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Google Play App Roundup: VSCO Cam, Assassin's Creed Pirates, and Clash of Puppets

By Ryan Whitwam

Pictures, pirates, and monsters.

The holiday season is here, so how about buying yourself a little something this year? An app or game that's actually worth your money would be nice, and the Google Play App Roundup is a great place to find that special something. Just click on the links to head right to the Play Store and check things out for yourself.

This week we've got a new camera app, a game set on the high seas, and some B-movie mayhem.

VSCO Cam

Taking pictures with an Android phone is a bit hit or miss -- some devices take great shots in certain conditions and not so great in others. Still others have good sensors, but don't have the software to truly take advantage of it. iPhone users have been raving about VSCO Cam since it debuted on that platform, and now it's on Android for all to use.

VSCO Cam is a camera app that takes things back to basics. There aren't a ton of user-facing settings to tweak. You basically just have guideline overlays, flash, and focus. When you tap to focus, the app will set the exposure white balance, and so on as it sees fit. The developers claim to have spent a lot of time tuning this behind the scenes stuff. In fact, your device will churn for about 20 seconds the first time you open VSCO Cam as it optimizes for your device… or so they say.

The image quality seems good -- I'd say better than most third-party cameras. The colors seem a bit more accurate and it has a good sense of white balance. The thing that really seems to get everyone hot for this app is the selection of filters. There are a ton of them, if you're willing to pay.

You get about a dozen filters for free, plus a few more free packs with a handful of looks. If you really want to go filter wild, there are almost 20 more packs for $0.99 each. Each pack has three filters with a particular theme. I don't consider myself a filter person, but VSCO Cam does have very good filters, if that's your thing. They don't seem to hurt the detail of your snapshots, and you can vary the strength of the effect.

VSCO Cam has a gallery built-in where you manage the filters, and also edit images in the more traditional way. All the pictures you take are kept in this gallery only, but you can export them to the regular Android gallery app as you like. There are a lot of editing options from the regular crop/rotate/brightness stuff, to the more esoteric highlight tint and grain. When you're done, VSCO Cam can share directly to Instagram, Google+, Facebook, and Twitter.

My only issue with the gallery is that the minimalist UI is a little TOO minimalist -- I'd kill for some button labels. Sometimes you just have to tap something to see what it does because there's no way to tell what a circle means from only the shape.

VSCO Cam is free to try, and you can still do plenty of snapping and filtering with the included filters. I suppose if I had to look at filtered photos, I'd prefer them to be from VSCO Cam -- it does the best job of any app I've seen.

Assassin's Creed Pirates

The high seas are calling in the new Assassin's Creed Pirates game on Android. Before you go assuming this is a lame spin off that pays more attention to your wallet than the experience, we should talk. This is actually one of the coolest adventure games I've seen recently. You're captain of a pirate ship, and the world is your oyster, assuming you can handle a cannon.

There are two basic views in Pirates -- the tactical map and immersive. The tactical view is a top-down look at where everything is on the map with your ship marked in white surrounded by various objectives, side quests, and enemy ships. You can tap and drag to move your vessel across the waves very quickly (which is a great idea). Tapping on a specific location will drop you back into immersive mode upon your arrival.

The immersive view is the real showstopper in this game. You have a view from the wheel of your ship, which is busy with the movements of crew and the billowing of sails. There are some buttons on the right that change your speed and the wheel in the center of your view controls your steering. Just give it a spin and watch the ship go. Steering actually has a really neat, authentic feel -- a little flick sends the wheel spinning until you tap it to stop. Going to maximum speed also zooms you out to a "third-person" view so you can steer a bit more easily.

You wouldn't be a pirate if there were never any battles, but you're definitely a pirate. When you engage the enemy each ship comes along side the other and begins maneuvering. You have weapon buttons along the bottom that have wait times before they are loaded. When you are seat, just tap and drag to line up the shot, being aware of the enemy ship's movements. When the other ship fires, you have the opportunity to dodge by altering your speed, or trying to interrupt the volley. The battles are a lot of fun and don't take too long. I'm concerned it might get stale after too long, but it's been great over the last few days I've been playing.

This Assassin's Creed Pirates is actually more than an adventure game -- it has some RPG elements too. Over time you gain experience and can hire on more crew. With new crew come perks that make your ship more formidable. You can also trade up to bigger and better ships as you gain levels.

Visually, I really dig Pirates. The ships are detailed and the environments are lush. The water looks especially great, and there's plenty of it in the game. Lighting effects are used to great effect in this title. There is a day/night cycle so you get plenty of lovely sunsets and sunrises, with the rays glinting off the waves. There's a bit of aliasing on the edges, but you really have to make yourself notice it.

Assassin's Creed Pirates is $4.99 in Google Play, and it's definitely worth further investigation. Seriously, the soundtrack includes sea shanties. What more do you want?

Clash of Puppets

This title comes from Crescent Moon Games, which tends to make some great stuff. Clash of Puppets doesn't immediately grab you when you look at the screens, but it's a solid little action platformer with a cool vibe. You play the role of Charlie, a guy with a great mustache and a baseball cap. He's trapped in a realm of B-movie creatures and they all seem quite hostile.

This is a 3D side-scroller, but the camera is at a fixed location. I feel like that gives Clash of Puppets an interesting almost cinematic look. You enter into each small area and the camera tracks across it to keep you in view, but you're not necessarily in the middle of the frame. It can be a little disorienting when you leave one screen and go to the next, but you get used to it. Controls take the form of the typical dual thumbstick setup.

You'll encounter all the usual platforming obstacles -- spikes, fire, moving platforms, and so on. It's not the most challenging game in this respect, but you have to be careful hopping around. The levels are fairly short in Clash of Puppets; on the order of 5-10 minutes. This type of shorter, linear experience makes more sense on a mobile device, though.

As you progress through the game you pick up more weapons and encounter more B-movie foes, as well as some bosses. There's enough variation in the enemies and environments to keep things interesting through the 30 levels across 3 different worlds.

This title has a fun graphical look. The character models have a kind of bobblehead thing going on and the textures are sufficiently high resolution. There's very little aliasing visible and the animations are great. It's worth checking out for $2.99.