NVIDIA Launches New Midrange Maxwell-Based GeForce GTX 960 Graphics Card
says the guy who bought a 980 just before Christmas. Yeah... hypocrisy much.
However, be aware that minimum specs for games are in a bit of a state of flux at the moment. In some senses, it's not before time; they've only risen very slowly for many years, as development of most games was targeted first and foremost at the Xbox 360 and PS3, with PC versions usually not receiving much more than a few cosmetic upgrades. For quite a few years now, a reasonably recent i3/middle-aged i5 (or AMD equivalent) and a sensible Nvidia 400-series (or AMD equivalent) would have done you fine.
Since the summer of 2014, we've seen a rise in the number of games developed primarily for the PS4 and Xbox One and then scaled up for PC, or indeed, developed for PC and then scaled down for the consoles (Alien: Isolation a fairly clear example of the latter). And as this has happened, there's been a trend for rapidly rising specs.
Shadow of Mordor, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition have all needed substantially higher specs to run sensibly than was the norm a year ago. CPU, GPU, RAM and, frankly, even hard drive speed have all been pushed quite hard by the games above - you're now talking about wanting at least a recent i5 and a 780 if you like 1080p max settings. It might be that things will level out again soon. Or it might be that the increase will rise for a bit further yet. It will level out, when developers find a sweet spot that makes it easy to cross-develop between current-gen consoles and PC. But it might be worth waiting for performance analysis of how The Witcher 3's final build works before committing to a hardware upgrade - that's looking like the most technically demanding game on the horizon.
Hands On With Microsoft's Holographic Goggles
That was certainly true for the Wii and Wii-U, but I'm not sure it holds up for Nintendo's other consoles. The Gamecube hardware was, by all accounts, good. Better than the PS2's and not far short of the Xbox's. It's still slightly amazing that the PS2 did as well as it did, given it was both underpowered and a complete dog to develop for.
The N64 was more complicated; most of its hardware was pretty decent, but the decision to stick with cartridges rather than move to a CD format for games doomed it in the race with the Playstation. That was probably the most significant point in console-history (I'd rank it above even the Atari-crash, which was strictly a US phenomenon) - the moment Nintendo decided, on the basis of piracy fears, to part way with almost all of its significant third party developers (and also to massively annoy Sony, who had done a load of development work in partnership with Nintendo on CD-based console technology). If the N64 had used CDs, chances are the industry would look completely different today.
Hands On With Microsoft's Holographic Goggles
In the early days of the 360, MS spent a lot of time and money love-bombing Japanese developers to get them to make games primarily for the Japanese market (though many of them got exported to the West). Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey - the two best Japanese RPGs of the first few years of the last generation - were funded by MS, developed in Japan with Japanese as the primary language and English translations provided later. So language was no issue for those. Similarly, MS pumped a lot of money into Cave, making sure that the 360 got ports of a lot of their most notable arcade machines.
All of which did next to nothing. I'm tempted to say MS did absolutely everything it reasonably could to break into Japan. It still didn't work. I wasn't surprised therefore that they've barely even bothered to try this time around with the Xbox One. The Japanese home console market is in a bad way anyway, so it probably doesn't matter anything like as much as it did a decade ago.
Hands On With Microsoft's Holographic Goggles
They were talking about Kinect - not the Xbox. And "fastest selling entertainment device" is a flexible term - as you can define whatever period you want to base your judgement on.
Going off this it seems to have managed 8 million sales in 2 months. That's certainly got to be a contender for "fastest selling over 2 months". The PS2, Wii and PS4 all might have been able to manage faster, as might some of Apple's portable devices, if they hadn't been constrained by supply shortages.
Of course, Kinect sales flatlined after the first few months, nobody's disputing that. But there is certainly a defined period over which it seems to be "fastest selling".
Hands On With Microsoft's Holographic Goggles
That whooshing sound you hear is the irony rushing right over your head...
Hands On With Microsoft's Holographic Goggles
Wow, bitter much...
Kinda guessing you're not a fan of the Xbox. Possibly even that you're a bit of a fan of one of its rivals? Remember that blind brand loyalty (or blind hatred of a brand) is self-defeating on the part of the consumer.
Microsoft does not love you and does not have your best interests at heart.
Sony does not love you and does not have your best interests at heart.
Nintendo does not love you and does not have your best interests at heart.
Valve does not love you and does not have your best interests at heart.
The fanboy-arguments between the various sides in the console war are more bitter this time around than I've ever seen them before. Which is ironic, really, given that the actual practical differences between the PS4 and Xbox One are vanishingly small and only really apparent to hardcore enthusiasts.
Hands On With Microsoft's Holographic Goggles
What you say is technically correct for a very narrow span of time, but also one of the most pernicious myths about the finances of the gaming industry.
The article you link is from when the 360 first went on sale in 2005. The 360 remained MS's "main" console until late 2013. Production costs fall wildly over that time. Indeed, in the traditional MS/Sony model of selling consoles, you sell at a loss for about the first 12-18 months, then as unit cost reductions and economies of scale start to work in your favour, you keep the console selling at a more or less neutral level for the rest of its life-span, reducing the retail price as costs fall further.
Where do they make the money from? Xbox Live subscriptions, first party games etc are a small part of it, but only a small part. Most of the money - and it is a lot of money - comes from third party game fees.
See, when you buy a console game as "new" (rather than pre-owned), a large chunk of the sale price goes directly to Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo. On a full-priced game, this tends to be in the $10-15 range. Historically, this has explained the price differential between console and PC games - though with Valve now taking a similar cut of most PC game sales, who knows how long that will last.
The platform owner has spent next to nothing on those third party games; in most cases, it only gets involved at the certification stage. So it is, for the most part, "free money". And with series like Call of Duty, FIFA, Madden etc racking up the sales they do, it is a lot of free money.
So the trick is attracting third parties to the console. To do this, you need to have either a large current installed base, or the promise of a large installed base to come. This is why console manufacturers are happy to sell at a loss for the first year and often to take a loss (or at least a risk) on funding first party or platform-exclusive third party games - the Halos, Gears of War, Killzones and Gran Turismos of the world. Those are the bait to lure in the early adopters to get the installed base growing to get the third party developers on board.
The other business model is the one that was previously (but not currently) used by Nintendo. In the SNES, N64, Gamecube and Wii generations, as well as with its handhelds up to and including the DS, Nintendo sold platforms at a profit from day 1 and focussed much more on first party games development. This actually worked pretty well for a long time; they made megabucks on the SNES (which also had a lot of third party support, so win-win there) and even when the Gamecube ended up with poor sales, they were still able to turn a profit on it.
But around 5 years ago, this model started to break. The Wii was essentially dead by 2010; console sales were slowing to a trickle (after a few phenomenal years) and despite the huge installed base, most Wii owners (a different demographic to that on other platforms) did not buy many games, so third party developers abandoned it. Then came the 3DS launch.
The 3DS is doing ok now. Well in Japan, so-so in the US and Europe. It's on course to be a kind of PSP-level success, which is ok (the PSP actually did much better than is generally realised, largely on the strength of Japan). But the 3DS's launch was actually a bit of a disaster. For months after launch, the damned thing just wouldn't sell - and price was a big part of it. So Nintendo reversed historic policy and slashed the price; for the first time in its history, selling console hardware at a loss. It didn't remain at a loss for long; only 6 months or so until it got onto a neutral footing - but it was enough to bury Nintendo's historic strategy. Console sales improved, third parties moved in (particularly Japanese developers, many of who shy away from the high cost of developing for home consoles) and Nintendo's losses (the first in the company's history) were reduced. When the Wii-U was launched, it was launched with a traditional Sony/MS style pricing strategy; sold at a loss at first, before moving to neutral pricing after a year or so. In the Wii-U's case, for a variety of reasons, that failed to get it a good installed base and Nintendo now has an outright disaster on its hands - the hardware isn't profitable, third parties have left and the only business left is selling first party games to a relatively small user base.
The fun thing about this cycle is that following the poor launch of the 3DS and the disaster-launches of the Vita and Wii-U, some developers bet against the PS4 and Xbox One succeeding. 2k, in particular, committed itself to a strategy of ignoring the new consoles, while focussing development on 360, PS3 and PC. That's cost them a lot of money, with their sales significantly down on a few years ago. Borderland: The Pre-Sequel in particular has been a bit of a sales disaster, with a belated port to the new consoles jsut announced.
What 2k (and others) forgot is that installed base is important, but so is the propensity of that installed base to buy games; and early adopters of new hardware tend to buy a lot of games.
But yeah, in the big picture, installed base is critical and the fact that console manufacturer's take a loss for the first 12 months or so isn't particularly relevant.
Hands On With Microsoft's Holographic Goggles
Not bullshit at all. Kinect's first couple of months on sale were extremely successful. In fact, MS made a very nice slug of money from it; unusually for the console business, there was a hefty chunk of profit margin on each unit sold. And it sold a lot of units very fast, because it was never supply constrained; unlike many new console launches, if you wanted one, you could walk into a shop and buy one (supply shortages have limited early sales of the PS2, Wii and PS4 to a large extent, early sales of other consoles to a lesser extent).
Of course, the Kinect basically went on to traverse (on a slightly smaller scale) the same kind of curve of the Wii. Lots and lots of early sales, but faltering when people started to realise that the only games you could practically play on it were short-lived party-games. So after the first few months on sale, sales fell of a brick and games releases dried up. But MS had a lot of sales and made a lot of money in the window before that.
And in what the hell sense is the Xbox brand a dismal failure? Ok, it's never taken off in Japan (basically because Japanese consumers are highly protectionist), but it's generally been a surprising success. The original Xbox managed just over 24 million sales. That's a long way behind the PS2's 150+ million, but ahead of Nintendo's 22 million, despite Nintendo being an established brand at the time and essentially being able to sell in 3 major markets (US, EU, JP) rather than Microsoft's 2 (US, EU).
The Xbox 360 managed 83 million sales until the point where MS stopped reporting sales (the unit is actually still selling). By comparison, the PS3 managed 80 million and the Wii just over 100 million (though the Wii got most of those early in the cycle - both console and game sales dried up in the second half).
And this time around - despite the "disaster for MS" narrative, the Xbox One isn't doing too badly. Sales data is a little hard to compare at the moment, but it looks like the PS4 managed 20 million in a year on sale, the Xbox One 10 million in the same time and the Wii-U around 8 million over two years. The Xbox One is in second place, but set against previous generations, it has sold fast in its first year (remember that console sales tend to accelerate in their second and third years, as prices come down and more games become available).
So MS has a successful console brand on its hands. What it doesn't have is the kind of "single device living room dominator" that Ballmer hoped the Xbox One would be. The new management seems content to settle for "successful games console", though there's a real question as to whether MS will want to be in that space in the long term.
The Fixes Sony's DualShock 4 Controller Still Needs
Most 3d games use most of the controls on a standard controller, though L3/R3 (which as you say are awkward) are generally avoided where possible. The Cube controller was missing enough buttons that games needed serious redesign. The Classic Controller was closer to being fully-featured, but was an optional peripheral anyway.
In the early part of the last decade, I was housemates for a while with a guy who worked at a middle-budget developer whose niche was putting out reasonably good (but not exceptional) games based on other people's licenses across the major platforms - at the time, PS2, Xbox, Gamecube and sometimes PC. His commentary on the state of cross-platform development at the time was interesting.
The Xbox was a delight to develop for; nice simple architecture and reasonable power. The PS2 was horribly tricky and all kinds of compromises had to be made, but its installed base was so huge that you couldn't commercially afford not to release for it. What was inside the Cube was perfectly nice to design for, but the controller limitations meant that entire sections of their game had to be redesigned for the Cube version, and features sometimes cut. So some movement abilities would have to be automated, or combat simplified, which meant difficulty had to be retuned and significant additional QA testing was needed. Towards the end of the cycle, when the Xbox notably overtook the Cube on installed base (having more or less level-pegged until then), they dropped Cube development; redesigning games to fit the controller was costing more than the money was justifying.
The Fixes Sony's DualShock 4 Controller Still Needs
The "share" button also needs to be changed into something a bit more genera -purpose. I know that the whole game-streaming thing is big right now, but the simple fact is that the majority of gamers - self very much included - will never actually record gameplay footage interesting enough to be worth sharing with others. By all means, have some kind of option in the OS to enable recording and uploading of footage, but you do not need a controller button set aside for it. That's just pandering to narcissists.
The range of functions available on console controllers is actually massively significant. It's every bit as important as the hardware inside the box in determining how difficult it is for a developer to produce a game that works across a range of platforms. If you change the functions available on the controller, you will require changes to gameplay for a large number of games. This is one of the reasons why third party support for the Gamecube was so poor, despite it having a similar installed base to the original Xbox and fairly easy hardware to develop for; its little controller had fewer buttons than the Dualshock 2 or the various iterations of the Xbox controller, so games would have had to be redesigned to fit on it.
The PS4 controller isn't a total disaster; as the touchpad also doubles as a button (which is all most games use it as) you can still have functional equivalents to the "start" and "select" buttons. But it's still an unhelpful step back in a world that had been moving towards controller standardisation.
And just for fairness's sake - the Xbox One controller's layout is fine, but its build and materials feel cheap and nasty compared to the old 360 controller. And the Wii-U gamepad does at least have the right number of buttons and sticks (unprecedented for a modern Nintendo controller), but is even larger, heavier and more uncomfortable than the first-gen Xbox controller and has an awful battery life.
Google Finally Quashes Month-Old Malvertising Campaign
It should be a priority - because if it isn't, it will start hitting revenue. I'd gone years without using adblocking software, on the grounds that I knew a lot of sites I liked depended on advertising income.
When Yahoo! ads starting redirecting to ransomware-pushers a couple of months ago, I reversed my policy fast.
How To Hijack Your Own Windows System With Bundled Downloads
Can't you just nuke the recovery partition with dban or something similar? I've removed Dell recovery partitions that way in the past.
Nintendo Puts Business In Brazil On Hiatus
Agreed it's moronic. But this is Nintendo we're talking about. Region locking isn't about the money; it's about a combination of their messed-up corporate structure (the various international companies are only loosely integrated) and nasty control-freakery. They have a long history of liking to say "title X does not fit with our irrationally conceived stereotype of region Y, so we won't release it there, or will cut it to hell first". Region locking is one of the tools they use for that.
The whole "region locking for differential pricing" thing at least had a simple motive behind it ("more money"), but it doesn't work all that well (markets where you need to sell cheap tend to have too much piracy to be worth it anyway). Most people who region lock for that reason are moving away from it now (Sony and MS have ditched it entirely).
Nintendo Puts Business In Brazil On Hiatus
There's currently no way to play pirated games on a Wii-U. The original Wii's copy protection was circumvented (very quickly), as was the 360's (if you didn't mind losing online functionality). PS3 piracy was possible for certain titles on consoles with certain firmware revisions, but was generally a huge pain in the ass, so it never really took off. The copy protection mechanisms on the PS4 and Xbox One are currently intact.
However, those in Brazil who have bought consoles already do apparently have the option of importing titles from neighboring countries or the US. Nintendo is the last of the console manufacturers to support region locking (and even Nintendo is now publicly acknowledging that it has an internal debate on ditching it), but a few minutes with google seems to indicate that they treat the whole of the Americas as a single region for locking purposes.
Samsung Unveils First PCIe 3.0 x4-Based M.2 SSD, Delivering Speeds of Over 2GB/s
It's curious how many relatively recent high-end PCs from prestige-brands don't have PCIe 3.0 slots. Alienware are a particular offender here - they were very slow adopters, quite possibly because a lot of their customers don't actually think to check for this when speccing up a machine.
That said, it's questionable how much it really matters in the real world at the moment. Performance tests on the latest video cards (which can take advantage of PCIe 3.0) have found very little performance gap between 3.0 and 2.0 (and even 1.0) with the likes of the Nvidia 980. The gap is most apparent at extremely high (150+) framerates - which is unlikely to constrain the average gamer, who probably just turns up the graphical settings until his PC can't sustain his target framerate (probably somewhere in the 40-60fps rate) any more.
Sony Thinks You'll Pay $1200 For a Digital Walkman
I won't disagree on Betamax or MGM, but describing the Playstation series as "also ran" is one of the dumbest statements I've ever heard on slashdot - which is really saying something.
The Playstation series revolutionised the video games industry and opened up whole new demographics to gaming. Sony may have stumbled a bit around the time they released the PS3 (the wrong hardware at the wrong price), but with the announcement today that the PS4 has achieved 18.5 million units sold to consumers in just over a year on sale, they're clearly back on form. By contrast, the Xbox One is sitting at just over 10 million units shipped to stores in the same time period (which is itself "not bad" going off historical comparators), while the Wii-U hasn't even managed 8 million shipped to stores in around twice the time (which is sub-Dreamcast pacing).
Many of Sony's other brands may be struggling, but the Playstation series is a startling success story.
Ebola Patient Zero Identified, Probably Infected By Bats
It means "patient zero for this outbreak". Unlike some diseases, Ebola doesn't have a constant presence in the human species. Most of the time, there are no humans on the planet infected with Ebola (compare and contrast with the common cold, which exists in an endemic steady state among humans).
Ebola outbreaks begin when a human is exposed to the disease from a non-human source (bats have been suspected for decades, but it was tricky to pin down). So "patient zero" for an Ebola outbreak is the human who is the first to be infected (and who then goes on to infect others).
One of the big questions about Ebola outbreaks is why there aren't more of them. If bats are the carriers, then given how widespread bats are across Africa, why do outbreaks so isolated? Tracking down the patient zero for each outbreak is crucial if we're going to understand that (and understanding it could be the key to preventing future outbreaks).
Ebola Patient Zero Identified, Probably Infected By Bats
It's not finger pointing. Knowing who your patient zero was is absolutely vital if you want to be able to reduce the likelihood of future outbreaks.
Ebola doesn't have a natural reservoir in the human population; it's too fast-acting and (with the exception of the Reston strain) deadly for that. It tends to have a similar effect on other primates as well. So identifying where the disease does live between outbreaks in the human population (likely in a species which experiences no or limited symptoms from infection) is critical, both for research purposes (the ability to keep an eye on the virus before its latest strain jumps into humans) or for educating people as to which particular pools of the animal population to stay away from.
If you go back through medical history - right back to bubonic plague having a natural reservoir in rats' fleas - identifying how a virus has been making the jump into humans has been the first stage in controlling it.
Ask Slashdot: What Tech Companies Won't Be Around In 10 Years?
Certainly, as I've recently noted in more detail than I will repeat here in a journal entry, the big question that the new consoles have yet to answer is what, precisely, they are for.
If they're replaced, I don't think it will be tablets that replace them - touchscreen controls are just unsuitable for many types of game. It will be PCs; though they may not look anything like the traditional "beige box under a desk".
The economics of the games industry are rapidly killing platform exclusivity (games cost too much to develop and increasingly developers can't afford to artificially limit sales and platform owners can't afford to compensate them for doing so). Without platform-exclusive games and with cheap, small and easy to use gaming PCs that can sit under a TV running Steam's big picture mode or something similar, the traditional games console starts to look like an oddity.
Ask Slashdot: What Tech Companies Won't Be Around In 10 Years?
And they really are guesses, because the nature of the industry is that one major hit can save a failing company overnight, while just a couple of expensive disasters can sink a successful company within a year.
EA probably have the potentia to be the highest-profile casualty. Despite their size and notoriety, they've not been doing brilliantly in financial terms for quite a few years now. They've a couple of nasty habits (from the point of view of both the gamer and the shareholder) which contribute to this.
The first is the continual chase after the "last big thing" - EA rarely comes up with new mega-hit formulas itself; rather, it belatedly notices when somebody else produces one, tries to mimic it and usually fails. Hence the expensive and largely unsuccessful attempts to copy the Call of Duty formula with Medal of Honor and Battlefield (the former in particular having been a costly disaster for the company) and the late arrival, whole-hearted embrace of and often embarrassing fiascos in the pay-to-win mobile space.
The second bad habit is that of making expensive acquisitions and then ruining their unique selling points. Bioware is the biggest example here; Dragon Age: Inquisition may do a bit of reputational-repair, but the Bioware brand is much tarnished from when EA acquired it.
EA isn't going to die overnight; if it does die in the next 10 years, it's more likely to be a "death by a thousand cuts" kind of affair, probably with some smaller rump of the company surviving. But despite the fact it has some really talented developers (it makes some amazingly good games, despite its reputation), I just don't think it's smart or agile enough to keep up with Activision, Ubisoft or Square-Enix in the longer term.
The funny thing about EA is that when it's gone, we'll probably miss it. It's used its (now slightly diminishing-returns) cash-cow sports franchises to fund some interesting games like Dead Space that would probably never have been made otherwise.
The next guess is, ironically, a company whose gaming division is doing very well and will likely continue to do very well right up to the point the company (possibly) collapses; Sony. Sony's currently building up the kind of console-wars installed-base lead it hasn't had since the PS2-era and is doing it with much healthier margins than it had during that generation. The problem is that the wider company is a shambles, selling electronic goods that nobody wants. There's still plenty of time for Sony to turn itself around, but it's not absolutely certain that it will.
Nintendo has perhaps the opposite problem; the part of the company that makes and sells consoles is doing pretty badly, while other bits of the business are doing quite well. The Wii-U has failed now. Aafter Mario Kart 8 and Smash Bros failed to have a significant impact on sales, it has run out of last chances and even Nintendo themselves seem increasingly reluctant to support it at the expense of the 3DS. It appears almost certain that the Xbox One overtook it on installed base somewhere around October/November, despite the Wii-U's 12 month head start. While the 3DS isn't doing too badly, it's more a "PSP-level" success than a "DS-level" success (though the PSP was indeed a successful machine) and is particularly dependant upon the Japanese market. I don't think Nintendo's going bust, but I suspect that the threat of a shareholder revolt may mean that the Wii-U ends up being the company's last home console (or they may try a panicked and quick-to-fail emergency successor, which will only slightly delay the inevitable). They have some strong brands though and if they can shed the home-console hardware business, they'll probably still be here and still be healthy in 10 years time.
And MS... will be discussed to death elsewhere in this thread. I don't think they're going out of business. I do think it's more uncertain that they will stay in the home console market, however. They've rescued the Xbox One fairly neatly after a disaster of a launch (it's had a good Christmas season in sales terms), but it is clearly never going to be the living-room dominance vehicle that their board thought it was going to be. Is MS interested in continuing to drive the Xbox brand itself on the understanding that it will only ever really be a games console, or will it seek a buyer? Dunno...
And then in the domain of the smaller developers, there are a few companies in obvious difficulty. Crytek are the most obvious; they've been out to commit suicide as quickly as possible over the last year or two and are already showing signs of distress. But there will be others too; the early years of a console cycle are often brutal for studios, as production costs rise sharply.
But I suspect the bulk of the failures are going to pass unnoticed. There's definitely a sense now that we've reached (and possibly passed) the peak of the indie-gaming boom of the last couple of years. I think a large number of the indie studios currently clogging up Kickstarter and Steam's Greenlight won't be around in 12 months time, let alone 10 years. A couple will probably survive, flourish and begin to look more like the traditional commercial developers - but the free-for-all we were seeing in 2012 is mostly behind us now.
Games of the Year 2014 (and some general musings/rants)
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