Saturday, January 28, 2012

Blur and Split Second

No, it's not a commentary on slowly failing vision.  It's a video game and a bit long in the tooth  by Internet standards having been released in 2010.  It and a similar offering from Disney called Split Second have recently been occupying the time that should have belonged to Flatout 3.  Read my previous post to find out why that didn't happen.

I've never played Mario Kart, mostly because I don't play games on consoles but from other reviews I've found, Blur and Split Second are a less whimsical version of that game.  In a nutshell, you race around a track, collect powerups and try to take out your opponents. 

The overall look and feel of both are reminiscent of the old Test Drive (Pre Unlimited) PC games with textures and car modeling more reminiscent of good anime than simulation.  If you're looking for a Shift 2 competitor look elsewhere.  Both of these games fall squarely into the realm of an arcade racer.  There's no pretense that they're anything else which is refreshing considering the ambiguity the Need For Speed franchise introduced into racing games until the release of the first Shift title.

Car control can be a little vague but no worse than any other arcade racer.   If you're used to Need For Speed you'll likely be a bit annoyed at first since car control in those games always walked the line between arcade and simulation.  That formula doesn't apply to Blur or Split Second so consider yourself warned.

Gameplay involves racing events for both single and multiplayer modes with powerups distributed throughout the track that allow you to attack your competitors.  In the case of Blur you can collect anything from fireballs that chase down your intended victim to car repair bonuses to let you continue on when you've been damaged. 

Split Second is similar except that powerups are less varied but far more dramatic.  Activation of a powerup can do anything from cause an explosion in front of your opponents to dropping a building on them.  While there is less variety in your available arsenal the level of damage that can be caused is directly proportional to how long you allow the powerup to charge before unleashing it.

Blur has a good selection of tracks as does Split Second.  Points are awarded in both for where you place in the race and how much damage you do.  Blur allocates style points reflected in how many "fans" you get at the end of the race. You get more fans the more flamboyant your driving style.  Fans also allow you to get different vehicles to race. 

The premise of Split Second is a reality show where winning is a matter of survival rather than sport.  With a fully charged powerup gained from performing drifts, jumps and other assorted maneuvers you can literally drop a building on an opponent.  Time it wrong and it'll drop on you as well.

Both games are good looking and so far have good replay value.  They've already become at least a minor staple in the weekly gaming night.  I received Split Second from a friend who picked up a DVD version of it for $10 around the holidays.  I picked up Blur off a Steam sale for around $6.

Both are good value for the money at those prices but I'd never consider paying full retail for them.  They're the kind of title that you like to play regularly but not for any great length of time in one sitting.  Usually after about 2 multiplayer races my friend and I are moving on to something else. 

Aside from unlocking cars or features the interest in the single player campaign doesn't rise to the level of Need for Speed or BattleField 3.  That's probably why these two titles didn't enjoy widespread popularity when they were released. 

Neither title relies on Games for Windows which is a welcome omission considering how the platform cripples otherwise excellent titles like Dirt 2. 

Both titles are basically console ports which means my new XBOX PC controller gets a workout. My friend found a joystick emulator to use his Wingman Attack with Blur, Split Second supports joysticks although not as well as other driving titles.  There is keyboard control available but as with most driving games it's not the ideal choice.

To sum it up, both games are worth every penny you spend so long as that's less than $10.  I've seen worse console ports (Force Unleashed 2 comes to mind) and the console roots don't get in the way of enjoying these titles so long as you're willing to embrace a gamepad or find a joystick emulator.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Blogging: Musing for your amusement

For just a little bit, I'm going to muse about a topic other than gaming. Never fear, I'm not going to drone on about basket weaving or needlepoint. I just wanted to give some attention to the medium that allows me to ramble on about my own passions. I promise, this won't happen that often besides I just posted a review of Flatout 3. Think of this as the date stamp on your milk container. After all, you'd probably rather read the date than guess with your nose...
With apologies for the cliché', there are millions of voices on the Internet and sometimes it's hard to separate the content from the chaff.  Everyone has an opinion and they will express it given a medium.  It seems the prevailing medium of choice is the blog.  

Companies have even embraced the practice as another avenue of promotion giving a degree of editorial freedom to the employee authors.
 I've found some truly compelling reading between the tribulations of a beleaguered pizza delivery driver and the Smith family's holiday happenings.  If it wasn't for blogging and Google search I'd never have known about any of it; for better or worse. 

As I understand it, blogging began more or less as a public diary.  While watching an old episode of Call for Help from 2004 I remember seeing  a very young Amber MacArthur( currently on Social Hour) explaining the use of blogs as a convenient way to keep up with friends and family.  Up until that point I thought that a weblog (blog) was a system file on an Internet web server somewhere. 

In my defense I'm an IT guy so I tend to jump to different conclusions than most people.
Twitter and Facebook have largely assumed the role of updating your daily goings on these days with all due respect to my pizza driver's blog of course.   Instead of fading away like the dial up modem  Blogs have morphed into free form pseudo news outlets. 

Subject only to the editor of public opinion, budding authors and seasoned journalists alike have taken to the medium.  There's a sense of freedom to make your work available to the world sans editorial intervention.
Of course the world teaches us that nothing is truly free and like everything else there's a cost to blogging.  Depending on where you publish your work you may have to pay for web hosting or tolerate the display of banner ads whose content you have no authority over. 
Let's not forget the effort involved.  Publishing just a few updates a week can consume hours of your time if you're at all concerned about the content of your blogs.  If you allow comments there's time involved in moderating them. 
Speaking of comments, you quickly learn to grow a thick skin when you put your work out in the world for all to see.  The fact is that not everybody is going to agree with you and contrary feedback can be cruel.  I learned a long time ago to never publish anything I didn't believe in or couldn't defend.  If I'm wrong I'll be the first to admit it given the right evidence. 
It's hard to be heard in a crowd.  As I said at the beginning of this, there are millions of voices on the Internet.  You may be the next Hemingway but without promotion only your immediate family will ever know it.  Getting eyes on your blogs takes some effort.  Search engine optimization (SEO) and writing articles for sites like Technorati can help raise awareness but success is not instantaneous or guaranteed. 
It's far easier to be compelling in your writing if your subject covers topics you know and/or care about. That may seem obvious but I've wasted many hours trying to flesh out a post that I wasn't invested in. If it feels like a chore instead of a conversation with a friend it's probably best to shelve it for awhile.

Sometimes, stepping away can help bring a troublesome topic into better focus later on. I don't believe that good writing can be forced. Writing is an art form expressed with words. Art is never a mechanical process rather it's an experience shared between creator and audience.

If you care at all about what you write (and you should for every one's sake) then it's worth the effort to promote it.  If you participate in social networking make sure your circles are aware of your blogs and articles.  Word of mouth has more power on the Internet than it does in most other mediums.
There's debate over whether bloggers can be considered journalists.  Since many professional journalists and authors maintain their own blogs the line has been blurred.  In most cases, writing skill aside, the only difference between a blog and a published news article is the presence of an editorial gatekeeper. 
The basic tenets of non-fiction writing apply to either channel.  Keep your reader in mind as your write, maintain a clear division between the factual and your own editorializing and don't stray too far off topic.   Nothing's more irritating to a reader than finding an opinion expressed as fact. 
That doesn't mean you can't have an opinion by the way.  Just make sure your reader's know that's what it is.  The value of an opinion grows exponentially with the care taken to provide accurate factual information. 
By the way, since most of this article is based on personal observations and viewpoints it's considered opinion.
Personally, I enjoy writing.  I don't make a living at it but someday I'd like to.  Even if I don't reach that goal I'll still post to my blogs and submit new articles. My hope is to provide content worthy of being cited just as I cite other works for my current articles. Time will tell...

Flatout 3, Falling flat?

Article first published as Flatout 3, falling flat? on Technorati.

Note:  The Technorati article is a shortened version.

"GIve it a chance"

That's how I described Flatout 3 to a gamer friend of mine when I saw it on sale on Steam over the past week for $9.99US (normally $29.99US on Steam)
Before I get too deep into my observations of the latest Flatout release a little history may be in order for the uninitiated.
First, In spite of its name, Flatout 3 is actually the fourth Flatout title.  The actual third installment was Flatout: Ultimate Carnage released in 2008.  While it was a good looking game it was little more than a retextured  Flatout 2 which may explain why this current incarnation has earned the number 3. 
Flatout is a driving game with multiple modes including racing, stunt driving and demolition derby events.  No matter what the game type, destructible environments and vehicles are central to the experience and there's no lack of opportunity to hurtle your embattled character through the windshield.
Speaking of hurtling,  one thing that you must accept with any Flatout title is that your character will eventually fly out of your car in some undignified fashion.  There's neither blood nor gore but the ragdoll physics are realistic enough to have caused the German government some discomfort when the original Flatout was released.  They forced the original developer,  Bugbear, to replace the human character textures with crash test dummies which were apparently more family friendly .  I suppose the rest of the world has a sick sense of humor, myself included.
I've enjoyed the Flatout franchise from the start.  Bugbear did an admirable job providing an experience both engrossing, irreverent and infinitely re-playable.  It's with this expectation that I approached Flatout 3. 
This release of the latest Flatout on December 13th 2011 was something of a surprise as there was little to no promotion other than a tile on the Steam client store page.  Its arrival was largely overshadowed by  the clamor over the recent releases of Modern Warfare 3 and Skyrim.
Flatout 3 attempts to carry on the tradition of an irreverent driving experience while expanding game modes and updating the look of the game.  There are a number of vehicles and driver character types to choose from.  The choice of vehicles is limited by the game mode and player progress in the single player campaign but driving character choice is unrestricted.  Multiplayer vehicle and event choices are less restrictive and configurable on the system acting as the game host.  As in previous releases, multiplayer allows participants to experience maps they may not have unlocked in solo play.
Flatout 3 includes 9 gameplay modes including;
Race*, stunt man*, big battle*, battle arena*, monster trucks, speed*,nightshift*, offroad* and  challenge.  Modes with an asterisk by their name are also available in Multiplayer mode.  Most game modes are variations on the race theme while the big battle and battle arena are demolition derby modes.

 The Stunt Man mode presents a number of events where the player needs to hurl the driver through the windshield  guiding him through a number of obstacles toward a target .  Scoring is dependent on where the character comes to rest at the end of his....journey?
 Control setup is slightly more complex than previous games in the series but nowhere near the level of complexity of a Battlefield 3 or Need for Speed Shift.  I also applaud the detection of my Joystick as many current arcade driving titles such as Blur and Split Second favor gamepad style controllers.  An annoyance for someone who only uses a joystick or steering wheel.

Overall, configuration is kept relatively simple which allows you to start playing in seconds meaning less time wasted in the navigation of a complex interface.  This is also a tenet of previous Flatout titles.
Flatout has always been more about the gameplay than the environment.  Maps and textures have always been attractive but never to the detriment of the game experience.  There has always been an emphasis on keeping the player engaged in the task at hand.  To support that, attention was given to ensuring that the player had adequate camera angles and a clear view of the playfield. 

I'd like to say this latest incarnation has upheld that standard.  I'd like to say that but I can't. 
I'm not going to pile on the avalanche of bad reviews that have already been written.  I have some genuine concerns about this game but I come at it from the angle of someone who  regularly  plays Flatout 2 and has been a fan of the franchise since the first release. 

With Flatout 3 development duties have been moved from Bugbear who is working on other projects to Team Six studios.  The change is evident in the game.  While the basic premise and organization of the game stay faithful to the series the mechanics are very different. 
For example;  the stunt man mode is very different from Flatout 2.  Yes, the goal is still to hurl your driver through the windshield in an attempt to collect maximum points while overcoming obstacles in your way.  It's the execution (pardon the pun) that feels unnatural. 

This may be trivial but another difference between Flatout 3 and its predecessors concerns the rag-doll effect.  In previous versions the actions seemed more realistic and natural.  In Flatout 3 there's an almost rubbery aspect to your driver character.  It's likely the German government will have no issue here.
Car control has never been stellar in a Flatout game but it's understood that it's not meant to be making any complaint irrelevant.  Car control is no worse in this incarnation.

In earlier Flatout games you always had a full view of the playfield and  character control functions were intuitive.  In Flatout 3 there's a disconnect from the environment.  Often your field of view is restricted to a strange camera angle centered on your character which is problematic when trying to guide your airborne driver toward his target on a stunt map

The game's looks are adequate for the most part with the high points coming in the nightshift and battle modes.  The game relies on the Windows Experience index to automatically configure graphics settings.   Unfortunately,  on two pc's with graphics cards from different vendors I was forced to manually configure these settings.  Luckily the option for manual graphics configuration is always available from the options menu.
Stunt Man maps are adequate in number but either unimaginative or overly complex.  You may eventually complete the map but it's more a matter of luck than skill.  It may have been the same in earlier Flatout games but at least I believed that I had an effect on the outcome.

Racing and demolition derby events are far more faithful to their flatout roots but again strange camera angles and overly aggressive AI hamper the experience. 
Much has been made of game bugs, slow load times and a lack of optimization.  To their credit Team six is very active on the Steam forums and has released a number of patches and updates based at least in part on feedback.  There are real technical issues with the game but at least there appears to be an attempt to address them.

Still, even if the game were technically flawless it doesn't capture the feel of its predecessors.  It's not a horrible game and for the sake of the franchise I am willing to make allowances for it if it means the next installment corrects the core defects of this one.
I don't expect any Flatout title to look as good as BF3, have a story like Modern Warfare or be as polished  as Shift 2.  What I do expect is another chapter to an already well executed series.  Flatout 3 tries to pull that off but ultimately comes off as a pale imitation leaving me hoping that the next 
iteration is closer to it's roots..

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hard times and the gamer

So things are a little tight financially these days but what else is new.

Still, I have a gaming PC, a gaming laptop and a few beers in the fridge and the bills are paid for this month at least.  Don't ask about next month...

Like the song says, "All the bills are paid, got it made in the shade, all I need... is a beautiful girl!"

Except I don't have Van Halen residuals to count on and Diamond Dave would probably have an easier time with the girl part...

So while I pass the days hating the calendar I'm thankful to have a little distraction.  Lately that means spending some quality time with Battlefield 3 and Skyrim.  

So far I've got 27 hours in Skyrim and 34 into Battlefield 3.  I wrote an earlier article about how these two games appeal to different sides of my gaming personality and that assertion has held up.  I've been enjoying them so much that I often feel guilty about it when other aspects of my real life come to mind.

With Battlefield 3 (BF3) I've been focusing on improving my player profile by actually paying attention to specific aspects of the game that can improve the experience.  The best way to do that without cheating or building a new game rig is to focus on earning achievement awards.

 For example; you can earn equipment upgrades for reaching certain milestones in specific disciplines.  An engineer, for example can earn upgrades that can get you better weapons useful to the player class. 

You can also earn upgrades for concentrating on certain types of vehicles. Recently, I've just unlocked an anti-aircraft missile for those times that I end up in an anti-aircraft vehicle.  I've delighted in surprising more than a few helicopter jockeys that were caught off guard.

Skyrim is a different story.  I've been following the main quest storyline while picking up a few side quests on the way.  I end up with the side quests as a result of wandering around the very open environment.  As I do, I usually find another hamlet with its own set of dramatic turns demanding your attention. 

Some locales are friendlier than others.  I recently read a humorous article on PC Gamer where the author expresses his disdain for the city of Riften.  Having visited there and ultimately ending up with a 3000 gold bounty for dispatching everyone living there I'd have to agree.  Hey, they deserved it!

The focus in Skyrim is more about the experience than the level ups.  While getting more powerful weapons is a good thing whilst trapsing around a world full of things meaner than you it's not the focus of the game.  Steam does log achievements for completing certain quests or level progressions but it's little more than bragging rights with no effect on the game itself. 

I've found that the only thing that can affect my time with either game is time itself.  I don't prefer one over the other and would not trade one for the other.  Sometimes I'm in a mood for tanks and guns and could care less about medieval sorcery or dragons.  Other times, just the opposite. 

Right now I have time to entertain both titles.  I've even been spending more time with Disney's Split Second and Activision's Blur to address my craving for arcade driving.  Steam just had a sale on Flatout 3 which will likely replace one of the other two titles. 

I have a long history with the Flatout series having found each incarnation of the franchise better than the last.  I'm hopeful this latest offering will deliver the same.  My friend and I still play Flatout 2 fairly regularly so a new version is an exciting prospect.

Once things start moving again in the other parts of my life I'm sure I'll have less time for all of these games which will be sad.   At least I won't feel that pang of guilt about all the time I'm spending on them.  Strange paradox since I don't have much else to fill it with anyway but my guilt is more about my upbringing than dereliction of my responsibilities. 

At some point you run out of projects, leads and/or money so it's best to keep your mind active with something that doesn't remind you of your current woes.  They say nothing's forever, even your worries so what better way to deal with the low spots than with some quality gaming.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Modern Warfare 3 DLC on the Horizon

Originally published as Modern Warfare 3 DLC on the horizon on Technorati

A friend of mine sent me a link from about the latest news from Activision concerning Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.

Care to hazard a guess?  I'll wait...

Yes!  It's a DLC announcement to the great joy of throngs of COD fans!

In a nutshell, starting January 24th for the Xbox is the first of 20 planned DLC releases for Call of Duty MW3 on the Xbox console.  What that means for PC gamers is unclear but we're likely to see a few DLC packs available between now and the September cutoff.

Of course most of the first DLC packs will be aimed at multiplayer but there are other treats in store according to this quote...

"The first pack is traditional multiplayer maps, but we want to do Spec Ops missions, missions, Spec-Ops Survival, new game types, new game modes, and really look at adding things that we've never done before,"

Extending the playability of a good game is generally a positive but it seems that lately we've ended up with either an attempt to milk a franchise or paying for content that should have been in the original release.

Don't get me wrong, MW3 was a great single player experience and the cooperative (SPEC OPS) play mode at least as good as Modern Warfare 2. So good that I'm of the opinion that it forced EA to include a cooperative mode in Battlefield 3. 

Multiplayer, well, it's entertaining and it looks very good considering the age of the engine it runs on.  New locales to chase your online buddies around is fun but it's still the run and gun type of experience.  With little choice in your online play choices thanks to limited options, you can end up in a dissatisfying multiplayer experience a bit too often.

I can get that same experience for free with Team Fortress 2.  If you haven't guessed it yet,  this is where my enthusiasm sours a bit.

Modern Warfare 3 seemed a bit shorter than Modern Warfare 2 in both Single Player and Spec Ops.  Now Activision announces plans to offer additional missions for spec ops and what I can only interpret as single player as well.  I don't know how that would work unless COD has finally turned into a full fledged RPG with side quests (objectives) unrelated to the main storyline. 

My question is, why would anyone want to pay more for content that really should have already been there? This game cost is $60 US and hasn't really dropped since launch.  Even Steam and Amazon didn't have any price breaks till Christmas day and they weren't well publicized and didn't last for long. 

Do I enjoy the game? Yes.  Is it worth it to spend another $10 to $15 each time new DLC becomes available, I can't say so.  Instead of a compliment it seems DLC is becoming a required accessory to get the full experience. 

It's kind of like buying a new car and having to wait for it to be painted before you can drive it home and then get charged extra for it.

I bought DLC content for Call of Duty: Black Ops which was a mistake since all I got were more multiplayer maps I didn't bother with.  It did come with additional cooperative maps but they were just rehashed versions of the same maps from Call of Duty: World at War.

I have to agree with my friend who wrote...." They can kiss my a--. I felt okay paying $35 for the game on sale, but DLC for MW3 ain't gonna happen for me. Least not till they change out that engine."

It's hard to argue with that.  MW3 is a good game but felt more like DLC for MW2 than anything new.   Part of that was the brevity of the single player storyline and the similar look and function of the IW5 gaming engine.  MW3's IW5 engine is really just a tweak of the 3 year old IW4 engine used in MW2. 

If you're a diehard COD fan then this is great news and by all means sign up for Elite and/or breathlessly await the release of each DLC pack between now and September.  I won't be joining you and I'm confident I won't regret the decision.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

(Anti) Social gaming

Originally posted as (Anti) Social Gaming on Technorati

I was rooting around YouTube the other night looking for old Tech TV clips and somehow I ended up looking at a video captured by an unfortunate female Call of Duty Player. 

What was unfortunate wasn't her performance in the game.  No, what made this video unique had nothing to do with capturing a spectacular moment of victory.  Rather, it was a disturbing example of social harassment. 

I've included a link to the video here.  Be warned that the content is offensive in spots.

With the advent of VOIP functionality as a core feature of PC and console games over the past few years it's no surprise to hear the occasional blizzard of off-color commentary over your headset.  As the experience moves ever closer to reality it's understandable to get caught up in the intensity.

What I'm talking about here, however, has nothing to do with gaming.  If you haven't viewed the video the short of it is that it's full of multiple examples of male players harassing a female player with actions that ranged from rude commentary to outright sexual harassment. 

All because the player on the receiving end of this barrage of vulgarity happened to be female and used a feminine player name. 

Some may argue it's all in good fun and nothing is really meant by it.  It's obvious from the voices captured that most of the offenders were likely minors  Neither condition is an excuse, in fact there's nothing about this kind of behavior that's acceptable in any context.

It's likely this is an extension of the sense of anonymity and lack of inhibition that the Internet allows.  You can be sure that if these players were in the same room with the female player they wouldn't dare behave this way.

Whether it's a case of raging hormones or an attempt to preserve the "all boys club" the result is the same.  A ruined experience for another player.   The Red Cross was concerned about violent depictions of human suffering possibly creating a generation of war criminals.  I'm far more concerned that this kind of behavior unchecked could create a generation of sexual predators.

I'm staunchly against the Nanny State but I'm strongly for personal responsibility.  It seems gaming platforms don't share my view when they allow this kind of abuse to go unchecked.

I've written before that the way I deal with offensive behavior is to ignore it or move on to another server if it's intolerable.  That's not really possible in this case, however, since the only recourse is to either stop playing the game or give no indication of one's gender or orientation.  Hiding one's gender can be difficult if you enjoy the VOIP features of a game. 

But why should anyone have to?  How is such an environment healthy for anyone involved in it?

What I'm not sure of is whether anything was done to punish the other players after the offenses depicted in the video sample. 

This kind of vulgarity shouldn't be tolerated on any gaming platform.  I'd hope there was some mechanism for recourse but it's likely there isn't.

 I'd suggest anyone suffering such an assault should do as the author of the video has done and collect video evidence as well as the usernames of the offenders when possible.  That information should then be passed on to the platform provider for action.  If no action is taken, the next logical step is to leverage the power of Internet activism.

 Enough negative PR can force the hand of a reluctant provider if their revenue stream is threatened. 

I would hope that at the least the offending players would have their accounts suspended indefinitely.  If a company like Microsoft, for example, will suspend an account just on the suspicion of cheating then  this kind of activity should at least rise to the same level.

While the video's author has seemingly shrugged off the abuse even starting a youtube video series with more examples, it's still a sad commentary.  Nobody should have to take up the banner of an activist just to play a game.