Games 12/20/11: Striiv, Playstation 3D Display, Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue

Striiv
From: Striiv
Price: $100

Yes, it’s awfully nice to carry around a single, compact device that replaces your telephone, calendar, netbook, camcorder, GPS, MP3 player, Game Boy, alarm clock and who knows what else.

But while attempts have been made to conquer the humble pedometer, they have thus far failed. Step-counting apps have flashed promise by doing more than simply counting steps, but they’re non-starters when you always need the app active and gulping down battery life. Never mind that pedometers are one of the few gadgets that actually make smartphones feel bulky by comparison.

In that respect, the arrival of Striiv — a device that combines the physical makeup of a pedometer, the digital sensibilities of a tiny iPod touch and the achievement-dangling compulsion of a contemporary video game — is as welcome as it probably was inevitable.

At its absolute core, Striiv is just a fancy pedometer. It’s light and small, and the full-color backlit touchscreen delivers an interface that’s prettier and considerably more intuitive than that of a typical pedometer. The device counts steps whether it’s on or off, you can drop it in your pocket and forget about it, and it discerns between walking, running and stair-climbing steps with impressive accuracy. The built-in battery lasts roughly a week between charges under normal use, and the package includes the necessary cables to charge it via USB or a wall outlet.

For those who like to gauge their progress, Striiv’s software is similarly impressive. A charts application lets you compare steps, miles and calories burned over the past week or month, and a separate stats program breaks down your step types and lets you view all-time totals, personal bests and daily averages.

But it’s the trophies and challenges that push Striiv beyond classification and blur the line between fitness aid and living video game.

Trophies function like achievements, awarding you for everything from beating your daily average to walking the equivalent of Peru’s Inca Trail (70,000 steps) in a week. There are daily, weekly and all-time trophies, and Striiv tracks how many times you earn trophies in the first two categories. Every trophy awards you with energy points, which are to Striiv what Gamerscore is to Xbox Live — mostly just a number, but a carrot that makes earning them irrationally (but healthily!) fun.

Challenges, meanwhile, are toggled manually but are more urgent once activated. Striiv scatters randomly-generated challenges across three difficulty levels (walk half a mile in a half hour on Easy, run 500 steps in 10 minutes on Medium) and tackling a handful of them and doing whatever it says makes for a great impromptu mini-workout. Like trophies, successful challenges pay out in energy, though you’ll also earn trophies if you complete enough of them in one day.

Striiv dangles a seemingly endless steam of attainable rewards, and the gamut they run in terms of size and time investment makes it easy to feel an immediately sense of progress while still eyeing a larger goal way down the road.

Additionally, while all that collected energy isn’t a very tangible reward, it does feed into some of the device’s more unusual extracurricular activities.

Most prominent is the quirky Myland minigame, in which you can populate and decorate an enchanted island by exchanging collected energy for plant life and manmade structures. As simulations go, Myland’s simplicity more closely resembles “Farmville” than “SimCity.” But grinding for rewards by walking and running is considerably more satisfying than nagging your Facebook friends until they unfriend you, and a lively island of fantastical creatures is a pretty clever way to view an abstract picture of your progress.

But the coolest use of your energy is as a conduit for acts of charity. Via GlobalGiving, Striiv lets you participate in virtual walkathons and convert bundles of energy into donations toward clean drinking water, polio vaccinations and/or rainforest conservation. (As with everything else, the device tracks how many contributions you make.)

Striiv sends the donations whenever you connect it to a Mac or PC via the USB charge cable, and it also uses this occasion to do another thing — check for and automatically apply firmware updates — pedometers typically never do.

Since release, the device has received a few minor firmware updates that have brought no major feature enhancements. But Striiv has made known its intentions to supply new programs and games through future updates. Little else is known at this point, but the company seems actively engaged with its community via Facebook, Twitter and its own blog. If you keep up, you’ll likely know what’s coming next as soon as it’s announced.

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PlayStation 3D display
From: Sony
Price: $500

Your appreciation of Sony’s PlayStation 3D display will be at least partially dependent on how far on board you are with the entertainment industry’s umpteenth attempt to make 3D technology stick past the fad stage.

But while the display’s embrace of 3D — and Sony’s subsequent positioning of it as the rare 3D television with a three-figure asking price — are significant factors, they aren’t the only ones in play.

It’s worth clarifying up front that while the display sports Playstation branding, it doesn’t use any proprietary technology that only a Playstation 3 can understand. The range of inputs is a little limited, and you’ll need to get an adapter if you want to connect a VGA or DVI cable, but the input ports it does offer — two HDMI, one component — aren’t exactly unique to the PS3. If you can connect a device to the display, either natively or with the help of an adapter, it will look just fine (though if all you want is a top-end PC monitor, you can get displays with better refresh rates and native driver support for less money.)

It will look better than fine, in fact. Though the display isn’t designed with maximum flexibility and intuitiveness in mind — the glossy screen is pretty reflective in harsh light, the inputs are on the display’s left side instead of in a neutral spot at the bottom, and the buttons are placed awkwardly behind the display instead of on the side — it looks absolutely lovely once properly set up. It’s thin and sleek but also feels sturdy, and if the 24-inch screen is a good size for your setup and viewing range, the picture doesn’t disappoint.

While your success will vary if you use it with unsupported devices, the display’s 3D support in conjunction with games and Blu-ray discs worked as good as advertised when tested on a PS3. You’ll need to keep the included 3D glasses charged via the included micro-USB cable — in case you’ve lost track of where we are with 3D technology, the glasses are now battery-powered — but enabling 3D is as easy as selecting it in the game or Blu-ray’s menu interface.

(Your mileage will, of course, vary with regard to your tolerance of 3D and the potential eyestrain it incurs over extended sittings.)

For games that support it, the display’s SimulView technology arguably is the more exciting result of the 3D technology than 3D itself. With SimulView enabled, a two-player game no longer need be splitscreen: Instead, each player receives a unique (and complete) view of the action via his or her glasses. It’s like playing via LAN using one display, and while it sounds like voodoo, it actually works. Because the images passed to the glasses are 2D, the aforementioned concerns about viewing fatigue also don’t factor.

The downside? You’ll need a second pair of glasses, which retail for $70 each — which means the display isn’t quite as affordable as you thought if you wish to take advantage of its best feature.

There’s also a matter of games actually supporting SimulView. The bundled “MotorStorm: Apocalypse” supports it, as do a handful of other games published by Sony, but it’s anyone’s guess whether third parties will climb on board with their own support. Presently, there’s also no easy place to track which games are receiving or have received support. The display’s page on Playstation.com lists the initial batch above a “Coming soon” message, but there’s no telling if new information will appear there or elsewhere.

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Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade; requires free Pinball FX 2 download) and Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network; requires Marvel Pinball)
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

2011 wasn’t a great year for video games bearing the Marvel name — unless you prefer pinball to other genres, in which case it was the best year ever. “Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue” adds four more tables to the roster, and they fit in perfectly in terms of personality and use of their respective licenses. The Thor table will appeal to those who love high-scoring tables, and in true “Marvel Pinball” fashion, Thor himself appears on the table to do battle with Loki (among other enemies) as you indirectly guide the action via pinball. The Ghost Rider table is the noisiest and most festive of the bunch, and the dual-layer table design is overshadowed only by an incredible second ball launcher that resembles a giant waving shotgun. The X-Men table presents the stiffest challenge via devious ramp designs that are harder to hit and unapologetically shift the ball’s speed when you do hit them. But Moon Knight’s table may be the most novel: It looks extremely simple at first glance, but it uses tricks of light and deceptive rail patterns to set a tempo that’s unlike any of the other tables (Marvel-branded or otherwise) on Zen’s roster. Like the tables that preceded it, “Vengeance’s” selections are extremely visually lively and reasonably authentic with regard to pinball physics. They also hide a startlingly deep array of missions and objectives beneath the surface. As per custom, the tables integrate seamlessly into their respective games, adding new achievements/trophies and adopting existing leaderboard and score structures, making the best pinball platforms on the console block that much better.