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Saturday, May 17, 2014

"inFAMOUS: Second Son" Review

Warning: This Review will contain spoilers for inFAMOUS 1 and 2

Back in 2009, Sucker Punch introduced us to a new franchise on the PlayStation 3. The game was called inFAMOUS and it was innovative for it's time. An open world game where you get electricity powers and can choose to use them for good or evil. It was awesome and it quickly gained popularity. It's now been five years since the release of the first game and the third installment in the franchise is here, with new powers, a new city and a new cast of characters, how well does this newcomer hold up to it's predecessors? Let's find out. 

inFAMOUS: Second Son follows the story of Delsin Rowe, a fun-loving delinquent who's older brother is a cop. The two of them, being of Native American heritage, live on a settlement outside of Seattle. For the most part, their life is peaceful aside from brotherly feuds. Until one day, a chance encounter with a runaway conduit changes everything. Delsin comes face to face with Augustine, a conduit hating tyrant who will use any means necessary to get what she wants, including leaving Delsin's entire village in painful disarray. Now, armed with smoke powers and a thirst for vengeance, Delsin travels with Reggie to Seattle to seek out Augustine and get her to right her wrongs.

Second Son borrows heavily from inFAMOUS 2 in terms of controls, gameplay, feel, AI interaction, and karma side quests, while also adding it's own unique twist and variety of extra gameplay elements. It also takes the elements introduced in the second game and improves upon them. For example, in Second Son you can completely eliminate enemy control of the district by completing all side quests, finding all blast shards, and then making a prank call to summon them to your location and take them all down with ease. It adds variety and replayability to the game, making for satisfying post-game content as well.

Another element introduced in inFAMOUS 2 and expanded upon in Second Son is having more than one power. While inFAMOUS 2 only gave you one extra power (fire or ice) depending on which karmic path you took, Second Son gives you a grand total of 4 powers and I won't spoil what the last two are, but smoke and neon were advertised and I must say, the neon power is amazing. Especially after it can be upgraded to have endless run, you can hold the circle button and run non-stop through the city like The Flash making travel between side quests much less of a chore. transitioning between powers is as simple as finding a source in the city and holding down the touch pad to drain from it. This way you can easily switch powers even during mid battle to heal yourself and unleash a flurry of differing attacks to keep your enemies on their toes.

While we're on the subject, let's talk upgrades. Second Son has by far the most painless upgrade system of all three games. While the previous games required you to earn experience points by defeating enemies and doing stunts, in Second Son you use blast shards to upgrade powers and the blast shards themselves are extremely easy to find. All of them show up on your map and are attached to these flying drones that you have to shoot down, or, once you destroy a DUP HQ at lest five blast shards will come flying out of it for your draining pleasure. There's also just enough blast shards in the game to fully upgrade every power, so it's very possible to fully upgrade your current power, then stock up on blast shards and when you get the next power you can immediately upgrade it.

Another thing Second Son does right is implementing the Dualshock 4's nifty features. For example, one of the many side quests in the game is spraying the sides of buildings with stencil art, or graffiti if you will. During this process you hold the controller sideways and shake it up like a spray can, then hold R2 and use the sixaxis motion controls to spray the wall. Other implementations include phone calls being heard through the dualshock 4's built-in speaker, swiping on the touch pad to open doors and the controller's light bar changing color and density to match your karma level. While some cynical people may consider these features to be gimmicks and poor justifications for features Sony implemented that they might consider unnecessary, I personally found them to be fun and impressive and felt like they added to the experience.

I held off on this review until after the game's major patch mainly because I wanted to talk a bit about photo mode. Photo Mode, which was added to the game via patch a few weeks after release, is essentially a freeze frame tool that lets you pause the action and then take a lovely screenshot using a multitude of tweaks such as changing the distance, adjusting the angle and even adding filters Instagram style. It's certainly one of the better additions to a game I've seen via patch.

One of the other cool features of Second Son involving content push via internet is a weekly series of side quests called Paper Trail. It revolves around you chasing down a mysterious Origami conduit between murder sites while finding clues. The most interesting part of this however, is the online connectivity it involves. If you link your PSN account with you can take a closer look at some of the clues you find as well as take quizzes and learn more about conduits and you can earn karma points that transfer into the game.

Now, I can't talk much about Second Son's story without spoiling anything, but I will say it was very enjoyable and I liked both the good and evil ending. The characters that you run into however seem kind of stereotypical for the specific roles they play in the game. All the good guys (that's assuming you're playing with good karma) are delinquents, misfits and outcasts who were bullied or wronged in life in some way and now they have powers with which to exact their revenge. It's almost as if Sucker Punch wants you to be evil, of course the name of the game "inFAMOUS" kind of gives that away. But player-driven choices are an element in games I'm particularly found of, especially when they give you reason to go back and play it again. However, unlike it's predecessors, Second Son's karmic system seems less on a scale of good vs evil and more like nice guy vs a-hole.

There are few things about Second Son that bother me, but they're there nonetheless. While the story is amazing and I found myself caring about the characters and what happens, especially during the second half of the game, I couldn't help but feel it was surprisingly short. I mean, the game is jam packed full of content but if one was to play from start to finish doing only story missions, it would take a few hours at most. Of course, the game makes up for this by making it difficult to succeed without upgrading powers first and by locking you out of specific story missions until you destroy the nearest DUP HQ. So, in a way, they force longer gameplay time. The other thing that bothered me is that if the good ending of inFAMOUS 2 is considered canonical, how are there still conduits? If I recall correctly, Cole's sacrifice was supposed to eliminate all conduits and effectively put a stop to this ridiculous war. Maybe there's something I'm missing.

Anyways, overall an amazing game, arguably the best PS4 exclusive right now with a few minor hiccups.

My rating: 8/10      

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Benefits of Gaming: Science Doesn’t Lie

For decades people have used the media as a scapegoat when it comes to finding reasons for misbehavior in teenagers and children. While it is true that some games (such as Grand Theft Auto V) exist solely for entertainment purposes and are extremely violent in content and nature, these types of games are not meant for people under seventeen anyways and most of the blame lies with the parents for blatantly ignoring the video game rating system (games rated M for mature should never be purchased for anyone under seventeen years of age). Yet, due to ignorance, misinformation and misconceptions, the video games themselves are unnecessarily demonized. The truth however is that, while not all video games necessarily fall under this category, many video games—including some of the more violent ones—can be and are beneficial in many differing ways.

One of the most popular genres of video games is the First Person Shooter (FPS). FPS games, as the name implies, present the player with a camera angle from the perception of the character they are controlling, thus creating a more realistic scenario. The player has more limited visibility compared to that of third-person games where the camera floats behind the character the player is controlling and they can see more around them. This requires the player’s cognitive reflexes to be utilized more often. FPS games require a more heightened level of alertness due to the limited field of vision. Players must be able to focus on their surroundings so as not to become an easy target for enemies that may be lurking nearby. The player can only really see what is in front of them and therefore has to use their peripheral to pay attention to events happening in other areas of the game. This leads to a higher spatial resolution in visual processing, a more accurate attention allocation and enhanced mental rotation abilities. Due to games like this, gamers are able to utilize their neural resources more efficiently, which basically means that their brains don’t have to work as hard at problem solving as those of non-gamers.

When it comes to video games, there’s no shortage of puzzles. It’s actually very commonplace in today’s video games for developers to place some kind of brain teasing dilemma in the player’s path. Even action oriented games such as God of War contain sections that require the player to overcome some form of mind bending obstacle using a complex mixture of levels, movable blocks, falling platforms, rotating blades, balance beams and more. While sometimes the puzzles can be as simple as a sliding puzzle or memory matching, often times they are more complex and require high levels of logic and/or math. Some games were designed specifically for cognitive reasons; as Daphne Bavelier and Richard J. Davidson note in their article Games to do you good:
Because gaming is clearly here to stay, some scientists are asking how to channel people’s love of screen time towards positive effects on the brain and behaviour [sic] by designing video games specifically intended to train particular aspects of behavior and brain function. One game, for example, aims to treat depression by introducing cognitive behavioural [sic] therapy while users fight off negative thoughts in a fantasy world. (Daphne Bavelier and Richard J. Davidson 425).
Many games will present the player with difficult puzzles during intense situations (such as with a time limit or while being shot at). This forces the player to use quick puzzle solving skills under pressure and can be very beneficial for when faced with equally tasking obstacles in real life situations. There are also many games where the core gameplay is mainly focused around puzzle solving. A lot of the “point and click” Nancy Drew type adventure games usual have a plot revolving around a crime or murder mystery that challenges plays with both puzzles and problem solving skills.

Believe it or not, video games can bring out our emotional side. Many games these days are well written and could very well be mistaken for an interactive movie at times. A lot of naysayers will attempt to sully this concept by insisting that showing emotion towards, or caring for a bunch of zeroes and ones is folly. However, this is far from the case. Video game developers hire writers with movie-script level writing expertise to ensure their games have stories that are deep, intriguing, complex and engaging, with characters that are memorable, interesting, easily to get emotionally attached to and feel almost real, not like they’re just some robot in a fantasy world. On this same note, a lot of developers have included in their games, a feature that leaves much of the story in the player’s hands. In certain games players are faced with situations where they must make a choice, and most of the time this is not an easy choice to make. They are often choices that are morally difficult and have extreme consequences one way or the other. While it’s highly unlikely that the player will ever be faced with a situation where they have to choose whether or not to let their close friend sacrifice themselves to save a whole species, these simulated experiences can help prepare players for difficult decision making situations when faced with them in real life by giving them experience with difficult decision making.

While it’s true that video games are almost always based entirely in fantasy, a lot of them use historically accurate people, places, and events within the fantasy. There’s a dash of non-fiction mixed in with the fiction. Take Assassin’s Creed for example. The main plot of the franchise is that you’re a man named Desmond Miles who has been kidnapped by this company named Abstergo. They force you into this machine known as the Animus which is basically an extremely advanced virtual reality machine that lets you relive the memories of your ancestors as if you were actually there. All of Desmond’s ancestors are assassins, a group of skilled and stealthy hit men whose sole purpose is to defeat the Templars and protect the freedoms of the innocent civilians. During the franchise you travel to varying time periods such as renascence Italy or colonial America and you meet famous historic figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Blackbeard, King Richard III and Cesare Borgia. In one of the games you take part in the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Bunker Hill. Other games have also had their fair share of historically accurate events. Medal of Honor, much like the movie Saving Private Ryan opens with the boats approaching the beach during the invasion of Normandy on June 6th, 1944. Many of the Call of Duty games take place during World War II. This is not to say that gamers should gain all of their knowledge from video games, they are after all fiction. However, players can take away certain aspects of the history and education presented in these games and may even find that they learned something.

On November 19th, 2006 Nintendo released the Wii. It was an interesting concept for its time. Mainly because it was the first system to really push motion controls. A lot of people wanted nothing to do with it. The main purpose of video games is to help people unwind and no one was looking forward to coming home from a long day of work or school and flailing their arms about like an air traffic control man covered in spiders. Well, regardless of all the initial hate and skepticism, the Wii actually was very successful, and thus began a new era of exercise games and motion control peripherals. Nintendo started pushing out games like WiiFit and Sports Resort to help encourage kids to stand up and move around while playing video games in order to get exercise. Even games as simple as Zelda were better played while standing as the player had to swing their arm around to swing Link’s sword. Years down the road PlayStation introduced the PlayStation Move controller. It was essentially a much improved Wiimote with more accurate 1:1 tracking technology and 3D realistic movement. As another stab at Nintendo, PlayStation also released their own sports game and started making the Move compatible with other games such as High Velocity Bowling. Games like Just Dance soon followed and now PlayStation and Nintendo fans alike were getting off their rears and being active (at least, some of us were). Xbox soon followed suit and tried to one-up both competitors by releasing a motion control device without a controller. Thus, the Kinect was born. Nothing more than a simple multi-lens camera, the Kinect allowed players to control games with nothing more than movements and voice commands. Players would also be able to control their entire Xbox 360 and pretend they’re in Minority Report. Much like the other two, Kinect also received sports games, party games, and games and applications meant for exercise. “There is some evidence that people who regularly play active video games can improve different components of their fitness, particularly cardiovascular fitness.” (Mark, Rachel, and Ryan E. Rhodes 2). The stereotype that video games make kids fat and lazy can be safely squashed. There are plenty of ways to play video games and stay active, it’s all a matter of taking initiative.

There will never be a shortage of people quick to place the blame on inanimate objects every time something bad happens. The likes of FOX News and certain religious organizations will always find ways to take something good and attempt to make it look bad instead of focusing on the real issues. When a child acts out, or a student commits a school setting, TV, movies and video games are not the first things people should look at, rather they should be looking at factors such as mental health, upbringing, and environment. While it’s true that children are impressionable, at certain ages they should not have access to these things anyways. Twelve year old children should not be playing Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. There are ratings and guidelines for a reason. A parent would not take their pre-teen to an R rated movie and therefore should not buy them an M rated game. The problem is not the video games themselves, as we’ve seen here they are more beneficial than anything, the problem is ignorance and lack of caring. Parents either don’t know what the ratings mean or do but don’t care because video games make a good babysitter for them. Video games are technology, and it’s amazing to see how far we have come since the days of Pong and Pac-Man. Rather than fearing the unknown, we should be embracing the progression of society and the things we are capable of creating. Many people, some young, some old, make a living off creating, playing, drawing, selling, marketing, and even talking about the wide array of entertainment known as video games. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but the people with a lack of interest in it should at the very least be supportive of those whom enjoy it and not pass harsh judgment for reasons that are clearly based on falsified information.     

Works Cited
Bavelier, Daphne, and Richard J. Davidson. "Brain Training: Games To Do You Good." Nature 494.7438 (2013): 425-426. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 May 2014.  
Mark, Rachel, and Ryan E. Rhodes. "Active Video Games: A Good Way To Exercise?." Wellspring 20.4 (2009): 1-4. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 May 2014.    

My Ex-SPHERO-ence with Sphero 2.0 (And Ellipsis 7)

Recently I had the pleasure of testing out Orbotix Sphero 2.0, a somewhat self-aware robotic orb that responds to commands given via an application downloaded to Android or iOS devices. I was able to test out this device using the the Verizon Ellipsis 7 Tablet. The Tablet itself, I feel is also worth mentioning, but as this article is mainly about Sphero, I will save that for post script. 

The device itself is pretty self explanatory. A semi-lightweight ball with a weighted motor inside and the ability to light up different colors. The device comes with a charging station, a quick start guide, and two ramps with which to perform jumps once you ca get Sphero up to high speeds. The orb is also built to withstand impact on hard surfaces. I was very pleased with the design and stability of the device. It was clearly built to withstand abuse. 

Setting up the device is simple enough. After downloading the main app for Sphero (there are a lot of different apps for Sphero, each one being a different game, but not all are by Orbotix) you simply activate bluetooth on your device and wake up Sphero by double tapping him, then Sphero and the device communicate with each other, and if done right, you should see your Sphero's name pop up on the device screen (mine was SPHERO-BOB). 

Once connected, the fun begins. From this point you are given the options of free play or leveling up. Free play lets you just freely drive Sphero around, holding the tablet sideways and using a plethora of touch controls. There's a directional pad that controls much like a joystick, a direction calibrator for when Sphero doesn't want to move in the right direction, a speed control, boost, and different tricks Sphero can do, such as dance, jump, and strobe.

In level up mode, you take Sphero through different missions to earn points and ultimately, level him up. These points can be redeemed for new tricks, increased speed, abilities, etc. that can be carried over to free play mode. The missions vary in type and difficult and consist of things like driving Sphero around at a certain speed for one minute, purposely running Sphero into things so he can get a feel for his environment, and searching for imaginary drop points so Sphero can pick up supplies. Some of these games were surprisingly difficult while others were overly simplistic. More often than not, however, there was a fair balance and nothing was so extreme one way or the other that it diluted any fun I had with the device. 

Overall I was pretty happy with my Sphero experience. The setup was easy and the controls were easy to learn, however a bit clunky at times. Often times Sphero would not go the direction I wanted him to, even after re-calibration. My nephew discovered that you can change the controls from touch to tilt. Meaning you can use the Tablet's built-in gyroscope to control Sphero simply by tilting the tablet in the corresponding direction. I found this to actually be easier than using the touch screen.

In conclusion, I had fun with Sphero. It's a nice little device, with a few minor hiccups, that you can spend hours driving around and playing mini-games. I will definitely be picking one of these up in the future. Perhaps I will even purchase two so I can have head-to-head battles with my friends. Oh yeah, it does that too.

p.s. The Ellipsis 7 tablet is one of the best I have ever used. It is fast and sleek. The picture quality is amazing, and the 4G speed was flawless and worked everywhere. The only downside was that the tablet had a designated section of memory reserved for apps, and that space was not sufficient. However, a firmware update added the option to move so much of the data from certain apps to the tablet space, thus freeing up storage space in the app section. Overall, amazing little tablet. It's petite size and lightweight stature makes it optimal for travel and storage without degrading the HD quality of  video programming. This is a great tablet for those on a budget.