Monument Valley

I've succumbed to the hype and downloaded Monument Valley. I really like a lot of the game, but overall came away feeling a bit disappointed.

Monument Valley isn't in my wheelhouse of the types of games I usually buy. If I'm being honest, my game choices tend to run to the rather conservative side. I mostly play console ports or other games that follow traditional formats. My favorite iOS games are LEGO Batman (which I believe is now called LEGO DC), FIFA 14, Madden, Tetris, and NBA Jam. I also have a couple of shooters like Call of Duty: Strike Team, which I haven't really gotten far into but is on my list. There are several more that fit into this mold that I've purchased but don't currently have on my phone for space reasons.

So a game like Monument Valley really isn't "my type" of game. But once I saw the technorati losing their heads over this game (and the fact that I had some credit in iTunes), I decided to spend the $3.99 and give it a shot. 

I would describe MV as a puzzle game. You guide the character, Ida, through a world that somewhat resembles those M.C. Escher posters where the staircases and walkways are going in different directions. You manipulate the environment with taps, twists, spins, and swipes in order to set a path so that Ida can get to the end of the level. The mechanics are very simple but the game offers a good level of challenge as you try to figure out how to manipulate the environment just so.

The graphics seem to be one of the reasons why this game is so popular. Simply put, they are gorgeous. They look like they're vector-drawn and are pretty minimalist in style. The characters and environment aren't drawn to be hyper realistic or life-like but more whimsical. The colors are outstanding. The game really does look like a work of art. I played the game on my iPhone 5S but also downloaded it for my iPad Mini Retina. What looked good on the iPhone was even better on the iPad. Stunning. But this does bring up one of my criticisms of the game.

 

There is no syncing of the game between devices, which was pretty disappointing. I completely understand that if you just make an iPhone version or an iPad version that you may not want to devote the development resources towards syncing. But if you're making an app, especially a game, that is universal, you owe it to your customers to enable syncing. In 2014, I should be able to start on one device and pick up on another if both platforms are supported and especially when they're part of the same OS.

While sound is very important in console gaming, I often feel like it doesn't matter as much in mobile gaming. In console gaming, players are more likely to have a surround sound setup, which actually helps in gameplay. I can't count how many times I've been able to get a kill or avoid being killed in Call of Duty because I could hear footsteps in my surround sound system or hear the direction of gunfire or explosions. A great score in a console game can also immensely add to the the experience, as in the BioShock and Batman series. I remember feeling scared and creeped out while playing BioShock- the sound was that good!

When I play mobile games, it's usually when I'm out and about, especially on the train or subway, or even waiting on line somewhere. I rarely sit down at home or at a friend's place and start playing a mobile game. So given the nature of how I play mobile games, I often just don't have my headphones in and therefore don't listen to the audio of the games. Not to mention, the audio on most mobile games just isn't that compelling.

Monument Valley's sound is not one of these games. I felt the sound effects and score really added to this game. The effects pop up when you manipulate objects in the environment, giving you aural feedback, which helps in solving the puzzles. The score enhances the mood as well.

As I mentioned before, the difficulty level is good. The beginning levels of the game are essentially tutorials and you'll likely complete the first level within 15 seconds. The levels get progressively more challenging and at some points I found the middle levels to be harder than the final levels. But that brings me to my main criticism of the game- it's too short! This might be the shortest campaign-based game I've ever played on any platform. I was finished in the course of about 2 days of casual gameplay. For a $4 game, that's just too short. It's not about the money, but rather that I was having so much fun and enjoying the game and would have loved to see it go on forever. Obviously, that's not possible, but 10 levels is just not long enough. I wouldn't have minded the option to purchase more levels for a fair price, but the base game still should have been longer.

That's what left the bitter taste in my mouth. I definitely recommend checking this game out and I think it's an enjoyable game. The graphics are stunning, the sound makes it even better, the gameplay is unique and challenging and it just feels like this game was made with love and care. But I can't help feeling disappointed that it was so short.

Initial Reaction to Xbox One

Microsoft held their launch event for their next-gen Xbox, dubbed the Xbox One today. I, for One, am very excited!

Most who know me know that I'm not excited much by Microsoft announcements, at least when they pertain to anything PC or tablet related and usually when it's phone-related, as well. But Xbox? That grabs my attention.

While I haven't been able to see any video from the event yet (and simply followed The Verge's liveblog), I've still come away impressed.

Physically, it's actually not much to look at. While it's not terrible, it's not great either. It definitely reminds me of a TiVo. I currently have the Xbox slim, which I think was a huge improvement over the original generation. The One retains some of the visual cues of the Slim albeit with less sexy. I like the two-tone finish but this device doesn't scream "look at me!" As someone who sometimes obsesses over aesthetics, it's a little disappointing that there isn't more "va-va-voom." That being said, this thing looks like a BEAST! This looks like a high-powered device and based on the presentation, it has the internals to back that up.

Microsoft is really trying to take over the living room and they're not hiding it. The One is capable of bringing live TV that's overlays a Microsoft-designed guide over your cable box's GUI. Microsoft has packed a Bluray drive in as well, conclusively showing the end of HD-DVD (not that there was really any doubt.) With an improved ESPN app and new interactive features from the NFL, they're really trying to go after the sports market. I'm not sure they're going to completely crack the code here, but I'm excited to see what happens. Sports have been the biggest thorn in the side of potential cord cutters. The box has an HDMI pass-through that takes the output of your cable/satellite company's box and feeds it into your Xbox. I really like the idea of one set top box that runs my entertainment center. While this eliminates the need for my standalone Bluray player, unfortunately it sounds like I still need to have a cable box. I can't wait until one day that's no longer necessary.

Microsoft also highlighted the role of Kinect and how much it will be used with the One. First, Xbox now comes with Kinect, a big change considering you have to spend around $100 to buy it for the current generation. The new Kinect has 1080p detection, can recognize individual people and even track a user's heartbeat for use in fitness/sports games. Skype will also come in the software for HD group video chats! You can use Kinect to do split screen functions like snapping in live TV while you're doing something else, or pulling in fantasy sports scores while you're playing Madden or watching the NFL or ESPN apps.

Transient

One thing that is slightly bothersome is that Kinect is always on and listening. I'm not sure if it's watching too, but having a device in my living room listening to all of my conversations is a little weird. It's primarily done so that the One can turn on when I say "Xbox power on." But I don't know if I like it constantly listening. Additionally, I've got a setup with a surround sound receiver and other devices and a Harmony remote that I paid good money for. So how is this supposed to integrate with all of that?

We'll find out about games in a few weeks so I won't touch on that. I could write more but ill just wait until we maybe get some more details about it. In any case, I'm pumped. Will I buy one right away? Unlikely, I still feel like there's a lot of good use out of my 360 to be had. Additionally, I had to buy the Slim because my Pro was out of warranty and bit the dust just afterward so the Slim still feels very new to me, even though I've had it for a few years. I'm sure Microsoft will sell a few of these and it looks more compelling than the PS4. I'll get one eventually but not at launch.

'Give the Wii U Time'

I came across this article on Kotaku the other day and felt compelled to respond. Super Mario's creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, said that people just need to give the Wii U time before it's declared a failure. He likens the slow take to the console to that of the DS.

I just don't think he gets it and neither does Nintendo and here's why:

Not too long ago, I owned all three of the major 'current' generation consoles- the 360, PS3, and the Wii. What do I own today? Just the 360.

I got the 360 first; it was a holiday gift from my parents. I had asked for them to either get me the 360 or the PS3 and they chose the 360. MicroCenter had some incredible deal where my Mom was able to sign up for their store credit card and get a ridiculous deal on the 360, even if she never made another purchase on the card or cancelled it, which she did. The PS3 had only been out for a few months and in a major blunder, Sony, already behind, priced the PS3 way too high. Combined with the deal at Microcenter, my Mom made the decision.

You can see it on the bottom here. Sadly, this is the best picture I have of it.

Now, before this generation of consoles came out, I was a PlayStation guy. I owned the original PlayStation and the PS2 and I even got my PS2 professionally colored by Colorware. I never owned the original Xbox. So to go from the Sony world to the Microsoft world was quite a change. I'd owned several other systems earlier- NES, Genesis, N64- but considered myself a Sony guy at that point.

But, I really like the 360. It's really good. The controller feels far more natural than the Sony controllers I'd gotten used to. Microsoft has made the Xbox better and better through software updates. Yes, I was RROD'd several times but Microsoft always acknowledged the problem was theirs and replaced my Xbox promptly. When my extended warranty finally ran out, I ended up buying one of the 250GB slims, which I just love.

Along the way, I purchased a PS3 and Wii on my own. I had wanted the PS3, as I mentioned, but I didn't see a good enough reason to pick one up without some extra money lying around. When I finally had some extra cash, I decided to pick one up, mainly because everyone said it was actually the best BluRay player around and I was tired of the sluggish performance of my Sharp and Sony standalone BluRay players. I figured there'd be a few PS3 exclusives I'd want and bit the bullet. SOCOM: Confrontation was one of those games I figured I'd be enjoying (I did not, it was awful.)

And then I also picked up a Wii. I'd played it a few times at friends' houses and it was a great group machine. We actually turned Wii bowling into a drinking game that was a lot of fun. (For those playing at home, your opponents drink when you get a strike. But when you get a spare or less, YOU drink.) I picked up an extra Wiimote and nunchuck, the Wii Zapper, and a classic controller. The Zapper came with Link's Crossbow Training and I also picked up Medal of Honor: Heroes 2. Like all new toys, it was great at first. But the party didn't last long.

I noticed I was really only playing the Wii when I had friends over. And, we were only playing Wii bowling. Now obviously, part of that is my fault since I didn't buy more games. The problem was that I didn't want to buy any more. The Wii just felt a generation behind. There was no HD, which I was used to on the 360 and PS3, and like it or not, graphics and visuals still matter. Are they the only thing that matters? Of course not, but they're what initially draw you in, and frankly, playing games that are more realistic and in HD is more fun than standing around waving my arms. The gameplay was clearly different thanks to the introduction of the Wiimote. Were there some games that I could have played with the classic controller? Probably, but that kind of would defeat the purpose of the Wii and why would I want to play on a machine with an inferior processor and no HD? I could go on about the poor multiplayer connectivity, the store, the lack of multimedia options that the 360 and PS3 have, and then some, but I'm going to try and wrap this up.

The moral is that I sold my Wii and I feel burned. Now, Nintendo has come out with the Wii U and they're confused why no one is buying it. It's because of people like me who feel burned by Nintendo and don't want to waste our money. You can hop onto any post about games on sites like The Verge or Engadget and you'll find many, many people like me talking about how their Wiis have become dust magnets. The Wii U just doesn't have anything that enticing to me to make me want to buy it. The Wii U only now sort of has the features that the 360 and PS3 have had for years. The Wii U feels like it should have been the Wii. Now of course we all know Nintendo made plenty of money on the Wii, but at what cost? It feels like they traded short-term profits over long-term customer relationships. I'm really not sure that I'll ever buy a Nintendo product again because of the bad taste the Wii has left in my mouth. I bought it because it looked fun and I figured I'd get lots of usage out of it, but the reality is that I didn't. The experience just doesn't compare to that of the 360 or the PS3.

The Wii U is just too little, too late. I don't think I'm the only one who feels that way.