Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Brompton B75

I don't believe in Peter Pan, Frankenstein, or Superman, and today we're going to have a look at the Brompton B75, a relatively cheap folding bicycle from Brompton, of Greenford, way out there in Zone Four on the Central Line.

I say relatively cheap. It's £745, which isn't pocket change. The price has been steady since the B75 was launched in June 2019, and on a pragmatic level Bromptons depreciate gracefully, so as long as mine isn't stolen or crushed I imagine I'll be able to sell it on for a modest financial hit. It has to be said that £745 is quite low for a posh folding bicycle.

As I write these words the B75 has sold out, but I imagine the elves that work in Brompton's factory are being whipped to within an inch of their lives by their supervisors, so by the time you read this review I'm sure you'll be able to buy one. B75s are apparently assembled from a stockpile of older spare parts; I learn from the internet that Brompton built up their parts inventory in early 2019 in case Britain's exit from the European Union was a disaster, so perhaps the B75 came about as a way of clearing out their old warehouse. Who knows.

These two clamps hold it together.

This paragraph originally had a short dissertation on Queen's "Bicycle Race". Some bands responded to the punk revolution by stripping down their sound and singing about unemployment and urban decay, but Queen were above all that. Instead they released a compact mini-symphony about riding a bicycle, with a video that had dozens of naked women doing circuits around a racetrack. It was recorded at great cost in Nice and Montreux because that year they were tax exiles.

In his review of the song's parent album Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone famously described Queen as "the first truly fascist rock band". He was of the opinion that Queen were contemptuous of their audience, which may or may have been true, but in my opinion it doesn't matter. As long as the music is good who cares if a band likes you?

The B75 is available in a bluey-green colour that looks blue in the shade and green in the sunshine.

I think the problem is that Dave Marsh is American. He comes from a society where public figures are expected to pretend to be your great pal, even though they live in gated mansions with private security guards. Because America doesn't have a class system and everybody is equal.

At the National Technical Museum, Prague. This lady looks like she knows precisely what she has and could overtake you no problem.

That isn't the case in the UK. British artists are expected to hide away in an ivory tower. When they try to talk to the public it feels grating and insincere because they have nothing in common with us.

Hahaha, "nipple".

British actors look down their noses at the hoi polloi, and artists and writers only mingle with the working classes when they want to buy drugs or have rough sex. Even I am not immune to this. When I am not filling my uncircumcised foreskin with cocaine, or hanging out with Deliveroo drivers on Hampstead Heath I like to fantasise about being mean to you, dear reader. But my heart isn't in it. I just can't bring myself to dislike you, because you're rare and precious and you have exceptional taste.

I really do want to see you succeed, because there is room at the top and the view is fantastic. I realised at an early age that unless I elevated the mass of humanity to my level I would be eternally lonely, but I'm digressing here. Let's get back on topic. Enough of Queen. Enough of being sexually aroused by the smell of pee. Enough of that.

The B75 is a folding bicycle made by Brompton of London, England. The company only sells one pattern of bicycle, so the B75 is more or less the same as any other Brompton, but the specification is fixed. It has a three-speed hub gearbox, a single-post saddle, an older model of brake lever, no basket, no mudguards, no titanium, blue/green only. To paraphrase Syd Barrett it doesn't have a basket, although there is an optional luggage block, but it does have a bell that rings, and it looks good.

When they are spooked Bromptons fold down into a compact shape in the hope that predators won't see them.

Why did I buy a folding bicycle? So that I can carry it about the house, and also on the train, in the office etc. Why a Brompton? The factory is in London, so it's easy to visit; "buy once, cry once"; the bikes have a good reputation; parts are widely available; they hold their resale value.

Why a B75? Three reasons. The price was nice. The delivery quote was seven to ten working days, versus almost two months for a custom Brompton, and for the record it was delivered on the tenth working day. There is incidentally free delivery in the UK.

The deciding factor was that apart from the handlebars the B75 has the specification I wanted from a Brompton anyway, e.g. a three-speed gearbox and nothing else. I wanted the simplest, lightest Brompton that didn't use custom parts, so that if I decide to take it somewhere exotic there is at least a chance that parts might be available locally.

Bromptons are available with a bunch of different components. Ignoring smaller things such as the luggage blocks and mudguards (and expensive options such as titanium forks) the most substantial options are the gearbox and the handlebars. I wanted S-type sporty handlebars, which are low and straight; the B75 has M-type bars, which rise up in a U-shape. There are also H-type bars, which rise higher still, and P-type handlebars which look like a flattened O and can be ridden high or low. I can get used to the B75's handlebars.

The other major variation is the gearbox. Single-speed with a freewheel, two-speed, three-speed, or six-speed. My commute involves a bit of city driving, followed by a hill, followed by a straight, so I felt that a single-speed wouldn't be much fun. The two-speed also struck me as too limiting. Three speeds seems ideal.

The six-speed is apparently a combination of the two-speed gear unit with a three-speed hub, giving two sets of three gears, but I'm worried it will be just one more thing that might break. I remember reading somewhere that the B75's three-speed unit is downgeared slightly for easier hill climbing, but I don't remember where I read that, so I could be wrong.

What's it like to ride? I have to admit that I've never ridden a Brompton before, or anything with a hub gearbox. The gearbox pleasantly surprised me. Unlike a Derailleur unit the B75's Sturmey-Archer hub doesn't have things hanging off it, and it doesn't make a loud clack when the gear changes. It's a lot easier to keep clean. It does however make a fairly loud tick-tick-tick in cruising gear, but that's apparently normal for hub gearboxes.

Can the B75 pick up women? It has a total carry weight of 110kg, so they would have to be very small.

The gear ratios have a limited top speed but I found that on the lower end even fairly steep inclines were do-able, with a bit of puffing. I would not have expected a bike with such tiny wheels to be any good on hills. According to my Garmin eTrex I cruise at 13.8mph on the flat, 18.8mph downhill. The low top speed isn't a problem given that the B75's suspension is fairly stiff, which means that unless the road is glassy-smooth riding at high speed isn't much fun. I found myself cycling around potholes and drain covers rather than cycling over them. I would not want to mount the kerb with a Brompton. The steering is frisky. Acceleration is excellent.

The folding mechanism is simple, once you learn the drill. You lock the saddle up, tilt the front wheel slightly to the left, turn the pedals so that the right pedal is to the rear, then lift it up. The back wheel tucks under the frame and it all fits together. It has a little pair of wheels on the suspension block for transport. One of Brompton's most popular options is a folding left pedal, and after carrying the folded bike I can see why; you have a choice between holding the bike close to you but having the left pedal dig into your body, or holding it away from you and spraining your arm.

Security? I'm sceptical that any kind of security will work, so I haven't bothered; the B75 never leaves my sight. It's too easy to carry off.

Any problems? At first it felt as if the seatpost was sinking into the frame, but after a week of commuting the sensation stopped, so it may well have been a delusion brought on by alcohol. The suspension is a rubbery white block that fits between the frame and the rear wheel, which means that when going over bumps it feels as if the bike is bending front-to-back instead of bouncing up-and-down, but again I got used to this.

At around 11kg it's too heavy to carry long distances, but of course you can just unfold it and wheel it around. I have only had mine for a month, so if it falls to bits in the near future I will update this article.

Of note the bike comes packed in a big cardbox box and requires a little bit of assembly, essentially screwing in the left pedal and fitting the seat and bell. It comes with a spanner. The joints were pre-greased, and after setting up the bike it appeared to be in good shape so I took it for a ride; it didn't require any more tweaking, and after a month I haven't had to adjust anything. Brompton offers an initial three-month / 100 mile service, which is nice of them, so at some point I'll have to pop along to their store and have it looked at. When things have settled down.

Monday, 8 June 2020

Mirror's Edge

Today we're going to have a look at Mirror's Edge(tm) (2008), a real curate's egg of a game. You probably remember the striking box art. Who was that woman, and why was she looking at us?

If you ever visited CEX during the early 2010s you will remember seeing the box sandwiched between multiple copies of Madden and NBA, because it was a classic shelf-warmer. People bought it, played it once, then got rid of it.

No future, they say. But must it be that way?

How come? Back in 2008 it attracted mostly-good reviews, mainly for its striking visuals and excellent soundtrack. It sold a couple of million copies, but it had very little replayability value. Despite a generous promotional push from Electronic Arts it didn't become a "thing", and yet the box art was striking, and it looked good, and you can't fault EA for making a sci-fi parkour adventure instead of yet another sports franchise.

Today Mirror's Edge(tm) remains one of those curious one-offs, like BrĂ¼tal Legend and Alan Wake, that people remember fondly despite its flaws. At the very least it has aged exceptionally well. It was released in 2008 for the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 and a year later for the PC, both as a physical product and via Steam, and latterly Electronic Arts' Origin store; today it's still available for the PC and can be played on the XBox One in backwards compatibility mode. Any modern i5-or-later PC should be able to run it with all the details turned up. I had to set the vertical sync with NVidia's control panel in order to get rid of screen tearing.

Technically there was a sequel, Mirror's Edge Catalyst(tm) (2016), albeit that it was a retelling of the same story with similar characters rather than a continuation. The general consensus seems to be that it was a missed opportunity, but I haven't played it so perhaps it's a hidden masterpiece.

What is Mirror's Edge(tm)? It's a running-jumping first-person platform game with puzzle aspects and a bit of combat. You are Faith Connors, rooftop runner extraordinaire. You illicitly deliver parcels by jumping across rooftops, because the game was developed in 2007 and the developers didn't anticipate the rise of consumer drones. As such Mirror's Edge(tm) feels a bit like those early-2000s cyberpunk adventures where no-one has a mobile phone and computers have an interface less advanced than actual contemporary computer interfaces.

Parcels etc. But before doing that you have to uncover a conspiracy, which you do by jumping across rooftops and crawling through vents and leaping across gaps and shimmying along pipes and falling to your death a lot, but that's not a problem because the game is generous with checkpoints.

I have the impression the reviewers expected an open-world game with lots of rooftop jumping. Grand Theft Auto mixed with a bit of Thief. In reality however Mirror's Edge(tm) is very linear, and although you can divert around obstacles the basic pathway through each map is fixed. That was one of the major criticisms levelled at the game.

The second was that although the parkour sections were fun, the game continually broke them up with fighting sequences and vertical platforming, which are respectively prosaic and fiddly.

A tiny, subtle bit of lens flare

But let's talk about the good stuff first. Mirror's Edge(tm) has aged extremely well. Back in 2008 the fashion was for bloom-smeared greens and browns, as in Fallout 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but Mirror's Edge(tm) is all crisp whites and primary colours. It doesn't have distance fog, instead relying on clever design to block the player's view. It uses visual effects sparingly and is old enough to predate the fad for film grain and dirt on the lens.

Faith has "runner vision", whereby important parts of the environment are highlighted in red. The idea is that Faith is so used to jumping across rooftops that she has a heightened awareness of useful surfaces.

The flappy bits of plastic are among the few physics-enabled elements of the game, but they're animated really well, even by modern standards.

These marks indicate that there's a collectable bag nearby. The game generally doesn't reward exploration otherwise.

About the only technical aspect that has dated is the depth of field effect. Sadly there's no easy way to turn it off, short of editing the configuration files by hand. By modern standards the character models are functional, but they don't look bad, just a bit stiff:

As with Half-Life 2 the developers had the advantage of only needing to animate a handful of models, and one of the major characters only appears in the 2D animated cutscenes.

In some respects Mirror's Edge(tm) has almost anti-aged. The levels have a bunch of baked-in lighting effects that are the spitting image of modern real-time raytracing. Apparently developers DICE fed the maps into a custom-made raytracer called BEAST that took over a day to render each map, but the results are gorgeous, especially given that the game doesn't seem to have any kind of HDR. Note in particular how white surfaces reflect the surrounding colours:

The downside is that the maps are almost entirely static, whereas modern ray-traced games can cope with moving light sources and interactive environments. The paint cans in the image above are immobile and almost nothing moves, beyond some turny wheels and elevator buttons. Of course Mirror's Edge(tm) is a fast-paced running game, not an open-world adventure with a day-night cycle, so it doesn't matter. The player doesn't have time to watch the sun set.

The game has a skittery electronic soundtrack from Solar Fields. The music reminded me of Warp Records' Artificial Intelligence compilations, particularly the warmer and slightly less stiff second volume. The mixture of minimalist electronic beats and random non-English signage put me in mind of the mid-late-1990s Warp Records / Designer's Republic aesthetic, and stylistically Edge(tm) has something of the late 1990s about it; it feels like a spiritual successor of those cel-shaded Sega Dreamcast games, like Jet Set Radio. The characters are all rebellious teenage graffiti artists / DJs / delivery drivers, straight from the mind of Jamie Hewlett.

What else does Mirror's Edge(tm) do right? The game convincingly portrays Faith's body as an object in the real world. Her arms and legs realistically interact with the environment. When she grapples her way onto a balcony it looks as if her hands are really gripping the edge; when she falls on her back her legs sprawl out in front of her, and when she presses a button her hand actually presses the button instead of pointing at a texture. Ledge grabbing and shimmying and vaulting and climbing etc had all been done before, but Mirror's Edge(tm) did all of it, and really well.

Back in 2008 most games rendered the player as a floating camera with a disembodied gun-arm, and even nowadays it's common for games to have scripted interactions that don't line up properly with the environment. Luckily the developers of Mirror's Edge(tm) had the benefit of designing a game with only a small number of interactive objects, and furthermore all the surfaces are flat, so they could concentrate on finessing a limited set of animations.

The reflections of Faith's fingers look odd in static screenshots but are subliminally convincing during the game.

Mirror's Edge(tm) also has Faith breathe heavily while exerting herself, partially for verisimilitude and partially because the game doesn't have a traditional HUD. Instead the player learns about Faith's condition through visual and aural cues, a little bit like the ancient you-vs-dinosaurs physics-fest Trespasser.

That's the technical stuff out of the way. What about the gameplay? As mentioned in the introduction Mirror's Edge(tm) is a curate's egg. The irony is that the developers pulled off the game's most famous aspect - the parkour - more or less perfectly, but perhaps because they felt it would get boring they broke up the running and jumping with combat sequences and puzzles, which aren't nearly as successful.

When it works, it's terrific. There are two action setpieces where Faith has to chase down another character; you don't have to worry about disarming policemen or doing tricky wall-jumps, you just go fast and make blind leaps into empty space. During those sequences the game came alive and I wished there were more of them.

On a couple of occasions I even found myself leaning towards the screen and dodging left and right like a big fat moron, which might explain why so many people remember the game fondly. Fallout: New Vegas aroused my curiosity but didn't move me at all, whereas Mirror's Edge(tm) bypassed my conscious mind and took control of my body. It dug into my subconscious. It gave me a mental tingle, like that time in mixed PE when we were doing press-ups and the girl in front of me had a loose shirt and

I felt slightly absurd walking around with an M249. It just doesn't feel right.

However just like real life Mirror's Edge(tm) isn't non-stop fucking. Periodically you have to stop running and climb through vents instead, which isn't as much fun.

Surprisingly this jump - which is reminiscent of Half-Life - wasn't all that hard.

Mirror's Edge(tm) breaks up the parkour with indoors platforming sections, at which point the game comes to a crashing halt. I've played and mostly finished Ori and the Blind Forest, so even though I'm a throwback to the distant past I like to think that I'm at least familiar with the state of modern platforming.

Very occasionally Edge(tm)'s indoors platforming works and is entertaining, but more frequently it feels like filler and occasionally it doesn't work at all. I found that Faith sometimes missed what felt like obvious grabs, or she clambered onto a narrow ledge and immediately hopped over the other side to her doom.

Worse, the game's mixture of mostly-linear-but-slightly-non-linear puzzles meant that I often found myself confused as to whether I was doing the right thing badly, or if I was wasting my time with the wrong thing. In the golden trench above I at first tried to wall-jump onto the vent in the distance, and with split-second timing I did it, but only once (Faith immediately jumped off the other side of the vent into empty space). Was that how it was supposed to work? It felt much harder than the puzzles surrounding it. After consulting a video walkthrough I realised that I was supposed to do a much simpler wall-bounce onto a swinging beam instead, which I pulled off first time because it was much simpler.

It was particularly galling because that part of the game urges Faith to reach the top floor of the villain's skyscraper, but my progress ground to a halt as I negotiated the puzzle. Whatever momentum the plot build up evaporated. That happened several times when I played through the game, especially towards the end, and judging by the comments on Youtube there are a handful of irritating jumps that fooled lots of people. At its best Mirror's Edge(tm) is a kinetic experience, but even when the vertical platforming sections work they interrupt the game's flow.

One thing that dates the game is the prevalence of 4:3 monitors. But then again this is supposed to be an office, so perhaps they haven't gone widescreen yet. Note the refreshingly understated bloom, which - as with the lens flare - I didn't really notice until looking at the screenshots.

The second element that doesn't work is the combat. The game has an extensive melee system that mostly goes unused, except for a couple of boss battles; with deft timing Faith can knock guns from the hands of the enemy and use them to clear a path, but the use of firearms feels out of character. Initial concepts portrayed Faith as a gun-wielding cyber-hacker in what would presumably have been a less green version of The Matrix, but in the finished product the gunplay feels tacked-on, both technically and thematically - in the cutscenes Faith doesn't come across as a killer. The game ends with Faith shooting a bunch of computers with a machine gun, which again feels as if it belongs in Duke Nukem rather than a stylish game of elevated parkour.

I can see what the developers were going for. There are a couple of action setpieces where it's obvious that they wanted the player to perform a fluid sequence of kung-fu moves against multiple baddies, along the lines of the lobby shootout in The Matrix, but in practice it's often faster to just run past the enemy and escape. If you do engage the enemy in combat it's usually easiest to disarm the first baddy and turn his gun against his teammates, shooting them and picking up their guns one after the other. The only exceptions are the enemy parkour soldiers, who appear briefly towards the end of the game and can't be disarmed, but even then I found that a flurry of sliding kicks knocked them out.

Furthermore - and this is a common criticism from when the game was new - the mere presence of firearms feels wrong. Half-Life 2 sets up its dystopian environment in the first few minutes of gameplay and gives the player a good reason to shoot the security forces. The game shows them brutalising and gunning down innocent civilians. Later on the player learns that they're working for an occupying army that is actively exterminating all life on Earth.

Mirror's Edge(tm) on the other hand merely suggests that life in The City is stifling and dull and that Faith is breaking a few rules, but it never shows any of this. The plot explains why the baddies are eager to kill Faith stone dead, but I just didn't feel it. You'd expect a sequence where one of Faith's friends surrenders to the police but is unexpectedly killed, but the game simply has the security forces attack faith with helicopter gunships from almost the first level.

The plot is something about a corporate conspiracy to replace the police with mercenaries. It's insubstantial. It appears that the developers came up with an interesting main character and a basic scenario, plus some visual designs for other characters, but they didn't have time to flesh anything out. The writing reminded me of Miami Vice, in the sense that the plot and characterisation feel like a child's imitation of hard-boiled crime fiction. Everybody speaks in exaggerated tough-guy cliches - "Ropeburn's got the Blues in his pocket", that kind of thing - and the characterisation is sketchy.

It's interesting to compare it with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which has a jumbled mess of a plot but solid characterisation. The two games introduce a character early on who is obviously a traitor, but HR subverts this whereas Edge(tm) doesn't, and I wasn't at all surprised when one of Faith's friends turned out to be on the take. Both games end with the main character blowing up a computer, but HR's denouement has a tragic element whereas Edge(tm) doesn't have a moral dimension. The two games have downbeat, bitter-sweet endings, but with Edge(tm) it feels accidental, as if the writers had forgotten that Faith's former colleagues were mostly dead and the world was worse off than it was at the beginning of the game.

The developers of Edge(tm) originally planned to have in-engine cutscenes, but were forced by a lack of time to outsource the animation to a third party. The 2D cutscenes tread a fine line between minimalist stylisation and crudeness. The developers also had to cut out an elaborate final battle - the last level has an extensive rooftop arena, but the player doesn't get a chance to fight anybody in it - and as a result the actual final battle is essentially just a quicktime event.

That hasn't stopped modders trying to recreate it.

Faith delivers a little voice-over when she sees this piece of graffiti, which is in a vent near the end of the game. As far as I can tell she doesn't react to anything else in the game in the same way, and I wonder if it's also a remnant of something else that was cut.

Beyond the main plot there's a series of time trial races. There is another world in which Mirror's Edge(tm) was a straightforward parkour game with a storyline that would probably have involved competing gangs of delivery runners trying to deliver sandwiches faster than everybody else. If the developers had added a multiplayer mode - Mirror's Edge(tm) is strictly single-player - the series might have evolved into a competitive future sports franchise. WipeOut but on foot.

This was the approach taken for the DLC levels. They were abstract maps made of geometric blocks floating above an endless ocean, and they are perhaps what Mirror's Edge(tm) might have been if the team had given up on the idea of a plot entirely and instead spend their time developing levels. Perhaps they could have added a plot later, as with e.g. Team Fortress or Portal.

I think the problem is that the plot and gameplay pull away from each other, with the result that Mirror's Edge(tm) is intermittently brilliant, often frustrating, ultimately unsatisfying. At the very least memorable, if only in a might-have-been way. I'm glad it exists but it feels like a missed opportunity.

The Shard, London, in infrared

A couple of things struck me after playing the game. The developers had a laser-like focus on parkour, and so even though Mirror's Edge(tm) has the ideal setup for a stealth game there's no stealth aspect at all. The baddies don't patrol, they're just spawned into the world to shoot Faith. There are two occasions when Faith can conceivably sneak up on a baddy and disarm him, but they're essentially just scripted events rather than a natural part of gameplay.

Furthermore Faith doesn't have an inventory - she can carry one gun, and that's it - and there are no stats, or power-ups, or special potions. To the developers' credit I didn't miss any of this until after I had finished the game, but I suspect that if the game had been a massive success they would have found it very difficult to pull off the same setup twice.

Anything else? The baked-in lightmaps meant that there wasn't an official level editor, but the geometry runs on Unreal Engine 3, so a small modding scene emerged. I haven't tried any of the mods. The game ends in a skyscraper called The Shard, which is used as the headquarters of the city's totalitarian government. There is an actual skyscraper called The Shard, in London. It was in the advanced planning stages when Mirror's Edge(tm) entered development, and was off the top of my head originally called London Bridge Tower ("The Shard" was a nickname). I have no idea if the game's developers intended the fictional shard to be a mirror of the actual Shard.

As with the Walkie-Talkie and the Erotic Gherkin, The Shard was controversial at the time but is now just part of London's background. Is it the site of Britain's secret government? If I was a totalitarian dictator I would want to be based in Senate House, not the bloody Shard. It's south of the river, miles from anywhere.

There's some debate as to where the game is set. The sequel appears to take place in south-eastern Australia, but the original is a mish-mash of Dubai, Singapore, Japan, China, a dash of Hong Kong. I wonder if the team used some of the development money to go on fact-finding trips to those places. Back in the 2000s EA was infamous for its work-hard, work-often corporate culture, so I doubt that the developers had any spare time, but then again DICE is based in Sweden so perhaps employment law is stricter there. Who knows.

Surprisingly EA didn't release a physical version of Faith's shoes. The lack of loot boxes and extensive DLC is another sign that this game came out in 2008.