than to even bother attempting to take them out. The guns are pretty much a last resort apart from a couple sections where you’re forced to use them so again their inclusion feels like it was done “just because” rather than some burning need to have it as a core component of the game.

The story is quite compelling at times however I felt that it was let down heavily by the often lacklustre voice acting that backed it up. In the beginning I thought it was quite good however as the story went on it was clear that many of the lines were delivered flat without any emotion behind them. This becomes even more obvious towards the end when there’s some very emotionally charged scenes which lose pretty much all their impact thanks to this which kind of soured me on the story towards the end.

It’s a real shame because objectively the story is pretty good, combining the usual survival horror flair with a psychological thriller that leads you to question the main character’s motives. It’s not the most original plot to be sure but it’s definitely above what I was expecting which is always nice. I felt the ending was unsatisfying, probably due to the way it was presented, however I might have been swayed otherwise had I had a deeper emotional connection with the characters.

Deadlight was a nice surprise considering that I choose it based around the fact that it was short (I’m attempting to work on a couple longer game reviews and I’m constantly running out of time) and needed something for this week. The game plays well with no bugs and the platforming, something that usually brings games down a peg or two, was great. It’s let down by the pointless combat and lack of story delivery with emotion behind the voice acting which is a shame as it’s otherwise a great game. This is probably the first survival horror game that I could recommend playing which has renewed my faith in the survival horror genre.

Rating: 7.5/10

Deadlight is available on Xbox360 and PC right now for 1200 points and $14.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 3.1 hours played and 68% of the achievements unlocked.

Fun With Hydrophobic Sand.

There’s been something of an explosion of hydrophobic (something that’s literally water proof) products recently. Many of the products are pretty novel ideas that have practical applications like shoes and boots but there are many other, stranger devices like this device that can pick up condiments spilled on a table. I thought I had seen most of the cool applications of hydrophobic coatings already until I came across this little gem the other day and the science behind what you see in it is quite awesome.

So this sand, called Magic Sand which you can buy or even make yourself, starts to act in a rather odd way once it gets under water. You’ll notice that it sometimes takes a bit of effort to actually get it under the water and that’s because, just like oil, it would prefer to float on top of it rather than mix with it. Once its under there however it seems to stop acting like a power and starts acting like a semi-solid, being quite malleable. Once you take it out of the water however it returns to its former powder state, losing any of the properties it just had.

The reason for this is pretty simple and would have some pretty cool effects if they had a deeper tank or a pressurized container. Once the power is under water its put under pressure by all the water molecules around it, much like SCUBA divers are. This forces it to clump together which is what gives the sand its apparently malleability. Once its removed from the water this pressure is gone and we’re left with the powder we had before hand. If you had a really deep tank and did the same experiment the sand would become less and less malleable as the depth increased as the pressure exerted on it would continue to go up. Dropping some of this into the Mariana Trench would likely give you a hydrophobic rock by the time it reached the bottom, and an incredibly dense one at that.

The sand also has a practical purpose other than being a cool science based toy. Originally it was developed as a solution for surface oil spills where you’d cover the spill with the dust which would then be heavy enough to sink allowing for recovery. That method is unfortunately too expensive to be used and most clean ups instead rely on booms and specially designed ships but it is being tested for other applications.

Man if my younger self could see me now. He’d be wondering why the hell a grown man was so interested in all these boring, educational things. I seriously can’t get enough of them now 😀

Why User Reviews Are (Mostly) Useless.

The whole idea of boiling down an entire game experience to a single number is something that’s started to wear on me of late. It’s supposed to make for an easy judge of the overall quality of the game, combining all aspects of it together to give you something that makes it easy to compare it against other titles. However there’s usually far too much nuance in any particular game for that single number to be meaningful and whilst I still give them overall ratings I hope that the readers go through the whole review before reading the score so they can understand what lead up to it. There’s also the question of innate quality and how that should be reflected in the overall score, something which has lead to many questioning why critic reviews scores tend towards the upper end of the spectrum.

For me the explanation is simple, it’s survivor bias for the games that I actually finish (I hate not finishing games before reviewing them and will point that fact out when I do). This means there’s a certain quality bar that has to be hit for me to make it the whole through before giving it up and that pushes my average scores upwards. At the same time the objective quality of games (things like bugs, how the game plays, performance, etc) is actually quite high when you compare it to the past and thus it’s hard for a reviewer to give a game an absolutely terrible score when for the most part it’s a well done game.

Users on the other hand aren’t so sympathetic. Take for instance the current review scores for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2:

Taken at face value that’d have you thinking that it’s an absolutely atrocious game, one that the vast majority hates with an unbridled sense of passion. Contrasting that with the critic reviews and it’s easy to see why a lot of people jumped on the DoritoGate bandwagon, proclaiming loudly that all the reviewers where in the publisher’s pockets. The complaints are almost identical to all the previous releases most stating that it’s the same game with nothing new to offer or saying that the previous ones were better and they can’t believe they shelled out for it. Digging into the reviews however I started to notice some patterns that tell you that these user review scores are for the most part, total crap.

The first type of review pattern I came across was what I’ll call the Negative Nancy who’s long history of reviews are dominated mostly by scores in the 0-2 range. I’m not exactly sure what these users get out of writing and rating all these games so lowly but it seems like they’re dedicated to sending the user review score down as far as they can go even if they admit that the game has some redeeming features. Suffice to say it’s hard to take someone’s opinion seriously if all they’re doing is rating everything badly as you have no reference point to determine whether their style of reviews lines up with yours (unless you too, hate every game released).

The second, and most telling, are the Extremists. They are capable of dishing out both positive and negative reviews but do so only on the extremes of the spectrum with everything either being perfect or nothing at all. This kind of reviewing can be fine, if you give a rating in the form of something like recommend/don’t recommend, however their scores aren’t really any indication of the relative quality of the games due to the lack of graduation between the good and bad titles. That might be enough for some people but in all honesty if you want to know if a game is worth playing or not these kinds of reviews aren’t great indicators of that.

The final piece of information I’ll leave you with is the fact that there’s many people who are reviewing Black Ops 2, and in fact any of the most popular games, have just a single review. Now I’m not saying that only having one review discredits them completely but the fact that most of them have signed up just for the purposes of giving a negative review says a lot about their motivations for doing so. Indeed I believe many people will probably see an article like this one posted on a website and will immediately hop on the negative review bandwagon simply to be part of the crowd.

After saying all that though there were some negative reviews on there from people with long histories of reviews with varying levels of scores and those are the kinds of user reviews you can put some weight behind. They’re annoyingly rare unfortunately with most falling on either side of the extreme, rendering the overall score completely useless. The critic reviews are only better due to the long articles that come along with them (and not because of their overwhelmingly positive scores) and not the 2 sentences that accompanies the user reviews.

If you’re actually interested in proper reviews though I’m probably preaching to the choir here. We all know that games are incredibly hard to boil down to a single number and that’s usually heavily influenced by the reviewer’s biases. I try to lay all mine out on the table so you can get a feel for what led me to give the final score but I can’t say the same about the vast majority of user reviews on Metacritic I’ve read over the years. There are some good people on there but it’s akin to finding that elusive needle in a haystack, something that’s just not worth doing all the time.

Paying to Block Ads: It Should Go To The Content Creators, Not Some 3rd Party.

I don’t run ads here and there’s a really simple reason for that: I have the luxury of not needing to. This blog is one of my longest running hobbies and whilst the cost to me is non-zero in terms of time and actual cash I’m willing to eat both those costs simply for the love of it. There is a point where I’ve told myself that I’ll start running ads (that’s the point where I can make a living off doing this) but that’s somewhere in the order of 50 times the traffic I’m receiving today. Not an impossible goal really but certainly a long way off from where I currently am.

It’s for that particular reason that I don’t run ad blocking services on my browser. You see for the most part I don’t even really notice the ads unless they start forming obvious patterns or have obnoxious auto-playing music and I figure that as a fellow content creator I understand their reason for being there. Even though I don’t usually click on them I know that the author is getting at least some kind of reward for providing that information for free to me, even if it’s not much. I completely support everyone else’s freedom to block ads as they see fit however as I know that overall they’re in a minority and they won’t be the death of free online content any time soon.

Then I read this article titled “How Much Would You Pay to Never See an Online Ad Again?” thinking that it might be some new inventive start-up idea like Flattr which would be working with publishers in order to get rid of advertising on their site. AdTrap is in fact quite the opposite being a hardware device that sits between your modem and router (it actually necessitates that configuration which rules out people using integrated devices) that works to remove ads before they reach your browser. Taken at face value the marketing makes it sound like a pretty fantastic device given all the features it’s touting (many of which are not born of it, simply of the way it connects into your existing infrastructure) and it can be yours all for the low price of $120.

Now granted I had some idea in my head of what AdTrap was (care of the title of the article that led me to it) so it’s possible some of my angst directed towards this product is born of that but I’m not totally on board with the idea of paying someone else in order to block ads. It’s one thing to provide that kind of technology for free, that’s kind of expected on the Internet, but building a business around denying revenue to content creators doesn’t sit right with me. I’d be much more on board with being able to pay people directly in order to remove ads, a la Reddit Gold, rather than some 3rd party who isn’t really doing anything for the content creators with their product.

In the end I guess it doesn’t really matter that much as again the number of users who actually end up buying one of these things will be in the minority and won’t have any meaningful impact on revenue. I guess I just take issue with people profiting from such an endeavour as the motives then change from being simply altruistic to maximising their revenue at the cost of other’s. I’m not going to go on some crusade to try and take them down however as the market will be the final judge of it and if the people want something like this then it was inevitable that it would be created.

Apple Eyeing ARM For Their Desktop Line.

The name of the game for all large technology companies is platform unification and domination, with each of them vying to become the platform that consumers choose. Microsoft has been on a long and winding road to accomplishing this since they first talked about it 3 years ago and Apple has been flirting with the idea ever since it started developing its iOS line of products with features like the App Store making its way back into OSX. Neither of them are really there yet as Windows 8/WinRT are still nascent and requiring a lot more application development before the platform can be considered unified and there is still a wide schism betwen iOS and OSX that Apple hasn’t really tried to bridge.

Predominately that’s because Apple understands that they’re two different markets and their current product strategy doesn’t really support bridging those two markets. The iOS space is pretty much a consumer playground as whilst you can do some of the things that Apple’s previous OS was known for on there its far from being the creative platform that OSX was (and still is, to some extent). Indeed attempts to bridge their previous products with more consumer orientated versions have been met with heavy criticism from their long time fans and their failure to provide meaningful product updates to their creative powerhouse the Mac Pro has also drawn the ire of many creative professionals.

If I’m honest I didn’t really think that Apple would turn their backs on the creative niche that is arguably responsible for making them what they are today. It’s understandable from the company’s point of view to focus your attention on the most profitable sectors, much like games developers do with the whole console priority thing, but it almost feels like the time when Apple still considered itself a player in the enterprise space, only to quietly withdraw from it over the course of a couple years. Whilst there isn’t much evidence to support this idea the latest rumours circulating that they may be considering a switch to ARM for their desktop line doesn’t help to dispel that idea.

ARM, for the uninitiated, is a processor company based out of Cambridge that’s responsible for approximately 95% of all the processors that power today’s smartphones. They are unquestionably the kings of the low power space with many of their designs being able to achieve incredible efficiencies which is what enables your phone to run for hours instead of minutes. Whilst they may no longer be the supplier for the chips that powers Apple’s current line of iOS products their technology is still the basis for them. Suffice to say if you’ve got any piece of mobile technology it’s likely that there’s some kind of ARM processor in there and it’s the reason why Microsoft chose it as their second platform for the WinRT framework.

Apple switching platforms is nothing new as they made the switch to x86/Intel back in 2006. The reason back then was that PowerPC, made by IBM, was not able to keep pace with the rapid improvements in performance that Intel was making but was also because of the performance-per-watt of their processors which was arguably why AMD wasn’t considered. Apple’s direction has changed considerably since then and their focus is much more squarely aimed at portable experiences which is far better served by the low power processors that ARM can deliver. For things like the MacBook and the Air lower power means a longer battery life, probably the most key metric by which these portable computers are judged by.

There’s no doubt that Apple will be able to make the transition however I’m not sure that the cost to them, both in real and intangible terms, would be worth it. Forgetting all the technical challenges in getting all your third parties to re-architect their applications the unfortunate fact is that ARM doesn’t have a processor that’s capable of performing at the same level that Intel’s current line is. This means for creative applications like photo/video editing, graphic design and the like their current software suites will simply not be viable on the ARM platform. Since the transition is a ways off its possible that ARM might be able to design some kind of high power variant to satisfy this part of the market but traditionally that’s not their focus and since the desktop sector is one of Apple’s smallest revenue generators I can’t see them wanting to bother doing so.

This is not to say that this would be a bad move for Apple at large however. Being able to have a consistent architecture across their entire line of products is something that no other company would be able to achieve and would be an absolute boon to those seeking a ubiquitous experience across all their devices. It would also be a developer’s wet dream as you could make a cross-platform applications far more easily than you could with other platforms. Considering that Apple makes the majority of its money from ARM based platforms it doesn’t come as much surprise that they might be considering a move to it, even if that’s at the cost of creative sector that brought them back from the graveyard all those years ago.

I don’t usually comment on Apple rumours, mostly because they’re usually just a repeat of the same thing over and over again, but this one caught my attention because if it turns out to be true it will mark Apple’s final step away from its roots. Whilst the creative professionals may lament the disappearance of a platform they’ve been using for over 2 decades the saving grace will be the fact that on a feature level the Windows equivalents of all their programs are at feature parity. Apple will then continue down the consumer electronics road that it has been for the past 10+ years and where it will go from there will be anyone’s guess.

The Unfinished Swan: To Paint, Perchance to Dream.

I’m increasingly falling in love with games that push back on the traditional ideas of what constitutes a good game in favour of experimenting with new ideas. Back in the golden era of gaming the only metric that seemed to matter was how long a game lasted for with things like story telling and game mechanics taking a back seat. This was the reason behind Nintendo, and many other games developers, making their games so incredibly difficult as to draw out the game experience over a longer period of time. Sometimes it worked, like in Zelda, and other times you got Battletoads, a game that still haunts me to this day. The Unfinished Swan is another in a long line of exploration/story telling games to be released this year that are the antithesis to those ideals and are, for what its worth, incredibly enjoyable to play.

You play as Monroe, a recent orphan who’s just been relocated to an orphanage. Your mother was an avid painter but she was terrible at finishing her work, leaving behind 300 unfinished canvases at her passing. When you were taken to the orphanage you were told that you could bring one, and only one, of the paintings along with you. Out of all the works you choose your mother’s favourite, the swan that was still left unfinished. One night however you awake to see the swan has disappeared from the canvas and there are swan prints leading up to a door that wasn’t there before. Upon entering you’re transferred to a completely white world and your adventure begins.

The Unfinished Swan’s art style is one of incredible simplicity with your first actual game play experience being thrown into a completely white room with no indication of where you are or what you can do. It was quite a jarring experience as I attempted to run around with no indication of actual movement. When I stumbled on the throw paint button (it’s the L/R buttons) I was greeted with a completely black wall. Moving back I then discovered the game’s main mechanic, your ability to throw paint around. For the first level this is your means of discovery but as the game goes on it morphs from simple discovery to all manner of interesting mechanics.

From a technical standpoint the graphics are quite simple with most things being fairly rudimentary models that aren’t textured. It fits in well with the larger narrative and if I’m honest I’m glad that you don’t spend the entire game lobbing paint everywhere to discover where you should be going as I found myself experiencing forms of snow blindness on more than one occasion. That being said the incredibly bare bones style works exceptionally well, drawing your eyes to details that you’d simply ignore otherwise. I might be a little biased though as I have a thing for black/white contrasts like this but my wife seemed to enjoy it as well.

As I mentioned before the main game mechanic is your ability to lob globs of paint at every surface around you. Initially this is how you find your way around but as you progress the game world will evolve to have proper lighting and shadows at which point your paint changes. The game is, at its heart, an exploration title so lobbing paint at every surface in your reach is usually worth it as you can never be sure when there’s something hidden in plain sight, especially with the lack of colour detail to help you discern when something looks amiss.

One example of this that sticks in my head is when I was walking down a corridor that was lit from the outside so one side was completely illuminated and the other side wasn’t. Since it was semi-long I was doing the usual thing of flinging paint right in front of me just for laughs when I noticed that the resulting spray didn’t look like it should. Turns out there was a corridor on the unlit side that was completely black which, had I not been carelessly painting everything in my path, would have been invisible to me. It wasn’t necessary to finish the game (it was one the ancillary aspects of it) but there are dozens of other examples like that throughout The Unfinished Swan.

The balloon system is the carrot that The Unfinished Swan dangles in front of you to tempt you into exploring every nook and cranny within the game world. The balloons can be used to buy toys in the main menu which help you in various aspects of the game. None of them are required to complete it, indeed I finished it with 33 balloons in my pocket, but some of them would have made things a lot easier. Their locations aren’t always obvious like the dark hallway in a dark corridor example I just gave but you can find a good deal of them by simply looking around and then sometimes taking the semi-creative path to the ultimate solution.

The later stages of the game introduce block construction as another mechanic which is very simplistic but does require a bit of nuance in order to get right. As you can see from the screenshot above I wasn’t particularly neat with my block construction, usually creating one and finding it was too high and then remaking it, and many of the solutions I ended up making worked out of sheer brute force rather than being an eloquent solution to the problem put before me. Still the developers behind The Unfinished Swan understand how to pace their games well and the introduction of new mechanics like this one was always done right at the point where the old one was starting to get tedious.

The story is quite magnificent as well, rating as a great children’s story that has enough subtext for adults to enjoy as well. Whilst its only told in fits and bursts between you finding letters on walls and then lobbing paint balls at them the way that the story ties directly into the environment you’re playing through makes it all the more enthralling. The ending is bitter sweet and satsifying and is something that I can feel myself sharing with others both young and old.

The Unfinished Swan is yet another great example of a game that can eschew complicated game mechanics in favour of a simple idea that’s used to its utmost ability. I came into this expecting a wildly different game since I hadn’t read much about it before plunging in and I was pleasantly surprised with what I got. My only minor complaint is that for a 2 hour game it runs $20 (at least here in Australia) which, while I feel is semi-reasonable for this game, will be a barrier to entry for many who may want to play it. Still for those who love a good story or a game that wouldn’t be out of place with Peter Molyneux’s name on it The Unfinished Swan is definitely worth a look in.

Rating: 9.25/10

The Unfinished Swan is available on PlayStation 3 right now for $19.99. Total game time was approximately 2 hours with 33 balloons collected overall.

Tablets, Ultrabooks and Overlapping Use Cases.

Do you know anyone who actually uses a laptop on their lap? The name would imply that the intended use case for a laptop is for something that could ostensibly be used anywhere that you could find yourself a seat although the primary use for most laptops seems to be as a desktop replacement rather than a dedicated mobile computing experience. I know  that was the case for me with many of the work issued laptops that I was given (they were primarily only used at work) and their form factors usually didn’t lend themselves to being used well as their namesake implies. After reviewing the ASUS Zenbook UX32V this week I remembered how similar my experiences sounded to those who’d bought a tablet and that got me wondering about the larger portable computing market.

You see whilst I was pretty sour on the tablet idea for a long time I have to admit there were situations where I’d find myself thinking that it’d be great to have one in order to do something. Granted these situations were pretty niche for me, usually when I was lounging in front of the TV and wanted to look something up (with my PC being not 3 meters from  me) but never the less it kept me looking into them. Then after getting the Zenbook I found myself doing those exact, presumably tablet optimized tasks, on said device. It was a bit of a strange thing to happen to me as it’s not like I didn’t have a laptop lying around the house before but there was something about the form factor and extremely fast boot time of the Zenbook that transformed it from just being another laptop to a truly portable device I could use anywhere.

In fact thinking back I can remember many of my friends who purchased a MacBook Air said very similar things and their reaction to the iPad was one of questioning the value they’d get out of it. Taking this idea further it would seem that whilst there’s a case to be made for having a laptop and some kind of tablet around should you get the right kind of laptop, namely an ultrabook, you’ll end up usurping all the uses cases you’d have for a tablet. Granted there are still some situations where a tablet might be better (I can think of 1 and only 1 for myself, previewing photographs before I finish shooting) but for people like me it’s hard to warrant a purchase based around that. For many other people however, those who were craving a good portable computing experience, the tablet filled the niche long before the ultrabook ever had a chance to make its case.

Keen observers will note that whilst I might be making my argument around the ultrabook designation there was actually a market sector that was dedicated to the small, highly portable market long before the ultrabooks became viable: the netbooks. Indeed this is correct and whilst many will say that the iPad is what killed the netbook sector (I strongly disagree on that) it was fare more likely that after the initial hype cycle companies started focusing on higher margin products, like the ultrabooks, and thus the market shifted towards them. Indeed when the computing power in a tablet can match or exceed that of a netbook most people will probably go with the former, especially if the user experience is better.

My point among all this is that for me, and I believe many others, the use case for a tablet are more than aptly covered off by an ultrabook. Sure it’s hard to compare them as the form factors, operating systems and available applications are worlds apart from each other but I really have found myself wondering why I’d need a tablet now that I can use my Zenbook in practically every other situation. It could very well be that I’m too in love with physical keyboards and the possibility of playing my PC games anywhere to realise the extra value that I might derive from a tablet but apart from being a digital photograph portfolio I can’t see much use for one any more.

The Strange, Conflicting World That DoritoGate Has Swept Me Into.

I love reviewing games, I really do. Back when I first started doing it I was constantly struggling with writer’s block as I felt I had already covered all the semi-interesting topics already and was simply cranking out post after post which I didn’t feel particularly proud of. Game reviews then were a writing safe haven, a place where I could write almost endlessly on how that game made me feel and the nuances of the game play and graphics. They were among the most time consuming posts to write but they were also the most fulfilling and, several reviews later, I had left behind the creative block that had plagued me for months before and I’ve never looked back since.

That love of game reviews hasn’t gone unnoticed by publishers, PR reps and developers. I’ve felt incredibly lucky to be invited not once, but twice to play the Call of Duty titles before they were released (I couldn’t go this year, unfortunately). I was also lucky enough to have my review of Resonance noticed by the PR department of Wadjet Eye Games and was invited to play their upcoming title, Primordia, before it was released to the public. Sure I’m not exactly overwhelmed with requests from PR reps and publishers to get coverage of their games but I’ve at least had a taste of how the game review world operates and like many of my fellow brethren I’ve always been left craving more.

Reviews live and die by their timing, especially for larger sites. I knew from the start that I would never get a review out before any of the big sites would simply because I’d never get access to the titles at the same time they did. I’m ok with this as whilst I might not be first to market on these things I still manage to do alright, even if the amount of traffic I get would be a rounding error on the analytics dashboard of any proper gaming site. The opportunity to do reviews alongside the big time players then is a huge advantage to people like me as it gives us a chance at grabbing a slice of that juicy review traffic, even if most people will simply wait for their review site of choice to publish it.

Then DoritoGate happened.

I’ve never had someone call me out for being on the take for my reviews and that’s because (I hope) that I’m pretty upfront when I’m dealing with PR people or an event that was designed to generate blog coverage. Whilst my review scores tend towards the upper end of the spectrum, with a few people pointing out that I’m operating on a 7 to 10 scale and not a 0 to 10 one, that’s essentially a form of survivor bias that came about due to the way I review games. I did joke about giving a better review score to Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3 depending on who schmoozed me better but I never consciously did that because realistically there was nothing else for me to gain from it.

When you’re like me and these kinds of things don’t happen to you very often it’s hard to not accept it the lavishes of the PR agencies, especially when they’re helping you further your cause. I don’t have an ethics policy tying me down or a boss to report to so the only people I have to appease is you, my dear reader. As far as I can tell everyone is comfortable with reviewers like me receiving review copies of games and even attending events where we’re given previews of said games (them paying for your travel still seems to be a grey area) but the furore that has erupted from a man sitting beside a table of Doritos and Mountain Dew has made me question what’s appropriate and what I’m comfortable with personally.

Now I’ve got something of a position of power here since I don’t advertise on this blog nor have I ever worked with publishers and PR people to do things like mock reviews. However when I first started getting offers of review products I took a long time before I accepted something mostly because I didn’t know what taking it meant for my blog. Intrinsically the gift of a product is given on the expectation of a review so there’s an obligation there, even if there isn’t any formal contract to speak of. My journalist friends said that disclosure is the key here, which is something I’ve stuck to religiously, but after seeing how the wider gaming community has reacted has me wondering if there’s things I should say no to in the future. All in the name of some form of journalistic integrity.

Realistically I don’t believe I have as many conflicts or issues as some of the people involved in DoritoGate did but it’s issues like these that play constantly in the back of my head when I’m writing, or even thinking about writing, a game review. I’ll stick to my principles of being honest and transparent when it comes to benefits I receive as part of the review process but I don’t have any hard and fast rules that I feel I could apply to other games reviewer’s yet. I think that’s what’s bothering me the most and I’m not entirely sure when I’ll have a solution for it.

 

ASUS Zenbook UX32V Review: Ultrabooks Are What All Laptops Should Be.

I was never a big fan of laptops. By their very nature they’re almost sealed systems with nearly all of their components being integrated meaning your upgrade options are usually quite limited. Back in the day when upgrades came on a regular 12 month cycle this essentially meant buying a whole new system, something which a then 4 part time job working student like me couldn’t really afford. However as I was required to do work abroad, usually for weeks at a time, a portable computer became something of a necessity and that culminated in me buying a MacBook Pro 2 years ago. I hadn’t replaced it yet since it was still managing to do everything I needed it to do but part of the perks of winning the LifeHacker competition was that I was given a shiny new ASUS Zenbook UX32V to cover TechEd and, of course, take home with me.

Now when I got the MacBook Pro it was among the slimmest and lightest 15″ laptops you could get. Whilst its a far cry from many of the laptops I’ve had to use in the past compared to the Zenbook it’s something of a tank being almost twice the thickness and weight. You can put a lot of this down to the MacBook Air inspired design aesthetic as well as the 2″ smaller screen but even with that taken into consideration its still quite striking just how small and light the Zenbook is. I can quite easily hold it in one hand and type on it with the other, something that I would most definitely not attempt with my MacBook Pro. When carrying it around for long periods of time this weight difference is an absolute godsend as I barely notice it over the regular weight of my shoulder bag.

It’s featherweight status comes from the extensive use of aluminium in the body and top part of the monitor rather than the reams of plastic that’s common in similar ultrabooks. This means it doesn’t feel like something you’ll break if you look at it the wrong way and although its really only been on one trip with me it’s endure enough abuse that I can safely say that it’s just as durable as my older, chunkier MacBook Pro. It’s also quite user servicable too with iFixIt giving it a 8 out of 10 rating much better than many comparable ultrabooks.

What really impressed me about the Zenbook however was the incredible hardware specs that ASUS managed to cram into this tiny form factor. Underneath all that aluminium is an Intel Core i5 processor capable of ramping itself up to 2.6GHz (stock speed is about 1.7GHz). It also comes with 4GB of RAM which would typically be shared with an integrated graphics processor however the Zenbook is the first ultrabook to come with a discrete graphics chip, the NVIDIA GeForce GT620M. The Zenbook also comes with a hybrid drive that has a 28GB SSD cache that backs 500GB of spinning rust which is just the icing on this little powerhouse cake.

Of course since this little beasty was shaping up to the replacement for my current laptop there was one thing it needed to be able to do: play games. I have to admit that I was sceptical at first because I’ve fiddled with a lot of other small laptops like this before and not one of them was able to play games properly, that only seemed to come with systems that would kindly be described as luggable desktops. The Zenbook however managed to run pretty much everything I threw at it without a worry with games like DOTA 2 being buttery smooth at max resolution with all the settings cranked up to high.

One of the minor features that I feel bears mentioning is the amount of connectivity available on them. Now the Zenbook isn’t leaps and bounds ahead of similar models in this regard but the simple addition of an extra USB port (giving a total of 3) is something that I feel has been sorely lacking with nearly every laptop I’ve had. Heck even the semi-modern one I’m typing this on at the moment still only sports 2 USB ports which means that should I want to use my 4G dongle, external mouse and charge my phone at the same time I’m faced with the unenviable position of having to not do one of those things. You might not find yourself in that situation very often but I sure have, especially when I was running around TechEd and using all my devices to their maximum potential.

There’s a minor quirk that I feel bears mentioning which was initially picked up by one of my fellow LifeHacker competition winners Terry Lynch. When you first start up the laptop with its pre-installed Windows 7 OS you’ll get 2 partitions at are of roughly equal size. However should you decide you want to upgrade to Windows 8 and remove all the partitions instead of being presented with 1 500GB volume to format (like you’d expect from these hybrid drives) you’ll instead get 1 28GB partition and another 500GB one. From our testing its clear that the 28GB partition is the SSD and the 500GB is the platter based storage. This is great for splitting off your OS onto the SSD section and leaving the rest for data but it does seem a bit odd since the marketing would lead you to believe it was a single hybrid drive. I’m not sure if this is the case with other hybrids however, so if you’ve had experience with one I’d like to hear what your experience was like.

The ASUS Zenbook UX32V is an amazing piece of hardware combining the best elements of its larger cousins with a form factor that is just sublime. After using it for a couple days I had no issues making it my main laptop and when combined with Windows 8 (something I’ll talk about in depth at a later date) it becomes an amazing little powerhouse that feels like it was designed with this operating system in mind. I had never really considered getting an ASUS branded laptop in the past but now I’m having trouble thinking about going for anything else as it really is that good. If you’re after a portable rig that can still do everything that a regular PC can do then you don’t have to look much further than the Zenbook.

The Importance of Clarity: Australia’s Potential Data Retention Reforms.

It’s no secret that I’m something of a freedom/privacy advocate with this blog’s origins being traced directly to the No Clean Feed movement that started back in 2008. Thankfully I haven’t had to rattle that cage for a long time thanks to the policy being so unbelievably toxic that, whilst it hasn’t been officially killed, has been buried so deep that it should only rear its head again during a future zombie apocalypse. However that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been other transgressions against our privacy or freedom in recent times however and one such incident is the data retention plan that was mentioned in the “EQUIPPING AUSTRALIA AGAINST EMERGING AND EVOLVING THREATS” discussion paper that was released a few months ago.

I’ve been asked a couple times why I’ve been silent on this particular issue given that it’s on a pretty similar level to the Clean Feed was back in the day and the honest answer was I thought the current media coverage was doing a pretty good job of tearing it apart and I wouldn’t be adding anything meaningful to the discussion. However since the coverage ramped up over the past few weeks I’d been hearing conflicting reports over what the paper actually said, what the clarifications where and what policy based off it would probably look like. After not being able to find much actual analysis on it (mostly just reactions to the paper) I decided that it was high time for me to read through the whole thing and make up my mind for myself.

All 60, enthralling pages of it.

For the most part the discussion paper is pretty mundane sort of stuff, setting up the case for why changes in legislation and increases in governmental powers are required due to technology changing the landscape which ASIO, ASIS and the Australian police forces operate in. Many of the provisions discussed in the paper are expansions of their powers and protections which would make it easier for them to gather evidence and are not straight up translations of old legislation into the technological age. However there’s also some suggested increases in privacy protections as well as the removal of interception powers from some agencies which kind of counter-acts the various increases. Most analyses I’ve read don’t seem to mention this and seem to focus on a particular line that appears twice in the report with very little else around it.

The line in question appears on pages 10 and 13 in the report (in reference to Modernising the Industry Assistance Framework) and reads:

…tailored data retention periods for up to 2 years for parts of a data set, with specific timeframes taking into account agency priorities and privacy and cost impacts.

Taken at face value this suggest that the government is seeking comments on how a data retention policy like this could be implemented in order to help facilitate investigations undertaken by interception agencies. Now there’s literally nothing more on it other than that so the claims that the government wants to mandate that all ISPs retain all your data for 2 years are largely unfounded but such an idea would fit into the description they’ve laid out. Indeed since there’s no other information in the discussion paper about a retention policy any conclusions we draw are purely speculative but there have been some clarifications since its publication which provide a bit more insight into what a data retention policy might end up looking like.

In her clarification video Nicola Roxon states that they’re simply seeking an extension of the current policy which allows law enforcement to acquire the metadata, but not the content, of Internet communications of a person they’re investigating. The issue that most people take here (and so do I after researching this) is that there’s no clear definition of what constitutes metadata, either in the discussion paper itself or anywhere else in Australian law. Clarifying that definition (which has been happening behind the scenes recently) would go a long way to alleviating the concerns that many have raised. I’m still not entirely ok with the idea of storing it for 2 years but if the definition is clarified and the scope limited in a similar fashion to the way it already is for phone calls then I won’t have as much of an issue with it as I do currently.

There was also some talk of law enforcement requiring you to hand over your social networking passwords which I couldn’t find any evidence for. There was a paragraph or two talking about the exemptions for social networks and cloud providers which was seen as a potential weak spot in the proposed reforms however there was no mention of establishing laws to compel people to reveal passwords should they come under investigation. Indeed I believe the current law already covers this off succinctly and all major social networks have been compliant in the past. The line “establish an offence for failure to assist in the decryption of communications” could be construed as requiring you to hand over passwords in order to decrypt volumes which does feel like a violation of self incrimination rights however but I believe there’s no precedent set on that yet. I certainly don’t agree with it, however.

Whilst the ideas that are mentioned in the paper have potentially devastating consequences the reaction to them has been largely overblown. Sure there are interpretations that fall under that definition but there are also others which would make such policies largely benign, especially if you’re ok with the current provisions granted to law enforcement agencies. Clarification is the key here though and that job falls to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security who this discussion paper was submitted to. If they do it right many of these concerns will be addressed. If they don’t then I’ll be right along side everyone else, fighting to get the legislation killed before it sees the light of day.

Honestly I feel like the reaction to this paper has been largely overblown fuelled by the passionate, but sometimes over-zealous, individuals at GetUp who have oversold what the potential legislation based off this discussion paper might be capable of. That’s an awful lot of speculation and whilst I don’t like the potential that it represents I’m not about to jump to conclusions until a final policy is tabled in parliament. Once that happens, and should my concerns not be addressed, I’ll do what every Australian should do in that case: write to your representative detailing your concerns. I agree that clarification is required but I don’t believe that warrants stirring up the shit storm that’s been done so far, especially when you take liberal interpretations of it one way and don’t consider the other.