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No school like the old school

Games

Every summer, Blizzard Entertainment holds a convention for fans of its games in Anaheim, California, known as BlizzCon (see what they did there?). The tickets have a habit of selling like hotcakes, so much so that they are being made available in “waves” to prevent the whole lot from disappearing in one fell swoop. Those attempting to purchase tickets during these waves have been given the chance to play a decidedly crude but incredibly addictive web browser game entitled Failoc-alypse, in which your goal is to take command of one of three characters from Blizzard’s gaming universes and preventing as many imps as possible from getting to BlizzCon.

Those who aren’t attempting to purchase tickets can play the game too by following this link. It’s certainly an enjoyable stress reliever and one that succeeds in evoking much of the feel of the sort of games Blizzard used to make for console in the early 1990s.

 
Posted: Sunday, May 31, 2009 at 9:18 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Web
 

Duck and cover!

Fallout 3

On Saturday, I picked up a copy of Fallout 3 at GAME. While I was a big fan of Black Isle Studios’ Icewind Dale and especially Planescape: Torment, for one reason or another I never really got into their Fallout series. However, after reading a lot of good things about Bethesda Softworks’ third game in the franchise (Black Isle having been unceremoniously dissolved in 2003), spotting the hefty discount at which it was being offered, and starved of any good, in-depth RPGs of late, I decided to give it a shot.

I’m glad I did, because while Fallout 3 has problems, it feels very much like a spiritual successor to the great Black Isle RPGs of yesteryear. While the game is decidedly combat-oriented (and can be very punishing if you wade in out of your depth), there’s also a decent amount of emphasis on plot development and conversations with NPC characters. The character system is pleasingly complex without being incomprehensible, with a wide array of different stats at your disposal, many of which affect your ability to bribe, intimidate or lie to characters through dialogue (if you so choose). This is not unlike Planescape, which bestowed considerable rewards to those who pumped their Intelligence and Charisma, therefore delivering a more interesting experience to players who used their brains instead of their fists.

The biggest downside is that the game is fairly ugly - a somewhat significant problem given how long you spend looking at it. I don’t mean that the graphics are technically bad, but rather that the visual style is unappealing. True, I wouldn’t expect any depiction of a post-apocalyptic wasteland to be rainbows and cherry blossom, but there’s something repetitive about the never-ending grey and brown environments in which you spend most of your time. I even decked my character out with a shock of bright red hair in an attempt to alleviate some of the monotony. The character animation is also wooden, with the pseudo-realistic designs all too often falling into that “uncanny valley” pitfall. I realise that 3D is what all the cool kids want nowadays, but personally I miss the good old days of Black Isle’s top-down 2D RPGs, with their artful, wonderfully detailed pre-rendered backgrounds.

(Oh, and the voice acting matches the animation. I found out a few moments ago that the player character’s father is voiced by Liam Neeson - yet another example of a live action actor turning out to be a poor voice-over artist.)

Another significant problem comes in the form of the game’s combat system. I’m not referring to the VATS system, whereby you can pause the game and issue orders at your leisure, targeting a specific part of the enemy for that optimal kill-shot. This is a great feature that adds a pleasing amount of tactical strategy to the action. Unfortunately, the real-time model is less than ideal, and this is really the only viable option in close quarters. You end up strafing about like a ninny, trying desperately to land a hit, with the wooden animation providing very poor visual feedback. The control system simply isn’t suited to this type of combat, and I now find myself regretting having chosen to specialise mainly in the “up close and personal” side rather pumping the abilities relating to ranged combat.

From what little I’ve experienced of it so far (preparing for the post-graduate symposium having sucked up much of my time this week), Fallout 3 is a great game and a welcome return to the glory years of PC role-playing games. Elements of it are rather clunky, but it would be unfair to say that this is any different from the old Infinity Engine games, which always struck me as being decidedly flawed when it came to the combat side of things. (One of the reasons I loved Planescape so much was the extent to which combat was downplayed in favour of dialogue, neatly circumventing the engine’s biggest failing.) On the contrary, shifting the formula into the third dimension has simply resulted in many of the same problems being present in a slightly different form. Despite these flaws, the qualities of the Baldur’s Gates and Icewind Dales of the world still managed to shine through, and I’m confident that Fallout 3 is very much in the same vein. Perhaps I’ll re-roll and start again with a more tactically-oriented character.

 
Posted: Friday, May 22, 2009 at 11:18 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | PhD | Technology
 

EA “dumps DRM” for The Sims 3

DRM

Once again it seems that I’m reporting on a story only once it’s become old hat, but in case you missed the article, Electronic Arts, the champion of draconian digital rights management, have announced that it will not be enforcing mandatory online activation and limited installations for its upcoming juggernaut, The Sims 3.

It may not sound like much, but in my opinion this is huge. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve seen the back of over-intrusive DRM on EA products for good, but I take the fact that the company is omitting it from what will surely be their biggest PC release of the year as a tacit admission that such anti-consumer strategies don’t work. The DRM-infected Spore did, after all, notoriously become the most pirated game of all time, with cracked copies appearing on torrent sites before it had even hit store shelves, and the overall effect was simply to infuriate customers, leading to online smear campaigns, 1-star rating tag-teaming on Amazon and organised boycotts of EA products. So, if you contributed to any of these activities, wrote EA an angry letter or email, or did anything to publicly voice your displeasure at their noxious behaviour, give yourself a pat on the back, because this is a significant victory, and you made it possible.

Note: the image above was created by Alfredo Daniel Rezinovsky and is available under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5 Argentina License.

 
Posted: Thursday, April 09, 2009 at 7:55 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web
 

Bigger, blacker, better

Dell Ultrasharp 2709W

In a previous post, I mentioned ordering some goods from eBuyer, the process of which was somewhat less than smoothing sailing. I’ve now been using them (or rather, it) since Monday, and think it’s now high time I revealed its identity. So here it is: I bought a new monitor for my computer, a Dell Ultrasharp 2709W.

No, you’re not imagining things. I did buy a monitor already this year: a Fujitsu Siemens Amilo 3230T. However, as I started in my original post on that screen, I only ever saw this as an interim purchase. I picked it up primarily because of its ridiculously good price, but also because I wanted a screen capable of displaying full HD material to enable me to better examine Blu-ray Discs. While I stand by my initial impressions that, as monitors go, it’s a pretty reasonable one, “pretty reasonable” doesn’t really cut it for someone like me, who constantly seeks perfection in all things video-related and spends a lot of his time critiquing image quality. I previously mentioned that I’d been oogling Apple’s new LED Cinema Display, but quickly deemed it a non-starter due to its lack of PC-compliant inputs and, erm, power button. Following this dead end, I began looking into other displays and quickly found myself drawn to Dell’s Ultrasharp 2709W, for a number of reasons:

First of all, the idea of a 27” 1920x1200 screen really appealed to me. Most monitors of this size tend to have a native resolution of 2560x1600, which for me is less than ideal because, although the additional desktop space is nice, a really beefy video card and CPU are needed to maintain a decent frame rate in recent games at this resolution. 1:1 pixel mapping for HD content is also pretty high at the top of my list of requirements, which basically meant that any display I bought had to be either 1920x1080 (16:9) or 1920x1200 (16:10).

Secondly, an in-depth examination at display technologies review site PRAD revealed the display to have an insanely good black level for an LCD display, particularly as far as consumer-level computer monitors are concerned. It also showed that, with the right calibration, it would be possible to attain a reasonable degree of colour accuracy. In addition, a major requirement in any LCD display for me is a reasonable amount of backlight uniformity, to prevent some parts of the screen from being noticeably brighter or darker than others, and the 2709W scored very well in this regard. Finally, Dell has a “zero dead pixels” guarantee, which speaks for itself.

I’ve now made considerable use of the monitor and, while it has yet to be calibrated to anything more than my own subjective preferences, I have to say that I’m elated with it. I’m notoriously fussy when it comes to computer screens, having bought and returned (or punted) more than my fair share, and can comfortably state that this one is the nicest I’ve ever used. The S-PVA panel ensures an excellent degree of backlight uniformity (the major failing of the 3230T), the blacks are the deepest I’ve ever seen on a consumer PC LCD display, and the response time is, to my eyes, very pleasing. (The documentation quotes response times of 6 milliseconds grey-to-grey and 15 milliseconds white-to-black, but, as I always say, official technical specifications in such matters are rarely particularly helpful.) The unusually large screen size for this resolution (in PC terms, that is; were it a TV, there would be nothing remarkable about it whatsoever) is also rather nice (although I know that a few users have found the pixel pitch of 0.303 mm a little hard to get used to). On the downside, the display does suffer from around 36 milliseconds of input lag, but I can’t say it has bothered me so far, despite having played a lot of Warcraft III, Red Alert 3 and even a few matches of Unreal Tournament III on it. However, I do acknowledge that hard-core gamers, particularly those who play a lot of fast-paced FPSes and the like, are likely to be more sensitive to this than me. By way of comparison, my brother, testing out the monitor, noticed the lag when simply moving the mouse around the desktop.

Overall, this one’s definitely a keeper. If definitely needs to be calibrated properly - the wide colour gamut resulted in some eye-searing reds and greens until I dialled them down a little - but this is one display I have absolutely no qualms about buying, which is rare indeed for me. My 3230T will now migrate to my bedroom for use with my secondary machine, but the 2709W looks as if it can look forward to a long and prosperous life connected to my main system.

Dell Ultrasharp 2709W

 
Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 3:23 PM | Comments: 11 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Games | Technology
 

The substance of style

Prince of Persia

Earlier this month, I posted about the 2008 edition of Prince of Persia, praising its audio-visual quality but criticising it for not offering enough of a challenge. This evening, I came across a very interesting article about the game over at Gamasutra, where writer Tom Cross eloquently offers a differing point of view, praising the game for its characters and story, and offering up the game’s style as its substance:

This Prince of Persia is many things good and bad, but for me, it has been one of the more enthralling experiences provided by a video game. It eschews frustrating, punishing gameplay tropes, and instead follows a hugely unpopular and successful (at its aim) path: it aims to create a continuous, enjoyable, flowing experience, one unhindered by the mechanical, artificial traditions of “achievement” and “fun” that so many games cling to.

Here is a game that asks you to enjoy yourself, and its fiction, and attempts to make these goals as attainable as possible. I can’t think of a more welcome trend to introduce to the industry, and I wish Ubisoft well, especially if they continue to produce products of such impressive quality and passion.

I can’t say I share Tom’s opinions on the game as a whole (and I’m afraid I’m one of those people who clashed with its sense of humour), but his argument is well-argued and serves as a solid “devil’s advocate” to my own views.

 
Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 6:55 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Web
 

The lights are on but no-one’s home

Writings

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last few days. I know I promised a full review of Tomb Raider: Underworld, but the three people in the world who are on tenterhooks for it will have to wait slightly longer. The fact is I’ve been under the weather lately, having picked up that brute of a cold that’s been going round. My head feels considerably clearer today than it did yesterday, but I’ve still got quite a bit of catching up to do, including read an entire PhD thesis before my next meeting with my supervisors on Tuesday 20th. I’ve also, as of today, started attention a Junior Honours class in Italian cinema, hosted by one of my supervisors. Much as I’d like to, I won’t be attending every single class, because each session is five hours long, which, when you’re studying part-time, cuts a pretty big chunk out of your week, but it should provide a good opportunity for me to fill in some of the (fairly substantial) blanks that exist in my knowledge of Italian cinema.

Oh, and I picked up a new monitor for a ridiculously low price. More on it later, hopefully, once it’s been properly calibrated and I have a better idea of its strengths and weaknesses.

 
Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 5:10 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Games | General | PhD | Reviews | Technology
 

Red Alert 3 expands

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

This might be a bit premature from my point of view, given that I haven’t actually completed Red Alert 3 yet, but the game is to receive an expansion set in March. Straight from the horse’s mouth a CommandAndConquer.com:

The third iteration of the Command & Conquer™ franchise’s beloved Red Alert™ series is returning with Command & Conquer™ Red Alert™ 3: Uprising exclusively for the PC. An epic single-player campaign expansion, the standalone title catapults players deeper into the Red Alert universe, giving them more of the action-packed gameplay they have been clamoring for, while offering a gauntlet of new and compelling challenges with the new Commander’s Challenge mode. Command & Conquer Red Alert 3: Uprising will be available for digital download this March.

“Uprising is a game that in many ways reflects the feedback we have gotten from the Command & Conquer community,” said Amer Ajami, Senior Producer at EA Los Angeles. “We’re giving gamers more of what they want - more of the fast, fluid and fun gameplay, more of the story we began to tell in Red Alert 3 and more cutscenes featuring top-notch Hollywood talent. At the same time, we’re excited we’re going to be able to bring new things to the mix, including new units and the Commander’s Challenge, which is a great way for players to hone their skills and get deeper into the combat.”

Command & Conquer Red Alert 3: Uprising takes players into the aftermath of the epic battles in Red Alert 3, with the Soviets still reeling from a crushing defeat, the Empire of the Rising Sun desperately trying to regain both honor and identity and the seemingly victorious Allies finding themselves in the midst of corruption and deceit within their own ranks. In addition to four mini-campaigns, one for each faction and one bonus campaign centered on the origins of the Empire of the Rising Sun’s commando Yuriko, Command & Conquer Red Alert 3: Uprising will also introduce the new Commander’s Challenge, enabling the players to test their skills against a set of nine commanders from different territories and difficulty levels in 50 unique challenges with their own special rules and unique conditions.

In true Command & Conquer fashion, top Hollywood talent will be delivering the gripping story in full HD live-action cinematics. Fan favorites Gemma Atkinson and Ivana Milicevic will make their stunning return to the high ranks of the Allied and Soviet leaderships and will be joined by an all new set of stars, who will be announced soon.

Command & Conquer Red Alert 3: Uprising is a standalone game and does not require Command & Conquer Red Alert 3 to play. This product has not yet been rated by the ESRB, PEGI or USK. For more information about Red Alert 3, please stay tuned right here at RedAlert3.com.

Unfortunately, as is confirmed here, this will be a single player update only - a disappointment given that the expansion to Command & Conquer 3, Kane’s Wrath, covered both the single and multiplayer sides of the coin. That’s not a deal-breaker for me, though: actually, provided we get plenty more cheese-laden FMV sequences in the single player mode, I’ll be pretty happy. What potentially is a deal-breaker that, so far, it has only been announced as a “digital download” - i.e., you can’t pick up a boxed copy. That, to me, seems pretty shoddy. I know we’re getting less and less for our money as it is (anyone remember when PC games came in big chunky boxes with nice thick manuals and, if you were really lucky, a notepad? Nowadays we’re lucky if we get a DVD case an a 10-page booklet printed on toner-saving mode), but getting nothing but a link to a downloadable file for your money seems pretty rubbish. Hey, the only thing to separate it from a pirate copy would be the fact that pirate copies are free (and illegal).

Ah, we’ll see. As it is, it just seems like another way of EA ripping off their customers… which, hot on the heels of the DRM fiasco, is exactly the kind of negative publicity they don’t need, or so I would have thought.

 
Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 5:27 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web
 

Right - let’s go adventuring

Tomb Raider: Underworld

I completed Tomb Raider: Underworld last night. I’m working on a full review at the moment, which will hopefully go up later in the week, but, for the time being, let’s just say that it’s a great game that I heartily recommend. Legend is still my favourite game in the series since the Crystal Dynamics reboot - actually, scratch that, my favourite of all time - but this is a very strong follow-up that continues the story and develops the gameplay in a plausible and agreeable way. My main complaint would be the at times obtuse nature of the puzzles: I had to use a walkthrough on a number of occasions, generally after a good half-hour of running around in circles trying to work out where to go next. This is, in fact, my main reason for preferring Legend, which was considerably less daunting (although not a cakewalk by any stretch). Otherwise, though, I definitely recommend this game to those who enjoy platforming adventures in this mould, particularly those who, like me, found the similar Prince of Persia 2008 too simplistic.

 
Posted: Tuesday, January 06, 2009 at 8:45 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Reviews
 

Prince of Persia (2008) final impressions (long post)

Prince of Persia

Note: this is not a full review as such, but rather a final summing up of some points I didn’t address in my initial post on the game.

We’re only a few days into the new year and already I’m falling behind in my promise to post more. If I’d been keeping up with myself, I’d have told you that I completed Prince of Persia 2008 a couple of days before Christmas. What has motivated me to post about it now is an interesting video feature about it made by Shamus Young, whose blog, Twenty Sided, is one of my daily pit stops. In Shamus’ view, Prince of Persia is “the most innovative game of 2008”. Well, with a claim as brazen as that, I just had to watch the video to find out his reasons, particularly given that my reaction to the game was somewhat more lukewarm.

I’ve only come across a small number of bloggers who write extremely intelligently about games, and Shamus is one of those precious few. His arguments regarding Prince of Persia and the accessibility of games in general make a lot of sense, and I’m even tempted to say I agree with him 100% as far as his overview of the situation goes. Where I disagree is with regard to the desired outcome. In a nutshell, Shamus would like to see everyone playing games, and he believes the best way to do this is to effectively level the playing field. He presents Nintendo’s Wii as an example of this strategy working. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the Wii is a prime example of what I don’t want to see happen to gaming on a widespread basis. Ignoring the fact that I find most of the games on that platform dull and anaemic beyond belief (something which Shamus addresses, pointing out that, while the Wii’s games may not appeal to everyone, the overall philosophy behind them can and should be carried over to other styles), I find the whole concept of a “casual” gaming platform where everything is dumbed down to appeal to the lowest common denominator repellent. True, the end result is that everyone’s in the same boat, but that’s only because the control system is so clumsy that everyone, regardless of their gaming ability, ends up thrashing around like a disabled jellyfish.

Prince of Persia (2008)

[Continue reading "Prince of Persia (2008) final impressions (long post)"...]

 
Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2009 at 2:09 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Animation | Cinema | Games | TV | Technology | Web
 

Operation red menace

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

Attention, comrades! Who can withstand the charms of Tim Curry hamming it up with his most overdone Rrrrrrussian accent?

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

Ivana Miličević certainly can’t, which is presumably why she can’t keep a straight face during this mission briefing FMV. Call me crazy, but when I can tell people have had a lot of fun making something, I definitely find myself more likely to enjoy the end product. Silly, intentionally hammy video sequences like these are the perfect antidote to the sort of overblown, pompous imitations of Hollywood that we’re increasingly finding in computer games. The fact that the editor had enough of a sense of humour to leave the aforementioned flub in just seals the deal. You can watch the FMV in question on YouTube at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=16Mpc3ux4Wk - skip ahead to 4:25. (Miličević, by the way, appeared in Casino Royale as Mads Mikkelsen’s girlfriend - the one who did very little other than to almost have her arm lopped off. She also played Riley Finn’s annoying wife in that dreadful Season 6 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, As You Were, the only redeeming feature of which was that at least it wasn’t Hell’s Bells, which followed immediately after it. I’m still undecided as to whether her role here constitutes a step up or a step down from these. At least here, she and Tim Curry have fun trying to outdo each other in the “ridiculous accent” stakes.)

Yes, I now own a copy of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3. As I mentioned in a previous post, EA have relented somewhat and released a patch for the game, allowing users to deactivate their copies and no longer be limited to the idiotic “five installs only” cut-off. Is the situation ideal? No, it absolutely isn’t. You still have to connect to EA’s server to activate your copy, just so you can play it at all (and that includes the single player mode), which is all well and good until EA either goes down the can or decides to stop maintaining the activation server (whichever happens first), and, in the event of a system crash, preventing you from manually disabling your copy, that means one of your five activations will be lost to the ages. Still, I can’t deny that this is a step in the right direction, and it gives me confidence that EA may, at least, have come round to the fact that their moronic rights management implementation may have done them considerably more harm than good. (Similar deauthorisation tools have also been released for Bioshock and Spore, the latter being the game that kicked off the public backlash against this whole sorry affair. Of course, whether similar tools will be released for Mass Effect, Crysis Warhead et al remains to be seen. Frankly, I’m not holding my breath.)

Still, at least I am now able to enjoy a very fun RTS punctuated by FMV sequences that are every bit as entertaining as the game itself. EA have created a great game here; it’s just a shame they had to turn so many potential customers away from it with their needless DRM.

 
Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2009 at 1:01 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Cinema | DRM | Games | TV | Technology
 

Prince of Persia (2008) initial impressions

Prince of Persia

I picked up a copy of Prince of Persia for PC yesterday - the 2008 reboot, that is, not the original 1989 platformer of the same name. (Incidentally, I’m not what you’d call a fan of this trend of relaunching long-running game series and giving the new edition exactly the same title as the original. It just seems unnecessarily confusing and means you always have to clarify which one you’re referring to. Anyway, I digress.) My primary motivation in getting a hold of this game was its very pretty cel-shaded graphics, which, in terms of colours and overall stylisation, are not unlike those found in Eternal Sonata for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. That said, I don’t think anything else quite like it exists on the PC, so for me it’s pretty unique.

Prince of Persia (2008)

As has been the case with all the Prince of Persia games since Prince of Persia 3D in 1999, the gameplay borrows heavily from the Tomb Raider series, played from a third-person perspective and with an emphasis on climbing, acrobatics and puzzle-solving, albeit with an Arabian Nights twist. This time round, the central character of the Prince has been redone from the ground up, and, as is perhaps fitting for a game released in 2008, he’s a wise-ass punk who most sane people would dearly love to kick in the teeth. It could be worse, though: compared to what’s happened to Sonic the Hedgehog of late (a character who arguably always had an unhealthy amount of ‘tude, but which seems to have reached epidemic proportions in the last few years), he’s fairly bearable. And at least, this time, he’s teamed up with a female companion, Elika, who isn’t just a damsel in distress. Rather than simply being a sidekick, she holds her own and actually turns out to be pretty useful.

Prince of Persia (2008)

By “turns out to be pretty useful”, I should perhaps have said “makes the game incredibly easy”. There’s a lot of hand-holding in this instalment: Elika not only shows you exactly which path you have to take through each area (if you ask her), she also helps you fight and prevents you from ever dying by swooping down and pulling you to safety if you happen to mistime a jump. Given that the previous reboot of the franchise, The Sands of Time, was a little too obtuse for my tastes, I’m actually quite happy to have Elika along for the ride, but so far, the game certainly hasn’t offered anything approaching a challenge and, if the reviews are to be believed, this stays the same right up to the end. I’m not sure I’d call this a “casual game” in the most obnoxious sense of the word - in other words, something extremely simplistic designed for every man and his grandmother to play without any attempt to cater to core gamers - but if you’re looking for something that taxes the old grey matter, I suspect this isn’t it. Good thing it looks and sounds absolutely beautiful, so much so that it’s possible for me to overlook the relative lack of substance… kind of like My Blueberry Nights, really.

Oh, and it is indeed 100% DRM-free. There isn’t even a CD key, nor does the game check that the disc is in the drive before playing. This seems to be a change of policy for publisher UbiSoft, and I for one applaud them for not assuming that their customers are all potential pirates. I just hope it’s an intentional decision and not simply an oversight.

 
Posted: Sunday, December 14, 2008 at 7:51 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DRM | Games | Technology
 

Doing the right thing

DRM

I was informed today (thanks, Avanze) that the latest patch for Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 adds an option to deactivate your install of the game, freeing up the activation to allow you to install it on another system. In case you weren’t already aware of the scandal surrounding the game’s draconian DRM implementation, to briefly explain: you can activate the game on up to five different systems, connecting to EA’s server in order to authenticate your copy every time you do so. Until the most recent patch, this then meant that, once you’d used up your five shots, you’d have to call EA’s pay-by-the-minute help line and plead to be allowed to install the game again (a process that, as you can no doubt imagine, appears to be considerably less than straightforward).

I’m not going to call this new solution perfect, because it doesn’t explain what you do in the event of a system crash (presumably you can’t de-authorise an installation if your hard drive has been wiped), and it also adds the hassle of having to remember to de-authorise your copy before formatting your hard drive or upgrading your system. Additionally, I’m still not happy at all about having to “talk” directly to EA’s servers in order to activate my copy. What happens if, ten years from now, I decide I want to install the game again and I find out that they’ve taken the activation servers offline? However, it’s definitely a step in the right direction, so much so that I’m now considering picking up a copy of the game - something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now. Watch this space.

In the meantime, I’m also very excited to check out the latest revamp of the venerable Prince of Persia series, unnecessarily confusingly named Prince of Persia. A post by “UbiRazz”, a representative of the game’s publisher, UbiSoft, contains the assertion that this title will ship without any DRM - which is somewhat surprising as it is out of line with the company’s current policy regarding copy protection on their PC releases. Still, the game looks so damn cool that I’ve decided to take the representative at his/her word and pick up a copy.

Note: the image above was created by Alfredo Daniel Rezinovsky and is available under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5 Argentina License.

 
Posted: Sunday, December 07, 2008 at 6:32 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web
 

Review: Planescape: Torment (long post)

Planescape: Torment

Note: I don’t often review computer games, but every so often I feel compelled to write more than the usual couple of paragraphs about something I played. I recently revisited one of my all-time favourite games and, having played it from beginning to end over the course of about a week, found myself with the urge to attempt to put into words just why I love it so much.

“What can change the nature of a man?” That is the central question at the heart of Black Isle Studios’ Planescape: Torment, one of the most unique computer role-playing games (CRPGs) ever created and an absolute triumph of brains over brawn. While some may baulk at its text-heavy nature and the clunkiness of the combat system, others, fed up with or uninterested in the current spate of 3D action games, or indeed Black Isle’s other, more Tolkienesque RPGs, will certainly get a kick out of this novel, challenging and thought-provoking exploration of human nature.

Planescape: Torment

You begin lying on a mortuary slab, horribly scarred and unaware of who you are, how you got there and, perhaps most pertinently, why you aren’t dead. Your only companion turns out to be a floating skull named (what else?) Morte, who seems rather insistent that he tag along and is full of good advice but seems to know more than he lets on. Two things become readily apparent:

1. you have amnesia, and can’t remember your own name, much less what you’re supposed to be doing;

2. you can’t die.

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Posted: Friday, November 21, 2008 at 10:48 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Reviews
 

A rumble in the jungle

Tomb Raider: Underworld

Eidos Interactive have released a demo for the PC version of Tomb Raider: Underworld, the latest instalment in the long-running adventure franchise, due out tomorrow in North America and on November 21st throughout Europe. (Actually, the demo has been available since October 31st, but I only discovered it today.)

Anyway, the demo contains what I suspect is the first level of the full game, and, based on the 20-25 minutes it took me to complete it, Eidos have another winner on their hands, once against proving that they made the right decision in yanking development duties away from Core Design and handing them over to Crystal Dynamics. The most impressive feat, in my eyes, is that for once all the promised improvements seem to have been delivered. In the past, when Core had the development rights, the creative team would continually crow about how whichever instalment was currently in development would be “back to the drawing board”, “redone from scratch” and so on, but in the end they’d simply serve up last year’s game with a few half-hearted tweaks implemented, much like a reheated carry-out and considerably less tasty. With Tomb Raider: Legend, however, Crystal Dynamics started from scratch, putting together a compelling reboot of the series that succeeded in washing away the stench of the later Core years. With Tomb Raider: Anniversary, they came through again, building on the solid foundation of the original 1996 Tomb Raider to provide an updated, slicker and more challenging iteration of the game. Judging by the Underworld demo, this successful streak looks set to continue.

Tomb Raider: Underworld

The big focus this time round appears to be on two things: realism and player choice. While I tend to feel that making games as hyper-realistic as possible is overrated and an exercise in futility, I can’t deny that it’s appropriate to the Tomb Raider series, which has always been about the player infiltrating intricately detailed environments and relying on his or her powers of observation to solve complex puzzles. In that respect, a more realistic world helps make the experience more immersive, and I have to say that the new Lara Croft, motion captured from Olympic gymnast Heidi Moneymaker, is nothing like as clunky as I initially feared. Motion capture, particularly in computer games, where responsive controls and accurate movement are paramount, often strikes me as bland and detrimental to playability, but I have no complaints here. Ultimately, I suspect I’ll always prefer the more stylised nature of the key-frame animation used on the likes of the Guild Wars and Warcraft franchises (which I know have next to nothing in common, gameplay-wise, with Tomb Raider, but still…), but I can appreciate a nicely-done exercise in realism when I see one. Oh, and she’s still voiced by the delectable Keeley Hawes.

The other big thing, player choice, is realised in the fact that the game world is now a lot more open-ended, meaning that there is often more than one route to the end of a level, or more than one way to complete a given puzzle. This goes hand in hand with the increased degree of realism, because the more organic visuals mean that it’s no longer quite so obvious that you have to jump from block A to block B in order to progress. The developers seem to want to hammer this home right from the word go, starting you aboard a yacht in the middle of the water and leaving the you to decide in which direction to head. (Actually, at this early stage it’s fairly obvious that you need to head for the nearest stretch of dry land, but it’s a world away from plonking you at one end of a corridor and asking you to run to the other end of it.) Incidentally, I’m extremely impressed that, despite the massive increase in the quality of the graphics over Legend (which now looks decidedly quaint), the performance actually appears to have improved rather than worsened.

Tomb Raider: Underworld

It’s hard to gauge the overall quality of the game based on this brief demo, but what I’ve seen has certainly whet my appetite for more. This is definitely a title I’ll be adding to my list for Father Christmas. Oh, and as a plus, it doesn’t appear to have been infected with any objectionable DRM schemes: from what I can gather, it does use SecuROM, but, like Legend and Anniversary before it, only to check that an original disc rather than a copy is in the drive. In other words, no limited installations or mandatory online activations farrago. I don’t know about you, but personally I can live with having to put the disc in the drive when I play the game.

 
Posted: Monday, November 17, 2008 at 4:46 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Animation | DRM | Games | Technology | Web
 

Well, at least I didn’t have to buy an iPod

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King soundtrack

Earlier this month, I wrote an article on game music, listing my ten favourite pieces. One of these was the backing music to the introductory cinematic for the latest expansion set to Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft juggernaut, Wrath of the Lich King. The game itself was released in both vanilla and Collector’s Edition variants on November 13th, the latter containing a soundtrack CD showcasing 21 tracks from the game, composed by Russell Brower, Derek Duke and long-time Blizzard composer Glenn Stafford, who seems to have made a return to the game universe that gave him his big break after a brief venture with Sony writing music for the rival Everquest franchise. When I wrote the aforementioned article, I lamented the fact that there was no way to listen to the cinematic’s music without voice-over narration and sound effects in the way. It seems my pleas were heard, as Track 3 of the CD is that very piece of music in isolated form.

Given my thoughts on World of Warcraft, buying this release (and the earlier The Burning Crusade expansion, which is also required in order to play), in either its standard or Collector’s Edition guise, was out of the question. However, in a gesture that seems almost like tossing a bone to people like me who don’t like the game but love the music, Blizzard have released the soundtrack to download via their iTunes store for the price of $9.99 (or £7.99 if you’re in the UK). It does mean installing iTunes, a program I’ve never been particularly crazy about, but on the plus side it comes in Apple’s iTunes Plus format, which offers AAC encodes of the tracks at a reasonable bit rate of 256 Kbps and is completely DRM-free, meaning that you can easily re-encode them to a format of your choice and use them in your preferred music player. Okay, so the quality won’t be as good as proper uncompressed RedBook audio, but given the cost of the Collector’s Edition, and the speed with which copies of it have been snatched up, it’s a reasonable sacrifice to make in order to get what is, in my opinion, the more desirable component of that release - the music.

 
Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2008 at 9:41 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Music | Technology | Web
 

Great game music

Music Games

One aspect of the games industry that I feel doesn’t get the attention itself is its music. Steve Townsley of film music review site Tracksounds says that he pays particular attention to the gaming scene not because he is by nature a gamer but because he considers it a “proving ground” for composers from which “musical talent seems to flourish”. I completely agree with him. Whereas movie soundtracks are becoming increasingly bland and derivative, often dominated by what the industry has termed “sonic wallpaper”, I often find myself marvelling at the richness being achieved by composers in the gaming field, virtually none of whom are household names but who frequently outdo their better-known colleagues in the film industry. A few game composers have crossed over to the world of movies (perhaps most notably Michael Giacchino), but by and large there is little back and forth between the two media.

With that in mind, I decided to put together a list of my top ten pieces of game music. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and my tastes are such that I can go through a period of overdosing on one particular piece or soundtrack, before becoming burned out on it and latching on to something else. It’s also, unavoidably, coloured somewhat by my genre preferences - RPGs and RTSs on the PC, mainly - so no doubt there are a whole bunch of great golf game scores I’ve missed out on… or perhaps not. I should also point out that I haven’t played nearly as many games as I’ve seen movies, so I’m sure I’ve missed some real corkers out there. This is particularly problematic when you consider that very few game soundtracks are released on CD or to download, meaning that more often than not the only way to hear a game’s score is to dig out the CD-ROM and re-install it.

Still, after much consideration, I came up with the list below. I set myself a rule of only choosing one track from a single game, in order to avoid the list from becoming overly populated with pieces from a small number of titles (there are at least a dozen tracks in Icewind Dale that put most movie scores to shame). I also opted not to order it in any way (well, actually, that’s a lie - I sorted it alphabetically). Because these scores are not exactly well-known outside the immediate circles of fans of the games in the question, I’ve linked to online clips of the tracks I’ve nominated wherever possible. Bear in mind, though, that their quality in many cases will be less than stellar, concealing the subtle nuances of the original compositions.

[Continue reading "Great game music"...]

 
Posted: Wednesday, November 05, 2008 at 10:55 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Games | Music
 

Pleasure doing business

DRM

If you happen to have purchased or are contemplating purchasing any of EA’s recent PC games which come with limited activations digital rights management, you might consider reading this post by one unfortunate gamer who ended up with all three of his activations used up on his copy of Spore and attempted to contact EA’s customer support in order to resolve this problem.

Total Time I’ve Wasted: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Total Time I’ve Waited: 2 days, 11 hours, 30 minutes.
Issue Status: Finally Resolved.
Total number of days to get this issue resolved?: October 2, 2008 - October 7, 2008: 5 Days

PS. I note that the backlash against Red Alert 3’s DRM has kicked off with a vengeance on both Amazon’s US and UK sites. So far, the UK protesters have got a leg up over their American counterparts by getting the overall rating down to 1.5/5, while the US version is still hanging in there at 2/5. If I was in any way patriotic (which I’m absolutely not), I’d be shouting “Go Team GB!” (or something equally jingoistic).

Note: the image above was created by Alfredo Daniel Rezinovsky and is available under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5 Argentina License.

 
Posted: Saturday, November 01, 2008 at 3:21 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web
 

Yo ho, yo ho…

DRM

I’m reliably informed that SecuROM-free copies of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 are, as of yesterday evening, widely available to download from torrent sites. Obviously, I’m not going to provide you with links to them (because that would be highly unethical, unlike EA’s treatment of its customers, haw haw haw), but I can’t imagine you’ll find them particularly hard to locate if you feel so inclined. I did, however, drop by one of the more notorious sites to check out some of the comments, and it’s quite amusing (and strangely heart-warming) to see all the first-time pirates asking how torrents work, how to burn disc images and mount virtual drives, and so on. If nothing else, one has to congratulate EA for encouraging so many people to develop this new interest.

So, the breaking of EA’s heavy-handed DRM mechanism occurred within about a day of the game’s release. Not as impressive as Spore, which was actually available to download sans SecuROM before its official release date, but not too shabby at all. So, apparently this sort of DRM is necessary in order to combat piracy, eh? Please forgive me for laughing uncontrollably from the sidelines as EA’s drones once again trip over their own tongues as they try desperately to convince their customers that, really, they’re getting a good deal out of this.

Note: the image above was created by Alfredo Daniel Rezinovsky and is available under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5 Argentina License.

Update, October 30th, 2008 11:20 PM: If, like me, all this DRM stuff is getting you down, this might help lighten your mood.

 
Posted: Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 11:54 AM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web
 

An email I sent to EA today

DRM
Dear Electronic Arts Inc.,

Today, the latest game in your Command & Conquer franchise, Red Alert 3, and, until a few weeks ago, I was greatly looking forward to purchasing a copy. I participated in the open beta earlier this year, and what I saw of it indicated that you had a winner on your hands.

Unfortunately, I am writing to you today to inform you that I have decided not to purchase your game, the reason being that I have discovered that it is infected with a particularly obnoxious form of SecuROM content protection, which limits the user to installing the game a mere five times before having to either purchase a new copy or contact EA customer support via a pay-by-the-minute help line to ask for my activations to be extended (a right which, I am informed, EA will only grant at its own discretion).

To me, this situation is completely unacceptable. I am a PC gamer and have been for nearly two decades, and I am used to transporting my games from operating system to operating system, and from computer to computer, safe in the knowledge that, no matter how old the game is and no matter how many times I have installed it in the past, I will be able to do so again with a minimum of hassle. As a counterpoint, your greatest rival in the real-time strategy domain, Blizzard Entertainment, has explicitly stated that it will not be using SecuROM or any equivalent limited activations enforcement (http://blog.wired.com/games/2008/10/qa-blizzards-ex.html). Consider this, therefore, a sale lost of Red Alert 3 and a sale gained for Starcraft II. In point of fact, I am actually playing the original ten-year-old Starcraft at this very moment, a feat made possible by the fact that the complete lack of DRM has allowed me to install the game on at least half a dozen different computers and close to two dozen different installations of Windows over the years. More than a decade after its original release, Starcraft is still played daily by tens of thousands of gamers. Ask yourselves if Red Alert 3 and its draconian DRM can look forward to a similarly rosy future.

Obviously, I understand your need to protect your revenue, and I understand that your shareholders are probably paranoid about piracy, but when you are paying more attention to those that have pirated your software then those that have actually paid for it, I can only conclude that your sense of priority has become decidedly skewed. Your recent release of Spore attracted a considerable amount of negative press for its limited activations (http://www.amazon.com/review/product/B000FKBCX4/ref=cm_cr_pr_helpful?_encoding=UTF8&showViewpoints=0), and yet a DRM-free version of the game was available to download from torrent sites before it was even released on store shelves, proving beyond any doubt that such measures do not prevent piracy. If anything, they encourage it, given the number of Internet posters who have stated an intention to obtain the game illegally, citing the limited activations as their main reason for doing so. Spore was recently labelled the most pirated game ever (http://www.forbes.com/2008/09/12/spore-drm-piracy-tech-security-cx_ag_mji_0912spore.html). Congratulations on achieving this impressive record.

I have $50 sitting next to me on my desk. It’s yours if you want it. However, I can’t, in good conscience, hand it over until you remove the crippling and morally repugnant DRM with which you have infused your software.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Mackenzie
(A former customer)

Note: the image above was created by Alfredo Daniel Rezinovsky and is available under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5 Argentina License.

 
Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 10:15 AM | Comments: 9 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Web
 

Starcraft II does the splits

Starcraft 2

Blizzard Entertainment’s annual BlizzCon convention in Anaheim, California has just come to an end. In addition to giving visitors an opportunity to attend Q&A sessions with the developers and play pre-release builds of upcoming games, this event is often the venue for the announcement of new games and a source for new information about already-announced titles. This year, with Diablo III having been unveiled a scant few months ago at the WWI in Paris, it was of no particular surprise that, rather than revealing a new game, the focus was on delivering additional information about the company’s three already-announced works-in-progress: World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, Diablo III and Starcraft II.

The biggest bombshell was certainly dropped for the latter. We already knew that Blizzard’s plans for Starcraft II’s single player campaign were ambitious, but, at BlizzCon, it was revealed that they were so ambitious that the development team came to the conclusion that they couldn’t possibly hope to complete their content for each of the game’s three races and still release the game in a timely fashion. Therefore, the decision has been made to split Starcraft II into three separate instalments, released over a period of time rather than all at once.

The gaming public, predictably, is up in arms, and I can certainly understand why: what this all boils down to is that players are now being asked to buy three products rather than two. I can’t claim that I’m not somewhat disappointed by the news, but at the same time I can understand the reason for structuring the game this way. As reported by Sarcraft Wire:

Blizzard faced a lot of challenges with StarCraft II, the behemoth of a project it is becoming. By the sound of Rob Pardo, the game was probably meant to be launched by now or something, in old internal plans. Meeting this problem of three HUGE stories, alternate missions and lots of ingame cinematics, a greater need for development time became apparent. The fact that they use this story mode apparently increased the required development by 3 or 4 times what it would have been in a simpler Single Player mode. They were faced with three options:
 
  • Simplify the campaigns significantly, and make fewer maps, cinematics etc.
  • Make each of the campaigns EPIC, but separating them into individual products.
  • Compromise, and do the epic pieces, but delaying the game greatly.
     
Out of these three, they decided on the second option, and all the fans at the panel gave them a sounding applause in agreement. Rob promised that this meant nothing for multiplayer, and this might be a very good way for lore and single player enthusiasts to get exactly what they want, without holding back the game for all progamers and multiplayer fans.

One-third of Starcraft II. (Remaining two-thirds not pictured.)

Above: One-third of Starcraft II. (Remaining two-thirds not pictured.)

The information seems to be pretty clear: when you buy the first instalment, you still get the full multiplayer experience straight out of the box, as well as the Terran single player campaign. The two subsequent instalments need only be purchased by those who want to continue the single player experience, and will therefore effectively act a little like the optional expansion sets that Blizzard has released for most of their previous games. I ultimately can’t say I’m thrilled about having to shell out cash for additional instalments of what was originally announced as a single, stand-alone product, but I do find this outcome preferable to (a) having the single player campaign significantly curtailed to get it out in a timely fashion or (b) having to wait years for the damn thing to come out at all.

That said, I’m sure this is going to be a tough sell for Blizzard. Plenty of people, already incensed why what they see as the money-grabbing venture that is World of Warcraft, see this as nothing more than an already minted company seeking to maximise their revenue by releasing one-third of a game and then charging extra for the remaining two-thirds. To be honest, they could well be right, but, for the moment, I prefer to see this as a glass half full venture: at least we’ll be able to play the game in a reasonably timely fashion, without the developers’ clearly ambitious goals having to be tempered in the process.

And hey, given that I probably won’t be getting Red Alert 3 now due to the colossal joke that is its limited activations issue, I need another RTS fix as soon as possible.

 
Posted: Sunday, October 12, 2008 at 1:12 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Web
 
 

 
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