Review: 2945 VR

2945 VR, by developer, Pineapple, is essentially an evolution of the Xortex mini-game from Valve production, The Lab.  Anyone who played Xortex will find that 2945 VR feels very familiar and adds upon the core concept introduced by Valve.  Both games have you maneuver a spaceship with your hand to dodge bullets and fire your own, by pointing at enemies.  The controls are exactly the same, with trigger initiating your special ability.

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Maneuvering through a field of projectiles.

The gameplay is very recognizable; I was a big fan of Xortex, which is why 2945 VR grabbed my attention.  No artificial locomotion is required, which is a big plus for those who get motion sickness.  The way you can shift your hand across the room to perform impossible flight maneuvers almost feels like cheating – and exemplifies what can be achieved in VR that a joystick could never accomplish.  The space that you can move around in is bigger than Xortex – and you’re going to need it.  Seated and standing play is possible, but a larger play space will give you more of an advantage in gameplay.

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The ability to move around your play space makes dodging bullets easier.

There are many comparisons to Xortex and that is just unavoidable.  Many of the enemies are similar in how they function, however the models of the spaceships and enemies in Valve’s iteration are more visually appealing and varied — but effective character design is just Valve’s thing and it’s hard to compete with.  The pace of Pineapple’s iteration starts out slower, whereas Xortex introduces more varied enemies sooner; however 2945 VR evolves into far more complex gameplay.

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The spaceship model you hold in Valve’s Xortex feels more responsive in how its engines move with you.

Getting into the more advanced stages is where 2945 VR sets itself apart from the competition, requiring you to take full advantage of your play space to dodge massive barrages of bullets, while doing your best to keep aim.  The gameplay becomes incredibly frantic with the addition of heat-seeking missiles and varied patterns of bullets.  The laser enemy in Pineapple’s iteration is far more aggressive in how it whips across the arena — an example of how 2945 VR heightens the gameplay.  In general, the gameplay is more intense than Xortex and more rewarding.  There is also a Hard Mode that skips the easy levels and gets right to the challenge.

The bosses that you fight between waves are another area where 2945 VR excels beyond the competition.  The boss fights are varied and offer different challenges from the waves of enemies.  In my experience, the waves are harder than the boss fights, simply because there are more enemies firing more varied bullets your way.

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Dipping low in the play space to dodge an onslaught of bullets coming from a boss.

The gameplay reminds me of Geometry Wars, in which you have to navigate through different-acting projectiles, while also shooting back.  Except the level of control you have in 2945 VR is completely impossible to achieve with a standard joystick controller.  Moving your hand over your play space or stepping out of your play area to dodge a wall of bullets almost feels like cheating, but really is an example of the expanded possibilities in gaming, unbounded by the limits of a 2D screen.

There were also instances in which I died and I couldn’t tell what killed me and even felt as if the game registered a hit on my craft when there wasn’t one.  Perhaps that is the ultimate downside of VR, that a flaw in the motion tracking could result in an untimely death.

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The screen you see after death, amid leftover bullets.

There are three ships to chose from, which all play differently but feel powerful in their own respects.  That power may not be apparent at first, as you will have to level up the power of their abilities with the currency you collect by killing enemies.  I found the nuclear bomb weapon to be too bright and it would block my vision of other things happening.  As I was playing, I ran into a bug which wouldn’t let me purchase certain enhancements, when I clearly had enough points to buy them — a re-installation of the game did not fix this problem.

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I have enough points but can’t buy the upgrade.

I also have to mention the vibration of the controller.  Every time you shoot at an enemy, the controller vibrates, but not in a way that is responsive to your weapon or in a way that feels impactful.  It almost feels like I’m holding a vibrator in my hand and the whole time I’m playing, I can hear it buzzing.  Especially with the level of vibrant vibrations exhibited as possible on the Valve Knuckles in Half Life: Alyx, improving the vibration to be responsive and varied between the different ships, could really enhance the experience.

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The nuclear bomb weapon, blocking my vision of the top of the screen.

In Xortex, the motivating factor to keep playing was to beat high scores on the leader board; in 2945 VR the motivation to keep playing is to get more currency to upgrade your weapons.  However, I imagine that at some point, you upgrade every weapon to max and beat the last boss and then there is nothing to progress towards as you play.  It would be nice to see the implementation of a leader board system, though there is a natural hindrance there, as a result of it being a new game with few players.

As of now, there is only one location to fight enemies in — it looks like some kind of spaceship hangar that enemies appear in.  The textures are nice and shiny, but it leaves me wanting more.  I think 2945 VR could benefit from more creative or visually striking backgrounds to play in.  When fighting a barrage of spaceships, it really makes sense to be out in the vacuum of space, or maybe surrounded by alien planets, as opposed to inside the hangar of a spaceship.  The uniform location causes me to crave visual variety as I play.

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Go fight in someone else’s spaceship hangar.

The Steam update page notes 8 new weapon add-ons being added to the game.  It would be nice to see more future updates that provide more content, like more locations, enemies, or playable ships.  I wish I had a better understanding of how the development will progress over time – if I did, it would be much easier to recommend 2945 VR at full price.

If you loved Xortex and want to play a more sporadic, challenging version with multiple ships that can be leveled up, the full asking price of $16 for 2945 VR is pretty reasonable.  However, considering a very close competitor is available for free, you might want to pick this one up on sale, if more challenging levels and bosses aren’t enticing enough for you.

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The laser ship upgraded with more lasers.

 

Reviewed on Valve Index.

Review: Blueplanet VR

Blueplanet VR has no relation to the BBC production, Blue Planet, however it does feature some pretty astounding sights.  Though most scenes struggle from bouts of low resolution textures and ugly shrubbery, each scene has at least one convincing view that justifies the scene.

The most stunning scene is of Antelope Canyon, which exhibits some of the finest modeling and texture work in the whole game.  Looking up through the walls of the cavern, it appears so photorealistic, I feel like I can reach out and touch the rocks.  Gentle music, sound effects and particle effects add a nice touch to the experience.

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Beautiful modeling and texturing bring this scene to life.

Blueplanet VR’s biggest strength is its ability to completely immerse you in stunning detail, giving the feeling of actually being there.

There are also fly-over scenes that give you the reins to soar over recreated landscapes.  One that stands out in particular is that of a glacier.  The texturing and modeling of the cracked landscape is so precise, flying over it feels astounding.

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Incredible detail in the model and texture of this glacier.

Most scenes give you at least one view that is worth your time, like here in a cave scene, the textures and lighting work together to create a single view that is pretty incredible.

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A very realistic recreation of the inside of a cave.

However, if you turn around, the immersion in the scene is broken by sloppy textures and jagged edges.

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Flat textures kill the immersion.

There is a degree to how bad some of the textures are, but some of them are really bad, irreparably breaking the immersion.

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An ugly patch of flat textures can usually be found.

Pockmarks of flat textures, as well as some incomplete geometry, kill the immersion that is so meticulously created throughout other parts of the scene.  For example, this path along the ruins has clear geometry errors as a result of how the photogeometry is captured.

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The geometry of the stairs is jagged and missing the supports that should be connected to the concrete block.

In general, the textures are not a high enough resolution to closely inspect.  Blueplanet VR looks its best when viewed from a distance.  For example, in this stunning scene against a watery backdrop, the textures and modeling look immaculate.  However, upon closer inspection, the textures become pixelated and start to blur.

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A very pretty sight from far away.

Using the depth of this shot, you can see how the textures in the foreground are blotchy and indistinct, while the more distant textures are vivid and have a photorealistic look.

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Throughout the game, closer textures will blur and pixelate.

These lower resolution textures are typically not a big deal, as you get a sense of where your attention should be focused based on how focused the textures are.  Avoid looking too closely.

Here’s one more example to make my point, notice how from a distance, the bricks look defined and photorealistic; but once I get too close, the illusion is dampened.

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That’s real, right?
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Nevermind.

However, there are some areas where the lower resolution quality is definitely an immersion-killer.  For example, this following scene presents a beautiful tree, meticulously modeled and detailed:

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But if you happen to look down at the ground, you see this:

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I’m not even that close to those textures and they are blotchy, pixelated, and undefined.  It’s really hard to feel immersed in a scene when there is such a variation in texture quality.

Enough poor-quality textures make some of the scenes really underwhelming; for example, this scene with a bell.  The texture of the bell looks flat, the letters aren’t three-dimensional, and the colors look patchy and blurred.  It doesn’t actually feel like I’m looking at the real bell, even at more of a distance.

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The centerpiece of the scene is flat and underwhelming.

It also doesn’t help that the surrounding pillars have errors in their geometry.

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Some basic clean-up is required on some of the geometry.

Too many immersion-killers puts the bell scene on the list of scenes that I will never visit again — and there are a few.  For instance, there are panoramic shots of abandoned warehouses, power plants, and other industrial buildings, which have far less appeal than the natural wonders, and are generally uninteresting.

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I would never go on a vacation to this location.

There is also an abandoned shed that can be explored, but again, why would you want to?

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My next vacation spot, for sure.

One of the biggest immersion-killers for me personally was the shrubbery and vegetation, which, as a result of how the image is captured, appear blocky, with jagged edges, blotchy textures, and a lack of transparency.

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Such a beautiful view, blocked by a green abomination of jagged geometry.

For a moment I actually felt like I was going to fall into the Grand Canyon, but then I saw these plants and the illusion was destroyed.

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A lot of work has to be done to make these plants look real.

Pretty much anytime shrubbery or vegetation is too close to the camera, it’s going to be a problem.

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The foreground shrubbery has non-transparent geometry and textures that block other parts of the scene.

There is something about looking out to a beautiful waterfront view and realizing that none of the trees are blowing in the wind, the clouds aren’t moving, and there are no waves in the water.

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Everything is eerily still.

Many of the scenes really leave a craving for something more, perhaps that is the desire to actually visit some of these locations; but more so, it is a vision for where this technology could move in the future.  If video VR technology could add wind to the branches and leaves and rippling waves to the water, the immersion would easily be doubled in certain scenes.

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The waterfall effects don’t even come close to looking real.

Pretty much every scene with water struggles to look realistic.  They add some steam effects to this waterfall to make it look like it’s moving, but you’re going to have to use your imagination to imagine the water is moving.  Water and vegetation are the two biggest immersion-killers throughout the experience.

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Despite its flaws, Blueplanet VR is still worth your time, granted the spectacular views it has to offer.  However, the price point does seem a bit steep.  For the $30 asking price, I would expect some of the geometry to be cleaned up, especially in regards to vegetation.  For instance, the above scene uses image data from Google Earth to create the scene.

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These blobs of green are supposed to be trees.

Especially when it comes to vegetation, the Google Earth data does not always translate so well and certainly could use some clean up.  This exact same location within Google Earth VR has sharper textures and more defined geometry for the surrounding vegetation — and Google Earth VR is completely free.

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The same location in Google Earth VR.

It just seems that with a $30 price point, details like that could be cleaned up, especially when the image data is coming directly from Google Earth.

For the content available, $20 seems like a more appropriate asking price, and even then, I would probably recommend buying Blueplanet VR on sale.

Luckily, the developers have more content packages planned for the future, so you can expect more scenes to be added over time.  The ability to snap-turn within scenes is also still being added in, as of review, so there is potential for additional features to be added in the future.

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The current selection of scenes available in BlueplanetVR, with room for more volumes.

It would be easier to recommend at it’s current price point if I had a better understanding of where the development was going over time and how many more scenes would be added.  I would also be very pleased if currently-released scenes had more work done to them to sharpen their textures and geometry.

Ultimately, Blueplanet VR is a staple for any VR library, especially given the competition.  I used to keep The Lab installed, specifically so I could introduce new VR users to the experience of being atop a mountain range, to see themselves in a beautiful environment.  Now, I’ve uninstalled The Lab and I keep Blueplanet VR installed and I show them some of my favorite scenes, and there are plenty to choose from.

I may even come back here by myself just to relax and enjoy the view.

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An incredible scene to witness in VR.

Reviewed on Valve Index.

Television Review: “Who Is America?”

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(Photo: Showtime)

Sacha Baron Cohen returns with the interview-style, impersonation comedy, made famous by the socially extreme, satirical characters he portrays, such as Ali G, Borat, and Bruno.  In this series, he plays four new characters, all of which resemble a contemporary American ideology, which has been exaggerated to its most absurdly logical conclusion.

Like any prank show, the real entertainment comes from the response elicited by the prankster; as in, how far can a persona manipulate this unsuspecting person into saying or doing something they normally wouldn’t.  For this to work, the viewer’s suspense of disbelief is reliant upon Cohen’s target to fully believe that his persona is real.  I personally had a hard time believing that Bernie didn’t know it was some kind of prank show, which deflates the humor to a degree, because it’s less funny when someone knows they’re being pranked.  But for the most part, Cohen is able to maintain the illusion of sincerity and improvise, based on the interviewee’s response, to the scene’s maximum potential.  His greatest success in this matter is getting Republican politicians to publicly support training four-year-olds to use firearms against mass shooters in schools.

By honestly addressing society as personified extremity, Cohen reveals the satire that sits on the surface of what is considered “normal” political discourse.  In the Trump era, when politicians lie and spout Orwellian propaganda, many comedians have pointed out that it’s hard to make fun of these people when they are basically walking self-parodies.  Cohen doesn’t attempt to make fun of anyone; instead he allows his absurdity to reveal the absurdity in others; to expose them for the self-parodies that they are.

Anyone who is a fan of impressions should find something to love in Cohen’s performance.  His characters are believable because he doesn’t just perform them, he lives through them; his walk changes, the way he carries himself changes, his speech patterns change – he really is the master of disguise (despite the fact that the make-up is a little over-done at times).  His absurd characters work because he plays them with deft honesty.  He doesn’t just play an absurd point of view, instead he fully embodies the kind of person who would house such thoughts.

There is definitely a lot of potential to be squeezed from these four new characters, and I’m on board for the ride to see how far Cohen can take this, given how uniquely ridiculous he is willing to go.  However, now that people know of the kind of pranks he is pulling off, I wonder how successful he will be in the future in continuing to fool people of power.  His ability to get genuinely surprised and outrageous reactions in this manner may have a shelf life.

Book Review: The Hike by Drew Magary

The Hike by Drew Magary is a cynical mindfuck of a page-turner, which begs the question: Is it possible to have a more complete understanding of a person after being separated for more than a decade?

The book opens with Ben who, upon a whim, decides to take a hike in the Poconos and somehow gets lost in a parallel universe, or a dream, or a coma; part of the intrigue of the story is the mystery surrounding what precise circumstance has Ben experiencing this metaphysical world.  As he gets more lost, we delve deeper into who he is as person and the memories past, which have shaped him, and in fact, have shaped his current predicament.

The novel presents a complete adventure, from start to finish, which takes Ben across an ever-changing landscape of trials, each one more mind-bending than the last.  The inertia of the narrative is constantly on edge; not just pulling the reader through the story, but doing so at such a rapid speed that you’ll quickly lose track of page numbers.  This is the kind of book where once you read those fated two words, “THE END,” you don’t stare at them and ponder what they entail; instead you slam the book closed, because you know in your heart that everything that needs to be said has been said.

Ben is the perfect character for the reader to discover themselves as: imperfect, lazy, cynical, crude, and deeply hilarious.  He is an unwitting imbecile being prodded forward by fate, quick to notice his own suffering and loud at expressing it.  Much of the humor comes from him trying to pinpoint exactly who is responsible for his situation, God or otherwise, and his feeble attempts to express his outrage.  Ben has limited control; he’s being taken on a journey – just like the reader – and through his experience we get a more profound understanding of what really matters to him, and in turn, what matters to us.  I am he as you are me, and we are Crab together.

As we experience Ben’s predicament, we ponder what it means to our own lives.  For example, being lost in a parallel universe can be very similar to living with depression; people don’t know how to reach you, you feel dead to the world, you trudge along a predetermined path hoping it will lead to happiness.  Then long enough on that path, years maybe, you can look back and see the progress you’ve made as a person, building yourself back up like a castle.  It is in this way that Ben’s psychological experience is transformed from profound to personal, as his pain mirrors our own.

With full force you will be compelled to the end of this novel and (just for the sake of outdoing violent metaphors on the book cover) the ending will bulldoze your face with a spiked baseball bat, leaving your decimated jaw agape in silent wonder.

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