Harmony in Paradise

27/03/2010

Well it turns out I actually have a lot to say about Robot Unicorn Attack and thought that it’s better to actually write and publish it in chunks rather than what I usually do which is write huuuuuge and immense posts that I never finish so never publish.

The other night I was enjoying the therapeutic balm of RUA, enhanced by my lovely AmbX lights and Aurora Synesthesia and when my consciousness returned inbetween wishes I wondered about why RUA is so good.  There’s a definite er… synergy between the music and the game.  The music often ascends and is full of positive uplifting words.  There’s continuous motion for your character towards the right.  The two player controls are dashing, which moves you to the right on the screen, and jumping, which moves you up and to the right.

The play structure is such that being up and to the right is rewarding and uplifting.  Double-jumps are so weirdly satisfying in games, and in RUA the timing needed/allowed is perfect.  It enables you to match the speed and shape of the music.  Somehow, all this means that the game can flow and give you the feeling that you’re getting somewhere, that it will all be worth it in the end.  Then you crash.  It’s just below frustrating.  Then I realised what else gave me that feeling.  Burnout.

Much as I love RUA and will prescribe it to all and sundry, I also like the feeling of getting somewhere.  I mean, really getting something done.  Not real things for goodness sake, I mean things in games.  I’ve got loads of games that I need to finish, so playing RUA is wasting precious time.  It might seem like I’m getting somewhere, but I’ll never recover that document in Stalker or find the secrets of Rapture at this rate.  I’ve god stuff to do. Like collecting all the cars in Burnout Paradise..

I loved Burnout 3 on the PS2.  The slow motion and the crash mode were the best.  Over Xmaz, Burnout Paradise was less than a fiver on Steam.  My dad (yes I have one) gave me some money and so I’ve decided that he bought it for me.  Actually I’m not sure I told him that.  He also got me The Orange Box in the same sale by the way.  Cheers dad!  Chad!

Well I say that I need to collect all the cars.  I also need to crash through all the billboards and yellow barriers.  I also don’t really care about those things.  I felt I needed to finish Portal for that whole “deficit theory of gaming” thing.  I needed to get Half-Life 2 so that I could play fantastic indie mods.  Burnout Paradise was a frivolous purchase.  Just for fun.  Fun it certainly is.  It’s the same as RUA.  There’s a flying swooping feeling to the driving.  Crashes are beautiful.  The game is just this side of frustrating.  The openness of it means that you are encouraged to just do something else.  On top of that the cars that open up and the events that get ticked off provide an ongoing sense of achievement far beyond merely beating a previous score.  All this we know.

What occured to me though was the flying swooping feeling.  Paradise city is supposed to seem haphazard.  It’s an open world with no set racetracks.  It’s obvious though that the designers spent a great deal of time on constructing routes.  Unfinished bridges which line up with train tracks or whatever.  All of which enables you to soar.  I was surprised that there were so few musical tracks with the game.  There were loads in Burnout 3. Neither can you make custom playlists of your own music.  That seems a pity, I love DJ Atomica.  As it goes I just googled “Erasure Radio Station”, loaded up LastFM, set my AmbX, alt-tabbed to Burnout and there was harmony in Paradise.

I bought myself the “Philips AMBX Advanced Interactive Gaming Lighting System *Currently Includes Free PC Games Operation Flashpoint 2 and TOCA Race Driver 3
er… w00t? Well yes. Dunno if you’ve heard of them, or of Philips’ Ambilight. They’re a set of lights that you put around your computer and behind your monitor that are controlled by your computer to enhance whatever is on your monitor. I’m in love with these flashy lights. Once they’re really working properly, they’re like the opposite of distracting. Play a game where you’re running around in the sun and they are bright and white, go underground and you’re plunged into darkness. Trigger that burglar alarm, and your Ambx lights flash as red as the ones on screen. Actually, it’s cleverer than that. Simplest case: if the left of your screen is blue and the right is red, then the lights to the left will be blue, and the ones to the right will be red. They’re capable of a great deal of subtlety.

The lights are driven by RGB LEDS that are really really bright and are able to do yer full 16.8 Megacolours. They have a real quality feel and a pleasing soothing modern laid-back style. If you just wanted to buy some lights I think you’d be hard pressed to find two table lamps and a three way wall-washer for less than £60. Oh, and for whatever reason, Ambx starter kits are currently readily available for £25 inc p&p. Having got them, and loved them, I have also bought the add on rumbling wrist-rest and fans o_O!

You see the original idea was that games makers could use Ambx’s scripting language to embed effects in their games.  Console gaming has taught us that rumbling feedback is surprisingly immersive.  A rumbling wrist rest brings that to PC gaming.  The fans seem more mental.  Yeah, I had to have them.   You point them at your face and they simulate wind effects.  The starter set comes with TOCA 3 which apparently makes full use of them and is definitely a serious pain to get to work on my Windows 7 install so I have no idea about that.  Hmmph.  However, if you pitch in now you can get Operation Flashpoint – Dragon Rising for free too.  I’ve had a quick go of that and the wind is surprisingly good.  A very gentle breeze when I was out in the open, which I only really noticed when I went indoors ducked into cover and the air was still.  Hmm.  In the alternate universe where they became popular an intelligent use of them may have evolved into something wonderful    By lucky hap I happened to have bought, and not even installed  Elder Scrolls IV –  Oblivion which apparently makes good use of the fans with things like a little puff of wind when you open a door.   Yeah not yet played that.  I’ve only just completed Portal, and I’ve only just started on Bioshock so bear with me.  I’m looking forward to eventually picking up Far Cry 2 which has proper weather and full on directional wind… (fnarr).

Ambx scripting means that effects can be tied to off-screen events. So the lights can pulse red when you’re low on life. Or represent the location of the Sun, even if it’s off screen.  The system uses 8 different directions, so you can surround yourself with lights and fans.   Ooh imagine spinning round at sunset… I don’t think I’ll be buying another set of fans though… hmm.. we’ll see.  To be honest though, buying the fans is only something to do if you are either very silly, or you are very serious about games and don’t care if all the games you could ever use them for have already been written.  Cos the fans and wrumble wrest-rist will only work if they’ve been coded into the game, or the Ambx dudes have written a patch.

As for the lights, so far every game I’ve played has worked.  If Ambx detects game a game it doesn’t recognise it gives you the option to enable lighting effects with one of several profiles (racer, fps, rpg, rts, and the ever popular “default”.  For these detected games the effects can only be based on what’s on the screen but that alone has made my enjoyment all the better.  It give you ambient light that isn’t distracting.  It gives you the illusion that you have a wall-sized monitor but that you’re only focussing on the middle bit.

There’s a full list of the games that support Ambx here.

… AMBX means that I can watch movies at night without it being one bright square in a dark room.  Did I say movies?  Yes, AMBX also detects media players.  There’s embedded code in Windows Media that means the lights can react to sound.  Outside of entertainment an included app uses the lights for various Windows events (warnings, USB device plug ins, IM notification…)  Of you do dive in and buy the lights (and you so should) then let me mark your card as to what to do next. Philips developed the technology, but have since spun the Ambx brand out as a separate company. It’s there that you want to go to get the latest software to drive your beastie.

I must make a special mention of Aurora Synesthesia which is software written by an enthusiast. It’s great and combines reacting to what’s on the screen with reacting in a sound-to-light way. You just leave it running in the tray and it applies lighting effects to whatever’s on your screen. Web pages, youtubeifyouwantto. I originally had the Ambx for Audiosurf set to be “racer”. I’ve now turned that off and use Aurora Synesthesia since that amazing game is more like a visualiser…

So even if no-one ever makes anything for the damn things ever again they’re amazing. Oh, and in January, Mad Katz announced a licensing deal to manufacture Ambx peripherals for the Playstation 3, so the story may well continue.