Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Battlefield 4 = Battlefield 3

I hate to be an "I told you so" but  oh well....

Battlefield 4 has officially launched with all the fanfare of say, SimCity !

Well at least if you cast it in the light of other members of the club like Diablo 3, GTA 5 and World of Warcraft.  Apparently if you were one of the lucky 4 million or so who expected October 29th to be the first day of a very long gaming weekend there was a good chance that you were disappointed.  An issue with region locking forced many players to have to wait 24 hours (October 30) because of a clock bug in EA's authentication mechanisms.  The bug somehow misreads the time on some ISP servers making their subscribers appear they were coming from Europe where the game is not scheduled for release until November 1st.

According to Scott Michaud of PC Perspective, when he contacted EA about the issue they were very polite but had no intention of doing anything about it.  EA has been relying heavily on their Origin distribution client and it appears the issue stems from its DRM mechanisms. 

If you sell software it stands to reason that you have to protect your revenue stream somehow.  However,  when that protection stands in the way of your paying customers you're going to need to do more than just comfort them on the support lines.

Maybe consumers are finally getting weary of the false promise of "The Pre-Order."

As recently as a week ago pre-order sales numbers were down compared to Battlefield 3 while the competition (Call of Duty:Ghosts) were on par with their predecessor.  EA's only recent comment came from a conference call where all they could say is that "pre-orders are stacking up well against BF3"
"Stacking up Well" is not "beating", "exceeding" or "surpassing."  It's like a weather forecast that's only "Fair," which is pretty much the middle of the road.

With such a popular franchise with a year's worth of hype leading up to the release how can BF4 possibly be just an "also ran?"

Maybe it was a largely flawed beta that excluded players with 32 bit platforms even though the final game supports both 32 and 64 bit.  Hey, it's a beta and its bound to have problems but with mostly empty servers the 10 to 20 minute process just to connect didn't bode well.

Perhaps it was "Pre-Order" fatigue.  Even as early as last Fall EA was offering early Beta access to BF4 with the purchase of the now infamously failed "Medal of Honor: Warfighter."  The spring and summer found relentless promotion sinking as low offering up a set of "Mechanix" gloves  for your "memories" of BF3.

Maybe it was the bait and switch of what looked like gameplay videos that turned out to be nothing more than cutscenes.  The actual game looks only marginally better than its predecessor even with settings turned up. 

Maybe it's a matter of people getting tired of the franchise and the relentless money machine EA has turned it into.  DLC, upgrade kits, premium subscriptions designed to enhance the game only seem to alienate those who actually play it.  Players have dumped millions into Battlefield 3 hoping to get more but more often than not get less than they paid for.  Ask anyone who bought BF3 DLC outside of the "Premium" subscription how they felt when they couldn't find a server or when they did were blocked by "Premium Members Only."

Perhaps it stems from the simple fact that Battlefield 4 looks largely like a rehash of Battlefield 3.  Even the storyline is largely unchanged save the addition of the Chinese as an additional antagonist.  We're still forced into a clumsy web interface to launch the game.  Still have to be in an active game just to configure basic settings and EA's only response was to set up dead servers so you can complete your settings without getting booted off an active server.  

That's not a fix, that's a band-aid and for many it may be just  one annoyance too far. Don't get me wrong, Battlefield 4 looks like a fun game but it's not the leap we expected in a sequel.  Battlefield Bad Company 2 was the last  major release in the franchise before Battlefield 3 launched.  Battlefield 3 was noticeably better (even with Battlelog).  Battlefield 4 isn't the giant leap we were expecting.  It's more like Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 which looked exactly like its predecessor Modern Warfare 2 even down to the scripted gameplay in co-op missions.

BF4 is looking like it's going down the same road.  Perhaps only a spin-off along the lines of Call of Duty's Black Ops can truly energize the franchise.  Bad Company 3 anyone?

No matter, so long as they keep trying to milk the same cash cow I'll always be skeptical.

Fool me once EA, that's all you get.

Halloween chills for your gaming pleasure.

This year's crop of Halloween gaming goodness.  

No tricks, just treats....


Team Fortress 2 Halloween event.  Harvest and Hell Tower

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why the gamer hasn't been gaming

Gaming hasn't been a priority these past few weeks and here's why....

The last month has been hell....

Let me give you the cliff notes version of my tale of woe.  It contains a cast of completely unrelated characters that somehow managed to simultaneously screw up my life. 

I recently had to sell my 2008 Mustang GT.  Not by choice but by need.  This hasn't been a good year for me financially and like so many others in this skewed reality we call an economy something had to give.  In my case it was my Mustang.

I've already chronicled my disastrous results of trying to get a "regular" IT  job( I've been a private IT consultant for 15 years) so I won't rehash it here.  However, my latest efforts to rejoin cubicleland bear mention since they were the catalyst for my latest tribulations.

After 3 weeks, 6 interviews for not 1 but 2 different positions at a security software firm, what should have been a sure thing ended in a two line e-mail reading.

"Van did go with an internal candidate, but he wanted me to make sure you knew it was a tough decision.

Thanks indeed.  I can guarantee Van's decision wasn't going to be as tough as the one I would have to make.
They say never to put all your eggs in one basket but I had only one egg and my basket had holes in it. 

It was like trying to reach level 50 in Borderlands 2 without any DLC or savegame hacks.

With no other opportunities it finally came down to either clinging to hopes of regaining my lost success before I starved or cutting my losses and liquidate some assets.   After a week of serious deliberation and living on 2 year old Ramen noodles my Mustang was up for Sale. 

When the buyer came and presented me with the check it was bittersweet. I'd survive but I'd also taken a giant step backward just  to live another day.  I told myself that at least I had enough foresight to have an asset I could liquidate but it didn't make me feel any  better. 

I couldn't even watch when they came for it a few days later.  I sold it through CarBuyco and it took them a few days to pick it up.  Those two days were like looking at a ghost in my driveway. 

Of course I still needed a car for work (assuming I'd eventually have some) but I knew with the money I had to spend it was not going to be anything near what I had lost.  So started the search for a suitable (barely) replacement with a budget of no more than $6000.  That would leave me enough money to live on for awhile and take care of the inevitable repairs that come with a vehicle not so well loved as what I'd given up.

Or so I thought.  My search yielded disappointing results with most candidates either too abused or too expensive for what was offered.  I came close to buying one car (A 2001 Camaro) until I pulled the dipstick on the transmission and found black, burnt fluid.  That vehicle had over 100K miles, was 12 years old and started at 7K with tax and license fees.  By the time I was ready to leave the dealership the price had dropped $1000.  I no longer had interest but still get called every week about that car.  Last weekend the price had dropped to $4991. 

My search continued and I found a few other less flawed examples but they too came up short either already being sold or having a questionable background history.  By the way, CarFax is your friend.  I found at least 5 cars that had serious damage or questionable mileage that was otherwise undisclosed. 

It was like living a real life version of Flatout 3.  All the promise but nothing ever delivered.

A week went by and my folks called to see how I was doing.  I told them about the lackluster examples of pre-owned automobiles and they made a suggestion.  They had 4 vehicles 2 of which are rarely if ever driven.  They offered up one that I was very familiar with.  My mother's 1995 Firebird Formula.  I was hesitant to accept the offer not wanting to deprive them of an asset of their own.

 I knew that the car was well maintained, had most of the problem areas already addressed and would stand up to my relatively light usage but it was still a well used high mileage car that was already 18 years old.  Still, it was becoming obvious that I wasn't going to do any better with the examples I was finding.  It also didn't hurt that they were already looking to get rid of it anyway.

They offered up the car with no strings attached aside from having to pay for it to be transported from Colorado to Arizona ( A cost of $1100.)  Now survival is one thing but I wasn't about to let my folks on a fixed income get nothing for an asset.  I checked Edmunds and gave them what was reported as the highest retail price for the car.  It was less than I'd pay for the far less pedigreed examples I'd been entertaining but a better price than they'd get for it otherwise. 

Happily my search ended.  I set up the transportation for the car via Reliable Auto Transporters and awaited its arrival.  I knew there was the possibility of a 2 to 4 week delay from the carrier but a week later I got the call that the car was going to be picked up and delivered a few days later.

While I waited I was forced to use another car for transportation.  Not that I had anywhere much to go but the nearest supermarket is 2 miles away and that's a long way to go with armloads of groceries.   In case you're wondering, yes I own 2 cars or at least I did before I sold the Mustang.  My other car is a 1974 El Camino.  I've owned it for over 20 years and while it's more family member than car I can't rely on it.  I knew I couldn't use it for daily commuting for example; if for no other reason than the fuel costs would bankrupt me.  It's also insured as a classic, recreational vehicle so daily commuters are a no-no. 

Let me add one wrinkle and a bit of foreshadowing.  I could never register this car as anything but a classic in my state because it would never be able to comply with the stringent emission standards demanded.  Thus it's only meant for glorified parade duty and occasional boulevard cruises.  You may be asking why I didn't sell it instead of the Mustang at this point.  The reason is, I didn't have time to wait and wouldn't have gotten anywhere near the money out of it. The Mustang was a guaranteed quick sale for a fair price, the El Camino wasn't.  I may have been in survival mode but I'm not stupid.

So at least I had a decent car coming and something to drive in an emergency if need be.  Or so I thought. 

Here's where the real fun starts...

Before I go on let's recap my adventure thus far.

1. Sure thing falls through
2. Have to sell car or starve
3. Went car shopping found junk
4. Ended up buying car from parents

At 10AM on a Tuesday morning I got a phone call from the folks.  The car was picked up and on its way.  An hour later I got a call from the truck driver informing me that he'd be at my door by 6:30PM the next day. 

"Wonderful!," I thought, that means I'd have 2 days to take care of all the necessary evils of getting an out of state car registered and insured and I'd be able to show it off to my friends for the weekend!

It was not to be....

Wednesday morning I received another phone call from the truck driver.  He blew a heater hose outside of Flagstaff and didn't know when he'd be underway.  He was going to have to be towed into Phoenix, 150 miles away and the schedule was blown to hell.

At this point I was ok with the delay.  After all, bad things happen and it wasn't the driver's fault that his rig broke down.  Having paid $1100 for transportation I assumed the Reliable Auto Transport's dispatch would make arrangements.  All was well.

Except it wasn't...

Two days went by and I'd heard nothing from Dispatch.  Friday afternoon I received another call from the unfortunate driver.  He was in Phoenix holed up in a motel and didn't know when his truck would be ready.  Apparently Reliable Auto Transportation had yet to send another truck out to complete the deliveries.  Mine wasn't the only car on his trailer and there were at least 5 other unhappy people not counting the driver who was losing money every day his truck was out of commission.

In our conversation I let him know I didn't blame him but was unhappy with the dispatch operation.  My car was sitting in a trailer in a repair yard 30 miles away for no other reason than somebody wasn't doing their job.  The driver gave me the number to the local dispatch office and I called them immediately after I hung up with him.  Of course there was nobody at the office but I left a long voicemail detailing exactly why I was happy with the driver but unhappy with dispatch.

Well, at least I had the El Camino for the weekend....

Except I didn't.  I started having trouble with the car backfiring through the carburetor.  For those of you who don't know what that is, it's a cantankerous lump of metal whose only reason for being is to defy its primary purpose.  That being, to get gasoline into the engine.

I spent most of Friday and Saturday trying to connect the problem and only managing to asphyxiate myself from the noxious fumes that resulted from my efforts. 

This was bad...

Saturday, 5PM, I had one car and it wasn't running.  It's disassembled carburetor lying bare on my workbench.  I needed to take action or I could potentially be without wheels for a week.

Reluctantly, I called for a rental car.  I'd had good experience with Enterprise Rent A Car in the past so I made a reservation.  Unfortunately, renting a car at 5PM on a Saturday means you have to go to the airport to pick it up.  I have at least 6 car rental offices within 2 miles of my home but all of them were closed. 

No matter, I'd get a ride to the airport somehow.  I was supposed to meet a friend later than evening and after making the reservation I called him up for a ride to the airport.  It was him or a $60 cab ride.  Luckily for me I have good taste in friends and the only compensation for his trouble he'd accept is me buying dinner.  Done deal and we even got to try a new restaurant on my side of town before we went for the car.

My friend dropped me off and confident my troubles were over I went to the rental car counter, reservation in hand.  All went well, I enjoyed pleasant conversation with the agents as they finalized the paperwork. 

Except they didn't finalize anything.  They ran my credit card for the full rental plus $100.  Unfortunately a recent payment hadn't posted from my bank so it was rejected.  Undaunted, I suggested my debit card which had more than enough to cover the cost.  I was told, " We can't run a debit card without a trip itinerary." 

Really?  Remember, I had a confirmed reservation and a fully loaded Visa Debit card ready to go and they were hanging me up on policy. 

"Ok, can you just change the reservation to one day?"

"No, we can't change a reservation"

"So basically you're saying I'm 28 miles from home with no ride and nothing but my shoe leather..."


"Well, you can go upstairs and see if they can do anything for you..."

So I did and after standing in line 10 minutes at the Enterprise counter I realized that all I was doing was wasting time to hear the same BS I heard downstairs.  I walked out onto the concourse and did a quick game of eeny, meeny, miny,  moe.  My finger stopped on Avis.

I walked up to the football jersey bedecked agent and asked him, " Do you take debit cards?"  Without so much as a breath, quoted policy or anything about Itineraries he said, "No problem."

Needless to say, Avis in now my favorite car rental company.  After a few minutes I was tossed the keys to a better car than Enterprise was offering for only 5 bucks a day more. 

Time for another recap...

1. Sure thing falls through
2. Have to sell car or starve
3. Went car shopping found junk
4. Ended up buying car from parents
5. Delivery truck with new car breaks down
6. 2nd car breaks down, no ride till new car shows up
7. Reserved rental car
8. Get ride to airport to get car
9. Denied rental car I reserved from Enterprise, granted one from Avis
10.  Spend the rest of Saturday night trying to forget the last 3 days

After Saturday had passed I spent the next 2 days trying in vain to get the El Camino to run.  No joy and I spent a lot of time at auto parts stores. 

Tuesday brought a phone call from Reliable Auto Transport's dispatch department.  My car was going to show up within the hour. 

Joy among joys!

Right on time the huge truck showed up and I greeted a very pleasant husband and wife driving team.  In short order the Firebird was in my driveway.

As soon as they left I took the car out for a shakedown run.  Everything seemed to be working and having driven it 10 miles I decided it was time to get it registered.  I went to my local AAA office because I knew that was going to be easier than dealing with the DMV. 

Upon arriving at the AAA office, I dutifully went to the counter to start the process.  Where I was told I couldn't title the car till it had passed emissions.  They wouldn't do a title without registration.  That meant I still didn't own the car but had to drive it to the emissions testing station.  That put me in a grey area that I was uncomfortable with but considering what I'd already been through to this point it wasn't that big of a deal.  The title clerk gave me a temporary registration sticker and off I went.

I went back home, collected the car and took it to the emissions testing station.  I expected it to go well, it didn't.

In Arizona  the emissions test for cars older than 1996 consists of running through a gauntlet on a dynamometer supposedly simulating a series of real world driving scenarios that take about 15 minutes to complete.  The simulation is designed to stress emissions control systems  by operating the car in situations that would rarely occur in real life. 

I'm all for clean air but this whole process is a racket.  I mean how often would you take your car to 70Mph, slam on the brakes to a complete stop then speed up to 70 MPH again in daily driving.  I know the freeways are bad but they're not THAT bad!

After about 12 minutes of this torture testing my new ride decided to puke coolant all over the emissions testing station.  To my mind I felt it was suitable commentary all things considered but the end result is that the car failed on one reading. 

I took the car home and checked the radiator.  It appeared that the coolant had overflowed from the recovery tank and just needed more added.  If only it were that simple...

I replaced the missing coolant, started the car and upon checking the results of my handiwork discovered the radiator had a leak that was spraying coolant all over the engine like a kid with s super soaker.

Great, now I have 2 cars that don't run and I'm already into my rental car for $250. 

I called up the folks and couldn't resist the jibe.  I said, "Hey, thanks for the lemon." 
I  expected to pay up to a grand to fix things on a used car within the first 6 months of ownership.  What I didn't expect was to have to fix it in the first 6 minutes!

Truth be told, I hold my folks blameless.  The car had sat for 3 years only gaining 100 miles since they moved to Colorado.  They live in an area that rarely gets above 80 degrees and in the winter can go below zero.  For them, they would never have seen the problem, in fact where I refer to that red oily water as coolant they call it anti-freeze. 

In my mind, this was still a win-win situation.  It was just going to take a bit longer to get my trophy.

It was like a boss battle in Borderlands 2 except you run out of ammo, he spawns 20 underlings and your special ability hasn't recharged yet.  You got everything but the bullets....

Now add this to my little recap and consider my state of mind at this point....

I called up Avis and extended my rental car another day and lined up a ride back home from the drop-off point from a friendly neighbor for the following Thursday.

I spent the next 12 hours fighting the dubious engineering GM employed in the removal and installation of a radiator on a 1995 Pontiac Firebird.  There was much cursing, numerous lacerations and even a bout of nausea involved but by daybreak my task was done. 

I had read a few car forums discussing the process and most of them said it would only take a couple of hours for my car.  Gentlemen, if it only took a couple of hours you did it wrong.  It took me 3 hours just to bleed the air out of the cooling system!

I don't want to do this job again anytime soon so I'd rather suffer the pain up front.

I finally went to bed and 4 hours later woke up and proceeded to take the car on a test drive to make sure all was well.  Satisfied I went back to the emissions testing station and it passed with flying colors.  Amazing what a difference it makes to actually keep the coolant in the radiator.

Happily I left the testing station and went back to the AAA office where I was able to finalize my paperwork.  I left with a new license plate, title and registration.  Finally the car was all mine and all legal.

I'm still aware that I'm driving a car almost 2 decades old and I've spent the last few days cleaning it up and fixing minor issues.   I know, however, that it's been better cared for throughout its life than the examples I was looking at before.

The El Camino is still down but I've ordered the correct parts online after having no luck finding them locally.  Hopefully I'll be back to 2 functional cars in a week or so.

Somebody once said God didn't give you more than you could handle.  I was starting to doubt that during the past month.  What came to light, however, was the kindness of people who had no stake aside from the knowledge of their own kindness. 

My faith in humanity was validated in the selfless act of my folks to give me a cherished asset for no other reason than I had the need.  It was further validated by the actions of my friends and neighbors to help me out however they could and finally to the Avis car rental agent that saw my plight and got me a ride.

Balanced against that were: The actions of the security software company dangling a carrot while knowing full well there was no opportunity to be had  The arrogance and callous attitudes of Enterprise car rental, The questionable motives of the emissions testing station and the careless disregard of Reliable Auto Transport dispatchers. 

So if you've wondered why I haven't been posting many gaming articles or videos the past few weeks, now you know.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Battlefield 4 and Borderlands 2 DLC updates

Looking for a little change of pace from blasting the same bad guys for the 10th time in Borderlands 2 I've recently ventured into the world of Betas and DLC.

The latest installments come from Gearbox and DICE.

Let's get started with the DLC...

Below is a few videos of my latest purchase.  DLC for Borderlands 2 called Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon's Keep.

Controversy about the character aside (why is beyond me) I love Tiny Tina.  Nowhere in the game is there a more entertaining and irreverent citizen of Pandora.  That an entire DLC pack was built around her lovable madness made this a purchase that was going to happen, Steam sale or not.  BTW, it wasn't on sale but considering it's the largest map upgrade from any DLC pack for the game it's well worth the $9.99

Assault on Dragon's Keep is almost a guilty pleasure so to balance out my gaming diet it was time to check out the latest installment from Dice.  

Yes, it's Battlefield 4 (Beta) and so far I've spent about 4 hours with the game.  It is a Beta so bugs and slow load times are to be expected.  It's better looking than its predecessor but not by much.  Game modes are similar to BF3 with Conquest, Obliteration (similar to Rush but with bombs,) and Domination (a deathmatch variant) as well as variants on traditional game modes.  Only Conquest, Obliteration and Domination were available when I played the Beta.

I've already written an article about my experiences with BF4 previously (find it here) so I won't rehash it here.  Suffice it to say the game is very similar to BF3 with a few tweaks.  Unfortunately it's still hobbled by the insistence of DICE to use the kludgy web based Battlelog 2.0 front end.   

If you're a fan of the Battlefield series you'll find BF4 to be very familiar but if you were hoping that this latest version would finally correct the flaws of its predecessor you're likely to be disappointed.  I've put together a video below that samples gameplay and gives you a look at the new Frostbite 3.0 engine in action.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Battlefield 4: More of the same

I probably could have ignored the lure of a free triple-A title (albeit in Beta) except for the urgings of a fellow gamer.  Battlefield 4 held as much interest for me as its predecessor's "Premium" offering. 
In other words, I can wait for a sale. 

But in the interest of staying current  with the latest PC gaming trends and having something new to hurl barbs at, I went ahead and downloaded the 5Gigabyte appetizer from Dice.  A supersized sampler platter designed to whet the appetite and hopefully stir the faithful into a buying frenzy after getting a taste.

After all the Origin updates my first exposure to Battlefield 4 came in the form of the redesigned Battlelog, Battlelog 2.0.   Nothing new to report here other than using a darker color palette and frequent crashing. 
At least it picked up my profile from Battlefield 3.  Well, except for not having any of my control or loadout settings saved. 

After searching for an active server it occurred to me that I was seeing way too many instances of 0/64  (aka: empty servers.)  It didn't seem to matter the time of day or day of the week either.  On average, out of 50 servers it seemed that 45 of them were always empty.  Not a good sign for a game that has a new engine and has been so heavily promoted for almost a year.

Undaunted, I set a goal.  I was determined to play the Beta long enough to advance one rank in the game.  A feat I achieved after cumulatively playing for 2 hours.  Of course that doesn't count the 3 hours spent finding a PC it would run on.  My 4 year old Windows 7 Dual core gaming laptop couldn't manage to do more than crash at the load screen.  My regular gaming rigs fared slightly better letting me actually play the game but not without  hard locks and long waits at the "Loading" screen.

I've included a video on this page that illustrates all of this by the way.

Once I'd finally navigated Dice's kludgy web interface and gotten into the game proper I found the normal annoyances with anything that's been stamped "Beta."  After all the only price I paid was a few hours of my life waiting for downloads and load screens right?

Let me cut to the quick.  The game is gorgeous but not as gorgeous or interesting as the cut scenes we were treated to in the promotional videos on YouTube.  It still suffers the same vulnerabilities to exploits and poor interface design as its predecessor.   It's utterly ridiculous that I have to launch a triple-A title from a web page and have to join a server before I can configure the most basic settings like screen resolution and player controls. 

This is the first major title to be exclusively 64 bit which means there could be issues with video drivers but performance should be better.  "Should be" is the operative phrase here because it's not.  BF4 is as I predicted it would be, DLC for BF3 both in looks and experience.  The new game engine makes crumbling skyscrapers a bit more exciting but visually it's not a great leap. 

I still had disappearing skylines in the background and disappearing textures here and there.  Server lag is still an issue even with a lightly loaded server and stat updates aren't always reflected on Battlelog 2.0.  I sacrificed 2000 points to that bug.

A lot of these annoyances can be written off as Beta code gremlins.  What's disturbing is that I've had the same issues in Battlefield 3 which is a much more mature platform after 2 years.

Still for the price I was at least able to evaluate the BF4 experience.  In short it's stacking up to be the next cash cow for EA.  It's a good looking game but not revolutionary and the same issues that existed in BF3 have followed its successor.

In short, I'll wait for a sale if for no other reason than to not be one of those people who pick up the pre-order only to get screwed over by a flood of DLC and upgrade packs that invalidate the price premium.

Hey, at least you'll get cool dog tags!