One More Platinum

No posts in a while, sorry about that.

I hit the point in WoW where I was just logging on for the chance to make my numbers slightly bigger, then I resubscribed to FFXIV to prevent my house from being demolished and so I could get caught up on the story before the big digital event they had the other day.  Neither of those seem particularly noteworthy, though I did very much enjoy the way they wrapped up the Shadowbringers storyline.

I did have a Memorable Tank Moment in FFXIV where I queued for one of the 8-man trials, intending to slack off and leave tanking duties to the OTHER tank, and it turned out we were both doing the trial for the first time and that he was even less confident than I was.

We cleared it, anyway, though it wasn’t EXACTLY smooth.

But let’s not talk about that.  Let’s talk about this:

About two weeks ago, I had a nasty health scare.  Fortunately, I managed to get a doctor’s appointment on very short notice and it turned out that it wasn’t actually anything to worry about, but there were a few days where I was, to use the vernacular, freaking out.

When I’m stressed, one of the ways I deal with it is to sit down with one of the Souls games, because the mindset you have to be in for them is one that I find extremely calming.  I’d originally played Dark Souls II back in 2016, then replayed it in the “Scholar of the First Sin” edition on the PS4 in 2017, so it felt like a good one to pull off the figurative shelf and put through its paces again.

Also, I had deliberately chosen NOT to start an NG+ run back in 2017, just in case I ever felt like going back for the remaining trophies, and that’s what I decided to do.

In hindsight, this wasn’t my best plan.  Getting the majority of the remaining trophies was simple enough and just running around and talking to a few NPCs was enough to get me to about the 90% trophy completion rate.

Then came the final four trophies.  The “collect all of the spells in the game” trophies.  The “how hard could they be?” trophies that you don’t realize include needing to kill two of the hardest optional bosses and do a ridiculous amount of grinding for rare drops.

Oh, and you have to play through the game in NG+ mode, 70% harder than the base game which is already plenty nasty, and then play through about half the game again in NG++ which bumps up the difficulty even more.   There’s a workaround for that, I’ll get to it.

It took me just over 39 hours to get these last four trophies.

I would not recommend doing this, except…

See, I don’t really collect platinum trophies except for games I really enjoy.  I figure this is pretty normal.  So, when I look at someone’s PSN profile, I tend to see their platinum collection as being a fairly personal reflection of their likes.

Sometimes these are very confusing.  I have a former boss whose sole platinum trophy is for Assassin’s Creed: Unity.  This is not a particularly quick or easy platinum to collect, so this is someone who decided to put a lot of time into – arguably – the worst modern AC.

As far as I can tell, he is in all other respects a perfectly sane individual.

So, in the extremely unlikely event that anyone cares enough to look at MY profile, I want them to see the Bloodborne, and Nioh, and Dark Souls platinums, and also the Senran Kagura and Love Live platinums, and I want them to go away convinced that two people are sharing the same PSN ID and that both should probably be on a watchlist if they’re not yet.

Anyway.

In addition to the general sense of elation that came with taking out those nasty optional bosses, I had a truly Peak Dark Souls Moment that I wanted to share.  This is where I get to the workaround to playing through half of the game on NG++ that I mentioned before.

There is a door in Dark Souls II that only opens once you have killed four, basically, demigods.  You need to go through this door because it is the only way around an obstacle consisting of a fallen pillar in the middle of a path.

Yes, you need to commit multiple counts of deicide because you can’t step over a rock.  I’m just going to move on without further comment.

If you don’t want to kill all four of these demigods, which involves clearing through all of the stuff BETWEEN you and the demigods, you can simply farm souls until the door decides that you can open it.  This takes three million souls, which is quite a lot if you try to do it by killing random monsters that give anywhere between 500 and 3000 souls per kill.

Alternately, you can clear the path to any one of the four demigods and just fight it over and over again, because THAT nets you at least 300000 souls per win.

Upside: This is much faster.

Downside: Every time you kill a given demigod, it gets harder the next time.  Hits harder, has more health, that sort of thing.  Technically there is a cap, but that cap is quite high – and once you’ve hit that cap, there is very little room for error.

Here is that Peak Dark Souls Moment I mentioned earlier, as a study in four pictures.  Note that my health bar is in the upper-left corner and that the boss health bar is the practially-empty health bar at the bottom of the screen.

Boss is nearly dead.  I’ve even managed to sever its right arm, so most of its attacks at this point consist of it flailing the useless stump vaguely in my direction.

It may be quite difficult to make out as this is a largely-brown boss fought in a largely-brown room and the lighting is rather poor, but you may be able to tell that the nearly-dead boss has raised his LEFT arm threateningly.

I did not notice this in time.

This WOULD have been the final time needing to kill this boss.  I am not ashamed to admit that this did test my calm just a little bit.

So. Between my initial clear of the game and then going back for trophies, I spent nearly a hundred hours at this.  I’m not entirely sure that this was a good use of time, and I have instructed my wife to not let me play any other Souls games until, at the earliest, April.

 

Posted in PS4, Souls | Leave a comment

Densha De Go! Densha De Go! Densha De Go Go Go!

I bought another train game.

Much like the last train game I played – Densha De Go! Pocket Yamanote-Sen – this game is all about driving a commuter train in a big circle around Tokyo, carefully adhering to a timetable and trying not to jostle the passengers too much in the process.  Also you can honk your horn at children waving from overpasses.

If you are not immediately wondering how you can get your own copy, you’re not my kind of people.

Coming from the PSP version, there is obviously a massive graphical jump.  I’m not sure what the resolution is – I’ve seen a fair number of jaggies on my 4k screen – but the lighting effects are pretty sweet.  One thing that does detract somewhat from the experience is that, while I’m pretty sure it’s got all of the buildings you would normally see from the train, it lacks the massive advertisements that would normally be plastered on any available vertical surface.   So it’s not EXACTLY like driving a train through Tokyo but I’ll give it a pass on that.

Also, it makes use of analog controls for acceleration and braking, which has taken a little getting used to.  My co-pilot/tutorial voice chides me frequently for my rough stops.

I’m not very far into playing it at all.  I went through the tutorial a couple of times and then  went into the game’s Free Mode, which allows you to pick a train, departure and arrival stations, time of day, weather and passenger load.

So in this example, I’m going from Hamamatsucho to Akihabara, in the evening, with clear skies and few passengers.

Every time you stop at a station, you get a little replay of your arrival, with notes on how early or late you were and how far off you were from the mark.  I am still getting used to the game again and this atrocious example here is actually one of my better stops.

16 seconds late and nearly a meter off the mark.  I would be walking the tracks and pulling up weeds on my day off if I did this badly as an actual train conductor.

Once you’re done with the chosen route, you get an overall status screen.  In free mode, you don’t also get a grade or any points, it seems mostly just a for-practice mode and I’m not sure you can fail out of it even if you’re doing terribly.

Setting the free mode aside, however, it has both “Arcade” and “Career” modes which I will delve into later.  There’s even a VR Mode where you can look around while driving, and this tempts me mightily. For now, however, I am having a very specific itch scratched.

 

 

Posted in PS4, videogames | 1 Comment

In which, I play more WoW and make a career change.

By career change, I naturally don’t mean in real life.  I continue to earn my paychecks in my role as a random IT grunt.  No, I mean in my current MMO.

See, I enjoy playing healers.  It’s great fun to make the green bars stay mostly green, you usually don’t have to know a lot of complicated mechanics because that is almost always dumped on the shoulders of the damage dealing classes, and you’re in high demand.

Except.  In the current WoW expansion, I have the misfortune of playing a healing class that is pretty good in PvP situations but which is considered the bottom of the bottom tier as far as the raid and grouping meta goes.

And the WoW community is pretty prone to slavishly following the meta, even if they don’t always know why.

The result has been that I have found myself to be somewhat… lacking in demand.  And a healer who can’t find groups doesn’t have green bars to fill.

On the other hand, switching from a healing Paladin to a TANKING paladin only took swapping out a couple of pieces of gear and watching about eight hours of videos on How To Tank WoW Dungeons.  That is more hours than I typically devote to studying serious real-life stuff, and I am not blind to how silly that is.

Plus I changed my look to something more EDGY and TANKY to befit my new role.

Real tanks wear super emo armor.

Now that I’ve done that, and tanked my way through all of the dungeons in the Shadowlands expansion on Normal mode, and repeated it on Heroic mode, and AGAIN on “Mythic” dungeon mode… I have started running dungeons on the “Mythic Plus” modes, which are just harder and harder versions of the highest difficulty dungeons, but with better loot and with a completion timer ticking away while you try to clear.  My best so far is finishing a “+7” Mythic dungeon inside the time limit, which is a far cry from the top end but which is still much better than I would ever have expected for me.

I also tried tanking a single raid boss. It was a tedious experience, and I will not be repeating it.  WoW “raid tanking” seems to be a complicated affair of tanking just long enough to build up a debuff that will kill you if you tank any longer and then handing off the tanking duties to your co-tank until THEY have a debuff on them that will kill them at which point you take aggro again.  It’s … well, it’s obviously designed to make sure that raids always have to make spots for two tanks, and it works at that, but it’s just so far removed from anything I enjoy.

I am loving the dungeons, however, and am going to keep at those for a while.

I have also gotten geared up to the point where I can steamroll the lower-end dungeons, and I have taken to watching my in-game notifications for “guild member has joined the queue for X” at which time I jump in with them and do my best to ruin them for other tanks.  I’m awful that way.

 

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OK, I’ll say something about Shadowlands now.

My last post about WoW was talking about how it would not be the first MMORPG I would recommend to anyone, and that my recommendation would absolutely be that a newcomer to the genre should try FFXIV instead.

On the other hand, one thing WoW DOES definitely do better is that it makes playing a healer feel more like you’re playing a healer and less like you are playing a mediocre wizard who occasionally stops throwing out damage spells and casts a token heal spell before returning to damage.

Having a couple more weeks of WoW under my belt, I would like to postulate that WoW outdoes FFXIV in three other ways, all of which are fairly niche and none of which should really be construed as a particular endorsement of the game as a whole.

I’ll set two of them aside as possible future post topics, because what I want to talk about is the current state of PvP in WoW, which can be summed up as “hella fun” but I should probably write more words.

Again, keep in mind this is all from a healer perspective, and moreover from the point of view of a player who really enjoys a chaotic environment because PvP is the very definition of chaotic. There is a tremendous amount of damage and dehabilitation being thrown around, and at any given moment you generally are deciding which of two or three teammates should live and which should be sacrificed, with of course the added twist that your teammates generally have no idea where you are and may be running AWAY from you, to their deaths, rather than towards you so they can be healed.

This isn’t anything unique to the new expansion, however. What’s changed is the reward system.

Now, I am all for the idea that playing a healer is its own reward. There is a definite satisfaction in turning a losing situation into a winning one, or even just making it so that your teammates are spending longer alive, which is fun, and less time sitting at the graveyard waiting to respawn, which is not fun.

Healers: Fun Enablers.

That’s great and all, but let’s talk about the real reward, which is new gear for your characters that you can use to make the numbers bigger because bigger numbers are also fun. In WoW, the critical number is “iLvL” or “item level” which is a rough measurement of how powerful your character is.

The last time I was playing WoW regularly was during the “Legion” expansion, which was about four years ago. At the time, the way that PvP worked was that characters on each side had their stats and abilities adjusted to a PvP Template, meaning that someone who was brand new to PvP had a bit of a fighting chance against veterans. It took the Gear Factor out of PvP, which definitely has its merits.

On the other hand, since Gear wasn’t really a Thing, PvP didn’t often reward you with new armor. The way it worked was that, if you WON a PvP match, you would get a box of rewards that would occasionally include a random piece of gear. Losses didn’t give you this reward, so losing meant that you didn’t even have the chance of randomly getting some new armor and making your numbers bigger.

It also meant that the process of getting a complete matched set – because fashion is important – took AGES.

Shadowlands, on the other hand, has a system where you earn a special PvP currency every time your team scores a kill and another hunk of currency at the end of the match. You get about twice as much for a win, but even the losers walk away with something.

Unlike Legion, you can convert this PvP currency directly into gear. Not cosmetic gear, not PvP-specific gear, but stuff you can put on your character that makes them more effective in ALL content. The traditional WoW gear curve of getting random quest rewards, then doing regular dungeons (iLvl 158) until you can do heroic dungeons (iLvL 171) so you can get gear so you can do MYTHIC dungeons (iLvL 184+), so you can then be geared enough for raiding… you get to bypass that entirely, if you like.

So that’s what I did. With the exception of one piece of crafted armor that I needed to do some solo PvE to get the materials for, I geared my character entirely through the process of logging in, getting into one of WoW’s “Epic Battlegrounds”, and trying my best to kill the guys on Team Red while keeping the guys on Team Blue alive. This earned me a ton of PvP currency, which I used to kit myself out entirely in epic gear, and I eventually managed to put myself a set of gear at iLvL 185, which was more than enough to get me a raid spot for groups tackling the new raid zone.

Additionally, since the queue times for PvP are practically non-existent, there was no sitting around waiting to get a group for a dungeon to kill bosses that MIGHT drop upgrades. You can’t even queue for Mythics, so you have to go through a messy process of actually talking to other humans to do those.

So for basically the first time in the twenty+ years I have been wasting my life away in MMORPGs, I’m actually a little ahead of the curve.

Feels good!

 

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Ok, Stadia is better than I gave it credit for.

It’s still doomed.  I mean, I have had a TERRIBLE track record for predicting what technologies are going to take off and which are destined for history’s rubbish bin, but boy howdy does Stadia have a lot working against it.

Maybe I’ll be surprised and it will find a nice niche to fit into.  I could see it taking off with people who only buy Nintendo consoles but who still want to play a nice AAA now and again.  Maybe?

Anyway, I finished Far Cry: New Dawn tonight, and it FELT like playing on a local games console.  Except for a couple of times when I decided to try playing on WiFi, I never felt like I was getting a second class experience from streaming.

I tend to get sucked into Ubisoft-style games, and this was no exception.  All told, I spent nearly 22 hours playing a game that howlongtobeat says SHOULD be an 11 hour game if you’re able to stick to story missions.

Apparently the 93% Story Progress Thing is a known bug.

But sticking to story missions would be kind of missing the point of the game, since really it’s yet another Big Ubisoft Game that gives you a map covered in all kinds of fun things to do and sets you loose.  There are partners to recruit – including an adorable yet murderous boar named Horatio – bandit outposts to take over, ruins to scavenge for resources, and frequent dynamic events for the game to throw at you every few minutes just to spice things up.

There are also some mostly-optional side missions (“expeditions”) involving getting into a helicopter and leaving Hope County to steal huge chunks of resources from the Highwaymen, who are a bunch of motocross-armored bandits who represent the Big Bad of the game.  These expeditions don’t make a ton of sense sometimes – I’m supposed to believe that we flew all the way from Montana to Florida to raid a beached aircraft carrier? – but they’re all fun little chaos sandboxes that let you explore environments that wouldn’t have fit into Montana without a significant amount of handwaving.

Far Cry: New Dawn is, of course, a sequel to Far Cry 5, and that was one of my favorite games of 2018.  I was a bit surprised by that at the time, actually.  It was the first time I’d played any game in the series and I did not have high hopes for how it was going to treat its setting.

To expand on what I mean by that: One of the very earliest posts on this blog has me raving about how Nazis and Zombies are the perfect video game enemies because there are absolutely no organizations – that anyone takes seriously – that are either pro-Nazi or pro-Zombie.  You are not expected to open a dialog with a zombie.  You are allowed to simply blow its head off, and nobody will object.

Far Cry 5 DID have crazy drugged-up cultists – and I’m not aware of any Crazy-Drugged-Up-Cultist Defense Leagues – but it also had a bunch of, well, very rural Montana residents and I was happily surprised when they weren’t treated like a bunch of inbred hicks who needed saving from their backwards ways.

Far Cry: New Dawn continues that.  It’s very much a rural vs. urban conflict story, and it’s very respectful of the rural side of the conflict.  There aren’t many stories that do that – the only other big one that’s coming to mind is the Hunger Games series – and I appreciated it.  I spent some years living in extremely-rural Nebraska, and while some of the stereotypes about rural life DO have roots in truth, it’s also a good thing to remember that urbanites would be a lot hungrier without those “flyover” states.

I appear to have gotten on a bit of a soapbox there.  My apologies.

Getting back to the actual game parts of the game:

Far Cry: New Dawn mostly reuses the map from Far Cry 5, though of course it’s set 17 years in the future of that game and reflects what might happen after a nuclear war & winter.  As a result, there are a lot of times when you’re running around and run into a familiar location… just, you know, lightly blown-up and burned-down.  Some of these are used to great effect, particularly a mission that has you re-entering a huge cultist bunker complex that you last saw while you were shooting your way out of it in the previous game.  You also meet several of the major characters and get to see what has happened to them.

Weapons also have an after-the-bombs-fell aesthetic to them, with all sorts of bits bolted or strapped on.  I found some of them to be a bit on the silly-looking side, but they almost all made satisfying bangs and felt good to use.

I spent a lot more time on foot than in FC5, running from map marker to map marker, because I didn’t really get on with the vehicle controls in this one and because it seemed very easy to get hung up on obstacles.  I failed one mission, which involves driving a car that couldn’t stop without exploding, simply because I got stuck on a rock and couldn’t get out of the car to fix it.  So that’s a point against the sequel, and I’m going to add that post-apocalyptic Montana was kind of… pretty? but at the same time a little dull.  Hope County seemed to have much more character in the original game.

Also the last two fights of the game are just mind-numbingly bad bullet sponge bosses, with human enemies soaking up hundreds of bullets before falling over and delivering Final Villain Monologues.

So let’s call it an eight out of ten? I mean, I don’t actually consider anything I write on here to be an actual review but I would consider this a solid 8, especially for the two dollars I spent on it.

 

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More Home Smartifying

Nothing video game related today.  The two things I have been playing are Far Cry: New Dawn and the most recent World of Warcraft expansion.  Considering how Far Cry 5 ended, I’m going to wait until the end of New Dawn before I say anything about it, and I have some …complex… emotions to sort through before I can talk about Shadowlands so I should probably put that off as well.

Instead, take a look at this adorable piece of surveillance technology!

Who’s a cute little HD camera? It’s you!

My smart home setup has increased slightly in complexity since my post of a few days ago. I’ve added another switched outlet for another lamp, and yet another switched outlet that the Chromecast Ultra is plugged in to.  This last is because, for some reason, the Chromecast Ultra likes to completely power off Sony TVs.  Like, when you go to turn your TV on after a while, it has to go through the entire boot cycle from the Android logo on.  So I have a switched outlet so I can turn the Chromecast on when I want it and off when I don’t.

Then I bought this little Wyze Cam because, well, I am getting older and I have this annoying THING where I pull out of the garage and get about 5 minutes away and then I have this crippling feeling of dread about whether I closed the garage door or not.  By this point, I think my wife can recognize the little sound I make when this hits me, and it means that we’re going to be turning around and driving back and confirming that yes, the garage door IS closed only now we are going to be ten minutes late for wherever we were going.

So I set this up and pointed it at the garage door.

That gray… lump… is one of our cats.  The corner of the car hood he’s on is the corner that is warmest when the car has been recently driven.  The car has not been driven in six days. He is eternally hopeful that there will be warmth.

It also has pretty good night vision.

So.  Total price of camera, something like 25 bucks.  In future, when I have that moment’s dread about whether the door is closed, I can check it in a few seconds thanks to the power of The Cloud.  We’re truly living in the future.

On the other hand, I could have done without this weird gamification.  That is my only complaint.  I’m just setting up cameras, here, not trying to beat my step count.

Next time: I will probably talk about WoW, or Far Cry.  Or maybe I will have another one of these posts that only serves to further fragment the idea of whatever the heck the topic of this blog is supposed to be.

 

 

 

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In which, I try Stadia and it’s actually OK.

Kinda giving the whole post away with that title, but you can keep reading if you want to spend a few more minutes of your life reading my eloquent prose.

Since my ego won’t allow me to conceive that anyone actually stopped, let’s keep going.

A few days ago, I mentioned that Google had sent me a Nest Mini for subscribing to their Youtube Music service, and they recently followed that up with their Stadia “Premiere Edition” kit.

It’s a very attractive box.  Opening it up you get the controller,

Sort of a nice medium ground between Playstation and Xbox layouts.  You get the ABXY buttons, laid out as God intended with A on the bottom, you get symmetrical thumbsticks and a pleasantly-clicky D-Pad, there’s a dedicated screenshot button and a button that can be pressed to activate the Google Assistant.  Because apparently this thing has a microphone in it, somewhere?

It feels a little off-balance when you’re holding it, but that goes away after a few minutes.

Below that, you get some cables, a couple of AC adapters, and the Chromecast Ultra provided for your TV connection:

In a truly bizarre mix, note that the Stadia controller port is USB-C but the Chromecast still uses a micro USB connector.

The Chromecast’s AC adapter DOES have a neat feature, though – an Ethernet port.

This lets you use it on a wired network, and I strongly recommend this.

The actual setup process is, to my mind, overly complicated.  You need to download the Google Home app to set up the Chromecast Ultra and the Stadia app to set up the controller.  Once you have them both configured, you enter a code with the D-pad and face buttons to link the controller to the Chromecast and then you’re good to go.

The Chromecast is a very weird streaming box, as an aside.  Or, more to the point, I expected it to be a little smarter than it really is.  It doesn’t have any built-in apps or any ability to download apps; it is purely a box that receives streams and puts them on your TV screen.

My TV is also a Chromecast, I think?  I tried seeing if I could figure out how to link the Stadia controller to the TV directly so I wouldn’t need the dongle hanging off one of the HDMI ports, but I was unsuccessful.

To get this gadget for “free”, I had to sign up for a month of Google’s “Stadia Pro” service, which is a sort of Gamepass-like affair that lets you play a fairly decent selection of games on a rotating basis.  I downloaded the remake of Panzer Dragoon and spent a few minutes with it, but it really wasn’t what I was in the mood for and wasn’t much of a showcase.  The point of Stadia, after all, is to let you play console-quality games without having an expensive and bulky console taking up space under your TV.

With the intention of finding a nice flagship game to try, I looked through all the offerings on Stadia Pro and just couldn’t get enthused for any of them.  On the other hand, there’s currently a Black Friday sale on the Stadia store, Far Cry: New Dawn was only 11.99… and I also had a $10 off coupon.  So, for $1.99 I figured it was worth trying out.  I really liked Far Cry 5, after all, and this is the direct sequel.

It was not, initially, a good experience.  It was choppy and VERY low-res at times, and I felt like all of my apprehensions about game streaming were being justified.

Setting the game to Easy meant that I was able to survive firefights even with the terrible performance, but that seemed a poor showing.  The obvious culprit was my internet connection, which meant that I knew how to fix it but actually had to do some work.

I groused a bit, then managed to find an ethernet cable long enough to hook it up to our wired network, and that turned it into…

…well, honestly, I was a little blown away.  When I had the thing wired, it felt like I was playing a game from a local console most of the time.  Running through areas with lots of waving foliage got a little fuzzy at times, but I have to give them serious props for whatever magic they are using to adjust for the latency that MUST be present in the connection.

After that, I figured I would try running Stadia without the Chromecast.  The second point of “Cloud Gaming”, after all, is that you can get to your library from anything.

Well, there’s no Android TV Stadia app.  And it’s only officially supported on a few Android tablets and phones, though there is a “look, just see if it will work” option that you can turn on in the Stadia app.  And it certainly won’t work on any iDevices.  And trying to use Stadia in Chrome on my 5-year-old Surface 3 resulted in some dire performance.

I could have tried it on a Windows laptop – I have a Dell G3, and that’s a fairly good entry-level gaming laptop – but I didn’t see the point of testing that.  If you already have a gaming laptop, why wouldn’t you just buy the game for Windows and have it locally?

Finally, I turned to my 2018 Macbook, and finally I had some decent results and could get back to the enjoyable task of massacring bandits in fictional post-apocalyptic Montana.  Far Cry even detected the PS4 controller I had plugged in and adapted its button prompts to match, which was an attention to detail I hadn’t expected.

It’s not as high resolution as the Chromecast was, and there were considerably more dips into fuzziness when running through foliage, but it was playing a recent AAA game on a device with an Apple logo and that’s a rarity indeed.

In fact, I dare say that a Mac owner who had a Stadia subscription and an Apple Arcade subscription would probably have enough choice of Stuff To Play at any given time, especially with WoW and FFXIV there to scratch the MMO itch as needed. It fills the niche of “I don’t want to own a gaming PC or an Xbox, but I really want to play the new Assassin’s Creed” pretty nicely.

Now, I’m not sure exactly how many actual people that represents.  It’s probably not zero? If I suddenly found myself forced to live in a dorm room situation, I’d probably opt for something like this? Maybe?

I’m stretching a little bit here, I know.  I’m impressed enough with how well it works that I find myself kind of rooting for it to get traction.  It’s a dancing bear that’s applied itself and actually dances well, and I appreciate that.

Posted in gadgets, videogames | 3 Comments

Making an iOS Shortcut for Apple Pay

So I guess this is a gadget blog now? Because apparently that is the stuff I am posting.  I have come a long way from the days when I would write posts about my attempts to get upskirt shots of the characters in Fatal Frame 2.

I’m not actually sure I have improved as a person since then, but at least I’m trying to write about stuff with more social worth.

Anyway, I thought about titling this post “In which, I am schooled by a Walmart cashier” because frankly this is a story about me getting schooled by a Walmart cashier, but in the end I figured I would go for a post title that was a little more search-engine friendly and then I opened the post with an anecdote that will probably turn anyone off reading further.

It is possible that I am not acting entirely logically here.

Anyway, to get back to the bit where I was forced to admit that I was not the alpha geek in an exchange: A few nights ago, I was making a purchase at our local Walmart and trying to use Walmart Pay since they do not support Apple Pay and because who uses credit cards anymore anyway? COMMUNISTS AND CAVEMEN, that’s who.  Contactless pay with your phone is what REAL AMERICANS use.

Technically I am only half American, but that is not important for the purposes of this story.

Anyway, Walmart Pay is a pain to get to if you open the Walmart app while you are standing IN a Walmart, because it’s smart enough to know that you are in one of their stores and really wants to be helpful.  So there are several screens to click through before you can actually pay for anything, and I was apologizing to the cashier for this while I clicked and hunted for the “give the massive faceless corporation some money” button, and he said “hey, you know, if you shop here a lot you could just set up a widget or something” and then he pulled out his personal phone to show me an icon labeled “Walmart Pay” on his home screen, which when clicked went directly to the critical feature of the application.

He continued with “I don’t know if Apple has anything like that but you could give it a try” and I thanked him as the last shreds of my ego shriveled into nothingness.

So, to avoid any more of the long story, it turns out that this is super easy to do and an excellent use of the “Shortcuts” feature in iOS, so I thought I would share it with any of my readers who might also find it useful.  I even took some screenshots, which look awful because I didn’t think to switch to Dark Mode and I didn’t do a very consistent job of highlighting the controls.

It starts by opening the Shortcuts app and choosing the + New Shortcut button.

Then +  Add Action

Search for “Walmart” and select it.

Then choose the “Open Walmart Pay” option.

Then choose Next

After this, you can enter a name for the shortcut

When you click “Done”, you’ll be taken to the Shortcuts app home screen.  Choose the … menu for your new shortcut.

Then press the … option in the shortcut editor.

And choose Add to Home Screen

Afterwards, you will have a nice icon you can use to skip a lot of annoying dialogs.  You can customize the icon, icon color, that sort of thing but I didn’t want to have too many more screenshots in this post.

I haven’t used Shortcuts for much other than morning and night routines, but this seems like a great use of them to avoid a small frustration and I own a great deal of thanks to a guy who was entirely too smart to be stuck ringing up groceries for a living.  Hopefully he is moving on to better things soon.

 

 

Posted in gadgets, iOS | Leave a comment

Brand Disloyalty

So, in the fifteen years or so since I bought my first modern Macintosh (a first-gen Intel Mac mini), our house has turned into a bit of an Apple Shrine.  We have four Macs, an iPhone each, a few iPads, a couple of AppleTVs and even a pair of HomePods, which are Apple’s entry into the “smart speaker” marketplace.

So why do I have THREE Google Nest Minis?

My attempt at a product glamor shot.  Ceramic cat for scale.

Well, it’s a long story that started when Google decided to send one of these things to all of their YouTube Music subscribers.  I signed up for that service ages ago when it was Google Play Music, mostly to get rid of ads on YouTube, and I’ve maintained my subscription because I’m grandfathered in at a low rate and I watch a lot of YouTube and hate ads.

I didn’t see a ton of point to the thing, but I plugged it in so my wife could use it as a bluetooth speaker for her phone.  It’s actually not very good at that as the phone and speaker kept getting unsynced.  She has a newer phone now and they may work better together but we haven’t tried.

Anyway, since it wasn’t a great bluetooth speaker it mostly sat plugged in on an end table doing… nothing, really.  Listening, I guess.  Always listening.  We kind of forgot we had the thing.

It’s critical to note at this point that we don’t have a clock in our living room and that at one point my wife asked me what time it was and I didn’t have my phone handy so I said “OK, Google, what time is it?” and it told us the time and suddenly it had a purpose.

Then I discovered that this freebie speaker was better at answering basic questions than Siri.  Like, if you ask Siri “What time does Target close?” there are a lot of extraneous words before she finally tells you what Target’s hours are. And she tells you the hours, like “opens at 7 am and closes at 11 PM” which is not technically the answer to the question.

Google, on the other hand, says “Target at (address of closest Target) closes at 11 PM tonight”

And then we bought a new smart TV for our living room and the two devices talked to each other and suddenly I could tell the TV to turn on while I was walking into the room while carrying food… and then we discovered that we had quite a few other things, like Xboxes, that could integrate with this free little speaker. So that was kind of neat.

Furthermore, since I DO have a subscription to YouTube Music, it has been invaluable at times, like when I discovered that my wife had never heard EITHER of Golden Earring’s hit songs and I was able to subject her to roughly 30 seconds each of “Radar Love” and “Twilight Zone” before she told me to stop that and never do it again lest I wind up having a smart speaker lobbed at my head.

Then, I was in Walmart and saw these things.

They’re nothing more than crazy cheap Google-compatible switched plugs, but they are crazy cheap.  Like, under nine dollars each.

And also extra Google Nest Minis were only $29 each.

So, I bought two more of them and three of these smart plugs and we’ve got them hooked up to lights in places like the bedroom so we don’t have to worry about the moment between turning off the light and getting into bed which is when the cat likes to dash directly between us and the bed, and we have a house that is, for some definitions of the phrase, a “Smart Home” even though that usually conjures up images of people who have, for some reason, decided that their doorbell needs to rely on wi-fi connectivity.

We are very far from that.

And it has all come together for less than the price of a single HomePod Mini*, which is Apple’s attempt to enter the low end of the smart speaker market.

I don’t have any regrets about owning the HomePods, mind you – they are fantastic-sounding speakers even if Siri is a little slow, and handoff is black magic with how seamlessly it works – but Google’s got something pretty impressive going on here.

* Technically only because one of the nest minis was free.  Otherwise it would be slightly more.

 

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Apple TV for consoles is here, and it’s …eh.

So, I’ve had an AppleTV of one sort or another for a bit over eleven years now.  The very first model, basically a stripped-down Mac Mini in a squashed box, was purely a way to rent movies from iTunes and get content in your iTunes library to show up on your TV.  It was quickly replaced with a much smaller and slightly-more-capable model that added streaming services, and there have been revisions and iterations that have brought it up to a quite capable 4k streamer with some light gaming chops.

Oh, and it still lets you show the content in your iTunes library on your TV.  I have a tremendous amount of personally-ripped media and have spent way too much time organizing and tagging it.

Last year, of course, Apple introduced their own streaming service.  Personally, I haven’t had much (any) use for it, but it’s meant that they have started allowing some non-Apple devices access to iTunes Store content.  Up until now, that’s basically been a few smart TVs… but, with the launch of the new consoles, Apple has finally broken down and released their Apple TV app for boxes that people actually own.

I downloaded the PS4 and Xbone apps and took them for a quick spin.  Screenshots below are mostly from the PS4 version, but the two look identical.  Also, these were taken with a camera because the app disables the in-OS screenshot options so they’re not particularly high-quality pictures.

Watch Now is intended to be the home screen for the Apple TV app, basically showing you your most-recently-purchased-or-played videos.

So, the app LOOKS like the same app when run off a hardware Apple TV, but there are some differences.  On an Apple TV, if you launch a movie with iTunes Extras, it takes you to a menu where you can select the extras or start the movie.  If you’re mid-movie, you get the choice to resume from the last playback position or start from the beginning.  On the consoles, you can’t access the iTunes Extras and the movie just starts playing from whatever point you left off.  If that happens to be in the middle of a movie, you need to press B or Circle to choose to start the movie from the beginning.

The playback interface is barebones as all get out, and essentially uses the D-pad on the controller to emulate the touchpad on the Apple TV remote.  So, to turn subtitles on or change audio, you press down on the D-pad.  Perfectly intuitive!

Also, A / X to pause.  The Start/Options buttons do nothing.

You can also use the D-pad to scrub forwards or backwards 10 seconds at a time.

If you’re controlling your PS4 with a HDMI-CEC compatible remote, you can use that instead of the controller.  That’s one definite point in its favor over the Xbone version.

Does the Xbox Series S|X support HDMI-CEC? I should probably research that.

Anyway.

Library view shows you your purchased content. I have bought over five hundred movies from the iTunes Store over the years, and a fair amount of TV.  That’s probably more than most people, and almost certainly more than they tested the console app with, because trying to browse through the library on the PS4 has invariably resulted in, well…

Is it still a “Blue Screen of Death” if it’s not on Windows?

For the record, you can scroll through your library without issues on the Xbone app.  It’s just the PS4 app that has problems for me.

Oddly enough, “purchasing” the app on the Xbone has a weird bit of language that I’m assuming is just a typo, since as far as I can tell there IS no Windows 10 version of the Apple TV app.

Maybe it’s planned for the future?

Finally, there’s no way to access local iTunes libraries.  That’s unfortunate, but kind of expected.

So… short version, it’s a way to get Apple streaming on TVs using the game console you probably already own, but the experience is not really great yet.

Posted in movies & tv, PS4, Xbox One | Leave a comment