Monday, July 31, 2006

Fire on slopes, fighting chicks, consistent soundtracks and throwing enemies

Completely non-game-related stuff: I was going through my photo archives and stumbled upon my cellphone photos of the Makasiinit fire this summer. It was an old railroad warehouse complex, used for flea markets and concerts, which was scheduled to be demolished this same summer, to much controversy. It used to cater to young people and the fight to keep them as they were was very much a struggle between the leftist and right-wing types. We happened to go by just as the fire was picking up in ferocity. They still can't say whether the fire was intentional or not.

An unrelated, but gamer topic: more backwards compatibility experiences with the Xbox 360! I threw in Amped 2, which I dearly love, and found that it worked without additional patches. I created a new snowboarder and signed into Xbox Live. It wouldn't let me download the, well, downloadable content, presumably because it hasn't been upgraded for current Live standards. Oh well, I can live without that, I was primarily looking forward to some King of the Mountain action. No "quick matches" were to be found, so I set up my own. I had gone at it solo for one round (two minutes), when the first two guys joined me on the slope. Sweet! I was rather worried that there were no players of Amped 2 online any longer, but it seems that's not the case.

The gamer community has been vocal about the demise of E3 as we know it. Just as well. Every respectable game media I know of keeps complaining about how horrible it is, and you get hundreds of games you should care about: it just doesn't work. Please do drip the news all over the year, don't waste money and energy on catering to "professionals". I know I get a sort of "oh no, here we go again" -feeling, opening one of those E3 special editions of my favorite magazines.

Dead Or Alive 4. I've been playing the demo, thinking whether I should buy the full game or not, and I'm still undecided. The AI seems to be broken. One morning I breezed through the time attack in under two minutes, not losing once, later in the afternoon I got kicked around so hard that I was about to give up. I finally cleared the time attack in 13 minutes. Many times, I couldn't land a single blow! The AI blocked, threw and kept the pressure on faultlessly. This has been complained about in the retail game's reviews, too, so apparently there really is something wrong with the AI. Still, it would be primarily a Live game for me, provided that lag isn't a problem. Too bad I can't test that with the demo.

I played the DOA4 demo to the rhythm of Paradise Lost's One Second album. I love the 360's way of letting me listen to my own music within any game, at any time, replacing the game's (often crappy) soundtrack effortlessly. It even works with backward-compatible games, although you need to kill their built-in music manually.

They released a demo of Ninety-Nine Nights. The aesthetic design is unexciting (indeed, rather bland), but plowing through hundreds on enemies like Sauron on fast forward is good fun. I can see that it might get too reptitive in the long run and it seems to be all the same whether you just hammer the attack buttons randomly or concentrate on executing precise combos, but it's sweet that there ate literally hundreds of combatants on-screen at once and the framerate never suffers.

Update: Oh, and we're past one thousand visitors now, if my Statcounter is to be believed. Go audience! Also according to the same data, some of you are returning visitors. Go regular audience! An average of seven people comes to the blog each day, although recently we've seen peaks of twelve about twice a week.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


I was tidying up my hard drive and throwing out old junk, when I came across some wallpapers I did a few years back. I'm putting them up here, should anyone wish to use them.

Of course I feel an urge to make them better, but luckily for me I can't, because I think I've lost the original files.

I haven't done computer graphics like this in years. Some years ago I used to make posters and stuff, along with new personal homepage layouts every other month. I think I'm better off without. Although just recently I found my meager Photoshop skills in high demand at work, although I shouldn't need that know-how in my normal duties.

This stuff is actually somewhat videogame-related. The woman in the close-up is from a Silent Hill title, the woman with the green background is from Dead Or Alive. I'm not sure, but some of the backgrounds and effects are likely to be heavily distorted videogame views, too.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Sennheiser PX-100

My previous pair of Sennheiser MX-550 headphones broke. I knew I had to get an on-ears (not in-ears) model next, as I wear phones for hours on end at work, in commute and at home, perhaps averaging at two hours per day.

The last time I'd gone for the in-ear kind ('canal') because of portability and ease of use, for instance at the gym. They are very uncomfortable to use for extended periods of time, despite the MX-550s sounding very good for their price.

I used Creative's on-ears model HQ-1300 for a year. They soundedgood and were easy on the ears, but they were rather too heavy for extended use. But the real killer was the headband: it really irritated my scalp, due to being hard foam.

So comfort and reasonable sound quality were the main things I was looking for. I had testdrived Koss Porta Pro, but found that the most convenient retailer was charging a hefty brand premium on it. So I checked out the alternatives and after much deliberation settled on the Sennheiser PX-100, initially on the clerk's heartfelt recommendations. I wasn't willing to pay over 50€, anyway, since these things never last me over a year.

The PX-100 is a very modest gadget: they simply don't look like much. But there are a couple of things that have made me really like the things after a couple of days of use.

First of all, they're portable. They fold up into a hardy carrying case, effectively eliminating worrying about them getting crushed in a bag. They're lightweight, too. But related to this, they're also very comfortable to use. The headband is padded with imitation leather cushions, the adjustment works effortlessly, the speakers don't put pressure on your ears. I didn't notice any discomfort after several hours of listening to music.

The build quality seems very good, you definitely feel like getting your money's worth. Because of the fold-up design, I was worried about the hinges, but all the components seem sturdy enough and click into place satisfyingly. The cord is also sturdier than with most headphones I've used.

Then there's the matter of the sound. I listened through eight pairs of headphones at the store, using my own portable player (which is the main device I'll be using the headphones with), and these stood out, even when listened next to some considerably more expensive models. This was the first thing that put these on my radar, the clerk's very enthusiastic praise came second. When I finally compared sound, features and price, there just wasn't competition. The only real alterntive was Koss: the Porta Pro was as good in my ears, but the all-metal headband makes them a pain to wear, and the price was just too much.

I've been happy with my purchase, and it seems that so are some other folks.

Some might argue that you'd want a closed model to keep out the background noise, but it isn't really a problem for me. I hadn't considered it before, but the open design actually enhances the sound - it sounds more, I don't know, natural. Then again, you're bleeding out quite a bit of what you're listening to, so your fellow human beings might object.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Image test

This is a test, as I haven't tried uploading images to Blogger before.

I might as well tell what the drawing (hopefully) on the right is about. Around two years ago I was playing around with Photoshop and a Wacom Volito tablet (that's the home/hobbyist size), seeing what sort of computer-assisted drawing style would fit me naturally. This is in no way a "serious" piece, I wanted to get it done in one sitting and have resisted the temptation to touch it up later.

I haven't drawn too much since then. I used to draw a lot; back in high school, I wouldn't sleep until I had finished an illustration per day. These days, maybe an image or two per year, including doodles.

So that's that.

A Plot. Now With Voice!

I just completed Perfect Dark Zero's singleplayer mode on the easiest "Agent" level. While I remain enthusiastic about the game's sports-like approach to levels and statistics, I have to say that this game would've been much better off without voice actors and cutscenes. This would've rid us of the plot.

I can't say much about the plot, because I couldn't make any sense of it. There was a dead father, crazy old Chinese man with tubes in his head, his mean daughter and the Graal, of all things. I don't know how these things connect, or why was Joanna there, etc. Most of the plot is carried in conversations during the missions, but without subtitles I couldn't make out much of it. Which is just as well, because the voice actors are so horrible that I don't want to hear them. The cutscenes are short, but add nothing to the experience.

The end sequence is so lame that it reminds me positively of old videogames! Spoiler ahead, be warned, although really I'm beyond why anyone would actually care, in this case. When the final bad guy is shot down (I couldn't make sense of the instructions, so I just shot him until he dropped), the arena crumbles around Joanna. Allies rush to scene. Joanna rises from the rubble, wobbly. Chief ally steps up to support him (I still don't know why they're working together). "Are you all right?" "I could use an aspirin." The allied boss (a Scotsman, total mystery to me) comes on stage. "So how did I do?" Both salute. Fade to black.

Why did this game have a plot at all? It serves absolutely no purpose. The stages are sensibly accessed from a mission select screen, one at a time, and all the story bits do is add to the confusion. This would be so much better with mission-specific goals, without an overarching sad excuse for a plot. Thankfully, all of it is skippable.

And really, you spend years and years making a game, then leave your audience cringing at god-awful voice actors. That's just dumb. Surely there must be no one anywhere who would applaud the acting. I actually feel bad saying that, but they substantially take away from the game. I don't know, maybe it's just a director who doesn't know his job, but it's a mess of a job regardless.

Oh, and I only realized in the second to last mission that I could choose my gear for every mission. I don't know where that was explained, I just stumbled upon it.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Perfect Dipper Super

I won Kotaku's comment of the day contest. The story about the World Of Warcraft guild paying for its member's family's upkeep during a three-month stint in chemotherapy is exceptional, and I felt awkward commenting on it, but I do stand by my observation on communities being the real "next generation" of videogaming. Anyway, I'm getting gaming swag and a couple of games from the cool folks at Kotaku.

The game loot is all PC, sadly: Guild Wars: Factions, Lineage II and Auto Assault. I don't know much about the latter two, but Guild Wars sparks a lot of monologue.

Seeing that I don't have a gaming PC, I don't know if I'll ever play Guild Wars, but the game intrigues me mightily. (Indeed, I immediately checked out how much a minimum-spec grpahics card would cost to run the game, though I've said again and again that I can't be arsed to buy a gaming PC... again.)

I was always interested in GW due to its excellent art direction, but Eurogamer's enthusiastic review really got my attention. GW seems to do lots of things right.

To begin with, there is no level grind. There is a level progression, but I'm told you'll cap out on level 20 within one week of playing. I take it that the levels are there mostly to gradually introduce the elements of the game. But you won't be spending your valuable time killing ever so slightly more powerful bunnies to get a couple of percentage's worth of increase to your damage potential, when you reach the next level in perhaps a couple of more hours of killing bunnies. Many folks say that World Of Warcraft doesn't really "begin" until you reach level 60. I'm supposed to grind until that to enjoy the game? No thanks.

Guild Wars is based on instances: whenever you embark on a quest alone or with your mates, you go at it without the other gazillion players in the same space with you. While many argue that instances kill the "realism" (yeah, right) in an online game, I say the opposite. World Of Warcraft and its like suffer tons because you have all the other players (many of whom look exactly like you) crowding your view.

GW allows the player interaction (and everyone's in the same world, no server-specific content here), but only in the hub areas - out in the instanced world, you can adventure just with your buddies. No queuing (sp?) to kill the monster spawn that's required in your quest. No killstealing. I couldn't put it better than Eurogamer reviewer Kieron Gillen in his review of the original Guild Wars:

"I was recently playing another MMO Beta. No name, as I'm currently under a non-disclosure agreement. It's very much based in the Korean model, with lots of extremely repetitive monster-bashing, but cute enough.

At around 3 AM in the morning I had a moment of terrifying clarity as I pulled back my camera to examine the surroundings. I was in a field packed full of people, all hacking down virtually identical monsters with their own virtually identical attacks and sullenly ignoring each other. Everyone's attacks, for a second, seem to synchronise, in a steady heartbeat, pumping XP through the body of the playerbase and money into the heart of the developer.

This is humanity reduced to the rhythm of a machine, the player as a combine-harvester, the point of the game suddenly clear. Not to be fun, but to be addicting. I was in a Killing Field. If this is all that MMOs are - and the core of most mainstream MMOs are - what exactly is the benefit to the player of these areas being shared?"

Guild Wars has no subscription fee. This is the single thing that got noticed when it was gearing up for launch, and probably the reason why it's successful. Now, I perfectly understand why most "massively multiplayer" games have subscription fees and I have no regrets paying for the excellent Xbox Live Gold service. But paying money for a single game does not fit my gaming tastes, because I'm a dipper; I dip in and out of games, often playing a single game for one or two nights and then shelving it for months (or years!). So committing myself to spend all of my game time to one game just won't do.

Related to this, Guild Wars is also designed to not require lots of time to enjoy. Many people tell me they only play it occasionally, and it doesn't punish you in any way for this. You can compete, even though you're not a hardcore online nerd. Indeed, the game notifies you when you've played for a long time and advises you to take a break! Commendable.

Guild Wars is built on player vs. player (PVP) gameplay. PVP is not for me in other online "ropleplaying" games, because it's reserved for the elite only, novices need not apply. GW removes the barrier by setting the level cap within reach of the casual player. So you can get immediate access to the good stuff. I don't know if I'll like it, but it sounds so tactical with its interchangeable skills that Magic: The Gathering and its ilk spring to mind, which is a good thing.

Speaking of the interchangeable skills, this is a major innovation. All online RPGs to date (to my knowledge) suffer from new players making blunders in character creation. Then they notice that they can't succeed with the character they've made... after playing for weeks. GW takes this crap away, you can be a different guy in every single game you play. Although you'll probably have favorite setups you always use, you're not stuck with them. Every time you head out from the hub areas, you pick eight (yes, just eight) powers from your selection to use. This reminds me delightfully of building a deck in a collectable card game (albeit a small deck).

In Xbox 360 news, I got Perfect Dark Zero. It does a couple of things very well despite not being anywhere near the Halo-levels of FPS goodness. The basic gameplay is all right, although nothing special. But the structure keeps things tight.

There is no saving: you need to complete a level in one sitting. This is not a problem, because they rarely take you more than half an hour to complete. After every level, you get very detailed statistics of your performance, which are then compared to your personal best, and crucially, to the world record. I have a strong urge to beat the par times and get higher on the world ranking. This leads you to viewing the singe player game as a sports arena; you play through the levels thinking how you could be more effective, not just to see the next level. Once you know your way around, the levels can often be completed in around five minutes. I would urge other developer to take note of this, it is very compelling indeed.

In pop culture news, I first saw a trailer for the new Superman movie last night. I'm suddenly interested in it, because the bullet in the eye stunt was cool. Beyond. Words. Neo, eat your heart out.

Friday, July 07, 2006


I've been looking forward to Test Drive Unlimited. The whole Hawaiian island of Oahu modelled for driving, realistic roads and traffic, garage full of sports cars (and motorcycles), what else would I need? Based on the demo, not very much. It's as good as they promised.

It's fun just to... drive. There's a great sense of freedom to drive along nice and slow, keep to your own lane, pick your own path and then slam down the accelerator when you feel like it, dodging traffic and hear the engine scream in joy. Bliss.

However, a couple of niggles worry me. First, is there enough to do? While free roaming is fun for a couple of days, sooner or later you'll want some objectives. There will be taxi missions and such in the retail version, but I wonder if it's enough. Of course there are online races, too, but keeping just one location - no matter how delicately reproduced - fresh, is quite a task.

Second, excessive speed equals danger. The danger element is completely missing from this game. If you career out of control and slam at oncoming traffic at full speed, the traffic just flies out of your way, denting some metal while at it, but you merely spin a little, if that, and continue on your way completely unaffected. Rubbish! If the game is based on a "realistic" experience, I want to live with the consequences of my actions. If licencing contracts forbid the thrashing of the sports cars, fine: send me back to my last checkpoint or something, whatever to feel like it's a bad idea to crash.

Allegedly there are Hawaiian cops who chase you if you hit other cars. I haven't seen them, though. All I get is a textbox informing me that I've been fined. Police chases would be an essential element of this package.

UPDATE 11 JULY: There are cops. I don't know why I didn't see them once during my first plays of the demo. They're a little easy to shake, though, at least in the demo's Lamborghini. It's good fun to play Getaway In Stockholm, waiting to let them close in and then lose them in a successful run. The protagonist's whimpering "Oh no" when the police lady comes in to write a ticker is pathetic, though.

The environment looks convincing, but not very next-gen. Blocky shapes, not much in the way of HDR goodness in lighting, no pedestrians. The cars do look sweet and I love the way sunlight plays in my in-car view. The driver models are all right, but not realistic and regardless of their very limited posing, they exhibit clipping problems.

The in-car view kicks ass. You can even adjust the seat and play with the windows. It may be that Hawaii wins Need For Speed: Most Wanted in the shopping list priorities.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

As For The Launch Titles

I have now tried Project Gotham Racing 3 and Perfect Dark Zero, both launch titles for the 360.

Project Gotham Racing 3 didn't make much of an impression: it's just as good as I thought it would be, no surprises there. On a standard-definition 4:3 CRT TV, the graphics don't seem much better than on the original game on the Xbox. But the in-car view is excellent, the presentation is flawless, the cars handle well... this is very likely the one car game you need in your 360 library. Of course, the take on the car theme is very different from Need For Speed, and I don't see them as competitors.

Perfect Dark Zero, Rare's much-lamented 360 launch title, was something of a surprise for me. No, it's not the Halo-killer it was set up to be, but I really can't find reason for the kind of beating it's taken in the gamer community.

The demo is good fun, presented very well indeed, it looks nice and plays well. Sure, it's basic FPS action with secret agent overtones, but I don't see anything wrong with that. The Live gamemode Dark Ops feels like a lot of fun, too.

There are plenty of nice touches. The comic book -like character design is cool, and they blend with the game's (excellently) ragdoll-powered ultraviolence in a fine manner. The way the enemies' body armor blows off as if launched by springs when shot is very satisfying.

Seeing that PDZ's being sold for last-gen prices just about everywhere, I might have to pick one up.

As a sidenote, Quake 4 did not pass the demo test. It's Doom 3, only without the pacing, the design aesthetic, the mood or the technical flair. I do not expect to see an Xbox-engine creak and stutter this way on the 360. Bleugh.

Xbox Live Arcade continues to be the main use for our 360. Yes, Hardwood Hearts and Geometry Wars, on a 500€ console. Forget about the processing power, the real generation leap is the Live connectivity.

Speaking of Live, Live Anywhere could be a really neat thing, once it matures. No, I don't need to see what my friends are playing at this very moment once I'm on the go myself, but if I could, say, manage my character's shopping while in commute, that could be cool.

Last night and this morning I've played some Total Overdose, an Xbox title that came and went with little fanfare. It's good fun: basically Max Payne in Mexico, with more fun and less plot. The developers give me what I need, including instant access to missions via a menu, available at any time, without wandering aimlessly on the GTA III -alike map. There are cutscenes, but they can be skipped, as I have done. Needless to say, the plot is so basic that you get the hang of it regardless.

I find I'm having little patience for crappy stories these days. If you want to force-feed me a storyline in a game that doesn't need one, at least either make it entirely skippable or integrate it into the gameplay in a way that doesn't hamper my playing.

Car games don't need storylines. Why do gunplay games need one? The Rainbow Six series are a fine example of what's wrong: these games consist of separate scenarios, in which you kill terrorists. There is no need for a story, indeed, it takes away from the suspension of disbelief as you have to accept that there's this global terrorist conspiracy with hundreds (thousands) of members you take down in successive missions. Please, cut the crap and pass the ammunition.

I really like Max Payne 2's storytelling, but it just doesn't cope with replay. I want to play out the action scenes again, not take in the storyline all over again. There's the survival gamemode, but it's not the same. Give me a separate story mode if I'm into that kind of thing and you really deem it necessary - otherwise, please, just the gameplay, in a separate "arcade" mode if need be.

For a positive example, Doom 3 does this well. There's a story of sorts, but it really never gets in the way of playing the game. You can view the story bits in audio logs and diaries when you want to, but there's no need to do that. The setup is so simple that the level design and the mission prompts tell you all you need to know. There are cut scenes, but they're short and they don't really force any bad drama on you: they're there just to show you what's going on.