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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Could Valve Return Me To PC Gaming?

And by PC, I mean Mac.

I had just gotten done complaining about the lack of Portal 2 for the PS3 when Valve drops the hammer down. And by hammer, I mean glorious news for Mac users - the Source library of games and Steam? Interoperability with PC users? Kinda the best thing to happen to Mac gamers since Romero admitted he once used one.

I started to abandon PC gaming around the time Bioshock was released. I'm actually struggling to think of the last game I finished on the old CheapBox++, but I think it might have been Oblivion. I had been a gamer on the PC since ... ok, technically I guess since playing Parsec on a TI-99. Or Wizardy on an Apple? When you get this old, the memory is a bit fuzzy, people.

My point being - I don't have the old CheapBox++ around anymore not because I was some console fanboy nut raised on NES games. I stopped playing PC games because they started being too much of a pain in the ass. I've gone on and on at length in other posts so let me sum it up with: too much instability, too much playing with video settings, too much dependence on buying increasingly powerful hardware.

And folks, you can agree or disagree with my logic - but I've been pretty happy with it. Even with what might have been a karmically induced PS3 bricking which caused me to restart Fallout 3 not once, but twice ... I'll take that over fighting with a video card installation or getting booted off the Sony forums for complaining about PlanetSide any day.

So let's look at those key points, in semi-random order.

Too much playing with video settings
What video settings? Resolution? There's a total of like two video cards you can get for your Mac. Not to mention my current Mac library consists of a MacBook Pro and a Mac Mini. Video drivers on the Mac? They work. They work well.

Too much instability
The Lenovo Thinkpad I used before my trusty MBP would lock up like Fort Knox and occasionally require a 20 minute head start before it really get to work. The MBP has occasionally bouts of flakiness, but in part because of the reason above ... it is a damn solid machine.

Buying increasingly powerful hardware
This one is mostly self-defeating ... because it is not going to happen. I'm not likely to enter the desktop world again anytime soon (I don't know where it would go). Truth is, this MBP is in the "from my cold dead hands" arena for me. I don't even technically own it, it belongs to the office ... but I snarl at IT anytime they come near it.

So it comes down to the following questions:

How well will Steam run on OS X?
My issues with Steam are a matter of record. Literally, I think, since I contacted the Better Business Bureau when Valve refused to offer a refund. I've also frequently admitted that my many problems with the service appear to be abnormal and there are many a PC gamer who swears by it. I don't know how many technical problems Windows caused for Steam ... but it will be interesting to see.

Is Steam more consumer friendly?
Even if you love Steam, you should realize that it is wildly consumer unfriendly. You get billed for goods before delivery. Delivery? Not guaranteed. Technical support? Last I looked it was an utter joke. Some of this is the difference between digital and disc based goods, but some of it is just Valve being overly protective of their own ass. If that has not changed, and I honestly doubt it has, I'll probably only dip my toes in the Steam water for special occasions like Portal 2.

I'm optimistic ... though not wildly so. I don't see how it can be a bad thing, assuming it will be a good to great thing - but guessing the vast majority of my gaming will still be done on the old plasma TV.

Movie Watch: Ong Bak 2

In almost every way, Ong Bak 2 challenges what makes a good movie.

Unfortunately, I think it loses the struggle in the end.

Essentially an ostentatious and extravagant backdrop to show Tony Jaa's martial arts skills, Ong Bak 2 is a "sorta" prequel to Ong Bak ... but to say that Ong Bak isn't required viewing couldn't be more of an understatement. It's a different time with different characters and ... oh look, elephants.

First - the good. The film is beautiful. Jungle fantasy sets with great production value provide some impressive eye candy even before the fists begin to fly. And the flying of the fists is seriously top notch. It reminds someone why these movies are technically challenging ... you have to make it look like Tony Jaa just dropped a can of whoopass on some stunt guy's neck without, well, killing said stunt guy. The action is intense and insanely well directed.

Second - the bad. The story is paper thin and cliche. Worse, there's an attempt to make said paper thin plot interesting by making it non-linear. Which fails pretty miserably for the most part. Characters are introduced and summarily dropped and at times magically created from nowhere.

What's odd, and equally annoying, about those bad parts is that they walk over the parts which might be interesting ideas for a kung fu film. For one thing - there is very little dialogue. Why should there be? This is a pretty basic revenge story with a lot of fighting in between. We didn't come for poorly dubbed explanations - we came here to see fists! There's this keep it simple philosophy at the core of the film which just lets the kung fu speak for itself.

Except, in the end ... it doesn't. Pretty and entertaining - the twisted plot distracts the viewer through much of the film and the otherwise climatic end actually turns into a confusing cocktail of moments. Not to mention that the (kinda spoiler) final cliffhanger appears to have for more to do with production funding and not storytelling.

It's fun - but not very good.

Still, I'd love to see a feature length action film with this sparseness to it. Heck, now that I think about it - I wouldn't mind seeing and hour and a half rendition of the hallway scene from Oldboy, but maybe that's just me.

Finally, the movie begs an interesting point against The Ebert Argument (that movies are inferior to film by the nature of their interactive format). If this had been a game with graphics that equalled that of the film, then the real complaint of such a review would be the length and not the plot. Course, that might just mean game reviewers care less about plot, but if the same story is told through different mediums and one is more entertaining than the other...

Anyway, not highly recommended - but fun nonetheless.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

TV Watch: Lost, Dr. Linus

This episode was of note because the side-story was, for a change, nicely integrated with the on island story ... and also because both were pretty telling. While Sayid's two tales played off each other somewhat, here we get to see Ben Linus in similar moral territory, or more specifically we get to see Ben revisit an old moral quandry - would he save Alex or his power on the island, in a simpler setting.

I think it worked very, very well. I've always been luke warm on Ben ... he's fun when he's being all manipulative and evil, but there's an almost cliche aspect to it and I've always wondered how it will play out with the "we're the good guys" speeches The Others were known to give. But this is Ben at his best ... showing both his soft side, his manipulative side, and his please-don't-kill-me side. The guy has a lot of sides. Even if this is the last real look we get at his character, it is a darn good one.

On the parallel universe: clearly things aren't up to spec here. Alex should most likely be speaking French and not, say, be in the same school as Ben ... she was, after all, the Crazy French Lady's kid before anything else. The overt character interactions have now officially gone over the line of plausibility that there isn't a subtle hand at work creating this world for them. Also interesting that Ben and Ben's dad were in DHARMA and on the island until some point they decided to leave. What exactly happened to the island in this little snow-globe of a universe is up for grabs, but I'm guessing this must be "non-templed" Ben. So did Ben not get the same darkness as Sayid and Claire? Is this just how Ben is?

On island, I'd still love to see Hurley become New Jacob, but I think all signs are pointing to another Jack versus Locke showdown. Jack's seen the light, gotten the faith and is out to convince others. The most important tidbit about Richard, of course, is that Jacob's touch is responsible for his near immortality. So did Jacob touch Michael and that's why he was adrift in non-suicidal behavior? And does this mean Jack won't age?

Course Ilana has kept Sun in the running as a candidate. Hottest. Candidate. Ever.

These are pretty good party tricks that Jacob and AntiJacob can perform. Opening locks with their mind. Putting out fuses from beyond the grave. Keeping people from aging. I think we are safely out of sci fi related explanations, into something very old, very magical. I can't help but feel a little robbed from the early seasons' notion that Lost was like a puzzle ... if the solution to the puzzle is "it's magic!" well, that's a magic trick and not so much a puzzle. Not even a magic trick you can figure out, at that.

Still - the plot feels cohesive, and that's what I was really asking for out the last season. The revelations are still fun and they still fit into the larger aspects of the show. We're nearly half way there now, and I think the last few acts are going to rock.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Game Play: Assassin's Creed II

The first Assassin's Creed was one of those games that I heard plenty about, played a little, and saw the appeal - but didn't really feel the need to run out, buy a copy, and finish right away. It was only under several glowing reviews that Assassin's Creed II got put on the buy list, and even then I waited a few months to do that.

Now I feel a little guilty about that. I can't accurately compare the games, but standing on its own - the sequel is simply a great game. The Girl and I jokingly referred to it as Grand Templar Auto over the weekend (I can't be the first to come up with that, right?) - but there is a lot of truth to the concept. Assassin's Creed II essentially hands over a few city-states to you and lets you run around, take missions, assassinate people and generally have fun.

I recently commented that more games need to acknowledge the distinction between open world design (where you aren't restricted to a linear path spatially) and sandbox gameplay (where you aren't limited to specific gameplay solutions). AC2 cashes in on the first, but also manages a decent amount of the latter. At one point yesterday the game had strongly suggested I use thieves to lure away specific guards (prostitutes and mercenaries also an option) ... but it was simpler just to scale the building and drop in behind them. Combat in particular is pretty free form - the player is allowed a lot of different options for engagement and rarely does the action feel like just a button masher (in fact, simply button mashing will often get you hurt).

In other places, though, AC2 goes for straight out platforming. Find point A and trace enough jumping points to point Z, claim your prize. Many times this works out well, though I have very little love for jumping puzzles and even less love for timed jumping puzzles. When the controls are fluid, Assassin's Creed II is a dream - but when Ezio mysteriously launches in a random direction or grabs a random ladder, the effect is a bit jarring.

That's the bottom line though ... AC2 has few flaws which aren't core to the genre in general. There's some control collision (do not forget to hold up when Ezio tries a leap grab, or face a long plunge...) and some odd mechanical problems (I can run into the person I'm trying to tackle in some situations ... but not actually tack them) - but the large play world, excellent use of free running and highly entertaining combat does far more than simply compensate, it really nails it in places.

The story is quite decent as well, and the player can see some real growth in Ezio as a character. There are a few RPG style options when it comes to inventory control (though it mostly boils down to buying a better X), as well as some control over a town to gain income. Add in some brain teaser puzzles you unlock while frolicking about Italy, and the game is a very complete package. Highly recommended.

Now That Is A Dungeon Master's Room

There are stained glass windows, faux dungeon walls, a metal portcullis, dragon statuettes and a rack of swords.

Via, with a couple more pics, Make (via boingboing).