Sunday, March 19, 2017

Watch Review : Orient Mako II

Today (2017-03-19) I’m going to wax lyrical over my recently acquired divers watch – the Orient Mako II. I will cut to the chase immediately to say that I like it a lot, and think that for the money it is an absolutely fantastic watch, but it also has quite a few niggles that make it less than perfect. Could you live with these? There is quite a lot to say, so get comfortable and let’s begin at the beginning. First, have a good look at it.

 

Face

I think the best place to start here is at the face of the watch. This will also help explain how I decided on this model over the Orient Ray II which I was also considering. The first thing you notice about this watch when you see it, is that it is a very nice dark blue, both the bezel and face. It does come in black, but I really like the blue. The unidirectional rotating bezel is a matt blue, while the face is more reflective and has an eye-catching “sunburst” effect which makes it simultaneously lighter and darker than the bezel. You will find yourself rotating your arm slightly when reading the watch just to see this wonderful sunburst effect move around. It is, in short, beautiful – and I don’t use that word lightly. If you don’t like the blue sunburst effect on the face then I think this is not the watch for you. It really is one of the main features and to my eye is extremely well executed.

The edge of the face has a subtle beveled edge for the minute tick marks, with a slightly heavier tick for the 5 minute (or hour) mark. This is a nice touch – it makes the face less plain with this added topography and the face seem well integrated with the rest of the watch. It does however make the face seem a fraction smaller than it actually is.

Sitting just proud of the face on the chapter ring are the applied indicators. These are painted with white lume, which is a nice green in darkness. I will get into the lume later, but for now, just note that everything that is white on the face also glows green in the dark. If this was not enough, the markers are framed in silver, giving them a very refined look. The 12, 6 and 9 hour markers have the numeric indices, while the other hours (except 3 o’clock) are generous baton styles with a subtle sword tip pointing to the center of the watch. The typeface used for the numerical values is sans-serif and looks modern and pleasing. It does not quite match the typeface on the bezel, but it is close enough that it is not jarring.

At the 3 o’clock position is the day, date window. This is, like the indices and hands, framed in silver and adds to the consistent and refined look. The day/date text is black on white background, with the SUN only being red on white. There is a second language too for the date my model – I don’t use it and I think it is French, I can’t recall.  You can probably ignore this, as I do, but for some it may be a feature.

Next on the tour of the face is the Orient logo and text. The logo is a small but very precisely done crest, with a tiny splash of red to highlight the shield. Under this in all-caps is the makers name, ORIENT. Just below this is the word “Automatic” in small script. Just above the 6 is the text “Water Resist” (again, in script) then “200m”. All of this text is center justified and appears to my eye to be very neat, symmetrical and balanced. I have read of some people who dislike the choice of using a script font on the face – I do not share that view, I think it is appropriate and I like it. It is small but precise, and does not get in the way of reading the time on the watch.

Now to the hands – which as I have mentioned are sword shaped, with white lume filling and silver border. To clarify : when I say silver, I really mean a reflective chrome like look, I’m not actually suggesting they are made of silver. Anyway, the hands are well proportioned and are easy to read. The size difference between the minute and hour hand is something I think some watches get wrong, but not in this case. The second hand is thin with a red tip, complementing the logo. This splash of color and movement adds to the visual interest of the watch face, and again is very well done. A minor issue with it though is that there is no lume on the second hand, so there is no way to see the seconds in the dark.

Overall then, the face is … really very nice. It looks classy, without being overly fussy. I know that this is absolutely a point of opinion, so you may not agree, but it really ticks all the boxes for me in terms of what I am looking for in a watch face. I like the mixed numeric/bar markers for the hours as it strikes a great balance between clutter and legibility.

I can’t help but compare it to my other main watch, the Victorinox Swiss Army Officers Automatic (Model 241591) which has all numeric hour markers, even the 3 o’clock with the day/date window. The Victorinox has a slightly larger face so can pull it off, and the legibility is perfect as a consequence. However, the Mako is a very close second to this. With the numeric every 3 hours (the date window substituting for the 3), the hour hand will never be far from one, so working out the hour is very easy at any time. There is no 24-hour sub dial on the Mako II, and I actually like that as I don't use 24 hour time markers and can do it in my head (just add 12) in the rare times I need it.

It is probably worth pausing here and noting that this is the primary reason why I chose the Mako II over the Ray II. The Ray II has an all-pip hour face, which is very common with dive watches, I’d even say the most common face design. The classics all have them, from the Seikos all the way up to things like the Rolex submariner. It is a matter of taste, I repeat, but I like having some numeric hour markers on the face of my watch instead. It simply helps me read the time quickly and accurately, at the expense perhaps of some simplified all-pip style.If you don't agree with this, then the Ray II may be more your cup of tea. It has some other differences to the Mako II, such as the bezel font and strap design, so take that into consideration. I don't own a Ray II, so I can't really comment further on it.

 

Glass

To see this wonderful face you have to look through the glass, so I will talk about that next. The watch has a solid caseback, so there is no glass back there. The glass is where some things go a bit wrong with the watch, and there is evidence of some corner cutting, literally. Firstly, this is not sapphire crystal, which is the gold standard for good watch-face glass, instead it is a mineral crystal. Although this is better than normal window pane glass it is still capable of being scratched. It is flat and has no date magnification bubbles, so it is not particularly at risk of this. I would say that if you hit this watch on a brick wall or something you are most likely to catch the bezel rather than the glass but still, I would have liked it to be the better sapphire. One reason to not include this is that it would increase the price, so that has to be taking into consideration. I have not had my watch all that long, so it is without scratches at the moment, we will see how long that lasts. I am intending for this to be a weekend “beater” so it will not get any special treatment. I will update this review if/when it gets its first scratch.

The other things I have noted about this glass is that it seems to attract grease, and be quite reflective. If there is an anti-reflective coating on the glass it does not seem to be particularly effective. I find myself cleaning the glass more often than my other watches so that I can get a good view of the wonderful face it has.

Another subtle thing about the glass, and I will stop short of calling this a fault as I note that even Rolex’s have this, is that the join between the glass and the bezel is not flush, and has triangular shaped grove. In other words, the glass has a small beveled cut-edge which is most noticeable when looking at the watch on the side – you don’t really see it when looking dead on and probably won’t see it in any pictures of the watch. But when looking at an angle, it catches light and features on the face and gives visual anomalies at the glass edge, reflections of the indices and the like. If find this slightly distracting and annoying, but that is mostly because I am very fussy about these sort of things. You may notice this in practice if you are trying to track the exact seconds by looking at the tip of the second hand and the outer edge of the face. One other disadvantage of this is that lint and dirt may collect over time in this groove. I would therefor think it would have been better if the glass was cut square and be completely flush with the bezel. There may be a reason for it that I am not aware of though – such as it helps with greater pressures.

Edit 2017-04-21 
I wanted to update this section with an update on the glass durability. I have been wearing the watch pretty much non-stop for over a month and noticed last night a hairline scratch on the face near the 12 position. It looks like there is a small hair permanently stuck to the glass, and with my nail I can feel it too. So that is somewhat disappointing. For comparison, I have worn my other sapphire glass watches for longer, and they have not scratched at all.

 

Bezel

So, the glass has one or two issues, notably where it meets the bezel. This also has a number of good, bad and ugly features. I will start with the good. It has a very pleasing shape which will not catch on things and gives a nice almost rounded profile to the watch edge. It is not very tall, which has some drawbacks in terms of gaining purchase to turn the bezel (more on that in a minute) but from a stylistic perspective is very nice indeed. The ring is made from three main components, an outer knurled steel frame, and inset blue metal minute marker and the lume pip in the zero mark. All of these are executed in an understated and very neat way. There are minute marks up to 10, after that there are numerals every 10 minutes and a bar every 5 in between. A subtle design element is that at these 5 minute bars the steel outer ring has a ever-so-slightly larger knurl which I imagine helps grip the inner ring in place. The font is small, inverted (silver on blue) and very legible without overpowering the face.

The bezel has 120 clicks (I have not counted them, I will trust the specs on this one!) and this is where some trouble starts. There is no give, back or forward, up or down. The issue is that it is overly stiff to turn. So bad, that some reviewer have gone so far as to say it is basically not possible to do it while on your wrist. I would not go that far myself, but out of the box if you do not get some fingernails well connected to the gnarling groves around the edge at several points, you are not going to get very far. To be honest, people don’t use this feature very often (a friend of mine has had a divers watch for years and had no idea how to even use the feature – the most concise explanation comes from Google : “To use a dive bezel, set the zero marker opposite the minute hand; as time passes, you can read off elapsed time on the bezel without having to do any mental calculations.”). However, I would counter that excuse with this : what makes a divers watch a divers watch is largely this feature, and it really should work as advertised. Moreover, a “diver” would have a wet-suit on and might not have fantastic grip with gloves and the likes. It is important that it is not too loose that it moves on its own, or shakes about on the face, but being too far in the other direction is an issue too.

I have actually attempted to solve this problem myself, to some success. I simply put some grease around the bezel where it contacts the case and pushed it in the gap a bit while turning it around. It has improved things a bit, but it is not exactly night and day so I’m not sure I would recommend this for everyone. This may also give me long term problems, like trapping grime under the ring that might otherwise not be stuck. All I know is that I can now turn it fairly easily when on my wrist with just my thumbnail in one grove, and one other finger on the opposite side for stability. Before I needed about three fingers worth of grip to move it, and even then I sometimes slipped of and damaged a nail.

Over time this may wear in and become slightly looser, I’m not sure. However, I don’t think a lot of people would get there as it comes. It is a genuine problem.

Edit 2017-04-21
After reading more online about the "Stiff bezel" problem, I decided to take mine off. To do this, I put two fingernails into the gap under the bezel at the 7-8pm position, and gently pried upwards. After not much time, it popped off. I was careful to mark the position of the metal insert before it came out, as it can go in tow ways (at 180 degrees) and only one way makes the 12 align correctly (so, actually 6pm does not). I half-heartedly bent the clip and applied a lot more grease and put it back together. Now it is quite smooth but still a little stiff to get going but better than how it shipped. As long as I get a nail in the knurling around the edge, I can now set it when on my wrist fairly easily. If this was stopping you from buying this watch, I don't think it should. 


Crown & Crown guards

The crown is signed with a fairly faint laser etch, is nicely gnarled and has very nice crown guards. To get the 200m depth rating, I believe the screw down crown is needed. This is actually the first watch I own that has this feature, so it is new to me. To do this it is simplest to take the watch off, then wind it counter clockwise. Once unscrewed you can hand wind the watch by turning it clockwise, or by pushing the crown back in towards the case screw it back on. This seems to be an interesting design choice as it means the watch is winding a little when you are screwing the crown back on. If you pull the crown out one stop you can adjust the day/date. If you pull it out once more the second hand stops (ie it’s hacking) and you can set the time. It all works pretty well as you would imagine it would, and it all feels pretty good to me. It can be a bit tricky to screw the crown back on, but it goes there without too much fuss once you get the hang of it. Actually, I have found some people who have threaded the crown and have had a lot of issue with it - see here.

 

Case / Caseback

The case is all polished steel, and smoothed out pretty much everywhere. The crown guards are very nicely done. I like thin watches, and I am reasonably pleased with this one but at 13mm it is clearly the thickest watch I own. But for a divers watch, this is actually pretty thin, and part of this thickness comes from a bulge in the caseback which goes into your flesh so it wears like a thinner watch.

The caseback is solid and screwdown with a simple etched logo and details. It is nothing particularly special to look at, and that’s fine with me as I rarely do look at the back of a watch. Display cases are nice, but only if they have a nice movement to show off, and this one is fairly utilitarian from what I understand.

 

Movement

The movement is an in-house Cal. F6922 Automatic, with a claimed 40h power reserve. My example seems pretty accurate, perhaps more so than Victorinox but I have not accurately measured it. One thing you are not going to see on a spec sheet are things like the noise the movement makes when it is ticking, or when automatically winding, and some are a lot noisier than others. The heartbeat of this watch is faint and pleasant, if a little tinny sounding. There is no noticeable noise from the automatic movement when it is winding itself – it does not rattle or make much sound when moving your arm around. Perhaps just a little, but certainly not in an annoying way. In summary, the movement seems fine to me, but I’m not really a movement snob so your standards may be significantly different to mine.

 

Band

When I first got my Seiko 5 watch, I was very disappointed with the band it shipped with. While it certainly looks good in pictures, in real life it was very loose, rattly and cheesy. In other words, for some less expensive watches this is an area where costs are cut, sometimes fairly dramatically. One tell is to look at the side of the links – sometimes they are folded over metal with little finishing. In the Seiko 5 case, this made the watch almost unwearable, as it pinched my hair and made a clinking and rattle every time I moved my arm : I hated it immediately.

Fortunately the Mako 2 is not like that! The 22mm lugs are a good standard and it tapers a little but still looks strong and neat. The square inverted Y shaped links are solid on both sides and the side. It does not have solid end-links, which I know bothers some people but not really me. The Y shaped links are solid, an slight improvement would be if they were also articulated but really they are fine. They are nicely put together, so that there is just the right amount of give without being rattly loose. The test is to hold the watch by the case and let the band hang loose, then move it from side to side.
Next is the clasp, and there is a fair bit to get through here. It is a foldover clasp with an extra safety clasp. To release, you have to lift the safety clasp out of the way then press both buttons on either side of the clasp. The clasp has 3 micro-adjustments which I think is a fantastic feature. You get the links removed until the watch is just loose on your wrist, then use the micro-adjustments to make it a perfect fit. For a divers watch, conspicuous in its absence is the divers extension. I doubt I would ever use one, I have been diving in my life and it was great, but I am no longer an active diver. The clasp is signed with a logo and the word ORIENT, in quite a well done way – I can’t quite tell if this is stamped or laser etched.

I have a few problems with the clasp though. Firstly I feel like the security clasp should be sprung so that when open it stays out of the way. As it is, it swings loose and can get in the way of the clasp when you are trying to close it. The bigger problem though is with the sharpness of a number of the edges. The corners of the clasp are quite sharp, and where it folds over with the security latch it protrudes in such a way that it could definitely hook onto things. In practice, I have felt this when driving and moving my arms fast around the wheel – I have felt the sharpness of these edges as my wrists went near each other at speed. In terms of ergonomics, it is a bit of a mis-step. The whole clasp is reasonably thick so extended time at my keyboard for a gaming session makes me take it off as it will annoy my wrist after a time of resting on it on a tabletop.

 

Lume

The lume on this watch is very good. All of the white elements on the face of the watch, and the zero pip on the bezel will glow green in the dark. Of course, this needs a “charge” of strong light to really work, and the effect wears off fairly quickly. If you want better than this, really you are after a watch with Tritium lume, which is effectively self powered for about 20 years.

I have noticed the lume when coming in from outdoors on a sunny day into a darker house. There is a noticeable green glow to the face. I would say the lume on this watch is at least as good as average, if not slightly better.

Edit 2017-04-21
I woke up last night at 2am and could read the time on the watch easily, without any special "charging" before going to sleep. I was impressed by this. I'd say the lume is pretty good! 

Price/performance

One thing I want to mention is the price of the unit. At the time of writing this is about $180 USD and for what you get, that is very good value. Actually, I can compare it favorably in many ways to watches MANY time as expensive. This watch hits far above its weight and certainly does not look or feel like a sub $200 watch.

 

Summary

I really like my Mako II watch. It is not perfect, but the things it gets wrong I can live with. The things that it does get right, it really gets them very right. It is attractive, comfortable and reliable. It suits the role as an everyday watch, and can be used in a variety of settings but to me this is a quintessential “jeans watch”. Go to the beach with it, have a holiday with it, have fun with it and don’t worry too much about it.

Pros

  • Stunning sunburst blue dial, looks amazing in sunlight
  • Very legible overall
  • Astoundingly good value for money
  • Very well built
  • Very comfortable to wear for the most part

Cons

  • Not sapphire crystal glass, and is a reflective smudge magnet
  • Very stiff bezel
  • Clasp has no divers extension, and some fairly sharp edges/catches.
  • Crown can be tricky to screw back in

Advertising

My very first post on this blog was about no advertising. However, I’m going to make an exception here and provide a link to this watch on Amazon. If you like the idea of this watch, and want to purchase one, you can support me by clicking this link. Of course, it is entirely up to you! You may need to turn off adblock on this page to see the link below.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Best Games of 2016

Hello again, it has been a while! So, I have been thinking about this post for a few weeks now. I know this will be a long entry as I have quite a bit to say about it. So get comfy, because this might take a while. Spoiler : for me it has been a fantastic year of gaming, the best in years. Speaking of which, if you are interested, see my past entries on this subject for 2015, 2014, 2013 or even get in the way-back-machine to 2012.

This year I have fairly seriously played, in one way or another, a game for much of the year. I have put in hundreds and hundreds of hours, which is in some ways shameful. I game about as much as some people watch TV, or perhaps read, so I see that as my outlet. Anyway, in order of playing this year we have (with the hours played in brackets, as of writing) --

  • Fortresscraft Evolved (367)
  • The Witcher III : Wild Hunt (163)
  • 7 Days to Die (86)
  • Stardew Valley (82)
  • Sheltered (26)
To be fair, about half of the Fortresscraft Evolved (FCE for short) hours were from last year, and a small amount may be AFK. Even still, that adds up to  717 hours, or if you break that down to 8 hour days a whopping 90 days - 3 months. Considering I have a full time job and a family that is a fairly impressive total. So what are these games, and why are they any good? Read on...

Fortresscraft Evolved.
Really, I just kept on playing this from the end of 2015 into 2016. Thinking back on this the more detailed story is that a new patch came out, which it does fairly regularly as the developer is active and very good, so I started yet another new world. Armed with the knowledge of what NOT to do, and what TO do, I set about making the "perfect base", or at least a close proximity to it. From start, there are a lot of stages to go through, and some people may see this as "grind", while others see it as "game". Your mileage may vary, but I think this is an important point. Please see last years entry on this, as I have gone into more details as to why this game is so good - and why it won 2015 for me.

One point I want to take a moment to explain is that FCE is now really two games, with the "Frozen Factory" DLC expansion being the second half. To continue to talk about this game I am going to stray into minor spoiler territory, so only read on if you don't mind this...

* Minor spoilers ahead *

Once your base gets beyond the basics your "threat level" will rise enough that your base will start to be attacked. Defending against those attacks effectively and later dealing with the source of the attacks becomes the main focus of the game. Of course, having all your ores efficiently being mined and processed helps support this, so that needs to be well sorted too. This involves mineshafts and probably beaming cutter heads to your ore extractors. Anyway, once you have dealt with this part of the game (and it is somewhat optional as you can farm mobs in an ongoing way if you wish) you can then disassemble much of the base in preparation for the FF expansion. There is a side-project of setting up a resin farm that is pretty much mandatory, and even doing this fairly early is advisable. And this is pretty much where I stopped, on the doorstep of the FF expansion.

* Spoilers end *

So, for me, I played the vanilla game in all its glory, but stopped at going headlong into the FF expansion. Why? Well, partly I was wary of the time commitment needed, and it did kind of seem like "more of the same". I watched a few youtube let's-plays of this to get a sense of the tactics I would need to do it right the first time, and it exposed to me that the balance of this part of the game was not quite right and probably too grindy. Also, by this stage I was starting to feel like a change, and a Steam sale convinced me to put FCE on hold for now and move on to the next game....

The Witcher III : Wild Hunt

I am late to the party on this one, I know. Most gamers know and love this game, and I discovered for myself why this year. I will say that I am generally not a fan of third person perspective games, my preference is first person but W3 won me over on this pretty quickly due to the mostly excellent implementation. It seemed that I could experience more of the world this way, at the slight expense of not being as immersive from the characters perspective of events. I was controlling Geralt, rather than being him, is perhaps how I should put it.

But wow, what a game. It has a fairly slow start which is partly tutorial and I appreciated this as a newbie, but experience player may be slightly impatient with this bit. Once you get into the open world and start exploring the map and mechanics you get a sense of the vast living world with a deep interesting story. Chapters of the game are sometimes as good as whole other games all in themselves, and I remember the "Bloody Baron" part of the game as being one of the few moments in any game that actually made me feel genuine emotions for the virtual characters. Reading and listening to the dialogue was not a chore to get through in the way of the action, it was something to pay attention to and even relish. The addictive nature of finding useful loot to make your character more powerful is a well worn formula, but it works here as well as anywhere.

What perhaps makes no sense to anyone will be that I still have not finished the game. I almost have, I feel like I am close, but I suppose I don't know for sure until it actually happens and I very much am avoiding all spoilers to this one. I got to this point and suddenly stopped, and I know this is odd, considering what I am about to say next.

This is without doubt one of the best games I have ever played. There is a great attention to detail, and the mechanics are quite refined. If I was to level one problem with this game, and it is the same for Skyrim or any of this type, it is simply the replay-ability factor, which is fairly low. There are some potential branches in story line, but a lot of it would be repeated a second time around unless you purposefully tried a different play style. Overall I was having a blast with this, and my character was getting pretty darn powerful to the point of being OP for most monsters. In fact the issue of it being "too easy" (and let me be clear, this was after 163 hours of play) is what drew me into the next game, which I was just going to play for a little bit and then get back to Witcher, but has not happened yet.

7 Days to Die

I like survival games, and in a lot of ways, the harder the better. 7 Days is first person experience, which as I have already said above, I find more immersive and is my preference. The early game is brutal and unforgiving. My first few games ended in a critical failure of some kind. In one I simply didn't find good shelter in time. In another they broke into the house I was staying in and I got overrun. In the next I was doing well until I accidentally drank dirty water instead of the clean one in my backpack (they kind of look similar) and got diarrhea and was then unable to run more than a few steps without getting exhausted. However, with each attempt I got a bit smarter about how I was doing things, what stuff was good and worth finding and keeping and how to defend myself. I did also adjust the settings to make it slightly easier - no mobs running at night, show airdrops on the map, slightly longer day - that sort of thing, to match my skill. There is a narrow band of punishment that provides reward when you overcome it, but too much punishment and you are simply overwhelmed and disheartened. It is important to be able to scale the difficulty to get in that reward zone, and I think the developers have done a fairly good job with that.

Speaking of the developers, let me talk about this as compared to Witcher that game is definitely a "work in progress". Not that I hit any show-stopping bugs, but more that the feature set is still being developed. I have been playing Alpha 15, and watching the dev (Fun Pimps, a great name) youtube channel the next version will have new features that will effectively make it a different game to play. For example, in Alpha 15 the houses and other buildings start off empty, all the zombies are outside (but can come inside). In Alpha 16 there will be zombies asleep in bedrooms and other parts of the house - making close encounters a real possibility when trying to seek refuge. This will change the risk/reward equation of searching through a house quite different. It will also mean you can't alway use a ranged attack. Often in the start of a game you will find a house that you want to make your base, even if temporary, and you are possibly just hanging onto life. Having an infested house may be the last straw in this case, I don't know, but I feel it will up the tension levels even further.

7 Days is unique in all the games I have ever played in that it has produced real fight-or-flight responses in me as a player. I have had the hairs on my arms stand on end. I have yelped as a zombie has managed to come up behind me. My heart has actually raced when I get trapped or in a panic about being overwhelmed. It can be pretty intense, particularly if you are role playing, and even simple mistakes or lapses of concentration can be gruesomely punishing.

After a few goes though, you get the hang of it a bit and surviving is something you can more or less do. Then you notice the days counter at the top, and learn that on every multiple of 7 there is a zombie hoard that comes for you, and you can't really hide from them (and thus the name of the game). So building a base for this event becomes a focus for your activity. You skill up, you find weapons, you plan a base that will protect you while you can still attack them. It gets you thinking and planning, because if you don't get it right they will tear you to shreds. Will you survive? Have you done enough? Will the defenses hold? There are choices here too, and elements of luck, which makes for a rich game play experience.

I stopped playing this for two reasons. The first is that I got a bit of adrenaline overload, and wanted to have a less intense experience where every second didn't count. Also, I have been reading about Alpha 16 and the great changes for that version so I wanted to do it all again in a new random map (which is what I play) when this is released. The world generation looks like it is significantly better with township zones, new traps, better buildings and designs, and improved AI. This is really shaping up to be one hell of a game and one of my all time favorites, I am a big, big fan. Open world, crafting, survival, zombie killing - it sounds like minecraft in some ways, but the emphasis is completely different : in this game you are normally scared and slightly panicking about running out of time, or at least, you should be. Finding good loot might be the difference between surviving or not.

Stardew Valley

If there is a linear scale of stress, then Stardew Valley is on the other end to Seven Days. You inherit a run down farm in a small town and spend your days (quite short days actually, only 13.5 minutes each) being a farmer in this small community. There are four seasons of 28 days each. There are 5 main skills to master, and it takes quite some time to do this - farming, mining, fishing, foraging and combat. Combat? That sounds aggressive doesn't it? Well.. . not really, in the mines there are some things there that are more pests than anything, no hair raising experiences here. It is all very tame, cute and relaxing. However, there is still a game to be had here, and lots to do if you want to get your farm in top shape. I don't want to spoil it by mentioning more of the plot, but there are areas of the game that only unlock past a certain point, and some new parts of the map become open to you. Finding these quirky parts of the game are partly what keeps you playing, along with a sense of completion (eg. I want to catch every type of fish!).

Sometimes a little help goes a long way with this game, and I have hit the wiki a few times. It is very good, so I'd suggest bookmarking it if you start playing this. I use it mostly to find out what each of the villagers likes the best for presents as this isn't obvious otherwise. You don't want to miss their birthdays.

Looking at this game and 7 Days, I have played about the same time in each. Thinking about which game I am more likely to keep playing for longer my bet is on 7 Days. By the 80 hour mark you will probably have done most of what both games have to offer and the shine wears off a bit. Stardew Valley is a great ride though, and well worth the asking price, and good for all ages. It is a low-res game, but cute and your imagination fills in the rest. There are some jokes in there too, as well as some mystical lore to make it more interesting. It really is a "Feel good" experience, no matter how you play it and that alone makes this a special game. The music is good too.

Sheltered

And just when I thought I was already overloaded with games for the year, one more sneaked in before it ended : Sheltered. This is a 2D only game centered around a small family that finds itself in a run down fallout shelter. It is very similar in play style to the game Fallout Shelter by Bethesda, but I think it is better. This is yet another Alpha game that is being developed and although great fun, I think the difficulty balance is not quite right yet - it is a bit too hard at the start and too easy at the end. The next version is going to have more difficulty options, so this should address this problem and make for a more challenging game.

It is fun, but ultimately limited by the play style options you have. There is more or less only one optimal way of playing this, and you are likely to have that technique at the start.

I would say that this is definitely a game to keep your eye on, as it may well develop into a real classic. It is playable now, and likely to get better with time, there is a lot of potential there and the developers seem responsive and keen.

And the winner is...

Like I said, this was a stellar year for gaming, a real standout for me. My steam account still has games queued up to play, but I have been entertained all year without touching them. Looking at the 5 games above though, which one is the "best"? Well, it is clearly a tough choice. When I was playing it, Witcher III was amazing in the same grand scale as Skyrim.  If you had asked me then, I would have said that it was my game of the year and nothing was likely to beat it. But then I started playing 7 Days, and because of the genuine physical responses this game gave me, and it's stellar potential for replayability, it surprised me by being even better. So the winner is : Seven Days to Die. Highly recommended from me if you are over, say 13, but it is probably too scary for anyone younger. For those young ones, go for Stardew Valley instead.

I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts on games of the year. If you agree or disagree, or otherwise want to add anything, please feel free to comment!


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Best Games of 2015


I am a little early this year, but what the hell, I think I can call it already. Yes, it is time for the highly anticipated "Best games of the Year" post. For a quick recap, feel free to look at the previous years winners and discussion, as I have been doing this for a while now.

2014
2013
2012

Best PC Game 2015 : Fortresscraft Evolved






I'm getting right down to it here, with no suspense. "FCE" for those in the know, could be considered a minecraft clone, at least, that is what I first thought when I purchased it in early access. But really, it is quite a different game to Minecraft, although I think it is every bit as good.

The game is in very active development, and so may in fact change a lot (and get better, or possibly worse). I think so far though the game has improved dramatically with each version, and is a whole lot of fun. The survival has a very fine "just one more thing" level of play which can see you playing for a lot longer than you might have imagined.  

After 150+ hours playing I think I can say : this is a great game! I am a veteran of Minecraft, FTB, MITE and various other custom maps and challenges particularly in survival mode. FCE is similar, but different, to all of these and is centered around your base. You get most of the tools you need from the beginning, and from there it is up to you to build your base around the ore you find, and to automate it. Automation is really cool - you can do things the hard way, yourself, or build a conveyor belt and laser power and it does it all for you! You can just stand there and watch it go, and I often do! After a while you will have to deal with mobs too, so base defenses come into play. There is a tech-tree for you to discover which unlocks a lot more of the game, and the "limits" are not what you are used to - there is no bedrock, you can just keep going and going. Super-dig and build-to-me features are "wow" as is the x-ray vision mode, grappling hook and jetpack.

You might think that after all those hours I have done everything there is to do in this game. Well, I have played out a few worlds but no, I still have plenty of things I want to try.

If you loved Minecraft, but are a little over it and want something similar with a fresh spin, this game may well scratch that itch. 


Runner Up 2015 : Fallout 4





For many gamers, this will be their game of the year, and I think well deserved. I am playing it actively now and after almost 120 hours I still feel like I have only just scratched the surface of what it has to offer. It has some new and interesting mechanics over the previous fallout games, as well as some carry over things. It is somewhat of a mixed bag, as I will explain, but mostly it is great.

I will say that one issue with Fallout is that you might, like I did, be inclined to upgrade your gaming rig just to play this game. For me, this involved a new power supply and video card. For my son, he got a PS4 to upgrade from his PS3, to play this and other games. So this game might be a negative in that it is likely to cost you more than just the sticker price of the game itself!

Without turning this into a full review of the game, or somehow giving out spoilers, I want to say that every gamer should play this game. When Bethesda release a game, and it does not happen that often, it should be a serious contender for purchase even if you only buy one game a year. The other franchise they have is the Elder Scrolls, which with Skyrim shows you the quality of their work. There are similarities in the way these games play too. Only read on further if you don't mind minor spoilers!!!

Anyway, some of the new things that Fallout 4 brings to the table are a junk -> crafting system which enables you to use crap you find to upgrade your weapons, armor and base. This is a system I like as it rewards the slower player who explores all the maps and collects things - which is how I play. If you are a twitchy run-and-gun then you would probably find this boring/unnecessary. I am constantly getting to a full inventory, but with the power armor, as well as the armor "pocket" upgrades, you can still carry a bunch of stuff.

Then there is a the whole base-building mechanism that is new. This allows you to scrap in-world objects for resources and instantly build new things, such as buildings, furniture, defenses. It is a whole optional mini-game in itself really.  In practice, you need to do this to build up settlements. Is Fallout trying to be, gasp, some sort of Minecraft clone too? Well, I don't think so, but it is a step in the direction of world building / crafting in the Fallout world, rather than just killing everything in sight. It took a while to get the SPECIAL points in Charisma enough to get the "local leader" perk to fully use this mechanism, and I am still working out how it all works. Overall though, I like it and it enables you to become more of a community builder rather than just a lone gunman. Not everyone will groove to this though.






Not played, but possibly very good : Witcher III
I just wanted to mention that this game looks good to me, but I have not played it so I can't really comment.

Best iOS Game : None!
I really have not been taken by any game in particular this year on the iPhone. PvZ v1 is still a go-to game if I have 10 minutes to kill. Note that the original PAID version does not work well on the latest iOS or larger screens sizes BUT the PvZ "free" version DOES work perfectly.  Put up with the ads, or pay the fee, and play it with this app. I played once through again just to get access to the "It's raining seeds" minigame which is my clear favorite.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Best Albums of all time

Best Albums of all time? All time?? Really, am I going to do this? It seems so!

Music is a wonderful thing to have in your life. It can energize you when you are feeling low, calm you when you feel tense, make you feel happy when you might feel down. As we go through life our musical tastes can change and broaden, well, that is certainly what happened in my case.

To make it on this list these albums all have some things in common. The first is that I am happy, delighted even, to listen to them at any time. I also like to listen to the whole album, not just a song or two. They have stood the test of time too, these are not things that have been out a few weeks, many are decades old.

Clearly this is my list, and come from my tastes and experiences. You may or may not like any of these, however, I will say, if you have not HEARD these albums I think you owe it to yourself to check them out. They are all excellent. I would also recommend headphones to really hear them properly - many have strong stereo effects that are lost otherwise.

There are a couple of genres you will NOT find here - Country and Western or Heavy Metal for example. If that is your thing, more power to you, but I've never gotten into it. However, there is a fairly large mix of stuff here, let the journey begin!

 

Best Albums of All time


If I was stuck on a desert island with only this music to listen to, I'd still be a happy man.

Roxy Music - Avalon

This is probably my favorite album of all time. Do I like everything Roxy Music made? Absolutely not. But they really nailed this one. It is a calm, dreamy album that I listen to when I want to chill out. It makes me feel good, and it is a great album to put on when preparing a meal, reading, or just sitting around talking with friends. It takes you somewhere else too if you let it, some faraway place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St Germain - Tourist

This is a more up-beat album, although I am not certain what genre I would end up putting it into. Modern Jazz maybe? Most of St Germain stuff is pretty good, they have other albums worth checking out too, but I think this is the best. You might hear this in a hip cafe or background to a casual dinner party or something like that. That might put you off - don't be - it is one of the great albums of all time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tom Middleton - Lifetracks

I discovered this only a few years ago, but it has become a staple when driving or again, just chilling out at home. This album does not have a single harsh note in it, but yet gets up a pace in places and also has a decent base note at times. It is an instrumental, no singing in this. But it is all very gentle and agreeable, and I have listened to this one over and over and I still love it. This is soul food, it can heal and calm you.



Simple Minds - New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) 

One of the artists that resonated with me as a teen was Simple Minds. I have seen them in concert, and for a time they we almost as big as U2. A minor criticism would be that some of the lyrics are hard to understand because of the accent Jim Kerr has, but you just have to go with it.

INXS - Shabooh Shoobah

This is almost certainly the most commercial album here, and you probably know it, depending on your age, or at least some of the songs. I find that it is an exquisitely balanced 80's rock album. There is not a dud song in the bunch, and Michael Hutchence (RIP) has a unique voice which is flexible and allows for a lot of passion to come through, like some people think of Mick Jagger (who I don't like in particular). There is some great guitar work, and the base is always keeps you toe tapping. This is from 1982, but I think it still sounds fresh.

Christopher Lawrence - Rise

This is a cat amongst the pigeons! A dance trance album in the top of all time? Well, when I want a great rhythmic beat to get energized from, but don't want to go all the way to Deadmau5 or one of the Ministry of Sound compilations, I often turn to Christopher Lawrence. He has some really good other albums too - Around the World, United States of Trance are both good. Actually, I have a recording called "Live at the WEMF 2000" which is my all time fav of his, but it not a real album as far as I can tell. If you want to disconnect your consciousness and drift along to an melodic, ever changing sound - this is the one. On the face of it you might think this is repetitive, but I can assure you that it has complexity and depth to rival the best.

John Dowland - Complete Lute Works, Vol. 1

OK, well let's slow things down a bit, and wind back the technology and electronic music all the way back to a LUTE. That's right, this is an album of lute music, and it is fantastic. My children have grown up to this as a soundtrack, particularly when they were toddlers and is known as the "quiet music". It is like throwing a warm blanket of calm over the house whenever you put it on, and although it might sound all the same on first listen, after a few you get to know it and understand how brilliant it is. I'm happy to listen to this at any time, if nothing else to re-feel the magical time when my kids were small. There are other volumes actually, but we never got past the first one - don't ask me why, considering we love it so much.



 

 

 

 

 

Honorable Mentions (almost as good)


If I was stuck on the same desert island and had the albums above, I would be glad to have the additional albums below to fill out the styles and add some variety. Depending on my mood, I might have mixed some of these into the top list.

 

 

Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

You could argue that this should be in the top list, and I would have trouble arguing against it. The only reason it isn't, is simply that I find I don't actually listen the album much. Pink Floyd have a lot of great albums (I like Animals, and Wish you were here), and we have seen them in concert, and that was awesome. 

 

Miles Davis - Kind of Blue

If you are going to own just one Jazz album in your entire collection, this is the one to get.  It is from all the way back in 1959, but boy, what a cracker.

Radiohead - Kid A

This is a great album but the only issue is that it is depressing! It has a lot going for it, much like Pink Floyd "The Wall", but I will only listen to it if I am in the right mood. 

 

 

ABC - Lexicon of Love

This is a new wave album from the 80's, and yeah, is one that probably shows my age a bit. Sorry.

 

 

Icehouse - Primitive Man

Another album from the mighty musical year of 1982. This has an Australian flavour, which is partly why I am fond of it.

 

 

 

 

Monolake - Polygon_Cities

This is very much ambient electronic music.I find that it goes to unexpected places, and I enjoy the sound a lot. This is a fairly recent discovery.

Tosca - Suzuki

This is similar to St Germain in many ways, and almost as good. I've written much of this Blog entry while listening to this, and it just bounces along happily.

 

 

Alan Parsons Project - The best of (vol 1)

What can you say about this? Hmmm. It is a fairly dated sound now, but there is something sing-along about most of the songs, or perhaps whistle along.

 

 

K.D. Lang - Ingenue

I almost didn't include this, but really, it is a standout album.The reason I rank it lower than it perhaps should is simply due to the fact that I don't really like female vocals. But she is an exception, I think. This is quite an emotional album.

 

 

Ferry Corsten - L.E.F

Well, this is a superb dance/electro album, if you are into that sort of thing. Perhaps more commercial than Christopher Lawrence, and with vocals. 

 

 

The B-52's - The B-52's

My lucky last pick, and it is a very weird one really.  This is a mind-expanding experience, and it helps if you are somewhat already in that state when you listen to it. It also reminds me of some old and departed friends, and the wild times we had together.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Best Games of 2014

2014 has now been an gone, and I thought I'd take a minute to announce again my favourite games of the year, like I did in 2013 and previous years. Note that it is "favourite games" and not game, as I will give out the best PC game and best mobile game, even though potentially they could be the same game.

PC Game of the Year - Winner

So, let's get down to business shall we? What is the best game on the PC for 2014? Well, that is easy. For me, this is...

Elite Dangerous! Yay!

I'm a fairly old gamer, as I have said before I think. It is a guilty pleasure of mine that I don't look to be growing out of any time soon. "Gamer for life", that should be on my T-shirt I suppose, or tattoo perhaps! Nah. Anyway, I am actually old enough to have actually played as a young man (boy?) the original Elite on the BBC micro, and I enjoyed it back then too although I recall it being quite hard to dock without crashing and burning. Fast forward from the heady days of 1984 to today, and a lot have changed in the world of computing. Except perhaps my Model-M keyboard, which I am typing on now, but I digress.

Elite is a fascinating game on several levels. One such level is the whole Kickstarter-to-Release development process that Frontier Developments went through. I bought into the Premium Beta phase, where it was not too expensive and it started to actually look like a playable game. I also went out and bought myself, after some quick research, a cheap but cheerful magnet based joystick, the Thrustmaster T.16000M, which I really like using. You really, REALLY need to use a joystick to get the most out of this game, I really would not recommend playing it without one. The Thrustmaster is a fine choice if you don't want to spend too much and don't want to think about it. Otherwise you may want to extend your budget to a full HOTAS system with a joystick for one arm and throttle control for the other. There is a learning curve for your brain on how this all works, but if you start of slowly with the basics it becomes as natural after a while as driving a car.

I am not normally into flight sims, although I have enjoyed some over the years. I am also not really into space sims, and Elite is very much a change of pace from MITE, the ultra-hard Minecraft variant I was playing previously to this. What drew me in initially, apart from nostalgia of the original game, is some of the astronomy aspects. I'm not really into astronomy either, to be up front, although I do think the night sky is something magical and special.

Anyway, the idea that they have integrated as much of known space into the game as they can is a great idea to me. That is, by an large, the stars you can see at night and have been named within our galaxy are likely to be in the game and you can, potentially, travel to any of them. How is that for a sense of unlimited freedom? Although I would stop short of saying that this was educational, I think it does provide a sense of scale to the actual galaxy that we are part of - ie it is huge, mind bogglingly enormous. Even inter-solar system travel at fractions or multiples of the speed of light give you an understanding of these distances. You kind of need to get your head around these things to play the game effectively. And I believe it goes further to even try and simulate the planets and stars themselves to be reasonably accurate in terms of their appearances and specifications. Exploration of new systems provides you with an income, so exploring the far reaches can be a career choice in game, although it is not particularly profitable (ie balanced) at the moment.

Then there is the whole combat thing, which is rather cool. If you grew up in the "Star Wars" generation then at some stage you probably wanted to be in a space fight. This game certainly caters for that need. I sort of suck at combat, but through practice I am getting better. I think I have about 250 NPC kills to my name so far, and I am slowly getting more confident. Other human players are typically a LOT better than the NPC's, so they need to be treated with respect. PVP is a whole other thing which I am not really into, and is quite rare, but can provide some of the most intense gameplay moments there are.

Or you can be a space trucker, and ship goods between systems for profit. In fact, you kind of need to do this to afford most of what the game has to offer, and it encourages you to get out there. Some people see this a s a grind, and like all things, it can be if you are in a certain frame of mind. An alternative to this are missions, which can be picked up at stations and can gain you local reputation.

There is a background story that is slowly developing via the "Galnet" news system visible in each station. This can lead to new trades, or combat zones, or perhaps other things. This is really still on the bleeding edge of the development of the game though, so I think we have only seen a little of what this can offer.

And this needs to be said : at the time of this post the game is still, if we are being honest, being written. It is not perfect, and in some places quite far from it. Some people are disappointed with it, hitting a bug or limitation or under-developed feature and having tantrums about it (aka Rage-quitting). The Elite forum is excellent for the most part, but this is where these player complains are heard. I think there is a higher than usual proportion of older gamers attracted to this game, so often there is reasonable discourse, which is a rarity in many forums. I have at times spent almost as long reading the forums as I have playing the game. One observation is that Frontier Developments appear to be very good developers - responsive, capable and enthusiastic. I have faith in them. The version change logs are often extensive and a joy to read - even if they are somewhat illegible. There are plans to add two major features to the game - planetary landings and the ability to walk around your ship and stations. These will be paid expansions unless you bought into the lifetime expansion pass, which I didn't.

I have at the moment a Cobra and Type-6 ship almost as fully kitted out as you can get. In trading "rare" goods I am able to make close to a million credits in about 1 hour, which is far from the best you can do but it is not too bad. On this basis I can afford to upgrade my ships and save up for some of the more exotic ones. In some ways the game does not scale very well, but in others it is just fine - it is a difficult thing to get perfectly right but I think it is more of less on the right track. The most expensive ship is over 100 million credits, and that is just for the basic hull with a crap loadout - you need to spend half that again probably to get it into a good state.

So, in summary - Elite Dangerous is providing hours of fun and is a game that has massive potential to get better and better as the development continues. It has finally shifted Minecraft away as my go-to game.

And now a quick word on mobile gaming!

Mobile Game of the Year - Runner Up

This game blew my mind, I had really never played anything like it. The game is Monument Valley.


This is simple on the surface, but the puzzles get a little more complex as you go on, and there is a play on perspective that is disarming at times. It looks impossible to solve until you break the normal rules of 3D space. This is the closest thing to playing a game in an M.C Escher world as you can imagine. The game is a real delight to play, the only reason it didn't win is because it is simply too short - the whole thing can be done in a few hours. Worth it though, I even bought the extra levels, and I rarely buy any game add-ons or content.

Mobile Game of the Year - Winner

This is a simple game on the surface, not quite as deep as chess but more than checkers, and with a ancient greek flavour. It is "Hoplight", a funny name, but a great game.






What you see here is the game screen and all the kinds of monsters on it. This is the whole game, really, and it is turn-based so you can take your time to plan your next move or moves. There is a fair amount of strategy, some luck and it is a perfect game to pick up an play for 10 minutes while you are waiting for a bus or an appointment. Check it out, I think it is really good and it will get you thinking. There are plenty of reviews of this around, but this one will give you more of an idea of the gameplay if you want to read more about it.

 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Todo" lists

I fairly often write myself "todo" lists. I will admit that I sometimes write down something I have already done, just for the satisfaction of immediately ticking it off. It is a small guilty pleasure of mine -- I wonder if anyone else does this too...?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Best Games of 2013

Well, it is nearing the end of the year again and I think it might be time to call the best game of 2013. Yes I know 2013 is not over yet, but I think enough of it has passed to make this call.


A year later...

So, what has changed since the best games of 2012?

Not a lot, in my experience. To be fair, I'm not an uber-gamer these days. I play some casual games on my iPhone, and some on my PC to relax. I buy very few games in a year. However, I have been playing games for decades, so I believe I know a good game when I play one.

I still play plants vs zombies on my phone occasionally (10 minutes waits are perfectly filled) using the "It's raining seeds" mini-game or if I only have 5 minutes then I might play the mini-game "Column like you see 'em", which is also fun but I have a fairly strict strategy that almost always wins (Tallnuts in row 2, magnets in row 3 of the initial pot plants from the right. That is, sacrifice the rightmost row of pot plans).

So, what about PvZ 2 then? Is the latest the greatest? Well, I have played it, for a while. It's fun, I guess, but for some reason I'm over the basic mechanics of the game. I'm also not a fan of the balance where you basically have to make micro-payments to stop the game being a huge pain in the butt. I'm old school and don't mind making a one-off payment for a game, but once that has been done, don't ask me to pay again (or a subscription - ugh.). So, PvZ2 is not in the running this year.

The runner up is ...



Last years winner - Minecraft. It is still a great game. Amazing, in fact. And Mojang continue to innovate the game mechanics which, on the whole, improve it and keep it fresh. I don't always agree with the design decisions they make, and there have been changes that have left me a little cold. Now that I have said that, I'm trying to think of an example. Boat navigation controls perhaps, or that annoying brightness shift when you are under cover. Oh, and the whole zombie hoard thing got way out of hand for a bit there. But there have been lots of positive developments too - new biomes and world generation (well, above ground), new materials including colored glass, and many many bug fixes. The performance is now pretty solid so that "seeing through the world" in patches is now pretty much a thing of the past, and the black lighting under overhangs are mostly gone too. It is a game that continues to be refined, and now more than ever you can enjoy the game without bugs ruining the immersion. It is a bit like watching a movie with the projector breaking down or flickering or whatever - this doesn't happen any more and it is a pleasure to watch.

The problem I have in Minecraft is that I feel like I have pretty much done it all now, several times over. My saves folder contains over 100 worlds. I do like the early game, so I will often just create a new character and build up to the point where I have a base with everything and I have been the the Nether and gotten brewing going. I have played custom maps such as skygrid, docm77's world, survival islands, the wool challenge, the hermit challenge (you have just one day above ground then it's underground forever - can you defeat the dragon?). I play on our home server too with family and friends, but I'm not into public servers and things like the Hunger Games variants. Anyway, for the first time I am finding that I am getting bored when playing - I don't really have any ambition to do anything and it seems a little pointless to play more. I am not devaluing the playing I have done - I have enjoyed every hour of it and there have been an extraordinary number of them. The game has been one of the best value investments in terms of entertainment I have ever made, without question. I have tried also Feed the Beast, which adds all manner of new mechanics such as pipes, electricity, quarries, flying, new worlds, hundreds of new items. This makes the game fun for a while in a different way, less survival and more engineering is how I would phrase it. After a while you can more or less stop digging as your machines do all the work, but they need tending in different ways.You are taken back to the point where you do not know the recipe for things or what resources are good for, and this rekindles to the initial thrill of discovering the game. But ultimately FTB is more complicated but not necessarily more satisfying, and I have found myself going back to vanilla survival.

And the winner is ...



Candy Crush Saga. Easily. I play this game on the family ipad, with my daughter sometimes helping me. We are over level 300 now, and have a strict policy of no paid for power ups. There is a new feature of the "daily booster wheel" which is likely to make things much easier for the really hard levels. I know this is just a variant of similar line-'em-up games such as Bejeweled, but it is so well polished and addictive it is unbelievable. There is something very satisfying about finishing a particularly tricky level and have that three star appear. It is a game based on luck, but skill and attention to detail plays a part too. It is a game you can play a little and often, partly limited by the 5 lives you get which can be decimated on something like a timed level.

There have been a few levels that I have almost given up the game on. Level 97 is horrible, for example. There are other levels that look fine, then you have to get 300 red candies or something similarly crazy. Level 70, 147 and 158 were annoying. Level 213 was a complete monster, but they have nerfed it I think since I played it (they removed many of the jellies). Anyway, there are some selected levels that you come across that you may get stuck on for a few days, or even weeks. It is part of it.

Anyway, this game gives me regular pleasure, so it is my top pick for 2013.