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Shiny Happy Knightly People

June 14, 2014 Leave a comment

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What does it take to make a game? Not all that much, it seems. Take a rhythm action section, consisting of eight taps on a screen, then add a few seconds of drag-to-target and voila! You have new free-to-play offering Rival Knights (Gameloft, iOS and Android).

Oh, all right, there’s a bit more to it than that. This game of jousting knights is deepened by an item (mail, helm, lance and steed) collecting element that improves your abilities, and it’s polished by some fine design, graphics, audio and physics. The latter element is particularly satisfying, as a successful strike sends your opponent ragdolling through the air.

Still, the core of the gameplay comes down to the joust itself, and given that each joust lasts around ten seconds or so and will be repeated many, many times by a player seeking to advance through the single- or multiplayer modes, it has to be refined to a high degree. Luckily, it is. While the mechanics can be made more difficult by the wrong equipment, they provide satisfying rewards for increasing expertise.

That equipment affects the three measures that decide who wins a joust. Armour is largely decided by mail and helm, though it, along with the other measures, can be boosted by a critical hit. Speed is based on your horse and modified through the rhythm-action segment. Attack Strength is based on your horse and modified by your accuracy in the targeting segment. Win two out of three and you win the lot.

Being a free-to-play game, players can spend some money to purchase in-game cash or the game’s premium currency: gems. Gems allow you to buy special equipment to get a head start in both game modes, though you can play with the standard items without feeling short-changed. You can also use gems to reset the timers that control how often you can play, though they fill quickly enough on their own. If you’re trying to hit the top of the daily leaderboards in the multiplayer mode, though, spending gems gained either in-game or through purchases might sound appealing.

So we have some simple, yet rewarding, game mechanics at play and a relatively nonintrusive payment system. What really sets Rival Knights apart is the amount of detail and polish Gameloft has lavished on it. The graphics are top-notch, and though there’s only one jousting field, differing times of day and weather conditions (none of which have any effect on the gameplay) boost variety.

Even more variety comes through the equally attractive equipment you can collect, which extends to designing your knight’s coat of arms. I’m getting into the third of five tiers of the single-player game and there are still plenty of opportunities to mix and match equipment to find a successful blend of armour, speed and attack strength. Even lower-tier equipment remains useful in the multiplayer mode.

Still, it’s not a terribly deep game, just a fun one. The multiplayer mode relies mostly on daily leaderboard challenges, with an asynchronous knock-out competition offering some secondary fun. It’s a bit loose and while it offers rewards to dedicated players, it’s not as big a draw as the single-player mode yet. Worse, the networking behind the multiplayer is pretty flaky at the moment. While this will probably be smoothed out soon, it’s annoying right now.

The only real worry I have with regard to the game is the impact of all that shiny graphical wonder on my iPhone’s battery. Sure, it looks beautiful on an iPhone 5S, but the way the phone heats up proves just how hard its graphics chip is being pushed. As a result, playing regularly through the day is going to burn through your charge. So while you might enjoy the life of a knight on the tourney circuit, it’s best not to stray too far from a plug socket while you do so.

Beauty, not Brains?

August 22, 2013 3 comments

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Hairy arm: model’s own.

Pebble Smartwatch, $150, iOS and Android

As people smarter than myself have already pointed out, taking part in a Kickstarter funding campaign is like buying a present for your future self: by the time it arrives, you’ll have forgotten that you paid for it, and be pleasantly surprised that it showed up at all. That and the feeling of actually participating in a product rather than just buying it are all the reasons you need to know why Kickstarter is still huge.

To date, I’ve participated in five Kickstarter campaigns, mostly for small amounts. In each case, it was clear that I’d be waiting a long time for the results, something I didn’t mind at all. Well, in recent months my currently impoverished self has been reaping the benefits of my affluent former self, in that two of the results have shown up (in one form or another).

My biggest Kickstarter contribution to date was for one of the site’s most famous campaigns: the Pebble ePaper watch. A customisable bluetooth watch for Android and iOS phones, the Pebble raised $10,000,000 through Kickstarter, far above an original funding goal of $100,000. Due to the fact that I opted for a grey watchface rather than black, red or white, mine took a little longer to arrive than it might have otherwise, but a few weeks ago I wrested it from the hands of Irish customs and onto my wrist.

For the first wave in a new breed of smartwatches (Kickstarter is already hosting its more ambitious next-gen brethren), the Pebble has a definite retro, plastic feel to it. Which is not to say it’s not solid: the plastic case keeps it watertight while allowing charging through a USB lead and keeps the body light despite the its bulk.

The ePaper screen is basic but readable, with a motion-activated backlight, and can be modified with a multitude of watchfaces. Figuring out how to do so can be a bit of a chore: the online setup process is straighforward enough, but for more expansive options, you’ll need to use your phone’s web browser and the app that manages the Pebble itself.

In use, the Pebble is a handy accessory. I often don’t hear my phone when it’s in my pocket, but I can feel the Pebble’s vibration on my wrist without a problem, alerting me to calls, texts and mails. I can even read the mails and texts, or at least the first few lines of the mails, on the Pebble’s screen, though this only works in the moment—there’s no way to browse older messages.

At the time of buying the Pebble, my main reason was to have it as a running accessory. I’d just started recording my running with RunKeeper, and the idea of having a watch that would tell me my pace and distance covered sounded pretty good. Well, mission accomplished on that front: the Pebble keeps updated throughout a run

There are only three issues with the Pebble, all of them technology based. The first is that it drops the bluetooth connection occasionally. This is an issue because the Pebble isn’t a smartwatch. It’s a terminal for your smartphone, and lacking the connection, it can tell you the time in various pretty ways but not much else (there are game apps for the Pebble, but the chunky buttons don’t allow for sensitive control).

The second issue is battery life. I’ve averaged around five days so far, which isn’t too bad for a bluetooth device, but the phone software doesn’t do a great job of indicating when you need to recharge, so there have been a couple of times when I’ve looked at my wrist and found a blank screen looking at me. Annoying, but some of those multitude of watchfaces promise to fix that issue.

The last issue is probably the biggest one for Pebble: this is a first-generation device, cute and functional, but staring down the barrel of technological innovation. As stated, Kickstarter is already hosting second-generation devices, and Apple and Samsung look set to enter the space before long, bringing all their engineering know-how to the field. When that happens, Pebble’s retro looks may become all-too apt.

For now though, I’m wearing a watch for the first time in a couple of years, and I’m more than happy with the present my former self bought me. Runkeeper functionality, message and call alerts and a variety of funky watchfaces. It may not be smart, but it sure is handy.

A Game of Words

July 16, 2013 Leave a comment

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Early days on the French language tree.

Duolingo (iOS and Android, Free)

My several years of iPhone experience have seen me fall prey to a number of apps. Addiction to horticultural zombie escapades, miniaturised high-rise management and Indiana Jones-style sprinting have all proved fun, but I wouldn’t have called them beneficial. Well, now I may have found an app that is both addictive and good for me.

Duolingo is a language-learning app, based on the web site of the same name. The concept behind the service is a simple one: crowdsourcing humanity’s efforts to learn new languages by getting them to translate web content. Because the learners are providing a service, the learning experience is free.

Of course, having a free service doesn’t mean much if the experience is no good. Luckily, Duolingo’s app doesn’t fall down on that score. It sports a clean, colourful design that’s both welcoming and easy to understand. Each language is presented as a tree of connected lessons that users progress through at their preferred pace, from basic comprehension to complex concepts.

Lessons consist of 20 exercises, each taking no more than a few seconds to complete, with four or more lessons grouped into themed nodes (food, animals, adjectives, etc.) on the learning tree. As a barely competent reader of French, the early lessons in that language were a useful refresher for me, but if I’d wanted to jump ahead, each node offers the chance to “test out” and complete the whole thing in one short lesson.

Gamification elements are put to good use here: users get three hearts per lesson, so they can make three errors before a fourth requires them to start over. Completing a lesson earns a users points and builds their in-app vocabulary, and the number of consecutive days they’ve been playing is recorded. The intelligence behind the app seems well tuned thus far, and will point out certain errors, like misplaced accents, but not penalise users for them.

One of the big problems with learning a language (and maintaining that knowledge) is the issue of practice. Duolingo covers this too. First by offering users the chance to strengthen the skills they’ve already earned and second by providing a leaderboard so they can compare their acheivements with their friends. I can’t speak to the success of the latter as yet, but it’s another example of game mechanics intruding beneficially into the non-game world.

The Duolingo app is comprehensive in its treatment of the five languages it covers (French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian) and demonstrates a wealth of thoughtful touches in its design. One feature I’d love to see is a searchable vocabulary of words in each language, but as a relatively new app, there’s bound to be more to come from this initiative.