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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why Skyrim is not Game Of The Year Worthy ( and Bethesda certainly not studio of the year )

The recent marketing spun Spike awards granted the latest version of Skyrim both Game of the Year and Bethesda studio of the year.

I wish I could feel differently, but these accolades are really a sad reflection on the industry leaning towards the figure of sales on a certain product rather than actual quality.  In my initial play of Skyrim, I thought it a high watermark of the RPG genre ... and well it should have been, except for the thousandfold number of bugs which have been found within the game since people have played the game for the hours for which it was designed.

Many professional review sites have boasted playing the game for 50 hours or more.  50 hours on the design of Skyrim is nothing.  Most users play the game for over 100 hours, if not 200 hours before what they consider completion.  Skyrim should not be granted lenience because the designed hours of play is far greater than the industry average ... this should be rewarded greatly but only if Bethesda can offer it without the sacrifice of quality.

Honestly, I don't think they can.  And after their marketing brigade about how Skyrim is based on a completely new engine - which is clearly a false assumption ... I don't know how any gamer can trust Bethesda again as a game studio.

I'm not going to replicate the many videos out there showing the horrendous performance on the PlayStation 3.  I haven't seen this kind of performance, but what I have seen are these insane quest breaking bugs, like the inability to break through spider webs with a two-handed sword:

Spider webs, Bethesda?  Seriously?  I didn't hack this quest in any way ... in fact I can run through it twice and get  completely different results on spiderwebs  which can result in me being able to finish the quest or not.

Someone at Bethesda please explain how this is possibly the result of modern quality assurance.  How is this anything remotely in the realm of acceptable loss?

Update: My video on the map being confusing to use was pointed out to be more of a usability nightmare than really a technical issue with the game.  OK, I'll grant that.  I'll also grant that it was probably a factor of being annoyed at running into both the Blood on the Ice quest breaker and the quest breaker above.

Fine.  It isn't like you have to throw a stone very far to find other examples of quest breakers.

Like this one:

Or this (glitch doesn't happen again for this guy until towards the end of the vid):

Or this (seen this one documented a few times):

Or this one where you can get out of the Mind of Madness quest, and find yourself unable to do anything:

And so on, and so forth, etc. and yada yada.

I may have enjoyed Skyrim, but that really does not excuse the media's ability to completely ignore Bethesda's inability to properly test their software title after title.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Bethesda Owes Gamers Truth on "Creation" Engine (hint: It's still Gamebryo)

I'm not even going to go back and drag up all the posts I've made about Fallout: New Vegas and what a horrible bugfest it was.

The important thing here: it's still broken for some players, even today.

Now, like myself, many other gamers who experienced the nightmare which was Fallout: New Vegas were delighted to hear that it was going to use an all-new engine.  And when I say it was reported to use an all-new engine, I mean: Bethesda themselves stated that the engine for TES V: Skyrim would be all-new.

I'm not even paraphrasing here, not even a little bit.  Now, if you read through that recent FO:NV forum post, you'll see that the user is stating that the game becomes unplayable after the save file reaches a certain file size.

Gee, I dunno?  Sound familiar?  Yup, it's the exact same issue that everyone is talking about with Skyrim on the PlayStation 3.  And what is the most technical explanation for the problem that has been released to date?

It's the one offered by Obsidian, the developer of Fallout: New Vegas.  It explains how the Gamebryo based games use a file strategy to track the changes throughout the game world, and how consoles can have problems loading and managing those changes into memory.  No memory = no performance.

Now, I've been lucky.  I've had a few quest bugs and the occasional performance issues.  I've had two crashes.  I've had maybe a handful of lockups.  From my time with the game, I would say that I'd stick to my guns in that compared to Fallout: New Vegas - it is a godsend, and compared to normal games it is only slightly buggy.

But - that's me.  There's now plenty of video evidence that other players of Skyrim are experiencing what I experienced with Fallout: New Vegas (and to a slightly lesser degree, Fallout).  I don't know why I'm one of the lucky ones - but that isn't really the point.  The point here is that I bought Skyrim because I thought it was an all-new engine, as did many other people.

But how is it that an "all-new" engine has the same fundamental problem as the last engine, with apparently the same save file structure and loading concepts as well?

How is it that items in the world are rendered and handled in almost the exact same manner as the old engine?  Sure, the textures look nicer and Bethesda has cranked up the pretty in all sorts of ways, but someone who has played all the Gamebryo games can't load up Skyrim and deny the fact that the game looks and feels just like the old games did.

All-new engine, my ass.  All new graphics pipeline, perhaps.  Kicking Speedtree to the curb and implementing your own plant-life, sure.  New ways of loading textures, maybe.

But at the end of the day - the so called "Creation" engine is just lipstick on a pig.  Bethesda hasn't even been able to fix the problems with their last game, but they continue to march on with the same core technology ... only this time with more of PR spin to give gamers false confidence.

That's pretty shameful, and there are a lot of Skyrim players ... especially on the PS3 ... with plenty of righteous anger at the company right now.

I really don't know if I'll buy the next Bethesda game.  I can't trust the Gamebryo engine, and I can't trust Bethesda when they say they aren't using it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Game Play: Skyrim

Update: Obviously I was a bit hasty, as several PS3 owners are reporting that after save files of a certain size, the game will start to increase in lag while playing until slowly becoming unplayable.

My own file size is about 9mb, and I have had a few issues like what is being reported - but can still make an afternoon out of it. Currently on a thumbs sideways kind of judgement. Bethesda has a patch coming out supposedly after Thanksgiving, but no confirmation that patch will fix it.

I'm still a big fan of the game in general, but feel for the PS3 players. And some of the player stories are of the kind I can't recommend it for the PS3 anymore. This is absurd, Bethesda, just absurd.

Faithful readers of Cathode Tan (and yes, I am referring to both of your) know that I have frequently felt that for the Fallout titles in particular frequently performed, shall we say, less than the standard amount of quality assurance.  I won't bore with a bunch of old links, but let us just say that the terms "buggiest" "game" and "ever" might have been used in regards with words like "New Vegas".

Seriously, a bug which can be fixed by wearing the right in-game hat?  Seriously?  A few months ago Bethesda released an update to New Vegas which reportedly fixed all the crashes, slowdowns, world holes, and other game breakers.  I tried it out for about five minutes before realizing that my experience with all the previous bugs had sucked every ounce of desire to ever play the game again out of my marrow.

So let us just say that I bought Skyrim with some trepidation.  Sure, I hadn't read any previews mentioning bugs - but it isn't like the gaming media has done a particularly good job calling Bethesda out on these issues, usually sidelining it to a paragraph in a review and then just giving the game a 9/10 anyway.

I've now spent many, many, many hours in Skyrim on the PS3.

Many hours.

And I haven't had a single serious technical problem.  I've run into the very rare temporary slowdown. There was one instance where the ground didn't load and I could fall into it.  Compared to the "grinding slowdown to a crash" of the previous games, Skyrim is quality assurance nirvana.  But more importantly, compared to most games out there - Skyrim is easily as stable if not slightly more so.

Why is this so important?  Why am I devoting several paragraphs starting out this review to it?  Simple.  I'm astonished with how utterly complete the experience is without all the glitches and crashes of the previous games.  That Skyrim is more graphically intense than the previous engine is nice, but being able to wander the Nord countryside without worrying about a crash was the real mission Bethesda needed to succeed.

Skyrim essentially takes some of the best concepts from the recent Fallout games, wraps them within the expansive RPG concepts of Elder Scrolls and delivers them in a very eye pleasing package.  Bethesda is declaring the Creation Engine a completely new engine, as opposed to the Gamebryo engine of the past titles.  How much is completely new I somewhat wonder - there is an awful lot about the game which has the identical feel from the Gamebryo titles ... but whatever is new, old or slightly updated - Bethesda has gotten this one right.

Elder Scrolls fans will be familiar with the core mechanics here.  Wander the countryside, stumble onto adventures, advance your skills by using them, and otherwise take in the open world RPG events of Skyrim.  The amount of content available to the player is insane.  I've currently got about twenty open quests, I think, and I don't know when I'll finish them because I'll stumble onto new ones while questing.

There's some streamlining at play here over the older games.  The crafting is simpler, and I feel as if magical items are more functional and useful than they were in Morrowind or Oblivion.  I find myself using the same strategy as I have before - a kind of mage/warrior/thief hybrid which works wonderfully with Skyrim's skill system.  I've seen YouTube videos of more "pure" builds and it seems that the game properly rewards you for either type of play.

My complaints are rather small.  Item management is still a burden, even once you get a faithful companion to offload some items.  Some missions feel a bit too linear, too hack and slash.  There have been a couple of the puzzles which honestly the solution was more annoying than entertaining.  But these are just tiny issues in an otherwise epic game.

Skyrim is simply one of the best RPG games to ever grace any console or PC.  It's the high watermark of the game design and philosophy of the Elder Scroll franchise.  I'm quite glad to now be in a camp where I can look forward to the future titles instead of dreading a soul crushing experience.

Highly recommend.

Unless you have a PS3. Sadly. Until Bethesda and PS3 gamers can confirm a proper fix.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Movie Watch: Paranormal Activity 3

I've generally been a pretty big fan of the Paranormal Activity franchise.  I got some friends to re-watch the first two prior to heading out to see the third.  I think one of the most positive things about this series is its ability to dig deeper into the history of the story with every installment without feeling overly forced.

By itself, Paranormal Activity 3 holds its own against the first two movies.  There is still the methodic observations on everyday life and scenes where nothing goes on at all just to set that creepy baseline for the viewer.  There is still the judicial use of sound of effects to warn the viewer that something is about to jump above that baseline.

And there is still what I like to refer to as excellent Hollywood magic tricks.  I simply refuse to point to an example because the less you know about what happens in the film, the better, but while the series has special effects - they're extremely subtle and you could almost imagine most of the events of the film happening on a stage in front of you, not something which simply must be pumped through a high end computer to generate.

End the spoiler free section of it.  If you liked either of the first two, highly recommended.  If you haven't, and now that we are in the post-Halloweeen season, I'd probably recommend snagging the first one at least and watch all the films.  But Paranormal Activity 3 is certainly a fun spookfest on its own right.

Is the plot unraveling?
If there's any complaints about the third movie - it's that it raises some interesting inconsistencies with the first two movies.


Got that?  Is the bold and all caps clear enough? Ok, then.

First problem that the movie gets itself into is the dubious use of images in the various trailers.  The trailers seem to be sections of the film which were mostly not used in the long run, which is relatively legitimate but can get a little confusing.

This is especially true since one of the key plot points mentioned in the first two films is the girls' house being burned down, which is apparently shown only in one of the trailers (I've seen it, but never caught it on TV).  The timestamp of the trailer, however, points to the house fire happening after the events of the film and my guess is that the makers wanted to keep the "final shock scene" which has been the trademark of the first two films instead of any kind of explanatory epilogue.

Also confusing the references to the girls' mom in the first two films.  Micah makes a crack about not inviting her over in the first film, and the girls talk about her briefly in the second with references not shown in the third film (namely people coming over and their mom crying a lot).

There are two defense for the mentions in the second film.  One is that their mom may have been crying more than we saw in the first film, especially considering the overall discord in the house towards the end ... and perhaps "people" included Dennis' friend.

Or, and this goes for Micah's reference in the first film - "mom" refers to their adoptive mother.  We don't really know what the girls remember or think happened after grandmother walks them upstairs, after all.

Still, this shows a danger of a story being told in a chain of prequels.  You can't expect viewers to try and piece together all these minor aspects - it should be part of the fun.  I don't think the third film necessarily violates anything plot-wise of the first two movies, but the filmmakers should be on notice: Paranormal Activity fans are taking notes.  And any future movies will be judged with those notes in the margin.

Paranormal Activity 4?
When walking out of the theater, I had thought that perhaps this would be swan song of the series.  After all, we have a pretty complete picture of the story in general.  And if they do another prequel, they would probably have to drop the found film aspect or go to reel to reel or something like that.  Neither sounds like a good idea.

But money is money - and Paranormal Activity 3 made a metric ton of it.  A fourth film is almost assured.  Those note taking fans have noted there is a "1992" tape shown in the box Katie brings over ... which possibly indicates they'll advance the story a few years after the events of the third film and perhaps explain the house fire, the adoptive mother, etc.

Another good possibility is having a movie which takes place after the events of PA2.  The makers have clearly made an effort to keep in touch with the original cast members, perhaps to make sure Katie Featherston would be around to portray her more demonic side in what would probably need to be the series finale.

So far the producers, directors and writers have done a good job keeping to the spirit (no pun intended) of the first film, so I'm still confident they can keep the quality up.

First trailer which reminds me of Blair Witch 2, however - and I am so not confident....

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Game Play: Battlefield 3

Let's put this review into two distinct parts.

The offline campaign of Battlefield 3 is stunningly beautiful in parts and quite honestly one of the best written single player first person shooters in recent history.  The story actually manages to make sense for almost the entirety of the game, unlike the plot line of Modern Warfare 2 which I could only describe as a wtfest.

Sadly, the graphics and decent writing get absolutely kicked in the balls by some completely rookie mistakes in level and game design.  Invisible walls inhabit the otherwise immersive world in a surprising number of places.  My favorite was after having held down the fort (metaphorically) for some time, myself and my fellow soldier finally made our way to an Osprey for escape.  Hooray!

Except that my fellow soldier could run into the Osprey, whereas I was blocked by a force field of doom while getting shot at by enemy forces.  That was until he started yelling at me to get on the ramp...

Worse, however, is the number of times your squad will be positioned in a spot which seems utterly reasonable ... and yet is actually a complete death trap.  Try to position yourself in the same manner as your squad and you will get cut to ribbons.

These flaws aren't minor and they aren't rare.  They trip up the game nearly constantly.  If Battlefield 3 was a single player game - I would recommend giving it a pass.


I am absolutely enamored by BF3's multiplayer.  Despite several warnings that the Quick Find may be malfunctioning - I have never had a problem jumping into a game.  I think mute may be the default, because the battlefield is devoid of singing, guitar playing, racist, swearing and threatening sounds of other online shooters.  The squad mechanics are simple and unobtrusive.  The servers do not seem to be dominated by clans making teams one sided.

That last bit is, I think, very interesting.  From what I can tell, BF3 seems to try to balance teams in between maps.  I haven't gotten into many situations where a blowout appears to continually occur on a server.  This is a massive relief.  I haven't had a chance to dig into Uncharted 3 yet, but one of my huge complaints with the online play of Uncharted 2 was that their "buddy" system meant that veteran players could essentially mop up levels if they were friends and enough of them were online at the same time.

The vehicle mechanics seem well tuned.  There's the occasional moment of having to run across long distances - but seems far more rare than BF2.  The firepower of vehicles also seems well balanced versus available counter-measures.

I'll undoubtably get into Modern Warfare 3 over the holidays - but for the moment Battlefield 3 is definitely my goto game for online play.  Uncharted 3 may well occupy for some time next week, but if Battlefield 3 was multiplayer only - I'd still highly recommend it.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Game Play: Dark Souls

I was a rather huge Demons' Souls fan ... even if I did find the ending so mind numbingly difficult that I ended up using a rather nasty "cheat" to accomplish. This was after several attempts at finishing the final boss with online players, an attempt which only resulted in my online ratings getting butchered with every failure.

 When I kept reading that Dark Souls, the "spiritual successor" as it were, was going to be even harder ... I was a little apprehensive. Could From Software had decided to just amp everything up from the original - perhaps for the sake of publicity?

Thankfully, the answer seems to be no.  If anything, I'd say Dark Souls is an excellent refinement on the original.  It maintains that crisp sense of combat with an absolutely brilliant grinding design which slowly allows the user to increase their knowledge of the area and increase their skills and ability to deal damage.  I'm certainly not going to call Dark Souls easier ... but it feels like the mechanic have been shifted around more than simply amplified.

That's not to say that there aren't spikes of difficulty.  I tried to assault a two demon tag team event for most of an afternoon, only to get through in ten minutes when I managed to summon two players for aid.  This was true of the first one as well, however - Dark Souls is intended to be played within the confines of the inventive online functionality - and woe goes to the player who isn't taking advantage of the seamless co-op design From has used here.

My only complaint is that the grind can still get to be somewhat numbing.  Impressively - I can't call it annoying.  I don't want to throw the controller across the room because I just got killed by some dextrous skeleton.  But there are times when I just need to take a step back from Dark Souls and give it a rest.

Which is perhaps why the game is so unique.  In this day and age where if a company can churn out enough graphics to distract a player for twenty hours ... it's considered a success.  But Dark Souls insists that you engage it from the mechanics at the very root of the game - and finish it when and how you can.

Highly recommend.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

FedEx Does Not Actually Track Your Package

I know what you're thinking.

You're thinking: Josh, it's been months since you have written here. And now this. Clearly this is just a rant.

And yes. For one thing, my apologies. I actually get to write with my new job and one of the side effects is that my hypografia is more or less tamed by it. Hence, I'm not writing on Cathode as much as I'd like.

And I am sorry for that, I will try to find the time. So much to catch up on. But, I digress.

FedEx does not actually track your package. And that is fucking ridiculous in an age of technology where I can find the closest and best brewpub to me in a city that I have never been in and do not own a map of simply by asking my phone to find it for me.

I'm not asking FedEx to lojack their drivers. I don't need GPS updates of the exact vector of my package is at any given time. I don't want a satellite feed of where the delivery driver is taking his lunch.

I just think that if FedEx is going to offer tracking numbers, and a page where you can supposedly track your package - that maybe they could actually track your package.

Backstory: The trusty PlayStation 3 got killed by an errant disc with a crack in it, but that is a whole other rant. Sony's customer support was, to be quite awesome without being overly fanboy ... pretty awesome. The PS3 has been to Sony, reportedly fixed, and sent back to me.

When I checked yesterday - the PS3 was supposed to arrive today. The sixth of October, 2011. This requires a signature (thankfully) so I made sure today was scheduled so that either myself or The Girl would be around to sign for it, because forbid the thought any delivery service let you know it might arrive in the AM or PM.

So when around 7:30PM arrived I called FedEx to see if the package was still going to show up today. They said it was still scheduled for today and that the local delivery went until 8PM. So I got a more or less verbal agreement that it would arrive in the next half hour.

A half hour later, I got a very different story.

This time, FedEx asked if I would go on hold so that they could "review the notes" for the delivery. A few minutes later, the person from FedEx informed me that the "initial confirmed date" was actually for Friday, October 7th.

OK. Wait. Let's step back here a second. October the 6th has been happily going around for many hours now. The original estimated date of delivery on October the 4th was ... October the 6th. It has said that all along. Every time I have checked the tracking site it said that. When I called FedEx, they confirmed that. Now that 8PM has magically hit, the estimated date is suddenly ....

October 7th

You know, I admit. I kinda suck at math. Most people don't think that because I work with computers but most people don't realize that people that work with computers have computers around to do math for them. So I'm not going to pretend to know the kind of calculus require to estimate on October 4th that a package will arrive on October 6th versus October 7th.

But I know some people who are good at math. I know some fucking brilliant people at math. And they will all tell you this: whatever equation required to make that calculation does not magically change at 8PM at night. Math simply does not play by those rules, I've been told.

No, what happened is that at 8PM someone at FedEx realized that their shame of a tracking system had been called out and this is the next thing I saw when I refreshed my browser while talking to FedEx:

Now the casual observer might ask ... what should I glean from this, Josh? ... and I will tell you:

That is a FedEx tracking page with no estimated delivery date. Minutes after the package was actually supposed to be delivered it was simply erased from reality.

So I ask FedEx: what the fuck kind of tracking system are you running over there? I mean seriously, I have to call you to report that my package has not been delivered, to go through your automated system, to hit zero a bunch of times, to talk to a human person, to have that human person read some kind of confidential notes, to have that human person inform me that the original confimed date is actually a day later than the original estimated delivery date, to have your tracking system erase the actual delivery date???

Was your software written by chimps? Are there pre-adolescent children involved? Is this some kind of nepotism gone horribly wrong? Please, tell me. Confess. I want to know how in 2011 when I can buy a car from Ford that fucking park itself that you have system that can't even track my package until I call you to ask where the fuck is my package.

Let me inform you of the useful and accurate information an actual human being was able to confirm from me when I called FedEx:

  • Where the package was shipped from.
  • Where was the package being delivered.
And so far, that is all I am sure of, because hours later the shipping page was updated with:
Ohhh ... so now you know, because I told you that my package had not actually been delivered on time. We live in an day where you could in theory be tweeted an earthquake before it actually hits you but I can't be informed by FedEx that my package will be late until I fucking call them to ask them if my package will be late. Don't get me wrong, people, it's not that my package will arrive on Friday instead of Thursday. My Thursday has been full of delights and really didn't miss the old PS3 one bit. No, it's that hours if not days went by where FedEx had the entire Internet at their disposal to warn me that my package was running late and that nobody had to stay home to sign for it but instead of actually using technology designed in this decade - I had to verbally berate a probably completely innocent phone operator to get that information updated for me. For shame, FedEx. For shame. I've sent much of this to your twitter account. I'll call tomorrow around the close of business to check to see if if anyone fucking monitors it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Game Play: Duke Nukem Forever

Duke Nukem Forever has finally arrived, after just under fifteen years of developments, moving through multiple game engines, swapped between different publishers, and passed back around multiple development teams (before finally being finished by Gearbox ... formed by 3D Realms developers who ditched that company during the "early" years of DNF).

A lot has changed since 1997, when Duke Nukem Forever was originally announced. For instance, Zoid's CTF mod came out for Quake 2 in 1998 - which is when Duke Nukem Forever was supposed to originally be released. Zoid's CTF was really the starting point for objective based team play for first person shooter. So every shooter which has ever been made since DNF was announced has taken this concept and evolved it into the kind of online play we see in Call of Duty.

Or to put it another way, Duke Nukem Forever has been in development for as long as team based shooters have started going past pure team deathmatch.

While the shooter genre is a something of a slow moving bunch, there has been paradigm shifts like Zoid's CTF (1998): GoldenEye 007's location based damage and lack of health packs (1997), Half-Life's first person cinematics (1998), Counter-Strike's objective based maps (1999), Deus Ex's hybrid RPG elements (2000), Halo's use of shields over health points and realistic inventory handling (2001), Half-Life 2's use of physics (2004), WinBack's use of cover (1999) and Rainbow Six's first person adoption of it (2006), Vanquish's slide movement (2010 ... almost all of these mechanics becoming either de facto standards (especially in the case of GoldenEye 007 and Halo) or important design choices for titles as they're released.

Fun Fact: The title for Duke Nukem Forever comes from Duke Nukem 4Ever, which was to be a 2D sequel to the 3D classic employing concepts from the old game and some new ones while returning to Duke's original nemesis, Doctor Proton.

And all this time, the development of Duke has been watching these titles released - and apparently then struggling to keep up as best it could. Duke Nukem 3D was a landmark title in it's own right and easily as influential on games like Deus Ex and Half-Life as the above list has been on other titles. It was clear that 3D Realms was never going to be happy with DNF unless it used the greatest technology and using the latest tricks.

The problem is: you can't simply adopt these tricks once you've seen them. And Duke Nukem Forever is a game plagued by this fact.

For instance, Duke uses "Ego" instead of health and the usage is clearly aped from Halo's use of shields (which would later be adopted to the realistic shooters use of damage of health points in general). However, considering that Halo was released in 2001 and DNF had already been in development for five years at that point ... you have to wonder how much redesign that would require.

Fun Fact: According to the game, development began with the original Quake engine and moved quickly to the Quake II engine when the game was being announced. In 1998, after having developed on Quake II engine for 14 months, 3D Realms declared they would use the Epic's Unreal engine. Since then, Epic released Unreal Tournament, Unreal Tournament 2003, Unreal Tournament 2004, Unreal Championship, Unreal II, Unreal Championship 2 and Unreal Tournament III - each with specific updates and overhauls to the engine.

Moving from a health based system centered on pickups to a shield based system centered on the user avoiding damage to heal is not a simple change. It's not like you can simply remove all the health packs from the game and then add a timer to the player's health bar. The damage the enemies deal needs to be handled, the levels need to provide players with enough area or cover to deal with a bad situation to regain health, the amount of "shielding" a player requires needs to be balanced, etc., etc. It's a core design change that needs to ripple throughout the game.

While Duke adopted the concept, and surely the idea of Duke Nukem being protected solely by his ego is funny enough: it never really seems to handle it correctly. There are sequences which are simply woefully unbalanced because you'll be picking off Assault Captains left and right only to run into a boss where a few blows can kill you but you really have nowhere to protect yourself from. In fact one boss fight in particular seems to have exactly two or three points of cover where the boss almost inexplicably can't hit you momentarily as if to solve this problem. Though, it's still a problem until you find these spots left for you by a benevolent level designer.

Fun Fact: In 2009, Wired removed Duke Nukem Forever from their yearly vaporware awards list as the project appeared officially cancelled and "the joke was getting old". In 2010, Gearbox would officially announce the game's release and the game hit 11th on the vaporware list that year.

Or the fact that back when Duke was King - shooters simply let players collect as many weapons as they could find. This idea of a "primary" weapon and a "secondary" weapon was completely alien. You found a weapon, you had the weapon, you used the weapon, you ran out of ammo ... you found more ammo. Weapon and map design matched this fact: you had weapons which were weak but utilitarian and weapons which were the BFG and used ammo like a mofo. You would simply swap out weapons depending on the situation.

The primary/secondary weapon mechanic that Halo introduced requires some weapons to be more useful than others so that you can rely on at least a common group of ammo and resources to keep fighting even when you used up your secondary BFG style ammo. Duke Nukem Forever adopted the Halo weapon concept but the actual weapon design is nearly exactly the same as it was from 1997. The end result is that you end up using the Ripper nearly the entire time because it's the closest thing to generic plasma rifle the game offers the player. Some situations even insist on the usage of specific weapons - forcing the player to hunt down a obviously conveniently placed weapon pickup just to swap out.

If there was ever a first person shooter which could excuse itself from the idea of only holding two weapons: it is Duke Nukem Forever. Duke Nukem can bench press 600 pounds (according the relatively funny in-game hint notes). Duke Nukem punches alien overlords in the balls. Duke Nukem can take a rocket or two in the face (provided his ego is big enough). But Duke Nukem can't hold as many weapons as he did ten years ago.

This isn't a game burdened by reality, as noted buy some of the more entertaining underwater scenes - so why did it feel the need to grab mechanics from games which are intended to make shooters feel more real?

This mishmash of game design plucked but not entirely cooked from ground breaking titles over the years creates a uneven landscape of good and bad the player can barely navigate through. It's not that Duke Nukem Forever is all bad or without charm - but the design flaws and lack of polish aren't something one can simply power through or laugh about when Duke pulls out another signature one-liner. The game constantly beats the player over the head with the woes from development past and every moment of fun the game offers up is quickly dashed by five more which are either frustrating or simply boring. There are portions of this game which an anyone used to the genre will simply have to wonder if this level was left unfinished. There are portions which seem oddly devoid of enemies, or enemies which seem to spawn simply to elongate scenes, or boss sequences which feel like they never got past the design phase of the creature concept, or maps which clearly don't have the correct lighting and ... on and on and on.

Obviously no game is worth this much development time - it's an absurd question which doesn't need to be asked. We're not talking about genetic research here, we're talking game development and if you can't get the game out in a certain timeline you're game is going to feel outdated. This is simply a law of physics.

The parts of Nukem which work the best are the parts Nukem learned from itself. Unabashed humor, interactive and unique levels, and the occasional feeling of a somewhat epic fight with an unrepentant use of tits and ass - there are moments of pure Dukedom.

The multiplayer has some merit in the sense that it manages some fast old school deathmatch killing. Sadly, the game browser suffers from some network issues (like the age old problem of constantly finding open games which by the time the browser lets you try to join ... the game is full) and there simply aren't enough servers out there to really make the online portion stick.

But Duke Nukem Forever doesn't just feel dated, the damn game still feels unfinished. The Dilbert cartoon at the top of this post refers not just what happens when it is better to ship nothing at all, but was the source of Macromedia's Director 5 being code named "better than gum". While Nukem has more character in the first five minutes of game than some shooter have in an entire game, the Duke's bravado simply doesn't live up to the final offering. This may not entirely be a gum release, but it is a product clearly out the door with the intention of publishing before completely forgotten.

In the early parts of the game, Duke wanders into a bathroom and can, in a now infamous scene, pick up a turd from a toilet. Disgusted with himself he then moves out to a stadium to re-enact a boss fight from the Duke Nukem 3D's end boss fight only to have the action pull back to be revealed as just a video game being played by Duke and a pair of buxom twins.

And honestly, that encompasses nearly everything you need to know about Duke Nukem Forever. There's some crap, and there's parts which will remind you of the original game and there's some parts where Duke is clearly just pick up what he learned from playing games for over a decade.

If you've never played Duke Nukem 3D and you're wondering what all the fuss is about - I have to recommend giving the game a pass. Maybe we'll finally get a proper modern Duke release, or maybe Duke Nukem: Zero Hour for the Nintendo 64 was the last decent follow up the franchise will ever get. For the nostalgic, Forever will likely just be a disappointment. It's surely a moment in history for the gaming industry and while it has some moments - it's probably better a moment to just move on from.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

There was an Iron Maiden video game?

And I never knew....

Armchair E3 2011: Nintendo

Of all the big three gaming companies, Nintendo probably had the most to prove. It's not really a terribly good time for the big N. Their sales, while still solid in comparison to the other consoles - have dropped considerably from their previous heights and probably will continue to do so. The 3DS hasn't managed to sell as well as the DS, despite plenty of technical prowess. Microsoft and Sony have both released their motion solutions to the world, and while Sony's isn't doing poorly by accessory standards - the Kinect has sold incredibly.

When the Wii was released, HDTV adoption was slow on the rise and the concept of motion controlled gameswas absolutely and utterly new. The console was inexpensive, easy to use and surprisingly social. The Wii Fit was a brilliant add on, continuing on the theme of user controls that weren't controller based and also giving gamers a reason to learn yoga.

HDTV prices have dropped considerably - and the competing consoles are not only cheaper than when this generation first hit, but they have an excellent library of exclusives, mainstream and indie titles. The Wii has continued to struggle to bring anything but their own first party titles to real success, and while the post Fit era has seen a few gems, it would be hard to imagine a lot of third party developers lining up to release on hardware which is now, to be diplomatic, a bit quaint. This is probably why the vast majority of third party Wii titles are licensed based shovelware.

So E3 would certainly be Nintendo's time to shine.

I would probably describe what they announced more as ... glimmering? Maybe a bit of a glisten?

Since this post is late out of the gate, the Wii U is probably not a surprise to anyone. Quick recap: it will backwards compatible with the Wii, it sports a tablet styled controller with a 6 inch screen surrounded by the expected set of game controls as well as motion sensing and a camera.

The feature Nintendo seemed to thump the podium the most was the ability to display either a secondary screen on the controller, or to send the the main (TV) display to the controller, or flip them, or do a tango, etc., etc. Technically speaking, it's pretty some pretty neat stuff and I can imagine they have cool VNC style tricks going on.

The problem is that unlike the announcement of the Wii controller, the Wii U controller doesn't feel as revolutionary. We've seen this kind of trick before from all the way back to the Dreamcast's VMU and recently with Sony's tethering of the PSP. And while I know I'm missing out on some of the first person experience wow factor that distincts it ... it's also hard to get excited about something that seems like a tablet in a world that is getting increasingly ruled by tablets. If the 3DS is having trouble competing against iPhones ... how will the Wii U not have trouble competing against the iPad?

It's not that Nintendo can't answer these questions - the problem is ... they didn't answer these questions. Mainstream press walked away from E3 still not quite understanding what the console itself was capable of accomplishing. While it's not been confirmed that the hardware should be more powerful than the PS3 or 360 - Nintendo failed to display anything that proved that fact.

Worse, in fact, they showed demos of other platform's software. And then someone in the press realized Nintendo hadn't shown the Wii U working with multiple Wii U controllers, leading Nintendo to confirm that they currently have it only designed for a one controller to work with one console ... which promptly kicks in the shin some of the more interesting concepts of having the secondary display.

For a company which changed the industry with innovative ideas, the Wii U feels like a jumbled bag of other people's tricks. While it isn't surprising that Nintendo didn't talk cost - it is hard to think that a console with next generation hardware and a touchscreen controller is going to be cheap, which was one of the big factors of the Wii's success.

After their announcement, Nintendo's stock dropped sharply. Then it dropped a little more. Nintendo has about three quarters before it has to show the goods ... and they have a lot of information to nail down and offer up before then.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Armchair E3 2011: Sony

Sony deserves, I think, credit for at least being the company with enough muscle to trail Nintendo as the #2 handheld gaming platform. That might sound like a back handed complement, but the path leading up to the Gameboy, DS and 3DS is littered with technology which really couldn't even be considered a runner-up.

Having the Vita their big push now seems a bit like a product plan set in place years ago that nobody forgot to cancel. It's not the Vita is bad - in fact it looks like might actually be the most awesome handheld gaming device ever created by man. Someone has clearly been taking notes on the flaws of the PSP, PSP Go, etc. But even Nintendo is having a hard time keeping handheld gaming in their mighty grasp, with the 3DS falling behind the DS in sales and having little sign of picking up anytime soon. The cheaper DS still clobbered the 3DS last month (though the 3DS cremated the PSP, so...).

If this was last year, I could understand Nintendo and Sony's not having an appropriate response to the onslaught of smartphones and tablets coming out earlier this year. What's odd is that the Sony Experia, with PlayStation certification and a little title called Minecraft, seems a more intelligent response to the current mobile scene than the Vita.

However, all hope for the Vita is I think not lost. The PSP might not have the same size demographic as the DS, but Sony's mobile gamers are quite loyal and since the Vita is well designed ... Sony might be able to hit sales goals if they've been made rational and not overly optimistic. And Sony seems to have potentially outflanked Nintendo, whether it was intentional or not.

And it could be crippling to Nintendo.

I'll have more on the Wii U later, but let's assume Sony pushes harder for the kind of continous client, tight integration that the Vita has with the Ruin demo for the PS3. PSP tethering with the PS3 is already in the bag, and one has to wonder how hard it would be for Sony to replicate some of the Wii U's thunder. It would take what ... some fancy custom VNC software to play my Vita games on my HDTV with my PS3 as an intermediary? OK, so it would have to be some pretty fancy VNC ... but if Sony could steal some of Nintendo's features and position them as value adds for the Vita? That would be a serious win for Sony and potentially a serious blow to Nintendo.

Sony gets high points for showing off new games with new ideas as well. Microsoft's Kinect push is solid, but doesn't show much new innovation for the game. Sony demo'd several games I'm really looking forward to trying out, and much of it feels fresh and new.

But letting Microsoft walk away with a Minecraft exclusive? With Kinect? After all that ballywho about it being on the Experia? That's just embarrassing.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Armchair E3 2011: Microsoft

Not only is this totally armchair E3 in that I've never been to an E3, but I'm not even a 360 user. And hence some might think that I would easily find fault with Microsoft's offering...

But that's really not the case. In fact, I think Microsoft might have the smartest strategy this year. Microsoft managed to sell more units of Kinect than, well most anyone has sold anything and their E3 keynote seems to appropriately position to match that success. The worst thing Microsoft could do is to ride off into the sunset assuming that was the end of the story while planning on the Xbox 360++/720/Full Circle Squared.

Microsoft is, instead, riding on the safe bet that their are several Kinect users out there waiting for new games. There might not be anything particularly bullish going on here, especially since it seems that the non-Kinect announcements include such complete non-surprises as a more Call of Duty (shock!), more Gears of War (no way!) and more Halo (wow! really?).

Short version: if you're a 360 user, and especially a Kinect user, expect more of the same with some additional bells and whistles. There's no need to knock this strategy in general, it worked well for Nintendo for years (another Zelda?? OMG!) and I think Kinect users should be happy that the big M is throwing support behind the product instead of simply cashing the checks.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Hunted: The Demon's Forge

Hunted: The Demon's Forge is the very definition of a mixed bag. It's been described as a fantasy setting version of Gears, though Army of Two is probably a better analogy in the fact that the game is deeply rooted in co-op play, even when you're just in the single player mode.

It's difficult to know where to start with a title like Hunted, since it is such a tangled knot of good and bad. I suppose we could begin with the average stuff, which isn't much. It uses the Unreal 3 engine to good, though not great, effect. The character design and world setting is fairly cookie cutter fantasy stuff, with the story being told through a combination of unlocked movies and stories told by the deceased via the in-game deathstone. There's a very heavy use of buddy gates to insure that you and your partner stay together and the loot mechanics are designed as such that there's never a question to splitting things up.

On the good front, Hunted offers up some tight combat mechanics, including melee - which isn't the easiest thing to do with an FPS based engine ike Unreal. Sniping with either the crossbow or bow is entertaining as well, and when you start combining the fights with magic, there is some truly great fun to be had. Having one player lift enemies up, and then the other freeze them - it's very gratifying to watch them shatter. There's actual strategy and teamwork to be had here, and working together feels the way a coop game should feel.

However, if the core of this game is based on solid mechanics - the entirety of that core is constantly challenged by flaws, bugs and quirks which kick the game in the knees and quite often in the head. These start from the very first moment the post-tutorial game kicks off, with a serious disconnect between the player and basics of the game and the level of difficulty the game starts out with. Be ready to get killed repeatedly for a while, especially at any level above Casual, before truly getting the hang of using cover, utilizing magic, being decent at melee, sniping head shots, etc. There seems to be an assumption, design wise, that the tutorial level should properly prepare players for the game - and it simply is not the case.

The difficulty level is often quite brutal, even on Casual mode. This is especially true early on when the characters aren't leveled up enough to hold multiple potions to revive and heal as needed. Most of the enemies can cut health away quite quickly, and so having to manage that single health potion gets annoying and hoping your partner still has the ability to revive you can be an early indicator that all the combat fun may be coming to a quick end.

Worse, however, is Hunted's completely inane concept of checkpoints. Checkpoints are reserved only for the start of major portions of the map and so a sudden ambush can send you and your partner back about a half hour or so of gameplay. Worse is that real save points are even more reserved, and there's no clear indication as to which is which - meaning that knowing when it's safe to quit a session is utter guesswork. Secret/side portions of the map are sometimes not counted as their own checkpoint, which means you can find yourself repeating large portions of the game.

And speaking of the map, I had originally thought to give the game some props for level design in general, but any good there is tossed out around the midgame where you will find yourself enveloped in complete darkness frequently - no matter what gamma setting you might chose. This happens so often that I have to wonder if inXile was afraid how their dungeon was appearing and so simply decided to just make it completely black in places. You can use flaming arrows and/or certain spells as a light source - but this feels like an accidental effect and not an intentional design choice.

Gameplay bugs crop up more frequently than one would like. At one point, we had explored an area where you need to collect runes only to find the game had forgotten to actually place the runes. Another spot had us stuck completely on the map and hence requiring another annoying long checkpoint restart.

Perhaps in a culmination of the above, we're currently stuck on a boss scene where we have to run frantically across a dimly lit area and apparently any misstep will cause us to be squashed and we have to try again.

Truth is, we're such coop nuts that we've actually been enjoying our time with Hunted despite many of the flaws, but it is at best a very close call. I can't safely recommend the game in the current state, though I would love to see either a patch or DLC perhaps be able to overcome the problems.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Quick Overview of Sony's "Welcome Back" PS3 Games

I'm going to reserve judgement on Sony's 'Welcome Back' plan until all the details about identity theft protection are released and the PlayStation Store is actually back online. The most often quoted portion of the plan, the two free games, isn't really of interest to me since I already own all the titles they list. While I appreciate the cost in offering free games to the entire PS3 community, only two are full release titles and c'mon - LittleBigPlanet came out in 2008 and inFamous in 2009. Anyone who wanted these titles probably already has them.

But if you don't, here's some quickie reviews for you.

Dead Nation
Top down, zombie apocalypse action best played with another person sitting next to you. This was done by HouseMarque, who also did another title on the list: Super Stardust HD. The graphics are pretty excellent, and they manage to change up some game mechanics so that this doesn't feel like just another coop zombie shooter / Smash TV clone. If enjoy couch coop, this is a pretty great title.

I rather enjoyed inFAMOUS when it was released and look forward to the sequel. The gameplay gets a little repetitive, but still stands as one of the better free roaming superhero themed titles out there, even today (though not quite as good, imho, as say Crysis 2). The good/evil mechanic is a little overwrought, but hey - so are most good/evil mechanics.

If you don't have this one, get this one. Some of the platforming concepts might not appeal to people who don't like, well, platformers - but LBP is an excellent and unique title which also offers an absolute plethora of user made content.

Super Stardust HD
I actually find Stardust's difficulty curve a bit frustrating, but there's no doubting this is one pretty PSN title and very easy to jump into. It was the first game when I got my HDTV that a fellow gamer insisted I had to try out. Twin shooter/boat style mechanics against asteroids with lots of powerups - it is a lot of fun if you don't mind dying a lot.

Wipeout HD + Fury
I got Wipeout HD and played it a few afternoons, that was about it. It's not bad - but seemed overly derivative to me. A title only for racer fans for sure, and probably only if you've grown bored with Need for Speed.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Game Review: Brink

Brink is a bit of an odd title, and correspondingly it is getting reviews a bit all over the map. It's a bit curious to me that this was branded and sold as a "new breed of shooters" and that most of the previews seem to emphasize trying to figure out just exactly "what Brink is" - when what we really have at the core here is a fairly competent twist on Team Fortress, which is one of the oldest online game templates to go from.

The "evolution" most oft described for Brink is the supposed blending of single and multiplayer modes. Let's be specific and honest about this - there aren't really single player modes in Brink. Well, there are - but nothing in the same vein as what most FPS players are used to playing ... and not what's advertised. There are four challenge modes which seem to be mostly designed for one player, and actually serve as a decent tutorial for the game ... except that it isn't advertised as such and hence some players may be prone to playing after they've stumbled through parts of the game.

What Brink has done in lieu of a single player mode is to line up a series of objective based maps in a pretty convincing stand-in for a story-based campaign mode. Both teams have their own version of the maps, and playing completely through both sides actually has a decent narrative. It just lacks all the dialogue and in-game cinematics that most players associate with a single player mode. Which means that the maps are designed to be played by teams - not the shooting gallery setup of most offline campaigns.

It's not a bad design. Setup a narrative through team based maps, and then let players decide if they want to play against mostly bots, players on their side or players on both sides. As noted by many reviews, the flaw isn't the concept - the flaw is the AI. If you play offline, or mostly with bots, you must be prepared to push forward on all the main objectives and you simply can't always rely on your team to support you. I actually don't think the AI is as terrible as some of the reviews imply, it's simply that relying on AI for this kind of thing is the reason most games don't design single player campaigns like this. It's why I can't entirely buy into this "new breed of shooters" PR campaign. It's a different trick, but the same breed trying the trick out.

Then there is Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain, AKA SMART. SMART is designed to add parkor style movement to a shooter, and it does in general work pretty well. The truth is, though, that it mostly just solves the fact that ladders kinda suck in online shooters. It makes the maps feel more natural, my only real complaint is that many previews and reviews describe it as "point and press a button" to move to a point in the map, and while sprinting alone will accomplish some of that, don't expect all the platform jumping style frustrations to go away. In other words, it's neat - but it's not a game changer.

What's left is a competent, though occasionally flawed, objective based online team shooter with player class. There's more of a mix and match feel to building out your player's avatar, from the various options for appearance, to unlocking certain powerups, to selecting a specific body type (which gives "heavy" and "light" options to all the classes ... you can be slow and defensive or fast with lest health). There's not nearly the varied gameplay of say, Team Fortress 2, it actually feels more inline with the customizations that are available for Call of Duty.

That's not to say the classes themselves aren't important. In fact, they're key to success on a map because specific objectives can only be handled by specific classes. This will force you to change classes in the middle of gameplay to give your team with more options to succeed at the objective. This is particularly important for some of the time based objectives like hacking - your team is far more likely to succeed with multiple Operatives working together. Some reviews have knocked the game for forcing players to jump to classes they may not have leveled up as much, but temporarily jumping classes to help the team push through a section is pretty common for this style of shooter, even if it isn't the class you're best at - and since none of the powerups feel overpowered, I haven't really find this a big deal.

The classes are a mixed bag. The engineer feels a little overpowered, able to buff damage, build turrets and plant mines. In fact, the engineer is a bit more of a damage dealer than the soldier - which feels more like a support role to blow up objectives and hand off ammo. That the core gameplay on all the classes feels extremely similar, giving it that more Call of Duty feel, is both a curse and a blessing. There's less exploration in playing the classes, but it is also friendlier to new players and makes it easy to jump from class to class during the game.

If Brink has its flaws its that the technology doesn't completely fill in the gaps introduced with the concept. Mashing offline, coop and versus modes into the same map is a great concept, but the AI, having no squad command mechanic, and the lack of a lobby system - kicks the game in the knees a bit. There's some moments of real frustration - like trying to win an offline match with stupid AI support, or realizing that the challenges don't seem to offer their unlocks online.

And on an odd note - the graphics are a muddled result. Great design, and the customization screens offer awesome model detail, but in play - the actual detail and texturing has a tendency to dip in quality randomly (this was on a PS3, for reference - but I've heard tale it is true across platform).

That aside, the core gameplay is pretty strong. Some of the complaints I've read - that the maps host choke points, that most of the strategy comes down to getting a larger concentration of players in the right place, the repetition of play .... they're really somewhat true of this genre and subgenre in general. In some ways, I think Brink is a victim of a marketing push on features which aren't really the game's strength. Brink should be commended for some of the small things that it does really, really well. It's effectively solved grenade spamming with a simple cooldown mechanic. To be in disguise, Operatives need to scan a dead enemy - which keeps spies from constantly flooding objective points. They've resisted importing uberattacks, which nearly every shooter seems to feel the need to lift from Call of Duty. The interface design is pretty top notch, especially the customization and menu screens - but even the HUD is minimalist while informing the player. While there isn't a lobby system - there is something to be said for the "visibility" concept of starting a match exactly the same for offline, coop and versus that makes it easy to jump into the action.

At the end of the day, it's a good game - but probably only appealing to FPS gamers not completely addicted to the Call of Duty model. My biggest wish right now is that there were more players consistently online, as I think an all out human match is how Brink was really designed to shine, all marketing aside.

So recommend, though with reservations. Read up on this one first, or find a way to take it for a dry run. It's a great change from many of the console shooters out there - but not really a great game.

However, since it has sold well - I'm fairly optimistic for a sequel.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Sony clarifies PSN breach, somewhat...

The LA Times is reporting a few updates on the PSN breach after Kaz Hirai's press conference. Two notable bits:

Sony has revealed that 10 million credit card accounts may have been exposed two weeks ago when a hacker broke into the company's computers in San Diego and stole data from 77 million PlayStation Network accounts.
-- Sony apologizes, says 10 million credit card accounts may have been exposed in network attack

Which isn't much of a clarification. Actually, just a more dire way of putting what Sony has been saying all along: they don't know if the credit card information was obtained, so you should probably act like it was.

Then there's this (and the only reason I'm still blogging on this topic):
Clarifying an earlier statement that said consumer passwords were not encrypted, Sony said they were "hashed," a form of mathematical obfuscation that makes it difficult for a hacker to read the passwords.

So "hashed" means it wasn't in plain text - but any hacker capable of this breach is capable of decoding the password somewhat easily. If the passwords used a salt with the hash (I know, I'm thinking of breakfast foods as well) - it would much harder, perhaps prohibitively so, for the hacker to get them.

So what does that mean? Means you should still treat your password like someone else has them. And honestly, Sony is being kinda dodgy about this (took me forever to find the article above) ... so I'm kinda guessing they were unsalted ... since if I were Sony I'd be trumpeting anything they did correctly right now, no matter how geeky the explanation.

Friday, April 29, 2011

More on the PSN Fail

I really don't want to keep blogging about this, I would think the message should be pretty clear: change your passwords and watch your accounts. However I'm almost mystified by the two extreme reactions on the net right now. The first is just pure impatience that PSN is down ... which is totally understandable, I've got some Portal 2 Coop to play after all ... but really seems to be missing the proportions of the breach in general. This thing was huge, and I can't imagine what all is going on over at Sony right now ... but I'm sure some engineers aren't getting much sleep in the process.

Then we have this:

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports -- citing security researchers -- that discussions on forums have popped up from hackers claiming they snagged credit card numbers from PSN users.

An excerpt from the article:

"Kevin Stevens, senior threat researcher at the security firm Trend Micro, said he had seen talk of the database on several hacker forums, including indications that the Sony hackers were hoping to sell the credit card list for upwards of $100,000. Mr. Stevens said one forum member told him the hackers had even offered to sell the data back to Sony but did not receive a response from the company."

The New York Times also says they could not prove this list exists. On Thursday, Sony revealed credit card data was encrypted and there was no evidence that numbers had been swiped.
-- PlayStation Network roundup: Impact on Sony, compensation, more

So here's what happened. Some guys on IRC were talking about the hack, and they talking about rumors that the DB was up for sale. On his twitter account, security research Kevin Stevens mentioned the chatter - which somehow media sources took as a recipe that the whole thing was probably on like Donkey Kong and start reporting that millions of credit card numbers are now up for sale, and that Sony turned down an offer to buy them back.

Woah. Let's slow the fsck down. The IRC log isn't even from anyone claiming to have seen the database, just people talking about rumors they've heard. They certainly seem familiar with the details, the security implications, etc. - but it's not like these are the actual hackers talking about how they can cash in data or anything. It's actually a pretty fascinating conversation, especially one key bit I'll get to in a bit, but it's no smoking gun. And that Kevin Stevens tweeted about it doesn't mean that Kevin Stevens is commenting on the authenticity of the rumors. It's all hearsay. But media outlets are now treating Stevens as if he intended to add credibility to the claims, which he makes clear in a later tweet that he wasn't. It was, as he puts it, "seeing a post on a forum and tweeting about it." It's one thing to tweet about it - but if you're a major news source and you are putting in a bit which ends with "we have no proof about any of this" ... maybe don't put it in at all.

Probably the biggest problem with the rumor is that there is a claim that the CVVN (CVV? CV2 - fsck, I can never remember) is part of the data. That's the number on the back of the card which which you enter with phone and online purchases these days. It was huge push back several years ago to help prove that you were in fact holding the card you said you were using and most online retailers use it now.

And for that reason, it should never be stored anywhere after the purchase is complete. It completely destroys the reason for its existence. So I'm willing to believe Sony wasn't storing them, and I don't recall ever giving it to Sony in the first place. So unless there was another massive breach somewhere, I don't see how that could be up for sale.

Unless, of course, the whole thing is fake and there's just a bunch of people trying to con a phony database on to people. Which is probably the most likely scenario, and the New York Times and USA Today just gave them free advertising. Bang up job, there, real journalists.

So database up for sale? I call shenanigans on that one.

However, there's one bit from this whole sordid tale which still has me on edge. In their first Q&A, Sony revealed that the personal data was unencrypted. Which, OK, obviously I wish it was encrypted but I can imagine a lot of companies don't encrypt information like billing address, first name, etc.

But my password?

My fscking password?

Please, someone from Sony, please, clarify this bit and tell us that the current PR blitz wasn't specific. Because when I first read that the passwords were certainly breached, I did - as should anyone - assume that meant that a hacker would eventually be able to read them.

But to think that my username and password were both sitting in a datatable within Sony's network with only "a very sophisticated security system" between it and prying eyes ... I ... I.

OK, look, I'm not a security expert. I did a stint as a Data Security Analyst for a major insurance company many, many, many years ago. I've got friends in the hacker community which I don't really keep in touch with that much. And yet, data security 101 will tell you never to store passwords unencrypted at any time. It's just too sensitive. The only person on this planet who should be able to see their own password is the user. It's just a fundamental concept of data security. That password is the key piece of evidence that you are you. If anyone can read it? Then anyone can be you. Everything you do after that is simply a fail. You have lost the game.

I called PlayStation support to clarify. They could not (not too surprising, and I don't envy their job right now so I didn't hassle them on it). Sony's blog hasn't clarified. Then I read this in the log from Kevin's tweet:

[21:54:45] I doubt sony stored passwords in plaintext on the server
[21:55:04] kkk: they either did that or they hash em cause they are sent plaintext
[21:55:49] kkk: unsalted hashes wouldn't be too far from plaintext anyway :D
-- #ps3dev log

So a hashed string is essentially an encrypted string. "Unsalted" means that the encryption has no additional randomization to it, and these days hackers can use something called a rainbow table to unencrypt it. Salting adds randomization, which makes rainbow tables time/cost prohibitive to use.

But you know what? I'd at least like confirmation that Sony encrypted the damn things in any way. I'd prefer it to be a decent enough way that the hackers would at least have to break a sweat to get it. I don't need, or even want, to know the exact methods Sony used to encrypt my password.

I'd just like to know they bothered to do so. It doesn't mean I can ignore the fact that they're out there in the wild.

But at least I could assume Sony's data security wasn't being run like this.

Have a good weekend, people.

Game Play: Sword and Sworcery

My interest for Sword and Sworcery started just by seeing the screenshots. It's a game that's quite unique in several ways, and hence actually becomes somewhat difficult to review. The experience is designed from the ground up for someone who really has very little knowledge about the game's story, mechanics, characters and ... heck, even style. I was rather surprised by some of the tone of the narration - even though everything from the writing style to the mechanics corresponds quite nicely to create a rich gaming experience.

Without getting to specific, the impressive thing about Sword and Sworcery is its ability to play up old school gameplay from the days of King's Quest while rolling in modern concepts like social media. It is also a game which is neatly, I guess "metasmart" for lack of a better term. It's probably the least cliche use of the player being a "god's finger" that I can think of, but also neatly explains why you can point a direction for the hero and rustle bushes as well.

I wish I had access to the iPad version, but the iPhone version seems suited well enough for the smaller screen real estate. It is an absolute must to play this game with headphones (or really good speakers, I suppose). Not only is the music part of the rich experience the Superbrothers are weaving together, but there are few spots which use audio cues in critical moments as well.

I'm in the third session, and as an aside I enjoy the fact that the game actually insists on a bit of an intermission (it's part of that "metasmart" portion of the design). I've been using S&S as something of a night time read - and it feels in some way like an interactive story right for bedtime that you can simply put a bookmark in and pick up later.

My only complaint so far is that a few of the moments where they clearly want you to explore as oppose to explain get somewhat confusing, and I actually found some of the mechanics of the first boss battle a bit annoying (like holding down the shield to heal, which seems like a silly warmup exercise at best). But these are really small things compared to the game as a whole - which I highly recommend.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

PSN #FAIL: Yes, it is probably time to change some passwords

That the PlayStation Network has been down isn't exactly earth shattering news, but Sony just released the first real information on the outage, which started on April 20th.

It's not good. Recently, rumors came about that the outage was done to build a defense around an a custom firmware hack called "Rebug", which allowed normal consoles to be identified as debug consoles which apparently gives them all manner of access on the network, including download free versions of games. Sony has yet to confirm if that was the original cause, but they have confirmed a successful intrusion into the network, which as a result has...

obtained the following information that you provided: name, address (city, state, zip), country, email address, birthdate, PlayStation Network/Qriocity password and login, and handle/PSN online ID. It is also possible that your profile data, including purchase history and billing address (city, state, zip), and your PlayStation Network/Qriocity password security answers may have been obtained. If you have authorized a sub-account for your dependent, the same data with respect to your dependent may have been obtained. While there is no evidence at this time that credit card data was taken, we cannot rule out the possibility. If you have provided your credit card data through PlayStation Network or Qriocity, out of an abundance of caution we are advising you that your credit card number (excluding security code) and expiration date may have been obtained.
-- Update on PlayStation Network and Qriocity

Everyone who has a PSN account should probably take the time to read that again. It's pretty significant, even if the intrusion did not successfully gain any credit card numbers. Consider this:

Many online systems now accept a valid email address as your username
Most users reuse the same password across multiple websites
Most users reuse the same security question information, when possible

And that's not adding on the truckload of personal information now open for social engineering.

It's a pretty big deal. And while I'm sympathetic to Sony that the event happened in the first place, I think waiting a whole week to notify users to the potential danger is a bit absurd. Did it take a week for Sony to realize the extent of the data theft? Or just a week to write the above update? Either way is a pretty massive fail.

If you're a person who falls under the bold behavior above, I'd recommend visiting your more sensitive online sites (banking, bill pays, mortgages, etc) and updating the password to something new. In this day and age, a good password should:

1) Not be based on personal data like birthdate, children names, home addresses. All of that was potentially just scooped up in this theft.

2) Be six characters in length or more. Five is still the standard used by many websites. Six is better.

3) Include at least one number, and at least one other non-alpha character like a "!", "#", etc.

4) Use a mixture of caps and non-caps.

I'm a pretty security aware kind of guy, and I'm honestly pretty annoyed at Sony right now. While I don't entirely fall into the mold of someone who uses "password" or "12345" everywhere - but this amount of data kinda spooks me. There's certainly a level of due dilligence that Sony is doing here, so I don't think we need to brace ourselves for some coming credit apocalypse ... but at the very least changing your passwords to something more secure is like calling your mother, it's always a good time to do it anyway.

Image lifted from Addicted Gamer

Monday, April 25, 2011

Nintendo Rumors: Revolution versus Cafe

There's something about Nintendo which sparks rumors to an extent greater than most companies. I'm not entirely sure what it is - it's not just because of how much of a game changer the Wii turned out to be, though those rumors certainly hit a high watermark. Now we're faced with the successor of the insanely popular Wii, now confirmed by the big N, and the rumor mill is churning at full speed.

One the big ones? That the controller will have a large, probably touchscreen, LCD display jammed into the middle of it. Something a like the picture to the left ... which was actually a rumored leaked image circulated for the Wii (or Revolution as it was called before being branded). Other rumors? That the Revolution would have a large hard drive, that it would have graphics comparable to the Xbox, and even that it would sport a 3D interface. I think someone even did a mockup of Revolution with a big holographic display in the middle - a la a Star Wars chess game.

The new controller rumors have decent weight behind them - and it may fit well into Nintendo trying to think out of the box. Of course, I'm an old Dreamcast guy ... so I don't find the idea overly revolutionary - but I do think Nintendo could make it work much better than the old white box did.

Otherwise, the rumors for Cafe are fairly reserved. That Nintendo would want to surpass the current generation of consoles is a bit of a no-brainer - when the Wii first faced off with the 360 and PS3, the HD generation was still expanding into critical mass. Now, HD sets are cheap and easily available - and Sony is even moving on to push 3D on the people. How much muscle Nintendo will throw down is an interesting question - since they're getting out of the gate earlier than Sony and Microsoft - they may be attempting a 360 strategy where their graphics will be good enough that they could soak up the early adopter marketshare. To make that work, they'll certainly need to bite the hard drive bullet - which given how cheap hard drive space is these days, seems a certainty.

On a geeky side, I have to wonder what Nintendo will use as a disc format. This could almost be the first console to not use a disc format, but that seems a stretch even for Nintendo. It wouldn't be a bad idea for Nintendo to embrace Blu-Ray, but Blu-Ray is probably not enough of a dominant HD format to justify licensing it from a competitor.

In fact, I'm not even all that interested in the Cafe hardware. Where Nintendo really needs to compete is on software. Both PSN and XBLA are excellent gamer networks, and if Nintendo was incapable of generating at least a worthy clone - the Cafe is going to have trouble out of the gate.

And the other thing Nintendo needs to fix, which I think has been mentioned in most of the previews up till now - is third party support. I'm not going to buy another piece of Nintendo hardware just to play the next Zelda or Metroid game. They're great franchises, sure, but they don't offer anything new to the table in the same way that, say, Little Big Planet or even Gears of War does. Nintendo needs to join the Call of Duty crowd for this generation - because while the old Nintendo mascots may have some of the most loyal following in the world, I don't see their numbers increasingly drastically in 2012.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dungeon Hunter Alliance; Gameloft Versus Bethesda

I do need to preface this incoming rant with the fact that The Girl and I are big fans of co-op action RPG's. We played every iteration we could get our hands on, and a few them we played through a couple of times.

Oddly, this genre has been sorely lacking on the PS3. There was the near launch title Untold Legends, but when this title was released we were still pretty content loading up Champions of Norrath instead, which sounded like a much more competent title.

IGN gave a Untold Legends a 6.5.

And of course, the was Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, which was a cut and paste of Marvel Ultimate Alliance with enhanced graphics.

IGN gave Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 a 7.7.

Finally, there was Sacred 2, which had some pretty odd issues when setting up the coop functionality but we played quite a bit, even starting over a couple of times - because it was probably the deepest game of this type we found.

IGN gave Sacred 2 a 6.5.

So we were pretty stoked when we saw that Dungeon Hunter Alliance was hitting PSN and offering offline coop. I would say my expectations on the game were somewhat reserved. I had played the original on my iPhone and enjoyed it to a point. If it didn't have coop, I probably would have gotten anyway as just a late night console crawler - but couch coop made this an easy buy at $13.

And honestly, the game doesn't take much to review: it's solid, albeit highly derivative (I mean, the game world is called Gothicus of all things) action RPG in the same vein as every other Diablo clone on the planet. It does support a competent menu system, a decent skill system, and solid (though occasionally blocky) graphics.

The most impressive thing about Dungeon Hunter Alliance, however, is that it has one the better coop setups of any game of its type on the console. MA:U2 probably being the only one with a more robust setup. The only real flaw I can find is that it's a pain to drop someone out locally, which isn't much of a problem. You can seamlessly play the same characters online, offline or a mixture of both. Trading items is easy, and they've implemented a simple color assignment system to make looting straight forward, and giving items back to the players uses the same system. The only thing missing is trading gold, I think. So far, I've found very easy to find online games to jump in and join, which isn't always the case for this genre.

There does some to be a couple of flaws with the hit detection, though it's more of an annoyance than anything that will cause you to toss a controller to the ground. We'd love to have more customization, or classes at least, offered as well.

If this genre is your thing, this is an easy buy - especially if you have someone to coop with. It's not going to impress you, but it will entertain you.

So why did IGN give it a 6.0? By that account this should be the worst of the bunch by far, despite the fact that it is about 1/3 the cost, the only offering in the genre on PSN, has many of the same flaws as MA:U2 in being completely unimaginative, and actually a better coop setup than some of the titles? The reader average is an 8, press average about a 7 or so. My score would be 7, maybe a 7.5 on bias. So why is this just "Okay" and not at least "Good"?

Simple. It came from Gameloft. And it's very trendy to hate Gameloft.

Don't believe me? Here's how the review starts out:

Gameloft is at it again. The company has succeeded on a strategy of similarity throughout the past several years, creating cloned versions of other studios' biggest hits and serving them up mostly on mobile platforms. Dungeon Hunter: Alliance is another of these projects, a game that feels like a riff on more original dungeon crawlers like Diablo -- and it, too, originally debuted in the mobile space.
-- Dungeon Hunter Alliance Review [IGN]

Let's examine this for a moment. There's no denying that Gameloft has made a business model out of lifting successful themes and mechanics and deploying them different platforms, especially the iPhone.

But the phrase that stands out for me? This one:

a game that feels like a riff on more original dungeon crawlers like Diablo

Are you kidding me? Of course it feels like a riff on Diablo. Diablo was released in 1996 and has spawned so many clones that "Diablo clone" is synonymous with "Action RPG" as a genre. You could level the same critique at so many titles, but because this is Gameloft, it must be some kind of evil. And that the game originally debuted on a mobile platform? Like that should be odd for a PSN title? Should I go look up any Angry Birds reviews to see if anyone wrote that like it was a bad thing?

So Dungeon Hunter Alliance has almost the exact same core as a game released in 1996. Let's also note that the most recent game of this type was dropped onto the PS3 in 2009, so "Diablo clone" fans have been waiting a couple years to play anything new. And what do we have to look forward to? There's Torchlight, already on XBLA and supposedly coming out for PSN - which doesn't even have couch coop. That leaves Dungeon Siege III for the console market that is similar to Dungeon Hunter in terms of features, and it's fully priced game.

Some of the other points in IGN review are just bizarre:

Then there are only three different character classes to choose from -- the Warrior, the Rogue and the Mage. That selection made sense when it was just a game with one main character, but expanding out to four means that at least two people in your party are going to be playing the same guy. That's like the Ninja Turtles having Raphael, Donatello and two Leonardos. It feels odd.

What's worse, technical issues are currently plaguing the game's online play, meaning you probably won't be able to reliably get a party of your friends connected together until Gameloft releases a patch.

I've played four player online. I had no problems connecting (and I got the game like a couple hours after it came out, so no more patched than anyone else). And I didn't find it odd at all. I seriously have no clue as to what the reviewer is talking about here.

The closing comments indeed sums it up:

Dungeon Hunter: Alliance has left me less than impressed. Gameloft's strategy of copying other studios' hits has worked before and the core game here was a worthwhile clone back on the iPhone two years ago -- but playing it on the PS3 now feels out of place. The extras that have been tacked on to sell this version as a new experience all fall flat, or, worse, just don't work. You'll never forget for a minute that you're playing a game not originally meant for PlayStation, so save your PSN cash for a different download and give this port a pass.

The point that the reviewer completely misses is that in the two years that, according to him, Dungeon Hunter went from a "worthwhile clone" to a junk PS3 port ... is that there haven't been any releases in this genre. Which in many ways, makes Dungeon Hunter just as worthwhile as when it debuted on the iPhone, especially for just $13.

And my question to IGN would be ... what download would you suggest instead? There are exactly zero other titles in this vein on PSN. Zero. Dungeon Hunter Alliance deserves some credit because even if it derivative, unimaginative and shallow - it's also the only game like it on PSN and it manages to do a solid job of delivering such a game. Gameloft isn't stupid, and they aren't unskilled. They see a viable market, and they offer competent games otherwise not seen on that market. And I'm rather glad they have. We've been playing the hell out of it.

Now, this post has gone on longer than I intended and I know most of you have probably zoned out by now. But I did put "Gameloft versus Bethesda" in the title. Yes, I am going to kick this rather dead horse again. Because I've read a few reviews of Dungeon Hunter which spend a rather inordinate amount of time dissing Gameloft for being Gameloft ... and yet when I peruse through the flood of Skyrim previews I notice on thing still hasn't happened.

Not one previewer has had the balls to ask Bethesda the completely obvious question on whether they are going to fix their stability issues.

It is absurd that Bethesda gets such a free pass from the press on delivering some of the buggiest games in the industry because they offer a game experience which is somewhat unique, and yet when Gameloft finally delivers a PSN title which no other company has bothered to produce ... they get shafted simply because they are Gameloft. I honestly don't give a "kill 10 rats" quest if Skyrim is beautiful, or has a new skill structure, or anything at all about the title unless I know that Bethesda is at least willing to acknowledge the failure of quality from their previous titles and is making it a priority not to repeat such mistakes.

And people, there's no other way to describe not being able to finish a game unless you are wearing the right hat on your character than a complete and miserable failure of quality. As I've said before, I won't be buying Skyrim until I see a review - and the first review that states something like:

Typical of Fallout games, there are performance issues and game-breaking bugs that seriously detract from the experience.

...which is from IGN review of the New Vegas: Blood Money ... I am writing Bethesda off as a competent developer forever.

And let's note that the Blood Money DLC, which shipped with game breaking bugs, got a 6.5 from IGN. So even shipping with game breaking bugs, according to IGN that's a better use of your $10 than a game which, you know, works.