TIME

After 30 Hours of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, I’m Nowhere Near Finished

Konami

... and I'm loving every minute of it

12 missions completed, 73 times spotted, 72 tactical takedowns, 215 neutralizations, 75 interrogations, 93 recruits added and 30 hours of play time total. That’s the dossier on my experience so far of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I’m still pretty far from the finish line, but 30 hours is a lot of time to spend with anything, and so I can say this much—not a moment of it has been less than thrilling.

What do any of those metrics mean? With 30 hours of nose-to-the-grindstone play, the game tells me I’ve completed around one fifth (19%) of the missions where the philosophically convoluted, drowning-in-acronyms story plays out. But that 19% isn’t counting the barrage of compulsive distractions Team Kojima fastballs at you, including: photo gathering, luring and extracting animals to safety, and a daunting barrage of “side ops” you’ll have to chip away at to accrue the resources and personnel necessary to shore up deficiencies (and advance the mainline missions) in The Phantom Pain‘s elaborate base building game. Taking everything into account, the game tells me I’ve completed a tiny 7% overall.

Am I just slow? Methodical I’ll cop to, but I finished the story in Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed Unity in less time. You can’t rush missions here, or slop your way through them. Even if you ignore the optional stuff, the physical space where the missions transpire is so vast, the dozens of enemies patrolling the areas so shrewd, and the penalties so severe if you lumber in guns-a-blazin’, that pulling off your primary objective can take hours, planning to execution to extraction. Whatever intimidated Kojima about Grand Theft Auto V a few years ago, The Phantom Pain is no less sprawling than Rockstar’s open-world opus.

But the label “open world” is all both games share. Rockstar’s expansive Los Angeles burlesque may look visually denser, but it feels brittler, an ocean of urban beauty that collapses if you want to do more than harass its vagabond citizens or play hide-and-seek with the cops.

The Phantom Pain takes the opposite tack, placing you on an offshore platform in the Indian Ocean, then letting you helicopter in to a craggy, population-zero rendition of Northern Kabul, Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war (circa 1984), and eventually prowl around a swathe of Africa’s Angola-Zaire border region. (I haven’t unlocked the latter area yet, but judging from the pack-in map, it’s just as big as the Afghanistan one.)

Imagine several village-sized nodes connected by roads surrounded by rocky hills you can’t go over, only around. That’s how The Phantom Pain keeps you semi-corralled. You can move between areas along these roads on horseback or in vehicles, bumping into military outposts and skirmishing with Soviet soldiers, but most missions involve picking a landing zone, surveilling the target area from afar (to mark enemies on your map), then executing whatever tactical approach you care to.

All that between-space is there to provide a semblance of openness, in other words, but almost all of the action transpires in the map’s labeled spaces, be they outposts, occupied villages, or repurposed ruins. That’s a good thing, because it’s also a focus thing: everything I was talking about taking hours to complete above takes place in those spaces.

The stealth stuff isn’t new, let’s be clear about that. You’re still doing the same basic thing you’ve been doing for decades in these games, sneaking around enemy haunts or in conflict zones, trying to creep up behind and dispatch your foes (ideally, as always, by knocking them out, not killing them). It’s just never been attempted on anything like this scale, or when it comes to your opponents, with this much behavioral granularity. The Phantom Pain has some of the brightest, meaningfully collaborative, and thus relentlessly hostile opponents I’ve ever battled.

Yes, much of it is iterative, and we caught a glimpse of some of those iterations in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. It’s also not trying to be ultra-realistic. Metal Gear Solid games have their own kinetic peculiarities. This isn’t stealth à la Splinter Cell‘s sinuous slinking, or Assassin’s Creed frenetic parkour. The protagonist still crouches, gracelessly sprints and clumsily belly-crawls just as he has in The Phantom Pain‘s predecessors for decades.

But some of the changes feel monumental in how they impact the design. Interrogating enemies can produce intel on both items or personnel of interest, as well as the positions of other soldiers. Day and night cycles prompt different patrol patterns and change the places guards tend to hangout. Sandstorms roll in suddenly, turning dangerously open space into advancement opportunities or escape routes. Tech upgrades eventually let you suss the abilities of potentially employable enemy soldiers, turning battlescapes into talent-scouting exercises. And as promised, the game tries to frustrate your tactical habits by adding little wrinkles, like putting helmets on enemies in subsequent missions if you’re fond of headshots. (Word of your activities gets around, and you’ll even pick some of that up in overheard soldier-to-soldier confabs as time passes.)

All that adds up to an anthill I can’t stop poking. And that’s without saying a word about the base-building game, a vast (and at my 30 hour mark, only getting vaster) resource bulwark you have to ply to manufacture better weapons, intel scopes, mobile communications devices, balloon extraction systems, bionic limbs, camouflage duds, horse armor, helicopter armament and more. Even camo-boxes, a longtime series joke, have their own upgrade paths.

If I had to grade it now, 30 hours in, with 80% of the story yet to come, most of the equipment still locked away, my base still a nascent thing, and only a handful of the side missions complete, I’d give The Phantom Pain full marks, easy. But if you want to see whether another 30 or more hours changes my mind, I’ll be back with a full review before the game launches Sept. 1.

 

 

TIME

Why Everybody Should Play Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

The Chinese Room / Sony

An interactive storytelling experiment that at times works wonders

Is Sony’s PlayStation 4-exclusive Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture a game? An interactive narrative? An open-air museum? All three at once?

I’m not sure. I’m also not sure I care that I’m not sure. The whole “is this a game?” back-and-forth seems as silly as the “is this art?” debate. Either way, there’s a frame of mind angle involved in appreciating what developer The Chinese Room is up to. You have to be receptive to its calculated bell curve throw. There’s nothing to fight here, no puzzles to solve, no heads-up display, no larders to stuff (no inventory management) and no scores to settle. As far as I can tell, the game lacks PlayStation phphies, too. [Update: The pre-launch version I played had no trophies, but the launch version will.]

What you can do, is inch along at the speed of a snail, open and close doors and fences, and listen to cryptic audio clips that issue from ringing phones and portable radios droning strings of mathematically ominous numbers. That’s it. It’s “interactive” at roughly the level of an intricate museum exhibit with stations and those little buttons you can push to conjure audio vignettes.

The Chinese Room / Sony

Like Dear Esther, its spiritual predecessor, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture invites you to explore—or maybe the better verb here would be haunt—an uninhabited tract of bucolic Shropshire, U.K., conjuring memories that gradually brick together an elliptical sci-fi-tinged yarn, employing sharp-eared dialogue and promising buildup. Imagine the audio diary portions of BioShock, except here they’re the pièce de résistance, a trickle of tales that meld the terrifyingly inexorable with the inexorably personal. The end of the world isn’t really about the end of the world, but how, given time enough to brood, we’ll go about reacting to it.

But is Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture artful enough in its telling? The title alone seems to be telegraphing that it’s more than a mere sci-fi potboiler, what with its reference to apex eschatology. But is that reference symbolic? Ironic? Literal? I’ve finished the thing and I still couldn’t tell you.

I can tell you the world wrought here looks as beautiful as a this-gen console game should, a sometimes linear, sometimes open swathe of blissful countryside you stroll freely through, espying mist-capped valleys punctuated by bus stops, phone booths, smoking ashtray-filled pubs, vast barns, spooky-looking domed towers, unpeopled flats, golden pastures choked with gently swaying strands of wheat and towering windmills. The weird stuff tends to happen as you amble along and trip (or interact with) trigger points.

The Chinese Room / Sony

In Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, that weird stuff mostly involves light that looks a little like the special effects circling Persis Khambatta and Stephen Collins near the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Balls of apparently sentient effulgence prowl intersections like terrestrial comets. Approach one and you’ll hear a susurrus of voices, like the doleful whispers in Lost. Are these the ghosts of the town’s unaccounted inhabitants? Often they’ll lead you to static spheres of energy. Twist the gamepad sideways (I’m not sure what this signifies, it just moves the sphere) and you’ll conjure a spectral memory, the sky blackening to starlight as a cyclonic stream of photons reenacts the scene, the actors physically unknowable save for their voices, which ring loud and clear as they recall a moment leading up to the “event” that culminated in their disappearance.

At first I assumed I was Kate, the first voice you hear as the game opens, a scientist with the laboratory partly responsible for the bit of scientific adventuring that gets the ball rolling. I gradually began to wonder whether I might be nobody, a bodiless phantom gliding from one slow-drip revelation to the next, poring over paranoid bus stop graffiti, the mishmash of artifacts in houses, bloody kleenexes, naturalist books on birds, old Commodore 64-style computers, black and white TVs, sky charts stippled with constellations, and “You are here” maps of the area as I worked out, mostly by following the beckoning balls of light, where to wander next.

Who you are may be a question the developers never answer. A disembodied witness? The actuating medium through which the roving souls of the transformed tell their tale? To what end? Perhaps simply this: to convey a straightforward story slightly out of sequence, with firmer visual parameters, the world and peoples our imaginations might conjure reading a book fully reified and continuously inhabitable here—mental flexibility versus imagistic holism.

The Chinese Room / Sony

That said, the navigational aids can be mercurial to a fault, and it’s easy to get lost once the areas open up. Couple with an inchworm’s gait, and if you mistakenly backtrack or veer off somewhere the little balls of light aren’t tracking, it can take more than a while to find your way back. Mountains of patience and an appreciation for romanticized English scenery are mandatory to seeing the four or five hours it takes to complete Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture through.

What worked least well for me, I hate to admit given my affection for Dear Esther, was the story. Not because it was unclear or poorly told, but because I’d argue it was handled with far more nuance and emotional resonance just last year in writer Jeff Vandermeer’s superlative Southern Reach trilogy. The twists and interpersonal tragedies and vaguely philosophical takeaways that should have been knocking my socks off here thus played more like the echoes of Vandermeer’s more affecting and weirdly analogous ones.

The things I like about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture are many: the self-paced discovery and chronological asymmetry, the significance of entangling yourself in a visually “complete” environment, the poignance of a well-crafted, well-delivered character exchange. I’m just not sure how often I’d want to repeat the experience. It feels more like a playful experiment (there’s the “game”!) than a breakthrough approach to storytelling, though I admire the attempt, and the skill with which the tale, told in fragments, unfolds.

3 out of 5

Reviewed on PlayStation 4

TIME Reviews

Hands-On With China’s iPhone Killer

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The OnePlus 2 is one of the best cheap smartphones out there

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The OnePlus 2 is finally here, priced at a competitive $329 for the 16GB version and $389 for the 64GB model. But the question on everyone’s mind: Is it really the “flagship killer” as OnePlus calls it?

The short answer is yes, as this phone matches up in many ways to competitors’ models that cost twice the price. However, that’s not to say it’s better in every way. Still, on first impression the OnePlus 2 is an extraordinary phone, one that’s sure to upset the status quo even more than the original OnePlus One did last year.

Same back, new frame

The first striking aspect of the OnePlus 2 is that it looks and feels like a well-made phone that utilizes quality materials. It still feels like a OnePlus – the back sports the same rough textured plastic, which feels more like stone than the slick plastic of other phones. It means the OnePlus 2 is extremely grippy.

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The back is a lot easier to remove this time, too. The rear cover is more like the back on the Galaxy Note 4 – it just peels off the metal frame without any fuss. And it’s that frame that makes all the difference. Suddenly, the OnePlus 2 feels like a flagship, as well as performing like one.

It’s not a particularly thin phone, but it is both narrower and shorter than the iPhone 6 Plus with the same size screen. At 5.5 inches it’s still a big phone, but if you’re used to 5-inch screens then you shouldn’t find the OnePlus 2 too tricky to use.

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At 175g it’s substantial too, but not too heavy to use for prolonged periods.

The design touches don’t end there. The metal buttons are placed exactly where you want them to be and there’s a smart notification toggle that comes with three settings – on, mute and all off, for when you don’t even want it to vibrate. Useful stuff.

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The OnePlus 2 might not feel quite as classy as the Galaxy S6 Edge or iPhone 6 Plus, but it’s not far off them either. On first impressions we prefer bother the look and feel of it over the far more expensive LG G4 and Sony Xperia Z3+. Flagship killer? So far so lethal.

Anaemic screen

The 5.5-inch 1080p screen is perfectly acceptable in terms of specs – on paper it’s the same as the iPhone 6 Plus.

In reality, however, the display is a little anaemic. It’s not the lack of Quad HD resolution that’s the problem – the screen is sharp enough and has good viewing angles. The problem is the muted colours that look washed out, although top brightness is decent.

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There’s no doubt I’d rather look at LG G4 or Galaxy S6’s screen more, but the OnePlus 2’s display is still good, particularly when you compare it to similarly priced handsets.

Cool and quick

Qualcomm Snapdragon 810, 4GB DDR4 RAM (64GB version) 3GB DDR4 RAM (16GB version)

Alarm bells rang when OnePlus announced the OnePlus 2 would use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 chipset. It’s as speedy as it comes when put through its paces, but it does tend to make phones a little toasty.

In the hour or so I had with the OnePlus 2, I didn’t notice any problems at all – and I really tried to get it all hot and bothered. A few dozen photos, two minutes of 4K video, a quick bout of Hill Climb Racing and some general browsing left it barely warm.

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On first impressions it looks like the OnePlus 2 is both slick, fast and responsive without succumbing to some of the issues we’ve experienced with the Xperia Z3+ or LG G Flex 2 that also pack the Snapdragon 810 processor.

This is because the OnePlus 2 is using a revised version of the processor (although HTC reckons it’s the same as the one in the One M9) and has worked hard on the thermal regulation. It’s clearly working.

We weren’t able to put the OnePlus 2 through our range of benchmarks so we don’t know quite yet how well it stacks up to other flagships, but it should be on par, and certainly feels more than fast enough for most people.

Improved camera

13-megapixel rear camera, 5-megapixel front camera, Optical image stabilization

Cameras are one of the most hotly contested aspects of phones. There’s little to separate the iPhone 6 Plus, LG G4 and Galaxy S6 – arguably the best camera phones on the market.

The OnePlus 2 has a 13-megapixel sensor, just like its predecessor, but this time OnePlus has increased the size of the pixels to 1.3 microns. That’s bigger than the 1.1 microns of the S6 but smaller than the 1.5 microns of the iPhone 6. Why should you care? Well the larger the pixel the more light it lets in and this helps when taking photos in darker environments.

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It’s impossible to test a phone camera adequately when you can’t see the images on a big screen, but on first impression the OnePlus 2 manages to take decent shots. The one thing I noticed, however, is that the OnePlus takes an age to process photos with HDR turned on – that’s something the iPhone 6, S6 and G4 have cracked.

This could mean the OnePlus 2 won’t be snuffing out the competition when it comes to taking pictures. It may still be the best cameraphone in its price range, though – we’ll find out when we review it fully.

Breathing easy with OxygenOS

The OnePlus 2 runs OxygenOS on Android 5.0 Lollipop off the bat, unlike the OnePlus One that launched with CyanogenMod.

The experience is almost pure Android, but with a few bells and whistles thrown in. Off screen gestures and customizable buttons are all still there, and it also comes with a bunch of personalization controls. It’s not as power-user pleasing as CyanogenMod, but it is simple to use.

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Trusted ReviewsOxygenOS comes with MaxxAudio sound that lets you create a load of setting you can toggle to.

I did have some issues with the camera app, it was tricky to zoom in and flick through images. OnePlus told me this will be resolved in a software update.

The slick SwiftKey keyboard that learns as you type is also included as the OnePlus 2’s main keyboard.

Faster than Touch ID – Less reliable than Touch ID

One of the most talked about new features on the OnePlus 2 is its fingerprint sensor. This lets you unlock the phone using your digits just as you can on the iPhone 6 or Galaxy S6.

It’s quick and easy to set up your fingerprints, and the phone unlocks in fractions of a second when the screen is on. OnePlus claims it unlocks faster than the iPhone 6 and based on our testing that’s right.

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Trusted ReviewsThe fingerprint sensor on the OnePlus 2 doesn’t double as a physical button.

However, I found its performance variable when the screen is turned off. It just didn’t work as consistently as I’d like for such a key feature. Hopefully software optimization will sort out a lot of these issues, as they did with the fingerprint scanner on the Galaxy S5.

Type C USB = No more fumbling

Fingerprint scanners are so yesterday though, what about real innovation? Well the OnePlus 2 can lay claim to being the very first smartphone to use Type C USB. That means no more guessing when you’re trying to plug in your phone.

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What’s the OnePlus 2 missing?

Not much when you compare it to the flagships it’s looking to crush. There’s no microSD slot, which plenty of Android fans crave in their phones, but it does include dual SIM slots so you can have two nano-SIMs with two different numbers working off one device.

This isn’t a feature many people in the U.K. or U.S. care about, but it’s huge elsewhere in the world and I’ve always found it handy, particularly when roaming.

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Perhaps the biggest and most interesting omission is NFC. Google Wallet requires NFC to work as a touch-and-pay device and with the growth of Apple Pay, and Samsung Pay coming soon, this is an area the OnePlus 2 will be found wanting.

Less of a problem is a lack of wireless charging, we’re sure third-party cases will come along that provide the feature. The battery isn’t removable either, but at 3,300mAh it should provide ample battery life. We’ll need a lot more time with it before we know for sure, though.

First Impressions

The OnePlus 2 looks to build on the awesome OnePlus One in all the right ways. The fingerprint scanner might not be perfect, but the OnePlus 2 trounces every other phone in its price bracket.

Would I rather have it than a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge? Not if both were offered to me as a gift and I had to choose. If I had to open my wallet, though, I’d be insane not to consider the exceptional value the OnePlus 2 brings to the table.

Of course it all comes down to being able to buy it. The OnePlus 2 is only available via invitation – does OnePlus like you enough to give you the opportunity to buy one? If yes then it’ll be hard to consider any other phone in its price range. Only the Motorola Moto X Play, announced recently, comes close to offering the same value for money at a decent specification.

This post is in partnership with Trusted Reviews. The article above was originally published at TrustedReviews.com

TIME Reviews

Apple’s HomeKit Is Promising, But It Needs More Work

The tech company’s new smart home system isn’t reliable yet

One year after Apple announced plans to launch its home automation platform HomeKit, the company’s first certified products are now being shipped to customers around the world.

HomeKit puts Apple in the middle of an ever-growing, and increasingly competitive home automation market. Tech rival Google is in the midst of building its own platform called Brillo, while Belkin’s WeMo system has created smart household appliances ranging from air conditioners to crock pots.

HomeKit works by using Siri (Apple’s digital assistant) to control and monitor homes using third-party gadgets, and in the past has been plagued by delays, rumors, and criticism from vendors.

However, that’s all changed now with manufacturers Insteon and Lutron ready to ship their HomeKit-certified products, and smart gadgets from Ecobee and Phillips Hue set to hit retail shelves in the near future.

Unlike other home automation services, Apple requires companies create products that are compatible with its mobile operating system in order to ensure compatibility and provide end-to-end encryption, which prevents the system from being hacked.

Over the past week, I’ve tested out Lutron’s $230 Caseta Wireless HomeKit system. The bundle includes a Smart Bridge, which acts as a wireless hub to connect the system to the Internet, along with two plug-in lamp dimmers and two stand-alone remotes for the dimmers. Although Lutron already makes smart devices for the home, users who want to use Siri to manage those products will have to purchase a new Smart Bridge.

The initial setup process for the system was simple and consisted of installing the Lutron app on my iPhone, plugging the Smart Bridge into my wireless router, and following a series of prompts within the app.

HomeKit is activated using the “Siri Integration” option in the app’s menu. Within the app’s setting page, you simply label your home, rooms and identify which items you’d like to control. A few minutes after you’ve saved the new settings, you can then start controlling your home through a series of commands.

Users simply have to push a small button on their iPhone, give an order, and watch as the request is immediately fulfilled. Automation solutions have long made it possible to turn lights off or on with other apps, but this will be the first time consumers will be able to wirelessly communicate with appliances using Apple’s iOS

In order to control appliances from outside the home, consumers will need to own a Apple TV (3rd generation or later) that shares the same iCloud account as their other iOS devices. For those without an Apple TV, users can still rely on the Lutron app (at least, that’s what I found, with my setup).

In its current state, HomeKit is far from the polished product one would expect to see from Apple. For instance, you need to follow a very specific HomeKit voice command protocol, laid out by Apple, in order for Siri to understand verbal requests.

A simple command of “turn off my lights” is recognized without issue. However, “control my lights” or any similar variations will result in an Internet search, because Siri can’t understand the instruction, which is disappointing.

If you’re already deeply invested in Apple’s other products, buying HomeKit accessories won’t hurt your bank account. The service’s functionality is a bit limited with iOS 8, but the release of iOS 9 this fall will bring more advanced commands and support for more accessories, such as motion sensors. For example, later in the year consumers will be able to use their Apple Watch to communicate with HomeKit devices, instead of relying solely on an iPhone (or iPad). Additionally, you’ll be able to trigger your thermostat based on multiple variables such as time and location, instead of just one variable as it is now.

HomeKit was meant to improve the user experience and offer a secure method for managing accessories and smartphone apps, but needs more work if it’s to successfully compete with other companies in the market.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Video Games

5 Things I Absolutely Love in Batman: Arkham Knight

Batman must once more save Gotham from a who's who medley of his worst enemies—including a mysterious new villain dubbed the Arkham Knight

Confession: I don’t like superheroes. Watchmen author Alan Moore once suggested their existence in American culture “might have something to do with a kind of an ingrained American reluctance to engage in confrontation without massive tactical superiority.” Nonetheless, superheroes are now pretty much ubiquitous in our entertainment, and I submit that at some point we’re going to have to grapple with some of the less pleasant particulars of why that’s the case.

But it’s also testament to how well the Arkham games work that the idea of playing a protagonist as sadistic, pretentious, and at times borderline sociopathic as Batman doesn’t really factor when the game plays this well (and if you are a Batman fan, all the better for you). Arkham Knight, which sees Batman square off against old enemies and one new (the eponymous and identity-unknown Arkham Knight) in a vast open-world playground, is developer Rocksteady at the top of its game, expressing a masterful, anted-up understanding of how and why its series finally broke gaming’s “awful superhero tie-in” curse half a decade ago.

Here’s the stuff I liked.

Is the Joker really dead?

I was prepared, upon Arkham Knight‘s announcement years ago, to toss it in the trash if it turned out the Joker’s demise in the last game was just an emotional exploit intended all along to preface another soap opera-worthy resuscitation. (Hey, just because the corporate comics do it doesn’t mean games can’t take the higher ground.)

But no, Rocksteady went and… Okay, I can’t confirm that the Joker is or isn’t in Arkham Knight. That would be telling. But I can tell you this: Rocksteady manages to get you thinking about the question in the cleverest possible way. In fact I’d argue it’s the narrative component in the game that’s pulled off best.

Arkham Knight‘s version of Gotham is a wonderland

No, not in the John Mayer sense, but consider all of the stops pulled and every pipe-blasting key depressed simultaneously. The reimagined version of Batman’s sprawling urban playground, which transpires on three brand new bridge-linked islands—you can see Arkham City and Asylum‘s haunts in the distance, but they’re off limits—is a gloom-fogged goth-tropolis with creepy art nouveau inflections.

Greasy light-source-lit curtains of rain descend from moonlit thunderheads onto commercial rooftops gone to wrack and ruin. Those rooftops crown buildings taller and more granular than ever, with more places to find refuge, more fleshed out internal areas and clever quick-entry grates that thrust you through ductwork mazes, letting you cruise like a missile into (and back out of) buildings.

The Batmobile rules

“Let’s even the odds,” growls Batman at the game’s outset. And so he does, conjuring the game’s taciturn sidekick, a sleek, weaponized behemoth thoughtfully integrated into every aspect of the game. It yanks open grates, lifts heavy cargo, grapples up the sides of buildings, speeds to your location with the touch of a button, and can transform with the pull of a trigger between speedy, straightforward roadster and a strafing, missile-lobbing tank.

You might as well call the game Arkham Ride, because you’ll cover way more ground tearing around in this thing, fully transitioned from Arkham Asylum‘s absurdly tail-finned post-Burton nod, to more of a Nolan-ish tumbler with 360-degree swiveling wheels. It’s an essential companion, whether solving environment puzzles or battling squadrons of the Arkham Knight’s tanks. Worries that the Batmobile would feel like a forced design element were definitely unfounded.

Every aspect of combat has been improved

And that’s saying something, because no one was complaining. At their core, Arkham battles are about stalking tactical playgrounds with asymmetric conceal or assail points, evaluating before engaging. In Arkham Knight, it’s more nuanced than ever, but without feeling overcomplicated. Rocksteady and Warner Bros. Montreal have been playing a long game of rock-paper-scissors with the series’ tactical battle system, iterating enemy types and behaviors with each installment to revitalize the series’ core virtue without radically rethinking it.

You can now throw thugs as part of a counter, for instance, and you have to stay behind alert enemies when stalking from floor grates, lest they spy you stalking (and if they do, they can detonate thermal charges that cascade through the ventilation system—if you don’t vamoose before they go off, it’s sayonara). And if you’re the silent type, quietly dispatching enemies at leisure, there’s a counter for that as well: enemies can now rouse fallen comrades, so you have to be quick and mindful of patrol trajectories.

Other improvements abound

Batbelt item selection, a hinky multi-tier affair in the prior games that sometimes led to erroneous weapon selection in the helter-skelter of combat, is now a single tier circle, placing everything in immediate, pinpoint reach. Some of the environment puzzles are exceptional, like a sequence that plays out high above Gotham, where you’re basically playing Super Monkey Ball with airship cargo.

Grate scurrying’s been simplified, too, minimizing the old first-person crawl by generalizing movement to broad swathes of a level’s subfloor, which speeds maneuverability. The sheer array of side activities this time, be they Rocksteady’s insidious new Riddler puzzles or the barrage of rogue’s gallery subplots, are almost overwhelming (suffice to say there’s an astonishing amount to do, and that’s before the imminent DLC).

It’s not the final installment in a trilogy

This one’s more a point of clarification than a like/dislike. It’s become an unofficial thing to call the Arkham series a trilogy, I guess because last year’s Batman: Arkham Origins was handled by a different studio. Warner Bros. as yet makes no such distinction, and since Origins was a strong and arguably essential entry in the quartet, it was nice to see Rocksteady scatter subtle references back to Origins‘ events throughout Arkham Knight. What’s more, you can draw a line directly from Arkham Knight‘s satisfying “survey the crime scene for evidence” reconstructive puzzles back to Origins‘ DVR-like “find the next clue” sequences.

And here’s the stuff that didn’t work for me…

Some of the quips fall flat

Like when Batman tells a recurring series ally “I’ve got a feeling,” and the character replies “Yeah, I got a feeling too. Doc gave me some cream and it cleared up in no time.” Yuk-yuk!

The police let all the bad guys go

You know all the work you did the last two games to clean up the psychotic super-villanous riffraff? Yeah, so Gotham City Police had to let all those folks go, because…well, you don’t need me to tell you. Batman’s real superpower, it turns out, is not going totally bat**** crazy having to fight the same opponents over, and over, and over…

Hacking security consoles is still boring

Remember the tedious, thumb-twisty way you had to swivel the gamepad’s thumbsticks to make one of Batman’s gizmos cough up phrases that unlocked doors in the last two games? It’s back! Yes, I suppose it’s better than stopping up the game’s pace by forcing us to work some sort of tortuous Captain Crunch decoder wheel, but it doesn’t feel very Batman-ish when hacking security consoles is just a rote test of finger dexterity.

“Fear” takedowns look cool, but feel like cheats

There’s definitely a strategic, predatory element to lining up two or three enemies and taking them out all almost automatically, and it can certainly help thin out dangerous clusters of thugs. But Arkham Knight‘s new “pinball KO” maneuver feels antithetical to the series’ modus operandi—a stylish cheat code to ease combat masquerading as a new Bat-skill.

A related cheat: team takedowns, where you’re battling a group of enemies aided by one of your sidekicks. It’s a stylish, penatly-free way to switch characters in the midst of battle, but that’s all it is: a tactically shallow freebie KO.

TIME Gadgets

5 Great Cameras For Capturing Your Summer Fun

Canon PowerShot G7 X
Canon Canon PowerShot G7 X

Get better results than your smartphone

Smartphone cameras are getting better with every generation of new phone, but they still aren’t necessarily the best solution for every shot. For instance, while you can get a waterproof case to bring your handset on a dive, most people aren’t comfortable with taking their entire digital life into the deep. Likewise on shots that require ample zoom — of course you can pinch at the touchscreen to get in closer, but that sacrifices image quality.

Luckily there’s an old fashioned solution for these modern problems: cameras. Dedicated to making the best of light and color, these single-tasking devices may have been around forever, but they’re still getting better every year. These five standalone shooters will capture this summer’s memories in much richer detail than anything that you can also play Trivia Crack on.

Canon PowerShot G7 X

Point-and-shoot cameras like this little big shot won’t weigh you down while on a hike or a sightseeing trek. With better lenses and image sensors than your smartphone, you’ll collect sharper looking memories. With a one-inch, 20.2 megapixel CMOS sensor, the $699 Powershot G7 X already has enough tech to blow your smartphone away in a shootout. But with Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity, the 9.8 ounce camera has the same connectivity as your iPhone, though it weighs 5 ounces more.

With that extra heft you also get a 4.2-time zoom lens that, when multiplied by the 4-time digital zoom, actually provides nearly 17 times the magnification. But you’re probably wondering about the most important facet of photography today: selfies. Thankfully the G7 X’s 3-inch touchscreen display flips around perfectly so you can document yourself, your friends, and all your hot summer fun.

HTC Re Camera

Too often, rather than capturing the moment, cameras just get in the way. Resembling a periscope, HTC’s $149 Re Camera eschews full-color display screens for a simple record button, making it a true point-and-shoot. Packing a 16 megapixel sensor and a wide-angle, 146-degree lens, Re shoots 30-frame-per-second 1080p video and photos that it stores on microSD cards with up to 128 gigabytes of storage.

Able to operate one meter under water for 30 minutes, it can take 1,000 photos on a single charge. Hopefully your thumb can keep up, because to take pictures, all you need to do is tap the button (or press it down to shoot a video). Re also has a line of mounting accessories so photographers can attach it to everything from a handlebar to a backpack. And when it’s time to relive your memories, the Bluetooth-equipped camera can connect to your Android or iOS phone, sending images to an accompanying app.

Leica Q

If you’re as much about the tool as you are the artwork, Leica’s latest compact is going to make you feel like a painter playing with Vincent van Gogh’s brushes — and for $4,250, it ought to. A full-frame, fixed lens digital camera, the Leica Q was designed with speed in mind, with a fastest-in-class Summilux 28mm f/1.7 ASPH lens and 24 megapixel CMOS sensor. An integrated 3.68 megapixel viewfinder pops up as soon as you bring the camera to your eye, snapping in the autofocus and shooting up to 10 full-resolution frames per second, with JPEGs instantly ready for reviewing.

With full manual controls, seasoned shutterbugs can make the most of their shots and even get some assistance from “focus peaking” and “live view zoom” features. And with modern networking chops through Wi-Fi, the images can be streamed over to the Leica app for viewing, saving and sharing.

Olympus OM-D E-M1

Into each summer, some rain must fall. And on those days, you’ll want to have the weatherproof Olympus OM-D E-M1 in your camera bag. A lightning-fast mirrorless camera with a 1/8000 shutter speed, the $1,099 micro four third fits into an interchangeable system that currently has more than 70 different lenses. And with a magnesium alloy body, the E-M1 is able to brave the dirt, water, and freezing temperatures to snap up hard-to-capture images.

While this all makes it sound like a physical specimen, the pro-level shooter is only 1.1 pounds. And it’s packing a range of creative options on its internal software, including a dozen filters and a multi-exposure mode. That means you can spend more time on your photos and less on your computer — which is a much better way to enjoy a summer day.

Samsung NX500

The next big thing in imagery is 4K resolution, and the best way to add it to your arsenal minus a couple of Gs might be the Samsung NX500. A lower-cost, interchangeable lens, mirrorless camera with an easy-to-handle form-factor, the $599 (current price) rig features a comfortable, ergonomic grip and an easy-to-access control dial, giving it a throwback manual feel that will keep you from having to dive into the touchscreen all the time. Another similar perk is its “mobile” button that instantly activates the NX500’s Bluetooth, NCF, and Wi-Fi connectivity features.

And while these physical benefits are great, the imaging smarts inside are excellent too, like the camera’s 28 megapixel image sensor, the highest resolution APS/C size sensor on the market. The NX500’s DRIMe Vs photo processor drives software like Auto Shot, a predictive algorithm that locks on to moving targets to anticipate the perfect picture. These chops also lend themselves to the camera’s 4K video mode, which shoots in 24 frames per second. That’s not as fast as the 60 frame per second 1080p mode, but it’s plenty good for capturing an endless summer.

TIME Google

Google’s Self-Driving Cars ‘Drive Like Your Grandma’

Google Self-Driving Car
Mark Wilson—Getty Images Google's Lexus RX 450H Self Driving Car is seen parked on Pennsylvania Ave. on April 23, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

But that's probably a good thing

Slow and steady may win the race when it comes to autonomous vehicles.

A self-declared Mountain View, Calif.-based motorcyclist recently shared what it’s like to drive alongside Google’s self-driving cars with Emerging Technologies Blog. The anonymous reviewer, who claims to see about a half dozen Lexus-variety Google cars every day (and also claims not to work for Google , or any other company working on a self-driving car), relates mostly positive experiences.

But that praise is tempered with a few critical observations. Foremost, the reviewer compares the cars’ behavior to that of an elderly person.

“Google cars drive like your grandma,” the purported motorcyclist writes, “they’re never the first off the line at a stop light, they don’t accelerate quickly, they don’t speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes (cut people off, etc.).”

At certain intersections with limited visibility, the cars move slowly and take many pauses, the reviewer writes. “It appeared very safe,” the person continues, describing one such experience, “but if I had been behind it I probably would have been annoyed at how long it took to actually commit to pull out and turn.”

The “overly cautious” and “very polite” cars—also described as an occasional “annoyance”—nevertheless seem to have won over the motorcyclist, despite that person being a self-proclaimed “car-nut” who “love[s] to drive.”

“I actually do feel safer around a self-driving car than most other California drivers,” writes the reviewer, who admits not knowing for certain how to tell whether a computer or human operator is in control.

But for this driver, that doesn’t seem to matter. “I give SD cars 5 stars,” the reviewer writes, abbreviating self-driving. “Would buy.”

TIME Video Games

Splatoon Is the Best Game Nintendo’s Made in Years

Nintendo

The iconic Japanese developer rolls out another brilliant first-party game that's unlike any other

How goofy was the elevator pitch for Nintendo’s Wii U team shooter Splatoon? Play as a head-tentacled, paintgun schlepping biped that can morph into a turbo squid? Zip around multiplex obstacle courses, squaring off against fellow ink-spuming cephalopods while spraying viscous goo to brand your turf? Grind on gloop-splashed rails like a madcap Tony Hawk/Jackson Pollock mashup?

Too weird to succeed? I hope not, because with all due respect to rethinks like last year’s Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, I haven’t played a Nintendo game this gonzo and flat out fun in years.

Here’s how it works: Two squads of four players (not platoons, though that’s what inspired the catchy portmanteau) battle in skatepark-inspired arenas, outfitted with ink-spewing gadgetry and one imperative, to cover as much of the area’s ground space with your team’s color as possible before time runs out. The controls are simple: pick up the Wii U’s tablet controller, thumbstick in the direction you want to move, and swivel the tablet in the one you want to shoot.

You can ink over already saturated areas and take out enemies by assaulting them with your weapon, but don’t look for kill counts or headshot tallies, because Splatoon is about maximum coverage, not carnage—an anti-sanguine splatter-fest, and a graffiti vandal’s dream come true. And it only sounds shambolic. There’s a deep tactical shooter lurking beneath all that polychromatic spatter.

Before you’ve so much as glimpsed the leveling and gear grind, you’ll have to grapple with Splatoon‘s funky shapeshifting tactic, either firing paint slugs as a slow-moving bipedal Inkling, or holding a button to insta-morph into a squid. In squid mode, you can dart across ink-glazed surfaces, moving twice as fast while recharging your dwindling ink supply. Swim into enemy ink, of course, and you’ll slither to a stop, opening yourself up to enemy fire.

Splatoon builds on its ink-traversal idea by letting you craft “roads” through enemy lines, or swim up otherwise unclimbable platforms. What if Tony Hawk had to lay pipe to get anywhere? It’s a smart, often pivotal incentive to fashion shortcuts, take out snipers, cut through enemy-covered terrain, or get somewhere high fast to maximize your ink-spatter-to-surface-area ratio (the further ink falls, the more area its soaks). Think an extreme sports game meets a jet ski racer meets a coloring book.

The possibilities snowball when you factor all the gear abilities (dozens of speed, damage and stealth perks associated with headwear, shirts and shoes) and special weapons (bombs, mines, ink-tornado-flinging bazookas, mongo paint-rollers) that you can buy from shops with cash earned by leveling up in online matches. But it’s also beginner-friendly: The game keeps special weapons in check by requiring you ink so much ground before they unlock, then limits how long they’re usable. And a helpful “super jump” does away with lonely re-spawns (at your base, after someone takes you out) by letting you touch a teammate’s icon on the Wii U GamePad’s screen and rocket across the map to wherever they’re currently battle-painting.

Don’t let how insane any of that sounds put you off playing. It’s not how Splatoon feels in action, whether inking some quiet corner, or in a duel with a higher level opponent. Low level players can routinely steamroll high level ones, because Splatoon‘s basic maneuvers work as a kind of competitive equalizer. I’m not talking about luck, or something like Mario Kart‘s blue shell, where there’s an ultimate rock that can crush someone else’s scissor, just that Nintendo’s designed the game so that how you play—your “play style,” as the company puts it in the manual—often trumps what you’re playing with.

I do wish Splatoon had an offline bot mode so you could practice when the matchmaking service peters out (you can “recon” levels solo, but that’s it). And the game definitely needs an option to cancel while waiting for an online match to start. As it is, once you’ve agreed to join, Nintendo locks you to a timeout while searching for matches (the clever little Doodle Jump-inspired game you can play on the Wii U GamePad is amusing but poor compensation). It’s there to help seed the game’s online pool, but having to flip the Wii U’s power switch to kill the process when real life intervenes is plain unfriendly.

I wasn’t able to try the Battle Dojo, a 1-on-1 mode where you and another player in the same room compete by shooting ink at balloons. And I’ve only dabbled with the offline story mode, though it’s so far classic Nintendo: platform through linear levels with ink-related conundrums, then battle cunningly designed bosses (think Shadow of the Colossus‘s enemy-climbing angle, only with ink). It’s as cutesy and goofball and clearly designed to fit within Nintendo’s family of future-looking franchises as you’d expect of a new IP as heavily marketed as this one’s been.

But those activities feel like distractions from Splatoon‘s triumphant team-play mode, the game’s heart and soul, and the reason a guy like me, no fan of competitive online shooters, can’t stop playing the darned thing. There’s nothing else quite like it, nor the cathartic dopamine jolt to be had when you squid-skim up a paint-smeared quarter pipe, an Inkzooka at the ready, leap over the edge, take aim with your weapon, and reduce a startled opponent to goo.

5 out of 5

Reviewed on Wii U

TIME hospitals

This Website Is Basically Yelp for Hospitals

Empty Hospital Bed in a Ward
Getty Images

You can check the grade of your hospital to see how it stacks up against others

Using websites like Yelp, people can look up ratings and reviews for virtually any restaurant or bar. But what about hospitals, where the quality of treatment is far more important than checking whether the Caesar salad is any good.

On Wednesday, a new website premiered that lets you check how good a hospital is. But instead 0f relying on reviews by the public, it rates hospitals based on data from the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, or CMS, which collects information about all medical facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds.

People can pull up the profile of most any hospital in the country to see its strengths, weaknesses, and overall grade. Most of the information is focused on three areas: the hospital’s emergency room, patient satisfaction, and in-patient cost efficiency.

For example, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles got a C+ overall grade, and ranks in the 34th percentile in the country. Massachusetts General Hospital, located in Boston, fared a bit better, earning a B- and ranking in 44th percentile.

Brent Newhouse, co-founder of analyticsMD, the startup that created the index, explained that he chose to narrow the focus to a few areas like emergency rooms, for example, because “emergencies are often the first place we interact with hospitals.” Doing so also made it easier for his company to create the index and for regular people to navigate it.

Similar ratings are also available through iVantage’s Hospital Strength Index, which also uses data from CMS, among other sources.

AnalyticsMD, a two-year-old startup from Palo Alto, Calif., has built software that helps hospitals make their operations more efficient. It uses data to provide hospital administrators and staffers with suggestions like how to avoid patient bottlenecks and schedule staff. Among the company’s handful of paying hospital customers are El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, Calif., and Mercy Health Hospitals, which haw several locations in the US.

For analyticsMD co-founders, Newhouse and Mudit Garg, building the hospital index has two purposes. One goal is to provide a yardstick for hospital administrators to not only take a step back and see how they’re doing, but also compare their performance to their peers. The other goal is to make hospital quality and efficiency a priority for both patients and health care providers.

“If we can get this out to folks, we can get a conversation started,” Newhouse said.

 

TIME Gadgets

Are Smart Thermostats Worth Buying?

Google To Buy Smart Thermostat Maker Nest For 3.2 Billion
George Frey—Getty Images In this photo illustration, a Nest thermostat is being adjusted in a home on January 16, 2014 in Provo, Utah.

And 4 of the best on the market

For the most part, I’m an early adopter. In my opinion, Launch Day should be a holiday, right up there with May the Fourth and St. Patrick’s Day. But when it comes to smart home technology — at least, home electronics that are expensive or require complex installation — I tend to move at the reluctant pace of a dedicated laggard. That’s because today’s tech is as much about the ecosystem as it is the product. Gadget makers aren’t necessarily trying to peddle you a gadget; they’re selling an upgrade cycle.

Homeowners don’t want this — not even tech-laden kings of the castle like myself. So, when smart thermostats started hitting the shelves years ago, rather than being the first on my block to install one, I sat back and watched. Last year, Nest co-founder Matt Rogers told me the company isn’t worried about getting people to upgrade yet.

“When we get to 50 million U.S. households, then we’ll start worrying about turnover,” Rogers said. In the meantime, the company has continually improved its product, currently in its second generation, with dozens of free software updates. “We’ve been able to update even to the first generation unit,” he says.

From the sidelines, I confess that I’m late to the game. The fundamental technologies in these devices (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, light sensors, thermometers) are not only refined, but they’re also timeless, or at least backwards compatible. I’m convinced the smart thermostat of yesterday will still be an ample energy-saving gadget tomorrow. So, on the eve of getting a heat pump installed at my home — I’m switching from a gas furnace to a year-round, climate-controlled utopia — I’m faced with the question of how to best manage my HVAC system.

These four options are the best contenders.

Allure Eversense

You might not have heard of the Allure Eversense, but it’s quite possible you’ve listened to it. Part smart heating controller, part media center, this clever $249 device takes advantage of the thermostat’s central location in your home to do double-duty as a small speaker system. With just a 1.0 gigahertz processor and eight gigabytes of storage, this unit is ripe for obsolescence, but it really doesn’t take much computing power to kick out some tunes. And with Wi-Fi connectivity, it can stream directly from your Android or iOS device, anyhow.

Its 4.3-inch touchscreen is able to display the weather (including an animated radar) or your photos with its Picture Frame app. But the big deal is the the smarts in this unit, with its ability to track your location, both inside and out of the house, turning off the heat or air conditioning when you’re away, and starting it when you’re on your way home. Since I work from home, this isn’t very helpful for me, not to mention the privacy concerns I have over being monitored like that. But it’s probably no worse than the location tracking that Find My iPhone already does.

Ecobee3

Every home is different. With that in mind, Ecobee3 offers a versatile solution to temperature control by connecting to remote sensors all over the house, detecting the conditions where you actually want your heat or cool air to reach. Detecting movement and temperature, these sensors feed data to the main thermostat, a Wi-Fi-connected fixture that packs motion, proximity and humidity sensors itself. Basing its smarts on what kind of HVAC equipment you have (conventional, heat pump, gas, or dual fuel) and the weather, the $249 smart device ($313, for a package that comes with a pair of extra sensors) can sense if you are home and control the climate accordingly.

On the plus side, Ecobee3’s ability to heat and cool far-flung rooms makes this a good option for my home (and my attic workspace). But by catering to the far corners of my house, it will probably over-heat or over-cool the main living area — as well as wipe out any savings I might get from being more energy conscious.

Honeywell Lyric

A longtime giant of the HVAC industry, Honeywell isn’t giving up control of the world’s heat to anyone, especially not these digital upstarts. And in pairing up with Apple (and its upcoming HomeKit smart home initiative), Honeywell has a great opportunity to continue on as a force in this space. But the Lyric — at least this version of it — might not be the device to do that. Using geofencing to know when to turn your system on, the $249 thermostat monitors your location like the Eversense. But it also takes into account the relative humidity in your home to make sure 72 degrees actually feels like 72 degrees (and not like 80 degrees, which is how it feels when the air is humid). Lyric’s Android and iOS app let you create shortcuts to change your temperature settings to particular preferences as well as to schedule them to come on and off, automatically.

This is a fresh change from learning thermostats because it offers the homeowner more granular control. But the reason to hold off is this product’s unclear HomeKit compatibility. As far as I’ve been told, HomeKit-compatible products will require a special chip that has not yet become available. So, if Lyric is to be HomeKit compatible, it probably won’t be the model currently on store shelves.

Nest Learning Thermostat

The smart thermostat that started it all ends this list. Gorgeous to look at, and making your home energy bill pretty too, this $249 game-changer has stood up well since it was first released in 2011, due to continual updates (as mentioned above) and timeless good looks.

But Nest is also popular because it doesn’t take any programming whatsoever. Just put it on the wall while you go about your business. Nest’s auto-scheduling feature takes over from there, turning up when you typically like it warmer, down when you tend to want it cooler, and off when you head off to work. But if you can’t keep your hands off the brushed metal device, turning it below a certain point will prompt a leaf to pop up on the screen, a sign that you’re saving energy. The most cost-saving feature of Nest it its ability to detect when you’re home or away, but since I’m here more often than I’m not, that’s not likely to help me much. And, since my thermostat sits right next to the stairs to my office, it may just be a constant reminder of a bad decision. Perhaps I should continue to hold out on this purchase, after all.

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