Game review: Wolfenstein: The New Order and The Talos Principle

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I’ve recently played Wolfenstein: The New Order and The Talos Principle. What follows is a dual review of both.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

Wolfenstein: The New Order was one of the surprises of 2014 and was considered one of the recommended first person shooters in many game publications. If this game is considered one of the good games of that year, we can easily conclude the year was weak. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the game very much and it gets many things right, but it’s far from a top level game.

The game itself is one more title in the Wolfenstein series and a sequel to Wolfenstein, released in 2009, a much weaker game. So let’s focus on what The New Order gets right.

Character development is unusually nice for a Wolfenstein game. Both for the protagonist and the many NPCs and other main characters in the story. The levels are varied and the single player campaign is long but not too long, with ample room for replays, instead of relying on pointless achievements to trick you into playing until the magical 100% completion number. The campaign length and level variety remind me of Deus Ex. The creators knew about this strength, I think, and that’s why they included two timelines as well as a browsable list of secret rooms and items. This, coupled with the chapter selection menu, increase the game value.

Another aspect the game gets right is when mixing styles. Goofy and overpowered weapons are mixed with simpler ones. Over-the-top action is mixed with dramatic moments and some comic relief. Many levels admit several approaches, from stealth to dual-wielding rocket launchers. The game even has unlockable skill chains for different styles to encourage you to change your approach and keep you entertained.

As I mentioned previously, the game prefers to give you replay value and a sane list of achievements so if you’re a completionist you won’t find yourself locating and killing pigeons all over a city. After getting to 100%, and if you found the game to be a bit easy (I played in “I am death incarnate”, replayed it in “Über” and found it to be easy except for the final act, which is a bit painful in Über), after getting 100% you can still solve the enigma codes and unlock new and challenging gameplay modes that will be difficult even for expert gamers. A very wise choice from the game creators.

The technical aspect of the game is a bit worse. It’s been over a year since its release and people are still having sound problems with the game. Usually, getting no sound at all (it happened to a friend of mine) or out-of-sync audio in cutscenes (it happened to me). It feels unpolished. In the graphics department, there is a marked contrast in texture resolution sometimes. While not as noticeable as in Rage, game world textures have sometimes much lower resolution than items on it or other interactive elements. Texture pop-in, typical from id Tech 5 games, is still present. However, with an SSD and a modern graphics card, it’s only noticeable in very specific cases and does not distract the player.

In fact, the best technical aspect of the game is how, despite the low resolutions in very close-up situations in the game world, the level geometry and texture work is amazing. The game look is really good and the it runs amazingly well in many systems. Framerate drops were very infrequent to me and the game ran smoothly at 60 fps all the time in the highest settings it allowed me to use, which were “High” (reminder: I have a GTX 760).

Let’s go for the scores. Technical: 8. Gameplay: 9. Overall: probably in the middle, a nice 8.5.

The Talos Principle

After The New Order, I played The Talos Principle. 100% recommended. I’ve wasted a lot of ink on The New Order and it feels like I’m running out of words for this game, which doesn’t do it justice. The Talos Principle is a puzzle game. It feels a bit like Portal or Portal 2, but on steroids. Its puzzles rely less on physics (jumps, speed and momentum) and more on geometry. I found it to be totally addictive.

Many things can be praised in this game. The way the plot is slowly revealed, the philosophical texts and discussions about humanity, culture and the life cycle, the music, the simple controls and game mechanics, or even its price. I get the feeling if I talk too much about the game itself, I would spoil it for you, so let me sum it up: just get it and play it.

Not everything is rosy, of course. Graphics are OK and fit the game and its mood, but they don’t shine nowadays. Physics are not very good either. They worked for Serious Sam 3 (the game uses the same engine) and fortunately and as I said before, puzzles are more based on geometry than physics, so they simply do their job, but sometimes you can’t help but notice Quake 1 felt better when playing. In the gameplay aspect, the main problem is that at the end of the game you more or less get the hang of the puzzles and the last, say, quarter of the game can feel less challenging than some of the middle game puzzles. This end-of-game decay is one of the few flaws in an otherwise amazing experience.

Scores. Technical: 7. Gameplay: 9.5. Overall: 9. The gameplay dominates. Hey, don’t blame me if you play it and don’t like it. :-)

Disappointed with mobile

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It’s been two and a half years since I bought my Nexus 4 and I can say with confidence that I feel disappointed with mobile computing as it is today, both in the hardware aspect and in the software aspect. Let me explain.

In hardware, phone quality leaves a lot to be desired. My Nexus 4 had power button problems after no more than a year of usage, and a few other people I know had the same problem. It was not designed to be pushed dozens of times a day to turn the screen on and lock the phone. After being tired of those problems, I finally took the phone to a local shop to replace the button at a cost of 25 euros. Moreover, two close people have Nexus 5 phones and both have suffered problems too. One of them has been sent to Google to be repaired, unable to boot, fortunately a bit before the two-year warranty expired. Another one had internal storage hardware failures a bit after two years, out of warranty, and had to be replaced with another phone.

In software, quality has been steadily downhill since I bought the phone, and has never worked as good as it was out of the box. With each software update, a few problems are solved and many new problems are introduced. For example, since about the last update a few weeks ago, WiFi and Bluetooth have turned themselves on randomly a couple of times. My wife’s Moto G will not vibrate more than once with the official flipcase closed in vibrate mode when receiving a call. This is a known problem, unsolved despite source patches being available and was introduced with Android 5. The list goes on and on. Furthermore, Google’s position in some technical issues change more frequently than wind direction, and now they say they won’t provide updates for phones older than two years and, in theory, no security updates after three years.

Apple phones are out of the question for me. I don’t want to contribute to such a blatant walled garden approach and being unable to run my own applications in my own phone, and having to pay a fee to see them published in the official applications store.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret having bought the phone. Specially taking into account the state of the market in the middle and low price segments at that moment. Simply, I thought I would be using the phone for around 4 years, but with security updates not available after three years, that’s risky. I’ll have to change phones more frequently than I thought, and taking that into account, I doesn’t make sense, in my humble opinion, to spend more than 200 euros in a phone. Fortunately, that amount of money nowadays gives you access to some pretty decent phones. If my Nexus 4 makes it through until next summer, I’ll replace it with the Moto G or even the Moto E of the day. It’s worth noting both phones may be actually worse, hardware wise, than the Nexus 4 I have in my hands today, so the move wouldn’t make sense in the PC world, were I would simply install the latest software and security updates on the best hardware I have. But mobile, even in the vanilla-Android Nexus line world, has turned out to be different to what I expected it to be. I’ll be buying cheap phones every two or three years instead of good phones every four or five.

CardDAV support in FastMail

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Two days ago FastMail announced CardDAV support was finally out of beta state. This is great news for people who, like myself, would like to stay a bit away from Google for all their personal information.

CardDAV is a standardized protocol to access contact data on a server. FastMail already supported accessing email through a web interface, client app and of course IMAP. They also supported CalDAV for calendars and provide web space to host bits of content, like this blog.

In a mobile environment, this allows you to have your personal information stored in “the cloud” but not tied to Google. The Google account is merely an enabler that gives you access to the Play Store, were you can download a signed copy of TextSecure and remembers you have bought CalDAV Sync and CardDAV Sync.

Using the latter two apps, contacts and calendar events stored at FastMail are available globally at the system level, and can be accessed normally with the calendar and contacts applications you’d normally use. Contacts and calendar events added from any normal app can be stored at FastMail instead of Google.

I realize I’ve never really blogged about why I use FastMail. I’ve been using their services for several years now. It started when I wanted to use my own domain for email and, at that point, you have to start paying money. Both to pay for the domain and for having someone handle your email for that domain. I investigated a few options and I remember reading good things about FastMail. They’re an Australian company, not very big. They have always cared about user privacy. Despite having their servers located in the US, they’ve stated in the past they actively avoid storing unencrypted information in their infrastructure abroad and do not obey US court orders. When Australian law changed recently, they sat together with their lawyers, analyzed the text and provided a public statement on why they believed the new law didn’t affect them.

This enthusiasm defending user privacy, coupled with their contributions to free and open source software, respect for standard protocols and efforts to push the state of email technology forward explains why I chose them. I highly recommend their services if you want more control over your personal data and email. Naturally, it’s not free. My enhanced account costs a bit over 30 euros a year (less than 3 euros a month), but you have to understand they’re not in the advertising business. They don’t profile you or use your data. You’re not the product in any sense, you’re a client. You pay for the storage, bandwidth and infrastructure you use, plain and simple.

The Universal Pause Button is amazing

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The Universal Pause Button is a free and open source Windows program that was featured on the front page of Hacker News a couple of months ago. It’s the Windows low-level and simple equivalent of a program that, under Unix-like systems, would find the PID in charge of the focused window in X11 and send it a SIGSTOP signal when pressing a button, followed by SIGCONT when the button is pressed again. The “button” normally being the pause/break key in the keyboard.

Effectively, this allows pausing the process at a low level and its author, Ryan Ries, states he specifically wrote it to be able to pause cutscenes in the videogame The Witcher III, which normally cannot be paused with an in-game native mechanism, and pay attention to real life events. In my case, it’s been used so far to pause and resume the game Dark Souls (note: Dark Souls III will be available in 2016 and I’m considering buying Dark Souls II at some point in the future). I had bought the game many months before but I had to abandon the playthrough precisely due to the lack of a pause function even in offline mode.

I thought of writing a review of the game but I decided to focus this post on the Universal Pause Button project instead. For a quick review, let me tell you the game is pretty good and enjoyable, but doesn’t hold your hand in many of the gameplay aspects, which are to be discovered slowly and painfully by the player. However, in the Internet age, it’s possible for anyone to read a lot of information about how the different RPG aspects of the game work, and also to get a nice overview of the available equipment to decide how you want to build your character. This makes the game easier while retaining its difficulty in the boss fights and enemies in general, and the exploratory excitement when entering a new area. Advancing through the game requires efforts and perseverance, and it’s a very rewarding experience. It brings back old school game mechanics like powerful bosses and the need to learn enemy locations, their attack patterns and weaknesses. Nothing Megaman didn’t have, but nowadays it’s considered “hard” because it requires time that’s to be added to an already long game in contrast with old school games that could be finished in one evening once you memorized them completely.

Dark Souls, however and as stated previously, lacks a pause button. Supposedly because it’s an online game where you can interact with other players in many situations, but I focused on single player and I always played in offline mode (previously this was with an offline Game For Windows Live account, also called local account, but nowadays it’s with Steam’s offline mode). It’s true you can quit the game at any moment and it will restore everything as was left before quitting, but this mechanism has two problems. First, you have to navigate a menu to quit and the game doesn’t pause in those seconds and, more importantly, if you’re in a boss fight and you quit, you will be teleported out of the boss arena and lose your progress in the fight. The lack of a pause button in offline mode cannot be justified easily and I don’t think it makes the game any more difficult. It’s simply an impractical glitch. In this situation, the universal pause button has no disadvantages. You only need to take a couple of steps back if in a tight situation, and quickly hit the pause key in your keyboard, as in any other game.

It’s unfortunate that many games nowadays cannot be paused at any moment, in what I can only consider a sad trend. Most of them can be paused normally or feature a menu you can escape to, but cannot be paused in certain cutscenes and dialogues. In Hacker News and reddit, some people commented how in the Wii U and the original Wii, you can press the home button in any game, and it will pause gameplay showing you the Home Menu. That’s what we should aim for in any platform, in my opinion.

The Universal Pause Button has allowed me to play Dark Souls in what is arguably the worst moment in my life to play videogames, having to pay proper and much needed and deserved attention to my wife and a now four-months-old baby. I used the button dozens of times during my playthrough, which I completed this weekend. I’ve personally thanked the project author through email.

If you’re going to use it, I can give you two hints: after installing (i.e. extracting) the program somewhere in your drive, create a link to it in your Windows Startup folder so you won’t have to launch it manually every time. Also, be careful with games and apps that require you to be permanently online due to DRM or anti-cheat mechanism, as the program could interfere with them.

Windows Update is slowness personified

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My main desktop computer dual-boots Linux and Windows. Specifically now, Fedora and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bits. I keep Fedora in an old-ish 128 GB Intel SSD that works remarkably well and has more than enough space for what I use it and, until now, I kept Windows in a 500 GB hard drive. Last week, however, I bought a 500 GB Samsung 850 Evo SSD to replace the HDD (it was just €180 from Amazon and had the same capacity). The drive performance is amazing and games load incredibly faster. Actually, everything is incredibly fast now. Except for one thing: Windows Update.

I can’t imagine what Windows Update does to be so slow. Partitions are properly aligned for the SSD and everything’s in place. After installing SP1 it still had around 200 updates to do (196 if I recall correctly), and most of them were small security fixes and updates. In fact, the total download size was around 400 MB, so it averaged just a couple MB per update. Once they were downloaded, it took the system more than 1 hour and 20 minutes to install them, doing nothing else. That’s more than the time it took for the whole system to be installed. In that time I could have installed Fedora from an old image and updated the whole operating system and applications.

To put thing in perspective, AnandTech reviewed this hard drive and the slowest operation benchmarked was 4KB random reads at 104 MB/second. In 1 hour and 20 minutes it could have random-read around 500 GB, that is, the whole hard drive. I’m unable to imagine what makes Windows Update so slow. It also takes ages to find new updates, even if downloading them takes a few seconds and the servers are able to saturate my download bandwidth (100 Mbps).

By the way, after upgrading I signed up for the free upgrade to Windows 10. I can only hope Windows Update or its equivalent performs better there. Anyway, I feel good after writing the rant.