AirPods Review Update

The AirPods box.

There were a few things that I’ve noticed since I posted a review of Apple’s AirPods back in December, so here’s a quick update.

  1. The range is ridiculous. I can leave my iPhone downstairs and the AirPods carry on delivering audio to my ears.
  2. The sound the AirPods make to let you know they’re running low on battery is kind of surprising because it isn’t accompanied by anything onscreen to let you know what’s going on. Midcall I kept hearing the sound and trying to figure out what it was until finally the AirPod I had in turned off. Switching to the other AirPod is easy, and it’s a mistake you should only make once, but it seems boneheaded to not let people know what’s happening when they look at the device that their AirPods are connected to.
  3. There are a few tiny issues with the case. It’s too loud when it snaps shut. There’s an audible clicking sound when you close it and although it’s fine in many situations in a few it is absolutely not fine. These headphones are slick as hell but waking up a sleeping baby when you switch out one AirPod for the other and shut the case isn’t. You might think you could more gently close the case to prevent this, you can’t unless you have both hands free.
  4. The same goes for the charging status light inside the case. Way too bright in some situations without an ambient light sensor to detect that it should dim.
  5. As an incredible bargain compared to other truly wireless earbuds it feels a little like nitpicking, but, why does Apple include a charging cable without a wall adapter? These cost $159. Include the darn wall adapter.
  6. AirPods are very comfortable. I can forget if they are in or not. A few times I’ve gone to listen to them and wasn’t able to tell if I had them in or not without checking the charging case or my ear.

Finally, there are silent firmware updates for the AirPods when they’re in their charging case and near an iOS device. There are a few issues I’ve had that might be fixed by this firmware but it is impossible to tell since there are no release notes. Of course these are tiny computers so getting updated software isn’t completely unexpected, but it sure would be nice to know what is changing when we skip through a few versions very quickly. This update went from 3.3.1 to 3.5.1.

I’m still very onboard with our wireless future, there are far cheaper bluetooth headset options with better battery life, and some have better sound quality, but none are as smooth and they’re the best for calling our senators.

AirPods Review

The iPhone 7 is half of a vision for a future without wires.

Apple’s AirPods are the other half of that vision.

It’s a future where headphones are no-longer tangled up in your pocket, and are instead a three piece system of two earbuds and a charging case that has its own battery and keeps them topped off throughout the day.

You connect the AirPods to your iOS 10 device by opening up the charging case while it is nearby. A dialog pops up that asks if you want to connect them and once connected they become available via Apple’s iCloud to every other iOS 10 device and Mac you own.


Each earbud is smart enough to know if they’re in your ear or not and pause your music accordingly when removed. When you pop only one earbud in and hit the play button, the device is intelligent enough to downmix both stereo channels into one monaural channel.

They’re the pinnacle of convenience, but there are some significant drawbacks with the first generation of AirPods.

The AirPods are yet another thing that needs charging. It’s less frequent charging than a phone because they come in a special case, but about once a week or every few days, depending on how much you’re listening, you’ll need to charge the case the ear buds rest in.

The earbuds themselves last about five hours and according to Apple they get three hours of charging in 15 minutes resting in the case.
My old Bluetooth headphones lasted just about forever on a charge, but required me to dig out the specific kind of USB cable to charge them. The AirPods charging case uses a USB-A to Lightning adapter. It’s kind of odd that for $159 you don’t get an AC adapter, although you do get the cable in the box.

Each AirPod earbud is comparable to the regular Apple EarPod earbuds in terms of style, but a bit longer in length of the stem that extends out of the bit that goes in your ear. This extra room is where the battery hides inside the AirPods.

There are more little spots on the AirPods than the EarPods had for sensors to know when they’re in or out of your ears.

This elongated EarPod design kind of falls apart for me when you get to the tip of the stem. At that point, furthest out of your ears, is a shiny spot that holds the microphone you can use for talking to Siri or making phone calls.

The shiny microphone spots at the bottom of the AirPods look kind of like earrings or other ear-mounted jewelry, which look kind of goofy to me.

The AirPods are a bit less goofy than the old giant Bluetooth devices we all used for hands-free talking but might get you some funny looks until people get used to them. They’re also not as large as some competing earbud headphones that have large rectangular dinguses sticking horizontally out of your ears and floating there like little matchbooks.
The microphone works well enough for my usage when talking to Siri or on calls, I just wish Apple had styled the tip differently.

I’ve had a few times where when I was listening to a podcast or some music with just one earbud, and put the second one in, the new earbud took a few moments longer than I would like to start working. There have also been moments where I’ve accidentally triggered the sensors that tell the AirPods they’re in my ear when I was picking them up or putting them down.

Without a connecting cable to your devices, the AirPods lost the control module on other headphones that lets you change volume, play or pause whatever you’re listening to, or do extra nerdy commands via tap codes on that button like skipping songs.

Photographers also used that module to trigger the camera shutter without introducing minute vibrations to the phone that could cause pictures to be a little blurrier.

A tiny Bluetooth controller might be nice to replace that functionality, or these controls could be on the AirPods charging case. I’ve been getting out my iPhone or using my Apple Watch to control volume and whatever program I’m listening to.



Siri
is available at any time by double tapping the side of the earbud. She can raise or lower the volume and pause or resume playback. It feels kind of weird to do this, and I’ve heard complaints that the double-tap is an uncomfortable gesture for some people. Roughly equivalent to getting old wired earbuds yanked out of your ear when the cord gets caught on something. If you really hate the gesture, the “Hey Siri” vocal gesture (which is normally disabled when using the speaker) is enabled while using the AirPods. I didn’t feel any discomfort while using the double-tap gesture, but thought it was worth mentioning that other people might have a problem with it.

You can change the double-tap gesture to be a play/pause control in your iOS device’s Bluetooth settings if you prefer that over Siri. I just took one earbud out and used that to pause my music but it might be better to have the gesture if you want to pause while cooking or cleaning without digging out another device or speaking with Siri.

As far as fit, I have huge ears and the AirPods get nestled in there about as well as the EarPods did. Though the AirPods do feel a little bit looser than I would like, I’m glad they don’t make a complete seal so I am not entirely obvious to what is going on around me. Apple has a 14-day return policy if they don’t fit you, I’ve also heard that you can try them on in some stores.

Because they don’t form a total seal of the ear canal, like in-ear monitors or rubberized earbuds would, bass isn’t perfect and sound quality is almost exactly the same as the EarPods. You can tell how much work the little porting cutouts are doing by pressing your finger over one on the back of the earbud and listening as your music suddenly changes from high-quality FM to tinny AM.

The charging case is a simple white rounded rectangle box with the single button I mentioned above for pairing with non-Apple Bluetooth devices. There is a tiny, shiny metal, hinge that folds open the top of the case up very easily when you want to retrieve the earbuds or put them back. Tiny magnets grab the earbuds and hold them in or guide their safe return. A small light gives you an indication of charging status when the lid is open and also helps to see inside when it’s dark.

It would be nice if the case were thinner, but it’s a small price to pay for about 24-hours of additional listening via the case’s internal battery. I’ll note that I haven’t rigorously tested Apple’s battery life claims, some people have reported that the charging case had been rapidly discharging. I wasn’t able to reproduce that issue, but Apple replaced the charging case for the one incident I heard of.

I’ve been wanting truly wireless earbuds like this for a long time and other Bluetooth earbuds I’ve read about have been disappointing enough with technical hazards that I haven’t bothered trying them.

At $159 these are the most expensive headphones I have right now, but they’re cheaper than other comparable Bluetooth earbuds without cables and have more intelligence to them. If you lose one AirPod then Apple will sell you a replacement for $69. The case itself is replaceable for $59.

Despite the look, the extra dingus to charge, and the loss of the wired control module, I very much prefer going totally wireless with the AirPods over using regular earbuds or my other Bluetooth headsets.

It’s that good to not have to manage untangling a wire from your pocket, or dealing with traditional Bluetooth syncing, or having headphones yanked out of your ear when they get caught on something or grabbed by a kid. Of course since the iPhone 7 can’t charge and use wired headphones at the same time, there’s also the benefit of being able to listen to something on headphones while charging my pocket computer.

I hope that competition brings the price of all truly wireless headphones down and iteration might find new ways to resolve the other issues.

If you travelled back in time about 20 years and showed these to me I wouldn’t believe they could exist. As the first version of this device they’re not perfect, but I am onboard for the wireless future.

Inside Review (Windows)

inside

The developers of Limbo, Playdead, have returned with what at first glance appears to be a very similar game in appearance. Just like Limbo, Inside looks like in a dark platforming adventure featuring a young man who is in some terrible strife.

When the game starts, you’re a nameless boy who is just running for his life, escaped from some terrible fate. Slow down or miss a moment and you might be beaten and dragged back or eaten alive by dogs. This child spends most of the first part of the game just running past scenes in the background of what look like people being rounded up by security forces. Games like Half-Life 2 depicted similar scenes with brighter colors, music that was more in your face, and people talking about the situation. I don’t think any of the characters of Inside ever speak a full phrase. It is the visuals and a subdued score that do the talking.

Limbo had a very stark visual style that was kind of like looking at shadows move across your screen. There were many games that proceeded to imitate that art style to different degrees of success. I don’t think they’ll try the same thing with Inside. It is a more stark game of contrasting colors and more depth to its dimension that are still dark and mostly gray.

The exception to that is what the game developers want to draw your attention to. A brightly colored cable that leads you to a secret. A smear of blood there. Flesh tones, there are those and anyone who has played the game should not speak of what or why to anyone who hasn’t.

Inside’s protagonist does so much running and dying, and the animation for all of that is wonderfully well done. Every interaction seems like it is perfectly in tune with the environment and responding to the strain the boy puts on himself to pick up a box as big as he is just to get up a little bit higher. If he falls from a height he’ll respond appropriately. Too high a fall and there’s always a gruesome scene that follows. What makes it truly awful is that the game forces you to watch, you can’t turn away or else the game won’t proceed. As a father, any time a child is harmed in a television show or movie or game it gets to me a little bit more than usual. When the dogs were tearing Inside’s boy apart, the game  subverted every attempt at skipping the scene so by not loading the last checkpoint until I used my  controller. Flailing at buttons didn’t seem to work, it was only measured responses to attempt to get the violence to stop that caused the game to proceed when it was good and ready, and felt like you had absorbed the impact of whatever mistake you made that caused that boy to die. It could have been timed, I’m not sure, I just didn’t want to watch  him die again.

All of the scenery behind the boy is just as vital to telling the story of the game, and occasionally it moves from the background into the foreground to interact with him. You’ll watch other characters who have been subdued (for reasons I won’t get into) marching in line, as you move through that area you’ll have to get in that line with them and mirror their movements or the boy will die. At the beginning of the game there are people searching for other people who have escaped their fate in the background and you’ll have to move carefully to not be detected by them or the boy will die.

The game doesn’t rely on stealth much outside of those few scenes, instead there are platforming puzzles. These puzzles aren’t particularly difficult to figure out if you’ve played any other side-scrolling games and know what to look for. Inside didn’t have many moments that stymied my progress either. What makes them vicious is that failure results in more prolonged death animations.

In a way, Inside feels like the best parts of older Call of Duty campaigns when those were still impressive. It’s very linear, there is pretty much only a straight path that occasionally requires some minor backtracking or running to the left to complete the game. Just like Call of Duty, there are incredible scenes all around your character. Unlike Call of Duty, you’re going to want to stop and look at these because they make you feel something and I think that’s what makes this an incredible game. Those emotions are more than what you might expect upon first glance from screenshots of Inside if you’re familiar with Limbo. The art and sound and animation and programming all come together perfectly.

It isn’t surprising that Inside was developed in Denmark, it looks like a game that couldn’t have come from anywhere else. At times the puzzles can be tiresome because you instantly know what to do to solve them, but you’re forced to run back and forth across the screen at whatever pace the game’s designers set.

The worst part of Inside is the ending, it is anti-climactic and while I am sure it could mean something to somebody, it lacked the emotional connection from the rest of the game for me. That you have to go back for seconds to see the “real ending” isn’t positive. If you play the game, don’t look up either on video, just look up the solution to the multi-layered puzzle to get the second ending so that you can actually make both happen.

That ending and the few other flaws the game has aren’t enough to betray the rest of the experience which must be played.

If you were wondering what Playdead were doing in the 6 years since Limbo came out, Inside is the incredible answer. It took me roughly 5 hours to find everything there is to explore in the game, and if you’re at all interested in it you should not read or watch or listen to anything else about Inside. There are massive spoilers going around and knowing more about what kind of game it is can ruin the experience. I wish I had gone in knowing even less, but podcasts have basically ruined parts of the game without warning.

Inside is out now on Steam for Windows and the Xbox One digital distribution platforms.

4 out of 5 abject walruses.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review (PS4)

Again?

I can’t believe that Naughty Dog, the developers of The Last of Us and 3 prior Uncharted games came back to make another Uncharted again. Nevertheless, here we are for Uncharted 4. It’s almost like they’re running a business of making excellent games and then selling them for money but have locked onto this one idea of climbing and third person shootering and will keep going until it is no-longer making money. 

Like the final season of a favored television series, all of the beloved characters have reached their final form by the time this game is done.

Nathan Drake is still our protagonist, he’s been wedded with Elena, I must have missed that when I skipped out on Uncharted 3. Nate has a normal-ish job these days, you’ll see what it is if you play the game. Sully (Victor Sullivan) is still old as dirt and this time won’t participate much in the action but is happy to lend a hand or fly everyone around. New to Uncharted 4 is a surprise guest appearance by Nathan’s older brother, Sam. I can’t remember ever hearing about him before, but here he is complete with flashback sequences to Nate and Sam’s childhood together throughout the game.

Sam is reunited with Nate for one last adventure to save Sam’s bacon over a debt that could cost him his life if they don’t quickly recover Henry Avery’s pirate treasure to pay off a drug lord.

You and me

Early on I was incredibly bored with Uncharted 4’s gameplay. The style of the climbing and third person shooting is still good, but was so similar to previous games that I thought I might not make it very far in. This is one of the best looking games I have ever seen, but that alongside the exact same adventuring from the Playstation 3-era wasn’t going to be enough to keep going unless there was something more to it.

Thank goodness there are changes to the gameplay as well as the story.

Everyone knows that Nathan Drake is kind of an ass. He straight up murders hundreds of dudes in each game’s beautiful set pieces, usually in places that he doesn’t really have an excuse for being in. The witty remarks he makes about straight up murder seem to indicate that he doesn’t seem to be losing any sleep over it.

The most important thing upgraded in this sequel’s story is that while Nathan Drake is still a compete ass to everyone around him, finally, in Uncharted 4 the consequences for his behavior are found in his rapidly dissolving marriage and through witnessing his brother’s impulsiveness impacting the lives of those around him.

He isn’t constantly a jerk to his wife, Elena, but he certainly isn’t upfront and truthful about the work he needs to do in order to liberate his brother from the drug lord to whom he owes his life. Those moments with Elena and Nate upset with each other aren’t necessary fun, and it can be awkward to watch Nathan’s “real life” crumble, but watching their life unfold at home before he leaves for another adventure is very relatable to anyone who has been in a long term relationship. Not that normal people are going out to find pirate treasure, it just humanizes the characters in a way that isn’t typical for big action games.

This story is what carried me through the otherwise same-y climbing and terribly implemented one on one fist-fighting introduced early on in the game. That part of the game’s combat just isn’t fun, thankfully it isn’t something that you’ll be forced to play through much before going back to ducking behind cover and shooting in set piece areas that you can decide how you want to approach. Stealth options are present, and it is fun to kick a dude off a cliff, snap his neck and drag his corpse into the bushes, or pull him over a ledge that you’re hanging below, but you’re going to end up breaking out of it before long when a more distant enemy who has slightly better vision than Metal Gear Solid goons spots you grabbing one of the other guys.

There are gameplay improvements as well. Since this is an adventure about pirating Nate is now equipped with some magic grappling rope that can attach itself to any grapple point at a distance. This can be used to quickly get up over an obstacle or more often the rope is used for swinging around between chasms, buildings, and everything, like Tarzan. It is a fun as hell addition and you can use this in combat to move quickly between vantage points as well as shooting while swinging which works amazingly well. It’s completely ridiculously implemented, you’ll always attach to the appropriate point as long as it is on screen. After playing around with it I would love to see a Spider-Man game from Naughty Dog.

The new climbing piton, the spike that mountaineers drive into walls when there otherwise isn’t a handhold, allows Nate to climb along a little bit more organically into points that are specifically designated for it. It’s not as great an addition as the grappling rope, but any positive change to a climbing mechanic that has been brutally beaten into us in every Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed is an improvement. I wonder how different it would have been if you could have combined the piton with the grappling rope and attached one to the other, swinging across larger gaps between handholds in rock faces more easily.

Due to the success of Call of Duty 4’s laser-like focus on a critical path through a single player campaign, other action games tend to focus on a very limited path through the environment, to the detriment of exploration. The reasoning behind this decision has been “why spend a game’s budget on something the player might never see? Also, we don’t understand pacing at all.”

In a very few open-world games you do have a bit more freedom to explore but it’s usually not worth spending the time to do so. What’s the point of exploring if the world doesn’t have any detail to it outside of where the major story beats take place?

This is it

Uncharted 4 gives you a few open areas that are very detailed, a Jeep with your buddies in it, and says “have fun.”

Driving that Jeep and watching as it attacks the terrain is super fun. Attaching its winch in order to solve puzzles in the environment is fun. The chatter from your passengers and how they switch seats to help you out instead of the game making you backtrack to the jeep in order to artificially lengthen the experience is fun.

Your reward for exploring those open areas is more information about the quest you’re on as well as more quick sketches of what the characters are looking at and thinking about in Nate’s journal.

Those sketches feel like Nathan, and the designer’s, notes to the player. While playing I was unexpectedly excited every time I got the prompt for Nathan to write or draw in his journal. You can tell that Naughty Dog knew what a great thing they had made since you can access Nate’s journal directly from the main menu of the game.

There are still puzzles, just like previous Uncharted games, and they are fun. The way they integrate with the journal is nice and the puzzles are still best when you have an audience of friends or family locally to help you solve them. Not that they are any kind of serious challenge, it’s just fun to have the input.

Journal

Multiplayer is still included and is still incredibly well put together. It isn’t why you would buy an Uncharted, but it feels like something that could be packaged up on its own with a different name and compete for the multiplayer shooter players’ attention with Overwatch and other recent games. The multiplayer package is far more than you might expect to be bolted onto a series that is regarded only for its single player campaign just to keep people from trading the game in.

This time Naughty Dog have wisely decided to not lock the additional levels they’ll make to their multiplayer after the game is released behind a season pass or another additional charge. You can buy cosmetic items that change the look of your characters but the game isn’t going to be less fun when 10 identical Nathan Drakes are running around the map. That is sometimes pretty hilarious.

The only real fault with the game is that it waits until chapter 10 to give you access to the Jeep and open areas. It should be inexcusable to hide the best part of the game until then.

So many people have already spoiled some of the great parts of this game, and I’ve tried to avoid doing so here. it is a surprisingly great sequel to a series that could otherwise have stopped at the second game in it and been fine.

Before this game came out, I couldn’t name an exclusive for the PlayStation 4 that made the console worth recommending. If you have never played an Uncharted before, or if you have and gave up on the series’ repetitive nature, you should come play Uncharted 4. Those in the first group, well, I imagine that you’ll enjoy the first ten chapters even more.

Why stay

4 out of 5 Pyrate Adventures for Uncharted 4.

Here’s an extended snippet of gameplay, without commentary, I recorded while I’m putting my recording studio back together. This features almost everything I’ve talked about in this review that makes the game great but does contain some story spoilers if you’re concerned about plot details.

Peel iPhone Case Review

A Peel

There’s this iPhone case called the Peel. Apple… Peel, get it?

Here’s what the makers of this case promise for your $25:

This Peel case lets you protect your phone while keeping the same form factor. Other cases add bulk and weight to your iPhone but Peel cases are almost invisible.

That’s all true and it sounds awesome compared to other third party cases. The other ones all look ridiculous with huge logos, and bizarre contortions in their designs to make their cases look distinctive instead of getting out of the way of the iPhone design and just protecting the phone.

My last case, the Speck CandyShell Grip had their logo that looks like Kurt Vonnegut’s asterisk on the back and is ribbed for grip. It was great at protecting my phone from short falls without being as bulky as your typical Otterbox case. Even though it looked like a novelty condom for a robot, it was the Wirecutter’s top iPhone case pick for a while and I appreciated their recommendation. Then the thin strip of rubbery material on the Grip above the iPhone’s lightning port broke. Oh well. For a few months I tolerated the break while keeping my eyes open for an alternative when someone mentioned the Peel on Twitter and their pitch worked.

The Peel feels like the opposite of every other third-party case. Instead of being thick, it’s thin. Instead of having a distinctive look, it gets out of the way so that you can see the design of the $600+ phone you purchased instead of your $20 robot condom. 

Unfortunately the Peel is so thin and papery, immediately after receiving it in the mail I wondered aloud, “this costs $25?”

Putting the case on my 6+ was a little bit more reassuring. The first thing the space-gray case made me think of was a stocking on my space-gray 6+. The Peel feels perfectly formed to the iPhone that it is protecting. There’s an anecdote on the product page about Apple’s in-store repair techs replacing an iPhone and forgetting to take off the Peel because they didn’t know it was there. I’m not sure I believe that, one look at the back or sides of the phone and you’ll see it, but the transparent case does get out of the way except for the raised area around the protruding camera of the 6+.

Where the Peel goes from slightly too expensive and ineffectual to WTF is in resolving the largest issue with the iPhone 6 and 6+’s survivability, grip. It’s a slippery phone and despite the FAQ page that suggests it enhances the phone’s grip if anything, the Peel sometimes feels even more slippery than a bare iPhone.

The front with the peel

The Peel will still protect your phone case from scratches and short falls, but not the screen. The Speck CandyShell Grip had a bit of a bumper around the edges to protect the iPhone from drops that land on the front. The cost of the Peel being perfectly form-fitting to the iPhone is that there is no protection on the screen. Of course, the people who made this case also sell a screen protector that is even more expensive at $30.

There is an advantage to being form-fitting in not ruining the design of your $600+ phone and in not blocking access to ports. My last few cases required adapters to fit headphone and auxiliary audio cables. The Peel requires no adapter for any port and the various buttons and switches on your device are left unencumbered.

That isn’t enough of an advantage to justify the usability and price of this almost paper-thin case.

If it had more of a grip, if it protected the screen with even a tiny amount of a lip around the edges of the iPhone, if it were cheaper, I might be more likely to recommend the Peel. Instead, it’s too expensive, doesn’t offer enough protection, and makes your iPhone even more slippery. Don’t be fooled by the svelte form-factor (0.35mm) and the unbranded and unobtrusive visual aesthetic. Get a hideous robot condom if you want to protect your phone.

The Talos Principle Review (PC)

Gates

What if people were robots who were created from, and routinely yelled at by, an angry god that just wants to be respected and obeyed when he asks you to maybe solve some puzzles without questioning him so much?

He just wants you to go along with what he says to do no matter how ridiculous his request. Especially that time when he repeatedly asked you to ignore the spiraling tower in the middle of the overworld hub area that he created and you could very well climb it if only he hadn’t forbidden it.

Well if this were the case you and I would be the robotic children of Elohim in The Talos Principle: Solving puzzles by arranging surprising combinations of boxes, lasers, gun turrets, semi-autonomous mines, laser connectors, fans, and jammers in the first-person (or third-person if you’re into viewing robo-booty) world that Elohim created.

If The Talos Principle were from anyone else I might have thought it was going to be a bible game and would have thrown my still-running computer through the nearest window. Instead, it’s from the developers of Serious Sam. A fast-like-Doom first-person shooter series that is anything but serious. You could say that Cro-team aren’t known for making contemplative puzzle games when they’ve been making first-person shooters for over a decade. You would be right.

These puzzles with the boxes, lasers, gun turrets, semi-autonomous mines, laser connectors, fans, and jammers? They’re great. They have that perfect difficulty curve so rarely achieved in puzzle games. There is a gentle progression with the challenges getting slightly more difficult and sometimes (rarely) maddeningly so. Up until you walk away and come back and go “why didn’t I think of putting that over there earlier? Duh.” After you figure out the solution you always feel like a smarty-pants puzzle-solving person because the designers have excelled at making you feel brilliant instead of feeling like the solution isn’t achievable without a hint-guide.

Those few times that you do get frustrated with a puzzle you can just walk your robot avatar to another because the game is designed to let you walk away and pick an easier trial without walking away from the game. Talos‘ arrangement of puzzles into three level hubs, each with a bunch of puzzles that you can go away from and come back to at any time is brilliant and refreshing. Forgivingly, Elohim encourages you to walk away if you’ve spent a lot of time in a puzzle and there’s an achievement for doing so. There’s also an achievement for sticking it out and solving a tough puzzle. In the 30 hours or so I spent in Elohim’s world I experienced each of those scenarios: often breezing through a puzzle in a few minutes, as the difficultly increased there were a few more occasions of frustration and sticking with it, and a few times I just had to walk away to find some peace in an easier puzzle

If the game were just this surprise first-person puzzler from a shooter developer I’d still rate it highly. Talos is so much more than just puzzles.

If it were just those characters of Elohim and protagonist-bot the one-sided dialog from the big E (your protagonist-bot isn’t much of a talker) might have gotten boring and I still would have skipped merrily along through many lands to solve the shit out of placing boxes on fans and then placing jammers on top of them. Fortunately, there are more questions in the The Talos Principle that graduate the story from both the shackles of Elohim’s reverberating narration and the perfectly robust puzzling.

Why is the protagonist a robot?

Who is Elohim really, why does he call you his child, and why does he want you to solve these puzzles?

Why is there a giant multi-tiered tower, what is on those tiers that Elohim insists you not see?

It is so difficult to talk about this game and what it offers without spoiling more . I will say that the …other main characters… are generous with revelations and sometimes more questions. Extremely deep, philosphical questions. I’m not sure if they would challenge any philosophers, but the game’s story is ultimately going to require your interest in them. Which is fine, because the way it asks them is charming.

Puzzles, god, philosophy. I hope you’re convinced to try it and that you won’t read any more. The Talos Principle is something special.

5/5 Robo-butts

2015-03-24_00001

Slickwraps Vivid Purple Glow Wrap for iPhone 5 Review

SW-AIP5-GLOWPURPLE-4
Photo Credit: Slickwraps

Obviously, the Slickwraps Vivid Purple Glow Wrap for iPhone 5 isn’t a case. It’s basically just a series of stickers you apply to your iPhone to make it look different. Any protection the stickers might offer is coincidental.

It looks pretty neat, right?

Application is fairly straightforward, everything you need is provided including a screen protector. The only other thing you need is some fairly steady hands.

And it does look good, when your surroundings are dark enough.

When the lights are on it looks a little like a storm-trooper on my Black iPhone with the white stickers.

However, within a few days or a week it’ll start to fall apart.

Here’s what mine looks like after less than a month:

Slickwraps iPhone
Photo Credit: TimeDoctor Dot Org

After less than a week the top piece fell off.

After two weeks the discoloration had gotten pretty bad around the earpiece.

Slickwraps iphone earpiece
Photo Credit: TimeDoctor Dot Org

Finally, the bottom piece has started to disengage from the lower-left hand side of the phone. Once this happens, it gets pocket fuzz covering up the adhesive and is pretty much unfixable.

Slickwraps iphone bottom
Photo Credit: TimeDoctor Dot Org

Do you want your phone to look like this? The glow effect still pretty nifty looking in the dark, but it’s rarely dark enough to trigger the effect unless you’re sleeping. In which case, who cares?

The best part of doing this review was when I took the Slickwrap off my iPhone 5 and it still looked great despite having had stickers all over it for the better part of a month. They’re not using low-quality stuff here, as is evident in the adhesive leaving no residue on the device. The problem instead is that this is the best level of quality you can get until material science makes some kind of ridiculous breakthrough that allows us to stick devices into a cheap home 3D printer and then they come out glowing in the daylight.

I’m throwing this Slickwrap in the trash, because that is what you do with a sticker once you remove it.

0 out of 5 Oil Slicks

Touch my Katamari Review

The king talks about a “hobo stew” later on.

The King of the Cosmos is back in Touch my Katamari from Namco, but this time he’s all about breaking the fourth wall and talking about how fans are upset with the more recent games in the Katamari series. It’s a nice setup. However it is not exactly welcome when this game doesn’t make up for six weak sequels.

So much of Katamari’s status was due to the original game’s surprisingly fun and original gameplay. When I first bought the Playstation 2 game I had no idea what to expect, my local retailer had only one copy and they were surprised anyone was going to buy it. But I’d caught word that it was something special. Not much has changed since then despite sequels for every platform. Rolling up every object in sight into a huge ball is still your overall objective.

The few unique levels in the game don’t really stand out, but there is a new gameplay element that is actually kind of fun. Or it would be, if there were more opportunities to use it while playing. For the first time you can stretch or squish the Katamari using the front or rear touch screens while rolling to fit into places the regular ball-shaped Katamari couldn’t.

Like the game’s few unique levels, this touch feature is underutilized. The most time you’ll spend using it is during the tutorial. Sure you could use it during regular gameplay, but there aren’t enough situations to do so. I’d hate to be forced to use touch features, but it’s almost worse that Namco actually came up with a good idea and then didn’t use it.

I wouldn’t really mind the lack of innovation in this iteration if there were more stages to play in. This is really the crippling blow to the game. I saw everything there was to see in a little over an hour.

That’s OK when there’s some kind of amazing narrative or replayability, both of which are missing from this game.

Katamari games have always had this great colorful texture palette that is a nice change from most every other game out there. It’s combined with fairly simple graphics which is why it’s a surprise when the game can get a little choppy in the frame rate department while you’re rolling your Katamari on the larger levels.

I had a few laughs at the King’s expense and enjoyed what I played, but I just wish there was more of it. Katamari games have never been super challenging, and they shouldn’t be so all the game really needs is more stages. I’m usually hesitant to equate gameplay hours to money, but in this case it’s impossible to ignore. King of the Namcos, lets put a little bit more effort in next time.

3 out of 5 Calamaris

Alan Wake’s American Nightmare Review

There have already been two downloadable add-ons for the original Alan Wake. In Alan Wake’s American Nightmare you’ve got a standalone story mode and a half-dozen or so survival mode levels added to the mix as well.

I wasn’t really sure what was in American Nightmare until coverage for the game started picking up prior to the release.

Alan Wake’s story was kind of like Twin Peaks. Alan and Alice Wake, his wife, visit a sleepy northwestern town for a vacation and mystery ensues. Alice’s wife is trapped by “The Dark Presence, ” Alan rescues her only to find himself trapped with the same “darkness” that has been controlling the townsfolk and causing them to turn against him.

In American Nightmare’s the “darkness” is a villainous parallel version of Wake, Mr. Scratch. Each level is presented like an episode of The Twilight Zone, featuring decent Rod Serling-esque narration and a campy plot. The story is engaging and has enough going on to keep you interested until the exciting conclusion. I was definitely surprised a few times at what the developers were willing to do outside of a disc-based retail game.

It sounds awful when you find out that you’re going to play the same three levels three times. The developers have understood how terrible that might play out and instead change each level with each visit. Initially you’re seeing almost everything a stage has to offer, but on repeat playthroughs you’re getting the gist while the developers put in twists for Alan.

Once you’ve completed the game you’ve got Arcade Mode still to play. Nowhere is it more clear that Alan Wake is Max Payne’s literate cousin than in this wave-based survival mode. With ten minutes on the clock Alan has to stay alive until sunrise.  Weapons are more automatic than the previous game, and is still the unique blend of third-person shooting where you’ve got to weaken enemies by illuminating them with your flashlight before lead can do them in. The slow-mo effect from Max Payne is back whenever you’ve cleared a set of enemies. This camera effect also occurs when a foe is about to sneak up on Alan, pulling back to give the player a second to react. The camera can be a little frustratingly inconsistent in giving the player this glimpse of danger. Sometimes you’ll be left wondering why you’ve lost your score multiplier due to a hit that could have been avoided if only the monsters were a little less subtle.

Though entertaining, American Nightmare is short. Despite returning to the same locations over again I only got about 4 hours out of the story mode. This isn’t too little, instead it feels just about right for what I expect from a $15 side-story from the original Alan Wake.

If you haven’t played the first game, I can’t recommend this one. The original game is referenced through manuscript page collectibles strewn around the game but there isn’t any reason why you wouldn’t want to play it when it can be had for about $20.

Speaking of manuscript-page collectibles, one addition to the game is really nifty. Each area in the game has a TV with a short FMV sequence featuring Alan’s nemesis indulging in some of the finest b-grade movie villainy witnessed on the small screen.

One final note, If you do decide to purchase American Nightmare on Xbox Live Arcade, please make sure to switch the HUD to “fading” on the options menu. Otherwise the HUD will obscure your view for far too long.

I loved Alan Wake’s American Nightmare and it is one of the best games to be released on the 360’s downloadable service. While the story-mode content could have made more sense as DLC for the original game, the arcade mode is fun enough to justify the price. Get the original if you haven’t played it, and then have a Nightmare.

Game Dev Story Review

Game Dev Story is a business simulation about choices.

What genre, what platform, and what theme do you want for your game?

Is the game cute and simple or realistic and innovative?

Do you want to use an in-house art, story, and audio folks or outsource assets and writing?

There are quite a few choices and you’ve got the freedom to make larger decisions about advertising campaigns and which development path to focus on.

Nothing is free, you’ve got to pay platform holders for devkits, employees their salaries, and fees for everything and everyone in the studio. Game developers won’t choose to grow on their own, you’ve got to prod them forward with research data gathered during development. Once they’re more talented their salary has to rise too. Though at least the game doesn’t simulate headhunters to recruit your developers out from under you. Continue reading “Game Dev Story Review”