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Ghost Recon: Wildlands
I received GR:W for free with my video card, and aside from using it to put the card through its paces, I’ve not played it much. It’s not a soloist game, despite having a squad of NPC soldiers backing you up. GR differs from The Division in that GR games tend to be way less forgiving when you’re getting shot. When you finally make it to cover, then, the system is calling in wave after wave of reinforcements.
Teabagging Unidad corpses
I played it last night with my brother, and Mindstrike, and we learned a few things. First, you die quickly and often. Second, if you’re attacking a cartel-held property, kill everyone quickly or else you’ll be there forever and will probably find yourself back at point one. Third, there’s no coherent line-of-sight between where you start and where you need to go. We tried to figure out our next step in the narrative but ended up picking some of the worst random locations for new players to take on.
Still, it was fun. More fun with real people. I’m hoping more people snag the game before the sale ends, because I burnt out on The Division a long time ago, and would like to play something with people again.
This is my role in the team.
Endless Space 2
Endless Space is one of my favorite 4x games. Like all of them, however, I have never actually completed a scenario. Still, it served as inspiration for several features of my ill-fated “Project Universe” because I really like the way Amplitude approached the game.
Wandering through the stacks at Steam storefront, I literally stumbled across Endless Space 2. I think I knew this was A Thing, but like many things these days it fell off my radar.
I watched the videos on the store page and decided that ES2 was a solid follow up game. It seems that Amplitude has included a lot of cool new features, not the least of which are the addition of probes instead of scouts, a need to to research FTL technology to get beyond your meager local neighborhood, and a galactic “auction house” which allows you to buy and sell technology and ships for Dust, the game’s mysteriously magical currency.
I haven’t yet fired it up, but I’m looking forward to it. Amplitude is really an under-the-radar strategy developer (Endless Space, Dungeon of the Endless, Endless Legend, and other Endless universe games) that does consistently good work that I enjoy.
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Following on the heels of Wednesday’s post on the Elgato Streamdeck, I managed to get some time with it this Thursday and wanted to offer some initial impressions.
Nicely packaged: cradle, stand, and manual.
First, the device is solidly made. It’s basically a block with overly-glossy keys, none of which feels flimsy in the least. When not plugged in, it doesn’t look like much, but when it’s receiving power the keys are backlit with the Elgato logo spread out across the center buttons. The keys are nice and bright, but unfortunately not bright enough to overcome a harsh glare at certain angles, depending on where your local light sources are at. The deck itself can be removed from the desktop stand which may have some uses for enterprising modders out there. The stand itself, though, gets some props for innovation: it’s sporting a two-stage support system. The cradle portion lifts up on a front hinge, and you can extend either the back of the cradle to sit in the base for a more upright position or use two smaller side supports to raise the cradle up to a lesser angle, making it more keyboard-esque. However, the pins used to keep the supports in place are small and I can see them snapping off at some point in the future. I have found that in my setup, the more acute angle works best to avoid key glare, but also put the keys at an angle such that each key is slightly more difficult to see.
The removable deck and cradle
Setup was super easy: install the software (Windows 10 and Mac Whatever only) and plug in the device. Hopefully, you have a nearby USB port because the cable is shorter than what you’d expect from a lot of desktop peripherals and is non-detachable (i.e. can’t swap it with a longer cable).
I’m a software guy, and I love playing around with configuration software so the management utility for the Streamdeck might be one of the easiest I’ve used. The main window features 15 slots representing each of the buttons. On the right side, you have a series of commands that you can assign. Simply drag a command to a button, and you’re about 90% of the way done. Depending on the button, you’ll have some settings you can mess around with. For example, the OBS integration allows you to drag a “Scene” action. In the button properties, you select which Scene in your running copy of OBS you want that button to trigger. The updates are in real time, so as soon as you place the button in the software, it shows up on the physical device. You can also change the icon (some of which have lit and faded states to show which one is active among those it recognizes as being mutually exclusive, like OBS scenes) and layer mutli-line text on the button. I learned that Elgato has a quick key icon creator on their website if you have images but no Photoshop or graphics experience. Like the settings app, this is really easy to use and I had a lot of fun making icons that I needed.
Live updating with default config
Unfortunately, this is where my enthusiasm starts to wind down, but I need to remind you that I didn’t buy this device for its intended purpose of augmenting my live stream control. I bought it to send commands to my games — something that I couldn’t get to work anywhere often enough.
It seems that Elgato has designed the software to be extremely specific in what it does and how it operates. Since the company focuses on streaming technology, their software heavily favors streaming tasks. It has support for Elgato’s own streaming software, OBS, Twitch, and only a few other services like Twitter. For local hooks, there are media control commands, app and website launchers, and hot key broadcasters. Even then, OBS requires a plugin so that the Elgato command software can communicate with it when another app has focus.
For use with OBS
I was mainly focused on using the hotkeys. I tried Elite Dangerous because that’s a game where having access to a lot of keys is something that will enhance the experience. For testing, though, I only created a new button and assigned it the Hotkey “1”. In Elite, this opens the left-side control panel for mapping, local targets, etc. It works when docked so I knew it would be something that I could do without having to leave my current station. Unfortunately, the game refused to acknowledge the key press. I know that the key was working, however, because I could open the chat entry box and see a string of “1”s whenever I tapped the button on the Streamdeck. I tried full-screen window mode, and full-screen mode (since some games are picky about that kind of thing) but nothing changed. I even tried the 32bit non-Horizons enabled version to no avail.
Ideally, for use with Elite Dangerous, but with fewer assignments.
Figuring I’d try something else, I booted up Guild Wars 2 and rebound my “1” key to the “B” key which would open the RvRvR standings window. Again, no luck. Again, I tried adjusting the window mode and verified that the key was working by activating the chat box and hitting the button.
Since the Streamdeck is brand-spankin’ new at this point, and since Elgato doesn’t maintain a community forum, I had to descend into the depths of *shudder* Reddit to find the /r/elgatogaming subreddit. Thankfully there was a Streamdeck “megathread” where people were talking about it, and I saw at least two people claiming that they had done exactly what I was trying to do. I asked one poster if he/she did anything specific to get it to work, but haven’t seen any replies.
On a whim, I loaded up The Elder Scrolls Online to test with the original GW2 “B” key button, and amazingly, it worked. At this point, I don’t think I’d done anything differently between the GW2 test and the ESO test. At an earlier point, I suspected that there might be something running on my system that was hijacking the input from the Streamdeck software since I’d experienced something like this in the past with audio. I shut down anything that I thought might handle key input like Plays.tv, my Logitech keyboard and mouse software, and even Steam and it’s overlay, but the results had been the same. I read that the Streamdeck software should be run as Administrator in order to be able to send keys to another app, but that didn’t seem to help either.
As it stands, the Elgato Streamdeck is at the “confounding” level on the “love it or leave it” scale. I’m not going to say “disappointing” because I suspect that there’s something standing in the way of what I am doing and what I want it to do that may or may not have anything to do with the Streamdeck or software themselves. I can tell you, though, if I can get it to work then I’ll quickly upgrade my assessment to “spectacular” because it’s an excellent piece of hardware. If they release an SDK or expand their software beyond the narrow focus on streaming (which may never happen due to Elgato’s market segment), or if more apps adopted the input hooks for it (Hey, Discord!), then its value would skyrocket. I don’t know that I’d suggest that everyone go out and buy one and experience an input Nirvana because unless you’re a moderate to hardcore streamer or use apps like Photoshop that have a lot of keyboard shortcuts, it seems that the Streamdeck’s operations are limited and pretty “fragile” in that they’re easy to interrupt.
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Don’t let the title fool you: this is a topic I’ve been chasing for some time because it’s not as simple as it sounds. In fact, what I’m talking about here was only discovered by me due to random happenstance.
My goal has been to find a way to get myself and at least one other person to converse, to record that conversation, and then to split each person into their own audio track. You might recognize this as something relevant to podcasting, and you’d be right: that is the ultimate goal.
The problem, then, is that when talking about audio on a Windows PC, there’s the local user — the person on the mic who is controlling the recording software — and there is literally everyone else. Whether it’s using Skype or Discord or Teamspeak, Mumble, Ventrillo, or whatever, all of the rest of the participants are jumbled together into a single audio stream received by the person doing the recording.
In the worst case scenario, the remote participant(s) audio is merged with the local audio into a single track, meaning that when it comes time to edit, any cuts or filters are applied to everyone, no exceptions. That’s certainly passable, but really not optimal because having each person on his or her own track would allow for discreet person-by-person editing for volume, noise reduction, and dead-space filtering (et al).
So the other day I was trawling YouTube for videos on the Elgato Streamdeck setup when I came across a series by the silken-voiced EposVox who not only spoke about the Streamdeck, but also about OBS setup. In one video, he mentioned multiple audio sources which, if you’ve used OBS, is not something exciting. OBS allows for (at minimum) mic audio and desktop audio to be recorded alongside the video. While OBS is primarily used for streaming to Twitch/Beam/YouTube/etc., it can also be used to record local video and audio.
Now, I don’t know how some people do it. I suspect that a lof of folks might record video using OBS or something, muting the mic so that they can record their voice over using another app, like Audacity. That works to separate the video from the voice over but then requires the user to sync the voice with the video which can be unnerving if it’s even slightly out of sync. But thanks to EposVox, I know now that there’s a better way using OBS, an alternative audio output, a mic, and Audacity.
I’ll refer you to this video.
In a nutshell (if you skipped the video), OBS allows you to add additional audio inputs. You can then send each input to a different track, assuming you’re recording in anything other than FLV (so MOV, MKV, MP4, etc). What you get in the end is a file with multiple audio tracks, and depending on how you set it up, you might have a track with all audio, and then each input on a different track, or just each audio source on a different track. What you’re seeing is the same tech that allows DVDs to have different language tracks.
Of course, as you know, you can’t watch a DVD with several audio tracks playing at once, so it is with trying to get a hold of these multiple audio tracks. This threw me for a while because my video editing app doesn’t display all audio tracks, only the first one it encounters. Since I only want the audio anyway I learned that Audacity with the FFMPG codec can import the audio from a video file using the IMPORT > AUDIO option which allows me to then select the audio tracks from the file that I want to edit.
I ran some tests with the Esteemed Mindstrike as my guinea pig on the other side of Discord. For my set-up, I had OBS recording my Yeti mic for my voice, but I had to set Discord to output to the Yeti Headphone output. That my mic has it’s own audio output is the aforementioned happenstance, because otherwise, I’d need to go down the dark road of virtual audio cables to create a fake output and send Discord output to that. In OBS, I set up an audio source for the mic (which was already there), and an additional audio source for the Yei Headphone output. The benefit of this was that I could hook up the headset to the Yeti mic (duh) and listen and converse with Mindstrike like there was nothing weird going on. When OBS recorded, my mic audio recorded on one track, the Discord output on another, and had there been any desktop audio at the time, it would have recorded that on a third track (I turned off the multi-source channels for this test, just to be sure).
When I managed to get FFMPG installed with Audacity, I imported my test file audio and got this:
The top two waveforms are my mic, and the bottom two sourced from Discord. Magical! For an actual production run, I’d probably want to have OBS “downmix to mono” because there wouldn’t need to be a left and right channel for single-position voice; both the left and right output would simply source from the mono channel, leaving me with one waveform per track in Audacity, to keep things clean.
Now, the obvious problem is that in a multi-multi user situation — me at the desk, a bunch of people in a channel in Discord — I’m still only going to get two tracks: me, and everyone else. For my “intended purpose” though, this is exactly what I needed. I don’t know if it’s possible for apps like Discord to pick up, send, and deliver individual voices on individual tracks; I suspect that would be horribly bandwidth and CPU intensive, so, for now, I’m glad I stumbled across this, and that I have the hardware that just happens to support the exact situation that I wanted to enable.
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As I have stated many times, I am an occasional streamer. I like to think that I’m only one regular schedule away from being even moderately popular, but I am also a realist: I know that I am not anyone’s demographic based on the games that I play and…you know…that I’m a middle-aged guy — not young enough to have my finger on the pulse of the stream viewing public, not old enough to be a novelty, and not enough cleavage to get people to turn in no matter what I play.
Yet I am inappropriately attracted to the new Elgato Streamdeck.
Licking this image does nothing. I’ve tried.
A few years ago there was a product called the Optimus Maximus (which I just found out had actually been produced!) which was a keyboard where every key was a tiny LCD screen. This seems like a stupidly logical product not just for gamers but for all kinds of professionals. The idea was that you could design a custom keyboard, replacing the staid lettering with icons that might have more at-a-glance meaning for whatever you were getting up to with your input. For folks who use Photoshop or other keyboard-intensive apps (I’m glaring at you, Blender), such functionality would be a godsend. It was apparently too costly or too technologically steep to mass produce so the product and its spawn were discontinued, but the technology caught on somewhat, most prominently in the Razer Star Wars: The Old Republic-branded gaming keyboard which sported 10 programmable function LCD keys and one big LCD trackpad. Still, this was a bespoke product, and while I’m sure some folks bought them, this specific device also seems to have been discontinued.
Elgato makes products for streamers. They are known for their capture cards, which are dedicated hardware that allows users to offload some of the heavy lifting usually reserved for the CPU when broadcasting. They also make breakout boxes that allow for the connection of consoles for streaming to services that integrated solutions might not support.
It seems that Elgato does have their fingers on the pulse of what streamers need, and one thing that streamers apparently need is more control over their productions. Apps like OBS and XSplit have a lot of features, but they either require the user-slash-streamer to move focus from the game to the app to trigger, to use a mobile device companion app, or require keyboard hotkeys to be recognized by the app which, when playing a game, especially those which have a whole lot of keyboard commands, is easier said than done.
The Streamdeck seeks to alleviate these issues. It ties directly into popular streaming apps to allow for direct actions through its 16 programmable LCD keys so that the operator can trigger whatever bell and/or whistle he or she feels needs to be shoved into the viewers face at any given time. This is where my well-crafted prose regarding the act of streaming is going to trail off into a mumble because that level of need is way beyond what I’m interested in when it comes to the Streamdeck.
I’m talking about this disaster area:
You might be an old-school sim gamer if this makes you drool instead of vomit.
That’s the keyboard layout for Star Citizen. If you squint you’ll notice that there’s not just a set of commands for most keys, but that each assigned key has a shift state as well. Flying a starship ain’t easy, folks, and although I have a lot of buttons on my HOTAS, there’s simply not enough easily accessible buttons to accommodate the full range of actions I’ll need to perform in order to keep my ass alive in the cold depths of space. Sure, I could use the keyboard, but the older I get the less bandwidth I have for remembering which four-finger configuration triggers ECM, and which triggers the eject sequence.
Is it possible for a product designed to play obnoxious sounds and display irritating graphics on a live stream on command to execute at least some of these keyboard functions in Star Citizen? Supposedly, yes. See, from what I can gather, the Streamdeck isn’t much more than a really expensive “speed pad”, which has existed for many years under the names of Belkin Nostromo (now the Razer Orbweaver/Tartarus) and the Logitech G13. These products are little more than a small keyboard seated upon an ergonomic hand rest (although the G13 sports an LCD display of sorts), but it’s the programmable software that does the real work. Each key can be programmed to relay a normal key value, a key combo, activate an application or intrinsic command (in supported apps), or even a series of commands. I frequently use my Nostromo for games like The Secret World to allow me to move using the thumb stick and execute my attacks with the action keys. It allows me to place my hand in the comfortable position so I don’t have to wave around looking for the right key in the right situation.
So why the Streamdeck if I have a pile of speed pads already? Those keys, man! When talking about complex games like Star Citizen, it’s easier to pick an icon from a lineup or to find an acronym on a key that matches the acronym displayed in the game so there’s no need to remember which key combo has been assigned to which key doing what. While a regular speed pad would do just as well…those LCD keys for crying out loud!
The proof will be in the pudding, so they say. I should be getting a Streamdeck…(checks watch)…tomorrow, so I’m hoping that my understanding and expectations aren’t totally off base in regards to the functionality of this thing. Of course, I can also use it for streaming, but…who would know?
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Last week I picked up EVE Valkyrie for the PSVR, but didn’t get to partake of it until a few days ago. I had played the demo included on the disk that came with the headset but it was a poor showing since it only allowed me to fly around and shoot at things for a few seconds before it artificially self-destructed (my character, not the disk). I had been on the fence about Valkyrie mainly because it’s a primarily a multiplayer game, but I like the EVE universe and I love space sims.
Part of the reason for my love of flying around in space is the immersion. Sitting in the cockpit and (mentally) flipping all the switches and punching all the buttons while hurtling through the endless void of space is both peaceful and nerve-wracking. I’ve been playing a lot of Elite Dangerous recently alongside the Infamous CMDR Benjeth (a.k.a. Talyn328 of Pumping Irony fame), and have tried — successfully, I might add! — to get the PSVR working with the game for the spacial benefits as well as the head tracking. It’s been the realization of everything I’d long wanted in a space sim.
When I got around to Valkyrie, I found it difficult mainly because I’m not so good with the control pad, but at least the game itself wasn’t nausea inducing. I have had balance issues in a few games, but almost always up front as I find myself getting accustomed to the new sensory input. I have stopped turning on the projector unless someone else is in the room, but I had been pumping the audio through the receiver to allow the sounds through the room’s speakers. I had been, up until last night when I finally decided to go whole-hog and plug the earbuds into the PSVR for the up-close-and-personal audio experience.
That turned out to be a whole different ball of wax. Having audio right in my ear-holes threw me way off balance. Valkyrie is a dogfighting game (ships, not actual dogs) so you’re tasked with flipping your ship along all axis to both avoid and to catch up to your targets. In my earliest attempts while using the amplifier audio I had only experienced disorientation when starting out — racing out of the carrier launch tubes and into the wide expanse of space. I suspect that this physical setup was the safety net; I still had some level of grounding because while my eyes were trying to convince me that I was in a nimble space-fighter performing all of these acrobatic motions, my ears knew that I was in the basement because the acoustics were familiar from my time sitting on the couch. Once I put the earbuds in, with whatever limited positional audio I could get from them and the PSVR, all bets were off: I was totally immersed in the situation and my mental processes had no anchor to the real world. As I was bobbing and weaving through the struts of the Gallente shipyard to avoid enemy missiles, I found myself getting slightly dizzy and disoriented.
Now, as painful as this realization was, it was also kind of cool because this was probably about as close to an actual high-speed flying experience as I’m willing to get. If the gameplay was making me truly nauseous to the point where I couldn’t continue, then I’d certainly take out the earbuds and go back to the momentary disorientation of room audio. I don’t know if people who have tried VR with the nauseating effects were using close-to-the-head audio, but if so it might be worth a shot to try it without earbuds or headphones and see if the conflicting messages to the brain can help smooth things out.
More Affordable VR Is On The Way
Last week Microsoft had a dog and pony show which I missed, but during that time period, I got wind of a product that Acer was working on. It apparently came up during Microsoft’s discussion of what they are calling “mixed reality”.
Regardless of the silly naming tricks, Microsoft is forging ahead in the VR/AR space. While the tech world was talking about Vive/Oculus, Microsoft was showing off their Hololens augmented reality glasses that overlaid computer output on top of what you normally see…basically creating “holograms”. When everyone who was going anywhere with this tech was going left, Microsoft was going right, and that seemed to garner some excitement and tentative good will. But the Vive and the Oculus had issues. First, they were expensive. The Vive is about $800, and the Oculus is now down to around $600. Second, you need a really beefy PC to use them: USB 3.0 or better, a top-of-the-line video card, enough RAM, and a beefy processor. For gamers, upgrading to this level on top of spending to get a VR headset would have put them well over the $2000 mark, and a lot of gamers don’t have or aren’t willing to spend that kind of cash on a nascent technology.
One of the best/worst things about Microsoft is their partners. Unlike Apple, Microsoft hasn’t really been in the business of creating their own hardware. They’ve traditionally worked with companies like Dell, Acer, and HP for the hardware while Microsoft created the software. It was this talk of the “mixed reality” brought Acer’s project to my attention.
Acer’s mixed reality bundle is basically a VR headset with two “wands”, which is really no different from what we get with the Vive or Oculus. It’s specs, however, are impressive: 350g, compared to 470g for the Vive and the Oculus, and 610g for the PSVR. From the images, it looks like the Acer VR headset has a lower profile than any of the existing headsets. Where it counts — resolution — the Acer is said to be sporting 1440×1440 resolution (per eye), which is a total of 2880×1440 compared to the Vive and Oculus’ 2160×1200. The PSVR resolution is only 960×180 per eye, for a total of 1920×1080. What really sounds attractive, though, are the reported minimum PC specs to use the Acer headset:
- Mobile i5 dual core with hyperthreading equivalent
- Integrated Intel HD 620 or better (DX12 capable) graphics
- 8GB of ram
- HDMI port that can pump out 2880×1440 at 60Hz, or better
- USB 3.0
- Bluetooth 4.0 for accessories.
Now, any gamer who has upgraded his or her system within the past…say 5 years, is probably going to clear these hurdles without breaking a sweat. USB 3.0 came around a while ago, and anyone interested in PC gaming is always going to be upgrading RAM and a better GPU ahead of most everything else to a point beyond what the minimum recommendations list here unless he or she is really on a tight budget. But let’s face it: an entry level GTX card is still going to be better than an integrated GPU.
Not real VR because the guy’s mouth isn’t agape.
Acer’s purported icing on the cake, though? Starting $399. The details about availability is very thin right now, with nothing more than a marketing blurb available on Acer’s site, but if that price holds and doesn’t represent a budget version of the device then what Acer has is the first of a second generation of VR headsets that seems to indicate that the technology is going to improve in performance, requirements, and price, which are three of the four areas where VR needs to improve in order to get more people on board.
The fourth, software, is going to be a more difficult hurdle but outside of Acer’s control. Devs who are developing for current VR will need to continue, while those who have been on the fence or who have scoffed at the technology will need to make a final decision as to which way they’re going to fall. One thing I was thinking of yesterday, though: I hope that we don’t see the continuation of the “walled garden” and techno-pissing matches that plague tablet and smartphone markets. Having worked a little bit with SteamVR I’ve seen how the software is designed to favor the Vive (natch) and Oculus. Being that Microsoft and Valve have a love-hate relationship, it would be some very sour grapes if Valve opted to ignore direct support of headsets like the Acer offering simply because it’s a Microsoft initiative.
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