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Mass Effect 3: Stunning Graphics, Disappointing Story

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on March 19, 2012

I’ve played all three of the Mass Effect games from start to finish.  I just finished Mass Effect 3 and I’d have to say I’m quite a bit disappointed by the conclusion of this trilogy.  Note, spoilers ahead so stop reading now if you haven’t played this game yet.

Story Inconsistencies Abound

So, Shepard is off saving the Galaxy at the Citadel and about to pull the kill switch on the Crucible and where is the Normandy?  Careening through Mass Effect hyperspace heading some place random.  Ok, so this part makes no sense at all.  Why would the Normandy be galavanting around the Galaxy at the most important time of all…. when the Crucible is being activated?  It makes absolutely no sense.  Not to mention, Shepard is the commander of that vessel.  So, why would it be off running around on its own without Shepard, anyway?  The Normandy should be right there front and center to see the fireworks display, not off running around in Mass Effect Hyperspace.  I shake my head at whomever thought that story line up.  Yes, I realize that Shepard’s team was overrun by a Reaper.  But, Shepard has seen worse odds then that. Why would the Normandy suddenly decide to split?  So now, Joker and Cortez exit the Normandy and the rest of the crew, who mysteriously do not exit the crashed Normandy, end up on some random planet stuck there without any way home.

Disappointing ending

There are two paths at the end for Shepard.  Unfortunately, neither of them are particularly pleasant endings for him.  However, once Shepard chooses one of two paths, the endings are pretty similar in his final outcome.  Humanity, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily spared either way.  The Reapers are gone for the moment, but they could still come back again based on the ‘entity’ who lives in the Citadel.  But now, the Mass Effect relays are destroyed either way when the Crucible is activated.  Without the Mass Effect relays, there is no way to fast travel anywhere in that universe.

Unfortunately, the two paths are way too convenient and similar in outcome.  Why isn’t there a non-action path or other paths?  Seriously, why does Shepard have to choose one of two paths?  He could simply walk away and let the Reapers do their deeds or find another way.   Clearly, he hadn’t gotten that far into it to just walk away, but why isn’t there more than two options?  Further, why is it that Shepard has to die anyway?  Although, we don’t know specifically that he’s dead, it strongly implies as much.  Once the ending cinematic ceases, it cuts to every place other than the Citadel.  So, we really don’t know what became of the Citadel.

Rescuing Shepard?

Getting back to the Normandy issue, this raises another concern.  Shepard’s love interest that is fostered during the game, why doesn’t this person stay and try to rescue Shepard?  In fact, why isn’t that person even there.  Seriously, a love interest that just leaves and goes somewhere else?  The Normandy and its rescue shuttles should have been there as soon as Shepard pulled the trigger and, at the last minute, fished him off of the Citadel platform.  In fact, the shuttle itself could have triggered what was necessary (at least for one of the endings).

Plot holes abound here too.  If Shepard is to be the ‘savior’ of the Galaxy, there would have been prophecies foretold in at least one alien culture.  Specifically, I’d bet on the Asari.  But, no prophecies existed.  In fact, they should have.  In fact, Shepard should have been roped into a meeting with a seer of some kind who would give him ‘bad news’ about his ending, but also given hope that he has a choice.

Elusive Man

Another issue that just pokes at me for inconsistency, the Elusive Man’s sudden appearance on the Citadel + Crucible when Shepard is trying to find the controls to open the Citadel for the Crucible. He has never appeared in person at any part of the game other than in his round control room.  Granted, Shepard and enemies make short work of that room leaving it as a disaster.  But, he should have other bases.  Also, what’s with all the black all over the Elusive Man’s face?  I get the distinct impression that the Elusive Man on the Citadel was not, in fact, the Elusive Man.  I believe it was either a carefully crafted AI Robot or a remote controlled clone of the Elusive Man.

Game Play Changes

With this game, the game is about 50% gameplay and 50% cinematics.  Bioware/EA has also opted to add a ‘cinematic’ play mode which, I personally believe, ruined the whole gaming experience in all modes.  Worse, the whole army readiness thing is a severe joke.  You spend a ton of time trying to find ‘war assets’ and at the end it doesn’t appear to make any difference.  I was at least expecting some kind of tactics simulation like Dune or Halo Wars.  So, you could pick troops and make them go after Reapers to see how effective they would be.  Didn’t happen.  In fact, that whole part of the game was, as far as I can tell, a total waste of time.  This game leaned so much toward cinema, I’d barely call it a shooter and it’s definitely not an RPG.  Yes, Bioware left the leveling up and powers in there, but there was so little to do with them.

The Crucible is the only way?

So this device, thing, gadget, just didn’t really work for me.  I mean, there have to be other means at destroying the Reapers than the Crucible.  Sure, the Crucible is definitely one option that Shepard (and troops) should consider, but there should have been at least two or three other options available like some other super weapons discovered in a remote planet.  In fact, there should have been scientists out there devising a means to kill the Reapers through a virus, bad code or even the Geth.  In fact, depending on which fleets you end up having as allies, the method of Reaper destruction should change based on those fleets.  The tactics and methods of destruction should also be available.  This is supposed to be an RPG, so let’s treat it as one.  Alas, didn’t happen.

Best Part of this Game

Basically, you play it for the eye candy.  The characters look amazing.  The environments and lighting are perfect.  The player movements from motion capture, outstanding.  The voice acting, the backstory of the characters and the sheer character interaction is perfect. The music fits very well and works quite well in the game.  When you do get gunfire gameplay, it’s trivially easy, but it is quite fun.  However, there’s just simply not enough of it.  The questing part of the game, of which there’s far too little if this is supposed to be an RPG, is also fun. Don’t go into this game expecting an outstanding storyline.  That’s not where this game shines.  This game shines in how the gameplay unfolds.  Mostly, the interactions between the crew and Shepard is where this game shines and is the most satisfying parts of this game.

Ending

The ending of this game was a complete disappointment on so many levels.  For me, the ending completely ruined the fun I was having with exploring the Milky Way, the Citadel and various other worlds.  The impending threat is always there, but you can safely ignore it until you get to the end. Leave it to EA to mess this one up. The gameplay is, well, what game play?  You’re sitting there watching a cinematic unfold at the end.  That’s it.  No bosses, no battles, nothing.  Just watching a movie.  I didn’t buy this game to watch a movie.  I realize cinematics are a big part of games today, but that was just too much.  On top of that, the story (based on the above) just makes little sense.

Shepard is either dead, consumed or heavily incapacitated.  The Mass Effect Relays are completely destroyed throughout the galaxy (choosing either path) and the Normandy is inexplicably stranded on some random world somewhere remote. Worse, once the deed is done, all you see is some text that says ‘Shepard is now regarded as a hero’.  Wait, what?  Seriously?  You can’t even show a celebration from the troops, a commendation animation, a memorial service, a world rebuilding animation or even a news clip from the news anchor who was on board the Normandy nearly all of the time?  Clearly, the ending was rushed and the game’s story wasn’t that well thought out.  There are way too many loose ends here to call this a satisfying conclusion to a trilogy.  I hope they are planning for Mass Effect 4 because this ending leaves me saying, “huh?” and desiring a whole lot more fitting conclusion to Shepard’s life and celebration of his life.

Oh, and what’s with the severely bad voice acting of the father and son storytelling clip at the end?  Is that supposed to suggest that the whole thing was made up by some guy just to amuse his son?  Seriously?

Randosity Related Article: Analysis of Mass Effect 3’s Ending

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iPad 3: First Thoughts

Posted in Apple, ipad, technologies by commorancy on March 17, 2012

So, while I originally wrote that I didn’t see the purpose in the iPad, I have since changed my tune. But, from really only one perspective: multimedia. It’s a great portable movie and entertainment device. I also use it for a replacement for pen and paper at work in meetings, for quick email reads. web surfing and I use it as an ‘in a pinch’ workstation for systems administration. These are my primary use cases. Clearly, though, watching movies and listening to music is where this device shines most. And now, taking movies and photos with the 5 megapixel camera… all I can say with the iPad 3 is, “Wow”. The screen resolution and camera are worth the price. Apple has finally created a device that, in my estimation, probably costs more to make than the price for which it sells.

If you have an iPad 1, this is definitely worth the upgrade. If you have an iPad 2, you pretty much have everything except the great camera and the Retina display. The Retina display is definitely worth the money. The lack of visible pixels definitely makes the whole iPad experience so much clearer and cleaner. This is what the iPad 1 should have been out of the gate. Had Apple pushed the envelope for the iPad 1, this device would have been so much more so much faster. Too bad it took Apple 3 tries to get it here, but we’re finally here.

WiFi only for me

I didn’t buy the 4G LTE edition. First, I don’t like the service plan costs and the limited data from the carriers. If the mobile carriers could actually be reasonable in pricing and charge rates similar to ISPs like Comcast (both price and speed), I might consider the mobile carriers. Second, the mobile carriers need to change their business models and they don’t want to do this. The whole 2 year contract commitment with capped ceilings and high overage rates is for the birds. The carriers finally need to do away with the contract model and go with a standard monthly commitment like Comcast or any other ISP on planet. Suffice it to say, I’m ranting about the carriers rather than talking about the iPad 3. See, now that’s the whole reason I bought the WiFi only edition. Everywhere I need to use it, I can use it on WiFi with no carrier hassles. I don’t have to deal with crappy carrier service, crappy rate costs, bad connectivity, stupid contracts, dead spots or any other silly carrier BS.

If I want to buy a MiFi device (which I have), I can use this to connect my iPad to the Internet, which is the best of all worlds. With a MiFi, I can use it with multiple devices, including my iPad 3, iPod Touch, my LG phone and my notebook and even my home computer when Comcast decides to have outages.

I also find the WiFi speeds are far superior to using LTE anyway, so that’s why I bought the WiFi edition. That, and it’s cheaper on the wallet, both in the iPad cost and that there’s no monthly recurring service fees.

Entertainment

The iPad 3 is definitely my entertainment device of choice (other than my 46″ flat panel display when at home). For portable entertainment, the iPad 3 is it. It is now simply the device of choice for watching movies, playing music or playing games. It is now officially the Sony gaming killer. It may not kill the Xbox, yet. But, Apple has the upper hand now. If they could woo over some big gaming companies like Ubisoft to put Assassin’s Creed on there and, at the same time, release an Apple bluetooth video game controller, this would easily become my gaming platform of choice. Perhaps even over the Xbox. Of course, Apple would need a gaming network including chat and whatnot. So, there’s some hurdles for Apple to overcome. But, the iPad 3 has the beginnings to kill the gaming market if they go after it.

For watching movies, 1080p images flow fluidly on the 2048×1536 pixel display and the images are literally stunning. There is no other portable device on the market that can do what the iPad 3 does for watching movies. The other tablets have a huge leap to make to get where the iPad 3 is for entertainment.

Now if we can get movie studios to start releasing their films in at least 2048 pixel widths on blu-ray (or even iTunes store) so we can actually take advantage of this new resolution.

Camera

Ok, so I’ll let this section speak for itself… Here’s an image I took with the iPad 3 earlier. Note, size below is 688×922. Click the image to see it full iPad 3 screen size. The fact that it produced depth of field with that tiny lens in this semi-macro shot is amazing.

I haven’t yet tried the video camera, but that’s on my list of things to try out. So far, this is a very impressive device and, for me, well worth the money. Now I need to determine what to do with my old iPad 1. It’s over a year old at this point. Amazing how technology gets obsolete so quickly. But, I got my money’s worth from the iPad 1 considering that it was mostly a gift.

If you’re on the fence about getting an iPad 3, don’t be. It’s definitely worth the money to get the resolution on the device. The camera is amazing and watching 1080p movies on it is stunning. Now if we can get Hollywood to catch up to this device and release movies in at least 2048 pixel widths, 1920×1080 seems old and outdated.

Gaming

I haven’t yet tried much gaming on the device, so this section will have to wait to be written. Suffice it to say that the iPad 3 tremendously enhances the look of all apps, though. So, games should look stunning on this display. The thing I will say, though, is that this device has tremendous potential to take over the gaming market with the right level of support.

iPhone apps

This is one thing I didn’t expect. When running iPhone apps on the iPad, the 2x scaling finally works properly. No longer does it scale up this low res tiny display and make it look all pixelated. IOS now actually scales up the fonts, buttons, text and all scalable aspects and retains the screen resolution. So, even though it’s still a small real-estate app, the 2x scaling remains high-res. So, apps from places like Redbox (who refuse to write iPad versions) finally look good when scaled up on the iPad 3. All I can say here is, impressive and long awaited.

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Verdict

The iPad 3 is definitely worth the money if nothing else than for the screen resolution. The camera is also quite amazing. The device is a tiny bit thicker and heavier than the iPad 2, so it may not fit all iPad 2 cases on the market. But, the smart cover works quite well. As well, the restore process from my iPad 1 was so smooth, automated and reasonably fast, I walked away and came back and it was done. Apple has definitely made this part of the process much much better than previous versions.

If you own an iPad 2 and are thinking of upgrading, you should stop by and play with one first. You might want to wait until the iPad 4 to get a bit more life out of your iPad 2 before discarding it. It is worth the upgrade, however, if you are an avid movie watcher.

If you own an iPad 1 or any other tablet, upgrading to this tablet is a no-brainer. The speed and power of the iPad 3 is apparent right from turning it on.

There is only one thing that Apple missed to really support this screen resolution properly. Apple should have produced a 128 (or 256) GB edition of the iPad 3. With this resolution comes much more space needed by 1080p movies. So, we really need at least a 128 GB version of the iPad 3. I’m guessing we’ll see this with the iPad 4 or possibly a refresh of the iPad 3 later this year (as it’s not really worth a full version release just to double the memory on the unit). However, if you do plan on using it for movies, you will do yourself a favor to buy the 64GB edition as you will need this space to store your movies and music. In fact, as I said, 64GB really isn’t enough for all of the movies I want to carry around with me, so for a heavy movie watcher, 64GB is definitely not enough.

Apple, if you’re reading, we want at least a 128GB model. I’d personally want a 256GB model and I’d be willing to pay the added cost for that amount of memory on the iPad.

When Digital Art Works Infringe

Posted in 3D Renderings, art, best practices, computers, economy by commorancy on March 12, 2012

What is art?  Art is an image expression created by an individual using some type of media.  Traditional media typically includes acrylic paint, oil paint, watercolor, clay or porcelain sculpture, screen printing, metal etching and printing, screen printing or any of any other tangible type media.  Art can also be made from found objects such as bicycles, inner tubes, paper, trash, tires, urinals or anything else that can be found and incorporated.  Sometimes the objects are painted, sometimes not.  Art is the expression once it has been completed.

Digital Art

So, what’s different about digital art?  Nothing really.  Digital art is still based on using digital assets including software and 3D objects used to produce pixels in a 2D format that depicts an image.  Unlike traditional media, digital media is limited to flat 2D imagery when complete (unless printed and turned into a real world object.. which then becomes another form of ‘traditional found art media’ as listed above).

Copyrights

What are copyrights?  Copyrights are rights to copy a given specific likeness of something restricting usage to only those that have permission.  That is, an object or subject either real-world or digital-world has been created by someone and any likeness of that subject is considered copyright.  This has also extended to celebrities in that their likenesses can also be considered copyright by the celebrity.  That is, the likeness of a copyrighted subject is controlled strictly by the owner of the copyright.  Note that copyrights are born as soon as the object or person exists.  These are implicit copyrights.  These rights can be explicitly defined by submitting a form to the U.S. Copyright office or similar other agencies in other parts of the world.

Implicit or explicit, copyrights are there to restrict usage of that subject to those who wish to use it for their own gain.  Mickey Mouse is a good example of a copyrighted property.  Anyone who creates, for example, art containing a depiction of Mickey Mouse is infringing on Disney’s copyright if no permission was granted before usage.

Fair Use

What is fair use?  Fair use is supposed to be a way to use copyrighted works that allows for usage without permission.  Unfortunately, what’s considered fair use is pretty much left up to the copyright owner to decide.  If the copyright holder decides that a depiction is not considered fair use, it can be challenged in a court of law.  This pretty much means that any depiction of any copyrighted character, subject, item or thing can be challenged in a court of law by the copyright holder at any time.  In essence, fair use is a nice concept, but it doesn’t really exist in practice.  There are clear cases where a judge will decide that something is fair use, but only after ending up in court.  Basically, fair use should be defined so clearly and completely that, when something is used within those constraints, no court is required at all. Unfortunately, fair use isn’t defined that clearly.  Copyrights leave anyone attempting to use a copyrighted work at the mercy of the copyright holder in all cases except when permission is granted explicitly in writing.

Public Domain

Public domain is a type of copyright that says there is no copyright.  That is, the copyright no longer exists and the work can be freely used, given away, sold, copied or used in any way without permission to anyone.

3D Art Work

When computers first came into being with reasonable graphics, paint packages became common.  That is, a way to push pixels around on the screen to create an image.  At first, most of the usage of these packages were for utility (icons and video games).  Inevitably, this media evolved to mimic real world tools such as chalk, pastels, charcoal, ink, paint and other media.  But, these paint packages were still simply pushing pixels around on the screen in a flat way.

Enter 3D rendering.  These packages now mimic 3D objects in a 3D space.  These objects are placed into a 3D world and then effectively ‘photographed’.  So, 3D art has more in common with photography than it does painting.  But, the results can mimic painting through various rendering types.  Some renderers can simulate paint strokes, cartoon outlines, chalk and other real world media.  However, instead of just pushing pixels around with a paint package, you can load in 3D objects, place them and then ‘photograph’ them.

3D objects, Real World objects and Copyrights

All objects become copyrighted by the people who create them.  So, a 3D object may or may not need permission for usage (depending on how they were copyrighted).  However, when dealing with 3D objects, the permissions for usage of 3D objects are usually limited to copying and distribution of said objects.  Copyright does not generally cover creating a 3D rendered likeness of an object (unless, of course, the likeness happens to be Mickey Mouse) in which case it isn’t the object that’s copyrighted, but the subject matter. This is the gray area surrounding the use of 3D objects.  In the real world, you can run out and take a picture of your Lexus and post this on the web without any infringement.  In fact, you can sell your Lexus to someone else, because of the First Sale Doctrine, even though that object may be copyrighted.  You can also sell the photograph you took of your Lexus because it’s your photograph.

On the other hand, if you visit Disney World and take a picture of a costumed Mickey Mouse character, you don’t necessarily have the right to sell that photograph.  Why?  Because Mickey Mouse is a copyrighted character and Disney holds the ownership on all likenesses of that character.  You also took the photo inside the park which may have photographic restrictions (you have to read the ticket). Yes, it’s your photograph, but you don’t own the subject matter, Disney does.  Again, a gray area.  On the other hand, if you build a costume from scratch of Mickey Mouse and then photograph yourself in the costume outside the park, you still may not be able to sell the photograph.  You can likely post it to the web, but you likely can’t sell it due to the copyrighted character it contains.

In the digital world, these same ambiguous rules apply with even more exceptions.  If you use a 3D object of Mickey Mouse that you either created or obtained (it doesn’t really matter which because you’re not ultimately selling or giving away the 3D object) and you render that Mickey Mouse character in a rendering package, the resulting 2D image is still copyrighted by Disney because it contains a likeness of Mickey Mouse.  It’s the likeness that matters, not that you used an object of Mickey Mouse in the scene.

Basically, the resulting 2D image and the likeness it contains is what matters here.  If you happened to make the 3D object of Mickey Mouse from scratch (to create the 2D image), you’re still restricted.  You can’t sell that 3D object of Mickey Mouse either.  That’s still infringement.  You might be able to give it away, though, but Disney could still balk as it was unlicensed.

But, I bought a 3D model from Daz…

“am I not protected?” No, you’re not.  If you bought a 3D model of the likeness of a celebrity or of a copyrighted character, you are still infringing on that copyrighted property without permission.  Even if you use Daz’s own Genesis, M4 or other similar models, you could still be held liable for infringement even from the use of those models.  Daz grants usage of their base models in 2D images.  If you dress the model up to look like Snow White or Cruella DeVille from Disney’s films, these are Disney owned copyrighted characters.  If you dress them up to look like Superman, same story from Warner Brothers.  Daz’s protections only extend to the base figure they supply, but not once you dress and modify them.

The Bottom Line

If you are an artist and want to use any highly recognizable copyrighted characters like Mickey Mouse, Barbie, G.I. Joe, Spiderman, Batman or even current celebrity likenesses of Madonna, Angelina Jolie or Britney in any of your art, you could be held accountable for infringement as soon as the work is sold.  It may also be considered infringement if the subject is used in an inappropriate or inconsistent way with the character’s personality.  The days of Andy Warhol are over using celebrity likenesses in art (unless you explicitly commission a photograph of the subject and obtain permission to create the work).

It doesn’t really matter that you used a 3D character to simulate the likeness or who created that 3D object, what matters is that you produced a likeness of a copyrighted character in a 2D final image.  It’s that likeness that can cause issues.  If you intend to use copyrighted subject matter of others in your art, you should be extra careful with the final work as you could end up in court.

With art, it’s actually safer not to use recognizable copyrighted people, objects or characters in your work.  With art, it’s all about imagination anyway.  So, use your imagination to create your own copyrighted characters.  Don’t rely on the works of others to carry your artwork as profit motives are the whole point of contention with most copyright holders anyway.  However, don’t think you’re safe just because you gave the work away for free.

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