Tuesday, June 30, 2009

DLC - Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

One of the arguments in favor of digital distribution is that you don't have to keep track of a physical medium. There's no disc to lose or get damaged. However, the digital copy is stored on a physical storage device — typically, a magnetic high density storage device ("hard drive" for you laymen). In some cases, you have the option to make a backup to a CD or some other storage medium (which brings you right back to the "disc to lose"), but otherwise, you're at the mercy of the selling company and its continued existence, and any promise they might have of letting you re-download a game you purchased.

One of Xbox Live Arcade's selling points has been that you can do just that — re-download anything you've ever bought at any time. It's one of the reasons they've insisted you don't need anything larger than a 20GB (or 60GB or 120GB) hard drive, because you can always delete something and re-download it later for no charge.

For the most part, that's true. And that may still be Microsoft's intent. But you know what they say about intentions — the road to hell is paved with them.

First, Yaris disappeared. Understandably, no one got very upset. Not only was it a horrible game, it was also free, so no money was lost.

Then went Lost Cities, and now go Double Dragon and SpeedBall 2. These are games people are actually paying for, and now, due to expiring licensing deals or other corporate politics, they are gone. The "delete and re-download" promise is broken. If you don't have a memory card or an unsupported device for extracting (and later re-writing) data for your storage device, you can't make a backup onto a PC or a CD-ROM or other offline storage. Even worse, if your console is repaired or replaced, you can't use the license transfer tool and re-download licenses for content that no longer exists, meaning the one copy you hopefully still have is only good for that one gamertag to play while connected to Live, until that copy fails and/or that account is suspended or terminated. Then, that's it, it's gone forever.

So to what high-profile Arcade game does this need to happen before people take notice? What if Namco Bandai went into bankruptcy or its IP was purchased by another company, which forced its titles, including Pac-Man C.E., to get delisted from the Xbox Live Arcade?

At least in that case, I'd be safe. I could still play it. I have it on the Namco Museum Virtual Arcade. It's a shiny disc that I can put into any Xbox 360 at any time, online or offline, and play it signed in under any account.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection

The last console I owned before I got an Xbox was a Sega Genesis. I got it in high school, and it went with me through all four years of college. The system still lives in my basement. I haven't plugged it in in years, but I have found Genesis emulators and ROMs (for just the cartridges I own, thank you) and played some classics from time to time.

I remember seeing Sonic's Ulitmate Genesis Collection announced a few months ago, and it was exciting news. I never heard its release date (10 February, according to Wikipedia), but I saw it pop up on a friend's gamercard and made a special trip to Best Buy to pick it up.

The collection features 40 games and retails for $30. Not a bad deal, especially considering that the games include some of the megahit classics like Phantasy Star (the entire series, including the first Sega Master System game).

The set of games on this collection and the set that consists of the cartridges gathering dust in my basement have a very small intersection. The Phantasy Star series matches, as do most of the Sonic games (I never played Spinball or 3D Blast, although from what I've heard, I wasn't missing much). But other than the occasional game here or there, that's about it. I guess despite a friend once accusing me of being able to play Sonic the Hedgehog blindfolded, Sonic and I don't have a lot in common in our Genesis game collections.

It's an interesting walk down memory lane, back to an era where the side-scroller and platformer were king. Not only does the collection have the games, but it includes a picture of the cartridge and box art, plus interviews with some of the developers and project managers who worked on the original games. It offers an interesting perspective, especially for me, on a time when I was the excited consumer, to see what drove the producers to make these games.

Of course I have to mention the achievements. They are fairly simple, spread across a large number of the games, with no more than one achievement for any game. Most of them require you to do some very trivial task in the game, so you don't even have to play through very far. Only two or three may require some thought or finding a special trick or YouTube walkthrough.

Some of the games are downright creative, though. Of the games I had never played before, I was really taken by Comix Zone, which takes place in the panels of a comic book. It's just very different than anything I've played before.

Not that games today aren't creative or innovative; it just seems that there's so much focus on technology today, that the creativity sometimes gets lost or masked; whereas it was the 16-bit era when developers' creativity started to blossom with technology that was good enough to expose it, but not so good that it overpowered it.

But maybe that's the geezer in me talking.

Anyway, a lot of good, solid games; nice extras with the interviews and a little blurb about each game; even little things like saving states, customizing controller buttons, sorting games by name/genre/date, and assigning a personal rating. Could've been better to include Live support (friends leaderboards at least; online play probably was way out of scope for the project, even on games that would've made sense for it). Pretty easy 1000 achievement points, too. Probably won't unseat Halo for the most-played game in your 360, but if you don't have a Wii for its Virtual Console and you want to get your hands on a good Sonic game (oh yes, I went there), this'll do nicely.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Namco Museum Virtual Arcade

It may seem a little odd that I'm releasing reviews to games when I can't play games, but actually, this down time is a perfect opportunity to finish up a couple posts that have been neglected while I was playing instead of writing.

According to Wikipedia, Namco has released 17 different compilations under the name Namco Museum. The one for the 360 is the Namco Museum Virtual Arcade. It consists of 34 games, divided into two sections. One is the "Arcade" section, which consists of full versions of nine games available on the Xbox Live Arcade. The other is the "Museum" section, which consists of various arcade and other release games.

Achievement junkies may at first be disappointed to find that there are no achievements for the Museum games at all. However, considering there are 9 Arcade games with the standard 200 points apiece, that does mean this disc has 1800 achievable* points on it, which is quite a deal for a single disc. It's also worth noting that, to purchase these titles on the Xbox Live Arcade separately, it would cost $60's worth in Microsoft Points, while this collection (which includes 25 other games) retails for half that (and dropping).

*Note that "achievable" is used here in more of a theoretical sense; some of these are fairly easy, but some are pretty darn hard.

The classic games are nostalgic and extremely frustrating. Many of these games come from the arcade, which was designed to eat quarters as quickly as possible. Additionally, the 360's analog stick and substandard D-pad were not made for precision, four-direction control, and the games do little to compensate for this. For example, when you push right on the analog stick, you rarely push directly right, but often have some slight Y-component in your direction. The game seems just as interested in your 2% down as it is in your 100% right, and you may find your New Rally-X car taking a sudden turn south when you want it to go east.

Another minor flaw is that the older games don't identify their soundtracks to the system. While one could argue that part of the reason for playing these games is to relive the arcade experience, music and all, when you're playing a game over and over again trying to get that last achievement, the 8-bit music can start to grate, and being unable to mute them or replace them with your own is a bit irritating.

One mitigating factor to the arcade games is that they all seem to be "enhanced" with the ability to start at the last level you completed. There is also some limited ability to tweak the settings to give you more lives per "quarter" or to adjust the rate at which extra lives are awarded. It may not seem like much in a generation where health is something you recover by hiding for a few seconds and lives are essentially infinite, but to someone who grew up with these games, it's entirely expected and in-context.

One thing I found rather disappointing were the "Arrangement" games in the Museum. The Namco Museum release for the original Xbox, which we have (and, fortunately, is compatible with the 360), has Pac-Man, Dig Dug, and Galaga Arrangement, which feature two-players-at-once play and are a lot of fun. The versions on this disc are not the same, as they only allow for a single player at a time. In fact, they are almost completely different games, not just graphically, but in game play as well.

Included in this collection are some newer releases, too. Pac-Man Championship Edition, while probably not quite worthy of making videogame history, is really a lot of fun. I suppose I can pat myself on the back for nailing all 200 achievement points with surprisingly little effort. Galaga Legions, on the other hand, is quite a different beast. A quick summary of my gameplay would be "oh crap I can't see what's going on where are all these enemies coming from what's that thing how do I kill it shoot shoot oh wait, did I die?" So, a lot like Geometry Wars — actually, if you took Geometry Wars and re-skinned it with Galaga designs and sounds, and added copious helpings of blur and light bloom, you'd just about have Galaga Legions. About as stingy with the achievement points, too. Good for a laugh. ;)

Still, for a value collection, it does live up to its name. There's quite a sampling of games, mostly old with a few new ones thrown in. In fact, as I alluded to before, if you were to buy just the Pac-Man C.E. and Galaga Legions games off of Xbox Live Marketplace, you would already match the current open-market retail cost of this entire disc-based collection. Plus, you can trade, loan, borrow, or re-sell this version, and if you end up playing on a different console for whatever reason and you can't connect to Live to authenticate your Gamertag and licenses, you can still play these games. What a concept.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Maybe it's not so elite after all

I got home yesterday, and my kids are playing the Xbox. My son puts in Hot Wheels Beat That, and after the opening video plays and the title page appears, he says, "Why is the Xbox all fuzzy?" Indeed, the picture looked like it was coming over a bad analog broadcast over a pair of misaligned rabbit ears antennae (anyone remember those?). My older son comments how it looks just like the Xiis are displaying on the dashboard, all snowy and semi-transparent, and my wife says it must be some new feature of the dashboard.

Oh, it's a new "feature", all right, I think. Failure in rendering of 3D elements, where 2D elements such as videos and most of the dashboard are fine? Yeah, I've seen this before, right before Xbox #2 started booting up with an E74 error.

My kids play for a while. Most of the game is fine, but the signs with arrows guiding their Hot Wheels cars around the track show the same "snowy" overlay. And when they are finally done and quit to the dashboard, sure enough, the Xii is standing there, fuzzy and see-through, like a hologram on the fritz. I cycle the power, expecting to see a multilingual error message and a single red light. To my surprise, the box actually boots, although the boot animation shows some fuzziness in places. I then power down the box, and we go to have dinner.

Once the kids are in bed, I power on the Xbox, only slightly hopeful that maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to break the shrinkwrap off my Father's Day gift and play Ghostbusters, even if things are slightly "snowy". Alas, it was not meant to be. The lower right quadrant light was flashing red, and the screen displayed "System error, Contact Xbox Customer Support" in various languages, with E 74" displayed prominently at the bottom. Removed the hard drive, tried rebooting — of course, no dice.

I then took the hard drive up to my office and hooked it up to my PC using an X360USB adapter to back up as much data as I could, just in case. I didn't get as much as I would've liked, considering I started late (it took me some time to find a version of Xplorer360 that would read a 120GB drive), I didn't have a lot of free space on my desktop (I still have some home movie files I need to burn on DVD taking up hard drive space), I couldn't easily pick and choose what to back up (the 360 doesn't use easily-recognizable filenames), and I couldn't just select everything and let it fly (not only did I not have enough space, but Xplorer360 copies everything to your system temp directory first, which is on my undersized C: drive, before moving it to your target destination; I couldn't just copy everything to my data drive directly). I ended up just copying the profiles and calling it good before I fell asleep in my chair.

I then took the hard drive back to the 360 and turned it on, just for kicks. It powered on, and oddly enough, everything looked fine. It was after midnight, so I didn't want to start playing at that point, but I took some time to copy all profiles to a memory card and what save games I could (some games don't let you without logging on to the game, and some games don't let you even then). When I was done, I noticed my Xii was looking snowy and transparent again, so the moment truly was fleeting.

This is my fourth failure, and will be my second time going through Microsoft repair, as soon as I can make time to get it done. I suppose it's a good thing I haven't been able to use the license transfer tool to move all my licenses to this console.


One of the big darlings of this year's E3 was Microsoft's new motion-sensing and voice-activated technology, code-named Natal. And since this is the 21st century and any idiot with a blog can post their opinion on anything whatsoever, here is this idiot's opinion on Project Natal.

It's a gimmick.

Granted, it's a very cool piece of tech. The ability to track a person's body in three-dimensional space is very cool. And from what I've read, it does compensate beautifully for low light (and even for someone walking in the camera's field of view trying to "distract" it) beautifully.

But is it really "the future of gaming"? Is it really the end of the controller as we know it?

The idea of motion-controlled gaming isn't new, obviously. The Wii has been doing this for a couple years now. And obviously, it's a pretty marketable gimmick — they've sold a few hundred billion of these things. However, the thing I've noticed is, everyone I know who has one, doesn't use it. It's the modern equivalent of a board game — it sits on the shelf collecting dust, except for the couple times a month (or less) that company comes over, when you dust it off and gather around and play. Granted, you have a lot of fun playing; but at the end of the night, it gets put back on the shelf, never to be seen or heard from again until the next party.

Now, my impressions may be skewed by my sample set. The people I know are either "hardcore" gamers (i.e. people who grew up on consoles, who play racers or shooters as a hobby, who have a line item in their budget for games, etc.) or non-gamers (people who don't even spend time playing Peggle in a browser; for whom videogames aren't even an afterthought, but so far beyond thought as to cause them to mistake their game console for a toaster on occasion; but they have a Wii because their family or friends convinced them or it was legally required in their district). I know very few of the in-betweens (the "casual" gamers, those that do spend hours on end playing Peggle from their MySpace pages), and none well enough to know what their console gaming habits might be. These may be the ones who play the Wii day in and day out that I'm missing.

Even so, it really doesn't change the fact that it's my opinion, and my gaming style and habits, and that a Wii doesn't exactly fit.

So what is Natal doing that's different? Well, the biggest difference is, there's no controller. Instead of tracking a single point in space that you're holding, Natal is going to track all of you. So, no remotes flying off their straps, no controllers (theoretically) to lose, and no issues with batteries going dead in the middle of a game or having to calibrate or align with a sensor bar.

So is this going to be good for gaming? Well, as someone who's purchased the Live Vision camera, I haven't seen how. The camera came with a download of Totemball, which you play by moving your arms up and down to control the speed of your left and right side — move forward by raising both arms, turn right by raising your left arm and lowering your right, etc. Assuming for a moment that Natal eliminates the issues with the camera not always tracking your hands properly (and from all reports, it does quite well), playing a game like this is exhausting. There's a reason Totemball has an achievement called "Fit Player" that is described as "Play a level for 20 minutes without resting (or your arms falling off)."

Plus, it just can't possibly work to completely replace a controller. While the marketing video shows an interesting demo of a skateboarding kid doing tricks in front of the camera and having that translated into the game, I'm picturing playing Tony Hawk, where the moves you could do in the game included flipping upside down and doing one-armed handstands. Does that mean if you aren't atheletic enough to do a headstand, you won't be able to play the game? And how is this going to extend to things like Halo or Call of Duty that involves a lot of running and jumping around? Or Street Fighter or Dead or Alive, where your character's fighting moves include acrobatic flips and jumps and unrealistic manoeuvers like turning upside-down and spinning, using your legs like a heliopter to fly across the screen?

What about navigation? Wouldn't it be cool to page through movie and game listings by waving your hand? Again, I think it's going to be more tiring to go through pages of items by crossing your hand back and forth across your body, as opposed to the current method of pressing a button on a controller — a controller which has buttons for moving a single item at a time (the D-pad), moving a page at a time (the bumpers), and to move continuously with minimal effort (holding a button down). While there is a convenience factor to not needing to keep track of a controller or remote, it's much more effort to use for any length of time.

To have the option to interact with the machine without a controller in a pinch, however, is very appealing. I definitely like the idea of being able to use a free hand if I misplace the remote, or if the remote is out of reach and I'm otherwise incapacitated (either due to injury, pure laziness, or feeding/rocking a newborn baby). But that's only if it works, if the convenience of this "backup plan" isn't outweighed by the frustration and fatigue brought on by having to do repeated, exaggerated gestures to positively signal my intent.

Basically, it comes down to throw, or the amount of movement you need to push in order to trigger a reaction in the game. The camera is good, but it cannot rival the millimeters required to depress a button. Scale that movement difference up to hundreds or thousands of repetitions a night, and you can see how tired you'll get how quickly. For that matter, one of the reasons I don't spend as much time with the 360 racing wheel in racing games and just use the controller is because of the throw issue. To make a hard right turn, the difference between turning a wheel ¾ of a turn and pushing a stick an inch to the right is substantial.

And I'm still not convinced it's going to be 100% perfect. To move several pages of items from left to right, you're going to have to pass your hand from the left to the right multiple times, and in between each pass, you need to bring your hand from the right back to the left. Is the camera going to be able to determine the difference between a movement back to the left preparatory to another pass to the right, versus a deliberate movement to the left to push the list backwards?

There's also voice control and recognition. I'm not nearly as confident in this technology as I am in the motion control. My experience with Microsoft's voice recognition has been dubious at best. Will it be perfect by the time Natal is released? I wouldn't get my hopes up.

Facial recognition is another feature that is demonstrated in the video. A person walks up to the console, and Natal recognizes the user and signs them in. This, too, sounds neat, but it makes me wonder how this will work in our family of 5½. Whose face will it scan and log in when we're all sitting in our little family room?

That brings up another concern I have, thinking of my family in particular. How does it constrain input to the correct user? When you have boys who want to cause problems for each other, how do you tell Natal to ignore user A and not user B? It must be possible, as one of the E3 articles I read commented on the presenter walking in front of the reviewer on purpose to demonstrate that Natal, once "locked on" to a player, would focus on that player and ignore the distractions. But how do you tell it who is what?

I freely admit that a lot of this boils down to uncertainty in a real-world environment. "Wait and see," some might say, "and you'll see just how well it works." And that is true. One thing my wife and I agreed on as we watched the videos was that our kids are going to love this. I imagine I'll be getting this close to launch, as long as it's not too expensive. (Priced too high, and I'll be waiting for the software support and peer reviews in other homes first.) At this early preview stage, though, I'd have to say I'm "cautiously pessimistic".

Thursday, June 4, 2009

At least they're reading the headlines

About two months ago, I wrote a blog post about someone whose son was conned into giving up his Live credentials in the empty promise of getting Halo 3's Recon armor. The title of this post was I'll give you Recon if you give me your password, and in the post, I describe how the lure of an in-game treasure is used to swindle a poor gullible soul out of his gamertag and email account. I then say the first rule of security is, "you never, ever give out your password to anybody, no matter how legitimate they claim to be."

Imagine my surprise when I found this message in my Xbox Live inbox this week:

my email addres and password is email <redacted>@yahoo.com password <redacted>666 send me recon buddy

This appears to be a brand new user. The only games on his gamercard are Guitar Hero II and Halo 3, with his first achievement unlocked on 25 May. At the rate he's going, though, I fear he may not have his account much longer.

I like that my blog is getting read, but it'd be nice if, you know, people would read past the title.