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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite

With all the advances in tablet technology, the experience of reading a physical book is still preferred by many people – or if not a book, then an e-book with electronic ink instead of an LCD or OLED display. Amazon has had a lot of success with their Kindle e-book readers over the years, and today they’ve announced the latest model, the Kindle Paperwhite.

Scheduled to start shipping at the end of the month (September 30, 2013), the Paperwhite boasts an upgraded display, an enhanced backlight for reading in the dark, and faster processing to speed up page turns. All of the new features are certainly welcome updates, but the price is also substantially higher than the standard Kindle: $119 (with the current special offers) will get you the Kindle Paperwhite, while the previous Kindle is available for $69. There’s also a 3G Paperwhite available for $189, which adds free 3G connectivity with no contracts or monthly fees.

There are plenty of reasons for book lovers to prefer the Paperwhite over reading on a tablet. There’s no glare in bright sunlight, for one, and I personally find the reading experience to be more comfortable on the eyes. The Kindle is also lighter than similar size tablets, and battery life (with WiFi off) is listed as up to eight weeks between charges (depending on your usage, naturally). Battery life incidentally is also rated at twice that of the previous Kindle, though whether that’s thanks to improved technology or simply a larger battery I’m not sure (probably a little of both).

I’m still not 100% sold on digital books over normal paperbacks/hardbacks, but the Kindle has some advantages that can be difficult to overcome – like, the ability to pack along hundreds of books wherever you go, in a device that weighs less than half a pound. On the other hand, there are drawbacks: it’s still classified as “portable electronics”, so you can’t use it during takeoff or landing on a flight, and while Amazon does support “loaning” of books to a friend, other than public domain stuff there’s no equivalent of a normal library that I know of. I also like the ability to dog-ear pages, pull out a highlighter for important passages, scribble notes in the margins, etc. – there are analogs to some of these on the Kindle, but they’re not quite the same.

All told, however, there’s a lot to like with the Kindle, and the Paperwhite builds on that legacy. Electronic ink may not draw pages or refresh as fast as a tablet LCD, but it’s far more comfortable to read and you won’t end up recharging every day, even if you read constantly. For the interested, here’s the full set of specifications:

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite Specifications
6" Paperwhite
Exclusive Carta e-paper technology
Next-generation built-in light
212 ppi, 16-level gray scale
6.7" x 4.6" x 0.36"
(169 mm x 117 mm x 9.1 mm)
7.3 ounces (206 grams)
System Requirements
None; fully wireless and no computer required
On-Device Storage
2 GB internal (~1.25 GB available)
Holds up to 1,100 books
Cloud Storage
Free cloud storage for all Amazon content
Battery Life
A single charge lasts up to eight weeks
(30 minutes of reading per day, wireless off and light setting at 10)
Battery life will vary based on light and wireless usage
Charge Time
Approximately 4 hours from a computer via USB cable
Wi-Fi Connectivity
802.11n (WEP, WPA, WPA2 security)
Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS)
Optional 3G Wireless on Paperwhite 3G
Content Formats Supported
Kindle Format 8 (AZW3)
Kindle (AZW)
Unprotected MOBI
PRC natively
Word (DOC, DOCX)
JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP (through conversion)
Warranty and Service
1-year limited warranty included
Optional 2-year Extended Warranty available for U.S. customers
Included in the Box
Kindle Paperwhite, USB 2.0 charging cable and Quick Start Guide
Kindle Paperwhite: $119 promotion, $139 normally
Kindle Paperwhite 3G: $189 promotion, $209 normally

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Shadowrun Returns Review: Kickstarter Rocks

Let me get the fanboy stuff out of the way first: I love cyberpunk, especially when it’s done well. My first blush with the genre came all the way back in the days of the venerable Commodore 64, where an unassuming game called Neuromancer was released. It was seriously flawed in some ways (hello super-slow walking across screens!), but I loved the BBS hacking and implementation of Cyberspace. To my teenage mind in the late 80s, this was perhaps the most awesome game ever created –I even went so far as to craft ideas of what could be done for a sequel and mailed them to Interplay! Sadly, I received a polite “thanks but no thanks” response, but I’m still around while Interplay is gone. Take that, big corporate politics!

Naturally, after playing the game I went on to read the Gibson books – all of them, good and bad – and I branched out into reading anything even remotely cyberpunk that I could find. My favorite of the time was Sir Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired, which I really wish someone would do a proper game set in that universe. Later, I’d also get into Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash was another instant hit for me), but I’m always looking for more good cyberpunk stories, so if you know of any please post a comment.

Okay, back to the topic of gaming, the number of good cyberpunk computer games is decidedly limited. Besides Neuromancer, we have some more cerebral games like Uplink, or old text games that I won’t even bother mentioning now. Syndicate and Syndicate Wars had some cool ideas back in the day, with Syndicate having recently been rebooted as an FPS. Deus Ex is probably one of the best showcases of the genre, but again more of an FPS than an RPG in my book. And then we have Shadowrun, originally released on the SNES and Sega Genesis. I never got into the Genesis release for some reason, but even years after its release when I first played Shadowrun on an SNES (around 2001), I thought it was great. When I discovered (again belatedly) that there was a modern Kickstarter for Shadowrun, and that the game launched last month, I was thrilled – and promptly bought the game on Steam.

You may have seen other reviews of Shadowrun Returns by now, and that’s fine. As a fan of the genre, let me give you my own take on the game. First, the story and setting are extremely well done and anyone who ever wanted a better adaptation of Shadowrun (not the crappy Team Fortress knockoff that Microsoft tried in 2007 for Vista and Xbox 360!) will be pleased. With the original creator of the Shadowrun pen and paper system being part of Harebrained Schemes, that may not be too surprising, but I’m glad to see the setting given its proper respect. You get a decent variety of skills, equipment, character traits, etc.

Graphics are nowhere near state of the art, but they’re good enough and you get an interesting combination of 2D and 3D that should run well even on low-end laptops. Combat foregoes the real-time trend that has become so popular and instead goes with grid-based turns, and you know what? It works, and I love it. Yup, I’m old school that way.

The story follows you from your humble beginnings as a shadowrunner helping out a dead friend through a climactic battle against the forces of evil set to destroy the Earth. You win, naturally, only “winning” in this case is a bit ambiguous as the corporations that run the world basically bury any knowledge of what you’ve done, and the threat that you helped to stop is still out there. But all told, it’s a good tale and anyone familiar with the Shadowrun universe will have a good time. But all is not perfect in our near-future dystopia, sadly.

First, there’s the save system, which basically has you restarting each level. It’s okay but I’d have liked a “save anywhere” option – it’s never good to run out of time half-way through a level and have to go elsewhere. Thankfully, most of the levels take less than 30 minutes, so you’re usually never more than a half hour away from your next checkpoint/save. The worst is really towards the end of the game where some larger battles may take longer – the final battle for instance can last a good two hours. Either way, I don’t think the save system is the end of the world.

Another complaint is the linearity of the game, which basically has you going through each scene, talking to any active characters, and then moving on to the next scene. There is very little to miss, and other than one optional mission there’s basically nothing extra to do. The game is extremely linear, but there are good aspects to such an approach – like keeping you focused instead of wandering lost in a huge world of emergent game play. I didn’t go back and replay the main story as a different character yet, and I can’t really tell how much variation there is, but my initial play through leads me to believe that most of the changes you can make only affect two things: your credstick and your combat. Certain skills/attributes/etiquettes may open up additional conversation options, but I can’t recall any that did more than provide additional money or an extra item.

Finally, there’s cyberspace/the matrix/the grid/etc. This is an area where I had definitely hoped for something more, and in many ways I almost feel like Neuromancer did it better in 1988 on a C64 than what we get with Shadowrun Returns. The visual representation is fine, but ultimately all you get in the Matrix is a new and different form of combat. To “hack” a node, you simply kill whatever programs or deckers are in the area and then click on the node, and there’s very little else to be done. Also, there’s a time limit for how long you can be jacked in, with an alarm level that continuously increases until you start getting more enemies to deal with and are forced to jack out. Cyberspace is like the rest of the world, with limited exploration available. It’s a shame that there’s no extra content or databases to hack into that might flesh things out.

Here’s the good news, though: Shadowrun Returns was released with a full editor and content creation support, and already there are many people hard at work generating new missions and content. Some have added random missions to the main story (or at least they’re working to do so?), others have completely new stories and worlds to explore, and there are new weapons, skills, spells, etc. available. As with any game that supports user generated content, what will come out is only limited by the imagination and skill of the creators, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Shadowrun.

Short verdict: for a cyberpunk fanboy like myself, this is a no-brainer. Buy the game, and flawed or not you’ll find something to enjoy right now, with more goodness to come. It’s not a triple-A title with a gigantic budget, but in some ways I prefer a game like Shadowrun Returns to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It’s sort of like the difference between reading a good book where your mind can fill in the blanks and your imagination gets to run wild versus a highly detailed game world where most of the creativity is done for you. Both options have their pros and cons, but for $20 you can do far worse in terms of digital entertainment.

The other thing I want to briefly mention is how great Kickstarter is proving to be for the indie gaming scene. Back in the 80s, it was possible for a single person to create and release a “cutting edge” game. As games and graphics have become more complex, such an undertaking requires far more money, more people, more time…and the bean counters don’t like risk. Everything is becoming more mainstream, because the idea is you can appeal to “everyone” rather than a small niche and therefore make more money – never mind the numerous failed “mass appeal” games that have come and gone over the years.

With Kickstarter, a developer can get funding up front to make a game, rather than having to create something on their own dime and hope it works out, and the people footing the bill are the same ones that want the game in the first place. Community feedback is improved, there’s food on the table, content gets created that would otherwise not exist, and just about everybody benefits. I missed the initial Shadowrun Kickstarter, but I’ve backed a couple others that I’m eager to play: Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera. Such games likely couldn’t be achieved without Kickstarter; now we just need to get someone to do a Neuromancer Kickstarter.