Sunday, April 30, 2006

Quake 4 Review

I finished off Quake 4 single player last night and overall it wasn't too bad a game. I basically feel this is the game doom 3 should have been. It managed to pull off the dark suspense and outright jump out of your seat moments just as well as doom but married this with more varied gameplay, a decent storyline, a good challenge and useful NPCs. For me the NPCs where the stand out, with just about every FPS released in the last few years including some squad elements the one thing they had in common was that your team mates sucked, they got in the way, died too easily and rarely did any damage while their were alive. Quake bucks that trend, you actually felt safer having your buddies around. I never felt they were in my way, they take way more damage that you can and they laid down some serious firepower.

The other highlight was the difficulty, playing through on the middle difficulty (as I always do) this was the first FPS game in a long time where I found myself often dying throughout rather than just at the odd challenging boss. By the end of the game virtually any enemy can knock you dead in a few second and you tend to take on more than one at a time, any mistakes and your quickly reloading. That said I didn't find it frustrating, and once you knew what to expect redoing the fight generally wasn't too hard.

Apart from this the game is fairly standard fair, the mech/tank/tramline levels do well to break the gameplay up, particularly in the early stages of the game, but the vehicle based combat is relativity easy thanks to halo style recharging armor and health and doesn't offer anything you haven't seen before. Likewise while the story contains some interesting characters and is generally an improvement on Doom that's not really saying much. Unfortunately like most other ID products Quake 4 is very linear, you're given one strict path to follow and very little chance to deviate. Finally despite the game only lasting about 7-8 hours things get very repetitive towards the end with wave after wave of similar enemies appearing in each room.

On the multilayer side Q4 plays almost exactly the same as Q3, with nicer graphics and a few weapon tweaks. Opinion seems very divided on whether this ruins the game or saves it. Personally I think Q3 was one of the best online FPS games ever so I'm enjoying it but your mileage may vary. Do be warned the online community is rather small and made up of very talented players, if you never played Q3 online or are a casual FPS player expect the get hammered for quite a while.

After completing it and dedicating some time to multilayer I still find myself divided on this game. It's a definite move forward from Doom 3 but I can't help but feel that ID and their associated developers (in this case longtime collaborators Raven) are still making games the way they did 10 years ago and that just doesn't stack up to the likes of Half-life, Battlefield, FEAR and Call of Duty. That said, those who enjoy pure, fast, shooter action or wanting a bit of a change from team-based online games should have fun.

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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Loco Roco Demo Review

Making use of some free weekend time I updated my PSP to the new 2.70 firmware and downloaded the Loco Roco demo. At the moment only a Japanese version of the demo is available but it runs fine on EU and US systems and controls are rather simple to pick up so the language barier is not really an issue. The game itself is very unique, I would sum it up as a cute, 2D platformer, Katamari and Mercury mash-up, with heavy puzzle elements. You “control” a yellow blob, by tilting the game world using the L and R buttons, pressing both at once causes the blob to jump. The amount you can tilt the screen is limited and the game physics actually control movement, meaning you can't climb a steep hill without a large amount of built up momentum. As you progress you collect flowers which grow your character allowing it to be hit more and giving it greater momentum at high speed but making it hard to move at low speed and too large to access some areas. To counter this you have the ability to break down your larger blob into a number of smaller blobs all of which you control at the same time, so pressing jump causes all small blobs to jump regardless of their location, split them up to much and one by one they die off.

The child-like cuteness of both the graphics and the music is sure to put a few people off but initial indications are the the game play will be rather deep. Unfortunately the demo only seems to include one fairly short level (you will probably finish it in about 5 minutes once you get the hang of the controls) but it does look very promising and I am definitely looking forward to seeing more.

Putting aside the game itself, between this, the new xbox live and the DS download service it's great to see console systems finally get the free, downloadable demos PC gamers have been experiencing for years. Hopefully this is a trend which will continue.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Nintendo Wii??????

I really expected Nintendo to carry the Revolution code name right through to the final product as it summed up exactly what they were trying to achieve but it seems their latest console will ship as the Nintendo Wii. Wii (pronounced we apparently) sounds chilidish to me and comes without any real-world meaning.

This has already sparked a lot of discussion, almost all negative and I, like everybody else, hope they changes it back.
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Picking a new player

After a few months of my nearly 3 year old 3G iPod suffering all sorts of battery issues (full charges lasting between 1 and 5 hours seemingly totally at random and the battery completely draining from full in just a few days, even with no use) I decided to pick up a new player. Initially I considered the top end large hard drive audio/video players but at the end of the day their main selling point, video support, appeared inferior to both my PSP and HTC phone in terms of screen size, supported formats and resolution. Taking video out of the equation and being realistic with myself I know I don’t have any need for a 30GB+ player as my music collection is about 3GB plus however many podcasts I happen to have and I very rarely used by iPod as a USB drive.

Thus I started to look into smaller 4-8GB players and it quickly became evident there were three challengers here, the 4GB Nano, the Zen Micro series and the Sony MP3 Walkman, specifically the NW-A1000. After a quick look around the Sony was the first to be cut as I simply didn’t like the interface. The device looks great but it seems to have sacrificed usability and I found the small 6GB version near impossible to use due to the tiny control wheel. Not to mention the included software for syncing has got virtually universal negative reviews.

The Zen Micro line presented two options, both the standard grey scale 6GB version or the £20 (~US$35) more costly, 8GB, colour, Zen Micro Photo version. After a quick play I found both to be very easy to use, with a great powerful, customisable interface including the ability to delete songs directly from the player which is one of my pet hates on the iPod. Overall I preferred the Photo due to the extra disk space and colour screen for very little extra cost, so that remained on the list.

Finally the nano is of course a great product, I’m already used to the interface, love iTunes and think the design is brilliant. The only downside was the slightly limiting 4GB of space.

At the end of the day it came down to price, the Micro Photo retails for around £140 (~US$250) while the Nano runs about £180 (~US$320), any yes I know we get hammered on prices here but do note these include 17.5% tax. Given that is has double the capacity, an FM tuner and is £40 cheaper the Micro Photo was an easy choice and thus far I have not regretted this in the slightest. Expect a full review soon.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Little bit of catch-up

I have quickly gone through and updated my now playing/watching/listening lists, which basically translates into my life outside work. As you can see there have been a few changes. Firstly I am heavily into both Dragon Quest 8 and Oblivion. It's interesting to compare the two as Oblivion really pushes the boundaries of a single player RPG by taking a lot of elements more commonly found in MMO games, for the most part putting them together well into an enjoyable game, showcaseing why single player is still relevant despite the massive uptake on MMORPG's on the PC. DQ on the other hand really refines the Japanese RPG, cute characters, turn based combat, liner storyline style down to near perfection without introducing anything we haven't seen before. It's almost like seeing the future evolving (Oblivion) while also seeing the perfect example of the past (DQ).

For a bit of a break from the RPGs I have also been working my way through Quake 4. Like most others out while I enjoy the game I can't help but feel it's missing that special something which would take it from being good to being great. Still it's a lot of mindless fun.

On the TV side, Battlestar leaves as we wait 6 or so months for new episodes. I have also cut lost from the list as it has sunk into a huge hole recently in my book. Every episode just seems to bring more questions without answering the myriad we already have and personally I have lost interest. Getting promoted are the soon to be departing Scrubs which I only discovered about a year ago but can't stop watching, undoubtedly the most watch DVDs in my house at the moment. House also makes the list because despite being the same thing every single week I can't help but watch it.

Finally on the podcasting site Diggnation got the drop as they just didn't seem to have any stories of interest to me (which is actually fairly true of the Digg site in general). Buzz out load takes it place as they manage to put together an interesting podcast every day of the week. This has become my number one source of news over the past few months and one of the few podcasts I really look forward to hearing.

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Holiday Season

It seems the next month is holiday season for me, having just returned from a great trip to Tunisia (which was an amazing place to visit and unlike anywhere I have been before), I have a trip home to Australia next week and finally a quick stay in France toward the end of may. Best of all, all of these are holidays rather than work related. I always knew there was at least a few good reasons to live in London and cheap, diverse travel options has got to be near the top of the list.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion thoughts

After spending a few weeks with Oblivion I still find myself a little torn. This is defiantly one of the best PC RPGs for the past 5 years but it also has a few issues that I feel can detract greatly from the gameplay. On the positive side the game manages to accomplish what so many MMORPGs currently fail to do in giving you a world you are free to explore and quest through and importantly will actually enjoy yourself doing so. When playing the Auto Assault open beta I was often struck by just how repetitive and mindless the game play is. I was simple killing the same people over and over again, it wasn’t so much having fun as simply passing time. Oblivion counters that with a deep and varied world and vitally interesting quests and tasks. Quests are rarely simple, often don’t require any combat and are generally complex, requiring a series takes to be completed often in different locations or only available at specific times. This gives virtually limitless possibilities and helps keep things constantly fresh and engaging.

The game world and particularly those who inhabit it keep up this vibe. As has been heavily covered the AI is very free willed with people going about normal daily lives rather than just standing in one place night and day week after week. This helps bring the world to life but can also cause some frustration when that character you have to find heads off to see a friend in city on the other side of the game world. Enemy AI is based on a similar system and enemies will continue to chase you through different areas if they have the upper hand and often try to run when being defeated.

On the downside the levelling system is terribly unbalanced and unintuitive. The root of the problem is that enemies and items gained by beating them and finishing quests level up along with the player. This is fine in theory but as with any RPG your power is very reliant on how you level up (in this case what skills you focus on) and what items you use. If you fall don’t happen to level well for a few levels or don’t buy the more powerful equipment and spells you can quickly fall behind the power curve expected by the game and at point things fall apart. To get the money or equipment required to become more powerful you need to kill things or finish quests which in turn levels you up and leaves you even weaker in comparison to the monsters.

In general playing the game focusing on only one of the 3 main classes (thief, fighter or mage) will result in a frustratingly difficult experience. Oblivion seems to rely on the player creating a character that uses skills from all three classes and then putting the time into levelling all of these in a balanced manner.

The levelling system will be very noticeable to those who power level their character and then expect to romp through the rest of the game, which is how I tend to play games. In the end my in game time suggests this wasn’t enough to put me off this superb game.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Welcome to the TV revolution, finally

I am a little behind the ball here but just a few months after hooking up digital TV (with the 30ish freeview channels available here in London) I was so frustrated by constantly missing quality shows and never having anything decent to watch when I was home that I decided to pick up a PVR. I selected the DigiFusion FVRT95 as it was fairly cheap, did what I needed and in general DigiFusion seemed to be the most popular brand on the market (although that somewhat like saying Microsoft make a popular OS in that there are a lot of people who vigorously disagree). In general the unit does as it should, it looks very stylish in the living room, 45 hours of recording is reasonable more than enough for my use, controls are simple and straight forward. I have had a few issues/hangs but nothing major and resetting it has always solved the problem.

On the PVR idea itself I am as addicted as everybody else, it really does change the way you watch TV. Each night we now get to sit down and watch our favourite shows rather than whatever happens to be on and as an added bonus no ads (if we remember to fast forward, which I found takes some getting used too). It really is so simple yet so useful that you have to wonder why it took this long to start becoming the norm.

My only problem now it getting good recommendations on what new shows to pick up. Unfortunately unlike a Tivo this doesn’t have any recommendation system nor a season pass feature so every few days we need to go through and select shows to record. Overall though it was well worthwhile and I would hate to have to go back to just watching whatever was actually showing at the time. It’s a lot like picking up a MP3 player for the first time and realising you don’t need a radio anymore.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

XDA Mini S/HTC Wizard review

About 3 weeks ago I received my new mobile phone a XDA Mini-S (aka the i-mate K-Jam, HTC Wizard, QTEK 9100, MDA Vario). This is one loaded little phone/PDA. It has everything you would expect from a modern phone in voice calls, SMS, MMS, a 1.3 MP camera, bluetooth and games then adds useful PDA functions like a real operating system (allowing for 3rd party applications), Wifi networking, a full qwerty keyboard, touchscreen and stylus operation, a mobile office suite and automatic synchronization with outlook (for contacts, calenders, tasks and e-mail) and media player (for audio and video). Amazingly all of this manages to fit into a 160g device which isn't any larger than many of the early 3G phones from last year. Sure it's No RAZR but is fits in my pocket without a problem.

Overall it makes an decent phone, particularly for those who text more than talk, which sums me up perfectly. I say decent because I find the touch screen interface a little annoying for making calls, there's something nice about the tactile feedback of normal buttons. Also trying to call somebody on your contact list or send an SMS really requires use of either the stylus or keyboard which will be annoying for people accustom to operating their phone with one hand. Once you get used to the two handed operation though I find texting far quicker and love the outlook style filing system.

The real strength of this device isn't as a phone, it's all the other functions its capable of. I wrote a article about convergence a few weeks ago basically saying that I thought mobile devices should stick to doing one or two functions well rather than trying to do everything. Simply put, this device changed my mind on this. Despite their simplicity I have played far more games on it than either my DS or PSP simple because it is always in my pocket for a quick 10 minute game on the train home, or a half hour when the (very common) sudden delay strikes. The 2.8 inch screen isn't huge but it's reasonable for most viewing video, it replaced my PSP here, again because it always with me anyway and saves carrying another device every day. Not to mention it's whole interface and controls for video playback are far superior, it supports many more formats and I never miss a call this way.

My only real complaint with this phone is that is doesn't come with a built in hard drive. Bundle this with 10GB or more of storage and I think it would instantly replace my MP3 player, making it pretty much the perfect all in one portable device for me.