Scanner Sombre is a great game mode, but not a standalone game

Scanner Sombre is a triumph of sound design. Literally all of the tension, drama, and emotional content of this experience come exclusively from the sound effects.

The rest of it is boring as hell.

Don’t get me wrong, I smiled when I first used the game’s LIDAR scanner to recreate the walls of a pitch black cave in a thousand points of laser light. It’s an extremely clever idea … for one item in a game, or one level. If this idea had shown up in some kind of AAA first-person-shooter thing, it would be all people talked about.

But Scanner Sombre is just two hours plus of doing nothing but this. Otherwise you get a bit of story in the form of text and the occasional weird screen shake/noise blast that serves for the supernatural aspect of this supposedly creepy experience. I dug it for about half an hour, and then I made the mistake of removing my earphones for a minute.

475190_screenshots_20171125215906_1Once you remove the sound, Scanner Sombre is no longer about using a futuristic mapping device to explore caves possibly inhabited by malevolent spirits. It’s about painting rainbow dots on invisible stalactites. Less Dear Esther and more The Unfinished Swan.

I really think that developer Introversion Software misfired with their chosen premise for this game. Maybe they wanted to advance the concept of The Unfinished Swan. Maybe they wanted a piece of the publicity from ridiculous YouTube reaction videos. Whatever the reason, the bare bones of the story driving this experience distract from what is a wonderful mechanic. If this had been a genuine cave exploration adventure, complete with finding lost species and occasional stretches of ambient light or bio-luminescence to break up the visual monotony, it would have held my attention a lot more than this hokey TV thriller plot.

This concept deserves another chance to shine. Scanner Surprise?

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Can thatgamecompany’s Sky reach new heights?

Finally got around to checking out the teaser for Sky, thatgamecompany’s latest effort, aimed at the mobile market:

I’m excited. I really am. Flower and Journey are two of my all-time favorite interactive experiences. I am intrigued at the idea of a high-quality thatgamecompany experience on a mobile platform that will allow my family to play together. I’m happy to see the team working on a gesture-based touch screen control scheme that even my five-year-old can use. This game promises to revive the collaborative family fun that we largely lost with the passing of the Nintendo Wii.

Yet, I’m feeling hesitant to get all that excited. The trailer feels way too derivative for a thatgamecompany experience. The company’s three Playstation 3 classics – flOw, Flower, and Journey – were visually striking experiences. Fly feels too much like AER: Memories of Old or The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword to really stand out.

And then there’s the little issue of Abzu, a stunning effort involving two thatgamecompany alums that made me wonder if the best talent had all exited the little shop of dreams.

I will definitely purchase Sky. I think my daughter will adore it. But the era of thatgamecompany leading the way in the indie scene may have passed us by.

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Subsurface Circular, I have lots of questions

Subsurface Circular is a strange little thing. It’s not really a game, though it has a few middling puzzles. It’s billed as an interactive adventure with a branching story, but the story branches about as much as a wallet chain.

And that story makes about zero sense. That’s disappointing, because I quite liked Thomas Was Alone, one of the previous efforts by this developer.

MASSIVE SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.

  • The entire story hinges on the fact that the two main robot characters cannot connect with their the management network until they step off the train. No one built WiFi into a futuristic subway for robots in a society of humans wary of robot independence? Only some robots can access the Internet from the train, but not all? How is that a good idea? Why does that change once robots leave the train?
  • The main “antagonist,” Red, needs someone else to make a choice for him about society at large, so why does he choose a detective robot confined to a subway train? Wouldn’t a choice that monumental be better suited to a robot of lower intelligence, but higher experience, like any other one on the train?
  • Red is apparently too dumb to figure out the moral choice he must make, but he’s smart enough to call James One One out for lying?
  • Red is smart enough to lead an army of combat robots and set up a breadcrumb trail for James One One to follow, but why is he so dumb that he sets up a situation in which he could be destroyed? Is he suicidal? Why would he expect another robot to be suicidal for him?
  • Why the hell did they put the entire script of Thomas Was Alone in the game and then give me an achievement for reading all of it?
  • Why does this game even have achievements?

As you can tell, I don’t think Subsurface Circular deserves the high praise it has received or adequately sells the Big Moral Choice it poses at the end of the story. We, as the viewer, are never given a look at life outside the train. We only hear secondhand accounts of it from robots who, by their own admission, aren’t very smart and have a hard time seeing the bigger picture. Everything is so unreliable as to be pointless.

I also think the game cops out by cutting to black after James’ decision. Despite the narrative clearly pushing for us to kill James and hand the world over to our new robot overlords, it never gives us a glimpse of the reason for selling that decision. A more intelligent game would have leaned heavier on exploiting James’ ignorance of the world and painted a far greyer picture of human/robot interactions and society. It then would have given us a variety of consequences based on our various decisions. Subsurface Circular gives us a binary choice and a black screen.

On the plus side, this is a good game to play with a 4yo in the house. No disturbing imagery, and it’s easy to pick up and put down. Probably better to experience on a tablet than a desktop computer if they ever release it in mobileland.

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Linden Labs seeks second life in Sansar

“Rydell had a theory about virtual real estate. The smaller and cheaper the physical site of a given operations, the bigger and cheesier the website. According to this theory, Selwyn F.X. Tong, notary public, of Kowloon, was probably operating out of a rolled-up newspaper.”

William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties

Wheeling around Second Life a couple weeks ago, I noticed that the majority of the love that Linden Labs once put into the virtual world had migrated to the company’s latest project – Sansar. And then I discovered it was in open beta testing. Time to make an avatar…

Avatar

After selecting a flavor of hipster dipshit from a short list of preconfigured beardless children, I started jumping into a few sims … er, “Experiences.” Sansar is being built with the idea that it will be experienced on a VR headset plugged into bleeding edge hardware. I toured it on a 1050p monitor with a GTX 1050 Ti and an Xbox controller. Your mileage may vary.

Overall, Sansar is impressive in a very limited way. Linden did away with many of the conceits that weighed the Second Life experience down, such as the idea of a cohesive world, crazy freedom of movement, instantaneous transportation to half-loaded sims, prim-based graphics, “land” purchasing, and … a “second” life with ridiculous character names.

With it’s thumbnail-based browser, discreet sims, and default user spaces, Sansar borrows a lot from the now-defunct Playstation Home. It’s no surprise to see Home veteran Loot appearing on Sansar celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the Apollo moon landings with two of the best showcase sims I’ve seen on the platform:

With a healthy dose of imagination on my limited setup, this is where I can see Sansar truly shining. A VR-focused virtual world with easy development tools really could bring virtual museums and even virtual “real” places into the eyeballs of students or disabled individuals who would not otherwise be able to experience them. The Egyptian tombs rendered with near photorealistic quality by Linden Labs also highlights this potential:

The demos and experiments available on the service today strongly highlight Sansar’s far more modern rendering potential for fantasy spaces and impossible architecture:

But, never fear, thanks to a very accessible personal space customization interface, Second Life’s shitpost aesthetic is still alive and well:

There are no robo-strippers or sex balls littering the landscape just yet. Sansar’s scripting is pretty rudimentary, mostly consisting of objects that can play audio and visual media or teleport you to other parts of an experience or another experience entirely.

And there are bugs. Oh, the bugs. Experiences frequently fail to load. The game controller setup reverses the X axis on the camera stick, and there is no option to change that. I’ve seen fare share of crashes.

But, overall, Sansar appears to be avoiding mistakes of the past and trying to create the virtual world of the, hopefully, VR-powered future.

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Second Life: A decade under the influence

It has been five years since I “rezzed” into Second Life. It’s no coincidence that those years of absence coincided with the arrival of my nearly 5 year old daughter. I took a whirl this weekend to test out how well my GTX 1050 Ti fares against the 14-year-old virtual world’s notoriously punishing environments.

waves_001I had to resolve a weird objection by Second Life to the nature of my nVidia driver install. It kept telling me that the driver was out of date. What it really meant is that it doesn’t like how GeForce Experience handles drivers, and it wants you to do a direct install. I have never seen anything like this, and none of the other games on my system had this problem. GFE gets a lot of hate from min-maxing enthusiast gamers, but I haven’t noticed it causing any noticeable problems, and it saves me from doing a lot of slider noodling myself. SL is just nuts.

The driver issue was just one of the many signs of neglect that I saw around Second Life. Popular sims that are promoted by Linden Labs on the Second Life web site are refusing to load. The sound drops out on a regular basis. I’ve seen 3 desktop crashes and one spectacular hard crash within 24 hours. The mesh character models look much better, but they hammer the sims’ throughput and slow loading times dramatically. Most of the background textures still look like hell.

Ruth Moabite_002The reason for Linden Labs’ neglect is its new virtual reality project. It’s too busy readying its followup to the decade-old virtual world with something called Sansar – a platform looking to finally, really, no kidding, actually, without a doubt, create Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse. Well, I certainly hope they take my advice.

I’m actually impressed that Second Life is still around and still pulling in a publicly stated 900,000 active users. In its defense, there is really nothing else like it out there. The ripoff OpenSim community is still operating on an ancient implementation of the software; Playstation Home has disappeared; and everything that isn’t a fantasy RPG or a kiddie chat room has pretty much shut down. Second Life can still draw a few dozen people to a sim on good nights, and a lot of the whoring and griefing/trolling that marked its early life has moved on to other platforms. It’s still a pretty freaky place, though, and you shouldn’t let the kids wander around unsupervised.

After watching Second Life’s progression for more than a decade, it’s a shame that the property has been so badly mismanaged and doesn’t enjoy continuing developer love. The last stable release of the official client was in January. Perhaps development will return to the platform once Linden Labs remembers that virtual reality setups are still $500-600 a pop.

 

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I’m trying really hard to like No Man’s Sky 1.3

275850_screenshots_20170816202802_1Really hard.

I’m doing the base building quests. I now have a dune buggy. I rehabilitated an old, crashed hauler. I’m even kinda trying to find Atlas.

But I’m not really enjoying it.

For having an infinite galaxy to explore, there is still very little to see in No Man’s Sky, and that’s a problem for a game about exploration. The animals and plants that I’ve found are all pretty samey. The environments look better than they did on the three dozen or so planets that I’ve explored. Every once in a while you come up on a different kind of space station or a weird new monolith to click at, but there’s still very little life to the game. The planets seem to have been previously inhabited, but all of the structures appear to be isolated and expeditionary in nature. No abandoned towns or even inhabited ones.

275850_screenshots_20170819224127_1

Skyfish!

And then there are the weird limitations. Everything is a brick wall. I wanted to explore an ancient ruin. The game put the structure at the bottom of a sinkhole on a world so cold and windy that I couldn’t last 30 seconds outside the cockpit. I found a lush, verdant, temperate world full of sea to explore, but I could not find a shelter to shift my base to. I found new animal and tried to name it. The profanity filter rejected the word “bipedal.”

Everything you might want to do is gated with a ridiculous time sink. Want to buy a freighter and collect different spaceships? You’re going to need about 100 times the currency you are likely to have on hand. Want to jump from system to system and just explore? Prepare to grind a LOT of resources and craft a lot of fiddly stuff. Want to follow one of the game’s two main quests? Fetch time!

275850_screenshots_20170816203006_1Lots of things are deeply affected by the procedural generation of your part of the galaxy. I have tripped over no fewer than three crashed freighters and have been following their log story like is was some kind of regular feature. My friend, who has played this game since launch, has yet to see one. I recently attempted a timed quest given to me by the exocraft engineer to go find a signal 6 minutes across the map. After 5 minutes of driving across rubble and watching the camera shake like a GoPro, I fell into a hidden sinkhole and couldn’t get the dune buggy back out. Rage quit.

My four year old has become invested in my struggle, though. “Daddy, I hope you find enough iron or whatever.”

275850_screenshots_20170819075626_1

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Just Cause 3 does not need story missions

225540_screenshots_20170729160709_1When I first played Grand Theft Auto III nearly 15 years ago, the open world concept was a revelation. The mini map full of icons was an open invitation to nonlinear mayhem. The emergent gameplay from primitive AIs reacting with hostility, terror, or even suicide attempts to your antisocial behavior brought a whole new concept to an industry full of on-rails experiences.

A decade and a half later, Ubisoft has boiled the GTA formula down to a thick, viscous syrup that is just pours all over whatever open world its massive teams build. The concept is played out. It’s ripe for revision. Nintendo’s first real stab at the genre has brought the beloved Zelda IP and survivalist elements to the mix. I see it as a high grain refinement of the idea.

Just Cause 3 is something else entirely. The series has been steadily iterating on its cartoonish physics and pyroclastic style – much like how the Saints Row series steadily cranked up the derangement of its social commentary – and I think the third entry has achieved something close to perfection. Example:

In a single half hour play session, attacked a small military base at night and easily took control of it and its attack chopper. I used the attack chopper to rain rockets down on a larger military base. When the base finally shot me down, I bailed into the water, hotly pursued by enemy choppers. Swimming and hookshotting, I hurled myself into a cliff cave, trying to escape. There, I discovered an enemy patrol boat, which I hijacked. I motored into the cave, trying to escape the choppers, who followed me inside. I quickly discovered that the cave was actually a tunnel, and another, larger patrol boat blocked the exit. I plowed my stolen boat directly into the blockade, jumping and floating away on a parachute as one of the pursuing choppers exploded into the boat wreckage with a gasoline fireball that lit up the night. I hookshotted my way up a cliff, dodging missile fire from the remaining chopper. I stole a small car and fled to a nearby town controlled by my rebel faction. I then hid in the police station while my NPC allies wrecked my remaining pursuers.

None of this was scripted. None of this was part of a sanctioned story mission. However, it was some of the most thrilling gameplay I’ve experienced in an open world game in years. JC3 is full of stuff like this. The game is littered with locations full of bright, red targets just daring you to start a rampage and dodge the fallout. The game even helps you out by radioing in support choppers and other units.

There’s not a whole lot new here. Territory control, crazy mayhem, vast world with lots to do? All been done before. But JC3 tones down the limitations and difficulty level, encouraging you to Fuck Shit Up with impunity, and cranking up the consequences just enough to keep you moving. You can always easily escape for a breather if you like, so there’s never the frustration of almost completing an objective and then getting stuffed at the last second…

… unless you take on a story mission. God, what a downer. Why do developers all think they have to be Naughty Dog? Just Cause 3 doesn’t need some kind of hokey story-driven “action” plot. It makes its own stories with its crazy engine and its broad mandate of “See that? Fuck it up!” Too often, the missions state an objective and then pull a “surprise, now you have to do this ridiculous shit” twist. They have decent checkpoints, they aren’t too hard, and they don’t seem to gate your progress in any significant way. But they’re completely unnecessary.

The time spent on developing these sad attempts at drama could have been put toward inserting triggered drama into the town and military base capture missions. I would love to be locked into a firefight with a town patrol only to have Mario (JC3 Mario, not Nintendo Mario) wheel up in a sports car and take me on a wild goose chase past the destructible objects I’d so far missed. Seemingly serendipitous events would have far more emotional impact in this setting than a mandatory slog through lame cinematic mimicry.

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Linux gaming just had another Icarus moment, but all is not lost

ubuntu icarusComputer gaming isn’t a cheap hobby. You can buy $300 consoles, but you subsidize them with $60 games. You can buy cheap games on Steam, but you need expensive Intel CPUs, nVidia GPUs, and a Windows license if you want the full experience. If you have several children, this gets very pricey very quickly.

For the past few years, many parents I know have let their children game on cheap tablets. However, mobile game makers have responded by turning their games into open-ended casinos peddled by walled garden stores. This too becomes expensive when junior starts betting real money on digital items.

There was a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Ubuntu was, until this week, hard at work bringing their popular Linux distribution to phones and tablets. This, taken with the development of the powerful new open-source Vulcan API and decent chips from AMD, threatened to strike a round of blows against the WinVidIntel lock on PC gaming. Imagine a powerful ARM tablet or mini computer running Ubuntu and decent Linux ports of cheap, popular, pay-once PC games.

Yeah, that’s not going to happen now … at least not yet. Ubuntu has given up trying to make Ubuntu work on a form factor dominated by manufacturers who jealously guard their integrated software stores on their devices.

Ubuntu has also given up trying to convince a Linux development community full of cantankerous graybeards that trying to recreate the ultimate Windows XP desktop is no longer the primary goal of moving Linux into the future. Don’t get me wrong. I love Linux Mint. But I’m a dying breed of mouse/keyboard user. The future of computer gaming and productivity is largely going to happen on small form factor hardware with touch screen interface. The death of Ubuntu Unity is a blow to that future.

Linux has always been a chicken/egg problem. Until Ubuntu and Red Hat came along, it was a support and user interface nightmare with constant niggling problems. But there was demand in the corporate space for a free, open source operating system that could break the Windows lock. The future of touchscreen Linux likely won’t blossom until those same corporate forces demand a break of the Google/Apple lock. Once chip makers realize that they don’t need Google and Apple’s software to make their products sell, you will see them more readily cooperate with Ubuntu (or another distro) to get Linux hardware drivers working.

Unfortunately, that will all happen about the time that my grandchildren are all plugged into some proprietary virtual reality interface.

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nVidia’s GTX 1050 Ti: The perfect graphics card for indie gamers

You wouldn’t know it from looking at screen shots, but Abzu will eat your integrated graphics alive. Don’t let the simple textures fool you. It murdered my AMD A8 laptop and my Core i5 6400 desktop at the lowly resolution of 720p and showed absolutely no remorse. Chalk it up to the gorgeous lighting effects, tons of swimming creatures or even lack of optimization. Didn’t matter. When Matt Nava makes a game, you play the game. If you can’t play the game; you find a way.

abzu 1

What followed my bitter disappointment was a search for a cheapish, low wattage graphics card that could drive a 1080p screen at the standard of a Playstation 4 or Xbox One.

[For those who want to future-proof themselves for the onset of games optimized for the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One Scorpio, ignore this article and go buy an AMD RX 480 or a nVidia GTX 1060 and a power supply. For those who would just like Firewatch to run at more than 20fps, read on.]

The GTX 1050 Ti is the (current) ultimate in low-wattage cards for pre-built systems. It draws 75 watts straight off the board, requiring neither a six-pin connector adapter nor a beefed up power supply to safely kick your system in the pants. It costs less than $150, and it runs cool as a cucumber. No additional case fan required.

Performance-wise, don’t expect miracles. It will blaze through popular online games, such as Overwatch, Counterstrike: Global Offensive, League of Legends, or DOTA 2 at 1080p without breaking a sweat. However, it’s going to sputter a bit on ultra settings in AAA games, even older ones. I threw it against Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and watched the screen counter range from 40 down to 15.

However, over in indieland, there are a lot of titles that play rather well with the card. Both Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter choked my integrated systems on low settings, but the 1050 Ti held its own on high/ultra with only a bit of screen tear and stuttering. A Story About My Uncle was all buttah smooth, only screen tearing in wide open stages. Dear Esther: Landmark Edition benefited immensely. Submerged looked like a completely different game as the lighting effects exploded across the water.

And Abzu. Damn, that’s just a stunning game. The 1050 Ti poured it onto the screen with no turbulence. Seriously, don’t wait for a stupid sale like I did. Go buy it and play it now.

abzu 2

 

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Firewatch and video gamey melodrama

20170212110142_1It’s disappointing that, even as Generation X moves steadily into middle age, the games designed to appeal to the First Video Game Generation are still saddled with the campy, melodramatic conventions of comic books, B movies, and television.

Other than Kentucky Route Zero, Portal and possibly Dear Esther, there isn’t much to recommend in the interactive experience category if one is a well-read, well-watched adult with little ingrained patience for complex control schemes and video gamey tropes.

I was really getting into Firewatch. There was some interesting meat there. Two strangers, separated by space, getting to know each other over the radio, possibly the subject of an unethical study, lonely, rough backstories full of mistakes and regret, good characterization, decent voice acting…

20170312111208_1And then suddenly there was all this pseudo-thriller drammuh – property destruction, violence, missing teenage girls, a dead kid, a survivalist loner, and a bunch of strained emotive voice acting that sounded like two people trying desperately to overcome constipation.

Why is it that video game audiences demand Big, Dumb Thrill Rides? Firewatch could have been a really interesting, branching, gorgeous love story. Instead, it had to hang on to a rickety scaffold of Dramatic Conflict to sell itself to the perpetually bored, adrenaline junkie crowd and the games reviewers who pander to them.

I found the “thrilling” aspects of Firewatch to be a distracting annoyance from the gorgeous scenery and budding friendship of Henry and Delilah. The title’s insistence on inventing stuff for the player to DO, spoiled character building and a setting that should have been allowed to just BE.

20170312105818_1In the end, I was just pushing through the actiony, fetchy, double backy bits of the experience in the vain hope that there might be some kind of emotional payoff for the two main characters. There was, kinda. I appreciate that Firewatch did not conclude with a dramatic uniting of the characters, even going so far as to not show what Delilah looked like. I liked that both characters shared many intense moments, but then separated to return to the lives from which they fled. That’s a very adult ending, but their relationship could have been developed a bit more to give the ending more punch.

I’m really don’t mean to dog on Firewatch. I asks a fair price for a very polished few hours of time. It pushes the art of the possible further into adult territory for interactive experiences. It’s the fact that it comes so close to greatness that makes it a bitter disappointment for those searching for something that isn’t shootybang idiocy.

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