Game Review: Bioshock Infinite

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The second game I wanted to review during this Steam Summer Sale is Bioshock Infinite, the third installment in the Bioshock series.

Bioshock Infinite was widely praised critically and a commercial success judging by the number of copies sold, more than 6 million. Apparently, that was not enough for what Irrational Games had in mind, because the studio closed in February 2014.

While Infinite’s metacritic score is 94/100, I’m giving it a much lower score for reasons that I’ll explain below.

Technically, the game is almost perfect. It has high resolution textures that barely blur when you’re close to them, its own atmosphere and graphics style, and every corner in every level has been looked at and polished. Audio is also fantastic and musical elements have been integrated into the gameplay, like the note that plays when you give the final blow to an enemy. To get this out of the way, it’s a 9.5.

Gameplay, on the other hand, is just not remarkable. As we’re used to from other games in the Bioshock series, characters are very well developed thanks to the audio logs you can find throughout your adventure, and the story has depth. I’m not questioning that, but many story and gameplay elements are borrowed from other Bioshock games. A city built outside the reach of governments, a benefactor, the audio logs, the scientific-magic investigations and powers, the smuggling and decadence…

The gameplay style also suffers from the problems I exposed in my Far Cry 3 review: you feel directed inside a movie instead of the story developing in front of your eyes. Also a bit disappointing are the poor weapon expansions and power improvements, or the fact that you can only carry two weapons at the same time. At least in hard mode, some of them are also very underpowered. I found the sniper rifle and carbine to be the best weapons, closely followed by the hand cannon, but the rocket launcher sometimes needs two impacts to kill a relatively normal enemy. It’s simply not worth carrying that around given the limited maximum ammo. Shotguns, a favorite of mine in most videogames for close and medium range combat, feel handicapped in Bioshock Infinite.

Scores:

  • Technical: 9.5.

  • Gameplay: 7.5.

  • Overall: 8.5.

Game Review: Far Cry 3

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The Steam summer sale has just begun. It’s a good moment to publish a couple of reviews for games I played recently which are now available at a juicy discount. The first one is Far Cry 3.

As you know, I played Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon recently and I really enjoyed it. I grabbed vanilla Far Cry 3 as soon as it was on sale and I played it about a month ago. I think the game is fine, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as Blood Dragon.

Technically, the game is quite impressive. Graphics are very nice, even if the frame rate suffers much more than in Blood Dragon, and the open world environment in the islands features varied environments and provides a better atmosphere than the original Far Cry or games like Crysis.

This game gets a lot of things right in the gameplay aspect too. For example, the physical sensations, game mechanics and controls are very solid. The selection of available weapons is very nice, while the game only lets you carry four of them at a time. This dates back to the original Far Cry and it’s very balanced. Games that only let you have two weapons at a given moment are not as enjoyable. Four is a nice number that lets you carry a varied arsenal for different situations, while forcing you to take a few decisions instead of simply letting you carry everything around.

However, Far Cry 3 also gets a few things wrong, more than Blood Dragon. For example, the amount of money available for a completionist-style player like me is totally wrong. There is too much money. It wouldn’t be a real problem if you wallet was not limited, but it is. Most money can be found on enemy corpses and chests all around the islands. If you buy maps, you can get the location for all chests and collector items. Near the end of the game you have so much money it won’t fit in your wallet, so you have to buy things to be able to open chests and get the corresponding chest marker removed from the map. I ended up buying every single thing (including all weapon paint jobs, for example) and I still had too much money and left about 1/4th of the chests unopened. Simply removing wallet limits would’ve improved gameplay in this aspect, in my humble opinion.

I played in hard mode and I was annoyed by the amount of wildlife. Specifically, predators that attack you. You’re supposed to be in an almost remote island, yet it’s very hard to take a walk in the jungle without being attacked by tigers, jaguars, panthers, bears, snakes, komodo dragons, ostriches and whatnot. It surprises you at first but it ends up being mostly annoying. It gets a bit better once you unlock the Bull shotgun. Far Cry 4 is around the corner and we’ve already been told now you have eagles that can attack you from above too. I was not amused by that part.

The characters and the story are not that great. I didn’t identify myself with the rich kid and the way magic and mystical powers are used in the story. I also think the game abuses dream or dream-like sequences for some key moments and fights, and the story feels too directed, and even a bit repetitive at some points (the protagonist is fatally wounded several times during scripted sequences).

Many modern games, I think, abuse that aspect. They want to create a movie-like experience but it ends up being too directed. You’re told what to do at every moment with main quests and the story feels too much predetermined. It does not unfold in front of your eyes. There are other game that get this much better, like the original Deus Ex. I think abusing scripted sequences in which the player barely has any control creates that sensation.

Finally, some abilities are unlocked too late in the game. Blood Dragon got this more balanced.

On the technical side, two main things wrong. The use of UPLay. I won’t comment anything more than what I said when reviewing Blood Dragon. It’s a liability. Second, quick saves. I can live with the game not letting me always save the game. I can live with my position in the map not being saved and instead spawning in the safe house that is closest to the current location. But please, don’t make me go to the game menu, click save, then click yes to confirm I want to save the game every time I want to save. This far cries for a quick save key which is absent. I also don’t think game menus work alright. They feel clumsy and prone to make mistakes. At least they’re not as bad as Resident Evil 5.

All in all, this is a nice game if you can get it for a discount. It’s not amazing, but it’s very good.

  • Technical score: 9.

  • Gameplay score: 7.5.

  • Overall: 8.

Trip to Paris and being hosted at an Airbnb

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In April I traveled to Paris with with wife. In less than a year, we’ve visited Rome, London and now Paris. It was also the first time we were hosted at an Airbnb. In the following post I’ll talk a bit about the city and also about the Airbnb experience.

The city

We arrived in the city from the Paris CDG airport by taking a train and then a RER that left us right at the Musée d’Orsay. Our apartment was a few meters away just in the middle of the city. As always, if you plan to visit a big one it’s always worth checking its corresponding Wikitravel entry.

Compared to London or Rome, we found Paris to be much bigger. Distances between most landmarks are greater. In Rome, for example, the catacombs are so far away that you know you can’t walk your way there, but if you start from the geographical center of the city, only a few things are a bit far, like Vatican City or the Coliseum. However, in Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Notre Dame cathedral or the Basilica of the Sacred Heart are almost in the corners of the city (Notre Dame was formerly the center of Paris but the city has expanded greatly to the West). The financial district with its Grande Arche is even farther away. Unless you’re used to taking long walks, I recommend that you use the Paris metro as much as possible.

Speaking about the metro, the one in Paris isn’t as good as the one in London. Lines and connections are weirder, in my opinion, and its looks much worse. The London metro doesn’t look brand new at all, but it’s got a used feel like a pair of old jeans: it’s wore down, but it’s good and it works. The Paris metro, on the other hand, looks plain dirty and somehow unmaintained. The lack of a proper discount pass like London’s Travelcard (combined with an Oyster card in that case) is a bit disappointing and inconvenient at times, but the Paris metro is much cheaper and buying individual tickets or batches of 10 won’t set you back as much money as a Travelcard (which costs 30 GBP!).

Knowing the metro is not pretty will make you pay attention to the things outside. Paris' greatest beauty as a city lies in its architecture and avenues, following its alignment laws. This is best appreciated from a high point and nothing is better in this regard than the top of the Eiffel Tower. Its gardens and parks are also remarkable.

If you’re into museums, the Paris Museum Pass is a must. It grants you access to many priority queues and lets you visit important and large museums like Louvre several times without incurring in extra costs. Louvre is amazing, by the way, but the palace itself is at some points so impressive that it eclipses the beauty of the art inside.

The pass does not apply at a few important landmarks, where you may have to wait in queue for hours. This happened to us at three places. First, the Eiffel Tower. I highly, highly, highly recommend you purchase your ticket to the top from its website in the Internet. You’ll have to do it maybe months in advance as tickets per day and hour are limited and sell out, but you can easily save 3 hours in a normal day. We tried to buy them one or two weeks in advance (I don’t remember) and they were sold out.

Second, we queued to climb to the top of the Notre Dame towers. The reason for the queue is that there’s a limit on the number of people that can be in the towers at a given moment. We queued the better part of a morning and it’s nice but I wouldn’t really recommend it. The views are not that great and the towers, save for a few gargoyles, are not very interesting by themselves. In Notre Dame, if you’ve got the museum pass, it’s worth going into the crypt and learning about the history of the city. It’s not a long visit. If you have to pay, maybe it’s not worth the money.

Third, we queued an absurdly long time (several hours) to enter the Paris catacombs. Again, the long queues are due to the limited capacity. Being a fan of the original Deus Ex, I wanted to visit them myself and, frankly, the audioguide tells interesting stories about their origin and how the vast charnel house came to be. It’s a quite creepy place yet I found it amazing, but not worth such a long queue. On top of that, they’re managed independently and the Paris Museum Pass does not apply. I wouldn’t repeat my visit if I had to wait that long again. Waiting more than 30 minutes there is wasting time. Paris has much more interesting places.

I would definitely repeat the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Sacre Coeur and the Montmartre area in general, Champ de Mars, etc. As we only visited for 4 days and a half, we didn’t have time to go to Versailles, which is our pending visit.

What we didn’t like from Paris: the dust in the Tuileries Garden and other parks (my shoes are still dirty), the already mentioned look and feel of the metro, and the early closure times for restaurants at dinner time. Sometimes it borders on absurd situations. For example, we visited the Louvre museum a second time the day of the week it stays open until late in the evening, closing its doors at 21:30, I believe. We didn’t wait until that late and exited the museum at around 20:00. Right beyond the exit you can find some kind of underground shopping center. It sounds weird but it’s like that. At that time, all the restaurants in the shopping center were closed. Even McDonalds was closing! On a normal day, I more or less understand. But on the day you’ve got hundreds of people exiting the museum late and probably a bit hungry? It’s ridiculous. I know in Spain we have dinner very late (too late usually), but restaurants closed at 8PM? Seriously?

Airbnb

Long story short: I wouldn’t hesitate booking an Airbnb again. It really added value to our trip to Paris. We booked a small apartment (kitchen, bathroom, toilet and large living room with a bed) for more or less the same price, or a bit less, than a hotel room would have cost us.

However, Airbnb allowed us to save lots of money and time on breakfasts and a few other meals. Furthermore, I’ve never been in a hotel suite which was as big as that apartment and with such a good Internet WiFi access, which is helpful for sending pictures to your family, talking to them at the end of the day, checking weather forecasts when you need them or simply reading the newspaper from bed while your feet take a deserved rest.

On top of that, our apartment was located just 50 meters way from the Musée d’Orsay. It’s almost impossible to find a decent hotel with such a good location for less than 200 euros a night in Paris, and our apartment was around 130.

Getting in touch with our host was easy. He sent comprehensible instructions on how to get to the apartment, find the keys and get inside. The place had been cleaned before we entered and would be cleaned again after we checked out for the next guest. In addition, the place quickly became like a second home to us. The sensation when arriving after a long day is completely different from a hotel. You know nobody has entered the apartment, you have the keys… so even if you spend a few minutes a day, if any, trying to keep it all tidy and as clean as possible, you feel much more relaxed and comfortable.

Intel NUC as a home server

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By now you may have read my posts about finding and choosing an online backup service. Those cover the part about off-site backups. I’m also making changes to the way I do on-site backups. Recently, I bought an Intel NUC, model DN2820FYK that I’m using as my home server for that purpose.

Maybe I’m out of touch with the low-power PC community, but I only recently found out about these devices, which are one of the few ways to get your hands on a low-power Intel processor powering a “normal” PC, be it either a Bay Trail-M processor or a Haswell lower-power processor with the U or Y suffixes. The most efficient ones always use BGA and can’t be bought on their own.

So the solution Intel gives you are these NUCs. They’re aimed at the hobbyist market, because it requires work on your part, but at the same time they’re very easy to set up. You just need to buy the kit, a DDR3L memory stick (only one slot is available and the L is very important) and a 2.5" SATA hard drive. Optionally, a wifi adapter or antenna, I think, if you want to use wifi instead of its wired Gigabit port. You can then install an OS and use it as a normal computer by connecting it to an HDMI screen, USB mouse and USB keyboard.

Regarding the hard drive, all models come with a SATA connector, I think, but only the ones with taller boxes have room enough to fit a 2.5" hard drive inside. For some uses, the smaller models save space and can be booted from a USB stick in any case.

The following image shows the back of my device, with sockets for power, HDMI, Ethernet, USB 2.0 and audio.

And this is the front of the device. As you can see, it’s a bit bigger than my hand. The socket on the front is a USB 3.0 port.

Compared to my Raspberry Pi, it has the following disadvantages:

  • It’s more power hungry. The CPU itself uses 7.5W but the whole box by itself has a 36W power supply, while a Raspberry Pi with a hard drive typically needs 2A from its 5V USB power socket, that is, 10W.

  • It’s more noisy. Noise is one of the few slightly disappointing aspects of the device. I was genuinely expecting an almost silent PC. The noise is more of a whisper than anything really, and the hard drive inside makes more noise when reading or writing data, but it’s not silent as we’ve been spoiled to expect from mobile phones, ultrabooks and some workstations. I believe the noise comes from the power supply. I would have zero problems sleeping in the same room it’s in.

  • It’s cheap yet obviously more expensive. The kit plus the 4 GB memory stick plus a hard drive would cost you about $250.

But it has the following advantages:

  • First off, it’s an Intel x86_64 computer with an Intel graphics chip, bluetooth, wifi, gigabit network, etc. While the CPU itself is a single core 2.x GHz chip and may not run Crysis smoothly, this is insanely more powerful than a Raspberry Pi.

  • As a consequence of the previous point, you can install almost anything on it. For example, I installed Slackware Linux like I have in my desktop computer, with the network installation option by booting from USB. Notice this thing supports EFI booting with Secure Boot, but also has a legacy BIOS mode if you want to to avoid any trouble.

  • It supports way more RAM. I bought a 4GB stick but you could go with 8GB too. More than enough for a home server of almost any kind.

  • The SATA connector makes it possible to monitor the hard drive using SMART and maybe get a warning when the disk is about to fail. As far as I know, you can’t monitor SMART over USB in a standard way, which is a minor grief I had with my Raspberry Pi. Some Windows programs let you do it using nonstandard mechanisms, but under Linux you’re out of luck. If I’m wrong on this, please let me know in the comments. It’s a very interesting topic.

  • It comes with a proper box, a board to mount it on the back of a TV, a proper power supply and includes a DC adapter with interchangeable plugs. No additional purchases needed in this regard.

The PC market may be dying, or at least shrinking, but I’m very glad Intel is selling these kits and I hope they continue to do so with future CPU models and microarchitectures. When the desktop computer I’m typing this text in dies, I think I’d be delighted if I could buy one of these to serve as my workstation. Right now the CPUs powering them are a bit underpowered, but Intel should be able to create, in a few years, a 2.5GHz low power quad core CPU suitable to be put inside one of these boxes.

New prices for Google Drive and thoughts on hubiC

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Almost a month after my post about online backup services, Google decided to spice up competition in online storage by lowering their Google Drive prices. It’s probably a jab aimed at Dropbox.

The new prices are somewhat interesting. Compared to the solution I chose a month ago, hubiC, Google offers less storage for free and way less storage for 10 EUR/USD a month. However, the sweet spot of 100 GB has comparable prices, with hubiC being 1 EUR a month (1.39 USD as of now) and Google being 1.99 USD a month. I need to store about 60 GB of data for now.

In the time I’ve been using hubiC, I must admit the service has been a bit unreliable. It’s been unavailable for several hours a couple of times and, for some reason, moving files from one folder to another from the web interface (which is the one I use) seems to take ages and is prone to failure.

On the other hand, in my brief experience so far with Google Drive (I’m uploading data as we speak), the web interface works perfectly and the service is very reliable.

As I’m encrypting data locally before uploading and using a separate account for this specific purpose, privacy is not a concern. My intention is to keep uploading data to Google Drive until I reach the free limit of 15 GB. Then, if everything keeps working as now, I’ll probably switch from hubiC to Google Drive. The few cents of difference will probably be worth it.

Some people are concerned about Google shutting the service down, but I don’t think Google is getting rid of Google Drive in the short or medium run, like they did with other services. The storage is shared for your mail, documents and pictures, and it’s an integral part of the Google account experience. When used without encryption (like I’m sure most people do), it’s also a source of information for Google about you and your social life, which helps in advertising.