Objects in Space: Old-school space adventuring

I first met Leigh Harris, the Australian behind indie game developer Flat Earth Game‘s Objects in Space (now in Early Access) during the early 2000s when he did PR for Rockstar and Take Two Interactive for Australia and New Zealand.

Leigh was an instantly likeable and pleasant PR man who, importantly, understood  how gamers and journalists thought, and more importantly, did whatever he could to accommodate me, a then-kind-of-full-time-games writer across the ditch in New Zealand.

Little did I know that years later, I’d be closely following Leigh’s fascinating journey as a game developer and co-founder of Flat Earth Games  after a career spanning PR and video games journalism.

Flat Earth’s first game was a crafting and city building game called Towncraft (2011), which I remember playing, I think, on my iPod Touch. Next came Metrocide (2014), a top-down stealth action game that had strong vibes of Blade Runner and Deus Ex to it.

When Flat Earth announced Objects in Space, I sat up and took a little more notice. Here was an open-world, stealth trading game set in a huge universe where you’re the captain of your vessel but have to manage everything yourself, managing multiple screens and controls to ensure success, taking on contracts to earn coin and generally be a jack of all trades out in space.I just seemed like an intriguing take on the space genre.

Think of Objects in Space as strategic management of space travel and adventuring where you have to take contracts, deliver goods, upgrade your ship and outrun pirates  rather than dog-fighting through the asteroids, barking orders at Mr Chekhov to set deflector shields to full and pointing photon torpedoes at fast-approaching enemies, threatening to blow them to smithereens.

In fact, combat is more akin to submarines waging a stealthy battle underwater than toe-to-toe laser battles (in fact, I think Leigh likens the combat to that between submarines and Objects in Space is complex and deep (very, very complex and deep)  but strangely satisfying, keeping me up at night when I’d told my wife I was going to bed in “10 minutes after I’ve done this thing.” (As you probably guessed, I didn’t go to bed in 10 minutes)

I bought Objects in Space for two reasons. One: It was genuinely fascinated in what Leigh and Flat Earth Games was doing here (and for around $20 I had nothing to lose) after following its progress over the past few years, and two: I wanted to support an indie developer/studio that I genuinely felt deserved to succeed.

I’m enjoying it far more than I expected I would as it has an old-school feel about it to the games that I grew up with as a child, especially the low-poly graphics. I grew up on Lucasart point-and-click games, games like Magic Carpet from Bullfrog, Ultimate Play The Game stuff on the ZX Spectrum. Objects in Space just appeals to that old-school gamer in me where game play was king and graphics took second place, and I love that about it..

I can’t say I really know what I’m doing most of the time (and what have the screens do) and must admit that I have no confidence in my abilities in how to successfully navigate the universe of Objects in Space but so far, my time with this space sim has been nothing but a joy.

 

 

 

Wolfenstein: The New Colossus (Switch): Panic Button has the Reich touch

Think about this for a minute: I can now play a current-generation first person shooter while sitting on the toilet. Not that I did for this review but, you know, if I can if I want to.

Or in bed while my wife reads on her iPad. Or during my lunch break at work. What a world we live in, eh?

I have to say I’m impressed with what Panic Button have done with Wolfenstein on the Switch.

Sure, if you want the most graphical superior version of the game then the Switch version isn’t for you and if you’re the type of gamer that will balk at lower resolutions then, again, the Switch version isn’t for you.It’s for gamers like me who haven’t played the game on another platform and it’s for gamers who want to play Bethesda’s latest Nazi-killing simulator on the go, filling the well-worn combat boots of BJ Blazkowicz in a story of what the world would be like if Nazi’s had won WW2 and invaded the US of A.

Wolfenstein 2 is the second Bethesda shooter from Panic Button that has appeared on the Switch and right off the bat, the port seems a much smoother experience right off the bat than the port of Doom, which took a few patches to sort its frame rates out.

Make  no mistake, this version is the real deal in terms of content: It’s the same game that appeared on the PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 last year but, as is to be expected for a portable machine that has a fraction of the processing power of its rivals, Panic Button has made compromises to get the game working on the Switch.

As you’d expect, textures are much lower in resolution (mostly noticeable on faces and clothing), it uses a dynamic resolution to adjust the pixel count on the fly and the game is locked at 30 frames a second.To my old man eyes, I thought the game ran smoothly in both docked and portable mode (looking slightly better in portable mode given the smaller screen) and I had a blast.

One thing I did notice  due to the lower resolution and blurrier textures, was every now and then textures would pop in a few moments later, and at times,  picking out enemies and power ups in some locations was much, much harder than it should have been, especially when in portable mode.

Can you see the subtitles? No, I can’t either.

I found the text size of subtitles was too small for my old man eyes. Even with my reading glasses on, I struggled to read them. Dear Panic Button, perhaps an upcoming patch might address that issue?

The latest adventures of BJ Blazkowicz is a battery hog, though.  I started the game with 79% battery & by the time I’d completed the first mission and a few minutes of the second mission, my Switch’s battery was down to 42% – and the wee thing’s internal fan was working overdrive.  Wolfenstein is working the Nintendo Switch to within an inch of its life but, frankly, I can see why.

Look, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is going to have its detractors but I tip my hat to Panic Button: The developer has knocked it out of the park with this portable version and I’m glad I waited until now to play it, to be honest.

It’s just an added bonus that I can also now play Wolfenstein The New Colossus on the toilet, if I’m that way inclined, of course. I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks to Bethesda in Australia for the review copy of the game.

 

 

 

Huawei P20 review

Huawei’s P20 is the (slightly) cheaper sibling of the Chinese company’s flagship P20 Pro.

And like the Pro model, it’s clear Huawei has put a lot of effort into the camera on the P20, as it has two Leica Summilux lenses on the back and a neural processing unit in the handset that Huawei says will help you become a better photographer (the P20 Pro has three lenses).

Now, I can’t vouch for whether the P20 will help me become a better photographer but I was impressed that the camera’s software instantly recognised my dog (the tag dog appeared on the phone’s screen) when I pointed the phone at my dog.

Here’s a photo of my dog, Drew, taken with the P20. There’s one of the view out the window when I flew to Queenstown for work the other day and another one I took at night using the night mode. (The camera’s AI wasn’t infallible, though: I pointed at my wife and it briefly flashed up the tag cat – before quickly changing to portrait!)

Woof woof!

Nice view!

Less than starry night.

The P20 is a smart-looking phone, too, with a glass back that screams quality (but is also a finger print magnet) and a great screen.  The power and volume up/down buttons are on the right hand side and the P20 sports a USB-C connection on its base.

Huawei’s unit has gone the way of the latest iPhones and forsaken the 3.5mm headphone jack (so bluetooth earbuds/earphones only) and unfortunately, doesn’t have a slot for a microSD expansion card. Just like the iPhone X, the P20 has a “notch” at the top of the screen but it wasn’t too distracting, to be honest. The battery life seemed pretty good in normal day-to-day usage.

The P20 is fast and responsive, thanks to its 2.4Ghz Kirin 970 chip, and comes with 4Gb of memory and 128Gb of storage, which is handy. All in all, it’s a competent phone that ticks all the right boxes but here’s the thing:  I think Huawei has shot itself in the foot a little as I don’t think  that priced as it is (ranging in price in NZ from $900 to $1129), the P20 can compete with Huawei’s own P20 Pro, which offers more features for only a few hundred dollars more.

I mean, if you’ve got the money, it’s a no brainer to go with the more powerful unit, right? I know I would.

Thanks to Huawei for the review unit

Win God of War/Detroit Become Human thanks to GameJunkieNZ & PriceSpy

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Pre-E3 press conferences: Day 1

Microsoft held its traditional pre-E3 press conference today and I think Phil Spencer must have read my blog from the other week saying I thought Xbox had lost its way a little, as today’s pre-show presser showed that the company has realised that the Xbox One needs good games for people to play.

The show opened with a teaser trailer for Halo Infinite (then that was it for the show, which I found strange) and Xbox claims to have showcased more than 50 games, including “18  console launch exclusives and 15 world premieres”.

Games that got my attention were Ori & the Will of the Wisps, Devil May Cry 5, Gears Pop! and Gears Tactics, Tunic, Metro Exodus, From Software’s Seiko Shadows Die Twice and CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk 2077  (see the trailers below).

Another game that looks mighty interesting is The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, a free game from DontNod Studios, the team behind Life is Strange.

Another interesting announcement from Xbox was that it had acquired five new studios, including Hellblad Senua’s Sacrifice developer Ninja Theory, Playground Games (Forza Horizon 4) and Undead Labs (State of Decay).

I also watched Bethesda’s pre-show presser between doing work and while full of a few cringe moments, Todd Howard was the standout presenter and nailed it when he presented Fallout 76, an online game set in the Fallout universe.

PlayStation & Nintendo tomorrow (Nintendo at the ungodly hour of 4am so I might wait for the highlights package later in the day).

Let the nights of broken sleep begin!

D-Link Covr C1203: Enveloping your home in Wi-fi goodness

D-Link Covr C1203 seamless Wi-fi system ($599,99)

D-Link’s Covr C1203 system is the solution for when you have shit Wi-fi around your home.

I have shit Wi-fi in my house and chances are, if your house is anything like mine, the further you get away from the router  (mine’s located behind my TV in the main lounge at the front of the house), the shittier the wi-fi connection gets. Heck, before I installed the Covr C1203 system I was struggling to pick up a decent wi-fi signal from the kitchen, which is maybe 8m to 10m away from the router in the lounge.

After countless calls to the ISP’s helpdesk and tweaking of settings, things didn’t improve much: Sometimes we’d be watching Netflix using Apple TV over wi-fi and the picture quality would suddenly degrade to SD for a few minutes before cranking back up to HD. It was less than ideal.

D-Link’s Powerline solution.

Now, being the techie that I am, I’m not happy with sub-par wi-fi so before the Covr C1203 system, I bought a D-Link’s Wi-fi boosting Powerline solution, which you plug into a power socket and it boosts the internet signal using the electrical wiring in your house.

While adequate, speeds were pretty flakey at times and it wasn’t all that reliable, with the signal dropping out from time to time, I was still able to surf the web and watch Netflix easy enough using Wi-fi but couldn’t watch a streaming service like SkyTV’s Neon, which just refused to load.

D-Link’s Covr C1203 claims it’ll give up to 1200Mbps Wi-fi and each unit has three receiving antennas, which means it’ll detect the Wi-fi signal easier and provide a consistent signal. Set-up was easy enough using D-Link’s Android app. You can either use the default network name or create your own and you connect the base station to you router then dot the secondary stations around your house (the kit came with two secondary stations).

Once powered on, a  flashing white Covr logo on top of the base station means a weak wi-fi signal and a solid white logo means a solid Wi-fi signal. I had to move the around the house until I was happy with the signal.

D-Link’s Covr C1203 solution in its natural environment.

The Covr C1203 is what is called a mesh system, meaning it envelopes your house in a wi-fi, um, net, meaning there are no dead spots and you’ve got consistent coverage between the base stations. I was now getting Wi-fi all around the house: No more flakey speeds, no more buffering streams.

I took a few days to find the right placement for the secondary nodes. I originally had one in the kitchen and one in the laundry but the signal wasn’t the strongest so every day or so I moved one or two to another location: laundry, bathroom, my bedroom. I finally settled on one secondary node in bedroom 1 and the second in bedroom 2. If you measured a line from the base station in the lounge to the node in bedroom 2, you’d pretty much have a straight line from point A to point B. Each node has two ethernet ports as well.

My house is, I suspect, a pretty typical one of its time period: Build in the late 1990s, it has timber framing with a brick exterior. It’s around 225sqm in size but has a few walls between where the router is and the bedroom end of the house. I tested the wi-fi signal from three points around the house before I installed the Cover C1203.

Pre Covr testing: Lounge: 256Mbps down, 350Mbps up; bedroom 1: 69.1Mbps down, 19.5Mbps up; My bedroom: Failed the test (no signal)

Post-Covr installation: Lounge: 334Mbps down, 248Mbps up; bedroom 1: 81.2Mbps down, 102Mbps up; My bedroom:52.9Mbps down, 63.8Mbps up.

I’m impressed with the Covr C1203. Now, I can watch Neon on my iPad in HD in my bedroom and not skip a beat: It’s seamless and buffer free. We get strong wi-fi speeds right around the house now, which is something we didn’t get when both my children were at home – and they constantly complained about it.

Thanks to D-Link’s Covr system, I’m now getting decent Wi-fi speeds all over the house, which I’m really stoked about, especially during those cold winter nights when I can stay in bed and watch movies or early-morning E3 press conferences.

One thing that would have been nice to be able to do with the smartphone app is turn off or turn down the brightness of the illumination on the base station’s cover: It can easily light up an entire room when it’s pitch black. Apparently you can do that in the system’s web-based menu system but try as I might, I just wasn’t able to access it either through the covr.local website or the router4’s IP address.

Thanks to D-Link and its Covr solution, I’m a happy chappy.

Thanks for D-Link ANZ for the review unit.

Bite-sized review: Little Nightmares Complete Edition (Nintendo Switch)

Little Nightmares Compete Edition (Version reviewed: Nintendo Switch, review code kindly  provided by Bandai Namco)

What is it? Little Nightmares Complete is a side-scrolling  horror/puzzle game from indie game developer Tarsier Studios that tells the tale of a mysterious girl called Six who must negotiate a vessel called the Maw through three story chapters: The Depths, The Hideaway and The Residence. This complete edition also includes  all the DLC that was released for the game, including the story of The Kid (a second playable character) and the Secret of the Maw expansion storyline. Little Nightmares can best be compared to games like Limbo or Inside as all three games have a creepy, unsettling undertone to them that might just well have you having nightmares yourself.

The Janitor in search mode. Time for Six to hide.

So, it’s a horror. Is it scary? Well, it’s not blood and guts scary, but it’s more creepy, uncomfortable scary, with nightmarish creatures inhabiting the Maw, doing unspeakable things. The game succeeds in creating a tense atmosphere that’s unsettling at times. Making things more uncomfortable are the Maw’s creepy residents, which often force Six (and The Kid) into a game of hide and seek as they skulk around quietly, careful not to draw the attention of the grotesque beasts such as The Janitor, who has incredibly long arms and bandages wrapped around his eyes, or The Lady, the proprietor of The Maw who just seems a little … not quite right.

This is Six exploring The Maw. Quite unsettling, isn’t it?

Is there anything else I need to know about? Little Nightmare’s does a great job of creating tension and has a great visual style, which is really suited to the Switch but the experience is marred a little by the long loading times after you die, and you will die a lot, thanks to at-times-clumsy controls and at times hard-to-judge jump puzzles. The game is also quite dark visually when played in portable mode but holds up well when played in docked mode. Both run at 720p, 30 frames a second.

So, what did you think overall? Tarsier Studios does an excellent job in creating a macabre and creepy narrative with a nice twist in that one of the lead characters turns out to be more than she initially appears. If you’re a fan of games that create creepy tension in unsettling environments, then Little Nightmares is worth a look but just be prepared for some frustrating jump puzzles and long load times between deaths.

Thanks to Bandai Namco for the review code

 

Something On My Mind: Has Xbox lost its way?

Something On My Mind is an occasional thought piece about,  well, something that has been on my mind for a while. 

Last console generation, I could confidently say that the most played console in my household was the Xbox 360.

Microsoft couldn’t do anything wrong with that console and just seemed to have nailed it with the Xbox 360. I played games on it much more than my PlayStation 3.

This generation, however, it’s a complete reversal: My Xbox One console sits gathering dust underneath my TV, with my Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 getting all my gaming attention. I know it’s been a while since I used my Xbox One when every time I turn it on there’s a hefty update for it.

The reason? I think it’s because, for me, the Xbox One doesn’t have any compelling single-player experiences like the PlayStation does, and I’m a strong single-player campaign gamer. Give me single-player any day of the week.

The last time I turned on the Xbox One was to download Mad Max using the Xbox Game Pass (which I think is a good scheme) and Sea of Thieves (which I quickly stopped playing through lack of content) and State of Decay 2, two games that are strongly multi-player or co-operatively focused titles.

Sure, Backward Compatibility on the Xbox One is a nice feature,  but to be honest, I don’t have a current generation console so that I can re-play games that I’ve already played on my Xbox 360, even if they’re in a higher resolution and run at faster frame rates (look, my eyes are getting so bad these days I’m not sure I can pick up frame rate drops anymore). I have my Xbox 360 if I want to play games from the last generation.

For me, I want engaging, compelling narrative-driven games and I get that with the PlayStation: God of War, Detroit Become Human, Horizon Zero Dawn, the Yakuza series. While Sony was investing in development studios and putting faith in single player games, Xbox was focusing on Kinect and its  vision of the Xbox One being an all-singing, all-dancing entertainment centre – and I think that’s hurt Xbox.

I may be wrong here, but these days, Xbox’s target market seems to be more and more the multiplayer crowd, given its investment in games like Sea of Thieves, Player Unknown’s Underground (PUBG) and State of Decay 2.

Microsoft’s Xbox One X might be the world’s most powerful console – and I’ve no doubt it is – but for me, what’s the point of having an amazingly powerful piece of hardware without must-have, compelling single-player games for it?

I’m not a fan boy of any gaming platform: Sure, I play most of my games on a console, but I still buy and play games on my PC (I have a huge backlog of Steam games I’ve bought but haven’t played yet). As far as I’m concerned, if you play games, no matter what platform, you’re a gamer.

I’m hoping that at E3 in a couple of weeks, Xbox announces a line-up of games that will restore my faith in the hardware maker and make the most of its console’s power. All I want is some really strong single-player games that make me want to play my Xbox One just as much as my PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

Is that too much to ask?

 

Detroit Become Human review: Android unrest

Ever wondered what happens when robots become tired of their human masters and decide to push back?

French game maker David Cage has, and that’s the core idea behind his latest PlayStation 4 game Detroit Become Human, and for me, it’s his best one yet. It’s a game clearly steeped in themes of slavery, segregation (androids have to ride buses in an android-only compartment) and civil rights.

Detroit was first revealed to the gaming public through the Kara tech demo back in 2012 (which, as a nice nod to the foundations for the game, is an unlockable in the game’s Extra’s section) and I enjoyed Heavy Rain, a noir-style detective story despite the clumsy way it handled some things. However, I wasn’t a fan of Cage’s  Beyond Two Souls.

Fast forward to 2018, and Detroit Become Human shows that Cage has learned from the criticisms pointed at his previous games. Cage seems to have a love-hate relationship with gamers and critics alike: You either like what he does, or you don’t – there is no in-between.

With Detroit, Cage wisely decided to step down from the sole writing role and was part of a team that developed and narrative, and it shows, with a more grounded, more believable narrative than in his previous games, with characters I actually became invested in as the story developed. I’ve never felt like that with any of Cage’s previous games as I found his writing in games like Fahrenheit and Beyond Two Souls was clumsy, meaning I didn’t give a monkey’s about most of the characters.

Of the three androids that take the lead rolls in Detroit’s narrative – Kara (a domestic android who looks after a young girl Alice and her abusive father, Todd), Markus (works for a kind, well-known painter) and Connor (the world’s first android detective hunting for androids that have gone rogue against their human masters) – which ponders what would happen if Artificial Intelligence actually pushed back against its human masters, Connor was the most intriguing for me. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that Connor’s story seems to have more complex layers but also because he’s partnered with a human detective (voiced wonderfully by Highlander/Starship Troopers/The Shawshank Redemption actor Clancy Brown), and the two just have this wonderful developing relationship as both try to work together, learning the intricacies of the other and trying out how the other ticks.

Connor able to gather clues at a crime scene then reconstruct the events. Once an event has been reconstructed, you can use L2 and R2 to forward and rewind through the recreation to time stamps, which can be scanned to open up new information. While t his mechanic isn’t new to games (a similar one was used in DontNod’s rather good Remember Me), it adds a nice layer to Connor’s detective abilities.

After each character’s chapter has finished (the game follows the Kara, Markus and Connor throughout the course of the game), there’s a flowchart that shows how the decisions you made at one juncture lead to the final outcome. In many of the flow charts, there were many more paths I could have taken so there’s definitely replay value here for the completionist gamer who wants to see how different behaviours or actions can change the outcome of a particular story thread.

Cage is clearly using the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” train of thought when it comes to the control scheme as he’s used the familiar scheme from his previous games where you use the right thumb stick to trace patterns that will get the character to interact with his or her surroundings or perform actions (thankfully, there is no ridiculous scenarios like “Press X to Jason” like there was in Heavy Rain)

The dialogue in Detroit is just so much better than in both Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls that conversations between characters feels more natural and believable, and giving the right answer or asking the right question will often unlock another dialogue branch, allowing the narrative to go deeper.

The game is still quick time event heavy, though (hey, it’s a David Cage game), and I still managed to bumble some of the fast-paced QTE sequences in the latter parts of the game, especially during fight or chase sequences, but I blame my ageing old-man fingers. I did wonder sometimes, though, how my failure at some of the QTEs had impacted on the storyline.

Technically, Detroit Become Human really does sing on the PlayStation 4, too, with highly detailed environments and character models, and at times, the in-game graphics actually look better than the pre-rendered in-game cinematics, which is generally the opposite in most current generation games.

Detroit Become Human might miss the mark a little in its comparing the plight of long-suffering android to be akin to the civil rights movement in the United States, but  I enjoyed it and while still stumbling from time to time, it’s a nicely paced narrative-driven drama that I can see myself wanting to play through again to experience the multi-branching story threads.

 

 

Old Man’s Journey review

Old Man’s Journey, from indie developer Broken Rules, is a game for those moments when you want to contemplate and stop and smell the roses.

It’s a game for quiet times when you want something soothing and non-confronting.  It looks like a child’s water- colour book, full of pastel colours and memories of a younger time that make you smile.

The game starts with the titular Old Man receiving a letter from the postman than seems to concern him so he dons a backpack and starts on a journey. A long journey that sees him traverse hills, mountain villages, sea ports and everything in between by foot, boat and train – and have to avoid the odd flock of sheep along the way!

The quirk with this game is that you can re-shape the landscape to make paths for the old man to traverse. Can’t get across to that bridge? Just gently drag that background hill closer, enabling the Old Man to jump the gap and continue on. There are limits, though: You can’t re-shape the “line” the old man is standing on and you can’t stretch a hill further than it is capable of going.

Despite its shortness, Old Man’s Journey is punctuated by delightful moments: During a train journey as the locomotive races along the countryside, you have to join the track beneath the speeding train. If you click the bell in the lighthouse of a sea-side town, the Old Man reminisces about a wedding years ago (I’m guessing his wedding?)

If I had one criticism with Old Man’s Journey,  it would be the inclusion of “handcrafted, pressure-free puzzles (the developer’s words)”. An example of these puzzles is sometimes having to move on a flock of sheep that are blocking your path: It just felt a little unnecessary.

Old Man’s Journey is a delightful game that manages to evoke an emotional story without the spoken work just by using hand-drawn art and the emotions they conjure up.

Old Man’s Journey is available on Nintendo Switch ($US9.99), Windows PC, Mac and iOS/Android. Thanks to Broken Rules for providing a review code for Old Man’s Journey.