Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Disney's Bolt

Disney's Bolt is based on the movie of the same name. The movie (according to Wikipedia's summary — I haven't watched it yet) is the story of a dog that plays a superhero in a TV show, who is accidentally mailed across country and must make his way back to Hollywood.

Rather than playing out the plot of the movie, instead the developers chose to dive deeper into the TV show fantasy world. You play as both Bolt the super-dog (with his TV show superpowers intact), and as Penny, his owner and the daughter of a kidnapped scientist, as they try to rescue said scientist from the evil super villain.

The gameplay alternates between Penny, who uses sneak and stealth, and Bolt, who pounces on bad guys in a much-simplified hack-n-slash style.

The game is fairly simple. As Bolt, the majority of your play is attacking enemies by jumping up and pressing X and/or Y to attack, repeatedly. Once you hit an enemy enough, a "B" button icon floats over their head, and if you attack with the B button, you will grab onto them and can then press any of the four buttons to do a "finishing move".

As you progress, you'll come across enemies that are resistant to the basic attacks, and you'll have to use one of Bolt's "special powers" to stun or weaken them first. Most of the time, your first encounter with each of these will have a single instance of that enemy and plenty of on-screen tips to help you learn how to defeat them (although one particularly frustrating segment on a train introduced a frisbee-wielding maniac that seemed unstoppable, with no on-screen tips, until I happened to catch a random loading screen tip that gave me a much-needed suggestion for dodging and returning his discs).

The difficulty ramps up by throwing more and tougher enemies at you at a time, which makes the game simple, but rather repetitive.

Penny's segments are much more low-key. With no health bar, one attack means a restart. She has the ability to go invisible, giving her the power of a "sneak attack", and if she is caught, a quick-time-event button press comes to her rescue. Fighting and avoiding enemies is the minority of her tasks, though; she must spend more of her time navigating the terrain. Finding where to go is made easier by an "enhanced vision" mode, which highlights "interesting" paths in yellow.

Penny also occasionally comes across computer terminals, that she "hacks" in a minigame very reminiscent of a few Xbox Live Arcade shooters — left stick moves, right stick fires. Move and destroy everything in a 2D playing field, without getting destroyed yourself, and the terminal is hacked.

It's a very simple game, with very easy to learn controls. Some platforming parts can get frustrating, as can some of Bolt's fighting sequences when the game just wears you down with the repetitive flow of stronger enemies. There is, however, very little consequence for failure, as the game simply restarts (often fairly close to where you were), and you try, try again.

It's also a fairly long game. For a movie tie-in, there's an extraordinary amount of original content (probably having to do with the fact that it's not trying to recreate the movie). There are lots of environments, and the cutscenes and in-game voice acting are pretty well done. The game is fairly well polished. Although there are some areas that are difficult to get through due to questionable environment structure, the game is completely playable with almost no game-breaking bugs or even destructive camera controls. (My son did seem to come across one moment where Bolt somehow got into one of Penny's mission areas, where the only way out was to "suicide", but the game recovered gracefully on the restart.)

Achievement-wise, most of them are straightforward, pretty much unlocking themselves as you play the game. The "Max out health/power/gadget bars" require finding and collecting all the upgrade items along the way — most of those are easy to spot, but if you're not using a walkthrough, it's easy to miss one or two. And there are a couple others that, while they may not be entirely self-evident, are easy enough with either a little planning or a simple guide.

All things considered, it's really not a bad game. It may not be terribly exciting, as the bulk of it is fairly repetitive, but at least it doesn't feel like your typical "movie-to-game" game.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What's in a profile?

I haven't had a lot of game-related news lately. Unfortunately, I have a son in the hospital, and the time where I would normally be at home playing games, I'm instead in the hospital room keeping watch over him until he gets better. However, I did get an opportunity to conduct a bit of game-related research, so I figured I might as well share.

He was recently moved into a room that happens to be equipped with an Xbox 360 (this is truly one of the finer children's hospitals), so to make his stay more comfortable, when I packed my bag for my overnight stay, I included some of his favorite 360 games and my memory card, to which I moved his gamer profile. It's a little thing, but I thought being able to sign in with his own gamertag might give him a little taste of home that he might appreciate.

The 360 is, unsurprisingly, not connected to the internet, nor does it have a hard drive attached. (The chrome DVD tray suggests that it has been purposefully removed.) I happened to get here a little late, just as he was falling asleep, which meant I could play around a bit with the 360 myself.

I booted it up, and the first thing I noticed was that it had the old blade interface. I didn't realize how much I missed it. It was so quick, so straightforward, and so familiar, even after all this time. I felt like I was looking at the "pure" dashboard again, not some clumsy façade designed to hide the "real" system from me. It was like going from Vista to XP.

The next thing I did was sign in. On the list of profiles I have on my memory card, a couple have as their gamer picture, a shot of their Xii. I was a little surprised to see this Xii picture on the "sign in" list in a non-Xii-enabled dashboard, but what is a gamer picture but a little bitmap? There's no real difference between that and any other bitmap you might download from Xbox Live for your gamer picture, and that is stored in your profile.

I knew, too, that achievement progress must be stored in the profile somewhere. Once, when I was after a certain achievement ("Knockout King" from Big Bumpin'), I was getting desperate to know how close I was getting. (My issue, as I would discover later, was that the achievement text was incorrectly written, and so when I thought I was doing the right thing to get closer to the goal, I really wasn't.) So I used a tool that let me access the 360 hard drive from a PC and dumped my profile data file to my PC's hard drive. I did this on two consecutive nights and attempted to find the bits that changed, to see where my progress might be stored and attempt to decipher how close I was getting. I never did find that out, but I did notice that the text of the achievement was in my profile. (Several times, in fact; probably a function of whatever database format they use for storage.)

It therefore came as little surprise to see that I could pull up "Achievements" and see the achievements I had earned. Although it might come as a bit of a shock to see that you can pull up every achievement, earned or not, for every game you've ever played. Included in that is the achievements' pictures. (The drawing speed was just in the range of perceptibility; I noticed games that used the same picture for multiple achievements, those achievements' pictures would "pop" on the screen at the same time instead of being drawn individually, which would suggest that achievements that share a picture might only have to store that picture once.)

It's probably worth noting that arcade trials that I had deleted from my profile in the NXE, did not show up here. Although this ability to "hide" 0-point arcade games from your gaming history is a new feature to the NXE, apparently it was implemented in such a way that hides it from the old dashboard as well. Maybe someday I'll do another data dump and see if the data's still there, just hidden; but from what I can tell, I would guess it's really not.

Without testing, I already know, too, that games can use the profile for some storage, besides just achievement details. Whether they are limited as to how much data they can store in the profile, and to how much, I don't know. But, for instance, I know that one of those Burger King games lets you create a custom racing outfit, and when you do, no game data file is saved. (The other that lets you customize a racer does use a separate data file. Whether the racer is stored in that data file, and why one uses a file and one uses the profile, I couldn't begin to guess.) I also know, when I go visit my friend Solstice01 and take my profile on my memory card, my Halo Spartan is wearing the same armor permutation he wears at home.

I would guess that my Xii is also in that profile somewhere, with the clothes he's wearing, his hairstyle, his glasses, and his wedding ring. The old dashboard of course couldn't show that to me, so that's just a guess, but there's no reason to think otherwise.

So that's pretty much what I've found. I thought it was kind of interesting. It does make me wonder just how large a profile file can get, with data from every game ever played stored in there. And with developers free to use that all-important file for storage, it makes me a little nervous as to how prone it might be to corruption. There doesn't seem to be any way to trim it, either, since game history is something that only grows and cannot be changed (0-score XBLA games notwithstanding).

But I'm sure there's nothing to worry about. Microsoft has plenty of experience coming from the Windows Registry in maintaining an all-important, monolithic database file, keeping it free from corruption and error, that I'm sure nothing could possibly go wrong…

Yeah, we're in trouble.

Monday, April 6, 2009

You want how much for that?

Nearly a year ago, in my rant on digital downloads, I mentioned that part of my fear would be that, with the single entity in total control of the market, there would be no market pressure to decrease prices, and as such, prices would not decay over time.

It's time to throw another example onto the stack. After having borrowed Samurai Warriors 2 from FireMedic a year ago, I finally got a copy of my own (my kids still play and love this game). I managed to find a copy on eBay for a very reasonable $5.50 — a quick search just a moment ago show the prices tend to range from about $15 and up for new, sealed copies, and two "Like New" going for $17 and $30. Doesn't seem like an unreasonable price for a game released in September of 2006. Mass Effect, for reference, became a Platinum Hits release at $20 at the beginning of this year, and it was released in November of '07.

On 16 April of last year, the Live Marketplace launched the Xtreme Legends add-on. It adds a few extra characters and stories, but its price was a little steep at 2400 Microsoft Points — $30 for those playing along at home. I'm not sure how much the original game was going for at that time, but my guess is, being almost a year and a half after its release, it wasn't anywhere near a full $60.

If you've followed the link to the Xtreme Legends content above, you'll see that it is, at the time of this writing, still on Marketplace at its original $30 price tag. You can currently get a new, sealed copy of the game for half that cost. You can get new, sealed copies of better-selling, more recent games for less than that cost.

It only proves my point that downloadable content does not depreciate.

An apologist might point to the current "Deal of the Week" promotion (where they offer a piece of DLC for a deal each week this summer) as a counter-example. I say, it means nothing. For one thing, the "Deal of the Week" is for Gold members only, so it's partially subsidized by Live membership fees. For another, this price drop is temporary — in each case, the price goes back up to its original cost after the week is over. And for a third, the sale item is generally one of their more popular items, rather than a slower-selling item for which a price drop would really benefit.

I don't know if the person selling me this game bought the DLC or not, but of course it doesn't matter, because as we all know, you can't resell DLC, either.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I'll give you Recon if you give me your password

In a certain online forum, I caught wind of someone who was very upset that her son's Xbox Live account had been hacked. He no longer had access to his Live account on the Xbox or on the PC, or his Yahoo email account.

I offered to spread the word. Hopefully, it'll help prevent others from getting scammed, and just maybe it'll help catch the guy who did this.

Well, here's what happened. The boy, who we'll call by his gamertag Vaeb41, created his account using his Yahoo email address and a prepaid card purchased in a store. At some point in his Halo game playing, he was approached by another player, who we'll call "Rhepysp iz pr0" (which at this point does not appear to be a valid Xbox Live gamertag) approached him and offered him the coveted Recon armor. "pr0" was able to "prove" that he was a Bungie employee by the fact that he had all Halo 3 achievements (including those for maps that have not even been released yet) and video showing himself wearing the flaming employee armor. Convinced, Vaeb41 gave pr0 his Xbox Live login email and password.

Of course, Vaeb41 never got Recon armor. He found that his password had been changed, the password reset "secret question" had been changed, his Yahoo email account password had been changed, and his account was basically no longer his.

They are going through Microsoft support. Since the account was not created by a credit card, it seems the key to getting it back lies in the prepaid card that was used to create the account, which they may not have anymore. (Who keeps those cards once you've used the "one-time use" 5x5 codes anyway?) Even if they do get the Live account back, getting the Yahoo account back will be another issue altogether, as that information is in the hands of another system.

It's a good time to iterate what should be the first rule of security: you never, ever give out your password to anybody, no matter how legitimate they claim to be. As an addendum to that, anyone who claims they are an employee will never need to know your password, as an employee should have whatever tools they need to grant whatever access or privileges they claim at their disposal. Ever see the warning message on MSN or AOL that cautions "An employee will never ask you for your login details or password?" It's true. The most they might need is your account name, and if they're talking to you on Xbox Live or MSN or AOL or whatever else, they already have that.

I wonder about the use of prepaid cards in this case. It seems, on one hand, it's a good thing, in that the stolen account has no credit card information attached to it. On the other hand, without a credit card account to prove ownership, it seems like it's more difficult to reclaim the account now that it has been stolen, and that it might have been easier to do it if they had this credit card available.