Monday, 16 April 2007


I finished 3D Realm’s Prey a couple of days ago. First time I head about Prey was around 1997, back when I was an avid reader of the English version of the PC Gamer magazine. The details seemed so far ahead of anything else that existed back then. Coloured lights, reflections, insane character polygon counts for the time and of course portals. I’ve even downloaded a small video from the Internet (through dial-up!) and gasped at the amazing graphics of the day. I still have that video and I’ve found more, nothing beats some video game nostalgia.

When a friend bought a brand new PC about a month ago and asked for a really good-looking game to test his kit, I did not hesitate to suggest Prey. The new version of course (the old one was discontinued unfortunately and never saw the light of day), which is based on the Doom3 engine. After a while I could not resist the temptation and asked him to give me a copy to play with. I installed it on Girlfriend’s laptop, patched it to the latest version and soon I was good to go.

And now that I’ve finished it, here are my thoughts on this game whose beginnings are more than a decade ago.

The graphics are of course really spectacular. Even on Girlfriend’s laptop which is nothing great the lightning effects are top-notch. The levels are really interesting as well, playing a lot with the notion of what is up and down. Gravity (and its manipulation) are a central part of the game and used creatively to create some really interesting puzzles. It’s also used to enhance the sense of scale in some cases, like when you exit the bad guys’ mothership with a small space shuttle and land on a small asteroid that has its own gravity field. It sometimes becomes disorienting but I count that as a Good Thing™ (Nothing beats the sheer sense of disorientation you get when playing Descent 1 & 2).

Additional tricks are the Portals that act as teleportation devices that also show you where you end up. If you played Quake 3 Arena, you’ll remember in q3dm7 the portal near the rail gun and the quad damage. It looks like that, although it’s more advanced since it’s a two way thing and you can also shoot stuff through it.

The final trick is the notion of Spirit Walking. When your character first dies, you are told that your spirit has the special ability of leaving your body and moving around on its own abiding to slightly different physical laws. This enables you to solve some puzzles like walking through force-fields for example. Another implication is that once you die, your spirit has the chance to return to you body, effectively letting you resurrect from the dead.

Every single time.

And that’s where the problem is. After a while, I found myself not really caring if I died since there’s no real impact on the game apart from a small slow down while I try to resurrect my character. You don’t lose your weapons and there is no limit on how often or how many times you can die. Once you’re dead, you don’t even have to do anything to resurrect, after a while it happens on its own.

While an interesting idea it ends up ruining the game. After a while there’s no real motive to become better at aiming or develop a different strategy because it doesn’t really matter if the bad guys kill you. In the end, you will beat them because they cannot really kill you. It ends up being just an annoyance that slows you down. It feels like having a invincibility cheat turned on permanently.

I also suspect that the designers of the game deliberately tweaked the game mechanics to make you die more. The weapons are not only unoriginal they don’t feel powerful either. You get the standard set of weapons: A melee weapon, a machine-gun type with a scope for long range shots, a grenade type with a sticky mode, a machine-gun with grenade, a shotgun again with a grenade function and a rocket launcher. The only interesting one is a plasma-laser-frozen flamethrower all in one, that accepts 3 different types of ammo, out of which only the laser feels really powerful (but ends up not being one). All the rest are just not powerful enough, they do not carry the actual punch you think they will based on how they look. Why do you give me a rocket launcher if it cannot even kill one of the basic enemies with one shot?

It’s a shame because Prey has a really good story. It might not be the most original one ever but at least it’s told in a really good way. The voice acting is also great. If only for the bad guys that are really stupid and the spirit walking, I could have gotten a much bigger sense of accomplishment when I saw the rolling end credits.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Is iTunes really pointing to Leopard's new UI?

Now that Leopard is officially delayed for autumn, people have started wondering again about its secret features. A popular secret feature rumour is that Leopard will sport a brand new UI style. I've already laid my view on why I believe that we're not going to see drastic changes in Leopard's UI so I won't repeat them here.

I think that the changes will be subtle, in the same spirit of the changes that occurred with OS X's previous updates. What I don't think is that we can use iTunes latest (v7.0) chameleon change as a guide of what's coming as some people have suggested.

iTunes is a strange application. Some claim that it's a programming feat since it's not just a simple application ported between two completely different environments (Windows and OS X). It seems to be carrying over a number of OS X's core technologies to Windows; iTunes store's WebKit presentation engine, QuickTime's full media stack and probably numerous Cocoa components that were torn out of their natural habitat in OS X and made functional in a completely different technical infrastructure. And it does all this while managing to work almost exactly the same between the two platforms.

And look almost exactly the same too. You might complain that there are too many different visual styles in OS X nowadays (Brushed Metal, Unified, Aqua and in some Frankenstein cases a combination of them), but iTunes sits in a realm of its own. The first time I saw it, it seemed to me like the result of a half-finished morphing transition from classic OS X Aqua to classic Windows Luna style.

iTunes is in the difficult position of having to be consistent between two different worlds. One has to look at iTunes under the iPod halo prism. iTunes acts like OS X's ambassador in Windows' land. It has to look new and interesting and full of promises about where it's coming from. On the same time it has to also look and behave somewhat familiar to what the user already knows. And the user already knows how Windows land is. Hence the "half-morphed" UI and the "OK" and "Cancel" buttons in the Preferences window. No other OS X application (iLife or not) looks like iTunes and no other OS X application has confirmation buttons on their preferences windows (correct me if I'm wrong). It's a trade-off of this slightly schizophrenic nature of iTunes' purpose.

What iTunes wants is to make the Windows user interested in OS X land enough so he makes the switch.

Imagine you never had a Mac. You do have an iPod though. And you like it so much how easy it is to work with iTunes that you decide to take the big step and switch. Now, Macs might be easy, but they are different alright. Imagine that iTunes acts like you first friend in this new town called OS X. Among all those new faces and concepts you have a familiar face with known shortcuts (that happen to work in other applications as well).

That's what iTunes is all about, not about testing and previewing new visual styles. Sure, it's about helping you organize your music and managing your iPod and downloading music and videos. In the end though, it's also a promise that where it's coming from there's more of the good stuff.

As for us already in OS X land, well, we'll have to deal with it.

Leopard delay VS iPhone on time

I don't really mind that Leopard is delayed until October. Sure, there was a small "Oh come on..." moment, but at the end of the day I too believe that it's better to delay a bit instead of rushing out a seriously buggy product. I believe that Leopard will indeed be as good and solid as we want it to be.

On the other hand, the phrasing of Apple's statement for the iPhone got me thinking about its progress through the FFC verification.

Somehow I don't really believe the reason behind the extra resources needed (and "borowed" from the Leopard departments) is just that iPhone comes with "the most advanced software ever in a mobile device". January's presentation showed a very functional device. Sure, it wasn't complete, but the telephone functions seemed to be working more than OK.

Something tells me that the FCC required some serious changes be made. Changes require time to be made and deadlines require resources to be allocated. A typical Apple could just delay the iPhone a bit until it implements the required changes, the same way it delays Leopard or other Apple-only products.

iPhone is not Apple-only though. Apple has not only to consider whether or not FFC and itself are satisfied with the quality of iPhone. iPhone has also to be delivered according to the schedule agreed with Cingular (and probably other network companies we don't yet know of. I'm sure Apple is in the talks with European network companies as well). Cingular agreed to offer iPhone and also agreed to make changes to its network to support iPhone's visual voice mail on the premise that it could start selling the thing ASAP. ASAP in this case was agreed to be June.

Apple can afford to delay Leopard. It cannot afford to miss the June deadline for iPhone though because it is partially obliged to Cingular. I'm sure this will bring some bad old memories from the past to Apple when it tried to partner with other companies (licensing its OS in the 90s and the Motorola RAZR joke).