Archive for the ‘Article’ Category

Orbital Mechanics

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

So, my recent review of Moonbase: Alpha got me thinking about space games. That is, games set in actual space, with a bent towards realism and hard science over TIE Fighters, lazy beams and reversing the polarity of the… whatever-the-fuck. There’s been a serious drought of these recently.

It’s reached the point where there’s even been a drought of even the fluffy, space-opera style games of late. Used to be we got a new Elite or Wing Commander-style game every few years – now we’re limited to rehashes of Freelancer like DarkStar One and insanely complicated and bug-infested Spread-Sheets-In-Space like the X-series.

We’ve seemingly overshot the era of truly enjoyable joystick-flyable space operas such as Freespace by a few astronomical units, and past hard-science space games by several hundred thousand light-years. But here’s the thing: not all the hard space titles have vanished into obscurity due to archaic platforms and outdated user-interfaces and hardware support. There’s a couple that either still run marvellously on modern hardware, or are maintained in open-source / hobbyist-developed form so they can once again grace our computers.

This article is about some of the hard(ish)-science space games that have survived the test of time, some that haven’t, some newer titles worth looking at, and even some notable failures that did their darnedest and should be commended for trying.

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Possession and Acquisition

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Note: Despite discussing it heavily, this article does not contain spoilers for Mafia 2.

Ownership can be one of the biggest draw cards for a game, and not just in video games. Take Monopoly, for instance. Created in the early years of the 20th century, it first found popularity during the great depression; when people could barely afford dinner and a roof over their heads, fantasies of wealth sell better than ever.

Even genres such as computer role-playing games are more about acquisition than actual role-playing – something as ‘simple’ as a graphical rogue-like such as Diablo can drive players into hours of gaming ‘over-time’ just to acquire a complete set of mythril armour.

For this reason, sandbox video games and many a title focused on organised-crime, whether serious or comedic, often have a mechanic for the acquisition of ‘things’ – from safe-houses, weapons and vehicles to businesses & other properties. This has varied wildly from game to game, and rarely has a particularly large impact on the over-all story.

Which brings me to Mafia 2.

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Jason Hill vs modchips, round 3

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

I don’t know if you’ll recall a little debate I had about five years ago, on my old blog, with the games editor at The Age, Jason Hill, in which I referred to him as a “corporate shill” for defending Sony’s anti-consumer war on modchips. He was greatly offended at the time, but I assumed with the passage of time he’d forgiven me for impugning his journalistic integrity – particularly given that he even published an article I’d written for his Screen Play column in The Age a few years later.

So I was a little surprised by his piece in the Sydney Morning Herald today:

Jason Hill, corporate shill

I guess “Corporate shill” is one of the more unpleasant names I’ve been called over the years.

Oh, Jason. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings so badly! I feel really guilty now. I didn’t intend you to spend years running that beautifully rhyming insult over and over in your head.

Look, I still don’t agree with the line he’s still running on the subject of modchips, of course: he still argues that if “the majority” of their use is piracy, it’s irrelevant what lawful purposes they have, and they should be banned – logic which would’ve banned the cassette tape, the VCR, the home PC, the internet and so on.

And as to the present issue – Jason is revisiting the subject today because of the PS3 modchip that Sony is trying to get banned in the Federal Court. I hope they fail, not because I wish to pirate games, but because I’d like to see some decent media player software developed on the HD consoles to replace the brilliant open source Xbox Media Centre from the last generation, which has never been bettered by the commercial products. The idea that increasing the functionality of a piece of hardware I’ve bought should be a crime is absurd, and offensive, and I hope those defending this action are able to win through despite the vast reserves of money that will be thrown at defeating them.

But I suspect Mr Hill’s approach to the issue is more to do with the relentlessly one-sided propaganda to which he’d be subjected as he liaises with the games industry – I doubt very much he chats often to the EFA or other public domain lobbyists, for example – rather than anything dishonest or cynical. So, with the benefit of hindsight, and the cooling passions of fading youth, I regret using the term “shill”.

Even though it did rhyme.

Those gamers who’ve never tried “jailbreaking” their hardware to increase its functionality – an AR-Max to enable backing up saves from the 8MB PS2 memory cards, an Xbox modchip to run XBMC, homebrew on the DS – does having that option available to you appeal? Or do you not mind if the people who made your console can artificially limit your use of it – and send you to jail for dare trying for more?

UPDATE 4/9: The Federal Court has apparently banned the chips permanently. A sad day for Australian consumers. Meanwhile, the necessary code has hit the internet, potentially rendering Sony’s victory somewhat pyrrhic.

Breaking Immersion with DLCs

Friday, August 27th, 2010

I’ve been waiting a long time for Mafia II. 2920 days, in fact. Since I first saw the truly extraordinary opening video for the original Mafia. Hell, I didn’t even need to have played the game before I was excited about whatever they might do with a sequel. Once I’d actually played the game, I went from excited about a sequel to frustrated that I couldn’t play it immediately.

Being a huge fan of the era (and the genre) I was, naturally, pretty quick to pre-order the uber-awesome feature-packed special edition, complete with A2 posters of ’50s pin-up girls and even some bonus DLC.

Flash forward to the 26th of August, and I’m at home and slowly, methodically punching in the DLC codes into my xbox before booting up the game for the first time.

Now, you need to understand something about me. My fixation with the ’30s through to the ’50s is pretty full-on. I’m one of those people who’s read most James Ellroy novels more than once, and who even tolerated ‘Mobsters’ and ‘Mulholland Falls’ despite them having almost no redeeming features as films.

This being the case, when I boot up a game like Mafia, I try to get as involved as humanly possible in the story. I don’t run around like an unruly hoodlum – I try to behave in-character as much as I can. This means a that, in a story like Mafia, I try to consider the situation the main character is in and let it guide my decisions.

Vito, the protagonist of Mafia II, quickly finds himself sleeping on his friend Joe’s couch, doing wet-work for the mob while wearing a grotty leather jacket and driving a stolen car whose plates have been changed. This seems to sum up the tone of the early game pretty well – a game that spans a decade. As the game progresses from the part of the story in the ’40s to the ’50s component, the world changes appropriately. The music, cars and the look and feel of the city shifts.

But at the beginning, you’re stuck with whatever clothes you can buy in the city of Empire Bay during the final months of World War 2 – an era defined by shortage, food & fuel rationing, et cetera.

So when I realised what the DLC had done, I was quite perplexed. Let me explain – by unlocking these pre-order DLCs, I had brought four new ’50s sports cars and some mob/vegas style outfits into the game. Cool, no?

Definitely cool. Some additional kit to make Vito look like a really successful mafioso, and some swanky new sports cars to make getting away from the cops just that much easier. The only problem is that, being bonus DLC, the content is promptly made available to you from the beginning of the game.

While the game’s story is guiding you through stealing your first car and shopping for ’40s-style clothing throughout the shops of Empire Bay, sitting in the players’ garage are four anachronistic sports cars and in his wardrobe, four outfits that there’s no way a man who’s having trouble coming up with the cash to rent his own place would be able to afford.

I dread to think how much easier the early car chases of the game would be if you drove these ’50s-styled beasts around instead of the ’30s and ’40s clunkers that dominate the roads in this chapter of the game.

Now, I’m fully aware that this is really quite a silly thing to nitpick about – but in a game where immersion in the game world is key to keeping your audience, and where such attention to detail has been paid in every aspect of the game’s visual development, it seems a bit unfortunate to throw in bonus stuff that breaks this.

Me, personally? I’d have been happy if I at least had to spend in-game cash to get the content I’ve unlocked… though I realise that I’m probably alone in this regard, and it would most likely have been a rather bad business decision had they done this.

What do you think? Have you ever obtained DLC of any kind (not third-party mods, but first-party content) that has changed the game for the worse for you? What about the actual gameplay? I suspect these fast cars will give players with this DLC an advantage in the early-game, although it’s just a theory so far. Have you ever obtained DLC that altered the difficulty of the game itself?

Treating consumers with contempt costs you

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

Three quick notes for publishers from the your-dickheadetry-will-cost-you file:

  • New strategy game RUSE is free to try this weekend on Steam, as a method of building interest in the title. Unfortunately, the full game remains Ubi-crippled with Ubisoft’s gamer-hating “log you off if the connection is lost in the middle of a single-player game” DRM (even if you’re running it through Steam) so, I have absolutely no idea whether the full game is any good or not because I’m not going to bother downloading even a trial of it. (And I’m not alone.)

  • I was going to give new comedy RPG DeathSpank a go, and went to download it on 360 before realising that there’s no way it’ll fit on my crowded 20GB hard drive. Naturally, I have thus far resisted paying Microsoft’s frankly obscene prices for a drive upgrade, and will thus be downloading the demo and possibly buying the game on PS3, where Sony will get the sweet sweet cash and not Microsoft.
  • Would’ve bought the PC version of Battlefield Bad Company 2 on the recent Steam sale, if Australians weren’t being forced to pay 40% more than every other country. Well done, EA and local distributors – you’ve done yourselves out of another sale. Likewise 2K with its even more obscene 270% markup on the PC version of Borderlands.

I’m just one man, slowly making up for his weakness in buying the MW2 map packs.

Sick of Australian distributors

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Okay, look, I’m still not over the Steam ripoff thing. (Although, with a cousin in London, I did find a way around it for long enough to buy L4D2.) In addition to Civ 5 (50 USD vs 80 USD) there have been a series of sales this week for EA titles which have (ignoring the ridiculousness of additional publisher-based DRM in a Steam title) been spectacularly offensive.

Take Sunday’s sale of Dragon Age: Origins. The 40% off “discount” price in Australia is 40% off the frankly absurd 70 USD so it’s 46.89 USD. Hardly a bargain. The standard, non-sale US price is 39.99 USD, so our “40% off” price is still significantly more than the US standard price – let alone the UK sale price of 13.39 pounds, which works out at 19.82 USD, somewhat less than HALF the Australian “discount” price.

For a digital download that is in all respects identical.

I get that publishers have to add GST to games sold in Australia, but the 10% GST is 10% – considerably less than 110%, being ten percent and not one hundred and ten percent. It’s not much of an excuse for the markups they’re imposing, is my point.

And that’s not even the worst example – according to the steamprices.com top ripoffs page, Steam charges USD 20 for Red Faction Guerilla in the US, but to those stuck behind an Australian IP it charges USD… prepare yourself… are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I will continue… USD 70. (That probably needs to be in a bigger font.) Yup, a markup of 350%. I mean, you’ve almost got to admire the sheer gall of THQ, don’t you? That kind of ripoff is a thing of such spectacular shamelessness that it’s almost thrilling. I’m not going to buy their game, but I might come back and admire its monstrous pricing structure next time I need an emotional shock.

Also, unbelievable regional pricing aside, there’s the issue of the ever more stupid delays in game releases here, highlighted by – who else – Nintendo Australia’s treatment of its flagship titles. Like Super Mario Galaxy 2, which won’t be out here till July. Despite having been released overseas a month ago.

My question is: what the hell is the point of Australian distributors, and why wouldn’t we all be better off if they just disappeared and the big retailers imported directly from overseas?

Feel free to share the examples of us being ripped off and screwed over that have really gotten your metaphorical goat.

Gaming Platforms

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

A discussion topic just came up – which gaming platforms do you use? This was relevant because I’m in the bizarre situation of having almost everything it’s possible to play games on. Between my partner and I, we have a Windows PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, 360, PS3, Wii and PSP. (Just missing the DS, and really don’t care)

Obviously, when you have access to all these devices, you aren’t going to spend equal time on each. It becomes a “right tool for the job” situation. So, after now having most of these (except the iPad, which I will discuss separately) for numerous months, just which devices have proven to be the most frequently used ones?

I’ll list them in rough order of use (most used to least) and give some reasons for this.

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Steam region ripoff

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

Now I have a nifty PC that can run modern games, I’ve been exploring the convenience of the Steam store – PC games that’ll run without having to download a nodvd crack and disable your ability to play them online.

Only I’m in Australia, which means Steam insists on making me pay a penalty for many titles. Take Civilization 5, now taking preorders – they want $US80-90 from us (in US currency, bizarrely), where if they don’t manage to automatically detect your location and think you’re in the US the price is $US50-60. That’s right, we’re paying almost double for NOTHING. They don’t ship anything here, they don’t have any increased costs, the Australian distributor is not involved – so what the hell is the justification for robbing us blind? They’re even charging MORE than in the shops, for less – no packaging, no distribution, no middle men costs, but prices at retail level Australian dollar figures with the currency changed to the more expensive US dollars.

And whether we just blame the publishers for being discriminatory parasites, or assign some blame to Valve for giving them the tools to do it, the situation is both offensive and absurd.

Do they REALLY think we’re going to cop it? Do they REALLY think we’re going to pay double for no reason? Do they REALLY think that people who are considering handing over money are going to just bend over and take being ripped off so outrageously? There’s a reason Australia is known for high levels of piracy, and THIS SORT OF GARBAGE IS IT.

Screw you, Steam. Screw you, Valve. Most importantly – Screw you, publishers. If you’re going to treat your paying customers like this you deserve to lose sales to piracy.

If you have an IP product and you

  • refuse to sell it to people in certain countries;

  • refuse to sell it for particular periods;
  • refuse to sell it in particular formats;
  • insist on adding anti-consumer garbage like DRM that limits paying customers’ access to the content for which they’ve paid;
  • charge some customers more than others;
  • charge unreasonable amounts for content

…Then you do not deserve the protection of OUR courts, OUR governments. IP is not an intrinsic natural law, it’s something we the public grant you in order to encourage you to create. If you’re not going to live up to your end of the bargain, and enable us to access those created works reasonably, then why should we live up to ours? Why should we send the police we pay for to chase after your imaginary “property” rights? Why should we respect them at all?

I will NEVER buy a download game (such as via Steam) at a higher price than they’ll sell it to an American customer. NEVER. I may try to work around the restriction by using a US paying account and a US proxy, but if that doesn’t work I will not buy it at all. THEY WILL GET NONE OF MY MONEY. There is ZERO chance of me paying them more for less.

Get stuffed, you discriminatory arseholes.

ELSEWHERE: What a publisher that’s thinking straight does about “piracy”.

Unintentionally Spontaneous Excrement

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

As in life, there are moments in gaming where the only reasonable response is the phrase, “Oh, Shit!”

Now, this phrase, versatile as it is, can be used to mean a wide variety of different things – from “It appears that the killer is still alive,” to “I have been shot, please call for an ambulance as soon as possible,” and even the all-time classic, ”I admit to experiencing surprise and frustration at learning that you have, in fact, forgotten to bring the hummus.”

For this reason, I decided to recount a top-five list of these “Oh, Shit!” moments from my own personal gaming experiences, complete with imagery.

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My name is Bo-lo San-tosi

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

Another entry in our “I can’t believe they left it out” series of retorts to the ABC’s Good Game, this time over their worst videogame voice acting top 5 from this week.

I’m not objecting because their list is weird and obscure but not as funny as this top 50 from Youtube:

I’m objecting because they completely omitted the recent, indisputable Absolute Worst Pick for 2010 – Just Cause‘s Bolo Santosi:


Don’t you practice your alliteration on me!

I know they’ve played the game, because they reviewed it a month ago. How was this brain-freezing atrocity not fresh in their minds?