App of the Week: Commercial Break

Developer: Aristarchos LTD.

Compatible with: iPhone 3GS and up, iPod Touch 4th gen and up, iPad

Requires: iOS 5.0

Price: Free

Available: here 

As much as I love football, the one argument that is kind of hard to defend my beloved game against is that there are too many commercials.

As a football fan you train yourself to almost block them out, or even accept them in your life, but all it takes is one really crappy commercial, or an oddly timed commercial break, or worse the observation of a casual observer to realize that you actually spend most of your time watching a football game, watching commercials.

It’s a problem that most severely affects football games, but it serves as the burden of all television as well. Unfortunately with channel flipping being such a dangerous proposition, and devices like the hopper only letting you skip commercials on recorded programs, it’s also one that has become an inescapable reality of watching live TV.

The makers of Commercial Break don’t see it that way though, and through their app actually allow you to use your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad (with Android compatibility coming soon) as a heads up to when your favorite channel is done with commercials.

While the exact answer to how this works on a technical level is a complicated conundrum that has something to do with analysis and algorithms, how it works on a user end actually couldn’t be simpler. Just choose the channel you are currently watching from the apps list, and hit start. From there, you receive a notice whenever your program is back on, meaning you are free to go walkabout, switch channels, or even turn off the TV without missing your program, or having to suffer another poorly scripted shill.

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It’s a great idea that is made even better by the fact it actually does work extremely well. However, even though the functionality is what you’d want it to be, there are some limitations to consider before downloading. For instance, so far the only channels supported are ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, ESPN, ESPN2, USA, TBS, and TNT, and even then you only get all of those channels if you live in NYC, with coverage varying beyond there, and being completely nonexistent outside of the US.

That may sound like a pretty big catch, but the developers are aware of the need to expand both coverage and available channels, and are looking to do so should the apps early build prove successful.

For now though what you are downloading is an investment in the future. One free from corporate brainwashing and terrible jokes spawned by deadlines and budgets constraints, and one instead full of trips to get more beer or use the bathroom that are free from the fear of missing your show, or having to wait for the recording. No longer will you sit down on Sundays to watch commercials with football in between, but rather will be able to sit down and just watch football.

If you read that last paragraph and saw an American flag waving behind you, then you can probably see the potential of Commercial Break, and why it is my app of the week.

  

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App of the Week – Futuridium EP

Developer: Mixedbag SRL

Compatible with: iPhone 4 and up, iPod Touch 4th gen and up, iPad

Requires: iOS 6.0

Price: $1.99

Available: here 

There’s a popular trend in gaming going around, and it involves making games as difficult as feasibly possible, forcing the user to die and die again until they finally make a marginal amount of progress. You then repeat this process until you either complete the game (not likely) or watch your eyeballs explode in rage (not technically possible, but still more likely).

They go by many names, and come in many forms, but this one is called “Futuridium EP.”

Even more difficult to beat than pronounce, “Futuridium” has a story, but it basically boils down to you’ve been sent to a balls trippingly psychedelic universe where you are tasked with destroying a series of cubes to expose the main cube (called the core) which you then destroy to escape.

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Not exactly Pulitzer worthy, but it does give you a good enough setting for which to make runs over colorfully bizarre levels and destroy your objectives. The difficulty of this comes in small part through its tricky touch screen controls, but in larger part through your constantly depleting energy bar that only refills at the end of a level. It’s that bar that requires you to make pinpoint perfect runs, which isn’t made any easier by the having to start over at the very beginning of the game after each numerous failure, unless you earn the rare continue by hitting certain milestones.

Like so many similar titles, the difficulty alone would usually be reason enough to never touch this game, if it weren’t for some genuinely enjoyable aspects. While the basic cube shooting is fondly reminiscent of many quarter sucking arcade classics, and at first glance you’ll likely get a serious “Starfox” vibe, really the game reminds me most of the cult classic shooter “Rez,” due to its mind altering visuals, and engaging soundtrack that begs for a good pair of headphones.

Also like “Rez,” the combination of those aspects completely immerses you in the experience, which is particularly useful as the game requires a zen like state to complete. This is not a game for the casual player, and in fact it does at times feel slightly out of place on a mobile platform due to that. However, even the shortest play sessions can all contribute to building that perfect run, and that perfect run is sheer nirvana, even if you crash and burn on the next level.

“Futuridium” is not a perfect app, nor is it intended for everyone. If you’re looking for a gauge of whether or not you will dig it, then ask yourself if an arcade game that will beat you down without mercy, and assault your senses with an enthralling soundtrack and unique visuals, while threatening your routine by causing you to miss train stops and phone calls as you contemplate the limits of your control issues sounds appealing.

If so, then check out “Futuridium,” a truly trippy app of the week.

  

App of the Week: TuneIn

Developer: TuneIn Inc.

Compatible with: iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android Devices

Requires: iOS 5.0 and up, Android 2.1 and up

Price: Free

Available: here (for iOS) and here (for Android)

It may sound like an obvious statement, but I never really appreciated the things you can become homesick for until I was away from home for an extended period of time.

Sure I know you’re bound to grow nostalgic for family, friends, certain locations, certain food, and the rest, but there are a host of little things you never even fully realize you enjoy until they are unavailable.

One in particular is the local sports radio guys. As an Astros fan (I know, I know, believe me I know) I became accustomed to hearing our local broadcast team much more than I ever realized. The chances I get to watch or hear a game now are even more brutal than usual because I don’t have the local flavor there to spice the proceedings up.

It’s for people in similar situations that TuneIn Radio was created for, as it provides access to over 70,000 radio stations nationwide for the incredibly reasonable price of free. The app is as simple to use as the TuneIn website it is based off of, as you can save your favorite radio stations from anywhere and listen to them live whenever you want.

While the most obvious use of a service like TuneIn may be to reacquaint yourself with your favorite radio stations no matter where you are, the real value in TuneIn is its use as a discovery app. That’s due entirely to the fact that the amount of stations available can only be described as staggering, and the content they provide is greater than that. Trying to wrap your head around all that is available is daunting, but fortunately the built in search features allow you to break down every available station so you can find whatever you’re in the mood for, while still being adventurous in locating new sources for it.

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Sure it’s easy to be spoiled by the ability that services like Spotify provide to listen to exactly whatever you want, but there is something to be said about the random, almost chaotic, selections of radio where you sit back and let fate (or more accurately, DJ’s) determine what you are listening to, with only the guidance of the general mood you’re in to lead the way. It’s much more difficult to fall into patterns based where you listen to certain music to death that way, and just feels more lively.

Not to mention it isn’t burdened by all of the same licensing issues, which means that if you need them, you can always find “The Beatles” or “Led Zeppelin” on somewhere.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the radio than just music, and TuneIn provides it all. Talk, news, and, best of all, sports broadcasts are all available (and naturally still nationwide), but you also get podcasts as well, essentially meaning there isn’t a single piece of entertainment covered nationwide that TuneIn can’t cater to at your whim.

I’m a firm believer in quality over quantity usually but, while TuneIn functions admirably, the truth its real appeal comes through sheer content. Loads and loads of content available to you almost anywhere from almost everywhere, for no cost at all. It becomes far too easy to become stuck to whatever we load onto our smartphones or tablets as our go to sources of entertainment, and TuneIn provides an alternative to that by giving you all of that same entertainment, but in a way that feels more free and unbinding.

Every mobile user should have an app like that which reminds them of the joy of radio, and of those apps, TuneIn may just be the best. So whether you need something fresher to listen to at work, or miss the local announcer of your favorite abysmal sports team, grab TuneIn, my app of the week.

  

App of the Week – XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Developer: 2K Studios

Compatible with: iPod Touch 5th gen and up, iPad 2, iPad Mini, iPhone 4S and up (optimized for iPhone 5)

Requires: iOS 5.0

Price: $20.00

Available: here

There’s a lot to be said about “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” for iOS, but none of it can be said without eventually mentioning the price.

Yes, “XCOM” is a $20 gaming app, in a world where $20 can also easily translate to owning 20 gaming apps. This will cause many people dismay, or even fits of laughter.

But I’m not going to talk about the price just yet. Instead I just want to focus on “XCOM.”

XCOM” took the console and PC world by storm last year as gamers everywhere discovered the joy of running a worldwide alien defense organization, and commanding troops on the ground in tense and violent tactical operation scenarios. A revival of one of the most complicated and hardcore PC franchises of all time, “Enemy Unknown” somehow managed to find a way to maintain the things that made that series great, while also making the experience much more manageable and appealing to the more mainstream gaming market.

Of course the star of the game is its permadeath system. Much like last weeks “Sword and Glory” app, death is not only around every corner in “XCOM,” but when it happens you lose that soldier for good. This is made worse by how much you can customize a soldier to make them your own, and the hours you will inevitably spend leveling up your favorites. No matter how much time or effort you put into a character though, one false move and they are dead and gone.

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It’s a punishing system to be sure, but it gives the game an element of tension that would be impossible without it. Every decision matters in “XCOM,” whether it be on the battlefield, or in the management mode when trying to determine what countries to aid (you can’t save them all) and what research to pursue in order to manufacture new items and weapons. Every moment in “XCOM” is spent making these tough decisions, and as such success and joy are found not in glorious moments of gratification, but just through mere survival, and a chain of little moments that make up your 30+ hour playtime.

A glorious moment of success is to be found, though, the minute you boot up the game and realize that this is indeed the entire “XCOM” experience (sans multiplayer) on a mobile device. Sure the graphics took a very slight hit, but this is compensated for by some nice touch controls that add to the feeling of being the “Commander” character the game casts you as. While playing this on an iPhone over an iPad is not the most welcoming of propositions, again it’s the fact it even exists in that format in a playable manner that deserves recognition.

Ultimately though, even though this is still every inch of the original 2012 game of the year candidate expertly ported by 2K to a potentially hostile format, it does come back to the price. While $20 spent well is a fair amount of money, the fact is that $20 for this game is a steal, considering it means you’re getting what is essentially a console game at about a third of the original price, to take with you wherever you go. The price is all a matter of perspective, and in an app world where a “Free” game can easily set you back around $20 when you consider in-app purchases (of which “XCOM” has none) and usually are not of this level of quality, you really have to call this a case of paying an appropriate price for what you get.

“XCOM” defied expectations last year and made most of its fans out of people who never played this type of strategy game before, much less the franchise. With any of the luck I do not have when I play this game (my guys die a lot), this mobile version will do the same as it’s a near-flawless port of that all-time great strategy experience.

So get ready to craft a virtual graveyard of fallen soldiers, start seeing Chryssalids in you nightmares, and get addicted to “XCOM” all over again as it’s not only a perfect port, but my app of the week.

  

App of the Week: Sword and Glory

Developer: Ifelse Media Ltd.

Compatible with: iPod Touch 3rd gen and up, iPad, iPhone 3GS and up (optimized for iPhone 5), Android devices

Requires: iOS 4.0 and up, Android 2.0.1 and up

Price: Free

Available: here (for iOS) and here (for Android)

If you’re anything like me, you’re suffering some serious withdrawals this week, as there will be no new “Game of Thrones” episode on Sunday, and winter itself will have come and gone by the time we get more.

However, if you are similarly disheartened by the hibernation of television’s best show, there is a simple solution that can tide you over for the long wait.

Read the books.

Should that not be enough to feed the hunger though, then also consider downloading “Sword and Glory.”

It’s a medieval-ish era gaming app that shares several similarities with the HBO series, starting with the basis of families feuding. Right from the outset you are asked to align yourself with one of three warring clans (or choose to go on your own), for which to win glory for. After choosing some personal attributes that help create your character, you’ll find that winning glory mostly boils down to completing various quests that all lead to one-on-one duels with some undesirables.

Making up the bulk of the gameplay, the dueling system in “Sword & Glory” is of the easy to learn, but tough to master variety. It only consists of two basic functions (block and attack) which can each be accomplished through various levels of force, with the basic goal being to get past your enemies’ defenses and kill them. I’ve heard it compared to a “rock, paper, scissors” style, but it’s more about timing and rhythm, especially in later parts where the difficulty shoots up quickly and you are forced to think and act appropriately.

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In another interesting parallel to “Thrones,” the world of “Sword & Glory” is a morally grey one, even though the game’s graphical palate is pleasingly rendered in black and white. Choices must be made around every corner which can hold great sway over proceedings both immediate and long term. Though not as ambiguous or ambitions as say “The Walking Dead,” you’ll often find yourself pausing before decisions to consider your actions, lending weight to the more quiet moments, and some unexpected depth to an otherwise bare bones plot.

Hands down though, the biggest comparison between the two properties is their shared belief that all men must die. Death is inevitable in “Sword & Glory” and once it occurs, your character is gone forever, with their accomplishments immortalized in the game’s ever expanding graveyard. Fear not though, as once death occurs, you may continue on as the next in your character’s line and, while you lose any silver and stats your previous creation had, you retain the glory points they accrued (which can be traded for currency and rare items) and all their equipment as well.

It’s an absolutely brilliant lineage concept that lends both urgency to all your current proceedings, and serious replay value long term, as you attempt to progress a little further each generation. Even if it weren’t present though, you’d find plenty of motivation to keep playing thanks to a perfectly tuned combat system and plenty of enhancements to both your character and homestead to purchase, not to mention the various quests, paths, achievements, and final legacies available to pursue based on your choices.

Sure it’s nothing new in RPG terms, but I can’t overstate how well executed it all is. What you get with “Sword & Glory” is a finely tuned (and damn good looking) mobile RPG that is built upon one of the least forgiving permadeath systems I’ve ever seen, thanks to a lack of stored save points, beyond where you left off. While it can be frustrating to lose a character you’ve invested hours in, it only furthers your motivation to do better the next time, and to die every time with as much glory as possible.

I may keep mentioning “Game of Thrones” since I stumbled upon “Sword & Glory” while getting over my withdraws from the show, but in no way does it relies on that, or any other, property or context to stand out, thanks to a rare mix of raw emotion, depth, and accessibility. In a game all about establishing your legacy and forging a name for yourself, I’m happy to bestow “Sword and Glory” with the title of app of the week.

  

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