Category Archives: Impressions

Impressions of games and stuff that I managed to spend some time with.

Running with the Apple Watch

Apple Watch Workout appI’ve been running for a couple of years now, having started with a C25K programme and working my way up to regular 10Ks, 10 miles, obstacle runs, and several 5Ks a week. I’m doing my first half marathon in April and, assuming that goes well, might do a full one in October. Rain (sometimes) or shine, on a weekday evening I’m a regular somewhere along Bournemouth seafront, where you’ll find me somewhere between Boscombe and Sandbanks.

Until now I’d been tracking my runs with my phone strapped to my arm with Strava, but waking up on Christmas morning to a brand new Apple Watch provided an opportunity to improve my fitness tracking.

Integrating Apple’s Workout app with Strava

Apple Workout run in progressApple’s Workout app is excellent, offering support for tons of different activities and providing lots of lovely stats afterwards. It can track my heart rate during and after a run, syncs with numerous other devices without needing to pay a premium subscription, and doesn’t provide the bafflingly inflated calorie estimates that Strava is known to do.

My problem was that I had several years of runs and a handful of similarly inclined friends on Strava, and I didn’t fancy losing that social aspect, not to mention my PBs on the numerous Strava segments I regularly run.

Strava has its own Apple Watch app, of course, and it’s perfectly functional and capable of depositing its runs into the Activity app alongside any Apple-tracked workouts. In fact, my first run with an Apple Watch, on Boxing Day, was tracked with the Strava app. But it lacks some of the stats, including heart rate recovery (being a native app, Apple’s Workout can keep tracking your heart rate after the run has ended) and those all-important GPS-tagged route maps. And since I was going to be using Activity for tracking weight training and other workouts anyway (Strava is limited to running and cycling), I was keen to streamline things by using one app for all my exercise.

The solution, then, would appear to be liberating my Apple-tracked data and dropping it into Strava. But that’s not always an easy thing to do with Apple.

HealthFit solves the problem

Trying a failing with a few apps, I came across HealthFit, which, wonderfully, does exactly what I need it to and nothing else – the last thing I wanted was to bring a third fitness-tracking service into this. All it does is export your workouts from Apple’s Activity app in the widely supported Garmin .FIT file format, where they can be saved to your iCloud Drive, emailed or automatically uploaded to a number of different services, Strava among them (the others are TrainingPeaks, SportTracks, Final Surge, Selfloops and Dropbox).

Exporting an Apple Watch Workout run to Strava in HealthFit
Exporting an Apple Watch Workout run to Strava

A few taps and my run is exported, and it’s a matter of moments before Strava pops up a notification that it’s ready to view in its app, indistinguishable from a Strava-tracked run. Better, in fact, since my exported runs feature heart rate charts – a Strava Premium feature if I used their Apple Watch app.

The only niggle was that, since Strava was installed on my phone and allowed to write its workouts to the Health and Workout apps, anything exported into Strava through HealthFit was appearing twice. That was solved by simply revoking that permission in the Health app (in the Sources menu), giving Strava read-only access.

Conclusion

Were I not into fitness, I’m not sure I’d find the Apple Watch worth it. A timekeeping and notification machine is cool, but a questionable value proposition. However, if you throw in comparable fitness-tracking to the high-end offerings from Fitbit – at the time of writing the only Fitbit with built-in GPS is the Ionic watch, which starts at £299, or only £30 less than the much more flexible Apple Watch Series 3 – and it becomes much more justifiable. The fitness-tracking focus of watchOS 4 suggests that a couple of years on the market has led Apple to a similar conclusion.

The Apple Watch is the absolute definition of a technological luxury item, completely unnecessary but kind of cool when you have one. It’s a fantastic fitness-tracker, though, particularly for outdoor activities, and the sheer omnipresence of iOS means, by proximity, any fitness-focused online service is likely to have some level of support. This comprehensiveness, coupled with the constant nudges to close my rings, is often enough to get me out when the cold weather and post-work fatigue might otherwise tempt me to take an evening off.

See you in Southampton!

Returning to the Resident Evil remake

I know I’ve complained about the preponderance of recent remasters, which makes my current enthusiasm for this, the 2015 remaster of the 2002 remake of 1996’s Resident Evil, as well as the long-awaited Majora’s Mask 3D, seem odd. I’ll defend my position, though, since neither of those games has been seen on shelves in more than a decade and at least two console generations – they’re retro, in other words. I’ll be less enthusiastic about a 1080p remaster of Resident Evil 6, should that arrive, believe me.

Resident Evil HD: The mansion lobby

This is a game that I always respected and wanted to like, but timid little 2002-vintage me never made it much beyond the appearance of Crimson Heads. A couple of hours, in other words. A humiliating admission for such an ardent horror fan, but sadly not an isolated one in my gaming back catalogue, which is a who’s who of abandoned horror classics. But while the years might have blunted the absolute dread I felt when playing this to the point where it didn’t really give me The Fear at all, like when I played through the original Silent Hill, though, time has left the solid mechanics alone. It’s a phenomenally well-designed game.

But where Silent Hill, being (a) a PS1 game and (b) doing in real-time what Resident Evil resorted to pre-rendered backdrops to accomplish, looks really rough now, the Resident Evil remake (REmake hereafter) still looks incredible. It’s genuinely one of the most beautiful games ever made, even on a GameCube, and quick polish for a new generation of systems has only enhanced it. Some FMV and dark backgrounds that can look somewhat over-compressed aside, the game looks almost flawless. A handful of rooms are apparently now rendered in real-time, and it’s absolutely seamless – meaning we had a game on the GC that could stand up alongside games from two generations on. Amazing.

Resident Evil HD: Jill Valentine

I’m continually blown away by the details in the visual and story design of this game. The Spencer Mansion, ridiculous as its gems, metal objects and death masks may be, is an iconic location, brimming with memorable rooms and scares. Lisa Trevor and her family add a harrowing subplot that’s significantly more disturbing than any number of exploding heads. It has fun in playing with your expectations, so that you can imagine the designers smiling as famous moments like the dogs through the window are subverted, or when the aforementioned Crimson Heads turn cleared rooms into dangerous ammo sinks. The voice acting still has B-movie charm without being impossible to take seriously like the original, while those touching up the script and removing some of the more egregious howlers had the good sense to leave alone some of the best writing.

As much as I love RE2 and 4, REmake is my favourite in the series. It’s pure survival horror, which, brilliant as it is, Resident Evil 4 isn’t. It’s also tight, creepy and self-contained, which the bigger and crazier RE2 isn’t. It’s also a lesson for newer games in how to do a lot without a huge abundance of content, supporting two stories, multiple endings and a series of enjoyable unlocks in a game that can comfortably be finished in five hours.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

I’ve written before about how much I miss the B-tier of gaming, that time when there was something between a $100 million “AAA” release – the shifting definition of that term is another post in itself – and a quirky indie game from two blokes in a garage. Every so often you get something that channels the spirit of that time, showing that polish, cool ideas and a budget aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this, which had sat on my pile of shame for a couple of months, is put together in that vein.

I mean it as a sincere compliment when I say that The New Order feels straight out of 2003. It belongs to that glut of post-Half-Life 2 narrative-driven shooters that were ten-a-penny on the original Xbox and actually represented, in retrospect, a reliably good subgenre for one that was rinsed so thoroughly. As well as Valve’s classic, the DNA of games like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (there’s a Starbreeze connection), Breakdown, Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, Doom 3 and so on is on show here. Even if I limit the discussion to games about leading a resistance against a technologically advanced and oppressive regime, I could equally be talking about The New Order, Half-Life 2 or the much-missed Freedom Fighters.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

This retro feel is carried through to the pleasantly old-school design: secrets, collectables, non-regenerating health, an arsenal of weapons to carry around without regard for encumbrance systems, and giant enemies with exploitable weak points abound. Even the prominence given to dual-wielding feels pleasantly of that era, after Halo 2 made it a banner feature but before dour, grounded militarism became the genre’s creed.

The New Order isn’t thrown together without thought, though, which is perhaps surprising for a series with such straightforward roots. Almost as surprising as the lack of multiplayer in a game whose deathmatches once hooked me so strongly. The design of posters, signage, architecture and even the pop music heard in the background has been built to present a believable vision of the 60s in a world where the Nazis won the war and propaganda infuses all aspects of culture. I read several excellent articles about the music around the game’s release, among them VentureBeat’s, and was blown away at how much effort went into an area that is so easily overlooked.

Visiting Nazi London in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Wolfenstein is undoubtedly a game that would have made my abridged best of 2014 list had I plunked down the cash before the Boxing Day sales. I’m tempted to drop a cliché about how it’s not big or clever, but really, it kind of is. The old-fashioned parts are lovingly, knowingly so, and the thought put into its vision of a Nazi-dominated 1960 is up there with the big releases. There’s nothing in The New Order that’s been thrown together arbitrarily.

I’m happy, therefore, to declare that gaming’s B-tier still lives! For one game, at least.

Console Wars

Console WarsAs much as I love my well-thumbed copy of Game Over, it’s over 20 years old. Its account of Nintendo’s rise lacks two decades of changing perspective, context, new information that has emerged as people retire, move on and, separated from events by years and expired NDAs, give increasingly candid interviews. It’s from a world where the Atari ET landfill story is apocryphal.

Console Wars’ chosen subject is different, coming in when Nintendo has already risen to its zenith and concentrating on the competition with Sega in the early 90s. There’s none of the smart, nimble Nintendo that came out of David Sheff’s book; this is the empire whose monopolistic tendencies alienated enough third-parties to create the way in that Sega and ultimately Sony exploited.

There’s a major movie in development (at Sony Pictures, amusingly) based on this book, hence the foreword by Seth Rogen, which is extraordinary to me. There’s the kernel of a film here – indeed, everyone knows the snappy line to win an argument in a way that no one does in real life – but while The Social Network proved that the rise of a major tech company can make a fascinating cinematic experience, Blake Harris and the team behind Superbad aren’t David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin. Time will have to tell on that one.

The book itself is solid but unspectacular. The aforementioned tendency for everyone to speak like polished movie scripts can grate, as can the Hollywood stereotypes that uniformly present the Americans as hard-working creatives and the Japanese as stoic, conservative and petty. It may be true that Sega of Japan was the architect of Sega’s post-16-bit downfall, and the book makes a convincing argument for this viewpoint, but a bit more nuance would have been nice.

But I still learnt a lot, even as someone who grew up consuming everything I could about gaming in this period. Did you know, for instance…

  • …that Nintendo was once so big that it accounted for 10% of Walmart’s total profits?
  • …that Sonic 2 was both the first global launch and the first set-in-stone release date in gaming history?
  • …that Sega passed up the opportunities to release the hardware that would become the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64?
  • …that Sega’s Tom Kalinske was responsible for the Nintendo-Silicon Graphics relationship that gave us Donkey Kong Country and the N64?
  • …that Sonic’s iconic silhouette was achieved by combining Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse? And his middle name is actually ‘The’?
  • …that the born-again Christianity of Konami’s president turned Dracula Satanic Castle into the more enduring and Jesus-friendly Castlevania?
  • …that the US government’s antitrust lawsuit against Nintendo was completely by accident filed on the 40th anniversary of Pearl Harbor?

Those little snippets are the kind of things that I lapped up. There are enough of them sprinkled liberally throughout that I was willing to overlook the liberties taken by the author. Well worth a look for anyone who honed their debating skills on the school playground in the early 90s.

Game Over’s still the daddy, though.

Thoughts on the PS4

Although their commercial performance has been heartening amid reports of the slow death of the console market, the long-overdue launch of a new hardware generation has been greeted with a lukewarm critical response. I can understand the disappointment that the days of launching a system alongside a bone fide classic seems to have died in the years since Halo, but I’m shallow, damn it, and I wanted a new toy. It’s been eight years. I’m only human.

PS4

This round of launches has brought two firsts: the first Xbox launch at which I haven’t jumped in, and the first PlayStation launch where I have. Past habit would have put it the other way round, but anyone who’s been following the two consoles will understand. The Xbox One has been woefully mismanaged, and even after numerous 180s, it’s still facing an uphill battle to win me over. I’ll get one eventually, but I’m past giving Microsoft the benefit of the doubt. The downright scummy F2P business model in full-price games shows that it might not be a bad idea.

The PS4, on the other hand, while the most technically impressive is also the most pleasantly nostalgic. I like that it’s a games console first and foremost. It’s not a trojan horse for a new media format and it’s not diverting large chunks of its processing power to things I don’t want. It’s got a great controller – so good, in fact, that hardcore Sony fans now feel comfortable admitting how bad the Dual Shock 3 was. It has a premium online service that actually gives you something for your money. It’s been built to avoid the kludgy, obnoxious amount of time spent watching progress bars on the PS3. It’s svelte and looks nice – another first for a launch model PlayStation in my book.

Maybe I’m being optimistic here, but I hope that a console designed by the newly humbled Sony, likely to be a clear market leader this generation with the best third-party ports and the lion’s share of newly resurgent (please?) Japanese support, can be a kind of benevolent dictator. Think of the PS2 coupled with the hardware advantage of the original Xbox and the superlative first-party line-up that Sony pulled out of somewhere in the PS3 generation. Let Nintendo and Microsoft learn from their mistakes this time around and come back stronger, like Sony has after suffering through its own third console curse.

Let’s just hope the success doesn’t go to their heads like last time…

The Kick Up the Arse That Pokémon Needed

It’s funny what a difference a few tweaks in the right place can make. I wrote back in 2011 about my disappointment in Pokémon White, my first foray into the series since the GBA evidence to me that it was a series in decline. It was a sense of diminishing returns that left my copy of Sapphire abandoned and Blue as my only game with a full Pokédex, and a hardware generation and a couple of instalments in the game series hadn’t done anything to advance things substantially.

As you might have guessed, I’ve recently given it another go with Pokémon X. Fool me once and all that, but my 1998 self would have been so deliriously happy with a fully 3D Pokémon game that I couldn’t resist. And, unsurprisingly, not much has changed between this and Black and White. Nor, indeed, the Game Boy games. Maybe I’m a graphics whore or something, but the little changes here have made all the difference.

Pokémon X/Y Trainer

Graphics aren’t everything, sure, but they are something, and Pokémon X – or Y, but I’m going to talk about the version I own – doesn’t feel as half-arsed as Black/White did. Seeing those monsters in three dimensions, performing flashy attacks beyond bobbing the sprite up and down, adds dramatically to the personality and appeal. It’s like going from a pen-and-paper RPG to, well, a video game.

Another complaint I had about Black/White was that I found Pokémon to be insultingly formulaic. To illustrate:

  • It’s time for you to become a Pokémon trainer! Go and get your starter from the local professor!
  • Your rival picked the opposing element, so fight him/her.
  • Work your way through the gym leaders.
  • Thwart the plot of a criminal gang with a weird uniform, staffed entirely by incompetent henchmen.
  • Head to Victory Road and beat the Elite Four.
  • Uncover some secret of Pokémon mastery that the world’s scientists couldn’t crack a kid could for some reason.
  • Go after a set of one-of-a-kind legendaries.
  • If you’re not bored by now, pour months into building a competitive team.
  • Oh, and catch ’em all™.

Which Pokémon game am I talking about? It basically could be any of them.

X is the same, but by not looking just like it did on the Game Boy and delivering the occasional well-placed hit of nostalgia (see screenshot below) it tickles the urge that the last generation failed to. If I’d drifted away from the series and come back to this instalment, I’d have been perfectly happy with how much things had progressed.

Pokémon X/Y Mega Blastoise

It’s still not the 3D adventure that I would have killed for in 1998 – Monster Hunter looks closer to that ideal, so it’s feasible, though perhaps not from a small team on a release schedule like Game Freak’s – but as a much-needed improvement to a stagnated franchise, Pokémon X delivers. Given that delivering on the series’ potential would require Nintendo to release powerful hardware, show some ambition and overhaul a proven cash cow, I’ll take what I can get.