Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dara O'Briain on Videogames

No real deep commentary here; just a comedian doing a routine about playing videogames. I thought it was too good not to share.

Monday, November 22, 2010

MAHG - Revenge of the Nanny State

Contrary to a very popular belief, there is no law preventing the sale of "mature-rated" content to minors. So why are video games being singled out by a California law, now being reviewed by the Supreme Court?

Full story…

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #52

Getting Kinect-ed

The latest installment of the cast you just can’t get enough of! The usual suspects talk a long time, and really don’t get anywhere with anything. Might have a few laughs in store for you though!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Controlling the Market

The Xbox Live Marketplace is anything but a free market. I know I've mentioned this before, but it's worth repeating. It's also extremely unfortunate. Microsoft is generally a developer-friendly company. They have released tools for developing on Microsoft platforms and systems for free, including providing a channel for independent developers to distribute and sell their content on the Xbox 360 itself. But when it comes to running the business side of things, they can be ruthless, inflexible, and anything but accommodating.

Witness a recent release of content for Left 4 Dead 1 & 2. Once again, a developer who seeks to give away its content is refused the privilege. To prove the point and drive attention to the unfairness of the whole issue, Valve announced not only the release of the DLC for free on the PC, but they put the full games up for sale on their own store for under $7 apiece. Coincidentally, $7 is the equivalent for the price that the DLC was selling on the Xbox Marketplace. Although I don't play on the PC often and even have doubts that my machine will even run the games, I decided to buy both games on Steam — voting with my wallet, as it were — and save a couple bucks in the process.

Is it any surprise that Valve negotiated to get Steam on the PS3, so they can control their own distribution?

Not only are DLC prices an issue, but the ability to distribute updates is, as well. While Microsoft cites a desire to ensure the integrity of the Xbox system as a whole (Xbox Live included), the lengthy certification process has proven a barrier to deliver even free updates. Not only has Valve commented on this, calling the system a "train wreck" that's often considered the reason Team Fortress 2 updates have been few and far between (bordering on non-existent), but other developers are suffering.

Developer Uber Entertainment released a game for the Xbox Live Arcade this summer, Monday Night Combat. This game that is one part tower defense and one part class-based third-person shooter is what Uber considers a "service based model of a game", meaning they intend to continuously update the game to balance classes and fix exploits, and do so quickly. However, their most recent title update was submitted to Microsoft, where it languished in certification and the deployment queue for over a month, before Microsoft decided it was fit to release.

In news that should surprise no one, the game Samurai Warriors 2 — which I picked up for myself $6 over a year ago — still has the extra character pack available on the Xbox Marketplace at its original price of $30 worth of Microsoft Points. I only bring it up now, though, because I can finally say that the copy I borrowed from FireMedic41 over two years ago, I finally returned this fall.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #51

Bathtubs and Banter

So kicking off the next 50 episodes, we continue to liven things up. We’ve got some cool extras in store for you now, so our long-time suffering listeners might actually get a laugh or two.

All six of us return in 51, as FireMedic41 attempts to keep things moving along. But with this bunch, it’s a lot like herding cats.

Bumper music provided courtesy of national recording artist Major Tom. Visit the band at!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #50

Our 50th Cast!!!

In our 50th episode we examine our humble beginnings of recording by candlelight in a shanty on the eastern seaboard (or well maybe not exactly right…). The shows hosts continue to develop as MidnightGhost is looking to be a regular too, and Furgus and ‘Jeeps rejoin us for a cast to remember. There’s chat about 343 statements, the awesome Stepto and the ban team, Kindle’s, and some cool gaming news with the Kinect.

We also talk about “the vacuum”, and “the mom”, some Pittsburgh Penguins fan stuff, and how this crazy podcast started and evolved into …well we’re not sure about what we’ve evolved into, but it keeps getting to be more fun!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #49

Reach Has Fallen

Halo: Reach is here and in this abbreviated Episode 49 CyberKnight, Bovine Piracy, and Firemedic41 offer their thoughts on Reach about 24 hours after its launch.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

MAHG - Hands-On with Move

CyberKnight gets his hands on a demo of the PlayStation Move at a local Wal-Mart, and compares it to the Wii and the Kinect.

Full story…

Monday, September 13, 2010

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #48

REACHing for Answers, Smacktards, and Outtakes

Here in Episode 48, MidnightGhost from DTH joins us as we explore the deeper, philosophical meanings behind Internet anonim..anonon..whatever.!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Transformers: War for Cybertron

The Transformers franchise has been in questionable hands lately. Michael Bay pumped out two movies that had all the style and class of a typical college frat party (which, incidentally, he included in one of the movies). The videogames released with the movies didn't do much to support the franchise, let alone break the stigma of bad movie-game tie-ins. Low review scores and a lack of interest from my friends certainly didn't motivate me to pick them up.

Naturally, when I heard that Activision was publishing a new Transformers game, I was initially skeptical. Although it wasn't going to be based on one of the awful Michael Bay movies, it still had the potential to be just another milking of the franchise name. One of the earlier interviews with developer High Moon Studios didn't help my opinion. When they said their strategy was to start out by making a good game first, rather than trying to make "a Transformers game", I was afraid I would see a generic shooter with Transformers skins, maybe some transforming abilities shoehorned into the gameplay.

As more and more interviews and preview videos came out, though, my opinion changed. High Moon set out to make a good game, and rather than shoving the Transformers universe into it like a square peg into a round hole, they took the franchise seriously as well, carefully molding the characters and the story. They decided to tell the backstory of the '80s cartoon series, and apparently they did such a good job with it that Hasbro adopted it as official canon.

The ultimate result, Transformers: War for Cybertron, is a Transformers fanboy's dream. The story fits in perfectly with the cartoon, showing the introduction of Megatron, his rise to power over the Decepticons, and how he gains Starscream as an untrustworthy second in command; and how Optimus (voiced by the one and only Peter Cullen) becomes Optimus Prime, bearer of the Matrix of Leadership and leader of the Autobots. The characters talk like an '80s cartoon, including Soundwave's classic synthesized voice and Omega Supreme's overly-dramatic two-word sentences. There are also more than a couple references to the 1986 animated film.

The campaign takes place on Cybertron, a mechanical world. It is very detailed and very robotic, very true to the source material. The Transformers geek in me was very happy with the look and feel of the world. Although, from a more generic, videogame-player analysis, it does make a lot of the environments look the same. It's something that, if you're not expecting, may disappoint you.

The gameplay works very well with the transforming characters. Transforming is handled very simply by clicking the left thumbstick (by default). The levels are crafted in ways that encourage using both modes (many wide open areas and ramps) so that many times, one might think, "I want to drive across here," and then, "I need to walk around here for a more tactical maneuver," and it is very easy and natural to flip back and forth from vehicle to robot mode to get it done. The levels are a little on the large side, but the ability to transform to a vehicle at-will and race across any distance means nothing ever feels so big that it's a chore to get through; so the world ends up being at once vast and manageable.

The game's difficulty curve is rather jagged. I found that there were many times the game would just decide, "You are going to die now," and in two or three shots, it would be so. I found that the final bosses were most often not the hardest parts of the game. This ended up working to my advantage, as there's a small glitch to the "complete the game on the hardest difficulty" achievement — if you've played through the campaign on a lower difficulty level, you can load up the last checkpoint of each chapter on the hardest, play just that, and get credit for the whole chapter. I didn't learn about this until I played through the entire Autobot campaign on Hard first, so I had many times where I had to pound through some very difficult encounters. Even on the easier difficulty levels, though, the game didn't make it too easy.

Health and ammo are not auto-replenishing. Some have said that auto-restoring health makes games too easy, but I've found the lack of it to be rather frustrating — one mistake, or one lucky shot from the AI, puts you at a considerable disadvantage not just for the rest of that encounter, but for every future encounter until you are blessed to find a health pack. Transformers WFC isn't too bad in this regard; energon cubes are frequent enough (and in plain sight) to limit the impact of a setback, but it's not overly-generous such that you'd never have to worry about health. Ammo is about the same. Although I rarely found myself out of ammunition, I often found myself low. It is more often that you'll find another weapon than you will a generic ammo crate, though, so you may find yourself forced to toss empty weapons a lot. On the plus side, this encourages you to try out all the different weapons; but on the minus side, it means if you have a favorite weapon, you might find yourself forced to choose between holding it empty and picking up a less favorable one that actually has ammo in it.

Co-op is done fairly well. The campaign features drop-in, drop-out, up to three players. (There are always three players on your team; the AI controls any non-human Transformers.) I've found, though, that it's actually easier to play the harder difficulty levels alone. Although your AI buddies don't provide much support, they also never die, meaning you only have to worry about keeping yourself alive. Also, all the energon cubes, ammo crates, and weapons are yours to pick up, as the number of random items does not seem to increase with more human players.

The game features an "Escalation" mode, rapidly becoming a new standard mode in videogames. You and up to three partners start a match (no drop-in allowed, which makes sense for the game type) and face wave after wave of progressively harder enemies. You earn energon (not health) by killing enemies, and this energon is spent at kiosks spread around the map. Kiosks dispense health, ammo, and weapons; and there are also doors that can be unlocked by spending energon. While each person earns energon independently, they can share their resources by depositing as much energon as they have — so, if a door takes 400 energon to unlock, player 1 has 200, player 2 has 150, and player 3 has 75, player 1 can deposit his 200 in, player 2 can deposit his, and player 3 can finish paying it off to open the door. Once a door is open, the path beyond often leads to kiosks with better weapons or items.

Multiplayer matchmaking has many different modes available. There are free-for-all, team deathmatch, king-of-the-hill, territories, assault, and capture-the-flag style modes. The game features a customizable class-based system similar to Call of Duty, where you can pick your basic class (scout, scientist, leader, or soldier) and attributes (specialties, starting weapons, even chassis and colors). Experience points earned in multiplayer games level up your class and unlock available weapons and "perks".

Multiplayer is, unfortunately, easily the most frustrating part of the game. The network code is not the most robust, so it's not uncommon to find your party split for no apparent reason. Although the game will claim to be "waiting for balanced teams", it doesn't seem to do much "balancing", as it tends to throw many high-level players together on one team. After a match, even if it is severely lopsided, it will often keep the players on the same teams, rather than splitting them up. Also, rather unfortunately, the online gaming population for Transformers WFC as a whole is extremely small. The game often reports an online population of less than a couple thousand players, and less than a hundred playing any one given mode. So the gamers you see are the "real fans", the ones who play the game a lot. You'll start to recognize their names by sight after just a few sessions. There is no host migration, so if the player chosen as the game host decides to quit, you are dumped unceremoniously back to the multiplayer selection screen (not the game lobby) — the message saying this happened "because the host quit" confirms this, different than a message suggesting a network issue ("connection to the host timed out").

Now, I've never claimed I was a good player. In fact, I often just plain suck. One of the reasons I stopped playing Call of Duty 4 was because I grew tired of kill:death ratios of 1:3 or worse. Unfortunately, Transformers WFC seems to take this to all new levels, as I consistently lead both teams in deaths and have kill:death ratios as low as 1:6. There are times I'm convinced the game has it out for me, when I will observably do twice as much with the same equipment to another player, fail to eliminate them, and have them kill me with half the effort. But whatever the cause, the result is the same: I'm dead, he's not, and I'm frustrated.

The rest of the game is stupid fun. When I'm playing Escalation as Jetfire (one of my favorite Transformers from my collection when I was a teenager), hit the afterburners to rocket away from a bunch of Decepticons, transform, and skid to a stop in robot mode in front of a kiosk to replenish my ammo before jumping back out to fight some more, I'm grinning like a thirteen-year-old geek playing with his toys. It really never gets old. If I can just suffer through the multiplayer to get my experience points (which, fortunately, you can earn without the kills, just not as quickly) to get the last few achievements and satisfy the achievement completionist in me, then I can get back to the fun parts of the game.

That is, before Halo: Reach comes out and dominates my game time….

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

MAHG - Used gamers are pirates now?

"When the game's bought used we get cheated," says THQ, but you can't get cheated out of a sale that was never yours to begin with.

Full story…

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #47

Jumping Sharks, Being Irrational, Purchasing Prestige

Bovine Piracy joins the cast as we get to know The Blokey, talk about franchises jumping the shark, discuss the new Bioshock game, and complain about hackers and modders.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #46

Red, Blue, Blue, Green, Red, Yellow, Orange…

With FireMedic41, CyberKnight, and starring special guest LauraLouny!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

MAHG - Face-to-Face with Kinect

I was finally able to test drive Kinect for myself recently, and I am finally able to give my own account and form my own opinion.

Full story…

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Connecting with Kinect

I am fortunate to live in an area not far from a Microsoft Store, and, being suddenly full of free time, I decided to head over there to check it out.

I walked in and was greeted by one of the retail sales grunts, who pointed out the 3D TV at the front of the store. She indicated that, not only was it being driven by a Windows PC, but the Xbox 360 connected to it was also 3D capable. Unfortunately, they didn't have a 3D game available for demonstration. I thought it was interesting, considering what a big deal Sony has made of hyping up their system's 3D capabilities, that the 360's capabilities don't seem to be getting any press.

I asked if the Kinect was on display, and she pointed to the back fo the store. I asked if there was an official price for it, and she said, without any hesitation, "$149." Is that an official confirmation of the price, or just a random employee answering a question without knowing the weight of what I tried to ask? Probably the latter, but I'm not hopeful about the former.

I made my way to the display area in the back of the store. A group of young kids, probably around kindergarten age, all in matching T-shirts, were taking turns playing the Kinect Adventures game that was presented at this year's E3. It was an opportunity to see how kids reacted to the new device, and, in general, the reaction was favorable. The kids seemed to have a good time. Some were more into it than others, but I don't think it was any worse than one might expect from a group of kindergarteners at any activity.

Once the kids were done, and as the Microsoft Store rep was ushering them out, I was able to walk up and get a close look at the device. Its black, shiny, slightly angled shell has a very similar look to the new 360. It's about a foot and a half wide, stands barely a foot tall on its stand, and pretty much looks exactly like its pictures. I actually think it looks a little smaller in person, which only means it'll be easier to place at home. Although it doesn't help the impression that it's way overpriced, when you can take one look at it and think, "$150 for that little thing?"

The Microsoft Store rep came back and asked if I wanted a turn. She started up the demo with a wave of her hand, and we played the rafting game. Almost exactly as the E3 videos, we raced down a whitewater canyon, steering the raft by stepping left and right and getting air by jumping in unison. Except we didn't seem to have much success. I think the left-right movement might've been hampered by my not wanting to run into the Microsoftie, so I was a little conservative. My jumping, it became apparent, was severely mis-timed. The game takes actual pictures of game play, and at the jumping moments, the Microsoftie was in the air when I was very clearly still on the ground. She had obviously had a lot more practice in knowing when to jump at the correct time, and the game knew it. The cynic in me would say she knew the limits of the system and how to "correct" for them, but there are just too many variables for me to identify the issue — was it that, was it that I was mis-reading the timing of the game itself, was the software not cueing my jump clearly, was it my own slower reflexes?

Next, a group of three older teenage girls arrived. I played the next game with one of them, the handcart race. Again, my lateral movement seemed to be a little under-accepted. I had more trouble moving left than right, and again, I'm sure that was due to my own hesitation in moving left so as not to slam into the other player standing there. But for making my avatar move to the right side of a handcart that's barely two avatar-widths across, it seemed like it wanted me to shift my own body two or three whole steps to the side. Is that a Kinect problem, or a software problem? While some people may say they're one in the same (if the games are crap, it doesn't matter how good the console is), I think it's an important distinction (not all 360 games turned out like Perfect Dark Zero, which wasn't bad but definitely wasn't the best the 360 would ever have to offer), and, unfortunately, it's impossible to say which is at fault. Again, I had a little issue timing my jumping, but my ducking was a little better.

I stepped aside after this game to let the other girls play. I would've liked to play more, to get more of a "feel" for Kinect, but I didn't want to hog the system. As I stepped aside, though, I realized that my heart was racing, and I was a little out of breath. I suppose it was a good thing I was taking a break. I make no pretense about being in any kind of healthy cardiovascular shape, but I was surprised at how much of a workout those two minigames had given me.

The two remaining girls stepped in front of the camera, and the console started up the "wall-ball" game, where dodge balls are smacked towards blocks until they bust. They were a little uncoordinated, which seemed to be a function of their own hand-eye coordination and not a fault of the game itself. This game moved a little faster, and it seemed to me like any input lag would be very pronounced in this demo. The Microsoftie kept encouraging the players to "swing earlier", which felt like a need to compensate for input lag (although, there were definitely times when the girls' own lack of coordination was clear in that they were physically swinging after the ball passed their avatar — could this be a candidate for being improved by 3D?).

I mentioned input lag, and I do believe it was there. However, I don't believe it was extreme. In the moments when I could see a 1:1 coorelation between the avatar and a human body (including my own), the lag was extremely slight — I'd say within a tenth of a second. It's visually perceptible, but barely. It wasn't nearly as bad as the Microsoft press conference, ironically, made it look (I'd almost bet money there was a video signal delay getting the display on the huge screen behind the presenters that made it look a little more laggy than what I witnessed).

For input calibration, there was none. A player walked in, and that was it. Now, the Microsoftie did "guide" people a bit. She was encouraging the kids to stand a little further apart. This could've easily been as much for their own safety as it was for Kinect's benefit (there's a lot of flailing around). She did, however, make the comment "not too far apart, or you'll 'disappear' from the game". Well, I guess that's only fair; the camera's not going to have a fish-eye field of view. One thing that did surprise me, though, was that when one of the kids' adult companions came and grabbed the kid's shoulder to give them a little tug to help pull them apart, the avatar extended its hand to the left, as if it identified the adult's hand and arm touching the shoulder as the kid's. It seemed like a bit of a tracking error that Kinect was supposed to not make (i.e. not get confused by a random distraction entering the camera range), but perhaps physical contact will throw it off.

The Microsoftie did mention that there was a bit of a "calibration" process where Kinect learns the layout of your living room, where furniture is and such. What it does with this information, I don't know; and how much of this information is important, I also don't know — will it get confused if my room is clean one day, and the kids have left their toys all over the floor the next?

So, all told, what do I think? Not much different than I thought before, to be honest. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was playing something much like a Wii, even if I didn't have a remote strapped to my wrist. I do think my kids will love it, seeing how much fun they have on the Wii whenever they visit their grandma. Technologically, it's impressive, how it identifies anyone who walks up to it and lets them play without any extra setup. I just don't know what to think. I'm a hardcore gamer, and it's not made for me; that much is certain. My kids are young enough to straddle the line easily. My wife has shown some interest in the fitness and latin dance games, so there may be some hope there. It's still hard for me to get excited about Kinect for me. But for my family? Yeah, I think it'll be good. Chances are good we'll have one in the home for Christmas.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

MAHG - Can Sony Promote without Bashing?

Sony is insecure. They have a quality product with laudable features, but where they should be spending their promotional time and dollars advertising themselves and why they have a superior offering, they can’t seem to stop attacking and belittling their competition.

Full story…

Thursday, July 1, 2010

MAHG - Kinect vs. Move

Nintendo has been a runaway success with the Wii console. Where motion controls and casual games were at best a niche market when it came to consoles, they proved that consumers would buy the hardware as fast as they could make it. Hoping to capitalize on the idea, both Microsoft and Sony have introduced new devices that promise to “change the way [we'll] play games” on their respective consoles. But how are they doing it, and will it pay off?

Full story

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A new gig - Mad As Hell Reviews

I'm taking on a new assignment, which hopefully will motivate me to write a lot more (or at least more consistently) than I have been up 'til now. I am now the Editorial Commentator for Mad As Hell Reviews, the opinion and editorial section of Mad As Hell Gamers.

MAHG is the creation of JediChric and SparkStalker, the ones who started the podcasting movement at They decided to branch out and do their own thing, creating their own brand as it were.

Since game reviews are the domain of some of the other contributors there, I'll likely keep my own game reviews (when I have time for them) over here, when I get around to them. But, I may end up throwing a review over there instead, if it happens to fill in a gap they need to have covered.

In any case, look for my first post, coming very soon. I won't spoil it, but I'll give you a hint as to the topic: it may move you, you may connect with it, and it'll change the way you read blog posts this holiday season.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Released this month was the beta for Halo Reach, Bungie's last game in the Halo franchise; and all people with a copy of Halo ODST were invited to jump in the beta (in a matter very similar to Crackdown and the Halo 3 beta three years ago).

I think it goes without saying that I, of course, jumped in.

It definitely feels like Halo. The look, the sounds, the weapons, they are all very at home in the Halo universe. But there are a lot of differences, too, that make it new and exciting.

Visually, I'd say Reach is "grittier" than the other Halo games. It is set immediately before the events of Halo 1, and it's made to look older and less polished than the games set in a later time. (Whether that "makes sense", considering Reach fell in a very short time before Halo 1's opening, is I'm sure a matter of debate.) Spartan armor is mottled and scuffed instead of smooth and shiny, and even the medals that appear on-screen have a dirty, textured look to them.

The "equipment" feature from Halo 3 has evolved into "armor abilities". Instead of picking up a piece of equipment, you spawn with a certain ability as part of your "loadout" (which is a combination of your armor ability — constant until you die — and your starting weapons — which can be replaced with what you find on the battlefield). You may choose a loadout with Sprint, Armor Lock, Jetpack, or Cloak. (Elites, in the game types where you can play them, have a Roll/Evade ability in place of the Sprint, and they have no Armor Lock.)

The loadout feature is nice, in that it gives you the option to tailor your abilities to your playing style. Also, since you can choose a new loadout every time you spawn, you're not locked into something for the entire game — you can switch abilities between deaths depending on how the enemy is reacting or how the game is playing. (In traditional capture-the-flag games, I was partial to using Cloak to get in or guard the flag, and then switching to Sprint once the flag was in motion.)

Also new are assassinations. When you come up behind someone, you can tap your melee button for an instant kill. That's not new. But if you hold the button down, you will perform an assassination move that lets your opponent know they've been owned, with a knife in the back, or a neck-breaking head twist, or a pound to the ground. That's new. They don't seem like much, but they add a lot to the game, especially when you sprint up behind the enemy flag carrier, jump up behind him, and do a two-fisted pummel to smash him into the ground inches before the score point to save the game. The only danger is, during the assassination animation, you are vulnerable, and someone can kill you to save their teammate. Or, someone can kill your victim and steal your kill (you are awarded with an "assist", for holding them still, I suppose). The beta did seem overly sensitive in turning quick-touch kills into animated assassinations, which resulted in a few vulnerable deaths in close quarter intense firefights; that may have been intentional, to show off and test the assassination code.

One of the interesting problems in making a prequel game is adding new elements to make the game interesting, but without adding things that make the past seem better than the future and leave you wondering, "What happened to R2-D2's thrusters?" I don't know if they've succeeded here or not. It could be argued that these armor abilities were only in development on Reach and were therefore lost when the planet fell. Maybe the campaign will address this, or maybe it'll just sweep it under the rug. While it may not be important to Reach's game play, it will have an effect on the overall Halo universe; and for a company that has dedicated much into the building of this universe's story, it will be important, especially to maintain the immersion. I suppose we'll see how it plays out when the game launches.

In all, I'm excited for the new Halo. It's different enough from Halo 3 to be new, but enough of the same to be worth playing. My preorder is in for the retail release, which, I'm sure by no coincidence, has been announced for exactly 117 days after the end of the beta.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Piracy Causes Everything

Many software publishers and developers like to blame piracy for everything, from less-than-expected sales to the reason for DRM, but this is a new one. Sony America's Senior VP of Public Relations Rob Dyer gave an interview to Gamasutra recently. In the interview, Gamasutra brought up the lagging sales of the PSP handheld consoles. Dyer's response:

… And we also believe that there's a way that you will be able to, not stop, but slow down the piracy in the first 30 to 60 days from a tech perspective. There's some code that you can embed that we've been helping developers implement in order to get people at least to see a 60-day shelf life before it gets hacked and it shows up on BitTorrent.

That's been the biggest problem, no question about it. It's become a very difficult proposition to be profitable, given the piracy right now. And the fact that the category shrunk inside of retail.

It's true; you can't hit any torrent tracker site without seeing thousands of download links for a Sony PSP.

Wait, no.

Last time I checked, you can't download hardware. And if pirates are actively seeking out games to download and play, it stands to reason they'd need a piece of hardware to play them on. So, rampant piracy of games, if anything, should have an increase of hardware sales, no? Heck, I'd be more inclined to buy a PSP if I knew I could easily hack it and get a bunch of free games for it (if I did that sort of thing).

Piracy may have an impact on the revenue the entire division brings in, when you combine hardware and software; but until we can hook up a replicator to BitTorrent, you'll have a hard time convincing me that the failure to move hardware is a fault of piracy.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Look at Swearing in Video Games

Here's a nice little opinion piece written by the author Mohammed over at Frag Crunch, titled "A Look at Swearing in Video Games". I've expressed my dismay on more than one occasion here about a game's use of excessive language ruining the experience (or interest) for me. It's always nice to get a second opinion.

I'm not sure I'd go as far as he did in his conclusion, though, that the excess of a few examples necessarily negates a whole medium's status as art. I would suggest that Hollywood has put out quite a few movies that take things to excess with little value (language, gratuitous sex, violence, meaningless special effects); but just because Michael Bay puts out a few movies that are all explosions and no plot, I wouldn't say movies aren't an art form in the general sense. The value of certain, particular works of art in the medium can be debated, but I'd still say it's a form of expression.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Single player vs. multiplayer

I've completed the Legendary campaigns of Halo 2, Halo 3, and Halo ODST. I've slogged through the Veteran campaigns of Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 4, including rescuing a hostage from an airplane full of terrorists in less than 60 seconds. I've even managed to get through a complete episode of Left 4 Dead 2 on... well, Advanced, not Expert.

And yet, when I attempt to play on Xbox Live, I might as well bring a knife to a gunfight.

I don't know what it is, whether it's incompetent enemy AI or something in me that just chokes when I go against human players. All I know is, this music video sums it up nicely. :)

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Game Room

New to Xbox Live Arcade this spring is Game Room, a virtual arcade space where you can play retro arcade and console titles and issue game challenges to your friends.

The games in Game Room are pretty faithful recreations of the originals. You can even select different viewing options, including the original arcade feel that replicates the pronounced curves of the CRTs used in the old machines. Unfortunately, the same can't quite be said of the controls. Games that control with a joystick seem to work just fine, but games with special controls aren't quite as good. The arcade console Tempest, for instance, had a knob that allowed for very quick and precise control over your paddle. That control over both speed and precision is just something that doesn't work quite well when translated to pushing a stick left and right. The old Intellivision console had a numeric keypad on its controllers, and so each keypad button that a game uses is mapped to one of the buttons on the controller. While they made their best attempt at grouping like functions on the controller (i.e. Sub Hunt had keys for ¼, ½, ¾, and full speed, which are all mapped to the four cardinal directions of the D-pad), you still have to take some time memorizing the translation before you can play the game effectively.

On the plus side, this app has some serious potential for sucking some money away from me. On the first day alone, I was eager to buy Tempest and Yar's Revenge. The challenges are a great idea, letting you call out or answer a call to play a certain game based on certain rules (e.g., who can last the longest in Tempest, or who can get the highest score with the default settings in Centipede). The "medals" you can earn in each game are kind of a neat idea, too, as they give you something to shoot for outside of simply playing the game, but they're straightforward enough that you don't have to go out of your way to get them (no having to set up a "custom room" with a second controller plugged in to boost).

However, there are more than a couple negatives. For one, the user interface doesn't feel like it was tested for usability. There is a "showcase arcade" where most of the arcade cabinets are already set up, but to enter it, you have to press 'X' on the main menu. Why not just make this a menu option? The first time I entered the showcase arcade, it was from accidentally hitting X, and it took me a bit of time to figure out, first, where I was; second, how to get out; and third, how to get back in if I wanted to. And, whether in the showcase arcade or your own, they opted to preserve a "realistic" arcade feel by having actual arcade cabinets and, almost always, an Avatar playing at each one. It's all well and good, except as you're browsing the arcade, it's difficult to see what machine you're looking at. The game's title in its original font and design isn't always legible when seen on a virtual cabinet on your TV screen, and the Avatars' large heads tend to block most of the game cabinet's screen and even some of the name placard.

A rather glaring UI issue that I find completely annoying (and really fuels my doubt as to whether it was tested for usability) is the Atari 2600 console screen. The Atari 2600 had a series of switches on the console that you used to select difficulty and game types, and to start or reset the game. To access these switches, you press a button on your controller, and a pop-up window with those switches appears on the screen. However, this pop-up window almost completely covers the game screen, so as you're pushing, for instance, the Game Select switch, you can't see the screen to see what game you've selected. You have to keep closing the window to peek. It borders on unusable.

Another issue I'm running into a lot is connectivity. Very frequently, I get a warning message about not being connected to the Game Room server. Fortunately, most of the time, it's recoverable. When ending a ranked game, I'm warned that failure to connect to the server could result in a lost score, but I have the option of hitting 'A' to try again, and it almost always connects on that second try. (Or, if it fails, it doesn't tell me.) When I view my challenges, I frequently see "Challenges are not available", and I have to back out and re-enter the challenges list before the message goes away and the challenge list is active.

Whether this is related to connectivity or not, I don't know; but I have had my medals and level reset once so far. I had already earned six medals (three each in Tempest and Yar's Revenge), and I had ranked up to Level 2 (and earned an achievement for the trouble). But one night, I thought I'd check my profile, and I noticed that my number of medals had somehow dropped to 3 (only three medals that I had in Yar's Revenge as of the night before — which, if I had thought about it, I might have realized it seemed odd that the game seemed to be "re-awarding" me the medals as I was playing Yar's, because it probably was) and my level was back down to Level 1. I worked on and re-acquired my medals in Tempest (which was no easy task, since I'm not nearly as skilled in Tempest as I am in Yar's), and sure enough, the game made a big deal about awarding my medals and showing me level up to Level 2. (No extra achievement points for doing it twice though.)

And, I shouldn't forget that, on that first night, Game Room wouldn't even let me buy any games. I'd press my button, but nothing would happen — no points deducted from my account, no new game for my arcade. It did seem to resolve itself by the next night, but of course that meant I wasn't purchasing my games on "release day", which meant I didn't get the free "mascot" with each arcade game I bought.

And that's when I can even start the application. Fairly randomly, Game Room gets stuck in the "Loading" screen, where the progress bar stops at about ¼ and never moves forward, until I force an exit to the dashboard and try again.

The concept behind Game Room is a good one, good enough for me to fight through the issues to get to the actual games, relive some old memories, and reclaim my title as a Yar's Revenge champion. But the issues are numerous, enough to make a lot of people I know forgo the experience altogether, which is really a shame.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

EA not learning from Ubisoft's mistakes

It wasn't that long ago that I was writing about Ubisoft's abysmal DRM scheme, that makes their games unplayable if your internet connection isn't perfect (or if their servers go down). Well, it seems EA isn't learning from that mistake, as Command and Conquer 4 suffers from the same problems, where a hiccup in a network connection in a single-player game causes an expulsion of the game (and associated progress loss).

What is amazing to me is how the EA blogger that broke this news then goes on to justify this, by saying it's not fair to call it a "single-player game" since it's constantly uploading stats and downloading unlocks.

Excuse me? It's not fair to call a game that you play by yourself a "single-player game"? Oh, he thinks we should call it an online-only game, "which it basically is". Yeah, it basically is because of the obnoxious DRM installed with the game.

Oh, but wait. EA has a perfectly logical explanation: It's not DRM. See, it's a service. You can install the game on multiple computers, create multiple "Commander Personas" (save files?), play the same save from any computer, and even run the game without the game disc.

Really? Funny, I can do all of that with, say, Diablo 2 (well, with a "nocd" hack to play without the disc). If I want to play my saved game on another computer, I can copy the save files on a USB stick. No internet connection required.

Yes, EA. If you require me to connect to your server to play the game, that is DRM. You do get points for adding features to the service, but the service is still DRM. You can't just redefine it away.

Friday, March 19, 2010

F- you, Fisher!

I got a chance to play the demo for the upcoming Splinter Cell: Conviction on Xbox last night. I've enjoyed the Splinter Cell games in the past, even if it takes me an excessively long time to play them (I think I may have a tendency to "over-stealth"). I've missed out on the multiplayer, but the single player experience is one I've found to be fairly well-done.

The demo is certainly interesting. The game play is really intense. The demo starts out with Sam Fisher interrogating someone in a bathroom for information leading to the people responsible for the murder of his daughter. While Fisher has never exactly been hugs and kisses before, this scene is particularly brutal. See, new to interrogations is the use of the environment to encourage the victim to talk. What that means in this case is, if you're standing near a urinal, Sam will take the guy's head and smash it into the fixture, repeatedly, until the porcelain basin is destroyed. The guy will then give up some information, which is projected on the walls of the room. The effect has a very dramatic, cinematic feel, like a scene out of Natural Born Killers. To get more information, Sam can take his victim over to the bathroom's mirrors and smash his head into them, or use his body to break down the stall doors. It's almost unsettling in its brutality.

The demo then flows into the next mission, where you must infiltrate a warehouse. The transition is, again, very movie-like and very well-done. If it's any indication of the final game, then there is going to be very little in the way of "loading times" as each mission is just going to flow right into the next one. Very nice.

The game has a very easy-to-use cover system, where holding the left trigger lets you take cover behind obstacles, and tapping A lets you move from cover to cover. It's a convenient way to not only discover not only where you can take cover, but get to those places without fighting your controller or the environment. The "tagging" system offers a very easy way to take out enemies quickly (tag up to three enemies, then hit a button and Sam takes them out automatically), but to keep from making the game too easy, you have to "earn" the tags by getting in close and taking people out with a punch.

Objectives are projected onto buildings and scenery. It fits the whole cinematic theme and has the added bonus of guiding you to your destination. In the back of my mind, I'm wondering if there's going to be an instance where the projected text is going to be hard to read because of perspective or contrast with the environment, but it definitely didn't come up in the (very short) demo.

The big downer, though, was what happened when I encountered enemies in the warehouse and started taking them out. Every time I was discovered, or took a bad guy out, the survivors who were now on my case would shout obscenities. And not just any obscenities, either; most common were "F-bombs" of some form or another, followed closely behind by taking the Lord's name in vain. They were loud, punctuated, and it happened every time. And I could find no in-game option to censor the language.

Call me a "prude" if you wish, but this is not something I want to hear when I'm playing a game for my own entertainment. (At least, when I'm playing online, if another person takes their language over the top, I have the option of muting that player.) I don't like it; my wife, who is nearly always sitting in the family room reading while I'm playing, doesn't want to hear it; and we don't want our toddler, who lays around the room while I'm playing until he finally falls asleep, to be exposed to it in our house. It's one of the main reasons I stayed away from Gears of War, it's one of the reasons I shunned Rainbow Six: Vegas, and it's why I'm going to avoid Splinter Cell: Conviction this year.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Ubisoft proves piracy pays

Computer software publishers have a problem. Ideally, they want to get as many people as possible to be able to purchase, use, and enjoy their software. But, because a computer program is a set of digital instructions that can theoretically be copied indefinitely, they want to ensure that the only people who are using said software are those who have paid for a legitimate copy and not just copied the bits.

As time and technology have moved on, companies have tried more and more aggressive methods of protecting their product to try and prevent people from using an unpaid copy of their programs; and those who circumvent those methods, the "pirates", have become more adept at defeating those methods and distributing the fruits of their labors, i.e., free, unprotected versions of the software.

Where I've noticed it a lot lately, since it's my hobby, is in the realm of videogames. EA had been taking a lot of bad press for implementing what were seen at the time as tight restrictions, limiting the number of installations and requiring their games to re-authenticate with an online server every few days before allowing any play. Other companies have had their own DRM schemes that people seem to alternately complain about and accept as the cost of doing business, whether it's the "stealth" install of device drivers like SecuROM that try to authenticate your disc or the requirement of logging in to an online-enabled account.

The current bad boy of DRM, though, is Ubisoft, who has one-upped the DRM policy on their newest game Assassin's Creed 2 by having the game require authentication with their servers not just on installation, nor periodically at launch, but continuously during game play. If the game at any time loses its connection to the server, it immediately kicks the player back to the main menu, causing the player to lose any in-game progress since their last save (a problem exacerbated by the fact that the game apparently doesn't allow you to save at any point, just at designated checkpoints).

Even the most cursory analysis reveals several fatal flaws in this approach. First, requiring an internet connection at all means taking this game traveling (or attempting to use in a home without an "always-on" broadband connection) is pretty much out. Second, home internet services are not 100% stable. I've had my Comcast cable internet connection drop during an online gaming session within the past month — briefly, but long enough to kick me out of the Xbox 360 gaming session I was playing at the time. Third, users on a wireless connection are even more prone to interference that can disrupt their connection. Again, I've had my wireless router hiccup more than once in recent memory. My PC doesn't usually take too long to reconnect before I'm surfing off to the next web page, but if I happen to be streaming a video at the time, then restarting is typical. That's an extremely minor annoyance in web surfing; but if it meant losing progress in a challenging videogame where I've struggled to reach the next checkpoint? That goes way beyond "annoying" and well into "return game for refund" territory.

That alone should cause people to hold a tea party in protest. (Keep in mind that this is a single player game, something one would rather expect to play offline.) But those issues only address the customer's side of the connection.

This weekend, Ubisoft's DRM servers went down, which meant, no matter how stable your own internet connection was, the game was completely unplayable. No one who owned the game was able to actually play it, because the game couldn't contact Ubisoft's incommunicado servers.

Except, of course, if you pirated it. See, the DRM, much like any other DRM in existence, was cracked within days of the game's release. (Most of the time, it's just a question of whether the crack is going to be released after or before the game itself.) And those who pirated the game were playing a version that did not require contact with Ubisoft, and therefore were completely unaffected by this fiasco. (More or less; the crack is still in progress in that a user can launch a game without the server, but there are still issues when the game attempts to check during play. It appears to be more of an issue with Assassin's Creed 2 than with Silent Hunter 5, which has a similar scheme but "phones home" less frequently.)

The problem, which has been noted time and time again and is summed up nicely in this recent Penny Arcade comic, is that companies like EA and Ubisoft attempt to combat piracy by implementing stronger measures to force the software to only work when they want it to. However, these stronger measures not only completely fail to deter pirates (who often have a cracked version of the same software within the same week of the product's retail release), but they also drive potential paying customers away — frustrated by these "piracy protection" measures that effectively prevent them from playing the game they legally purchased, they will either not buy the software, or they will seek out the pirated versions themselves, which offer a superior product by not failing to work when some irrelevant criteria check fails to pass. The companies take this increase in piracy as a call to action to combat it with even stronger DRM measures, pushing more people to piracy to avoid them.

And sadly, it's the law-abiding, paying customers that lose.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Didn't anyone teach Nintendo to share?

When one of my kids was in the hospital for an extended stay last summer, we bought him a Nintendo DSi, and we helped his older brother get one as well. One thing I noticed as they played each other's games was that game saves were stored on the cartridge, not on the DSi's internal memory. The other thing that I noticed was that games limited the number of saves they would support to a very small number. Whether it was by intentional design or merely as a function of the amount of data saved divided into the amount of flash memory that it is cost-effective to install on a cartridge, the result is the same.

The result is, because, for example, the Pokémon games only support saving a single game, and because the game is saved on the cartridge, my kids are not able to share those game cartridges with each other. They can only share cartridges that happen to have more than one save slot in them.

Now, as it happens, the Pokémon games aren't as big of a deal. Each boy having his own game is a benefit, because being able to play at the same time, and trading pokémon with each other, is a key feature of the game.

However, not all games directly benefit from having two copies. One of my boys recently got a copy of Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter, and it was only after he started playing it that we discovered it only has a single save game slot. This is contrary to the first Drawn to Life game, which, because it has more than one save slot, my kids are able to share back and forth and play their own save.

Probably the most annoying part of this whole situation (aside from the fact that there's really no reason for this considering the game console itself has plenty of storage for save data, and it would even be cheaper to make without requiring flash memory on every cartridge) is that there is no way to know the save slot situation ahead of time. Nowhere on the package does it say how many save slots are on the cartridge, nor could I find a convenient website that lists games with the number of save slots they have.

It's rather annoying that such a critical piece of information for building a library that's intended to be shared between two users is effectively completely hidden. It almost makes me wonder if this situation isn't intentional, to prevent people from sharing games, to try and get people to buy more individual copies.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Splosion Man

One of my boys has made up a super hero, "Orange Fire Boy". I'm not exactly sure where he comes from or what his powers are, but I know he somewhat resembles the Human Torch from the Fantastic Four. So when I saw the game Splosion Man — whose starring character is also orange and covered in flames — become a "Deal of the Week" for a measly five bucks, I thought he might get a kick out of it, and so I picked it up.

Splosion Man is pretty easy to learn. You play a science experiment run amok, who is trying to escape the laboratory (and take revenge on the scientists who are responsible for his "condition"). Your only weapon is the ability to explode, which you do by pressing any of the four face buttons. (All four buttons are mapped to "SPLODE", but you can get a quick 10-point achievement for remapping any button to... um, well, "SPLODE" is the only option.) By exploding back and forth off of walls, Splosion Man can "climb" upward into new areas. Exploding next to barrels can give him a boost (sometimes slight, sometimes a high-speed launch). Exploding next to equipment causes lots of satisfying debris, and exploding scientists results in a comical fountain of steaks to erupt from their body (which just falls down, intact — hey, they're not trying to be disgusting or M-rated here).

Some of the levels can be a little challenging. Some don't give you time to stop and rest, you just have to keep running. But there's no limit on the number of times you can die and start over. (If you die a certain number of times, the game does give you the option to skip to the next level, although rumor has it there's a price for this.…)

But unfortunately, Splosion Man's strength is also its weakness. The mechanics are so simple, that there really are a limited number of ways you can use it to get through the lab. There are a lot of levels, around 50 in all, and although each one is different from the others, they all repeat a lot of the same elements over and over such that each new level brings very few surprises.

Depending on your target audience, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. My first-grade son loves it. It's something he can easily figure out and is on his way to mastering — which is saying a lot, because, honestly, he isn't nearly as skilled as his older brother. He also loved the gamer picture and the Avatar T-shirt with the orange fire guy logo. (Splosion Man was the first game to feature an "Avatar Award".) It was, as I hoped, right up his alley. And the spastic title character is something all my boys love watching.

For myself, I don't mind it at all. It's a fun little diversion with some quirky humor, and a decent platformer to boot. The levels aren't overly long, which means playing for short stretches is easy without losing progress. (Indeed, short stretches are almost required to avoid becoming bored with the repetition.) Probably my only major complaint (so far; only completed "World 1") is the boss battle. Whereas the levels leading up to it are replete with checkpoints, the boss battle had none. If you died (and there were plenty of "one-shot kills", to add to the frustration), you had to start the whole boss fight over, rather than starting at the last major "event".

I wouldn't say it's the best five bucks I've ever spent, but I've certainly done a lot worse.

Monday, February 8, 2010

You don't buy DLC, you rent it

It doesn't seem like it was that long ago when I wrote about games disappearing off the Live service. It seemed not to make much of a ripple on the internet, as they were "just" a handful of arcade games that no one seemed to care about. I wondered then what it would take to stir up enough anger that people might actually start to care about digital distribution, how it takes away their rights and privileges, turning "buying" into "leasing" under terms that only the network owner controls and can change at any time "for the good of the service".

On Friday, Xbox Live's Major Nelson dropped a bombshell, announcing on his blog that Microsoft was discontinuing Xbox Live support for all Xbox 1 consoles and games. Officially, it's so they can evolve the Live service without being restricted by features the original games couldn't support. It still seems to me they should've been able to work around this, by versioning the service and system calls. Windows has been doing this for decades, after all, where the same API behaves differently depending on how it's being called. But then, it's been theorized that Windows's instability is partially a result of its attempt to support old software as well as new, so I don't fault them for wanting to shrug off the old to move forward. I still question whether it's entirely necessary. Necessary or not, though, it's the move they're making.

Last month, I wrote about the problem with dedicated servers, and how games that rely on those servers become useless online when (not if) the companies that run them give up support. I mentioned that games that don't do that benefit from the fact that Xbox Live uses peer-to-peer and can continue to be played online indefinitely. Unfortunately, Microsoft just negated that argument. The Xbox Live service was responsible for matching those peers, and now, even without a dedicated server reliance, all games are going to be useless online. Sure, LAN will still work (which means certain LAN-tunneling programs like Xlink Kai or XBConnect can be used to emulate the service), but it's not quite the same.

But wait, there's more — or rather, less! Microsoft, being the forward-thinking company they are, decided to get a head start on the end-of-life process and pulled all the Xbox 1 content from their servers immediately. That means any downloadable content, such as the maps for Halo 2, was no longer available. As you can imagine, this greatly interfered with Bungie's suggestion to play a few rounds of Halo 2 for "old time's sake" before support goes away, as all the matchmaking playlists require all the maps (they're all free at this point, after all). See, users who don't have them available, because they've either deleted them to make room on their hard drives for "current" content, or they've replaced their consoles sometime (the maps are bound to the console when installed and won't play on another console without re-downloading/reinstalling), can't get them. Now, Bungie happens to have enough "pull" with Microsoft that they've talked Microsoft into granting an "exception" and putting Halo 2 maps back online, which is great for them, but not so much for people who might want one last crack at an online romp through, say, Crimson Skies.

Where I hope this makes people very angry, is that the Halo 2 maps were not always free. When they were first released, they were at a price; which means people paid real money for this content. In a couple months, it will no longer be available. (Other games had for-pay content as well, but Halo 2 is the best-known and still the most-played original Xbox game, and the one most likely to stir up a fuss.) So, content that people have paid for, on a game that people still play (either because they haven't upgraded to a 360 — and I do know someone who hasn't — or because they happen to think Halo 2 is a good game, and it happens to be playable on the 360), a game whose name has been practically synonymous with the word "Xbox" since its launch, is going to be taken away.

Is it enough for people to get mad about yet? Will we stop hearing the chant, "The disc is dead! Long live DLC!" Or is it "ok" because Halo 2 is such an old game; that people have "played enough" that they don't "need" that content anymore; that sure, it was a rental, but it was for a "long enough" term that it doesn't matter; and there "aren't enough" people affected to "worry about"? (And did I use enough "scare quotes" to accurately convey my "opinion" on "that"?)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lego Rock Band

There's not a whole lot to be said about Lego Rock Band, to be honest. It's pretty much the same old Rock Band game, just with a Lego skin. Rectangles, now in the shape of Lego bricks, slide down the tracks, and you use the same plastic instruments to match the colors.

There are a few new features worthy of note. There is a new "super easy" mode, where a player only needs to strum or hit a drum to "score" (i.e., it doesn't matter if you hit the right color, so long as you hit something). It's very helpful for kids, spouses, parents, etc. who want to play along but just can't get it. There's also an "auto kick-pedal" option just for the drums, which could work for someone like me who just can't get two hands and a foot to coordinate.

Also, in the "story" mode, you have the chance to play challenges, where you use "the power of rock" to accomplish some task (demolish a building, summon rain for a farmer's crops, beat back a giant octopus). It's a little entertaining, in that it adds a bit of purpose to the game — except it is really only good for spectators. You still have to concentrate on the note tracks, which makes it difficult to appreciate the visuals going on in the background. (Seeing the roadies pop up to shout "Ghostbusters!" in the chorus is cute, but I've only been able to see it out of the corner of my eye.) Supposedly, if you're playing multiplayer, the challenges work by feeding notes to one player at a time, though; unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to experience this first-hand yet.

The game also lets you play "short versions" of songs (at least, the ones on disc), which is helpful when you're playing the same songs over and over again. (Yes, the song list, while including a lot of good songs, is fairly short.)

Lego Rock Band is mostly cross-compatible with the Rock Band catalog, which helps to make it less repetitive. Harmonix does apply a certain rating to the songs, though, and only songs that are rated "age-appropriate" are allowable in Lego Rock Band. I don't begrudge them trying to implement this restriction in their "cute" edition, but as my wife and I went through the Rock Band store and noted which songs were marked available for Lego Rock Band and which weren't, we found some rather surprising choices.

My older son used to be more into the Rock Band series (although his interest had waned in recent months), and my second son loves the Lego games. Also, of the songs on my MP3 player, both of them had really taken to the Ghostbusters theme song, begging for me to convert it for playback on their DSi's and listening to it repeatedly. I had thought Lego Rock Band would be the perfect storm then, mixing Lego and Rock Band, and including Ghostbusters in its track list. Plus, new features like the "super easy" mode would make it possible for my less coordinated younger son to play without getting frustrated.

Unfortunately, they just haven't been interested. Whether they've just tired of the plastic guitar genre, or they're just too interested in the DSi games they got for Christmas, I'm not sure. Even when they do put their Nintendos down and play the 360, though, Lego Rock Band just hasn't been their game of choice.

I don't regret the purchase, even if I am a little disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm I got from my kids.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tower Bloxx Deluxe

My son bought this Xbox Live Arcade game with some points that Santa brought him for Christmas. Gameplay is ridiculously simple — you build residential towers by dropping blocks from a crane. Your only control is the 'A' button to drop a block (although you do need the stick and other buttons for selecting where in the city you are building your tower). The crane swings the block from side to side, and depending on how accurately you stack your blocks, your tower will sway as well. The more perfectly you stack your blocks, and the higher you build your towers, the more people will move into them. Higher populations unlock taller possible towers and special bonus blocks.

Beyond the very simple core gameplay, there's a bit of thinking and strategy in planning out your cities, as there are rules for where each tower can be placed. Your entry-level blue towers can go anywhere, but the next-sized-up red tower can only go next to an existing blue tower, the next-sized green tower can only go in an empty space touching both a red and a blue tower, and so on.

Still, there's not much to the game. Doesn't really seem worth the $10 in Points. Plus, it's more than a little frustrating, in that "completing" the game really requires dropping blocks with pinpoint accuracy, and it won't count if you're off by just a couple pixels (which is incredibly difficult to even see on a CRT display).

I probably would've discouraged my son from getting it, since there are better games for the money, but it was, after all, his money.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Where were you when the servers went dark?

Earlier this week, Sega pulled the plug on the multiplayer servers for Chromehounds. While it's not a game I played often (personally, I logged maybe a total of 80 hours over the 3+ years I owned the game), and I had a lot of complaints about it, it's still overall a good game, if only for the experience I had playing it with fellow Geezer Gamers, and it will certainly be missed.

Chromehounds had a lot of really bad achievements — from the leaderboard-style ones; to the rare, random event one; to the ones that can only be achieved through impossibly long hours of grinding (even above and beyond what this achievement enthusiast is willing to endure). Of course, a lot of them can be forgiven, since they were created when achievements were still relatively new. The majority of these achievements, however, are now completely unavailable. Because they were dependent on the online war simulation, which was hosted on the dedicated server, there's now no option for getting those achievements.

But no game is all about achievements. Chromehounds was about building and customizing giant military robots, joining with a group of friends, and fighting a group of enemy robots. Our preference was for fighting computer-controlled opponents. Although they were fairly predictable and had accuracy and range beyond realistic, it was better than running into humans who played the game to such an extent that they would build ridiculous Hounds with obnoxious combinations designed to destroy an enemy in a single shot.

Of course, the computer-controlled players were controlled by the central server, as was the state of the war and all its battlefields, so those types of matches are gone forever.

Other server-managed features also went offline, such as squads. Initially, this was just sad from a sentimental view, but we realized that it also put an end to one of the highlights of the game: being able to trade Hound builds and parts with each other. Since you can only trade with people in your squad (and only when both of you were online simultaneously — this was also before sending things via an Xbox Live message was the norm), trading was also gone.

Probably the most irritating thing of all, though, is the non-war-related game modes. There was a group of four of us who were playing on that last, fateful night. When the server was shut down and the computer opponents were no longer available, we found that "Free Play" was still available. Launching a Free Play mission, we were able to play against each other.

This seemed like a good thing at first. It wasn't much, but it meant there was at least some way we could get online and get in Hounds with each other again. But we quickly discovered, as one of our party ended up kicked out to the game's title screen, that there would be no coming back. When you select "Xbox Live" from the game's title screen, the first thing it does is attempt to contact the central server. When it fails to connect to the server, it doesn't let the game proceed into multiplayer mode. Those of us who were already in that mode could stay there, but once we left, there was no coming back, even to play the game types that didn't require the server.

It's not terribly surprising that Sega took the server offline. Chromehounds is over three years old, which is a long time to be playing a videogame these days. But it does show the weakness in having a game rely on a dedicated server; and how when that server goes, so much of the game goes with it.

Sega is hardly the first or the most egregious offender of this, though. Electronic Arts uses dedicated servers for a lot of its games, most notably its sports titles, and they have announced the impending doom for dozens of their games, including relatively new titles like Madden 09. While this seems more conspicuously like a money grab by forcing customers to "upgrade" to the latest version of their titles, it shows how quickly a game can become "worthless" (at least online) when a company decides it's time to let go, if the game is dependent on a dedicated server.

On the other hand, there are games which probably owe their continued existence to the fact that peer-to-peer is more the rule rather than the exception. If Shadowrun relied on a dedicated server, it's not inconceivable to think the game (which only had an online component and had no single-player mode to speak of) would've lasted a year, considering the parent company, FASA, closed up shop very soon after the game's release. Halo Wars may have been in a similar situation, since developer Ensemble actually closed before the game was on store shelves.

Still, there are advantages to having dedicated servers, like deploying server-side updates and better connections (in the cases when certain peers don't have a good data path between them). Developer Valve walks the line best, by offering the option for using a dedicated server or a peer for a server in Left 4 Dead 2. (Left 4 Dead automatically makes the choice.) If the dedicated servers ever go offline (or, as I've already seen, the choice is made for a dedicated server, but the dedicated servers are already overloaded and none are available for a new game), the game is still fully functional in peer-to-peer mode.

I remember Microsoft taking a lot of heat for their lack of dedicated gaming servers (especially on a paid service), but I think these examples show what happens when games' online components are reliant on a company's continuing support. Games that are peer-to-peer (or at least can fall back to that as an option) can always be played online with a willing partner or opponent, regardless or in spite of the lack of company support or existence. It does also factor into my purchasing decisions. I am very leery of buying EA games (or other games that I know use a dedicated server) for online play, knowing how quickly they might yank support.