Sunday, February 26, 2006

Trackmania Nations Review

Trackmania Nations: Electronic Sports Wold Cup Edition (to give it's full name) has been getting a fair bit of hype recently and with good reason. The third game in the relatively unknown Trackmania series is all about online competitive play and representing your country. The majority of the game is played online (you can play tracks offline too) with each player being ranked on their times and adding to their countries total in the world wide competition. Nations makes use of a nice graphic engine, with great looking, single seat, cars and fairly simply but functional environments, it runs brilliantly on the relatively simply tracks that come with the game, but some more elaborate user name tracks can cause some frame rate issues though.

Gameplay is a simple matter of reaching the end of the track as quickly as possible, all racing is done against the clock rather than against the other players in the server. Everybody has 6 minutes on each track to put in the fastest lap before being sent to the next track. This leads to some hectic racing as the tracks tend to offer a few tricky jumps or corners which take a few attempts to learn, so the top times are normally set in the last 2 minutes when everybody has picked up the ins and outs of the track. While you can see all your opponents on the track with you, this is all about beating the clock and as such there are no collisions, carts just pass right through each other.

The physics/driving engine is the star of the game, the cars themselves are very simple with no gears and a very light, easy to drive, cart-like feel, but the physics bring the complexity. The tracks have small barriers around their edges but once you fall off there isn’t a way to get back on, you have to restart your lap, as a result keeping you car under control and on the track is vital, particularly over some of the huge jumps. Rolling your car has a similar effect to falling of the track meaning that landing jumps, and avoiding high speed wall collisions is also important. These physics and some skillfully designed tracks combine to make a very challenging and original game.

Considering its free there is no reason not to give this a try.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Acer MP-500 portable video player

I have been using my PSP more and more recently to play video content, be it vid casts or TV shows. I find the small form factor, compared to typical portable DVD players or laptops, to be excellent for watching while on normally fairly full tubes or buses on the way to and from work, or even as a replacement to reading just before going to sleep. Of course the limited memory is a huge issue as it limits the amount of media I can load up and means I have to transfer new content across almost every day. With my 3G IPod nearing the end of its life I have been looking to pick up something to replace both the IPod and PSP as my portable audio and video player. It seems the perfect device will be available very soon.

3.5 inch touch screen, 20-40GB Hard Drive, support for MP3, WMA, MPEG, MPEG-4 (DivX and XviD), Video out and battery life of 4-8 hours. Remarkably the price starts at only $350 and could be released on my side of the Atlantic (ie Europe) within a month. The battery life seems a little sort, assuming 8 hours is for audio playback, and the lack of a widescreen display keep if from being perfect, but with those exceptions this is the device I have been looking for.

There seem to be some mixed reactions to this going around much of which is based on Acer rather than the product itself, personally I have a Acer laptop and have found it to be excellent. I’ve never had a problem with it and it was remarkable value for money, sure the build quality isn’t perfect but I would still place it as better than the PSP in that regard and for a budget laptop you kind of expect that. This has defiantly go straight to the top of birthday wish list.

London wide Wi-fi network

I’m a little late on this one but it seems there are some serious plans to have a large wi-fi network set up covering the entire City of London, do note the City of London area is only a small segment of what most consider London city and doesn’t cover the consumer focused areas such as Oxford Street, Piccadilly or Covent Gardens. The project is expected to be completed within the six months with the first parts up and running within the next few weeks. Aimed at the 350,000 workers in the business/financial district, this would become the largest wi-fi network in Europe.

Given the number of handheld wi-fi enabled devices available now, including PDAs, mobile phones and game systems I think this is a move we can expect to see in many more cities, although it will be interesting to see how the plan is financed (there is no mention of cost in the initial releases). Personally I normally carry at least one wi-fi enabled device with me at any given time and a network like this would be great for getting a little extra use out of these devices, even if it just downloading a new video to my PSP while at work for example.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

TimeShift Demo

One of the things I love about PC gaming is the ability to play a demo of virtually any game before buying and in many cases even before their release. I find it a great way to experience different games, eliminate games that I simply don't enjoy as well as uncovering those that I do. As a result I tend to play a lot of demos even of games I don't really have an interest in buying, many times a good demo has resulted me in turning around and buying a game I never expected to enjoy such as the movies a few weeks.

This evening I played through the TimeShift demo. I had heard nothing of this game before but xfire had downloaded the demo so I decided to give it a shot. The game itself feels a lot like a more action packed version of FEAR. The enemy AI again stands out with guards acting like real guards (patrolling areas, chatting amongst themselves) until they see you and quickly scatter and head for cover. As the title suggests you have the ability to manipulate time either slowing everything down or totally pausing everything for a short period of time. Like FEAR this made combat very simple and some what wasted the decent AI. This is fairly standard and I think we will see a lot more games with a similar feel to FEAR over the next few years thanks to its great success, the reason I am writing this though is the length of the demo. It takes about 10 minutes, max, to play though from beginning to end on your first run. It contains 3 short cut scenes, 3 quick firefights and a few simple “puzzles” (I use that word very loosely as there is no challenge at all) to introduce the timeshift ability.

Why make people download a 200MB file then offer just 10 minutes of fairly generic gameplay. There was no back story given, no characters introduced, nothing gameplay wise we hadn't seen before, basically no reason to give the game a second thought at all. I really can't see how anybody is meant to make their mind up about a game in such a short space of time and as such don't see the point to the demo. I just need to get that off my chest.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Windows Vista Versions

This has been doing the rounds for a while but it seems that Microsoft have officially settled on the various versions of Windows Vista as follows:

Windows Starter 2007 - Vista without Aero, probably meant for developing nations.

Windows Vista Home Basic - Basic Windows Vista for your “mainstream” PC user, gets the job done. Analogous to XP Home.

Windows Vista Home Basic N - European version of the same, but without Media Player (because of antitrust rulings against MS in the EU).

Windows Vista Home Premium – This one probably appeals to me the most. All the functions of Basic with the addition of Media Center functionality and Cable Card support.

Windows Vista Business - XP Pro, but Vista.

Windows Vista Business N – EU, no media player version.

Windows Vista Enterprise - Business version of Vista with numerous enterprise features, like Virtual PC, volume encryption, etc.

Windows Vista Ultimate – Does all of the above, plus a few more tricks all of its own

(Straight from Engadget)

This has been copping a lot of flack as people have commented that there are too many versions but to be fair one (starter 2007) will probably not be available to consumers in developed nations and the two N variants don’t really count as actual different versions. Realistically consumers have three different options, Basic, Premium and Ultimate each clearly having a defined market with Basic likely to be the cheapest and sufficient for the typical browse the web, chat/e-mail with friends, play with photos, write the odd document user. While Premium is aimed at those who are looking to use the media center functions, essentially serving the came propose as media center edition at the moment, this is defiantly a growing audience but it’s still something that doesn’t need to be in the basic package. Finally ultimate will be those who just need to have the best version and home businesses who would want both home and business functionality. As I’m not an IT buyer/manager I’m not going to comment on the business line-up but to me is seems sense.

In general while names have changed but the versions seem to be fairly in line with XP offerings with the addition of the everything for everyone Ultimate edition.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Latest PS3 talk

As Sony continues to say nothing at all about the PS3 speculation from virtually everybody else continues. Gaming news and discussion this week was dominated by rumors of a xbox live style multiplayer system for the console. Now we have claims from analyst firm Merrill Lynch that each system will contain around $800 worth of parts. This compared to earlier releases placing the component cost of the xbox 360 at around $540. While not a solid indication of price it does seem unlikely that the PS3 will be about to compete directly with the 360 price wise if these costs are accurate. That said a number of the prices look a little suspicious, primarily $350 for a BluRay drive for example, if they really do cost this much, just for the drive with no mark-up, BluRay will struggle.

I think this points to a bigger issue with the PS3 though, that is for a system supposedly due out within the next 6/8 months we still know nothing at all about it, sure we have a spec list the main components are custom parts with no consumer product to compare them to. More importantly we have yet to see an actual running game, the final controller design, a list of launch titles, pricing or anything like a reasonable release date. I understand Sony wants to protect (read milk) the PS2 for as long as possible and showing of amazing next gen titles is a sure fire way to stop people buying current gen product, but at some point they have to accept that the the next generation is here and it's time for them to join in.

Thus far that have been lucky that the 360 has been near impossible to find and doesn't have any truly must have titles but that won't last forever. The Revolution also looks to be coming along well and should be in stores for Christmas, while the PS3 slowly slips towards a 2007 release. All eyes now move to the GDC at the end of march where it's now rumored that Sony will finally give some real details on the console, all the while each time a see a 360 it's looking more tempting.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Maxthon Browser

After seeing a recent recommendation on DT.TV a decided to take a look at the Maxthon browser (formally called MyIE2). Previously at work I had used IE as our internal tools don’t fully function on Firefox, not to mention that on a relatively low spec, overworked business computer the resource hungry Firefox is not the best option. Of course IE has its own share of issues and isn’t exactly resource friendly either once you open a few windows. Having just stated using Maxthon I am blown away.
Being based on the Trident rendering engine, pages in Maxthon look and function virtually exactly the same as IE, this isn’t a huge issue for most anymore (Gecko and Firefox have come a long way in this regard) but is still very handy and vital in my case. In fact the whole browser has a very IE feel to it with a similar user interface, making it very simple to pick up and use, it even makes use of things like my IE cookies (so all my automatic log-ins still work) and favorites, making the transition totally painless. Maxthon then extends and on basic IE browsing experience by adding features such as tabbed browsing, integrated RSS reading, mouse gestures, skins and extensions while somehow managing to reduce the memory footprint to virtually nothing and generally feeling far more responsive than its main competitors. The difference in performance is actually rather staggering, using either Firefox or IE with 5 windows/tabs opens quickly has them consuming well over 100MB of RAM on this system while Maxthon currently has 5 tabs open and is using just 10MB at max and dropping to 5MB or less regularly, a better than tenfold improvement.
To me this seems like the perfect alternate browser to IE, offering all the usability and compatibility that current IE users are accustom to, while adding the sorts of features that are attracting users to browsers like Firefox and Opera, all with performance that frankly puts the big players to shame. The fact that its only been in stable release for about 6 months explains much of its lack of coverage/popularity but expect to be hearing a lot more about this amazing browser very soon.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

DigiGuide, Online TV Guide

Who would have thought trying to find a decent listing of programme times for TV shows would have been so hard. Most sites claiming to have this service offered poor listings (unsearchable, little or no description of shows, limited number of channels) and pages so covered in ads it was hard to find what limited information they did provide. Don’t even think about anything advanced like selecting/limiting which stations I want to view or tracking a favorite show.
Eventually I came across DigiGuide who seem to have capitalized on this lack of a free service by creating a rather impressive paid service. They essentially has everything I need with a 14-day guide, detailed descriptions, show tracking and the ability to only view channels I actually receive provided in both online and offline versions. My only issue is that it costs £9 a year (which in fairness isn’t much at all) for either the online or offline version. For some reason the two versions seem to be totally separate and not compatible which it a bit of a downside as being able set everything up in a quick offline environment then check the listings daily and make the odd adjustment online would have been great. Also the online demo is fairly cutback making it hard to evaluate how useful the service actually is. A trial of the offline version is also available which I will be checking out tonight before deciding if it’s worth a purchase or not.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

PS3 Live

The rumors regarding a PS3 live type service are gaining speed, it even has a name now, PlayStation HUB. I think the xbox live service is amazing, a game live Forza is far more enjoyable due to the fact that you can compare your time in every single-player event with tens of thousands of other gamers and download videos of the top players not to mention the great, easy to use multiplayer modes. The upgraded service on the 360 with the very popular and widely praised arcade system, gamer points in every game and downloadable demos seems to be one of the main selling points of the console at the moment.
Given this the idea that Sony wouldn’t offer any similar system seems a little short sighted but they have been making some questionable decisions of late. It will be interesting to see if Sony can get this service up and running, not to mention finishing off the rest of the console, in time for a launch this year and I will wait for more details before making any more comments but for the time being I am pleased to hear this service will be available as I feel it brings a lot of the console experience as a whole.

UMD Movie

I have been using my PSP for watching movies/TV shows far more than gaming recently. I actually find it rather good for this, sure the memory is a little limiting (I get about 2 and a half hours of video on my 512 stick, just enough for 3 "hour long" TV shows) but the screen really is amazing and I love the fact it saves my position in the video when it gets switched off. This feature in particular I think it vital in a portable movie player as I like to get off the tube/bus at the right station rather than when my show ends 10 minutes later.
For Valentines day I received my first UMD movie, Robots, and I am surprised to find the format growing on me. I have always been skeptical of the UMD movie idea for all the normal reasons, namely cost, interoperability and lack of features. Now I had a change to actually watch one I am changing my position. The video and audio quality were both flawless, at least as good as what is offered on my (admittedly not particularly special) TV. Sure there are no extras but looking at my DVD collection I can safely safe I haven’t watched the extra features on the vast majority of them as for the most part they tend to be similar, bland, behind the scenes/making of features, and time consuming audio commentaries. This is great on your favorite movie or when done by a favorite director/writer/actor but for most movies I own I’m simply not that interested. Something like Robots is the perfect example of this, enjoyable enough movie and probably worth a re-watch somewhere down the line but not something I care enough about to warrant listening to an hour and a half of commentary on or watching yet another "this is how we create a 3D animated scene" feature. So with the extra issue out of the way the only other issue with UMD is the cost, why pay more for the limited UMD format when I can just get the DVD and convert the video to play on my PSP if I want too. Sony seem to have woken up to this and pricing seems to be becoming more reasonable, with a number of titles available at under £8 (about US$13) in high street stores and even better details available if you are willing to hunt around. This is roughly the same price as catalogue DVDs. New release UMDs still seem to be unreasonably expensive but if I want a movie at release its probably something I am interested in seeing special features/commentaries for too so that’s not really as issue for me.
The one big trade off that still exists is that only one person can watch a UMD movie so its not something I would consider for movies my girlfriend would like to watch but
for things she won’t watch/enjoy (primarily horror/thriller flicks and some science fiction) it actually makes a lot of sense for me to look at the UMD option. There is something I never through I would say.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Digital TV

I entered the digital world today. After picking up a new TV over the weekend I finally hooked up my Digital STB and within seconds had about 30 free perfect quality channels open to me. Not too bad for a indoor aerial (which came free with the TV) and a £20 STB, no monthly fees here.
I have to say the range offered on freeview is well worth the one off cost of the set top box. Already I can see men and motors will get a lot of play time. Along with the two live Olympic channels, and the music video ones apparently.

Anyway for those in the UK I would suggest checking it out, now I just need to find a good online guide so I can keep track of what is on each night, any suggestions?

I'm Back

Well its been a while but I have decided to resurrect the blog and try and get in the habit of posting again. Hopefully the posts will start rolling tomorrow.