Gaming: No Man’s Sky

Crashed ship
A crashed fighter in the mould of Battlestar Galactica

Rewind to the 80’s

In the last 15 years or so, I haven’t really had the time and will to game as much as I’d like to. Just as is the case with quality TV series nowadays, there are more great games coming out than there is time to actually play them when you also have full time employment to take care of. Maybe I’m just lazy, but for me gaming is also more intensive and time-consuming than watching a movie or an episode of a TV show.

Elite poster
Elite poster at the Gaming museum in Tampere, Finland

I’m also a bit of a genre player – my preferred games have always been time consuming adventures, and role-playing games. And, maybe you could add a third genre as well: space trading simulator games. One of the first games I saw being played in the mid-80’s on my friend Antti’s dad’s Commodore 64 was Elite. [telegraph.co.uk] The game looked complex and hard, and had a manual longer than most games and required a keyboard map layout as well because there were so many functions.
“I’ll never learn to play that”, I thought.
Well, a couple of years later Antti and I not only completed Leisure Suit Larry [retrogames.cz] on his dad’s PC, but we also played Elite at my place all night long on my first computer, a Commodore 64 (thanks, mum!).

The freedom of piloting your own starship across a vast galaxy (or several), trading goods, fighting pirates and generally just exploring was just unbeatable. In a way, the game was really simple and repetitive but you kind of made up your own story along the road as you grinded for more money, status and new ships. So, grinding was an addictive formula back then already, Elite might actually be one of the first grinding games.

After Elite, no space simulator really offered the same thrills – there were many attempts like Federation of Free Traders or the actual Elite-sequel Frontier, but they were either too ambitious for the computers of their time or just didn’t work. There were some smaller great space adventures that focused more on the story though in the 80’s-90’s; some of the the ones I loved were Warhead [lemonamiga.com] on the Amiga and Star Control 2 [wikpedia.com] on PC, one of the best space adventure games ever in an semi-open world, which emphasized the importance of great visuals and music as well.

The casual thrills of exploring unknown planets

Tourist photo of wildlife
Some alien life on an arid planet

Fast-forward to 2017, a year after No Man’s Sky was released and had caught my radar. The game had a rocky launch and it seemed like yet another failed “Elite-killer” (as the Finnish gaming press used to title all games seeking to become the next Elite, always in vain), but significant updates had supposedly improved things and it was on sale on Steam, so I thought: “What the hell, looks good, let’s give this a go”.

Turns out the game offers the same thrills as Elite did in the 80’s. The basic idea is the same but there is just more of everything. Also, you can land on planets and explore them; the first time you repair your ship and head out into space and land on the next planet or moon in the solar system is magical.

Flyby
Ships flying over my head
Jump drive
Jumping to a planet

Besides the freedom of a huge sandbox a lot of the appeal of the game lies in the excellent, colorful graphics and the phenomenal soundtrack by 65daysofstatic. Even people who find the game boring have said good things about the soundtrack, and I bought the soundtrack after short while; the music really is great and adds to the game in so many ways.

Yeah, the game has some adventure in form of a story as well, but it isn’t very deep although there are some good points. Just like the retro-art graphics, the story is more Star Trek or 70’s psychedelic sci-fi than some Star Wars-style epic space opera. This is fitting, and anyhow, the story is mostly just an extended tutorial; exploring and grinding for money and new ships and building your own bases on several worlds is the core of the game. No Man’s Sky is also pleasingly non-violent; you can pretty much avoid combat if you want to, and gaining money by scanning flora and fauna instead of killing them pleases my former biologist self.

Nada and Polo
Nada and Polo, some of the only recurring characters in the game
Exotic ship and my 48-slot cargo vessel
My ugly but large freighter and an exotic “Angry Birds”-ship (those are more rare)

So, another grinding & building game at heart, I still find No Man’s Sky addictive after 200+ hours because you can simply play it a bit at a time, casually. Come home from work, drop into the cockpit of your spaceship, explore an unknown world, go to the next solar system, send your frigates on missions to collect money and stop playing after an hour in order to make dinner. It does become repetitive during the endgame when you can see the patterns of how everything goes, despite being a huge sandbox there is not enough real variation on the worlds in order to surprise you very much. That, and the lackluster trading aspect still leave lots of room for improvement.

Currently I’m just searching for the perfect planet to build my final base on, as I already have pretty much everything the game offers in terms of spaceships etc. But just spending an hour listening to the soundtrack and enjoying the scenery after warping to the next solar system is a soothing experience.

Interestingly enough, the game is still being developed and this summer a new major update comes along adding multiplayer and Virtual Reality (VR) -headset support, so the game is certainly one of the best supported games ever considering all the updates are free.

Finally, just listen to two of the achingly beautiful pieces found in the game and you’ll perhaps get something interesting out of the game even if you never play it yourself…

Quick gadget reviews vol. 1: Earworms

So, being somewhat of a gadget freak I’m always trying to find the right equipment that improves my life quality in some way. Might as well share my thoughts on said gadgets here.

Bowers & Wilkins PX

Bowers & Wilkins PX

In December 2017 I finally caved in and bought a pair of bluetooth headphones. I was curious about the active noise cancellation (ANC) that was just becoming popular, and the sound quality of wireless headphones seemed to have reached an acceptable level. Also, my wired Denon AH-MM200 – which I really liked – broke down for the nth time because of a design flaw. No wonder they were being sold at a serious discount.

I already drooled at the vintage luxury look of the previous Bowers & Wilkins portable headphones, and now they had a new wireless model out with noise cancellation. The early reviews seemed encouraging, and the feature set was really complete and future proof. The PX model then became my Christmas present to my self; expensive at 399€ sure but good headphones are important to me and I was done with bad ones.

So, how are they now in the summer of 2019? Well, they are still going strong and in constant use of course, and the sound quality is really good – music sounds just pleasingly right. Noise cancellation (or reduction would be a more apt term) is also pretty fun to have, and a major reason for buying these as they’re great for office work. They do have one considerable flaw though: if you use glasses, the hard leather ear cups can’t make a complete seal which leads to poorer bass levels and the ANC looses some effect as well as the sound leaks. No matter what rims I’m wearing, thick or thin, the problem persists. They sound really good only when not wearing anything (underwear excluded). Also, when wearing hats, the sensors which automatically pause or unpause the music if they sense you are taking the headphones off are also a bit fiddly.

Hats and glasses are not friends of the PX...

Comfort is also not the strongest point of these pretty large and heavy headphones, many have stated that the headband is uncomfortable so I guess the design was only tested on people with average-sized heads who don’t use glasses or hats. Looks-wise they are also a bit more bland and generic than the vintage sports car looking P5’s, for example. I can never be sure if I’m putting them on backwards or the right way, something about the phones design is just awkward. The materials are pure quality though, and battery life is good.

Bottom line: if a more natural level of sound quality is important to you than what Sony, Bose or Beats are offering, these are still pretty good headphones that can compete with 2019 models. Only thing is, if you wear glasses they aren’t the best of cans. Also these are a bit bulky when traveling and the supplied carrying pouch is not very good. Add in the fact that the ANC is not of the strongest caliber means that frequent flyers etc. might want something that travels more easily. Try before you buy is a must with these.

The Good
+ Sound quality
+ Technically feature complete with ANC, USB-C, aptX HD, mics for audio calls and more
+ Build quality
+ Battery life

The Bad
– Comfort
– Glasses break isolation and impact both the sound and the ANC-effect
– ANC not as strong as with other manufacturers
– Bulky when traveling

Verdict: 4/5

Link to official product info: https://www.bowerswilkins.com/en-gb/headphones/px

Xiaomi Mi Headphones Pro

Xiaomi Mi Headphones Pro

Despite the B&W PX’s above, at heart I’m still a total cheapskate who wants luxury at bargain prices. So it is only natural that I’ve also been looking at the cheap stuff from China that promises a lot of bang for less buck. Aptly called “chi-fi” when it comes to music gear, I wanted to see if 20 € gets you quality earbuds that rival 200€ stuff so I ordered the Mi Headphone Pro -earbuds from Aliexpress.com, because I did need (another) set of earbuds for my Huawei M3 -tablet, which cannot use Bluetooth and Wifi at the same time due to a design flaw (<– most products have one, the term was mentioned in the PX review above as well).

Cheap in-ear phones usually have a bit of a muffled sound that leave you wanting more detail, even if they usually perform better than cheap on-ear phones. The Mi Pro:s promise a clearer “HD-sound”, and certainly you can hear more detail with them than usual and the sense of space (= soundstage) in music is pretty good too. But the sound wasn’t quite the “200€ sound for 20€” that I was hoping for; bass is a bit too subdued and there is an underlying cheap & dirty undertone in the clarity. The worst thing is, that the sound is simply not very fun – but it might also be that the PX’s have slightly spoiled me there; it might be you have to use these for a long time to get used to the different sound. Maybe these are best suited for jazz or classical music, but pop and techno isn’t that great to listen to with these. Still, they *are* good for the low price (20€ when on sale incl. postage), quite comfortable and solidly built of metal so I’ll be using them anyhow; out in the traffic the sound is actually fine but it is when you’re alone in a quiet place when the sound simply reveals its unfuniness.

You get quality-wise maybe a 60€ pair of earbuds for 20€ when buying these, so like all Mi products this is still a good deal.

The Good
+ Clear sound
+ Excellent build quality
+ Value for money

The Bad
– Sound signature not very fun for music listening
– Rubbery wires aren’t the worst tangling ever, but they tangle irritatingly still

Verdict: 3/5

Link to official product info: https://www.mi.com/global/headphonespro/

Summer vacation 2019

Fuck yeah! I love summertime.

Especially now, when I have spent 15 years in my dear employer’s service and get an extra 8 days off on top of the 30 I already had. Still, I’m just taking the usual 5 weeks of leave during the summer but the extra days (weeks!) will come in handy when it gets dark and gloomy (80% of the time in Finland). 5 weeks of summer holidays is still plenty to feel some part of that quaint sense of freedom you had as a kid, and for me it always feels like you live through each winter just to reach this point again when life is casual and easy.

Summer here in the northern hemisphere just has so many more possibilities – it’s easier to dress when going out (and much nicer to look at girls too), the days are long and usually not too hot either, so even if you sleep late it doesn’t mean that you wasted all daylight time. You can go out 20-21 o’clock and it’s still light. So much more comfortable to go for a run.

Basically, this is the time when I recharge my batteries but also reflect on what I should be doing. And, apart from the usual business of keeping in contact with friends and family – which is not always easy when you are a introvert who likes being home a lot – I definitely want to start writing more and making some music again.

Iskelmä festivaali, Himos (Jämsä)
Iskelmä festivaali, Himos (Jämsä)

This summer I’ve already visited one music festival (Iskelmä Festivaali in Himos, Jämsä) with a group of friends, where I had a great time, and Finncon in Jyväskylä in order to get some inspiration for writing/continuing my sci-fi project again. More on those later.

Mom's husband doing woodwork
Mom’s husband doing woodwork

I spent some time with my mom and her husband at their cottage in Mänttä-Vilppula. Got to pile some wood too in the shack, of course, reminding me that I have that kind of work before me at my own cottage as well.

Mom is baking
Mom is baking

Yeah, my own little retreat near home is almost finished and I just need to connect the solar panel installed this year with a battery and do some wiring so I can recharge equipment, have some lights and run a small 12V refrigerator while there.

So, summer has reached its midpoint now and it has already been pretty great – I feel inspired and happy, which is basically already a pretty good achievment. As Finns say when they have it good: “It’s only downhill from here on…”, so let’s see what happens next!

Trying out Orange Long Drink - not so great...
Trying out Orange Long Drink in Jyväskylä – not so great…

Winter was here…

The year 2018 was a pretty good one, and the positive vibe that began building up that year seems to continue. The summer was the hottest in many years, which was nice. Then came the winter, and it was pretty long and dark and cold and depressing. I’m not really depressed like, ever, but maybe the darkness did cause something similar because life was just work, eat, sleep and… that was it. No writing, music or stuff like that happened.

There was also snow for a change, which is not that usual in the Helsinki region anymore. Snow is nice in someways, not so fun in others – like I live in an apartment with a balcony that isn’t roofed so having to shovel the snow off the balcony was a thing that happened this year. Yep, a small thing, but I’ve got to complain about something! So, that was my excuse for not having written any blog posts for a long time.

There are many positive sides to winter in Finland though! Such as… well, not having to cope with big-ass spiders outside or inside the house, which is a big plus. Or poisonous snakes. Or sharks. Or aggressive hippos. Wildlife in general doesn’t try to kill you, so there are many good sides to living here.

It’s just a question of looking at things positively, even if you have to shovel snow from your balcony every now and then.

Travel report: Barcelona (Part 3: The Big City)

Driving in Barcelona

In recent years there has been some backlash against the growing number of tourists, and Barcelona is one of those places [The Guardian]. Partly it has to do with new game-changing services like Airbnb that provide authentic housing opportunities for visitors but also cause surprising negative effects like raising the rent in cities for the locals, and I can sort of understand that if your neighbourhood turns into a party place where you can scarcely afford to live, you might feel just a bit pissed off… But, traveling seems to be mandatory nowadays as flights are still cheap and people tend to flock to the same destinations.

Especially women seem to love traveling (an observation based on my scientifically sound method of er… browsing Tinder profiles). Myself, I don’t like “unnecessary” travelling – I can travel inside my head and enjoy the local beach just fine and be satisfied with that. But if there is an opportunity to go someplace exotic and share the experience with friends – like with this trip – I’ll bite.

Back to the rootsWe experienced no tourist rage as people were very friendly and the mid-May vibe in Barcelona city was lush and relaxed.  We made only this one day trip to the city, so of course this was only scraping the surface but my personal to-do list was fittingly very simple: 1) see the La Sagrada Familia, 2) enjoy tapas and red wine at some nice place and 3) get a feeling for the pulse of the city.

As you can see, I set the bar for life goals quite low.

First stop: Camp Nou

Barcelona is of course home to the world-famous football club FC Barcelona (the name is a clue) with some of the world’s greatest soccer stars. As many of my friends’ kids play football, we started our visit to the city with a stop at the home stadium of Barca: Camp Nou.

Camp Nou -selfie

Lots of people, esp. children, noise, FCB-merchandise to buy, a tour of the facilities for 25€… a small-scale Disneyland for soccer-players, that is. Initially we were going to take the tour so we could see the stadium itself, but ended up just hanging around and my friends got some gear for their kids.

Seeing a real game of football at this kind of venue would be great, but we have to leave something for the future…

Second stop: La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia

It’s famous. It’s big. It’s a church. And it is still partly unfinished. Architect Antoni Gaudi’s  masterpiece is a must-see, of course, The new and old textures don’t mesh that well (yet, needs some air pollution) and I can’t decide if it’s ugly or beautiful but La Sagrada Familia didn’t fail to invoke emotion. I got the feeling that this definitely is some pop-culture version of classical cathedral architecture, the Ed Hardy or Desigual version of religious symbolism. Brash and playful, with a breathtaking number of details, this is no ordinary building. It is a money making machine for Barcelona, no doubt.

La Sagrada Familia, details

Military police were hanging around nearby streets blocking access to the tourist-filled site with concrete blocks, no doubt as a preventive measure against lorries and trucks manned by crazy (or life-depraved and brainwashed more likely) terrorists.  We didn’t go inside the LSF, but walked around and admired the building from all sides. Even the unfinished side.

Unfinished business

Third Stop: Vantage point

View over Barcelona

Waiting for the restaurants to open (about 19 –>), we visited a nearby park on top of a hill. There are several and yeah, I can’t be sure of the name now or bother to check Google Maps more closely, but it’s the place were the cable cars go from the seaside, so maybe near Montjuic? We didn’t go all the way to the top, there was this vantage point with a small kiosk that we strolled around and took photos.

The view over the city was good, and certainly whetted our appetites for the next – muy importante! – stop.

Fourth stop: The Restaurant

La Tasqueta de Blai

The most important thing to do when visiting a new place, country or galactic civilization is enjoying the local food. Checking TripAdvisor for places that had good reviews, our car passed close to a small place called La Tasqueta de Blai that fit the bill. It had just opened its doors, so it was just as well we were early as seats for seven people would otherwise have been hard to find.

The service was friendly and the tapas selection looked incredible – there were too many varieties to try them all in one setting. Even the 100+ kg buffet gorillas among us couldn’t manage that. The drill was simple: the small pinchos cost either 1 € or 1,80 € and you just went to the counter and filled your plate with whatever selection you wanted. Then you ate those and just kept the sticks that held the small culinary artworks in place initially. Then you went for more. And ate. And refilled your plate with some more choices. And ate. You know the drill by now…

Out of focus, pinchos...

Finally, when you couldn’t eat any more, you counted your sticks and paid according to those (the more expensive options had red-tipped sticks). Very smart and casual system. Barcelona is of course full of places like this, but we were very satisfied with the one we visited. Once again, eating was one of the highlights of the trip and after the Formula One meal disaster we didn’t take any chances this time.

Highly recommended place!

Fifth stop: The Beach

(some music to get in the mood first below)

Before leaving the city, we hit the beach and enjoyed the passing evening breeze. Just like in the town, it was pretty relaxed and quiet but there were people of course playing beach volley, lying on the sand and even swimming although it was probably a cold day for them as it was +20. For us Finns, it was perfect summer weather.

Looking at the sea and dipping the feet in the Mediterranean felt great, there is magic in the oceans.

Then it was back to Argentona and our villa for the rest of the trip, and eventually home where new adventures awaited. I could tell you about the embarrassing hangover I had on the trip back, when for once I was seated next to a single, Brazilian hot woman but better skip that story for another time…

BCN  <3

Food: Excellent – and surprisingly cheap compared to Helsinki.

Things to do: All of the things above and more. Yep, I do get it why Barcelona is so popular already from this brief encounter. But running around the city trying to see everything at once is always a chore, so just relax and enjoy the vibe – and drop in for some tapas and wine to get the real feeling for the place.

Verdict: Highly recommended.