Saturday, March 31, 2012

Battlefield 3: Pay your way to the top...

Article first published as Battlefield 3: Pay Your Way to the Top on Technorati.

EA's Origin store page for the shortcut kits
Imagine a scenario where one day you start up Battlefield 3, check your stats and proudly gaze upon the hundreds of hours and earned achievements.   Confident, you get on a multiplayer server and find yourself repeatedly dispatched by low level players with really big guns.  

Thinking it's just a bad server you move on to another only to have it happen again and again.  Why?  because they took advantage of a leg up from EA and now have access to resources you haven't earned yet.

 That's a very real possibility now with Thursday's release of new add-on packs for Battlefield 3.  Don't confuse these with DLC packs, however, this is something entirely different and a portent of things to come in online gaming.

Go to EA's Battlefield website and you can purchase everything from clothing to a novel based on the game.  Now EA is offering a new option called "Shortcut Kits"  These "Kits" allow less experienced players on the PC and PS3 to gain all the weapons and vehicle options available in a player class or discipline (air or ground) as well as co-op weapons for $7 to $18 per "Kit". 

If you're the type that just has to have it all you can also purchase a "Kit" that includes all the upgrade items for $39.  Most importantly it's available without the usual time investment necessary to acquire the good stuff.

EA is very forthcoming about the purpose of these kits.  On the official Battlefield Blog, DICE's  Tommy Rydling cites the purpose of the "Kits" as, " the perfect way to gain some ground on the veterans online".  

There's two flaws in the logic of offering these kits for a game like Battlefield 3.

EA may be signaling an attempt to adopt the profitable MMO free to play, pay for upgrades model.  The problem for a game like Battlefield 3 is that it's neither free nor is anything else connected to the franchise. 

MMO's depend on either subscription or upgrades for revenue but rarely will the paid content threaten the investment (financial or otherwise) of veteran players. Most content such as the myriad of hats available in Team Fortress 2 is designed to allow the player to customize their appearance or upgrade equipment.  

While some advantage may be gleaned in PVP player modes, the successful MMO doesn't rely on it.  Instead individual character development and engaging single player missions keep the player's interest which usually leads to some level of purchase later on.  Whenever a free to play MMO favors paid players the title generally fails in short order.

That leads to the second problem.  Battlefield 3's strength and popularity are tied directly to its multiplayer.  The franchise has generally had weak single player and cooperative ( if included) modes throughout its history compared to its Call of Duty competitor.  

That translates to a very large risk of alienating veteran players who've invested time and money in the franchise only to be bested by nothing more than a better weapon.  Better equipment always equates to better odds in PVP and Battlefield 3 was designed from the onset to be a Multiplayer game.  It's the very lifeblood of the franchise and not conducive to a MMO revenue model.  

There's been much debate about this latest development and being so close to April 1st it's hard not to wonder if it's all just a bad joke.  Apparently there is precedent, however, as Bad Company 2 offered a similar option sparking the same controversy.  There's also a purchase page for the kits within the Origin client which was my first exposure to this revelation.  Hopefully this is an April Fool's joke but even if it's not it's in bad humor.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Nvidia's GTX 680 game changer

Now we've got a game...

No doubt if you're reading this you already know that Nvidia released the GTX 680 late last week.  With little more than a single card and the rest of its family tree just rumors at this point Nvidia has managed to change the graphics market.

Regardless of whose review you read it's hard to deny the fact that the GTX 680 is the card we've been waiting for ever since the first space heaters known as Fermi rolled off the assembly line.  Toss aside the marketing hype about specialized features, custom cooling solutions and questionable bandwidth claims because Nvidia finally has a real horse in the race.

Don't get me wrong, I'm nobody's fanboy as I consider Nvidia's Fermi predecessors burnt offerings.  AMD/ATI has been on a tear for the past few years with the price/performance crown squarely in their camp with little competition from team green. 

Nvidia's claimed performance advantages over ATI  offerings in the past few years were easily erased with little more than a driver update.   With Fermi, Nvidia saddled itself with products whose signature was high power consumption, high operating temperatures and a high price to match.  Compared to their competition, those factors ceded the market to AMD/ATI when performance never rose above the level of equivalence. 

Think of it this way,  If you had a choice between two cars with the same performance attributes but one was less fuel efficient and subject to overheating it's likely you wouldn't choose it.

Enough about what Nvidia did wrong because it seems they've finally done something right.

The 680 GTX is a video card based on the new Kepler GPU architecture which is claimed to be "Fermi evolved" but where Fermi from its inception was meant to be more GPGPU this new card has actually scaled back that functionality.  A functionality that most gamers could care less about by the way.  It is reasonable to consider Fermi as a square peg in a round hole as its core design was more about compute performance than pixel pushing.  When you repurpose an architecture like Fermi to run contrary to its primary purpose it's no wonder that heat and power consumption result.  Performance will similarly suffer.

Addressing the deficiencies of Fermi is exactly why the 680 GTX takes the win from the 7970.  A $50 to $100 lower MSRP only drives the point home.  Further, a TDP of 195 Watts versus the 250 Watt TDP of the 7970 puts the ATI offering in the unenviable position of being the new king of hot, power hungry enthusiast video cards formerly occupied by Nvidia.

I've only found one review that claimed the 7970 was the better card and then it was based only on memory bandwidth which has less value on graphics processing than CPU workloads.  GPU's have multiple avenues to tweak performance.  Just as an Nvidia GTX 260 with its 448 bit memory bus is easily bested by an ATI 128Bit bus on a 5770 due to factors other than memory bandwidth. 

Much like Intel took back the CPU crown from AMD with Bloomfield (Socket 1366) in 2008 based at least in part on a technology heritage flowing from mobile platforms it appears that Nvidia's more efficient design may be borrowing to some degree from their forays into the mobile market where power efficiency and thermal control  while maintaining performance is a priority.

AMD/ATI may be facing a similar situation in the graphics realm to its experiences with Intel in the CPU realm.  Recent reports suggest a price drop is likely but not certain for the 7970 due to the full line of 7xxx series cards and prices already announced.  A price drop at the high end would have to extend down the entire line.  With thin margins, AMD isn't in a good position to pull the trigger. 

Who'd have ever thought Nvidia would be the new price/performance leader?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Diablo 3 Release date!

Diablo 3 is set for release on May 15th in two versions.

$59.99 for the standard version 


$99.99 for a Collector's edition.

The Collector's edition is available exclusively via retail outlets and comes with a copy of Diablo 2 plus it's expansion pack on a 4GB USB stick, a book and related Diablo themed novelties.

Pre-orders are being accepted now on Blizzard's site as well.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Battlefield 3 Expansion Packs on the Horizon

Article first published as BattleField 3 Expansion Packs on the Horizon on Technorati.

EA has plans to release a DLC pack for BattleField 3 this June for Xbox and PC platforms and a week earlier on PS3. 

The pack is called "Close Quarters" and features 4 new maps and 10 new weapons exclusively for them. It's been reported that there will be ten new assignments and five new dog tags only available with the DLC.  The Ziba Tower map was previewed this week with a trailer released on the official Battlefield blog but later removed due to a copyright claim by EA.

Improvements include visual enhancements such as couches, desks and shrubbery for interior spaces which have been a bit lacking in standard BF3 game maps.  The DLC expansion maps in "Close Quarters" don't offer designated spawn areas which can leave a player literally spawning in the middle of a firefight.  That's by design as this DLC is designed for more hectic and faster paced gameplay.

This will be the first of 3 expansion packs for BF3 with the other two, "Armored Kill" which is rumored to be a vehicle only expansion pack and "End Game" which is speculated to either be the end of the Battlefield series of games or the end of DLC content for BF3.  "End Game" is scheduled for Winter 2012 release with "Armored Kill" scheduled for Fall 2012 release.

Little is known about "End Game" at this point but "Armored Kill" is said to have the largest map ever to be created for a Battlefield game. 

Although there's no official word it's likely the price for the DLC packs will be near the $14.99 price point of the recent Back to Karkand expansion pack released last winter.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Clouds fall over my Skyrim

I'm about to commit gaming heresy so you've been warned....

I'm bored with Skyrim.

I actually find the Yoda video more interesting.  Don't get me wrong I was FUS RO DAH'ing with the best of them.  I've just lost interest in the game.

I have no doubt that like the Hobbit movies where every fan thought themselves an analog to their favorite character at their local comic-con there are similarly delusional fans of Skyrim.  I wouldn't even be surprised to see a feature film based on the game in the near future not unlike Doom or Hitman.

There's no denying the quality of the experience with an incredibly detailed and richly textured world.  It's an immersive experience that's captivated millions of players who've invested hundreds of hours exploring the Skyrim gameworld.

I too found the experience engrossing and almost impossible to meter my time with at least initially.  Anyone who thinks they'll just spend a few minutes with the game will soon find themselves with missing hours.  For fans of the medieval fantasy genre, Skyrim holds an irresistable appeal.

I enjoy a good game no matter what the setting.  I thoroughly enjoyed Dungeon Siege 2 but only from the standpoint of adventuring with other players in co-op mode.  Dungeon Siege 3 ruined that for me by trying to be the next Diablo and thus I have no interest.

 I'm not the type to adopt a lifestyle based on one game.  That's why when I look at World Of Warcraft I see an overpriced subscription model with sub-par graphics instead of a cultural phenom that happens to be fueled by a game.

That's where I am with Skyrim.  There's no doubt that Bethesda (the developer) made this game a priority during its creation.  Bethesda was also responsible for the recent Fallout series of games which followed a very similar formula set in a post apocalyptic setting.  Fallout 3 was an engaging experience but it's sequel Fallout New Vegas (which was in development at roughly the same time as Skyrim) was a disappointment only rising to the level of a weak DLC pack.  There's no doubt that Skyrim got the lion's share of the development mindshare but after spending dozens of hours with it I soon lost interest.

Bethesda must be fans of the Hobbit. There's lots of walking in their games.  In fact so much so that many of those hours whiled away are likely spent just trying to get to your next battle.  Yes I know about fast travel but you don't get to take advantage of it till you've actually been to the location.  Which means lots of walking with a few minor battles with woodland creatures and the impromptu ill-tempered NPC. Gameplay like this is almost a signature of Bethesda titles so I shouldn't have been surprised when  it showed up in Skyrim.

Tritton Official Xbox 360 Gaming Heasets

Yes, the scenery in Skyrim is beautiful, the NPC's cleverly scripted and the puzzles challenging   but even Yellowstone national park can get boring if you  stay there long enough.

My other problem with the game has to do with quest scenarios that can be nearly impossible to complete.  About 20 hours into the game I found myself searching for cheat codes.  That's a fail in my book.  I have over 120 hours into Borderlands for example and never found the need for a cheat code.  With Skyrim I just wanted to get it over with after being dispatched a dozen times with no hope of even surviving let alone conquering my opponent.  In one case my low level character was being viciously  attacked by a dragon while I was trapped on the side of a mountain with no hope of escape aside from a console cheat.

That was the beginning of my disenchantment.  Soon I found myself unable to complete quests because of logic bugs or my character being too low a level.  That's a problem if you've been able to advance along the primary quest line and forces you into side quests of varying levels of value.  Simple quests can be fruitful while lengthy quests often prove less so.
I enjoying gaming but when it becomes a second occupation I'm out.  I've spent about 65 hours in Battlefield 3 at this point and it never felt like work.  In Skyrim I kept hoping that if I just invested a little more time I'd get a payoff but it never happened.  Leveling  up was anticlimactic and never gave me the return on investment I was hoping for.

As I said at the start of this article, I'm not a big fan of the fantasy genre.  Perhaps if I was I'd have more tolerance (and patience) with Skyrim but it's just too much work for too little reward.  Fans of the Elder Scrolls series will likely take issue with that statement but I think I've already proved my point.

A friend of mine who also played Skyrim has invested well over 100 hours in the game and completed  it using virtually no cheats.  He found it immersive and engaging and disagrees with much of my characterization of the game.  The difference between him and I is that he was a rabid fan of this game's predecessor, Oblivion and tends to enjoy this genre.  I, on the other hand, have found Star Trek Online very engrossing and have over 60 hours in the game in the past month.  My friend, on the other hand, is bored with it after 4 hours.
That says something.  Just as there are different tastes in everything else so it is with games.  Star Trek Online or Borderlands may not be as richly detailed as Skyrim but they fit a genre that interests me.  Because of that I don't get distracted by technical issues or logic problems as much as I would playing Skyrim or Oblivion.

So that leaves me with two observations about Skyrim.  The first is that it's really just another Bethesda game and isn't much better than any of their other RPG's.   I already swore them off with Fallout New Vegas anyway.  The second is that it's not the high water mark that it's been made out to be.  If it was it would be able to transcend its genre like Angry Birds or Mario Kart  even if they're regarded as a guilty pleasure.
Such ends my heresy.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Windows 8 Consumer Preview

Article first published as A Review: Windows 8 Consumer Preview on Technorati

In case you don't already know another preview of the upcoming Windows 8 operating system landed this week.  Windows 8 consumer preview is the next iteration of windows and unlike the early developer preview released last year, this version promises to be closer to the final product rumored to ship in the third quarter of 2012.

The system requirements have stayed the same since the last release allowing even the most minimal of hardware platforms to run the OS.  Official requirements from Microsoft:

Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster
RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
Hard disk space: 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device or higher
To use touch, you need a tablet or monitor that supports multitouch
To access Windows Store and to download and run apps, you need an active Internet connection and a screen resolution of at least 1024 x 768

To snap apps, you need a screen resolution of at least 1366 x 768

Being an IT guy and an avid gamer I have the benefit of evaluating this latest windows release from two perspectives.  As the IT guy I'm looking at the user interface, program compatibility and networking functionality.  As a gamer I'm concerned with the 3D performance of the graphics subsystem and of course if my games will work.

I've been working with Windows 8 consumer preview over the last 24 hours and initial impressions are good.  Unlike the Developer preview this version has more polish.  The Metro interface remains and you are still required to have or create a Live account credential  (a Hotmail account will do) to log in. 

Once you've logged in and set up some basic settings like your screen colors and time zone you'll be presented with the Metro tile interface.  There are fewer applets than the developer preview but the basics are there including messaging, weather, finance and Internet Explorer 10.

If you have multiple displays the first will contain the metro tiles with succeeding interfaces containing a familiar Windows Desktop sans start button.  The primary display will flip between metro and desktop views as you use applications.  Currently there are few metro apps although new program installations on the desktop can generate a tile on the metro UI.    When a desktop application tile is clicked (or touched) the app launches to a desktop instead of directly from Metro making the metro tiles essentially an oversized start menu for desktop apps.

As I've worked with the interface I've noticed that the touch controls aren't as intrusive as they were in the developer preview.  Standard windows 7 key combinations such as Windows+R to open a run dialog or Windows+E to open explorer still work.  In the Developer preview I found myself frequently fumbling through the interface launching applets I didn't intend to or  having issues launching applets that I did.   I had far fewer issues with this latest release.

One primary difference between the windows 8 beta and the Windows 7 Beta is that it appears that instead of giving you what amounted to the "Ultimate" version with all features available this iteration of Windows 8 is equivalent to a "Home Premium" which makes it unsuitable for corporate testing outside of remote access. 

The initial logon credentials are tied to your Live account which may be beneficial when using Windows 8 across multiple devices if settings and metro apps follow the login.  This could be compared to a roaming profile in a Windows domain environment.  In fact on completion of install you'll receive an email informing you that you've added a trusted computer to your Live account.

Of course this is a beta release and as such I've managed to crash explorer twice.  Interestingly enough explorer controls the metro UI as well as the desktop UI.  An explorer crash leaves you with a black desktop only recoverable by  using the familiar sequence of CTRL-ALT-DEL, Taskmg and then running the explorer command. 

I've also noticed periodic freezing of the desktop with metro apps running in the background.  Speaking of metro apps, I'm still getting used to not being able to close a metro app without using ALT-F4.  This is obviously a carryover from Windows phone where apps stay running in the background once launched.  It may be less of a problem for current computers with copious amounts of memory and hard drive space but it seems wrong to the conservative IT guy in me.  It's easy to end up with multiple browser windows and redundant apps running without realizing it.
Hardware support is good and even my old TV tuner card got installed without any intervention from me.  

Unfortunately Windows Media Center which seems to have been carried forward from 2006's Windows Vista still has an issue with it.   I can't fault Microsoft for that, however, as their responsibility ends where the consumer software begins and this card never made the Windows HCL for anything but XP.

Gaming performance was very good and my experiences with STEAM and Origin based games was uneventful.  I played 3 steam titles: Orcs must Die, Star Trek Online and BLUR as well as Battlefield 3 on Origin.  Aside from some artifacting in Star Trek Online and a Black border around my Battlefield 3 playfield  caused by the default ATI video driver (later updated with a release candidate) I experienced no issues. 

Microsoft has confirmed that a Pro or Corporate version will be available as well as the tablet versions to include ARM platforms.  Professional versions will support domains but retain the Metro Interface.  Metro is central to the unified look and feel that Microsoft is attempting to spread across varying windows devices.  There is even strong rumor that the next version of Windows Server will utilize it as well. 

Some say this may be the last major operating system that Microsoft releases.  The opinions of why that may be differ, however.  There are those that believe this move to Metro is a desperate attempt to return Microsoft to relevance outside of the office.  Others see the new design as the first step to answer the demands of a consumer no longer satisfied with just a mouse and keyboard.  It's more likely a bit of both as Windows 8 retains compatibility with most Windows 7 hardware and applications but moves the platform to a multitude of devices with a more consumer oriented interface.

* I need to corect an assertion in the article,  It apparently is possible to join win 8 consumer preview to a domain as the properties of the "computer" icon still offers the "computer name" bab where you the option to join a domain is present.  It's not immediately obvious from install and the option for it doesn't show up as an option in the networking applets either.  While I haven't tested it the domain functionality appears to be a carryover from Win 7.

One other minor correction, There is a way to close metro apps other than ALT-F4 but it involves bringing up the tablet interface bars which isn't immediately apparent nor intuitive.  A touch sensitive screen would have made this option more apparent which to me says a tweak needs to be made.*