Friday, November 27, 2009

Left 4 Dead 2

Valve took a lot of heat for announcing the release of Left 4 Dead 2 a mere year after its predecessor, which seems odd considering Madden games get a lot less and Call of Duty games get nearly zero criticism for doing the exact same thing year after year. Many seem to feel that Left 4 Dead was not given a promised amount of support or DLC, or that the content of Left 4 Dead 2 should have only been released as DLC for the original.

Left 4 Dead 2 in a lot of ways is the same game as Left 4 Dead, however it does bring a ton of new content that I think "merely" distributing it as a downloadable add-on would not have been feasible. (Honestly, if it were possible, they probably would've made a lot more money partitioning it out as DLC; so the argument that they were trying to milk customers by packaging it as a separate full-price game doesn't hold water.)

Left 4 Dead 2 brings four new survivors into the zombie apocalypse. The setting is in the southeastern United States, and the survivors have a distinct Southern flavor to them. The levels are a lot wider, meaning the survivors aren't guided down a narrow channel through the level; and the levels occur in broad daylight as well as the middle of the night. There are a lot more weapons, rather than just three different weapons in two different powers. There are also new assists (adrenaline shots and defibrillator units), and all-new melee weapons. There are also new special infected — the charger, spitter, and jockey — and new "uncommon" common infected, like CDA agents in hazmat suits and police officers in body armor.

The Director, the program that controls the overall experience, has some new tools in its arsenal, as well. It has more options for distributing medpacks and weapons (no longer placing the same groups of the same weapons in the same locations), the ability to block off some pathways and open up others to change the overall layout of the level, and even the ability to control the weather in some situations.

Ultimately, though, the gameplay is pretty much the same as before. You have to get through the level from one safe room to the next, trying not to get killed along the way. A couple of the new campaigns end in the same type of "hold out for rescue" event as before, but some have very new objectives. One, you have to collect gas cans and fuel up a car to make an escape (while hordes of zombies try to prevent you from doing it), and another you have to keep moving and run across a long bridge. There is even a new style of "crescendo" event — not only do you have mid-campaign moments like Left 4 Dead where you have to stand your ground against an extended horde for a predetermined period of time (e.g., while a noisy elevator slides into position to grant you passage), but Left 4 Dead 2 has new moments where you start the event at one point and have to battle your way through the zombies to the "off switch" to stop the event, and the horde will only keep coming until you do.

Although each of the five campaigns in Left 4 Dead 2 are considered a "game" and can be played in any order, the dialog at the beginning and end of each tells a more coherent story played in sequence, showing the survivors' journey from Savannah to New Orleans and their ultimate rescue by the armed forces. The game therefore does give just a little more of a story than Left 4 Dead — although there is still no real depth or detail given to the backstory. You still don't know a lot about the characters themselves (unless you read the little bio given in the manual), and nothing more about the infection itself.

Compared to Left 4 Dead, the characters in Left 4 Dead 2 don't show a lot of personality. (The notable exception is that Ellis, if you linger in the safe room for a moment at the start of each chapter, will launch into a very long story about the misadventures of his friend Keith, before getting cut off by one of the other survivors.) While the survivors in Left 4 Dead were constantly throwing out one-liners and brief little interchanges throughout their adventure (from Francis's constant murmurings of things he hates, to the always-entertaining elevator dialog in No Mercy, to Zoey, upon seeing the graffiti "GOD IS DEAD", whispering an awed, "Oh, no, the zombies ate God!"), the Left 4 Dead 2 foursome seem to be all business. They swear a lot more, too, which I don't terribly appreciate.

One thing I noticed about the level design is, because the Left 4 Dead 2 levels are so much more "open", it is much easier to feel lost. When playing the original Left 4 Dead, the level design was so constricted and the use of lighting was so dramatic, that it was quite nearly like riding on rails. There was almost no question where to go next. By contrast, I've found that Left 4 Dead 2 does not have the same "guided" feeling to the design, such that I'm not always sure where to go next. Part of that, I think, is because a lot of the levels are daylight, where "follow the light" just isn't possible — but even in the nighttime of the Hard Rain campaign, the lighting cues just aren't as obvious. In fact, I got thoroughly lost wandering through the sugar mill of Hard Rain, and if I didn't happen to be in a party chat with someone who happened to remember enough of that level to give me some general direction, I'm not sure how long I would've wandered around that level. One of the tricks the game uses to help you find out where to go is, when your character is about to go through the right door or up the correct ramp, he'll signal to his fellow survivors with a helpful "Let's go this way" — but that only seems to occur if you're already heading the right way to begin with. If you can't see or find the right door, you don't get a lot of help. Certainly, this is a problem that will fade with experience, but it does ramp up the learning curve in trying to get through the campaigns.

There are five new campaigns, which are all playable in co-op and versus modes. The Survival mode, that was added as free DLC to Left 4 Dead, is included in Left 4 Dead 2. There is also a brand new "Scavenge" mode, where survivors try to keep a generator fueled as long as they can while the infected try to prevent it. The variety of game types do give you more of an option of how much time you need to commit. A campaign can last up to an hour on the easiest level; versus can be a very lengthy proposition, depending on the skill of both teams. On the other hand, Survival and Scavenge offer a co-op and versus game type, respectively, that generally lasts a relatively short time, like 15 minutes or so.

All told, it definitely feels like much more of a complete package than the original, which by comparison seems like a Left 4 Dead Lite. Although it seems more difficult getting a team together (since its release has been eclipsed by this fall's mega-blockbuster Modern Warfare 2 — or is it because people aren't as excited about this release as the last one?), the teamwork and camaraderie in banding together mowing down hordes of zombies to get to the next rescue point is just as fun as the last time.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Download now, play next week!

Interesting DRM-related goings on in the PC world. The distribution network Steam is offering the ability to not only pre-order games, but pre-download them as well. Since downloading a full game is not an instantaneous process (and is expected to be even worse on a big game's release date), you can download the code early, but be locked out of play until you are able to activate your copy with their server, on the game's actual release date.

Sounds perfectly reasonable, as far as it goes. They have enabled that for the upcoming Left 4 Dead 2, and they also had it available for the much-anticipated Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, whose official release date was Tuesday of this week.

Although the official retail release date was Tuesday, some retailers started selling copies early (which was quickly and "unofficially" copied by GameStop in those areas). So, if you elected to buy a physical game disc instead of the "convenience" of a digital download, there's a chance you could've been playing it early.

Wait, it gets better. When the official retail release date rolled around and people lined up outside retail stores to buy their shiny discs, those who bought the "convenient" digital copy found that it did not activate when midnight changed Monday into Tuesday. In fact, the digital copy would not unlock until Thursday, a full two days later. There was some more confusion as the unlock date was pushed even further out until Friday, but it seems to have been pulled back now to Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, people who bought their shiny discs will have had their fully functional copies for over a day and a half (assuming no issues with DRM).

Wow. So, apparently, in the digital download future, we can not only buy games that we don't own, can't resell, rent, or trade, may not be able to back up and will lose at some uncertain point in the future, but now you can download games and not even get to play them!

I'm sorry, how exactly is this a good thing? Oh right, the publishers directly get your money, whether you get to play the game or not; so it's good for them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Forza Motorsport 2

Riffling through some papers, CyberKnight finds an old, incomplete post started back in January. He blows the dust off the pages and decides to finish it.…

A friend of mine recently picked up Forza Motorsport 2, which has just been released as a Platinum Hit collection that includes all DLC for the budget price of $20 (and, interestingly enough, the DLC alone, still on Marketplace and still at its original price, totaling 2000 points, or $25, exceeds the retail cost of the game — but you don't need to hear me go through that again, right?); and in an effort to entice me to join him, he designed the car I've dubbed the "CyberKnight Industries Two-Thousand" that he wanted to "gift" to me. So I decided to pick it up.

I've played the Project Gotham series, and although I have an ok time with it, it's not something I spend hours of time with. I'm not exactly a car enthusiast, so really, racing one car isn't much different than racing any other to me. So, I have to say, in all honesty, Forza doesn't "excite" me. It's an enjoyable game, to be sure; just not something that I feel like I can fully appreciate as much as someone who could tell you the difference between a 2007 Porsche and a 2005 Ferrari, and what would happen if you put a Mitsubishi engine in each.

Which leads me to my next point. Project Gotham delivers a very "canned" experience — the cars in the game are the cars you get to race, as-is. However, in Forza, you can customize your car down to ridiculous details. Different engines are available, different drive shafts, injector systems, exhaust pipes, spoilers, suspension systems, tires, rims, parts I never even knew existed. For a race, you can adjust the downforce applied by the spoilers, adjust tire inflation pressures, gear transfer ratios, and so on. You can even paint your car, and although you're given a very basic set of tools and shapes, a competent painter with a lot of time on his hands can make very intricate patterns, designs, and pictures. What's more, cars can be traded, with all their upgrades and tunings and paint designs, in an online auction house.

In a race, too, you can get telemetry data on your car. Overlayed on the screen, you can see different data, such as the real-time friction vectors applied to each tire, the G-force sustained by the car, and other data.

On the leaderboards, you can download replays from other drivers, and during playback you can view the same telemetry data, and (if the driver allowed it) see what precise tuning data they used to drive their car.

The amount of customizability and information available is enough to impress a complete racing n00b such as myself.

Of course, there is still one annoyance that I can't seem to escape when it comes to racing games. If you're running against equivalent AI, you cannot make a single mistake. The next closest car will always be within a second behind you, and the first error you make in a turn (which, invariably, means you will spin out and end up facing backwards) will result in your opponent passing you, and you will never see him again. Forza 2 does have the option to turn down the AI's difficulty, which greatly reduces this frustration, thank goodness. (Even better, by the time I'm writing this, Forza Motorsport 3 has been released, and it includes a new feature — rewind — so when you make that mistake, you can actually "undo" it and not have one error completely destroy 20 laps of perfection.)

The UI is just a little clunky. It seems to take one too many button presses to have to get around to change cars or slip into the auction house to view your auction statuses. Going into a career race, if your current car isn't appropriate for the race but you have cars that are, the game is very helpful in showing you just the narrowed-down list of cars to pick from; however, that only seems to happen if your current car doesn't work. If your current car is fine, but you want to select a better one, you have to go all the way back out of career to your garage to see your full list of cars and find one yourself.

Niggling UI issues aside, I'd have to say the game sure impresses me. Not sure if that says a lot, considering I'm not a huge car or race fan, but there you go.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wait... That's not really progress...

If you buy a piece of content, such as an Arcade game, off of the Xbox Live Marketplace, it is tied to two pieces of information: the gamertag that made the purchase, and the console on which that purchase was initially downloaded. Those two bits of information are encoded in a "license". That license is generated and stored on Microsoft's servers, and a copy is stored with the content (possibly encoded within the file itself, maybe in a separate file; its exact location isn't important).

When you go to access this piece of content (i.e. play the game, or select the downloaded map from the in-game menu, or watch the video, or whatever the "content" is), the console reads the license and checks to see if either of two conditions are true:

  • 1) Is the gamertag in the license currently signed in and connected to Xbox Live?
  • 2) Is this console the same console as the one in the license?

(note that a valid, active connection to Xbox Live is required to validate condition 1)

If you have, or have ever had, more than one console (either you own more than one, or you've replaced it via a store warranty instead of a Microsoft repair), you may have purchased content on multiple consoles, and so you have licenses that have different consoles stored in them. If you are the only game player in your household, this might not be a problem, as no matter where you are, you will always validate against condition 1 and be able to play your content (as long as your internet connection is active and Xbox Live isn't down).

However, if your internet connection goes down, or you have other family members in your household, you may find that some of your legally purchased content doesn't work right — either it's unavailable, or it only lets you play in "trial" mode. This is because condition 1 can't pass (either you aren't logged in when your family/housemates are, or you are unable to log in), nor can condition 2 (it was initially downloaded to some other console).

To mitigate this, Microsoft created the "License Transfer Tool", which lets you transfer all your licenses' console registrations to the same console. Using the tool, you can move everything to your new/current console, updating the console ID stored in the licenses on Microsoft's servers. To update the copy of the license on your actual console, you have to re-download each piece of content individually — however, when you select to re-download a piece of content you already have, your console just updates its copy of the license, which is a very quick download. It's still tedious if you have a lot of content to re-download, since you have to do it one at a time, but at least each download itself is typically less than 15 seconds.

Finding all your content used to be a royal pain in the neck. You could go into your Xbox dashboard and page through your download history, but, since everything (every preview video, every game demo, every seemingly inconsequential bit) is stored there, it was tedious to page through and find it all and download it all one-by-one from the console.

Now, the last page of the transfer tool on the web has a link to your download history, and you can add items to your queue straight from there. Each piece of content is labeled with what it is (demo, video, arcade game, add-on pack), making it much easier to tell at a glance whether it's something that needs to be queued, and an "add to queue" button is right there on the list. The queue is still limited (to a couple dozen items), but if your Xbox is on and signed in while you do this, it will be downloading the licenses faster than you can fill the queue.

Note that Microsoft insists this is not for everyday use, for moving content back and forth between consoles at-will. To enforce this, they only allow the tool to be used once every 12 months.

I had been resisting doing all of this for a while, but my kids were bumping up against some arcade games that were showing up as trials again recently, and I decided to bite the bullet and do it (again; I had done it once before, the harder way, well over a year ago), and I marveled at the improvements in the process. Now they can play all the games I've downloaded.

Sounds nice and easy, right?

Well, it occurs to me that, with every Xbox I've gone through (I think I'm on #5 now), and with some licenses that have transferred and some that haven't, whether I've used this tool or not, the vast majority of my games have not had any issues whatsoever going from Xbox to Xbox.

Why? Because they're on disc.

While they did make the license transfer tool much easier, it's still many, many, many times harder than it should be. Why can't you move your Xbox Live Arcade game to another console and let another gamertag play it? For that matter, why can't you take a game to a console that's not connected to the internet? There's nothing stopping you from doing that with a disc.

Maybe they did make a bad situation better, but it's still a very bad situation.