Silly Season

Why has the games industry compressed a year long sales window into three months? Take the 360 for example. From January to end of August the only games I bought were GRAW2, Crackdown and Forza 2 alongside a few Live Arcade titles.

In the September to November months this is the likely list of games I want to buy:

  • Bioshock – bought
  • Tiger Woods 08 – bought
  • Madden 08 – bought
  • Halo3
  • PGR4
  • Orange Box
  • Pro Evo 2008
  • Call of Duty 4
  • Mass Effect
  • Assassins Creed

That is just too many in a short space of time and also leaves out games like Skate and Sega Rally which have OK’ish demo’s but are lost in amongst the flurry. I understand it’s holiday time but surely having so many AAA titles launching in the same period can only hurt there sales. Imagine how crowded it would have been if GTA IV was launching in October? It would certainly make more sense to stagger these releases over the year. Well more sense to me as it owuld give me more time to enjoy each game.

However this is shaping up to be a vintage year for games. The game’s over the last few weeks have been excellent. The Call of Duty 4 beta has been a superb taster for the game, Halo 3 is out on a few days and in October alone PGR4 and Pro Evo 8 are both big big titles. Only caveat with Pro Evo is that the demo is a little odd. It plays faster than previous versions and that can end with real pinball sessions in the box. Still, it’s smoother and a lot prettier than previous versions although no doubt online will still have some issues. It also has a dive button. Finally.

You’ll notice there’s no mention of the PS3. A few of the games above are also out on the PS3 but due to Xbox Live and also friends with 360’s it makes sense to get the 360 versions of the non exclusive games. Heavenly Sword was pretty disappointing and Metal Gear Solid, Little Big Planet and GTA IV are delayed until next year. So what’s left for PS3? Killzone 2 does look very nice and Uncharted – Drakes Fortune picked up a lot of buzz at E3 but both would need pretty stellar reviews to make them purchases. There is also a bigger demo version of GT5 that does promise online racing for up to 16. I’d normally be sceptical of those numbers but Warhawk has been a great multiplayer game on the PS3 with 24 and 32 player games. Server support makes all the difference and hopefully it will come to Xbox Live soon, especially as it’s a paid for service unlike PS3 which is free.

So next up is Halo 3. Considering I was playing Halo 2 over two years after release there’s an argument that I should only be picking up one more title this year. I’ll post up some thoughts on Halo next week…if I get time that is.

Goodbye Temptation

CA GamesA guy at work is still trying to source a Wii so I gave CA Games a ring. Phone will not accept incoming calls. Oh – thats strange – they must have changed their number. A quick visit to the website brought the sad news that they have gone out of business.

Most gamers outside Glasgow probably don’t recognise CA Games but for me and a few friends it was THE import games shop in Glasgow. In a time before the internet had taken off it was the place to get import consoles and games at vastly inflated prices. Maybe it was the internet competition that finally did for the shop but there was many an hour spent in CA Games and many (too many) pounds spent in the pursuit of gaming happiness. Thats another local temptation that has been removed. Still, there’s always Loud and Clear if I feel the need for instant gadget gratification. Plus an Apple store coming soon. Saved.

Why I won't be Buying a PS3

Lot’s of pre-order’s flying around for the PS3 and while I’m a little tempted there are lot’s of reasons why I’m not buying a PS3.

  • Cost. It’s £425. Thats a lot of money. Add on HDMI cable, another joypad, couple of games and your at £550. Ouch.
  • Games. There’s not much on the first day of release or near horizon that I’m desperate to play. If Wipeout had been a day one title I’d have gladly handed over my cash, but it’s not out until next year. There’s very few exclusives that are bound for PS3 only – even GTA4 will be released on 360/PS3 on the same day.
  • Online play looks to be well behind that of Xbox Live. Although it’s free the online service lacks the uniformity of Live. Some games support online play, and only some of those support in game voice. Even then there’s no official headset although USB headsets and most bluetooth headsets work well (allegedly). In certain games voice chat makes all the difference, from lifting the strategy in FPS to making a much more social experience in Tiger Woods or PES6.
  • Joypad. The biggest form of interaction with a console and yet Sony have stuck with the trusty dual shock minus the shock. No rumble in the pads removes a fairly important feedback mechanism. Think of the different rumbles in Gran Turismo – how can that be replaced? Shame. The pad is also ergonomically inferior to the 360 pad. It would have been good if Sony had tried to innovate instead of copying the 360 guide button and throwing in some motion detection similar to the Wii. I wonder if the dead zones on the Sony joypads have been removed? Still, at least they are wireless and allegedly lighter than the PS2 pads.
  • Competition. 360 has some fine games coming out in the next 3-4 months – Crackdown, GRAW2, Mass Effect, Forza 2 plus Halo 3 beta. More than enough to keep me busy. Also most of my online Live buddies aren’t getting a PS3 and I want to continue gaming with them, hence making the 360 the platform of choice.

The above was written around the start of last week and I never got round to finishing it off and publishing until now. However since writing the above I’ve pre-ordered a PS3 and I’m looking forward to it arriving at the end of March. The call of the new, the gadget envy etc etc was enough for me to buy. Motorstorm does look good, playing on the online service should be interesting, interactivity with the PSP promises much (but will undoubtedly deliver little) and Blu-Ray is a nice addition. Be interesting to see how Linux runs on it and also how it streams data (if at all) from other devices. We might also see a console version of Pro Evo that doesn’t suck online and also doesn’t stutter like Gareth Gates. Thats a bit harsh as my recent online games have been very good – the stutter however is inexcusable.

So there you have it. Lot’s of reasons not to buy a PS3 that I’ve plainly ignored. Still time to cancel though…or cash in on EBay if there is a drought at launch.

Xbox 360 Network Issues

I know a few folk that have recently or are about to get a 360. While it generally works a treat without much issue, getting on Live for the first time can be problematic depending on your router or use of Internet Connection Settings. Annoyingly it may work and you think everything is OK but it’s only when you start playing games with others that you really find out if it’s 100%. The following steps should help make the experience a little better.

1) Check your NAT
Whether you connect to Live first time or not, visit the System blade on the dashboard, then Network Settings and finally Test Xbox Live Connection – here’s a link to the official Microsoft help page detailing this step. The key setting I’ve found is NAT. There are three possible values for NAT settings – Strict, Moderate and Open.

  • Open NAT means that either the port-assignment policy is minimal or the device has a fully compliant version of UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) enabled by default. This is the ideal setting and should give mostly trouble free online gaming.
  • Moderate NAT means that the port-assignment policy is minimal, but the device is filtering addresses or ports. Will work with most people but can lead to conflicts.
  • Strict NAT means the port-assignment policy is aggressive. Can lead to lot’s of issues. No voice, disconnects from games.

A more detailed explanation of NAT can be seen in this Microsoft help page.

2) Fixing NAT
If your NAT is open then your fine. If moderate or strict then try the following, but don’t mix and match and try a few of these in parallel. Try them in order as they are presented here, switching back to where you started before trying the next option. Also, reboot router and 360 after making changes to make sure that the changes are in place and have been detected by both router and 360.

  • UPnP – Universal Plug and Play. This networking standard should allow the router and the 360 to open the correct ports and communicate efficiently. If your router supports this then enable it.
  • If that doesn’t work then try forwarding the Xbox Live ports to your router. The ports that require to be forwarded are 88 and 3074. Every router works differently but there’s an excellent website called PortForward that allows you to select your router and the application or service (Xbox 360) you want to use. It then provides step by step help in how to configure your router.
  • If that fails then try putting your 360’s IP address in your router’s DMZ. DMZ stands for Demilitarized Zone and means (for me) that a device in the DMZ is taken out of your protected network, allowing it to connect to the internet without restriction while maintaining your PC and other devices behind a secure firewall (Wikipedia DMZ explanation). Couldn’t really find many guides on the net so this looks like a ‘consult the manual’ job.

3) Still Having Issues?
The best advice from Microsoft and others is to go and buy a new router, or if your using Internet Connection Sharing, definitely go and buy a router and make sure it’s one on the Microsoft Xbox compatibility list. In fact this is Microsoft’s first step but I reckon this is always a last resort if you’ve already got a router and it works fine for everything else. Still, if your mad keen on gaming this may be the only choice. Note that the list contains those routers that have been tested and certified by Microsoft and also those that have failed and been deemed incompatible. If your router isn’t on the list it doesn’t mean it won’t work – just that it’s not been submitted and tested by Microsoft.

If your on cable broadband try connecting the 360 directly to your cable connection, cutting out any router or other equipment. This will at least tell you whether the issues your getting are down to hardware or your broadband connection.

Finally, a link to a really good site – Xbox Live – The Guide. It contains lots of useful information and has some guide’s on NAT settings and DMZ setup’s for popular routers. An excellent site and I should probably just link to that site and remove all the other text here, but it’s written now. Hope this helps.

Sony closes Lik-Sang

Lik-Sang is a well known Hong Kong company specialising in the import games market. For the last year they have been fighting a legal battle with Sony who were opposed to their importing of PSP’s. Last Friday a judge in the UK found against Lik-Sang and due to the possibility of other legal cases being raised Lik-Sang have decided to close.

Greedy Sony bastards. While I had no intention of buying an import PS3 it’s another example of a huge global player wanting 100% control over everything. Importing wouldn’t be a business if companies:

  • Had simultaneous worldwide hardware and software releases
  • Removed region restrictions – DVD and games follow the same region encoding
  • Sold at a fair price across the globe

Import PSP’s and games could be had cheaper from Hong Kong, including shipment than buying from a UK high street. While Sony is protecting the PSP’s (shrinking) market it also smells of further PS3 delays for Europe and a potentially high cost for games. Rumours are of £60 & £70 price point for PS3 releases which is taking the urine.

Talk about the big boys bullying the small firms! Lik-Sang did have one parting shot, pointing out the Sony exec’s in the UK that had enjoyed their import service.

Furthermore, Sony have failed to disclose to the London High Court that not only the world wide gaming community in more than 100 countries relied on Lik-Sang for their gaming needs, but also Sony Europe’s very own top directors repeatedly got their Sony PSP hard or software imports in nicely packed Lik-Sang parcels with free Lik-Sang Mugs or Lik-Sang Badge Holders, starting just two days after Japan’s official release, as early as 14th of December 2004 (more than nine months earlier than the legal action). The list of PSP related Sony Europe orders reads like the who’s who of the videogames industry, and includes Ray Maguire (Managing Director, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe Ltd), Alan Duncan (UK Marketing Director, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe Ltd), Chris Sorrell (Creative Director, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe Ltd), Rob Parkin (Development Director, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe Limited), just to name a few.

Goodbye Lik-Sang – a reliable company providing a good service to the UK and Europe that will be missed. Yet another proud day for Sony.

Gaming Thoughts

A few random thoughts not worthy of a single post…

  • Halo 2. Loved this online since it came out, one of the best multiplayer games on Live and that’s despite the cheating that’s has plagued it. One of the reasons is that the unranked playlists have been great – no one quits early, games are fair as the cheats are chasing rankings and the overall game is so much improved because of it. Imagine the disappointment last week when one of our favourite game modes moved to a ranked mode. Cheating, lagging, leaving – a game mode ruined.
  • Test Drive Unlimited – this is now one of my favourites of the year and surprisingly it’s the single player game that I’m liking the most. Multiplayer is awkward to get going with friends and full of cheats (spot the trend?) if you play with randoms. Despite this it’s easily the game I’ve played the most and got reward from it – still lot’s of challenges left too.
  • Rainbow Six Vegas – looking forward to it lots. One option that looks to lift it is the player customisation. Not only can you use the usual options in game but you can plug in the 360 camera and use it to build a character. This video says it all.
  • A couple of weeks away from the annual Pro Evo Soccer highs and lows. Highs this year – widescreen at last, better graphics, more moves. Lows – online lets it down again? I hope not.
  • PS3. With the delay in Europe and the stream of news coming out now it looks more appealing. Still not convinced of it’s online credentials although the fact that online gaming is free is nice (and makes me think that MS may make that move too). Some of the in game movies look superb though and a notch above current 360 titles. Considering they are a year into developing on the 360 it bodes well for future PS3 titles.
  • Wii sports looks great – again videos say it all. Can’t wait to play it. However there’s nothing else, not even Zelda, that sounds interesting. Ok – Zelda is a bit interesting but I can see me getting bored of using the remote for firing arrows etc. Is £179.99 too much for one game?

Test Drive Unlimited

I’ve not mentioned 360 games for a while and there’s one that has come out recently that has been a major surprise – Test Drive Unlimited. I’ve never been a big fan of the Test Drive series….too arcadey, not enough challenge – just never sat well next to other racing games. The first demo released over Live didn’t promise too much either – ok graphics and pretty average handling. Demo 2 however was a big improvement but I still wasn’t sure.

I’ve now been playing this for the last week and it’s just great. Basically the game lets you do what you want on the island of Hawaii. There is around 1000 miles of road to explore and race on. The single player challenges allow you to earn money, buy houses and cars and test yourself against AI racers through a variety of challenges. Most of these have been excellent so far especially as the challenges involve weaving through and avoiding police – think a deeper Burnout and your almost there. However as you drive around the island you are permanently online with players from around the world and on your friends list racing alongside. You can challenge anyone at any time or be challenged yourself, take part in events set up by other users or join a car club and race fellow members or other clubs online.

The best part of this is that the races are fairly random. In challenge mode you can race from your current position, through traffic to any part of the island. The GPS guides you and it can get frantic with two or more weaving through traffic watching the map at the same time. The car choices are pretty wide ranging and although the game offers tune ups they are fairly limited with most opting for the highest tune up setting available.

Handling can still feel a bit iffy on some cars and I think the motorbikes are a waste of time but there are a massive amount of cars that are worth owning and racing. There is also some graphical pop up but not enough to make you stop playing and to be honest the graphics are good so it’s a minor gripe really.

The game really is a joy to play and has delivered one of my gaming wishes – a free terrain to race anywhere on with friends online. Due to the freedom allowed there is also no chance of ever learning ‘a track’ as you decide the start and finish points and if you can’t be bothered with picking a end point there are a couple of purpose built race tracks tucked away on the island. Surprisingly this is a must have title for the 360 – buy it.

This is Living?

Thats the official PS3 slogan for Europe but I’m sure there’s something missing. This is living on the breadline? This is living in a world where the 360 does not exist? This is living in a world of crap fonts and 3d renders? (check out the launch video for Spiderman and clothes label fonts – quality). Firstly the price of the PS3 looks expensive at £425 and the launch games are looking average with no exclusive OS3 title standing out as a must have. Launch titles are never the best judge of a platform but with the 360 titles coming along over the next 6 months the PS3 looks weak in comparison.

Now there’s news that there will be no HDMI cable included in the box and also confirmation that the lower end PS3 will not play copy protected Blu-ray discs at 1080p due to lack of HDMI port. Add in the lack of 1080p screens, the dismal launch of Blu-ray and HD-DVD outperforming the Blu-Ray movies so far and thats a far from appetising console. Add in a non-rumbling pad that isn’t a patch on the 360 design and an internet service that in my experience hasn’t been a patch on Xbox Live and I’m struggling to find reason to part with the cash. Where is the next gen Wipeout? That game alone sold me on the PS1 and truly differentiated the PS1 from other consoles of that period. There seems to be nothing of that ilk on the PS3. Maybe the Tokyo Game Show will tell a different story later this month.

In fact the only reason I can see me buying one is that there will be a shortage at launch which usually means a profit on Ebay. Oh, there is another. My ‘habit’ of needing the latest and greatest which after all these years I’ve not managed to break. Yet. Maybe the PS3 will be my cold turkey.

Nintendo DS Lite

Last year when Sony and Nintendo brought our new handhelds I plumped for the PSP. The system had games I wanted to play (Wipeout Pure, Ridge Racer and in the future Pro Evo and GTA), looked to have great multimedia potential and the hardware looked great. In particular the hardware design in comparison to the DS was night and day. The DS was like a relic from the 90’s – clumsy, flip screen and the touch screen concept just didn’t click with me. No media playing ability either – just games.

Last week I picked up a DS Lite. I had an itch to play something fresh and new, Shakeel was raving about it and at just £99 it sounded a bargain. After a week of use I can only say I wish I had bought a DS sooner although in retrospect the Lite is such a better design/platform it’s a blessing in disguise that I only got one now.

DS Lite

I picked up a white one as I was warned the black one was a grease and fingerprint magnet. Even with the white you can still see the marks. However it looks great – very Apple esque and smaller/neater than the original. More importantly the screen brightness has been much improved and is as good if not better than the PSP. However this was bought for one reason – the games. It also shows that Nintendo still understand the games market better than anyone else.

Mario Kart DS is sublime on the DS. So many tracks that are known and loved with some originals thrown in as well. It’s also the best Mario Kart I’ve played since the SNES original – a real credit to the developers. The online mode is amazing – select from continental, worldwide or friends list to play online with up to three others. Every game so far has been lag free and when you think of who you may be playing with round the world on such a small hand held…fantastic achievement by Nintendo.

Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training highlights the unique nature of DS games. Using the touch pad or your voice you play a series of small mind games daily that help stimulate and work the brain. I’m loving this right now and while the actual science behind it maybe questionable it’s so enjoyable that I want to play it each day. This games also highlights one other aspect – how Nintendo get people to play that aren’t your typical gamers. My mother is loving this more than me – I’ve created a game addict. I may have to purchase another DS so I can get a shot.

There are plenty of others games available but these two alone have shown what a great platform this is. In some ways it’s a shame that Nintendo didn’t launch with the DS Lite against the PSP. They would have captured even more sales although it is trouncing the PSP at the moment so it’s not that big a deal. I do wonder about Nintendo designers though. Compare American SNES with Japanese/Euro SNES. There has been so many other bad examples through their history although the Wii doesn’t look like being one of them.

Back to the DS Lite – it’s great fun…and that’s really what games should be about, no? Highly recommended to everyone, not just hardcore gamers.

LocoRoco

Shocking – a new game for the PSP that isn’t a racing game, doesn’t involve killing people with an assortment of weapons and if you didn’t know better you would have thought you were playing a Nintendo console. The game is LocoRoco.
Loco Roco Screenshot 6

The aim of the game is to guide the LocoRoco to the end of the level. The controls are simple, the level designs are great – colourful and imaginative but it’s the animation that really stands out. Amazing. There are also lots of secret areas (think Mario) to explore so it’s not simply about getting to the level end in the quickest time. Music is just right – makes you smile which is pretty much the whole point of this game. I wish there were more like this on the PSP. Games that you can quickly pick up and play for 20 minutes without getting bored or spending most of that time creating characters, going through training modes etc. If you’ve got a PSP try out the demo – well worth it. Full Flickr set here.

Loco Roco Screenshot 7