Snap Judgment – Journey (PS4)

I originally reacted to this game in September 2013, but I did it the disservice of combining it with a bevy of other micro-reviews that I wanted to get out of the way.  Shame on me.  Journey deserved its own entry and perhaps more.  In many ways, it is the most succinctly brilliant two hours I’ve ever experienced in gaming or any other art form.

No, it doesn’t have the gameplay stylings, incredible voice acting, or writing of some of the games out there now, but it manages to convey so much with its groundbreaking visuals and inform so thoroughly with its bittersweet music — all without any dialogue or narration whatsoever.  Journey is a hallmark achievement, and is one of a very small selection of games that not only defined the seventh generation of consoles, but with its re-release on PS4, this one as well.

This version sees a bump up from 720p to 1080p, and 30fps to 60fps.  Truthfully, I’m not sure I notice this upgrade as much as I did with, say, Tomb Raider, but the graphics in Journey are the kind that’s breathtaking in any generation.  This fact only speaks to immense work Thatgamecompany did on its original release.  Journey‘s look is timeless.

Many, many outlets have extolled and regaled this game with the highest of accolades, but the most profound reaction I’ve heard to it was from Sony’s own President of Worldwide Studios, Shuhei Yoshida, who was asked to rank his ten favorite games of the last generation.  Not only did he select Journey as his number one game, he became quite emotional when describing why.  Head to the 1:41:05 mark to hear.

Despite its brevity, Journey is mystery made flesh: the wonder it inspires in the player is a seemingly bottomless well.  A+


Written by Michael

1 August 2015 at 10:03 pm

Posted in Games, Reviews

Tagged with ,

Snap Judgment – The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (PS4)

Creaking forest of maple and spruce, eerie music, scant rays of light piercing the thick canopy to reveal suspended motes of dust — that’s one of the many incredibly detailed areas presented in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a PC game that was just ported and released on PS4 by The Astronauts.  Atmosphere is perhaps the single greatest achievement in this title, which is saying something considering how strong all the other elements are.  This is not only achieved through near-photorealistic graphics (seriously, wow), but also through great sound design.  Not just from the environmental sounds, like the trees, but also from your lonely footfalls.

Ethan Carter is a game about a supernatural investigator named Paul Prospero who has traveled to the rural town of Red Creek Valley in northern Pennsylvania because of a letter he received from the eponymous character, a curious and imaginative young boy — two qualities his family has been none to keen to encourage.  In Ethan’s curiosity, he accidentally awakens a dark entity named The Sleeper, who seems to require the boy’s sacrifice so it can emerge from whatever plane it is bound to, an entity with the power to dominate the thoughts and actions of the adults in Ethan’s life, driving them towards this singular goal.  Ethan is not safe.

Setting the tone, the opening narration states:

Ethan Carter I didn’t know.  But he knew who I was.  When the police won’t help you, and the priests don’t believe you, you call on Paul Prospero.  You call on me.  If you’re a kid like Ethan, you write.  Plenty do.  Ethan’s letter started out just like any other fan mail, but soon there were mentions of things no little boy should know about.  There are places that exist that very few people can see.  Ethan could have drawn a map.  I hadn’t entered Red Creek Valley yet, but already I could feel its darkness reaching for me.  Finding Ethan Carter wasn’t going to be as easy as knocking on his door.  I was too late for that.  To find Ethan, I had to figure out what this place was trying to hide from me.

From there, you’re dropped on the railroad tracks leading to Red Creek Valley, into a large open world with no loading screens.  As you solve various mysteries (read: puzzles) in this world, often using Prospero’s supernatural sensitivity, and discover new areas ranging from abandoned homes to a dark network of mines, Prospero continues to narrate with the intonations of a hardened, film noir-esque private investigator who’s seen more than his fair share.  But there is no hand holding; in fact, the game warns you of as much from the start: “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”  With the exception of action prompts when you approach objects, there is no radar pointing you to your next objective, no HUD or journal explaining what you’ve accomplished.  And because of the openness of the world, you can solve the mysteries in almost any order you like.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter should take about five hours to fully complete, discovering every secret and truth Red Creek Valley has to hide.  At $19.99, however, this game is worth every penny and more.  As I’ve remarked before, I remain enthralled with games like this that continue to push the art forward.  This has easily been one of my favorite experiences, joining titles like The Last of UsJourney, and Child of Light for its accomplishments.  A+

Written by Michael

21 July 2015 at 1:09 pm

Waste Not, Want Naught

I remember being less hot in Florida compared to Montana.  That sounds like crazy talk, I know, but as hot as summers got down south, I could always run inside to the A/C.  I never knew how much I took that for granted until I moved out here and discovered that the miracle of on-demand cold exists in almost no homes or apartments.  As the temperatures rise into the high eighties and low nineties this month, the only thing we can do is try to stave it off with fans.  As I write this, I actually have two fans pointed directly at me in such an endeavor.  Additionally, there is a double-bladed fan in the window to try to pull in as much of cool air as possible before the sun breaks through this cloud cover.

One of the issues that fans develop is dust accumulation, especially over extended use.  This is especially true of tower fans, which my brother and I have a few of.  But as much as I may like them, they’re nearly impossible to clean.

I had a very good Seville Classics oscillating tower fan that I used to rely on quite heavily, but recently, it started making an unbearable squeal and failed to push any air out all.  After leaving it sit for several weeks, I turned it back on to test only to discover that the situation seemed to have worsened, as now only the indicator light came on, but there wasn’t any internal movement.  By any reasonable estimation, this fan was dead.

So I placed it by my front door to remind myself to take it to the dumpster the next morning.  But just as I was pulling it outside that next day, I thought to myself: what if I could clean it out?  Maybe that would correct the problem?  Wasn’t it worth the try?

I put it back in my room and decided to dismantle it next chance I had.  I’ve never done that before, so the task seemed more daunting that it really was.  It took more than 25 screws and repeated viewings of a how-to YouTube video before I finally liberated the cylinder from it, but once I did, I discovered ghastly clumps of dust.  It looked like the inside of a bagless vacuum, no exaggeration.  Given that the cylinder was made of only plastic, I placed the cylinder into my bathtub and hosed it down.  As for the motor and oscillator, I took compressed air to it and found still more dust clumps.  Seriously, if you should ever attempt this, consider wearing a mask.

Even though it seemed like a long shot, I went through all that cleaning and reassembly.  Then I plugged it in and tested it: voila, works just like new.  In resurrecting this fan, I realized something important.  I was about to throw away what was probably a $100 appliance because it stopped working.  That sounds stupid when I say it like that — but isn’t that what we always do now?  We discard things when they’ve seemingly outlived their usefulness.  Everything is a commodity now, so it’s all disposable.  This seems to apply not only to appliances, but more expensive things, like computers and smartphones.  What are we doing?

We need a change in mindset.  Without getting political, I feel like my dollar has less and less spending power all the time.  Don’t you feel the same way?  In the grand scheme of things, $100 isn’t much, I admit, but when you consider how many little things like that add up in just a year, it’s extraordinary.  Indeed, we’re filling landfills with tons of things that could work again with just a modicum of effort.

I used to dismiss this whole idea on the grounds that my time was too valuable to spend on fighting with repairs.  Truth is, when you add up those needlessly large landfills and all the wasted money that would find far better use invested elsewhere, there’s one inescapable truth: none of us can afford to make any such claim again.  Make the time.

Written by Michael

9 July 2015 at 12:07 am

Posted in Musings

Tagged with , ,

The Terminator Franchise

I should first admit that I think that not only is Terminator 2: Judgment Day the best sequel of all time (yes, even edging out Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back), it’s also one of the best movies of all time, period.  In addition to incredible action, effects, and pacing, the movie manages to deliver an important message about human nature and our propensity towards violence and self destruction.  The final line is so powerful that I’ll never forget it.  Sarah Connor narrates over an empty road during the night: “The unknown future rolls toward us.  I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope.  Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”

This film delivers on the promise from the first movie, when Kyle Reese repeats the words John Connor made him memorize to Sarah: “Thank you, Sarah, for your courage through the dark years.  I can’t help you with what you must soon face, except to say that the future is not set.  There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.  You must be stronger than you imagine you can be.  You must survive, or I will never exist.”  Indeed, the transformation of Sarah Connor from the first film to the sequel is staggering — she goes from a naive and gentle waitress in The Terminator to a hardened and violent soldier in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Linda Hamilton’s performances in both films are incomparable.  The best part is that they do indeed change the course of history that night at Cyberdyne Systems, one in which their Terminator stands as an unstoppable force against law enforcement in what can only be described as a preview of the apocalypse they’re trying to prevent.  Poignantly, no fate.

This second film is the perfect ending to the franchise.  There is zero need to go any further, but given the nature of how Hollywood works as a profit-driven enterprise, more sequels were inevitable.  As such, we were given what I consider one of the most offensive followups in cinematic history: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.  Not because the film was all that bad: truly, most of it was enjoyable, in the mindless action movie sense.  But because of the ending when it’s revealed that Judgment Day is inevitable after all, that everything that has come before was all for naught.  The central tenant of James Cameron’s two films was discarded all for the sake of generating more sequels — which he had no part of, I should point out.

Terminator: Salvation was a confusing mess, so much so that I barely remember it.  The post-Judgment Day world that is shown in this film is radically different from the portrayals in the James Cameron entries.  As such, I can’t even consider it canon (for whatever that means at this point), since the most recent Terminator: Genisys seems to ignore this as well.

Speaking of, I went to see Genisys yesterday, and just like Rise of the Machines, I felt like this was a completely enjoyable action flick.  Unlike Rise of the Machines, however, Genisys avoided throwing a giant middle finger at the No Fate thread from the original films, at least.  Nevertheless, this film’s overarching plot and how it fits in with the timeline is bizarre and borderline non-sensical.  Even so, I appreciate that this movie essentially establishes that it’s in its own parallel timeline, which at least affords it the possibility of taking the franchise into another direction without denigrating the Cameron ones.

Genisys shows us parts from The Terminator, but turned on its head because of the timeline changes.  Instead of the Sarah Connor who was blissfully naive at the beginning, Kyle Reese discovers one who is already trained and ready for the oncoming apocalypse.  But the strangeness of this version of Sarah is that, unlike Linda Hamilton’s Judgment Day incarnation, Emilia Clarke’s rendition is has much softer edges.  In a way, I’m fine with this, but on the other hand, I feel like the writers decided to make her more likable to modern audiences.  The tough plus sweet combination is a strange one for the Sarah Connor I know.

Similarly, Kyle Reese is quite different this time around, except that it makes less sense because he’s still supposed to be the same incarnation as Michael Biehn’s version.  And while Jai Courtney does fine work in his portrayal of this version of Reese, I feel strongly that his is considerably weaker.  Considerably safer.  What I mean by that is that Biehn played an emotionally shredded Kyle Reese who had seen nothing but nonstop horror and death in his life, and bore all kinds of scars both literally and figuratively.  This was a man with severe PTSD who feels wildly out of place when he travels to pre-Judgment Day 1984.  You can completely understand why such a disaffected person would fall in love with a photograph of Sarah Connor, this idyllic beauty that looked like she lived on another world.  The fantasy of her ran deeper for Kyle than we could comprehend.

Conversely, Jai Courtney’s Kyle Reese is shown to be more gallant, more emotionally stable.  He comes off like a more generic expression of what a solider should be, as is often the case in contemporary action movies, as opposed to what one can become after decades of agony.  The juxtaposition between Courtney’s Reese and Clarke’s Connor is more an awkward blind date than what Biehn and Hamilton had, which was more visceral and mutually dependent.

After thinking about this, I realized what my preference for a sequel would have been for the Cameron movies.  Rather than mess around with the idea that somehow the actions of Sarah, the Terminator, young John, and Miles accounted for nothing, I would rather have seen a film that follows up with the war-hero John Connor’s time after he sends back the two guardians to protect his mother and younger self.  Instead, I would go with the Back to the Future 2 idea of time travel with split timelines (alternate realities).  While Judgment Day was averted, the time that older John Connor lives in continues, its own world.

In this still post-Judgment Day world, I would portray the battle against the forces of Skynet as still continuing.  While the resistance managed to destroy its central core, all the machines it had created are still functioning, still obeying their directives.  Perhaps, like bees, the machines will designate a new queen, and a new AI, born without human design, to emerge and present a wholly new kind of threat.

Written by Michael

7 July 2015 at 1:54 pm

On Keyboards, the Writer’s Brush

Yes indeed, writers paint with words, and the keyboard is the brush upon a word-processor canvas.

The most writing I’ve ever accomplished (consistently) was on a domed membrane-switch keyboard manufactured by HP, when I was a student at Central Florida (2002-2006).  By keyboard-aficionado standards, that device wasn’t even all that great, but it was far better than anything I’ve had since.  So, what happened in those intervening years?

In 2006, I switched to a MacBook, which was the first notebook Apple produced that employed chiclet keys (over membrane switches).  Over time, I graduated from that original MacBook to a MacBook Pro, which sported a nearly identical keyboard, except that it was backlit.  And sometime after that, I traded computers with my brother, and I’ve been using this iMac ever since.  But once again, that keyboard was fashioned to be identical to Apple’s notebooks.  And from a build-quality standpoint, all of these keyboards were very nice.  In fact, I appreciated the aluminum construction of the Apple Wireless Keyboard I was using until recently.

But chiclet keys have very little travel to them, unlike larger keycap varieties.  That is to say, they don’t take much to depress, which sounds like it would be an advantage, but it’s not.  It encourages poor typing mechanics, has very little tactile response, and the result is poor accuracy, and thus poor speed. And while I felt plenty fast enough on that Apple Wireless Keyboard (or any of its predecessors), I found myself making mistakes all the time.  Since 2006! — some nine years.  Crazy as this might sound, this frustration led to a decreased desire to write (among other factors, admittedly).  Sadly, I didn’t put this together until I discovered a product called Das Keyboard.

The gold standard of key switches, at least to aficionados, is mechanical — like a throwback to another era.  Most keyboards these days are membrane-based, just like that HP keyboard and all the Apple-designed keyboards I’ve used.  (At least that HP one had good travel.)  But mechanical-switch keyboards ruled the day before the 2000s.

Thanks to the beauty of eBay, I picked up a Mac-layout Das Keyboard for less than half the cost of a new one.  Now, I know what you must be thinking: a second-hand keyboard?  That sounds disgusting.  And sure enough, you’re right.  Keyboards are filthy, filthy things.  So you can imagine that one of the first things I did after receiving my new friend here was use a keycap remover on it and wash every single key in warm, soapy water.  I then painstakingly cleaned all the channels around the switches with Qtips until it looked almost new.

I’m so happy I did this.  Not only does this keyboard look (and sound) great, it feels great.  I recommend any serious typist give a serous look at a mechanical keyboard.  This particular model of the Das Keyboard uses something called Cherry MX Blue switches, which are quite loud.  (But as I keep saying parenthetically, they sound great.)  But Das also produces a variant of this keyboard with Cherry MX Brown switches, which feel similar but have a muted noise to them; these are still noisy, to be sure, but at a lower pitch than the Blues.  If you co-habitate with another person, you might want to consider that alternative.

So just as a paintbrush is to an artist, an instrument to a musician, or a knife to a chef, a keyboard is a very specific and personal thing to a writer.  Yes, all these artists can use a different implement to accomplish similar things, but it’s very much like being in the wrong skin.  I literally do not think I could ever comfortably use a lesser-quality keyboard again and be happy.

Written by Michael

30 June 2015 at 12:44 am

Platinum Review – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PS3)

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is my absolute favorite game from the sixth-generation of consoles, even over the magnificent Eternal Darkness. I fell in love with this on the GameCube back in 2003, and I’ve tried to re-play it in every incarnation it has appeared in, including as an original Xbox game through backwards compatibility on the Xbox 360. (Sadly, it was borderline unplayable.) Fortunately, the good folks at Ubisoft commissioned a well-made, high-definition port to the PlayStation 3 that ran extremely well. The only drawback was that all the cutscenes were still in 4:3 standard definition, a relic of an earlier age in television. Indeed, this irony is not lost on me because I remember thinking that the cutscenes used to look much better than the game itself, but now the reverse is true.

Best Trophy: Prince of Sand (Gold) — you receive this trophy automatically for simply beating the game, but given how great this title is, and how endearing the characters and the voice acting all is, the very privilege of playing it again made this my favorite trophy to earn of them all.

Worst Trophy: Sands of Time (Silver) — sadly, the eponymous trophy is a bit of a nuisance. It requires you to play the game for more than ten hours; but, due to my experience with the title, I could easily beat it in five hours. Thankfully, this timer is cumulative across multiple playthroughs, which is required for other trophies anyway.  It all worked out in the end.

Special Mention Trophy: Secret of Agrabah (Gold) — I mention this trophy because I remembered where each of the ten hidden locations were without the aid of a guide. (Shows you how much I’ve played this game.) Well, all except one of them. Had I not needed another reason to replay the game for other trophies, I would have been furious at missing this one location.

Written by Michael

19 June 2015 at 10:50 pm

Musings on Xbox One Backwards Compatibility with Xbox 360

For many people out there, there was no bigger announcement (save, perhaps, the news about FFVII) during E3 2015 than Microsoft revealing its plans to support local backwards compatibility in the Xbox One for last-generation games.  Not long ago, the very idea of backwards compatibility was considered to be technically impossible (or at least very difficult), so much so that former Xbox-boss Don Mattrick panned the idea.

So it was a great surprise to hear Phil Spencer announce that this very feature would be appearing on Xbox One this year.  In his reveal, he noted that there would be an initial 100 games available by the time it officially launched this holiday.  But he also sold the idea that these games would be running natively, which is absolutely inaccurate.  Like I noted in my E3 summation for Microsoft and Sony, there is no way it can be native because there is no hidden tri-core PowerPC processor somewhere inside the console.  Instead, the Xbox One OS is emulating its predecessor’s environment.  I believe he was trying to characterize it that way to draw a distinction between this feature and the PlayStation Now service, which relies on streaming.

So how was Microsoft able to pull this off?  Well, we’ll probably never receive a definitive answer, but I have a strange theory that might not be too far off from the truth.  You see, the process of emulating PowerPC on an Intel processor has already been accomplished — by Apple in 2006.  Back then, the Cupertino-based company was transitioning to Intel and needed to find a way to allow existing PowerPC apps to run on this new hardware.  That company’s solution was called Rosetta, which Wikipedia describes as a dynamic binary translator, and it worked surprisingly well.  I suspect that Microsoft was able to learn much from observing Apple’s work and managed to accomplish the same feat.  That said, it’s also important to remember that games are heavier programs than many of those old Mac applications that Rosetta handled so well, so I definitely have concerns about frame rates, load times, and other stability questions.

Indeed, while the Xbox 360 similarly offered backwards compatibility with its forebear, its performance ranged from passable to atrocious. I remember trying to play the original Xbox version of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and it was awful.  The frame rate issues were so bad that I had to quit.  (A later remaster for the PS3 was actually quite excellent, but that game was clearly recompiled for that console.  No emulation.)

Unlike how backwards compatibility used to work on earlier consoles, this process requires that these Xbox 360 games be downloaded from Xbox Live before they can be played locally.  When you insert the game disc, all it’s doing is verifying that you own that game, which means that there must be some recompile work needed to allow the game to function.  Microsoft touted that this process wasn’t difficult and that it only needed the approval of the publishers to make their games work, though I wonder what fees it will assess.  This leads me to another realization:

Not every Xbox 360 game will receive this treatment, as you can imagine there are publishers who have (or will have) remasters of last-gen games they intend to sell for current-gen consoles.  For example, why would SquareEnix authorize a backwards compatible version of Tomb Raider (2013) when it would rather have you buy the Definitive Edition on the Xbox One?1

So what about Sony?  Well, Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida has already said that this announcement does not impact his company’s plans for PlayStation.  We’ll see if Sony changes its mind, but my guess is that the company will continue to rely upon PlayStation Now for this functionality, especially since trying to emulate the seven SPUs of the Cell processor sounds like an absurd proposition.  In truth, the rental (or subscription) model that Now offers is probably more attractive to publishers than allowing old game discs to work on new systems anyway.

Further still, those publishers would rather do an inexpensive port of those games and have them purchasable all over again on these new consoles.  And I must admit that this is how I’d rather play them, too, since they’re guaranteed to run better than through emulation.

Even so, Microsoft deserves a lot of credit for a very pro-consumer effort.

1. A potential counter-example is the inclusion of the first Mass Effect on the initial preview list.  We haven’t yet received a confirmation, but many people believe that EA intends to re-release the Mass Effect trilogy in remastered form during the lead-up to Mass Effect: Andromeda.  Why, then, would the company have allowed Microsoft to include this if it would compete with that release?  Easy answer, actually: Microsoft still owns the publishing rights to the first Mass Effect on the Xbox 360; in fact, EA was unable to bring this title to the PS3 until 2012 per a condition of that agreement.

Written by Michael

19 June 2015 at 12:03 am