Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Too late to explore the Wii?

We have had a Wii under our living room telly for many years and it has always been my intention some day to explore what it could do beyond family friendly titles like Mario Kart and Just Dance. Monster Hunter Tri in particular was a title that I intended to try out someday having heard good things about it from many sources and given that it isn't available on any other platform. Somehow that "someday" kept getting pushed back and today I was a bit miffed to read that the servers are shutting down this very day. I don't think this affects the single player game but it is disappointing to realise that I will probably never have the full experience.

Apparently Capcom are shutting down the Wii servers in the hopes of encouraging folk to migrate to their newer game on the WiiU platform. This strikes me as a pretty dodgy business strategy. There are almost a hundred million Wiis out there. There are no where near as many WiiUs and I strongly suspect there never will be.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Google Brother is Watching You

A couple of days ago I wrote a blog post about Bioshock Infinite. A few days before that I went looking for graphics cards on the internet and at some stage I visited the website of a company called Overclockers. Today I log into Youtube and the first ad I am presented with is this:


Has someone invented the sport of trying to deliberately confuse advert profiling yet? Sci Fi Fans for instance who set their log on page to the romantic novels section of Amazon for instance.

By the way I should point out that http://www.overclockers.co.uk/ is actually a very good shop so I don't begrudge them their bit of targeted advertising. It is just another jarring reminder that big data probably already knows more about me than I know myself.

And the prize for most overpowered rocket launcher ever goes to ...


I am all for challenge in gaming but sometimes it is fun to get a weapon so overpowered that you can wallow in the visceral joy of annihilating hordes of enemies, particularly if you were previously struggling against those same foes. Darksider II has just such a weapon. It comes at a part of the game where you are facing swarms of weak but deadly mobs backed up by tougher mini bosses. The weapons at your disposal up to this point are barely adequate to deal with the onslaught and then you pick up the Gorehammer.

It's a rocket launcher I guess firing exploding projectiles but two factors combine to make it the most overpowered rocket launcher I have every come across in a game. The first is that it constantly replenishes ammo at a rate of about one rocket per second. You never have to worry about running out of ammo and a generous magazine means you can let loose a rapid volley of rockets whenever required. The second factor is the doozy: there is no friendly fire. You cannot injure yourself with this thing. Think about that for a moment. Imagine a rocket launcher that you can unload at point blank range into your enemies with no fear of hurting yourself.

It even has a couple of other features - rockets do initial kinetic damage which is enough to take down weaker enemies but explode a few seconds later for additional area of effect damage. You can  control the timing of the explosion using the left trigger so you can lay down traps and minefields. It even has a ground pound function for point blank area of effect but that is hardly even necessary when you can just fire rockets straight into the face of any hapless enemy standing beside you.

The weapon only seems to be available in one region and you need to leave it behind when you return to the rest of the game. Perhaps that is for the best.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bioshock Infinite. Gaming has come of Age.

Wow.

Just wow.

I have finished my first play through of Bioshock Infinite. I sat through the entire credits with a glazed look of euphoria on my face. The game has restored my faith in AAA gaming. What a triumph. Of course there are details that you could nitpick about but what a genuine masterpiece. Perhaps for the first time ever we have a video game that can stand beside any other work of human creative endeavour, any movie, any book, any song or symphony. This game truly is a triumph of human creative expression. This game truly is a work of art.

I had thought of titling this post "Video Games are done. They don't need to make any more". Thankfully though human creativity doesn't work like that. This isn't the end. With any luck this is just the beginning.  

Word of advice: don't be afraid to lower the difficulty to a level you feel comfortable with. This is a game that should be experienced, not struggled with.

Steam is no longer the value king when it comes to PC gaming

It has been over 6 Months since I bought anything on Steam. These days my bargain conscious euro's go to Steam's competitors including Amazon, Green Man, Gog, Gamer's Gate and others even when I am buying games that install on Steam. A few years ago Steam sales of AAA games were the pinnacle of gaming value and at that time I was spending hundreds of euros in the Steam store. Nowadays however whenever I see something for sale on Steam I automatically look around to see if I can get it cheaper somewhere else. My lack of Steam purchases in over half a year shows that I almost always can. It is particularly telling that I didn't buy a single game from the Steam Christmas sale because I had already acquired everything I wanted at better prices from other online retailers.

I suppose this is a natural consequence of Steam having such a dominant position in PC gaming. Competitors know that they have to beat Steam to get business and they do. This is free market competition working like it should.

I still like the Steam platform and I install games on Steam as a first choice if that option is available but I am a little bit worried that someday they will decide I am no longer any value to them as a customer. I don't think that Valve gets any money when I buy a game from someone else. A few minutes googling couldn't answer that question definitively but I am pretty sure it is the case.

I doubt Valve would ever really kick me off their service for not spending any money with them but who knows what could happen: a change of ownership, a change of management, a change of business policy.

Perhaps I should make the occasional "insurance" purchase  in the Steam store.

Hmmm ...May Payne 3 only €7.49 today from Steam.

Ah why not?

Just in case. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Checkpoints done wrong, Checkpoints done right

Regardless of whether you prefer checkpoints or saving anywhere there are a number of features that every checkpoint save system absolutely should have.  This isn't a PC versus Console issue any more. Plenty of console games have excellent save systems. It is simply a matter of good practise in game design.

Checkpoints done right:
*No more than 5 minutes game time between checkpoints.
*Checkpoint IMMEDIATELY before every tough encounter / boss fight.
*Have a chapter select so player can replay any section without having to go back to start of game.
*Allow player to stop game at any time and resume from where they left off.

Checkpoints done wrong:
*Arbitrary spacing of checkpoints sometimes more than 20 minutes.
*Long  section of tedious trash mobs between checkpoint and boss fight.
*Only one save and no chapter select. You want to see it again - start a new game. You just hit a bug? Tough luck, you have to start a new game.
*You want to go to bed? Well keep playing you should reach a checkpoint in half an hour or so.

With regard to the philosophical question of whether checkpoints are better than save anywhere I am somewhat neutral. I like the automatic nature of checkpoints and I think they increase immersion. I also like the flexibility of save anywhere.  I do think however that it is far easier to mess up a checkpoint save system than a save anywhere system.It is hugely disappointing how many other wise excellent games mess up their checkpoints. Recent examples of bad practise I have come across:
Darksiders 2: No chapter select.
Bioshock Infinite: Arbitrary spacing of checkpoints with many long gaps.
Far Cry 3: No chapter select (Want to replay that sublime drug fuelled mission in the marijuana field, tough luck).

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Buggy Whips

Imagine it is sometime around 1910 and you are the worlds largest producer of buggy whips. Your last product the Model 7 was a big success but the young folk don't seem at all interested in buggy whips any more because they are excited about these new fangled auto-mobiles. Of course no self respecting gentleman would be seen in a noisy smelly auto-mobile so buggy whips are going to be around for some time yet but you cannot deny that the real growth business these days is motoring goggles. Do you:

a. Develop a brand new buggy whip (the Model 8) that has a buggy whip welded on to a set of motoring goggles. It is a pretty good buggy whip but unfortunately to bind the two parts together you had to dispense with the handle of the whip. Users wear it like a pair of goggles and they crack the whip by nodding their heads vigorously.

or

b. Accept that the buggy whip market is going to shrink but make sure that you keep the lion's share of it by making Model 8 the best buggy whip you ever produced with all the good features from Model 7 and improvements specifically tailored to those folk who are going to stick with horses. As for the automobile business ... well you could have a chat with that young engineer in the design office who has some foolish idea about putting a glass panel on the front of an automobile so that drivers don't need to wear goggles.

So, what do you do? 

The other ball Microsoft is dropping: Skype

What the hell is happening to Skype?

Five years ago Skype had an absolutely dominant position in the field of voice over the internet. I am sure it still has a lot of users today but I suspect a heck of a lot of them are over the age of 40. There are several new kids on the block that seem to have pushed Swype completely off the stage for everyone younger than that. My 12 year old daughter is all excited about Viber at the moment because it allows her to contact her friends without using up any precious credit. True but Swype has been doing that for years. WhatsApp also has a growing following. My very unscientific survey suggests that WhatsApp is capturing the 20+ market while Viber is winning the 20- and nobody but nobody is getting excited about Swype. The bizarre thing is that Swype is still probably a better service than either of these competitors. It has more features and is available on more platforms.

Of course competition is a good thing for us consumers right? Well, yes, but ... in the field of communications competition can lead to competing standards. Viber can't talk to Skype which can't talk to WhatsApp. Instead of a connected planet we end up with a series of walled gardens.

Can Microsoft who bought Skype in 2011 do anything to restore their dominance in this market? I still believe they have a superior product but it clearly isn't being positioned properly for the younger generation. Viber and WhatsApp feel like products made for phones (I don't think they even have PC clients) while Skype feels like a product designed for a PC but surely that could be fixed with an interface tweak.

Do Microsoft actually care about losing the voice over internet market? Well I think they should. It is after all growing market unlike the ailing desktop sector even if it isn't a huge revenue earner.  If they continue to sit back while young competitors mop up all the new entrants though and let the competition continue to rob all new customers then they are going to lose it entirely. Even now their smartest move might be to buy Viber and WhatsApp and consolidate them all into Skype.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Watching Star Wars in 2013

Last night I introduced my 12 year old daughter to a cornerstone of nerd culture by watching the "original" Star Wars, now known as Episode IV, A New Hope.

It is 15 years since I last watched this myself so I was really surprised at how well this 1977 story has held up. I know Lucas has spent millions of dollars over the years fixing some of the hokier special effects but I think there is another reason why the movie still feels fresh and exciting. Star Wars has been so influential on just about every space opera film and video game made since that it feels incredibly familiar. Its blasters, its grey metal corridors its junk strewn depiction of alien planets have all become absolutely canonical to the genre. This struck me forcibly watching the scene where Luke and Leia are trapped on a narrow platform looking for an extending bridge while troopers try to break down the door behind them and another trooper shoots from a higher ledge. I have played versions of that scene in many video games.

We are watching the 1995 DVD release. I took the executive decision to watch the films in historical order despite my daughters puzzlement at starting with episode iv. There was no episode iv when I was a teenager!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Now Playing: Fallout 3, Darksiders 2, The Walking Dead

Fallout  3
I recently spent over 60 hours playing the main campaign of  Fallout 3. I am hugely impressed and highly recommend it. What a huge world to explore full of adventures and stories. I forgot they made games like this. A minor gripe is that character progression is perhaps too generous with generous increases on power up and lots of skill ups scattered about the place. I never really felt the need to compromise one role in order to progress another and by the end of the game I was 100% proficient in several major skills. I have yet to install the add ons which I believe increase the level cap and will allow even more skills to be maxed out.
Darksiders 2.
I loved Darksiders 1 and I was hugely disappointed that the sequel didn't pull in enough revenue to save poor THQ. At least there is a fabulous game still to be played. Terrific artwork, fun puzzles and combat make this demonic fantasy action game a delight to play. For old codgers like me who normally struggle with complicated button mashing combos the Darksiders games are a godsend. A typical combo is X,X. Another is X,X,X, not to mention the devastating power of X,X,X,X. There is a little bit of timing involved but these patterns are so simple that even my middle aged digits can pull them off. The first game suffered from rather painful difficulty spikes. Some of the bosses were so much harder than normal gameplay that they put people off the game. Thankfully this second game seems to have a much smoother difficulty curve. Bosses still step up the challenge a bit but not outrageously so. Minor warning: Darksiders 2 occasionally suffers from annoyingly long loading times on my PC. It is a known problem and various solutions are proposed on the internet but none of these worked for me. It doesn't affect gameplay at all so I just put up with it.
The Walking Dead
I am not sure if this zombie adventure should really be called a game. It is more of an interactive novel. I played through a couple of chapters, enough to convince me that I want to experience the rest of the story once I clear my in tray sufficiently to give it the attention it deserves.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The PC market is collapsing. Thought from a commiter User

We have long known that the conventional Windows based PC is struggling to compete with Apple and Android devices but now even main stream media are reporting on just how dramatic the decline in PC sales is. I personally think that Microsoft have accelerated their own demise with the awful Windows 8 and that they could still buy themselves a few more years of support from their traditional power user base if they just threw out Windows 8, tarted up Windows 7 a bit an re-released it as Windows 9. However as someone who has been using Microsoft powered PCs extensively for almost 30 years I think it is useful consider what I still need a Windows desktop for and how I would cope if it were no longer available.

In Work:
Firstly I use a large multi-screen PC for my work. In my job I have to do a lot of content creation. This includes Word, Powerpoint and Excel  projects that would be very painful to do on a touch screen interface but that could fairly easily be ported to a Mac or Linux environment. It also include a fair amount of professional Engineering software which is not quite so portable. A lot of the functionality I need is available on Linux but converting the bits that aren't would be painful.  There is currently less available under OS X for the MAC but there is a growing trend among new software to support MACs. A lot of PC programmes can also be gotten to run in some form on either Linux or Mac using Wine.
In Work Conclusion: For the foreseeable future I am going to need a fairly powerful desktop computer with a keyboard and mouse for my work. If Windows goes belly up I could however migrate to another operating system with a bit of pain and perhaps a loss of some old projects. Linux would be my preference.

On my Laptop:
Once upon a time my job required that I travel a lot and I lived out of a laptop. I learned to hate the big bulky weight in my briefcase and I still get muscle strain if I spend too long lugging one around. Nowadays I travel a lot less and my laptop is often neglected.It is enormously frustrating to turn on a laptop after a week of not using it and then have to wait fifteen minutes while Microsoft downloads the latest patches. Sadly however I still need the infernal machine. I use it for meetings, I use it for presentations and I use it for occasions when I need to create content but will not be at a desk. I do have a tablet computer but it is not yet up to all these jobs (except perhaps the meetings). I find typing on the touchscreen a pain and the tablet is unfortunately not able to drive a projector. 
Laptop Conclusion:  I still need a powerful portable computer occasionally and today's tablets are not quite up to the job. I do look forward to the day when I can ditch the laptop though and replace it with something genuinely portable and lightweight. 

General Home Computing: 
I count at least 10 devices with an internet browser among the four members of my family.  It is not surprising therefore that portable devices have taken a lot of the donkey work of casual internet browsing, responding to tweets, Facebook and email. However my dual monitor desktop complete with comfy chair is still the seat of choice for serious browsing and not just by me. My kids will abandon their own devices and use mine if it is available. The large desktop spread across dual monitors is a huge attraction of course but it is also true that a lot of the web still works better on a desktop. Some of this will change as more websites improve their mobile offerings but there are many applications (for example shopping) where  large desktop is a huge boon for comparing lots of information side by side.
General Home Computing Conclusion:  We could do all of our general purpose computing on tablets but it is still nicer to be able to use a large powerful desktop with big screen. I do think the mobile web needs to get its act together though and stop making apps and mobile pages that only give you access to half the normal features of a site.

Power User: Photography:
My wife is an award winning amateur photographer and she has a serious desktop with multi-terrabytes of data  driving Photoshop and other image processing applications. I think these applications will always demand a powerful machine although she could switch relatively easily (albeit at a substantial price for hardware and software) to a Mac. Linux is less of an option because a lot of the industry standard tools are not available on Linux even though there are some open source alternatives. Photography has become very interconnected and her mobile phone already plays a big role in keeping up to date with the flickr and facebook sides of her hobby as well as its use for impromptu snapshots.  I could see tablets taking on a much greater role for processing in the field and and temporary storage but their hardware capabilities are still somewhat lacking.
Serious Photography: Phones and tablet have an increasing role to play but the serious photographer is going to need a powerful desktop or desk bound laptop for the foreseeable future. Windows is not required however as Apple are already well established in this field. Linux lags considerably behind.

Power User: PC Gaming:
My thoughts and desires for gaming are different for the past, present and future.

Dealing with these in reverse order I find myself quite unworried about the future of gaming: My gaming has already become quite platform agnostic. Most of the games I enjoy on my PC are already available on other platforms and indeed I use an Xbox controller for about half of my PC gaming these days. I am less enthusiastic about touchscreen games simply because my big clunky fingers struggle with touch interfaces but I do recognises that  the quality of games available on touchscreen devices has come on by leaps and bounds.  I guess I will stick with the PC as long as there are still interesting new games available for it and move to another platform if there aren't.

The gaming present is an interesting conundrum. While gaming companies are struggling and going out of business this is really a golden age for players. There has never been such a wealth of terrific game available for so little money. While his has touched on all platforms PC gamers have been particularly fortunate over the last few years in being able to enjoy an enormous choice of both AAA and indie titles for pennies.  I don't know if this situation can go on like this. Perhaps the commercial difficulties of the major games companies suggest it can't but regardless I intend to enjoy it while it lasts. Roll on Steam sales and Humble Bundles and every other fountain of cut price gaming goodness.

Finally there is the gaming past. I have a large collection of older PC games including many classics which I still enjoy dusting off and playing today. Will I still be able to do this in a post PC future?  I have already written at length about a possible obsolescence plan for pc gaming. Short summary: I will keep at least one PC in the attic along with my collection of game disks. Sadly this may not be an option for more modern games due to the rise of multiplayer and always on drm. When the servers get shutdown modern titles may become unplayable.
PC Gaming Conclusion:   I will continue to play games on my PC as long as there are games being produced for it and then I will move to another platform if necessary.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

EDIT: Overall summary- I and I guess a lot of other users are going to need a powerful desktop PC for certain applications for the foreseeable future although we will be buying them less often and in smaller numbers. Moving away from Microsoft Windows is more possible now that it ever has been before. I am not convinced to switch operating systems yet but more Windows 8 nonsense and I might be.



Saturday, April 06, 2013

DLC Confusion

I have a strange problem with  DLC (downloadable content): I have way too much of it. This unusual complaint stems from my tendency put off purchasing games until they are on sale. By that stage most of the DLC that was drip fed to early purchasers is often bundled with the main game or costs so little extra that it seems foolish not to buy it. Fallout 3, which I have just finished playing came with 5 DLC add ons. Darksiders II which I am currently installing has a ludicrous 13 additional DLC codes.

This abundance of DLC causes several problems. The first is trying to figure out what any of it is.  A single piece of DLC can contain anything from a piece of cosmetic armour to an entire new campaign and the grandiose names attached to DLC packs rarely give much clue as to what they contain. Even after figuring out what each piece of DLC is you are faced with the dilemma of whether installing it will improve or damage your game experience. It is regrettably common for DLC add ons to introduce powerful equipment to the player at early levels which spoils a lot of the challenge of the game. In rarer cases DLC can make the game harder (one Fallout 3 add on designed to be played after finishing the main campaign actually populates the world with harder monsters). I am a great believer in playing the game the way the designers intended it to be played so I really don't like game breaking DLC like this. Even when the DLC does nothing more than add additional missions to the game it can be problematic. I like finishing games. I like seeing the final credits roll and I am generally ready to move on once I have slain the final boss.

All this confusion has altered my opinion of DLC. There was a time when I considered it a bonus and was glad to get it. Now I consider it a nuisance and my default position is not to install any of it.