Hackers Claim PlayStation Network Take-Down
As somebody who spent most of the day yesterday on the sofa with his PS3 and PS4...
- First of all, this wasn't just the US. Europe was affected as well.
- Disc-based games were working fine all day on both consoles. I've seen FUD above suggesting that always-online connections may be required for these. They aren't. Certainly, MS wanted to do that until the 2013 E3 (and I'll bet Sony gave it a lot of thought as well), but it never actually happened. Single-player modes of disc-based games were fine all day.
- Providing the console you were using was set as one of your primary consoles, then downloaded games (including PS+ games) were also fine all day.
- Basic login was down at first but came back after a couple of hours. Barring a couple of glitchy periods, it was mostly up through the rest of the day. Cloud save functions were working whenever basic login was up.
- Online matchmaking also came online a few times during the afternoon, though never really for long enough for a proper multiplayer session.
- The PS Store and Account Management features were off until quite late last night, When basic login was up, trying to access these gave a "this service is currently undergoing maintenance" error message, implying Sony had taken them down deliberately as part of the effort to keep basic login and matchmaking working. With Account Management offline, the option to re-download content you'd already purchased was also offline.
As of this morning, everything seems to be fine again. What was interesting was how the timing (on a Sunday, and a Sunday followed by a public holiday in several parts of the world) affected both the Sony response (which in communications terms was extremely slow) and the media-coverage (which was virtually non-existent for most of yesterday).
Among Gamers, Adult Women Vastly Outnumber Teenage Boys
TFA has some interesting stats, but not much narrative to go with them. I would say that there are two big over-arching themes that are driving changes behind "who plays games".
1) The first generation to grow up playing games is now moving into its 30s and even early 40s. Moreover, while this reflects my personal prejudices only (hey, at least I'm upfront about it), I suspect that with many of the first generation of gamers being academic and nerdy types, they are disproportionately well-paid now compared to their wider generation. So the people who grew up with games in the 1980s and early 1990s now have a lot of spending power. For some years now, the 30-40 year old age group has been the most lucrative in gaming.
This is partly why Japan's importance as a market for (as opposed to a producer of) games has plummeted. Aside from "quick blast on the train" mobile games, gaming in Japan is in a very unhealthy state. Domestic production in Japan, when it targets domestic audiences, increasingly plays for children (eg. Nintendo), teenagers (Capcom) or the unemployed/under-employed "otaku" demographic living off its parents' income (Gust, Nippon Ichi, Cave etc).
This is largely because Japan doesn't have the market of relatively well-paid adult gamers that the West has. Some of that is down to social stigma (games being a "kids' thing"), but much more of it is down to working cultures. Maintaining a middle-class lifestyle in Japan requires the kind of office-hours that would make even a Western games-development house in crunch-time blush.
So yeah... in the Western gaming market, oldies increasingly hold the purse-strings, while Japan is increasingly falling out of the mainstream.
2) There is no longer one single "games industry" any more. If... indeed... there ever was. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the games industry split neatly into two halves marked "console" and "computer", with very little cross-over. These days, that distinction has almost vanished (most console games bar first-party exclusives come to PC, Valve increasingly act as the platform-curator for the PC). But at the same time, there is a growing divide between "core" and "casual" gaming, with the latter not looking much like traditional gaming at all.
Facebook games and mobile titles like Candy Crush Saga draw nothing but contempt from "core" gamers (including many of those affluent 30-40 year-olds mentioned above). But they have drawn in a vast market which would never touch a "core" game - and that market is heavily female. So the demographic of the gaming population in general is skewing to reflect that.
There's also what almost constitutes a third tier somewhere in the middle - the "dudebro" gamer (which is overwhelmingly, though not entirely, male). These are the guys who spend a lot of time gaming, but almost all of it goes into Madden/FIFA (delete as appropriate depending on whether in the US or not) and Call of Duty/Battlefield (delete as appropriate depending on favoured brand of spunkgargleweewee). This is a big demographic, but as MS learned when it pitched the Xbox One at them heavily, it isn't a big-spending demographic or one that's particularly sensitive to technological advances.
Switching Game Engines Halfway Through Development
Prey and Duke Nukem Forever fall into the exact same category. Games which were pitched as "we will make the content on somebody else's engine", but which felt they had to play catch-up on engine tech.
When id released Quake 2, they caused an absolute cataclysm for many developers. In terms of looks, it was way ahead of the Quake 1 engine, particularly for people with new-fangled 3d video cards. Lots of people were out there making games on the Quake 1 engine, with contracts that gave them cheap access to the Quake 2 engine once available. The assumption had always been that porting from one to the other would be easy.
So several studios, including those making Daikatana, Prey, Half-Life and Duke Nukem Forever had a choice between putting out a game on the old engine or restarting a lot of their work from scratch on the new one.
The ones who went for the latter option ended up in engine hell. Only Valve came through it reasonably well. They took a hit on Half-Life's release date, but basically hacked around the Quake 1 engine to replicate some Q2 features and to make the (highly successful) bastardisation that became known as the Half-Life engine.
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor Launches Nov. 13th
As others have said; Final Fantasy XIV. Candidate for the "most improved game in history", following a disaster of a launch a few years ago.
The current incarnation is possibly the only MMO around to be able to go toe-to-toe with WoW in terms of features, content and polish. The update cycle which adds new content is at least on a par with WoW's (if not slightly better) and, unlike games such as Lord of the Rings Online and Star Wars: Old Republic, it isn't afraid to do things differently to WoW in some respects.
In particular, the class/job system is much more flexible than WoW's. The crafting system is infinitely more sophisticated, particularly at the higher levels (I know people in-game who only rarely play combat classes). The PvP modes are hived off entirely from PvE, with their own stats and abilities, meaning that PvE players don't get messed around by constant PvP balance changes. The game is also much more accommodating for casual players than Pandaria-era WoW, avoiding WoW's obsession with locking casuals into an endless, tedious grind of daily quests as an alternative to raid content. But it does this without compromising the experience for the hardcore; the Coil raid and the extreme-mode Primals are on a par with top-end WoW content.
With player numbers reputed to be closing in on 2 million and still rising, it feels like the first MMO since WoW to have a chance of equalling WoW's success - despite much less mainstream media hype.
Idiot Leaves Driver's Seat In Self-Driving Infiniti, On the Highway
Hmm... should have said my experience has been in the UK, not the US. I have never, ever seen that cited as a reason for vegetation management in the UK (save where trees are obscuring line of site of junctions or signs).
Idiot Leaves Driver's Seat In Self-Driving Infiniti, On the Highway
Actually, there are plenty of other reasons why we remove trees from the sides of roads. Dropped leaves (which can increase braking distances significantly), dropped branches, the chance of the tree falling onto the road during a storm, the risk of obscuring signage and, if the road is below the level of the terrain to either side of it, the chance of roots undermining the banks and causing a landslip.
By and large, while it's never going to be economical or appropriate everywhere, you don't want trees close to major roads.
I've worked in transportation for a good number of years and have been involved in this issue. I don't think "because drivers keep hitting them" ever came up as a reason.
Oh, and it's even more important on the railway. People laugh at the thought on "leaves on the line" causing delays and assume it's just a bullshit excuse. It isn't. What leaves do to trains' ability to accelerate and brake is much, much worse than ice.
Crytek USA Collapses, Sells Game IP To Other Developers
Obligatory Penny Arcade
Crytek USA Collapses, Sells Game IP To Other Developers
The first Homefront game was nothing to do with Crytek. It was developed by Kaos and published by THQ. Crytek merely bought up the rights to do the sequel. For the record, I bought and played through Homefront on PC. It was basically a mediocre and generic shooter based on top of some really interesting fiction. In the right hands, it could have been a much better game.
And there are lots of people - self included - who will sing the praises of the original Crysis as a game rather than a tech demo. It's much smarter than the average shooter, with plenty of room for exploration and taking different approaches. There are few other shooters that permit the sheer on-the-fly tactical flexibility that came from Crysis's nanosuit.
The game did make a few mis-steps - the quality notably dives in the final 25% or so of the campaign, once the aliens show up (the floaty section in the alien mothership in particular goes on for far too long). But overall, it is an excellent shooter which has stood the test of time far better than most others in its genre.
Crysis 2, on the other hand, was crap. And Crysis 3 had a few moments where it was pretty good (mostly in the more open sections near the end of the game) but ultimately disappoints.
Free Copy of the Sims 2 Contains SecuROM
So... genuine question...
What does SecuROM actually do to your system and what are the implications?
The wikipedia article, beyond a floating comment that SecuROM isn't uninstalled when the game is uninstalled, is basically silent on this. In fact, let's break it down into a series of further questions?
- Does SecuROM cause security vulnerabilities on PCs on which it is installed?
- Does SecuROM prevent applications - other than pirated copies of the game it is supposed to "protect" - from functioning on PCs on which it is installed?
- Does SecuROM create any kind of "always on" background process that consumes resources and potentially reduces performance on PCs on which it is installed?
If the answer to any of the above is "yes" then obviously there is a fairly major problem here. If the answer to all of the above is "no", then I'm not quite sure what people are getting upset about given that we are talking about a free game (SecuROM being bundled with paid-for games is another issue entirely).
And to emphasise, I genuinely don't know the answers to the above and can't work them out from the links in TFA.
Open-Source Blu-Ray Library Now Supports BD-J Java
The Playstation 3 likely remains the most common blu-ray player around - and it does the job very well (though it helps to pick up the optional remote control, as managing playback via a game controller can be a touch irritating). It also, coupled with the PS3 Media Server software on a PC, makes a pretty damned good "just works" solution for playing media files off your hard drive onto the TV and - crucially - one which is easy enough for a total computing ignoramus to get up and running with little or no guidance.
It's a pity that the PS4 (and Xbox One) are missing most of this functionality. As media players, the "new" consoles are a significant step back from the last generation.
Report: Watch Dogs Game May Have Influenced Highway Sign Hacking
The same way PC ports sometimes go horribly wrong - terrible mouse and keyboard support and a lack of technical optimisation that is causing framerate issues on $6,000 test-PCs. Plus uPlay.
Ports like this are less common than they used to be, but the odd one still sneaks through. Especially from Ubisoft.
$3000 GeForce GTX TITAN Z Tested, Less Performance Than $1500 R9 295X2
I've owned two "top end" (as opposed to merely "high end") graphics cards in the days before I had a mortgage and when the top end of the market was still only in the $1,000 range. The first was an Nvidia 7950 GX2 and the second was an Nvidia 590. Both of them, frankly, were cranky, unreliable and difficult. It was also rare I took them anywhere near their performance limits. This latest trends towards super-priced cards is a combination of R&D and willy waving.
This wouldn't be slashdot without a car analogy, so...
A Bugatti Veryon sells for around $1.7 million (according to my hasty google search). Even compared to previous generations of supercars, that's pretty insane. But it doesn't mean that cars in general are getting more expensive. You can get something good enough for everyday tasks cheaper than ever. If you want something sportier, with a bit of performance, then adjusted for inflation, the price range is more or less what it always has been. Plus that "something sportier" will probably be a lot easier to manage and maintain than the Veryon, as well as a lot easier to drive to the shops in.
I'm on an Nvidia 680 now (the 590 crapped out after less than 2 years), paid a sensible price for it and have a card that can handle almost everything at 1080p with max or near-max detail (the exception being Watch Dogs, the PC port of which is a badly coded piece of shite).
Report: Watch Dogs Game May Have Influenced Highway Sign Hacking
I don't disagree with you on the quality of the game. Unfortunately, in this case, Ubisoft are laughing all the way to the bank, because it's the fastest selling game not based on an existing IP in history and has posted the best opening weekend sales of any Ubisoft game in history. And this is despite the terrible PC port, the uPlay problems affecting all platforms, the limp plot and character designs that feel straight out of the notebook doodles of a 13 year old who still thinks wearing a trench-coat makes you cool and the laughable implementation of the core "hacking" concept.
So sure, while it would be nice to think that Ubisoft is sitting there feeling sad and desperate, it's simply not true.
But if you're reading this and thinking you need something shiny and new to play on your PC or new PS4/Xbox One, then be advised that the new Wolfenstein is a far better game in every respect (an actual proper shooter, rather than a 2-gun corridor game).
Valve's Steam Machines Delayed, Won't Be Coming In 2014
My bet? They'll never make either a HL2 ep 3 or a HL3.
Not because it wouldn't be successful - it would. But because it would harm their wider business interests.
Valve makes a lot more money these days from running what is in essence a platform than it ever made from being a games developer. Steam is a big and successful platform. Numbers relating to its success are notoriously hard to come by, but by joining together a few pieces of publisher and charts data (which exclude Steam sales) and feeling out the gaps, you can work out that in the closing year of the PS3/Xbox 360 console cycle, Steam was managing major games sales on a par with either of those consoles, while probably managing a lot more sales of small indie titles.
A big part of running a successful platform is managing your relationship with the wider industry - publishers in particular. Historically, in console land, Sony has been particularly good at this and Nintendo has been particularly bad, with MS somewhere in the middle. Valve is, by all accounts, pretty good at it. Almost everybody publishes on their platform. EA is trying to make a go of their own alternative with Origin, but that's hardly turning into a stunning success. Ubisoft thought about making a break for it with uPlay, but have relented and uPlay has just ended up as a pointless and inconvenient "wrapper" for Ubisoft games which often requires Steam to be running in the background anyway.
And a big element of having a good relationship with publishers is being seen by them as a partner, not a competitor. Since Steam first started to get momentum, Valve has confined its first-party games development to titles outside of the major commercial arenas. Portal and its sequel exist more or less in isolation in genre terms (at least outside of the indie market). Left 4 Dead was like nothing else around when it launched (though others have copied it since).
But if Valve were to release a major high-profile mass-market shooter, like another Half-Life, then Activision and all of those other companies who publish on Steam at the moment might start to look at Valve differently. All of a sudden, they're getting nervous about being reliant on a platform owned by somebody who is competing with them. Worried that their visibility on the platform will be reduced, or that they might get shunted onto the ass-end download servers if they launch in the same window. Why do you think non-EA support on Origin is so poor, despite EA being happy to carry other publishers' games?
It's the same over in console-land. MS and Sony do develop and publish first party games, but they're pretty blatant about the fact that they basically do it just to build the installed base of the console (making it more attractive to third parties). Their main revenue is from third party licensing fees, so the last thing they want to do is get into a cut-throat competition with those third parties. Nintendo, on the other hand, make first-party publishing a huge part of their business, which makes their platforms a scary place for third parties.
So yeah. Steam is great and all that. But it's probably killed off any prospect of more Half-Life for the immediate future.
The only way I could ever imagine that lock being broken would be with Half-Life 3 as a Steambox launch exclusive to give the console's installed base a flying start (so essentially acting as a loss-leader for the sake of third parties).
Nintendo To Split Ad Revenue With Streaming Gamers
On the contrary, Nintendo has a long and ignoble history of doing this sort of thing. They've sued or C&Ded customers in the past just for mentioning their games on a blog, when the customer has been somebody who doesn't fit with their image (their was a stripper a few years ago who got threatened with legal action for saying she "liked Metroid"). They're incredibly protective of everything they see as relating to their franchises and characters (despite the fact that Donkey Kong - the game that started it all - borrows from King Kong's imagery so heavily). They're also pretty lawsuit-happy within the industry, having gone after games whose concepts are too close to their own and even hardware manufacturers for putting out controller d-pads too close to their own.
And player-focussed? Don't make me laugh. They're the only manufacturer still making region-locked consoles. They're the only manufacturer ever, so far as I can tell, to have region locked a hand-held. They basically have a paternalist view of the world where their top brass sits around a table and decides which regions deserve which games (and when some of that reasoning comes out, it often sounds, frankly, borderline racist). They're the only manufacturer to link online purchases to console units rather than accounts, making for endless grief for people whose consoles die. Hell, they even had their own run-in with a Red Ring of Death fiasco (albeit less reported), with the Wii-U's launch firmware update and its habit of bricking consoles.
And this is leaving aside more subjective stuff, like their promise of extensive third party support for the Wii-U which they then failed to guarantee except in a tiny number of cases. Oh, and the speculation they're now themselves fuelling that the next Super Smash Brothers will require Skylanders-style "physical DLC" to access all on-disk content (though they still have time to U-Turn on that one).
And yet, as your post demonstrates, they get away with it. I think part of it is because, being pretty much just a gaming company, they have fewer spheres in which to have scandals. They've never had a CD-rootkit fiasco because they don't distribute music and only make games for their own hardware (though they have long been pioneers of restrictive copy protection in that field). They've never had a Windows 8 fiasco because they don't make operating systems (though one can only imagine how locked down and restrictive a hypothetical Nintendo OS would be). But in the gaming world, their policies have been pure poison for decades.
And oddly, this is the other reason they get away with it - direction of travel. When MS comes out at E3 last year and shows that it wants to be really evil (possibly more evil even than Nintendo) there's an outcry that eventually forces the company to back down. Why? Because it was more restrictive than what MS had done previously. When Sony first entered the market, it basically (probably because it wanted to copy what worked) lifted MS's policies on region locks etc. Since then, it's progressively liberalised them. Nintendo, on the other hand, just carries on being as evil as it has always been, so it only rarely gets noticed (region locking the 3DS got it some bad press, I guess).
In short, don't confuse Nintendo's underdog status (which they've reclaimed again after a brief and terrifying flirtation with success with the Wii) and any nostalgia you may feel for its franchises with any kind of ethics on the part of the company. Within its narrow sphere, it is the most restrictive and anti-consumer of the three console manufacturers.
Lucasfilm Announces Break With Star Wars Expanded Universe
I read a LOT of the Expanded Universe stuff around 7 or 8 years ago, when I had a job that involved a lot of international travel. The novels are a decent way to pass the time when you are constantly crammed into planes, or sat in a strange hotel room feeling jetlagged.
I think the issue is that the Expanded Universe stuff mostly fits into two camp. The first - which is typified by the Timothy Zahn stuff - is the stuff that is decent sci-fi (better than franchise-fiction has any right to be) but which is fundamentally unsuited to film. The Heir to the Empire trilogy is good, but it's slow-paced, involves a lot of politics and it doesn't really have any scenes that would really adapt into big set-pieces in a movie (and Star Wars movies have always been heavy on the big set-pieces). As a TV series, putting aside the casting difficulties, Heir to the Empire might have worked. As movies? No hope.
The other category - typified by the Kevin J Anderson stuff - is what could, most kindly, be described at "bad fanfiction". This is the stuff that's badly written, tone-deaf and schlocky. This stuff is filled with stilted dialogue, paper thin characterisation and plot holes you could fly a Star Destroyer through. Admittedly, everything I've just said could be applied equally to Lucas's prequel movies - but you really do hope they're aiming higher than that with the new stuff.
Plus if you stuck with the existing Expanded Universe timeline, at some point you'd hit New Jedi Order. And that's where it gets difficult. For the uninitiated, the NJO is a very, very long multi-author series of novels, beginning around 20 years after Return of the Jedi, and centred around an invasion by extra-galactic aliens. It kills a lot of major characters (including characters from the movies) and, in case I didn't stress this enough above, is extremely long. Some of the authors who worked on it are fairly good. Some are terrible. But even when it works, it doesn't feel like Star Wars. It's a lot darker, a lot bloodier and even fits awkwardly with some of the other Expanded Universe stuff, let alone the movies. In terms of tone, it feels a lot more... well... I'm not quite sure... perhaps "Wing Commander" (from the fourth game onwards) than "Star Wars".
iPad Fever Is Officially Cooling
It's not just games. A number of the iOS productivity apps I've been using over the last couple of years have been progressively degraded in recent months by compulsory updates, such that I have to fork out for IAPs or even subscription fees if I want to continue having access to the features I had before. And these weren't free apps to begin with.
I ditched my Windows laptop for an iPad a couple of years ago (sticking with a Windows desktop), because it was both convenient and practical to do so. If MS really are giving me the option of sticking with my old workflow in a Windows 8 update, then I'll be looking to make the switch back soon.
Your StarCraft II Potential Peaked At Age 24
Jumping genres for a moment...
A decade ago, in my early/mid 20s (while I was a post-grad student), I was a fairly high level Counter-Strike player. Not one of the greats, but certainly good enough to pull my weight in a team which managed to take home the occasional bit of prize money in tournaments. However, three things happened which meant that I moved on from that phase.
First, I finished studying and got a job. While the hours I was working were probably only slightly longer than the hours I'd been studying (postgrad can be harsh), I now had much less flexibility over which specific hours I worked. I also had a commute that ate up another couple of hours every day.
Second, I started to really dislike the online gaming scene. I got tired of the foul-mouthed kiddies on the public servers and the up-their-own-backside sponsor-obsessed "pro" players. As well as being a player, I was also a league admin and organiser, so I spent a lot of time dealing with this and the bigger "pro" gaming got, the more toxic the high end community got.
But most importantly for the subject at hand, I realised that I'd hit a plateau in terms of how well I was able to play the game. My aim and reactions were probably good enough to allow me to progress further. Not to the very top tiers, but certainly to a higher level than I was playing at. But my judgement and temperament weren't suited for it and resulted in a lot of mistakes of the kind that you can't afford at that level of play. So while I never went cold turkey, over the 6 months after starting a new job, I basically scaled down from being a hardcore competitive player to being an occasional dabbler in public servers. And then over the next few years, I basically gave up on competitive multiplayer entirely (continuing to play a lot of singleplayer and co-op games).
And then, last summer, for a brief window, I got into the Counter-Strike re-release.
Somewhat to my surprise, I was still very good at the game. However, when I recorded some replays and then went back and watched them, it was clear that in my mid-30s, I was good at it in a very different way to how I'd been a decade earlier. My aim was still ok, but my reactions were lethargic compared to how they'd been in the past. I had, however, gotten a lot more patient and a lot sneakier. The kiddies hopping around the levels at full speed could not doubt have picked me apart in a face to face fight, but I was making sure they never got the chance.
So yeah... I suspect that as one set of skills fades with age, some players will develop other traits and skills that offset that. A decline in clicks-per-minute with no corresponding decline in match results in Starctaft 2 would seem to fit that pattern.
Inside the Stolen Smartphone Black Market In London
Don't get me wrong, it's a good and valuable piece of journalism. But I doubt the findings will be a surprise to anybody who's lived in the more central areas of London (or any other major UK city), outside of a few sheltered enclaves.
I lived for a few years living around the New Cross/Bermondsey area (south of the river, but similar in demographic to the areas in TFA) and there were always a few electronics shops whose existence seemed fundamentally implausible if their business was founded on anything other than handling stolen goods. I avoided them like the plague, but they were generally pretty resilient businesses - and if one closed down, another would spring up a few streets away. I'm not saying that any business which looks a bit grungy is dishonest. I've made some good purchases at backstreet computer stores which get good prices on the back of low overheads and connections with legitimate suppliers (though such places are rare these days since the online boom). But there's a certain type of business which is offering games consoles or other commodity goods at the kind of prices that just make you go "hmm".
Hell, even going back well before that, I can remember independent video games stores "Ooop North" (from the tail end of the period before the big chains drove most of them to the wall, around the early PS1/N64 era) who were well known among my teenaged peers for staying in business on the basis of a combination of modchipping and fencing stolen goods. In fact, I remember one very close to my school being raided by police and shut down (presumably after crossing some nebulous line into their visible spectrum). Provided a fascinating distraction during the middle of an otherwise dull day at school.
As the whole modchipping thing implies, these have never been businesses run by people without a degree of tech-savvy. It's no surprise that they've moved onto circumventing mobile phone protections. And I bet you'd find similar businesses in, at the very least, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow.
There have even been suggestions - though I offer no comment as to their veracity - that a well-known red-logoed chain of second hand electronics stores with a presence in almost every town in the UK might sometimes be less than choosy about checking the provenance of the goods it accepts.
Xbox One Reputation System Penalizes Gamers Who Behave Badly
3 out of 5 is the default - I strongly suspect it just means you have no ratings, either positive or negative.
Reflections on the last generation's console games
Games of the year 2013
Games of the year 2012
Early thoughts on Diablo 3
GAME in administration - thoughts on consumer issues
Mass Effect 3 is badly written (with as few spoilers as possible)
On the woes of UK games retail
Thoughts ahead of the UK Vita launch
As Final Fantasy 13-2 approaches... reflections on FF13
Star Wars: The Old Republic - an attempt at balance
Reflections on looking at some (very) old posts.
Retrospective: Battle Isle series
First thoughts: Star Wars - The Old Republic
My games of the year - 2011
Dark Souls: Addendum
On Dark Souls and difficulty
It's been a while since I've posted anything here. That's not because there's been a shortage of good and interesting game releases - in fact, since the start of September there's been an absolute deluge of new titles. However, with one exception, none of the releases from the last two months or so have prompted me to write anything beyond what can be found in any number of reviews out there; reviews far more professionally written than anything I could manage.
There is, however, that one exception; Dark Souls. Before I go any further, a few comments on my own gaming preferences; I do not, these days, like to be annoyed by games. My leisure time is much more limited than it was five (or even three) years ago and when I play a game, I want to enjoy myself. On that basis, it was a bit of an odd decision for me to even pick up Dark Souls, let alone throw the 22 hours into it that I have thus far (which has apparently taken me about a third of the way through the game). After all, this is a game which was marketed on the basis of its insane difficulty; a game whose developers talked at length about the pleasure they took in making life hard for the player.
I think in the end, it was a desire to see whether I still "had it" that got me to buy the game. After all, back in my days as a postgrad student and as a fresh-faced new entrant to the graduate workforce, I was, by the standards of the gaming population in general, pretty skilled. I was never at the level of pro-gamers, but in online games like Counter-Strike and Warcraft 3, I was probably only one tier below that. As my leisure time grew more restricted, I drifted away from competitive multiplayer; getting abused by an aimbotting German teenager isn't so funny when it has ruined a significant chunk of the time you have for gaming during that week. I drifted into co-operative play via MMOs, was among the first English-speakers to down some of Final Fantasy's XI bosses, and again found a niche in a just-below-top-level World of Warcraft guild through Burning Crusade and Lich King. But again, I drifted on from that about 18 months ago; with leisure time increasingly restricted, I just didn't have the inclination for "wipe nights" any more.
Since then, I've been predominantly a single-player gamer - and I've started to wonder whether my skills have fallen as a result. Ok, I tend to play campaigns on hard difficulty, but those are still generally pitched pretty easy. So Dark Souls was a test to myself; did I still have the skills required to get through a game that even hardcore twitch-shooter and MMO gamers were claiming was incredibly hard? My decision was also swayed by the emphasis of many reviews on the fact that even if you strip away the difficulty, Dark Souls is an extremely good game.
And they're right. This game has combat mechanics that God of War would die for, combined with exploration and problem solving elements that make Zelda look like a rail-shooter. This is a beautifully designed, expertly crafted game, which seemlessly marries cutting edge visuals to incredibly solid gameplay mechanics. I have never seen an implementation of melee combat in a game of any genre - RPG, fps, third person shooter, brawler, fighting game, hack'n'slash, anything - which gives a better *feel* for the impact of sword upon shield. I've never found a game that makes me so intimately aware of the physical presence of both my character and her weapon in the game world (yes, I rolled a female character - and named her Miki Sayaka for the frequency with which I expected her to die - and if that references shoots over your head, don't worry). Swords feel versatile, but somewhat predictable. Axes are powerful, but you really feel the penalty they incur from having such a small strike-area. Two handed weapons are fantastically handled - they are slow and unwieldy and cripple your defensive abilities, but the benefit you gain in the width of your swings is epic - until you try using one in a confined space. It's not just the combat; for the most part (and more on this later) the design of areas in both an aesthetic and a gameplay sense is simply stunning.
And the difficulty? Yeah, it's hard. Seriously hard. To be honest, if you go back and play a lot of the notoriously hard games from your youth, you'll find they're actually nothing like as difficult as you remember. I went back to Battle Isle 2, a game that tormented me mercilessly during my teenaged years, just last month and breezed through it effortlessly. Notorious games from earlier still - Paradroid on the C64 stands out in my mind - seem even more trivial. We've gotten a lot better at games over the years, and control systems have evolved alongside us, making things easier still. But Dark Souls? Dark Souls is as hard as those old classics are in your memories. It's a bit like... if you go back and play your old SNES or Genesis titles after a decade and a half (or more) away from them, the first thing you will think is "eeew, these are much uglier than I remember". But then you get a game which deliberately mimics the look of those titles but updates it for modern design budgets and technology - something like Aliens: Infestation on the DS (which is amazingly good), or the Bionic Commando reboot on XBLA/PSN - and somehow it's much more true to your memories of how those games looked and felt than the actual games themselves. That's how Dark Souls is for difficulty.
The key question, for me, comes down to one of "fair" vs "unfair". The philosophy behind Dark Souls is that while you die constantly, every death teaches you something. That you are not, therefore, banging your head repeatedly against impassable brick walls, but instead making subtle progress every time you die. If that's true, it gets around one of my biggest issues with deaths (and checkpointing) in games - the need to senselessly repeat content. If it's not true, then the game fails. One of the things that drove me out of online gaming was the "unfair" element inherant in online play. You can lose a match, or lose progress, because of events that would not, in an ideal world, be present in the game. In Counter-Strike, your opponent might have an aimbot. In World of Warcraft, your main tank's connection might crap out when the boss is on 25% health. And there's nothing you can do but howl in frustration and wait for the next match, or the next pull of the boss, despite knowing that you could have won if not for that "unfair" factor.
So, is Dark Souls "fair"?
Based on what I've seen so far, 90% of the time - yes, it is.
The combat system works, for the most part, brilliantly. You have a huge toolkit at your disposal - multiple types of strike per weapon, the ability to swap weapons and spells mid fight and any number of trade-offs to make between armour and mobility. I've lost count of the number of times I'd been making little headway with a boss (or even with a non-boss fight), only to find that changing my weapon, or even holding my weapon with two hands rather than one, or perhaps taking a different approach to movement or making better use of my surroundings, would change the fight massively and open up a path to victory. Better still, your path to victory will change depending on your character; this is an incredibly hard game to make proper walkthroughs for, because the tactics needed change so much based on choices the player makes around his or her character. A certain fight might be easily defeated using a sword-and-shield using heavy-armoured knight, but might require much fine-tuning of careful tactics as a caster. Then the next fight you run into might reverse that. Working out how to take down a boss using a character who is clearly not ideal for fighting him is incredibly hard and may take hours of effort - but the emotional pay-off is worth it, and at no point do you feel like you have hit a brick wall.
Some of the non-combat mechanics are on the harsh side - particularly the need to "corpse run" after a death if you don't want to lose the souls you'd gathered. There were a few times I felt like I'd been punished unjustly, but for the most part, this is clearly acting as an incentive to keep trying and push through whatever barrier you've reached.
And yet, there are a few aspects of the game that do feel genuinely unfair.
First of all, there are framerate issues (at least on the 360, I can't speak for the PS3 version). Sometimes serious ones. Now, thus far, thank god, none of the areas affected have included boss-fights. But I have certainly taken deaths to trash mobs, sometimes when quite a long way from a respawn point, which have been a direct consequence of a single-figure frame-rate.
Second, the controls are not quite optimum. They're not bad, certainly. But there are two serious issues - one relating to combat commands and one to camera. The first is the most serious - because it is the most frequent. You have two "normal" types of strike in this game - a "fast" strike on RB (presumably R1 on the PS3) and a "heavy" strike on RT (presumably R2 on the PS3). That's fine. What isn't fine is the forward+attack combo for each of these. See, if you tap forward+RB, your character kicks rather than swinging his weapon - this does no damage, but it can unbalance smaller enemies, breaking their guard. If you tap forward+RT, your character does a forward leap with a heavy swing. Now, these are great options to have - but they are an absolute pain in the backside to use in combat. I continually find that I kick when I didn't mean to (which can be devastating if you were trying to land a killing blow quickly and find you've instead used a no-damage attack) and I find the timing of the jumping attack very difficult to activate properly, meaning I often just do a normal "heavy" swing and my attack falls short of the enemy. Given that there are quite a few controls mapped to a single key-press that could easily have been on more obscure combinations (such as switching between holding a weapon with 1 and 2 hands), I can't help wonder whether priorities didn't go a bit askew here. Having kick, at the very least, on its own button would have been a godsend.
Third, there are some clipping issues. Not many, but they do exist and they are irritating - potentially fatal. There are a couple of upward slopes where the player will run into an invisible wall. Sometimes you will pass through these after a few seconds, sometimes you can dodge-roll through them and sometimes you can't do either of those, but can somehow edge around the outskirts of the invisible wall, passing slowly over what looks like empty space. I've taken a few deaths after running into one of these bounced me off a ledge and I was never impressed by the experience.
Fourth, there is one area of the game which departs from the normal, excellent area design. Blight Town. That place - as you will see from any number of player comments - is an absolute hell-hole. It's overly dark, it's badly designed and it has the worst framerate issues I've encountered thus far. It's hard to say which bits are worse - the upper levels, where you will get repeatedly knocked off tiny ledges by enemies with huge knockback attacks, or the lower levels, where you trudge round at half speed in poisonous sludge, fending off waves of infinitely respawning mosquitos. It's as though the level designers who crafted the rest of the game went on leave for a week and told the interns to "cobble together something difficult" while they were away - without giving any advice on how to also make it fun. On the plus side, at least it feels nice when you are finally done with that section.
Finally, there's the "curse" status ailment. Most of the reviews mention this one. This is the ailment you can pick up from the smelly-breathed frog monsters in a few areas. It instantly kills you - and then halves your health bar - an effect that persists through future deaths. Curing it involves a long, long, long trek to one of two NPCs, through some seriously dangerous areas - with half a health bar, don't forget - and then a hefty payment for the cure itself. When the game was first released, it was possible for curse to "stack", reducing your maximum health down to a tiny sliver. This was genuinely game-breaking and lead to players with 15 hours of play under their belt having to restart the game - so it's good that it was fixed by a patch. But even the patched version feels overly sadistic - a way of punishing the player that doesn't actually add anything to the game.
Anyway, on balance, I am greatly enjoying Dark Souls. It needs another patch to fix the clipping bugs. It wouldn't hurt if said patch also toned down the "curse" status effect even further by adding more means of removing it. Blight Town is probably, sadly, beyond repair. But set against the brilliance on display elsewhere in the game, these are forgivable faults.
This isn't a review and I wasn't planning to put a score on the game, but I think that if I did, it would be 9/10. Without those "unfair" flaws, it would have been 10/10.
Review: Duke Nukem Forever
Duke Nukem Forever - demo thoughts
Gearbox took the unusual step of restricting access to Duke Nukem Forever's demo - at least until the game's release - to those with pre-orders for the game. This might seem a strange move; after all, a demo is typically intended to sway the curious and the wavering into making a purchase. Those with pre-orders are rather more committed than that (particularly if they have a Steam pre-order, in which case they'll already have paid for the game on a non-refundable basis). Unfortunately, there is actually a very simple explanation for Gearbox's behaviour; the demo is utterly dreadful.
Let me back up a step here. I was a huge fan of Duke Nukem 3d, back in the 1990s. I still maintain that despite its technical inferiority, it was a better game than Quake by quite some margin. DN3D put fun ahead of balance, gameplay innovation ahead of technical polish and laughs ahead of brooding. My defining deathmatch memories aren't of dreary 1-sided Quakeworld duels, but of elaborate holoduke tricks designed to lure my opponent into standing right next to those cunningly concealed pipe-bombs. Duke himself might be a stereotypical meat-head, but DN3D's gameplay often rewarded cunning and flexibility over aim and twitch skills. I loved it.
And I want to love Duke Nukem Forever. Sadly, after playing the demo, I very much doubt that I'm going to find this possible. I played the (20 minute long) demo through twice and could find almost nothing about it to love. In fact, the only thing that stirred any affection at all was the intro movie. After all these years, it's great to hear the theme music kicking up again and the intro does a good job of capturing the over-blown beyond-parody tone of DN3D. From there, it's all downhill.
For those who haven't played the demo or watched a playthrough on Youtube, here's a quick run down. There are two gameplay sections on offer in the demo. The first - clearly from the game's opening sequences, has Duke engaged in a fight against a large boss - in fact, against an easier version of DN3D's final boss. The fight is framed by a few story sections, which are generally obnoxious; Duke was funny when he was confined to a few throw-away comments, but quickly grows tiring in any scene that goes on for longer than a few seconds. The boss fight is distinctly old-school in nature. It's the player, the boss, a few ammo resupplies and not much else. Now, there's nothing particularly wrong with that. It's recalling classic boss fights such as Doom's Cyberdemon and Spider-brain fights, both of which worked just fine in a similar arena-type setting (as did DN3D's boss fights). Unfortunately, this is not a well done fight and it makes for a poor way to start the game. Being the first fight of the game, it has to be pitched extremely easy, so provided you keep moving, the boss will never hit you. Ever. He does, however, have quite a lot of health. End result? A couple of minutes of circle-strafing around a near-stationary target, occasionally being forced to wait for an ammo resupply to spawn.
The second demo section is, if anything, worse. It clearly takes place later in the game; there's no story continuity from the first sequence (this isn't a criticism - I'm quite happy for a demo to jump around like this). Initially, you're in an ugly, blocky monster truck, driving across an ugly, blocky desert landscape. The truck has all the agility and handling responsiveness of a dead walrus. You wobble unconvincingly through canyons for a minute or two, optionally running over the occasional enemy that appears. You jump over a canyon and then... run out of gas. Duke dismounts and you now begin the largest and most significant part of the demo - the on-foot fps stuff. And this is where any final hopes that somehow survived the demo to this point will be cruelly dashed.
Duke moves through a bland, uninspired and graphically underwhelming desert, shooting at brain-dead enemies. He uses a reasonable selection of weapons - some imports from DN3D and some new creations to do so. Unfortunately, and for NO GOOD REASON, he is restricted to holding two weapons at any given time. Sorry, guys, this is NOT Operation Flashpoint. If the Duke wants to carry 10 weapons at once, he should be able to. Weapon limitations discourage the use of the weirder and wackier parts of Duke's arsenal. You'd have thought they'd have learned from the Resistance series. If your game is all about crazy and unconventional weapons, then a 2-weapon restriction DOES NOT WORK, as Insomniac found (hence the return to the weapon-wheel for Resistance 3). As it is, 95% of DNF players are likely to spend their only playthrough of the game clutching the ripper and the shotgun - simply because experimenting with anything else is too risky when you have limited choices.
Besides, a lot of the joy is sucked out of the weapons selection (of which a good portion is on show in the demo) by the dreadful enemy design and AI. The enemies are as bland and generic as you could possibly imagine and they just rush towards the player like it was 1993 and they'd just been offered the chance to understudy Doom's pinky-demon. After a few minutes of uninspired on-foot combat (including a redundant and derivative turret sequence) a mini-boss appears, in the form of a dropship that Duke has to shoot down. In true modern-fps fashion (very much one of Half-Life 2's less welcome legacies), this involves picking up the conveniently placed rocket launcher and lurking in the cover placed conveniently next to the ammo resupply crate between shots until the thing finally goes down, opening up the path to the next area. The player then fights a few more boring enemies in a mine, endures a comically bad mine-cart sequence, finds some fuel for his monster truck and returns to it via another pathetic mine-cart sequence. Then the demo ends.
Seriously, if these were the two sections of the (completed) game that were felt to be good enough to pluck out and place in the demo, then I dread to think what the rest of the game is going to be like.
Sadly, I'm still buying it.
3DS - first thoughts
The perils of buying a 3DS
I just picked up my Nintendo 3DS on the way into work. I'll post some thoughts on the thing later - right now, I haven't done much more than switch it on and set the time and date. The 3d test-cycle that displays when you first switch the machine on was fairly impressive once my eyes focussed on it properly, but I can't say much more than that.
However, I did want to post a rant about the process of buying the thing - or specifically, the process of buying it from Game (the UK's largest specialist games retailer).
I'd put a pre-order (with deposit) down - after all, hardware is often in short supply when a new console launches. Now, at a basic level, the process worked just fine - I placed my pre-order in a store (a fairly average London branch near my workplace) and, on launch day, was able to collect the thing. However, this summary disguises what was a whole suite of irritations and frustrations.
First of all, when I put down the deposit, the launch titles weren't yet confirmed - the broad range of early releases was known, but not which of the titles would be available on launch-day. Besides, I hadn't particularly felt the need to pre-order any launch titles - these never tend to be particularly hard to get hold of, once you've got the hardware itself. I was a bit surprised, therefore, to get a phone call from Game about 2 weeks before the launch, telling me that if I didn't put down a pre-order, I would be highly unlikely to be able to get any games at all on the day. "We understand", the guy on the phone told me breathlessly, "that Nintendo are only shipping us one game for every four systems". This immediately sets off my "nonsense" detector. However, there is that little seed of doubt; after all, Nintendo are among the gaming companies I trust they least and they do have a bad habit of screwing the UK over when it comes to shipments. So I relent and put down a pre-order (plus deposit) for Pilotwings and Ridge Racer.
I then get a succession of about 4 phone calls in the days leading up to the release, trying, with increasing desperation, to get me to commit to trading in my old DS and its games when I buy the 3DS - in return for what is frankly a pretty poor discount. This is despite the fact that I explain when I get the first call that they wouldn't even take my DS if I offered it - due to it being a US model (yes, I know the original DS is region-free, but they're funny about these things). This ends the first phone call but doesn't stop a succession of others.
This morning, I get up half an hour earlier than usual and make it to the branch of Game in question for their opening. There is a big queue - which is something I had been expecting. What I hadn't been expecting is just how damned slowly it was moving. Once I get to the front, I realise why; every customer who has come in to collect a 3DS pre-order is getting a several-minute long sales pitch for the extended warrenty, in addition to a renewed plea to trade in old DSes. This is a store in the middle of one of London's main business districts and most of the people in the store are increasingly frustrated looking professional types who, like me, can see their arrival at work getting further and further delayed. Requests to skip the pitch are refused on the grounds that "it's company policy", and my comment that "I won't tell if you won't" gets me nowhere. Eventually, 50 minutes after joining the queue, I finally get out of the store.
As I'm leaving, I notice something that moves me from profound irritation to cold, seeting fury - stack upon stack of 3DS games - absolutely no shortage whatsoever.
Having written this rant, I'm not really sure what the point was - as much catharsis as anything, I suspect. But seriously, in an era where bricks and mortar games retailers (including Game) are known to be struggling, you'd think they'd actually try to work out what their customers want. What I want is to be able to order a product and pick it up from the store on the day it's released with no fuss and hassle. Actually, I'd ideally like to be able to do that without a pre-order, but I know that's as much down to the manufacturers as it is to the retailers. What I don't want is weeks of haranguing and badgering about pre-orders and trade-ins, followed by an in-store experience that is as frustrating as they could possibly make it.
Anyway, I'll give the thing a whirl this evening and post some thoughts on the console itself.