Final Fantasy XV: A charming catastrophe

None of the systems that Final Fantasy XV throws at you really work on their own. The fast travel system is not fast at all. The combat can be anything from confusing to floaty, from frustrating to disappointingly easy. The world that’s presented, a melange of present-day hyperrealism, sci-fi and fantasy, shouldn’t work at all. Leveling up can only be done while resting, magic spells need to be constructed from scratch before use and the controls and camera are sometimes terrible, sometimes passable. You’d think this game would be a huge disappointment, but strangely, it develops a rough charm that’s impossible to pin on any one thing.

TLDR: 7/10. Problematic but weirdly enthralling. Read on for the details. Minimal spoilers (character names and backstory) ahead.

Continue reading “Final Fantasy XV: A charming catastrophe”

Do you have a minute to talk about our lord and savior, Zen buddhism?

I’m (re)reading a lot of Brad Warner’s books during these holidays. If you ever feel like learning about no-bullshit hardcore Zen buddhism from a punk bass player and ordained Zen master (who hates that term), I can recommend: Sit Down and Shut Up, Don’t Be a Jerk and It Came From Beyond Zen, in that order. You can also try Hardcore Zen, the original work

Brad explains Zen itself and Eihei Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō in plain English so you don’t have to spend 30 years studying classical Japanese. Dōgen was about 800 years ahead of his time, so reading him now is excellent timing

The books are short and if they pique your interest, you can always follow up with the very compact, unrelenting and and intense Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel M. Ingram.

Brad’s stuff is at http://hardcorezen.info/store, Daniel’s book is free at http://integrateddaniel.info/book/ and I’m just a fan and not affiliated with either person.

Build your own Spotify-like music streaming solution using mpd

Since I distrust centralized services such as Spotify that can delete content you love at any time they like, I’ve always bought my own music and have a huge collection. But there’s no denying that streaming music to any device or location is a useful feature. You still don’t need Spotify for that, thanks to the FOSS community you can build your own Spotify-like streaming system, and this guide shows one combination of software to accomplish this.

The goal: Stream your music collection from your own PC (or NAS or whatever storage you have) to any web browser, mobile phone and desktop clients.

The method: A little Linux magic involving the following components:

Continue reading “Build your own Spotify-like music streaming solution using mpd”

A game that needs a remake: inFamous 2

Oh, the PS3. A problematic console from the start, with its strange Cell processor and its status somewhere between home entertainment system and games console. I suspect it only succeeded because of Sony’s muscle at the time, having emerged from the last console wars as a winner.

Screenshot of inFamous 2 courtesy of Hooked Gamers

But this isn’t about the PS3, or only insofar as inFamous 2 is one of the titles that really, really taxes the system, and is a PS3 exclusive. Here’s inFamous 2 in a few paragraphs, maybe enough of them stick for you that you’ll give this game a chance:

The synopsis is this: You’re a freak who gets electricity-based superpowers, but now you can’t drive a car anymore and water kills you. Make sense so far? But you gotta save the world from the The Beast that approaches the Floridaesque or New Orleansy coastal city of New Marais.

Writing, characters, story

There is excellent writing (for an action game) with solid characterization and great voice work. The lead character, Cole, is interesting because the voice actor (Eric Ladin) does this gruff-sexy-action-hero type of gravely monotone, but he puts just the right amount of emotional nuance into it to make it interesting. The lines he gets are often surprisingly human. These people talk just like people! The game won’t bore you with ages of exposition, each dialog is just the minimal amount of information to move the story forward, delivered in short well-written bursts.

Graphics and sound

You’ll find breathtaking environments. Think Zelda: Breath of the Wild invented the scenic third-person game? Think again. inFamous 2 has beautiful vistas by the truckload. Particularly the skyboxes are astonishing — depending on the mood they want to create, they either look like something from a comic book or something from an apocalyptic classical painting.

This is one of the large non-boss enemies you’ll face

Lighting is carefully chosen in general, with the whole scene bathed in a bluish twilight here or a dark orange sunset glow there. The architecture also deserves to be mentioned. It’s as if the developers had worked with an architect and a city planner to lay out the areas. Wood shacks and half-collapsed brick houses in Flood Town, colonial redbrick and a huge cathedral in the main part of town, an industrial wasteland full of gas tanks, train tracks and repair warehouses in the, err, industrial part. It all looks believable and organic.

Textures deserve to be mentioned as well, as I haven’t seen many PS3 games with such varied and careful texture work. Bricks and rocks have a palpable rough feel to them, colors in the main part of town are chosen carefully to be muted so that the many neon signs and lights pop out. Scenes with water feel glistening and wet.

Gameplay

This sequel has much more accessible gameplay than inFamous 1. That alone sets it apart enough for me. You unlock superpowers at just the right rate, and you feel like a badass as you climb through the cityscape or grind on a powerline. There aren’t any of those annoying tutorial levels like in inFamous 1, so in case you’re worrying about that, worry not.

You’ll be facing hundreds of normal, smaller enemies that each use different tactics, and usually the AI is good enough to make things interesting. You rarely feel totally overpowered, so you can rarely just stop thinking. Sometimes the AI gets stuck in corners, especially if you are very far away, but that’s fine. Most of your powers don’t have enough range to hit then anyway, and when you move closer the AI wakes from its daze and joins the fight again.

The few battles with extremely large enemies are all the better for it. Usually you fight enemies roughly your size or twice that. But there are occasions where you need to take on much larger beasts. Those truly shine because they are the exception. You’ll remember these enemies and fights precisely because you didn’t get inundated with sixty bosses already.

The only major criticism I could lob at the game is the framerate. It’s uneven, staring at the sky might get you around 60 fps, but actually playing in the streets hovers around 25 to 30, and battles can go down to the low 20s. They did a fantastic job adapting the controls so that you can win the fights anyway, even when the framerate tanks. But it’s just not beautiful anymore in the age of rock-solid 60 fps like the Nintendo Switch delivers for many games. This game needs a remake. Anyone listening? Screw The Last of Us, inFamous 2 is a fantastic action romp and it needs to be 1080p60 for fuck’s sake.

Festival of Blood: Electric Vampires

If you haven’t had enough of inFamous 2, there is a standalone side-game in the form of inFamous: Festival of Blood that uses the same locations but that lets you be an electrified vampire during a Mardi Gras-ish festival, hunting Bloody Mary, a vampire that terrorizes town. Yes, the cocktail was named after her in this universe, not the other way round.

The writing is once again spot-on, especially Bloody Mary’s diary segments. They’re delivered in her lofty English sing-song and written in the style of Gothic horror novels, always with a fun twist at the end.

You can mingle with townsfolk, but some of them might be hidden vampires you need to stake

Technically the game isn’t different from inFamous 2, but the colors are all changed (much more red) and the atmosphere in the street is very different with hundreds of festivalgoers wearing neon glow-in-the-dark bracelets.

Gameplay is changed from the base inFamous 2 by the addition of vampire powers (vampire sense lets you see into people and whether they are hidden vampires, bat flight turns you into a flock of bat, biting people and sucking their blood refills your bat flight energy, etc.).

The only criticism here is that environments are reused quite often, with one section of catacombs underneath the cathedral serving as location for at least three quests. But this is forgivable.

Final thoughts

Oh, the PS3. It’s getting old now. This is an advantage for you, in case no remake is coming. If you don’t have a PS3, you can get one now for 50 bucks of whatever currency, and inFamous 2 in a digital sale often dips below 10 and includes Festival of Blood. Physical, you might be able to score a used copy for 5.

Also, if you have a beefy PC, keep an eye out for RPCS3. This PS3 emulator has been making great strides, and you can rip games yourself quite easily. It doesn’t really run the inFamous games yet, though. Maybe if RPCS3 becomes optimized enough, we won’t need a remake anymore. A very, very fast PC can potentially play this game at a solid 30 or 60 fps, as there is no frame limiter in the engine.

Here’s a full playthrough with major spoilers if you want to see what the game is like:

Rating: Electric Wizard/10.

Play The Saboteur instead of Wolfenstein II

If you enjoy Nazi-stomping you’ve probably heard of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. They did have a pretty funny marketing campaign, after all. Now according to the reviews I’ve seen so far, it’s a mixed bag. It’s the Doom engine meets the previous Wolfenstein’s setting. Something we’ve more or less seen before, just with better graphics. Not that terribly exciting on a conceptual level, is it?

This section of Paris will turn from black, white and red to color once you get rid of the Nazis

But there’s one game about taking out Nazis that is unique and was overlooked when it came out in 2009: The Saboteur. I’ll leave it to you to find in-depth reviews, but here are some of the things you can do:

Continue reading “Play The Saboteur instead of Wolfenstein II”

Google shutting down XMPP interoperability is a sad sign of the age of communication silos

Update: With XMPP slowly dying (at least IMHO), maybe you should consider Matrix instead of XMPP and ignore everything I write below.

Google just shut down the last piece of Google Talk, killing XMPP. This means that people using standards-based open and interoperable chat systems can no longer talk to their friends who use Google’s proprietary and closed chat system, Hangouts. For example, people who use Pidgin on any of the thousands of free and open XMPP servers in the world cannot message Google users anymore.

Instead of working towards standardization, making sure that all chat systems from all vendors can talk to each other, each large company now has their own communications silo. Skype is not compatible with Hangouts is not compatible with Apple FaceTime is not compatible with WeChat is not compatible with WhatsApp. Even though all these systems perform mostly the same function, have roughly the same features and could be built using open, mutually compatible standards. Could even be built from the same source code.

But Google, Microsoft and Facebook make more money by preventing you from talking to your friends on other systems. They want to analyze both parts of a conversation, they want to control the sender and the receiver and read all the content. This is harder to do when you have a standardized, federated system, and even harder in the case of XMPP where users can employ message encryption with just a few clicks. Encryption that is not controlled by Microsoft or Facebook but by the users themselves.

What can you do against this?

  • Geting an XMPP JID would be the first step. You can register for an account on any public XMPP server (sometimes called Jabber servers, but Jabber is now a closed product by Cisco, adding insult to injury, while the XMPP standard remains open).
  • Then get an XMPP client, for example Pidgin for the desktop and Conversations for Android. Set up your account and log in. People can now invite you to their XMPP contacts and you can start chatting.
  • If you want message encryption, make sure to enable OTR. There are many tutorials on this, I’ll just link to a random one I found.

What if you don’t do this? Then we’ll end up in a world with more communication silos, where people find it harder and harder to talk to each other, and huge multinational companies with bad privacy policies will control and record more of our communication. Because these closed platforms create inconvenience for anyone not inside those closed platforms, peer pressure will then pull everyone towards such closed platforms, until a dangerous oligopoly emerges. This latest move by Google is one more step in this direction.

I’ll leave you with a link to a relevant XKCD comic.

Fix crackling audio in some games in WINE

Some games happen to have wonderful audio (and music), like Wolfenstein: The New Order. Some games happen not to be available natively for Linux, like… err… also Wolfenstein: The New Order. So we play them with WINE, and sometimes there are slight audio issues.

But have no fear: If you get audio crackling in such games (especially if your audio device is not running at 44.1 KHz), the following environment variable might fix it for you like it did for me:

PULSE_LATENCY_MSEC=60

You can either start WINE in a terminal with this env var prepended:

PULSE_LATENCY_MSEC=60 wine Steam.exe

or if you’re using PlayOnLinux:

PULSE_LATENCY_MSEC=60 playonlinux

Or you can export it in your ~/.profile file if you want it to be set for all your applications (don’t forget to completely log out and back in, since .profile is read only once per session):

export PULSE_LATENCY_MSEC=60

Does this work for you? It works for me. I can’t remember where I found it first, but it’s a hint that’s been passed along, so pass it along I shall.

May the Flying Spaghetti Monster extend its noodly appendage to guide the hands of Lennart Poettering so that such issues become a thing of the past (if indeed Pulseaudio is to blame, but we always blame Pulseaudio, so we shall blame it one more time).

Now to enjoy the screams of expiring Nazi cyborgs in ultimate smoothness.

Microsoft's Cortana spies on everyone except school children

It appears that Microsoft decided that its voice-controlled assistant can no longer be disabled in Windows 10 after the upcoming Anniversary Update. So they can now be listening in on everything someone says in a household. Is this immoral? Microsoft probably doesn’t think so. But then you discover that Microsoft also decided that school children will not be spied on (so that would be immoral?)

A hardware killswitch is probably the only way you can make sure Cortana doesn’t hear you, but some manufacturers don’t supply those anymore.

Microsoft is not alone in wanting to listen in on your bedroom performance, Google also sneakily placed a recording system on all computers running an up-to-date version of Chrome. They even managed to infiltrate the free software base of Chrome, Chromium. So do Chrome users on Windows 10 now have two spies in their home? Seems that way.

US English language in Debian with proper weekdays and numbers

Our friends over there in the US like to have their own measurement systems, and they don’t stop there. They also like to start the week on Sundays. I hear this has religious reasons.

This leads to problems when you generally want to set up your Debian systems with plain old English (US) locales but need proper measurement units in your programs. One of the solutions here is the magical file /etc/default/locale. Here’s a screenshot of what amazing feats this can accomplish:

Screenshot_2016-07-15_12-39-44.png

My weeks start on Monday (as they should!) and I get European paper formats, Swiss date and time formats, but still have my precious English error messages. No one wants German nerdspeak, it’s gibberish! “Sendewarteschlangenlänge”? What does that even mean?

The beauty of the locale system is that you can mix and match any of these. You can have Portuguese weekdays with English error messages, Swedish currency and US paper formats.

First you have to generate all the locales you’d like to use (as root):

dpkg-reconfigure locales

Then just put whatever combination you like in /etc/default/locales and log out and back in again. Here’s an example:

LANG=en_US.UTF-8
LC_NUMERIC=de_CH.UTF-8
LC_TIME=de_CH.UTF-8
LC_COLLATE=de_CH.UTF-8
LC_MONETARY=de_CH.UTF-8
LC_PAPER=de_CH.UTF-8
LC_MEASUREMENT=de_CH.UTF-8
LC_ADDRESS=de_CH.UTF-8
LANGUAGE="en_US:en"

The system gets US English spelling and language, but the rest is in German (Switzerland). So we Swiss Franc as currency, ‘ as a thousands separator, etc. And this works both in pure console sessions and in most desktop environments.

Be careful, though. Some desktop environments (like Plasma) allow you to override these settings in your desktop session.

Ungoogling has reached the mainstream

I’m very happy that ungoogling (removing all your data from Google services and hosting it yourself, using services that respect your privacy) has now reached the mainstream. I did my ungoogling some years ago and it’s been great, even though Google still has its fist up my anus since I use Android.

There is one project that explictly lists ungoogling as its goal, Cozy. They raised over €5 million in the last few months and it looks like they’re well on their way of reaching their goals. I didn’t look at the architecture in detail so I don’t know if they have some security innovations, but if it’s innovative security you’re looking for in addition to easy hosting, there is already Sandstorm.

Both also offer (free) hosting if you don’t want to host yourself. For some, this could be the right choice, for others it might defeat the purpose.

There are of course other hurdles to overcome in the future. It would be nice if every human could have their own little box of storage connected at home, always reachable, making their own data available securely and only to those humans that this human authorizes. We’re still some distance from that goal, but people are working on it.

There will be a time when it’s you who is in control of your data. Not some corporation.