Sunday, February 10, 2019

Audible: Upping my book game

Before last year I hadn't really given audio books much thought. I very much enjoy reading but find myself distracted by any number of other media sources and life happenings which puts my read count at a much lower level than I'd like. Then I threw my hat into Audible's ring to give it a shot. A monthly subscription offered by Amazon, it is free for 1 month which gives one a single book credit and the knowledge that you can cancel at anytime and actually keep the books you've acquired through the service. That was enough to get me to try it and I'm now hard pressed find another service that I pay for that I enjoy more.

It's been about a year with the service now and I've gone through 10 titles, mostly on my drives to and from work where I have time to just sit and listen. I've burned through a few autobiographies by faves Bruce Campbell and Alan Alda (read by them too), experienced the first two books in the Altered Carbon series (which were superb! - I'm reading the physical edition of the 3rd one now), ripped through a trilogy by Robert Sawyer about a bridging of earths, one our own, the other one where Neanderthals were the developed species. I've gone through another Mass Effect tie in book (and just started a second) and got around to seeing what the fuss was about with The Hand Maid's Tale.

The service (at time of writing) is $14.99/mo which gets you 1 book credit for the month and discounts on the others. I tend to stick to the credits as the audio books by themselves tend to be a bit pricey for my tastes... but they do hold sales where you can pick up titles for a few dollars a piece. As I said above, the service allows you to keep the books even if you stop the subscription and they also offer an option where you can trade in books you didn't enjoy at any point for another book credit. You can listen to the service on any internet connected computer with a browser player on their site or download their app for phones which then allows you to download the book in full for listening without streaming. The two connect to the same service for tracking, so you can simply pick up where you left off regardless of where you're listening.

This is of course if you're okay with what audio books are. I've been telling a number of people about my new found past time and a lot of them come back with "I'm not sure I'd enjoy listening to a book". Which I get. But I feel it's worth a try. One thing I will note, however, is that each book offers a snippet/preview for you to test. These can be key in determining if you like the person narrating the book. I've had the pleasure of listening to some books read by the authors who really put the extra effort in. I've also enjoyed some titles read by those who love their craft, who put so much into each character and portraying the scenes within rather than just reading the book to you in a deadpan sort of manner. However, I have run across switches in readers and just plain terrible readers who make you feel like you're in a lecture rather than unraveling a wonderful tale. This is exactly why I opted to read the physical book for Richard Morgan's Woken Furies (third in the Altered Carbon series) as the third audio book switches readers after the second book and after testing it, followed by some online research I've learned it's quite hard to get through on most reviewers accounts. In this regard one needs to be careful. I feel like one bad audio book would ruin someone's view of audio books for a long time.

All of this aside, I very much enjoy the service and plan on continuing to expand my "read" base with great titles that I've otherwise have yet to sit down and read in the traditional manner simply because of how busy life can get. In closing, I'd highly suggest anyone reading this to give it a shot.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Valley Review: Quite the Gem!

Game: Valley * System: PS4 * Developer: Blue Isle Studios

Occasionally I'll get into a slump when it comes to games, starting a handful or two but never really being captivated by any in that group enough to really delve into them. Valley was part of one of these slumps which broke that trend and I'm glad to report that it's completely blown me away. It's also one of those titles that I thought looked interesting and decided to buy on a sale, leaving it on my hard drive for quite some time. I'm glad I dug into it. It's an absolute gem.

The main premise of this game is that you're thrust into a remote location known as Area 634 (I believe that's what it was called) which is inspired by the Canadian Rocky Mountains with little more than that as information. You can choose to play a male or female (nameless) character and because it is a first person perspective this really only effects the grunts you hear from your avatar. Nice that they've added both as an option, but not really impacting of the story. You're left to explore at your leisure. This is where the first high point in Valley really starts to unveil itself; the level design.

The level design is so damn smart. It's linear in nature as you follow the story, but with wide open areas that beg for you to explore and reward you with smartly hidden collectables. The flow to these levels (and they're big) really is hard to describe. I've been playing games for many many years and it's rare that I see such care taken into the layout of every piece the player interacts with. That's not to say it's too easy, it's just damn good level design. Bravo to the members behind this marvel.

Only once in the campaign did I hit a snag where it wasn't apparent what should be done (this has been found by others too). In the screenshot below (took original from youtube), you can see the green arrow I've put in to show where you're suppose to go in order to get the upgrade you need for the section after this. However, you can veer left (see red arrow) and double jump onto a set of pipes which gives you access to the ramp you see in the picture. This ramp is meant to be used after you progress through the green path and pick up that upgrade. However, following the Red and then Blue path allows you to double jump into the next section where you can't progress nor can you go back. You're left thinking you're stumped on something that should be obvious. Thankfully you can fast travel to the section just before this and re-do. Still, it's an interesting snag in a game that's otherwise a winner in level design.

The single level design issue I had with Valley.

The game takes place mostly in nature as you unravel events that happened in the era of World War II (Early-mid 1940s) surrounding an energy source found only in this area and a military group researching this energy.  The L.E.A.F (Leap Effortlessly though Air Functionality) suit that is built around harnessing this energy is an exoskeleton that allows you to leap high, run fast and with upgrades you earn through the campaign, gain access to nearly anything you can see in the game world. This is a really interesting part of the game which has exploring at it's core. The levels in which you use the ability to run incredibly fast through a charged rail system are exceptionally fun to rush through.

Without saying too much about the plot, it's a somewhat passive story telling but one that is quite effective. You don't run into other characters, you're mostly hearing recordings and reading notes. It kind of adds charm to the game though, as you're spending your time thinking about the mystery of the island rather than dealing with NPCs. You're also not gunning down enemies, which is quite refreshing.

Visually the game is quite nice to look at and oozes it's own style all over the place. From the over all world esthetic, to the neat character/creature designs and intertwined WWII era equipment, the game really makes it's own little world unique. The only gripe I'd have against the visuals would be that the shadows were sometimes too dark. I found myself blasting energy to see in the dark sometimes. But I'd be doing the game a disservice if I didn't mention the spectacular sound track. On numerous occasions I found myself just poking around listening to the music instead of completing tasks. It's spectacular. Bravo to the composer and to the technical team who interwove the tracks into areas, changing with fluidity anytime the action/setting called for such.

I've got something like 10 hours into it, have completed the campaign and am now exploring further in the levels for secrets and collectables that I missed (or didn't have access to) throughout the game as the developers let you explore once the story finishes with all of the upgrades you have earned. For a small indie team to have pulled off such a tight, expertly built (on all fronts) game that rivals massive budget titles in quality really just impresses the hell out of me. Bravo team, Bravo.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Hey Kids, don't sell your old gaming gear!

You heard me. Keep that shit. The small monetary return you get for it at the time of selling won't be anything compared to what you pay to get it back later in life as you strive to gather some of that nostalgia wrapped up in plastic.

This is a lesson I keep teaching myself and by 'keep teaching' I mean I keep failing to grasp. Too often do I reach a point where I tell myself "I'm not going to need this ever again" or "This is just sitting around collecting dust" and I sell that video game item in hopes of getting some extra cash to fuel more current gaming desires. Then comes the day where I'm itching to dig into that old game on that old system and experience that nostalgia factor... and outside of emulation (which may or may not do the job) there's no avenue to take... except starting the hunt for that older system and game once again.

It's a weird cycle and one I hope to be able to stop. Rather than sell stuff off, I want to try boxing stuff up and keeping in storage so if the itch comes up again, I can simply go looking for the box of old gaming treasures. Come the day that I want to share these 'blasts from the past' with others, maybe even my own kids (when that time comes), I'll be able to without the need to hunt these things down in flea markets, used game stores and the like.

I've done it with the PS2, the N64 and most recently, I've tripped into the desire to once again experience the PSP in all of it's portable goodness. I've spent a few months thinking about it, trying to track down some decently cared for specimens (I heavily prefer my gaming gear in good shape) and planning my jump back into that universe. What I ended up doing was grabbing a total of 3 "Less than cared for" units from a couple sellers for next to nothing and through a little hard work (and some inexpensive parts from ebay) I've managed to replace the outer case of one of the units to match it's perfectly working hardware. The result is impressive, you wouldn't know the PSP isn't a brand new - out of the box - unit. Purchased a new (third party) battery for it as well and we're into the swing of things.

I played some God of War: Chains of Olympus and Need for Speed Pro Street (both UMDs I got with the units themselves) which are a good bout of fun... but the one game I can't wait to jump into is Daxter.

Daxter. One of my Favs on the PSP. Sad the (Jak) series hasn't been touched in years.
I've still got some work to do to the 2nd PSP unit, with the case replacement for that followed by final touches to get it up to speed, then I'm going to hand that one off my fiance so she too can experience some PSP gaming (her first experience with the system) or perhaps even some adhoc multiplayer gaming with yours truly. The third unit, I'm not quite sure what to do with just yet.

Future Plans:

I am already thinking about the next project in the realm of nostalgic gaming rebirth. Simply put,  Nintendo's lovely purple lunch box: The GameCube. I haven't decided when or how badly I want to pursue that system at this moment in time however. I've got lots to dig into with the PSP and it's library for the time being.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Connected Gaming: I miss playing alone

It's no shock, if you know me, that I'm not huge into online gaming. I simply prefer, for the most part, to play alone or in a 'same room' environment with friend(s) or family member(s). That's completely fine, right? In the modern world of gaming we still have single-player and multi-player games or at least sections for each within those games, so one can chose which realm they want to spend their time with. But, I've started noticing a new annoyance in every one of my gaming systems wanting to be online and persistently reminding me that my gaming friends are doing this and that, playing this game and the other, achieving, sharing, befriending, posting on leader boards and what-have-you. It's got me to the point that I miss just sitting down and playing a game for the sake of playing a game... you know... where you lose yourself in a title for hours and experience it for what it is.

To be honest, I don't need a notification every time I achieve a new silly little goal in a game. I don't need to know when every one of my friends signs into PSN, XBL, Steam or (insert other platform here). I don't need to know every time someone starts a game, I don't need to know that someone's liked something of mine via some kind of social feature built into each system. I don't need to connect my games or systems to social media sites like facebook or twitter. Hell, I don't even need to know that a download has finished or a patch is available. I certainly don't need to have an IM/email length conversation with people every time I log into my gaming platform. Lastly, I feel it completely pointless to build an ever more micro-social system into a platform that already has this. I'm looking at EA, Ubisoft and WB specifically for their login systems that require you make accounts with them to offer features like this (as well as weird useless awards based on this idea) as a separate system built into each game for you to keep track of, regardless of platform.

I find myself, more and more often, playing games on my PC or older gaming systems that have no kind of online connection requirement (OR forcing my newer ones offline while I game). This includes emulators (one good thing about fan made stuff, it's usually not trying to shoe-horn you into giving them money), PC games pre-Steam/Origin, games from (which doesn't force you into all this connected stuff) and just about anything else I can get my hands on. Or, again, I force those gaming platforms into offline mode and disable as many notification settings as I can.

AND It's wonderful. I'm enjoying games again. I'm exploring the wastelands of Fallout, dealing with the quirkiness of Advent Rising, exploding demons in (Brutal) Doom, helping Mario get to his princess and leveling up my character in Star Ocean. All while focused mainly on my game and not the notifications of whatever my systems deems important enough to take me out of my gaming zone and quite possibly ruin an experience of that game for me.

Makes me wonder though. When did gaming become more about about instant gratification, with Achievements and constant updates about everything going on in the realm of the gaming microsphere? When did we stop enjoying ourselves and care more about the above? Which brings up another point: Why does Nintendo get so much slack for holding back on adopting this model? It's actually one thing I've wondered about for a while and now am kind of proud that Nintendo has lacked some of these features in their gaming systems. I'm actually looking forward to getting a WiiU at some point and just enjoying the games without a lot of this other crap getting in the way.

So simple. Clean of notification. Just playing a game.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

A weekend of losing myself: Sword Art Online

The name 'Sword Art Online' didn't exactly spring confidence in myself as something I would enjoy viewing. I am, after all, very picky when it comes to content I enjoy, that ringing true for anime the same as most mediums. However, during the end run of a illness that kicked my butt with a high level of success, I was left browsing Netflix for something to pass the time before sleep once again beckoned to me. SAO was chosen in a "Ehh, why not try it out" decisive click and the next two days, 25 episodes later, I'm officially a fan.

In SAO, we're introduced to Kirito Kirigaya, a gamer in the near future whom is plugging into a virtual reality MMO game on it's launch day, excited to get back into the game after participating in it's beta testing. Once he and the other almost 10,000 gamers log on and try out the system they're addressed by the game's creator whom tells them that they can't log out, if anyone tries to remove their VR headsets in the real world, they die, if they die in the game... they also die; the only way to escape the game world with your life is if one player can clear the game's 100 floors of increasingly challenging boss battles, thus completing the game.

It's not that crazy of an idea to think about, but the execution goes rather well. The character, Kirito is an interesting one as are many of the side characters he meets, teams up with or develops relationships with. It's in these relationships that the game tends to take on a stronger role than just that of a play thing. Characters start living as if this new life is their own, embracing it and giving up on the main point of the entire title itself (that of battling to become stronger and defeat the game). Some settle into roles of shop keepers, cooks, fishermen and what have you. Characters get married, start families and start living full lives... all in the realms of a fantasy world. The above aspect is incredibly interesting and I think is what pulled me into the experience. The idea of escaping into a different realm where an entire difference ecosystem exists is something I rather enjoy and find only in a few gems of universes, regardless of medium (be it books, movies, games etc). Which in of itself, is interesting too because I have yet to play an MMO game where I've felt something like that.

The story arc bugged me a little... as the entire concept from beginning to the conclusion of that story is finished in about 15 episodes, while the remaining 10 episodes, without revealing what happens in the arc of the first 15 episodes, pick up a continued story that has a different arc (yet with ties to the first). In the grand scheme of the anime's concept, it makes sense, but I question the staying power of the series if they jump story arcs that quickly. Regardless of that, I really enjoyed a lot of the characters, the themes they touched on as a series (Friendship, love, self confidence as well as death, loss and acceptance all work into it) and the connection that all made in such a short sprint of time.

I'm also excited for season 2 to finish getting made (and hopefully dubbed, as I enjoyed the English version). I nabbed a Vita game, titled 'SAO: Hollow Fragment', to help me stick with the universe until season 2 gets out, but so far, rather impressed with this series. Worth checking out :)