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Google Play App Roundup: Better Open With, Thomas Was Alone, and Solarmax 2

By Ryan Whitwam

Opening, jumping, and conquering.

You can stop wading through the mess of new apps arriving in the Play Store. This is the Google Play App Roundup, your weekly source for all things new and cool on Android. Just hit the links to open the Play Store on your device. See? Isn't that easier?

This week we've got a new way to open links, a game about shapes, and a game with strategic appeal.

Better Open With

Android's "Complete action using" menu is used to choose specific apps to handle a type of link or file, but it can also set a permanent system-wide default. The two buttons "always" and "just once" are a little limiting, though. Better Open With replaces the standard menu in a clever way by providing you the option of rerouting links to different apps without giving up your default actions.

To use Better Open With, you simply have to set it as the default for all your link types. So you'll select Better Open With and tap the "always" button. In the Better Open With application, you can set your preferred apps for each type of intent--audio, web, video stream, and so on. This allows Better Open With to pop up instead of the standard menu and route your selections itself.

So why is it better if it's just another popup? When you've selected your preferred apps for Better Open With to feed links to, they will be highlighted in the popup. There's also a countdown at the bottom of the frame that tells you how long until the default option is automatically launched. You can still tap on a different app to use that one, but just give it a second and your link goes through without any additional fuss.

The countdown for each link type is customizable, and you can pause the countdown at any point if you need a moment to decide. There are also a few interface options for color schemes and layouts.

I was quite surprised how well Better Open With integrates with the system. Trying to replace system dialogs on Android has a tendency to be messy, but this works very well. If Better Open With doesn't have a protocol for a particular link, the system won't try to open it. You automatically fall back to the standard dialog.

This app is a little light on settings at the moment, but it was spawned from a discussion on Reddit very recently. Better Open With is free and has no ads or sketchy permissions, so take it for a spin.

Thomas Was Alone

Thomas was alone, but now he has friends, some of which would dispute the "friend" label. This is a game of puzzle solving and platforming with a fascinating and engrossing story told in a story-book manner with voice overs by the fabulous Danny Wallace. The characters might only be simple geometric shapes, but it's easy to forget that.

The first few levels of Thomas Was Alone seem like a straightforward platformer. Thomas is a little red block that slides around and jumps. Nothing terribly exciting, but then Chris shows up. Chris is a square who can't jump as high as Thomas, but he can fit into smaller spaces. Only by combining their skills can you venture onward. Later, you meet John, who is a tall rectangle that can jump very high but he can't fit in many places due to his size. Then there's Claire, Laura, and more.

Each character has their own abilities that have to be used to navigate everyone through the level. You might have to toggle switches or stack everyone up to vault over a barrier. These puzzles are all challenging and clever, but that's not the only reason to like Thomas Was Alone.

They might only be blocks, but each character in this game has a personality with amusing dialog, read to you in voice overs during the levels. For example, Thomas is a bit naive but positive about life. Chris, on the other hand, is a curmudgeon who frequently gets annoyed by his compatriots. John is bubbly and unendingly excited--he even likes Chris.

The controls in Thomas Was Alone are simple, as you might expect. After all, the only actions available to you are moving left/right and jumping. There are arrow buttons on the left for movement and a jump button over on the right. You'll have to switch between characters to move everyone into the right positions and take advantage of their abilities. You do this by tapping on the colored squares along the edge of the screen that match the color of the character you want to control.

Thomas Was Alone is a cleanly designed game with flat 2D graphics. While the textures are very minimal, the lines and overall asset resolution is very high. The blocks cast shadows that spread across the level as you move along, which is a neat effect (and has a conveniently Android-y vibe). There also some flashier lighting effects in places.

Between the writing, voice overs, and story, Thomas Was Alone feels more engaging than most other mobile games. It doesn't matter that the characters are featureless blocks--they have charisma all the same. Thomas Was Alone is $5.99, and it's worth that price.

Solarmax 2

Let me just head this off before we get started--Solarmax 2 looks like Galcon, and it does have a lot in common with it, but this is not a clone. Solarmax 2 has some cool additional gameplay mechanics that make for a really fun and intense gaming experience.

At its core, this is a real-time strategy game where your goal is to eliminate all the enemy ships. Both yours and the enemy's ships are denoted by small glowing dots in orbit of planets scattered around each map. Being in control of a planet means it will slowly produce new ships for you. In order to beat your opponent, you'll need to capture more planets, including the ones they claim for themselves.

You command your ships to move to another planet by tapping and dragging from the planet they are currently orbiting to the new one. This moves all the ships to this new location, which forces you to carefully consider how you mass your forces. If you collect 100 ships into one location, you can overwhelm almost any enemy force, but you're not very nimble in the case of multiple attacks. When the two sides meet above a planet, there's a fight as the number of ships are slowly whittled down. You can contribute more ships to the battle if necessary, but whoever has more craft on site will win.

The basic gameplay is quickly augmented with barriers that limit the path ships can take to reach certain planets. This creates important strategic chokepoints that you need to either capture, or at least keep your enemy from securing. Solarmax 2 also contains a number of special orbital structures like warp gates that can move ships to another location on the map instantly and defense turrets that blast enemy ships as they fly past. Gaining control of these locations is often the key to victory.

There are 36 levels in this game, which doesn't sound like a lot. However, each level has three difficulty settings. The easy mode is good for getting the hang of the game, medium is a solid challenge, and hard is punishingly difficult. There are also three different game speeds for an added challenge.

The graphics in Solarmax 2 are simple but quite attractive. The lighting effects take center stage as your ships pulse and glow, zipping around the map. I like the subtle "warping" effect as a cluster of ships leaves orbit on its way to battle. It's not visually stunning or anything, but it's a nice looking game that plays well. The ambient soundtrack is cool as well.

Solarmax 2 is about $3 and I find it much more enjoyable than similar games that are essentially re-skinned versions of Galcon.