Zero Lives - Episode 005: Mass Effect 3

App of the Week: Microsoft Solitaire Collection

Microsoft Solitaire Collection
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform: Windows Phone
Price: Free!

What's this!?  The Solitaire Collection again?  Well, yes...and no.  This time, the collection of popular games (Klondike, FreeCell, Spider, TriPeaks, and Pyramid) have come to the phone.  For the most part everything plays the same with only some minor differences.  And unfortunately, all of those differences are horrible.

First and foremost, the game is poorly optimized for the platform.  A single game of Klondike made my Nokia Lumia 920 uncomfortably warm.  Even if I just grasped the edges with my fingers, I could feel the heat radiating off the back of the phone.  And because the CPU is being worked so hard, the battery drains rapidly.  There are reports that it will even drain the battery with the phone plugged in.  There's simply no excuse for that.

The other big draw is the advertisements.  Yes, I understand it's a free game, but so was the desktop client.  And that version would only have ads between games when displaying stats.  Now, the ads will not go away.  They're locked at the bottom of the screen and more often than not, are ads for other Microsoft titles like Mahjong and Minesweeper.  Now it's fine that you've put an app out for free and you want to advertise your other free games, but the way it's implemented in this app is quite distracting.

My biggest personal gripe is the hidden UI.  To change the settings for a games (ex. draw three to draw one, etc.), you have to tap the lower right hand corner of the screen to bring up the settings.  There is no indicator that is where the settings are.  The only other settings menu is on the home screen for the app and it's just general settings like volume control.  It's hidden UI elements like this that turned people off to Windows 8.  There's absolutely no need for it here.  The fact that I found it completely by accident is a terrible design choice.

The last minor gripe is that themes can't be customized.  It's not a huge deal, but I was a big fan of that inclusion for the desktop version.  And since the phone client is capable of syncing with cloud saved games for the desktop, why not themes used on the desktop?

Overall, this is a terrible offering from Microsoft.  There are other, better versions of these games available on the Marketplace.  Do yourself a favor and avoid it until they decide to patch such issues as the battery and CPU usage.

A Look at the Gods of Smite - Chronos

My review of the god eternal, Chronos, is up at!

A Look at the Gods of Smite - Ne Zha

My review of the Chinese Boy Wonder is up at!

Fix It! Asus Vivo Tab RT's Flickering Screen

Image courtesy of PC Mag.

Today I've come across an issue which has apparently afflicted many other owners of the Asus Vivo Tab RT.  After using the tablet all day yesterday without issue, I opened it up today and noticed the screen was flickering.  Nothing I tried would fix it: changing the brightness settings, adjusting power options, rebooting, completely turning off and back on, or removing it from the dock. 

Other users reported the issue after applying a firmware update released earlier this year.  My own tablet is completely up to date as far as Windows and Asus are concerned.  Possible solutions included rolling back the nVidia Tegra 3 display driver, upgrading to Windows 8.1, installing any missing updates, or performing a System Reset when all else fails.

In my case, I didn't have the option to roll back the driver, I already have 8.1 installed, and my machine is completely up to date.  Rather than set myself back by completely resetting the machine to factory settings, I opted for a System Refresh.  This kept all of my data intact, but reset every other component.  The process took about an hour to complete and once it was done, the flickering had disappeared.

There's still no official fix for the issue and it's apparently sporadic as to when it will occur.  I've had my tablet for several months and this is the first time I've encountered it.  Either way, this is what worked for me.  If you're one of the handful with this tablet, hopefully this will help.

App of the Week: Nokia Creative Studio

Nokia Creative Studio
Publisher: Nokia
Platform: Windows Phone 8
Price: Free!

Photo editing apps are a dime a dozen.  Or maybe a few hundred for a penny.  I don't know.  A lot of them are free.  So that's why it takes something a little special to stand out from the crowd.   And Nokia has been doing a splendid job of that for Windows Phone.  It's their unending support with top notch apps and incredible build quality that will ensure I continue to buy Nokia headsets.

Nokia Creative Studio is a simple, easy to use photo editor.  It offers several editing features that can put a creative spin on your pictures.  Focus and blur allows the focusing of objects by drawing around the subject you want in focus and then drawing a secondary line around the background.  It can be a little cumbersome drawing with your finger to get all the details, but overall, it's a great way of drawing focus to a particular area.

Radial and tilt shift is also an option and is fun for making photos look like miniatures.  Beyond that, I haven't found much use for the feature.

Color pop allows you to modify a picture, making it monochrome for the most part and picking specific items in the picture to have color.

Collage is self-explanatory.  Take a group of photos and arrange them into a photo collage.

Starting out with the app allows choosing a specific color scheme to work with.  From monochrome to opal and jade, there's a wide range to start working with.  And much like any other photo editor, there are the options to adjust color balance, brightness, clarity, vibrancy, crop, rotate, and fix red eye.  So it has the standard features of most photo editors, but the few extras make it stand out to me.  If you have a Nokia Windows Phone, there's no reason not to add this free app to your collection.

App of the Week: Google Search

Google Search
Publisher: Google
Platform: Windows 8, Windows RT
Cost: Free!

When Microsoft decided to integrate Bing Search deeper within the Windows 8 OS, I thought I could get used to it.  After all, I just needed to keep using the search pane rather than the dedicated app.  But as I used it more and more, the strangest thing happened.  I started to miss the Bing app.  I liked having one dedicated app for searching.  Much like the search button on my Windows Phone, I found it easy to use.  But that went away.  And honestly, I'm not a fan of having to sift through the multitude of results for whatever it is I'm looking for.  As much as I grew to like Bing, I knew in my heart of hearts that I'd go back to Google sooner or later.  With the Google Search app for Windows 8 and Windows RT, I'm glad I finally have.

For me, the Google Search app picks up where the Bing app left off.  And then it improves on it several times over.  To get the most use out of the app, you'll need to sign in.  From there, Google will continue to collect data on you, but it uses that data to tailor results for you.  And, it allows you to use the most popular Google apps like Gmail, Drive, etc.  Another great feature is that all of the apps are contained within Google Search itself.  Even launching the Blogger app stays within.  That alone makes Google Search a great addition to my RT lineup.

But the feature that blew me away was voice search.  The app seamlessly connected with my machine's microphone and literally within seconds I was searching by voice alone.  The app was clever enough to pick up on every word I was saying, including phrases like "What was the score of the Packers game?"  And a majority of the search results will be narrated and give a little more info before clicking through a link.  I love the voice command feature that Kinect allows me to use with the Xbox 360.  And until Cortana arrives, I think Google may have filled a void I didn't think needed filling.

Google Search is a must have app for any Windows 8 or Windows RT user. Not only because of the general search feature, but because of the way it ties into the Google ecosystem and provides many of the tools in demand for both work and home.  Do yourself a favor and download it now.

App of the Week: Netflix

Publisher: Netflix
Platform: Damn near everything
Cost: Monthly Subscription

There's not a civilized soul alive that doesn't know about Netflix.  So much of what I'll say may will probably be old news to some.  However, the changes that the company has been making have only increased the usability of the app, especially on the Xbox 360.

First and foremost, Netflix has finally added profiles to the mix!  Up to five profiles can be set up under a single account.  This allows users to custom tailor Netflix to their personal tastes.  No longer will parents be forced to sift through recommendations based on their children's love of My Little Pony.  Profiles can be named and assigned a unique avatar.  Upon launching the app, it will now prompt for a profile.  And for those sharing the account with friends and family, this feature alone may be the greatest addition the app has ever seen.

But Netflix has also been tinkering with the look of the app on the Xbox 360.  Titles are still sorted by category, but titles no longer expand into a slideshow of stills when highlighted.  Instead, the stills will play across the top third of the screen alongside a description at the top.  The cover and categories stay at the bottom and make searching easier.  And overall, the appearance is slicker and a slight bit easier to navigate.

Voice control with the Kinect is still in place, but it doesn't seem as responsive.  It could just be me.  The family Xbox has shown its true colors more than once by responding to everyone's commands but mine...on my profile.  Regardless, I feel like I'm yelling at the Xbox more in a vain effort to get it to respond.  Accents and changes in pitch seem to have little effect.

Beyond the profiles, the changes are superficial, but still welcome.  Netflix continues to improve and each update only reflects this.  Thanks to its incredible lineup and ease of use, I'd say it's the most heavily used app on our Xbox 360.  And based on Xbox usage stats, it seems this is the case for many.  Clearly, Netflix is doing something right.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II

The Force Unleashed was met with generally positive reception from both fans and critics alike despite noted repetition in enemies and levels.  And after what seemed like a death of protagonist, Starkiller, at the end of the game, many were left wondering what route a sequel could take.  Two years later, everyone got their answer with The Force Unleashed II.

Clones.  The answer is clones.  Starkiller really did die at the end of the first game, giving everything so the Rebel Alliance could form.  Roughly six months after the end of the first game and just before Episode IV, players find that Vader has been up to his yellow eyeballs in cloning another secret apprentice on Kamino.  After going through countless clones, we meet this latest one who has failed yet another one of Vader’s tests when he refuses to kill an assassin droid with the guise of Starkiller’s main squeeze, Juno Eclipse.

As he’s set to be executed, Clone Starkiller breaks free from the cloning facility and makes his way off-world chasing the memories of the original Starkiller.  Along the way he runs into the original’s former allies, General Kota and Bail Organa.  Throw in a completely forced cameo from Yoda and a pointless vision quest in the same cave Luke will later journey through and it’s clear that the game is primarily pointless fan service.  There’s very little substance to the game and even when compared to the first, it falls short.  Neither game feels essential to the canon of the series.  Rather than focus on a compelling and unique story that could have been brilliant like the Expanded Universe, it was decided to make as many unnecessary ties to major merchandising points as possible.  So Boba Fett and Yoda were shoehorned into the story.  Both could be removed with little to no detriment to the overall story. 

A large problem with the first game was repetition.  There wasn’t much variety to enemies and the second half of the game had Starkiller running through the exact same locations as the first half.  The Force Unleashed II follows in those same footsteps for the same terrible effect.  Throw in more quicktime events for finishing moves on bosses which never change and it starts to get old fast.

It doesn’t help that from the Starkiller feels a bit overpowered.  Granted, he’s supposed to be incredibly powerful, but from the first level the only challenge is the amount of enemies thrown at him.  But there’s no variety to the fights.  Each enemy must be taken down in the manner unique to them, which is never more than one.  So each forced fight in the painfully guided levels is just an echo of the last.  It would have been nice if there were several different ways to tackle a fight, but there just aren’t.  And each breaks down to forcing your way through.  There is no finesse required and any real style isn’t rewarded.  And when you’re spamming the same moves repeatedly and winning, there’s no need to try anything else and thus the other skills available and the “skill tree” becomes completely irrelevant.

The game looks and sounds like Star Wars, but much like many of the cash grabs the series has been making of late, the whole thing feels hollow.  The cutscenes are absolutely astounding and the amount of detail is incredible.  The much touted Havok and Digital Molecular Matter engines are put to great use as nearly everything is destructible in the game.  Enemies can be cut apart in nearly any manner and their bodies react accordingly when interacting with the environment.  No game outside of The Force Unleashed series captures the raw power of the Jedi.  The body of the game is solid, it just lacks soul.

In the end, that’s all The Force Unleashed II is.  There are some new environments and two lightsabers, but not much more.  The story is forgettable and there’s no deviation from the design choices that were so heavily criticized in the first game.  This game could have been so much more, and it’s indicative of what is wrong with the franchise as a whole.  It’s become a lazy cash-in of the name and that’s just not enough.

Aurora Lakeland Medical Center's Cheeseburger

Place: Aurora Lakeland Medical Center
Location: Elkhorn, WI
Ingredients: American Cheese

While waiting for my son's birth and helping Kim through the labor pains that accompany that, a perverse idea struck me.  I'm going to have to order lunch.  They have burgers here.  I write reviews about the burgers I've eaten on my site!  I should review another hospital's burger!

And so my order was placed.  And I waited.  And waited some more.  An hour later, my "Dad Tray" finally came and the smell of the plastic warming cover combined with the overly processed food assailed my senses, causing flashbacks of the kitchen I had worked in over a decade ago.  I guess some things never change.

And indeed they don't.  The burger was exactly as I had remembered it.  The bland patty had just enough meat in it to be called a hamburger as it sat between two of the lowest grade bun halves.  While it wasn't horrible, it was just so basic and disheartening.  This burger was the calculated result of research whose sole aim was to determine, "just how little do we have to produce to make an edible product and call it a hamburger?"

On the Side:
Crinkle cut fries that were soggier than a sauna towel

Photos! Wisps and the Moon

I took this photo about a month ago.  The moon was full and there was a beautiful halo around it.  Now, despite the incredible technology behind the Lumia 920's camera, it is absolute crap when it comes to taking a decent photo of the moon.  Fortunately, my inexperience with taking good photos led me to snapping the picture while exhaling.  Thus, my breath was forever frozen in this moment that I think ended up being a fairly decent photo.

The Game Master

At the end of a long day filled with disappointment in humanity, I found myself at the local Wal-Mart.  Now I understand that Wal-Mart is the lowest common denominator of what humanity has to offer.  But I'll be damned if you can beat the deals and selection of their various wares of questionable quality.

As I meandered through the aisles, I naturally found myself in the electronics department, specifically the video game aisles.  I wasn't looking for anything in particular, but it was a habit I had formed, perusing the latest releases and other titles and accessories from prior generations being sold at extortion rates.  I was specifically looking at the latest Skylanders offerings, wondering if I should get a companion for Drobot.  I quickly chastised myself for being a fool.  Drobot is the greatest skylander there is.  Why would I ever need another one?  But..what if I got another Drobot?  Great Odin's raven!  I would be unstoppable!

While I was lost in the fantasy of robotic dragons firing blistering eye lasers, I was rudely pulled from my thoughts by a pre-pubescent voice.

"So you like video games?"

I turned to my right and saw the owner of the voice was a young boy with dirty blonde hair that was cut short.  His small nose twitched as he sniffled and snorted, aborting his snot's escape attempt from Nasal Narrows.

A look of confusion must have played across my face, but he didn't seem to notice.  "...Yes.  I enjoy video games."

"Yeah, video games are great."  He turned slightly, gesturing at the consoles set up for shoppers to try out.  His arms spread out like a showman who had just finished a trick.  "I've beat every game out there."  His arms lifted a bit higher, as if taunting me, before dropping again.  "Well, every game except for Grand Theft Auto.  I'm the Game Master."

I looked at him in disbelief and started making my way past him, trying to leave the aisle.  He then began walking next to me.  I'm a complete stranger.  I'm the stranger parents warn their kids about.  The hobo looking fellow with the scruffy beard and long hair.  I should evoke terror in his tiny heart.  Either the stereotype has changed, his parents never told him, or he was too stupid to know better.

"Well, you're too young to play a game like that."

My words had no effect on him as he stopped and looked up at me.  With tone that made it clear he thought I was an idiot, he stated "I'm 12.  I've played Call of Duty."

Rather than be the creepy bearded guy talking to a young boy next to a Wii U display showing off the latest Mario title, I dropped my planned rebuttal of a detailed explanation of the ESRB system and why he shouldn't play a title like that.  Without looking at him, I shrugged my shoulders in defeat and muttered "Uh huh." before walking off.

Thankfully he stayed within the confines of the gaming section as if he were a proud dog guarding his territory.  As I made my way out of the store, I realized with a brutal clarity that he is the stereotypical kid on PSN and Xbox Live.  The one with the high pitched voice that cracks from time to time as he hurls insults about my sexuality and the depraved encounter he had with my team's mothers.  I had indeed met "The Game Master."

Photos! The Foggy Graveyard

I'll admit that I'm not much of a photographer.  I have no grasp of composition, lighting, or alignment to take a decent photo.  But as a thick fog has enshrouded the surrounding area and I had some free time, I decided to take some shots at the local cemetery.

App of the Week: Halo: Spartan Assault

Halo: Spartan Assault
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform: Windows 8, Windows RT, Windows Phone 8
Price: $3.49

It was only a matter of time before a Halo title found its way to the new mobile Windows platforms.  And it's a hell of an entry.  Much like Infinity Blade did for iOS, Halo: Spartan Assault has raised the bar for mobile games on Windows.

Acting as a training simulation withing the newly created Spartan Ops program aboard the UNSC Infinity, Spartan Assault chronicles the events of Spartan Davis and Spartan Commander, Sarah Palmer.  The story is spread across six operations containing five missions each.  A rogue group of covenant have broken the peace treaty brokered at the end of Halo 3 and have unleashed hell on another planet containing Forerunner technology.  It's not the most original story, but hits all of the bullet points necessary for a Halo game.  It's enough to keep the game moving along, but skipping the beautiful drawn cutscenes and pre-mission text won't detract from the overall experience.  It's kind of hard to do that when each mission breaks down to killing alien by whatever means necessary.

And that's truly the strongest aspect of Spartan Assault.  Much like Halo 4, there's a load-out that can be customized before each mission.  The customization is fairly limited as weapons are preset for each mission and the primary weapon can only be swapped out if the player has accrued enough experience from previous missions.  The new weapon will only be available for the next mission unless purchased again.  But each gun consumes ammunition with gluttonous glee, so expect to scavenge for weapons frequently.

All of the favorites from the series are there and in strong showing.  Each performs as it always has except of course for sniper rifles.  While they still pack a punch, there's no way to sight up an enemy and pull off a satisfying headshot.

Played from a top-down perspective, the Spartans are moved with a virtual joystick on the left and guns fired in any direction with a right virtual joystick.  With this control scheme, Spartan Assault plays like a classic top-down shooter.  However, the controls are so responsive and silky smooth, that it's hard to believe it's being played on a touch device.  Despite support keyboard and mouse and even the Xbox 360 controller, Spartan Assault handles beautifully with the virtual controls.  The rest of the controls are spread along the bottom and right hand sides of the screen in a clear, easy to access fashion.  The simple layout combined with the highly responsive controls puts Spartan Assault at the top of the mountain as far as mobile controls are concerned.  It's simply unbelievable how quickly and natural it felt to circle strafe targets and not have any rogue shots.

Graphics are as good as can be expected for a title like this.  Everything looks as it should, from weapons and effects to character models and environments.  It's not astounding like Infinity Blade, but it's no slouch either.  And for being a game capable of running on Windows Phone and Windows RT, it's extremely good looking.

Since its release, an additional operation has been added, Hydra, which tacks on five new missions.  Missions can be completed in a few minutes which makes this a perfect title for on the go gaming.  And for a title to be so well polished and have such compelling gameplay, the low price is all the more enticing.  For those still on the fence, there's a free "Lite" version which gives a taste of the story and the first level of play.  But I can almost guarantee that anyone who gives it a try will immediately buy the full version.

Release Calendar: December 2013

December 09:
Peggle 2 (Xbox One)

December 10:
Sorcery Saga: Curse of the Great Curry God (PS Vita)

December 11:
Europa Universalis IV: Conquest of Paradise (PC)

December 12:
Let's Sing (PC)

December 18:
Jett Tailfin Racers (3DS)

December 31:
Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD (PS Vita, PS3)