Thursday, September 24, 2009

Speed: Needed

One of the reasons I picked up Need for Speed Carbon, despite the fact that I still feel guilty about not finishing Most Wanted on PS2, is that I was looking for something else to make use of the Nerf Wii Wheel peripheral that so far I've only been using with Speed Racer. Now, I've only played it for two days, but in that time I have learned two things. One is that the game is generally pretty fun and the other is that the default "steering wheel" style control scheme is an unmitigated disaster. It is possible to control the car only in the loosest sense of the word, in the same way that if you shake a box with a cat inside you could be said to be "controlling" the cat. Yes, your actions affect its movement, but not in any kind of predictable or repeatable way. It's not a matter of the tilt being too sensitive or not sensitive enough; somehow it is both. Your car won't turn enough, until after the turn is over, at which point it will curve straight into a wall even though you have straightened the wheel. I've seen it said that there is a learning curve here, and maybe if I could figure out exactly when in the turn I ought to stop turning my car even though the turn is not done yet, there would some way to do it. But I suspect that by the time I mastered such a thing, the experience would bear little resemblance to operating a steering wheel anyway. Furthermore, I believe a simple thing like maneuvering a virtual car around a corner while not even at top speed should not require a learning curve tantamount to landing the space shuttle. Call me crazy, but that is just how I was raised.

At first I feared the game, though graphically gorgeous (for the Wii anyway) would be completely unplayable. There is no excuse for control this hopeless (especially when the Wii's other racers prove it's possible), and I can only conclude that the guys at EA simply failed at it. Maybe there is some specific issue with their physics model, which was designed to be controlled by an analog stick, that cannot be ported over to a tilting controller without destroying the fabric of the game. I don't know.

Happily, there are 5 control schemes here to choose from. One of them involves tilting the nunchuck, which works marginally better than the Wiimote (imagine an angry cat on a leash instead of in a box), but twisting a nunchuck is nothing like using a steering wheel anyway, so why bother? The last two options involve steering with the analog stick, which is an absolute delight, especially after an hour of slamming your unruly car into walls with your Wii wheel. The analog stick steering is, in fact, especially good, and furthermore, the Wiimote throttle control, in which you tilt the controller like a gas pedal, works like a charm. Yes, it sounds counterintuitive and completely stupid, but in fact it triggered an epiphany -- the key to racing, especially in these games, is actually not steering at all. After all, any idiot can steer (once he is using a sensible control scheme and not one that is fundamentally broken); one usually blows a race by trying to take a turn too fast. This is because mastering finesse with the gas, brake and handbrake are the key to success. Once I tried control scheme 5 (4 is nice too, as it tethers the Wiimote to brake/reverse as well as gas, but unfortunately the handbrake is operated by jerking back on the nunchuck, which doesn't seem to do anything), I found myself commanding the throttle and handbrake with an assurance and precision I had never experienced playing NFS with a conventional controller. In fact, it works so well, I wondered if EA's programmers had consciously not bothered to perfect steering wheel controls, so certain were they that the weird nunchuck-analog/Wiimote gas pedal scheme was superior.

So yes, the game is playable and so far, a lot of fun on the Wii -- not just in spite of, but even due to, the Wii's unique controls. But not the ones you expect.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Phones Are Ruining My Life

All of you with iPhones and Blackberries and assorted cool phones with apps and web browsing and so forth ought to know, every time I see you staring down at your phones, activating the screen with that precious little swipe-to-unlock, it is like a knife in my heart. Every time your status updates appear on Facebook with the attribution "from Facebook for iPhone," I fight back tears as my soul overflows with agonizing envy.

You see, most people are either frivolous enough to go ahead and spend money on fancy phones full of exciting features no one needs, or sensible enough to not care about them. Unfortunately, I am neither. I have an overwhelming gadget lust that is matched only by my unbearable cheapness. So what happens is, I look at these phones longingly, then discover how much they actually cost to operate on a month-to-month basis, and conclude that voluntarily doubling one of my monthly bills would be an act of extraordinary idiocy for someone with a modest income who is already carrying around massive debt.

If I were a reasonable person in full control of my faculties, it might end there. Unfortunately, every time I see a banner ad for a smartphone, or an individual engaging in the aforementioned screen-swipe, all my Want rushes back to the surface. I am locked in a struggle with consumerism. Don't get me wrong, consumerism is delightful if you lean back and let it wash over you (at least until you lose your job or something and discover that you are broke and your money has been squandered on trifles that will provide neither food nor shelter), but it's a force to be reckoned with should you try to resist. Everywhere you go, people are entranced by their little phones, blissfully tapping away. Obviously there is something awesome happening on phones these days, and here I am missing out on the modern world!

Where was I? Oh yes, so then I get sucked back in to my Phone Want. And I start searching for halfassed alternatives. Maybe the aptly named EnV Touch would sate my appetite; there's html web browsing and a second-rate but good-looking touch screen; and a flip-out keyboard for texting might be kind of nice. And there's even the VPak: an unlimited data plan, plus VCast videos, for $15! But would this really satisfy me? Would the savings be worth the reduced functionality? Maybe not. I talked myself out of it.

This week, Verizon replaced the VPak option with a limited data plan with no VCast for $5 more, and I lamented my missed opportunity to be grandfathered in. On the other hand, now there is the Samsung Rogue, a much slicker option as far as halfassed smartphone alternatives go. I'm not opposed to limited data plans as a concept; my limited text plan suits me fine. But Verizon's data limits are absurdly stingy and a terrible value. The $20 option, for 75 mb a month, is only $10 less than a Blackberry unlimited data plan. And the only unlimited options put you in territory that is exactly the same as a Blackberry. So why would you ever get a phone with less? It's like if GM made the Chevy Aveo cost the same as a Cadillac CTS -- is the Aveo really there to be bought or is it just there to make the upsell look better?

It's Apple's fault, actually -- their iPhone price drop has fucked the industry by forcing every carrier to flatten their handset prices to around $100, regardless of whether it makes any sense, and then to make back the subsidy with unreasonable data plans, just like AT&T.

I just want to stop thinking about phones. I want to stop reading reviews, comparing prices, hoping in vain to beat the system and find the nonexistent rate combinations that would actually make sense. It is a real problem.

I tried to psychoanalyze myself out of it. You don't really want a phone, I told myself. You want what the phone symbolizes: the financial security to spend money wastefully, the additional discretionary income that comes with the career success that continues to elude you. A phone would not make you happy. Focus on self-improvement and hard work and the rest will follow. Your phone obsession, and the absurd amount of time and mental energy it consumes, is only an impediment to your success. This worked for a week or two, but then it came back.

I know I don't need all this bullshit. I have a laptop I carry almost everywhere anyway. I have a fucking map in my car, and even that I only use about once a year. I go through an average day never needing the capability a smartphone would give me, except that I am constantly thinking about smartphones and how I could possibly acquire one.

The Blackberry Storm 2 looks like it's going to be pretty good.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

My Favorite Insomnia Cafe Bathroom Graffiti

From the bathroom of Insomnia Cafe, an insufferable yet invaluable screenwriter haunt:

Today is my last day with Jon DuBos and I just want the world to know he's my Best Friend and I love him more than you will ever know.
- Sam Sam

He knows
He loves Sam Sam too!
=) 8-19-07

Today I celebrate one year without Jon DuBos. Awesome! To think I ever thought he was my Best Friend(!) or even cool! Looking back, I now see what a douchebag he was. I loathe him more than you will ever know.
-Sam Sam


By the way, does anyone know what "BFM forever" is supposed to mean?