Much too much video games: Destiny, Titanfall, yet more Disney Infinity

...But on to the ones I actually got for Christmas. For these I really only have first impressions.

I've been spending too much time playing the big game of the year, Bungie's Destiny. I'm only a little way into it (my Hunter is level 7, and the cap for the pre-expansion game is 20), and haven't completely wrapped my head around the many options for network multiplayer play and the byzantine loot system. But I can say that, even on the now-previous-generation XBox 360, it's an absolutely gorgeous game, one of the prettiest shooters I've played. It goes for the blasted post-apocalyptic look characteristic of many such things, but it's very well executed, and I like the strange touches of high-fantasy aesthetic mixed in with the science fiction. People make fun of the narration from Peter Dinklage as your mini-robot friend who looks like a cross between a hovering eyeball and a twisty puzzle, but I think he does pretty well with what he's got.

The worst thing about it is that it requires an Internet connection, and if your connection to the back end isn't absolutely rock solid, you'll be unceremoniously booted out of the game (even if the actual mission you're playing is essentially single-player, which can often be the case).

In some cases this seems to happen as a result of some server problem, possibly just overloading. There are missions I've never played simply because I get a network error message every time I try (and it seems to happen more often with some missions than others, which is what makes me think at least some of it is on the back end).

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Too much video games: Geometry Wars 3 and its antecedents

I've been playing video games a lot lately, partly because of Christmas.

The one I've experienced enough of to write something like a knowledgeable review is Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions, the latest in a series of twin-stick shooters with gameplay that is essentially a refinement of the old Robotron: 2084 formula (move with one stick, shoot in all directions with the other).

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Disney Infinity 2.0

Having talked about Disney Infinity before, I guess I should mention that Jorie got v2.0 as a belated birthday present.

I agree with most of the reviews out there: the game's improvements to its Toy Box mode make it even more addictive. They fixed most of the irritating things about building content in the Toy Box: your toy collection, rather than just being organized into idiosyncratic and lopsided categories, can now be viewed through a collection of "filters" that make it far easier to navigate, and the editor actually has an undo button and more "are you sure?" checks for dangerous actions. There are tools for procedurally generating random cities, treehouses and racetracks.

Best of all, the annoying random "spin" mechanism for getting new Toy Box toys is gone, replaced by a system where you can simply buy the toys you want with an in-game currency that you earn by playing, unlocked in a tree diagram similar to the new skill-tree system for characters. And if you have the Play Set pieces for version 1.0, while they aren't playable here, they do unlock all the toys associated with that Play Set in 2.0, so upgraders end up with a huge collection to start with.

But (as most reviewers also noted)... the Marvel superhero content that is the game's main selling point, and replaces the 1.0 version's Disney-themed Play Sets, is also its weakest point. Not the characters themselves—Thor, Black Widow and Iron Man, at least, are actually terrific additions and great fun to play with. The combat system has been beefed up in ways that make fighting a lot more fun, varied and challenging; there's a bit more to it now than "hit it until it's dead". But the Avengers campaign that comes in the box (the only one that's playable with the starter set alone) feels a bit too thin to be the centerpiece of this release.

Basically it's not that different from the Incredibles campaign in the first version: a quasi-open-world superhero adventure in a city of skyscrapers, with Frost Giants as the standard mooks in place of Syndrome's Omnidroids. But since two of the pack-in characters can fly, they've taken away the climbing-puzzle element that Incredibles revolved around (some characters, such as Spider-Man, can climb walls, but these three can't; Black Widow has to use elevators, peculiar streetcorner jumping pads, and pipe-climbing to get up high, unless Thor or Iron Man is willing to give her a boost). There also seem to be fewer oddball side quests, though there are still a number of challenge mini-games scattered around town. Mostly, you're playing the story missions, most of which are only of about three or four basic types: lots of smackdowns to get to some MacGuffin, object defense and escort missions.

I think part of it is that to try to make the Marvel Play Sets less twee, they took out the weird customization options that the Infinity 1.0 Play Sets had. A lot of players disliked those because they were completely irrelevant to the gameplay, but they actually provided a significant part of the exploration aspect (since there were red capsules all over that supplied customization options).

(Instead, the customizable wallpaper and ornamentation have moved to a new Toy Box environment called the "INterior", basically an arbitrarily expandable dollhouse for your characters. I wish you could make as many full-fledged INterior Toy Boxes as you like rather than just having the one as your virtual hangout, but Jorie seems to really like this feature, so what do I know?)

Avengers has its moments. Most of the voices are the actors from Disney's Marvel TV cartoons... but Nick Fury's voice actually is Samuel L. Jackson. My favorite battle so far was a surprisingly tough showdown with multiple duplicates of Loki, who like to shoot you repeatedly when you're already down. One of the more clever additions to the combat system is that being killed is slightly less trivial a thing than it used to be: in multi-player, your character gets taken out of commission until revived by your partner with the usual multi-player "healing" mechanic, and in single player, you generally have to switch to a different character or go back to a checkpoint. It does make the game feel slightly more grown-up.

But my favorite bit of the Marvel content is actually not the full-fledged Avengers Play Set; it's a smaller side game called Escape from the Kyln, ostensibly set in the outer-space prison from Guardians of the Galaxy. It's an old-timey fight-and-loot dungeon stomp displayed with a top-down isometric view, and I love it. There's also a tower-defense game called Assault on Asgard; I haven't played it much since I don't really dig tower-defense games.

Anyway, quibbles aside, I'm actually having a lot of fun playing this with Jorie and solo. The improved Toy Box is definitely the jewel here.

Story Land and Mount Washington

We just took a long weekend and spent a couple of nights up around North Conway, NH.

On Friday, we went back to Story Land, a little kid-oriented amusement park that I visited with my daughter a couple of years ago. She's a little older, and some of the things that used to thrill her are less thrilling; having ridden Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Test Track at Disney World, she's a little too jaded to be truly excited by the Polar Coaster any more.

But what I was really looking forward to was Story Land's newest ride, Roar-O-Saurus. This is a surprisingly hardcore ride for a kiddie park like Story Land: a small wooden coaster made by The Gravity Group, which basically concentrates on delivering as much negative G-force as possible in a small space.

Jorie, having been a bit overwhelmed by Canobie Lake's Yankee Cannonball a few weeks ago, opted out of Roar-O-Saurus. Considering that she was still feeling slightly carsick from the ride up, I don't really blame her. Sam, who I similarly traumatized with a ride on Lake Compounce's gigantic Boulder Dash a few years ago, wasn't keen on it either, and was all too happy to supervise Jorie at the Loopy Lab play area while I went over there and rode Roar-O-Saurus.

Which turns out to be a fairly awesome, somewhat intense ride, and I think I'd actually recommend it more to older coaster fans than to little kids (though a fair number of kids were riding on it, so what do I know). It's only about 40 feet tall, so the biggest drop, while quite steep, isn't big enough to even be worth a scream... but after that, it's all wicked bunny hills, which the trains zip right over, producing enormous amounts of what coaster fans call "ejector air": the feeling that the coaster is trying its best to throw you out of the car, like a mechanical bull. Do not wear an unsecured hat or glasses on this thing; you will lose them.

I was in the front seat just behind the triceratops head, much like East Coaster General up there, though I think that video is shot from the left seat and I was on the right (and I think at least one of the ride ops in that video was working the ride).

The train on this ride is one of The Gravity Group's Timberliners, technically advanced wooden-coaster trains that provide a smooth, comfortable ride, while also a somewhat unnerving one. The only restraint on a Timberliner is a single padded bar that swings down from the side over your lap; it somehow silently and continuously "ratchets" so that it stays in place wherever your lap happens to be. The ride ops were making sure they were pretty snug, so it wasn't the old-fashioned buzz-bar experience where your butt constantly flies out of the seat, but the seats are designed to make you feel like you're fairly exposed. All in all, The Gravity Group's tech impresses me.

There were a lot of adult coaster fans in line with me. I later found out that this was because ACE (American Coaster Enthusiasts) had organized an expedition to Story Land that day to ride Roar-O-Saurus. The ride's reputation had probably been helped by its similarity to a previous small Gravity Group coaster, Wooden Warrior at Quassy. I'm sure they weren't disappointed.

Later that day, we concentrated on water-based rides. Jorie had refused to do anything wet the last time we went there because she insists on wearing a bathing suit, and I hadn't brought hers; but this time we were prepared. One weakness of Story Land in this regard is a shortage of decent changing areas and locker rental (the only lockers are coin-op, so you have to stock up on quarters). But we managed.

"Dr. Geyser's Remarkable Raft Ride" is one of those splashy rides with big circular rafts, this one with a campy turn-of-the-20th-century theme; unlike Thunder Rapids at Compounce, it relies much less on general chaos and more on gimmicks to spray you with water (fake firehoses, fountains that spout up out of the water, a chamber filled with mist), and the sprinkling the gimmicks produce is relatively gentle, probably to make it friendly to younger children. Of the various raft rides I've been on, it's by far the tamest. Despite the warning signs, I suspect it would be hard to get truly soaked on this ride.

This is not true of "Splash Battle: Pharaoh's Reign", an ancient-Egyptian-themed ride in which you ride around on a slow-moving boat and fight with spectators using powerful hand-cranked water cannons. This ride is great hostile fun and gets everyone involved completely inundated. I suspect there are people who just hang around this ride all day long and shoot everybody who floats by. Aside from Roar-O-Saurus, I think it's the actual high point of Story Land.

On Saturday we took the Mt. Washington Cog Railway, a cogwheel train or rack railway to the top of Mt. Washington, the highest peak in New England. I'd hiked up Mt. Washington a couple of times in my youth (and always thought it was a bit surreal to hike through the wilderness up a mountain and find a snack bar and gift shop at the top), but this was my first time on the Cog. It used to be a coal-fired steam train; several years ago, they switched to diesel for most runs, though they do a steam run once a day in the early morning.

This is a pretty remarkable experience, somewhat unnerving when it goes over Jacob's Ladder, a curving trestle with a 37.4% grade (about 20.5 degrees, if I'm calculating correctly). It creeps along at about six miles an hour; it's an hour to go up and an hour to descend, and they give you an hour at the summit. Jorie was really apprehensive even before we got on the train, and spent about the first half of the ascent clinging to me, but eventually decided the whole thing was cool and greatly enjoyed it. There's also a little museum at the bottom, displaying, among other things, the primitive and dangerous sliding board that railroad employees used to use to get down the mountain on the center cog rail at great speed, like a proto-alpine coaster.

A brief visit to Lake Compounce

We went back to Lake Compounce yesterday on the way home from a little family reunion in Pennsylvania. The visit was shorter than we'd expected, thanks to the two-hour backup caused by a car accident at a terrible choke point on I-84 near Waterbury.

No coaster rides this time. My nerves were already a little jangled by the ride in (though Sam was driving); also, the interesting development is that my daughter Jorie is now just tall enough to ride most adult rides, so it's a lot more fun to do stuff with her. But she's at an awkward point where the coasters at Compounce are still a little too much for her, except for a minute kiddie coaster which is far too babyish. Like many small parks, they're lacking something in the "family coaster" category like a Mine Train.

Also, the water slides and such, which I'd say are at least half of Compounce's attractions, don't open until next weekend (and it was too cool for them to be really attractive anyway).

So the standout ride today was the sky ride, which is pretty unusual for any amusement park, let alone a smallish one: basically a long ski lift that goes 700 feet up the mountain and back down again, giving spectacular views of the lake and environs. There's much more of it than you can actually see from the ground; it's about a half-hour ride. Sam and I hadn't been able to ride this last time, because the only means of evacuation involves a hike down the mountainside, so they can't run it when it's just rained and potentially slippery. This ride was pretty amazing, but was also enough to actually trigger the little bit of acrophobia I have, especially by proxy whenever Jorie started horsing around (I kept remembering that the lapbar is non-locking). She seems to completely lack this fear, incidentally, so she may turn out to be a bigger thrill-seeker than I am.

One of the most unusual things you can see from the sky ride is a colossal forest of satellite dishes, that you also drive past on the way in; I'm used to these being defense or intelligence facilities, but this one turns out to be the nerve center of ESPN.

After that, we discovered that Sam's favorite ride at the park, Thunder Rapids, actually was open, so we rode on that and got wet. It was a walk-on and they just let us ride through three times in a row, so we got really wet. Wet enough that we had to concede the argument we'd had with Jorie on the sky ride about the need to go back to the car and change our clothes afterward, which ate up some more of our precious park time. I've ridden several of these sorts of rides in which you get splashed a lot in a big round raft, and I think Compounce's is actually the best one I've encountered. Kali River Rapids at Disney Animal Kingdom is bigger and fancier, with a small drop at the climax, but Thunder Rapids is splashier and more chaotic, and wins for general soaking.

And then we had our first time contesting with our daughter on the bumper cars.

The experience of going to these parks changes a lot when your kid is no longer in the kiddie-ride category. It's one thing I like about Story Land up around North Conway (now owned by the same company as Compounce): they made the decision to specialize in family rides rather than kiddie rides per se, so that you can share the experience even with rather smaller children. I'd like to get up there again and take Jorie on their new wooden coaster, Roar-O-Saurus; it sounds like it would be exactly her speed.

The Pinball Arcade returning to XBox 360?!?!

I first got into playing Farsight's The Pinball Arcade on the XBox 360, which, according to Farsight, has also been their main development platform.

These days, I play it almost exclusively on Android, which isn't quite the same quality of experience, but at least you can get the updates on Android.

Unfortunately, I don't think you've even been able to buy it on XBox Live for some time, and there have been no updates after the first 10 tables or so. Early on, this was mostly Farsight's fault. Their releases, especially early on, were buggier than they ought to be, and for a while Microsoft kept rejecting them for having stability problems of some sort in their qualification testing for release on XBLA. The turnaround time for getting a patch released was fairly long, so this tended to delay the XBox versions of new pinball tables for months.

Then the relationship hit a more serious obstacle. On the 360, Microsoft required companies like Farsight to work through game publishers, which in Farsight's case was Crave Software, the same people who distributed Pinball Hall of Fame on disc to bargain bins everywhere.

One day, Crave's parent company went bankrupt. Farsight tried to line up another distributor... but apparently the bankruptcy court treated the exclusive XBox 360 distribution agreement with Crave as an asset of the bankrupt company, which Crave and Farsight were no longer free to break while things proceeded. That was where it stayed for many months. Farsight has announced that they're going to be shipping on the new XBox One pretty soon, but I think 360 owners had long since given up any hope of the game resurfacing there.

Just a few days ago, though, this happened. It sounds as if TPA really is coming back to the XBox 360, with all the tables they've developed in the interim (since they'd continued to use the 360 as a dev box all along).

If true, this is pretty remarkable. Here's hoping they still remember who requested the 360 versions of the Twilight Zone and Star Trek: TNG tables as Kickstarter thank-you gifts.

It also seems to me that the recent releases on Android have been of higher quality than the earlier ones. I think pulling back to just one table per pack helped with the quality, and I hope that carries over to the XBox. They've also been adapting some real classics recently, such as Fish Tales, Black Knight 2000 and High Speed, and they seem to be quietly fixing the bugs in some earlier ones like Black Knight in the background.

More fun with cellular automata

I missed this when it happened, but Andrew Trevorrow and Tom Rokicki's fine program Golly, the most powerful software I know of for running Conway's Game of Life and similar cellular automata, is now available for free on Google Play for Android and on Apple's store for the iPad. I can now mess around with my tweaked variants of Life anywhere I go!

The Android version seems to get into an occasional crash loop on my Galaxy S4 if I push it hard, but otherwise it's great. Most of the features are there, including all the automaton types, the pattern library, the integrated Life Lexicon, and the remarkable HashLife algorithm, which for sufficiently regular patterns can do things like run them to quadrillions of generations and cosmic sizes. The Android version lacks Perl/Python scripting, auto-fit (though you can still hit a button to make the view fit the active region), and the "hyperspeed" feature that automatically accelerates the time step (only really useful with certain gigantic engineered patterns on HashLife). I think the viewing and editing interface is actually more intuitive than in the Mac/PC version.

I also just spent a little time messing with their more recent project, Ready, which generalizes cellular automata in all sorts of different directions: its main concern is simulating chemical reaction-diffusion systems, like the one that Alan Turing theorized as the source of spots and stripes on animal coats, but it can also run continuum automata like SmoothLife, 3D cellular automata and models on non-square grids (triangular, hexagonal, Penrose tilings, arbitrary lumpy surfaces). It can also use OpenCL to accelerate its math using your video 3D hardware. It's clearly in a more primitive state than Golly and is not as simple to play with, but what it can do is pretty amazing.

Some things that are not obvious about Disney Infinity

Somehow this blog has become all about Disney products. Oh, right, I have a 7-year-old daughter.

My kid got Disney Infinity for Christmas, a game that is both charming and brilliantly evil in its business model: like Activision's Skylanders, it's a game with huge wads of on-disc unlockable content that you access by buying collectible tchotchkes, that go on a USB platform that is a near-field communication interface.

I have to give it to them, though: you actually get a tremendous amount of play value just from the base starter set, and much of it is as fun for grownups as for kids. Basically you get a set of three full campaigns themed after Pirates of the Caribbean, The Incredibles and Monsters University, plus a monstrously addictive Toy Box mode in which you can build nonsensical worlds out of sweet Disney IP with abandon, unlocking more and more stuff as you play on in the campaigns.

Considered that way, it's not such a bad deal, though it does push the extra content at you a bit hard at times. Probably the game's single most evil touch is that, because of the restrictions on character use in the campaigns, the three starter-set campaigns are single-player only until you buy more characters. But the Toy Box is multi-player from the start, and this is indescribably fun. (This game actually drove me to buy a second XBox controller so I could mess in the Toy Box with my kid.)

The campaigns are actually solid games in themselves, too, though not without some design glitches; they've got the "open-world" design common to most big modern games, in which you can roam more or less freely, but there are missions you gradually unlock that involve both a main story progression and a large number of side quests, loot to collect, achievements and optional hurry-up challenges. My favorite is the Pirates world, mostly because of the customizable pirate ship that is transport between the game areas and vehicle for naval combat. The amount of content in each campaign world isn't as much as in a major standalone game, but for all three put together it's comparable or more.

All this has been covered in many other reviews; I think it's a case where, as with so much that Disney produces, both admiration and resentment are legitimate responses.

What I wanted to emphasize, for people who have been sucked into this maelstrom, are a few play-value-enhancing facts that were not at all obvious to me.

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Some rides at Walt Disney World

While I'm too averse to physical punishment to be one of these people who can ride roller coasters all day long, I am interested in them. This summer I didn't get to ride any new-to-me coasters; the last amusement park I went to for the first time was Lake Compounce last year.

Over the long weekend, though, we went to Walt Disney World in Florida. It was actually my first time there, and also, I think, Sam's (though she'd been to Disneyland in California). My childhood had been Disney-park-free, so this stuff was new to me.

WDW has four large theme parks, of which we visited three (Animal Kingdom, The Magic Kingdom, and EPCOT; we left off Hollywood Studios, the site of the Aerosmith-themed Rockin' Roller Coaster, which I'd like to ride someday). Disney's parks are not primarily about thrill rides, but Animal Kingdom and The Magic Kingdom have lavishly themed coasters of note, and EPCOT has a difficult-to-classify ride with some coaster aspects. Inevitably, I didn't ride all the ones I wanted to (which was all of them*), but I had a lot of fun.

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*Except Primeval Whirl at Animal Kingdom. Spinning coasters are not a thing I have ever regarded as a good idea.