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.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Lament of PlanetSide

What is PlanetSide you may ask?

It was an ambitious foray by Sony Online Entertainment to meld FPS gameplay into the MMO genre, namely an MMOFPS of the like that had not really been seen to that point.

It was basically an online tug of war between three factions, the Terran Republic, Vanu Sovereignty and the New Conglomerate over various continents and bases on those continents, and the reason you may not have heard of it was because it was released back in 2003.

At its height PlanetSide boasted about 75,000 active subscribers, not amazing numbers but certainly something to build on in a genre woefully under-used with no real competition from any other similar games. Unfortunately Sony dropped the ball pretty hardcore on it, and released a sub-par expansion called Core Combat a mere five months after the vanilla game's release which helped people leave the game rather than attract them to it.

PlanetSide
was a lot of fun to play. I personally logged countless hours with my outfit ("guild") in various roles. Multiple vehicles and classes were available, anything from stealth play to heavy mech-type suits to aircraft to tanks and then some. It was a lot of fun and something that had not really been done before and hasn't really been done since. It had the potential to be the Next Big Thing but Sony decided instead to run it into the ground. Core Combat sucked, as already mentioned; intervals between updates became longer and longer as Sony pulled support off the game and many of the original dev team left and some technical issues were left un-fixed, to the point where newer PCs actually ran the game worse than older ones.

I can only think that PlanetSide was just ahead of its time. Its vision exceeded its grasp and unfortunately, despite extremely positive reviews from the gaming press at the time, it never really took off in the way that it could have done. Over the years the vast majority of the population left, to the point where now it has perhaps 15-20,000 active subscribers and servers have been merged multiple times in order to at least facilitate the illusion that something was happening somewhere, you just had to look very hard to find it. I'm honestly surprised that Sony hasn't pulled the plug yet. By all accounts the dev team and GMs are a couple of guys in the janitor's closet at Sony HQ.

But is there hope on the horizon, perhaps some others who will pick up the mantle of a large open-world MMOFPS in a similar vein and style? Well, both yes and no.

There are three games currently in development which could be said to fit the MMOFPS genre. Those three are MAG (a PlayStation 3 exclusive being developed by Zipper Interactive for Sony), Huxley (a PC for sure and possibly 360 game as well, coming from Korean developer Webzen and in the US published by NHN) and Global Agenda (the first project from rookie developer Hi-Rez Studios). Since MAG is only being released on the PS3 I won't be discussing that here since this is a PC gaming blog, but Huxley and Global Agenda are worth investigating.

Huxley has been in development for what seems like decades now. It initially promised PlanetSide-style gameplay with updated graphics and less Sony suck, but as time wore on and release dates slipped without any comment from Webzen then press just dried up for the game. Suddenly in the past few months we've seen some action, and a release date may not be far away. The game is currently in beta in Korea (open or closed I could not ascertain) and in the US the first closed beta phase was held earlier this month by publisher NHN via their portal at www.ijji.com. It seems likely that a 2009 release date will finally be realised, but whether the game will actually be worth playing is another story entirely. Gameplay details are very thin on the ground to the point where much of the information you will read is likely outdated by now.

Global Agenda is the initial project of upstart developer Hi-Rez Studios. Based on the Unreal Engine 3 it is visually more appealing than Huxley, but again there is not much known about its gameplay. There are said to be four broad class types (melee, stealth/recon, healer and pet/utility) with the focus on PvP combat (with PvE content available).

The big problem with both of these games is the scale. In PlanetSide you would pick a server, make your character and login and that was it. You were placed in an open world where there were (at its peak at least) hundreds of others all in the same world as you. There was no instancing, everyone was just duking it out. This made for both lag (sometimes) but also extremely epic fights. Having 100v100 gargantuan struggles over a single base was something you simply could not do anywhere else. Some of those fights were the best single experiences in any online game I have played to date.

Unfortunately neither Huxley or Global Agenda are going this route. Combat will be instanced, and likely limited to 12v12 in GA and possibly more in Huxley although this information may be outdated. In regards to Huxley, Webzen did at one point discussion large scale combat areas with dozens of players catered for, but whether or not this is actually going to make it into the final game years later is frankly anyone's guess.

If someone could please pick up PlanetSide from Sony, improve the graphics to current-gen visuals and fix the lag and technical problems I would be very grateful. Anyone doing so would have a virtual hit on their hands, guaranteed. While both Huxley and GA do show potential, neither one really seems like it is going to be the elusive PlanetSide 2 that many twitch gamers want to see.

One more standout feature of PlanetSide was its music. Right from the login screen the music was some of the best I had heard in any game, to the point where I re-installed the game only last week on my new machine just so that I could make a copy of the music folder so it was available anytime I wanted to listen. You can hear a sample of this on YouTube below, this clip being the Sanctuary (home base) theme for the New Conglomerate and probably the single-best piece of music in the game:

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Prototype

Well it's been a few days so I figure I may as well post my thoughts about this game.

First off, this is one I've been watching for a couple of years now. I was disappointed when it was pushed back from last year to this but if it helped polish the game then it was something I couldn't really complain about.

Prototype is a very good game. It's verging on "excellent" (although that will depend upon how the story pans out) but has a few niggling issues which, on the whole, aren't enough to detract from the overall experience.

The graphics are good, although a little bland in some areas. The protagonist, Alex Mercer, is animated extremely well, though. He flips, jumps, grabs on to walls and glides perfectly. I don't know if he was motion-captured but it looks like he was because to me his movement is completely fluid and natural.

The story and writing is also a cut above the rest. Typically plot is a throwaway word in sandbox games like this and although Prototype moves in to the often-done government conspiracy territory for the story, the so-called "Web of Intrigue" ties it together in a very original and unusual way. Basically, you begin the game not knowing much more than your own name. You know that people are chasing you and that you have been changed; that's about it.

During gameplay you will see every once in a while a red marker on the minimap indicating that you are close to a WoI target. If you find and "consume" this person (which also gives you health) you will then gain access to a fragment of their memories, usually in the form of a ~20 second cutscene, which helps to fill in the blanks. There are over 100 of these people to find and several strands of the main story into which they fit. It's an excellent target-driven system that makes you watch the map almost all the time since these targets can pop up in side-missions, in main missions or simply while you are running around. Props to Radical on this, it's one of the best aspects of the game and is done very well.

As for the combat, Alex initially has only a few attacks available but even on those the animation is very well done. As you progress you will unlock more powers to use, such as claws for your hands (enabling you to easily live out your Wolverine fan-fic in-game since all your friends keep making fun of you when you try to RP it with them), hammers for your hands enabling large shockwave aoe attacks to knock down large groups, and also a very cool bola/grappling hook for an arm which lets you take out enemies and helicopters from long range.

Because I'm doing all of the side-quests too I am only 1/3 of the way through the game so far (there are 31 main story missions). It took me a couple of weeks to finish the last good game that I would put into this category, namely BioShock, and in the end I was meting out my BioShock playtime simply because I didn't want it to be over. I'm going the same way with Prototype, although it's easier as since it's a sandbox game I just stop doing the main story and go on a rampage somewhere or do some of the side quests instead without needing to progress the main story.

Speaking of the side-quests/minigames, they can vary from being a simple tracking mission where you need to consume certain people spread across the map within a time limit; a more simplistic obstacle course where you need to hit the marked areas in sequence within the time allowed; combat areas where you need to kill X amounts of enemies within the time and are only allowed to use a pre-selected power; and others besides. They are varied enough (although I suspect by the end of the game you will be wanting a little more diversity), and doing them well rewards you with Evolution Points which you can use to fund the purchase of new powers and abilities.

As for the negatives...on the PC version there are some technical issues, such as Radical deciding that certain resolutions require certain amounts of video RAM, even for quite moderate resolutions. You can read further details about this here, and it seems a somewhat arbitrary way of doing things that has won Radical no favours.

On the same link you can see details for a somewhat larger problem, namely slowdowns in and around cutscenes even on quite beefy PCs. For now a workaround is to go into your Device Manager and disable as many Human Interface Devices as you can, this apparently improves performance substantially and is a bug that should have been caught in QA but wasn't. Hopefully a patch for the PC version will be forthcoming, as I have personally experienced this issue quite extensively even on a very good PC. Most of the time I'm running at 50-60 FPS on 1920x1200 4X AA and everything on high, but every once in a while (particularly around cutscenes, as noted) the FPS will drop to under 10 making the game virtually unplayable. A workaround of my own that I have found is to drop to the ground level and run around a bit and the FPS usually jumps back up to the regular level within a few seconds and then I can continue with my gameplay as normal.

Activision are aware of the issues and will hopefully push a patch out very soon to address them.

I've already mentioned the bland graphics in some areas. Buildings aren't very detailed, at least in the beginning of the game, and some of the pedestrian NPCs also look like they are in a game that came out 2 years ago. These are minor quibbles though, and really don't detract from the overall experience very much at all.

The game also eases you in very gently in the beginning and then suddenly ramps up the difficulty as y0u get further in. The first 10 missions or so are not challenging at all and mostly serve to introduce you to the game, to show you the ins and outs of combat, shapeshifting, jacking vehicles and all that buttery goodness. Then from nowhere, I won't detail it here to avoid any spoilers, you get a mission that ramps-up the difficultly about 500 times, to where you (or at least, me) are constantly failing and what's worse, I couldn't even see how it could be done. Eventually on about the 12th attempt I completely fluked it, but from other reviews I've read the game does get very, very difficult to complete later on.

What works

Web-of-Intrigue storytelling
Vast open world
Powers are varied and effective

What doesn't

Some technical issues
Minigames/side-quests may get repetitive
Uninspired visuals in some areas

I'm not comfortable assigning a score to a game that I haven't finished yet, but if held at gunpoint by a crazed Infamous fan I'd say this game merits at least an 8/10 thus far. I'll post a final update on this once I have completed the game. Needless to say, Prototype is an excellent game that delivers upon much that Radical have been promising for the past few years of its development.

Recommended!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Left 4 Dead 2 West Brom 3

Valve have certainly had a good run as being one of the bastions of happiness and light for PC gamers. Their post-release commitment to their games (particularly TF2, which has been updated numerous times over the past 18 months with new features and bugfixes) is one that many companies should envy.

At E3 last week though they managed to shoot themselves in the foot somewhat and undo a little of this good work by announcing Left 4 Dead 2 barely 6 months after the release of the first game and its scheduled release one year from the release of the first game.

First off I'll be amazed if they manage to stick to this release date, as Valve is notoriously fickle about releases, preferring to hold them "until it's done" rather than stick to some arbitrary date. Yet the fast-track on the release may also be a problem in itself. The detractors of L4D 2 argue that much (most?) of its content is lifted straight from the original game, meaning Valve do not have to start this process from scratch. New AI Director? Well it's going to be a modified version of the first. The overall game engine? Again, a modified version of the original game's Source engine. New characters, weapons, zombies? Most of the work has already been done in the first game and so the new stuff can be added in to L4D 2 with only relatively minor adjustments needed.

Critics also argue that releasing a sequel so soon after the original game will cannibalise the community of the first game, both the public community and any updates from Valve for the original game (as their focus will now shift to the sequel). They point to how Valve have treated Team Fortress 2 as the standard of how things should be approached, which has released major content patches for the majority of the classes available and is still being updated regularly today. They argue that L4D 2 should instead be downloadable content for the original game and not a full blown (and more importantly, full-priced) sequel in its own right.

I do think Valve have made a bit of a mess of this one, and it's unusual because Valve can usually do no wrong. Along with Blizzard they are really one of those developers who seem to put the gamer first ahead of any other considerations. They do not rush games out the door (usually...) and release them when they are 100% satisfied with the product. Case in point: Half-Life 2 Episode 3 is completely MIA with no new information about it released at all, even at E3. I can only assume that this is because they are still working on it and it's not in a good enough state for them to want to show the public (or the press) at this point.

But back to L4D 2, I think you will see some kind of announcement soon by Valve addressing this issue. It may take the form of a discount on the price of L4D 2 for original L4D owners; it may be a changing from a full retail game to downloadable content for the original game, it may even be a cheaper full-blown expansion. Either way I don't think Valve will let things go on as they are. They have made a very profitable empire out of giving complete satisfaction to gamers and know that the current controversy is giving them negative press which they are unaccustomed to. From their actions in the past I suspect they will work to correct the situation and we will be hearing something very soon about it all.

In the meantime, check out this video made by the anti-L4D 2 community:

About Me / Contact

I'm a British writer who exchanged living half my life at The Hawthorns and the other half at the university library for the chance to dodge tornadoes in Texas, where I currently live with my two surprisingly normal children.

I have a passion for writing and PC gaming, marginally in that order. No, PC gaming isn't dead yet, and by reading this blog you agree Loom was the best game that LucasArts ever made.

You can email me at writer@unbooted.com, and I also muck about on Twitter from time to time where I am @Gaffadin.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Dick move of the week

While we should all be enjoying the news coming out of E3 this week about new technology and new games, one company instead decided to pull a crappy move worthy of Satan in order to piss in someone else's donuts.

The company I am talking about is, of course, Activision-Blizzard. As the story goes, Activision (before their merger with Blizzard) were due to publish the upcoming Tim Schafer game Brutal Legend. Since Tim Schafer is kind of a big deal, as this is the guy that made Psychonauts, all of the good games in the Monkey Island series, Day of the Tentacle and others then his next project was something many were interested in.

Fast forward a few months to Activision merging with Blizzard and deciding to take stock of their (now enormous line-up of) titles. They went on to announce that several titles due to be published were instead being dropped. The most notable of these titles were Brutal Legend and the new Ghostbusters game. Well instead of throwing in the towel (as apparently Activision would have preferred) Schafer's Double Fine Productions shopped around and eventually Electronic Arts decided to pick up BL and there was much rejoicing.

Now cut to just a few days ago, mid-E3 '09 to be exact (nice timing on that btw Activision, since everyone who was even remotely interested in E3 is now talking about this) and Activision announced that it was suing Tim Schafer and Double Fine for "selling rights to Electronic Arts that belonged to Activision", i.e. claiming that Activision still retained the publishing rights to BL.

Apparently the entire world just collectively imagined Activision passing on the rights to BL. That or we all fell into some Fringe-like parallel dimension, evidently one where down is up and the sky is green.

Plenty of people have spoken out about this already but I'm going to add to it: this is a dick move of dick moves and disingenuous to the (previously) good name of Activision-Blizzard. Throwing a hissy fit because you passed on something that now looks like it's going to make a not-inconsiderable amount of money for its new publishers and then trying to make a money-grab to cut yourself in for some of it (because that's what this amounts to) just makes you look stupid.

As Tim Schafer himself was quoted as saying:

"Hey, if Activision liked it, then they should have put a ring on it," adding "Oh great, now Beyoncé is going to sue me too."

to which there is really no response because he is 100% correct.

Hopefully EA and Double Fine will have the balls to go ahead with the planned 13th October release of BL and will resist the efforts of Activision to get paid for something they are not entitled to.

First!

Apparently there is a new fad on the "Internets" which is for everyday people to post random crap about their day, their hair colour and their pets in the hopes that perhaps some other people will read it and become interested in what they say. This process then "levels-up" through several hundred iterations until you reach Oprah-like status and are proclaimed King (or Queen) of the World.

I have decided to begin this process today.

First off: I'm English so get used to British (i.e. correct) spellings of words in my entries. Colour, honour, neighbour: this means you.

Second: I won't be keeping to a rigid posting schedule. I will post when I have something new and interesting to post about, so days or (gasp!) even weeks may go by between posts depending on how post-worthy current events are.

That being said, let's get this show on the road.