The Weight of History

August 27, 2015 2 comments

 

in the distance you can see the chimneys that are all that remains of barrack upon barrack.

The beautiful weather added a surreal edge to the experience.

 
Auschwitz exerts a gravity of its own. You can travel to Kraków without visiting it, but you’ll remain aware of it, the many signs advertising tours tugging at you, reminding you of the black hole of history, lurking just beyond the horizon.

A friend of mine told me, when I mentioned that I intended to visit the concentration camp, that they couldn’t bear to do so. I can understand that. I’m not the most sensitive person, but even I can’t help but feel unease at the incomprehensible nature of what happened there. Still, I wanted to go, to be part of the effort to remember and not forget, and so I did.

(Apologies is some of the below is upsetting.)

That the visit was on the warmest, sunniest day I’d experienced in years was somewhat incongruous. In fact, the whole start of the tour, around the original Auschwitz I camp, felt a little off at first. To sanitised, too carefully restored and preserved, too occupied by tour groups. I was beginning to wonder if I was missing something. Then we reached the room full of human hair.

In one of the restored barracks buildings, fully half of a long room was taken up by a mass of human hair, taken from the scalps of the dead, with traces of Zyklon B still detectable when the Soviets liberated the camp. In further rooms were the dead’s belongings: eyeglasses, coats, suitcases with names written on them, shoes, children’s shoes. As much as anything else, the weight of these objects lay in the fact that they were the only remaining scraps of evidence that the Nazis hadn’t gotten around to destroying or using

We had been meant to see these first – a long queue meant that our guide took us around those more sanitised buildings first. Like some of the concentration camp victims, I was lulled into a false sense of security, feeling that seventy years since the camp was liberated had deprived it of its power to shock. Preserved behind glass though it may be, it still reaches out.

A mile or two down the road from Auschwitz I is Auchwitz-Birkenau. Dreadful as it was, Auschwitz I was in effect a trial run – Auschwitz-Birkenau is an order of magnitude larger and was the place that the Nazis applied industrialised methods and an inhuman level of detachment to their “final solution.” Here, though they tried to burn and demolish the traces of what they’d done, can still be seen the ruins of the crematoria and the shells of the barracks that housed the dying and the doomed.

Auschwitz I retains the indelible image of all that the Nazis took from their victims. Auschwitz-Birkenau demonstrates the scale to which they brought that collective sin. Moreover, it’s the decaying nature of Auschwitz-Birkenau that lends a final reminder of reality: this is not a preserved exhibit in a museum. This is a place where more than a million people were murdered. It needs to be remembered and I’m glad I visited, though that visit will stay with me.

If there was one thing that I missed, it was some sense of why this happened. Auschwitz preserved the “how,” but it makes less effort at showing how a nation can slide so irrevocably into horror. How centuries of looking down on Jews and other “others” curdled into contempt and hatred. How political leaders could take that hatred and bind it to a “solution” that led step by step to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

At a time when Europe and the U.S. are convulsed with fear of immigrants, and when our politicians are advocating ever more draconian measures to deal with this problem, we need to remember where that path leads. We already have them in camps, after all. We are hearing calls for them to work for their keep, to earn the right to live among their betters. It’s a reasonable proposal, isn’t it? It always is, at the start.

Eastern European Odyssey

August 23, 2015 2 comments
I do like the idea that on reaching Bucharest, I'll be able to divide into three...

Follow the Lime Green Railroad to the Wonderful Wizard of Uncertain Destinations…

So, I’m doing it again. One year after Greece, four years after the Trans-Siberian and six years after Norway, I’m once more taking an August-September travelling holiday, hitting a bunch of new (to me) locations. Once again, rail is the medium for my peregrinations, and this time the locale is as much of the former Soviet Bloc as I can fit into three weeks. (No, I’m not visiting Belarus as part of this trip, and as much as I’d like to drop in on Ukraine, it might be better to leave that for later too.)

That map above gives the general outline of the trip: Krakow, Poznan (briefly), Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava (briefly), Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo, Bucharest, and then … options. This is one of those trips where the early stages have been nailed down and booked, whereas the latter ones are more reliant on train availability and everything that goes before. Which, even though it might rub my obsessive compulsive tendencies the wrong way, is still appealing. Not knowing exactly where I’m going to wind up probably won’t do my mother’s blood pressure any favours, but I’m happy enough to keep a loose leash on the days ahead.

One of the nicest of things about this trip is that I’ve never been to most of the countries I’ll be visiting—the only ones I’ll be returning to are Germany and Austria, and even there, Berlin or Vienna will be entirely new. In fact, once this trip is over, the only European nations remaining unchecked will be fall into three groups: the Russian fringe (Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and maybe Moldova), the Balkans (Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia), and a scattering of others (Switzerland, Portugal and most of the microstates—Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, San Marino, and Monaco). Which brings me close enough to a complete collection to prompt a few more holiday ideas at least.

For now though, an Eastern European Odyssey is the order of the day. Preparations have been made, maps have been consulted, and tickets have been booked where possible. And as many considerations as I can consider have been considered.


Rail Travel: As mentioned, rail is the way to go here, and the resource worth relying on is The Man in Seat 61. It’s served me well in the past and it did here too, though booking tickets beyond Vienna has proved less useful than just showing up at the station in person. Sleeper services will be taken of wherever possible, and there might be a brief river trip between Vienna and Bratislava if the Danube isn’t too drought-stricken. When I get to Bulgaria and Romania though, my timetable will be at its most flexible. It’s just a pleasant coincidence that my options will be opening up as Europe reaches its most alluring.

Accommodation: The open nature of the latter end of my travels means that I can’t book too far ahead, but even if I could, I’m going to be taking a leaf out of my Greek odyssey: stick to booking a day or two ahead of time, using the Booking.com and AirB&B apps on my phone. Sleeper services are to be preferred, but hostels and B&Bs are just as valuable, mostly for their showers and laundry facilities. If I’m travelling light, cleaning my clothes will be a necessity at some stage.

Flights: Normally, the two things I’d book first would be my flights there and back. Well, I’m flying into Kraków to kick things off, but where I’ll be flying back from? That’s still undecided. I’d like to visit Moldova (because why not, when you have the chance?) but flights back from there are at least twice as expensive as from neighbouring Romania. So we’ll see. I have a ticket tracker running using the Kayak app, and the sudden availability of a cheap option may well determine how and where my journey ends.

Technology: Technology-light is the rule of the day. As in Greece, nothing more than my phone is to be brought. Even my new Pebble Time is getting dropped in favour of a Timex Weekender with a battery that lasts five years instead of five days. This will make it a little tricky to update the Travel section of this site as I go, but I’ll do my best. Those long train journeys will definitely give me time, at the very least. Still, my poor old iPhone 5S is suffering from geriatric battery syndrome these days, so one more piece of tech is needed. I’ve bought myself an Anker Astro E7 external battery, and having tested it for the past week, I’ve deemed it good. At the cost of a little extra weight to my backpack, I should be able to keep my loyal iPhone, and more importantly its camera and booking capabilities, running for as long as I need them.

Reading Material: This is an issue. Travelling light rules out carrying more than two books, and with one of those slots taken up by a Lonely Planet guidebook, that leaves little wiggle room. A friend has loaned me an ageing Sony eReader, but that runs up against both the low-tech rule and my personal preferences. I might rely on second-hand bookstores instead, or just read on my iPhone. (The latter option might seem a poor one, but I’ve read the Bible and War and Peace on my phone before, so it is an option. Maybe Moby Dick this time…)

Writing Material: Of course, without reading to take up my travelling time, and assuming that staring out the window can only occupy one for so long, writing will have the field to itself. So pens, some ink refills, and a notepad or two will be packed. How much I’ll get to write (beyond the requisite journal of my travels) remains uncertain, but the idea of letting my brain wander on the Danube plain is a huge draw. Even when I’m not strolling the city streets, there’s be imaginative highways and byways to explore.

Missing: What will I be missing while I’m gone? Well, not a huge amount. As the next category shows, the timing of this trip has worked out rather well. The start of the Pro12 rugby season and a few pre-World Cup friendlies is about the height of my sporting interests. Missing the Irish Craft Beer Festival stings a bit though. As for work, it’s been packed away for the next few weeks, and when it comes to keeping an eye on the state of the Internet, that’s something I could do with less of.

Returning: On the other hand, within a week of my return, I’ll have the return of Doctor Who, the start of the Rugby World Cup, a new niece to be a godfather to, and one of those birthdays with a “0” at the end of it. So I’d better be well rested when I take off from somewhere near the Black Sea (presumably). Because I’ll be hitting the ground running.

Let’s Try This One More (Pebble) Time

August 14, 2015 2 comments
The optional watch face mimics the Apple Watch, which I didn't realise until I was using it.

Authentically scuffed Pebble Time: model’s own.

Depending on who you believe, the wearables revolution is underway, has not yet started, or has already failed. While I don’t wholly agree with any of those viewpoints, the fact that I’m now on my second smartwatch does suggest that I don’t agree with the last.

Those who follow this blog and are aware of my devotion to the Cult of Mac may be surprised to learn that my new toy isn’t an Apple Watch. Those who follow this blog in slightly closer detail might be able to guess what it is: a Pebble Time. Several years ago, in one of my early Kickstarter forays, I stumped up for a first-generation Pebble smartwatch, which adorned my wrist for all of a month or two.

Its short lifespan wasn’t down to the fact that it was a bad product. Beyond being a first-generation device (part of my reason for eschewing the Apple option this time) with somewhat dodgy Bluetooth wireless and limited functionality, its only major flaw was that it was uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Unfortunately, that’s also why it was in my pocket instead of on my wrist during a fateful bus journey, and the fact that it fell out of the pocket somewhere was entirely my fault, not the watch’s.

But enough of my ongoing habit of losing things (which seems to come in waves – whenever I lose one thing, I known that at least two more will vanish in the short-term future), what of the Pebble Time? Well, the first thing to note is that it’s much more comfortable to wear, with a slightly curved back to the watch body and a much improved rubber strap. While I’ve had to take it off for comfort reasons a few times, this has been the result of sweating due to exertion, not general day-to-day use.

So score one for the Pebble Time there. In addition, the straps now include easy-release clips that, while not as clever as the Apple Watch’s high-end version, allow access to a full range of standard-gauge watch straps.

In fact, the Pebble Time is a solid version 2.0 in a lot of ways. A colour e-ink screen replaces its monochrome predecessor, the Bluetooth connection seems much more solid, the vibration function is hard to miss, and the build quality overall seems much better, with buttons that avoid feeling too spongy despite being plastic. My gunmetal grey version has picked up a few scratches after a month or two of use, but stumping up a little more money for the Pebble Time Steel could gain you an even more polished experience.

In use, the Pebble Time is easy to figure out. Hit the single button on the left of the watch to navigate backwards to the home (watchface) screen. Hit the centre right button to dive into and select menu options and the buttons above and below it to navigate up and down through lists. Changing settings, accessing apps, changing watchfaces, etc. are trivial tasks. To actually install apps or watchfaces, you’ll need the companion smartphone app, but once installed, they can connect to the phone via a Bluetooth connection for extra processing power. Pebble’s own app store, accessible via the smartphone app, makes installing new apps easy, but finding the app you want can be tricky, as the browsing experience feels a little haphazard.

As with any smartwatch, the Pebble Time is reliant on its connection to a smartphone. Lacking that, it can tell you the time and offer access to any standalone apps that you’ve installed, and not much more. A connected smartphone offers instant access to weather, music, and more advanced apps. For example, I’ve installed the Tripadvisor app, which can point me towards nearby restaurants or attractions, should I so desire. It’s limited, but the interface is responsive and fun to use.

In fact, fun is a good description of the Pebble Time overall. The Pebble team seem to have put a lot of thought into making their device as easy to use and enjoyable to own as possible. For example, there’s no need to install an app to use the Pebble Time as an external display for Runkeeper’s smartphone app—it happens automatically. This good user experience is further helped by the Pebble Time’s battery life, which will stretch out to five days. Changing your watchface to one that displays the battery level will help you keep an eye on that, but it’s far ahead of the Apple or Android watches in this regard at least.

Some commentators have raised concerns that transferring notification from the phone to the wrist just makes us even more tied to that “always on” mentality. The reality has proven very different: an initial flood of notifications trained me to turn off any that weren’t vital. Moreover, even though vibrations on your wrist make notifications hard to miss, it’s it’s far quicker and easier to dismiss those notifications by glancing at summaries of them on a watchface than by digging your phone out of your pocket or purse to see what they are. Yes, notifications probably aren’t wholly a good thing, but if you’re going to opt in, this is the way to go.

I haven’t tested the limits of what I can do with the Pebble Time yet, having only installed a couple of apps and watchfaces. Though far less powerful than the Apple Watch or its Android competitors, the Pebble Time offers plenty of variety in terms of what it can already do. Everything that I have experienced with it so far has made me pretty happy with my purchase. The cluttered app store is the only minor fly in the ointment, whereas everything else is pleasingly smooth.

You Are The Product

August 3, 2015 Leave a comment
(With invisible close buttons.)

Our grim, multicolour, flashing future.

One of the quieter announcements that Apple made during its WorldWide Developers Conference recently was that its forthcoming MacOS and iOS updates will give developers the ability to create “Content Blockers” for its mobile and desktop Safari browsers. While the exact content blocked is up to the developer (you could block the Daily Mail if you want—and you really should), no one is under any illusions as to the target of this feature: ads.

Ad blockers already exist as extensions to most existing browsers, but the majority of users probably don’t avail of them, especially in the mobile sphere. Apple’s decision to push this feature and the reaction to its quiet announcement says a lot about the current state of the mobile web and the dominant role that ads have come to play in it.

Faster computers, mobile phones and broadband have contributed to a smoother experience online, but this has helped to hide the fact that the vast majority of what we download is ads and spyware. Blocking out most of that would massively speed up browsing and have the simultaneous benefit of cutting down on the amount of activity tracked online.

As pleasant an outcome as this sounds though, there’s a downside: online advertising pays the bills for many of the sites we enjoy, some of them from smaller content providers. Killing off that revenue stream would likely kill off a lot of the richness and the niche content that the web provides. It’s not like the people running these sites are preying on you through the ads either—they’re often stuck in a system that they don’t like, making do as well as they can.

The power blocs behind online advertising inform the nature of the system and the conflict that Apple is wading into. Facebook and Google ensure that web users have access to a wealth of content for free by harvesting their data and selling it, funnelling a portion of the proceeds back to the content creators in order to keep the whole thing going. This is the system that’s driven the growth of the web to date, but it’s far from perfect, and web site bloat is just one of the symptoms.

Whatever your thoughts on Apple—you won’t look at the comments on any Apple article on a non-Apple site for long before you find mentions of ‘iSheep’ or ‘Apple fanboys’—the fact is that Apple’s profit model is completely different from that of the web titans. Apple’s iAds platform is distinctly small scale, and its money comes from the sale of hardware instead. Providing an improved user experience is vital to enhancing the sale of that hardware, and enabling the creation of content blockers achieves that.

Safari is a minority browser on desktop machines, but it’s a major player on the mobile web, and iOS users are a lucrative market. So while this initiative isn’t going to bring down the current financial underpinnings of the mobile web, it’s a definite shot across Google’s bows. (Less so Facebook, which has a closed ecosystem of its own that it can profit from.) For users, it raises the question: are we happy to receive things for free, with the understanding that we’re being sold in return, or are we going to accept that we should pay for the things we value?

There’s an interesting parallel to be seen in the U.K., where the Tory government is once again taking the knives to the public broadcaster, the BBC. U.K. TV viewers have long been accustomed to paying a TV licence, and in return they’ve gained a globally renowned service that entertains, educates, and informs. Of course, a publicly funded broadcaster has a head start over its private sector rivals, and in the view of the Tories, that’s unfair competition. Speaking as someone who was raised on a diet of BBC television, I’d call the licence fee a small price to pay, but the future that the private sector envisions could look a lot like YouTube: ostensibly free to use but scattered with pop-up ads and laden with user tracking.

When we’re offered something free, it’s convenient to overlook the fine print. We’re okay with being the product as long as it’s not thrown back in our face. It would be nice to think that users’ desire for speed and convenience would eventually find a balance with providers’ need for compensation. But while Apple’s intervention might be to our benefit, Apple doesn’t fund web content, only content provided through its own app store ecosystem. So if its ad blocking does gain traction, either we’re going to have to learn to pay for our content or some of those content providers are going to go under.

Flawed Heroes, Edgar Wright and the Incorruptible Ant-Man

July 20, 2015 Leave a comment
Which one won?

The grand “what might have been.” The eternal tale of how life is. Image from here.

Director Edgar Wright’s departure from Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man before it was due to start filming will keep film critics and academics in coin for years. Wright, one of the most creative and inventive directors around, had worked for several years on the film and retains both executive producer and screewnwriter credits on the final feature. However, for all that Ant-Man retains some of the hallmarks of Wright’s work, it’s not one of his films. For better or worse, his replacement as writer and director, Peyton Reed, has made it his own. Read more…

SDCC 2015 – The Good, The Bad and The Doctor

July 13, 2015 Leave a comment
Just stick this on your laptop and have a convention in the privacy of your own room.

The sceptical eye is probably a decent icon for this event.

One day I will go to the San Diego ComicCon (SDCC). This year, though, is not that year. Instead, while Northern Ireland prepares for its annual renewal of sectarian grudges, my brother provides me with my second niece, and my sister’s kids do their best to physically and mentally exhaust both my parents and myself, I’ve been keeping up with ComicCon online.

Over the past few years, as SDCC has risen to become the flagship event of the geek-driven media industry, the stars have been the movies of Marvel Studios’ superhero super-franchise. This year though, Marvel Studios is absent, presumably to await a dedicated event of its own later in the year. So the field was open to new challengers, with another Disney super-franchise foremost among them.

With the weekend mostly over, then, it’s time to take a completely subjective look at some of the standout offerings.

Doctor Who

SDCC is well-timed for Doctor Who, which is returning to screens this autumn. So at the panel this year, in addition to the cast and crew, audiences got their first peek at the new season. And it all looks…very Hollywood and action packed. Which isn’t a bad thing in a trailer, but part of the appeal of Doctor Who is a protagonist who eschews violence in favour of intelligence. Nu-Who (the series since its relaunch) has had some great moments but the last few series in particular varied wildly in quality. So a polished trailer raises hopes that those variables might come into alignment this season, but it doesn’t do much to convince.

Sherlock

Speaking of variable quality, when Sherlock is good, it’s very, very good, but when it’s bad it’s…still watchable, due mainly to the two leads. Instead of a new season, there’s only a special episode on the way (Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch both being in heavy demand these days), and accordingly we got somewhat less than Who provided: a snippet of a scene instead of a trailer. Given the success of retelling the Victorian-era stories in the modern day, it’s odd that the special takes the characters from the revamp and puts them back into the Victorian era. It’s all a little odd, if not counterproductive, and the scene released online does suggest that it’s all going to lean on humour rather than drama. Which, given the indication that the eventual return of the show proper will see some very dark and dramatic turns, is probably a good thing.

Marvel Comics

With movies absent, Marvel’s comics presentations had a prominence that they haven’t had in years. Which is well-timed, as the company’s current Secret Wars crossover is probably its most critically acclaimed in years and looks set to lead into something of a soft reboot, with the best parts of its Classic and Ultimate lines mashed together and cleaned up by its stable of writers in order to welcome in a bevy of new readers. (Multi-media marketing being what it is, there’s some alignment with upcoming movies as well.) There were plenty of new titles to announce and discuss, but my detachment from the majority of superhero comics these days can be measured by the fact that one of the characters depicted in the fourth blurry image on this page was by far the most exciting thing in their entire presentation for me. (If you can guess which one, you get a cookie.)

Marvel TV

Marvel’s TV output stands as the poor relation of the movies, which is a shame, as the quality is quite high. But they were definitely lost amid the rest of SDCC. Not much was to be heard of the new season of Agents of SHIELD, though the midseason miniseries Agent Carter got a welcome push, with its period glamour and post-war pulp stylings boosted by a move from New York to Los Angeles. I’ll be tuning in for that, as well as Marvel’s Netflix series: the return of the excellent Daredevil and the upcoming Jessica Jones. Neither of those were brought to SDCC, but we got images and casting information to keep the hype bubbling away and keep existing fans paying attention.

Pseudo-Marvel Movies

Sort of an unfair description, but then Marvel sold off the rights to its key properties years ago, back when it was in bankruptcy and long before Iron Man paved the way to cinematic dominance. Sony has since moved its Spider-Man into the orbit of Marvel’s franchise, but 20th Century Fox’s X-Men and Fantastic Four properties are still out on their own, and they have a fair amount to recommend them. Their presentation was a mishmash of everything they have planned, from the upcoming Fantastic Four to the further-out X-Men Apocalypse and the R-Rated Deadpool. There’s a lot of talent involved, but not much in the way of coherence, and in the age of colour-coordinated mega-franchises, that’s actually a little refreshing.

Star Wars

What is this strange feeling? Could it be the human emotion called…hope? In my head, JJ Abrams has a lot to make up after the twin travesties that were the two nu-Trek movies (wherein the corpses of the classic movies and TV shows were savaged and the result ground up with an excess of lens flare and quality actors, then slung in the oven until undercooked and served to the rabid masses), but I can’t really complain about anything that’s been done with Star Wars so far. True, we still don’t know a lot about the upcoming The Force Awakens, but I like that. Keep the trailers few and far between, and maintain a bit of secrecy in this era of instant gratification. What we’ve seen so far looks to be in the spirit of the original trilogy, with a dusty, lived-in universe inhabited by dashing scoundrels, noble heroes, imposing villains and the scum of the galaxy. In short, it looks like Star Wars, on the kind of epic scale that modern CGI allows. If Jurassic World showed just how bad the overuse of CGI could get, The Force Awakens might—just might—show how good it can be when it’s done right. (The free concert for convention attendees may have been a stunt, but it was an impressive one.)

And now I’m doomed to be disappointed, aren’t I?

DC Movies

Though I’m a Marvel fan, not a DC reader, I’ve seen most of the movies that DC have put out though (even if Green Lantern was only because it was free and on a trans-oceanic flight). Given how little I thought of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and how my opinions of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns have trended downwards over the years, I really wasn’t expecting much from a movie that looks to be the product of an orgy between those two and every other major DC comic hero, all desperate to generate a franchise to match’s Marvel’s billion-dollar success. So, perhaps it’s my low expectations talking but…that’s one hell of a trailer. The grimdark tendencies of the Nolan Batman movies are balanced, if not exactly tempered, by Snyder’s operatic excesses, and enough of the story is hinted at in order to suggest that Ben Affleck’s Batman might actually be justified in kicking the crap out of Henry Cavill’s Superman. Plus, Jesse Eisenberg as a Mark Zuckerberg-esque Lex Luthor remains an inspired piece of casting. It could still all collapse into a complete mess, but there’s a spark of excitement that wasn’t there before, and DC might just have lit a fire under Marvel’s ass that could benefit everyone further down the line.

Random Other Stuff:

The new season of The Walking Dead and its spin-off Fear the Walking Dead both received new trailers and heavy promotion. And I…don’t really care. I’ve stuck with The Walking Dead way longer than its entertainment value warranted, and I couldn’t even be bothered to fire up the new trailer. I’m sure it’ll be a huge hit.

I’d put Quentin Tarantino in the same category—his movies can be fun, but have always seemed more flash than substance to me. Still, the news that the western he’s working on will be scored by Ennio Morricone? Worthy of your attention at least.

One of my favourite ever comics series was Vertigo’s Lucifer, which used Milton’s rebel angel (as first shown in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman) to examine obsession and self-determination. It’s now being brought to TV as a…police procedural? Where the devil helps cops fight crime while running a piano lounge in Los Angeles? It sounds utterly terrible, but early reviews suggest it could be fun. I’ll be tuning in out of morbid curiosity if nothing else.

The Man From UNCLE is one of those old TV shows that was regularly repeated when I was a kid. I even had a Man From UNCLE annual once upon a time. So this hits my nostalgia button squarely on, and I don’t mind admitting that I love the look of it. Suave secret agents butting heads, feisty women, 1960s glamour, and action aplenty. Again, there’s only a couple of trailers to go on, but Henry Cavill could be getting some more of my cinema money in the year to come.

Joss Whedon has earned a deserved break after the madness of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and his next project is…a Victorian female Batman. Which from anyone else might seem odd but seems right in Whedon’s wheelhouse. Sadly, it sounds like we’re going to be waiting a long time for Doctor Horrible 2, but such are the vagaries of life.

My experience of Warcraft the game was limited but fun, much like the information released to the public on the upcoming movie. Duncan Jones is a director to trust, and the cast and early imagery are very promising, but even though the built-in fanbase is sizeable, it’ll have to work to reach beyond it. Taking the Star Wars path of teasing rather than showing could be a wise move.

DC’s other movie properties (unlike Marvel, their movie and TV properties operate in unconnected universes) operated in the shadow of Batman V Superman, and they’re too far out to judge as yet. A lot’s going to depend on whether BvS is a success, but they seem to have learned from the mistakes of the past at least. As for the TV properties, Arrow and Flash have a lot of fans, and while I’m not among them, I may just tune in to Legends of Tomorrow to catch Doctor Who alumnus Arthur Darvill in a new role.

HBO makes good TV. Jonathan Nolan (Christopher’s brother) is responsible for one of my favourite series in Person of Interest. So bring the two of them together for a relaunch of Michael Crichton’s Westworld and you have my interest. Sadly, Vladivostok’s favourite son Yul Brynner is no longer available to reprise his role as the deadly android gunman, but this could be something special.

Speaking of good TV, Bruce Campbell is always worth watching. Bruce Campbell revisiting his Evil Dead glory days in a TV series? Practically required viewing. Do yourself a favour and watch the only trailer that rivals Deadpool in the humour stakes.

Also in the quality TV arena is Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. It’s an impressively faithful adaptation of one of Philip K. Dick’s best books, and the pilot episode showed massive promise. The fact that it’s going to be made into a full series makes me very happy.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies kicked off an entire subgenre of rewriting classical literature to include fantastic elements. Diminishing returns kicked in long before publishers lost interest in the idea, and the movie version of the original of the species languished in development hell for ages. It’s here now though, and it looks to be adopting a straight-faced approach to the silliness of its concept. That may help it to avoid being a complete mess, but the amount of trouble it had getting to the screen does not bode well.

One Last Thing

The sheer quality and amount of cosplay on offer at SDCC never ceases to amaze. I’m genuinely impressed by all of it and not a little jealous. If I ever do get to attend SDCC, a decent costume will definitely be part of the agenda, no matter how overheated San Diego in July is likely to be.

Free-to-Play Three Ways: Capitals, Future Fight and Fallout Shelter

July 2, 2015 Leave a comment
Sometimes, I just revert to mucking around in Pixelmator instead.

*Some terms and conditions may apply.

I have no aversion to spending money on mobile games, and some of my best experiences with iOS games have been paid for: Plants Vs Zombies, Hitman Go, Thomas Was Alone and Monument Valley to name but four. Still, the plethora of free-to-play games does allow me to try out new gameplay experiences more or less forever, as long as I’m willing to risk the intrusion of money-making schemes into your fun. Recently, I’ve been playing three F2P games that have taken very different approaches to monetising fun, with very different results.

Monetization-Lite: Capitals, NimbleBit

Capitals is a clever little app that combines a Scrabble-like word game with some simple head-to-head strategy. You and your opponent start with one space each (your “capital”) on a hexagonal board, and the aim is to grow your territory and ultimately conquer your opponent. You do this by claiming spaces: each space has a letter, and if you use the letter in a space connected to your territory, you expand into it. But if your opponent claims territory bordering yours, some of your territory will turn neutral again.

A huge amount of strategy emerges from this simple gameplay: Sometimes it’s better to avoid a big word in favour of shoring up your defences. Sometimes you see an opportunity to strike deep into your opponent’s territory. Sometimes you want to use up convenient letters so as to cramp your opponent’s options. In the games I’ve played, some have been brief and wild struggles, others chess-like confrontations of advance and retreat.

There’s not much to complain about on the gameplay front: a few games turned into slogs as I tried to grind my opponent down (or they tried to grind me down), but there’s plenty of fun to be had. All the same, you wonder whether NimbleBit thought out their F2P strategy very far. Right now you can pay for unlimited “lives,” which you can also claim by watching promotional videos (one view equals one life). It feels restrictive, and Nimblebit might have been better simply making this a cheap paid game instead. Still, they’ve been updating Capitals gradually since it came out, and they might yet get the balance right. In the interim, I’d recommend giving it a try.

Monetization-Heavy: Marvel Future Fight, Netmarble

I’m a comic book geek, and when it comes to superheroes, you can Make Mine Marvel. So a F2P fighting game starring a range of Marvel heroes, with good gameplay and high production values should be a winner, right? Future Fight certainly makes a good start, giving you three leading heroes (Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow) to start with and plenty of free goodies just for logging in every day. But it then buries the whole experience under layers of complexity, social networking hooks and premium currencies.

The core gameplay is a lot of fun—the three hero types (brawler, speed and ranged), are each stronger or weaker against one of the other types. Missions last no more than two minutes, providing experience and equipment to improve your heroes, and there’s even a story illustrated with quick cut scenes before and after missions. So that’s fun. The problem is that managing everything else becomes a chore. There are multiple ways to improve your hero, multiple types of mission you can take on, and coins, gems and tokens galore to collect.

If you’ve got the patience to get to grips with all of this, there’s a rewarding game to be found under all of the cruft. However, I found myself reduced to logging in once a day to pick up my daily reward, telling myself that I’d try to get to grips with it later. I never did. It’s one of the problems of F2P—having paid nothing, I’m not invested, and the grind of gaining expertise and levelling up my characters has put me off. Which is a shame. This is a well-coded, slick and fun game that might have done better had it been paid-for with much less in the way of complications.

Just Right?: Fallout Shelter, Bethesda Game Studios

Fallout Shelter caused a lot of fuss when Bethesda announced it alongside Fallout 4 at E3 recently. As a promotional iOS app, trading on an established franchise name and using a F2P model, it could have been awful. It isn’t. In fact, it’s one of the friendliest F2P games out there, with an in-app purchase model that actually seems to work. (It’s currently at #18 in the top-grossing games in Ireland.) How did Bethesda manage this? By keeping things simple and sticking to the feel of the Fallout franchise.

Whimsical ‘50s nuclear paranoia might not seem like a good basis for a game, but it’s worked for Fallout for years. The main Fallout games have been roleplaying-focused, but this is a management game that charges you with creating a paradisiacal “Vault” in the midst of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. To do this, you’ll have to guide your vault dwellers to create food, water, energy and medical supplies, send them out to explore the wasteland, and encourage them to breed in order to swell your population. Do it right and everyone will be blissfully happy. Do it wrong and you’ll have miserable, radiation-raddled inhabitants who fall prey to radroaches, raiders and the occasional nuclear reactor fire.

The first ingredient that makes this game so appealing is the grace notes sprinkled across the game (equipment descriptions, wasteland explorers’ journals, and cheesy banter between dwellers—the writing is uniformly excellent). The second ingredient is an in-app purchase system that doesn’t intrude and even enhances the game. The standard currency is bottle-caps, with which you pay for new rooms (and occasionally resurrecting unlucky vault dwellers). The premium currency is lunchboxes, which serve as booster packs that contain equipment, caps or dwellers, some of them better than any you’re likely to find in game. You can earn these lunchboxes through the game, but the excitement of opening a new one is enough to encourage you to plonk down actual money for more.

It’s not a perfect game—the learning curve is a little steep if you don’t RTFM, and there’s a lack of depth in the challenges you’ll face as you build your Vault beyond 100 inhabitants. But even so, it manages the SimCity trick of making you feel proud of what you’ve created while allowing you to peek in on the lives of your dwellers and even get a little invested in their continued existence.

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