Thursday, March 16, 2017

Nintendo Switch Review / Zelda: Breath of the Wild Thoughts


Note: this is less of a formal review and more of a random collection of thoughts and impressions after playing Zelda on the Nintendo Switch for about a week.

When details about the Nintendo Switch came out, I wanted to take a "wait and see" approach. I passed on the Wii U and that turns out to have been the right decision so I wanted to be cautious again about Nintendo's next system, despite being a pretty devoted Nintendo fanboy for most of my life. As March 3, 2017 drew nearer and as hype for the system and especially for the new Zelda started building, I eventually became obsessed (as I often do with new gadgets) and decided I must get one.. by this point it was too late to preorder and availability of the new console was (and still is) scarce.

Making the "Switch"



I waited in line at multiple Target stores early on Sunday morning two days after the official Switch release but there just weren't enough Switches to go around. Eventually I lucked out because my two friends Chris and Bianca picked up a Switch for me at a Target in the middle of nowhere (somewhere near Gilroy) on their drive back up from LA.

Target had a buy 2 get 1 game free promotion going on but I'm not sure if it would have worked on Nintendo Switch games and I also couldn't think of three launch titles that I really wanted anyway (more on the dearth of games available later). I ended up ordering Zelda (and preordering Mario Kart) through a friend's Amazon Prime account, in order to get 20% off.

While waiting for Zelda to arrive, I had to go for a full two days with a Nintendo Switch without any games. How did I survive? Well, I still actively play XCOM 2 multiplayer on PS4 so that kept me distracted, but I also used that time to become familiar with the Switch interface and discovered how to get demos from other regions. I got the Puyo Puyo Tetris demo from the Japan eshop (yay no region locking!), which has local multiplayer so even my wife Carissa was into it. Might be fun to also try out Snipperclips or 1-2 Switch with her to see if she enjoys those games too.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Not bad for a "handheld" game

The main event, of course, is Zelda Breath of the Wild and boy does it deliver. I was worried from some of the pre-launch gameplay videos that the animation looked a little stiff and that it would pretty much be the same Zelda without much new innovation. My fears were unfounded however, and Breath of the Wild lives up to the hype so far. (Please keep in mind that I'm not very far into the main game yet. These are just some of my early impressions)

Nintendo sure knows how to make a fun game. They've been doing this for so long that they are just masters of game design. The Zelda formula already made exploring fun, but Nintendo added some great new RPGish gameplay elements that make you want to explore even more. The cooking mechanic makes you want to search for cooking ingredients. The varieties of weapons (as well as having a limited amount of inventory space and fragility of weapons) makes you want to find and save up the best weapons possible (I use bombs for about 80% of my attacks since they're unlimited)... Even the clothing/armor you can purchase is more involved and interesting than previous Zelda games.

Though the world of the new Zelda is huge, lots of the things you can do are divided into smaller chunks or tasks so you definitely could pick up the game, play for a few meaningful minutes then stop. More often than not, however, it causes me to play on for far too long because of you'll always feel like, "I'll just do this one last thing before I stop playing" which leads to the next thing and the next until it's 4am and you realize you still have work the next day.

Nothing to see here...just thinking of the best way to murder this group of bokoblins in cold blood and take their stuff


Nintendo Switch Impressions

Just want to say that I love the Nintendo Switch so far, but this is the part where I mostly rant about random problems/issues I've encountered so far. I'll try to balance my complaints with the positives as well.

The Left Joycon Problem

Left joycon is out of sync sometimes
As others have reported, I do consistently experience problems with the left Joycon desyncing and almost causing me to run in the same direction endlessly (or off a cliff). Hopefully Nintendo will offer a solution for this issue. Currently, I have no plans to buy the expensive $70 pro controller, as the joycons in the grip are more than adequate for me. It is annoying though that as a workaround I have to sit nearer to the console and also make sure there's a clear line of sight between the joycon and the Switch otherwise.

Framerate Issues and Loading Screens

Playing the Switch on your TV is just as you'd expect, but I did notice some framerate slowdowns during certain times in Zelda. The consensus seems to be that Zelda runs better in handheld mode than in docked mode. While the framerate drops haven't been too bad, I do sincerely hope this is the exception and not the norm. In handheld mode, the Switch runs at 720p so if it turns out many games run better in handheld mode, that kinda takes away from one of the Switch's main selling points of having the same experience playing at home or on the go. I also was surprised to see so many loading screens for Zelda. Although they go by quickly and I'm sure the size of the game made them necessary, I hope as I progress further in the game that the loading times won't be as frequent as I fear. 

The Switch as a Handheld and the 3DS's future

Playing the Switch in handheld mode is amazing.. the screen is huge and dwarfs even the 3DS XL screen (haven't played the PS Vita much so can't make a comparison there). Playing with the joycons attached to the screen feels pretty natural to me and I have no problems playing it this way. I'm also just in awe that a game with the magnitude of Zelda can be held in your hands and played anywhere (although I'm not whipping this thing out on the SF BART or Muni public transit yet...). It will be interesting to see what happens to the 3DS in the coming months/years. Nintendo claims the 3DS still has a place in Nintendo's lineup due to its different audience and cheaper price point, but it remains to be seen how long people will keep making games for it. Personally for me, It would be hard to justify making space for both the Switch and the 3DS if I'm going on a trip, but the 3DS does have a better battery life, is smaller/sturdier, and its touch screen is a more prominent input method that developers could still take advantage of (not sure how or if touch will be incorporated into Switch games since you can't use the touch screen when it's docked). I can see the 3DS becoming a platform for 2D retro-style games (METROID PLEASE), remakes of older titles, and experimental games while the Switch gets all the AAA games and "top-tier" indie games.

Dead Pixels, Scratches, Memory, and Charging

I haven't had any issues with dead pixels or other glitches some people have reported, but hopefully Nintendo's response to customers experiencing problems will be more tactful than "Dead pixels are your problem." I definitely feel better now that I have a screen protector since there are reports that the screen easily scratches since it's made with plastic and not gorilla glass. On the positive side, it won't shatter like a gorilla glass screen. 

The three hour battery life seems to be adequate in some situations but if you're playing on a long plane flight or road trip, you'll need another way to charge it, either with a car charger or an external battery that works with the Nintendo Switch. Also, you may need a separate stand if you plan to play in kickstand mode while charging since the USB-C port is at the bottom of the Switch. With only 32 GB of internal memory, you'll almost definitely need to get a micro SD card to expand your system storage. Memory cards are cheap and the prices are always falling but it is kind of a shame that Nintendo didn't include more memory to begin. It also would be nice if Nintendo would provide more control over what we would like to go into main storage and what we would like to go to the sd card.

The Switch OS User Interface

The interface is adequate, but like Nintendo's other interfaces, it's bare minimum and feels like it was dumbed down for kids, and thus a step behind the PS4's much more polished interface (IMHO). At the time of writing there's no granular activity log like the 3DS (there is a workaround using the Parental controls though) has but hopefully they can add a real log in a future update. I like that they followed Sony and Microsoft and have a dedicated button for screen captures and easy sharing on social media, but they need to add video capture in order to keep up with the rest (which I hear is coming eventually). I've also had issues when posting screencaps to Twitter: sometimes there will be a connectivity error and you'll have to retype your post all over again. Not fun. I've also had problems downloading from the eShop... downloads can be painfully slow (not sure if it's due to network traffic on Nintendo's end or to my local connection, but I never had problems with connectivity on my PS4 like this before).

The Cost

Although the cost of the system is $300, that doesn't fully take into account the rest of the Switch-related expenses. It doesn't come with a game (it probably should have come with 1-2 Switch for free like Wii Sports did for the Wii), so add $50-60 (and $20 extra if you want the DLC for Zelda). Many will want to use the pro controller ($70) or add extra joycons ($80). Add in a carrying case ($15-$20+), screen protector ($10), and memory card (I paid $40 for 128 GB)... and you're looking at spending almost $500 in the first week of owning a Switch alone. That's in addition to, eventually paying for Nintendo's online service when it rolls out later this year. I know that it's already standard practice to charge for online play these days, but I'm still trying to get used to it. Hopefully it'll be worth it with free monthly games or other extras, but it's just another expense among many. Luckily there are reports the service will be cheaper than Sony or Microsoft's services.

Switch Games other than Zelda

While Zelda is obviously the system seller here, I was a little disappointed with the other launch titles. $50 for Bomberman or 1-2 Switch seems a bit excessive. Looking at the list of confirmed games for the Switch, I'm not seeing very many must-have games other than perhaps Mario Kart and Mario Oddyssey. From Nintendo, I'd like to see more from its classic lineup, especially Metroid or Punch-Out. From third parties I'd like to see games that could take advantage of the Switch's portable nature that other consoles can't. For example, if we never get XCOM 2 on mobile, maybe it could be ported to the Switch? Or how about GTA or Red Dead Redemption 2 from Rockstar? It's encouraging that so many indie titles were announced, but from what I've seen, I don't consider those games to be ones that take full advantage of the Switch. Many of those indie titles could have easily been (and probably are) on other systems. I'm still hoping more developers will come into Nintendo's fold and make more game announcements, especially since the Switch is selling in record numbers.

Conclusion

There's so much to like about the Switch, and yet still so many things that could be cause for concern. Hopefully Nintendo gracefully handles and addresses any glitches or hardware problems first. Then, I hope Nintendo and third party companies start making tons of games for the Switch to keep interest in the system going for hopefully many, many years to come. In my opinion, if Nintendo does well, it bodes well for the rest of the video game industry. Not all of their oftentimes crazy ideas stick, but when they do, they change the industry for the better.

Related links:

https://zig2101.wordpress.com/2006/05/21/oops-they-did-it-again/

Friday, March 10, 2017

Are Archons Overpowered/Underpriced in XCOM 2 Multiplayer or What?

This is old news, but archons are overpowered/underpriced and I hope Firaxis addresses this imbalance (though not getting my hopes up). This reddit post posits that in XCOM 2 Multiplayer, the more archons you have on your team, the greater your chances are of winning.. and so far that appears to be pretty accurate. Here are a few reasons why (summarized from the link):
  • Archons have a lot of hit points (18, only 2 less than a berserker)
  • Archons have high aim (compounded with an extra aim bonus when they fly to an elevated position) and a powerful weapon that does 7-8 damage and shreads armor
  • Archons have high mobility and can easily get to the high ground/flank you, especially if their battle frenzy ability activates when they get wounded.
  • Archons have great defensive stats. They have built-in defense (100), high will (100), a high dodge stat (25), can't be flanked, and don't need cover
  • Archons only cost 2000 points. That's less than the cost of any XCOM unit for an arguably superior unit
The post lays all of this out in more detail, but anecdotally, I always get my butt kicked by archon squads. Not that I don't usually get my butt kicked by other XCOM 2 players but the butt-kicking is especially pronounced against archons. I have plenty of embarrassing vidcaps of my team getting wasted by archons but I've posted one of the more interesting matches here (3 archons, 2 mecs, 1 codex):

After getting demolished a couple of times by archons, I decided to just incorporate more archons into my team. Like Kevin Durant always says, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."


Related Links:

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Never Give up in XCOM 2 Multiplayer (Never Stop Never Stopping)

A few recent multiplayer games I played in XCOM 2. Just a reminder to never give up and never to trust the percentages that XCOM gives you.

A match full of WTF moments and unbelievably bad aim

Outnumbered and outgunned... 
inspired by the true story of Liam Neeson's character from "Taken"

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

XCOM 2 Multiplayer

I couldn't wait for Firaxis to port XCOM 2 over to mobile and my laptop is so weak it can only play games from before 2007 so I got a PS4 and XCOM 2 on sale from Amazon for $30.

One cool thing about the PS4 is how easy it is to take screenshots and record vidcaps then share them online. Since I found modest success on XCOM mobile multiplayer (400+ wins and ranked #1 on Android, but who's counting?) I decided to try my hand at XCOM 2 Multiplayer and man, is it different. Still fun, but I'm disappointed and feel like they've taken a step backward, trying to simplify the game, particularly pregame squad building in order to cater to the casual XCOM 2 player. However, I can't help but feel like XCOM 2 multiplayer could have been so much more.

I'll start posting some vidcaps of games here but let's start with my first win in XCOM 2 after several humiliating and humbling defeats. This was kinda a long, drawn-out match but I was able to win by flanking from the side while my opponent sat in the same spot.


Some thoughts on XCOM 2 Multiplayer:
  • It's not as customizable as the previous XCOM multiplayer. For example, you can only pick two flavors of each XCOM soldier class whereas the previous version had 5 variants of each class. Also you can't pick the XCOM soldiers' gun and armor. Also, you only get a limited number of utility items to choose from (no flashbangs??). This kinda dumbs down the multiplayer, making it easier for people to jump right in and not worry about having to customize their teams too much, but it really takes away from the game and makes it feel like it's harder to have a unique team since all of the soldiers are cookie-cutter replicas of each other. Here's a link to a photo album with screenshots of all the units/items you can use in XCOM 2 multiplayer.
  • XCOM 2 Multiplayer really needs to be balanced and the costs of units probably need to be adjusted. I'll need to play some more and think about why it feels even more unbalanced than the Enemy Unknown or Enemy Within. 
  • No more overdrive serum/combat stims? While I never really used them in the previous games, they were a big part of XCOM Multiplayer. It was powerful but there have always been counters and tradeoffs to using it so I welcome things like that because they add another dimension to the multiplayer game.
  • Archons are overpowered/underpriced
  • Chryssalids are actually useful in multiplayer this time!  Just check out how quickly they multiply and how fun they are to use (they're a good counter for people who rely on Advent soldiers too much):

Inevitably, you'll also notice the severe lack of players for XCOM 2 Multiplayer and how difficult it is to get a game going. A quick search on XCOM 2 multiplayer usually brings up posts like this, this, this, or this where people even question the point of XCOM multiplayer and say stuff like "people only play XCOM for single player mode anyway so QUIT YOUR WHINING." XCOM and XCOM 2 are definitely far from perfect multiplayer experiences, but I believe the layers of strategy and unpredictability of human opponents make it worthwhile. Also I'm just too old and my relexes are not fast enough for first person shooters. Turn-based strategy is my place to shine.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

X-COM: Enemy Within Multiplayer: Case Study of an Opponent's Squad

I recently purchased X-Com 2 for PS4 and have been spending a lot of time with the single player campaign (would definitely love to try out X-Com 2 multiplayer, although it sucks that I'll have to get a Playstation Plus account first...I really hope X-Com 2 will come out for mobile eventually). I still am playing X-Com Enemy Within multiplayer on my phone whenever I get a chance. Even with all of its annoying bugs and balance issues, X-Com: Enemy Within's multiplayer mode is still great fun. Though there aren't many people who play consistently, I've had some really good strategic battles against some quality opponents. I'll detail one of these opponents in this post.
As of 2/28/2017, I'm in first place of the X-Com Enemy Within Android multiplayer matches leaderboard,
but probably only because I've been playing this game too much and way more than everybody else.
It doesn't even keep a record of losses so I don't even know what my win % is.
The second place guy (anass498)'s build is what I will be analyzing in this post




The Build

Here's #2 ranked player's build (more or less) which he (or she) doesn't seem to deviate from. And why should he, since it is a solid build and is balanced enough to handle almost any squad you can throw at it?

Seeker - 2200 points
Dead eye arch angel plasma rifle sniper with watcher gene mod and scope - 6400 points
Smoke jumper with laser rifle + alien grenade - 1600 points
Sectoid commander - 2700 points
Assault Commando with titan armor, alloy cannon, bastion gene mod, and combat stims - 7100 points

Let's take a look at why this build is so potent:
  • He uses his seeker to scout out the enemy and snipe away at any exposed units with his arch-angel sniper. The plasma rifle can do up to 18 critical damage, which can one-shot most units and soften up higher hp units for his follow-up attack. In some situations he'll strangle one of your units to take it out of the match for at least one turn or if you leave a vulnerable unit too far away from the rest of your group.
  • His follow up attack usually involves the rest of his crew, although not necessarily in this order: The Sectoid Commander (SC), the Smoke Jumper (SJ), and his Assault Commando (usually stimmed). This is where it gets devastating.
  • The Sectoid Commander is a versatile unit because of his psionic attacks and alien grenade. He can choose to mind control one of your weaker-willed units, panic a unit to take it out for one turn, or mindfray a unit to reduce its mobility, will, and aim on the next turn, He can also choose to throw the alien grenade at your units, and when combined with the smoke jumper's alien grenade, that can be at least 10 damage--more if your units happen to be too close together.
  • The Smoke Jumper's primary use in this build is for his alien grenade and for doing decent damage with the laser rifle, The opponent isn't concerned about protecting this unit, and usually this unit dashes as fast as he can across the map so he'll be in a position to lob the grenade. The grenades are great because they usually destroy cover, leaving any exposed units wide open for the archangel sniper to pick off. The SJ's smoke grenade can be used to cover his SC after he's mind-controlled one of your units.
  • And the most dangerous unit of the bunch, the combat-stimmed Assault Commando. It wasn't until after I faced this opponent that I learned that the Assault Commando variant is generally much better to have than the Assault Psi Warrior. Why? Because the commando has the resilience ability, which means you can't do any critical damage to this unit. So even a plasma sniper rifle won't be able to do more than 10 damage to the commando. To make it worse, if this unit uses combat stims, then he only takes half-damage for two turns, making it nearly impossible to kill this unit before he lays waste to your strongest units. With the alloy cannon, run-and-gun, and rapid-fire (double shot), he can do major damage (think 18 critical damage times 2 for up to 36 damage on a single unit.. enough to kill anything in the game except maybe another Commando with stims). And if your strongest unit is somehow still standing after this onslaught, he can finish you off with his sniper or with one of his alien grenades. Using psionics against this unit is also a risky option, because the bastion gene mod gives this unit the neural feedback ability. The Commando already has 75 Will, so your chances to mind control are decreased unless you have an ethereal or unit with a mind shield, but the neural feedback will do 7 damage to your psionic units and put all of your psi-powers on cooldown if they try any kind of psionics against the commando (except the ethereal's rift, which is an area effect ability)
I'll post a video here soon of a match where he completely wrecks my team.


Strategy for Countering the Build

When I first ran up against this opponent, he regularly wiped out my squads and exposed many weaknesses in some of the squads I listed in my previous X-Com strategy posts (links below). The nice thing about X-Com though is that there's generally a counter for everything if you know what you're up against. Here are some strategies I've used against this particular build. I haven't always been successful but I think following these general ideas gave me a fighting chance.
  • You need to keep your units out of his sniper's line of sight when possible. This means knowing the maps well and guessing where you can position your units so he can't snipe you. Watch out for destructible walls and cover--he can use his grenades to expose you if you're not careful. Try to throw out your sniper's battle scanner, which can reveal his cloaked seeker and also scouts the area ahead of your squad. Don't worry too much about the seeker, though, its main purpose is to scout/spot for the sniper and annoy you. I prefer to give the lurker gene mods, which include mimetic skin for my sniper, so that my sniper usually can get in the first shot once I have visibility on his sniper. The mimetic skin is important even if it means giving your sniper less armor and a laser sniper rifle instead of the plasma sniper rifle. The laser sniper rifle is much cheaper and can still do a decent amount of damage, especially with the headshot ability, against his airborne sniper (usually a 78% chance). Just don't rely on mimetic skin forever as he can use his grenades to reveal your unit, and the opposing commander of this squad is usually good at knowing where your sniper and cloaked units are.
  • When you see the Assault Commando, and he's not stimmed yet, if you can do any damage without compromising your squad, do it. If he is stimmed, though, you should strongly consider running away until the combat stims wear off. This is easier said than done because the opposing commander will use clever positioning to try to surround you into a corner where he can either pick you off with his sniper, grenade your position, or rush in with his assault without any regards for its safety since it's unlikely you'll be able to kill it in one turn. If you have a ton of firepower, like a mechtoid squad, MECs, berserkers (although who's still using those things these days?), or your own alloy cannon Commandos, you can focus all of your attacks on this unit to try and kill it in one turn but it's still very risky. If you have an ethereal, a psionic soldier with a mind shield, or even a sectoid commander, you could go for the risky mind control play. Just watch out for the neural feedback mentioned above and make sure your unit won't be easy to kill in retaliation during the next turn, as he can just lob grenades or snipe your already-weakened unit
  • Use very hard-to-kill units like commando MECs supported by Drones to repair it or Assault Commando. Mechtoids with psionic shields given by a sectoid commanders greater mind merge tend to be able to survive the commando's initial assault because the psionic shield not only adds 5 more hit points but it halves incoming damage until the shield is gone (just keep your SC as far away from his Commando as possible and watch out for mind control on your mechtoids). Any other high hp units will probably be a waste of money because he can kill them so easily with his sniper or his Commando. Spreading out your points will make your squad less susceptible to being irreparably weakened from losing a single unit. If you don't think you'll be able to kill his commando in one turn, taking out his SC and the SJ should be your next priority as you try to keep out of his Commando's range (which is huge because of run-and-gun). If you can kill his support units, especially before they do major damage with their grenades or with mind control, you'll be in a better position.
  • Use high density smoke grenades from XCOM medics or elite exalt medics. If you hide behind high cover with +40 defnese from a smoke grenade, it will make it that much harder for his sniper to hit you. Using smoke grenades on your MECs gives them a better chance of surviving sniper fire or Commando rapid-fire. Be aware though that the assault can still flank your other units that use cover or he can use grenades to completely bypass the dense smoke.
  • Use Heavy Floaters who, because they're airborne, are more difficult for his assault to take down. Heavy Floaters can also launch farther ahead so you can grenade his units before he sees your main squad. Two alien grenades can take out either his Smoke Jumper or Sectoid Commander. MEC grenades are good too, although they only do 4 damage so you can't easily kill his Sectoid Commander like with alien grenades. However, softening up the SC and destroying its cover is usually enough for you to take him out with one of your other units.


Counter Builds 

I always try to vary my builds to keep opponents guessing, although by now most of the people I play against regularly on Android can probably guess what my squad will generally look like and what my strategies usually are. Here are a few of the more recent ones I've used to counter the squad above:


2 commando demolisher MECs, 
drone
one exalt elite medic
support medic with chitin plating  and light plasma rifle
one deadeye sniper + laser sniper rifle + mimetic skin + scope

The MECs have good mobility so you can counter the opponent's rush by rushing them back, and launching grenades from out of sight to soften up their units. If you can grenade his assault commando before he can activate the combat stims, even better. Throw a dense smoke grenade to cover your MECs after the attack and then snipe one of his units if you can or set your sniper on overwatch. If the assault commando has been weakened with grenades, you can go in and finish him off with the MECs kinetic strike melee attack, which do 12 damage normally but even if the commando has combat stims activated, kinetic strike will still do 6 damage. The melee attack can also kill his SJ or SC in one shot. The sniper is for doing long range damage and for scouting using the battle scanner. The drone is for healing or scouting and the exalt elite medic is for his 2 dense smoke grenades with the possibility of extra healing (but don't count on it).



two assault commandos with alloy cannons + titan armor + (chitin plating or combat stims)+ bastion gene mods
drone
elite exalt medic
smoke jumper with light plasma rifle
deadeye sniper + laser sniper rifle + mimetic skin + scope


This is a variant of the first build except instead of MECs, you have two assault commandos with chitin plating or combat stims. It's basically a variant of the opponent's build, except I put less money into my sniper and remove SC to leave enough points for an extra Assault Commando. It's fighting fire with more fire.




assault commando with alloy cannon + titan armor + chitin plating + bastion gene mods
commando demolisher MEC
drone
elite exalt medic
smoke jumper with light plasma rifle
deadeye sniper + laser sniper rifle + mimetic skin + scope


This is a combination of the first two counter builds I described. Instead of two MECs or two assault commandos, I take one of each.




3 heavy floaters
1 floater
2 deadeye sniper + laser sniper rifles + mimetic skin + scopes


This build relies on good sniper positioning and getting your floaters to launch to safe positions on the first turn. Then on the next turn hopefully you can overwhelm the opponent with grenades/flanking shots and get off a shot from each of your snipers



5 heavy floaters
deadeye sniper + plasma sniper rifle + mimetic skin


Same as the 4 floater, 2 sniper build except you're focusing more money on the heavy floaters, you get more grenades and although you only have one sniper, he deals more damage with the plasma sniper rifle. Lack of the scope though means 10% less accuracy that you'll have to live with. Here's a match with this build on the extremely unfair (for the player who doesn't move first) Boulevard map.




6 heavy floaters

The Floaters' Gambit, as I like to call it...  this is really going all-in with the floater strategy. Basically you need to hide your floaters for a few turns then launch them behind or to the side of your opponent. Hopefully even if they spot and/or kill one or two of your floaters, you'll be able to grenade them to death or take some high probability elevated/flanking shots and take out most of your opponent's units. You should probably only do this if you're joining a multiplayer match on mobile and not the one initiating a game, otherwise, your opponent will see that you've only spent 18,000 points and could guess what you're planning to do. There's an short example of this build here (my opponent quit after 3 turns but the match could have gone either way):



4 mechtoids
sectoid commander
deadeye sniper + laser sniper rifle + mimetic skin + scope


This build is the often derided by players (myself included) for being cheap. It's definitely not an elegant build as you basically try to rush and overpower your opponent, relying on the mechtoids' high mobility, their psionic shields when paired with a Sectoid Commander, and also their ability to fire twice in one turn if they don't move. Some players go with 5 mechtoids + SC, but I usually favor removing one mechtoid and adding a sniper for long range attacks. This mechtoid/sniper rush has enough firepower to take out a combat stimmed Assault Commando in one turn if you're lucky



2 mechtoids
1 sectoid commander
1 mec commando
1 exalt elite medic
1 drone
deadeye sniper + laser sniper rifle + mimetic skin + scope

This build combines the defensive powers of the mechtoids with mind shields and the durability/toughness of the mec commando being healed/covered by a drone/medic. Plus you've got the sniper for long range attacks. I used this build and recorded the game here:


Conclusion

Despite having thought about this X-Com strategy way too much, there's still no guaranty I can beat this build. Sometimes it just comes down to lucky shots, the map and which side of the map you start on, but the most you can do is put your self in the best position possible and hope the dice will roll your way.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Save $13 and Take Your Own Passport Pictures

We needed to get passport photos for my wife and feeling lazy, I decided to let Walgreens or CVS take and print the pictures for us. We stopped by a CVS but they informed us that their camera had been stolen. Okay, that's weird. Went to another CVS and the situation wasn't much better. Their "professional set up" was just a white pull-down screen and a camera that looked like it came straight outta 1999. After taking the picture, the employee seemed to be having trouble using CVS's own photo kiosk to crop the picture correctly and to top it all off the final photo came out blurry. She asked if we want to try again but by that point I already decided that it wasn't worth $13 and that I'd be better off doing it myself.

If you pay CVS or Walgreens to take your passport photo, make no mistake: you're paying for convenience but not necessarily for quality. As long as you carefully follow the guidelines on the travel.state.gov website and have a little patience and time, you'll be able to make your own passport photos of similar quality (if not better) than CVS or Walgreens.

All you need is
  • A white background. You can use a white wall, a bed sheet, or a poster that's white on the backside.
  • A computer made after the turn of the century
  • A camera made after 1999
  • A USB drive and about $1 to print the photo if you don't have your own printer

First find a well-lit area. Again, you can roughly follow the guidelines from the government website

Don't let this picture from the guide scare you. CSV and Walgreens they don't have the "three points of illumination" setup, either. If you have a well-lit room and use a flash, your photo will be just fine. Just watch out for shadows on the white background.

Use the following poorly-drawn illustration as a rough guide to compose your shot. Basically as long as you have the subject's upper body in the shot and follow their guidelines (have a neutral expression.. the rest is common sense stuff like don't wear sunglasses or a headset when taking your picture)

Then take your computer and use an image editor like Photoshop the open-source GIMP to crop your photo to 2x2 inches.
This is where it might get a little tricky. After you've got a 2x2" picture in your image editing software, make a blank image that's exactly 4x6 inches (the standard photo size they print at most photo kiosks). Copy and paste your 2x2" passport image onto the 4x6" (you can fit 6 2x2" pictures onto one 4x6" photo as shown below). Download the full-sized sample photo that you can use as a template here.

Copy to a USB drive, take it to Target or FedEx/Kinko's (or other photo printing place) and print as many as you need. I think Target charges only 35 cents for each photo.

Congratulations, you saved about $12. Go by yourself something nice.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Commuting vs Driving in San Francisco

Ah, the eternal question... whether take public transit or drive yourself to work. Each situation is different and depending on where you live or your financial situation, you may not even have the option to choose (or the alternatives are so undesirable that it makes the choice easy). I've lived in Houston, where it seems like there's a car for every single person and the thought of not having your own car is unfathomable. I've lived in Singapore, where owning a car is a completely unnecessary luxury that can cost a small fortune. Now I live in the Bay Area, which is somewhere between. If you live in the city, giving up your car is actually something many people consider due to the scarcity and cost of parking, close proximity to everything you'll need in the city, and other options like ride-sharing for when you do need a car. If you live further out like we do, then having a car just makes your life so much more convenient, even when public transport is readily available.

We live next to a BART/Muni station, yet I mostly end up driving to work since it takes twice as long to ride the bus each way. So instead of a one hour commute (30 minutes each way by car), it becomes a two hour overall commute whenever I decide to take the bus. When I first arrived in SF, I tried taking public transport as often as I could, but the inconvenience caused me to stop using it until I was driving to work every single day. Working an extra hour each day seemed way more cost-effective than spending an extra hour on the bus.

My employer offers some small incentives for commuting, but it's definitely nowhere near enough to offset the costs and hassle of taking public transit. Not to mention all the weirdos you'll encounter on BART/Muni. Gas is expensive here in the Bay Area, but if it takes me a gallon of gas to get to work in my low gas mileage car and the cost of a gallon of gas is cheaper than a roundtrip on Muni, it makes me question whether taking public transit is even worth it.

On the other hand, driving through traffic can be stressful, and some Bay Area drivers aggravate me to no end. Sitting down and calmly reading a book on the bus on the way to work suddenly becomes quite a tantalizing option. I discovered that driving through San Francisco every day puts a strain on my car (and mental sanity) that can be very costly. There's definitely a noticeable toll on my car after driving it so frequently over the past three years. The mileage on my car is almost comparable to the kind of driving I did living in Houston even though I live relatively close to the office. Driving up and down San Francisco's hilly landscape is killing my brakes and tires. I'm also spending a lot of money refilling my gas tank every week (even while using Costco for cheaper gas).

Last, but not least, I need to consider the environmental impact of my daily commute. While inconvenient for me, taking my car off the road and occasionally taking the bus to work is one small way of helping the environment, reducing traffic, and freeing up a parking space in our office garage in the Presidio.

If you can't tell, I'm still not sure what to do but for now I'll try doing a combination of commuting and driving. By commuting via public transport a couple of days a week, I can ease the strain on my vehicle while being a little more friendly to the environment. It might not seem to be saving me money with the high cost of BART/Muni tickets, but in the long run, my car will last longer and have less problems over the course of its life. The real solution is probably to save up for a Tesla, wait for self-driving cars or--more realistically--just move closer to work, so I can bike or walk. Now if only the housing prices would come down...


Driving:
Pros:
Twice as fast getting to work
Listening to public radio in the morning gives me my daily news (although technically I could still do this on the bus)
Fast
Convenient (?  see below)

Cons:
Parking is the worst here. Worrying about having your car towed, paying for parking, lack of parking.. it all sucks and actually makes having a car less convient depending on where you're going.
Bad for the environment
Traffic
Bad drivers/accident risk
Pedestrians and bikers
Gasoline costs and having to refill my tank every week
Wear and tear on car, maintenance can hit you hard--sometimes in waves or all at once
Insurance, Registration, other miscellaneous costs of owning a car

Public Transit:
pros:
You can enjoy the journey to work. Read a book, check work email, smell the roses, or more likely, watch youtube videos and surf the net
Good for the environment--give yourself a pat on the back.

cons: 
Public transport is surprisingly expensive (it adds up), and its a hassle to keep up with all the passes, discounts, etc you need to take advantage of to avoid paying full price.
Need to wake up earlier to get to work on time
Having to leave work based on when the bus/shuttle arrives, which isn't always ideal
Crowded
Dirty
Filthy
Weirdos on public transit
Slow
SLOWWWW


And the other unexplored alternative:
Car pool:
pros:
Get to know your coworkers better!

cons:
Have to synchronize your schedule with other peoples
Not always in the mood for small talk and awkward silence