Tag Archives: video game

The End of a Console Era

Xbox ConsolesThe video-game market has changed vastly since 2005. In the eight years since the Xbox 360 heralded the start of the seventh generation of video-games, we have seen the launch of the PS3, Wii, Wii U, PS Vita, iPhone, iPad, Android and the 3DS. Steam has become one of the most powerful content distribution platforms in the world, allowing independent developers and small studios to rapidly reach a large audience and a plethora of kickstarted projects are challenging the dominance of not just the major publishing houses but of the console manufacturers themselves.

Now, with the AMD-based PlayStation 4 due to launch at the end of the year and the successor to the Xbox 360 due to be unveiled on the 21st of May, we stand at the start of the eighth generation of video games. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

Since the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 launched, both systems have changed considerably. Microsoft and Sony both pushed updates to their consoles taking advantage of built-in internet connections to turn them into digital media centres, where you could access the internet, watch TV, read about the US Presidential election or play games. It also allowed both companies, although particularly Microsoft, to put adverts, often paid for by other companies, front and centre on the household television screen.

In terms of the next generation, it sounds very much like both Sony and Microsoft want to ensure that their respective consoles are the centre of the home (in contrast to Nintendo who promote the fact that the Wii U can play some games without the use of a television allowing family members to engage in different activities together in the same room). Partnerships with major content providers and interoperability with handheld consoles and smartphones are being trumpeted.

There is also a hint of desperation in the air. Sony recently acquired Gaikai, a company which specialises in streaming games over the internet and is working with a number of big name independent developers to promote their new console as an easy development platform. Both Microsoft and Sony have been dogged by rumours about the consoles requiring constant internet connections while playing games as an anti-piracy measure, despite the fact that large swathes of Europe and America, core markets for games consoles, don’t have reliable internet connections.

The desperation isn’t surprising. A large swathe of the world is still seeing low or negative growth, outgoings are rising and incomes are falling. Yet videogame publishers and manufactures still have to persuade people to pay for £50 games and £300 consoles. If rumours are anything to go by, they could shortly be trying to sell us consoles using near off-the-shelf components for £400 or £500 instead. These systems are unlikely to have full back compatibility with their predecessors due to the difficulty emulating their complex PowerPC-based processors on mid-level x86-based hardware and both are expected to come with motion controllers as standard, potentially limiting their usefulness in smaller homes.

My response to this is disappointment. I love my Xbox with a passion. It’s been my primary gaming machine since 2007, when it became too expensive for me to upgrade my PC’s ageing socket 754 Athlon 64 processor, AGP Geforce 6800 GT graphics card and the motherboard at the same time, but impossible to upgrade the components one by one due to socket 754 and AGP being phased out. I want to be able to keep playing all of my games on a successor console, preferably one I can transfer all of my save files to easily, I want graphics which exceed the standard of current mid-to-high level PCs and I want it to be worth the money I’m paying for it. But it doesn’t seem like the next generation of consoles will meet these criteria, especially with the corporate attitudes which gave rise to the ad-flooded upgrade of the Xbox 360 dashboard.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 19.10.04Its’s a different story for PC gaming though. The way in which Valve have managed Steam, with aggressive sales, low priced bundles of games from large and small developers, pre-loading of unreleased software and competitive pricing has created a fertile market for mainstream and indie games. Indy developers now have a real income stream, with games such as FTL and Dear Esther seeing success to rival triple-A retail titles. There is real competition in the market, with new games such as Skyrim, Tomb Raider and Watch_Dogs selling for £10 to £15 less than their console versions. The Steam model is so strong that it’s inspired successful competitors such as GOG, who specialise in packaging older games so they work on modern computer systems and selling them for $5 to $10.

It seems that the initial outlay for a PC against the next generation of consoles is now worth it for access to the massive, cheap library of games, the competitive new releases, the competitive graphics and the potential to build a comprehensive gaming and media centre in one box. It’s not a complete escape from Microsoft – Windows is still the best OS for gaming, but at least it doesn’t have ads.

I think my mind is made up already. I have a £600 build picked out on PC Part Picker which I plan to write about soon. It’s not a final build, but something I plan to amend as the new Intel Haswell processors and motherboards come out and as nVidia and AMD release new graphics cards. I’m aiming to build it towards the end of this year and then maintain it at a good standard from there on out.

Requiem For The PSP

The PlayStation Portable isn’t a dead console yet, but it’s days are certainly numbered. In December, it’ll be six years since it’s initial Japanese release, making it comparatively aged compared to Nintendo’s various models in the DS range. Vultures are already circling, with developers claiming they already have PSP2 development kits and photos of an Android-powered PSP Phone being leaked to Engadget.

Before the media completely consign the PSP to the electronic cupboard of history, I’d like to pay tribute to it for it is: an underrated system which has been plagued by bad management decisions and short-sightedness.

The PSP is a quality piece of hardware. Back in 2004, when the PSP was first revealed the screen was stunning compared to other media devices at the $200 price point. The screen was several times the size and resolution of the screen on the Game Boy Advance and DS, and far sharper then either. In terms of hardware configuration, it’s processing capacity and graphical abilities were closer to the PS2 than to the original PlayStation. PSP models remain considerable more powerful then the Nintendo DS or the released specifications for the 3DS.

Standing at the forefront of gaming technology, the PSP should have been a massive success. It wasn’t. Instead, it has spent much of it’s lifecycle towards the bottom of hardware sales charts with dwindling support in game stores. UMD copies of many games are now quite hard to find, simply because they have been produced in small runs compared to games on other consoles.

So what factors left the PSP in this situation?

  • Lack of a “Killer Game” – The success of the DS was almost ensured by the release of Mario Kart DS and Mario 64 DS. Established titles such as Pokemon and the Final Fantasy III remake helped to cement this. There was no killer title for the PSP. The launch line-up was devoid of highlights, with the established Metal Gear brand being turned into a not terribly popular a card-based-combat game.
  • Short-Sighted Distribution System – The PSP was the first major handheld games console to feature a wi-fi connection and writable media. From day one, the potential existed for the PSP to be used to buy small, Xbox Live Arcade style games online and to access indie games. Sony effectively ignored this potential by allowing the PlayStation Network Store to stagnate for two to three years while Microsoft were forging ahead with digital distribution on consoles.
  • Quashing Homebrew – The PSP is easy to code for and would have been a godsend for small developers. Except rather then supporting them with an online indie game store, Sony continually tried to block people from installing homebrew software on the PSP.
  • Bonding To The PS3 – The PS3 was designed to work with the PSP. Nothing wrong with that. The problems started when Sony made PS1 games playable on the PSP but only available for download on the PS3, cutting out a large chunk of their market. This problem is now resolved, but support for PS1 games would have been something that should have been there from day one and independent of the PS3.
  • Lack of Platform Titles – Platforming games are the bread and butter of handheld gaming. They are sadly lacking on the PSP, despite the potential existing for platformers from defunct consoles to be ported to the system in the same way they’ve been ported to the Wii, Xbox and DS. More homegrown intellectual properties, such as Ratchet and Clank would also have helped the system, although lack of good, first-party titles has been a problem which has plagued Sony.

The PSP is not a perfect system. The analogue ‘nub’ is a particular point of contention, while some have criticised it’s shoulder buttons and battery life. Still, it deserved a far better life then it ended up with. It had the potential to change the handheld market in the same way the PS1 changed the console market. It failed, almost entirely to make an impact however, allowing the Nintendo DS to completely dominate the handheld games market.

There were a lot of brave decisions in the design of the PSP, as there were with the PS3. The choice of a disk drive and the propriety UMD format was one while inclusion of a web browser and the recent release of a version without the UMD driver were others. Some of these worked out and some didn’t. I will continue to use my PSP, no matter what Sony release to succeed it and I am very glad that I bought what turned out to be a very good piece of hardware.

Review: Fallout 3: The Pitt

Bethesda Softworks have been responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed RPG videogames of all time. Both Fallout 3 and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion rank amongst my favourite games, and have taken up more of my time then I care to admit.

Unfortunately, Bethesda have been known to drop the ball from time to time. Such as when they produced and published the abysmal Star Trek strategy game Legacy. Or when they rushed Fallout 3: The Pitt to release.

The Pitt 1The Pitt

The Pitt is the second downloadable content for Fallout 3. It allows your character to travel to the ruins of  Pittsberg, which in post-apocalypse has a booming steel industry manned by slave labour. Like Operation Anchorage, you loose most of your equipment. Who’d have thought that slavers don’t like heavily armed killing machines walking around in their settlement? Fortunately you are quickly launched into the plot and rearmed, with the rather cool auto-axe (think a cross between a chainsaw and an axe).

From here, you are once again on a rather linear quest chain. It’s not as bad as Operation Anchorage, with various different activities popping up, including an all too brief trip to an Oblivion-style arena. The plot is thankfully more involving then Operation Anchorage, with nice twists and some interesting moral choices, but again, I found myself wishing it was longer. The newly added weapons aren’t quite as good as those on Anchorage, but they focus more on melee and defence.

The Pitt 3What lets The Pitt down is the fact that it was rushed to release. Bethesda had already delayed it by a month to ensure completion, but this clearly wasn’t enough time. On the day of release, the add-on was causing major problems for users who bought it. Despite a quick fix and re-release by Bethesda, many bugs remained. During my playtime, The Pitt caused my Xbox to crash four times and corrupted my save file. Not the most positive of gameplay experiences.

My only other quibble with the add-on is the map design. Both The Pitt and Operation Anchorage have had quite small maps. Bethesda have got round this in two different ways – in Anchorage, it was to use few texture variations and lots of cliffs to block long views. In The Pitt, the map cointains a great number of levels, with endless stairs, ramps and gangways connecting them. It is far too easy to get lost in this network of rooms.

The Pitt 2Despite the addition of an Ammo Press which converts any ammo into any other ammo, I can’t see myself revisiting The Pitt any time soon. The add-on is certainly not worth the money as long as there are still some nasty bugs showing up, and is disappointingly short.

Fallout 3’s third downloadable addon, Broken Steel, which sees the player resolve the conflict between the Brotherhood of Steel and the Outcast Brotherhood, is due out on the 5th of May, again retailing for 800 MS points.

Review: Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage

One of the advantages of living in the future is that video games can be updated quickly and easily with new content over an internet connection. For PC gamers, this is nothing new – PC games traditionally attract big modding and homebrew communities. Paying for that extra content, on the other hand, was lambasted at first. This was not helped by Bethesda Softworks, developer of the Elder Scrolls series and Fallout 3, who charged for a near-useless content such as the now infamous horse armour.

Over time, complaints over paid downloadable content have died down and we now pay for much more. Operation Anchorage and The Pitt are two examples of this. They are currently exclusive to the Xbox 360 and PC, costing around about $10 each.

Operation Anchorage 2Operation Anchorage

Operation Anchorage takes your character back in time to the early days of the American-Chinese War which resulted in global nuclear annihilation. The lead in to this quest arc manages to retain the in-world immersion – shortly after you start playing with the addon downloaded, your receive a radio transmission from the Brotherhood Outcasts seeking help. After fighting off some Supermutants and being shanghaied by the Outcasts, the real game begins when you step into a holographic training unit. This handily strips you of your guns, armour and items.

From then on in, you are effectively a commando behind enemy lines. The first part of the quest is great fun – sniping, sneaking, scouting out terrain and finally making some big explosions. My one problem with it is that like the main quest, Operation Anchorage is a very linear experience. Take away VATS and much of the initial quest could be lifted from Call of Duty.

Operation Anchorage 1The second half improves on this slightly by giving you some choices. You get issued with fixed packets of weapons to replace the pistol and sniper rifle from the first quest, you get to choose some squad members to come with you and you get to choose which order to complete the objectives in. Thankfully, these do have a pretty big effect – I choose well for the first objective and dispatched it in a timely manner, but on the second quest I picked the wrong set of weapons and the wrong squad members and it was far more difficult. It’s nice to see effects like this – I played through the main game on Hard and found that by the time I was level 11 or so, it was an absolute cake walk. More situations requiring tactical thinking please developers!

The final part of the quest before you come out of the machine is a rather good boss fight. This was a great addition – in the main game, even central characters go down with a couple of shots and some key fights are disappointingly quick. Instead, this one last several minutes, while power-armoured US troops fight around you. Very immersive.

Operation Anchorage 3And that’s it…it’s all over rather quickly. It took me about two and a half hours to complete, maybe a bit less. Which disappointed me because I was expecting something with similar scope to Oblivion’s Knights of the Nine addon quest, which added ten hours or more of gameplay.

Would I recommend Operation Anchorage? Yes, largely because it fills you in on the background to the Fallout universe and provides a few nice rewards which are useful in the main game. Would I say you are missing out on something Earth shattering if you don’t buy it? No.

Coming soon…review of Fallout 3’s second addon “The Pitt”

Edit: Thanks to Bob from The Dice Bag for pointing out that Fallout 3 DLC is avaliabe for both PC and the Xbox 360, not just the 360 as I originally stated.