Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review: Batman Arkham City

Arkham Asylum was the first game I ever finished on the PS3, and Arkham City came with extremely high reviews, with many critics saying that it was even better. Unfortunately, by the time I got around to starting Arkham City, Bowen was born and I was too busy to play. A recent upgrade of a video card and a Humble Bundle sale meant that I could continue on my PC with its 1440p screen and all the glory thereof, albeit several years later.

First of all, to properly play this game on the PC pretty much requires an XBox 360 Controller. For a while, I used my PS3 controller using DSTool, but then one day DSTool went and took over my Logitech Wireless receiver, which was not cool. And yes, I did try a cheap Logitech knock-off controller, but it was unsatisfying and imprecise, so I can't recommend any of the alternatives to giving Microsoft money. At least the Microsoft wired controller provides vibration control, so you do get something.

Once you've got everything set up, the game plays well, and it's a beautiful game, provided you like night-time or indoor spaces. If I'd never played Uncharted before, I would say that this was a great game, but having compared to the best of the story-based games, I have to say that Arkham City has several flaws, even when compared to Arkham Asylum.

First of all, the game is a bit too open, and tries to bombard you with information overload the entire time. This is par for the course if you're Batman, of course, but seriously, we already get plenty of information overload during our daily lives, I'd think that an escapist video game wouldn't need it. You could barrel along at full speed through the main story and ignore all the side missions, but that's not how the game was designed, so you'll find yourself ignoring the ticking clock the story points you at and do a few, just to get enough experience points to upgrade Batman a few times.

I played the game on easy, but even then, in some places there were just a few frustrating places where you felt that the controls just didn't work. The remote-controlled batarang, for instance, were an exercise in frustration with keyboard and mouse (I bought the controller to get over this section). Even with the controller, it's not perfect, and just barely workable. The fight with Joker and his underlings was a major difficulty spike: none of the rest of the game is nearly as difficult or challenging. It took me about 6 tries to get past that.

The story, of course, is incredibly well written. The writers pulled out all stops and didn't balk at eliminating the possibility of a sequel (though, as we find out a few years later, the franchise tries to get around the problem by providing a prequel). I think this is easily one of the best Batman stories ever told, in any medium, and the fact that it ties in with the Arkham Asylum very well as a direct sequel is a strength. The penalty, however, is that it's overly long, and uses way more of Batman's portfolio of villains than you can keep track of. I clocked about 17 hours finishing this game, and that's without trying to do all the side missions or the additional DLC.

The game also enables you to play as Catwoman several times during the story, and she plays differently enough from Batman that it's a fun adventure in its own right, though relatively short and fairly easy. It's a good relief from all the craziness that Batman usually gets.

Having said all that, the game does a great job of making you feel like Batman. The controls are fast and responsive, and whenever you work around the room or environment picking off one goon and intimidating the rest, you get a thrill of what it means to be Gotham's greatest detective.

Overall, I recommend this game, but I think it's a bit too hard core for a general audience. If you're not a hard core gamer, you might discover halfway through that you've bit off quite a bit more than you expected. Arkham Asylum's quite a bit better in that regard, so if you haven't played that, do that game first. Both games are relatively old now, so are cheap to get.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

If cancer doesn't strike fear in you, it should. I've had a friend die of cancer, and it was scary to watch and difficult to forget. Dr. Murkherjee subtitled The Emperor of All Maladies "the biography of cancer,: and that's as descriptive a name as any.

It discusses the history of cancer discovery and its remedies, from the primitive (early surgeons worked without anesthesia, so you can imagine how horrifying it is) to the modern (like Genentech's invention of Herceptin). Along the way, you get all the fascinating stories of heroes and villains that aren't just interesting to read about, but as fascinating as any exciting adventure novel.

For instance, early anesthetics were cocaine and morphine. Doctors frequently experimented on themselves, and as a result, many surgeons were themselves addicted to cocaine and morphine. In fact, the history of cancer research seems full of doctors who bravely experimented on themselves, including a much more recent account of a doctor who swallowed a glass full of bacteria he suspected of creating an inflammation that could eventually lead to cancer!

Since it was written by a research oncologist, the book is strongest when it discusses recent research, where details about how new targeted cancer drugs are developed and how they attack the cancers they target. Dr. Mukherjee also does not flinch from describing cancer prevention and its villains, chiefest of which is the tobacco industry. The account of the fight between the medical profession and the big tobacco companies is detailed, and exposed many things I didn't know about. For instance, smoking was so prevalent in the 40s and 50s that no one thought to consider smoking might be a cause of lung cancer. When the researchers involved made the connection, they immediately stopped smoking, but in at least one case, it was too late. The researcher had already developed metastatic cancer. Even so, the tobacco companies won reprieve after reprieve by using the familiar phrase, "correlation is not causation."

The creation of the National Cancer Institute and the politics involved is also thoroughly explored. I generally find politics less interesting, but Mukherjee did a great job tying the cancer movement with what went on later with regards to the AIDS epidemic, as well as the consequence of approaching cancer via a directed "therapy first" project as opposed to the traditional vision of government funding basic research without particular goals in mind. I wasn't excited to read it, but in the end was glad the author saw fit to cover it.

The genetic origins of cancer is thoroughly explored, and provides a great discussion of how our genes operate, and why cancer is fundamentally part of our genome and a consequence of evolution.
If there's any flaw in this book, it's that the book flinches away from discussing detailed statistics behind cancer survival rates. There are references to statistics showing that the survivor rates for cancer is still abysmally low, despite the new therapies. If the new therapies are so good, why does it not affect the population of cancer patients statistically?

In any case, the book well deserves its Pulitzer prize, and is well worth the time spent reading it. Recommended.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Review: Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons

It's hard for me to review Brothers as a video game. It certainly has all the credentials of a video game, being available on the PS3, XBox 360, and as a PC download. It requires a decently strong video card, and is probably best played with a controller in your hand, as opposed to mouse and keyboard.

Yet, it is much more of an interactive story than it is a video game. For instance, the game, while ostensibly a puzzle solving adventure game, doesn't actually have more than a couple of puzzles that aren't completely intuitive. Only a handful of puzzles would be considered challenging by even a puzzle-game-hater like me. The game deliberately eschews many of the conventions of video games. There's no leveling system, there's no real escalation of puzzle difficulty, and the designers even wisely omitted the trophy system from the main story, eliminating the usual carrots games usually dangle in front of you to keep you playing. The only thing that keeps you playing is the story, which is whimsical, charming, and gorgeously rendered. The game even provides many benches from which you can sit and just admire the scenery, which is something I used more than a couple of times. The story is told completely without dialog, just murmurings between characters, and a soundtrack that hovers barely at the edge of your perception.

The story begins with two brothers going off on a quest to find a treatment for their ailing father. What's interesting about the design of the game is that you control both characters with one controller. This sounds challenging, and it is, to the point where the design nicely eliminates time based puzzles, for instance, since most humans would have a hard time completing anything too quickly. There are a few places where you have to move by a certain time, but they're far and few between and not a big challenge even if you're not a twitch gamer.

The game excels at putting you in a state of flow, because the puzzles are well designed and intuitive. You really feel as though you're there, linking one puzzle to the next, and encountering one interesting event after another without being bogged down. The adventures are a lot of fun and the game teaches you everything you need to know as you go along without hints, prompts, or dialog. To me, this is the hallmark of an excellent UI and a coherently well-thought-out design.

It's only at the climax of the story that you realize that the game's major goal was to get you attached to the characters, learning their quirks and differences. This enables the director and story to take you places emotionally that most games cannot touch. I won't spoil it for you, but the game takes about 5-6 hours to play through and the ending defies conventional fairy-tale, movie, and video game endings.

Brothers is short, non-violent, with very few elements of horror. It's reasonably priced, at $15 full price and is currently free if you're a Playstaton Plus member. In short, you don't have any excuses for not playing it, and you should. Recommended.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Review: Tomb Raider Reboot

I've never actually played Tomb Raider, so when I saw that it got a 2013 reboot, I decided that the stellar reviews it got and critical acclaim meant it was worth a try. As an engineer, I tend to over-rate engineering achievements, and I have to say, the game engine underlying this version of Tomb Raider is amazing. The graphics are gorgeous, the controls relatively snappy, and the end result is very pretty. If while playing the game you think to yourself, "This looks like a million dollars!", you'd be right, because the budget for Tomb Raider was $100 million. By all accounts, the PC version of the game is the prettiest, especially if you have a strong graphics card to take advantage of it.

What the game designers have chosen to do with the engine is also fairly enjoyable. The game in it's main story line, plays a lot like an Uncharted game. In fact, the first few hours of the game is just as intense as the best of the Uncharted series, with superb writing and great visuals moving the plot along. In fact, the emotional connection the player has with Lara Croft might even be stronger, as she seems more vulnerable than Nathan Drake ever is. And yes, the game passes the Bechdel test, on multiple occasions, not surprising considering that the writer is Rhianna Pratchett.

If the game had continued at this level of intensity through the experience, it would be a better game than any of its competitors. Unfortunately, the game falls apart in the second half of the story. The story isn't to blame. What happened was that the game tries to integrate the experience mechanic of the Batman games, along with the side missions like the optional tombs. If all the side stuff was truly optional, then you could just barrel along and ignore all that, much like the treasure collection in the Uncharted games. Unfortunately, the experience system and weapons upgrade mechanics means that unless you get certain upgrade progressions, the later parts of the game become harder, so you end up scrounging around collecting collectibles for the sake of collectibles.

Now, some of the side missions are fun. The tombs themselves are entertaining puzzles that would take you about 10-15 minutes each. The document discovery stuff is also interesting, since it gives you some back story on the other characters in the game. These pieces fills out the game somewhat, and I have no objection to them. The salvage system, GPS caching, and challenge systems, however, are just silly. They do nothing for the game, forcing you to basically explore the locations thoroughly outside the story, and they dilute the experience severely. Basically, these elements of the game further reinforced for me why the Uncharted games are successful: Naughty Dog studios had the courage to stick to the story that they wanted to tell at the expense of alienating part of the potential audience for their work, while Crystal Dynamics doesn't feel as though they were willing to do so. Ironically, I think eliminating the ancillary systems would have made the overall game quite a bit stronger.

The other thing that broke the flow for me was the way the game let you have a lot of cheap deaths. By this I mean that there are some things that you would never do as a human, but given the limitations of a controller, might result in a death unless the game designers caught it. For instance, if you're standing on a ledge and tip a joystick by accident (or because you're reaching for some other button), Tomb Raider would have Lara fall off the ledge and die. By contrast, every time I've done that in an Uncharted game, Nathan Drake would just grab the edge of the ledge instead, allowing me to recover from an accidental touch. Incidentally, the cheap deaths result in famously gruesome death animations, which are the main reason why I'm not letting my kid touch this game for a while. What's crazy about these death animations is that the one time an NPC dies gruesomely, Lara turns away from the scene. You would think that if you were going for an M rating you might as well do it all the way.

Finally, I wish Crystal Dynamics had spent some of the $100 million budget on giving us a full score for the background music behind the game. There is background music, but it's relatively muted and you only notice it during the cut scenes. It's nothing noteworthy, which made the game feel like it was punching below its weight otherwise. The other place where the game doesn't quite pull it's weight is that Lara Croft is alone all the time. None of the NPCs are helpful outside of the cut scenes, except in a bridge traversal scene, and even then it was obviously scripted. There's essentially no interaction between Lara and the other characters in the game outside of cut scenes.

I just spent several paragraphs complaining about the game. But it was overall, a fun experience and especially in the first half of the game, well written and an intense experience. I'd recommend the game (especially since it has no zombies, unlike some other AAA titles out there), but if you have limited time, try Among Thieves or Arkham Asylum first.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: Soy Sauce for Beginners

I picked up Soy Sauce for Beginners as part of the Kindle First program. For one, it's a book about food. Secondly, the author's from Singapore, where I grew up. Any book from a Singaporean about food has got to be good, right?

One of the smartest people I know once said to me, "There are only two types of people who like Singapore: women, and foreigners." It's a deep insightful statement if you know Singapore well, but unfortunately, it's clear that Kirstin Chen doesn't share that insight. The novel is about Gretchen, who at 30, discovers that her husband has been cheating on her and moves back to Singapore to take a break from her disastrous marriage.

She then plunges into her family business of making soy sauce, not as a relief from the mess of her life in San Francisco, but as a burden. Her white friend from her Stanford days joins her, and she starts dealing with her mother's alcoholism, dating as a soon-to-be-divorcee, and possible return to San Francisco. This could all have been interesting, but Gretchen engages in all the stereotypical behavior of an Asian woman you could think of, and no, Chen isn't making an ironic statement about it: she's just oblivious.

For instance, Gretchen only dates white guys. This is pretty common, but she's also oblivious enough to be proud that she was the first Asian woman her ex-husband dated. She's then devastated that he cheats on her with another Asian woman. Her white friend in Singapore gets a lot of attention (as white people would), and Gretchen is appropriately jealous of her, but also without insight.

The references to food, the use of Singlish, and notes on the culture are somewhat appropriate. They're also divorced in general from how non-rich people live in Singapore. There's a deep assumption that people get around in cars, which of course, isn't true in Singapore or any major Asian city. There's no reference to the mass transit systems there, nor is there any reference to a single sympathetic Asian man other than the protagonist's father. This gives you an idea of how skewed Chen's world view is.

I should note that most Asian American fiction is essentially a body of work by Asian American women: very few Asian men are represented, so to some extent this is accepted and standard for a novel that's considered "literature" or "literary fiction." But life is short and you only have so much time for so many novels, so why read yet another standard Asian American novel?

Ultimately, the ending is predictable, as though written for a Singaporean audience, in complete contradiction, of course, to the author's real actual life. I wanted very much to like this book, but I'm afraid I cannot recommend it as a good use of your time.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review: Among Thieves

I approached Among Thieves with trepidation. First, the reviews for it have been nothing short of amazing, but I'd been a little bit disappointed by both Drake's Deception and Drake's Fortune. Neither were as good as Golden Abyss. I was starting to think that I enjoyed the Uncharted series only because I was new to the genre when I played Golden Abyss.

I needn't have worried. Among Thieves is quite simply the best video game I've ever played. Midway through Chapter 14 (there are 26 chapters in total), I found myself thinking: I hope this game never ends! I'd already died 3 times, I was getting my ass handed to me, but I was never frustrated, and just wanted to keep going. The scenery was gorgeous, set high up in the Himalayas, the action was perfect, keeping the player in a state of flow that made even me, a mediocre video gamer at best, feel like a competent action hero.

Ultimately, that's what video games shine at. They're not great story telling vessels, as deaths and puzzles break up the story flow. They're not even that great for puzzles, since computer interfaces aren't as open ended as a real life puzzle game would be. But Rock Band could make you feel like a rock star, Arkham Asylum could give you a taste of what it feels like to be Batman, and Among Thieves makes you feel like Indiana Jones.

Which is not to say that the story-telling is poor in Among Thieves. It has the best story I've seen among video game properties. You come to care about Nathan Drake and his relationships with his cohorts. You even learn to hate Flynn, the guy who roped him into this mess in the first place. The scenery is nothing short of amazing, especially when you consider that it's being rendered for you by an 8 year old piece of hardware with crippling small amounts of RAM (both the HDD and the blu ray drive on my PS3 spun like crazy while playing this game).

The music is amazing, sounding more like a major feature film soundtrack than any other game in the series. This is big-budget game production at its best, and it's impossible to feel cynical about the entire enterprise by the end of the game because it's been executed so well.

Where Drake's Deception and Drake's Fortune got wrong was in the pacing. Both those games had places where it felt like the action had gone on just a bit too long, and you just can't wait for it to end. Among Thieves has no place where you feel that way. Even the penultimate chapter's fights are broken up into bite-sized chunks, enabling the player to rest and recover between bouts. None of the puzzles are so hard that you get stuck, and none of the individual fights are so challenging that you feel demoralized. Whenever I got frustrated by either Drake's Deception and Drake's Fortune, I would switch to playing Tomb Raider for a bit. Once I put Among Thieves into the PS3, I never found myself even tempted to play another game.

And the set-pieces are amazing. chapters 13, 14, and 15 flow as well as any action movie or novel that I've seen or read. Chapter 19 and 20 make you really feel like you're high up in the Himalayas, helping villagers defend themselves from an invasion. And chapter 16 just shows off how confident Naughty Dog was: they put in a chapter solely as a breather after the intense action that happened before, and don't feel compelled to throw in any puzzles, fights, or other inanities that a lesser video game maker might consider. You simply have a chapter consisting solely of moving through a mountain village, granting you vistas, and watching the authentically moving NPCs. You feel like you're in a magical dream.

Now, the rendering isn't as drop dead gorgeous as Tomb Raider (that game came 4 years later). But the art direction is far better in this game. Tomb Raider feels like it's doling out pretty scenery one drop at a time, as  if in fear that your eyes might get used to natural beauty and then what it showed you wouldn't be as effective. Among Thieves has no such restraint. It throws stunning vistas at you, one after another as though it was the last hurrah of a lost age.

The only disappointment I felt upon finishing the game is that now that I've played through the entire Uncharted series, I'll have no other games in the series to play until Uncharted 4 comes out for the PS 4. Needless to say, Among Thieves comes highly recommended. It would be worth borrowing or buying a PS3 solely to play this game.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Review: Do You Believe in Magic?

Do You Believe in Magic? is a book about alternative medicine. It is a very well balanced book, considering the topic. I don't think I would have been as restrained in my criticism of alternative medicine practitioners given all the facts on display in this book.

For instance, there's a section on why the FDA is not allowed to regulate supplements, and how messed up the supplement industry is:
Of the 450 supplement manufacturers inspected, at least half had significant problems. One, ATF Fitness, substituted ingredients without changing the product label. Others didn’t even have recipes for their products. And some manufactured products in buildings contaminated with rodent feces and urine—in one facility a rodent was found cut in half next to a scoop. (Location 1143)
Offit covers all the usual suspects: cancer cures (including the alternative medicine practice that killed Steve Jobs), homeopathic medicine, the anti-vaccine movement, the vitamin pushers, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and even some doctors who're selling questionable "cures."

Offit doesn't just discuss the many failings of the supplement/natural foods/health foods, including the huge amount of effort and money spent so that the FDA does not even have the ability to stop herbal supplement sellers from making untrue medical claims. The depiction of this lobbying would be enough to make your blood boil. The stories of how parents would treat their children by taking them to quacks instead of using proven medicine is terrifying.

Offit does cover why certain alternative medicines appear to work by invoking the placebo effect. At one point, he reveals an interesting anecdote where Albert Schweitzer points out how witch doctors actually perform a service by providing placebos for psychological ailments, while pointing patients to effective western doctors for diseases which can be cured by medicine.

All in all, I found this book to be a great read, and very enlightening. Recommended. The book is currently available from Amazon at $1.99.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Review: Drake's Fortune

It's my contention that now is the best time to buy a PS 3. Not only is the system cheap and easily available, it's also mature, with all the streaming media options (such as YouTube) available that aren't available on the PS 4, for instance. If you choose to use the machine for playing games, PS 3 games are also dirt cheap. I picked up the Uncharted Dual Pack for $10 over the holidays and started playing Drake's Fortune whenever I got frustrated at Drake's Deception.

Video games are the only genre of media where sequels are usually better than the originals. Game engine technology improves as developers learn to optimize for the console, and this goes triple for the PS3, which had a famously unfriendly processor to program to. Also, as game developers gain confidence with the console, they get to spend more time developing stories or new methods of game play that add quite a bit to the game, not just in terms of fun game play, but also in terms of aiding the story telling.

Drake's Fortune takes place mostly on a tropical island. As with the other games in the series, I love the art direction. Things are brightly lit, and most of the game takes place during the day, with caverns and underground environments less than 30% of the time. The game features cover-based shooting, traversal, and some light puzzles, but no chase sequences, which to me is the biggest thing I missed coming over from Drake's Deception.

The pacing is also much less even than Drake's Deception or Golden Abyss. There are several long sequences that feel like a shoot-fest that's dragged out more than I enjoyed. The jet-ski sequences are also less than enjoyable: the controls aren't very responsive, and at first you're trained to use the jet-ski like a tank, and only at the end are you encouraged to just accelerate and blind-fire to make it past the stage. Neither of these hiccups occur in later games, showing that the game designers actually learned from experience. The game also uses the dual-shock's motion sensor control, which aren't precise enough for me to consider fun. Fortunately, the few times it's necessary aren't frequent enough to annoy you.

Not everything is bad compared to the Drake's Deception, however. First of all, the easy mode is just challenging enough for an out of touch gamer but fair enough so that I didn't get too frustrated. It did give me a good feeling when I finished the game. I can't say the same for Drake's Deception. The jeep sequence was also fun, and also paced appropriately. What I like about the story as well is that the female lead, Elena, is no mere damsel in distress, unlike Marisa Chase in Golden Abyss. She rescues Nathan Drake as often as she is rescued. The music was also outstanding. It's scored by Greg Edmonson, who also scored the Firefly series. I have the theme song from the game stuck in my head now, and that's no mean feat. I don't know why I didn't think much of the music from Drake's Deception, but the music in Drake's Fortune stands out.

Nevertheless, this was my least favorite Uncharted Game so far. Despite that, it's still a lot of fun and certainly well worth the price I paid. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Make Your Own Baby Monitor

The baby monitor my brothers gave me a couple of years ago died, the battery on the screen no longer charging. The cost of a replacement is $240, and I blanched at that. It's 2014, these things should be dirt cheap.

I bought a Tenvis JPT3815W, which is a wired/wifi internet camera. For about $45, this thing boasts night vision, streaming to Android, Chrome, iOS, and just about everything except IE. (For whatever reason, I couldn't get the ActiveX plugin to work --- this is what happens when companies don't hire Silicon Valley engineers to write software) There's no audio, but that's ok: our 2 year old is quite capable of screaming loud enough for us to hear from anywhere in the house. It also has the advantage of now enabling us to stream the video output outside the house, as long as our smartphone data plans can take the hit.

Setup is a bit of a pain. First, you have to plug in the device into your wired LAN router. Then, you run the wizard and tell it the SSID and password to your wi-fi network. After that, you're good to go. There's an LED light on the device that can't be turned off in software, but electrical tape taped over the LED does just fine.

One item that the baby monitor had that the Tenvis doesn't is a temperature sensor. I replaced it with a $15 wireless thermometer meant for outdoor temperature reporting. Nothing says you have to put the outdoor temperature sensor outdoors! It works fine, and tough the reviews for this unit are mediocre, you'll see that they're all because the temperature sensor isn't waterproof. Not a problem if you use it indoors.

All in all, I'm much happier with the new setup than with the old one. For one thing, since we have plenty of smartphones and tablets lying around the house, we can use our favorite devices rather than passing the old monitor around. Secondly, once the toddler grows up, this can be re-purposed as a security camera for the house. Finally, being able to get at the video from any computer is awesome, since you can monitor your kid while writing a blog post, for instance. And of course, it's $200 cheaper than the dedicated units.

The only way the dedicated units beat this setup is if you don't already have wifi in the home and don't have smartphones/tablets/laptops already sitting around.

Highly recommended.

P.S. Happy New Year!