Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rejuvenate an old Android device with Cyanogen

My current phone is a two year old Samsung Galaxy S I9000. It is long out of contract and costs me very little every month for calls and data.  It is in great condition and it does everything I need a phone to do so it is hard to justify a replacement at this stage. Nevertheless the Android version 2.3 (Gingerbread) running on felt old and slow in comparison to a recently acquired Nexus 7 tablet running Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) so I decided to have a go at an upgrade. I hadn't done this for a quite some time and I was disappointed to discover that Samsung themselves stopped offering official upgrades for this phone after Android 2.3 so I would have to look for an unofficial upgrade or mod if I wanted to do better.

The open source nature of Android means it is supported by a vast hacking and modding community. This is an advantage in that there is a huge array of mods out there catering to all tastes and offering many improvements over the official stock operating system. It is also a disadvantage however because this huge choice is completely bewildering to the uninitiated outsider even if you have some level of general technical competence. The XDA Developer forums are probably the best place to go to to immerse yourself in this community and with patience you can learn how to make your Android device do all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff. My needs were simpler. I wanted a mod that would refresh my phone and allow it to do the standard stuff well. I delved into the forums just long enough to determine that the most popular mod is called "Cyanogen".  Cyanogen has been around for quite a while, has a great reputation and is available for a wide range of devices. I figured that with so many people choosing and using this over the years it must be pretty good and it is likely that any serious bugs have been ironed out by now.

To install the mod I followed the instructions for my phone given on Cyanogen's website. The step by step instructions given are pretty detailed so I won't add to them but I would suggest reading them over completely and making your own informed decision about whether or not you feel comfortable carrying out such a major overhaul  on your phone. I will make a couple of observations however:

1, This almost certainly voids your warranty so I wouldn't recommend it on a new phone. Why would you need to mod a new phone anyway?
2. The process will wipe all your apps. This was actually a bonus for me as it allowed me to start afresh and only re-download the ones I needed. If you do have any precious apps you can't replace or if you don't want to spend time re-installing I believe you can use a programme called "Titanium Backup" to save and restore apps.
3. If you have any personal data on the phone (photos, documents, calendar, address book etc) then you may want to back it up before you proceed. I didn't bother because I have long since moved any important data to cloud storage using Gmail, Dropbox etc. Phones get lost so you really shouldn't rely on a phone to store anything important. I notice that the upgrade seemed to delete save games for some installed games but not for others so probably best to assume that it will delete everything.
4. You should be aware that Cyanogen does not support the built in FM radio. I believe there may be an app available for this but I don't use the radio so I didn't bother looking into it.
5. The other big thing that is missing is the Samsung Store. I doubt Samsung will let you install their store on an unofficial operating system so if you have bought any important apps from Samsung you may want to reconsider the upgrade (or perhaps use Titanium Backup to carry the apps over).
6. Cyanogen does not come with the Google Play store installed so the first thing you will probably want to do is get the correct version of Google apps (gapps) for your phone. You can download it from goo.im/gapps.This Youtube Video is a little out of date but it gives a pretty good idea of how to install the download. Once you have Google Play store up and running you can sign into your Google account and download anything else you want from the market.

The good news is that I am very pleased with the upgrade. Cyanogen makes my phone look and feel a lot like the new Nexus tablet and has a few additional tweaks of its own. Battery life is good, Wifi, GPS and Mobile reception are all good. Best of all the phone feels much smoother and more responsive that it was before the upgrade. It really does feel like a new phone. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Now Playing Kingdoms of Amalur, Far Cry 3, and Baldur's Gate

Kingdoms of Amalur: This is a hugely impressive crpg and well worth trying but after playing for a couple of weeks I began to feel something akin to mmorpg burnout. I am going to take a break from the game.

Far Cry 3: The original Far Cry is one of my all time favourite games. I was very disappointed by Far Cry 2 but when 3 won many accolades my hopes were raised once more. Despite the hype my first impressions were not that great. I didn't hate the game like I did 2 but it certainly wasn't love at first sight. The main plot is quite forgettable and the game-play seemed to lack any real challenge. The game does have a breathtakingly beautiful huge open world but at first I didn't see the point of it. It is only when I adjusted my perspective and began to explore the world that the game began to make sense to me. The world is choc a bloc with fun things to do. Hunting games survival games, racing games, target practice and many others pop up all over the landscape. Best of all the quality of these mini games is uniformly high. I have started playing every one I come across and I have yet to get bored. Far Cry 3 seems to have as many side quests as Skyrim and that may be a fairer point of comparison than a traditional linear shooter. Even the main plot is really just an excuse to tie together a series of entertaining missions. I have just completed one which involved setting fire to a series of marijuana fields with a flame thrower while a pounding reggae beat plays in the background. The fact that my character was getting giddy on the fumes just added to the fun. The lack of challenge stems from the fact that the game showers you with weapons and loot from the very beginning of the game. Within a very short while you will be well enough equipped to take on anything the island throws at you which renders the whole collecting and crafting aspect of the game rather pointless. The fact that loot is so plentiful removes any sense of desperate survival which should be part of the main plot. None of this impacts on the many mini games however because they generally equip you with a fixed loadout be it a knife, a bow, a specific gun or even grenades to accomplish your objective.

Baldur's Gate: I have never played Baldur's Gate even though I have played many of Bioware's later games. Nevertheless Baldur's Gate and its sequel BG2 remain huge my memory, huge in reputation and also huge in physical form because they came with hefty manuals that apparently had to be read from cover to cover to play. I guess I always intended to check out BG1 and BG2 some day and never quite got around to it. Well Gamestop have a D&D pack on offer for less than €4 which includes all the Baldur's Gate games, Icewind Dale, Planescape Torment and the Temple of Elemental Evil. Any one of those titles is worth the price so I snapped it up. There is a similar deal available for the Neverwinter games but I already have those.You can get DRM free versions of these games from gog.com (for a higher price)  but the Impulse client that Gamestop uses is actually quite pleasant and Baldur's Gate installed and worked first time with no hassle on my Windows 7 64 bit machine. If I am honest I don't have time for this 100 hour+ game but I did start a character last night. It only took a few minutes for me to see beyond the blocky graphics and to begin to get sucked in. I am probably going to have to read that chunky manual (in pdf form nowadays) because BG uses an earlier version of D&D rules than I am familiar with and things like armour class and attack bonus all seem to work in reverse with armour of 0 being better than armour of 10 for example. At least I can finally say I have used the infamous THAC0. I finished the prologue and my fledgling mage had begun her adventures in the world proper but for some reason I was unable to save progress at the end of the session. I have a save from about half an hour earlier so don't know if this is a bug or a feature but hopefully I can figure it out on my next attempt.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Replace Apps with Bookmarks to Free up your Mobile Device

Apps are great, providing one click access to applications and services in a format that is optimised for mobile viewing.

But....

Every app you install eats up some of your limited storage space and many apps continue to use system resources when you are not using them like push notifications and live desktop widgets. If you are running out of space or if your device is slowing down due to app overload then you need to do a clear out. After all you probably don't need that interactive guide to a city you visited 8 months ago and only the most dedicated twitterers really need a pop up notification every time one of the 872 people they are following makes a tweet.

Happily there is a way that you can continue to have one click access to many of your favourite services without wasting any of your mobile device's precious resources. Simply use your browser to create a home screen bookmark to the web version of the service you want. Many websites such as Facebook, Gmail and Twitter now have excellent mobile versions. While they may not be as as responsive as a dedicated app they are perfectly adequate on a reasonably fast phone or tablet plus the web version is often more flexible with more access to advanced features than the app.

Here is how to make a home screen bookmark on an Android device. I have tested this method on Gingerbread (3.4) and ICS (4.2) using the stock browser, the Chrome browser and my favourite the Firefox browser.
First open your browser of choice and navigate to the webpage you want. You can choose the mobile or desktop version as you see fit. Log in if required and let your browser store the password if you want. Create a book mark to this page, usually by clicking a star near the address bar. Next open the bookmarks menu. In Chrome or Firefox just open a new tab to see the bookmarks list, in Gingerbread stock just press the bookmark star again. Find the bookmark you just created and long press it. You will be given an option to add the book mark to home screen (make sure you have space for it). This book mark will give you one click access to the webpage. It feels and works just like an app. You can move it to a folder to keep things tidy. Now go and uninstall that Twitter, Facebook or Wikipedia app that you didn't really need in the first place.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Hall of Ballads: A Great Quest Line from Kingdom of Amalur

Kingdom of Amalur the Reckoning is a very impressive RPG withe some surprisingly good storytelling.  I have just completed the Hall of Ballads line and I was really impressed by the mini story it tells. Even though it is only an optional faction quest it is clever, thought provoking and well written. Once I got into the story I quickly got hooked and felled compelled to follow it through to the end to find ou what happens. My description of the quest below naturally contains spoilers so if you just want a quick summary of my thoughts on Amalur skip down below the spoiler marks.


[Spoilers Follow]
The Hall of Ballads are a group of Fae (a magical race) who devote themselves to preserving the heroic legends of the past. However these long lived folk are not content to just tell the stories. They actually relive them. Every cycle the heroes and the villains go through the old adventures over and over again. If a hero dies then a new volunteer is chosen to join the hall. They take the name of the fallen hero and ever after play the role of that hero in the reenactments (the Tellings). The villains themselves seem to be re-incarnated every cycle to play their parts once again although it would appear that this perpetual reenactment is not  entirely voluntary on their part. Your character gets involved when things stop going according to plan and it gradually becomes clear that one of the arch enemies is availing of the general upheaval in the world to try and break the cycle and let the bad guys win for once.

It is a very clever story that gradually unfolds as you are sent on a series of errands to fix up the tellings that are going wrong. It actually works on several levels.  Despite their stuffy reverence for the tellings the much vaunted heroes turn out to be pretty useless when an enemy fights back rather than going through a series of pre-ordained steps. By the end of the saga it is hard not to feel sympathy for the arch enemy who is really just fed up of being the perpetual villain and wants to be on the winning side for a change. At the end of the saga you get to choose whether to kill the villain and preserve the Tellings or let the villain live and break the cycle forever. This is not an straightforward black and white choice in my opinion but I do not know yet what impact this choice will have on the rest of the game.
[End of Spoiler]

As I said above the game is very impressive and it is a terrible shame that the company which spawned it is no more.  Amalur has a huge bright colourful world that reminds me a lot of World of Warcraft. It has a clever combat system that combines third person action and rpg elements. It has rich progression system with plenty of options for flexibility. It has a deep crafting system for weapons, potions and gems. It has a positively ridiculous amount of loot to be collected with stashes behind just about every rock, log and bush in the game. It also has a huge amount of quests including a main quest, several major faction based quest lines and a tonne of side quest. Added bonus they use native speakers to voice most of their characters Scottish for Gnomes, Irish for Fae and British for most Humans. The  Irish accents are hammed up a bit but for the most part genuine so I assume the others are similar.

The game does have flaws but any game as ambitious as this is likely to have flaws. Perhaps the most serious flaw comes from the sheer size of the game. There are so many quests and so much loot that it gets to feel repetitive. Many of the side quests are fairly generic and if you try to religiously work your way through all the content you will likely get bored.It was a major turning point for me when I consciously stopped trying to complete every quest and when I decided not to bother min-maxing my weapons and equipment. Making those choices allowed me to concentrate on the stuff I liked and was essential in allowing me to enjoy the game.

The game relies on levels and gear like a normal rpg but it uses combo based fighting like a third person action game.  I think this combination of so many variables makes it harder to balance the combat difficulty in the game. The difficulty never feels just right to me , encounters are either face rolling easy or just too hard. I ended up increasing the difficulty slider to hard in order to get some challenge from the many many trash mobs in the game but some of the bosses are now extremely hard to kill in normal combat. There is a built in fix for this though because the game gives you a super duper slow motion ability called "Reckoning" that allows you to kill everything easily. I just save that up for the tough bosses but it is so overpowered it feels like cheating.

Another gripe relates to the level scaling. Mobs and loot in a zone scale to a level within a fixed range depending on the level you are when you first set foot in the zone.  Unfortunately this means that if you are given to exploring, like I am, you can easily spoil whole zones for yourself by blundering into them and locking them at a low level before you are ready to go questing there.The huge number of side quests means that it is easy enough to out level areas anyway but it is even more frustrating to go to a brand new zone and find all the mobs there are grey to you because you accidently visted the place some time ago.

Regardless of the gripes I still think it is a terrific game and I strongly recommend it to any rpg fans. If you shop around you can probably find it on sale from the likes of Amazon or Steam.



Monday, January 14, 2013

A Game I love is on sale at a deep discount. Happy or Sad?

Happy because the sale probably means a lot of new players will get to experience a great game that I love.

Sad because the cut price probably means that the game wasn't the commercial success that enthusiasts hoped it would be.

Happy because sales do work according to Gabe Newell and the sale will probably generate a much needed revenue bump for the  company and help them to keep up their good work.

Sad because the revenue bump from a Steam sale is still only a trickle compared to the massive earnings of Call of Duty 999 and other top sellers that never need to go on discount.

Happy because discount sales tend to bring sanity to the overall game market lowering prices all around and allowing gamers like myself to enjoy many more games than we otherwise could afford.  

Sad because it is human nature to equate price with quality and deep discounts within a few months of launch probably do damage to the reputation of a game.

This post was triggered by the observation that Bethseda/Id's game Rage is currently on sale from Gamefly for next to nothing. I liked the game a lot. The post was also heavily influenced by THQ's Humble Bundle giveaway before Christmas. The bundle generated a quick revenue boost for the company but was apparently not enough to keep it from bankruptcy and likely break up.


Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Cease and Desist: Context Sensitive Buttons

I have noticed an increasing trend in modern video games (particularly third person action games) for context sensitive buttons. The same button can have multiple effects depending on the context. In general I hate this. It leads to all sorts of control confusion. I played a shooter last week where the same button would either make you duck for cover or sprint forwards depending on your position and what you were looking at when you pressed it. Recipe for disaster. Of course you get used to it and for the most part learn when to press it to achieve the desired effect but I can assure you that many times in the heat of battle I panicked and pressed that button when I wasn't quite lined up with cover and instead dashed wildly out into a hail of gunfire.

For me it is not just a control problem it is also an immersion problem.  In order to maximise immersion I want to feel in control of my character at all times. I need to know that when I press button X the same thing will happen every darn time.

I imagine the main justification for context sensitive buttons is the limited number of buttons on a game controller but I don't buy this excuse. There are plenty of ways to squeeze more functions into those buttons. Use menus for functions that don't need to be done in real time and free up buttons for those functions that need to be done quickly. Use multiple key combinations if you need more functions than you have buttons. Heck why not use one of the triggers as a kind of shift key to give you a complete new set of  button actions.
 

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Trying to force people to use Google+ smacks of desperation.

Google has changed the rules of its Play store so that you now need to be on Google+ to leave a review. I think this is a bonehead move.

Google's Play store  for Android apps has been a big success.  It has become a serious rival to Apple's  market leading App store and may even grow to surpass it. Google+ on the other hand has not managed to dent Facebook's dominance of the social networking space. Many, many users of other Google services have chosen to to pass on Google+. Perhaps they are happy with Facebook. Perhaps they just don't use social networking.

I suspect that forcing people into Google+ before they can rate Android apps will damage the Android store more than it will boost Google's struggling social network.



Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Happy New Year and some thoughts on XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Happy 2013 to everyone. We had fireworks in Dublin last night at an unusually family friendly 8pm which meant that we could catch them and still be safely ensconced in our own home for the turning of the year which suited my young family just fine. it also meant that I managed to fit in an hour of gaming while waiting for the count down and I used that time to finish the last battle of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

XCOM has been my main game over the last few weeks and Steam records that I spent 78 hours playing it. It is a great game that I heartily recommend but I am currently feeling the inevitable anti-climax that results from finishing a game that I have invested a lot of time in. The few negatives stand out more in my mind at present despite that fact that I heartily agree it is a brilliant  game overall.

Gripes first:

1. I encountered a few silly bugs none of which were game breaking. They are annoying though and it is surprising to find such obvious bugs still present in a AAA title several months after release. Chief examples of bugs I remember:
- Mousing over red enemy heads almost always shows the wrong hit chance percentage.
- Misaligned mouse cursor in menu screens (sometimes).
- Save games sometimes disappearing and sometimes appearing in wrong sequence. Can usually be solved by exiting the game and restarting.

2.Campaign mode is badly explained. The game's tutorials gave me a good idea of how combat works but really didn't prepare me for the campaign mode at all: What to build?  In what order? What to spend money on? What to do about satellites? Which encounters to choose?.  I lost five countries (out of eight allowed) before I figured out what was going on.

3. Campaign mode has a poorly balanced difficulty curve: Hard at first getting dramatically easier afterwards. I mentioned above that I lost five countries while I tried to figure out what was going on and build some basic infrastructure. Then it all clicked and suddenly I was on top of campaign mode. Once I got on top of things campaign mode quickly became trivial and I never came close to losing another country. Starting off hard and then getting much easier as you become familiar with the game is doing things backwards in my opinion.

4. I have seen some folks complaining about the "free move" aliens get when you first spot them but that didn't really bother me at all. In fact I think it is a necessary consequence of the fact that most of the aliens do not move at all until you stumble across them.  It it wasn't for the free move it would be too easy to catch aliens out of cover and kill them in the open. I do think it would be better if the aliens were more autonomous though and actually moved independently before you spotted them.

5. I have a minor gripe about the camera and line of sight in interior scenes. Interior scenes are handled using a kind of X-ray transparency but sometimes key features  remain stubbornly invisible  regardless of how you try to position the camera. The very last battle of the game had a particularly bad example of this with a narrow corridor which was completely invisible to me but which still restricted my soldiers line of sight.  More flexible camera controls might have helped here or perhaps  an option to select first person view for any soldier.

Positive Stuff:

Despite my gripes this is a brilliant game that combines genuine thought provoking challenge with high entertainment. Even though it is the spiritual successor of a 19990's classic it feels refreshingly new in the sea of relatively bland AAA titles. In fact it has the spirit of an indie game wrapped in the finery of a big budget title. I hope it spawns more of this sort of game in future.

I should confess at this point that my play through was on normal with saves allowed. I realise that many have said that Ironman (permadeath) mode is the only way to fully experience the game but I do not have the time or the  patience for permadeath in a game that takes me several weeks to complete.