Smartphones are true marvels of modern technology. Although inherently limited by their pocketable bodies, these portables have evolved far beyond the realm of cellular-equipped PDAs to become truly indispensable computing devices. They've got communications and navigation pretty much down pat. HD media consumption avenues abound, and the web has become increasingly friendly to smaller screens. A huge and indie-rich mobile gaming ecosystem has also popped up to serve what have become pretty decent gaming platforms.
Then there the apps. Oh the apps. The sheer number is unimportant, because most of them are crap. It's the fact that everyone I know seems to have found at least a few really good applications—or programs, or software, or however you'd like to refer to code executing on the device—that improve their day-to-day lives in meaningful ways. And let them waste more time on social media. Some folks even manage to produce bursts of real productivity thanks to improving cross-platform compatibility and cloud support. Meanwhile, smartphones have become most peoples' go-to camera, not only for stills, but also for video.
You don't have to be a nerd to appreciate this new breed of mobile computers. The fact that there's so much interest from people in the so-called mainstream is what makes the revolution such a meaningful one. Yet I still can't shake the notion that smartphones feel a little like that nerdy kid from high school.
You know the one I'm talking about, with the translucent skin and coke-bottle glasses. He's much older now, and his body has outgrown its pudgy, awkward youth. He's developed maturity, style, and even some sex appeal, the latter without the aid of Bar Refaeli. But he's still wilts under the blazing fireball in the sky. His deathly fear of water remains, too.
Sunlight sensitivity is perhaps the most depressing detriment to further smartphone evolution. Despite boasting amazing sharpness and rich colors indoors and under dark skies, modern screens look horribly pale and washed out in direct sunlight. They're still usable, of course, but there's no getting around the fact that backlit, reflective displays have issues with really bright environments.
The worst thing about this particular flaw is that there doesn't seem to be a technical silver bullet just yet. While the Kindle's paper-like display laughs at the sun, I don't think we want to go back to the monochrome color palette of late-90s Palm Pilots. Mirasol promised to combine e-ink readability with full color, and a limited run of at least one device actually came out based on the tech. However, Qualcomm has bailed on putting Mirasol into mass production and is looking for licensees. Someone else will have to figure out how to reduce the cost of commercialization, I guess.
Depressingly, there really isn't anything else waiting in the wings. Pixel Qi has some interesting technology, but it has for a while without any mass-market impact. Besides, the smallest screens the company makes still stretch seven inches across, too big for even one of those funky phablets.
Reflective LCDs (not to be confused with LCDs sitting under glossy, reflective outer layers) may be our greatest hope. Unfortunately, current prototypes are a long way from smartphone-ready. Not to be a Debbie Downer, but the outlook is pretty bleak.
Perhaps the best solution in the interim is the sort of thing Jeremy Clarkson might suggest. Moar power. Not to the rear wheels, mind you, but to the display's backlight. Fight fire with fire, or in this case, the immense power of the sun with an array of tiny LEDs. I don't like that match-up. However, I will admit that the Super IPS+ mode on some Asus tablets, which uses a backlight pumped up with more steroids than Mark McGwire in his prime, does improve outdoor readability. To a degree. Incremental improvements may be the best we can hope for in the near future.
Fortunately, we may to be better equipped to help smartphones with their reluctance to get wet. Living in the Pacific Northwest, where the sky is ripped open and rain pours through a gaping wound (thanks, Bono) for half the year, I'm far too often faced with the prospect of pulling out my precious portable computer in more than a gentle drizzle.
The seemingly innocuous water droplet is the Kryptonite of electronics devices of all shapes and sizes. Worse, smartphone makers have become incredibly adept at detecting when their products have been exposed to excessive moisture. The only thing worse than having a little red dot void your warranty is not having an expired contract to subsidize the cost of an ultimately pricey replacement.
Ruggedized smartphones that can be fully immersed in water do exist, but they're few and far between and often well behind the technology curve. Worse, they typically employ bulky shock-proof cases that look decidedly chunky next to the slim physiques of more fragile designs.
The full water-proofing of ruggedized handsets is probably overkill, anyway. Who needs to take his smartphone swimming? I'd settle for weather-proof rather than water-proof—surviving a few minutes in a heavy downpour would suffice. There's already a standardized IP Code of liquid protection ratings that spans eight degrees between dripping water and continuous immersion. A nice threshold would be level five, which demands that devices withstand being soaked by a targeted water jet that pumps out about 37 liters over a three-minute span. Heck, I'd settle for level four, which splashes 50 liters of water in five minutes.
Sufficiently water-resistant smartphones appear to be within our grasp. A company called Liquipel has already developed a process that applies a thin hydrophobic coating to existing smartphones. It costs only 60 bucks and is purportedly good enough to protect devices from "short-term submersion." HzO, another firm, has purportedly come up with a treatment that's applied during the manufacturing process and offers level-seven water protection, allowing for dives to a depth of one meter for half an hour.
The technology exists to allow the next generation of smartphones to outgrow their fear of downpours, seemingly without substantial sacrifice. That sort of weather-proofing might not be cheap, but neither is pursing arbitrarily thinner profiles and ever-faster performance, both of which have diminishing returns at this point.
Smartphones have become so compelling because they allow folks to bring competent computing devices with them. To really offer a good experience anywhere and anytime, though, handsets need to do a better job of dealing with the weather. It certainly looks feasible that the next generation may not need to be shielded from the rain. Too bad we'll likely have to keep shading the screens from the sun.Local game streaming: Coming soon from the PC
Nvidia's Project Shield was one of the most intriguing new products on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. This handheld gaming device combines the latest Tegra 4 SoC with a 5" screen, a console-style controller, and a stock version of Google's Android OS. It can play Android games, of course, but that's only one part of the picture. Project Shield's real allure is its ability to stream PC games from a GeForce-equipped system. That capability made for some pretty neat demos on the CES show floor, and it has big implications for the future of PC gaming.
Although Project Shield is very much a new device—and arguably a new class of product—the foundation for the streaming technology is not. This summer, Nvidia revealed GeForce Grid, a cloud gaming platform designed for online services like Gaikai and OnLive. The platform uses the on-chip H.264 encoding capabilities built into Kepler GPUs, combined with low-latency APIs and other widgets, to allow users to play PC games remotely over the Internet.
The prospect sounds exciting, but streaming solutions come with inherent baggage. First, they require a lot of bandwidth. Nvidia's Phil Eisler estimates that you'd need a 5Mbps link to deliver 720p video at 30 frames per second, and that a 1080p feed at 60 FPS would require a whopping 15-20Mbps. Then there's the issue of responsiveness. The GeForce Grid-powered Gaikai service has about 160 milliseconds of latency, according to Eisler. That kind of lag may be tolerable for slower-paced strategy games and MMOs, but it's problematic for shooters and other action-oriented titles.
Network speed shouldn't be a problem for Project Shield. Instead of tapping into remote servers over the Internet, it streams games from PCs connected to a local area network. Even over Wi-Fi, most home networks should have ample bandwidth for streaming. More importantly, latencies should be low enough to offer a good experience in even fast-paced games. And, since Project Shield streams games from your own PC, there's no need to pay a separate service fee; you can administer your own local gaming cloud.
The prospect of enjoying PC games from any room in the house is pretty enticing. While I may prefer playing first-person shooters in front of the triple-monitor array in my office, keyboard and mouse in hand, some games are simply more enjoyable when reclining on the couch across from a big-screen TV. That's why there's a gaming rig tucked under my 42" plasma. Maintaining a second gaming system isn't cheap, though. Were it not for all the old review hardware I have lying around, this luxury would be hard for me to justify—especially given how well the new breed of low-cost media boxes handles the video and music playback duties that occupy most of my home-theater PC's time.
Project Shield probably won't be cheap, so it, too, is likely to be a luxury. Then again, I'm more enthusiastic about the potential of local streaming than I am about this particular implementation. While the controller looks solid, squinting at games on a 5" screen doesn't really appeal to me. The HDMI port at least allows output to larger displays, including pretty much any decent TV, but I can't help but think a simpler approach would have broader appeal.
Imagine, if you will, a set-top box with a Tegra 4 chip, an HDMI output, integrated networking, and USB ports for controllers and external storage. Such a device could surely be sold for close to a hundred bucks (the Tegra-3 powered Ouya console is $99), and it should be every bit as capable of streaming games from a local PC. Add Android, and you've got instant support for native games plus the ability to play just about any kind of multimedia content, whether it's streamed from Netflix or liberated from BitTorrent. A remote would have to be included, of course, but you could get by without making a dedicated controller; Nvidia built third-party gamepad support into the Tegra 3 platform, and that feature has surely carried over to its successor.
While any Tegra 4-based device could conceivably be capable of getting in on the remote gaming love, the touchscreen interfaces of tablets and smartphones seem ill-suited to PC titles designed with different inputs in mind. Smaller and higher-PPI displays may not get along with PC-centric UI and HUD elements, either. A 1080p TV seems like the most appropriate target for local streaming.
Project Shield and GeForce Grid may be Nvidia products, but there's no reason AMD can't come up with a comparable solution. The Radeon maker has GPUs for the PC side of the equation and low-power processors suitable for a device on the receiving end. All that's required is the glue that links them together—including, perhaps, some dedicated logic at the silicon level. Of course, AMD seems to have locked up the contracts for the next-generation consoles, and its hardware is already in the Xbox 360, the Wii, and the Wii U. There may be little desire to rock the boat by creating a potential competitor to those products.
Boy, would it be nice if there were a set of open protocols designed specifically for low-latency local game streaming.
As it turns out, we might just get the next best thing. In an interview with The Verge, Gabe Newell revealed that Valve is working with Nvidia on streaming tech that could allow Steam-enabled TVs to play games served by network-attached PCs. Newell doesn't know whether that network will be wireless or not, suggesting that Wi-Fi may still have some latency issues. He does, however, throw out this tasty teaser:
The Steam Box will also be a server. Any PC can serve multiple monitors, so over time, the next-generation (post-Kepler) you can have one GPU that’s serving up eight simultaeneous [sic] game calls. So you could have one PC and eight televisions and eight controllers and everybody getting great performance out of it.
Makes perfect sense, really. CPUs and GPUs continue to add parallel processing capacity, but most games are designed for consoles based on hardware that's out of date when it's released and then stagnates for years after that. Future PCs should have the ability not only to deliver a premium gaming experience in a traditional desktop environment, but also to provide a good experience for multiple networked sessions on separate devices. The potential for LAN parties—indeed, for multiplayer home arcades—is enormous. I couldn't be more excited.
Talk to the Dragon, NaturallySpeaking
While I wouldn't consider myself to be particularly injury prone, I've managed to damage various bits of my body over the years. Muscles have been pulled, joints have been sprained, skin has been gashed, and bones have been broken. These injuries usually result from me catapulting off a bicycle, and I've earned most of 'em. My latest crash was less than spectacular, though. Instead of careening down a muddy trail dodging roots and rocks in an attempt to hit a drop-off just right, I was riding along a quiet city street at relatively low speed. I misjudged the gap between two cars, squeezed the brakes too late for the rain-slick pavement, and then hit the deck.
As far as spills go, this was a minor one. My bike escaped without a scratch, and for the most part, so did I. However, my right ring finger was in the wrong place at the wrong time, I suspect crushed between the road and my handlebar. It sustained a spiral fracture to the proximal phalanx—the first stretch extending from the palm—and it is now being held together by three wires while the bone heals. When looking at the initial X-ray, the ER doctor joked, "You're not a concert pianist, are you?"
"No," I replied, "I write at a keyboard for a living." Doh!
At first, I panicked. But then a wave of calm washed over me, and not just because I'd been dosed with pain killers. It's 2012, I thought. The PC must have speech recognition sorted out by now.
There was good reason for my optimism. I remembered reading about PC-based speech recognition more than a decade ago. At the time, the accuracy was supposed to be around 95%, a figure I recall because the author noted that this meant one in twenty words was still wrong. Surely, after years of software tuning, with the horsepower available in modern hardware, the accuracy would be higher. After all, even the speech recognition on my smartphone is pretty good.
In the months before I munched my finger, I'd been talking to my Galaxy Nexus on an almost daily basis. Using the Siri-style voice commands is a little slower than navigating the UI manually. For me, the real draw is the ability to dictate short text messages, emails, and searches—things that are frustrating to type on the tiny keyboard, especially when holding the phone in a portrait orientation with one hand.
Android's built-in speech recognition engine can't be trained to recognize specific words or to compensate for thick accents, but the default implementation does a decent job of interpreting my mumbling even in noisier environments. Languages can also be cached locally, making voice usable if you don't have a data connection. While mistakes are common, the error rate is no higher than what my clumsy fingers produce with the on-screen keyboard. Even accounting for corrections, voice is still faster for short bursts of text.
Speech recognition may be a viable alternative to my smartphone's touchscreen keyboard, but it faces stiffer competition on my desktop: a full-sized mechanical keyboard on which I can crank out over 100 words per minute. Like Android, Windows actually has a speech recognition engine of its own. However, on the morning after my crash, everything I read on the subject said Nuance's Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 was much better. The basic version was selling for half price and claimed an accuracy of "up to 99%," so I took the plunge.
The setup process was simple, and the default training routine took only a few minutes to learn my voice. Moments later, I was leaning back in my chair, feet propped up on my desk, dictating sentences with ease. Punctuation was a snap, everything was capitalized properly, and I didn't even mind wearing a headset until I left the house without noticing the tufty mess it had made of my hair.
Initially, I was incredibly impressed. NaturallySpeaking does such a good job of deciphering speech that I don't for a moment doubt the 99% accuracy claim. Most of the mistakes that pop up on my screen are a result of my tendency to mumble and speak quickly, causing words to slur together. Fixing errors is easy, though. Voice commands can be used to move the cursor and select words for correction, enabling hands-free editing with little fuss.
If you want to invest more time tailoring NaturallySpeaking to your voice—and more time practicing clear and even delivery—additional training passages can be dictated. The application can learn words and tendencies by reading your emails and other documents, which comes in handy if you use a lot of specialized terms. New words can be added manually to Dragon's vocabulary, of course, and there are a number of auto-formatting options that govern how numbers, units, abbreviations, and other special cases are handled.
Even if you don't resort to additional training, NaturallySpeaking slowly builds up a profile based on your interactions with the software. The accuracy certainly improved over the two weeks I was using Dragon regularly. However, the moment my massive, post-surgery cast was traded for a lower-profile splint that freed the index and middle fingers on my right hand, I tossed my headset in favor of pseudo hunting and pecking. This slightly hobbled setup produces fewer words per minute for sustained writing sessions, but it feels far less cumbersome for day-to-day work.
You see, Dragon NaturallySpeaking works exceptionally well if you want to dictate big blocks of text into Microsoft Word, with which it is tightly integrated. For most other applications, including my preferred Notepad++ text editor, pop-up dialog boxes accumulate dictated passages before transferring them to the desired location. That's not so bad if you're using only one application at a time, but it's less than ideal when your daily routine involves bouncing between a text editor, multiple IM windows, email, a web browser, and Excel. It probably doesn't help that I've become accustomed to writing TR news posts, articles, and reviews in raw HTML rather than using WYSIWYG editors that would be more amenable to natural language dictation. NaturallySpeaking isn't quite smart enough to figure out HTML markup.
Another problem with NaturallySpeaking is that it doesn't feel particularly fast. I never speak so quickly that it can't keep up, but the app still takes its sweet time displaying words on the screen. That's probably an artifact of interpreting multiple words to improve accuracy. Yet even with the accuracy slider pushed all the way toward faster recognition speeds, I'm usually at the end of a sentence before my words have been transformed to visible text. I've been running Dragon on a quad-core system with an SSD and 8GB of RAM, so my rig should be up to the task; the Windows Task Manager tells me NaturallySpeaking is leaving most of those hardware resources idle. I guess I'm just not used to feeling like I'm waiting on a text editor.
Dragon NaturallySpeaking may have limitations, but its phenomenal speech recognition engine makes fewer errors than my healthy hands produce typos. That's an impressive achievement regardless of the less-than-ideal fit for my particular workflow. At least I know I have a competent dictation solution should my mad typing skills be compromised by another injury. As it turns out, typing has been the least of my problems. You don't know how much you miss fast, accurate mouse movement until you're forced to use your opposite hand. All those holiday games I had queued up will have to wait another few weeks for the wires to come out and my splint to be discarded. Perhaps I should have lined up some old-school text adventures to pass the time.A tale of tablet flashing
About a year and a half ago, I picked up Asus' original Eee Pad Transformer tablet. This precursor to the growing crop of Win8 convertibles quickly worked its way into my life, proving the virtues of the concept long before Microsoft had an OS to match. Me and Arcee, as I sometimes call her, developed a true bond. We spend countless hours cuddled on the couch reading together. She was by my side for a romantic road trip through Italy and a rugged kayaking adventure on the remote Pacific coast of Vancouver Island. We played together and we worked together. She even met my parents.
My love affair with the Transformer burned brightly for close to a year before the flame started flickering. How could it not? Arcee shared space on my coffee table with an ever-changing harem of newer tablets boasting faster processors, higher-density displays, and thinner bodies. Making matters worse, some of those other tablets started running Android 4.1, otherwise known as Jelly Bean.
Asus did a great job of keeping the Transformer up to date with new versions of Android for the first year after the device's release. The tablet got a taste of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich before most of its peers, too. However, as newer Transformers and other devices have been upgraded to Android 4.1, the old Transformer appears to have been left behind. Asus has been mum on whether a Jelly Bean update will ever be released for the tablet.
Why get worked up about a 0.1-point increase? Because Android 4.1 includes a series of "Project Butter" performance tweaks that make the entire user interface feel noticeably more fluid and responsive. That's the sort of upgrade that could breathe new life into an older tablet like the Transformer. Jelly Bean also offers Google Now, a nifty information aggregator with surprisingly effective voice recognition. After experiencing both of those enhancements on several other devices, I couldn't bear to use the Transformer without. It was time to take matters into my own hands.
At its core, Android is a Linux-based operating system. Google releases the source code for new versions, and a sizable development community has grown around making that code work with various devices. There are countless custom ROMs available for tablets and smartphones alike, including several different Jelly Bean flavors tailored specifically for the first-generation Transformer. Having successfully—and painlessly—flashed my Galaxy Nexus to a stock Jelly Bean image this summer, I figured I'd do the same with the Transformer. How hard could it be?
Yeah, I know. Famous last words.
The easiest part of flashing my Galaxy Nexus was choosing the ROM. Google provides a stock image for the device, and that's what I installed. Since the Transformer isn't part of Google's Nexus program, only third-party ROMs are available. I went with the latest one from the CyanogenMod team, mostly because I'd heard of them before. The CyanogenMod Wiki also provided clear, start-to-finish instructions for installing the ROM on an otherwise unmodified device.
To prime the Transformer for flashing, I had to jump through a few hoops. First, I needed drivers to allow my PC to communicate with the Transformer's diagnostic APX mode. After that, separate software was required to push the ClockworkMod Recovery image onto the tablet. With that installed, I was finally free to cut the cord to my PC and proceed with the tablet alone. I downloaded the latest version of CyanogenMod and the supplemental Google Apps package and rebooted into recovery mode.
Once in ClockworkMod Recovery mode, the flashing process was pretty straightforward. Within minutes, I was watching the Transformer boot into its new OS. It only took a few swipes of the touchscreen to confirm that Jelly Bean's responsiveness enhancements had greased the UI. Google Now loaded without a hitch, too, and I soon had the system configured just how I like it.
For the most part, CyanogenMod looks and feels like a stock Android install. The custom ROM does add some new features, such as the ability to display weather information and additional shortcuts on the lock screen. A file manager is included, as is a DSP app loaded with audio controls. There's support for themes, too, if you're into that sort of thing. CyanogenMod even has a built-in update mechanism that downloads the latest nightly build, although you still have to flash it manually.
The extras were nice, but they were soon overshadowed by a handful of pesky flaws. The Gallery app didn't sync with my Google account. Closing the tablet/keyboard clamshell no longer put the device to sleep. The keyboard's shortcut keys all worked, but gone were the pop-up notifications confirming their status. Asus' Android customizations were also missing, obviously, and I was surprised the CyanogenMod folks didn't copy the most important one: the ability to change the touchpad's on-screen avatar to a proper mouse pointer instead of a clumsy, fingertip-sized circle.
By far the biggest problem was the fact that the GPS didn't work. That's a real deal-breaker for me. After using tablets to navigate the streets of Taipei, a huge chunk of Italy, and the waters off British Columbia's Sunshine Coast, I'd rather not give up the ability to track my precise location on a sizable screen.
Since the flashing process was so easy, I decided to try some alternative ROMs. My initial attempts at additional flashes failed until I stumbled upon a forum post recommending ditching the ClockworkMod recovery image for one from TeamWin and using that to wipe various caches before each flash. With a name like TeamWin, how could I lose?
TWRP—TeamWin Recovery Project—worked like a charm, and I was soon cycling through ROMs from RaymanFX, EOS, and JellyBro. Each one was a little bit different, but they all had the same Jelly Bean goodness I was seeking. Thing is, none of them worked with my tablet's GPS. I even tried an early RaymanFX build based on the very latest Android 4.2 revision, to no avail.
After digging around some more in the XDA Developers forums, I discovered I'm not the only one experiencing GPS issues with custom Jelly Bean ROMs. I've seen a handful of reports of other problems associated with various ROMs but also lots from happy users who have no complaints. ROM development is ongoing, and I'm vaguely optimistic that someone will release a Jelly Bean ROM that gives me everything I need... eventually. In the meantime, the Transformer has been restricted to couch duty, where Jelly Bean's smoothness can be enjoyed without the lack of GPS reception getting in the way.
While I'm a little discouraged that perfection remains elusive, I'm pleasantly surprised by the process as a whole. Flashing custom ROMs is quite easy, and so is finding the latest versions. There are even free Android apps that will take care of the downloading. Depending on the support level for your particular hardware, installing a custom ROM can be a great way to revitalize an older device with Android updates it wouldn't get otherwise. Custom ROMs can also bring the benefits of the full Android experience to locked-down tablets like the Kindle Fire, which is strangled by Amazon's heavily modified OS. Freedom is just a flash away.Marked by the ninja
Lightning pierces the darkness as I dance across empty rooftops. The rumble of thunder follows, briefly masking my impatient footsteps. As I approach the ledge above the courtyard, my pace slows. The pelting rain that fills the night with wet, white noise isn't loud enough to drown out the pitter-patter of racing feet. So I proceed cautiously, slithering up to the edge to observe the guards below. I watch intently as they patrol robotically.
As I memorize their routes, I analyze my options. The path is bathed in the glow of a hanging lamp, so I can't just waltz by without being seen—or without bumping into the armed thugs intent on preventing me from infiltrating their lair. My hands tighten around the grappling hook at my side as I look up to the heavens for salvation, but none reveals itself. Then I see the grate in the courtyard; surely, it leads somewhere unseen.
Moments later, I hurl a dart toward the lamp and leap from my perch. The lamp shatters, distracting the guards as I follow the raindrops and hit the ground. With the beams of the guards' flashlights diverted skyward, I slip silently under the grate and into the tunnel below. Unnoticed, I creep under the guards and wait. Their footsteps echo in my ears, and if I concentrate, I can feel their bodies above me. Before long, the guards return to their marching orders, oblivious to the interloper in their midst.
I consider continuing through the tunnel and bypassing this latest line of defense without bloodshed. These men don't need to die tonight. But they're also not not innocent bystanders like all those independent contractors working on the second Death Star. These are armed henchmen, and their boss is responsible for an attack on my clan. I've left too many bodies in my wake to start showing mercy now. That's not how this ninja rolls.
After backtracking, I hang under the grate and wait for my moment. When the first guard walks overhead, his partner facing the opposite direction, I pull my prey into the underworld with a single, swift motion. He never sees it coming. Confidence coursing through my veins, I return topside for an encore—except my timing is off, and the attack is too brazen. I'm spotted and stop like a deer frozen in headlights. I could fight, I could flee, but I can think only of the intense shame I feel in being detected at all. And so I stand motionless, resigned to my fate as bullets rip through my body. Somehow, this effective suicide feels more honorable than the alternatives or restarting from the last checkpoint.
My obsessive-compulsive tendencies don't usually crop up when I'm playing games, but there's something about Mark of the Ninja that inspires me to pursue perfection. Perhaps that's because Klei Entertainment's latest side-scroller is as closest thing to a perfect game as I've experienced in a very long time.
Klei is the same studio that brought us Shank, and Mark of the Ninja's beautifully painted 2D world has the same artistic vibe. What the graphics lack in fancy 3D effects they more than make up for with style. The cel-shaded environments are a good fit for the two-dimensional landscape, and some of the backdrops are truly gorgeous.
While Shank is a bombastic brawler, Mark of the Ninja is a stealthy crawler. Taking on the opponents who stand in your way is entirely optional; indeed, there's a bonus for completing levels without killing a soul. You're ill-equipped for head-on combat, anyway. Foes must be assassinated surgically or bypassed entirely if you're to have any hope of survival.
I've tried playing the game without resorting to violence, but that's not really my style. I'm a killer at heart, and the game sympathizes. It awards points for taking down enemies silently, plus more for stashing their bodies out of sight. The ability to choose between a range of different character and equipment upgrades allows players to perfectly tune their ninjas to suit their playing styles. While some may prefer to hide in the shadows, my ninja is trained to strike from them.
Enemy encounters play out a lot like puzzles, with multiple routes and inventory items offering distinctly different ways to pass through a given area. The environments are littered with hazards and hiding places. Lights are everywhere, but only some of them can be disabled. Motion detectors and lasers add more variety, making it challenging to navigate some sections even when there's no one around. Amazingly, this 2D platformer feels like less of an on-rails experience than an awful lot of 3D shooters that have a whole other dimension to lean on.
Unlike some platformers, Mark of the Ninja seems to be devoid of annoying jumping puzzles and other sequences that require impossibly perfect timing. The precise, methodical nature of the gameplay does leave me disappointed in the mushy feel of the analog stick on my Xbox 360 game controller, though. Perhaps I'm too spoiled by the feel of the mechanical keyboard and high-end gaming mouse attached to my desktop PC.
While Mark of the Ninja has surprising depth, the accompanying narrative is pretty thin. Not that the game needs a story. The rewarding gameplay is all the motivation I need to keep going. I'm even itching to replay earlier levels now that my ninja has learned new, deadlier tricks. In fact, I'm more excited about doing that than I am about picking up where I left off in Dishonored, in part because Mark of the Ninja plays much better on the big-screen TV in my living room. Later in the evening, which is usually the only time I have to play games, slumping on the couch is a lot more appealing than spending more time in my office.
Like most good games, Mark of the Ninja has kept me up later than I intended on several occasions. I'm not staying up to play just one more level, though; more often than not, I'm trying to perfect a complicated sequence of actions to clear an area while avoiding detection. Mark of the Ninja makes me want to be a better player, as if my contribution to the experience should live up to the game's impeccable design.
If you don't trust my enthusiasm, look no further than Metacritic, which rates Mark of the Ninja an impressive 92. You can grab the game on Steam for just $15, and it's worth every penny in my book. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a date with the shadows. My next victim awaits.Strung out on Borderlands 2
This isn't easy for me to say, so I'll just come right out with it: I have a Borderlands 2 problem. Thanks to playing until the wee hours of the morning several nights this week, I'm running a serious sleep deficit. I kept telling myself the late nights were necessary to get a good enough sense of the game to write this blog post, but that's only partly true. The fact is I'm an addict. Right now, Borderlands 2 is my drug.
The depressing thing about this admission is that I thought I'd kicked the habit. You see, I'd already experimented with the original Borderlands. After sinking a good chunk of my life into the game, I burned out and dropped it cold turkey. The Borderlands high was no longer enough to distract me from the cold realities of the game, specifically the labor-intensive looting and relentless mission grinding required to keep progressing.
When Borderlands 2 came out, I thought I could play responsibly and quit any time. Big mistake. Bags hang heavy under my eyes, yet I'm still plotting to stay up and play a bit more tonight. Too bad I won't be able to use "research" as an excuse anymore. Doling out Critical Hits would be a good way to decompress after writing, though. Addicts are good at justifying their behavior.
After my experience with the first Borderlands, you'd think I'd have built up a resistance to the game's central hooks. Turns out I'm just better at noticing when I succumb to them. A couple hours into the sequel, I caught myself chasing the dragon again, compulsively looting in the hopes that the next body, the next crate, the next toilet would hold some exotic new weapon or item. Attempts to stay up and play just one more mission inevitably turned into longer quests for enough XP to reach the next level. I can't help myself.
At this rate, it seems inevitable that I'll burn out again. Borderlands 2 is, after all, quite faithful to its predecessor. Gearbox might as well have called the game More Borderlands, because that's exactly what it is. The formula has been refined a little, but the sequel is essentially the same only on a grander scale. In some ways, that's a very good thing.
I loved Borderlands' open world, and Pandora is even bigger this time around. Although the landscapes feel vaguely familiar, there's definitely more variety in the terrain, particularly early on. That said, the actual environments are relatively spartan. In the years since the first game, I've been spoiled Rage's richly detailed wastelands.
While Rage strives for realistic graphics, Borderlands 2 sticks to the pseudo-cel-shaded treatment introduced with the franchise. This graphical style's hard edges have been smoothed out thanks to the addition to FXAA support, and splashes of eye candy have been added through a handful of lighting and other effects. Still, it's clear you're looking at a game designed with console constraints in mind. A lot of the textures are blocky and pixelated, a stark contrast to the high-res surfaces on display in some of the latest PC games. No wonder Borderlands 2's installed footprint is less than 6GB.
Fortunately, the cartoonish graphical style softens the blow of the relatively low-fidelity assets. The excellent art direction produces great visuals even if the graphics aren't pixel-perfect. It feels like Gearbox's artists had more freedom to be creative in Borderlands 2. Maybe they've simply grown more comfortable with the stylized graphics. The designs are bolder, and there's more diversity in everything from the architecture to the characters.
The sheer number of characters is way up in Borderlands 2, whether they're enemies charging with guns blazing or friendlies trying to convince you to take on another side quest. The varied enemies provide fodder for more interesting combat, and the NPC interactions make the world feel more alive. A lot of those NPC conversations provide additional context for the larger narrative, adding depth—or at least breadth—to the story.
To be honest, the story hasn't really grabbed me. The dialog is fantastic, though. Borderlands 2 is peppered with genuinely funny one-liners that don't feel forced or horribly out of place. The offbeat humor is of the more mature variety; if this were a cartoon, it would probably air on Adult Swim.
At its core, Borderlands 2 is a first-person shooter with solid mechanics and old-school sensibilities. The open world affords players a certain degree of freedom in how they approach each enemy encounter, which is a nice change of pace from the linear, heavily scripted sequences that have come to permeate modern campaigns. Rather than being led through the game, players can choose their own adventure—and just the right gun for the situation.
Borderlands 2 has guns. Lots of guns. Too many guns, in fact. Much like the first game, there are countless variations on a handful of base weapons. The behavior of each one is unique, but they're far more similar than they are different. The worst part is figuring out which guns and other items to carry in your limited inventory. Managing the contents of your painfully small backpack is a constant struggle, since each new level unlocks a new suite of more powerful guns and accessories to pick up. The baddies get upgraded, too, ensuring that those who don't keep up are quickly outgunned.
While it's tempting to blame the tedious inventory management on Borderlands 2's RPG influences, the other aspects of the game's alternate personality are much better implemented. Gearbox has managed to add more character customization options without making the process of tweaking your Vault Hunter cumbersome. Having the side quests better integrated with the narrative makes leveling up feel like less of a chore, too. The missions are still formulaic, but at least there's more motivation behind them.
There are other things I don't like about the game, of course. Steering vehicles with the mouse still feels fundamentally wrong, and I had to edit one of the config files to tweak a sluggish LOD routine that caused some textures to appear blurry momentarily before sharpening up. Also, I can't shake the feeling that a lot of the game is set up for co-op play rather than solo questing. Fortunately, my assassin is pretty badass on his own. Indeed, I have the Badass Tokens to prove it.
So far, the Borderlands 2 buzz feels stronger than the high of the original game. Some of the rough edges have been smoothed out, and there's a certain confidence to the presentation—even a hint of swagger. Gearbox knows full well the potency of what it's dealing. At least for now, I'm still buying.Sleeping Dogs will keep you up at night
Night falls in Hong Kong. Technicolor neon lights illuminate the darkness, their vibrant hue reflecting off the rain-slick streets. Scooters weave through the traffic, and soon, so will I. But first, a pork bun. I try to think of what Anthony Bourdain might say as I chow down on street food, but I'm distracted. There's a clothing store down the street, and my duds have seen better days. Time for a new outfit—and an, ahem, massage. When in Hong Kong...
The truth is, I've done far more objectionable things than pay for the touch of a woman. In just the last few nights, I've stolen several cars, caused multiple accidents, and leveled enough lampposts to light a small town. I beat a man senseless for not paying his debts. Another, I slammed face-first into an air conditioner for having the nerve to take a swing at me. Then there's the group of unarmed thugs I savaged with an angle grinder. They didn't have a chance.
I've spared some, including one guy I stuffed into my trunk after leaving his crew in a broken, bloody heap. He didn't last, though. Mrs. Chu, a dear old lady barely 4' tall, butchered the poor guy with a meat cleaver. I watched in silence from the corner of her kitchen; he had it coming. That's not even the worst of it. No, I've also been frequenting karaoke bars—and singing. What have I become?
A Triad gangster, apparently. Except I'm also an undercover cop. My name is Wei Shen, and this is Sleeping Dogs.
The premise for United Front's open-world GTAlternative is intriguing. In reality, the narrative isn't nearly as dynamic as one might hope. Through more than two thirds of the missions that appear to make up the single-player story, a smattering of in-game cutscenes has told me that Shen is conflicted and sinking deeper into the gang he's supposed to bring to justice. However, at no point have I made any decisions affecting my fate. The story hasn't been particularly gripping thus far, either. Feels like a Hong Kong action movie I've seen many times before.
I'll reserve final judgment on the story until I reach the final climax. Apart from side quests, the odds of completion are good. That's sort of a big deal, since I haven't finished an open-world game since Crackdown. The last few Grand Theft Autos, I grew tired of within a few sessions. Sleeping Dogs is literally keeping me up at night. Just one more mission, I tell myself.
While the storyline follows a predictable path, the missions offer a fair bit of variety. As a gangster, I've spent plenty of time unleashing all manner of violence on groups of baddies. The melee combat is reminiscent of the recent Batman games, complete with counter-attacks against opponents who shimmer red when they're on the offensive. In addition to bladed weapons, power tools, and the tire iron lurking inside most trunks, the environment can be used as a weapon. Meat hooks hang from certain ceilings, garbage bins are distributed liberally, and an enemy's head can be smashed into just about anything. There are combos, too, from takedowns that would make Georges St. Pierre proud to spinning kicks that send bodies flying. You'll need to be strategic about using the various combat elements, since attackers have different weaknesses and a tendency to swarm in groups.
When playing with a gamepad, the violence is engaging and satisfying. Still, the controls don't seem as tight as Arkham City; either there's some sort of latency, or I'm just not getting the timing down right. I do have a tendency to button mash, which may be affecting my ability to counter mid-combo. The action feels much better than anything else I've played in the genre, though.
Dual analog sticks may be ideal for hand-to-hand brawling, but they're not as good for gunplay. Sleeping Dogs has a little shooting, too. The game employs what the developers call aggressive cover, which means the player can slow time by vaulting over obstacles that also provide cover from gunfire. It's much easier to pick off opponents when everything is moving at Max Payne speed. Playing with a keyboard and mouse is an option, of course.
Thing is, that combo doesn't as feel as good for the game's driving elements. There's lots of cruising around town, plus races and chase sequences that involve hanging out the window, automatic weapon in hand. Bullet time is invoked easily, and watching flaming cars flip in slow motion always leaves a smile on my face.
Driving in open-world games has always bugged me. The physics are usually awful, and players are typically asked to traverse epic distances to the starting point of the next mission. Why can't someone come and meet me for a change?
In Sleeping Dogs, the driving feel is better than expected. It's not on the level of an arcadey Need for Speed game, and cars feel unnaturally glued to the ground unless the handbrake is yanked. That said, the handling seems a little more natural than in most games of this ilk. Driving from mission to mission doesn't take too long, at least.
Chase sequences are sprinkled throughout Sleeping Dogs, whether it's behind the wheel or on foot. There are brief flashes of parkour to spice up the running, but the camera is a little too slow to keep up around corners. At least there's an opportunity for a beatdown at the end of each chase.
The undercover missions are considerably less violent overall. They're also less memorable. Snapping pictures of crime scenes just isn't as much fun as snapping limbs. I haven't had to do any stealthy sneaking thus far, although I have mastered the handful of mini-games for lock picking, terminal hacking, and bug calibrating. The mini-games are simple, so they won't bog you down.
While Sleeping Dogs' rendition of Hong Kong doesn't feel as big as some other open worlds I've roamed, the scale is still impressive. There's an authenticity to the environment that's almost convincing, save for the lack of massive crowds and gridlock traffic. The city feels sparsely populated overall, even if what's there looks good. United Front has included some PC-specific eye candy, and a high-res texture pack was released on day one. The characters are particularly detailed, which works well with the in-game cutscenes.
As I write this post, I'm trying to figure out exactly what it is about Sleeping Dogs that keeps me coming back when most other open-world titles have failed to hold my attention. It's not one thing, I don't think, but a combination of slick graphics, entertaining combat, and a sense that the action isn't too encumbered by awkward mechanics. Rather than trying to explain why Sleeping Dogs is fun, I should take a cue from the title and simply enjoy the fact that it is. Something to contemplate over another massage, perhaps.
While I do that, consider checking out Sleeping Dogs yourself. The game's favorable MetaCritic rating suggests I'm not the only one having a good time on the streets of Hong Kong, and there's a demo on Steam that's free to try.
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