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Category Archives: video games

Watch Dogs’ timeliness: is it luck or genius?

watch-dogs

Tuesday is a big day for video gamers as the long-awaited hacker thriller Watch Dogs finally hits stores. If the record pre-sale orders are anything to go by, the latest blockbuster from Ubisoft Montreal will doubtlessly be one of the biggest global releases of the year. Oh, it also might be helped by the fact that it’s an excellent game – check out my full review over at TheGlobeandMail.com.

As I mention there, Watch Dogs captures the zeitgeist of our era perhaps better than any other video game in recent memory. At a time when angst over security and government spying on civilians is at an all-time high, a game about the perils of having everything interconnected hits perfectly. It’s an amazing sign of prescience by Ubisoft developers, who started working on Watch Dogs six years ago, well before anyone had heard of Edward Snowden.

The protagonist is Aiden Pearce, a street thug turned hacker who is betrayed by his underworld colleagues. As a master hacker, Pearce can do just about anything with his smartphone – he can empty out innocent bystanders’ bank accounts, control the trains and traffic lights of the city and eavesdrop on conversations happening in private residences. He can enrich himself or set his enemies up for big falls, all with just a couple of apps on his phone.

Over the course of the past year, I interviewed some of the core developers behind the game on several occasions. It was interesting to see how their thinking and confidence levels about Watch Dogs‘ subject matter evolved, especially as the Snowden revelations unfolded starting last summer.

“We were looking at where the world was going,” lead writer Kevin Shortt told me a year ago, recalling the first creative meetings on the game back in 2008. “We were all in a room having a meeting and we all put our phones down on the table. We were all very aware of how connected we are. That was what interested us: how far are we going with all this connectivity?”

There was angst at the time about the promise and peril of uber-connectivity, but it still existed as something of an abstract concept.

“I don’t think we want to come away saying it’s a bad thing, we want to come away saying what does that mean for us?” Shortt said of the game.

Senior producer Dominic Guay also said at the time that the team’s confidence in what they were doing grew steadily as many of the topics they were covering became more and more commonplace in the real world.

“We saw it through development as confirmed, where every day I’m getting new emails from researchers about how technology being comprised or hacked somewhere else,” he said.

The first Snowden revelations broke just a few weeks after those conversations. I talked to Guay a few months later and his demeanour had changed. At the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, he found that he had to explain how interconnected everything was and why that might be a problem. A year later at the same event, the team was almost jubilant that they had been on the right path.

“[Snowden] made it a lot easier. We don’t have to explain what we’re talking about anymore,” he told me in March. “Most people have an opinion about it, which is awesome. That’s even better. It made our game more relevant.”

Call it luck or call it smarts – either way, Watch Dogs may turn out to be the most talked about game of the year since it turns the spotlight on a very real-world issue, which is unusual for a genre that often deals in space aliens and dragons.

The funny thing is, even though Guay and his colleagues have been knee-deep in creating a world where the downside of current technology is readily exploited by bad guys, he’s still optimistic about it in the end.

“The promise is outweighing the peril, otherwise we wouldn’t all be using those devices. We wouldn’t all be so ready to jump on our PC to simplify our lives,” he said. “But we need to talk about the flaws too. I’d be a lot more worried if no one was talking about the flaws. It’s the best way we have to keep our shield up and find our balance.”

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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in privacy, ubisoft, video games

 

Car tech priority should be to keep it simple

BMW's dashboard-mounted tweeter makes for some sweet driving sounds.

BMW’s dashboard-mounted tweeter makes for some sweet driving sounds.

It has often been said that the car is the perfect piece of technology – you just stick your key into it and it works. Yet, with automobiles quickly becoming the next tech battleground – both in terms of the extra functionality manufacturers are cramming into them, and in regards to their inexorable march toward full automation – that long-held simplicity is looking like a frail thing indeed.

The fact was driven home for me the other day when I test drove a fully loaded 2014 BMW 750xi Sedan. The $136,000 car was tricked out with just about every technological addition on the market today: a rear-view camera (including night vision), electric rear and side shades, satellite radio, active blind spot detection, a steering wheel that rumbles if you change lanes without signalling, a touch-knob-controlled heads-up-display with GPS and a high-end Bang & Olufson sound system complete with dashboard-mounted tweeter. Truth be told, I felt a little lost. In fact, even the old truism about key simplicity no longer holds in this particular BMW, where the ignition is started by pushing a button on the dash. Its “keys” are just a fob used to unlock the doors.

My regular car is a 2003 Toyota Corolla, which might as well have been manufactured before the internet existed. Friends marvel and sometimes snicker at the fact that I still have to manually roll down the windows. About the most technologically advanced thing about it is the fact that it’s black, which helps snow melt off it faster when the sun is out. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2014 in cars, video games

 

Oculus Rift deal signals big changes to Kickstarter

OculusRift1When I was a teenager, the worst thing one of my favourite bands could do was “sell out.” In retrospect, it was a pretty ridiculous and largely arbitrary proclamation for a young person to make – amongst my group of friends, it was usually reserved for whenever a heavy metal band we liked went soft and recorded a ballad that was clearly designed to appeal to mainstream record buyers. It was especially naive, given the fact that every musician had to sell out to some extent in order to get their creation out to the public in the first place.

These days, you don’t hear too much about bands selling out, largely because just about any musician would be happy to sell just about anything given the state of actual music sales. Indeed, the “sellout” label is now increasingly being used in the technology world, where promising young inventors are giving their amazing ideas to giant companies in exchange for boatloads of cash (which can also be used to buy boats themselves). Such is the case with Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset invented by 21-year-old Palmer Luckey, which was bought by Facebook for $2 billion on Tuesday. In this case, Facebook – perhaps the most hated company on the internet – is the loathsome record label while Luckey is the quintessential Metallica or Def Leppard. And boy are the fans ever angry.

Oculus Rift came to life on Kickstarter back in 2012. By listing his impressive demo of the virtual reality headset on the crowd-funding site, Luckey captured the imagination of more than 9,500 people who collectively pledged $2.4 million – 10 times what he was asking for – to help make the Rift a reality. Luckey doesn’t yet have a working product, but Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was impressed enough by the prototype to open his coffers. Both individuals explained and defended the deal as necessary for taking virtual reality to the next level.

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Posted by on March 27, 2014 in Facebook, video games

 

Final Fantasy and the problems with game reviews

Reviewing games can be the worst-paying job around on a per-hour basis.

Reviewing games can be the worst-paying job around on a per-hour basis.

I had a video game dilemma this weekend. It wasn’t that I was stuck on a certain part, but rather that I didn’t know how to review the latest Final Fantasy game, Lightning Returns. The problem was that, despite having received the game with plenty of lead time, I had played only about a fifth of it and my review had to be in on Monday.

Final Fantasy games – and role-playing games in general – are notoriously long, with this installment apparently taking about 50 hours to complete. The thing is, 10 hours was about all I could stomach, so thereby arose the dilemma. I spent the weekend struggling with the question of whether I should review the game negatively based on my partial experience of it, or whether I should soldier on through the whole thing and then write a review, possibly weeks later. Neither option seemed good; a partial review was almost unfair to both the game makers and readers (you wouldn’t review a movie or book after the half-way point, right?), while a delayed review would ultimately be read by no one.

It’s a dilemma that every reviewer has probably experienced at one time or another, and it’s something of an overall problem because it may be contributing to higher overall game review scores. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2014 in video games

 

Let’s talk about pathetic download limits

Despite Lara Croft being British, Tomb Raider is largely Canadian.

Despite Lara Croft being British, the new Tomb Raider is largely Canadian.

With the arrival of next-generation video game consoles, Canada’s woeful internet usage limits are about to be thrust back into the spotlight. As a National Post article by the eminent Chad Sapieha explained this week, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 come with some innate issues in this country.

A simple update for Dead Rising 3 – a Canadian-made game for the Xbox One – released last week is a whopping 13 gigabytes in size. This sort of thing, where higher-resolution games require bigger and bigger downloads, is a growing problem because it’s going to cause many gamers to exceed their monthly usage limits, according to the article. Internet subscribers in Canada’s most populated regions typically get between 20 and 80 GB a month before they start seeing usurious overage charges.

I can sympathize, having downloaded Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition last week in order to review it (its multiplayer mode, by the way, is courtesy of Eidos Montreal while the Xbox One remaster is from Vancouver’s United Front Games, making it a very Canadian product overall). That file was a whopping 16 GB. Fortunately, I switched to a smaller internet provider a while ago and have 300 GB of monthly usage. Even still, with frequent game downloads like this one and a healthy amount of Netflix usage, my household comes close to even that limit on a regular basis. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2014 in bell, rogers, video games

 

2014: PlayStation 4 motors ahead of rivals

Will Titanfall be enough to swing momentum Microsoft's way? Probably not.

Will Titanfall be enough to swing momentum Microsoft’s way? Probably not.

The coming year is going to be a big one in video games, with the next-generation console battle kicking into full swing. Both Sony and Microsoft released their respective new machines, the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, in November with Nintendo getting a head start last year with the Wii U.

There’s little doubt which company has the momentum heading into the new year. The PS4 has been outselling its main rival from Microsoft around the world – in some cases, as in Spain, it’s been by a wide margin. This, despite the Xbox One having a relatively better slate of launch games.

Without big changes, I’m expecting that momentum to continue as the PS4 looks to be the console of choice for hard-core gamers – also known as mainly young, male gamers – who are particularly sensitive to price. The Xbox One’s $499 price tag, compared to $399, is a deal breaker for this audience. Microsoft is banking on a larger audience beyond just the hard-core, but that’s the wrong bet at this point since it’s really only gamers who buy consoles early in their release. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2014 in microsoft, nintendo, sony, valve, video games

 

The biggest tech hits and misses of 2013

Edward-Snowden

Edward Snowden: the most wanted man since Julian Assange.

So what were the biggest technology related stories in 2013? There were quite a few, but here are the 10 most important.

Selfies take over:

With the Oxford Dictionaries naming “selfie” as the word of the year in November, the self-portrait’s domination of pop culture was complete. Even U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt recently got in on the action with their own selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.

Is the self-portrait, followed by its inevitable sharing on social media, a sign of society’s growing narcissism? It’s a topic that’s now being debated. Over at the Globe and Mail, Navneet Alang argues it isn’t – it’s merely the latest evolution of how people are defining their identities while communicating with each other.

I think it’s even a little more innocuous than that. Whenever I show friends or relatives vacation photos of famous monuments or gorgeous vistas, they always wonder why I’m not in them. People like to see other people in photos – it’s often what makes them interesting. Read the rest of this entry »