Pocket Planes: Fly the 8-bit Skies

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Flying out of Baghdad – generally considered a questionable idea…

Not too long ago, in a review of Tiny Tower, I commented that the publisher, Nimblebit, may have missed a trick in not selling out to Zynga, which proceeded to photocopy its game when rebuffed. As addictive as Tiny Tower was, it was an ultimately shallow experience, with most of the enjoyment coming from comparing towers with your friends. Well, I may have been worried prematurely, for Nimblebit’s follow up to Tiny Tower, Pocket Planes, is in an entirely different league.

Instead of building a skyscraper and filling it with stores, apartments and occupants, Nimblebit now asks you to craft a globe-spanning airline, starting from a handful of airports and a few rickety planes. It might seem obvious, but the premise of the game permits it much greater depth than Tiny Tower, as you actually have to think about how you expand: go for cheap airports for quick cash or save for more expensive ones and build for the future.

Some Tiny Tower mechanics are carried over: the whimsical 8-bit graphics and tone, and the “bitizens” that fly with your airline. There are still two forms of currency as well: cash for building and upgrading airports and “bux” for purchasing new planes and hurrying your flights. You can purchase bux for cash through the game, but there’s nothing you need to spend money to achieve. All it costs you is a little more patience.

The main substance of the game comes in routing flights of bitizens and cargo from one airport to another: the further the flight, the more money you make, and if you can fill a plane with items for a single destination, you’ll get a bonus. Meandering flights will make you less money (or even cost you money), so some strategic thinking when purchasing airports will pay off in the long run. As your airline grows, you’ll purchase airports further and further apart and faster planes with longer ranges to connect them. In turn, you’ll need to concentrate on higher tier airports that can support those planes.

There are plenty of achievements to pursue, unlockable items to collect, upgrades to pay for and cosmetic changes to tinker with. As for social elements, there’s both a step forward and a step back from Tiny Tower. The ability to view your friends’ efforts has been lost, but in its place there’s a chance to cooperate as part of a “Flight Crew” sharing a hashtag to achieve particular tasks in-game and win bux and special aircraft. It’s a little less personal, but it offers new content every few days, and novelty in a game like this is an important feature.

Pocket Planes isn’t perfect: it’s still a little buggy, with a tendency to quit quite often and an odd Flight Crew glitch that delivered me way more bux than I’d actually earned. The Flight Crew mechanic is also somewhat compromised by the fact that the #toucharcafde hashtag is by far the biggest anywhere. Still, Nimblebit will undoubtedly patch the game until it works smoothly, and for a free offering, there’s a huge amount of content in here. Whether I’ll follow it as far as I did with Tiny Tower, a game that burned out my obsessive-compulsive habit, I’m not sure. However, Pocket Planes is a far superior game to its predecessor and well worth trying out just to see if it suits you.

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Bags of Memories

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Shattered in Salt Lake City: Near the end of its journey…

On my travels around the Northern Hemisphere last autumn, I had the benefit of three faithful companions: three bags that between them carried all my gear. They were on their last legs even then – their ratty appearance, I suspect, had something to do with the fact that I didn’t once face anyone trying to steal from me – and now the last of them has been replaced. Seems like a good time to reflect on them.

The biggest of them, pictured above, was a mid-sized rucksack. It was also the oldest, originally purchased for a skiing trip when I was around sixteen, meaning that it was with me for something close to twenty years. Too unwieldy for short trips, it accompanied me whenever I was going somewhere for a week or more, meaning that it was with me on my most memorable journeys. Its waterproof inner coating was already coming off in sheets at the start of my round-the-world trip, and by the end one of its shoulder straps was hanging on by a thread. However, it went out in a blaze of glory, from Irkutsk to Vladivostok and on to Walden Pond.

My sports/shoulder bag, a black Nike sack, wasn’t quite as old – I bought it around the time I started college – but it was a far more regular companion, seeing use day in and day out for much more than a decade. Quite how it survived all the wear and tear, I don’t know, but it wore down slowly rather than gave way suddenly, and I used it long after it had ceased to look respectable. A hole in a side pocket led to a few lost coins and the right shoulder strap was more of a string by the end, but it was still useful right up until the end. Much less of a traveller than the rucksack, it proved a much more convenient store for everything I didn’t like letting out of arm’s reach as I headed in search of the rising sun.

The smallest of the three bags was a washbag. When I got it, I don’t remember, but I do remember how: it had lain unused in my parents’ house and I nabbed it for a trip somewhere. Ever since then, it accompanied me on every journey, long or short, full of all the toiletries that kids don’t seem to need but adults do. Nothing more than a pouch with a zip and some internal pockets, it was replaced yesterday by a bigger, fussier-looking alternative, which currently sits half-empty in a bigger bag, ready for a trip home.

Three bags, long-used and redolent with memories. All gone now. That’s the way of things. We can hang onto items longer than we should, spurning better alternatives because of the memories that they accrue over years of use. Not the best of ideas. I’m a partial fan of the idea of a de-cluttered life, but my main argument in favour of letting things go is that separating the memories from the things is a good step. Learning to let go of things takes you halfway to allowing your memories to release their hold on you.

My kingdom for a laptop, but which one?

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The Retina Laptop: shiny takes a quantum leap.

So Apple revealed the long-awaited upgrades to their laptop line at their WWDC last week. As someone who’s been using their products for years, and for whom a new laptop is rapidly becoming more of a necessity than an option, I was keen to see what they might provide. And amidst all the glitz and sheen, I got plenty of information on what my next laptop might be, but also the one after that.

I’ve had my eye on the MacBook Air ever since its first revision made it a compelling option rather than an overpriced status symbol. The 11-inch version is eminently portable, and all it seems to lack over its 13-inch brother are an SD-card slot, a slightly faster processor, and better battery life. All things that are desirable but not must-haves. The new MacBook Airs are faster than before, now come with USB 3.0 ports and improved video cameras and are just as sleek as ever.

However, the MacBook Pros also got their due upgrades, also with faster processors. Shiny and sleek though they may be, they lack something in the portability department when compared with the MacBook Airs, but make up for it in terms of connectivity and storage. Hard drives are still streets ahead of solid-state storage in terms of capacity. The 15-inch Pro is out of my price range, but the 13-inch would be a very fitting replacement for my 5-year-old MacBook.

And just to delve into the future, Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a sleek replacement for the 17-inch MacBook Pro as an Apple status symbol, ditching the DVD drive in favour of wireless connectivity and a gorgeous screen. It is, undoubtedly, the future of Apple’s laptop line, in the same way as the MacBook Airs were when they arrived. A few years down the line, this is the path that Apple and the rest of the industry are going to follow. However, if its non-Retina 15-inch brother is out of my price range, this slice of things to come isn’t every within view.

So which to go for? The 13-inch MacBook Pro seems the more professional option, with everything I might need to actually work on it and more screen real estate than my other preferred option, the 11-inch Air. Except that their screens are pretty much equal in terms of resolution, and the Air is far more convenient to carry around. Add a DVI connector to the purchase so I can use an external monitor and even that advantage slides away, leaving only speed and storage. Speed isn’t something I need to worry about much – I don’t play games on my laptop, and both machines use the same Intel graphics anyway. As for storage, I’ve been coping with a 130GB hard drive on my old laptop for years. A 256GB solid state drive would be a massive leap in terms of both capacity and speed.

So I guess I’m opting for the 11-inch Air, tempted though I was by other options. Dock it at home for professional work and take it on the move for whatever else I might use it for (including work). All the while, I’ll be casting eyes at the Retina display and dreaming of future machines…

Prometheus: A Return to a Different World

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You just know this won’t end well…

Ridley Scott’s reputation as a director was built on two science fiction classics: Alien and Blade Runner. The most recent phase of his career began with a Hollywood blockbuster: Gladiator. With Prometheus, he makes a long-awaited return to science fiction, and all three of the above-mentioned films inform what he’s created with his latest offering.

Spoilers Below – I went into the film knowing as little as I could about it. That may have informed my reaction somewhat.

Continue reading Prometheus: A Return to a Different World

April and May Book Reviews

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A small slice of bookshelf…

Two months worth of book reviews in one post – I fell behind in my reading in April and only caught up last month. Still, what I did read I mostly enjoyed.

April

Strip Jack, Ian Rankin: An early tale of Rankin’s dour, dogged detective John Rebus, Strip Jack rings with authenticity as it depicts Rebus’s Edinburgh haunts, but in having its central mystery revolve around the doings of that city’s upper crust, it loses a lot of its weight. The central crime is appropriately twisty, but it never feels quite dark enough, and Rebus’s own troubled personal life has at least as much heft. The sharpness of the writing, especially Rankin’s ear for dialogue and the cutting line, as well as the fully-drawn character of Rebus himself, still make this a more than rewarding read.

A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs: One of the founding texts of the now mostly defunct space romance genre, this is an old-style adventure that barrels along at a furious pace, never afraid to stoop to contrivance or convenience in its efforts to get to the next cliffhanger or climax. John Carter is an able and sympathetic romantic hero, marooned on Mars/Barsoom by a mechanism that amounts to authorial handwaving but swiftly adapting to his new surroundings with a verve that a modern reader might decry as wish-fulfillment if it weren’t all so much fun. You’d have to be hard-hearted indeed not to get caught up in Burroughs’ planetary adventure, with its barbarians, princesses, ancient cultures and strange mysteries, and when you reach the end of the breathless ride, you might just find yourself eager for another.

May

The Black Book, Ian Rankin: Following on from Strip Jack, Detective Inspector John Rebus returns with an altogether darker and more satisfying dive into the grimy criminal underworld of Edinburgh. Not only is Rebus himself at his dogged, incisive best, but his supporting cast stand up well to him and the array of ne’er-do-wells he navigates in chasing down the leads in a long-cold murder case are colourfully drawn. Few characters get out without some blood on their hands, and none of them (with the exception of Rebus himself) come across as being guaranteed to make it to the final page.

Mortal Causes, Ian Rankin: The blood and grim purpose of the conflict in Northern Ireland intrudes into the Edinburgh of John Rebus, further darkening an already bleak depiction of the city. A little of Rebus’s own past is also revealed, suggesting some of the demons that haunt him, and he remains a thoroughly flawed protagonist, yet admirable in his unstated insistence on pursuing the unjust into whatever corners they have chosen to hide. Rebus’s world is further deepened by the use of threads from previous novels, and the cast surrounding him are almost as well written as he himself is.

Winter King, Thomas Penn: The repressive, paranoid reign of the first of the Tudor kings, Henry VII, is depicted in epic detail, from his early years in exile to the chaotic scenes that accompanied his death. As much a portrayal of the kingdom Henry created as of the man himself, it’s a fascinating retelling of his efforts to bind together a kingdom and pass it on to his son in the face of rebellion, conspiracy and personal tragedy. With a cast of hundreds, it can sometimes prove tricky to keep track of all the players in this game of court intrigue, but for anyone with an interest in English history, this is a must.

The History of England Volume 1: Foundation, Peter Ackroyd: Speaking of English history, this is an entry in the “magnum opus” corner of the history section of the library, as Ackroyd attempts to chart the history of the English nation from the earliest settlers onwards. It’s a tale full of digressions, and Ackroyd regularly gives his writerly side free rein to express itself as he picks his way through the bones of England’s past, unearthing odd gems and revealing rarely seen sides of otherwise familiar stories. His habits of passing judgement on everything he sees and ending nearly every section with an enigmatic hint or a witty bon mot get somewhat repetitive, but there’s plenty of information in here to keep a reader fascinated.