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Saturday, February 24, 2007

The 2007 Google Wishlist

Well, it's a little late, and and somewhat repetitive (and really cliche!), but as other heavy users of Google products have done, I'd like to share my "Google Wish List" for 2007. Like many other Blogger users, I've been using Google products more and more over the past year. However, there are still some holes in their lineup; it would be really great if some of these got filled this year:

  1. IMAP Support for Gmail. Well, actually, I'd settle for a properly implemented POP. It's impossible to access Gmail on multiple machines because of the idiosyncrasies of the Gmail POP support. Plus, importing old messages into Gmail is a real chore, and severely limits the utility of Gmail as an archiving tool. I have several thousand old email messages in several accounts that I would dearly love to consolidate into my Gmail account, but it's such a hassle to do this that I really shouldn't at the moment. They really should implement IMAP support posthaste, if for no other reason than AOL offers it for their accounts.
  2. Google Talk/AIM integration. Google Talk is my favorite chat client, but with a few key exceptions the rest of my family and friends use AIM. This means that I need to keep switching back and forth between the two, which gets kind of tedious. When Google purchased a stake in AOL a few years back I thought that would address the problem, but we're two years in and there's still no sign of the promised GT/AIM integration. Hopefully it pops up sooner rather than later. Video chat support and group chat support for GT wouldn't hurt, either.
  3. A To-Do List for GooCal. I'm a heavy user of Google Calendar, but great as GooCal is, it's missing that all-important project management tool, a To-do list/task manager. Some sort of integrated Gmail/GooCal to-do list and task manager would be a very useful thing. I use Lightning for that purpose now, but functionality built into GooCal that approximates MS Outlook's outstanding project management functions would be one of the most useful things since sliced bread.
  4. Google Universe. Google Earth is quite possibly the coolest single piece of software on the planet. Standalone versions of Google Mars and Google Moon would not only be really cool, but I imagine they'd be useful for researchers and schools, too. I'll note here that NASA's great World Wind program currently includes cool components for the Moon, Mars, and the Jovian Moons, but I have a sneaky hunch that far more people would use the hypothetical Google-branded product. We need to get people back to thinking that the Moon and Mars are places they'd want to visit, not just ethereal lights in the sky, and Google Moon and Mars layers would help.
  5. A Better Google Contacts. Although I use Google Contacts right now to organize my business and personal contacts, that service could use some massive improvements. Integrating across Gmail and GooCal would be a start; a standalone Plaxo-style service would be even better. Of course, a simple acknowledgement that not everyone on the contacts list should be on my GT buddy list would be a huge step forward.
  6. Google Presenter. There are actually signs that some sort of Google equivalent to Openoffice Impress/Microsoft Powerpoint could be on the way. The sooner, the better.
  7. Graphs in Google Spreadsheets. Ever since it came out, I've been a heavy user of Google Docs and Spreadsheets. It's a great application with a lot of different uses; it's especially great for archiving data and documents in a centralized location. Unfortunately, it's got a gaping hole in functionality: There isn't a charts component. I imagine the reason is that the Excel chart component is so feature-filled that making sure all Excel charts would work in a given file would be a real headache. However, including some basic chart functionality would be enormously useful, especially for collaborating.
  8. Assorted Google Docs improvements. Google Docs is more useful currently than Google Spreadsheets. Having said that, the fact that your file size is limited to .5 MB is a real impediment, as most of the word processing files I generate are about 700 K (although if there's a lot of images that number can get monstrously huge). Expecting the Google Docs application to open 40MB TIF-laden files is unrealistic, but increasing the file size to 1 MB would make Google Docs a lot more useful--for me, anyway. Adding multiple column support and header-footer options wouldn't hurt, either. Including a bulk-upload tool for the spreadsheets would be another improvement that I hope happens soon.
  9. Searching within Google Reader stories. Some sort of search function for Google Reader would be an enormously handy capability, especially when you're trying to find an interesting story that you forgot to flag.
  10. Faster Google Desktop. I was an avid user of Google Desktop, but as useful as that program is, it is such a resource hog that I had to get rid of it. I hope that they eventually release a faster version of that program, which will be a lifesaver for those of us who won't be switching to Windows Vista anytime soon.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Timely Review of SWAT 4

I've never been a big fan of first-person shooters. I thought that Wolfenstein 3-D was pretty cool, but when the original Doom came out and garnered a whole bunch of critical praise, I honestly did not see what all of the hubbub was about. I purchased Doom, but did not especially like it that much. A friend of mine summed things up pretty well when he said "Doom is like Nintendo Duck Hunt with demons". I was positive that the whole FPS thing was a fad that would burn itself out; after all, 1993 was the same year that F-15 Strike Eagle III came out, followed closely by Wing Commander III, and between those games, Civilization, and Star Trek Judgment Rites, I was darn sure that the FPS craze (what was called in Ye Olden Tymes "Doom-style games") would end in short order.

Flash forward 13 years, and now it is more noteworthy when a game isn't a FPS. The popularity of FPS games has outright killed some genres, including adventure games, flight simulators, and space-combat games. Other genres like turn-based strategy are only now beginning to recover. I can honestly say that I really did not see that one coming; To me, FPS games disregard all of the advantages of the PC as a gaming platform, emphasizing mindless and linear action (shoot the monster, find the key, solve the jumping puzzle). So, up until 1997, I stubbornly resisted the FPS onslaught. Until, that is, the release of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six. The original Rainbow Six and it's sequel Rogue Spear had it all: Incredible graphics; a visceral "you-are-there" atmosphere; one-shot, one-kill realism; a deep, engaging, and replayable single-person storyline; authentic weapons, tactics, and equipment; and fun multiplayer battles. Rainbow Six was the shooter that both sim and strategy gamers had been waiting for. It definitely opened my eyes to the possibilities of first-person shooters, and got me to grudgingly admit that maybe there was something to this whole FPS thing, after all. Rainbow Six and Rogue Spear are two of my all-time favorite games. As a died-in-the-wool Rainbow Six fan, I picked up R63:Raven Shield the day it was out. I enjoyed Raven Shield a great deal, but I felt that it was missing some of the spark that had been in the previous two games: It had a weaker storyline than the first two games, and continued the proud R6 tradition of the goofy AI that will just stand there as you pick them off, one by one.

Rainbow Six has produced four sequels and a host of expansion packs, as well as a spin-off series of sorts, Ghost Recon (another classic tactical FPS). The only realistic competitor from outside of UbiSoft has been the last two Sierra SWAT games, SWAT 3 and SWAT 4. The fourth installment of Sierra's SWAT series, SWAT 4, was released a little bit after Raven Shield, so at the time I didn't bother. However, subsequent Rainbow Six games have been critical flops, so when the critically acclaimed SWAT 4 showed up in the Wal-Mart bargain bin several months ago at a low-low price, I picked it up.
At first blush, SWAT 4 and Raven Shield are very, very similar. The first-person perspective and the interfaces are virtually identical. However, there are some key differences. First, there's no mission editor. You're given a sketchy map of your target zone, given some objectives (which tend to change, a nice touch), and sent in after the bad guys. This is probably more representative of how a real rapid-response SWAT team would operate, but the lack of R6-style gocodes especially is rather jarring. The weapons selection (featuring generic replacements for the H&K weapons ;)) seems to be fairly representative of nonlethal, light, and heavy weaponry. I didn't really miss Raven Shield's extensive collection of small arms, which in principle shouldn't be needed in a police situation anyway (although as a Stargate fan, I did miss the P90). Interestingly, to complete several of the missions you have to be carrying at least one nonlethal weapon (pepper-spray or a taser) to ensure suspect compliance and complete the mission. Second, I felt that although it was easier to issue your team commands in SWAT 4, it was a lot harder to control your other team members. You can't simply jump from teammate to teammate (which is more realistic, so I won't carp that much about it) but since there's no mission editor you can't use R6-style gocodes to control timing, which makes simultaneous entry kind of annoying. Third, each mission is completely random. Unlike the Rainbow Six series, the position of the AI opponents in single-player changes every time you run a mission. This small change vastly increases the replay value of the game and makes it much more interesting and realistic; on the other hand, I actually like the "practice makes perfect" approach taken by Rainbow Six; in R6, by the time you have a strategy that works, you really feel like you've accomplished something. The flip side of that statement is that, like Wing Commander, it's much easier to simply drop into a mission in SWAT 4 than it is in Raven Shield. Fourth, the AI in SWAT 4 is a vast improvement over Raven Shield's: AI opponents react to what happens around them, seek cover, and converge on your location. The superior AI is probably the biggest single reason to buy this game. Fifth, there's no overarching storyline. Although this was criticized by some reviewers, I felt that the completely unconnected stories were pretty representative of the kinds of missions that a real SWAT team would receive in an actual city and pretty realistic--supervillians are pretty rare things here in real life, after all.
SWAT 4 has a lot going for it: Beautiful graphics, tense missions enhanced by superior opponent AI, and a real sense of atmosphere; the inclusion of the 911 calls in the pre-mission briefings is a nice touch. I recommend it for all fans of of the tactical FPS genre. However, I personally feel that Rainbow Six 3 was a more entertaining game, and I can't help but wonder just how good R63 could have been if the enemy AI in R63 had been like SWAT 4's. I am now hoping that in the future there will be a R6 sequel that combines the strategic elements of R63 with the opponent AI of SWAT 4. Until that point, we'll just have to run through SWAT 4's missions again...