Wednesday, September 16, 2015

14 Year Old Irving, TX Technology Student Arrested for NWB (Nerding While Brown)

So I haven't put anything up here in a good long while. Sorry kids, I've just been busy. You know, life and everything. So you can imagine it's something fairly noteworthy that would make me pull out the keyboard and put some digital pen to paper without delay.

See late last night there was something I saw on my social feeds that took my mind through a number of degrees of pure fire. I only had the energy to pen a handful of tweets as a preliminary rant but this is something I still woke up mad about in the morning. A 14 year old student was arrested for bringing a homemade clock into school to impress his teachers.

OK. So on its face, regardless of any additional facts this is an absolutely ridiculous headline. Now let's add some details - the student's name is Ahmed Mohamed and the school district is Irving Independent School District in Irving, Texas.

Ahmed is a budding technologist and tinkerer and the clock in question is a basic circuit with 4 seven-segment displays - 2 for the hours and 2 for the minutes. Anyone that has even seen anything similar can tell you it is a pretty basic circuit that executes the simple function of counting. However when he showed the clock to his engineering teacher (his engineering teacher), Ahmed was advised not to show it to anyone else. When it beeped in English class, he took his invention to show his teacher afterwards. Her response? That it "it looks like a bomb." The clock was confiscated and later he was pulled from class to a room where officers were waiting to interrogate and search him.

One even remarked "Yup. That's who I thought it was."

"...Yup. That's who I thought it was."

The officers weren't there to tell him his clock was cool. they were there to accuse him of trying to build a bomb while the school threatened him with expulsion. Soon afterward he was escorted out of the school in handcuffs by police, taken to a juvenile detention center, fingerprinted and had mugshots taken.

Ahmed tinkers and creates a number of inventions at home, and was part of his school's robotics club in middle school and was looking for ways to continue that interest as the high school year began. Watch his video interview below from the Dallas Morning News:

In the interview he states that he wasn't able to talk to his parents until after the interrogation and they could collect him from the juvenile detention facility. "I went home and talked to my parents about it because I couldn't call my parents during the interrogation," he says before he explains his digital clock - you know, since this incident tells us that some people don't know what digital clocks are, and every timed seven-segment display is wired like a "movie bomb." He goes on to detail the demoralizing and dehumanizing process he then went through as authorities tried to trump up his basic tech project into an act of terror.

We're living in an era now where young students across the country are being encouraged to pursue projects and knowledge in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math). And that's exactly what this was. It was a kid with a lean for technology. And while it should have been fostered and encouraged, the elements of a stereotype attached to a name and a shade of skin color are what made this different. Lets's be honest now - if this was about a stereotypical-looking American kid named Billy and not a brown kid named Ahmed, it would have been a gold star and a "way to go" instead of cuffs and fingerprints.

That's right kids, Texas. Where you can arm your kids with assault rifles, but God forbid a brown student interested in technology conducts a technology project in a school district that brags about their "top digital district" award.

This isn't the first case of educational authority criminalizing minority curiosity. A 16-year old Florida honor student was expelled in 2013 for an outdoor science experiment, and in addition to that arrested and charged by the Assistant State Attorney with possessing or discharging weapons or firearms at a school and possessing destructive devices. Both are felony counts where she would have been tried as an adult. The criminal charges were dismissed, but the felony arrest takes five years to clear from a record, according to her lawyer.

Curiosity should be for everyone, especially America's young people. These are our future scientists and engineers that will push American ingenuity and technology forward. In addition to that, what Ahmed had to go through is the nightmare for brown people across the country. It's incidents like this that erode the trust of American minorities in authority - harmless and innocuous events being picked up by people in power and puffed up to make it look like they're fighting the good fight for the security of our country against the dangerous scourge that is a 14 year old kid. Congratulations Texas, you made him say this: "It made me feel like I wasn't human. It made me feel like a criminal."

No kid should have to shoulder that.

The engineering teacher should have been able to tell authorities that it was in fact just a clock and there was nothing nefarious about his project.

And to preemptively counter arguments on "well maybe it's not about being brown," let me stop you right there and explain something. Everyone that looks like Ahmed has gone through several incidents or experiences in the last 15 years that change how they see the world and the society, by making us very aware of our name, and the tone of our skin, and the immediate fear of that difference leading to ill consequence. How do I know? Because I've been there. Thank the universe that it was nothing as severe as what Ahmed had to go through this week, but these kind of events change a person, and I say that as an adult. I cannot imagine how it would possibly impact a child.

Here's to me the worst part about it - how will this story affect other young minority makers, tinkerers, scientists and engineers in their comfort level and perceived ability to share and work on something with their teacher or the world without threat of consequence? the country's nerd hearts must have simultaneously broke when they read "he's vowed never to take another invention to school again."

I wonder how me and my tech loving cohorts would have fared in life if teachers called cops whenever we had physics lab?

If this is a case of a prohibited item being brought into school then ok, I get it. But I get it proportionally. Punish him accordingly if that's the case. Maybe detention maybe for not following the student handbook? 1 day suspension at worst? Definitely not suspicions and accusations of a bomb or hoax bomb.

See more of how people around the country stand with Ahmed with the twitter hashtag #IStandWithAhmed.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Diablo III's 3rd Birthday Party? Totally NOT the Cow Level

Happy Birthday Diablo III!

Blizzard’s latest installment in the demon-slaying action RPG series turned 3 this past weekend, and they decided to do something a little special for D3 players by addressing all things bovine and the secret cow level.

The cow level was mostly a running gag by Blizzard that began back in the first game in the Diablo series. If you clicked one of the cows in Tristram enough times, instead of the requisite “moo” the player’s character would break the fourth wall and talk to the player – telling us either “Yup that’s a cow alright!” and reminding us that “Hey, I am no milkmaid!”  As we clicked more, the game cycled through more of these quips from our character. This little easter egg was what prompted the rumor of a secret cow level, which as legend has it, stated a portal to it could be opened if a player clicked a cow enough times. It’s alright, I clicked the hell out of those cows too – it was such a ridiculous thing that I had to see for myself.

Of course while taking the official stance that there is no cow level, they fed the rumor machine by making “thereisnocowlevel” a cheat code in Starcraft.

Diablo II took that rumor and ran with it, creating a cow level that could be accessed combining a tome of town portal and Wirt’s leg in your Horadric cube. It eventually became a popular place for players to grind experience and culminated in a battle with the Cow King.

Diablo III, I suppose sort of in that vein, replaced some treasure goblins with treasure bovines instead. And much like the rainbow goblins open up a portal to Whimsyshire, these treasure cows open up a red portal described as the following:

"Leads to a place that does not exist. The Burning Hells are not responsible for events that transpire there. If you claim to have been to this place, you will be called a liar. Void where prohibited."

The cow level  NOT the cow level is filled with shrines that you will need because of the mad quantity of mad cows coming to get you.  I was playing on Master difficulty with a 40-something monk and those shrines and sweeping wind were my best friends for the next few minutes. Scattered around are farmers, no doubt slain by the new bovine masters, dropping tons of gold on top of the already ridiculous number of chests on the map. I had to make 2 trips to town for salvage to actually collect all the loot.

There are gags harkening back to Diablo II, like a quest from the ghost of the then-slain Cow King, who wryly quips that these cows must have some sort of beef with you on a quest called “Tipping Point.” And if you take a look at the pictures, that’s right, some health globes are actually steaks.

I will close by saying this – this place is difficult. On Master difficulty rare spawns showed up with multiple packs of elites (seriously always with fire chains) and my first time through while dealing with them I stumbled upon the map boss, the Cow Queen. She throws so much lightning that I would rank her as more difficult than many of the bosses in the game just based on the sheer damage output she hurls at you, and in my case my gear wasn’t exactly dripping with resistances. This is one of the rare times I died playing with this character so far – she takes very little damage, and there were times when both potions and breath of heaven were on cooldown, leaving my to my doom. But when you’re done with her you do get 4 radiant chests.

Unfortunately no, there were no bovine-themed legendaries, at least none that dropped for me.

The cow level was over on May 21st, but who knows? From the minds of those that came up with both the cow level and Whimsyshire, you never know what’s next in the realms of Sanctuary. Check out some more images below:

Friday, April 3, 2015

April Fool's Double-Cross: Amazon Dash

So it may be Game of Thrones month for the upcoming season 5 premiere in a lot of internet sites devoted to nerddom, but there was another important day this week that for the last few years has made the internet come alive in the name of comedy and foolishness.

That means shenanigans and hijinx.  April Fool’s day, to be precise.

Every year a lot of companies in the nerd space assail us with pranks for new games or new products or just weird stuff in general – and with each passing year we’ve come to expect it. Google reversed everything with and let you play Pac-Man in your Google maps.  ThinkGeek advertised a Game of Thrones based edition of Clue taking place in Westeros, as well as a steam-powered Steam Box you could enjoy while drinking your Groot Beer.  Microsoft went old school and “launched” MS-DOS Mobile for Lumia devices. And Blizzard, with their tried and true pranks, introduced the T.I.N.D.R. Box as an in-game item.

(Sorry kids, the link for Game of Thrones Clue was taken down.  I’m hoping it’s because they’re going to MAKE IT REAL.  You hear me, ThinkGeek?  MAKE IT HAPPEN!)

But there was one trick I couldn’t figure out – and it was being played on me by Amazon.  You see, they introduced Amazon Dash on April Fool’s day, a series of push-buttons you can affix anywhere in your home so that you will never (ever) run out of stuff.  Stick a button marked “Tide” on your washer.  Press the button when you need more.  And more is bought for you.  And delivered with Prime shipping.  Check out the video below:

So clearly, this was just a joke, right?  There’s no way I’m putting buttons all around my kitchen for Amazon shipment so I don’t have to go to the store to buy things, is there? Crap.  I might.  It’s possible highly probable that I’m just that lazy.

So I gave it a couple days and let it sink in.  I figured maybe it would be a double cross and the reveal that it’s fake would be April 2nd.  Or maybe they were bucking the trend and trying to hit me with a slow roll prank.  Days passed and it didn’t go away.  It just got more fleshed out.  And it was then that it struck me – this is legit. I’ve signed up and I’m waiting for an invitation.  Amazon Dash is part of their Amazon Fresh service, and you can sign up for it here.  My address isn’t in the delivery area, but those April Fool’s buttons were just the start and I’m eagerly awaiting an expansion.  If nothing else, I’ll have something to review for you kids, right? Now it looks like there’s a barcode scanner, with voice, that will scan and link anything you swipe with your Amazon Prime account, setting up an order.  So in the wake of the confirmed legitness of Dash, to Amazon I have one thing to say:

You are absolutely brilliant.

From every aspect, Amazon is using the new “Internet of Things” craze to help people shop – and though these buttons are a bit weird, they might just save the day for people and families that are legitimately too busy.  Doubly true for routine things we buy on a regular basis, like laundry detergent, coffee, and razors for shaving.  What’s more is that big brands are getting in line to partner with them and be part of the program – after all, it’s their stuff we’re buying.

And how about debuting the program on April Fool’s day?  If nothing else, they made Dash a household name within 24 hours of internet exposure – they made sure that regardless of whether we thought it was a prank or not that we at least knew the name.  And whatever you truly believed, we were all scratching our heads on the 1st wondering if it was real.

So is this new IoT buying experience going to help streamline our busy lives, or is it taking us one step closer to what some would call our inevitable WALL-E future?  I guess time will tell as Dash rolls out to more markets, and makes its way to a home near you.  Here’s the latest from Amazon:

So let's see how this goes.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD

Since the initial inception of Final Fantasy on the NES in 1987, Square-Enix (previously Squaresoft) has developed a pretty consistent formula in the release of all their titles.  And for the most part, it’s worked – now I’ve got some perspective on this, as I’ve played every (non-MMO) edition since I was a wee brown lad.  Go ahead, I’ll pause a moment so you can marvel at my advanced age, kids.

Granted the formula will always have some tweaks to the core to freshen the mechanic from time to time – summons were added, job roles and classes in V, items like materia in VII, that annoying draw system from VIII, then grids and maps for skills and upgrades in X and beyond.  And this all revolved around a two pronged attack of a massive world to explore along with a tried and true turn-based combat system. And the gaming and RPG gods did smile, as they saw that it was good.

Then Final Fantasy XIII happened.

Much the like the compendium of Final Fantasy VII, which included a multimedia immersion into that universe, XIII was supposed to have gone a similar (read: NOT identical) route.  These games were all to share a mythology in a series calledFabula Nova Crystallis, and in addition to the core XIII titles, there were two additional games that were going to be thrown into the mix – Final Fantasy Agito XIII an Final Fantasy Versus XIII.  Agito was released for mobile platforms but we never really saw much of it in the US, and Versus basically vanished into vaporware.  It was a real shame at the time because they looked like a different take on the traditional title. Lightning’s adventures in XIII as the core were pretty polarizing though, leading most people into a love it or hate it scenario about S-E’s most recent entry to the franchise.  True, XIII was a lot more interactive story than game, and the exploration piece of a traditional Final Fantasy game didn’t appear with as much gusto, but I for one still enjoyed it.

Well, after playing halfway through then giving up then starting over and having far more appreciation for it as well as Lightning herself.

To distance them from the XIII universe, these two games were split off into separate entities.  What we knew as Versus XIII became Final Fantasy XV (the demo Episode Duscae of which was reviewed by Colby here), and from the ashes of Agito XIII rose Final Fantasy Type-0.  And you know what? I can only describe Final Fantasy Type-0 as the greatest documentary I’ve ever played.

In most RPG’s you’ll find that there’s three types of movies.  One is full motion video.  The second is dialogue and animation using the game engine. This one has a third – History Channel style explanations of battalion movements and war maps with dates and voiceovers so the player can understand the meta of the war at hand instead of just what they’re playing through.  It gives it a very strange but satisfying documentary feel, and these types of clips to me work very well in tying everything together and keeping me immersed in the lore and world events. This game becomes, in fact, an interactive retelling of the accounts of the war between the Crystal States of Orience, and it pulls it off very well.

That aside, the gameplay is a stark departure from what we know from most of the Final Fantasy games.  It’s full-on action where skills are thrown on the fly – there’s no waiting for a turn, there’s no running to escape a battle encounter or random encounters like in previous games of the series (think kind of like Crisis Core). The four buttons at your disposal on the controller map to 4 commands – generally one standard attack, a special, a magic, and a defensive skill.  These can all be changed out with different skills and spells as your characters level up and gain ability points.  Much like X and titles beyond it there are three party members that can be deployed at once – one that you directly control while the other two work on AI.  You can freely switch which character you control if ever you need a different skillset for a certain enemy or you’re just running low on health.  It’s a fun system that allows on-the-fly style change in how you attack the game.

To add more customization, there are twelve characters (there’s two add-ons too but they don’t fit the theme) from which to pick your team, each one with a different weapon and style that fits different scenarios.  Each character is named after a playing card rank (Deuce through Ace with no “Ten”) and have their own equipment and spells, all of which you have control over.  Ace himself uses playing cards as a weapon at range, while the other two characters you begin with, Nine and Queen, use a spear and a sword for more melee-oriented combat.  In addition to their own offense each character has their own defensive style that can help you out in a jam.  Ace’s “Wall” for example helps when taking ranged attack without cover.  Fast switching between each character to utilize their skills becomes as much of a skill to learn itself, but when you do, boy does this game get fun in a hurry.

The story is a fairly simple tale of power and struggle between kingdoms in a different age – in this case starting in year 842 in the world of Orience. The Militesi Empire invades the dominion of Rubrum (our characters) unprovoked, using technology to snuff out the magic Rubrum relies on for its military using their White Tiger Crystal, destroying much of the countryside in its assault. Rubrum’s crystal, the Vermillion Bird, grants them the power of magic and Eidolons to defend themselves. Militesi and Rubrum are two of the four Crystal States, with Concordia Kingdom and the Lorican Alliance rounding out the other two.  And thus war begins, with you controlling the Rubrum Akademia’s legendary Zero class, hoping that one of them will become the fabled Agito to bring balance to the end time, or tempus finis. So yes, there are four crystals in the game as is always somewhat expected.  Where this ties in with Fabula Nova Crystallis is that the crystals are sentient, and create l’Cie to do their bidding, serving the same role the Fal’cie did in XIII.

Square-Enix also went through some effort to add a lot of familiar elements to the game, softening a bit of the shock of being this different to previous games in the franchise – not only within the Final Fantasy universes, but more specifically from within Fabula Nova Crystallis.  Summons are called Eidolons and there are branded magic users called l’Cie like in XIII. There’s Magitek armor like in VI.  There’s four crystals (for the purists fine, yes, back then they were “orbs”) like there have been since day 1. And possibly the greatest homage to a previous game in the series, twelve people genetically enhanced to serve a greater purpose, all referring to the scientist that created them as “Mother.” Final Fantasy VII? Feel a little bit like Sephiroth clones and Jenova anyone?  It helps give you a familiarity with the game even though it’s a brand new environment.

In all, good fun, and a different flavor of the Final Fantasy universe that’s a a breath of fresh air.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Life Is Strange Episode 2 Preview

“So a lot of people ask us ‘If you can rewind the game, doesn’t that mean that you can cheat? Isn’t that the same as reloading the save?’ It would be if it was badly designed.”

That was what Square-Enix’s Adam Phillips had to say about the luxury of choice in their current series Life is Strange. And that statement is 100% correct.  I’m in my second playthrough now of episode 1, Chrysalis and am not having any less fun trying different choices I take with Max in her exploration of her newly found powers over time.  The beauty of it is that there’s no correct answers in the game, and even though the short term results of the decisions made are simple enough to see, the long term and meta effects aren’t so easy to spot.

Just like life. Strange… right?

I was able to sit down with Square-Enix and DONTNOD Entertainment at PAX East last week to get a preview of Life is Strange episode 2, Out of Time to see some spoiler-free gameplay.  We were able to see some of the longer-than-short-term consequences of one of the pivotal decisions from Chrysalis – whether or not to take the blame for Chloe’s stepfather finding her smoking weed, resulting in being in hot water yourself or Chloe taking an angry backhand.

The game picks up on the day after Max finds discovers her gift (1 episode, 1 day) and the scene we got to play through was Max meeting Joyce, Chloe’s mother, at the diner where she has been working for years.  You have the choice of telling Joyce or not that Chloe’s stepfather struck her, but not every playthrough has that option.  We were playing episode 2 using the input from episode 1 that Chloe hid in the closet and watched Chloe get struck, and that’s why this and other choices are available to us now. The game keeps track of every decision you’ve made, and offers shifts in the storyline accordingly, guaranteeing a number of playthroughs which are all different. “It really is a network,” was how the choice system in the game was explained to us. “There are in this game some binary switches, like if you do this that happens, but in this game there are actually combination switches as well.” This won’t affect the overall story of the game but it will affect the way the game progresses. “More like branches they’re vines going up a tree, so they all go in the same direction, each one is just slightly different.”

To get used to the “keep your knowledge and stuff” part of the time rewind mechanic, you’re forced to guess everything that happens within 10 seconds at the diner and everything that’s in Chloe’s pockets.  Of course you’re not a mind reader so the only option is to guess wrong, see the real answer, rewind and prove the Chloe your “superpowers” are real. It works as this game’s take on quick time button events, where you have to get the whole sequence right or rewind time and start over.

I’m really looking forward to see how my different savegames affect my playthrough for episode 2, and the way this is set up we’ll be getting increasing levels of meta consequences for seemingly small choices we made earlier on.

The soundtrack which thoroughly impressed me in Chrysalis maintains its deliciously modern indie feel, with artists like José Gonzaléz, Syd Matters and alt-J on the score for both background music and the tracks Max listens to.  “It was really important when Max put her earbuds in that you heard the sound dull down as she pressed play. What happens when you hear a licensed track? It grounds you in reality.” It’s true, and goes a long way in helping continue to set the tone and emotion of Max and Chloe’s adventures in Arcadia Bay.

I asked creators Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch from DONTNOD about why episodic games are finding so much success next to huge triple-A 80-90 hour behemoths. “It’s the way we’re playing games nowadays.  We have less time I think, and a short experience is something you can really enjoy between two stations of one really huge game.  Sometimes those short experiences of  an episode of a game or a short game like Journey can be interesting to play because you can play it in one session.”

Of course they mentioned that also inherent in episodic games is the anticipation and expectation for the next one to come out to see what happens.  And that part is working.

Thankfully we don’t have too much longer to wait. Life is Strange episode 2, Out of Time will be released this month on March 24th, and I’ve got my season pass ready to pull it down and see what happens to Max and Chloe next.

[Oh, and P.S., I asked about porting this to tablets because I think it would work great with the UI and control scheme - and I can officially say it hasn't been ruled out]

Hey Tushar, Where's My PAX East Coverage?

I know many of you are wondering why the hell Technical Fowl hasn't had ANY PAX East 2015 coverage after the show last month in Boston. My man Colby Sites and I have a series of posts over at Sub Cultured chronicling the whole affair.  Here's a list of stuff we hit and links to reviews and thoughts:

A preview of Life is Strange episode 2 is available at Sub Cultured and also right here at Technical Fowl!

That's fifteen games for you kids to sink your teeth into.  Enjoy!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Life is Strange Episode 1: Chrysalis

Before I get into it let me just start by saying this – I don’t generally do formal game reviews.  But titles like this are why I will always have love for video games.

Back in October at New York Comic Con I had the pleasure of attending Square-Enix’s press party, where they graciously fed me and kept me on a steady stream of vodka cranberries as I made the rounds to check out their new wares.  There were things I expected to see like the new editions of their mainstays Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider, but there was an interesting demo they had over in the corner.  The demo was down at the time, but they have me some links to the demo online.  And a few minutes of demo was all it took to sell me on Life is Strange.  Check out the release preview just below:

What you just saw?  This is what the game feels like while playing it.

Released in late January, Life is Strange represents S-E’s first foray into episodic adventure games, a genre that his been picking up steam since 2012 saw Telltale’s The Walking Dead hit consoles.  Since then they’ve exploded with titles, and this style of game found continued success with the formula, with Telltale having just released opening episodes of Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones late last year, with episode 2 of the latter being just released on February 3rd.

But this is altogether different.

Life is Strange puts you in the shoes of 18 year old Max Caulfield, a high school student in the photography program at Blackwell Academy, having returned to her home town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon after five years.  A shy and introverted young woman, she can always be found toting her vintage polaroid camera while avoiding the race of being one of the cool kids.  It’s while hiding in the bathroom to get herself together after a particularly rough morning that she witnesses a violent crime – and learns that she can rewind time in the process.

This mechanic is available at every juncture in the game where Max has to make a decision, informing the player each time that their selected action has consequences.  The twist to it, however, is that even after rewinding time, Max retains the knowledge and any inventory she picked up.  In this way the player can choose an action, find that it has horrible consequences, and with that knowledge rewind time to change their path.

As an example, in one scene Max is taking folders from a high shelf to rummage for information.  When she gets the files they fall into an oil slick on the floor.  So do you read the files and leave them, as well as evidence of your snooping?  Rewind time to not take them at all?  Or read the information then rewind time to hide the evidence?  And that theme is what fuels the game.  Are you happy with the choices you’ve made in life?  What would you do if you could go back?

Throughout the narrative Max is challenged with obstacles that we’re not used to seeing in a lot of other games.  There’s her classmate Kate who has more secrets than she lets on, teenage drama with the school’s “mean girls,” the school security guard that never seems to cut her any slack, and the entitled trust fund babies that can buy life on easy street at the expense of others (Max included).  We’re not knights of the realm, we’re not hiding from dragons or trying to scavenge for another night running from zombies.  This is an ordinary high school kid that has discovered something extraordinary about herself.  And it’s that aspect of the game that makes it easy to buy into.  Everyone has memories of rough times in high school – whether it be fitting in, finding one’s own way, dealing with being an outcast or problems with authority.  Everyone at least once has imagined they were invisible or that they could take back the things they’ve done.  Regardless of when your graduation was, there’s a simple nostalgia to Life is Strange, almost dark and sweet at the same, that gives players a connection to Max and the story.  Max also keeps a diary recounting all of her exploits and decisions as they are made.  The diary itself serves as a great vehicle for developing Max, putting her thoughts to the page and giving the player a bit more insight into the character. 

As the plot progresses, we find Max reunited with her former best friend Chloe who she can barely recognize, the mystery behind the disappearance of Blackwell student Rachel, and what can only be described as blackout premonitions of impending doom.  This first episode gave us a small taste of Max’s life in Arcadia Bay and I’m hoping sets us up well for Episode 2 in March.

The game itself is painted on a beautiful hand drawn backdrop depicting the Pacific Northwest in a way that’s colorful and dark at the same time. That’s accompanied with songs by Syd Matters, Mogwai, and alt-J as part of a soundtrack that sets the mood of every scene on every level.  The whole experience makes it nearly impossible not to be drawn into it all.  And I’m hoping for more of the same in Episode 2 in March.

Square-Enix and Dontnod deliver an enthralling title with a deliciously indie feel that leaves players with questions and the desire to play more to find the answers.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Warlords of Draenor - The Project Manager's Addiction

Every WoW expansion pack that has been released over the past few years was shipped with its own personality.  Over the classic “vanilla” build of the game, Burning Crusade was markedly more difficult but had a lot of good content on your way to level 70 (not to mention replacing your epics on the first quest reward).  Wrath of the Lich Kingcame about and it was a far less challenging than its predecessor, but had what I consider to be some of the best endgame content raids in Ulduar and Icecrown Citadel.  It also brought the story full circle for those of us that nerded out on Warcraft III before Blizzard’s MMO days.  Cataclysm brought back the pure grind-it-out progression and the fall of Deathwing.  Mists of Pandaria?  Well, they had pandas and an eastern flair but I never got into it too deeply.

Now we’re a few weeks into Warlords of Draenor, the most recent expansion pack to the wildly popular World of Warcraft MMO.  And I’ll say it briefly before I get into the meat of this – I like it.  And it’s not wholly because of the content or of the throwbacks that will let you nerd out on character origins (like seeing Akama as a full on badass Exarch instead of an ubroken roaming Outland). This expansion answered the call for player housing from a lot of the fanbase, and they did it with style by implementing the garrison system.  I probably spend more time tending to my garrison and doing garrison-related quests than I do much else.  My main toon has been a level 100 for a week or so and I think I’ve only run 2 dungeons.  And there’s a reason…

My garrison is a giant project.  And one of my real life off-specs is project management.

The whole campaign starts with bringing people in from the Capital and creating a central outpost under your command to run operations in Draenor for whichever faction you represent – be it the Alliance or the Horde – when you have to sign off on the plans from the first buildings.  And from that point of initial construction, 100% of the mechanics involve running things (albeit in a much more toned down way but you know) in any sort of project.  As you level up more things open up to you in terms of crafting, garrison resource generation, heroes from around the land that follow your lead and run missions for you, and how much time and money it’s going to take to get it all done and customize it to exactly what you want.

(In other words, I just listed timelines, stakeholders, project resources, personnel, production/manufacturing, and change controls).

The player picks what buildings they want to be constructed to produce items or unlock certain rewards.  And other buildings are there to provide resources to get there.  My tannery lets my leatherworking department make stuff for me as well as higher grade materials for crafting and selling high end moneymakers.  My inn is a recruiting place where I can interview potential followers.  Hell there’s even a shack for fishing.  Everything can be laid out (almost) exactly like you want it.  And there’s a panel to track all of it.

And then… there’s the garrison missions.

Every mission that’s run has a reward, but they all have a set resource cost and personnel cost.  When you see a slate of available missions it’s up to you to figure out which skillset goes where, how long it will take and whether the cost and time is worth the reward.  Because nobody wants to wait 8 hours for just a tiny handful of coin.  I mean it’s insulting really.

Take the mission “The Infernals’ Fury,” for instance.  To guarantee a win in 4 hours I need level 100 followers with skills to counter the following: Wild Aggression, Massive Strike and Deadly Minions.  As you can see my girl Qiana Moonshadow has wild aggression covered handily, but I’m short on the other two.  My Dwarven associates Delvar and Bruma are my go-to aces to deal with massive strike and deadly minions.  But here’s the problem – they’re on another mission that is taking forever.  And even while they’re spreading the word of badassery in my name, that doesn’t give me something as good as that armor enhancement token.  So I can’t do this one right now – and that’s called opportunity cost, kids.  When they get back they’ll be assigned here because it’s a more important reward.

I can always put in my junior team in though.  They have the same skills, but since they’re not maxed out, my chance of getting that token would drop.  I mean you don’t take Peyton Manning out of the game unless he physically can’t play, know what I’m sayin?

So if Burning Crusade brought the gear, Lich King brought the break, Cataclysm brought the grind, and Pandaria brought the… well, the furries – Warlords brings the project.  And I am loving every second of it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Square-Enix trolls fans with Final Fantasy VII for the PS4

By now I’m going to guess that you’ve heard about the monkeyshines and shenanigans that occurred at the recent PlayStation Experience event.  But if not allow me to set the scene for you:

Our boy Shinji Hashimoto from Square-Enix comes out on stage to tell the audience something that many Final Fantasy fans have been clamoring for for almost 20 years –Final Fantasy VII, hailed by many RPG fans as one of the greatest games of all time, would be coming to the PlayStation 4.

If this is new to you then I know what you’re thinking kids – because I’m sure I was one of the many that did the same thing.  you’re replaying a next-gen version of the Bahamut ZERO summon in your head, trying to picture what the Gold Saucer would even look like, creating mental images of Midgar and that awkward Wall Market scene with Beautiful Bro.

But then reality sets back in.  Yes, Final Fantasy VII will be available for the PS4.  No, it is not going to be awesome.  It will be the same as the one released in 1997 – a port of the PC version of the game to be available in the spring of 2015.

We all got trolled.  Again.  And this time they did it to our faces in front of a huge hall full of people, getting them super excited then taking out their knees.  Here’s some video from Kotaku’s Fahey showing the presentation.

Now those of you that know me know how I feel about remakes in general – a lot of times to me they’re a cheap cash-grab with no discernible advantage to the older version outside of convenience to pick up some additional revenue to a market they haven’t sold to yet.  And in the process, while throwing away creativity and the opportunity to do something new for the fans, they repackage our childhoods and try to sell it back to us.  It happens all the time.

So you may be curious then – why this article about this recent event is getting my attention given this opinion of mine I’ve just shared.

Here’s the thing.  I’m not mad the remake isn’t happening.

I’m mad at how things have played out over the last decade or so in general, especially with this game company on remakes.  It was easy to remake the titles from the NES and SNES era – there’s something like 5 versions of Final Fantasy IV running wild over a number of consoles among a few others.  They’re decades old games remade with PSX graphics.  VIII’s on Steam and I’m not sure who really cares about a IX remake – and these are two additional Final Fantasy titles also originally released on the first PlayStation.

(S-E remakes for Android devices also have an always-on requirement, which already irk my ire, so this on top of that really sticks in my craw.  But that’s another story for another day.)

But for VII, they give fans hope.  In addition to the original game, Square-Enix developed an entire universe around Midgar, with spinoff games and video titles like Dirge of Cerberus, Crisis Core, Last Order, and topping them all off with the feature length Advent Children in 2005.  But it didn’t stop there.  In 2006 to show off graphical capabilities they released a technical demo for the PS3 engine (watch it here, it’s wonderful).  This demo featured the intro to Final Fantasy VII redone using the PS3 engine.  It was glorious.  Midgar looked great, the train details down to the sparks on the tracks were sharp, what we saw of Aeris was lovely, and Cloud’s eventual entrance on the train platform was done with style.


Square Enix showed us what one of the most revered games in modern history could look like, while having no intention of ever delivering.  We saw what could be, and the fact that they used that property for the demo sparked many rumors that a remake was in the works.  Since then, the game has been released in its original form on PSX, a 4-disc PC edition, a download on Steam, and playable on the PS3 through the PlayStation store.  Someone could have paid for 4 copies of the same game, with not much more than the addition of trophies and achievements added to their total gameplay experience.

Well I guess there is some sort of charm about huge pixels on TV’s sized like they are these days.
Still though.  Colossal who cares.

But we’ll never get delivery on the vision of the future Square-Enix had shown us with that demo.  They’ll continue to make money on every copy of this that was sold on multiple platforms from 1997 to today.  The game has still been wildly supported by its fanbase, some of who will buy every version of it out of loyalty and let’s be honest, to some extent mania.  Fans will keep assuming it’ll happen because Square-Enix keeps supporting the product and dropping hints unofficially while officially denying it.  For the same reason, Square-Enix will keep selling it.  And this dance will go on for a good long time.  And to think, this all would have never happened if only the PS3 was back-compatible.

Bottom line – if you’re waiting for a next-gen Final Fantasy VII remake, I wouldn’t hold my breath longer than a Knights of the Round summon.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Windows 10 Technical Preview So Far

A little while ago Microsoft released a technical preview for their newest operating system, Windows 10.  I got a chance to play around with it some and see what's new and improved over Windows 8.  Keeping in mind that an official release likely won't be until the middle of 2015, there's still a lot of time for things to change.  And if this turns out to be anything like the Windows 8 release process we still have the developer preview and consumer preview to come before an release candidate or RTM.  If you're interested in seeing how that process unfolded for Windows 8 in fact, you can check out my series on the Windows 8 RTM from 2012 here.

Personally, I never really had a problem with Windows 8 - it was a little different but to those that do the computer thing for a living the learning curve was fairly small.  But to a lot of Windows users, dealing with the new UI they introduced was a nightmare, and let's face it kids, to them that Start button was the truth.  They just didn't know it until the Metro UI Start Screen had replaced it.  The backlash was huge from users on both the home and enterprise sides, and being a professional nerd I was able to see the meltdown first hand by both sectors.  I watched home users stumble and fumble trying to deal with live tiles to find programs with, I kid you not, pure distress and pain in their voices like someone had just robbed them of a family heirloom.

Oh that start button.  It's like Windows users everywhere were collectively Gollum and that button was the damn precious.

As for the business side, IT shops were reluctant to say the least about putting 8 into play.  I myself said that there was no way would roll it out into my environment.  I even made sure the workstations I got on our last PC refresh were downgradable to 7.  I had visions of my users coming after me with torches and pitchforks, with calls and complaints to my team every 15 seconds - sad, tearful users murmuring "but... but how do i find mail?"  So this OS which was intended to bridge the gap between mobile and desktop never really got a good foothold.  No one really wanted it.  The start button became a turf war.  So naturally the biggest cosmetic change users will notice in Windows 10 is the return of -

<insert fanfare here>

The Start button

Start button lovers rejoice!  While it may be a little different than what you're used to, it's back with a couple of tweaks.  Instead of the full start screen, what they've done is given you two things side by side - a mini Windows 8 style start screen joined with the Windows 7 style start button.  And actually it works pretty great.

The settings allow for customization so that you can have as many (or as few) live tiles as you want on your start button, while displaying as many things as you want on the left side of the menu.  Apps that are frequently used will pop up there, along with any shortcuts you choose to add like Control Panel or Administrative Tools.  Right clicking the start button also gives you shortcuts to commands that are commonly used, like command prompt and computer management.

When adding live tiles (done through a simple drag and drop mechanism), you can still customize their size and with it how wide your start menu can get.  I would almost consider the live tiles portion of the start menu something like the notification bar on an android device, automatically updating and notifying users when something new is happening.  And if you're the type of user that's just a live tile glutton, you can actually add enough live tiles to extend your start menu all the way out to the right edge of your screen.

Now to be honest I kind of missed the Windows 8 start screen a little bit while starting my foray into 10.  It became one of those things I had gotten used to using that eventually found its way into my routine.  But I got over it pretty quickly.  I was never really one for menus anyway - I'm from the old school.  I grew up with Windows 3 and DOS 5, and do most things with shortcut keys, the run command and command prompt (oh that's right).  But for those of you (I'm sure the number is few) that prefer the start screen, all you have to do is change a setting, and clicking start brings back your full start screen.

I mean it is pretty.

The funny thing is though, while so many users reviled 8 for it's lack of a start button, the Windows 8 technical preview DID in fact have a start button option, which was able to be toggled on and off with a registry setting.  That registry key was removed by the time we got the consumer preview in 2012, which left more than a few IT pros (myself included) confused.  Strange decision on Microsoft's part, but one they're making up for now.

Virtual Desktops

They're called virtual desktops but don't get them confused with virtual machines.  What Windows 10 has done with this is added functionality to the alt+tab shortcut we all love so much to switch between running applications.  What's new though is what happens when you hit window+tab - it will again give you the option of switching between your active programs, but at the same time allow you to add a virtual desktop for some more space for more stuff.

I run 2 monitors and will never (ever) go back.  When I need extra desktop real estate without clutter I can drag stuff over to my 2nd monitor and still see everything clearly.  What virtual desktops do is allow a user to simulate that multi-screen environment on a single screen.  You're still only running one Windows session, but as if you have multiple desktops with different things on each screen.  For those of you that run Linux systems this works exactly like the multiple desktops in a KDE or GNOME setup.

So for example, in the screenshot I have here, window+tab allows me to see what I have running on my current desktop (we'll call it desktop 1), on which i've got my documents folder and the launcher (I was fixin' to play some Diablo III).  But it also gives me the option to switch to another desktop I have running (desktop 2), in which I'm browsing the internet in Google Chrome.  Or if I wanted to I could make a third virtual desktop for more space.

And to cut down on confusion, Windows also tells you what you have running in other desktops.  For example in desktop 1, Google Chrome is highlighted with a faint grey underline to tell me it's running elsewhere.

Compatibility (machine specs at end of article)

On my main rig*, so far I've found that if it works with Windows 8, it'll work with Windows 10.  The technical preview had no issue picking up all of the drivers for my devices from HP and nVidia, and worked with my motherboard without breaking a sweat.  The first thing that came up when I fired it up for the first time was a notice that there was a Windows Update available for current version drivers for all of my stuff - which is surprising, given my experiences playing with other OS previews and betas from big blue.

To test it further I installed some stuff I would normally use on my machine - namely the application and Diablo III.  Everything ran smooth with the settings turned all the way up, but there was some definite video lag and choppiness in animations when there was a lot of activity happening on the screen.  This doesn't happen when I'm running it through Windows 8.1. 

On my older Windows 7 laptop* though there were a few snags.  Radeon drivers gave me a bit of trouble installing the driver and Catalyst software, and some of the HP-specific stuff was hard to get without manually searching and trying to force Windows 7 drivers to work with 10 which were, well, not very friendly to say the least.  But that's older (well, old-ish) hardware, so I wasn't really surprised.

The Early Verdict

I like it and I like what it could potentially be.  For an early build, it looks like Microsoft has really focused on fixing the shortcomings of Windows 8 and trying to put out an operating system that has some appeal to all users, both desktop and mobile.  Which is good, because I was never on board with the "post-PC era" shtick I've been seeing everyone buying into for some time now.  It feels good on my main rig and I can still see using it on a Surface or other Windows tablet, so it looks like this could potentially deliver to both a good touch as well as a mouse and keyboard experience.  Then again I did say the same thing in my early Windows 8 impressions, and that did go, shall we say... awry.

As it presently stands I would consider this a definite upgrade for users running Windows 8 on a desktop, but wouldn't call it a necessary update for users running Windows 7.  Windows 7 is still in effect and a complete operating system that users are still crazy for, and with reason.  It's a solid OS both for home and business, and let's not forget that it rescued us from the beast that was Vista.  So far this technical preview has hit over 1 million downloads, so we'll see how this goes.  I'm sure they'll generate a lot of feedback to shape how these builds roll out. 

* Main rig test specs: ASUS Z87-Pro, i7-4770K, 8GB G.SKILL Ripjaws X, nVidia GeForce GTX 660 2GB, 1TB Western Digital Black
* Windows 7 laptop specs: HP dv6t quad, i7-2720M, 8GB DDR3, Radeon HD 7690M 2GB, 750GB HDD