Titanfall [Game Review]

Since we’re getting into the summer months, I thought I’d run a few more game reviews, starting with that rarest of all things: a multiplayer shooter that I don’t hate.

You see, Titanfall (Electronic Arts: PC/Xbox 360/Xbox One) is fun.

Yeah, I know: big deal. It’s game. Isn’t “being fun” a basic part of its purpose?

If you’ve playing many multiplayer shooters lately, you’ll know “fun” doesn’t always follow. Grim, violent, often excessive, hard, and dominated by obnoxious teenagers? That’s your basic Call of Duty experience.

Titanfall seems to sidestep much of that, at least in its PC incarnation. When it was released, Titanfall was dismissed as Call of Duty: Robots thanks to a complete failure of the imagination on the part of reporters. See, it’s a multiplayer shooter developed by people who worked on Modern Warfare, so let’s write it off with a cutesy log line and move along.

The CoD comparison has absolutely opposite effects depending upon platform. Tag something as CoD: Robots and the Xbox players will line up at midnight. Say the same thing to PC gamers, however, and many of us will return to DOTA or Transistor. And that seems to be the case here: PC gamers are not giving the game much love, and Respawn is returning the favor by dropping modes and app support from the PC version.

I really hate it when mom and dad fight like this, because Titanfall is the first fun multiplayer shooter I’ve enjoyed since … gosh, was it really Battlefield: Bad Company 2? Crikey.

And Titanfall is just dang entertaining. It offers a great rewards structure and makes the player feel powerful and important. Despite an introduction/tutorial that utterly fails to convey the true nature of the game—making it look like, well, CoD: Robots with lots of wall-running–I stuck with it and found one of the real gems of PC action gaming, and one which also shines on consoles as well.

Titanfall is a first person shooter in which you play as footsoliders (“pilots”) who can also control giant mechs called Titans. The game is fun whether you’re just running around as a pilot with his standard weapons, or inside hulking, powered chunks of battle armor. This balance itself is a minor miracle of design. The footsoldier bits should be just a time-killer while you wait for your new Titan to be delivered, but the agility and unique properties of the pilots make this mode every bit as entertaining.

There are classes, of course: a standard soldier with an automoatic weapon, a heavy with a shotgun, and a light “assassin” class with a multi-shot autotargeting pistol.  Pilots can run up walls, access areas unavailable to Titans, ride titans (either friendly, just for a lift; or enemy, in order to take over the mech), and even do some damage to the big boys with shoulder-mounted rockets. They even have jetpacks! As you earn points you get upgrades and other bonuses for climbing the ranks.

Like pilots, Titans come in light, medium, and heavy varieties, ranging from the light and fast Stryder to the slow heavy tanklike Ogre. The pilots sit inside the cockpits and control these beasts like more agile, stripped-down versions of Battlemechs from MechWarrior. They don’t have the subtly of control and more complex power management that made MechWarrior the flight sim of robot games, but they make up for it with speed and power.

The game is exclusively multiplayer, which is a weakness. It’s clear that the issue wasn’t programming AI opponents. The game is full of grunts: AI-controlled canon fodder for each side in a multiplayer session. (These are great targets to have around, by the way, since they’re easier to kill and ensure that the game relatively modest 12-player maximum doesn’t lead to long empty stretches with nothing to do.) Even the campaign game is lacking in drama. It’s odd that to see developers expend this kind of effort on world-building and then not attempt to populate it with some kind of narratives.

It’s hard to really put a finger on what works so well, but the game just makes you feel good. The AI characters bend the curve just right so less skilled players have something to do. There’s a real sense of power behind the mechs and weapons, and pilots and Titans are equally fun to play due to their distinct qualities. Finally, the radio chatter, bots, and mission structure just make you feel kind of important, like you matter in this game world. Military shooters almost always begin with some kind of grim intro or “listen up, maggots” training session designed to make you feel like loser, but Titanfall is designed to make you feel like a tiny god in armor, and I like that a lot better.

Content Issues For Parents: Rated M for Mature. This is a violent shooter, so it’s for discerning older teens and adults. Since it’s online, there’s no controlling the nature of the text chatter. Violence, blood, gore, and some swearing is present, although not with the grim and amoral nihilism that’s characterized shooters lately. Half the action is fighting in robots.

This is a team-based first-person shooter in which players fight as either members of a militia or as soldiers from the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation. Players use a variety of firearms (e.g., pistols, machine guns, missiles, grenades, mines, sniper rifles) and mech-style robots called Titans to seek out and kill enemy forces. Titans use their robotic arms to punch soldiers and vehicles and can also use large-scale firearms (e.g., chain guns, mine launchers, electric pulse guns) to kill enemies. Combat is frenetic and realistically depicted, with frequent cries of pain, impact sounds, and blood splashes. Some weapons blow enemies apart into small chunks of flesh; Titans can also punch enemy soldiers or crush enemy Titan pilots until they burst into chunks. The words “f**k” and “sh*t” appear in the dialogue.

Paralyzed Man Moves Hand With Aid From An Implanted Chip

Ian Burkhart, paralyzed in a swimming accident, became the first person to move his own body with help from a microchip implanted in the brain. Dubbed “Neurobridge,” the technology allows the chip to read rudimentary thoughts in the patient’s brain and then trigger electrodes to stimulate muscles in the hand, causing directed motion.

From The Telegraph:

At just 0.15 inch wide, the chip has 96 electrodes which ‘read’ what he is thinking and is housed in a port inside his skull.

After weeks of practice sessions, when Mr Burkhart focused intently on wiggling his fingers while the chip responded by moving an animated hand on a computer screen, the first proper test took place last week.

The port was connected to a computer which decoded the messages sent by his brain and beamed them to a sleeve containing electrodes which was placed around his forearm.

One journalist said that when he was “plugged in” Mr Burkhart resembled Neo, the Keanu Reeves character from “The Matrix” film series.

Mr Burkhart’s first attempt at using his thoughts to move his hand exceeded all his doctors’ expectations. While they had hoped he would be able to move one finger, he was able to curl his seemingly dead hand into a fist, open it out flat and pick up a spoon.

The signals sent by the computer had triggered electrodes in the sleeve which stimulated the muscles in his hand, causing them to move in the same way they would if a message had been sent directly by the brain.

Afterwards, he told CBS: “Today was great. To be able to open and close my hand and do those complex movements that I haven’t been able to do for four years was great.

“Physically, it was a foreign feeling. Emotionally it was definitely a sense of hope and excitement to know that it’s possible.”

Dr Ali Rezai, Mr Burkhart’s surgeon, said: “I do believe there will be a day coming soon when somebody who’s got a disability – being a quadriplegic or somebody with a stroke, somebody with any kind of brain injury – can use the power of their mind and by thinking, be able to move their arms or legs.”


Reinventing the Bike, and Making it Worse

This thing is called the Fliz, and it’s all kinds of wrong.

It’s a sorta-bike, but not really. Rather than pedaling, you kind of scoot along. And instead of sitting on it, you sort of hang from it, with part of the frame encircling your neck (!), and straps under your groin (!!).

Because whenever I think of new technology and progress in the area of personal transportation, I imagine crotch trauma, almost-certain spinal injury, poor line of sight, and looking like a complete twit all in one hideous yellow European package.

And it’s not even new! It’s a throwback to a precursor of the bike called the Dandy Horse, but with added benefit of crushed testicles.

The bicycle is good, plain tech that remained fundamentally unchanged for a couple hundred years for a solid reason. It works.


Sound Cannons to Be Fired at Drivers

LRAD stands for Long Range Acoustic Device, and it’s a kind of sonic weapon created for breaking up large protests and hailing people at extreme distances.

And now it’s going to be fired at motorists driving at high speeds through construction zones.

Missouri’s Department of Transportation is going to give the device to road workers to warn speeding motors to slow down:

The device emits a targeted, deafening siren that “easily penetrates the windshield and well-insulated cab of a car, even overriding the vehicle’s engine sounds and a radio turned up loud enough to jam to tunes at highway speeds.”

The state has already conducted tests with LRAD, loading it onto the back of a truck and sending out verbal “slow vehicles ahead” warnings to nearby vehicles. But now Missouri has committed to the technology by purchasing two of the pricey devices. Transportation officials claim that they provide an unmistakable alert about slower roadwork vehicles up ahead, and insist LRAD will only be directed at speeding drivers that haven’t yet moved out of work lanes. Still, critics maintain that the ear-piercing nature of the alerts presents a clear danger in and of itself.

LRAD’s sirens can reach up to 153 decibels, more than enough to potentially cause hearing damage. This is technology that’s been deployed in war zones, after all. Missouri’s DOT reportedly insists the tool will only being used at safe levels, but it’s easy to see how motorists could become disoriented and wind up in an accident. The element of surprise is an unwelcome one on the road, and that has many drivers crying foul about Missouri’s plans.

I’m on the fence on this one. Breaking into radio signals with alarms or warnings, or using other sound amplification measures, is nothing new,  but the nature of the technology seems alarming. A sound loud enough to enter a speeding vehicle is going to be pretty disorienting for drivers doing 60 or 70 miles-per-hour.  I’m also unconvinced by the assurances that it won’t be used loud enough to damage hearing. And that’s not even considering the issue of a police/military device being deployed against civilians by road maintenance dudes.

The Unabomber’s Delusional Offspring

Anarchist/anti-tech protesters have targeted the home and neighborhood of tech entrepreneur Kevin Rose, founder of Digg and partner in Google Ventures. After a late night of howling at the moon, these feral lunatics dug into their bag of Soviet-era propaganda, leafleted his neighborhood, and unfurled banners outside of Rose’s San Francisco home declaring him a “parasite” and threatening to “snip” his “b***z.” (This last was presumably inspired by a bizarre and tasteless attempt at humor by Rose a few years ago. )

Rose’s crime? Google Ventures invests in tech startups and new companies are being formed in San Francisco, bringing with them all their icky icky productivity and prosperity.

Or, in the words of the protestors, these techies “ravage the landscapes of San Francisco and Oakland.” Their prime offense seems to be earning “four times more than a normal service worker.”

They go into some detail about how offensive all this work n’ stuff is to them, man: “We are the ones who serve them coffee, deliver them food, s*ck their c***s, watch their kids, and mop their floors.” Yes, and presumably they are paid to do these things, although the inclusion of c******ing in the litany of complaints against a dynamic local economy is … novel.

If all the techies go away, what happens to the service jobs?

Their answer?

This is beautiful. Really, you’re going to love this:

To this end, we now make our first clear demand of Google. We demand that Google give three billion dollars to an anarchist organization of our choosing. This money will then be used to create autonomous, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist communities throughout the Bay Area and Northern California. In these communities, whether in San Francisco or in the woods, no one will ever have to pay rent and housing will be free. With this three billion from Google, we will solve the housing crisis in the Bay Area and prove to the world that an anarchist world is not only possible but in fact irrepressible. If given the chance, most humans will pursue a course towards increased freedom and greater liberty. As it stands, only people like Kevin Rose are given the opportunity to reshape their world, and look at what they do with those opportunities.

It certainly could be some kind of weird performance art, but it reads just like so much anti-tech tripe ground out by anarchists and Ted Kaczynski clones. Tech is bad and tech money is even worser, but we’ll take it so we can live in the woods in our anarcho-syndicalist communes.

In other words, their delusions of total freedom in anarchy are not self-sustaining and must be underwritten by the thing they despise.

You know, like teenagers.

New Mozilla CEO in the Crosshairs for Prop 8 Donation

Brendan Eich, creator of Javascript. Can’t you just see the eeeeevil?

One thing you can always count on with the gay rights movement: they never miss an opportunity to slander opponents of gay marriage as “haters” and gin up a thoughtcrime fatwa at a moment’s notice. The latest target may be Mozilla’s Chief Technology Office Brendan Eich, who was just made the CEO of the company, which makes the Firefox browser.

I’m saying “may be,” because although various comboxes are alive with outrage trolls, only one irrelevant company has thus far reacted publicly. Nevertheless, a couple of grandstanding gay dudes pulling their crappy puzzle app from Firefox is generating “New Firefox CEO Generates Outrage in Gay Community!” headlines because of course it is. Stories about the outrage come first, followed by the actual outrage.

Brendan Eich’s unforgivable crime–which should destroy forever his chances of success, employment, or joy in this life or the next–was to donate $1000 in support of Proposition 8. (I know! The monster!) From now on, that’s all that will ever matter where Brendan Eich is concerned.

I mean, sure, the guy invented JavaScript and was one of the founders of Mozilla, but he holds an opinion that hurts someone’s hothouse feelings, so he must be shunned.

We’re only going to see more of this crap as support for gay marriage becomes the litmus test for Goodthink in modern America. Once they imagined it into being The Civil Rights Issue of Our Times No Seriously You Guys We Mean It!, the die was cast.

What the hell happened to us?

As usual, since comboxes are closed for Lent, direct your outrage to me via Twitter.

Facebook Acquires Oculus Rift: What Does It Mean?

Among gamers, the surprise acquisition of VR headset maker Oculus Rift by Facebook is being treated as a harbinger of the end times. Many are investing a great deal of hope in the next-gen virtual-reality tech being developed by Oculus Rift, believing it may kick gaming to the next level. To have that very tech scooped up the company at the nexus of everything awful in game design seems like a bad thing.

I’ve been down the VR-headset road before, visiting developers and manufacturers for various eyewear and head-mounted displays in the late 90s, when I was still with PC Gamer magazine. I still have a Forte VFX-1 sitting in my office (and it can be yours for the right price!). I never did like any of the tech. The visual quality was pretty low, the tracking was iffy, and the motion sickness was real. Most could only be worn for a short time before inducing headaches. If I recall correctly, I gave each a number rating in aspirin for time to, and severity of, the onset of pain.

We’re about 17 years down the road from Forte, and Oculus Rift has some incredible talent developing some remarkable tech. They may well bring to market a good product that can be used for longer periods of time with high visual and tracking quality at a low price.

But they haven’t done that yet. All we’ve seen are demos, and although the tech is impressive, the price and the long term usability and consumer appeal of the headset remains to be seen.

There is a lot more to Oculus Rift than just gaming, and the potential it offers for communication, medical, research, and other applications has yet to be fully explored. It may well be the first real step towards successful consumer-level virtual reality. Or it may be a novelty item. Clearly Facebook thinks it’s the former, since they paid $2 billion for the company.

The question is: why? What does VR have to do with social media?

Obviously, the first answer will be “games,” which are a large part of Facebook’s limited profitability. However, none of the games on Facebook would benefit at all from a VR headset. If we have to assume that the time spent using the headset should be limited (and I’m assuming that for reasons of comfort and eyesight, this will be the case), people aren’t going to don one to play Candy Crush Saga.

Does this mean Facebook intends to plunge more deeply into MMO-style gaming with social components? Perhaps, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them attempt to merge FB with some more VR-friendly World of Warcraft-clone on the decline. There are plenty to choose from, and it would give FB a bigger presence in a market with a built-in social component.

Gaming isn’t the only thing in the Oculus Rift orbit. Facebook is about human connectivity, and there may be some potential for the headset to be used for real-time 3D communication.

The bigger question is: how does Facebook see themselves? They’re basically a late evolution of the BBS concept, providing connections among friends and even strangers to … I dunno, share cat pictures? I use Facebook and enjoy sharing items of interest with a limited circle of people, and I like reading what others have to say. It’s an interesting forum. The signal-to-noise ratio is still on the acceptable side, although every new change brings it close to a tipping point where the noise will finally drown out any useful application.

Facebook, however, sees itself as more than just some kind of jumped-up BBS. They’re desperate to be the next Microsoft, Apple, Google. They want to own an ecosystem that gives them a piece everything that flows through the pipeline. Thus far, they have failed to do that, and I believe they will continue to fail at expanding beyond their limited mandate of sharing family photos and memes. I’ll freely admit I could be wrong about that. They have money and they have people’s attention. That could carry them far. It just hasn’t, yet.

They’re already losing ground with younger users, and as their user-base ages, the chance of them building an audience around a new toy like Oculus Rift declines. Their reputation in the gamer community is lower than that of Electronic Arts, The Worstest, Most Hatery Company in the World (at least according to gamers who really need to get out more).

If you want to know just what the tech community thinks of Facebook, consider that many are suggesting Oculus Rift would have been in better hands with almost any one else: Microsoft, Sony, Apple, even Electronic Arts.

Markus Perrson, creator of Minecraft, dropped his plans for an Oculus Rift version of the game the moment he heard of the acquisition, saying that Facebook “creeps him out.”

Persson is a voice that matters, and in a long post he explains the potential for VR, and the problem with the most promising VR tech falling into the hands of Facebook:

Facebook is not a company of grass-roots tech enthusiasts. Facebook is not a game tech company. Facebook has a history of caring about building user numbers, and nothing but building user numbers. People have made games for Facebook platforms before, and while it worked great for a while, they were stuck in a very unfortunate position when Facebook eventually changed the platform to better fit the social experience they were trying to build.

Don’t get me wrong, VR is not bad for social. In fact, I think social could become one of the biggest applications of VR. Being able to sit in a virtual living room and see your friend’s avatar? Business meetings? Virtual cinemas where you feel like you’re actually watching the movie with your friend who is seven time zones away?

But I don’t want to work with social, I want to work with games.

Fortunately, the rise of Oculus coincided with competitors emerging. None of them are perfect, but competition is a very good thing. If this means there will be more competition, and VR keeps getting better, I am going to be a very happy boy. I definitely want to be a part of VR, but I will not work with Facebook. Their motives are too unclear and shifting, and they haven’t historically been a stable platform. There’s nothing about their history that makes me trust them, and that makes them seem creepy to me.

And I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.

I have the greatest respect for the talented engineers and developers are Oculus. It’s been a long time since I met a more dedicated and talented group of people. I understand this is purely a business deal, and I’d like to congratulate both Facebook and the Oculus owners. But this is where we part ways.

Persson is speaking as a bit of a purist, but his assessment is dead-on. Facebook is not a stable platform. I don’t mean it’s technically unstable. I mean it’s fundamentally unstable. It has one overriding goal: to connect people to Facebook. That’s not the overriding goal of Microsoft, Apple, or Google, who have something genuine to offer: hardware, product, an operating system.

All Facebook has is, well … you. When a service is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold. Facebook’s product isn’t games or an operating environment or even a set of software tools. Facebook’s product is human eyeballs. I guess they thought a device that maximizes the experience of those very eyeballs would be a natural fit.

But if the history of Facebook tells us anything, it’s simply this: despite building a popular social platform for millions of people, they still, after all this time, haven’t figured out what to do with it. Maybe they just spent $2 billion to find that answer.