Friday, December 4, 2009

Respice, Prospice (Part 1)

Since I took a look yesterday at what had happened to PC gaming over the past year, it seems only fair now to take a look ahead at what we can expect to be spending our money on in the forthcoming year of 2010. These are in no particular order but are simply games I am interested in that I think will do well and that a lot of other people are going to like as well.

To start us off, Mass Effect 2.

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: 26th January 2010 (NA), 29th January 2010 (EU)

Originally published on the 360 in 2007 and later ported to the PC in 2008, ME2 continues the story of Commander John Shepard, the sole human Spectre who, after saving the galaxy in the first game, has to somehow do it again in the sequel but in a much more badass way.

I only just finished the original on the PC a few days ago but it had BioWare written all over it. Attention to detail everywhere; a believable futuristic universe; more quests and side-quests than you could shake a stick it, and an in-depth class and party system to keep you tinkering away for hours. I thought the original had an excellent story that will hopefully be built upon in the sequel (and, by extension, the final part of the trilogy) as well as engaging action sequences in a very well-defined universe.

ME2 cannot come along soon enough for me, and fortunately there isn't much longer to wait. Expect ME2 to be a smash hit, and give thanks to EA and BioWare for the simultaneous 360/PC release.


Star Trek Online

Developer: Cryptic Studios
Publisher: Atari
Expected: 2nd February 2010 (NA), 5th February 2010 (EU)





How many ears does a Vulcan have? Three - the left ear, the right ear and the final frontier. Yes, bad jokes can only mean that STO, after lingering in development hell for years and going through a couple of developers, is finally expected to hit stores this coming February.

Cryptic, themselves no slouches at developing award-winning MMOs with City of Heroes, City of Villains and Champions Online under their belts, accepted the mantle of trying to bring the iconic sci-fi show to the gaming world following the collapse of Perpetual Entertainment, the previous licensee.

Every player is the "Captain" of their own ship and can advance in rank from Lieutenant (Junior Grade) all the way through to Admiral, unlocking new ships and hull configurations as they go. Space combat looks interesting and very action-oriented, but the "Away Team" portion of the game seems a little lacklustre. Hopefully Cryptic can dot their "i's" and cross their "t's" before the launch in February or nerds everywhere will arise from their chairs (possibly with help), Hot Pockets in one hand and Milky Ways in the other, screaming murder for not having been delivered the experience they were promised, as well as castigating the developers for using Type L phasers on Federation ships when everyone knows that they actually use Type R.


Rage

Developer: id Software
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: "2010"







Rage is an FPS set in a near-future dystopian world in which the world is struck by an asteroid which leads to global devastation. On first look it seems to be Fallout 3 crossed with the Mad Max films crossed with Borderlands, and that's got to be an interesting setup in anyone's book.

id are of course famous for creating Quake and Doom and are a strong supporter of the PC, so I am expecting great things to come of Rage. Vehicular combat will an emphasis of the game (hopefully done a little better than it was in Borderlands) and it has been confirmed that you will be able to upgrade your car with various components and addons, and by winning prize money from entering your car in desert races.

Details are still sketchy but Rage should hopefully be hitting the PC (as well as PS3 and 360) sometime in 2010.








World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Expected: "2010"









Since WoW already makes Blizzard more money than sin, it was only natural for another expansion to be cranked out sooner rather than later. Following The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm is set to be the third expansion pack to the original World of Warcraft, and will be the first to not introduce a new land mass into the game. Instead, Blizzard are re-invigorating all of original WoW world, changing parts of some zones, separating large zones into smaller zones, and introducing two new playable races. The Alliance get Worgen (who are absolutely not werewolves) and the Horde receive Goblins. New quests, new race/class combinations, new raids, new dungeons. Sounds like WoW all right.

Expect the relationship destroyer to surface sometime around mid-to-late 2010.

APB (All Points Bulletin)

Developer: Realtime Worlds
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: Spring 2010






APB is an upcoming subscription-fee-less cops vs. robbers MMO in which criminals act like criminals and "enforcers" (police) try to stop them being criminals. The game features a dynamic matchmaking system that will pit enforcers against scofflaws in a traditional FPS setting. There can be thousands of players on a server, but each "district" is limited to 100 players total (50 v 50) as you duke it out. APB uses some clever music trickery (powered by last.fm) that will let you save a signature piece of music (just a few seconds long) that will be played to anyone whenever you kill them, and if you are cruising around in your new ride and have some music playing, people around you will be able to hear what you are blaring out. last.fm's technology will select something similar in style and theme on other people's PCs to play for them if they do not have the exact same track as you.

No subscription fee and a novel setting for an MMO make this one to watch, with an early 2010 release anticipated.


Stay tuned for another upcoming post with part 2 of my selections for games to watch out for in 2010.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

State of the (PC Gaming) Union Address

Well we're rapidly approaching the arse-end of 2009, so it's time to assess how good this year has been for PC gaming.

It's been a very mixed bag. There have been both highlights, such as Borderlands turning out to be quite fun despite some shortcoming that could have been easily dealt with and the announcement of a new game in the PlanetSide universe. We've also had lowlights, such as Microsoft deciding to can the PC version of Alan Wake and the lackluster release of Prototype, a game that seemed to get bitchslapped by the much-better Infamous on the PS3. Can any conclusions be drawn from this year's PC offerings?

Aside from the usual "death of PC gaming" stories which come out every year and still manage to not be true every year, we've had a lot of ups and downs. Microsoft's dissing of the PC in regards to Alan Wake was disappointing, but not entirely unexpected, as Microsoft has not released a PC game now since 2007. It seems they have clearly identified where their bread is buttered, and I'm guessing the bread has a giant X through the middle of it. Yet there was also the release of Windows 7 which offered a good reason for gamers to upgrade their OS to something that wasn't as bad as Windows Vista and get good performance as a result of doing so. So while Microsoft is quietly offing anyone who remembers that it used to develop and publish PC games (Freelancer, anyone?) it has at least tossed us the bone of Windows 7, a rock-solid OS that will run your new (non-Microsoft-developed) games quite nicely for the foreseeable future.

As I've already mentioned before, Borderlands was a great game but still suffered from being a poor console port. It was only through the loyal PC community coming up with fixes for many of these problems that made much of the console cooties go away. These days just getting a major multi-platform release to hit the PC is a win in itself, so I guess we should at least be grateful to Gearbox for that. Not every developer has this problem though, and indeed Capcom this year talked about how they wanted to pursue the PC as a major gaming platform, and then followed through on their talk by delivering the best version of Resident Evil 5 that just happened to be on the PC. Capcom are now talking about seeing the PC as a "growth platform" and making efforts to perhaps sync their release dates up a little better, since while the PC ports of their games are usually solid they will often lag behind the original console versions by several months. I hope other developers are paying attention here and will follow Capcom's lead, because pushing the PC as a serious platform is only going to pay dividends for them in the end. Lost Planet 2, another Capcom game, is eagerly expected next year on consoles and will hopefully make the transition to PC down the line, as the original did. Let's also not forget that Capcom delivered the best version of Street Fighter IV on the PC as well, with higher-resolution textures and better visual effects than were available on the console versions, and PC gamers only had to wait a few weeks behind the 360 and PS3 releases to get their sweaty hands on the game, too.

While we're at it, let's confront the elephant in the room. Retail PC game sales are down, and they are down quite a lot. Why isn't this the problem it seems to be on the surface? The simple fact that NPD, the main group who collate and publish gaming industry statistics, including sales and revenues, still do not include digital distribution or MMO subscription fees as part of their PC statistics. As such, their figures can be said to be unreliable at best and downright misleading at worst, since digital gaming platforms such as Valve's Steam, Impulse's Stardock, IGN's Direct2Drive and newcomer GamersGate are commanding increasing sales and market penetration every year. Factoring in MMO subscriptions, including World of Warcraft (which at the last count had almost 12,000,000 subscribers worldwide) likely pushes the PC into first place among all gaming platforms, X-Box 360, PlayStation3, Wii or anything else. Until NPD, or someone else, starts collating accurate information with regards to PC games then the "officially published" figures will always be woefully inaccurate. What I am trying to say is that the PC as a gaming platform is strong and the industry figures do not reflect that strength. Blizzard HQ is full of gold-plated toilet seats for their employees to s(h)it on, and it is rumoured that the executives have a big vault full of money that they can jump into a la Scrooge McDuck, whenever they feel the need to be comforted by vast amounts of cold, hard cash.

Valve also seem to manage to eek out a living as one of the leading game developers in the world despite their concentration on the PC. 2,000,000 gamers can't be wrong - right?

Any talk of PC gaming being dead or dying is simply that - talk. When you run the numbers and look into the sources you can plainly see that the PC is the strongest gaming platform there is, and is unlikely to be displaced by any heretic console anytime soon.

So my plea to developers is to embrace the PC as a viable gaming platform. Follow Capcom's lead and devote more resources into PC releases and reap the benefits when you get increased revenues from better sales. Focus on the strengths of the PC:

- that most people are going to have a PC in their home just for Internet access, for working with Office applications or as a media centre for their family.

- that a PC can essentially play any type of game. RTS? Sure. FPS? You 'betcha. MMO? Ideal. Sports sim? Why not. RPG? Always better on a PC.

- that since consoles are so PC-like these days it is not going to cost much extra to add a PC port of your game. Heck, 360 games are built around DirectX making 360-PC ports easier than ever.

At the end of the day us PC gamers have to be a part of the solution as well. Reward developers and publishers of good PC games by buying them and not pirating them. Email or post feedback of games that particularly stand out to the company or to that company's forums. Likewise, avoid those companies who are content to treat the PC as a gaming pariah. Inform them that PC gamers demand games that are just as good as console games, and releasing half-assed bug-ridden ports is as much as a slap in the face to us as no release at all.

Together, we can make a difference.

Goooooooooooooooooooooooooo planet!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Borderlands - Verdict Edition

Well, after having had the opportunity to play Borderlands for a couple of weeks now, it's time to actually post my thoughts on a game that I have been looking forward to for literally years. Does it deliver? I got burned earlier on this year with Prototype, similarly a game I had been following for an extended period of time that I got a lot of my friends interested in and hoped would be the Second Coming. It wasn't, and I have to admit at this point that I haven't even finished it yet (I'm about 3/4 of the way through the game still), it's that good. Does Borderlands suffer from the same fate?

It does not.

Borderlands is a great game. You can see the love and enthusiasm crafted into every model, every quest, every gunshot, every effect. This is not a hastily-cobbled-together game that the developer tossed out the front door, this is instead about as polished and damn addictive game as you can get for something in this genre. I've already posted that you will either love or hate the art style. From everything I had read about the game, from reviews on other sites to comments on the Steam forums and comments on the Gearbox forums it would seem that a lot more people, if not the overwhelming majority, love the almost cel-shaded art style. It makes the game instantly recognizable (creating brand identity) and gives them a look which is simply not available anywhere else right now. Borderlands could have just been Generic Sci-Fi Shooter #274 and while a distinctive art style will not prevent this genericness it does certainly help it to stand out from the pack.

Other than the graphics though, what else are we looking at here? The campaign story is fairly light and the ultimate resolution is disjointed and does not really give you the payoff you were expecting. Maybe the guy who worked on the story and plot side of things at Gearbox had a 2-day week or something. Either way, the story, particularly its conclusion, could have been developed better. Let's be honest though, most people are going to be playing the game for a) the promised "bazillions of guns" and b) the combat. How do these deliver? The answer: very well.

Judging by a couple of people's best guesses there are approximately 17,000,000 guns available in Borderlands, so you will literally never see them all no matter how many times you play the game. This does add a lot of replay value even after you have finished the main campaign story, there is always the allure that the next weapons chest you find could contain that gun of your dreams (in my case as a Siren I'll be looking for a nice SMG please). Of course it probably won't, but you can always dream. Speaking of loot, it is colour-coded (a la WoW) so that you can easily see what's worth picking up and using or what is going to be vendor fodder. It goes White - Green - Blue - Purple - Yellow - Light Orange - Dark Orange. The "rarer" a certain piece of loot is, the higher on the colour scale it will be.

Ok so loot is taken care of, but what about the combat? Simply put - it delivers. There are four unique character classes: Lilith the Siren (the closest thing to a caster in Borderlands, her special ability is to "Phasewalk" becoming invisible, being able to run extremely fast and creating an AoE shock blast at the beginning and end of her ability), Mordecai the Hunter (the sniper class, his special ability is to release Bloodwing, his bird pet, to attack enemies at range), Roland the Soldier (the all-around class, his special ability is to deploy a turret which attacks enemies and draws enemy fire) and finally Brick (the tank, he has a large amount of health and his special ability, Berserking, gives him high melee damage and also lets him regen health while doing it.)

All of the classes are unique and distinctive, although some do develop faster than others (Lilith and Mordecai can take a little longer to mature, although both excel at the higher levels) but obviously the true draw of this game is in the four-player co-op. Unfortunately Gearbox chose to use GameSpy to manage the matchmaking and multiplayer section of Borderlands. For many people this has led to issues with being able to host games, although this post over on the Steam forums should set you right in providing the correct ports you need to forward to be able to host successfully, since the list provided by Gearbox was incomplete. Once up and running though, playing through the campaign with friends is really where this game shines. Quests and monsters become more difficult the more players are playing the game and this in turn makes the game harder and (in my eyes) more fun. Finishing the main campaign and beginning again (for what the game calls "Playthrough 2") is also a lot of fun. After finishing the game for the first time you can elect to begin again, which will keep your level, your loot and all that, but will return you to the start of the game while elevating all of the quests and mobs to your level and making everything much more difficult while making the loot significant better.

So, the age-old question, is it fun? Yes, but you have to put some work into it first. Borderlands suffers significantly from console-itus, and you need to make a few changes via .ini files to remove the worst of this and make the game into a true PC game rather than a third console version. Many of these are options that should have been changeable from within the game itself, such as microphone control. Without any changes the game will detect you have a microphone and it will be set to always-on, both in-game and lobbies. This is quite an annoying oversight since many people will be using TeamSpeak or Ventrilo especially in a co-op setting, and so when you talk on those you will also talk in-game which leads to a very annoying echo.

Other obscenities needing to be fixed via tweaking are: fixing the field of view (set to a horrendously-low console figure, this can be turned up to 90/100/110 or whatever you prefer via an easy file edit), disabling the intro movies which play every single time you load the game and are unskippable, making the right-click "zoom" function a toggle instead of having to hold it to remain zoomed (I'm honestly not sure who thought this was a good idea as the default) and being able to enable v-sync. You can find a list of these fixes here and, as always. back up the original files first in case you screw something up.

Another major fix which has only come to light recently is that, by default, the weapon information box will only show 4 lines regardless of whether that particular weapon or item has more than 4 stats to show you. In other words, the weapon may have more attributes than you can actually see in-game. The fix for this is in the same place as those above, and Gearbox have said that they will likely patch this in in a future official update.

At the end of the day, Borderlands delivers. You need to do a fair amount of work in the beginning to .ini files to change options that either a) should have been set to more PC-friendly values in the beginning, or b) should have been available from the main options screen originally, but once this is done you are ready for an engaging action shooter with significant RPG elements (levelling, improving abilities through skill trees) that set this game aside from the pack. It's nice to see a game actually live up to the hype, especially when the promises were so significant.

Borderlands receives the Gaffadin sticker of recommendation.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Borderlands

Well, as the biggest PC release in a while I am obligated to go into detail on Borderlands and, in particular, investigate the 6 day delay on the PC version which Gearbox and 2K stated was for "additional optimization."

First off, if you've been living under a rock, Borderlands is a new hybrid FPS/RPG (with emphasis on the FPS) game developed by Gearbox and published by 2K. It was originally slated for early last year, was then pushed back to late last year before finally being pushed back to, well, now. The 360 and PS3 versions were released last Tuesday (to quite favourable reviews), but a month or so ago it was announced that the PC version would be delayed an additional six days, and would therefore release on the 26th October, to give more time for the PC version to be "optimized."

Unfortunately, in this context, "optimized" is code for "needing to delay the PC version till last as the illegal downloads from software pirates will cannibalise sales, especially given that the PC version retails at $50 and console versions at $60." I'm not thrilled about this state of affairs, but looking at it from Gearbox and 2K's points of view I can at least partially understand it.

Borderlands is a big risk, for Gearbox particularly. It does not fit neatly into one genre of game, it has a unique cel-shaded look which people either love or hate (for the record, I love it) and, with other games right around the corner in what is still a crowded holiday season it may have trouble differentiating itself from other games that people will be seeing on the store shelves. In short, it's taken Gearbox, a moderately-sized developer based out of Plano, TX (only an hour from my good self) the better part of three years to put it together at a substantial cost which they need to see returned if they ever expect to see turn a profit. They deserve the chance for their efforts to be rewarded by the market in the form of a) sales, leading to b) revenue. With PC games typically retailing for $10 less than console games ($50 vs. $60 as mentioned above, unless you're Activision), it is in their best interests to at least have the 360 and PS3 versions out earlier to try and generate more sales at the higher price point.

Some people, like myself, will wait for the PC version; others will just go ahead and pick it up on consoles and yet others will buy it on both. In short, I can live with a delay of 6 days since this basically means I am getting the best version of the game (PS3 vs. 360 vs PC - no-brainer the PC will look and likely perform the best on beefy hardware) for less than what my console brethren are paying. This is especially true if you get in on the Borderlands deal currently available on Steam, where you buy 4 copies of the game at once for a reduced price which values each copy at $33.75. Compare this to the $60 that PS3 and 360 owners are paying and you can see we are paying almost 50% less.

I suspect that if PC games also retailed for $60 then we wouldn't be seeing any of this nonsense about "optimization" (be honest Gearbox, nobody is buying this claptrap explanation anyway - see what I did there?) and you would see a universal release date for all three versions. If offered a choice though, between having to pay $60 for the PC version but it being available on the 20th, vs. paying $50 (or less - see above) to have it 6 days later, I'll take the 6-day wait anytime. At the same time I recognise that Gearbox are running a business, the ultimate aim of which is to make a profit, and if them making me wait 6 days is the price I need to pay for this then they can go right ahead.

There is another side to this though, and that is retailers who broke the street date.

A small handful of people managed to buy a version on the PS3 or 360 earlier than the 20th and were actually allowed to play the game ahead of its release date. A small handful of people a day or two ago also managed to get their PC copies early, so in accordance with the precedent already set they would be allowed to play early, right? Wrong. As "Elizabeth", a 2K community manager who posted a statement on their forums put it:

"Yesterday we learned that a fraction of the PC copies of Borderlands were accidentally sold to consumers in some countries but that gamers could not activate their copies yet. Since we learned of this problem, we have been looking into the issue to find the best possible solution for everyone.

I'm going to be completely honest with you guys right now. It is not possible for us to move the planned release date of the game forward. We could not possibly get the games into stores worldwide and out for digital distribution any earlier than planned. Less than 1% of all copies were sold, and if we unlocked the game today, illegal versions would most likely appear on torrents by the evening. I am sure all of you want our PC launch to be as successful as possible, and we simply won't be able to manage that any earlier than already planned.

I want to apologize for those of you who have gotten the game ahead of our release date, and ask for your patience and understanding. The game will be ready in the US and Canada at midnight eastern standard time on Monday, October 26th, and internationally by Friday, October 30th."

Quite the double-standard there, and this is a mistake by 2K. For early copies you either let everyone who gets an early copy play or nobody, you don't say it's ok for 360 players to play early but not PC or vice versa. In short, choose a policy and stick to it, don't faff around after the fact making it up on the fly. There was quite a lot of unhappiness floating around on 2K's forums after the above statement was posted, some mentioning the exact point I had just made regarding some console gamers being able to play the game early while they couldn't.

In saying that, it's mostly just a storm in a teacup. I would strongly encourage both Gearbox and 2K to learn some lessons from this though, as the goodwill they both have as strong PC gaming supporters is not infinite and gamers are an extremely fickle bunch.

As for the game itself, well my Steam copy isn't unlocked for another ~10 hours so I can't attest to it personally myself, but other brave souls I know who have been playing a console version for the past week have had almost nothing but good things to say about it. It's a fun, unique mash-up of the FPS and RPG genres, leaning heavily to the FPS side (in the same way that Fallout 3 leaned heavily to the RPG side) with solid co-op features and an interesting loot system based on the "bazillion" guns included in the game.

I'll post further thoughts once I've actually got my own sweaty hands on it; needless to say don't wait up as I suspect my evenings are going to consist of a single activity for at least for the next few days.

Monday, September 28, 2009

God does listen!

Well, after blogging recently about how poorly Sony had treated PlanetSide, we got some exciting news over the weekend saying that Sony are, in fact, hard at work on a sequel.

Late Friday night several former subscribers that I know (although not me personally, despite having had a subscription for over a year from release) received an email from Sony informing them that they intended to "expand the PlanetSide universe with another game" and linked to online survey asking former and current subscribers what features they enjoyed about the original game and what things they would like to see in a potential PlanetSide 2.

Questions included: asking what setting the game should have, which gameplay elements from the first game they most enjoyed, what sort of subscription model they would like to see in a new game and asking how many factions the new game should have.

A couple of weeks ago I was directed to John Smedley's Twitter feed (President of Sony Online Entertainment) where he stated somewhat cryptically on 2nd September: "PlanetSide Next..." followed shortly after by "You will like." At the time I suspected that this was either going to be an announcement of the original PlanetSide becoming free-to-play, or the disclosure that PlanetSide 2 was coming. Of the two I believed that the first was much more likely, that after so long PlanetSide was basically going to be left to die the slow and painful death it was currently experiencing. I will say that I was very, very happy to be wrong.

Not only that, but further news escaped revealing that there would be a new major content patch for PlanetSide that would fix some bugs and eliminate some exploits that are prevalent in the original game right now. John Smedley was also quoted as saying:

"Planetside fans will be happy We have big things planned in the next 12 months. We're working on something new that's really cool."

No further information is available, and indeed we have no idea when we will be hearing anything else about this. It's unlikely that any major work has been done on PlanetSide 2 since the survey Sony sent out asked some very basic questions that would come ahead of any development, but it is at least a good sign that they are engaging the fan base in this discussion.

This all begs the question...why now?

PlanetSide was originally released way back in 2003, which means that Sony have had 6 years to think about how exactly they screwed it up. I think likely they have seen the interest over MMOFPS games currently in development (which, for those of you paying attention at home, you would know as MAG, Global Agenda and Huxley) but that these games (at least Huxley and GA as the two of those three that will be hitting the PC) are heavily instanced and are not true open-world MMOFPS's as PlanetSide was. Sony have figured out that they really didn't do right by the original game and in many ways the game was ahead of itself by several years, and that the time is ripe to revamp the graphics, bring in a dash of new gameplay mechanics and then promote the hell out of it as the original and best MMOFPS with no instancing in sight.

As if in confirmation, Sony have also picked up the www.planetside2.com domain which has for a couple of years now been a fake site that had no real content. It now redirects to the main PlanetSide site, and was apparently transferred to Sony only a few days ago.

All in all this is great news, and I very much hope that we have more concrete details from Sony outlining their plans for PlanetSide very soon.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Hidden Earth

Over three years ago, Funcom (creators of the MMOs Anarchy Online and Age of Conan) began development on an entirely new IP for an MMO. It wouldn't be set in a fantasy setting (but would contain fantasy elements) and there would be no character levelling or even different character classes but would be entirely skill-based (as has been seen in Ultima Online). The name of this game was, at the time, The World Online. This was later changed to Cabal and, later still, was changed once more to its current and final title, that of The Secret World.

Originally announced back in May 2007, TSW seeks to redefine what we think of when we consider an MMO. No mean feat considering the elephant-ish MMO sitting in the corner of the room which has raked in over 10,000,000 subscribers worldwide based on a traditional fantasy-style MMORPG. TSW seeks to appeal to a new audience than WoW though it would seem, one more concerned with real-world history and locations than made-up tales of another place.

Details on TSW are still extremely thin on the ground, but we already know that there will be no classes or levelling, your character is entirely defined by the skills which you choose to have him learn and become proficient at. No more "you must be at least Level 70 to enter this area."

The game is set in the real world. No Northrend or Tyria or Auraxis, this is the real world with real locations that we are all familiar with. The two trailers so far released for TSW highlight this particular fact well. This is the first, released a few months ago:



followed by the second which was released just yesterday:



This leads on to the other major thing that is known about the game, that although there will be no classes there will instead be three factions that you can join: the Illuminati, the Dragon and the Templars.

The Illuminati believe in the survival of the fittest, that strength above all other things is the most prized of attributes. Based in New York City the Illuminati traces its origins back to Egypt thousands of years ago, where unspeakable horrors were battled and defeated. Members of the Illuminati are ruthless, rich and powerful. They are willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.



The Dragon are a clandestine organisation, preferring to work from the shadows in order to shape and guide events, rather than taking a leading role themselves. From their headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, the Dragon have learned that a whisper in the right place is often more effective than the barrel of a gun, and that playing the kingmaker is often more desirable than being the king himself.



The Templars are an offshoot of the Knights Templar of legend, and approach combat from a standpoint of knowledge and religious zeal. Based in London, England, they are the faction which perhaps has the most recognizable public face. Templars count on powerful support from the oldest European families, as well as royalty and aristocracy the world over. In their eyes, there is nothing that cannot be defeated by religious fanaticism and a lot of armament to go with it.

It's interesting to note that the first video would seem to feature a member of the Dragon, while the second apparently shows a member of the Templars. I assume that the third will focus on a member of the Illuminati.

You can head over to the official viral site for the game www.darkdaysarecoming.com which is fairly sparse right now, but does contain some nifty artwork as well as a test where you can answer some questions to see exactly which faction would be a good choice for you (although you can ignore the results and "sign up" with whichever faction you wish at the end of the test - this puts you on TSW's newsletter and also gives you a shot at beta access further down the line).

TSW definitely looks to be that unusual thing, a truly original game, and an MMO to boot. No doubt there will be elements of mythology in there, but attempting to mesh the real world with fantasy aspects is something that hasn't really been done before. It has also been revealed that TSW will be using the "Dreamworld" engine, used by Funcom to great effect in Age of Conan (which may have sucked but at least looked really pretty while doing it), so should be visually impressive whenever we get our sweaty hands on it. And as for when that will be, don't hold your breath. From what I could glean there is no official release date, not even an implied one that the developers tattoo on their forehead and ask you not to mention in any articles *wink*

The game is currently in alpha-testing, which basically means people who work for Funcom and possibly some of their friends and family, but no large-scale testing yet. I think the earliest we could hope to see signs of a beta is Q1 2010 and that's a pure guess, it could well be later than that.

The bright spot here, or at least one of several, is that the lead developer is one Ragnar Tørnquist, the gentleman behind the highly-regarded point-and-click adventure games The Longest Journey and its sequel, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Having a man with such a high pedigree working on this is a very good sign, and I am hopeful that TSW is going to be that elusive fish: the MMO that breaks the monopoly that is World of Warcraft.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Greater Supplies of New Gaming Drug Due Next Year

Blizzard finally confirmed one of their worst-kept and most-leaked secrets last weekend at Blizzcon, revealing that, as many sources had said over the previous days and weeks, the next expansion for World of Warcraft was on its way and was titled Cataclysm.

As a recovering former WoW player I still take a keen interest in the game, since I'm sure one of these days it will rope me back in once more. It's interesting that this will be the first expansion that doesn't add a new landmass. The Burning Crusade added Outland and Wrath of the Lich King added Northrend, and although there will be major changes to some existing zones, as well as the plethora of new dungeons that every WoW expansion brings, there will be no new continent. I have no problem with this, since theoretically it should cut the development time on the game as they won't have to design and populate a massive new area. There will still be new quests and dungeons but it shouldn't take as long to knock these out as it would do for a major new piece of land.

It's interesting that Blizzard have decided to simplify the game's stats and mechanics even further than they have done already in the current expansion. Attack Power, Armour Penetration, Spell Power, MP5 and Defence are all being tossed out. In some cases they will stick around in another form (Spell Power for example will now be derived directly from Intelligence, a la Warhammer) but others are going the way of the dodo completely. Apparently, having more money than 10 Bill Gates' put together isn't enough for Blizzard, they instead want to have enough to light their own farts with 100s and be able to install gold toilet seats in every bathroom at their offices. Making the game even easier for new victims players is one easy way to further swell the money coffers at Blizzard HQ.

The two new races, Worgen for the Alliance and Goblins for the Horde, seem unique and distinctive. I'd have preferred though they both started out as Neutral and you could then choose whichever faction you wanted to be on a per-character basis, rather than being tied to a specific faction as have all the previous races been. Goblins, up to now at least, have traditionally been neutral in the WoW universe, and doubtless some lore could have been spun to also make Worgens neutral as well. I only say this because I was content knowing that the next time I got my hand in with WoW again I was ready to go Horde this time, only to see a kickass race like Worgen (whom I thought should have been the Alliance race in The Burning Crusade, over Draenei) be added to the Alliance. Oh well, there are always alts.

Moving to the most important aspect of the forthcoming expansion: when will we see it?

I could find no date other than a simple "2010" mentioned at Blizzcon, which many people seem to be interpreting as "Autumn/Fall 2010". While this is certainly plausible, I think there is a chance that we will see the game before that, for the following reason. Right now, WoW is on patch 3.2, with the final raid dungeon of Wrath of the Lich King being patched in in 3.3 due around December/January. Let's say 3.3, containing Icecrown (the final raid - where you will battle Arthas, the titular Lich King) goes live in January - what exactly are they expecting everyone to do for the rest of the year? Major content patches in WoW typically have a shelf-life of ~3-4 months, at which time the next content patch is pushed out the door. Let's be generous and say this final patch will have a 4 month lifespan (i.e. it takes an average player/guild 4 months to complete the content), this will mean that come May most guilds are going to be finished with the content. At that point do they just sit on their hands for a few months until Blizzard are done with Cataclysm? No. I think it is much more likely that Blizzard are intending to push the next expansion out around the Summer of 2010. I also think that this is why they haven't announced this plan, as they are notorious for holding-over projects until they are completely done, for changing schedules and delaying games and patches for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. They know if they said "Summer 2010" now then this would be taken as gospel by many players, whereas a generic "2010" could be spun into Summer, Autumn or even Winter 2010.

This is complete speculation from me and so treat it as you would any other speculation, but if true would be a nice little present for WoW players in what is traditionally the weakest period of the gaming year. The fact that there is no new continent, coupled with the fact that even though they will be remaking certain zones they will still have the originals to work from as a template, I believe will cut development time on this expansion to something substantially shorter than was seen with the previous two.

We'll find out in a year if I was right.

Mark your calendar.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Brutal Legend Delay Attempts Defeated

I posted earlier with regards to Activision suing Double Fine after they had the audacity to go and find another publisher (in this case EA) after being dropped by Activision themselves.

Last week a judge ruled that he was unlikely to grant Activision's requested stay of the release of Brutal Legend and this impending likelihood of what would be quite an embarrassing defeat has now pressed Activision to settle with Double Fine instead of pursuing matters.

I strongly suspect that Activision received nothing or next to nothing in this "settlement", but it was more a vehicle to avoid losing face in what had become quite a public spat. Either way, Double Fine and EA are now free to proceed with the release of Brutal Legend this October, although to be fair this is exactly what they were doing anyway, seemingly regarding Activision's lawsuit as a minor annoyance at best.

And with that, Activision's transformation into the new Satan of the computer gaming world is almost complete, ironically replacing EA who had a pretty good handle on this up until a couple of years ago when they actually started to realise that their public image sucked. These days EA is quite mild in comparison to Activision, who have also got on PC gamers' good side recently by announcing that the forthcoming PC version of Modern Warfare 2 would be priced at $60, instead of the $50 that PC gamers can usually expect to pay for a triple-A title.

It would seem that after the Activision-Blizzard merger that Activision replaced their Board with the Nine Nazgûl from The Lord of the Rings, who were seemingly charged with sucking as much money as possible from the public at large without consideration for their image around the world. Hey, greed is good, right?

(Update)

Well, I called it. It's good to see independent confirmation of this. If I were Double Fine I would have tossed Activision a crisp $10 bill and told them to go and grab a couple of burgers on me, before kicking them out of my office with an admonishment to stop wasting my time with pointless and frivolous crap like this.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's still The End of the World

Ok, part deux of my little post-apoc roundup. Yesterday saw me give the treatment to Fallout 3, Borderlands, Rage and Earthrise (see below for details). First on the list for today's installment is...

Fallen Earth. This is another post-apoc MMO and comes to us from Fallen Earth LLC and Icarus Studios LLC. The game is set in the near future after both a virus and a nuclear holocaust have devastated the globe, resulting in the annihilation of more than 99% of the world's population. One of the last major outposts of human civilisation is the Grand Canyon Province, an area that managed to avoid the worst of the cataclysm thanks to the intervention of an industrial tycoon who wished to turn the Grand Canyon into his own protectorate.

As with Earthrise the developers have chosen to go the classless route, instead constructing a skill-based game where you essentially define your own class as you decide exactly which skills to work with. There will also be what are termed "mutations", these being superhuman powers which developed in the human race as a result of the virus or radiation or possibly both. Available mutations include: the ability to radiate extreme heat or extreme cold to others; the ability to infect others with diseases and radiation; even the ability to drain the health of others and to restore the dead to life. The cool thing is that each of these mutations are favoured by 1-2 factions in the game, who will assist you in learning them and who will help you to develop your skills. There are 6 factions in the game whom you can choose to align yourself with. These include Enforcers (representing Order), Chota (representing Chaos) and Light Bearers (representing Society).

The complete list of factions can be found here and interestingly this wheel helps show you your friends and enemies. Suppose you choose to dedicate yourself to the Light Bearers, your allies would be those factions immediately adjacent to you (in this case Enforcers and Vistas), your arch-enemy would be the polar opposite (in this case the Travelers) and your enemies would be the Techs and Chota ("Children of the Apocalypse"). It is possible to change factions but depending on your current faction you may have to work around the wheel somewhat in order to be able to change to your newly-desired faction. It does add an original twist to the gameplay though, and will make you think twice before you dedicate yourself to any Tom, Dick or Harry who asks for your help.

Fallen Earth is currently in closed beta testing with a projected release date of 9th September in North America. An open beta is expected to be available sometime before this date but as of the time of writing no details are yet available regarding this, so keep checking their site if this is something that you want to test-drive before retail.

Chance of greatness: 60%
(some highly interesting gameplay choices and a unique faction system seem to indicate that the developers have put a lot of work into this, but can it defeat the elephant that Blizzard keeps in the corner of the room? That's a tough sell for anyone.)

Next up I'm cheating a little since I'm not sure this game truly qualifies as post-apocalyptic, but I'm going to go with Brink. Coming from developers Splash Damage who got their start making PC mods before taking things retail, this is an FPS which aims to blur the line between single-player and multiplayer gaming. You will begin the game playing solo, but at any point people on your friends list (or indeed people anywhere, if you wish it) can join your game, replacing one of the computer AI allies you have with a real person. Or you could choose to join their games in the same way. Therefore there will be no specialist "multiplayer" mode, it will simply be a slightly modified version of the main game. If this works as well as they say it does then it could well revolutionize what we come to think of when we consider the word "multiplayer."

As with Rage, the game will run (and be released) on the PC, 360 and PS3 since it runs on the id tech 4 engine that was previously utilised by such titles as Doom 3, Quake 4 and Prey.

The game is set in the near future aboard a floating city known as The Ark following an unspecified disaster on Earth. There are two factions, the Resistance (fighting to take over The Ark) and Security (fighting to keep it). Whichever faction you choose to play as will change the storyline, meaning you may need to play through it completely as both sides in order to fully explore the available narrative. Other details are thin on the ground so far, but it has already been announced that we should be seeing Brink in Spring 2010.

Chance of greatness: 70%
(some attractive screenshots and a unique spin on multiplayer make this a game worth watching to see if the developers can keep their promises. If they can, expect to see this game possibly change the way other games do multiplayer.)

And for now that's all she wrote. No doubt there are other post-apocalyptic games in development but I feel these are today's major players.

For tomorrow's...who knows?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The End of the World

It seems you cannot swing a cat (or for those in the southern US, a possum) these days without running into a post-apocalyptic game being touted as the Next Big Thing, so this is a short run-down of recent and upcoming p-a games together with their potential of success.

First off we have everyone's favourite, Fallout 3. 2008's "Game of the Year" by almost anyone who matters, Bethesda's revival of the old Interplay favourite produced an immersive, open world where you could do almost anything. I picked it up myself during the recent sale on Steam and while enjoyable, it hasn't had the lasting appeal I had hoped for. If anything it's a little too "open-worldy" for me. I enjoy a bit of linearity here and there and Fallout 3 just plonks you down and leaves you to fend for yourself. I'm clearly in the minority though as everyone else and their dogs seem to absolutely love it, although one consistent gripe from many sources is that the main storyline is too short.

Bethesda have also {continued to support the game post-release / milked the game dry for all it's worth} (delete as you believe is appropriate) by releasing regular installments of downloadable content. So far we've had Operation: Anchorage, The Pitt, Broken Steel and Point Lookout with the final DLC offering Mothership Zeta due in a matter of weeks. All are (unfortunately) available on Games For Windows Live for a price of 800 Microsoft Points or, for people who live in the real world and don't use pretend Monopoly money, 10 of your hard-earned United States Dollars. Of these the most successful and well-received has been Broken Steel, which upped the level cap from 20 to 30 and did a bunch of other nice things. Both O: A and The Pitt received middle of the road/poor reviews with Point Lookout falling somewhere in-between.

Chance of greatness: 100% (all those Game of the Year awards make this a no-brainer)

Next up we've got Earthrise from Belgian developer Masthead Studios. A post-apoc MMO that has chosen the classless route, you instead define your character by the skills you have him choose and gain proficiency by using them. There is also said to be an offline component to the game, perhaps similar to Eve Online where learning (or forgetting) certain skills takes amounts of real time that passes whether you are logged in or not.

Some of the screenshots are impressive, and give the feeling that Fallout got drunk and had a baby with Guild Wars. This will be Masthead's first project though, so it remains to be seen what the finished product will look like. For now you can sign up for the beta and hope to see Earthrise's retail release sometime before the end of 2009.

Chance of greatness: 50% (this one could go either way)

Rage is my next selection, from the good old Texans down at id Software. This will be id's first new IP in almost 14 years, since there are only so many sequels to Quake and Doom that you can make before people start to yearn for something different, although this hasn't stopped id from quietly starting work on Doom 4.

We won't be seeing Rage until Spring 2010, but id have recently been doing a few interviews and releasing more information about the project. It seems to be heavily influenced by Fallout but with a dash of vehicular combat and racing on the side. id also started a viral website for the game, titled After the Impact, that is gradually revealing more and more tidbits about the title. Initially there were just a couple of objects to click on in the background scenery, but after being updated over several weeks there are now some NPCs you can interact with who will give you a little backstory. It's an interesting way to do things, typical of id, and should help to further interest in the game over the coming weeks and months.

Rage is also one of two FPS games slated to use id's next-generation graphics engine id tech 5 (the other game being Doom 4), which among other things is able to run on almost any hardware. This means not only will you be seeing Rage on the PC (id's traditional home) but also on the 360 and PS3, and running almost identically on all of them. Whether this is just marketing truthiness or has some basis in fact remains to be seen.

Chance of greatness: 80% (it's hard to bet against id)

Coming in at number three on my list (and these are in no particular order) we have a little game called Borderlands. This is a game I have been heavily interested in for about 3 years now, since I first saw the trailer for it during the 2006 Spike TV Video Game Awards. Borderlands is also the first of these games I have mentioned to be set on a planet other than Earth. In this case the game is set on a distant planet known as Pandora, which while initially was gobbled up many corporations trying to find its secrets, has now been left in ruins after most of these people turned around and left empty-handed. There is rumoured to be a massive cache of alien weapons though, and it's up to you to find it...

Borderlands is famous in part for its claim that there are well over 500,000 weapons able to be found in the game, as loot is generated dynamically. I for one don't have 500,000 pockets and typically when you've seen one badass gun you've seen them all, but I'm certainly willing to give the developers, Gearbox Software (another company out of Texas) a break on this one. 4-player online co-op and what is being described as the world's first "role-playing shooter" make this a title that is either going to be amazing or the flop of the year.

The game has a very unique look, almost cel-shaded. This style was only recently implemented in its development cycle. Previously it had a much less stylized, more realistic visual appearance. I for one think the new style looks amazing and some of the recent gameplay videos really do make this game look good:



Borderlands now has a solid release date of 20th October in North America and the 23rd October in Europe, so we don't have much longer to wait.

Chance of greatness: 70% (Gearbox have a good track record, since they produced the well-received Half-Life expansion packs Blue Shift and Opposing Force as well as the Brothers in Arms series of games, but it remains to be seen whether gamers will go for the new art style)

That's your lot for today, I'll be making a second post tomorrow with the final picks for my post-apocalyptic run-down.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Huxley (or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Game)

I've posted my thoughts on Huxley before so I won't re-hash them here.

I was accepted into the Huxley closed beta about 6 weeks ago, but since I never received the email telling me this as Gmail's spam filters decided I didn't need to know about it, I completely missed the first phase of the closed beta test.

"Never mind", I thought, "at least I'll be able to play in the second phase and read the closed beta forums and see what people who have actually played the game think about it."

It turns out that I was wrong on both counts. Even though my account over at ijji is flagged as being a closed beta tester for Huxley and that automatic access to the closed forums should be granted, it never was. But wait! On the public Huxley forum the lead GM says to PM him about not getting access to these closed forums, and judging by that thread it is not a small number of individuals that are having this issue.

I send him a PM and wait. And wait. I wait some more. Finally, as a last resort, I wait. That was over two weeks ago and I still lack access to the closed beta forums, so I can only assume that this individual either cannot read, got fired, or simply doesn't care. He has posted in the interim, so he couldn't have got fired, and seems able to string a sentence together so I assume he can read, so this leaves me with the fact that he doesn't care.

I even went as far as to send a message to the administrator of the ijji forums to see if that would yield any results. I'm sure I don't need to tell you what happened after I did that.

Does this matter in the grand scheme of things? Not especially, but as a trend it is worrying. If ijji cannot even manage to run their forums properly then what hope for the game as a whole? It would take literally seconds for them to grant me access, and from their forums there are dozens of others all having the same issue. The fact that these people are essentially being ignored is not making me any more enthusiastic about Huxley, quite the reverse in fact.

All of this is making ijji/NHN look amateur at best. It is by far the worst-run beta I have had the misfortune of being involved in, and I've been in almost a dozen tests for triple-A games over the past seven years or so.

Alan Wake - not coming soon to a PC near you!

Alan Wake is an upcoming psychological thriller/puzzle/action game coming from the makers of the Max Payne series, Remedy Entertainment.

We were originally meant to be seeing it at the arse-end of 2007, then sometime in 2008 and now it is tentatively scheduled for an early 2010 release, which will have meant it has been in development upwards of five years; not into Duke Nukem Forever territory but certainly approaching the coast of that particular gaming continent.

I'm a big proponent of releasing games when they are finished though, as opposed to releasing a sub-standard product out of the door early, so the delays, while a minor annoyance, were something I could understand. What I cannot understand is why Remedy (and AW's publisher, Microsoft) have felt the need to further piss off PC gamers by announcing that the game, originally slated for both the 360 and PC, will now (at least initially) be 360-only with maybe a possibility of a PC version sometime after release (a la Gears of War and Mass Effect, which both took over a year from their 360 releases to make it over to the PC.)

The 360 is basically a scrubbed-down PC, so we are told (or so you can find out for yourself if you feel like opening yours up - let's face it you are probably going to get the red ring of death here pretty soon anyway) and porting from the PC to the 360 or vice-versa is meant to be a fairly simplistic task. So we know it's unlikely to be a technical issue as to why we won't be seeing AW on a PC anytime soon - so what does that leave us?

Perhaps Microsoft (and reports on Kotaku seem to indicate that the death of the PC version is largely their decision and not Remedy's) are looking at their bottom line, and with 360 games regularly retailing for $10-20 more than their PC counterparts it might be a case of not wanting to give those people a cheaper alternative.

Perhaps it is because Microsoft want to put a big publishing push behind AW as a 360 "exclusive" and so they are preventing the release of the PC version as a result of that.

Perhaps the game requires further polish in order to meet its Spring 2010 release and to do that Remedy had to sacrifice one of the versions in order to finish the other. When that calculation is PC vs. 360 then that decision is only going to go one way. Maybe they still fully intend to release the PC version after the 360 release is out the door. Stranger things have happened.

Either way, it's another kick in the teeth for the PC gamer. Alan Wake was a game that I have personally been following for more than a couple of years now, have told friends about and got them interested in it and now the rug is pulled out from under me.

Microsoft, originally such a PC-centric company, is fast becoming that kid who goes away to college and never goes back to his hometown, thinking himself too good to hang around with those nerds he used to play DnD with, back in the day.

Is it ashamed of its PC origins? I would hope not, since the PC as a gaming vehicle is technically superior to any console you could name in almost every single way. Yet PC gamers continue to get the shaft when it comes to projects like Alan Wake, Gears of War (a port that took far too long) and others, even when "one of their own" is helping to pull the strings. And don't even get me started about the PC port of Halo 2.

Step it up Microsoft, and give the trusty old PC some love, you know, like back in the old days where PC gamers would rub your back and then you would make games like Freelancer in return.

Come to think about it I guess I have never really forgiven Microsoft for not making Freelancer 2, either.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Star Trek Online vs. Star Wars: The Old Republic

Well I figured it was time to get into this Goliath versus Goliath battle, the likely next great MMO tussle of our time.

Beginning with Star Trek, it's definitely had a tumultuous development cycle to date. STO was originally slated to be developed by Perpetual Entertainment, who acquired the licence and commenced work on the title in early 2004 with an announcement of its development later the same year.

Information was scant regarding the title. Perpetual released some low-res screenshots here and there, along with various vague allusions regarding possibly making STO a more "casual" title funded not necessarily by subscription fees but perhaps with micro transactions. Needless to say this didn't go down too well with the (rabid/hardcore/basement-dwelling - this is really choose your own adjective time) nerds that comprise the Star Trek fan-base.

Fast forward to 2007 and Perpetual are having financial issues, to the point where they close down work on the other MMO they have in development, Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising, with an effort to focus resources on STO. This fails to help matters, however, and it is announced in early 2008 that Perpetual has closed up shop and all code of STO has been transferred to an unknown Bay-area developer (now known to be Cryptic Studios, creators of the successful superhero MMOs City of Heroes and City of Villains).

Finally with an established name at the helm, and not least one that knows their arse from their elbow, it seems STO is at last in the hands of someone who know what they are doing. Interest in STO has been ramping-up, with an official site that actually has some content. The game is set a short number of years after the TNG timeline, where relations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire are strained if not broken down completely. Your bridge crew will be comprised of NPCs whom you can co-opt onto your Away Team when you beam down to other planets, and you will be able to specialise your Captain (as you will be on your ship, unless you plan on taking orders from the toaster) in various fields such as Science and Diplomacy.

For visuals STO is adapting the engine Cryptic used to power CoH/CoV, which is tried-and-tested if not a little mundane. Maybe they will tweak the hell out of it and make Borg Cubes jump out of your monitor; stranger things have happened.

But for all this, STO just has not grabbed me. That's unusual in itself because in any Star Trek vs. Star Wars contest I am usually firmly on the side of Trek. I can't say that it's the best sci-fi of all time (I'm afraid that particular honour goes to Babylon 5) but I've always enjoyed the Trek series (except - shudder - Enterprise) and thought they were well-produced and well-developed. For some reason though the MMO just isn't pressing my buttons.

On to The Old Republic, which also has an interesting development history of its own.

Rumours were circulating for the past couple of years in the gaming press that BioWare were working on an unannounced game, likely set in the Star Wars universe to capitalise on the tremendous success of their games Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 1+2. The rumour mill said that the new Star Wars game was going to be an MMO, such as had been tried before with the terrible Star Wars Galaxies but with less utter, utter badness (always a good thing).

Invitations started popping up in the gaming press and on various gaming sites that BioWare was going to make an announcement in October 2008, and finally on 21st October 2008 the world knew officially what had been the worst-kept secret in the MMO world: that BioWare were working on a Star Wars MMO tentatively titled The Old Republic.

The game is set some 300 years prior to the events of Knights of the Old Republic which also predates the films by some 3,700 years. Given the quality of the last few films this is not a bad idea. a la WoW there will be two factions, the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire. Playable classes announced so far include: Jedi Knights (of course), Sith, Bounty Hunters, Troopers and Smugglers. BioWare also recently announced that ToR will be the first MMO to be fully voiced; no more reading tiny windows crammed full of text in order to glean the only two facts you require (what you need to do and where you need to do it).

The official site for ToR is equally as good as that for STO. BioWare release regular updates detailing new features and classes, and also several trailers, screenshots and even comics filling-in some of the back story, as well as regular updates on social networking sites from some of the producers.

In short, both ToR and STO have figured out that to make an MMO based on these iconic sci-fi franchises the best way to do it is by firmly involving the established communities that already exist. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and the PR people at both Cryptic and BioWare are to be commended for their involvement of the fan-base at large to date. Some of those nerds don't even wash, which that makes the developer's contributions all the more impressive.

Of the two it seems that we will likely see STO first. As of writing it has a pending release date of "early Spring 2010", whereas BioWare are adopting a Blizzard/Valve approach of "when it's done." Will one affect the other? Both developers will say no but they'd be stupid if they weren't keeping at least one eye on the competition. In saying that, I think there is ample room in the MMO universe for both games to flourish and succeed, but that is really going to depend on the finished products.

A lifetime Trekker hates to admit it but ToR really does look superior (in my eyes) right now. If BioWare can re-create the magic of KOTOR and add a dash of MMO sprinkles to it, I think it would be very hard to see that game not become a commercial success. If STO meets their release date of early 2010 perhaps this will encourage BioWare to shove ToR out of the door a little quicker than usual, but with EA bankrolling their operation they aren't exactly poor these days.

BioWare, feel free to toss me an alpha/beta invite. You too, Cryptic, since you've got ground to make up with me.

(I also accept any hard currency)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

How Windows 7 is great for gaming and why you should be using it (right now!)

I built my new machine about a month ago and for the OS decided to go with the 64-bit Windows 7 RC. I'd heard great things about it and had tried it out myself on my old system under a virtual machine and figured that it was stable enough to try out in my new main system.

I definitely made the right decision.

Windows 7 is everything that Vista should have been but wasn't. Vista's downfalls have been detailed in plenty of other places so I feel no need to rehash them here, other than to say 7 is basically Vista under the hood but has the ease of use, flexibility and performance of that old workhorse, Windows XP.

Microsoft definitely figured out that Vista was piss. It had horrendous driver support at release, performed worse than XP on a like-for-like system and crashed like Mel Gibson headed for the local anti-Semite rally (OK I lied about the rehashing part). By comparison, 7's driver support is amazing months ahead of its release (it picked up all of my hardware at install, with the odd exception of my Creative X-Fi Xtremegamer PCI sound card - but Creative had beta Windows 7 drivers on their site which worked just fine), it never crashes and my performance is through the roof. The only bad thing is that it does not make me strawberry milk or look like Liv Tyler.

I've got all of my games running under 7 with virtually no issues. WoW, TF2, L4D, Mass Effect, Prototype, World of Goo, Aion, Battleforge, Champions Online, Guild Wars and more are all running flawlessly. Well, one flaw at least. Sometimes when I join a server in TF2 it will hang, for seemingly no reason at all, and give me the deliciously-generic message of "hl2.exe has stopped responding". This is the only game this happens on, and a Google search reveals that this is fairly common so I'm willing to chalk it up to a TF2 oddity. Everything else runs perfectly though, with the exception of Prototype which has slowdowns but since these have been reported on non-7 machines then I do not believe the OS is to blame.

Perhaps one of the best things is that the RC ("Release Candidate" - think "advanced beta") is completely free to use through next summer. Around next May/June it will start whining to you about how it is about to expire and will then limit your sessions to two hours (forcing you to reboot) before it finally dies. Between now and then you get the full version of (what will be) the best release of Windows to date, for nothing.

To start off, head over to http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windows-7/download.aspx where you can download the full OS (in 32-bit or 64-bit flavours, I recommend the 64 unless you're certain your system has components that cannot handle it) and pick up a product key to activate it. Hurry up though, because Microsoft has announced that the download will be disabled on 15th August. It costs you nothing so what do you have to lose?

The release candidate of Windows 7 has been so well received (and is largely bug-free, almost a rarity in today's software marketplace) that Microsoft recently announced that it will go retail on Thursday, 22nd October. By using the RC now you get the best version of Windows 7 (Ultimate - all the trimmings) for free for the best part of a year.

That's a hard deal to beat.