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.

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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/

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.

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.

Stories in my ears

After a couple of months of debating it I finally got an Audible subscription today. To put it bluntly it really does sum up why DRM just doesn’t work.
For those not in the know Audible is a subscription service for audiobooks. The basic plan gives you one audiobook a month for £8 a month and a discounted rate if you want to buy more (usually £4). Considering the cost of physical audiobooks this is fairly good value, no complaints there.
The problem is the format it comes in. Audible uses its own DRM file format which a few select players can play. Now this isn’t a problem when you have an Android or iPhone which have native Audible apps but what if you want to play it in the on a Windows Phone 7 handset?
There is a way to convert the files to MP3, the Audible website even tells you how to do half of it. Burn them to CD and rip them back to MP3.
So after downloading the files to my computer I then have to download iTunes which is the only player which is actively supported. Then you can make a playlist of the audio books and burn the to disc. That said you are best checking that you have a lot of spare CDs or a virtual ISO program as an audio book in CD audio format is going to take up half a dozen discs. Once that is done you can then rip the discs back to MP3.

OR you could download a pirate copy and save yourself a couple of hours of pain. If I wanted to I could have found a pirate copy in minutes and saved myself some time and money. When will companies learn that DRM like this doesn’t work. It punishes paying customers and does nothing to stop people who want to steal it doing so.

Audible you make me want to steal

Xperia Playdate?

I can’t say I use my PSPGo much, it is never on hand when i need it and i don’t want to tow it around constantly. I’m starting to warm to the idea of a phone being a gaming device that can play with the big boys. Given the rise in power of ARM and mobile graphics there isnt much in the way of a power difference between the two. In fact the two upcoming consoles from Nintendo and Sony both use ARM, the raw guts are not bespoke like they once were.

Up until now handheld consoles were they only way of getting of enjoying games on the move unless you had a unhealthy love of snake. With this barrier now all but evaporated is there any point in creating the handheld console as we know it today? The Xperia Play, the first in a range of phone handsets featuring Playstation Suite.

My biggest reservation about this isn’t the hardware or the playstation suite, It is Sony Ericsson themselves. They have managed to create quite a reputation for themselves for bad customer support, no official firmware updates but they still encrypt the bootloader to stop people updating the OS themselves.

So where does this leave me? Until Sony Ericsson change their ways and realise that selling Android phones comes with the responsibly of regular updates they won’t be getting any money from me.

Playstation Suite will be downloadable on any handset which run 2.3 Gingerbread or above which leaves me feeling I’m best off waiting for something to come out of the HTC camp. Even if they don’t bring out a handset with gaming controls Playstation Suite will use touch screen buttons instead.

Game Dev Story or: I actually bought a game from the Android market place!

The much touted and recently ported Game Dev Story caught my eye whilst checking for app updates. I had heard of the game and knew its general flavour. What I didn’t know was what a complete attention hog it would be!

Look at me! it cries, “Your new game Finally Fanny has sold 692,194 copies.” . So I do what any sane person would do. I start on the next project….then another one….then another one. My company Superfuntimes is doing ok so far, I’m currently developing for the Sonny Playstatus with several #1 titles under my belt.

In a nutshell the game is a menu driven business sim where you hire your staff, select a genre and theme then wait it out until you get the results. In a rather meta reviewing way it manages to score highly on its four game attributes. Fun , Creativity, Graphics and Sound. The simple menus are wrapped with pixel art and tones that only a cartridge driven console could make. It sets you tasks you can complete in 5 minutes of play in your spare time that edge you towards a much bigger game and it does it in a way that very original. I haven’t seen this kind of game since the old days of Detroit, the fun but ever so buggy car business sim. Due to its retro yet stylish presentation it also work perfectly well on my HTC Hero

The biggest thing this game has done is made me realise how real a platform for games Android, Windows and Apple phones are. This is exactly what the industry needs more of, portable games, not console games ported to handhelds. If you have any interest in the games industry you need to outlay £1-2 on this right now, you won’t regret it.

Does Android curb your Hardware upgrading?

It has been over a year now since i received my HTC Hero handset. Usually around this time i would be itching to get my hands on the latest upgrade. This year however I’m not chomping at the bit quite as much to move on, why exactly is that? I simply have very little reason to upgrade. I’ve long had a dislike for Apple’s ability to churn out and sell their yearly iPhone upgrades which lack features of their competitors but I’m starting to see method in their madness.

I love Android, its open and forthcoming with updates. I’m currently sporting the Elelinux Froyo 2.2 Special Edition on my  Hero which is great and a slot smoother than the stock HTC Sense 1.5. The problem is that i have taken away half of the reasons for upgrading, I already have all of the additional software features and will have all of the features of 2.3 when that is on general release.
Now you might be thinking Apple also do iOS upgrades for their older handsets so what is the difference? Thats correct you can for example upgrade a 3GS to iOS4 however it doesn’t have all the features and often performance drops. In short Apple do make clear jumps in terms of Software upgrades between iPhone generations even if it is artificial.
We we are left with Hardware upgrades as the big means to push the upgrading path along. I love specs as much as the next geek but how I’m finding it difficult to get excited enough to jump to the Nexus S for example. The specs are roughly double by Hero but in the real world would i really see that much better?