XCom – On the shoulders of giants

xcom-enemy-unknown-logoRemaking one of the most universally loved computer games of all time is a dream and nightmare in equal measure  Everyone has ideas on how to improve a classic, but in reality most attempts end up short of the original and often lose the magic somewhere along the way.
Enter Jake Solomon; designer at Firaxis who has always had a love for the original Xcom games. Rather than simply recreate the original in a modern engine Jake and the team distilled down the core concepts and cut out clutter. While some might see this and “dumbing down” it actually adds a lot more interesting choices.

“It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

Like its predecessor the game is splits your time between the Geoscape & Battlescape; one is focused on a strategic level and the other tactical. More than that though they act as pacing blocks giving you intensity and then refrain. The core of the modern version is the Battlescape, despite striping the points system out of the combat options you are left with are obvious and real choices.

The best choices happen when you can’t quite execute on your plan and play your A team. Being forced to go slightly off script but still giving you enough control that you feel master of your domain. This is manifested on the Geoscape with your squad almost always having some of your key members out of action forcing you to use a rookie which you cannot directly keep the class of. On the Battlescape it is quite common for you to shift your approach when two enemy types interplay causing you to fall back or fan out to avoid being flanked. Each alien has a distinct attack style which require specific tactics to defeat. Berserkers are brutal in melee if left unchecked but they can be kited between your squad members, meanwhile however you may have to also avoid moving out of cover. Knowing how to best use your soldiers, classes and talents is crucial avoiding fatalities.

Story progression is handled much in the same way as the original, plot elements are peppered in to the general missions making it feel organic. A hint of the board game Pandemic can be felt in terror missions which now make you choose one of multiple missions which will otherwise escalate. This is a template that is stamped all over the game; a set of non-perfect choices that the player must live with the consequence of.

It isn’t without its problems but they tend to be foibles that you learn to work around. Kill cams which add flare and tension but eventually you start to pick up the cues as to which outcome is about to happen. Movement can become a chore inside UFOs and bases as camera clips in and out of the ceiling, accidental clicks on the wrong layer often happen at worst time possible. Until you become more accustomed to the traits it is frustrating to cannot mouse over the icons on the Battlescape to get tool tips.

Xcom’s biggest success isn’t the game itself, more its self-contained identity, its ability to stand on its own two feet. Rather than standing on the shoulders of the giant or living in its shadow, it stands tall beside it as its own giant.

Why SteamOS?

I’ve seen quite a few people wondering what the point of SteamOS is and why you would want it.

It simply boils down to uncoupling PC gaming from its reliance on Microsoft. At the moment the PC gaming market is dependent on Windows, DirectX and more recently Xinput for controllers. Each of these places constraints on the experience for the end user which SteamOS aims to lift.

Performance
Consoles are generally considered to have better performance given their hardware compared to PCs. This is due to fewer overheads and developers being able to coded closer to the metal. DirectX is starting to look rather constrained , dated and as a result there is a move towards alternatives such as AMD’s Mantle API which work at a lower level and better leverage the parallel nature of modern technology.  If Valve’s promises are realised gamers who typically spend large amounts of money to suck out every last frame rate improvement should get better performance than they would on Windows.

Controllers
Since its introduction alongside the Xbox 360 XInput has standardised controller input for PC games. This has been somewhat of a double edged sword as although it makes it using an Xbox 360 controller seamless on a PC it makes any other controller a step more difficult to use. For example to use a generic controller on Sonic & All-Star Racing Transformed you need to either use an Xbox controller emulator in the background or edit config files for each and every game.

Cost
If you build a new PC you currently have to factor in the cost of a Windows licence, with SteamOS you just need the hardware. As more developers migrate away from Windows towards SteamOS it also opens up the doors for more Linux distributions and Mac OSX to become mainstream players rather than side attractions.

Simplicity
A typical user either doesn’t want to bother with the maintenance and complexity involved in Windows PC gaming. SteamOS promises are simpler out of the box experience which just works out of the box and requires less knowledge by the user.

Each of the aspects of Valve’s ambition require a long slow push to move the direction of the industry which should eventually be beneficial to everyone.

More Contactless

I would like to be able to pay with NFC on my phone please! My current Nexus 4 and my previous Nexus S have both sported NFC yet I still cannot make payments using it. I use Google Wallet for online payments, my details are in there and I know users in the US can download the Wallet App to their Android handsets to make payments but I’m not allowed. Its not just obscure handsets either, think of all those Galaxy S3 handsets out there! No doubt there is some level of paperwork holding it back somewhere but it’s almost like they don’t want it to take off. The technology is there, the infrastructure is there, it’s just people getting in the way.

There is a new version of Google Wallet on the way which will hopefully remedy this. If your interested but haven’t done so already sign up! http://www.google.co.uk/wallet/

Audible

Stories in my ears – Retold

It has been a long time since I first encountered Audible. My first impressions weren’t good, but I have now been a member for over a year and during that time my feelings towards the service have greatly improved.

My initial problems were with DRM and lack of apps. Thankfully someone was listening as they got their act together and made a Audible app for Windows Phone 7 and no doubt there will be one eventually for Windows 8. Having a system that just lets you get on with listening to your content flawlessly on any device kills of most of my previous frustrations. Unfortunately there is still is a convoluted process to burn them on to CDs if you want to listen to them in the car but other than that it is fairly plain sailing.

Although several people have rightly told me I’m missing out on the complete mental involvement of actually reading the book I do think the trade of being able to listen anywhere whilst doing basic tasks is a good trade off. The delivery of the audio book is also a massive factor which dictates the enjoyment of it, again this can be quite a trade off. For example I listened to the “The Way of Kings” and the Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson which were extremely well acted and executed by Michael Kramer. On the other hand the Black Magician Trilogy by Trudi Canavan had a poorer performance by Richard Aspel who I found to be flatter and uninspiring. Michael had a range of very distinct voices, you knew exactly which character was speaking. Richard’s character voices were very similar which often left me waiting for the “said Bob” at the end of the line to make complete sense of a conversation. As a result I came away with a very mediocre feeling book. The books are essentially being performed and so can go either way, sections of the books are often made more memorable by a good performance.

The Audible model is based around a subscription. For most people you will want to a token or two a month at a fixed price. These tokens are then used to pay for Audiobooks, most cost a single token although some with higher production or that have more commercial potential like Game of Thrones are some times broken in to 2 parts requiring a token each. This does sting a bit but generally the increased production quality is worth it. In addition to the tokens you can also buy Audiobooks on their own and there are often members only sales which have great bargains.

In terms of entertainment hours per pound it is extremely good value. For example I recently finished listening to “The Stand” by Stephen  King, this came in a over 30 hours for £8. This is worlds away from the huge expense of cassette audio books from decades ago. Given the convenience of always having an epic tomb secreted in your pocket ready to go at any moment whilst you are doing other things I would have to say audio books are now one of my favourite forms of entertainment.

Virgin Media – YouTube TV links with your Mobile/Tablet

David Tenant and Stephen Fry are under selling Virgin Media’s Tivo box, at least in the YouTube department.

 

Shortly after getting our Tivo we had a quick look at the YouTube app and quickly dismissed it as being to clumsy to use with a remote control. After having a play with it for a while I realised I could not be more wrong. This is the best thing since…Spanish Tortilla

In short you can pair one or more Phones or Tablets to it and use it to queue and play videos. Its all very impressive stuff.

Pairing

On Tivo open the YouTube App ,Go down to “My YouTube” , Go right until get to “Pairing”. This will give you a Pairing Code and QR Code

Android

There are there options on Android:

YouTube application – Open the YouTube app and go to a video, once it starts playing hit your menu key and go to Add YouTube TV, Enter the pairing code displayed on screen and any name of the screen. This is so you can have multiple screens attached and select between them.

YouTube Remote – Download the YouTube Remote app then scan the QR Code and open choose to open it with YouTube Remote.

YouTube Mobile website – See Below

iOS & Anything Else

Open the internet browser on your device and go to youtube.com/pair , you should get the mobile version which will ask for a Pairing Code and a name.

Once you have done that when you go to play a video from the YouTube mobile website you should see a little red screen symbol. When you start the video it should display on the TV rather than your device.

ThumbsDown

Virgin Media – Technology Win , Human Fail

Recently we have moved, with this came the opportunity to get a TV package and faster internet. Our new flat had previously had cable so Virgin Media seemed like the best option. Being a lovers of everything new, shiny and fast we decided to get Virgins new Premier Collection. This gives you the top TV package with a Tivo box + 60MB/s Internet and an old school phone line. In addition you also get a second V Box which so that you can watch the same HD TV content 0n a second TV.

Come installation day on a Friday the engineers arrived at 6pm. Due to the second V Box another cable needed to be run upstairs, this apparently caught the engineers off guard as they weren’t expecting it. The old tradesman’s saying “Measure twice cut once” doesn’t appear to be employed late on Friday afternoons. After a few minutes of hammer drilling and pinning cables we had the V Box upstairs, all it cost us was chunks of wall and badly done cabling. We now have cable curving slackly around the bottom of the stairs and pinned at an odd angle up the side of a wardrobe. After giving me the land line telephone number and connecting a laptop to the wireless the engineers prompted left. No demo of the Tivo, no signature to sign off the work.

An hour later after we have cleaned all of the brick dust of the carpets we called customer services. After a few minutes of waiting we were put through to lady who took on our concerns and said someone would call us back and arrange a visit in the next 48 hours. After two days of hearing nothing we called back. Customer service had it noted that we needed to be called back but couldn’t  give us a reason why it hadn’t been done, but we would be called back in another 48 hours. After another two days we called back again, originally “Lets get ready to rumble” whilst waiting for customer service might have been endearing but not any more. Same story again, 48 hours.

Eventually we received a call to arrange an engineer to come and inspect the work. He confirmed the state of the drilling and cabling was unacceptable, took some photos and said they would send the information back and would be in touch for when the repairs and rerunning of cable would be done. Several days later I received another call to arrange another engineer visit, apparently they need to inspect something else before the proper work could start. I asked what they needed to know, customer service didn’t know but they would find out.

After several more days of getting no where we used Twitter as Virgin have a customer service account.  After a little back and forth we were sent a form to fill in:

https://help.virginmedia.com/system/web/custom/socialMediaEnquiryForm_ssl.jsp

If you want anything done fill this in. It will take a day or two but someone with some power will call you. After doing this the ball actually started rolling, be it slowly.

Now that everything has been resolved how do I feel about Virgin Media? Although the technology and service is fine I absolutely dread ever having to deal with customer service. I would never recommend it anyone.

Android-Ice-Cream-Sandwich

Android Exchange ActiveSync support

If you want to want to use Exchange Active on a stock Android device straight out of the box you are going to be disappointed. The latest Android Gingerbread 2.3, Honeycomb 3.2 and Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 have built in support for Exchange mail however I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It will connect to your server, sync your contacts, calendar and mail folders. It will also use active sync security policies allowing administrators to force PINs and do remote handset wipes. Its all sounding good so far isn’t it? The main problem is the email itself. It will not receive updates to any Inbox subfolders without you manually going in to the folder and telling it to refresh. The 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich client does allow automatic folder syncing but then doesn’t notify you when those folders receive new mail. It will put the number of new emails next to the folder name but if you don’t go looking for them you won’t find them.

So what are the alternatives? There are quite a few out there but these are the ones I have tried
Improved Email
If you couldn’t guess from the title Improved Email is like the stock Android Email Application but improved. It adds in things like syncing of sub folders and various other features which should have really been present in the first place. It also has a good price, FREE! Unfortunately it does have a few problems. Firstly it would appear from what i understand the App is no longer being actively updated. The product itself can be quite clunky and isn’t very smooth. The widget is very basic and doesn’t look very polished. There is also a lovely bug if you try to uninstall it which makes the uninstallation fail.

K-9 Mail
A better free and open source option is K-9 Mail. This is actively supported and is generally an all round better product to use than “Improved Email”. Like most open source software it does suffer a bit from being a bit more geared towards a techy audience. Options tend to be abundant and flexible but as a result come across as complicated and unintuitive. A prime example of this is the option for “Expunge”. I love the word it doesn’t explain what it exactly its expunging. It also doesn’t support Exchange Push, it polls for changes every few minutes which will do the job but it isn’t “proper”.

Touchdown 
Despite its name this isn’t an app for American Football. Touchdown is more professional and has been on Android Market for several years now. Due to this the level of maturity the performance is a bit more refined. It does however have a cluttered, inconsistent and generally quite ugly UI. It does feel like its been slowly added to over time. It is however very capable of doing the job.

Moxier Mail

Moxier has also been around for a while and is generally very stable. It also has a refined UI that looks and behaves well. Widgets are also well covered with a dashboard that covers all of your recent email and upcoming events. As an administrator one thing i don’t like is that the forced PIN policy has been twisted so that it only applies to the Moxier application rather than phone as a whole. Despite this I would recommend Moxier Mail above the other Exchange clients I have tried. It is pleasant to use and doesn’t have many performance issues or force closes on my Nexus S and Transformer.

SBS2003 – ActiveSync Fun

I’ve had the same problem with Small Business Server 2003 and ActiveSync a few times now. Users get one of these new fangled phones, I go to set them up only to find it won’t quite work.

Exchange Connectivity Tester should be your first port of call. It runs through step by step to show you where it is failing. 9/10 times it is either a security certificate issue or….

FolderSync command test failed
Exchange Returned an HTTP 500 response

There are if you aren’t able to see any obvious problems I would recommend you save yourself some time and reset the IIS exchange virtual directories and then create a new one for Outlook Mobile Access. Its actually quite quick and simple although It does mean that no one can access OWA while you are doing it however  it shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes if you read through first. The following are two sections taken from Microsoft knowledge base articles.

Reseting the default virtual directories

 http://support.microsoft.com/kb/883380

  1. Back up your IIS Metabase. To do this, follow these steps:
    1. Start IIS Manager.
    2. Right-click Default Web Site, point to All Tasks, and then click Save Configuration to a File.
  2. Delete the virtual directories for Outlook Web Access. To do this, right-click Exadmin in the left pane of IIS Manager, and then click Delete. Click Yeswhen you are prompted with the question of whether you want to delete this item.Repeat this step for the following virtual directories:Quit IIS Manager.
    • Exchange
    • ExchWeb
    • Microsoft-Server-ActiveSync
    • OMA
    • Public
  3. Click Start, click Run, type cmd, and then press ENTER.
  4. Change to the following folder. In this example, Driveis the hard disk drive where Windows is installed:
    Drive:\inetpub\adminscripts
  5. Type adsutil, and then press ENTER. Important By default, CScript is not the default scripting host for Windows Server 2003. To run the adsutil command, CScript must be configured as the default scripting host. To do this, click Yes if you are prompted to register CScript as you default host for VBscript, and then click OK.Note If you receive a list of adsutil command options, CScript is already configured as the default scripting host for VBscript.
  6. Type adsutil delete ds2mb, and then press ENTER. Note To set the default scripting host to WScript, type WScript //H:WScript at the command prompt, press ENTER, and then click OK.
  7. Click Start, point to All Programs, point to Administrative Tools, and then click Services.
  8. To restart the Microsoft Exchange System Attendant service, follow these steps:
    1. Click Start, click Run, type services.msc, and then click OK.
    2. Right-click Microsoft Exchange System Attendant, and then click Restart.
    3. When you are prompted to restart the dependant Exchange Server services, click Yes.NoteWhen you restart the Microsoft Exchange System Attendant service, the Microsoft Exchange Information Store service is also restarted. In this scenario, your Exchange Server users lose connectivity to their Exchange Server mailboxes.The virtual directories are re-created. To verify that the virtual directories are re-created, start IIS Manager, and then view the Default Web site folder.Important If the virtual directories are not re-created after 15 minutes, restart the computer.
  9. Reset the access permissions to Anonymous. To do this, follow these steps:
    1. Start IIS Manager, right-click ExchWeb, click Properties, and then click the Directory Security tab.
    2. Under Authentication and access control click Edit, and then verify that the Enable anonymous access check box is turned on.
    3. Click to select the Integrated Windows authentication check box, click OK, and then click Apply.
    4. If an Inheritance Overrides dialog box appears, click Select All, and then click OK.
    5. Under Authentication and access control, click Edit, and then click to clear the Integrated Windows authentication check box.
    6. Click OK two times, and then quit IIS Manager.

Creating a new OMA Virtual Directory

Copy Pasted from http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=817379

Disable the forms-based authentication for the Exchange virtual directory

// To create a secondary virtual directory for Exchange that is based on steps 1 through 7 of the following procedure, make sure that forms-based authentication is disabled for the Exchange virtual directory before you make the copy. Before you follow these steps, disable forms-based authentication in Exchange System Manager. Then restart Internet Information Services (IIS). To do this, follow these steps:

  1. Open Exchange Manager.
  2. Expand Administrative Groups, expand the first administrative group, and then expand Servers.
  3. Expand the server container for the Exchange Server 2003 server that you will be configuring, expand Protocols, and then expand HTTP.
  4. Under the HTTP container, right-click the Exchange Virtual Server container, and then click Properties.
  5. Click the Settings tab, clear the Enable Forms Based Authentication check box, and then click OK.
  6. Close Exchange Manager.
  7. Click Start, click Run, type IISRESET /NOFORCE, and then press ENTER to restart Internet Information Services (IIS).

Create a secondary virtual directory for Exchange server

// You must use Internet IIS Manager to create this virtual directory for Exchange ActiveSync and Outlook Mobile Access to work. If you are using Windows Server 2003, follow these steps:

  1. Start Internet Information Services (IIS) Manager.
  2. Locate the Exchange virtual directory. The default location is as follows:
    Web Sites\Default Web Site\Exchange
  3. Right-click the Exchange virtual directory, click All Tasks, and then click Save Configuration to a File.
  4. In the File name box, type a name. For example, type ExchangeVDir. Click OK.
    (If you are doing this on SBS2003 Backup then and Delete the Exchange-OMA virtual folder, you will find out why in a second)
  5. Right-click the root of this Web site. Typically, this is Default Web Site. Click New, and then click Virtual Directory (from file).
  6. In the Import Configuration dialog box, click Browse, locate the file that you created in step 4, click Open, and then click Read File.
  7. Under Select a configuration to import , click Exchange, and then click OK.A dialog box will appear that states that the “virtual directory already exists.”
  8. Select the Create a new virtual directory option. In the Alias box, type a name for the new virtual directory that you want Exchange ActiveSync and Outlook Mobile Access to use. For example, type exchange-oma. Click OK(It must be called exchange-oma on sbs2003)
  9. Right-click the new virtual directory. In this example, click exchange-oma. Click Properties.
  10. Click the Directory Security tab.
  11. Under Authentication and access control, click Edit.
  12. Make sure that only the following authentication methods are enabled, and then click OK:On the Directory Security tab, under IP address and domain name restrictions, click Edit.
    • Integrated Windows authentication
    • Basic authentication
  13. Click the option for Denied access, click Add, click Single computer and type the IP address of the server that you are configuring, and then click OK twice.
  14. Under Secure communications, click Edit. Make sure that Require secure channel (SSL) is not enabled, and then click OK.
  15. Click OK, and then close the IIS Manager.
  16. Click Start, click Run, type regedit, and then click OK.
  17. Locate the following registry subkey:
    HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\MasSync\Parameters
  18. Right-click Parameters, click to New, and then click String Value.
  19. Type ExchangeVDir, and then press ENTER. Right-click ExchangeVDir, and then click Modify.NoteExchangeVDir is case-sensitive. If you do not type ExchangeVDir exactly as it appears in this article, ActiveSync does not find the key when it locates the exchange-oma folder.
  20. In the Value data box, type the name of the new virtual directory that you created in step 8. For example, type /exchange-oma. Click OK.
  21. Quit Registry Editor.
  22. Restart the IIS Admin service. To do this, follow these steps:
    1. Click Start, click Run, type services.msc, and then click OK.
    2. In the list of services, right-click IIS Admin service, and then click Restart.
  23. If you want to reuse Forms-based Authentication on the Exchange server, follow these steps to re-enable Forms-based Authentication on the /Exchange virtual directory in Exchange System Manager.
    1. Open Exchange Manager.
    2. Expand Administrative Groups, expand the first administrative group, and then expand Servers.
    3. Expand the server container for the Exchange Server 2003 server that you will be configuring, expand Protocols, and then expand HTTP.
    4. Under the HTTP container, right-click the Exchange Virtual Server container, and then click Properties.
    5. Click the Settings tab, click to select the Enable Forms Based Authentication check box, and then click OK.
    6. Close Exchange Manager.
    7. Click Start, click Run, type IISRESET/NOFORCE, and then press ENTER to restart Internet Information Services (IIS).