Sunday, 26 October 2014

Slide....



I couldn't sleep. I lay there staring at the ceiling, listening to the house cool and settle. Something was bothering me and I knew what it was. I reached for the bedside table, grabbed my phone and without hesitation, deleted two apps....

I’m not sure exactly when it started, but it’s been growing for a while. Whenever I took my phone from my pocket or reached over to check it at work, there’d be a tiny pin prick of annoyance somewhere inside my head. A little niggle of frustration.
This feeling made me notice a few things about myself. How I’d take my phone with me to another room of the house if I was planning on spending some time in there, eg. from the kitchen while we were in there eating, to the Xbox while I’m playing games, to the lounge while I’m watching TV. How, whenever I found myself waiting for anything - in a queue, on a train platform, in a Doctors’ waiting room - I’d whip out the phone and be staring zombie-like into it until my train arrived or my name was called.

And I noticed the people around me doing the same. Every other person looking down at their phone. We used to watch the world go by, now it’s going by without us.
People come round to visit and ask for your wi-fi password and I’m not judging, because I’ve done the same. Everyone sat around the tv, a phone or tablet under-lighting their faces a pale deathly blue.

These devices are sold to us in adverts that show how full and joyous life can be with beautiful people and euphoric anthems. The reality is hunched over in the dark trying to get past level 312 on Candy Crush.

"The things you own end up owning you."

As these thoughts and observations grew in me and began to fester, several things happened that just hammered the point home.

The Look Up video was released. 

Parody it all you want on YouTube, if you don’t see yourself somewhere in this video, you’re probably lying or you have a bigger problem than you thought - one you can’t see.

Then this one - sincere and hitting all the right buttons.


Passenger - the great sing/songwriter Mike Rosenberg - released Scare Away the Dark with the line: “We should stare at the stars and not just at screens.”

The main character in my film of the year, Boyhood talks about the subject of phones and social media taking over our lives and experiences.

All these things clarified what I had already been feeling. They gave coherent words to my babbling thoughts.

So; what’s to be done about it? It isn’t my place of course to try to change anyone else, so these are just a few things I've come up with for myself.

One way would just be to ditch the phone and social media accounts, but here’s the thing - I’m not going all Tyler Durden on you here. This isn’t a tirade on technology. Technology is good. I enjoy talking about card games with a select few on Twitter and I enjoy sharing trailers and discussion on the videogame page I’ve created on Facebook. These things are not inherently bad; I just think we need to take a step back a bit. I don’t need the immediacy of Twitter news. I don’t need to know right then and there that a friend has announced something on their status. These things will wait. I’ll catch up.

I often check my phone for messages because I don’t like being late. I don’t like the idea that anyone is waiting on me to get back to them. I just need somehow to relax a little and realise that if it was urgent, if they needed an answer right away, they’d call.

So this is what I’m trying out:

I’ve deleted the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone.
I have also deleted the app for an Xbox forum  I am a member of.
I found when at times I didn’t have a good enough mobile Internet reception to use Facebook or Twitter, I would look through my photos. So I am going to back these up on my computer and take them off the phone.

I will take 10 - 15 minutes each evening to open my tablet or laptop and check Facebook, Twitter, the Xbox Forum, my YouTube subscriptions and other websites to catch up on any news I’ve missed or things I might be interested in. Then it gets switched off.

I have set my text message tone to repeat 3 times if I don’t hear it the first time, so that I don’t feel inclined to keep checking my phone whenever I pass it.

At work, my phone is switched off. I will make sure that anyone who might need to get in touch with me urgently at work, has the details to do so.

When I’m at home, the phone gets put down somewhere and stays there until being used as an alarm for the morning.

When I’m leaving the house for something other than work, I’ll decide whether I need my phone. If I’m out with my fiancĂ©e somewhere we’re not likely to separate, I could simply ask my parent’s to call her if they need to reach me in a hurry.

Those are the ideas I’ve come up with so far and I’ll update you with how it goes and whether they’re enough, or whether I just need to dig out the Nokia 3310 and throw the “smart” phone in the bin.





Tuesday, 14 October 2014

He shoots! He scores! - Review: NHL 15


I was there. At the beginning. EA Hockey on the Sega Megadrive, 1991. Sure, there have been gaps since then. I got the follow-up, NHLPA ’93, but didn’t get another until NHL 2000 on the Playstation and then it was 2004 on the PS2. Being a fantastic game, it suited me just fine until a new console and the next big step up for the series in NHL 07. From then, I haven’t missed an entry.

There have been misteps along the way for sure. In NHL 08, while spoken of with reverence by myself and friends, it was - if we’re honest - a little too easy to score. NHL 09 went totally in the other direction, making it incredibly hard to hit the back of the net. NHL 10 balanced things out, but then 11 and 12 could be accused of treading water. But for the most part, EA’s NHL series has been an awesome ride through the years and NHL 13 and 14 came along and perfected the formula - Truly great hockey games and amongst the best sports games on the market.

With the arrival of new consoles I was particularly looking forward to NHL 15. Every year as a new entry in the series approaches, my mates and I always say “they’ll never beat this year’s.” But they always do.
Will we be able to say that next year before NHL 16 is released? Probably not actually, but that isn’t to say NHL 15 isn’t great. Let’s get into it….

Visuals:
NHL 13 and 14 looked the business, but the last gen consoles could only take things so far. NHL 15 is perhaps not the biggest jump visually as you might expect, at least not at first glance. But once you pay attention to the details, you’ll appreciate a lot more. On the ice the player’s faces look better than ever, more life-like and expressive. Around the rink you’ll see Ray Ferraro in his booth, TV crews and cameramen. Further back, a lot of attention has been paid to the arenas this year. They all look very distinctive and, I’m sure, as identical to their real-life counterparts as they could get. 

There are now over 9000 individual crowd models, which makes repetition hard to spot and the folks in the seats are animated and individual. You’ll see people in outfits for their team trying to get the crowd fired up; some fans remain seated even when their team scores; they bang on the glass when your players are against it fighting for the puck; they taunt visiting team players in the penalty box; you’ll find away fans dotted around the arena or grouped together in the cheap seats; security staff stand at the exits.

Gameplay:
When they switched fighting back to third person in NHL 14, that was it for me - there was nothing more I could think of that needed tweaking for gameplay - and NHL 15 hasn’t done a great deal. And that’s fine, because it plays like a dream. 

Commentary/Broadcast presentation:
The commentary has been a real sticking point for the series for some years now. They’ve basically been phoning it in each year. When they announced a deal with NBC and a whole new broadcast presentation and commentary team for NHL 15, I was excited to see the difference.


I don’t think the commentary is as good as it could have been, but as a whole, I’m enjoying the presentation.
Before each game you get a video of the home team’s stadium or city and then Mike Emrick and Ed Olczyk appear to open the broadcast. Their comments are quite generic, but as they are actually on camera at this point, you can understand it in this case. To their credit, some of the scenes do mention the home team and are specific to the city.
On the Ice, the commentators will talk about the starting goalies and any players to watch out for and when playing a season, Olczyk will often comment on a team’s progress so far.

The actual play by play is…..sufficient. It’s lively enough and does the job, but there are too many generic statements - “the player did this..” “he hit the opposing player…” and so on. Some of the statements are laughable: “We now have a scoreline other than zero-zero.” What?

I like the new broadcast presentation and I like the commentary team, but I think a lot of that comes from the fact we’ve had it the same for so long, so any change would have been welcome. When you play 2K’s NBA or baseball games, the commentary is truly remarkable - conversational and so varied you simply don’t notice any repetition. EA Sports have done a good job with NHL 15, but they aren’t quite there yet. The problem is, if the past is anything to go by, this will be the default commentary now for a good few years, so don’t expect much change next year.

Features:
Here’s the area responsible for some low review scores. As we approached release day, EA Sports admitted that some features would not be available in this year’s game. Strangely, some of the features would still be there in the last-gen versions, which puzzled everyone. EASHL is out, as is GM Connected and Be-A-Pro’s Live the Life, while continuing on last-gen versions, are not on the PS4 or Xbox One, leaving a very stripped down mode without even coach feedback or the ability to sim to your next shift.

Since launch, EA have added coach feedback back into to Be-A-Pro, 3 stars to the in-game menu, online play where every player on the ice can be user-controlled and other features, but for many, the fact that some fundamental options weren’t there to begin with has been jarring.

Personally, I didn’t play EASHL or GM Connected, so I wasn’t bothered by its absence and I don’t mind developers adding things post-launch, providing the core experience I came to the dance for is present, correct and awesome - which in NHL 15, it is.

The move to new consoles was bound to be a bumpy ride, but NHL 15 has far from derailed the series. If you want a realistic sports game that plays brilliantly and looks great, NHL 15 comes highly recommended.
All EA Sports has to do for NHL 16 is add a few bells and whistles and it’ll be back into everyone’s good graces.


Sunday, 7 September 2014

The pirate life for me - Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag


Oh, Assassin’s Creed, we’ve had our ups and downs, you and I. To be honest, probably more downs than ups. It couldn’t have started better for me. Sure, many people found the first game to be repetitive, but it had such ambition. Here was something genuinely new and exciting that played great and was the best looking game on the market.

Then Assassin’s Creed II came along and again the world and I disagreed. They found it to be a massive improvement on the first game and still consider it to be perhaps the best in the series. While I liked the new protagonist and loved the Italian setting, I found the game frustrating.

Brotherhood only continued this frustration on and it wasn’t until Revelations where I realised by the end that I’d felt more enjoyment than annoyance.


Assassin’s Creed III came with the promise of an overhaul. A new main character and historical setting. It did feel fresh, there was no doubt, but the tutorial ran to about 3 hours and the new character was terrible.

I was getting close to quitting the series. The yearly instalments were taking their toll on the franchise in much the same way as was happening with Call of Duty. But then, with a ho-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag crested the horizon.

Set in the Caribbean in the early 18th century, the fourth main entry in the series tells the story of Edward Kenway - a privateer-turned-pirate and his involvement with the Assassins order. The modern day sections are now little more than first person hacking mini games and though I wouldn’t want to do away with the sci-fi framing device, I think the added emphasis on the historical setting here is a good move. The wanted posters, over sensitive AI and need to buy and upgrade property - all the pointless and/or annoyances from the previous games - have been all but stripped away, leaving us with the stealthiest, smoothest Assassin’s game we’ve had in years.

The ship battles which were the best part of the third game make their appearance here (it is a pirate game after all) and they are great fun. Occasionally over the course of the game you will be told your ship - the Jackdaw - just isn’t up to the task of the next mission and this prompts a period of grinding out enough money to upgrade. That aside, the sequences at sea remain a fantastic addition to the series.

On land the gameplay, is a great deal of the time based on stealth, which I love and the main character is a massive step up from AC III - in that he has character!


On the last gen consoles Assassin’s Creed Rogue will be staying in this historical period, albeit with a protagonist on the Templar’s side hunting down the assassin’s. On the Xbox One and PS4, Ubisoft are moving the series to revolutionary France with Assassin’s Creed Unity and it’s looking very good indeed. For the time being though, Assassin’s Creed IV stands tall as - for me at least - the best entry in the franchise since the original and as welcome proof that there is life and innovation still to be found under the hood.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Has Battlefield lost its way?



While Battlefield as a franchise may not see the same sales figures as Call of Duty, it has become the connoisseur’s choice for military shooters. Only in Battlefield will you experience such scale, destruction and epic multiplayer gameplay.

With its Frostbite 2 engine, Battlefield 3 really set the bar , but with the power of the new consoles, the fourth instalment was all set to rise to the challenge. Bigger maps, “Levolution”, 64 player games, great visuals - Battlefield 4 can still, in my mind, be counted as the best multiplayer experience on the market. But online problems since launch have been so prevalent that you are unlikely to find an article on the Internet that doesn’t refer to Battlefield as a “troubled shooter”, as if it is getting over a bad break up and self-harming.


Connection issues, server problems and other issues, have overshadowed the game and its many achievements. EA have apologised. DICE have apologised. Was it rushed to market for the release of the new consoles? Was it simply too ambitious? Whatever the case, the developers and publishers involved will be looking to make the next game a much smoother transition to the masses.

But they’ve already hit a snag. Battlefield Hardline was announced earlier this year with this gameplay video.


It all looks great and a lot of fun, but it is difficult to pin down the game’s identity. Yes, they’re going for a cops and robbers theme, but is it sufficiently different from the normal Battlefield series? To me, it looks more like a DLC expansion that reskins the game as police against thieves instead of the military and heist game modes instead of Conquest and the like.
The beta for the game which has now ended, appears to have only highlighted the game’s similarities to its military cousins and EA have delayed the game into 2015, presumably to make it different enough to warrant a full price tag.

Battlefield as a franchise is very strong and has many fans, but with Titanfall a new and exciting entity and Call of Duty Advanced Warfare looking to revamp the aging series, the future for Battlefield is uncertain. With DICE also working on a new Star Wars Battlefront, perhaps it is time for Battlefield to take a break and come back stronger in a year or two.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

3 Guys, 1 Spy: Dr. No


If you’re a James Bond fan, you should look up the James Bonding podcast by Matt Mira and Matt Gourley. They are watching all the films, talking about them with a different guest each time and with the exception of the Goldfinger episode where two militant feminists ripped the film to bits, the podcast has been hilarious.

It inspired me to gather together two partners in crime and watch all the films, one a month or so, preceding each with a bit of background and a smattering of movie facts.

And so we began with Dr. No. 
Rich’s job was to tell us what was happening in the world in 1962 and he did us proud, regaling us with snippets about the space race, Vietnam and foreign and domestic relations. Nick gave us some facts about the film itself while I concentrated on the music.

Dr. No wasn’t Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, but the first to be filmed. Bond is sent to Jamaica (hence the Calypso version of Three Blind Mice over the title credits) to investigate the disappearance of a British agent which leads him to go up against Dr Julius No - a Penguin-handed evil mastermind plotting to disrupt the American space program.
Critical reaction to the film on its release was apparently mixed, but it has since become regarded as one of the series’ best.

Introducing many of the staples that have become synonymous with the series - M, Moneypenny, "Bond, James Bond" - Dr. No really does hold up. It is easy to see why this film launched one of the longest running series in history as well as many imitators.

It shows its age at times “Quarrel - fetch my shoes” and for me, the villain arrives so late in the proceedings that he lacks the impact others will have on the series. Nevertheless, the film presents an effortlessly cool world that we remain obsessed with over 50 years on.

James Bond and us 3 guys will return in From Russia with Love, and next time I'm going to record the facts shared about the film so I can give more detail here. I’ll leave you with one more bit of homework we completed - linking Sean Connery to Kevin Bacon!

Sean Connery was in Entrapment with Catherine Zeta Jones.
Catherine Zeta Jones starred in Ocean’s Twelve alongside Brad Pitt.
Brad Pitt was in An Interview with a Vampire with Tom Cruise.
And Tom Cruise starred in A Few Good Men with……….Kevin Bacon.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Android: Netrunner #26: Double Time


Double Time is the final data pack in the Spin cycle and as you might expect, contains a lot of Doubles cards. Let's get straight into my highlights from the new additions.

Runner

Paintbrush
You can see my use of this card in my Painting Kit posts Part 1 and Part 2, but basically this allows for a great deal of flexibility when building icebreakers into your deck and opens doors when running that might otherwise have been closed or at least closed for longer. It is click intensive and a rich Corp can build servers big enough to stop you, but this card is highly effective and good fun to play.
Savoir-Faire
The Criminal's answer to Self-Modifying Code - kind of. You have to have the card you want in hand, but it gives you more options when face-checking Ice if you have this on the table.










Lucky Find 
If this didn't take up an Influence slot, Sure Gamble would be history, even with the Double click cost. As it is, Lucky Find is a good card that most will struggle to find the room for. 











Corporation

Shinobi 
Just look at those subroutines. Basically this one card can kill you. It's expensive for the Corp to rez (particularly Jinteki - though their economy is much improved of late), and ultimately, if the Runner has the money, they will probably take the damage from the first two subroutines and then pay to avoid the third. Nevertheless, this is great, deadly Ice.
NAPD Contract
Easily one of the best Agendas in the game right now. 2 for 4 and it costs the Runner 4 credits to steal. Brilliant.












Caprice Nisei
The card to make the biggest splash since Jackson Howard. What an ability this is. I can't see Caprice not being EVERYWHERE for the foreseeable future. Yes, she's unique and yes the Corp might lose the Psi-game, but they're going to win a lot of the time too, and this card is going to ruin your day.









The next cycle on the way is the Lunar cycle and that'll be bringing a whole new mechanic to the game called CurrentsI'm excited and you should be too.
First though, we'll have my highlights from Netrunner's second deluxe expansion - Honour and Profit. Stay tuned.










Sunday, 4 May 2014

Android: Netrunner #25: Painting Kit: The evolution of a deck build - Part 2


In my last post, I built a deck based around Paintbrush and taking one main Icebreaker - Torch.

The deck was tested in one game (all we had time for!) and won. My economy was good and I got Ice rezzed by face checking early before laying out the programs. 

I have since altered the deck a little and tested it in a further two games. I have added Forged Activation Orders to help get Ice rezzed and put pressure on the Corp in the early game. Lucky Find had to go to free up the influence and I also removed both copies of Quality Time to make room for a The Maker's Eye and and R&D Interface.


In my first game the deck was working well, pressuring R&D and HQ with occasional runs on remotes, until I landed on an Archer and both Paintbrush and Torch were trashed. It was encouraging that only a few turns later I had drawn another Paintbrush and pulled Torch back out of the heap with Clone Chip. I went on the attack again and found the winning agendas.

In the  second game I found myself without Magnum Opus and had to rely instead on Armitage Codebusting and Kati Jones. They came through for me though and this deck remains undefeated. Granted, I've only had 3 games and haven't put it into a tournament yet, but I'm happy with how this has come together.

I'll leave you with the current build and a few potential changes to think about. I'm not really using Test Run and could lose maybe two copies. Perhaps another The Maker's Eye should go in there. 
Having looked through the new Honour and Profit cards and seen just how terrifying Jinteki has become, maybe Deus X or other net damage defences should be considered.

Identity
Rielle ‘Kit’ Peddler: Transhuman

Event (15)
Sure Gamble x3
Test Run x3
Forged Activation Orders** x3
Diesel x3 
The Maker's Eye x1
Modded x2

Hardware (10)
Clone Chip x3
Plascrete Carapace x2
CyberSolutions Mem Chip x1
Dinosaurus x1
Lockpick x2
R&D Interface x1

Program (10)
Paintbrush x3
Torch x1
Crypsis x1
Self-modifying Code x3
Magnum Opus x2

Resource (10)
Decoy** x2
Armitage Codebusting x2
Daily Casts x3
Kati Jones x2
Aesop’s Pawnshop x1

Total Cards: 45
Total Influence: 10

Android: Netrunner #24: Painting Kit: The evolution of a deck build - Part 1

It started with Paintbrush. A Shaper Program released in the Double Time data pack got me thinking about the number of Icebreakers needed in a deck. When you first start out with Netrunner you tend to put two or even three copies of each type in there because you don’t want to get caught out without anything to run with. But as your understanding of the game and the card pool increases, you find ways to reduce this number. There are cards that allow you search for Icebreaker programs or retrieve them if they have been trashed by your opponent.


The lowest number of breakers I have ever used so far is four. One decoder, one fracter, one killer and then a single Deus X for a surprise when the Corp puts out a big AP piece of Ice.


But Paintbrush got me thinking. For a click, you can change any rezzed piece of Ice to a type of your choosing, so it was suddenly possible to only take one Icebreaker. Granted, it has its limitations. The Ice has to be rezzed which means I’d still have to face plant into some to get this deck going and with Paintbrush’s ability costing a click, this deck would only really be good for one run per turn.

Nevertheless, I was excited by the prospect, so I set about building it.

First off, the Identity I think best suits this experiment is Rielle ‘Kit’ Peddler. Not only does this keep Paintbrush in faction, her ability allows me to hit that first piece of Ice, knowing she can deal with it as a code gate. So obviously the breaker of choice will be a decoder. Freeing up the need to pay for other breakers, I think I can afford to splurge a bit an opt for Torch.

With just one copy in the deck, I need the means to go and get it and also to save it should it get trashed. Test Run covers both eventualities and Clone Chip the latter, but the main addition here is of course, Self-Modifying Code. Not only can I go and get Torch with this, but Paintbrush as well and my main economy card - Magnum Opus.

Both Magnum Opus and Paintbrush take up 2 MU slots each, so my next port of call is CyberSolutions Mem Chip, increasing my memory allowance by 2. Dinosaurus is expensive but if I can get it out and host Torch on it, that’s  a pretty great combination. 2 copies of Lockpick are next to save some money on all this decoding.

Having been Scorched Earth one too many times recently and with my regular opponent turning to Weyland, I have put 2 copies of Decoy in there and 2 Plascretes. Heavy on the Hardware, I’ve added Modded to save some cash where I can and I have chosen Diesel and Quality Time to help work through the deck if I’m not seeing what I want.

Which leaves me to sort out my economy. The ever reliable Sure Gamble is straight in there along with my favourite lady of Netrunner, Kati Jones. I decided on Armitage Codebusting and Daily Casts and to take a little more advantage of these, Aesop is setting up shop alongside them. With 4 of my 10 influence used and no further out of faction cards to add, I thought I’d give Lucky Find a go.


Aiming for 45 cards, this left me with one slot left. At this point, I think we have to play it a little safe and go for Crypsis. Yes it’s painfully expensive and it’s already moving me away from the whole point of this experiment, but I need to get some Ice rezzed and Crypsis could help.

I’ll post up again when I’ve tested this build. There’s already food for thought. Forged Activation Orders would be a good fit to get Ice rezzed or trashed, but Lucky Find would have to go if I was to add this. And if this deck is reliant on one big run each turn, then perhaps I need to add the likes of Makers Eye and R & D Interface to improve my chances of hitting agendas.

I’ll leave you with the deck as it currently stands. Any comments would be appreciated.


Identity
Rielle ‘Kit’ Peddler: Transhuman

Event (16)
Sure Gamble x3
Test Run x3
Lucky Find** x3
Diesel x3
Quality Time x2
Modded x2

Hardware (9)
Clone Chip x3
Plascrete Carapace x2
CyberSolutions Mem Chip x1
Dinosaurus x1
Lockpick x2

Program (10)
Paintbrush x3
Torch x1
Crypsis x1
Self-modifying Code x3
Magnum Opus x2

Resource (10)
Decoy** x2
Armitage Codebusting x2
Daily Casts x3
Kati Jones x2
Aesop’s Pawnshop x1

Total Cards: 45
Total Influence: 10

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Android: Netrunner #23: Fear and Loathing


I've fallen behind again. Two data packs to catch up on and a big box on the horizon! You know how this works by now - here are my picks from Fear and Loathing.


Runner


Blackguard
It’s a lot of money to install and I’ve found that once your Infiltrations and Satellite Uplinks have gone, the Corp can ride this out, but it is great fun to play and if you can get this out early its affect can be crippling for your opponent. Get into those servers when you have the chance though because Blackguard’s window of effectiveness is quite small.
Blackmail
This card has been been causing some serious damage in my local meta. If the Runner finds the Corp with a bunch of unrezzed Ice and at least one Bad Publicity, Blackmail is going to sale right through.
Trying to get that Ice rezzed in whatever way they can and getting rid of bad publicity where possible is the Corp’s only defences. This is a major card that will see a lot of play.
Omega
Pairing this with Alpha (the exact same breaker but for use on the outermost piece of Ice), Alpha/Omega decks could be a big thing at some point if the Runner can get around the cost.
In the short term though, I think this will mostly find its place with Kit. As her ability is to change the first Ice encountered to a Code Gate, once she has this and a decoder out, she's going to be away to the races, forcing the Corp to have 3 deep Ice.










Corporation


GRNDL: Power Unleashed
10 credits to start the game is massive. Assuming you get an economy card in your opening turn too, it means you can rez some serious Ice for the Runner to face plant into. You’ll want to dump that bad publicity as soon as you can though or Blackmail is going to be all over you.
GRNDL Refinery
This card works great in Jinteki where the Runner may not take on a twice advanced card, thinking it’s a trap. Rez this on your next turn and advance twice more and you have 16 credits.
Yagura
Wonderful Jinteki mind games. Have this over R&D, take a look at the top card - whatever it is you could leave it there and then the Runner may well just jack out if he thinks it's a trap. And of course, if is an agenda, you have the option of sending it to the bottom of your deck where he can't get it. But then you're probably not getting it either!








Coming soon - my highlights from Double Time, the final pack in the Spin cycle.