A Week in the Life of a 41-Year-Old Gamer: June 3rd – 9th, 2016

THOUGHTS:

“A Tale of Two EAs”

It feels as if EA is two companies. The more powerful and profitable EA is the one that wants individual players to buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of Ultimate Team sports cards, Simpsons donuts, and Star Wars crystals. Let’s call them EA Alpha. The games that EA Alpha makes are not meant for me.

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Fortunately, there is an EA Beta. EA Beta games don’t use virtual currency. EA Beta designers prioritize the importance of skill in their games. They create incredible worlds to explore, rendered at an outstanding level of fidelity. EA Beta has given us game-of-the-year products like Dragon Age Inquisition and Titanfall. And this week, EA Beta is granting us a sequel to Mirror’s Edge – something I never thought would materialize, despite seeing periodic teases at past E3s. This minor miracle makes leaves me very, very happy with EA as a whole.

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The original Mirror’s Edge was one of my favorite games of the past generation. It wasn’t perfect, but its first-person platforming gameplay was truly unique, and it looked so different than the gun-metal grey shooters that dominated the gaming landscape at the time. Everything was pristine. White was the dominant color. And successfully threading your way from one skyscraper to another, swinging, wall-running, and dodging as you went, was a rush that no other game could capture.  Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst (Xbox One) is a similar breath of fresh air. It’s a single-player game free from micro-transactions, cast in a city without rails. The decision to go open world opens means lots of Assassin’s Creed-style sub-missions, which I never pass-up, because traversal is so much fun. You’ll find player-created challenges littered throughout the landscape. They’ve wisely taken the gunplay out of the game and streamlined combat, shifting the emphasis to escaping instead of engaging.

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Bad signposting is the game’s one major weakness. I’d love to turn off the guidance system, which displays an explicit path to your goal (presented as a red ribbon). But the game does a poor job of signaling where to go via lighting cues and colored markers. And since time is always of the essence, shutting off the red ribbon simply leads to dead ends, failed missions, and frustration. I’ve only gotten a few hours in, so perhaps this will not be a problem when I get to know the city better. But environments look so uniform that I doubt that will be the case.

Overall, the game is a gift for those of us who loved the first game. New players will find a lot to like, too. The game is more of a franchise re-start than a sequel, so nothing will be lost from a narrative perspective if you haven’t played the first. Think of it working the same way that Zelda games do, effectively telling the same story over again, with a different set of mechanical hooks.

“VR is the Real Deal”

Prior to this week, my exposure to VR has been limited to playing Surgeon Simulator on an early Oculus headset, and trying out a few games and apps using Google Cardboard. On Tuesday, I got my hands on the Gear VR for Samsung phones, along with a Steel Series game controller. Holy shit. I love this thing. I’m getting that “wow, this is next-gen” feeling for the first time since I bought an Xbox 360 ten years ago. It’s a massive jump. A totally new way to play games. And it’s all running off of a phone!

I’m sure that the Oculus, Vive, and PlayStation VR experiences are a significant step up. I’m more eager than ever to find out. But Gear VR is portable! I can use it on a long plane ride, or take it to a relative’s house! And just as important, I can throw it in my bag and pull it out to show friends who haven’t tried VR before. I’ll be upgrading to the Oculus or PSVR eventually, but the convenience of Gear VR – specifically, the simple benefit of not being anchored to one room in the house – means I will always make time to enjoy this device.

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Some people don’t like the idea of being totally closed off from the world around you. I find that it’s very, very relaxing, when limited to short sessions. I live in a small two-bedroom condo with two kids and a wife. I adore them, of course, but there is no man-room in the Einhorn house. No personal space. This device gives me an instant, portable man-room – a place to unwind for twenty minutes without any distractions. The device really does transport you.

I’ve had many terrific gaming experiences with the device this week, but I wanted to highlight four. The first is an interactive horror experience, called Affected: The Manor. There are no game mechanics… it’s more like a haunted house attraction at a county fair. You walk forward via the game controller. If you’re standing up with headphones on, the illusion of being trapped in a haunted old house is complete. You go at your own pace, exploring a full 360-degree environment. Dingy, rancid, dark. There are jump scares that made me shout out, loud enough to wake my wife. The game isn’t long – it takes less than twenty minutes to make your way through the manor – but this is the product above any other that convinced me of the technology’s ability to actually put you in a game’s world.

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Gunjack: EVE is a cockpit space shooter, sporting visuals that should not be possible on a mobile phone. The moment you blast off into space and start looking for enemy ships, you are in another universe. Unlike Affected: The Manor, this is an actual video game. It’s shallow – it feels like the kind of cockpit shooter you’d play at a Dave and Buster’s arcade – but it’s highly accessible, and very fun in short bursts. It also demonstrates how precise head-based aiming is. Moving the cursor by turning your head feels great when a game is on rails. Anshar Wars 2 is an interesting game to look at in comparison, in that it is a third-person spaceship game in the vein of Starfox. It’s also quite good, but movement is not as intuitive, and subsequently, the feeling of immersion is not as convincing. There’s too much going on mechanically for you to lose yourself in the world right away. Anshar Wars 2 has been getting better the more I’ve been playing it – and while it is overall a better game than Gunjack, it’s a less effective VR experience. So between the two, if you don’t want to get both, put your ten bucks towards Gunjack. 

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Evil Robot Traffic Jam is a tower defense game. If you are playing at a table, it feels as if the environment is laid out in front of you like a board game, real enough to touch. This game makes brilliant use of the VR tech, and it’s also a satisfying video game with depth. Of the games I purchased this week, I will almost certainly be spending the most time with this one, in that it’s ideal for short sessions, but is also skill based. The candy-colored world works great in VR – there’s no uncanny valley going on when you play this one.

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Minecraft VR is a great get for Samsung. It’s exactly what you’d expect, and as fun as you’d think. It’s easy to melt into this one, since it ultimately becomes a world of your own creation. I turned off the default ‘VR’ setting right away, which displays horizontal movement frame-by-frame – presumably, to avoid people feeling nausea while playing. Once you get that settled, you can finally see what it feels like to explore Minecraft from inside the game. As with Evil Robot Traffic Jam, the stylized graphics help convince your eyes that you are somewhere new. This is going to be my default way of playing Minecraft going forward. Interestingly, my nine-year-old daughter still prefers playing the game on her Macbook… she liked the VR experience, but it didn’t excite her enough to want to switch from what was more familiar to her.

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As somebody who used to go to the movies three times a week, another big benefit to the Gear VR is how it displays films. The headset transports you to a movie theater, complete with fully rendered seats, air vents, aisles, etc. When the movie is about to begin, the lights dim. If you look behind you, you’ll see the beam of light from the projector, and the projection booth itself. There are no other viewers in the theater, which feels a bit off, but otherwise, it really does make you feel like you’re in a movie theater, and your eyes are absolutely convinced that you’re viewing a gigantic screen. Netflix and Hulu also work with the headset; they both put you in a fancy living room, in front of the kind of television display you’d imagine an enormously wealthy person might have. Again, the illusion is complete. On the Netflix app, you can turn your head to the left, look out the window, and see mountains. Turn right, and see a stairwell. And the headset is light enough to let you enjoy a full film without discomfort.

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So, in all, the Gear VR is a magical device, at an amazing price. If you have a Samsung S6 phone or better, you should definitely pick one up, along with a Bluetooth controller.

That said, bear in mind four limiting factors.

  1. You can’t see your hands. This was very distracting to my daughter and son, who expected to see their avatar bodies move in coordination with their real physical gestures. This is an issue that Google Daydream (an upcoming mobile VR platform) will solve with special one-handed controllers. Oculus and Vive have one-handed controllers, too, which let you see your hands while playing in first-person.
  2. The resolution is not great. This is not a high definition experience. It looks good, but not as crisp as the 1080p display you’re used to.
  3. Games overheat the phone quickly. I was able to watch long movies, no problem, but games make the handset very, very hot, and after about thirty minutes, you’ll have to take a breather to let the phone cool down.
  4. Not all genres will work well on the device. Much as I love this experience, I think I’ll always prefer playing fast-paced first-person games – and all third-person games – on traditional gaming machines. VR technology is awesome, but it is in no way a replacement for the Xbox One or PlayStation 4.

These are very significant drawbacks. But still, the overall experience is so powerful, I have found it easy to look past those challenges. You owe it to yourself to see why Gear VR was so compelling it literally made Steve Wozniak cry.

PURCHASES:

  1. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst (Xbox One): $37.03 ($59.99 retail; applied store credit)
  2. DMC: Devil May Cry (Xbox One): $14.99
  3. Steel Series Bluetooth Controller (Android): $59.99
  4. Affected: The Manor (Gear VR): $2.99
  5. Anshar Wars 2 (Gear VR): $9.99
  6. Deer Hunter (Gear VR): $4.99
  7. Action Bowling (Gear VR): $2.99
  8. VR Karts (Gear VR): $4.99
  9. Romans From Mars (Gear VR): $2.99
  10. Gunjack: EVE (Gear VR): $9.99
  11. Minecraft VR (Gear VR): $6.99
  12. Land’s End (Gear VR): $7.99
  13. Protocol Zero (Gear VR): $4.99
  14. Evil Robot Traffic Jam (Gear VR): $9.99

YTD Total: $1,204.00

PLAYTIME:

  1. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst (Xbox One): 3h 22m
  2. Gunjack: EVE (Gear VR): 1h 36m
  3. Minecraft VR (Gear VR): 45m
  4. Evil Robot Traffic Jam (Gear VR): 42m
  5. Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien (Vita): 42m
  6. Anshar Wars 2 (Gear VR): 35m
  7. Persona 4 Golden (Vita): 35m
  8. Protocol Zero (Gear VR): 31m
  9. Assassin’s Creed Rogue (PlayStation 3): 23m
  10. Land’s End (Gear VR): 23m
  11. Romans from Mars (Gear VR): 22m
  12. Affected: The Manor (Gear VR): 18m
  13. VR Karts (Gear VR): 14m
  14. Action Bowling (Gear VR): 7m
  15. Deer Hunter (Gear VR): 6m
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