Sunday, March 19, 2006

Battlestar Galactica season 2

I finally watched the season finale of BG today and for me is was a disappointing conclusion to a weak string of episodes. This second half of the second season has deflated what was one of the greatest science fiction shows on TV in my book. In recent months we have had a few just plain bad episodes in Black Market and Scar surrounded by a bunch of mediocre outings containing some truly terrible character development, poor stroylines, huge plot holes and disappointing resolutions to long running arcs.

I felt let down by the resolution of the plots involving Roslin's cancer and Sharon baby, both had been running for over a season and to each be whisked away in a matter of minutes seemed blunt for the normally well written show. Then there were the character problems with serious relationships popping up all over the place where they had been not a hint in the past, the morally lead Roslin, abandoning all her beliefs and rigging a democratic election, both Tyrol and Starbuck having serious breakdowns out of the blue, and receiving little support. Finally there are the plot holes, like a known cylon living among the colony, raising support but somehow going unnoticed, all the people involved in fixing the election maintaining relativity high profile jobs and apparently facing no disciplinary action, and a clearly advanced civilization with the equipment and knowledge to maintain (and even build) spaceships taking over a year to build a village that looks like something out of lost and apparently has no defensive capability.

I understand the need to keep a series fresh and that simply running away for 5 seasons would make for a boring show but with such talented and mature writing for the first 30 episodes I am stunned this was the best they could come up with. I'll probably tune in again next season, as a strong foundation has been laid but it won't be with the anticipation and expectation I held in the past.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Auto Assault open beta thoughts

As I begin to tire of Guild Wars a bit I have been thinging about picking up a new MMORPG for a little varity having played WoW before Guild Wars I am looking to move away from the fantasy, swords and magic gameplay. Auto Assault seemed like a great option and previews thus far had been positive so I decided to check out the open beta running this weekend. For a quick bit of background the game is sent in a post apociliptic future with 3 different factions (pure humans, mutants and biomeks), the big draw here is the you spend almost the while game in a vehical rather than on foot resulting in some fresh gameplay opertunities.

Having sunk about 10 hours into it so far i have to say my feelngs are rather mixed. The vechial based combat is excellent, everything happens at a very fast pace and requires far more interactive than the normal click and wait MMORPG combat. Coustomisation is also supurb with both the characther and the car to play around with there is an upgraded part to test or a different skill to play with. Not to mention having a car means that the often frustrating travel times from other MMORPGs are virtually gone as you speed across the maps. The inventory system is also handy as when you select a part ist will compare it to the part of that type you already have installed making it very simple to quickly pick the best ine, install it and get on with the game.

Unfortunatly thats about where the positive expirence ends. Missions are particually bad with virtually all being generic "collect x of these", "kill x of them" or "take this to him/her". I was really hoping for more here given the freedom and versitility of being in a car, but I have now completed over 100 missions and thus far only 1 has been a race and none have involved anything like tricks/jumps/stunts or even "drive through this area of powerful enemies without being killed". This repetition in continued in the enemies, maps seem to break down to different people asking you to kill the exact same enemies over and over again until you finally progress to the next town, sucking much of the fun out of combat. This constent back and forth is made all more mind numbing by the relitivly poor graphics and peformance. I'm not normally one to be bothered by graphics but there are some extreamly bad pop-up issues here with objects suddenly appearing just meters ahead of you, not much fun when traveling at high speed, or trying to fell an enemy. Considering the limited draw distance and genrally uninspired graphical look of the game, peformance wasn't particually strong either with fairly common slow down and pauses. The final issue I had was you feel very thrown in the deep end and its often not clear at all what is actually expected of you, many missions don't have waypoints or clear instructions and the interface and vehical systems (such as engine overheating) are never clearly explained.

While this is a beta, and thus some bugs are expected, the game is due out in roughly a month but unfortunatly there are still a number of show stopping issues. The most frustrating are the sound issues with the prime offender being initial gun for amlost all characters. This continues to play its mechine gun style firing sound after you stop shotting, constantly. The only way to fix this is to disable then re-enable it every time you enter a new map, which deactivates all noise from the gun and combat in general, making it imposable to tell when you are shooting, a fatal flaw so earily in the game, which has already put many players off the game. These kind of sound issues continue through out with random drop-outs making combat a challange. The physics engine sufferes simmiler issues with a number if items (and vehicals) hanging in mid air and others being destroyed seemingly at random, particually frustrating when the destroyed object is a quest point. On top of this are the normal beta issues of fairly common error messages, issues with some missions/NPC as well both combat and economic imbalance. One can only hope thses are identified and corrected.

I was really hoping this game could breath some life into a genre which desperaty needs some originality and the combat system definattly achived that. Unfortunatly it is let down by extreamly poor misions, dated graphics and some frustrating bugs. At the end of the day if I am going to pay £10 a month on top the the normal entry fee I want something that really sets itself apart and unfortunatly AA doesn't quite deliver of that front.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Finally some PS3 details

After clinging to their spring 2006 release date and keeping tight lipped about anything else Sony has finally released some details on the PS3. The main announcement of their press conference was a worldwide (Asia, North America and Europe) release of the PS3 set for November with 6 million units predicted to hit the market this year. A few other details were also released:
- A free "basic" online service will be available at launch allowing voice chat and lobby matching.
- The system will require (and ship with) a upgradeable 60GB hard drive allowing the system to run linux.
- 100% PS1 and PS2 backward compatibility allowing these games to be played in HD.
- all PS3 will be on blu-ray disks.
Unfortunately no pricing or launch line-up was announced.

The worldwide release planed for just a month before Christmas (where have we seen that before) doesn’t seem like a smart move, as somebody living in the UK delayed releases are frustrating but so is being unable to buy a console for 3 months after its release. I for one wouldn’t mind waiting till say Feb 2007 if it meant fewer shortages in all territories. The online service sounds a lot like xbox live but interestingly there was no mention of actually playing games online or whether this system is required in games, as with xbox 360 or an optional extra like the massively underused infrastructure mode on the PSP. All games being available on the blu-ray have raised questions about software pricing as the physical discs are more expensive than DVDs, at least initially, and 360 games are already commanding a sizable premium over last gen games, could we really see $70/£55 games? The hard drive and backwards compatibility seems to be the true bright point, MS dropped the ball on both points with the 360 and Sony made no such error, these are becoming must have features in modern consoles.

In general the news released seems somewhat reassuring but deliberately vague and lacking anything to really make the system stand out. The vital points of both hardware and software pricing where avoided and the online plans provided more questions than answers. Not to mention nothing at all in terms of games on display or announced as launch titles leaves me feeling that actual software could be a little thin at launch but there is always E3 for more details on this front. Overall this was a much needed event to put a stop to some of the rampant speculation going on and sure up some of the concern regarding the release. Well played Sony.

More Details at IGN.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Convergence, is it really a good idea?

Following on from the UMPC/Origami/touch screen video IPod/Apple tablet news, rumors and speculation I have been thinking about the convergence. For those who don’t know convergence (in this sense at least) refers to combining multiple functions into one device, the end goal being that rather than having a PDA, mobile phone, music player, video player, gaming system, portable internet station, ultra portable laptop and Sat Nav system you would have one device that could perform all these functions. Despite being talked about at virtually every technology keynote for the past three years, there are very few devices which have managed to even integrate two or three of the above functions with any amount of success, let alone all 8.

One of the issues standing in the way of convergence at the moment is simple the cost, combining 8 devices which separately cost at least $100 each suddenly leaves you with one very expensive device, as can be seen with the UMPC. For $1000 your get a device which should be able to do almost everything listed above (with the exception of mobile phone functionality) but has very limited battery life, is far too big to use as an mp3 player in most real world situations (such as working out at the gym), doesn’t have the publisher/developer support or interface to replace a DS or PSP, can’t be carried in a pocket limiting its usefulness as a PDA and has no keyboard making it a weak replacement to a laptop. Not to mention you still need a dedicated mobile phone. Basically for $1000 you get a device that really doesn’t do anything particularly well apart from possibly video playback and wireless internet connectivity.

This brings us to the big issue stopping convergence at the moment, some of these devices simply don’t compliment each other. My mobile phone or PDA needs to be fairly small, small enough to fit it in a pocket at very least, on the other hand when looking at an ultra portable laptop, internet station or video player I would want a least a 4 inch screen, and really something more like 6 inch+, particularly for the laptop. Similarly with a mp3 player I want it to be as small and light as possible, if I want to go for a walk/jog I should be able to easily slip it in a pocket or strap it to me arm and not even notice it. This is a fundamental difference in the interface/presentation of each device, with current display technology there is never going to be a device that works well as both an mp3 player and a portable laptop, they simply have a totally different and incompatible list of requirements and expectations.

The few convergence devices which have been successful have succeeded for very reason that they were complimentary. For example try finding a PDA now that doesn’t offer mobile phone functionality or for that matter a phone without some basic PDA functionality. Have much luck?

Both these devices have the same requirements, both are should be small enough to fit in your pocket, both are meant carried with you at all times, both have battery life measured in days rather than hours, the screen size required is not huge with the overall device size being more important, often the two devices store the same information such as contact details, both devices are used primarily for short text and number input meaning their interfaces are similar. These are two devices which should be together, you could argue that should always have been integrated. That is how convergence should work.

Sat Nav also now being added to these phone/PDA which again seems to be a perfect combination, so long as the screen is a decent size which is becoming more common on phones. Music playback is another option many are looking at on phones but this is not such a neat fit, as many are finding, a music device needs a simple quick interface, not a complex mini keyboard, phones need to last a least a few days without requiring a charge under normal use, most mp3 player can’t provide this if left on all day, phone memory is counted in MBs not the GBs needed for music. These issues are starting to be countered by large capacity flash drives, cleaner interface design and improvement it battery technology but I am still a long way from trading in my 20GB IPod for a phone.

That was quite a rant really but something I just wanted to put out there.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Intel UMPC details

Well the first real details of the UMPC product from Intel (which seems very closely related to, if not exactly the same as, Microsoft’s Origami) have been released and I have to say I’m rather disappointed. The device itself seems reasonable, though not amazing, with a 7 inch screen touch screen, standard x86 processor, windows XP tablet and wi-fi capabilities. The down fall is the fact that the first version of the device will ship with just a 3 hour battery, which puts a big question mark next to their portability particularly given that the quoted 3 hours is probably under relatively light use like listening to music, as opposed to something battery draining like playing a video over the wi-fi connection. Additionally the UMPC will retail for “under” $1,000, unless under $1000 actually means $500 this is well above the price most will pay for what is essentially a portable media device. For around $1,000 you can easily get a decent mid-range laptop which will probably be more powerful and have longer battery life not to mention having a real keyboard, sure it lacks a little in portability but with a 7 inch screen the UMPC isn’t exactly something that will fit in your pocket either.

It seems Intel (and Microsoft assuming the Origami is much the same device) are missing the mark here and releasing a product with some major flaws at a price point well outside what mainstream users will spend. That said they have mentioned subsequent models, released over the next few years, could have a battery life up to a day and retail for around $500. Now that’s a device I would be excited about.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The 100 greatest games of all time.. in Japan

Massive Japanese gaming mag Famitsu has published a top 100 games of all time list based on the results of a reader survey. The list makes for very interesting reading if only to note how truly different Japaneses gaming tastes are from those in the west. Two things are clear, the Japanese love RPG, be they tactical, turn based affairs or fast paced action titles, particularly the ones from Enix and Square and they love their franchises, although the same could be said about western gamers. Combine the two points and note the dominance of Dragon Quest (with 6 titles in the top 20) and Final Fantasy (with 8 titles in the top 25).
The most interesting point in my mind is that Japanese gamers simply don't seem interested at all in games produced internationally. Just one truly non-Japanese game features on the list, GTA: Vice City at 76. Some may contest that Japanese gamers simply have different tastes but this list seems to indicate they, or at least publishers there, actively avoid western products. While Role Playing Games absolutely dominate the list titles like Knights of the Old Republic series and Jade Empire don't get a look in despite being very story/character driven “Japaneses style” RPGs, and in the case of KOTOR having a leading franchise behind it. Similarly while third person action games like Dynasty Warriors, Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil feature heavily, particularly in the lower half of the list, acclaimed titles like Gods Of War, Tomb Raider (the original one), the rest of the GTA series miss out.
Another noteworthy point is that the top 25 features only one title released since 2002, seeming to reinforce the fact that traditionally console gaming is in decline in Japan bucking the trend of growth in the rest of the world.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Latest Apple Hype

I wasn’t going to comment on this but I think the completely let down feeling resonating through the tech/blog community is worth mentioning. As everybody knows Apple had one of their much hyped press events yesterday resulting in the release of a more expensive but Intel based Mac mini, an expensive leather IPod case and a hugely expensive speaker/dock for the IPod. Since this announcement the web has been ablaze with comments criticizing all three products both for their excessive cost and the fact that there really isn’t anything special here, certainty nothing requiring a press conference.

Apple is put in something of a hard spot here, while they have always had a group of devoted followers the overwhelming success of the IPod, ITunes, Music Store combination has put them clearly at the front of “new media revolution” and made them the focus of massive media and community attention, and given amzing goodwill (and thus high expectations) from “tech savvy” consumers rivaling that of Google’s. In just the last year these events have be used to release some remarkable, market changing products such as the nano and video IPods, ITunes with podcast and video support, Intel Macs and Front Row so understandably the tech world seems to stop for the week preceding these events, totally dominated by rumors, predictions and speculation.

In this case the rumors, such as a true video IPod, a PVR Mac Mini, and even movies on ITunes all seemed realistic and proved far more interesting than the actual products released. I think Apple must have realized this and was trying to stoke their own fire a little here and keep their name in the headlines, attached to products that probably will be released something in the future, and get some publicity for a products they must have realized where never going to grab much consumer attention. Unfortunately for them consumers were expecting something remarkable and they have end up being slated by everybody and seen their stock price take a slight slide. This announcement clearly didn’t need an event, the new Mini, while necessary, offers nothing new, a simple press release would have been sufficient and many would argue the case and speaker should never have been released at all as there are numerous third party products doing a better job at far better price points. The problem with basing a company heavily on goodwill and premium products is that most consumers are very fickle and I know many will approach the next Apple event with lower expectations.

Interestingly in a total role reversal it seems Microsoft’s Origami has managed to steal a lot of the Apple hype. Given that Apple seem reluctant to move seriously into video, if the Origami delivers on expectation and is coupled with a reasonable online store for content Microsoft could quickly move into a powerful position in the portable media market.