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Friday, September 16, 2005

This is how a Revolution begins

With a hum, and not a whimper?

1UP has a great write-up of Nintendo's new controller. It's not likely to knock your socks off completely, but I'm actually pretty interested. Let's face it - very little innovation would have had the escape velocity to avoid the gravity surrounding the hype on this one, so unless it involved alien technology I think everyone was going to get a little disappointed. A motion detection one handed controller isn't going to make anyone feint, but it's not a bad step forward.

Essentially, if Nintendo has succeeded in their goal of creating an "everyman" controller then they've done something good. Also, they may have taken a lesson from the DS here and created a setup which will provide for truly unique exclusive games. Titles you really couldn't do just without the motion detection. It's not, I don't think, that the Revolution will be devoid of multiplatform titles. I'm going to guess that Nintendo has been smart enough here to be sure that the major genres will be playable with their wandstickthingy. I do wonder what it would be like to develop for something like this ... it has to have some odd input data. Perhaps it is no more than determing an X, Y and Z location instead of the usual two dimensions, but still ... while this hurt the potential of smaller studios getting on the platform? It's one thing to port from a gamepad on a PC to a gamepad on a console ... another with a magicstickamabob.

Or, on the same vein, will it be able to work with all of these classic titles the Revolution was supposed to give access to, or will they just sell NES and N64 controllers that fit?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Primo on CA Bill

Primotechnology is running an editorial on the California legislation:

It's because no one wants to be counted as the one who voted against a bill, unfounded as it maybe, that might save the life of a child. As it stands, the bill itself only affects Californians under the age of 18; minors will no longer be able to purchase videogames by themselves. While this will undoubtedly enrage many teenagers, elected officals don't seem too concerned. The answer why is all too obvious. No one under the age of 18 can actually vote against them. They have nothing to lose with this demographic.
-- Dissecting California’s Violent Game Bill

Echoes of Demuzio, that's for sure. Blagoyevich here in Illinois has lost my vote over this kind of behavior, but the next step it write him a letter to let him know about that. And others have to write similar letters to their respective Congressman and let them know that this kind of legislation has no place in honest politics.

The only reason this has any traction is because these people think it's a feel-good topic that they can't get burned with. We have to remind them that a number of gamers are in fact over the age of 18 and will vote their mind.

Microsoft Kisses PC Games On Both Cheeks

Read into that what you will.

I know I'm on the slow side with this topic, so most people are probably familiar that Microsoft recently admitted to hurting the PC as a game platform and vowed to set things straight:

“We’re putting the ‘game’ back in Windows,” explained group manager Chris Donohue. “We’re over the hump with Xbox 360 so now ready to build Windows as a platform.”

And what will one of the most technologically capable countries in the world do to help out PC games? Apparently the main thrust is a sticker which announces that this game is indeed for Windows.

That should clear things right up. Because when I go into Best Buy, I'm constantly purchasing Mac games by mistake.

The thing is, what Microsoft really needs to do to help PC games is ditch the XBox. Two things are hurting the PC as a game platform. One is more stringent competition in the market with another console demographic to eat into sales. The other is cross-development initiatives which largely produce console-sized games for a PC market that wants, well, PC games. Perhaps if the 360 had a hard drive, I could see crossdev efforts being more even between the platforms ... but we all know how that went.

Then while browsing in the archives, I noticed this from the wise sage Ryan Gordon:

Gaming is an inevitability. When all the whores have run to the consoles because "it makes financial sense," the void will be immediately filled by independents that now have a worldwide market of powerful computers, a distribution channel on the internet, and no's not like people are going to stop playing games on their computers, regardless of what makes "financial sense" to the game houses.

Then I realize. Let them go. If all the big studios end up either moving towards consoles or simply creating portware for the PC ... let them go. There are plenty of people to take their place, more independents and garage enthusiasts now than in the history of gaming. PC (or Mac or Linux) gaming isn't anywhere, but as high profile games like Doom 3 and Deus Ex 2 get chopped down and subsequently vilified by the PC gaming community, indies who remain a little more oldschool when it comes of PC development will just have that much larger of an audience.

It's called parody, BatJack

Apparently our old friend Jack Thompson has gotten himself in a tizzy because Rockstar included someone with the initials "JT" on their Liberty City promo site. JT is never actually given a full name, but he is associated with the fictional group Citizens United Negating Technology For Life And People's Safety. The acronym for that is obviously not something you'd say to your mom. The whole thing is, however, quite funny.

Apparently BatJack has never been fully trained in the ways of parody law. Myself, having read comics for years now, am quite familiar with the concept. Really makes you wonder why people bother with law school anymore.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

PSO Retrospective

Guild Wars keeps bringing me to mind of Sega's masterpiece on the Dreamcast, Phantasy Star Online. Yeah, the game has been ported over to other formats ... but I don't believe any of them will ever capture the magic of the first release. PSO was a child of it's time, when the Dreamcast was capturing the idea of consoles playing online before anyone else. Sega tried to make everything take advantage of the net, even if just meant tracking high scores. Now that seems almost banal, with Microsoft having juggernaughted XBox Live into the forefront of living room multiplayer ... but back then ... then it was inspired.

To illustrate the point - my brother and I used to connect just to chat because it was cheaper than a phone call and far more entertaining. Despite being lifetime geeks, PSO was really the first time we'd considered doing that.

So it was neat to discover this old Edge Review of PSO on (via Acid For Blood):

Connect and the combat dynamic falls into place. Those with guns generate cover for those using blade weapons, the casters provide healing and attacking reinforcement for both. Different team combinations bring different gameplans, experienced players help the weak, and items are divided fairly amongst the fighters. Naka-san’s hopes that players might fall out over stronger weapons go mostly unfounded, since PSO is essentially a co-operative game, and Edge has never witnessed a friendlier on-line community. Everyone watches each others’ backs. Everyone smiles when the dragon gets slayed. “Congratulations! > Alec Empire,” says the Japanese guy. Thanks. You too.

In an online world that followed Diablo, which was legendary for it's seedy culture of hackers and thieves, PSO was a playground. It was simple and fun just as much as it was secure and orderly.

It didn't last though. Notes on the review add the footnote. Eventually the online community shattered, the servers overwhelmed by mongrel packs of cheaters and children, but for a while PSO was idyllic. I wasn't around at that point, having left the game for other hardware at that point, but my brother was still around and reported that it wasn't pretty. Where the community was at one point solidly cooperative and helpful, it had been overrun by dupers and shysters ... such as people willing to trade you items that the servers would later delete when they discovered them as fakes. Instead of a great pick-up game experience, PSO was becoming a place to watch your wallet.

Haven't tried the new versions, nor did my brother. He plays offline on the GameCube now. So I don't know if the trend has reversed or not. However, Guild Wars has a remarkable PUG (pick-up game) culture and in the near future, Phantasy Star Universe is set to be released.

I don't think I'll ever be the kind of guy to spend hours grinding for levels or searching for specific items, but I'll go for the kind of experience that Sega so richly defined anytime.

Blues Brothers, Googlified

A blow by blow of Chicago events in The Blues Brothers, mapped out.

Square Camouflage

Awesome, there is a Kubrick toy of Solid Snake. (thanks insertcredit)

RebelStar First Impressions

Poor Rebelstar Tactical Command came into the house around the same time as Guild Wars, otherwise I would have already spent more time with it.

First glances are highly favorable. It feels like a mildly stripped down version of the X-Com experience with more JRPG style graphics. Not a bad mashup at all. I'm only going through the tutorials still, but X-Com fans will find a lot of familiar friends in aimed versus snap shots, overwatch events and strict visibility rules. I'm only guessing that the base management has been stripped since I haven't gotten any expectation above a Final Fantasy Tactics style of a mission based campaign. This might hinder the replayability a bit compared to X-Com, which was a delight to replay trying different strategies in the overall war campaign.

Humorously, I forgot I had pre-ordered it from Amazon, so I'll soon have an extra copy laying around. Will probably either auction it off or give it away here on the blog.

iPod Nano V GameBoy Micro

It's the battle of the tiny. iLounge has comparison shots of Apple's Nano and the diminutive GameBoy, and even strikes the interesting commentary that the form factor, which has left many of us scratching our heads, makes sense in the current micro-crazy consumer electronic market. Considering my new cell phone can just about stick into my ear, I think they may be on to something.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Make up your mind, ESRB

How could they annoy me more? Let's review public statements concerning mods made by Patricia Vance and the ESRB.

Considering the existence of the undisclosed and highly pertinent content on the final discs, compounded by the broad distribution of the third party modification, the credibility and utility of the initial ESRB rating has been seriously undermined

Furthermore, the ESRB calls on the computer and video game industry to proactively protect their games from illegal modifications by third parties, particularly when they serve to undermine the accuracy of the rating.

If the rating itself is being undermined by third-party modification, I think we as an industry need to figure out what to do about that.

What we're saying is that if you, as publisher, produce content that's pertinent to a rating, and leave it on a disc--risking that it might be accessed by a modder--then it's your responsibility. And if it undermines the accuracy of the rating, it's your responsibility.

The situation with Hot Coffee, it wasn't the [hacker's] modification that caused us to change the rating, it was the fact that this content existed on the disc and it was made accessible through modification, and was not disclosed.

ESRB remains concerned about third party modifications that undermine the accuracy of the original rating, and we are exploring ways to maintain the credibility of the rating system with consumers in light of modifications of this nature.

Well Christ on a stick, that's clear as mud now. First, the ESRB makes the modification an integral part of their decision against Rockstar. Then, they basically say it's not really so much their jurisdiction, but really the publisher's concern. Later, Vance backtracks completely and makes the modification sound almost irrelevant.

And now. Now, they're going to look into it some more. What the hell? The problem the ESRB has is that they bowed to public pressure instead of drawing a line in the sand. That line should be simple - what you do to your game is your business. If you download a porn mod, that's your responsiblity. If you buy your kid a device designed to hack PS2 games, that's your problem. If you draw naked bits on the screen with a felt tip marker, don't come a calling to us. The connection that Rockstar left content on the disc ignores the fact that someone willingly unlocked it to see it again.

In other words, nobody got porn on their game that wasn't asking for it. And that basic truth holds for almost every game out there. Look people, since I put that "nude patch" tagline joke on Cathode Tan, my traffic has doubled. So don't give me that "Rockstar is the devil corrupting us" crap, I've had people looking for ways to make Zelda naked.

You can hate Rockstar all you want, but anyone who saw the Hot Coffee mod did so because they wanted to see the Hot Coffee mod and willfully made it happen. I thought perhaps the ESRB had finally made it's distinction that they would only police content on a disc, but this constant flip-flopping makes me pretty unsure. And we're only one good porn mod away from giving it a litmus test.

Ascalon Burning

Most of my gaming life recently has been spent in or around Ascalon, the fair city of Guild Wars brutally assaulted by the evil Charr. In fact, after an all night on Saturday, I had a level 10 Monk/Warrior on my hands. Now, I've played two other MMO's extensively - PlanetSide and City of Heroes. The combined experience left me with the impression that as a genre, MMOs are fundamentally flawed largely in part by a monthly fee which makes very little sense.

Guild Wars has no monthly fee. So there goes that argument. So how about the rest of the game?

First, the good. Because there is a lot of good. One thing MMO's seem to be getting better at is creating deeper, richer worlds. One amazing thing ArenaNet has done is make the tutorial section of the world a real, hardcore, prologue. Prior the Charr attack known as the Searing, Ascalon was a lush and beautiful land. Post-Searing, it's more of a strip mine with an attitude problem. By starting out Pre-Searing, players are allowed to really take in the damage and magnitude of the attack. I can't imagine how much time and effort went into creating a large play area which is only present in a small portion of the game, but it's time well spent. ArenaNet has managed to create a fictional world with a backbone.

The gameplay of Guild Wars reminds me of a combination of Morrowind and Phantasy Star Online, which also happen to be two of my favorite RPG's. The real massively multiplayer portion of Guild Wars takes place in towns, which essentially serve as lobbies where players can trade, meet up, discuss missions, etc. Once away from the towns, teams are granted their own personal version of the game world without interference from other players or teams. PSO worked in a very similar manner, and in my opinion makes for much smoother gameplay than City of Heroes' similar but far more limited door mission concept where players only spend a small portion of their time in dungeons seperate from the world. For one thing, it allows for better soloing and makes it more acceptable to simply wander the world if one so chooses (although missions yield better rewards). But wandering around the very pretty landscape is often entertaining on it's own.

While still largely centered around the standard MMO design of clicking icons to activate skills/powers which require time and energy to recoup - the skill system is well designed and flexible. I currently have two load outs - one accustomed to cooperative team play and another for soloing or competitive play. You do get a real sense of tactics during some battles, where others just feel like you're waiting for the someone to die. However, some of the more intense battles make the action feel worth it, and cooperative play brings this out very well.

The bad? Well, the interface could use some work. You can't, for instance, swap out skills except in town which can make for some very embarrasing team moments when you confess you left your resurrection spell in your other pair of pants. Also, some visual and auditory cue for GUI events wouldn't hurt. I had a brief conversation with a new team wondering why we weren't starting, and he was wondering why I wasn't accepting until I noticed the small trade prompt in the corner window. During team battles, it can occasionally be difficult to select the target you really want, since there is so much happening in a small section of the screen. This has led to me occasionally pick up a treasure instead of casting a spell or accidentally neglect combat for a few seconds. For the most part, however, these issues are pretty minor and only serve as minor annoyances.

For as good as the mission designs are in Guild Wars, there are also some basic flaws. For one thing, the game world doesn't feel nearly random enough. Leave town and walk past a couple monsters, kill them, return to town and leave again ... and they'll be back almost exactly where you met them the first time. This gives a very artificial and after a while, stale, feel to the landscape.

While party NPC's are pretty top notch, non-party NPC's can be annoyingly stupid. Last night I was on a mission to save a squad of supply bearing warriors. However, when attacked these warriors would use that old strategy of simply standing there, thumb in ass, waiting to die. I ended up losing the mission as they simply perished, one by one, never lifting a finger ... or sword ... to attack the offending Charr ripping them a new one. Problems like this aren't catastrophic, but they can make completing missions more trial and error if there are foibles to figure out.

I've only had one application crash, although that was during a major cooperative mission, and the occasional attack of the lag monster. Largely, though, Guild Wars seems very smooth and stable.

For the most part, I love this game. It doesn't guilt me into playing because I'm paying for it every day. I can pick up and play for a half hour or an hour if I like, or I could waste a whole night or afternoon with it. The world feels deep, rich and interesting to explore. There's some glitches I'd love to see ArenaNet address, but this is definately an MMO even for people who might not normally approach the genre.

* Buy Guild Wars from

Heat Vented

I solved the CheapBox's overheating problem by salvaging one of the case fans from my old box and securing it to the back of CB's case by the use of twist ties. Gold twist ties to be exact. One molex connection later, and it played Guild Wars for a few hours without getting much hotter than room temperature.

I wish everything in life was so simply resolved.

Monday, September 12, 2005

My $300 Gaming Rig

This weekend The Girl had a dog related family emergency which required her to steal my keys, siphon gas from the neighbors and get out of Dodge before the posse arrived. Well, perhaps not that dramatic, but I did get plenty of time on Saturday to put the new Windows box through some paces.

The result? I took a $250 budget PC, bought a 512MB DDR Ram chip, and shoved my old 9700Pro, Audigy 2 and 120GB drive into the case. I also got a wifi card for easier networking. Here is the resulting box:

- GQ5090 Special w/ 2.66 Intel Celeron D
- 160GB HDD space (40GB with the 5090, 120GB added)
- 640MB 333DDR Ram (128 with the 5090, 512 added)
- Radeon 9700 Pro (w/ 128MB onboard VRAM)
- SoundBlaster Audigy 2

Now the cost to me amounted to about $300. I got the computer for only $200 (clerical error in my favor), had the parts laying around and only had to purchase a couple new things. The result? Surpisingly, it's a fine little gaming rig. First I installed Unreal Tournament 2004 and sure, I didn't play it maxed out ... it ran well under medium settings just fine. So then I installed Guild Wars. Guild Wars has proven to be the biggest shocker, as I'm running at full detail, 1024x768 without any slowdown. What I thought was hiccups before seem to be just the occasional lag one would expect with an MMO. I was even using 2x AA for a while.

So then I downloaded the Far Cry demo. Surely that would bring such a box to it's knees. However, it really didn't. I let it auto-detect the settings, and it chose some fairly middle of the road but very acceptable options and ran fine.

The only problem I had all weekend is that the box gets hot. The case just wasn't designed for the 9700 and it's less than optimal fan, and the additional heat builds up. I could probably get a better heat sink on the CPU, which I might anyway to reduce the noise (it's not terrible, a lot better than my last box, but compared to the mini it's distracting), but for now I just point a small floor fan towards it. That seems to help push the hot air towards the back and the box has been fine since. It really needs a side fan or some other means to vent.

If you really wanted decent gaming on the cheap, you could do it for less than $500. $250 for the 5090, about $80 for a 9700 Pro and $50 for memory brings it to only $20 more than the Xbox 360 Core system and memory card and much cheaper than most of the 360 bundles. Course, this rig won't earn you any bragging rights. The CPU is about as cheap as you can get, though fortunately most games seem to heavily rely on the VPU to do the heavy lifting. Still, eventually games will outpace it.

But figure this - a normal gaming rig starts at about $1,000 and can quickly get to $2,000. So at this price, even if you updated every couple years or so you're probably still keeping up.

Damn you, PCI-Express
Course, the real problem is AGP. Or rather, the fact that the industry has decided to toss it out. The SiS 661 motherboard the 5090 has can hold up to 2GB of RAM and can handle an Extreme Edition Pentium processor. However, both major card makers are already talking about not releasing AGP versions of their new cards.

Eventually, the cards would exceed the bandwidth of AGP, but that's just not the case yet. I got this 9700 several years ago and while it's definately showing it's age ... it's perfectly acceptable for even the most taxing modern games. However, since the industry has decided to prematurely move on from one standard to the next - the motherboard will have to be replaced once the current crop of video cards doesn't meet the need.

Fast and Cheap
It remains to be seen whether a box like this will be able to handle something like Unreal Tournament 2007. I would have to doubt it. But I am fairly confident that the usually "PC gaming is just too expensive" isn't as true as people make it sound. The box was good enough for an all-nighter in Guild War's Ascalon. And at least for a while, that is good enough for me.