Monthly Archives: February 2016

Gravity Rush Remastered: When going upside down helps a lot

cutscene09Gravity Rush first appeared on Sony’s PS Vita handheld console and it made great use of the handheld’s touch screen and tilt capabilities to guide the game’s heroine Kat around a city called Hekseville, under siege by an alien race called the Nevi.

Central to the game is Kat’s ability to manipulate gravity – a power that is given to her early in the game by a mysterious black kitten that she comes across while exploring the city. Kat can manipulate gravity to fly through the air, walk on walls and ceilings and do flying attacks against the Nevi.

Gravity Rush was the perfect game for the PS Vita, thanks to its touch screen and on the PS4 it makes the most of that consoles tilt controls and while the move to the PS4 retains the things that made the handheld version good, it still suffers from the repetitive and tedious combat, especially when battling some of the game’s large boss battles. The boss battle against a Nevi that resembles an octopus which spins its tentacles, revealing its weak spot, provide frustrating in the Vita version for me, and it proved as equally frustrating in the PS4 version.

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The magical black cat that gives heroine Kat her ability to manipulate gravity in Gravity Rush.

Bluepoint Games, the development studio that also did the work on the excellent Uncharted: Nathan Drake Collection for the PS4, has done an excellent job creating Gravity Rush for the PS4 and this new version comes with all the DLC and extra content of the Vita version.

Despite its charming cel-shaded visuals and repetitive combat, Gravity Rush is a fun game but having played it on the PS Vita first, for me, Gravity Rush remains better suited to the PS Vita than the PS4.

 

 

 

TomTom Spark Cardio: The activity tracker/sports watch that has grown on me

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You can’t change the TomTom Spark Cardio’s watch face but the numbers are large and easy to read.

I didn’t intend on buying a TomTom Cardio spark activity/sports tracker when I found I had some credit card reward points to spend. I was planning on buying a different brand.

I spent days looking at devices mainly Garmin’s Vivoactive sportswatch and I was convinced I was going to buy one. I went to a local sports chain store, looked at the Garmin, spoke to the sales person about it but when asked about the heart rate monitor was told he didn’t know much about it so would get another assistant.

It was then that I was told the TomTom Spark Cardio had the better HRM and for some reason I decided on the that rather than the Garmin. I went to the cashier, swiped my bank rewards points cards and walked out with the Spark Cardio.

As I walked out of the store, and bought some sushi for lunch from a mall next door, I was happy enough.

Two days later, though, I was seriously contemplating taking it back to the store I bought it from and replacing it with something else. It just wasn’t doing it for me, for some reason.

I’d known TomTom’s was a powerhouse in the in-car GPS systems but I didn’t know anything about its sports/activity trackers so it’s a surprise to me that I bought it blindly without really knowing anything about it. That was out of character for me, but I decided to stick with it.

I used to have a FitBit Surge activity tracker but somehow my teenage swimmer son had commandeered it and I have an LG G Watch R smartwatch but ever since its battery died – and I couldn’t be arsed getting it replaced – I’ve had nothing that tracks my fitness activity: cycling, walking, the odd jog, apart from my phone – and I hate taking my phone with me all the time. I wanted an activity tracker so now I had a TomTom Spark Cardio.

The company’s Spark range comes in a variety of flavours – one without a HRM, one that can play music – but I picked the Cardio, which has a multisports mode (including indoor workouts), GPS tracking and a built-in heart rate monitor with five training zones.

It wasn’t particularly cheap: I paid $270 (well, I used $280 of reward points) but it was on special at the time so it’ll likely set you back $310 or so if you bought it when it’s not on sale from a bricks-and-mortar retailer.

Build quality.visual appeal

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A close up of the four-way rocker pad.

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The strap on my Spark Cardio has dozens of holes and three pairs of pins, meaning you’ll always get a snug fit.

I’d be lying if the Spark Cardio was a looker. It’s not. It looks like a sports/activity tracker and it looks like a black plastic strap with an LCD monochrome screen. Designwise, it’s uninspiring, but TomTom have thought outside the box a little with it in that the main body can actually be detached from the rubber strap (it doesn’t have standard watch strap fittings like other sports/smart watches) and a new strap “wrapped” around it. Additional straps come in a variety of colours and designs.

TomTom has also “old-schooled” it in the interface, too: The Spark Cardio doesn’t have a touch screen as is the feature du jour at the moment: It has a four-way rocker that you use to scroll through the menus. I actually like the rocker and as those of us who have exercised then tried to swipe on a touch screen using a sweaty finger will know, a touch screen doesn’t always work.

The TomTom’s design is functional without being stunning. It also has a monochrome LCD display, which, again, I don’t have a problem with. It means the Spark Cardio has great battery life. The strap, too, is a little unconventional in that instead of having a buckle like a traditional watch the strap has dozens of holes punched into it and there are three pairs of pins that you push into the strap holes. It actually gives a remarkably good fit and is pretty comfortable.

One thing that I’m not that taken with is the charge cable: It’s a proprietary design and you have to actually pop the watch body out of the strap a little to clip the charge cable in. It’s clunky and I would have preferred a standard mini-USB port on the watch’s back.

The interface and the using watch itself

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The Spark Cardio will count the total number of steps you’ve done in a week.

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The Spark Cardio’s cycling activity screen. The GPS strength is in the top left, the heart rate monitor activity is the heart shape. To activate the activity, you press right on the rocker pad.

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The Spark Cardio’s display for freestyle activity (walking, I’m guessing) show speed, total time and distanced covered.

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The Spark Cardio’s activity selection screen. I’ve used mine mostly for cycling and walking.

The Spark Cardio sports an LCD monochrome screen, which means that you’ll get good battery life out of it. TomTom says you’ll get about five days between charges using the GPS mode & xx days when not. I was getting about a week between charges, which was pretty good.

The Spark Cardio doesn’t have a touch screen so you use the four-way rocker to scroll between the various menus. The main screen shows the time in large numbers, which might be off-putting for some people, but I kind of like it. It also displays the date but it’s squeezed vertically in the right hand corner. It seems strange at first but you get used to it.

When the watch isn’t being used to track an activity (more on that later), pressing the left side of the rocker shows you steps for the day; pressing it again shows you steps for the week. A nice feature is pressing up on the rocker -pad from the weekly step count screen shows you how many hours of sleep you’ve managed this week (at the time of writing this, which was a Wednesday, I’d managed 21 hours of sleep).

Pressing right from the home screen takes you to the activity screen  where you can select the activity you want to track. The TomTom has: Running, cycling, swimming, treadmill running, gym, indoor cycling, freestyle (which I think means walking or anything like that) and a stopwatch.

Once you’ve selected an activity, you press the rocker pad one more time to the right, giving you a screen that shows your heart rate, details about your activity (distance, time, speed) and the GPS lock, which is in the left hand corner.

The TomTom was pretty good at picking up the available GPS satellites, meaning I was generally up and running within a few seconds (the watch will vibrate when it has locked onto a signal). Sometimes, though, it seemed to take ages to find satellites, especially if I was mountain biking where there was a lot of trees. Overall, though, I was pleased with how quickly the Spark Cardio locked on to satellites.

I was interested to see how the Spark Cardio went with cycling, both road and mountain bike. I was pleased to see that I could upload my training data to Strava, a training data site that I use on my smart phone. You can also upload data from the Spark to a few training data portals like Endomondo, Nike+, Jawbone and MapMyFitness.

The Spark Cardio’s Heart Rate Monitor isn’t always on so you won’t be able to get your resting heart rate while you sitting on the couch. It’s only active when you’re doing an activity and it tracks your heart rate over the duration of your training session so you can analyse it later using TomTom’s MySports software (which is functional at best) or Strava’s own web portal. Personally, I checked all my data via Strava: It’s much better than TomTom’s MySports portal.

TomTom's MySports web portal is functional but lets you breakdown your activity.

TomTom’s MySports web portal is functional but lets you breakdown your activity.

The Spark Cardio maps your activity using mapping software, which you can look through later. In the case of cycling, it showed me where my heart rate was its highest and what my speed was at particular points around a course.

The Spark Cardio’s display is bright and clear, with large numbers that are easy to read while on the go and while it didn’t display my heart rate on the screen it was recording it in the background, letting me view the data at the end of the ride. It has an ingenious way to activate the backlight at night: You just have to hold your hand over the screen and the back light comes on.

Things that bug me about the TomTom Spark Cardio

The more I’ve used the Spark Cardio the more I’m liking it. I like the easy to read display (especially as my eyesight seems to be getting worse the older I get), but it has a couple of niggles that annoy me.

For starters, the activity tracker doesn’t have an auto-pause. OK, not having auto-pause isn’t a deal breaker but the function is nice to have, especially if I’m, say, on a road bike ride and get stuck at traffic lights for a while. I’m hoping TomTom’s developers will bring this function at some point but it seems if comments from posters on the company’s support site are anything to go by, users have been waiting for a couple of years for the feature and don’t hold much hope of it becoming available.

It would also be nice if you didn’t have to scroll through so many screen when you’ve finished a workout. To reach the home screen from the activity tracking screen you have to press left on the rocker pad three times. Three times. That is quite a few. Picky? Yeah, maybe but not so many button presses would be nice.

Another gripe is that the watch body itself doesn’t always feel that secure housed in the strap, especially when you press on the rocker pad. Some times when I pressed left or right on the rocker pad I could feel the watch body move slightly. Nothing that was an issue but it was noticeable and annoying at times.

Overall, though, the TomTom Spark Cardio is really finding a place in my fitness schedule. In the space of a month, I’ve gone from not sure whether I wanted to keep it to finding it’s an invaluable part of my training programme.

Here’s hoping that TomTom support it and listen to its users.

 

The Witness review: When yelling at your TV is perfectly acceptable

My essential toolkit when playing The Witness: Smart phone, heaps of paper & a pen.

Note: I‘ve tried my best not to include images that may spoil The Witness for people. I think I’ve succeeded.

The picture on the right shows what  I like to call my “toolkit” for whenever I played The Witness, the long-awaited new game from Jonathan Blow, the game designer behind platformer Braid.

There’s my smart phone, which I used to take photos (lots & lots of photos) of puzzles that I would use to help solve other puzzles later on if there was several in a row (and there are plenty of times when you’ll have to solve sequences of puzzles). Then there’s the screeds of paper and a pen to scribble what I think are the solutions to puzzles: Crooked lines, jagged lines and dots where the start and end points are. Often my set up worked, many times it didn’t.

The Witness is a game where you’ll need paper to jot things down, to scribble in, to write notes.

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My essential toolkit when playing The Witness: Smart phone, heaps of paper & a pen.

At its very simplest form, The Witness is a puzzle game where you draw lines from point A to point B on hundreds of puzzles dotted around a beautifully colourful island.

The puzzles start out relatively easy – the word is there are around 600 or so and many of them unlock lasers that fire their beams to a mountain in the centre of the island  – but before long, chances are you’ll be pulling your hair out, screaming at the TV and cursing why the hell you decided to play this game because what Blow and his team is asking of you just doesn’t make sense.

“IT JUST DOESN”T MAKE SENSE!,” I heard myself muttering.

You’re allowed to curse, scream and yell at your TV when you’re playing The Witness. You have my permission (and you will curse, scream and yell while you’re playing this game).

I'm not sure what the mountain is all about yet but it's clearly important.

I’m not sure what the mountain is all about yet but it’s clearly important.

When that happens – and it will happen – I found pausing the game, stepping away for 10 minutes/2 hours/the next day then coming back to it  helped. Most of the time. I’d also find myself thinking about the puzzles in my head while I was doing something else, or away from my PS4. I’m not sure whether that helped solve things or not.

Things do get head-scratchingly hard and I have an admission to make: After hours and hours of failure on a puzzle set in the treetops, I did the unthinkable: I consulted a YouTube walk through to help me solve it. It was a last resort but I saw no other option.

Make no mistake: The Witness is a game that many will outright hate and question its existence and that’s fair enough: It’ll set you back $NZ60, which is a lot for a game that will cause you to scratch your head and potentially scream in frustration, even if it is taking place in a meadow with trees with pink blossom, spindly branches and apples …

Pink blossum, meadows, puzzles on screens. What does it all mean?

Pink blossum, meadows, puzzles on screens. What does it all mean?

The Witness doesn’t hold your hand: There’s no tutorial, there’s no “This is how you solve this, sonny. You’re welcome”. You’re on your own from the beginning, expected to work out what to do and what solving each puzzle actually does (sometimes it’s not so clear, other times it’s as plain as day). There’s also no order in which to solve things but if you’re completely stumped by a puzzle chances are you’re not ready for that one yet.

The puzzles are one of two types: Observational, where you have to use cues in the game world itself to help solve the puzzle, and mathematical, where you have to use sequences of colours or shapes to find the solution (ie like Tetris. Funnily, enough, if you like Tetris you’ll love a lot of the puzzles in The Witness).

See that tree house in the top left corner? Yeah, this area proved troublesome so I had to consult YouTube. Please forgive me.

See that tree house in the top left corner? Yeah, this area proved troublesome so I had to consult YouTube. Please forgive me.

I’ve been playing The Witness now for a few hours – I don’t know how many exactly – and I think I like it. I can’t say it’s been fun the whole time, because it hasn’t. I mean, it’s got puzzles that are designed to frustrate and confound but it has been rewarding. It has definitely been that.

Oh, and there are boats that you can use to travel around the island. I only found that out one night after I couldn’t solve a puzzle to open a gate. The Witness has boats. Here’s video of me going on a boat ride

If you’re who likes to run around game worlds shooting things then you’re going to hate The Witness. The Witness makes no apologies for being a game that challenges the player into using their brain and ability to work out sequences and combinations. It wears that badge proudly on its brightly coloured sleeve – and  I think I like The Witness for that.

Thanks to PlayStation NZ, which supplied me with a download code for The Witness.