A Robot Named Fight Review (Windows)

Matt Bitner’s A Robot Named Fight feels like it might be the answer to a question: What if a third-party developer had made a Super Metroid style of game for Sega’s Genesis console?

Here’s the concept: You’re a robot, you fight some meat-monsters until your remains are tossed on a heap of other robots that have failed in their task. Each time the robot named Fight dies another robot you control shoots up a different procedurally generated series of rooms. Each bot is looking for a violent solution to the meat-monster problem, or at least some powerups for now and some upgrades that might be available for the next ‘bot. Ultimately, you must destroy the Megabeast. The developer calls it a “…pulsating moon-sized orb of flesh, eyes, mouths and reproductive organs…”

Most games in this metroidvania genre of side-scrollers try to significantly depart from their source material. In this case ARNF takes the unusual position of straight-up copying Samus’ spinning jump and a few other animations. They might not be perfect reproductions, but they are so close.

Now that isn’t bad, just a surprise as if you went into a Burger King for the first time and found them selling the exact same sandwich as you would find in a McDonald’s. Except in this game the fries and tray and your drink and cup and straw would be made of meat.

A Robot Named Fight has another clear ancestor in Rogue. That’s where it gets areas generated programmatically, or laid out by an algorithm, instead of designed and assembled by hand in a linear order. You might see the same kind of room in one run and another, but the layout of the rooms should almost never be the same as what you saw in your last attempt.

This is also a pretty difficult game. There is what the developer calls true permadeath, once you run out of health your run is done. No coffins or alien tubes to resurrect in. The game lets you save at any time, but that’s not a save you can go back to if, when, things go to shit. Although I did find a robo-tube save-room once, using it brought me back to life with a black screen that ultimately appeared to be a bug. After restarting the game I was back to a normal view. More typically, when Fight dies it’s back to the start for an almost entirely clean slate.

A Robot Named Fight is at least nice enough to follow the standard of giving you what you need most. If you’re low on health, you’ll get health when you splat some more monsters. Low on energy? Here you go.

The bosses I’ve faced so far aren’t super challenging, they generally feel like you can work out a simple strategy as long as you’ve had enough upgrades on the path to them.

Other little things contribute to the difficulty. Often, games can be generous with the amount of invincibility you get when landing in spikes or lava or whatever to get out of them, not in ARNF. If you land in spikes with some minor obstacle blocking your exit it could be game over.

Some of the most challenging parts of the game come when you least expect them. Once, when I had been through a room a few times before and was used to blasting everything before it could harm Fight, I wasn’t paying quite enough attention and got tangled by a glitch monster that screws with your controls. That wouldn’t be so bad if they hadn’t gotten me while I was over a pit of spikes where I struggled for a few moments watching my health dwindle before regaining control.

Like many modern metroidvania games, when you press the “select” button to bring up the map, or view the minimap in the top right of the screen, you’ll see an indicator for rooms with hidden powerups. But in ARNF I keep coming across misleading markers for hidden items where the marker is for one room but the adjoining area is actually where the hidden powerup is. It doesn’t take too long to figure out that you’re attacking the wrong zone, but it isn’t fun to waste a few minutes looking for something that isn’t there. It’s also a bit difficult to even see that the hidden powerup marker on the minimap when you’re in the room because the “you are here” blinking marker overlaps it. Then you realize while you’re staring at the map that bringing it up doesn’t pause the game and you might lose some health or die. Not fun.

Maybe the most frustrating part of A Robot Named Fight is that in some cases you’ll end up taking a path down that is a steep enough drop that you can’t return to the previous area. In one egregious case I went through a door on the floor intro a room that connected to one other but had no way to get back up or progress in any way because I hadn’t found a double-jump powerup on that run. 20 minutes of exploring down the drain because the procedurally laid out rooms had been generated poorly and then five minutes more of trying to find some way to progress by letting my robot bounce off of the two monsters that spawned in the room.

The developer is still patching the game, and I see patch notes for correcting similar issues so I would expect all of those situations to eventually be resolved, but in that case maybe this game should be in Steam’s Early Access program. I reported the bug and sent my save file to the developer before starting a fresh game in a different save slot.

The next run I had was my longest robo-life with the game at that point, 35 minutes or so where I explored a lot of the meatly ruins  It’s here that I finally had the default blaster leveled up with so many rate-of-fire powerups and other bonuses like flame damage to finally feel like I could breeze through areas without worrying too much about the monsters in them.

The final differentiating factor for this metroidvania is that it isn’t built for playing on a review schedule. A Robot Named Fight feels like a game where it is entirely run-based and would be best played at a leisurely pace, picking it up once or twice a day for a few weeks to experience a new layout of the wrecked planet each time. Playing repeated runs for long sessions felt defeating. One run might be great, but my next would sometimes throw me up against a boss immediately without enough powerups to win.

I like a lot of things about A Robot Named Fight, it is extremely familiar with callbacks to earlier games but also changes things up with the randomized level layout and meat-tacular theme, but it feels like it isn’t ready yet.

I love the feeling of progress in metroidvania games by unlocking more weapons and breezing through areas that were previously difficult, but ARNF isn’t always as rewarding with its progression as it should be.

I love randomized level layouts in some recent metroidvania games like Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells, but it’s clear with A Robot Named Fight that no human designed them when I ended up looking at layouts of rooms too often that made no sense. Secret paths that lead nowhere, broken rooms without an escape. these all made me feel like this game should be in beta, not a finished product. It is receiving patches every few days right now to fix these issues, and I can understand why someone might not want their game lumped into the early access program, but sometimes when you hit a bug ARNF feels like it’ll be done in 3 months, not today.

Still, there’s something charming about the meaty challenge. If you’re looking for something that you can’t turn your brain off and breeze through, this could be that game for you. For me, I’m not sure if I’ll ever reach the Megabeast but I will keep trying a run or two every few nights.

3 out of 5 reanimated meat monsters for A Robot Named Fight. It’s out now at $10 on Steam for Windows and macOS. A Linux version is planned.

Prey (2017) Review

I can’t type the word “Prey” without thinking back to the 2006 game by Human Head and the 90’s Prey from 3D Realms that was never released. The Prey game in 2006 was inspired by the idea of portal technology from the 3D Realms game. The concept was that players could look through, and walk through, portals, to take them to other places. This idea seemed revolutionary back when Duke 3D could barely manage to hold a mirror together in the BUILD engine. The idea was completely surpassed by Valve’s Portal, but there were plenty of other Prey projects between 2006 and now that shared the same fate as the original 3D Realms game that never saw the light. One that sounded particularly promising was a bounty hunting sequel by Human Head to their 2006 game. We will probably never see any of that work, but here we are in 2017 with a new exploration and brutal alien murder sim from the developers of Dishonored, Arkane Studios, that has no portals or involvement with the previous developers.

The second game to actually ship with the name Prey shares the overall genre of science fiction and first-person action but has nothing to do with any of the previous games. Today we’ll play the character of Morgan Yu. Morgan is kind of a blank slate who has lost a lot of themselves, but in a way that feels appropriate when you learn why.

Although you hear Morgan’s voice more than a typical silent protagonist like Gordon Freeman, it is still far less than you might expect. The developers have a neat trick to make you feel like you hear more from Morgan that I won’t spoil.

Morgan’s life and work are on board a gigantic space station called Talos 1 where an alien species called the Typhon are being researched by the employees of the TranStar corporation. They acquired the station after it was developed by different political groups in the alternate timeline of Prey‘s universe.

Talos 1 truly is huge, it feels complete once you’ve seen the different sections where it’s clear that different crew members worked and lived. Prey gets some things wrong, but their space station isn’t one of them. Eventually you can explore a few different modes of transportation that let you get around more quickly than hustling through the decks. Each of those alternate transportation modes have their own advantages and add to the wonderful sense of exploration I felt as Morgan gained more and more access to the station.

Different areas of the station, and rooms or maintenance facilities behind its facade, really felt like they were designed by different era’s and cultures of space explorers until TranStar finally got hold of it for their projects.

Part of TranStar’s research enabled people to absorb skills through a device that jacks into their brain via spikes inserted into their eyeballs to reach their brain. Ouch. Fortunately, as these are the regular way that Morgan can upgrade their abilities, you only have to truly experience that effect once. I’d probably recoil in horror if it were done in virtual reality.

Neuromods could give someone the power to play the piano with the skill of an extremely talented musician in just a few seconds, but Morgan’s upgrades are almost all centered around overcoming obstacles to reach new parts of the station, survival skills to live longer, stealthily sneaking past enemies, or straight up combat abilities.

The lowest form of these amorphous blobs of Typhon sludge can assume the shape of random objects on the station and it isn’t long before those skills enable them to escape their containment and start murdering everyone onboard Talos 1. The higher level Typhon can possess the crew’s minds, turn them into bipedal Typhon phantoms, or just murdering them. There are so many dead or possessed people on Talos 1 that you really might feel bad for some of the regular crew who weren’t involved in the research. It took hours before I came across any humans left alive on the station.

Other Typhon can even possess the station’s stationary sentry guns and the large flying toaster robots (called Operators) that serve as medics and engineers onboard Talos 1.

Each upgrade of Morgan’s skill tree is only unlocked with Neuromods, there aren’t any experience points or other leveling mechanics. That tree is so large that you’re really only going to get to play with a few different sets of abilities throughout the game. A lack of specialization would probably leave your Morgan unable to survive for long, and although I had many options I did end up feeling like I picked a slightly boring route by focusing on stealth and traditional firearms over the (slight spoiler) unlockable Typhon powers that would have allowed my Morgan to gain some of those mimic abilities and other more outrageous powers. Maybe I put a little bit too much of myself into my character, but I felt that the Typhon were genuinely disgusting to look at and didn’t want my Morgan to be like them.

It was a little frustrating that you’re not given any chance to test out these powers before spending your precious Neuromods on them. On the other hand, the descriptions on some powers are straightforward enough to understand what you’d be getting. Unlocking the different tiers of the hacking power, for example, makes sense because every hackable item in the game tells you what level of the hacking skill you would need to even attempt it.

Speaking of Prey’s hacking, wow is it bad. It’s a randomized two-dimensional level where your controller or keyboard input fidelity are reduced and you have to move a crosshair onto a target position and press a randomized button before time runs out. Each level of the hack introduces a new target position onto the same field of plain walls and shocking red walls that bounce your crosshair around. If you can’t complete the puzzle within the time limit the hacking attempt fails and Morgan loses a little bit of health.

I don’t know what a good hacking minigame could look like today, but this is definitely not it. I just found myself frustrated and annoyed when I had to go through with it in order to achieve some relatively minor objective like unlocking a safe that just contained eel parts and ammo.

Strangely enough, the higher tiers of the hacking minigame give you so much time to complete them, and the puzzles are so generously spaced out, that they’re actually far easier to complete than the lower tier puzzles. It’s almost like a message from the developers that they know this sucks but they needed to limit Morgan somehow, but they are apologizing by making things a little easier.

Hacking is just one of the different powers on the skill tree that allow Morgan to proceed past different obstacles and access restricted areas of the game. Sometimes you’re also given the opportunity to find a key card that can get you past a secured door without having to hack it. Or you find a maintenance duct that you can use to sneak past enemies and get into the same room. Prey goes out of its way to tell you that you have these options very early in the game. You also might be able to use the game’s gloo gun to clamber over the wall or access that maintenance duct. These options make Prey feels like a very advanced metroidvania.

One way for Morgan to get more ammunition and other consumable items is to recycle junk that you can pick up around the station through a very entertaining process that ends in a satisfying series of clinks and clunks as the the resulting pure materials land in the recycler’s bin. Once you have the raw materials you can select what you would like from the catalog of an ultra-advanced 3D printer. Throughout the game you’ll also find the raw blueprints that enable you to expand your catalog. Recycling junk and turning it into ammunition never stopped being fun for me, even after the process would sometimes leave me feeling strapped for materials once I had mined part of the station’s Typhon and trash cans for recyclables. At those points in Prey, particularly towards the end of the game, I was very glad to have unlocked stealth and other movement abilities that enabled me to speed through the world and complete the final objectives I had left.

The story has meaningful choices, and some surprisingly technical ideas. For example, at one point you find out that digital rights management has locked you out of 3D printing an item you might want, but an optional mission gives you the ability to bypass the DRM and keep printing that item. It makes sense that if all of the 3D printers on a future cruise ship or space station are from the same company they could also, and almost certainly would have, implemented incredibly shitty DRM. Some of the crew’s audiologs and e-mails are concerned with people wanting more access to the 3D printing catalog, or their abuse of it. This just adds to the lived-in feeling of the station.

It’s fun that these materials and neuromods are your currency. I can’t remember any point of Prey where Morgan has to deal with money, but it also feels like part of the game’s mostly solitary journey that you’re not interacting with any vendors.

Once you’ve made some choices for Morgan and completed your journey through Talos 1 you aren’t given a chance to play through the game a second time while retaining the powers you’ve unlocked. Another bummer. I’m kind of glad that my playthrough is unique and will be my canonical experience, but it’d be good to at least have the option of experiencing more ways to play the game without starting over from scratch.

There are more pitfalls for Prey. The weapons aren’t interesting enough. They’re close, but they’re just missing more interesting effects and ideas that seem to have been reserved for unlockable powers on the skill tree.

The gloo gun is the most disappointing because I had the highest expectations for it. Each shot of gloo lets you attach a glob for climbing or incapacitating a foe, but that’s it. The climbing isn’t particularly enjoyable, and it feels wildly imprecise even with a mouse and keyboard. There also aren’t any puzzles where Morgan could connect two objects with gloo. Prey just uses the gun once or twice to seal a hull breach on Talos 1’s exterior and even then what I saw onscreen felt disconnected from the actions I was actually doing.

It also took quite a while for me to get engaged with the game early on, although it’s difficult to say why exactly that was, I had reached the opposite end of the spectrum by the time I had finished the game with 34 hours on the Steam clock.

The worst shortcoming of Prey is that while the game did give me choices that felt meaningful, in the end it also subverted them after the credits and made me feel as if they were never as important to the developer as setting up a sequel without any consequences from this game. Will the sequel even get made? Games called Prey have a very difficult time getting past a conceptual stage and production. If it doesn’t, ruining the player’s choices for a sequel could be a fundamentally wasted decision.

There is an obvious comparison to the System Shock and BioShock games, but I feel like Talos’ designs are superior to some parts of Rapture. Of course they might not have been better if it weren’t for at least BioShock existing in the first place, but once I got to know the world of some of Talos’ crew Prey just felt more like it housed real people instead of Bioshock’s caricatures. Sure, that comparison might not hold up for everyone on the station, and I will always be happy to destroy libertarian fantasy worlds like Bioshock’s Rapture, but here we are with original characters and science fiction ideas that somehow feel more grounded in reality than a modern gritty movie or television show.

I’m also glad that my fear that this would be a horror game was unfounded. The feeling of terror you get from the Typhon springing at you quickly fades, and leaves you with a level of fright that you might experience while watching the nth Doctor Who episode featuring the same monsters you’ve seen before.

Ultimately, the Prey we got in 2017 is a different beast that surpasses any association with older games just by being better than them. It has some serious flaws, but I can’t think of many successful first-person games that don’t. I haven’t thought about the the Prey game from 2006 in years, and if anyone does care about games with that name in the future they’ll think of what Arkane created here. Even when today’s Prey was disappointing, it was an overall success that I eagerly played whenever I could because unlocking and exploring a new room or section of Talos 1 was just so much fun.

4 out of 5 Typhon for Prey. It is available now on Steam for Windows as well as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

SuperHot Review

The first time I saw SuperHot, it was a simpler game for the 7-Day FPS game jam. Although it was simple, it demonstrated a singular, sound, question: What if there were a first-person-shooter that was more of a puzzle than a game about reflexes? Time in the game only moves when your character moves.

The first time I ever played something similar was way back when with Action Quake 2 and using Quake 2-engine console commands in order to slow down time. That gave me something like The Matrix, but it was an incredibly shallow experience, especially when it wasn’t fun to play multiplayer that way.

The finished SuperHot isn’t incredibly deep, but it is more impressive and has way more ideas than that old childish power fantasy of thinking and moving faster than the enemies around you in an FPS we all cribbed from movies.

The game presents you with all kinds of style. An old-school ASCII-style terminal provides the menu and feels like something from DOS computers in the the 1980s. Each option makes sense within this universe. You can change settings in settings.exe and the main game is launched from superhot.exe. This menu is where you bounce back from the challenge of the main game and chat with artificial online strangers to find out more about it.

Each level is a stark contrast of white geometry with harshly polygonal red bad guys that have a kind of shine to them. You will see one additional color, black, to indicate bullets and firearms along with objects like baseball bats that can be picked up and wielded against your foes. This style is unique. The closest comparison would be to Mirror’s Edge, but even that game’s simplistic color-scheme has much more texture to the characters and world.

It’s an art style that grabs your eyes with simplicity in order for you to focus on the game play of avoiding the oncoming bullets, fists, baseball bats, and other objects the red guys throw your way.

Each time you shoot or punch out a red guy you’re rewarded with their polygons shattering in a unique display of aggression that is your reward for figuring out the solution to the puzzle of moving past that obstacle for the next. Each time you’re wondering how you can move onto the next red guy and survive until you’re rewarded with the end of the level when a robotic voice chants SUPERHOT… while the full-speed replay displays underneath the text SUPERHOT

Early on in SuperHot one of the levels wants to teach you how to dodge oncoming fire in a simple corridor. It took me a few tries to understand that yes, indeed, I need to go slow as the game had informed me in giant bold text. Darting right until the red guys fired, then left and waiting for them to fire again, on and on up the corridor until I could try and retrieve the pistol a dead red guy had dropped. Except picking that gun up was another motion that caused time to proceed, allowing the enemy fire to move, and left me dead a few times until I learned to lead the red guys into shooting away from me and gave myself enough time to pick up the gun. Each step after that put less distance between the red guys and my character, but with SuperHot’s gun all distances are shorter and it’s just a matter of giving yourself the time to fire, wait for the next round to chamber, and fire again. All without getting shot. So if the first half of that level taught me how to avoid fire, the second half teaches you to remember where bullets are in the air at any time. That’s the puzzle you have to work out in each level. Moving, from one red guy to the next, reaching out and firing untilSUPERHOTSUPERHOT

The level-ending chant is deeply satisfying when it happens. Although SuperHot’s campaign doesn’t present any incredible challenges, it does change things up and add new twists that are almost universally fun to learn and best.

SuperHot succeeds at being unlike any traditional FPS, but it also isn’t an incredibly long experience. I finished the game’s campaign in just a few hours. Once you’ve completed it you unlock other single-player challenges and wave-based survival modes that are fun, but it is questionable if the game is worth those $25 dollars the developer charges by default.

That isn’t a question I will be able to answer for everyone, but for my life these days it’s nice to be done with something after a few hours without feeling like I’ve just made the first step into adding some 150-hour long journey to the back catalog of games I’ll probably never get around to. So, I don’t feel like SuperHot overstayed its welcome by throwing more ridiculous gameplay ideas at us. Instead, it was just as much SuperHot as I wanted, and I’ll always randomly think to myself SUPERHOTSUPERHOT

4 out of 5 VHS copies of The Matrix for SuperHot. It is available on Steam for Windows, macOS, and Linux or on the Xbox One.

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 good looks only get you so far without new adventuring mechanics.

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

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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