Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review: Little Big Planet 3 (PS 4)

I rarely review video games that I don't finish, but I was so close to finishing the main story in Little Big Planet 3 that I'll make an exception.

The biggest issue with the game on the PS4 has been the loading screens. While I also faced slow loading times on the PS Vita, and even the PS3, I've been reconditioned by the superb PS4 experiences so far to be unpleasantly surprised that every little sublevel on this title entered me into a loading screen. Not only are there a lot of loading screens, but they are ridiculously, unpleasantly long. Even in cases when you die during a level, you'll get a loading screen. If you die a lot, eventually the Hybrid SSD installed on my machine would cache it so that it's no longer unpleasant, but given that no other game seems to have loading screens, Little Big Planet 3 stands out in particularly poor fashion.

All this would be OK if the game play was great or a step up over prior versions of Little Big Planet. The introduction of 3 new characters, each of which have special game play features and puzzles are promising, but you use them far too little in the main game.

What broke the camel's back in this particular case was the final mission. You have to unlock 3 different levels. The problem is, there's no checkpointing whatsoever between the levels. So if you died in the middle of level 3, for instance, you'd be flipped back all the way to the beginning and you'd have to do everything all over again. This would be unpleasant if you're 9 years old and had plenty of time to play. For a busy parent, this is player-abuse, and caused me to ship the entire disk back to Amazon.

Between the loading screens and lack of respect for the player's time, this game gains an avoid rating. (Yes, I invented a new rating for games you should actively avoid)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Triplet Update

It's been a while since our last Triplet update.  Since our late summer misunderstanding, Bowen and I have been riding to school nearly every day. Commuting is rarely a pleasure, with driving being misery during school hours, but cycling is much better.

It would be an understatement to say that riding to school with Bowen is a pleasure. To my surprise, I find myself looking forward to it, and am disappointed now in the fall, when it's starting to get too cold even for my little tough guy to ride. It's only a 3 mile commute (each way), but it rarely fails to put me in a good mood.

Upon reflection, I think I understand why. Years of commuting by bicycle has gotten me used to abuse, irresponsibility, and rudeness from motorists. I've had objects thrown at me, drivers cut me off (deliberately or otherwise), or even been hit by a motorist who claimed he couldn't see me. (His insurance paid up)

But cycling on the triplet with Bowen in tow is a different story. I've had car drivers pull up next to us and give him a thumbs up. I've had truck drivers stop and ask us where we got the bike. Cyclists all wave and shout at Bowen, "Look at that bike!" Today, we had a car pull up and drive slowly behind us. I'd been so conditioned by poor drivers that I assumed that he had no idea how to properly pass a cyclist, so I pulled over. When he drove past, I saw that he had his cell phone out and was taking a photo of us.

Even on my way home after dropping him off I had one of those giant tech company buses (the huge intimidating kind that draws unwanted attention from San Francisco residents) pull up next to me at a traffic light. The driver waved at me through the windshield and gave me two thumbs up.

I wonder when kids turn from cute to not-so-cute in the eyes of 3rd parties. I guess I'm going to get a first hand experience of that metamorphosis through the reactions I get from other road users, assuming that we keep up the habit of cycling to school. Occasionally, people tell me that some of my posts paint a rather dire picture of parenthood, but it's really a mixed bag. Along with all that crazy baggage you do get some daily pleasure. And if I ever have second thoughts about picking up a giant expensive bike just to move Bowen around to school, that daily pleasure makes those thoughts go away.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Review: Mind Dimensions Books 0, 1, 2

I'm a sucker for deals, and when I saw Mind Dimensions 0, 1, 2 on sale for $0.99, I picked it up and gave it a shot. Indie books aren't always the best bet for good reading, but I was very pleasantly surprised to find the book not only readable, but quite fun.

The idea behind this book is that the protagonist, Darren, can freeze time. When he does so, he enters a "mind dimension", where he can move around, read, learn skills, etc. without either aging or otherwise impacting the world. The book begins when he meets someone else who can do the same things, and the plot unfolds from there, both revealing powers Darren himself didn't know he had, and two communities of similarly super-powered humans that seem to be at logger heads.

The universe is well thought out, and the authors do a great job of working through many of the implications of such powers. We even get a good look at the sociology and workings of their societies. In any such environments, it's very tempting for the authors to pile on other super-powered people or large numbers of factions in order to distract the reader or make the world look more complicated than it is, but the authors avoid the pitfalls.

The characters are a bit stereotyped (though since nearly all of them are Russian it at least feels different from the usual WASPish-background fantasy characters), but are at least functional. The action scenes are fun.

As an airplane novel, this is as great as it gets. Just don't expect more than that. Mildly recommended.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Santa Cruz Factory Demo

It's been a while since I did any mountain biking, and while searching for a mountain bike rental place near Wilder Ranch in Santa Cruz, I noticed that the Santa Cruz Mountain Bike company does factory demos! The price is quite reasonable: $20 per person, and you get to book the bike you'd like to ride, complete with SPD pedals if you ride SPDs, or supply your own pedals if you have other types.

We showed up at 10:30am: finding parking was a major challenge in the area, but we fortunately found something. The friendly mechanic had our bikes ready, and we raised our saddles to a comfortable position and then took off. When I picked the bikes off the menu on the company web-site, I expected that we'd demo the lowest end version of the bike. To my surprise, the demo bike was the highest end carbon fiber wonder-bike, with top end components, including a single-chainring, 32x10-42 drive-train. The bike weighed 20.8 pounds!

As a result, when I got to the bottom of the hill at Wilder Ranch, I started up the climb and could not bring myself to pause or stop, because it was way too much fun climbing with a bike that light that I did not want to stop. Once I got to the single track, I found out to my dismay that I had let it go too long between mountain biking trails: I freaked out at some of the drops which I would have never thought twice about doing in previous visits to the park. Fortunately, an hour later, I was once again riding those drops.

One of my objectives this time was to figure out whether or not I liked 29" wheels on a mountain bike. 29" wheels are effectively 700c rims with mountain bike sized tires. The theory is that with a larger wheel you get a better angle of attack on most trail obstacles, making it easier to climb. I was pleased to discover that the theory matched up with practice: it was indeed far easier to roll over obstacles than with 26" wheels.

Unfortunately, just as I was starting to have fun, I found a flat tire. This was my first experience with flat tires on a tubeless wheel, and it was an incredibly frustrating experience. I borrowed tire levers from other cyclists, but could not get the tire off, because the tire was sealed to the wheel using some sort of sealant. I resorted to pumping up the tire every 3 minutes to get down to the bottom, and then to the bike shop.

We returned the bikes to the factory, but had to run because we had to pick up Bowen from his school. I knew it was a successful day when my wife asked me how come I'd never taken her to Wilder Ranch State Park before!

Now I just have to get a mountain bike for myself and practice a lot before I do something similar again.


  • The factory's usually booked up on weekends, so go on a weekday. You need to reserve the bikes before you show up.
  • Bring your own pedals, or an SPD tension adjusting allen key. I found the factory pedals tough to get into and out of because they were set at too high: doubtless the person who rented the bike before me was much heavier.
  • Bring your own pump! Despite the mechanics' statement that it would be difficult to flat on tubeless, I managed it (hey, if I can crack a titanium frame, I can break anything). If I hadn't brought my own pump I would have been walking back to the shop.
Needless to say, this experience is highly recommended and an amazing value.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review: Hi-Float Balloon Treatment

When organizing a kid's birthday party, you pretty much need balloons. It costs about $24 to get a helium tank and a bunch of balloons. For $14, however, you can make those balloons last much longer. The trick here, is to buy a jug of Hi-Float.

Hi-Float is a plasticizer that you squirt into a balloon to create a layer of plastic which is much less permeable to helium than the latex of a balloon. The idea is that you'll squirt the plasticizer into balloon, massage the balloon a bit to spread it, then fill the balloon with helium, tie it off, and then you'll end up with balloons that'll last about as long as the mylar balloons you can buy for $1 each. Each 16oz container of Hi-Float will provide enough coating to use 2 of the standard tanks you can acquire at Target.

There are a few issues that you have to work through to use Hi-Float successfully:

  1. You have to stick the nozzle of the Hi-Float all the way into the balloon. Otherwise, the plasticizer might not coat the balloon evenly, and you'll get early deflation. This happened the first time I tried it.
  2. The plasticizer itself adds weight to the balloon. So while you might have gotten used to filling the balloon to a certain level before it'll float, you have to add more helium than before to do so. This caught me out the next couple of times.
  3. Because of this, the standard helium tank will fill fewer balloons than it would if you didn't have the plasticizer installed. However, those balloons will float for quite a bit longer.
  4. The plasticizer also has the effect of darkening the insider of the balloon. If the balloons used to be closer to being translucent, they will now become quite a bit more opaque. Test a few balloons first if color matters to you. (It didn't matter to me or the kids who liked balloons)
All in all, it's relatively cheap compared to the helium tanks, and if your kids keep asking for balloons every time the previous one deflates, this will make your intervals between helium tanks much longer. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review: Temple of Elemental Evil Board Game

Bowen's finally getting around to doing addition in school. Geek that I am, I decided that the best way of reinforcing that is to get him into D&D. I thought about ordering the Basic Set, but decided that that was way too abstract (despite the fun dice). The Temple of Elemental Evil board game, however, looked like it would be fun (and had lots of fiddly bits), and was a cooperative game, so we didn't have to worry about being competitive. And yes, I'm the kind of parent who looks at the suggested age (14+) and think that it's ridiculously silly, but it's probably set for an age where a kid can open the box with his brothers and read the rules and understand everything. I wasn't expecting Bowen to read the rules, just understand them.

The game does come with a ton of fiddly bits. There's a load of miniatures, multiple dungeon tiles that fit together like a puzzle piece, and a couple of rulebooks. There are also character cards, condition markers, hit point markers, and a set of character cards for each character. And of course, the trade-mark d20. We spent a happy hour punching out all the counters, sorting the cards, putting the minis into various zip-loc bags, and then proceeded to play the game wrong once before finally figuring it out.

The sequence of play is straight forward: you can move and then attack (or attack and then move), then draw a dungeon tile (if you've stepped onto a square to extend the dungeon) and/or an encounter card, activate monsters, and then pass it on to the next player. What's tricky about the game is that it makes a distinction between tiles and squares (the grid marked onto the dungeon tiles) and I failed to understand the difference at first because real D&D only counted squares and didn't have the concept of tiles.

That aside, Bowen found the game surprisingly fun. He immediately decided to play the Cleric, and I picked up the Rogue. The game has a lot of traps, but that was part of the fun. He loved rolling the d20, and then I'd help him add the modifier. (There's only one, and it's usually +5 or +6, but there are +4s, +2s, and various other combinations here and there) I had to frame his decisions for him, or he'd get lost, but he loved killing monsters and picking up a treasure card.

The game itself is actually quite hard. Encounter cards are very dangerous, so you have an incentive to keep exploring as much as possible so as to not necessarily have to draw encounter cards. (You have to draw an encounter card anyway if the tile you drew had a black arrow, and yes, Bowen had no problem understanding that rule) You can prevent encounter cards by spending experience (which you accumulate by killing monsters). You can spend treasure to level up (each character only has 2 levels)

The game thus scales itself with more players: each additional player means more encounter cards. In addition, if you play the game with its 13 scenarios as a campaign, the game self-adjusts in difficulty: the more successful you are, the more dangerous encounters and monsters get added to future scenarios. If you barely succeed, then less dangerous encounters get added, and you also get more treasure to spend to upgrade your characters and buy items. If you fail completely, you get to keep the treasure, but you also have to replay the scenario. I can see scenarios under which this gets you into a death spiral and then you'd have to replay the campaign and start over.

All in all, the game does a good job of simulating D&D, and teaching someone how to add. It does have a ton of fiddly bits, which meant that until Bowen was 4, there was no way playing this game wouldn't get all the minis destroyed in short order. I'd also worry about small children swallowing the d20, so I'm keeping the game strictly away from his younger brother for now. But it definitely seems like a great game for the rainy season. And hey, maybe one day that D&D Starter Set wouldn't seem like it would be too abstract for him.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Games of the Year 2015

2015 wasn't as good a year as 2014 for games. Part of that was because in 2014 I was catching up on years and years of backlog, which meant that I managed to get really good games to play. 2015 was more of a mixed bag, but nevertheless still had quite a number of highlights.

Not surprisingly, Sleeping Dogs was easily my game of the year for 2015. It's an old game, but on the PS4 it shines, and manages to break all the stereotypes of an Asian protagonist in a video game, while providing not a single moment of downtime. I've since tried a large number of open world games, and none of them are as well executed as this one. I'd look for more games from this developer.

A close second was Arkham Knight. The game was a victim of unrealistically high expectations, which resulted in lackluster reviews online, as well as a few own goals (due to excessive emphasis on the Batmobile, and of course, a famously blotched PC implementation), but taken as a whole, it's an impressively good game and highly playable. I was surprised by how I dropped practically every other game on the PS4 to play it.

The PS Vita is still a great platform, with many excellent games on it. I really enjoyed Little Big Planet, which was my platformer of the year. Surprisingly enough, another platformer, Murasaki Baby, is closed behind. While Little Big Planet undoubtedly has more replay value and higher production values, Murasaki Baby is one of those quirky games that could only have been executed by the Vita.

Finally, I still managed to use the PS3 for what I consider to be the best game of that genre, Heavy Rain. If you're a fan of Telltale games' episodic adventure stories, I think you owe it to yourself to check out Heavy Rain. It makes those games look like cheaply made children's toys, worlds where actions and decisions have no consequences, and with stories that aren't ambitious. I haven't been able to bring myself to even try any of Telltale's newer products, because I've been spoiled by a game on a platform that's 10 years old. If that doesn't make a strong statement, I don't know what does.

An honorable mention must be made for Monument Valley, the only Android Game I played to completion this year. On a platform marred by crappy puzzle games that never fail to be a complete waste of time, or micro-transaction driven revenue engines, or ad-driven infinite runners, Monument Valley stands out as a game that respects players' time, and a clear labor of love, rather than a money grab. I can't recommend it enough, especially since if you have a smart phone, you have access to this game, and it's an experience worth savoring.

Looking back at it, I'd say that if 2016 was as good as 2015 for games, I wouldn't have much to be disappointed about.