Archive | 2012

Das Keyboard (Model S Professional Silent)

If there’s something interesting about humanity, it’s that people want better products. Products that not only satisfy some kind of need, but do it in a way that’s better than anything else on the market. From swanky coffee machines and Herman Miller chairs, all the way through to Apple products and whatever else you care to name, these kinds of products command premium price tags and claim to offer better experiences. And now, even the humble keyboards has joined this cohort.

This desire for premium products that offer better experiences than their lesser-priced counterparts begs the question: wouldn’t you want a better typing experience, if you could have it? If you’re going to spend long hours typing things into a computer, wouldn’t you want a better input mechanism for that input?

The thing is, you can. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the loudest, most obnoxious keyboard you’ll ever use: the mechanical keyboard.

A little while ago I picked up the Das Keyboard Model S Professional Silent, a mechanical keyboard with Cherry MX Brown switches (more on this later). It’s a mechanical keyboard designed for PCs, even though my primary usage is with a Mac (again, more on this later), and it offers a fantastic typing experience. As well as having the distinction of the most expensive keyboard I’ve ever owned, it also carries a far more prestigious title:

It’s the best keyboard I ‘ve ever owned.

Aesthetics
The first thing you have to understand about the Das Keyboard series of mechanical keyboards is that they are big black monoliths. They can easily take over your desk if you give them the chance, and these days even my 27″ Dell UltraSharp looks smaller by comparison. From what I can tell, most of the Das keyboards sport more or less the same design: they’re big, black, and, for the most part, have glossy surfaces with matte black keys. The Professional series of their keyboards feature the labelled, laser-etched keys, while the Ultimate series simply have blank keys.

As for physical dimensions, the Das isn’t overly huge. Generously sized, perhaps, but not overly huge. They’re a few centimetres longer than the Apple aluminium keyboard with numeric numpad, my previous keyboard, but nothing too extreme. You probably won’t notice the extra length unless you have a tiny desk, or have some kind of aversion to innuendo in seemingly innocuous keyboard reviews.

Overall, the build quality of the Das is good. It feels incredibly solid, and seeing as it weights in at 1.36 kilos, this is the kind of keyboard that would make a nice impression on someone’s head, if it were to be used in that fashion. I probably wouldn’t recommend it, though — for one, you would definitely be kissing your warranty goodbye. Alternatively, if you’re one to fall asleep at your keyboard, I’m sure the keys will make a lovely impression on your forehead.

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Medal of Honor: Warfighter

Alternate title: all these o’s directly followed by r’s with no u in-between getting all up in my grill, yo

Hooah.

I ended up pre-ordering Medal of Honor: Warfighter after enjoying the previous game so much, and, as it so happened, ended up playing this year’s Medal of Honor title during this year’s Uni study period (the second one). Warfighter isn’t the first game in recent times that’s been almost universally panned (see also: Resident Evil 6), and at first, I couldn’t figure out why. I mean, Warfighter is as much a game as any of these other titles; it has a plot, which is played out via interactive gameplay and the occasional cut-scene. Isn’t that what a game is? And yet, Warfighter was receiving scores which suggested it was nothing more than exceptionally mediocre — nothing spectacular in terms of breakthrough gameplay, storyline or pacing, but just… average.

But… why?

Warfighter is the story of Preacher, a Tier One operator who’s been through hell and back. He’s been through the thick of it in the past, but in Warfighter, Preacher starts out as someone who’s just on the sidelines. You learn that Tom — Preacher — has taken a leave of absence from his usual duties in order to fix his marriage, and meanwhile, something big is happening elsewhere in the world. By playing over some of Preacher’s previous missions, you learn that some of these things might be connected. Then, suddenly, boom — a train blows up in Madrid, the very train and platform where you’re supposed to be meeting your wife and kid. You wake up in hospital, where your former CO tells you your wife and kid are safe, that they missed their train. But that’s not all: things are going down, and others you used to know are there trying to clean up the mess, find the culprits, and get to the source.

What follows is your story of how you’re assigned to an entirely new Task Force, Task Force Blackbird, in order to find out who the source of these attacks is. First you’re looking for P.E.T.N., the explosive compound that you encountered during your very first mission in Warfighter, then you’re looking for where it came from, tracing the source all back to a certain Sheik, and then even further still, to a mysterious Cleric.

Along the way, you’ll eliminate enemies from a helo in the sky, breach through numerous doors in a variety of different ways, participate in a co-ordinated sniper strike on targets in a hostage scenario, and, perhaps my favourite of all, drive like a madman through the streets of Dubai, either in pursuit of a target, or in an attempt to evade pursuing forces.

Don’t get me wrong, Warfighter is just about as linear as they come. You play through the missions in the order as dictated by the developers. There’s no decisions to be made here, only enemies begging for a bullet in their skull. At the heart of it, maybe that’s the issue here: Warfighter is a game with a single-player campaign that doesn’t let you make decisions, that doesn’t put you in control. You don’t get to decide whether people live or die, you don’t get to call the shots.

“If I die, give this to my wife. She’s already got everything else.”

But, I mean, isn’t that kind of the point? If you’re expecting to make decisions in a game that’s all about what the developers want to show you, aren’t you expecting too much? Single player campaigns in first person shooters are all about telling a story, and if you’re not coming along for the ride — beautiful scenery, on-rails shooting galleries, and all — then you’re playing the wrong game. Because if the developers of the game wanted you to make decisions, if they wanted  you to be in control, wouldn’t they have put those kinds of elements into the game to begin with?

Honestly, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of game. Warfighter features un-skippable cut-scenes, and you know what other game does? The Walking Dead. Like Warfighter, The Walking Dead features un-skippable cut-scenes, of which there are many. And even though The Walking Dead is perhaps a game where you’ll make some seriously hard decisions, it’s also a game that features the illusion of choice. But again, why is any of this surprising, when it should be the complete opposite? Games that tell narratives (however poor said narrative might be) via their single-player campaigns aren’t exactly new, just ask any of the Call of Duty series, the Battlefields, or the somewhat newcomers, the Medal of Honor games (2010 game onwards, that is).

If it’s different you want, then it’s different you’ll get: Spec Ops: The Line is another game that I’ve written about recently, and that shares a lot in common with Warfighter. Spec Ops and Warfighter are both games that, on the surface, look extremely similar. They both set the scene for war, explaining to those who haven’t been in the mix what war is like. They’re both games that feature linear gameplay, fighting enemy after enemy, corridor after corridor. But where Spec Ops takes things to their extreme by evolving the protagonists into something resembling nothing like themselves, Warfighter takes the well-worn path. Warfighter forces you to take the shot, Spec Ops laughs at you for not doing so. By comparison with Warfighter, it’s easy to see why Spec Ops has been so widely praised.

After my first play through of Warfighter, I wasn’t sure if I liked it as much as the previous game. I wasn’t even sure what the plot was even about, or why some of the cut-scenes weren’t rendered in the game engine, but rather, as some kind of quasi-movie scenes with actors that looked like characters out of a video game. But then, around halfway though my second play-through, I realised it was more than that, that the non-rendered cut-scenes served to separate the story from the gameplay. It was then it started to click: the story wasn’t all over the place any more and actually made sense, and I felt that I had a real sense of purpose during the game, that I was doing something that had a real impact on things.

I don’t necessarily agree that Warfighter deserves the scores that it gets, but I can see where the critics are coming from. Warfighter isn’t a mind-blowing game in any respect, but it does tell a story, and it does feature some nice — if extremely linear — gameplay. There are the odd enjoyable parts, such as the epic car chase scenes, but it does lack what I consider essential to any first-person shooter: a black-in, black-out sniper mission. Just thinking about that snow level (“Evasion”, if you’re playing Spec Ops) in the second Modern Warfare is enough to send me to my happy place.

Have you seen the movie Act of Valor? Warfighter is a lot like that. So like that, in fact, it’s almost as if Danger Close took Act of Valor and made a game out of it. Both Act of Valor and Warfighter had real-life SEALs onboard as consultants, and it shows — the game and movie are uncannily similar.

At the end of the day, if Warfighter set out to tell us about the heroes that go into battle against enemies, get shot at, beaten up, and then get back up and ask for more, than it succeeded. If Warfighter set out to tell us about the sacrifices these people make every day, then it succeeded in every possible way. It’s people like Preacher, Voodoo, Mother, and Rabbit that make gamers like us realise that all of what we’re seeing on screen is inescapably real for a select few.

And for that, I thank them.

Why Guild Wars 2 is perhaps the first MMORPG that agrees with me

Alternative title: a somewhat pensive review of Guild Wars 2 from the perspective of someone who has not completely immersed themselves into the stream of MMORPG culture, but has simply splashed around in the bathing pool, presented as a series of sections separated by descriptive titles

I’ve been playing Guild Wars 2 ever since Day Z kind of fell out of fashion, and I can honestly say it’s one of the best MMORPGs I’ve ever played. Mind you, that isn’t a huge list: I dabbled in WoW at one stage, got to level 60 within a respectable time frame, and I played the heck out of Star Wars: The Old Republic during its beta period. I enjoyed both of those games, to be sure, but there was always something that wasn’t quite right about each: WoW felt way too inundated with lore and background storylines, like it was some kind of Lord-of-the-Rings-style plot but for every single character. There were stories behind everything, but I just couldn’t care less about them. They were uninteresting, boring, whatever you want to call it.

The Old Republic was fine in that regard, as the Star Wars universe is a little more forgiving — there’s still a copious amount of backstory, but because it’s Star Wars, it’s forgiven, and at times, welcomed — people just can’t enough of those Jedi, I tell you. But the one thing that grated about The Old Republic was that it kind of felt tacky, like it was trying too hard to monetise something that should have come naturally. Suddenly  the Star Wars universe wasn’t just about the big bad Sith and killing Stormtroopers, it was also about repairing droids, repairing things that went wrong, negotiating between various underworld characters. It  felt like you were playing out the entire lives between what you see in the movies, which might have appealed to some, but felt overdone to others. Now that I think about it The Old Republic tried too hard in a lot of areas. That was probably the main reason why I didn’t bother renewing my subscription after the first month.

Guild Wars 2 is much, much different to the two aforementioned games. It’s still a fantasy RPG in that the environment isn’t, strictly-speaking, “real”, and at first I thought this would be a big downside — “ugh, not another fantasy RPG!” — but I now realise it wouldn’t have worked any other way.

I didn’t even think I would be buying it, at first. I’m not entirely sure what convinced me to, in the end, but I’m extremely glad I did, because Guild Wars 2 is a great game. Not so stooped in lore as to be overburdened, not trying too hard for the sake of a few pennies, but just right. The right mix of a compelling personal storyline, even if some of the initial choices were a little ridiculous (my biggest regret was not joining the circus? Really?), combined with good quest and event mechanics, and of course, the right amount of replayability. And perhaps one of the biggest pluses: no subscription fees.

It’s about exploration

One of my biggest features about Guild Wars 2 is the fact that it’s not all “go here, kill/collect/escort this person/thing, come back” — at least, it doesn’t have to be. There are quests like that, of course, but what’s really great is that once you’re in a new location, you can leave the questing until later and just explore. Guild Wars 2 has a big focus on exploration, and you can visit Vistas which count towards your overall region and map completion. Some of these Vistas are easy to get to, others require lots of jumping and falling, but all have a great view of some feature or structure in the game world.

And that’s not all — through trial and error, players have discovered jumping puzzles in almost every region. They’re not marked on your map, and the only real way people would have discovered them is via exploration. They’re fiendishly hard, and sometimes what you think is a jumping puzzle is actually just you jumping up and down mushrooms.

Like I said, Guild Wars 2 isn’t just a linear quest grind. It’s about exploration, and it’s a better game for it.

It’s about aesthetics

Guild Wars 2 is the same as other MMORPGs in that you’re always on the lookout for better-specced gear than the stuff you currently have, but different to other MMORPGs in that there’s an aesthetics element to it, as well. Sometimes you can’t bear to swap out your current Greatsword for one that has +999 Critical Hit Damage because it just looks crap on your character. I came across a dude that had fish heads for pistols one day, and that was awesome. Thankfully, if you do come across your next big Longbow that has vastly better stats but looks much worse than the Longbow you currently own, you can simply transmute (read: combine) the item so it’ll have the better stats of the Longbow you just found, but look just as awesome as the Longbow that you’ve been using.

Choosing armour is perhaps even more stressing for the player that cares about aesthetics, because even though there’s bonuses for having armour with the same rune/sigil/accessory, sometimes having the set doesn’t look as cool as these other great pants you crafted yourself. Or maybe you’re looking for a different outfit entirely — the best thing is you can preview how a certain piece of armour looks on your character before you spend the clams.

I mean, if you needed any more proof Guild Wars 2 is all about the aesthetics: there are random dye drops that let you change the colour of your armour, for crying out loud. People seem to gravitate towards black and white colours, but there’s plenty that can be done with an interesting colour palette. Changing the colour scheme could be all you need to give you character a new lease on life, aesthetics-wise.

It’s probably a little girly, but the aesthetics portion of Guild Wars 2 is fantastic. It probably makes up for not having as many character/face customisations as, say, the Mass Effect series.

You don’t have to play with others (but it’s a little better if you do)

Another thing I like about Guild Wars 2 is that you don’t have to play with friends — at least, not all the time. Because it’s all PvE, everyone in the region has common goals if you’re all doing quests or random events — if you’re doing a quest or an event, everyone gains with your participation, so it’s like everyone is always in a big group together, doing the same quests for the common good. I played solo all the way up to level 80 (the current level cap), and it wasn’t until I hit later stages of my personal story and later regions that I really found running around with someone else to be useful.

Speaking of which, your personal story is perhaps one of the only times (at least right from the outset) that you might want someone else along for the ride. You make all the decisions, of course, but sometimes it’s handy having someone else in your own personal story instances to help out with the combat, purely because the NPCs can be a little useless at times.

Just about the only time you’re forced to group with other players is when doing dungeons, and that’s to be expected.

Overall, Guild Wars 2 is pretty great. It’s the first MMORPG that I’ve really enjoyed, and for all the reasons above; exploration, aesthetics, and the not-pared down solo play. I’ve only scratched the surface of the game, becuase there’s so many aspects to it: there’s World vs World vs World, which is kinda puts different “worlds” against each other (think massive battlefields, contention for castles etc, but with everyone on your server playing for the same team), and then there’s also player-vs-player, which is kinda like WvWvW except on a smaller scale.

There’s dynamic events which everyone can do at any time, and oh — perhaps one of the best features of any MMORPG, ever — instanced loot, which means your loot is totally separate to others. No more “rolling” for the best loot when you kill a boss, bceause you everyone gets their own loot according to how much they participated in any given event (or their own standard quest rewards). It means you’re guaranteed an equal shot at that rare pirate coat you’ve been hanging out for as everyone else, all the way down to gather-able items in the game world (trees, ores, berries, and so on).

I get that MMORPGs aren’t for everyone. Doing quests and crafting can seem a little grind-y at the best of times (not to mention be a huge time suck), but while Guild Wars 2 shares many similarities to traditional MMORPGs, it’s different enough to separate it from the pack.

And that just makes it all the more enjoyable.

Ithaca College →

Ten disposable cameras. Five locations. One authentic view of a day at Ithaca College.

Pretty cool. Leave a few disposable (film!) cameras around, collect them at the end of the day, and put the photos up on the web.

I’d love to do a little project like this one day.

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Apple: iPhone, iPad, Mac are better products for most users

The reason I love my iPhone isn’t because it’s made by Apple, it’s simply because I think it’s the best mobile device ever made. And that’s where I’m going with all this — just hang in there, I know there’s probably some cute kitten with overlaid capitalized text on Facebook you’re thinking about checking out. The reason I compare every device to an iPhone is not because it’s an Apple product, it’s because Apple has done something that no other manufacturer in the world has done. Apple has created a product that isn’t a product. It’s a seamless, effortless, enjoyable extension of your computer and your life. In fact, you could now argue that a computer is just an extension of your phone, and you’d be right.

via Apple: iPhone, iPad, Mac are better products for most users.

The iPhone 5

A few weeks before the iPhone 5 was even announced, before all the rumours, part leaks, before all of that, I wondered what I was going to do with my old iPhone 4.

See, I’m on the “good” iPhone cycle: my first iPhone was the 3G, then the 4, and now, the 5. I skipped the first iPhone due to it not being available in Australia, skipped the 3GS due to still being on a contract, and skipped the 4S for the same reason.

For many, this two-year contract cycle is nothing new, the natural progression of things if you’re not a compulsive upgrader, and/or don’t have the funds to buy a new iPhone every year.

In any case, as I pondered what I was going to do with my old iPhone, it dawned on me: why not sell it off and use another phone I had lying around? As I dwelled on this, it began to make more and more sense; by selling the two-year-old iPhone 4 off, I’d get a few dollars more than I would have if I sold it off after the release of the iPhone 5.

Question my committal if you want, but as a test, I pulled out my trusty old Nexus S to see how I’d fare using Android for a few weeks. Jelly Bean had just just been released, you see, and now was as good a time as any to test the latest and greatest Android release, on hardware around the same age as my iPhone 4.

This was my first mistake.

It’s not that I hate Android. Really, it’s not. It’s just that, for me personally, Android doesn’t quite gel as much as iOS does. Things are less fluid. Third party app quality just isn’t there.

But like any curious and “bored with iOS” technology enthusiast, I forged on.

This was my second mistake. For two weeks, it was nothing but constant grating. Me constantly fighting the OS on what I wanted to do versus what it allowed me to do. I’d imagine my experiences with Android during the few weeks of pain would have been an approximation of an abusive relationship of some kind.

Sure, it was stable enough. I only saw a few crashes here and there, mostly from apps labelled as beta in the Play Store. Sure, there were apps available for all the popular things I used on iOS: Twitter, Instagram, Instapaper, and even a Dropbox-syncing, Markdown-supporting, plain text editor.

But the thing is, it’s been a year since I last looked at Android, and I found myself going back to the same apps I used last time around, simply because no better alternatives exist. Actually, that’s not entirely true: there’s now and official Instapaper client for Android. Other than that, the Android app landscape is blacker than black. Where are all the good quality apps?

Suffice to say, my Android experience, Jelly Bean and all, was pretty bad. Two weeks later (I had originally planned to stick it out for at least a couple of months, until the iPhone 5 was out), I was crawling back to my iPhone 4 and begging it to take me back.

In some ways, Android reminds me of the desktop Linux experience. It has its advantages, but probably won’t ever reach mass popularity with non-technology-minded people due to inherent issues with the ecosystem and how things work. Unless its locked down and given a stern talking-to, developers won’t be attracted to it anytime soon. And that means it will stagnate.

But enough about Android and mediocre software experiences combined with stellar hardware specs packaged in the cheapest plastic you’ve ever felt. I’ve since sold off my Nexus S and have acquired the iPhone 5.

It’s amazing.

Thinner. Lighter. Faster. All these verbs are true of the iPhone 5, but I still want to talk about three main aspects which make it all worth it.

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“Basically I’m saying Randall Munroe is … insane.”

I mean, have you seen XKCD 1110?

The collage is made up of 225 images2 that stretch out over a total image area 79872 pixels high and 165888 pixels wide. The images take up 5.52 MB of space and are named with a simple naming scheme “ydxd.png” where d represents a cardinal direction appropriate for the axis (n for north, s for south on the y axis and e for east, w for west on the x axis) along with the tile coordinate number; for example, “1n1e.png”. Tiles are 2048×2048 png images with an average size of 24.53 KB. If you were to try and represent this as a single, uncompressed 32-bit 79872×165888 image file, it would take up 52.99 GB of space.

via Analyzing XCKD: Click and Drag

The comic itself is brilliant in that, when viewed on the XKCD website, it’s limiting your field of view so that you have to pan around A LOT before you can see anything. Viewing the whole thing in through that little window is like that scene in Men in Black, where Agents J and K peer into locker C18

Anyway, looking at the comic in the static HTML version is better if you’re got the right mouse for it — alternatively, there’s also the zoomable version.

Seriously, it’s amazing. Perhaps the best XKCD of all time.