Saturday, October 29, 2011

Steam Sales and a Cheapskate Gamer

Article first published as Steam Sales and a Cheapskate Gamer on Technorati

In a move destined to earn me endless ridicule from my "hardcore" gaming friends I decided to take advantage of a deal this week.  Sometimes it's just too hard to resist a sale on Steam.

Why ridicule? Well, unlike most of my other gaming pursuits this game is a bit lower key and higher brow. 

I wasn't lining anyone up in my sights, hurtling 6 figure cars down the racetracks of Europe or trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with the orange propulsion gel.  Instead I was spending time with some old friends.

Back to the Future: The Game was offered on Steam for $10 during a mid-week sale.  Normally the game is $24.99.

Following on the storyline of the original movie trilogy the game is set 6 months after the third Back to the Future film.  We open on a very familiar shopping mall parking lot with a certain Delorean prominently featured.  The first 5 minutes of the game mirror the first movie until we discover something's not quite right.

The game is divided into 5 stand alone episodes which were released between December 2010 and June 2011.  A number of the game's characters are voiced by the original actors from the movie trilogy including Christopher Lloyd as Doc "Emmet" Brown.  Currently, all five episodes are included in the price.

You play the character of Marty McFly interacting with other characters in Hill Valley.  Movement is accomplished with either arrow keys or mouse movements.  I played the PC version of the game using mouse and keyboard.  As of this writing there is also a MAC, IPAD and PS3 version available that allow movement via their own control surfaces. 

Without giving away any spoilers the game stays true to the original trilogy's storyline mostly due to the influence and direction of Bob Gale and the support of Universal Pictures.  At this writing there are a number of reviews and wiki pages available if you're the type that likes to read the end of a book first.

The game manages to evoke the feel of the movies and it's hard not to hear Huey Lewis lyrics in the back of your mind while you play.  The look of the game can be only described as a cross between animation and those large head caricatures you can purchase at a tourist trap.

In any other context  the game might be considered a weak visual effort but the whimsical nature of Back to Future allows for it.  As I played through all 5 episodes I noticed a painstaking attention to detail in character expressions and speech synchronization.  It's small details like this that can transcend what would otherwise be a comical presentation.

The story was well written and the characters are well developed and spot on to their Live Action counterparts.  In fact Back the Future" The game is so well written that it feels more like an interactive movie than a game. 

And that's where we lose a lot of gamers.  There was no dearth of negative comments from gamers on multiple forums.  Character controls are  horrible and most of the puzzles intuitive only to the game developer.    Fortunately there's a hint system that allows you to progressively reveal more information on the solutions.  Only your ego is penalized for using all the available hints for any given puzzle as there is no obvious point system. 

As I referred to earlier, moving Marty around can be at times frustrating as you have an awkward, front facing , third person view.  Marty can only follow rigid paths set on the map which only allow egress between relevant plot points.  Camera movement is sluggish as well and more than once I found myself stuck on a map until I found the right control combination to reveal otherwise hidden areas.

If Universal and Bob Gale hadn't been involved I'm sure the game wouldn't have been anywhere near as enjoyable if Telltale games (the developer and publisher) were left to their own devices. 

In this case, tight control of a licensed property is a good thing. 

A treat in the final episode is the inclusion of a character voiced by Michael J. Fox as a relative of Marty McFly. 

The best way to approach this game is to forget it's a game.  Treat it more like the Back to the Future movie sequel that will never come.   Gamers without an appreciation for the original trilogy won't find much value in this title but fans of the franchise will.

With a heavy reliance on the "hints" I managed to complete each of the 5 episodes in about 3 hours of play.  Even with it's failings as a game I still felt compelled to see what came next, much like the movies.

For a classic movie series I'd actually prefer to see a sequel done like this as opposed to the rash of "reboots" or remakes which rarely capture the feel of the original.  Nothing is sadder than Hollywood "re-imagining" a classic story.  In desperation they try to give it relevance by peppering it with cameos from actors from the original.  Yes, I'm thinking of J.J Abrams remake of Star Trek.  Let's hope Back to the Future continues forward and doesn't try to "re-imagine" itself.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Battlefield 3, the trigger

So Battlefield 3 is coming out on October 25th. I don't usually crowd surf the masses with a pre-order but I made an exception in this case. It didn't hurt that Amazon dangled a few carrots like free release day shipping and some game bonuses to motivate my left mouse button.

I was curious if there was a better deal out there before I pulled the trigger and being the cheap zero budget gamer I am (as in no disposable income, somethin's not gettin' paid this month) I went looking for a better deal than my otherwise unused Amazon Prime membership would offer.

I didn't find a better deal and even if I could find the game under the $59.99 price I'd still have shipping costs, etc.

Know this, I'm not one to make purchases like this lightly. Things are in a bit of a downward spiral right now so I'm desperately looking for a distraction and Battlefield 3 seems to fit the bill.

The trigger occurred when I dug a bit deeper. It seems that while the most recent "real" game in the series was Battlefield: Bad Company 2 there still wasn't a real spiritual sequel to 2005's Battlefield 2.

Yes, I know 2142 existed but that was just stupid and Bad Company wasn't an option on PC....

Not that Battlefield 2 was that big of a deal. I remember having to upgrade an entire gaming rig just to play it. One game rendered a $300 top of the line video card useless simply because Battlefield 2 (unlike its predecessor Battlefield 1942) required support for a then new shader model 3.0 in the video driver.

Imagine my surprise when I found the only co-op player mode available was little more than a hack into a single player game. Ah well, it was ok until I tried to fly something. I remember rolling back to the DC combat mod in Battlefield 1942 to compensate for the experience. Flight control was little more than a suggestion in Battlefield 2, especially in a helicopter.

I enjoyed Battlefield: Bad Company 2's single player mission but of course, like most recent Battlefield games, there was no co-op. There was multiplayer but nothing I wanted to get involved in. Still the single player was excellent and the excellent script kept me entertained for weeks.

What's compelling about Battlefield 3 is the return of a real co-op mode based on the single player missions. Until I discovered that this newest release in the franchise had returned to its 1942 co-op roots I honestly had no interest in it.

Early promotional videos made no mention of it nor did I find even the suggestion of the game mode in official channels. Of course that's no surprise since most official game release sites are big on hype and short on specifics.

In my opinion the absolute pinnacle of co-op multiplayer was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Similar and in some ways superior to the Battlefield series; Modern Warfare 2 returned co-op to a full featured experience completely faithful to the core title.

Much unlike the disappointing co-op DLC add-on for Call of Duty: Black Ops which offered little more than a few new maps filled with mindless Nazi zombies.
I get it, zombies are mainstream now but to ignore an excellent single player experience in favor of a Left for Dead clone as a co-op option is nothing short of lazy bordering on criminal.

After reviewing the specifications, reviews and official press releases it seems that the threat of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 even suggesting a similar co-op experience to Modern Warfare 2 has given EA religion.

As of this writing I'm still days out from receiving the game but I'm hopeful that EA and Dice has finally picked up the ball they dropped so long ago. I'm hoping for a single and co-op experience that at least approaches the hype.

Article first published as Pre-Ordering Battlefield 3: The Trigger on Technorati.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Love/Hate DLC

I like Pinball...

I mean "real" pinball with flashing lights, flippers and a big "Tilt!" if you manhandle the machine too much. I don't need some weird video adaptation of it either, it's not the same.

When I was younger there were lots of video arcades around. It was a fantasy land for a kid like me but there was always at least a couple of pinball machines around. Sure I played the classics like Galaga, Pac-Man, Spy Hunter and BattleZone but there were always at least a few quarters reserved for pinball. Yeah it was a 50's throwback but it was physical, tactile and existed in all 3 dimensions. 

That and I always felt kinda cool playing it.

The other thing I liked about it and any game in the arcade for that matter was that you had the whole story there. That game was everything it could ever be until Midway or Namco came out with a sequel. I didn't have to pay anything extra to get every byte of the experience. My only limitation was how skilled I was at the game. If I was really good I could get to levels only dreamed of and when I finally beat the game that was it; I was done with it and looking for something new.

So decades have gone by and now most gaming happens in the home. PC's ( I Include Atari and Commodore by the way) started the phenomenon and consoles made it more accessible to the masses. For awhile personal gaming followed the classic gaming model. You bought a game, beat it then moved on to something else or waited for the sequel if you really liked it. The quintessential arcade at home.

Fast forward to an age where the internet is ubiquitous (for most, not all) where you don't need a PC to enjoy high-resolution gaming. Consoles are not only connected to the internet but they can play Blu-Ray movies, stream content, and even update your game with new content of fixes.

It's that "new content" part that I'm interested in.

In the past 8 years or so with delivery channels like Steam and Origin (Boooooo EA!) You can purchase, install and keep your games updated without ever touching you optical drive. If you have a decent broadband connection you can get a couple of DVD's worth of content in about an hour. 

Having suffered through the "before time" where a game install could involve half a dozen disc swaps and at least a few downloads I can say with confidence that a lengthy download from Steam usually takes less time.

Great! So all that nasty installation BS is pretty much a thing of the past. I can just log into my gaming portal of choice and all my stuff will be ready to go.

Ah! but what's this. Steam says there's something new available. I enjoyed my time with Call of Duty" Black ops but the zombie Co-op was a bit weak and a poor competitor to the co-op in Modern Warfare 2. So after completing the single player mission I was pretty much done with it apart from a couple of decent new zombie maps in co-op.

So what's Steam offering up? Most likely another part of a trend that I both like and hate.

It's all in the execution...

My first exposure to DLC actually had nothing to do with Steam, Origin or anything anyone tried to charge me for. It happened with a game that used to be a staple on Saturday nights, Battlefield 1942. The game came out in 2002 and still rates in my top 10 for Co-op gameplay.

Set in World War 2 with a limited amount of maps it was fun but it ran its course somewhere around the 15th time we'd taken Wake Island. But something came along that breathed new life into a game we were otherwise done with. It was a mod. Specifically the Desert Combat mod. After a lengthy download of additional game files and some tweaking to game settings we found ourselves with an entirely new game on top of an old favorite.

Now strictly speaking a mod is not really DLC. For one thing DLC usually has a price associated with it. Mods are usually produced either by an enthusiast community or a group of independent developers. Such was the case with Desert Combat produced by Trauma Studios with some members of that group going on to produce the followup to 1942 or Battlefield 2 as it's commonly known for a larger game development studio.

The big difference between a mod and DLC can be likened to the difference between Linux and Windows. Windows is a tightly controlled sandbox and you have to pay for it. Linux is usually free of charge and produced by independent developers making their work openly available to the public.

So now we're back to my little Steam surprise. Turns out Black Ops has a new DLC pack available called Rezurrection. Seems it's added a couple of co-op zombie maps that look interesting and it's "only" $14.99. I noodled the buy decision for a few weeks and finally decided to pull the trigger. What did I get for my efforts? About 5 new zombie maps but 3 of them are updates of zombie maps from CAll of Duty:World at War. I enjoyed that game but I'm a little PO'd that $15 bought me little more than some updated maps from a 4-year-old game and one new map that looks kinda cool if I can survive more than 45 seconds.

Then I see there are 3 more DLC packs available...

I didn't buy those...

I'm not really upset about the purchase. The new map does seem to be interesting but I'm wondering if it'll be worth the $15 in the end. This is the Love/Hate part of the story. I appreciate having more content for a good game but if half of it is rehashed I don't see the point. If there really is something more to the story then by all means, serve it up!

Fallout New Vegas has a bunch of DLC as well. It looked interesting while I had the game installed (I'm still angry at Bethesda so I uninstalled it) and the DLC I got basically gave me a new world or 2 to explore. Borderlands DLC gave me new maps and new missions to complete. Black Ops? I get more zombies on maps I've already played 3 years ago.

The problem with DLC is that it's usually overpriced unless it's on sale or bundled with the original game. You don't really know what you're getting unless it's been out for a while and people have had time to complain about it. It doesn't pay to be an early adopter.

I like creativity, I like extending a good franchise like Call of Duty or Battlefield. I don't like the trend to milk a franchise like a it was another Rocky movie, however. If you really have something new to offer forget the double-digit DLC pricing and invest all that development time into a decent sequel. 

Most games reuse the same underlying game engine for years. The Unreal Tournament 3 engine is still used today and it's 5 years old. I can think of at least 3 games that used it and none of them look a thing like UT3. Just clean up the untidy bits of the game engine, throw on some new maps and BAM! Sequel! Instead there's this trend to sell DLC that amounts to stuff swept up from the cutting room floor.

Good DLC enhances a good game and sometimes can make up for the failings of the original. Bad DLC, on the other hand, is like a crappy sophmore album from an 80's pop band. I mean did you even know that Kajagoogoo even made a second album?? I didn't and I still don't care just like I don't care about bad DLC.

HD gaming for under $300!


It’s called a smartphone…
(yeah, I know it’s spelled “psyche” but 90% of the internet wouldn’t understand what I was talking about if I spelled it right)

Uglier than the worst PC game, capable of killing a battery in 20 minutes but hey, the world’s accepted $120 monthly bills for entertainment on a 4 inch screen.

How far we’ve come just to be thrown backward a decade…

It’s a blog, not every post is going to be the great american novel …


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Uber Gamer Gear

I'm a gamer...

I am not, however, the gamer you see in the goofy Gamefly commercials proudly proclaiming, that I couldn't possibly call myself a gamer if I didn't subscribe to their service while playing Gears of War 3 on their 60 inch plasma.

For some, gaming is a lifestyle (kind of like trekkers) but for most it's merely a recreation. It'd be nice if I could make s living at it but I'm fairly certain that having achieved that end, I'd end up eventually hating it and take up birdwatching or something. I mean, how many times can you play Counterstrike

Source before your eyes cross and you start mumbling incoherently about frag grenades at family functions.

I've seen a few televised professional gaming competitions as well as at least two reality shows based on gaming. They're interesting to watch but one thing becomes very clear, these people take this stuff WAAAAY too seriously.

Which brings me to the point of this post...

I just did a quick search for a USB steering wheel for a PC to see what came up. I've used a few of these over the years and found it a far better experience if I stuck with a brand that had a gaming pedigree (if there is such a thing) such as Logitech, Saitek, Microsoft or Thrustmaster. Prices range from $35 to well over $400 for these devices depending on the features and build quality. 

You'll find a far larger selection at the high-end of the price scale by the way. 

Hmmm, $400 for a game controller that only works for driving games; seems reasonable if you're training for you F1 racing career...

Ok, let's say all my friends live far away or are known to me only through social media. So if I want more in-game communication than any chat window could ever afford, I guess I need a gaming headset. Ok let's go look again.

Hmmm, same story. We start around$25 and go as high as $350. Well I guess any price is worth paying to ensure my far-flung companions can hear an accurate reproduction of my sinus infection...

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against having better quality stuff. On the contrary, I've had some truly awful hardware over the years and learned the value of better quality. But $350 for a headset? Just to game?

It makes sense if you're a podcaster but if you're just looking for bragging rights you're playing the fool. Don't believe the fluff pieces that pass for reviews these days either. I guarantee a $350 headset won't serve you any better than $100 model if you're just enjoying a few rounds of Battlefield 3.

Ooh, I take it all back! I just found an X Rocker gaming chair at WalMart that looks like a great deal! at $150 Except it's kind low to the floor and my leyboard would end up somewhere around nose level.

My nose doesn't do FPS very well...

The moral is that practicality should always trump vanity. Get the best you can afford at whatever level but don't get in over your head. After all it's just a game.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Really??? 5 figure gaming rigs (updated)

What follows can only be described as a regurgitation of random insights tumbling around my tiny mind....

(Green Text is updated information)

That said...

I have a subscription to a magazine called Computer Power User.  It's basically your average computer rag that started out as an interesting mashup of PC hardware reviews, editorial pieces and helpful howto articles.  It's quickly devolving into nothing more than glossy color ads and biased reviews slanted to keep the advertisers happy.

I mean, how honest can a glowing review be when the page following it is an advertisement for the same product!   It's gotten so bad that every cover directs the reader to what appears to be a review of a new product.  Unfortunately it turns out to be an advertisement with the only indication being a different colored page frame and a very tiny and very dim word hidden in the corner, "Advertisement".   

I've seen this kind of thing before, editorial content rapidly supplanted by fluff pieces for whomever is the highest bidder.  This particular magazine is getting so bad that even the editor's column has been dropped.

So imagine my surprise when I look at the October 2011 issue proclaiming "Dream PC's" with almost every one from a paid advertiser. 

Here's an interesting one from the article.  Check out the specs...

361259_Primer Wireless Headset

These are the specs for the orgin Genesis gaming PC ( Ha! there's the gaming part of this rambling diatribe!)  CPU ranks it as the pinnacle of 2011 gaming PC technology.  With specs that would put most servers to shame and more CPU and GPU processing power than any game could possibly take advantage of. 
(It still is pretty stout although the 580's will need to go)

By what stretch of the imagination would someone spend, wait for it... $14,449 for a rig optimized for games that won't exist for another decade.  FOURTEEN.....THOUSAND.....DOLLARS.....for a gaming PC.
(Funny how prices have come down.  This same configuration would go for about 1/3 of that now)

Let's see, right now the median annual income in the U.S. right now is around 50,000 US Dollars.  Of course that number has consituent parts that range from 42K to almost 60K. 

So at what point does it make sense to devote almost 1/3 of your income to a gaming pc?

Hey I'm all for a powerful game rig but I've never considered anything over 3K to get one.  What do you buy such a rig for?  Battlefield 3? I don't need 14K to run that.  Crysis 2? Really? c'mon now they only just released a patch to enable DX11 and it's still pointless.  Deus Ex:Human Revolution? It runs on Playstation and a MAC, how taxing can that be.

So what's the point in paying 14K for a PC?  Vanity???

Yup, that's it.  No other reason but bragging rights and oh, by the way, it'll be obsolete by this time next year so better get intersted in VMWARE or something that can use 12 cores or you're going to be REALLY PO'd about your now obsolete formely ultimate gaming rig that's worth 1/3rd of what you paid for it.

It's hard to find unbiased information these days and pointless reviews of boutique products that never get sold to anybody are nothing short of a cruel joke. 

Here's my advice, Don't bother with anything that costs more than 5K at the highest.  Any more is just money down the drain and only the republican presidential candidates can afford to do that...

(Still good advice, 6K should get you the rig of your dreams and handle anything you can throw at it)

Here's a parts list for a 3770K based system that I made up at PCParts Picker. Click the Picture for a better view.

Link to the build here...

The whole thing will set you back about $6200 including a 30" monitor, High end Full tower case, gaming KB and Mouse and BD writer.  It will blow the doors off of that 14K rig too.

Click Here for Gaming Deals!