About Me

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I'm a colonist who has declared war on machines and intend to conquer them some day. You'll often find me deep in the trenches fighting off bugs and ugly defects in code. When I'm not tappity-tapping at my WMD (also, known as keyboard), you'll find me chatting with friends, reading comics or playing a PC game.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Game Review : Mark of the Ninja (PC)

Mark of the Ninja, developed by Klei Entertainment and published by Microsoft Studios, is a 2D side scrolling game with a focus on stealth tactics. While there do exist many other games in the same genre, Mark of the Ninja stands out with its innovative game mechanics and alluring art direction. The game was initially released for the XBox 360 and subsequently made its way onto Windows via Steam.

You play as a Ninja who has been marked by the Hisomu clan with a special ink that grants you access to unique powers and abilities. Unfortunately, these powers come at a price as they will ultimately drive the “marked one” insane. After a western arms corporation slaughter many inhabitants in your ancestral home, the master of the clan orders you to set things right by assassinating the head of the corporation. Throughout the game, your faithful companion Ora, guides you in the ways of the Ninja with helpful hints and tips that always keep the game fast paced and the events flowing. The story features some interesting twists and although you do see the end coming a mile away, that doesn't make it any less epic.

The controls for the PC version of the game involve using a combination of keyboard and mouse. The keyboard gives you total command over character movement whether it be dodging past lasers, jumping over rooftops or peeking through vents. The mouse allows you to target objects in the environment or perform stealth kills. The latter has an interesting control scheme. When performing a stealth kill, you first sneak up on an unsuspecting enemy and press the left mouse button. The character then goes into strike mode where everything on the screen fades out except for the hunter and his quarry. The on-screen notification then indicates a direction in which the user must swipe the mouse. Swiping in the indicated direction will let the Ninja perform a clean kill. If you swipe in the wrong direction, the execution will be carried out in an unprofessional manner allowing the prey to kick and scream while being gutted. This could attract the attention of nearby enemies.

Performing a stealth kill

Being a Ninja, you naturally adopt the ways of the sword and prefer stealth over direct confrontation. Entering into direct combat usually ends up in you dying because guards can fire bullets while you only have a sword. Every scenario in the game allows you to take down your victims or sneak past them using guile. Your basic tools involve a trusty sword for combat, a grappling hook and an unlimited supply of darts. Apart from these basic tools, you can also equip distraction and attack items. Distraction items let you effectively manipulate your foes by making noise or concealing yourself. Attack items are intended to harm or kill your enemies.

Two interesting notions that play out well in Mark of the Ninja are light and sound. Guards cannot see you in darkness (although dogs can sniff you out!). When you step into the light, however, guards will immediately spot you in their line of sight. This makes for some interesting gameplay as you take out spot lights or navigate around them just so that guards don't see you. Sounds in the game are visually represented as circles. A lot of actions in the game make sound - heavy footsteps, speech, breaking objects or birds. This can be used to your advantage to distract or prepare an ambush for guards as they investigate the source of a noise.

While the AI in Mark of the Ninja certainly isn't bad, it is far from perfect. Guards follow scripted patrol patterns which allow you to time your attacks or steal past them. Enemies seem hardly perturbed when a guard goes missing from his post. Likewise, guards sometimes don't notice when a light goes out, as long as they don't hear or see it happening. While an overly aggressive AI might detract from the gameplay experience, it does make the player find such situations a tad bit odd. This is because the enemy AI is surprisingly good in other areas! Guards become suspicious when they catch a glimpse of you ducking behind cover and dogs start tracking your position once they get a whiff of your scent. There is nothing more satisfying than stringing up an enemy only to watch unsuspecting guards cringe in terror when they chance upon the dead body!

In Mark of the Ninja, you learn to effectively use the environment to your advantage by concealing yourself in dumpsters, behind pots, or under vents. You can also throw darts at lights or other objects in the environment to distract enemies. The environment isn't always your friend though. Dangerous trip wires, lasers, booby traps and motion sensors force you to watch your step. You can also take down enemies from vantage points or concealed areas.

The graphics in Mark of the Ninja are certainly gorgeous. Character art appears to be inspired by Klei’s previous franchise - Shank. Level backdrops span sprawling cityscapes to rainy industrial settings and sandstorm deserts. Jawdropping animations look and play the part too! Interesting cutscenes are interspersed between missions and keep you engrossed in the game. The only minor fault here is that there aren’t enough stealth kill animations. The same animations are particularly noticeable because as a bad-ass Ninja, you’d certainly want to take out every fool that stands in your way!

The environment art delivers a surreal effect to scenes

Score system
The score system in Mark of the Ninja is based on points and seals. Points can be earned per mission depending on your actions. For example, stealth killing enemies give you points and hiding their bodies give you more points. If an enemy spots you and sounds the alarm, you lose points. By reaching a specific score in a mission, you get rewarded with seals.

Skill upgrades and unlockables
There are plenty of hidden secrets in Mark of the Ninja. These come by way of scrolls and artifacts. Scrolls reveal the history of the Hisomu clan in the form of haiku while artifacts simply award you points. Seals can be spent to upgrade your character skills or buy new types of distraction and attack items. New character skills allow you to perform stealth kills with amazing ease and become very handy as the game progresses. The game also features 6 unlockable costumes that you can earn by performing various mission achievements (not related to Steam achievements). These achievements might have you doing things such as “Take out 20 lights” or “Terrorize a guard into shooting another guard”. Each costume features both unique traits and shortfalls.

Mark of the Ninja is not a game entirely without shortcomings. The lack of a multiplayer component lessens the engagement time for any player. There is, however, a New Game Plus mode but this doesn’t introduce anything new in the game. That being said, Mark of the Ninja is one of the finest stealth games to be had and playing it will genuinely be a fun-filled experience. The game is available on Steam for 14.99 USD. This is in stark contrast to other 60 dollar games that can give you a much less bang for your buck. So, what are you waiting for? Sheath your sword and shroud yourself in darkness. Become a Ninja!

Do you think this game review was fair? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Amateurs and smartphones

Recently a friend of mine picked my thoughts on how mobile phones are changing the landscape of photography. The way I see it, the recent wave of smartphones are indeed redefining the amateur photography scene. So, here go my two cents in a bulleted list:

  • Ease of use
I had bought a Sony DSC TX-10 but I rarely use it because it's more handy to just whip out my phone when that interesting shot presents itself. This is in spite of the fact that the Sony DSC is a portable series of cameras. It's just that my iPhone is more portable.

  • Availability
The mobile smartphone does more than just photos and videos. For that reason, you always have it on you when travelling. Digital cameras may not always be available unless you're going out on a prepared photo session. As an amateur photographer, you'd want to take photos of things like an impromptu group gathering or something interesting you saw on your way to work.

  • Apps
An interesting feature of smartphones is the apps. Apps provide primary-level image editing functionality. With just a few optional tweaks, I can make the colours in an image really pop or I can do something artsy. I can crop, rotate and apply some after-effects as well. An app on my smartphone can never replace Photoshop or LightRoom but there is something to be said for the ability to "spice" up my photos on the go. A great example of a professional photography app is Camera+ for the iPhone.

  • Social features
Another thing that mobile phones have going for them is their ubiquity and a connection to the internet. Almost everyone has a smartphone nowadays and it makes sense that people would want to share these photos with the world. What smartphones allow is simple click-and-share or maybe click-tweak-and-share functionality. There's no lengthy process of copying images to your computer, editing them and then uploading the processed images to your favourite social network. Some services like Instagram have even gone a step further and tied their app to a social network exclusively for mobile photos.

In my humble opinion, smart phones are great if you want to take simple low-res pics on the fly. It would be very hard to take those really awesome shots that we see on shutterstock or in model portfolios with standard smartphones. For example; you'd have to be really pro to manage a bokeh with an iPhone 4S. That being said, future advances in technology may well prove me wrong.

(A couple of photos I took with my iPhone 4S)