Yahoo Pipes

The new Yahoo Pipes service is something I really want to like, but am pretty frustrated with right now.

The concept of the pipes service isn’t easily explainable. The best I can do is to say it provides an intuitive drag and drop interface for mashing up content from different sites. Ebay searches, flickr photos, rss feeds, etc. In theory, anyway.

I’ve spent the last couple days trying to put together a pipe that would merge all of my online presences into one RSS feed: posts from this site, my flickr photos, updates on what games I’ve played on my 360, etc, all sorted by date with the most recent item at the top. Not the most useful feed in the world to be sure, but it would be handy to be able to give it out to friends and family.

I can get to the step where I mash all the feeds together just fine. But the sorting algorithm does absolutely nothing. The resulting feed shows all my blog posts, then all the blog comments, then all the flickr photos, then all the 360 updates. The date isn’t taken into account for any of them, there’s no actual sorting and merging of the feeds done at all. All four of these feeds have the pubdate attribute in their raw code, so there should be no reason I can’t sort by it.

I think you can see my pipe here, if anybody wants to take a crack at telling me what I’m doing wrong:

I think there’s a lot of potential in the Pipes concept – lowering the technical barrier to entry on mashups would be a great thing. I just wish I could figure out how it works. Maybe the promised eventual tutorials will help.

I’m also really interested to see any useful library-related projects that have come from Pipes.

Review: Lost Planet (Xbox 360)

(In the interest of full disclosure: I was given a copy of this game to review by M80, a marketing company who works for Capcom. They emphasized that they wanted me to be honest in my evaluation, and I will be.)

I’ve had my eye on Lost Planet for a while. The downloadable demo was the first thing I played after plugging in my Xbox 360 last fall, and I was hooked right away. This third person shooter puts you in the shoes of Wayne, an amnesiac soldier on a barren, icy planet full of giant hostile bugs known as Akrid. Fighting through the snow covered plains (either on foot or in any number of giant walking robot ‘vital suits’), Wayne seeks both revenge against and an explanation from those responsible for his father’s death. Being an ice planet, players must constantly seek out new sources of heat to avoid freezing to death. Enemies consist of both Akrid and the human “snow pirates”.

Yes, snow pirates. OK, so the story won’t win any awards. In fact, it gets more and more nonsensical as the game progresses – and the situation isn’t helped by some truly awful dialogue. Thankfully, the gameplay isn’t held back by this limitation. I always try to ask myself one question in particular when reviewing a game: Is it fun? Lost Planet absolutely is.

There is a certain simple joy in climbing into a robot battle suit, picking up a rocket launcher, and duking it out with a giant alien bug the size of a small skyscraper. And I’m not exaggerating – some of the enemies you’ll face really are that huge. Click on the thumbnail above for an example (that giant worm is only about halfway out of the ground). Visually, this all occurs in some of the most impressive graphics I’ve ever seen. Whoever did work on Lost Planet’s explosions and smoke effects deserves some kind of award. Most battles in the game involve many instances of both, and they just make blowing something up that much more fun.

Control-wise, Lost Planet has a bit of a learning curve. Each vital suit has it’s own special button scheme, which is only displayed the first time you sit down in one. Find the same model again later, and it’s up to you to both determine which model it is and remember which button does what. And you’ll be switching suits a lot, constantly picking up new ones as your current ride runs out of armor (the possibility exists, of course, that I’m just really bad at the game). A cheat sheet located in the pause menu would really come in handy. Controlling Wayne on foot is thankfully easier to get the hang of, and the ability to zip around a level with his grappling hook is a nice touch.

Unfortunately, there is one major problem with how controlling Wayne is handled. If knocked down by an explosion, the animation as Wayne scrambles back to his feet takes about three seconds. During this time he does not respond to any commands. Three seconds is an eternity in a firefight, as rockets and bugs continue to stream at him. On multiple occasions I found myself simply unable to react: Wayne gets knocked down, spends ages getting back up, gets hit by enemies who have run up to him in the meantime, gets knocked down again, etc. If this happens while you’re backed into a corner, you might as well just restart the level. Wayne won’t be long for this world anyway. Having absolutely no control over this process is extremely frustrating, and I found myself trying to sidestep as many close encounters with enemies as possible as a result.

This is a game I would love to play in surround sound. But as I don’t have such a system, I was limited to stereo. I was still impressed, effects are realistic and even useful. Each gun has such a distinctive sound that it becomes a simple matter to determine exactly what Wayne is under attack by without even spotting the assailants.

The single player mode took me about 8 hours to finish, which feels just about right. I personally prefer games of about this length. They’re meaty enough to be worth playing, but not so involved as to keep me from other things. There’s also a significant amount of replay value in returning to earlier levels, both in optional secondary bosses to fight and hidden items to search out.

The online multiplayer mode is not something I plan on spending a lot of time with. As in any online game with voice chat, there’s a large number of players present with a questionable vocabulary and attitude. If my friends had this game I would gladly play against them. But they don’t, and getting constantly insulted isn’t how I want to unwind after work. I also find the interface and lobby for setting up a game to be confusing, much of which will be clarified in an upcoming patch. I didn’t spend enough time in online play to feel qualified to comment on it any further.

Lost Planet truly shows off the technical capabilities of the Xbox 360. Gorgeous graphics and sound complement solid gameplay. It’s just really too bad that the story wasn’t given more attention.