Playstation VR Review

Posted: February 12, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Technology

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I will be following this with a video review on my YouTube channel, will just take a bit to put together.

 

Once again, it sucks sometimes being just a dude who writes about games, instead of someone who is paid to do it.  In general I like playing and writing what I want, but on the other hand, companies rarely send me their products early and for free.  In the case of the PSVR, which Sony apparently only sent out 15 or 20 of to the entire world at launch, it seriously took me this long to get one.  I live in a little town that got very few units and wasn’t willing to pay inflated prices to scalpers on craigslist and eBay.

The plus side to this is that like many of you, I am a normal consumer who has to buy this stuff.  My rating of this device is based on how realistic it is to upgrade my gaming PC and buy the competition, versus buying this in a real budget.  Like the average PC gamer (real average, not average snob on forums) I have a gaming PC that is upper midrange for about 3 years ago.  So I could barely handle any high-end VR games without some very costly upgrades.  I also needed a new PS4 though and the Pro model had just released at the time.  Since Sony’s platform would bring both 4K and VR gaming, an upgrade that would be about twice as much in my situation for my PC.  It makes a huge difference that this is the only solution that made sense in my case, because I am not sitting here in an office, staring at 3 devices I didn’t pay for and comparing them.  So without further preamble, the review.

 

Fidelity

I should start by saying that my own VR experience is limited by my amateur journalist status.  I did work at Samsung in 2014 and was fortunate enough to use both an Oculus Rift developer unit and the Gear VR prototype (which was a stripped down version of the dev unit) when the Gear VR was being launched.  So I have some experience with Oculus’ tech and none with HTC’s.  The PSVR is the first consumer unit I have used in a home environment, outside a canned demo.

The quality is what I think will become the new standard of “good enough” for VR.  For lack of a better description, it’s basically like having a 1080p OLED screen wrapped around your face.  When you first put it on, you will definitely notice the individual LEDs if you have sharp vision.  After a while of using it, the effect goes away as your eyes become used to focusing on the image the way they do reality, rather than a flat screen.  The effect is a tiny bit worse in the PSVR than the other headsets I’ve tried, because the resolution is slightly lower, but the effect is no more or less annoying until you stop noticing it.  The biggest issue with visual quality is anti-aliasing effects or scaling, as in Resident Evil 7.

This is the first unit I have used that was using full room tracking of any kind.  All tracking is limited by what the Playstation camera can see.  In practice I found this to be about a 2m x 3.5m area that would only go as low or high as I aimed the camera’s roughly 100 degree scope.  Sony could easily improve this later by adding additional cameras or sensors, but I found it to be an excellent balance of interaction vs home intrusion.  Much like the Wii, Virtual Reality is one of those things where you want to jump around for the first day, but then you remember you play video games to relax.  I’ve found that I am most comfortable sitting or standing stationary.  Although you can wander around a bit in most VR games (really fun in Batman!), the most interesting stuff is usually right in front of you.

Finally, the sound quality is very impressive!  I didn’t even bother with Sony’s earbuds and instead went straight to the Turtle Beach headset I bought for the VR.  I had my doubts about Sony’s claims that their magical 3D stereo would be better than real surround sound, but it’s pretty darn good.  It is actually completely playable with living room surround sound, although your position is sometimes slightly off.  Not at all unbearable though if you want to remain in touch with other people in the room.  This is even required for a couple of games with asymmetric gameplay using the TV as well, such as Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes!

 

VR Nausea

This has so far varied from person to person.  Some people seem to experience it depending on the type of movement in each game.  Resident Evil 7 is the worst offender so far, because it does this strange disconnect where the controller moves your actual character model, but you can still move yourself around and change your view.  It can result in a disconnect in position that is a serious head trip.  I also found that when I turned off all the anti-nausea aids (like FOV filter, slow walking and limited camera control) and played as I normally would, running around at full speed and aiming very quickly while strafing, I was overcome by intense nausea after about 90 minutes and 2 boss battles.  That was a pretty extreme test, but so far I have been the least susceptible to nausea and I wanted to see if there were limits.  There were indeed and I had to take the headset off and take anti-nausea meds immediately.

In general though, if you limit yourself to hour-long sessions and don’t play like a baboon on crack, you shouldn’t have too much issue once you get used to it.  We’ve found that taking a break at a max of 90 minutes is pretty necessary though.  It doesn’t need to be that long, but you will definitely get a headache if you play for 5 hours straight.

Probably the most important trick to avoiding nausea or headaches is to calibrate the headset for each user if they will be playing for more than a few minutes.  It’s fine to pass the headset around to demonstrate, or to play party games.  When playing long sessions though, it is much easier to focus the image and remain comfortable if you calibrate your eye distance and camera position for each profile.  Some games require a ‘neutral point’ for the headset, that it will treat as the center of the room and this is of course different based on height and distance from the camera.  Not tuning this for each user can result in having to lean or tilt your head in an uncomfortable way while playing.

 

Control and Precision

Once again, I have not used the Rift or Vive controllers, so I have no idea how they compare.  I would assume they are better, because the Move controllers were designed ages ago and can be purchased cheaper.  That being said, both the Dual Shock 4 and the Move controllers do a fantastic job when used properly.  Its’ really important to heed the warning about other bright lights near you when playing, because that will cause the dreaded shaking effect.  If you ever tried to get any kind of accuracy out of your Nintendo Wii though, you know the drill.  Middle lighting and no points of light near the player.  Follow those guidelines and the control is actually very accurate.  So accurate on occasions that my wife’s 5 minutes in front of an in-game mirror gesticulating and saying “I’m Batman” had me rolling on the floor in tears.

Playing with the traditional controller is a great middle ground between the up-on-you-feet experience of true VR and the gaming we’re all used to.  It’s much less taxing and totally necessary for a game like RE7, that takes hours to complete.  It is occasionally confusing that you can’t just move your body or touch things with your hands, but that just means the illusion is still working.

The biggest issue with both controllers, is that neither of them was designed for VR.  The DS4 is a traditional controller and the Move was obviously designed to be seen while playing.  Hitting the tiny face buttons accurately is nearly impossible when swinging the remote around blindly.  This results in most games using only the move and trigger buttons, only occasionally using one of the face buttons repeatedly.  Worse, 2D menu navigation with the Move controller is almost impossible (and not even supported in many games), meaning you have to pick up the Dual Shock to perform many functions in game and system menus.  These are things that could easily be smoothed out with software updates and will likely be solved completely by the inevitable “improved sensor and control” package Sony will surely release this year.

 

Software Selection

Currently the PSVR has a notable advantage in that two of the most critically acclaimed and hardware pushing VR games are exclusive to Sony’s platforms (for the moment).  Batman Arkham VR and Resident Evil 7’s VR mode (the game itself is cross platform) are both limited time exclusives to PSVR.  While this means they will obviously come to other platforms later (surely with addons and updates), at the moment two of the best VR experiences can only be played on PSVR.  These are of course the first 2 full games we bought for ours.  Beyond that we just have free content and a couple really cheap games.  Those two games are pretty much worth the price of admission on their own.  Resident Evil 7 lets you explore a VR environment that is actually large and detailed, with fully free movement.  Something lacking in almost all existing VR games.  Batman on the other hand, makes you Batman.  The Goddamned Batman.  Yes, you are Batman as he goes on a graphically detailed point-n-click adventure that we would have laughed away in 2D, but you are BATMAN.

The rest of the games range somewhere from tech demos to games we’ve seen before that have been VRified.  Many of the same genres we saw on the Wii have showed up for a quick buck.  Then there are the videos and “experiences” which have shown up before on other VR platforms.  These range from amusing shorts like Invasion, where you stand in place and watch a 3D scene, to “games” where you teleport around an environment and can basically just poke stuff.  These are all great for trade shows, but the steep price tags for some of them are obvious exploitation of the fad that will harm the industry in general.  The perception that it is an overpriced gimmick is the biggest hurdle for VR to overcome.

 

So… Overpriced Gimmick?

Absolutely not.  This is the technology I have been waiting for for years.  If you only see VR as a new way for people to be lazy and avoid reality, you are blinding yourself to a world of possibility.  VR has limitless opportunities not only for the obvious, like training and simulation, but for the subtle and humanistic as well.  I imagine a world 10 years from now where sheltered white kids like myself, from our nice little towns, could learn a lot more about racism from experiencing Roots, rather than watching it.  Sure, a VR whip or travelling for a month in your won VR filth isn’t anything like the real thing, but it’s a much better eye opener than a decades old movie on a VHS tape.  Or imagine a simulation of what it’s like to communicate with speech impediments or brain damage.  You speak clearly, but others can’t understand you.  I could go on and on and on.  This is a technology that will literally change everything.

For right now, it will let you stand in front of a mirror as Batman.  It may not sound like much, but the only way we can get to that better world of empathy and understanding is by financing it with our money.  Virtual Reality will only take off if enough of us take the plunge in the early days.  From my own experience though, even these early methods of experiencing VR are well worth the cost of admission.  It seems like a lot of crap to buy and hook up, until you put your face in it and see a fully VR area for the first time.  This is not like any of that 3D glasses crap you can see at the movie theater.  If you have not used one of the headsets released in the past few years, no technology you have seen before can prepare you for this.  It’s a level of immersion and interaction that no medium has ever come close to in the past.  I’ve tried everything from the Nintendo Virtual Boy to high-end arcade VR machines over the years.  Nothing before the current generation VR devices ever made my brain cross that threshold to perceiving the VR space as real.  To a limited extent, I was doing this within moments of playing the PSVR.

Without any further rambling, I just want to say that I think the PSVR is truly the best positioned consumer VR device.  As much as I love PC gaming, I never in a million years expect it to be the dominant entertainment platform.  John Carmack and Gabe Newell are way smarter than I am, but they are somehow completely delusional about this.  PC gaming is always going to be a niche segment, because average consumers keep the PC in the office and the Playstation in the living room.  As someone who has until very recently been in the homes of many consumers working on their devices, I don’t see this changing soon.  The Playstation VR is the mainstream, ready to play right now solution that I decided to go with after much thought and I highly recommend it.  The VR quality is more than good enough to create the experience and the ease of use is top-notch.  The manufacturing quality seems to be up to Sony’s normal standards and I don’t see any of the parts being easy to break.  As much as I hate to always say “go with the big, successful company that makes similar stuff”, it is a really good rule of thumb.  Startups like Oculus (though they are now owned by Facebook) and players from other industries like HTC will often make the superior product, but it’s almost always the company like Sony that has the market power to force it into the public consciousness.

We’ll see if I invested wisely in the long run, as VR in general may not take off and even if it does, many of the early competitors will likely fail.  Here’s hoping it goes universal and multiplatform though, so we can all play the same games on different devices for years to come.

True Guru Tips for Buying Computers and Parts

Posted: January 31, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Features, Off-topic, Technology

There are many articles that discuss commonly held wisdom about buying and selling electronics.  I have written several myself.  This is going beyond that to the realm of instinct and “kicking the tires” so to speak.  If you’ve read all the basic stuff about “do not buy below (A) graphics card for gaming at (X) resolution” and all that, this is the guide for you.

 

Read, read and re-read the full listing before buying.

I know this doesn’t seem like an advanced tip at all, but I want you to really let it sink in.  Even I have allowed myself to be duped by an incorrect listing and then been tempted to be that asshole complaining about it in the reviews.  Trust your common sense madam or sir, you know there is no such thing as a GTX 960 with 2048 shader cores.  Do not let your greed to find some impossible deal trick you.  Because you will have just fooled yourself.  You have done the basic research, you knew better, you just hoped against hope you could game the system.

Now this totally goes both ways.  There are totally such things as “unicorn parts” and if you think you have found one, try to verify by part number or reviews and BUY IMMEDIATELY.  Allow me to give a couple of examples I have bought.

The first was a Geforce GTX 460 that was some sort of odd developer edition.  It was overspecced over OEM in every way (more cores, faster speeds etc) and yet it had only one 6-pin PCIe requirement.  If you are familiar with the Fermi series cards you know this is effing nonsense.  Yet it was, and the results are still on some forum somewhere as the internet went from suspicion to awe as I was like “wtf is this thing!?”  It completely outperformed everything in range at significantly lower wattage.  No idea where it came from, but so glad that some e-recycler got ahold of it somehow and put it on eBay.

The second was a completely unlocked Haswell revision b CPU for testing.  It said right on the die cap that this was absolutely not to ever leave the Intel factory.  Some enterprising gentleperson in China went through some epic adventure to get it out, as evidenced by the battle damage on the cap.  It still booted just fine though and I gave them terrific feedback.  This is one of the chips they use to test what the released ones will be set at.  Every single setting of the CPU is unlocked, because the techs at Intel need to be able to toggle every switch for testing.  With the right custom bios, you can turn on and off some very interesting features on these.  You can also overclock the hell out of it on good cooling, which is all I cared about.  I guess I shouldn’t recommend that you try to get one of these, because Intel would probably have me killed if I still had it in my possession writing this.  But if you, wink wink, nudge nudge happened to find one, it was like eating gelato in a computer part.

 

Sometimes refurbished is good!

I frequently say the biggest problem with computers now is they aren’t made with love, by human hands.  That sounds corny, but it’s as simple as the guy in the factory pulls a big level that dunks the heatsink in thermal paste and slams it on a laptop logic board.  That is no way to apply paste, plain and simple.  Many of the problems that cause all of those angry reviews come from the simple byproducts of automation.  It makes total sense, they can sell it much cheaper and when you return it, they just have a tech open it up and fix a simple problem and it never happens again.  They can just re-sell it for a little less as refurbished and it’s usually only a small percentage that actually have issues.

Let’s rewind a couple sentences: “…and it never happens again.”  This is the part that’s important.  When you buy a device that has been properly refurbished, you are getting a device that has been opened up by a person more qualified than anyone involved in manufacturing it.  They have actually touched it with their gloved hands and even the laziest tech will usually blow out plastic shavings and do other basic fixes, without even mentioning it.  This means that you have a device that is actually less likely to ever fail again than the other units that didn’t fail.  The other units could still have a wire that is too close to something, it just didn’t fail within warranty.

This goes very counter to common thought, that if there are a lot of refurbished models available, it must be garbage.  That really isn’t true anymore.  Most problems with electronic devices these days are caused by minor things that can be easily fixed.  Oftentimes manufacturers will even go to the effort of refurbishing (though not actually having to fix anything) units that have been returned for any reason.  It’s pretty rational really, you say you just returned it because you didn’t like it, but maybe you just cleaned up the cat vomit really, really well.  Might as well have a tech open it up just to be safe, don’t want to be that really, really horrifying Amazon review.  This goes like any of these, just do your research and read as many reviews of the refurbisher as possible.

 

Never trust reviews by people who sound like jerks.

Unreasonable people generally behave unreasonably.  That’s not some deep wisdom, it’s just the obvious.  The people who have emotional outbursts about a Chromebook not having a DVD drive, are usually the kind of people that put diesel in their gas car and blame the gas station.  You have nothing useful to learn from these people in this situation.  Focus on the reviews that calmly and rationally cover the pros and cons of the device at hand.  They are unfortunately few and far between sometimes, but keep looking and you should find a few.

On the flipside of this, if you are reviewing something, try to be rational.  Your personal emotions about the situation are irrelevant to anyone but you.  What matters is how long you used the thing and how it functioned during that time.  The purpose of reviews is to inform other potential buyers, not vent at the manufacturer.  At best the only company employee who will read it is an intern and you may get a canned response.

Also nobody cares how you feel about the brand in general.  This device was probably made in a different factory than the last device you bought by that manufacturer and the company has probably changed hands five times.  Brand loyalty or hate is the most irrelevant, stupid thing you could waste your time on when we are talking about the product itself.  I want to just hammer that home with the example of my wife’s 2014 Macbook Pro 15.  It’s the fully loaded one with all the bells and whistles.  Now you may have your gripes about Apple in general, but I’ve taken apart a lot of their devices and they are usually pretty good about engineering.  The late 14 MBP15 has the huge design flaw, in that it is incapable of using its own dedicated GPU by the laws of thermodynamics.  I kid you not, we’ve replaced the logic board twice, it’s just that simple.  You start using a 3D application, it overheats.  Every. Single. Time.  That is the sort of thing you should be specific about in a review.  It’s only the model with dGPU and it’s not nearly as common on other years.  People need to know that someone at Apple messed up on that model and that they should buy a different one.  Not that all Apple computers are bad, because the 2011 iMac 27″ is still trucking fantastically right next to it.  I’ve experienced the same with Asus, HP and Dell, brands I generally really approve of.  Every brand makes a few lemons, but there’s a reason that those companies are the big names; they generally make products people really like.

 

Be aware of what sacrifices are necessary.

Owning technology has laws, much like gravity and magnetism.  These laws are things like your technology will only be as good as you put time or money into it.  This is an absolute, unbreakable relationship that can only be cheated in one way, which I will mention later.  You either have to put time into researching and maintaining everything yourself, or you have to throw money at it.  You either have to know exactly what you can get away with cutting corners on, or you have to just buy the most expensive one and trust the warranty.  You cannot expect to just spend ten minutes browsing Amazon, order the first thing that looks too-good-to-be-true and hope it turns out well.  You will probably end up with a laptop with a keyboard in a language nobody speaks.

If you are an average consumer, your only hope to get a really good deal on current technology is to really read up on it and catch a good sale.  If something looks too cheap, it probably has some major flaw.  If something is much cheaper than others of the same thing, it is probably damaged in some way or being sold for parts.  It is possible to save money over just buying the first thing recommended to you, but it will take time and effort.  I know how it feels to get something super cheap on Amazon or eBay, but I also know how it feels to find out it’s the wrong thing and I only have myself to blame.  The important thing to keep in mind is that unless you are a master scammer, you are probably not going to game the system all that much without someone realizing it.  Don’t be too quick to think you’ve outsmarted people who have been separating people from money for a long time.

Finally, if you are not the average consumer, you may qualify for that method of cheating the system I mentioned above.  Guess what?  It also takes work.  If you become a top-tier tech, you will have the ability to make machines do things that the average user could only dream of.  As a general rule, any system I build beats official benchmarks of the same parts by 15% or more.  It’s not magic, I just do 100 things or more to optimize performance that take years of experience to learn.  So you are avoiding the work each time you buy something, by investing it up front with knowledge.  There is no easy path to this.  If you just try to copy what an expert does, you will have catastrophic failure like Mickey in Fantasia.  There is no way around learning the hard way when it comes to technology, but I highly recommend it.  If you are passionate about your technology, you truly cannot buy the peace of mind that comes from building and caring for your own devices.  You can also get a $500 computer to out-bench a $1000 computer if you know what you’re doing.

 

Never, ever feel rushed.  There is always another deal.

It’s easy to get caught up in sales and rebates on sites like Newegg and Amazon.  That’s the whole point.  They are trying to convince you that today’s deal is something special, when a simple graph of their prices would show that everything goes up and down constantly.  The other thing to be aware of is that new parts are releasing constantly.  This not only gives you more options, but also causes the previous parts to drop in value.  The older parts are still just as useful as they were before the new thing arrived, so it often saves you a lot to go with the previous model.

There is a flip side to this as well.  If you keep hesitating, waiting for the next deal or new product, you don’t have a system the entire time you wait.  People have a hard time understanding this, but the most cost-effective way to PC game is to build a new mid-range system every 6 months to a year.  If you build it yourself, it will be worth at least what it cost you 6 months later.  You just need to build it barely powerful enough to run current games well, knowing that you won’t have it in a year.  So the cycle pays for itself and you spend absolutely nothing but time and the effort of building a couple of PCs a year, which I find relaxing.

 

 

I think that about wraps up this edition in this long-running series.  I may think of a few tips to add later.

 

 

 

 

Resident Evil 7 review

Posted: January 27, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Reviews

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Creepy kid alert.

EDIT 1/31:  Sincerest apologies, again I incorrectly stated that a PS4 Pro game was running at 4K when in actuality it was up-sampling.  RE7 runs at 1700p natively.  Doesn’t change the point though, because no $400 PC could run the game at 1700p at 60fps either.

 

Playstation VR Update 2/12/17

Words cannot describe how much better this game is in VR.  It is absolutely terrifying and the most in-depth experience available in VR.  Killer app right here.

I would actually say this completely changes my view on the game.  What was a solid, yet short RE reinvention in 2D, is a genuine tour de force in VR.  At a length of 12-16 hours to complete, it’s one of the shorter RE games, but one of the longer VR games by far.  Since it can be pretty stressful to play it for more than 60-90 minutes, the game suddenly feels much longer.  I now get the sense that Capcom had to carefully balance length to make the title possible to complete in VR from start to finish, as advertised.  If the game were any longer, I think even I would lack to will and patience to finish the entire game in-headset.

The other major difference is the aiming.  I now see why the aiming feels crude on the non-VR dualshock; the developers obviously spent the last 6 months of development only playing in VR.  I can’t blame them, as playing this game in VR is extremely addictive and the perfect example of the experience we’ve all been waiting for.  The debate between different control types of the past has become utterly moot, aiming a gun in VR with your head is by far the best way to shoot things.  I am a relatively good marksman in reality and this become immediately evident if you watch my RE7 VR videos.  While I am a very poor competitive FPS player, I am effortlessly blasting things in the face as they jump out at me, with split second timing and accuracy.  Finally comes the technology than brings real ability to the playing field.

Finally there is the cool factor of being able to move your head around and look at things from every angle.  The game is advertised as being playable while seated, but you can actually move and lean around freely, limited only by how you have your camera aimed.  This becomes immediately evident, right at the title screen.  I was able to stand up from the desk, walk around Zoe’s trailer to a limited extent and even stick my head in the toilet.  This is possible at any time.  I found it was really useful to have my camera aimed low, so that I could actually lean forward off my couch and see beneath objects like desks, tables and the trailer in the front yard.  The game even allowed me to bend over with my head between my legs and shoot through my legs behind me.  I can’t imagine ever actually doing this, but it is possible.  The other main benefit is you can lean in closer than allowed with a controller and really check out the maggoty grossness of every single object (like Andre’s floating corpse).

Overall I would say if you are playing without VR, read the rest of this article.  If you are one of the few fortunate enough to have a PSVR, go buy this game immediately.  The real McCoy has arrived and there is nothing better to play in VR right now.

 

This is going to be a tough review for me to write.  Normally I am pretty kind with my reviews, because I put aside all fanboy expectations and rate the game as a product vs. other direct competition.  I also generally throw out my knowledge of development time and what the game means to the industry.  This is the odd case where I really want to break my own rules and do the opposite.  You see, RE7 is a wonderful example of Capcom taking the pulse of the horror game genre and making a Frankenstein’s monster out of it that will define the next generation of horror.  Just like RE1 did to Alone in the Dark and RE4 did to Eternal Darkness, RE7 takes what Outlast and Alien: Isolation did to another level with its own series twists.  On the other hand, unlike past Resident Evil games, RE7 is not more gameplay value for your money than the games that came before.

All previous RE games have fallen into one of two categories(the good, main series ones at least): they had multiple characters with short campaigns, or they had one longer campaign.  Resident Evil 7 has one fairly short campaign, 2 only slightly different endings and no additional gameplay modes or multiplayer.  If you create a separate save at the point 3/4 through where you make the decision which affects the ending and complete both, there is literally nothing to do after beating it.  Well, there is an additional difficulty mode if you didn’t already get it for pre-ordering the game.  My playthrough took about 11 hours and I found the majority of the hidden items and notes.  It added an additional 2 hours to finish the other ending (which was totally lame and a waste of my time), for a total of 13ish hours to see all of the content.  Now allow me to spend the rest of this review telling you why this game is amazing, even though it totally fails my normal standard of value.

 

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It’s like the Hoarders version of the Spencer Estate.

It’s pretty obvious from the final product, that the main purpose of RE7 was to test out a new game engine and style.  To that end, the money spent developing this game and the money you may spend on it are wise investments.  Even clocking in at less time than it takes to complete the first act of other games, RE7 showcases 8-12 hours of horror that is currently unmatched.  While many other games have shown glimpses of gameplay mechanics that would define the next decade of horror, Resident Evil is once again the game that makes the final mold.  Just like RE4 lead to wonderful games like Dead Space and Lost Planet, we will likely see another boom in horror games making use of this gameplay design.  Furthermore, if you are one of the few and the proud who managed to snag a Playstation VR at launch, RE7 is the first big-budget VR game people care about.  While VR headsets have previously existed to wow us with tech demos, mini-games and FPS games in 3D, RE7 is the first game that feels like a full game made specifically with VR in mind.  Many have complained about the Sony platform exclusivity of the VR mode, but I would be very surprised if we don’t see it added to all versions of the game after whatever deal they made ends.  Even playing on a normal TV set, RE7 is a damn scary game.  I play so many horror games that I am completely desensitized to the same old tricks.  RE7 manages to strike the perfect balance of old fashioned jump-scares and suspense, blended with some new tricks that take advantage of this game engine and technology specifically.

If you’re curious what I mean by ‘new tricks’, allow me to explain.  One of the biggest things RE7 does better than other games is gross you the hell out.  It does this with very well realized tesselation and other texture effects.  Things like rotten food or crawling maggots have a much more realistic and “squirmy” look to them than in many other games where objects all tend to look like plastic.  Clearly a lot of effort was put into getting these textures to come off realistically, both in game engine design and art direction.  The effect created a feeling of revulsion I am not used to experiencing when I am not smelling or touching the filth.  Heck, I have even worked under houses, crawling through rat carcasses and this game grossed me out more than that.  It’s not something you would think about as being scary in a video game, because it was much less possible before.  The constant feeling of disgust greatly added to my overall unease while playing.

Another of these little tricks that RE7 pulls off masterfully is environmental destruction and fire effects.  Although most of the destruction scenes are clearly scripted, the animation and physics are pulled off so well that it feels like things could come apart at any time.  With the walls and floor collapsing and fire consuming parts of the environment, the fear of unsteady terrain is constant and pervasive.  While similar effects have been used in many past games, RE7 pulls it off so realistically that I found myself bracing for impact when my character fell.

Effects like these really show that technology as well as design need to advance when a genre becomes stale.  Capcom clearly understands this and has invested significantly in creating a game engine built to scare the crap out of people.  On that front, I would say they succeeded with flying colors.

 

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This does not look like a place you could safely use a flame-thrower.

When it comes to gameplay, RE7 is also the new standard for horror games.  If you really want to scare everyone, running away is not the ticket.  I can say this because for me personally, running goes against every fiber of my being.  I am not someone who gets a thrill out of running in terror.  To scare me, you have to give me a little hope and take it away.  RE7 masters this by letting you fight, but making it mostly a waste of time outside of boss battles.  Much like the early Silent Hill games, this is a game that lets you fight, but doesn’t really reward you for doing so.  Most enemies can be avoided and there is no gameplay reward for fighting, besides the enemies killed stat on completion.  So nothing like RE4, where mastery of the combat system would allow you to farm bullets and herbs from weak enemies with melee attacks.  I always thought Silent Hill had this balance perfectly and now that series has fallen from grace, I am happy to see Resident Evil give it a shot.  Combined with some very well done running away sequences (that RE7’s big budget allows to raise the bar), the tense gameplay style with short bursts of action is definitely the formula I want more of in the future.

The one gripe I have in the gameplay department is that while PS4 is clearly the favored platform, controllers are poorly optimized vs. keyboard and mouse.  I played the Beginning Hour demo on both PC and PS4 Pro and found it dramatically easier to aim with a mouse.  When played with a controller, the acceleration and dead-zone just seem to be very poorly calibrated, making it easy to waste a lot of ammo.  I was able to tweak it somewhat in the settings, but part of it just comes down to design and testing.  I still had no trouble completing the game and got used to it eventually, but it was glaringly obvious after recent games like Doom and the Halo series have taken gamepad tweaking of FPS controls to a higher standard.  Tracking the bobbing heads of enemies with a crosshair that jumps around like Navi in Zelda 64 can be extremely frustrating at times and made me wish I had sacrificed VR support for decent controls at several points.  I am being a little nitpicky, as the controls are easily as good as similar first-person horror games, but unlike most of those, RE7 was developed with tens of millions of dollars.  I just feel like shooting could have been a lot smoother on what is clearly the flagship platform for the game.

 

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You can almost smell the rubbing alcohol.

I mentioned a little bit about the graphics when talking about the new engine above, but the visuals definitely deserve a section alone.  RE7 is really one of the first games that justifies the PS4 Pro vs. a gaming PC.  You see I have both, which may seem ridiculous to some of you who fall into the “loyalist” camp for either.  I personally only care about playing the best games in the best quality.  PC users have been able to claim that crown for the previous generation and half of this one, as most games appeared across all platforms, the PC being the most powerful.  With RE7, we are seeing consoles enter a debate that PC users have about games all the time; “Is it better to run at higher resolution or with higher settings?”  While the PC version of RE7 can handle more detailed shadows and textures, the PS4 pro natively renders the game in 4k, a feat which takes a pretty beefy gaming rig, even at similar settings.  This is the first true example of the PS4 Pro demonstrating that one optimized 4k console can deliver fidelity that is hard to match with a PC version running on thousands of configurations.  While the added level of detail in textures and shadows looks very nice on PC, the 4K resolution of the PS4 Pro version arguably makes the game look much better in motion.  Even when played on a 1080p monitor, supersampling in 4K is better in general than any other form of anti-aliasing and requires no shader overhead above rendering the basic image.  It would take a PC much, much pricier than a PS4 Pro to run the game at the same settings and I think many will start to understand the wisdom of a middle-ground choice with future games like RE7.  The fact that VR is initially exclusive to PSVR is a nice add too, though it will likely alienate players on PC and XB1 until it gets patched into their game and they forget about it.

Overall, regardless of the platform you play on, RE7 looks amazing.  The art design is so stellar that very little in the way of shader “window-dressing” is needed.  Realistic fog, fire and smoke effects just complete the creepy picture of a game in which most screenshots could be desktop backgrounds.  Every bit of this game is just so creepy looking that you want to soak it in, even while running for your life.  The different areas themed around members of the Baker family each have a unique style and vibe to them.  The final episode is reminiscent of RE:Revelations in that you explore a derelict ship.  This area is distinct from the earlier parts of the game and the cramped design adds to the terror.  The only gripe I can mention with the visuals is character facial expressions.  While Final Fantasy is pushing facial animation to the point that you can really feel the ‘meh’ rolling off Noctis at all times, RE7 seems to be stuck in the days of Half Life 2.  Rubber faced mannequins jabber at you, loosely synced to voice acting.  It isn’t horrible on the scale of all gaming (and nothing like the early RE games!), but compared to other recent AAA titles, RE7 has a bad case of plastic-face.

 

The sound and music are great, but not a huge stand-out.  The soundtrack is very minimal, which I think is necessary in this game.  What really does stand out is some excellent Foley work (that’s recording sounds from other things to use in media).  Somebody spent a lot of time at a construction site breaking, hitting and walking on every type of building material to make this game sound convincing.  I have played in both 7.1 surround and with headphones using virtual surround, both had a very realistic soundscape.  The voice acting is definitely on par with the less campy tone of the past 3 RE games.  I would even say it’s toned down another notch, as there is no Leon shouting one-liners at huge monsters or Chris grunting with bestial fury.  Characters are largely believable, besides a few campy moments like a boss saying “Groovy” when he grabs a chainsaw.  I had to give a chuckle at the few moments like this though, as they felt more like a nod to classic RE than the actual tone-deaf writing of classic RE.

 

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Wondered what this meant?  It’s what Capcom is giving you for caring about the plot.

The big glaring flaw with this game that I have to come back to is the branching path and endings.  I think I remember writing a whole article just devoted to how stupid “arbitrary choice” endings are.  While this is not nearly as bad as Mass Effect or Deus Ex: HR, that strung you along thinking all your other choice mattered OR Silent Hills Homecoming and Downpour that totally decide who your character is at the end, it’s a much lamer choice overall.  I don’t want to spoil it, though I feel like it would be totally irrelevant if I did.  Basically the game gives you one moral choice towards the end, but that choice is totally stupid and the results are even more stupid.  If you choose the obviously good path, you get what is clearly the normal ending of the game.  If you make the other choice, the game makes it clear you chose wrong 2 minutes later, then you get the same ending but the game will spend the last chapter telling you how wrong you were.  It is a completely pointless and unnecessary addition to the game that doesn’t even add much replay value.  I was able to reload my save and complete the “bad” ending in an additional 2 hours.  It added one pretty simple boss fight, that mostly existed to make me feel bad, but was otherwise the same.  While overall my feelings about RE7 are positive, this is a complete slap in the face compared to past Resident Evil games.  Like I mentioned in the opening, RE games either have multiple scenarios and endings (each with unique content), or they have one long scenario with a ‘complete’ ending.  Re7’s plot feels neither long nor complete.  I think I would have been happier with a minimal plot and a vague conclusion honestly, compared to the totally asinine ‘moral choice’ that RE7 tries to pull off.

Besides that the writing is pretty good.  The Bakers are a fun collection of maniacs, that rank right up there with those crazies from The Devil’s Rejects and The Hills Have Eyes.  While many of the scenes are reminiscent or horror films and games past, RE7 pulls off things like the ‘bug house’ and ‘trap rooms’ very well.  It’s clear that movies like Slither and Saw were on Capcom’s watch list, but it comes off more like loving tribute than shameless ripoff.  The Baker house deserves a place next to the House on Haunted Hill and the Bates Motel in the annals of brilliant fictional horror houses.

 

Overall Resident Evil 7 is one of those games that is like being an early adopter of a hardware device.  You are paying a premium for what you get, but you get it before everyone else.  Sure, next year some new game will come out with the same formula, plus multiplayer and extra side content.  That’s next year and this is now.  Right now you can play the game that is the future of horror and I feel that is worth the investment.  Sure, it can be completed in a weekend, but you will remember that weekend for years.  While it’s difficult to argue against the wisdom of waiting for the inevitable GOTY edition that will bring added content a year from now, I have been waiting years for a game like this and want it now.  How much you need to play this game will depend on how much you feel is lacking from recent horror games.  I have played everything from hits like Outlast to indie games like Alchemilla and DreadOut and I can tell you that this game does what those don’t.  It combines all the best things that horror does now and introduces things it should be doing.  Best of all it scared me repeatedly, which is an experience I have to seek farther and longer to find these days.

If you are into pretty much any popular fiction of any medium, you are probably familiar with the term “shippers”.  These are fans who want to see certain characters in their favorite franchise hooked up romantically and will often go to great lengths to push that desire on the community.  This has gone to almost ludicrous levels recently with fanbases like Harry Potter, Doctor Who and now the popular game Overwatch.  In a surreal reality, fans even threaten to boycott a series to realize a fantasy.  That sentence was so much fun to write.

Most people giving this topic any press coverage are focusing on “are these people pathetic?” vs “how much say should fans have in creative process?”.  That is largely ignoring the psychological implications of this phenomena.  When you remove all of the context and semantics, what people are doing is a negative and by my definition evil process of thought.  That may sound absurd, but consider this:  That character is the brainchild of a writer, who imagined them with a gender identity, sexual preference and their own ideas of what they are attracted to.  Although that character is not a person, with rights to autonomy and choice, they are a statement of an individual that was created by a person.  So if we assign that character temporary personhood (just for the sake of this thought exercise), what you are doing is forcing choice of partners on this person to fit your own desires to empathize with them.

Now, now hold on!  This is just harmless fantasy and these are fictional characters, not people!  So it should be safe, right?  I guess so, if you think that any sort of fiction is okay, even if it clashes with our societal ideas of morality.  Now I don’t want to create a straw man argument here and debate whether there should be rape simulator games or games that let you kill children.  The point is that if you believe it is different because it is fantasy, just be aware that you are fantasizing about forcing gender and sexual identity on people, as well as arranging partners for them.  It is absolutely true that these are fictional characters and nobody is harmed.  The emotional need that you are seeking to satisfy though, is the same as that felt by a parent who doesn’t approve of their child’s sexuality or choice in partners.

We want the people we care about to make choices that we approve of.  A lot of us care about Tracer and Mercy almost as much as we would a pet or a family member.  That may seem strange, but can any one of us not name a fictional character that we identified with more than anyone we knew?  It’s because good writers have a lot of empathy and are very good at writing characters anyone would want to care about.  At the end of the day though, those characters and their personalities belong to them.  We all buy in little parts when we shower those creators with our money, but the important things like love and sexuality should rightfully be theirs, because that character is a part of them.

Hopefully I have managed to poke a hole in your mental fabric that will take some thinking to fill.  My objective is not to make people feel guilty, as there is once again no harm done here.  They aren’t real people.  I would prefer that we, as a society, learn to open our minds and allow ourselves to empathize with characters less like ourselves.  Be okay with a character not doing what you would have them do.  A series of books that did that for me was the Godspeaker trilogy by Karen Miller.  The first novel is told from the perspective of the character who becomes the villain.  You don’t know this as the reader (unless you read it after the whole series is out I guess), so it makes the first book painful to read.  You see the horrible things that happen to her and she becomes more and more twisted and bitter.  By the end I was like “I hate this character, I hate this book!  Why did you recommend this to me?”  The person who did so just smiled wryly and handed me the second book, insisting that I try it out.  A few pages in, I realized that in a masterstroke of writing I will never equal, Miller had created a villain more real and hateful to me than any other ever could be.  I truly grew to hate her, just as the characters in the story, because I watched her change into someone I could no longer love.  That betrayal to my desires as a reader was so real to me, that it created empathy for those I hated, changing me forever as much as Stranger in a Strange Land or God Emperor of Dune.

Because fiction isn’t just imagination, it changes who we are and who we can empathize with.  For me it has been for the better.  My hope is that as fiction expands into new mediums, it can lead to the same growth of the soul that books have given me, not a new way to fantasize evil.

Another sad update for fans of Armor by John Steakley

Posted: January 19, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Off-topic

My regular readers are probably not aware, but besides the normal content about gaming and technology, I also carry the torch for fans of an obscure sci-fi novel.  I wrote an article about Armor years ago and the response was overwhelming.  Steakley’s philosophical space character drama apparently has a huge following of cult fans (at least partially due to being on the recommended reading list of many of the nation’s military academies).  Steakley unfortunately passed away a few years ago, apparently having the rights to his novels and potential film adaptations buried with him.  Over the past 5 years I have made repeated efforts to contact anyone related to Steakley’s estate or publishing contracts.  The response has ranged from none to canned emails.  I recently made an attempt to contact DAW publishing, which was the subsidiary of Penguin that last published Armor in paperback.  Previously I had attempted to contact Penguin, the Sy Fy network and the law office where Steakley’s will was filed.  I got my most useful (though still useless) response yet.  An only half-canned response that at least uses proper nouns, while still informing me that Steakley had passed away, which I made very clear I was aware of in my initial message to them.  This is the response I received:

Dear Ryan LeCocq:

 

John Steakley unfortunately passed away in 2010. He had not completed a manuscript for a sequel, to DAW’s understanding, so we do not expect to be able to publish a sequel.

 

Film rights are with the author’s estate, and DAW unfortunately does not have any information on those negotiations. Obviously, we would be delighted by a movie adaptation as well.

 

Thank you very much for writing in, and thank you to you and to all the fans of Armor for reading.

 

All best,

 

The DAW Team

 

So there you have it, the most recent in a series of dead ends.  I am willing to keep trying, but I have run out of people to bother.  If we’re going to make any progress, it’s going to take some input from you the fans.  Someone out there must know something about the man who wrote this book.  I know he was a mysterious loner, but nobody goes through life without a trace.  Just find me a relative or a past lawyer or something and I will at least convince or bribe them to make some sort of statement to the fans.  If it is in any way possible to make more of the drafts for Armor 2 available or renew negotiations for a movie, I will gladly start the ball rolling.

I was a little late on this one, as I had switched back to Dark Souls 3 after a month of solid FFXV.  Long story short, it is possible to see large parts of the open world that were not intended to be accessed, by using glitches.  Since I am not the first, second or third to report this, I’ll link to the videos and the best article I found at the bottom of this post.  What I want to explore today is the potential of what this game might have been and what it still might be with future content.

 

“The largest open-world RPG…”

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This is a world map that was shown early in development.  Although it changed slightly, I have added labels to the areas in the final game.

At one point in FFvsXIII/XV’s development, there were some claims thrown out that the game would feature one of, if not the largest open-world when it released.  The final game, while featuring a respectable open segment (somewhere between the acreage of Watch Dogs and GTAV depending on how you tally it), it fell well short of the scale we’ve seen in games like The Witcher 3.  Even with that said, while the total area end-to-end is large-ish, it pales in comparison to the density and used area of similarly sized games.  One thing about this game’s development that is interesting though, is that the world map was designed and leaked very early on.  There are images from much earlier in development showing a table-top model the developers created.  It even shows that Angelgard Island was modeled after a piece of driftwood glued to the table in the ocean.  This map was much larger than what we saw in the final game and the game areas can actually be identified on it still.

Player’s exploitation of OoB glitches shows us that much of this area is still in the final game in rough form.  So far players have accessed the Northern areas of Niflheim (around the train segment), other parts of Altissia (but not the other nearby islands) and Angelgard Island.  There are a few other blocked off parts of Lucis that are reachable as well.  Players have even managed to swim to Altissia from the mainland, making Chocobo use there possible.  While all of this is great fun in the old fashioned ‘break the game’ spirit of the fan community, it points to what the devs may have been hinting at.

If the game initially contained all or most of the areas of the original map, it would be quite massive.  It is likely that this was an ambition, but only the four nations mentioned in the plot were actually ever developed, even in rough form.  Lucis, Tenebrae, Niflheim and Accordo are all right next to each other on the larger map.  Combined they still only represent 2/3 of the total map.  So if the flying Regalia had once been able to circumnavigate the globe, there would have been even more locations.  Even if there was only ever the areas seen in these glitches, I think with minimal effort Square could add a few roads and side-quests and fans would be very pleased with the overall size of the game.

 

How likely are we to see it done?

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Cor Leonis is kind of like Aslan in Narnia, he’s just so badass that he can’t be around for more than 3 minutes or there wouldn’t be a plot.

Although games have shipped before with large chunks of unused data on the disc, the content in this game points in many ways to future expansion.  The most detailed of the areas you explore coincide with parts in the plot where characters leave the party.  This has already been hinted at as the setting of the future DLC releases for each party member.  Gladiolus’ would chronicle the time he spent apart from the party on Lucis, likely exploring unused regions there.  Prompto’s will likely cover some of his very questionable backtory in his solo journey through his homeland of Niflheim.  We can just venture a guess that Ignis may go in search of a legendary “NEW RECIPE!” in Altissia.  There was also a fairly credible reddit rumor about Noctis and Cor having a driving sequence in Niflheim as well, which would explain the weird little cross-section of roads near the early part of the train sequence.  Even if these are the only areas added in future DLC, it would make for a respectably large game overall.

We will give in to rumor and speculation (SPOILERS ALSO)

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The DLC everyone still wants.

So if I’m going to cover a bunch of other people’s theories, I have to give at least a little page space to some of my own.  Other people may have similar ideas, but I haven’t read them yet, so if you haven’t either, you read it here first.

As soon as there was mention of Lunafreya as a potential party member in future expansions, a strange theory started to form in my mind.  The obvious thing of course, is that add-in members like Cor, Aranea, Iris, Ardyn and now Lunafreya would be selectable in some new mode, potentially PVP.  That would be easy and I’m sure it would make a lot of people happy.  But what if that wasn’t it at all?  It seems obvious that Noctis does not get a DLC episode because the entire game is about him.  We’ve already seen his story and the other characters deserve a moment in the spotlight.  There is one thing missing though.  Noctis and Lunafreya never reunited in life.  Of course they existed happily eternally after as deities, but that isn’t quite the same.

What if they did though and we just never saw it?  I’m pretty in love with this idea, so bear with me here.  How cool would it be if after all the other DLC was released, there was a final free episode for Noctis and Lunafreya where they secretly met in Altissia to go on a clandestine date the night before the binding ceremony?  It sounds like pointless sentimental nonsense, I know, but hold on.  With the landmarks like the wedding gown, shopping area, restaurants and the arena, there are two things that stand out to me.  First, the area seems perfectly set up for a “date” sequence like you have with Iris in Lestallum.  There is sort of a bro date to this effect when you first arrive, but I felt like it was designed for more.  Here’s where we get nerdy.  If you squint your brain just right and imagine it on a drawing board, the Altissia area bears a strong resemblance in raw design to Gold Saucer from FFVII.  The fact that Squeenix is using it for the upcoming ChocoMog carnival event makes the resemblance even clearer.  From a design standpoint the area seems set up for a sort of ‘tour-date’ like many of us remember so fondly from the adventures of Cloud and company.  It would be such a bittersweet Easter egg if the couple shared a quiet night together away from everyone, even us the players.

The other mad theory I have is that the other characters could be introduced in a DLC that is similar to the Platinum demo.  Noctis could be travelling through time from within the crystal and join each character for a formative part of their backstory for more insight on these characters.  It wouldn’t add any real content or real estate to the main game, but it would be very satisfying for those of us who wanted to know more about characters like Aranea and Cor.

Once again, this is just my wild speculation, but if I was writing it, that’s what I would do.

Resources/further reading (sorry, free account, can’t post videos directly):

RPGsite’s excellent summary of the biggest glitch areas

Video showing how to swim to Altissia

Hour-long video showing exploration of Niflheim outside train

Angelgard Island

 

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Like many of the proud few who managed to snag an NES Classic this holiday season, I have entered the wonderful world of adding my own games in the past few days.  One of the absolutely wonderful things about this is that most fan modified roms work perfectly.  I was able to put fan translated versions of Mother (original Earthbound) and Final Fantasy III on my Classic and they worked flawlessly.  What was even more intriguing was when I discovered tecmobowl.org.  TecmoBowl.org is a community of die hard fans who updated Tecmo Super Bowl each year with updated rosters, playbooks and schedules and hold tournaments with it.  The roms are made available on the site and further customized versions of many varieties fill the forums.  New features are even added, like the ability to view detailed info on player injuries.  Needless to say I had to get it and take my 2017 Seattle Seahawks through the season in hopefully a more dignified manner than the actual team.

The amazing thing about it is how closely the games often mirror the real thing.  I played a full season, automating all of the games besides the Seahawks.  Many games played out exactly or almost exactly as they did, because the players played accurately for their stats.  The funny thing was that the Seahawks (partially due to me playing them) played a lot better.  Not only did I not lose Tyler Lockett for the playoffs (because I used him for kick returns and short passes, rather than sticking him way out there to get crushed), but I did not inexplicably lose to the Rams in week 2.  The Falcons managed to reverse it and beat me by 2 points in week 6, but I destroyed them in the divisional with a healthy Wilson, Lockett and Thomas, 31-12.  I was defeated in a very painful and familiar way by the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, making the Tecmo universe basically a hellish Groundhog’s Day for the Seahawks.  If the Hawks make the bowl, I hope this isn’t the result we see, but if it were stat for stat, I think Tecmo Bowl got it right.