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Monday, December 20, 2010

Early Look: DC Universe Online Beta (PS3)

It shouldn't really be surprising to anyone that currently DC Universe Online is a buggy mess. For one thing, it is technically a beta ... but also a beta of an MMO from SOE, who doesn't exactly have a long track record of deploying stable products in their first iteration or so. Take Planetside, for instance, where I routinely spawned into walls.

So when I spawned into floor while playing DCU, I was hardly surprised. Course, this is now many years later and I would thought SOE would have had a few new tricks to keep this kind of thing from happening. Other common issues: sound will disappear, you'll occasionally be unable to jump into a new zone (including logging out), odd delays between doing damage and actually seeing the effect, graphics detail jump here and there (DCU uses the Unreal Engine - though it seems to vary between UT2004 and UE3 sometimes. I think the detail settings are TBD), random complete lockup, mission items may be missing, etc. etc.

If you squint really hard and ignore the bugs, what remains is a fairly by the numbers MMO experience. The character creation is quite decent, perhaps not quite as impressive as City of Heroes, but offers a gamut of physical options for your comic avatar. You can create a hero or villain, and select a specific mentor - all of which will guide the missions you get out of the gate. Power selection is fairly shallow, you select a power base (Fire, Sorcery, Ice, Nature, Technology, etc.), a weapon (from hand blasting to massive hammers), and a movement type (flight, acrobatics or super speed).

Much of the game feels like a fantasy MMORPG with a comic book theme and the action setting set to high. That might sound like a bad thing, but it's really not and offers a solid and familiar core to the gameplay. You do gather gear as you go along, but you can equip the gear without having to change that carefully selected appearance of your costumed crimefighter. You can swap out the appearance of your gear at any time without having to change what you actually have equipped, making it easy to toy around with the look and feel of your character. You select a gear palette when you create your character which all new gear conforms to - meaning that even that Amazonian helmet might suit your wardrobe.

If I ignore the complete lack of stability - my real complaint about DCU is that I've actually found it very hard to engage many things which warrant the MMO side of the equation. Sure, when I'm running around Metropolis there are umpteen other heroes fighting around me - but often that's a liability more than anything else as they're in competition for the same rats I need to kill for my "Kill Five Rats" mission. At least on the console, the interface for creating groups on the fly seems clunky at best and my time waiting outside zones for a party only ever resulted in one invite ... and then the zone itself was crashing.

DCU does have the ability to create quick groups for instanced quests, such as the "Alerts" - where Martian Manhunter will teleport you and a few other heroes to a specific location. While this could potentially create some greate Pick Up Game potential, I would generally teleport into a location unable to find half the party and on one Alert, kept getting trapped in a room with no doors (literally).

It's bizarre to me that I can load up Borderlands - also on the Unreal Engine, and grab a pick up game in minutes, and the experience is seamless ... and yet DCU is an actual MMO and I've spent 99.9999% of my time solo on it. As a solo RPG, it might be worth the price of admission without the monthly cost, if made to actually work, but I'm certainly not getting anything from the game I'd pay monthly for right now.

If they make the game stable, look a bit better, and fix the grouping - DCU might be a big draw for MMO fans on the console. You can see the potential in the game right now, but there is plenty of work to be done for sure.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

What Sucks In Black Ops (And Most Online Shooters)

I had been playing with "tips & tricks", or "notes" or "thoughts" on Black Ops, but honestly nothing will really sum it all quite like of stuff that sucks about the game.

Conditional: It's a pretty great game, and honestly these are complaints not really aimed at it specifically. It's not like the game crashes repeatedly at a crucial moment unless you wore the right in-game hat or anything (because that would just be insane). No, some of these things have been true since I was an admin on a Counter Strike server so, so, so many years ago.

Second conditional: Many of these things are resolved by having a solid set of people (or even a clan) to play with. But most aren't completely.

But that doesn't change the fact that they suck.

Lobbies Suck
Once, there were dedicated servers - and they were good. Well, mostly good - but the nice thing about dedicated servers is that once you found one you liked you could stick with the same crowd every time you wanted to play - day or night. Our Counter Strike server was a full blown community where you could easily find people you were comfortable playing with and then chat with them on forums after the game.

Lobbies, on the other hand, are nothing more than random groups of people. The connections suck and honestly the whole system rewards you for jumping from one lobby to another lobby often during a game session to get into existing games quickly - and before the you get the dreaded dropped connection.

Oh, right ... speaking of:

Server Disconnects Suck
With dedicated servers, it was very rare that the game dropped you. You may have dropped from the game, or your cat might have kicked out your cable or whatnot ... but the servers were usually up and running. With the peer to peer lobby system, all it takes is a drop between you and random user 22, or maybe random user 22 decides they doesn't want to be on the losing team anymore and drops out - taking the ball, the game and the whole enchilda with them.

It's double annoying since games like Black Ops make tracking experience and stats a big portion of the game - and you may play through 90% of a match only to have the connection pulled out from under you. Ironically in what is probably an effort to punish players who drop out early because they're losing, nobody keeps their score in this case.

VOIP Sucks
I know I've harped on this before, but dear god almighty is VOIP the most wasted technology on the planet. At it's best I occasionally hear useful tips from someone on my team. There's a chance of like 1:1000000 that might happen. There's nearly a 1:1 chance that I will hear random music, someone's kids, their dog, their significant other yelling at them, heavy breathing, or whatnot. Also common is just idle chatter between two players who know each other ... which is usually not rude as much as it's just completely unnecessary background noise.

At it's worse? You might get berated by a player who got killed in the first two seconds of the game. Or sexually harassed by another player. Or threatened, or called any number of pretty impressive insults. And if you aren't the target of all this - you still get to hear it.

I've actually started syncing my bluetooth mic, muting it ... and then setting aside on the floor. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - every online game should have a fast "mute all" option.

And actually, Sony and/or Microsoft should offer teamspeak options at the OS level. Every game should have "talk only to people on your friend list" as a possibility. That way I only talk to people I care about, and nobody has to listen to me do so...

Campers Suck
And I'm going to do everyone a favor here and define a camper as:

A person more concerned with their kill to death ration than actually playing the game.

Honestly, I'm not even going to get into the argument about whether it's bad pool to hide in a fern for five minutes during team deathmatch. However, when I run pass someone hiding in a fern for five minutes while trying to cap a domination point, the urge to TK rises. "Hiding in a fern", mind you, is different from "sniping in a fern" - the distinction is that a sniper will take out opponents in my way. Hiding just makes you decoration.

Matchmaking Sucks
Honestly, Black Ops handles it better than most. However, sometimes when three people drop out right before a match begins and you're stuck with 3:6 for the first ten minutes, or when all the other team is on the same prestige clan, etc. - it sucks the fun out of the game.

Worse, I used to consider it a cardinal sin to drop out of a game which I knew was doomed. Honestly, if I'm in a lobby with a bunch of people yelling into their mics, hiding in ferns and probably ready to drop their own connection ... I'm pretty willing to bail and find a real game.

Knife Fights Suck
Knife attacks have somewhat annoyed me since Counter Strike, and they occasionally still annoy me today. For one thing, in a semi-realistic military shooter - killing someone with a quick swipe of a knife is pretty unrealistic. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that people dying in a modern gunfight from knife attacks are probably statistically low.

But worse is that the mechanic is flawed. OK, if you sneak up behind me and stab me in the back ... you win. If you rush me and I miss you you completely and you stab me ... you win. But there's just no way in hell someone should take three bullets and still get to stab someone and get an instakill from point blank range. At the core, these games are gunfights - and guns should trump knives.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Game Play: CSI Fatal Conspiracy

I'm not entirely familiar with the shovelware genre in general, so perhaps there is a subculture out there of people who are used to franchise cash ins which they might find appealing, but I'm going to have to guess there probably is not.

In some ways, the gaming community should see the release of this game's demo as a kind of blessing. It's a free package which shows just how bad gaming development actually can be. Thought Doom III was bad? Ha. If you put Fatal Conspiracy on a spectrum of bad to good, most of your least favorite games would probably not even be visible on the other end.

Start with the production value, or the complete lack of it. Most of the menus and images look like they were designed and developed by someone putting their first website together. I honestly can't tell if the voice actors were used to deliver dialogue, because the sound quality is so uneven that I couldn't tell if that was Marg Helgenberger doing a bad Willows impersonation or somebody else.

If you squint enough that the poorly formatted menus don't annoy you into oblivion, you can stumble around the lackluster interface which appears to be specifically designed to slow the user down and confuse them. Possibly the most important thing to do in the game - investing evidence for "trace", either stopped working for me completely during the demo or the secret combo of buttons to get it working again was lost on me.

If you're a fan of the show, you should hate the game. If you're a fan of self-flagellation, then this might be the game for you. Games like this make me mourn what has become of the adventure genre in general, and despair for where it might go.

Monday, November 15, 2010

RCN Chicago's Idea Of Service

Excuse the local PSA for a moment, Cathode readers - though I suppose RCN internet users of other markets may want to pay attention anyway...

For awhile now, The Girl and I have had some troubles getting high quality video running on the old Roku. For the longest time I figured this was just a technical issue with the old wifi, and so I strung 300 feet of ethernet to plug it all in directly from the source so that we (and in particular she) could appreciate some quality entertainment.

I pay for 10mb service from RCN here in Chicago, which is far and above the connection speed Amazon recommends. This is a service that RCN widely advertises here in Chicagoland.

Problem? They can't actually deliver on that service. When we tried to rent an HD movie from Amazon, we simply couldn't watch it in anything less than a couple of dots after some time ... in other words, we rented an HD movie only to watch in blocks.


Heres why:

Now, while this is off my iPhone and off WiFi - it's not like I was taking this reading from the street or anything. Sure, I would expect some degradation from WiFi and whatnot - but ... this reading is showing a 0.66 download speed and the lesson here is simple:

RCN was selling a 10mb service. From WiFi I was getting less than 1. When I looked at the wired connection? I was getting about 2-3. Sometimes less. The speed is utterly unreliably and usually under 5.

RCN admits this is a problem on their end - but their technical support says that the "capacity upgrade" has no estimated time of delivery. Which is interesting, since I had an estimated time of delivery expected from me when I signed up for the service, although it has been over two weeks now and RCN has shown absolutely nothing from their part for the same. The best I can get, in fact, is "no estimated time of delivery".

So RCN in Chicago advertises a service to which they can apparently not technically deliver - and just tonight I got an email from The Girl that not only was nothing new being done about it, but that our service was actually completely down for the entire night.

Utility companies need to be made accountable, because they will for sure not it for themselves. I would encourage anyone to check their Internet connection compared to what they pay with a simple run of - but especially if you have RCN in the Chicagoland area. If I'm getting this level of service, there's a good chance you are too - I'm pretty certain few people in the Wrigleyville area are getting what they actually pay for...

And for the record - RCN customer service has been abysmal. I've been hung up by the automated service twice and left on hold for nearly a half hour at least once. I've never gotten a straight answer as to the problem or when RCN will solve it - leaving me to wonder if they're even capable of fixing the issue at all.

Anyway: here's the PSA ... we live in a world where we may pay for exacting Internet service which we only use at certain times, but that fact does not change the fact that we have a contract with a company to deliver that service. I don't care if you pay for speeds to deliver pictures of cute kids or to achieve a better frag count online ... you pay for it, but sadly only you will police it. Nobody on this planet will check to see if you're actually getting the net service you pay for ... there is no regulatory body for it in existence. It's just a contract between you and a business.

Which is why the Better Business Bureau is probably my next step. RCN's response at this point is completely atrocious - and I worry not just for the fight I've got with them, but the fight many of their customers may not even realize they are entitled to have.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

First Impressions: Call of Duty Black Ops

Faithful Cathode readers know that I was somewhat torn about the release of Modern Warfare 2.  In one hand, it was a slick looking military shooter with some brilliant cinematic scenes and lots of stuff blowing up.  One the other hand, it felt like it was written by a frantic monkey with homicidal tendencies and the entire No Russian controversy was clearly absurd sensationalism.

Black Ops sees the franchise in the hands of Treyarch and the early review is that they've handled it quite well.  I can't speak to the single player campaign yet, going to crack that open over the weekend - so it's difficult to say how reviews claiming it is "the best story in the series" compares to, well, actual storytelling - but I can be hopeful.

Multiplayer is still the tightly designed gameplay that military shooter fans have grown to expect.  There's little variation here from past editions - thought I have to say that I often forget how important it can be to play the same online game as a few hundred thousand other people at the same time.  Stability still seems to be a bit of a concern, and can certainly be annoying when you've had a particularly good round and get dropped - but hardly a big deal when you can just jump right back into another game in about a minute.

In the hours I spent in the game, I tended to drift to the more "strategic" game modes.  I never seem to do well point wise when it's pure deatchmatch, but I am glad to see objective based game modes which actually work.  I still remember back in the CounterStrike days how nearly every game, no matter the mode, descended quickly into Team Deathmatch - and there's occasionally the same here, but for the most part you have a game which helps team quickly organize for specific, simple goals, and it just works.

Tentatively a huge thumbs up - I'm willing to say this may be the game I wanted Modern Warfare 2 to be.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Game Play: Neuroshima Hex (iPhone)

This is a post a long time coming. As a huge Neuroshima Hex fan, I was impatiently waiting the release of the iPhone version of the game since I first heard about it. My expectations were pretty high: it is a fast pacedturn based game, very strategic and dynamic, played out on a board of specific height and width - in other words, a nearly perfect candidate for the iPhone's touchscreen.

I couldn't have been more pleased with the results. The guys at Big Daddy's and Portal Publishing took the effort to heart and have created a highly polished, extremely authentic, and insanely fun portable version of the game.  As of the latest version (1.01 I believe), the bugs are quite few and the only one that really comes to mind is the ability to crash the game by flipping back and forth between menus at the wrong time during a battle.  Trust me, that doesn't happen anywhere near as often as it might sound and actually only turns up as minor inconvenience from time to time.  The game saves the game before every turn, so even if you have to go dash off to that meeting - everything will be waiting for you when you return.

While geared mostly to fans of the game, the developers do provide an introductory video and explanations for all the tiles.  If the game is intimidating to new users, that's probably more to do with the unique ruleset of Neuroshima rather than any fault on the development team.  I actually feel like I know the game much better now having played against the computer with the core set of rules.

So the only thing I want now is more, more, more... the expansion sets, the iPad support, online play, etc.  But for now, I think the dev team deserves a well earned lager and a couple rounds against Moloch.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fallout: New Vegas ... A Game So Buggy Good Luck Finishing It

This is a follow up to the post from Friday which noted that while Fallout: New Vegas is pretty fun, it's also full of bugs which are completely ridiculous for a console game in this day and age. I challenged anyone to find a buggier game in the history of the console.

I'm going to up the ante on that. I think Fallout: New Vegas may be the buggiest game ever released.

On any console.


My evidence? I can't finish the game. I've tried previous saves, I've tried cleaning the disc, I've tried giving the PlayStation 3 a good old reboot, I've tried moving to other locations and then back - but I can't get into The Strip. The load screen appears, and then there is a black screen. And where do I need to go to finish the game? The Strip. Is there any other way to get there? No, Bethesda didn't have any of the locations in the The Strip as a named location. You can't even go directly there via fast travel, you have to go to a gate first and the walk in ... which is where every thing just fades to black.

And that's it. I've played this game for hours, I've gone on dozens of quests and in an effort to stop the game from crashing I decided to just sprint for the finish line and get to the end of the main storyline. But I'll never get that. This is how the game ends for me:

The load screen appears, and then there is a black screen.

That Bethesda has released a game of this low quality is bad, but it's equally bad that the gaming media has decided to give them a pass. IGN rates this game an 8.5, or "great". Really? Let's recap.

The load screen appears, and then there is a black screen.

That is not a great game. I might be able to give it a good, but a game that can crash consistently after only running for thirty minutes or less with nor rhyme or reason is probably barely worthy of even being a good game, even if everything about the gameplay was stellar.

So Bethesda: don't count on me buying any DLC for this game. Hell, don't even count on the disc ever gracing my console again. And if any game from Bethesda ever has a review with the word bug in it again, I don't care if the rating is off the chart - it's not a purchase option for me. I'd be irate if this was a PC game, but on a console? This lack of quality control is simply idiotic.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Gameplay: Fallout New Vegas

I'll start with a confession: I've been playing the hell out of New Vegas. And I could rattle off all the reasons why that is so - except none of them would surprise you if you have already played Fallout 3 in the last two years. Bethesda has managed to sneak in a few new details, most of which add at least a few new concepts - most of which are pretty sound but don't really do anything to change the core gameplay from when Fallout and Elder Scrolls first got mashed together.

And there have been many, many reviews which have mentioned all of that, and how wonderfully the mechanics hold up over the last couple years. So lets' talk about something else.

Let's talk about just how often this damn game crashes, and how completely wrong that is for a console game in the year 2010. The level of instability that this game has is so far off the charts compared to every single other title I have ever played on the PlayStation 3 that I challenge any other blogger or gamer to argue the case that this is not the buggiest release in the history of the console, with the only other contender being Fallout 3 or the even buggier DLC for Fallout 3.

Let's talk frequency: Nightly. At least once a night that I've powered this game on, it has crashed. Let's talk severity: It completely locks up the console, requiring a manual reboot. Let's talk about predictability: There is none. You'll just be walking down the street, turn and look at something and ... bam. Instant lockup. I've had it happen at least once in between locations, causing nothing but a black screen to stare at me while I wondered if I should wait or go reboot the thing again.

The only saving grace is the frequency of the saves in the game: it does an autosave when you change locations or when you sleep. Course, the location autosave may not work correctly if the game crashes at the right moment, so unless you remember to save after every important action - you might be completely hosed anyway. I've lost hours of gameplay by not being absolutely draconian about saving after key points, a habit I've now fallen deeply into for the sake of my own sanity.

And it's not like the game itself is spotless. I walked right past a quest item because it was buried mostly in the ground ... not in "oh look, buried treasure" kind of way - but rather a "model was graphically blended with landscape" kind of way. While talking to a major game character, the conversation was stopped for cinematic animation ... which was blocked because the character for said animation was stuck on a chair. There are times when VATS goes completely on vacation. I'll be swarmed by evil poisonous creatures and tapping the shoulder button like a madman, and absolutely nothing happens.

So it's hard for me to be excited about things like factions, weapon mods, reloading benches or the nifty new companion wheel (though, it is kinda nifty) when I know every time I load the game, I'll end up rebooting my console. I said this about the Fallout 3 DLC, and I'll say it again: this is why I left PC gaming for a console. That Bethesda has had two years to work the kinks out of the engine and it's just as buggy as it ever was tells me one simple thing:

Bethesda needs to ditch this engine. While playing New Vegas, I was also playing the new Borderlands DLC and realized: it looks better, plays faster and never crashes. Yeah, I know it doesn't have the same dynamically loaded overworld that Fallout does, but these are things engines like Unreal and Id's latest have been working on. The Gamebryo engine has always been a burden on Bethesda games, it's never been able to deliver the same graphical quality of contemporary engine and apparently porting it to the consoles saddles the consoles with PC level bugs. It's ridiculous that in a two development timespan that Bethesda has released a product with this few updates, that looks exactly the same as the game before it, and is buggy as all hell.

Is the game fun? Yes. Does it offer hours and hours and hours of play? Yes. Do I recommend it? Yes. Well, if you liked Fallout 3.

Does that justify the level of instability in this game? No.

There, quite honestly, is no justification for the level of instability in this game.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Brief Guide To Shaky Cam Horror

In the vast amount of time I have not been blogging, I have managed to catch up on many, many horror movies. While on they way, I rewatched Paranormal Activity in anticipation of of the sequel, and regretfully (because it was free and easy to click on) watched Paranormal Entity.

In my review of Activity, I hoped that shaky cam would become more of a genre in it's own right. And when you get a mockbuster made of your picture, I think maybe that's arrived. So in preparation for a Halloween weekend, let's go through the shortlist of the shaky cam spookers.

The Last Broadcast
One of the earlier, if not the earliest, movies of this type - The Last Broadcast is also one of the least formulaic of the bunch. While you'll see many of the same trappings - first person confessions, running through the woods, people wandering off into isolation, there's more of a whodunit storyline being followed at the core. Not the scariest, or best produced, by far - but worth watching for those who found Blair Witch at least interesting.

Back in 1992, the BBC released this little known gem. It actually caused some hysteria upon its release and was named in one suicide (no joke). I haven't seen it as of yet because it's nearly impossible to find, it has only aired twice and while it hit DVD in 2002, doesn't look like it's been made available for import anywhere.

Blair Witch Project
BWP remains the epicenter of the shaky cam films, having gathered a lot of attention, making lots of money and distilling the basics of the concept: low budget, handy cam directing, and possibly most importantly ... a plot which centers just as much about how relationships take a downward spiral in a crisis as it does about ghosts and creepy moments. It's a hallmark, actually, of what works and doesn't work for these kinds of films ... if the actors can't sell you on the fact that they're in crisis mode, you're probably not going to be in crisis mode either.

Not nearly as much of a copycat as it could have been guilty of, Quarantine uses the shaky cam concept on a twist of the zombie genre with somewhat mixed, but usually decent results. There's a level of predictability, partially because we've all seen the same kind of zombie film a dozen times before ... and also because this is one of those movies that oddly features one of the final scenes as its cover. Can't strongly recommend, but did find it somewhat entertaining.

The reason why Cloverfield is something of a landmark film in that it combines the general formula: a small group of people armed with a handycam in a desperate and bizarre situation, with Hollywood special effects and a big budget. Most interesting is that the former seems to work much better than the latter, though the level of destruction that the budget provides offers a great deal of value. Somewhere along the way, the movie starts to feel more like a standard monster flick - but it offers a lot of new moments along the path.

Paranormal Activity
The genre took something of a breather for a few years, but a great awakening with this 2007 title. The movie nails precisely what works - focusing on sounds more than visuals, keeping a tight lens on the two leads while document the strain on their relationship the spookhouse moments have on them night after night. I wasn't sure what would hold up during a late night rewatch, but really the only diminished effect is that lack of theater speakers to really catch the mostly invisible action during the film.

The Fourth Kind
A victim of overselling the premise by repeatedly trying explain why Milla Jovovich is on the screen, The Fourth Kind moves the concept over to alien abductions while also trying to provide a backdrop for better produced "re-enactments" than the normal handycam directing provides. There's some very good bits in the midst of it all, though the sum doesn't quite live up to the parts.

Paranormal Entity
A pretty hideous copycat of Paranormal Activity, courtesy of mockbuster producers The Asylum - Entity plays out like a poor student that couldn't pay attention during class. Lacking nearly all of the elements that made Activity work, Entity manages a couple of shock moments but in the long run will mostly scare you for the fact that you bothered to watched the thing in the first place.

Paranormal Activity 2
Have not seen it, but the reviews have been good and fully plan to either by or shortly after Halloween.

Paranormal Entity

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Notes From Management: Not Dead Yet

Apologies for the near month long dearth of anything on old Cathode Tan, it hasn't really been by choice and I hope in the next couple weeks to start being able to blog on a more regular basis again. It's the same old story - lots of paying job type work devouring aspect of daily life, little room to not just blog but to be doing much worth blogging about. Heck, I downloaded the latest Borderlands DLC recently and I'm not sure I've even installed it yet.

However, I just recently accepted an offer from to become a Developer Evangelist. As an Evangelist, maintaing blog and twitter content will become part of my job description, so hopefully Cathode will be able to benefit from that inertia as well.

I've got one more week of work at Model Metrics left, then a week off, then off to evangelizing. Does New Vegas come out just in time for that one week off?

Oh, I believe it does...

Friday, September 24, 2010

For Sunday: Mozilla Seabird

Mozilla recently got community feedback and design concepts from Billy May, the guy who redesigned the Blackberry into touch screen and produced this demo:

Sadly it will likely not go much past this relatively awesome video, but awesome all the same.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Is Good Old Games Dead, Or Just Playing?

Apparently over the weekend, Good Old Games, a digital distributor of old Windows games from the Polish company CD Project, went bully up with a public message that it couldn't exist in it's current form anymore:

We have recently had to give serious thought to whether we could really keep the way it is. We've debated on it for quite some time and, unfortunately, we've decided that simply cannot remain in its current form.

We're very grateful for all support we've received from all of you in the past two years. Working on was a great adventure for all of us and an unforgettable journey to the past, through the long and wonderful history of PC gaming.

This doesn't mean the idea behind is gone forever. We're closing down the service and putting this era behind us as new challenges await.

Following this, however, has come the announcement of a re-release and more information to arrive later this week ... fueling the notion that this is more publicity stunt than funeral wake. Stunt might be harsh - though the overly morbid tone of the plain home page message doesn't lend to mere restructuring ... so if GOG returns in a week or so, they could certainly be accused of being overly dramatic.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

For Sunday: Monsters Trailer

This looks pretty awesome.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

For Sunday: Congress in AutoTune

Love. It. Thanks Klem.

Geocache Hunt Turns Bomb Scare


Lake County Sheriff's Department officers, including the bomb squad, and the Long Grove Fire Department were called to the scene, Jonites said.

The store and the parking lot were evacuated as a precaution, but no injuries were reported.

Officials determined the box contained a geotag used to help GPS systems track locations, and pieces of paper, the lieutenant said.

The geotag is part of an Internet treasure hunt called Geocaching, where players use a GPS device to track hidden geotags which issues the latitude and longitude of its location, the lieutenant said.
-- Internet scavenger hunt leads to bomb scare in Riverwoods

I sigh mostly because there's nobody to really rail against here. You can't really blame the police for investigating a mysterious package being hidden in a public place, nor can you really hate geocachers. They're just so darn adorable. But sigh, this is the world in which we live.

Friday, September 10, 2010

(Also) For Sunday: Portal 2 Coop Trailer

For Sunday: Paranormal Activity 2 Trailer

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Apple Quietly Reverses Developer Tool Ban

Apple did not specifically mention Adobe — though investors drove up shares of the company up 12 percent on the news — but the changes seem to mean that you can use Flash to develop your apps, and then compile them to work on the iPhone and iPad with a tool called Adobe Packager. This could be boon to publishers, including Condé Nast, owner of Wired, which use Adobe’s Creative Suite to make print magazines and would now be able to easily convert them into digital version instead of re-creating them from scratch in the only handful of coding languages Apple had allowed.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean Flash is coming to iOS as a plugin: You still won’t be able to view Flash content on your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. This change in Apple’s policy just means developers can use third-party tools such as Flash to create apps sold through the App Store
-- Apple Eases App Development Rules, Adobe Surges[Wired]

For all the bluster that roared from Apple on banning the use of tools like Adobe's Packager, including a strongly worded essay from Jobs which essentially ignited the debate on HTML5 versus Flash/RIA/the world, it has now softly backed away from the stance that such tools would lower the quality of the App Store and let developer use them.

Why? Well, possibly because Apple's reasoning was mostly PR nonsense designed to look like a strong technical argument ... but I have to somewhat doubt that really factored much into the equation. This is Apple we're talking about here and the company has been able to use PR to defy gravity countless times before.

The more prominent, and probably more likely, theory, is that Apple decided it wanted to trot out that amazing Epic Citadel demo (which is, by the way, truly amazing - at least on the iPhone4) they realized that there would be no way to unleash it onto the world without subsequently backing off on the whole third party development tool.

Epic's bread and butter, after all, is the third party development toolset which allows for other companies to license their technology for games ... and a huge feature of that is UnrealScript - a specific language the engine uses and how the majority of Unreal games are coded. To have shown the demo and then not change their policy would have just been an enormous tease.

And to change the policy to only let Epic in would likely have brought anti-trust champions bearing down on Steve Job's office door.

So it's true - you can probably thank video games that Apple has come to its senses.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Land of Me And The Wilderness Downtown: AIR and HTML5 Demos

I love mornings where new things land in my lap. First was an email asking to go try The Land Of Me, an interactive children's story/game developed in Adobe's AIR. Designed for preschoolers and with Prof. John Siraj-Blatchford from the The University of Swansea - The Land Of Me looks to be a delightful artistic romp ... well, if you're around two years old. There is a free chapter to download and try and since it runs on AIR - the game runs on most PC's and Mac's.

A few twitters also pointed to The Wilderness Downtown, probably best described as an experimental HTML5 video mashup with Google Maps. It's an interesting concept which mostly works - currently best serving as an example of what using the HTML5 video tag might mean down the road. It is, however, specifically designed for Chrome - though it appears to work in Safari, those certain devices using Mobile Safari need not apply.

Enjoy, peeps.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Game Play: Blur (and a little Mod Nation Racers too)

A twist on an old joke: multiplayer would be a lot of fun, if not for all the people. Bringing a bunch of random people from the intertubes repeatedly to game together has had a pretty uneven history - with the addition of VOIP to online gaming resulting in a thunderous din of people singing, cursing and warbling.

That said, Blur manages it pretty well. I played the hell out of the online only demo and now haven't even bothered touching the single player of the full version. It's very pick up game oriented and since the action is pretty intense even when you're trying to catch up to the pack - uneven skill levels across player don't feel quite so bad because you can still wreck the hell out of other cars.

And it doesn't hurt that as kart racers go, Blur is very good. Driving feels tight and controlled, there isn't a dramatic emphasis on drifting and the power-ups, while mostly classic renditions of favorites from the genre, do the game justice to helping even the score. The graphics are great and the presentation is geared to getting you in a game, out, and back in again as swiftly as possible.

I'm light on complaint - I wish there were more powerups, and that the mods were more varied and arrived a little sooner. But it's hard to complain about a game I'm enjoying this much and yet haven't even played it's "other half". Definitely recommend.

A quick side note: Blur was actually a trade in for Mod Nation Racers, which I was somewhat looking forward to and yet found the racing itself, well, really frustrating. Seems to place a heavy, heavy emphasis on drifting and drafting and not so much on just pure driving. I get the modding aspects are pretty powerful, but if LittleBigPlanet was any indication, I won't have time to really get into it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

For Sunday: Brink Gameplay Video

This looks fairly cool, I haven't really played much online shootery since MAG (which I may dive back into with the beta). Anything with a Quake Wars pedigree is worth checking out in my book.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Yeah, people - this is what it takes to get me blogging again. Not one - but TWO stories that have mostly caps in the titles and begin with OMG. Because apparently this is such a slow news month that people really need to get the attention grabbing headlines.

Wired has declared the web is dead (though, to be fair, they've branched this out to multiple articles to offer a rather interesting and broad discussion).

First, never trust an article that starts with a graph - which I've now stolen and duped here:

It's an interesting graph ... but the important bit is to note that it spans 1990, when even the Net was barely a mote in someone's eye, to 2010 ... when high school kids have smartphones with more sophisticated browsers than most corporate networks. Since the graph is depicting total net traffic, and it is safe to assume that total net traffic has increased dramatically in two decades ... lines sliding down may actually indicate portions which have stayed even while the larger pie gets bigger. Note for instance that video doesn't even appear on the scene until the late 90's, and it wasn't until about 2005 when technology and bandwidth allowed creations like YouTube to flourish that it even begins explode.

So yeah, it's an interesting graph. But in relation to the argument at hand ... it's kinda bullshit.

The argument in short, and it's hard to put this in short terms with it several pages and oddly being split into two distinct articles running side by side (which is probably the kind of design decision which could kill the web) is that applications are sprouting everywhere to digest specific points of data as opposed to an army of browsers trolling for everything on the planet.

And I'm not really about to deny that argument, for in doing so I'd have to pretty much ignore the fact that the iPhone and the iPad exist at all.

For the sake of brevity, I'm going to encapsulate the argument around this table (also blatantly stolen):

Because it seems pretty core to their concept and is wildly misleading.

Browsers Versus Apps
This is a cyclical argument as old as DARPA and is slowly spiraling into oblivion. Firstly, it (and much of the article) ignores the fact that apps have made a resurgence because of concepts like REST which allows the web to be a generic source of data. Is it honest to say that a web server which is returning JSONP or XML based on a simple set of incoming variables is ... no longer a web server? The trend, even since the referenced (and failed) push revolution of the late 90's, has been for the formatting of data which allows nearly any client - native or web - to consume data. That Facebook is both a very successful website and iPhone app is indicative of this, and Facebook's recent Graph API allows for others to create clients of nearly any variety as well.

Also, I'm always surprised by the number of articles proposing this trend as fact while overlooking the fact that many major web publishers are foregoing native iPad apps in lieu of HTML5 ones. The real transformation of the web is into more than just a content center, but a data center as well, data which can be accessed by a wide variety of clients.

Syndication Versus Subscription
I'm actually not even sure why this is a line on the table. Syndication is the act of formatting to data so that it can be subscribed. This isn't an either or - it's a cause/effect. Moving on.

Update: It occurs to me the models at conflict here are subscribe versus follow, which are actually different metaphors. Insert question mark.

Free Versus Freemium
While catchy, this is also an apples to advertising based models comparison. Take Pandora for example, which embraces freemium but also pushes ads for the free version. As the name assumes, freemium is an extension of a free (usually ad based) model ... not a replacement - and can apply equally to native, RIA or browsers based apps.

JavaScript versus Objective-C
This just seems like a silly comparison, but I think the real versus here is AJAX/HTML5 against Objective-C. Which seems to unfairly leave out the 3,000 other options for building web apps.

HTML versus XML
See above about the web turning into a data center. Like the Freemium comparison, XML isn't a replacement for HTML (though some developers would argue that XHTML is...) - it's another format for storing data without storing UI. Want UI? Get HTML. Want to create your own UI? Get XML.

Basically, let's return to the graph and consider what's really going on - the web isn't disappearing into oblivion, it's just that there has never been the all consuming webtop to eliminate the rest of an ever growing list of neighbors. It also seems premature to put nails into the web's coffin before Google has managed to release the Chrome OS, the first serious webtop concept to be produced in something like 15 years (I know, I developed one 15 years ago).

Maybe I'm biased though. I'm reading my email in a native app which actually just creates WebKit instances, while debugging my work in the cloud and listening to music in AIR. Does the use of AIR apps, which is closely associated with Flash, which is a plugin for web browsers ... mean that the web is dead or very much an undeniable part of our daily lives now?

My old boss and I had an ongoing argument we both knew was relatively ridiculous ... PDA's versus phones. Ridiculous because each debate resolved to the same conclusion ... that they'd converge to the point where you couldn't hold the distinction. That seems to be the real story of the web - that eventually you won't know where your native desktop and web technologies divide.


This is insane:

How bad is mobile Flash? When I went to and tried to play a clip, I waited five minutes while the player said “loading.” During that time, it was nearly impossible to scroll around the page or tap objects on it. Eventually, I scrolled up to see a message that was previously obstructed and said ”Sorry. An error occurred while attempting to load the video. Please try again later.” It gets worse…

When I visited and tried to start an episode of House, the program actually played but, even over Wi-Fi, the playback was slideshow-like. Worse still, the player became unresponsive as it ignored my attempts to tap the pause, volume, and slider buttons.
-- Mobile Flash Fail: Weak Android Player Proves Jobs Right [LaptopMag]

OMG! FAIL! STEVE JOBS WAS SO RIGHT! Wow, thank god I have an iPhone. I'll just go right over to and watch me up some shows.

Um, ok ... here we go:

Oh, uh. Oh, right. Steve Jobs said plugins are bad and that we should be using native apps for anything cool. Apparently HTML5 video wasn't, um ... I dunno. Around or something. So I'll go download that app now and...

Well, that's embarrassing. I guess before you go pronouncing the Steve Jobs was right and that Flash has failed - maybe ... just maybe, you should actually compare it to something in reality.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ground Control to Major Tom

Yeah, as Cathode regulars have noticed, the intermittent blogging has now turned into a full scale stop. Sorry, true believers, there's just a lot of bat guano flying around the old CathodeCave, so to speak. Life's complicated and when it's this complicated, it's hard to make an informed opinion about situations like the Penny Arcade Rape Joke - which is kinda what you people don't pay me for.

I don't really have a time frame for when this is will not be the case, in the meantime we'll still be twittering away (and to think I once mocked it so), so keep in touch there.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

For Monday: 500 Fireworks At Once

Because sometimes it is just that kind of Tuesday.

Via Kottke.

Friday, July 30, 2010

3 Things Apple Could Do (If They Really Supported HTML5 iPhone Apps)

Apple's made a big push against Flash/Flex, which is what many would call traditional Rich Internet Application (RIA) development, in favor of HTML5. One can argue the merits of their points, but one part that is somewhat confusing is rather significant gaps which makes it difficult to make HTML5 behave in way that would really allow it to compete with native apps on the iPhone (and iPad).

While you can certainly argue that none of the following are "pure" HTML5 - let's not pretend that the iPhone in particular is a pure HTML5 platform to begin with. Mobile Safari is a great browser, but has some very specific quirks to it. Whether it's the way pages are rendered in their entirety outside of the viewport (which makes, say, creating fixed bottom elements difficult) or that there are unique touch events outside of the normal mouse event structure, developing for Mobile Safari forces the developer to go a little outside the web standards. Apple does provide some useful features, though, like sending numbers over to the phone or linking to the Google Maps app - but they could do a lot more for both the user and the developer.

1. Camera Access
This is really the big one. There is no way to access the camera via pure HTML5. Cocoa based frameworks like PhoneGap attempt to bridge the two, though I've been told that getting PhoneGap based apps onto the normal App Store has been difficult. Being able to utilize the camera is an oft requested feature for business and productivity apps. The first app our company submitted to Apple used it to store images of receipts, for instance. Scanning bar codes is another common request. Apple provides zero interactivity between the browser and the camera - not even giving users the ability to browse into their photo albums.

2. User defined database limits
There is a hard 5 MB limit for offline database storage via HTML5. In most desktop implementations, this is something the user can easily override. While five megs is sufficient for many tasks - there are many where it simply won't work, like storing offline media assets within the database or even attempting to store a complete product directory in some instances. While having standard limits makes plenty of sense, if a user wants to up that limit to 50 or even 500 megs, they should be allowed to do so. I've got 32GB on this phone, and if I want to shove 1GB of product data into it via a web app, I see no reason why Apple shouldn't let me.

3. User friendly controls
Currently working with iPhone web apps is a somewhat hacky affair. Most users don't associate "adding to the home page" with the same notion as "install this app" (hence the reason many web apps are now adding a big arrow pointing to the plus sign for the iPhone) - nor is there any indication if that app is available offline, etc. Apple still maintains its web apps directory, but that's a poor offering compared to the App Store, Apple Store and iTunes Store apps. I could forego a web app store app (sorry for the redundancy there), but users should at least be able to go to one place and see which web apps are installed, what data is stored offline, and check for new versions. Google is moving in all of these directions with Chrome - and to a certain extent shows how serious they are compared to Apple in truly getting people to adopt web apps as a serious platform.

That third one is a luxury - the first two, however, I can report is somewhat crippling the iPhone and iPad as a robust platform for web application development. Apple can produce fancy CSS demos until the day is long, but if they really see HTML5 as the future, then they should give developers the tools to make it so.

Friday, July 23, 2010

For Sunday: Sonic 2006 Bug Reel

Via Wired and @kobunheat.

Ebert Folded

This may be the best evidence to date that film critic Roger Ebert's very public stance that games can never be art was, at best, fodder for flame wars. Ebert recently retreated, saying:

I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place. I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn't seen. Yet I declared as an axiom that video games can never be Art. I still believe this, but I should never have said so. Some opinions are best kept to yourself.

At this moment, 4,547 comments have rained down upon me for that blog entry. I'm informed by Wayne Hepner, who turned them into a text file: "It's more than Anna Karenina, David Copperfield and The Brothers Karamazov." I would rather have reread all three than vet that thread. Still, they were a good set of comments for the most part. Perhaps 300 supported my position. The rest were united in opposition.
If you assume I received a lot of cretinous comments from gamers, you would be wrong. I probably killed no more than a dozen. What you see now posted are almost all of the comments sent in. They are mostly intelligent, well-written, and right about one thing in particular:

I should not have written that entry without being more familiar with the actual experience of video games.
-- Okay, kids, play on my lawn[Chicago Sun-Times]

Emphasis is Ebert's, not mine. He continues to ramble on, sometimes his original stodgy stance reappearing but in general giving gamers the due they rightfully deserve. Yet the response now has been largely silent - Ebert is just reassuring us what we already knew, that he was clinging on to a position he didn't have any real reason to have except because it was generating controversy.

Kudos to him for reversing that, of course, and hopefully in doing so it will serve as a guidepost to others in similar fields to do a little research on modern gaming before trolling for posts, but it still feels like the opportunity to have a decent conversation on the subject was tossed away.

Stick to movies, Roger - Transformers 3 is coming out soon and probably won't be art either.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Gameplay: DeathSpank

Having recently joined the rest of the world in enjoying the incredibly well designed Torchlight - I was overjoyed to see that DeathSpank was hitting the PlayStation Network last week. DeathSpank is essentially Diablo for Monkey Island. Which is to say - it's pretty awesome.

There's more of the former than the latter in the game in terms of mechanics - so if you don't like hack and slash action RPG's, you probably won't suffer through enough to enjoy Gilbert's immense sense of humor - though it might be close. The character DeathSpank is essentially The Tick with a broadest sword and no Arthur to keep him in check. The graphics are a slick combination of 2D cartoon and 3D effects, the overall production from voice work to sound effects is pretty top notch and the RPG mechanics have been simplified to make the game extremely accessible.

Actually, if I had any complaint it would be that the game is a little too accessible. My inventory is cluttered with potions I really don't need (except for healing). There is offline 2 player co-op with the second player as DeathSpank's trusty friend Crackles ... but Crackles is essentially just a walking turret without any upgrade paths or inventory of his own. The "justice meter" mechanic is slightly flawed since the uber-attack uses the same button mashing as any other attack, leading to several unintended overkill blows. DeathSpank's inventory management is simple, but also so shallow that you eventually feel more like you're just doing spring cleaning than actually configuring.

These are minor aspects to what is otherwise a brilliant game, though - and aspects which are really just victims of a design which is trying to streamline fun and remove frustration. The goal is to have enough action RPG to get to the adventure game concepts - heavily displayed in the character conversations but also apparent in the slightly less successful puzzles which suffer from some of the same interface problems as every other adventure game puzzles, i.e. letting the user know that a random noun or verb is really what they require. This is, again, a rather small nuisance and rather easily corrected with the ingame hint system.

It's a great game, with a beautiful style and possibly the best sense of humor available for digital download right now ... highly recommend.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

For Sunday: iDosing - Digital Drugs Are After Your Children!

An astonishing combination of biology, psychology and technology being completely misunderstood all for the cause of moral panic. Via @ShawnElliott.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Antennagate, as a new iPhone 4 user

Look, I've clearly haven't been a proper Apple fanboy for a while, and even briefly considered the same defections some of my geek comrades are making towards the recent crop of Android phones - but the argument that the iPhone 4 is such a massive refinement to the product line as to nearly perfect was something I had to try for myself.

And the office was giving out a discount, so...

I just got my hands on the phone last Friday when I returned to the office after a business trip to California. I had hoped to get it before the trip, but considering I procrastinated ordering until late last week - I was lucky to get it when I did. Before ordering I interrogated the early adopters I knew - the ones who grabbed it day one, and compared their notes to what was coming out from respected portions of the industry - like Consumer Reports.

So I'm right-handed - though I would probably describe my phone usage as 'polydextrous', I kind of fiddle and fumble with the phone unless I'm just talking one on one: which is probably my rarest activity, I email and text far more frequently. Still, I actually had more phone conversations than the norm this weekend, and except for a local pizzeria hanging up on me (which at best I could blame on AT&T) ... I haven't had any problems at all. In fact the reception, especially the WiFi reception - is better than ever. And the WiFi is certainly noticeable better.

I think Apple's recently press events and especially the offer of free bumpers will defuse the situation somewhat. The general consensus from iPhone4 users is that you'll probably want a case with this one, though I'm holding off for a while as I'd prefer to get the slimmest one possible - I really like the feel and form factor of this model.

Once again, I don't think Steve Jobs should be allowed to answer emails anymore - he just can't respond directly to problems customers are having without sounding a bit like an ass. If anything, this fiasco is a case scenario of what happens when a beloved brand comes under fire with a bit of evidence behind it. Did the press exaggerate the magnitude of the situation? I think, but if you don't want to be shark bait ... don't flail around in the water. Apple could have saved themselves a lot of headaches by getting to this point sooner in the game. Or even finding a bumper-like case they aren't wildly overcharging in the first place.

So bottom line? If you're a southpaw and a have phone user - go borrow a friend's iPhone4 for a couple calls. Worst case scenario? Get a case. It's not armageddon, nor is it a killer flaw in an otherwise well designed product.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Notes From Management: See Ya'll Next Week (Probably)

I've got a relatively intensive travel week starting in about a half hour, so probably little in the way of updates unless I actually find myself bored around WiFi (unlikely).

I am trying to start a crop of posts which for a better three-four posts a week cycle, but remains to be seen if that's overly optimistic or not.

Friday, July 09, 2010

For Sunday: Kirk Steals Spock's Bike

Thanks, Corvus.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Some Notes On Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Redemption is one of those games I don't think needs an outright review from the likes of me. All the reviews agree, and I agree with them - it's good. In fact, it may be Rockstar's best. It's interesting that the mechanics are nearly identical to the GTA series, but Red Dead avoids much of the overwrought GTA controversy simply by being a western.

Like the changes in Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar proves very capable at surgically altering their core gameplay for the better. While RDR is clearly the first cousin of that series, many small tweaks add up to much better overall game.

No health bar
Red Dead is the first Rockstar game that I can think of that employs the YAMS (Yet Another Military Shooter) style health system. You'll suffer quickly after repeated hits, but a respite will eventually heal all wounds. This saves the player from needlessly finding the wester equivalent of Burger Shots, saving the game or stealing ambulances just to move on to the next mission. This is quickly becoming the norm across all action titles, for not only this reason - but the fact that it also simplifies the interface required to explain things. Do I have 50% health? 20%? You don't really care, the feedback you have is that you are being shot and you will die if that doesn't stop. Not sure if it works for all scenarios (see the multiplayer notes below) - but it works here.

There's always a horse to be had...
This isn't really new, more of an adaptation of GTAIV's system - but it becomes a very important one. You can steal horses if you so wish, but early in the game it doesn't become necessary because you can always just whistle for a new horse. The RDR area is lousy with horses, and one seems always willing to come to your aid (if your horse dies, you just have to wait a bit before it "respawns").

Unrealistic? Yes, but RDR is a vast open area as opposed to the inner city of GTA. Rockstar wants you to ride, and be able to ride even if you were left alone in the middle of a prairie.

...or you can just camp it out.
If you don't feel like riding all the way from Armadillo to Mexico, you can always just set up camp and then quick travel to nearly any accessible point in the map. Again, this works well for the massive amount of open space that RDR offers.

Course, the real problem with these mechanics is that they override others like horse theft and the stagecoach. The stagecoach is particularly disappointing since the camera doesn't even offer much of a view and it is much slower than a horse.

Well that was a good shot
RDR offers players a fast auto-aim if you simply tap the aim button in the general vicinity of the target. It forces you to keep tapping to continue landing hits and to either slow down for fine targeting, or use Dead Eye. Dead Eye slows down time for the player, allowing for highly accurate shots.

The only real problem here is that the auto-aim nearly makes Dead Eye obsolete, except when the game insists that you use it. I think I can count on two fingers when I've used Dead Eye outside of when a mission required it - and neither time was particularly productive. Later in the game when you're trying to do some of the challenges, it has a brief interlude as an interesting mechanic and towards the end when the difficulty ramps up a little ... but you can easily play most of the game without it.

In general though, it does a good job - better than previous Rockstar titles - of making the player feel like a badass bounty hunter without being invincible.

Serious production value
While some of the assets in the game look simply like a westernized version of GTA, one has to give a tip of the hat to the landscape presented in Red Dead. It's ridiculous. My favorite part? The thunder. Whoever did the audio for the storms in RDR needs a medal and in general the environment effects are just outrageously good. And it's bone chillingly appropriate for this game - when your cowboy rides off into the sunset, you want a sunset this beautiful.

And the music? The music is awesome. Thematic and yet properly dynamic - you may find yourself dragging those bounty missions out just to hear the excellent bass line riding along with you.

An odd sense of justice
Where in GTA the concept of having a wanted level and escaping the police is baked right into the middle of your game session - Red Dead Redemption alters the setup a little where you rarely require a wanted level at all. In the place of trying to evade the cops, several missions will have gunmen trying to hunt you down and stopping you from reaching your destination. This is one of the chief dynamics with the bounty hunting side missions - do you rush back to the sheriff or wait for the droves of minions to fall and offer more loot?

In general, this works pretty well. What doesn't work is the more direct analog from GTA where you get a bounty for doing something wrong. The problem is that "wrong" is very loosely defined and so it is hard to tell what will get you in trouble. For instance, I went up to see if I could open a door and got a bounty for trespassing. I accidentally pointed my gun at a lawman and suddenly had five people on horseback chasing me.

Poker, side missions, and ambient design
Rockstar has always seemed to insist that being able to play games in random locations is part of the overall open world experience. If you want to be a completionist in RDR, you'll need to excel at playing poker, liar's dice and various other in-world mini-games. The design isn't bad, but can be haphazard. While I enjoyed liar's dice, the imposed strategy of arm wrestling, for instance, was simply annoying. You ignore them completely for the most part (there's a single mission I think where playing a little poker is required) - so they're mostly a plus.

Dueling is ... odd. For one thing, you can stumble on dueling before the game really introduces it and hence be completely lost. The mechanics are strange - while it is one part trigger finger it is mostly about timing and placing all of your shots on the target. Once you get the hang of it, it works - but the game does little service in getting the player up to speed with it.

One huge success is RDR's "ambient" missions, which are random encounters you'll run into around the frontier. This includes everything from running down thieves to getting in the middle of gunfights. They're impressively fluid and have a bare sheet of artificiality imposed on them. By the end of the game they can get somewhat redundant - but it takes some time to get there and they add a great layer of depth to the open world in general. This is a natural extension to the otherwise random events that take place in Rockstar's games (one example in RDR - I actually had a stranger save *me* from an animal attack instead of the other way around) and hopefully it evolves even more in the future.

Bottom Line
I think this is easily Rockstar's best work. The beauty of Rockstar's games is that they are always slightly flawed - but usually because they're tweaking their own formula. In the next iteration, those flaws are usually addressed and yet replaced by new ones as they experiment with new mechanics. If you're going to have flaws, that's probably the best way to do it.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Movie Watch: Alice In Wonderland

Alice is interesting source material - the nonsensical landscape has been a Disney movie, a video game, a surrealistic stop-motion animation, 70's song and now Burton movie. The Burton movie takes a safer route than many adapations, relegating Alice to a now older (and hotter) role returning to Wonderland in what constitutes a semi-sequel to the original narrative, keeping some elements and replacing many, many others with a boilerplate Hollywood action plot.

There is a lot of compromise here. Fans of Carroll's work will both recognize and miss many of the elements, and probably cringe at some of the handling of some characters - especially Mad Hatter. Burton's style works well with many of visual aspects of the work: Chesire Cat and bringing many of the Jabberwocky material into line as well.

If it wasn't for the flair that Burton brings to the canvas, this would likely have been a disaster, with the Hollywood elements riding right over the literature ... but the combination of strong cinematics and acting make the movie highly enjoyable in the long run.

Recommend - though not terribly strongly. Serious fans of Carroll should be prepped for the handling, but anyone looking for a just a fun summer film can dig right in.

Fun Fact:"Jabberwocky" was meant by Carroll as a satire designed to show how not to write a poem. The poem has since transcended Carroll's purpose, becoming now the subject of serious study.
-- [Wikipedia]

Friday, June 18, 2010

2010 E3 Impressions

I'm not at E3, nor am I even remotely close enough to making a profit off of gaming in any sense to attend it anytime soon (nor do I figure The Girl would sign off on it as a holiday).

But I have Twitter, and opinions - and not afraid to use either. So, from what I can gather:

I think the main win here for the big N is that the 3DS appears, from all reports, to be everything Nintendo wants it to be. True 3D, no glasses, backwards compatible with DS but finally some real new tricks to give developers for 3DS only titles. As Nintendo themselves put it - this isn't just another rendition of the now what, four times redone DS? It's a new beast altogether, and whatever magic they put into the 3D screen sounds like it might pay off.

Wii-wise, there seemed to be some decent enthusiasm behind some of the new titles, but stance remains the same: the Wii's endurance is going to be tested in the next 12 months, as Kinect and Move hit the scene and now HD equipped casual gamers wonder about the only SD console remaining on the scene.

Speaking of that though: Microsoft's big push, Kinect, sounds like it is going to run into early adoption problems with the $149 price tag. I honestly think this is mostly perception: it seems closer to the Wii's $199 price tag, and the Wii has better brand power at the moment. So there will be a lot of people doing the apples to oranges comparison and just deciding to get the Wii instead.

Fair? I'm not sure it is - but I think Microsoft will need to get some impressive software reviews out there to get away from it. A Halo-esque flagship title would go along way to making it distinct ... or perhaps a better way to put is a Wii Sports that in no way resembles Wii Sports.

Sony's real advantage is position Move more like an accessory with a $99 bundle. How much of a difference in MSRP this is in reality when a second controller is what - another $49? And the MoveChuck is another $29? I think people who go to stores and buy the two products would quickly have similar totals.

Move sounds like it has the advantage of being more appropriate for compatibility with existing games, having those buttons and all. This could prove a serious boon to Sony in the long run. I may be more willing to pick up Move just to try Killzone 2 with the new controls - more so than I am just to replace my Wii Sports with an HD version.

3D Gaming
Sony made a big push on this and to be honest, I can only find it pretty bizarre. Prior to E3, Sony had started updated the PS3 software to handle 3DTV's. I jokingly sent the official PlayStation twitter the question if this was the kind of 3D that required $5 glasses or a $5,000 TV. This was their response:

3D TVs are starting to roll out now, they use "active shutter" glasses with embedded circuitry. In a year or two, most TV will be 3D & cheap

I'm assuming they mean "most" as in "most available". Let's not forget that HD only became truly commonplace (as in over 50% market) in the last year or so, something like half a decade after becoming commercially available. And if by "cheap" they mean "around the same cost as my current television" - then Sony's 3D revolution has already failed. I'm not about to replace my perfectly good TV for a single feature that only one thing attached to it would really offer.

Or to put it this way: I'm already doubtful paying the surcharge at the theater to see the 3D version is worth it, I'm not about to drop a grand to do it in my living room.

Nintendo seems to understand this: the 3DS is really the only part of the 3D platform I can get behind. It doesn't require glasses and I'm only replacing my already aging DS for less than a couple benjies.

Now, I've continually been asking why a new TV is even necessary - and even poked the Internet Bear a little about Sony showing the Killzone 3 demo on a 100 foot project screen (clearly not a 3DTV). It looks like an odd mosiac of technology limitations that actually makes this true, and I'll post a follow up on that later.

Valve on PlayStation 3

So Why Does 3D Need A 3DTV?

My earliest memory of 3D is watching the decidedly un-spooky yet relatively funny Three Stooges "Spooks", which had a wide variety of object on wires dangled in front of us.

And that was on our old, decidedly non-HD television. So when Sony starts beating the pulpit that you need a TV to experience games and movies off the PlayStation 3 in 3D ... should I believe it?

Well, like so many things in technology - the answer is: sorta. Let's go backwards from the new technology to the old Stooges technology.

Active Shutter Glasses
This is the 3D of choice for television providers. It works by having a signal sent to glasses which alternates the right and left lenses being closed at a very fast refresh rate. The advantage to this tech is that it doesn't put any filter between your eye and the screen, only alternates them - and hence you don't get the muted or distorted colors that other glasses provide.

It is also the technology which requires the most hardware. Since each frame is alternated, you halve your refresh rate. So if your isn't a 120hz television (and many HDTV's in the home today are not), you won't get the 60hz that most moviegoers are used to viewing. Also, something needs to send that signal to the glasses. In theory, you could have an add-on device if you television is 120hz or more ... but hardware providers are focusing on new sets, not add-ons.

However, the technology that is distinct 3D from HD isn't that expensive, so new 3D ready sets should resemble HD prices in the relatively near future.

Polarized Glasses
Also called "passive" glasses, polarized lenses are what cinemas like IMAX used, and I'm guessing what Sony must have used at E3 to show off Killzone 3. These glasses rely on having an image displayed with two different polarities, and quite like those old red and green glasses from the Stooge days ... only one lens allows one kind of polarity to pass.

Since each lens requires a polarized screen, colors are muted when using the passive glasses. However, the big reason you aren't using this at home is because it's suited for projection screens. Flatscreen TV's are already polarized to properly display their pixels and don't really have the capacity to split the views. Existing projection sets may also require additional

Whether games and movies could be made to send out a mode for projection TV's, though - I don't really know. But it doesn't sound like Sony has any plans to offer such a feature.

Anaglyph Glasses
These are the old school, two color, Stooge glasses. The advantage is that they work on nearly anything that can display more than two colors. The bad thing is that they are well known for all the problems 3D can have: ghosting, eye fatigue, washed out colors, etc. So I think there's an unspoken concept of the "new 3D" that they don't want to support the "old 3D".

So the big question is...
Would the availability of anaglyph, which has been used to bring 3D to your home as recently as Coraline, outweigh any of the problems traditionally associated with it? Anaglyph poses two problems for TV makers like Sony: it's a substandard experience and they don't sell any new TV's with it. So having software which supports both active shutter and anaglyph is a cost which would only reduce sales - potentially not the best business strategy.

So the answer might be: you could do anaglyph 3D gaming on your TV, but there's a chance it might make you want to vomit.

I can't feel like I'm missing much. I have yet to see 3D is use where it is really a game changer. Interesting, sure - but maybe by the time I'm ready to retire the not-so-old plasma ... we won't even be using googles anymore.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

TV You Might Have Missed (or are missing, or are about to miss...)

Lost is gone. I've accepted the end, and I've dealt with the grief. I've moved on. Amazingly, the TV still works fine. Here's some shows that either just ended, or is ending:

Spartacus: Blood and Sand
When the first season of this show ended, I had the sudden realization of just how densely packed the narrative had turned out. This is Shakespeare meets soap opera - plenty of well written drama even in the middle of the blood and boobs. The acting is solid, the production is generally good when it doesn't imitate 300 too much. If you've dismissed this show because of the gratuitous use of nudity, you're missing out.

Though yes, there is plenty of nudity.

I've raved about this show before, but with the recent season finale - I can't help but recommend it again. It just feels like a good, gritty novel playing out on your TV and I'll say it again - Timothy Olyphant was genetically engineered by a secret government agency to play a cowboy. This was one of the most tightly produced first seasons I may have ever seen, the show just hits on all cylinders from the first scene of the first episode and rarely misses a beat until the conclusion.

Happy Town
Having nearly given up on high concept shows in general, I gave Happy Town a bit of suspicion ... though comparisons to the somewhat campy yet utterly fun Harper's Island helped make the case.

The show is good - it takes itself more seriously than Harper's ever did, but the core mystery is unique and engaging. The characters are strong and the writing doesn't try to follow the ensemble formula, but only focusing on characters as they are important to the current plot. Also, they aren't quite as paranoid as certain other shows about giving reveals to the viewer, and the story is an interesting combination of things you know and don't know, and what various characters know and don't know.

Sadly, Happy Town has already been cancelled. I'm hoping we get at least a full first season and something other than a complete cliffhanger - the show deserves it.

Party Down
Available via Starz and Netflix Instant at the moment - this comedy from some of the people originally responsible for Veronica Mars is just over the top excellent. The second season is about to wrap and while we weren't sure where the misfit bunch of wanna-be writers and actors slumming it as caterers would go ... it has only gotten better since the first episode. The show has a low-budget, indie kind of feel - but the writing and acting are top notch. The only downsides of this show is the short length of the season.

What's the rest of the blogosphere watching?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Kate's Horse

At the end of Lost ...

..and it should be noted that when I say "end of Lost", I mean the final episode of the final season of the TV show and hence, everything in this post is nothing but a series of serious spoilers for anyone still planning on watching the show. So if you haven't seen the show to the end, I would go find a video about a cat playing piano or something.


At the end of Lost we discover that the Smoke Monster was a cigar ...

Ah. See? Big spoilers. Now go away.

Now let's see if I can do this in one grammatically correct sentence:

At the end of Lost, we discover that the Smoke Monster was in fact an entity transformed when his brother Jacob, protector of the island, tossed him into a well of mysterious light and that his (if in fact genderless amorphic beings can be called such) prime motivation was to kill Jacob and any candidates for Jacob's position as protector so that he (the Smoke Monster) could leave the island.

OK: here is my first piece of evidence that Lost failed as a show. I'm betting that if anyone just starting the show ignored all those warnings and just read that bit, they wouldn't make it past season three.

Why? Because of Kate's Horse. See, the sad thing is that even if it is nearly an accident of convenient writing, the fact that Smoke Monster can't directly kill the candidates but rather must trick them into killing each other or offing themselves is a neat premise. Kind of like Saw but with brains, which is something I wouldn't mind watching.

And this is the main conflict of season six - that the candidates must save the island before Smoke Monster figures out a clever way to end them.

So why is Kate's Horse a problem? Because it shows that this wasn't the main conflict of the show ... just season six. In fact, I don't think Lost ever really had central source of conflict - it was always just Man versus Crazy Shit The Writers Made Up. If we were to believe season six as the "reveal" of the show, then we would be able to look back at past seasons and see how it was all playing out.

But let's look at the Smoke Monster's victims have died: crushed in tree, chewed off arm, crushed in tree, crushed against tree, slammed into tree, buried alive, stabbed by Ben, slammed against floor, slammed against person, slammed against person, crushed by ceiling, slammed into cage, blown up, drowned, broken neck, shot, slit throat.

You'll notice a theme. A lot of slamming, and a few creative incidents like getting Nikki buried alive after biting her in the shape of the spider. Oh, that Medusa Spider was the Smoke Monster, confirmed by producers. You can hear the mechanical sound when they approach and (thankfully) setup Nikki and Pool Boy for their final scene.

So in other words - occasionally Smoke Monster stuck to the premise, but usually it just slammed things around. When it wasn't slamming things around, it would occasionally appear as Christian Shepherd.

Or Kate's Horse. Why would the form of Kate's Horse be useful to the goals of the Smoke Monster? Well, it wouldn't. But gee golly it was neat, wasn't it? Where did that horse come from?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Lost was written. Just a series of distractions lumped in a row. So without any further adieu, my final final thoughts on the show:

It was a character driven show that ran out of character development
The first defense people give for Lost's feel good reunion of a finale is that Lost was, in fact, "all about the characters" and not really about the origins of smoke monsters or how the island does stuff or DHARMA or anything. Prior to the finale, the producers stated they would only answers questions about the show "the characters cared about". Which considering how bad these characters were at figuring out what was happening around them meant: not much.

The first three seasons of Lost had a consistent formula: character backstories interwoven with island mystery. It was getting pretty obvious by Season Three, though, that most of the relevant history of all the main characters - even the Tailies that had been added in Season Two, had been well illustrated. In Season Three, Lost fans suffered through two completely unnecessary characters: Nikki and Paulo, for more backstory fodder.

In Season Four - we start to get flashforwards and other twists on the backstories ... but they serve little in the way of adding to these characters. Actually, at this point most of the "off island" content actually serves the mystery plot. Who is the person in the coffin? Why does Jack want to return to the island and how will they get that done?

Truthfully, the characters of Lost work well as sketches and often in ways to offer up some brilliant dialogue ... but the note that the show ends on ... that love is what will get you to heaven ... is easily the weakest part. The motivations the characters have to fall for each other, with obvious exceptions like the Kwans, is often somewhat forced and probably best attributed to jungle fever as opposed to "the most important thing in their life".

Here's my proof on this: can anyone tell me why Kate loves Jack? What is it about him? They've already endured one failed relationship. She often acts closer to Sawyer than anyone else (particularly physically - the only steamy scenes we get with Kate are with Sawyer, not Jack). And Jack - oh, Jack. People - Jack is a complete loser. Every one of Jack's plans fails miserably throughout all six seasons and all the way up to the last episode. In fact, the only version of Jack which is isn't a loser is the one that wasn't even real. No, more likely Kate "loves" Jack because at the last minute the writers decide that love conquers all and Sawyer made a little more sense with Juliet.

The writers became pathological about not revealing anything
If the crown jewels of the show was the characters, as the producers like to say, then why was it that the writers went so far out of their way to only offer explanations about the island in short discrete bursts, usually during season opener and closers? By the end of the show, the cast includes two characters - Ben and Juliet - who once were part of The Others, the mysterious antagonistic group for most of the first half of the show. Ben was the leader of The Others, and nobody ever bothers to ask to get even basic answers from them like who they are and what they want, except to get inanely vague answers like "We're the good guys."

Bizarre examples from the show: Sawyer at one point has Karl, a refugee from The Others with certainly no love for Ben at gunpoint. Instead of bringing him back to camp, he tells him to run off. When Sayid, our stalwart interrogator/torturer asks why - Sawyer doesn't really have an answer. Locke at one point inexplicably destroys an entire DHARMA building, despite the building having tons of documentation and apparently access to the outside world.

Or my favorite: Man In Black had a name, people. It was Samuel all along. The point of making it such a secret? They just wanted to give the audience one more thing to guess about. Anyone looking for deeper meaning in the absence of his name will come up empty handed.

Much like everything else about the show.

The finale capped off six seasons' of inconsistent, convenient writing
Even a defender of the show recently admitted the Smoke Monster started off as a mindless beast, to some kind of calculating security system, to an actual man - and it is not an easy or smooth transition if you go back through episodes. It has the appearance until about Season Five that they are simply revealing new aspects of the creature, but the revelation that it is Jacob's brother and the rules that go along with it breaks that trend and any sense of cohesion that was being setup in the first half of the show. The Smoke Monster can't hurt the Losties? He is stuck in Locke's form? If you were to re-watch the show from the beginning now, what used to be a great and original threat is now shrouded with questions like, "doesn't Jacob control this thing with his rules anyway?".

And in the finale the show can't even follow the same concepts it had outlined episodes ago ... even within the same season, Jack's interaction with the Magic Light Cave is completely different from Jacob's in Across The Sea. For some time the show makes a big deal about details, lists and rules - but by the end credits of the finale it is hard to find any that the show itself decided were worth paying any attention.

There was an underscored theme of Season Six: why ask questions?

The big questions that fell off the table after Season Three are numerous. The sickness, a massive portion of the island events early in the show, is never really explained despite having Doctor Juliet join the cast. One might be lead to think that pregnancy and children are very important to some deeper mythology of the show, but one would be wrong. One would be simply thinking too much.

It would work better as a dream
Why is Kate's Horse in the jungle? There is no reason plausible based on the events of the show. What happened, happened - and it apparently always about faith and not reason.

The only way to reconcile six season's worth of dropped plot concepts is to accept that normal logic just does not apply. This is why I think so many people mistook Jack's final scene as an indication that they were dead all along - it makes the cognitive dissonance required to watch the show beginning to end so much easier. As Neil Gaiman might say, sometimes dream logic is the only way to tell the story.

And here is why I am so disappointed in Lost: they couldn't even give us that much. They couldn't even give us a cliche excuse of an explanation but instead pulled a mass cop out and went for the heartstrings. And then acted as if the show was never really about the mysteries of the island in the first place.

Meh. Lost, we had some good times - but I wish I had broken up with you seasons ago. Now I get to listen to The Girl brag about how right she was about the show until the end of time.

So, you know, thanks for that.