The PSP: Four Years On

October 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

When Sony first released the Playstation Portable back in 2004 it was expected to succeed. After all, this was Sony, the behemoth behind two of the most popular games consoles of all time. At the time they could do no wrong, the PS2 was going from strength to strength and the PS1 was only now about to wrap up on it’s eventual ten year life span.

The PSP’s arrival brought with it incredibly mixed opinion. Fans loved the power this portable device contained, as well as it’s multimedia capabilities. When you bought a PSP, you didn’t just buy a handheld console (so said Sony), you also bought yourself a portable movie player (courtesy of the UMD format) as well as a music player and picture viewer. The trade off however, was price, and with a £180 tag, only serious gamers were going to get their slice of the pie. After an initial sales surge, the PSP soon settled down to sales which whilst impressive in a broader context, could hardly measure up to the mighty Nintendo DS.

Some might argue that the presence of the DS was a foe impossible to overcome. To date the touch-pad equipped handheld has sold over 75million consoles in four years, which makes it one of the highest selling consoles in history. The DS is not only cheaper than the PSP, but it also manages to do handheld gaming with a finesse not shown by Sony’s handheld. With the PSP Sony tried to shoehorn a PS2 into people’s hands, forgetting that the bus isn’t the best way to experience an epic 3D adventure. The DS on the other hand has no such ambitions. It focuses on games specifically designed for mobile play, and its sales have rewarded this move. Whilst many were amazed at the ability of the PSP to handle a GTA game most people spent their time playing it at home, and not out and about as was intended.

Yet at the back of my mind, I can’t get rid of an image of what the PSP could have been. When magazines first started building up hype for Sony’s first foray into the handheld market I was promised so much; a device which would seamlessly connect with my PS2 and PS3 to give me a combined gameplay experience, something to allow me to read books digitally, or to watch movies on the way to school. Many of these promises were indeed possible on paper, but the practicality of them was emphasized to an impossible extreme. You could connect up your PSP and PS2 but the most you’d get would be an exclusive unlocked vehicle as a reward for buying two of the same game. You could read a book on the PSP but only if you painstakingly copied the text into an image file. Of course you could put a movie on your PSP, but only if you sat through a lengthy conversion process first, during which you may have watched the movie to kill some time.

I have a vision for what PSP could do to make me fall in love with it like I did back then. Imagine a traditional RPG. Now, replace your controller with a PSP, and move the menus from the TV onto the handheld. Suddenly you have a screen with all clutter completely removed, and you’re free to enjoy the visuals of the fight in all thier glory. At the same time in the palm of your hand you hold all the information you need to control the battle. Now we can really have some fun, and add some local multiplayer, where each person has thier own PSP, and their own party member to control. We’ve now taken a stale genre, and added something revolutionary, co-op play, and all with a little PSP integration.

Sadly the PSP isn’t popular now because of an improved library of games, but because of one. Monster Hunter is nothing short of a phenomenon in Japan. At TGS many journalists were astonished to see groups of people in public playing the game, groups of females engaging in a hardcore PSP role-playing game. This game has shown that wifi gaming is truly one of the PSP’s greatest strengths, not sitting playing a game on your own, but sitting with friends, working towards a common goal. The PSP has finally found its own market, and hopefully in the future we’ll see it expand on this, and with a more westernised approach, it could certainly garner international success.

It’s very easy to forget about the PSP, dwarfed by its console brothers, and its close rival. Sony have seemed to have forgotten about it, but luckily for now Japan hasn’t, so at least fans of Japanese games should be happy for years to come.

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Mercenaries 2: Wecome to four years ago

October 17, 2008 § 7 Comments


Mercenaries 2 is an open-world third person shooter in which you – a mercenary – are tasked with doing missions for two competing factions with the eventual aim of taking revenge on a previous employer. It places a strong emphasis on big, loud explosions, which, whilst pretty, make a pretty bad basis for a game, especially as everything that surrounds them is rather weak.

It’s hard to care about the storyline for Mercs 2, and from playing the game it seems as though even Pandemic shared this problem. The story begins with you being stabbed in the back by an employer after a job, with the rest of the game focus sing on your subsequent revenge by completing missions with the eventual aim of finding your man. This should sound familiar to anyone whose taken a glace at a GTA game in the past ten years, but those expecting that series’s high quality of storytelling and cutscenes will be sorely disappointed. Cutscenes exist solely to tick a box in the story department; they proceed at a pace devoid of any artistic merit, and all run on an in-game engine, so they’re not even that great to look at.

A quick and easy way of writing this review would be to simply have said “Do you love the design philosophy of the last generation and wished it hadn’t changed?” because Mercenaries 2 does nothing to take advantage of current hardware, aside from some online only co-op. The graphics engine it runs on is simply an up-scaled PS2 engine, and so character models look several years past their prime, and environments look about as vibrant as origami. Animation is also incredibly sub-par, with enemies that never look as though they fit in their environment. Those who feel a distinct sense of déja vu after seeing an enemy run off a building with no special animation whatsoever are not alone. It all reeks of the first Mercenaries game, fine for four years ago, but nowadays very questionable.

Even the faction system, which should be a major source of strategic gameplay feels restrictive and unreasonable. Three factions exist in the world, and killing members of one will gain you favour with the other. In practice though during missions it can become a source of endless frustration, a case in point: one early mission tasked me with defending a church from the Venezuelan army with the support of the Peoples Liberation Army of Venezuela. The VZ were attacking with tanks, and the PLAV had an artillery gun set up to tackle them. However, the AI in Mercs 2 leaves a lot to be desired, and so me, taking the initiative, hopped into the artillery gun and had a lovely old time blasting their tanks to pieces. Not so fun was the reaction of the PLAV who saw me taking control of their gun as a hostile action, and cancelled the mission for me, forcing me to start the mission over, which involved making the trek once more across the map.

Fundamentally the game just isn’t fun. Even a major selling point, building destruction, fails to satisfy. Like the idea of factions this sounds great on paper; any building you see can be leveled, and so tactical enemies choosing to rain down grenades on you from high windows may be feared no more. However the physical act of destroying these buildings lacks any satisfaction when instead of individual missiles blowing off huge chunks of concrete, they merely deplete the building’s life-bar, giving you no visual reward for your efforts until the building’s complete destruction. When a game is based off an idea that blowing shit up is fun, and then fails to make it so, a game has issues beyond belief.

Even control manages to annoy rather than aid. When in vehicles the default acceleration and brake buttons are on the face, with no allowance for custom controls. Tanks pose more of a problem, with the game’s point blank refusal to allow you to drive with your turret in anything other than a forward direction. Wave goodbye to the mobile tank battles of Warhawk, if you want to battle with some firepower in Mercenaries you must stop first and only then aim your shot.

Mercenaries 2 is not a pretty game, nor is it a fun game. Add to this a lackluster story or any semblance of a decent presentation and you have one of the most mediocre games of the year. But hey…..if you like airstrikes

Dope Hardware – Issue #1: Opening that shit up

October 16, 2008 § Leave a comment



So you’ve decided to make the jump from doing stuff on your computer to doing stuff to your computer. Congratulations, and try not to get electrocuted. Before you can make decisions about buying, fixing or upgrading a computer, you need to know what makes it tick. This is the focus of today’s fundutational lecture.

Read these instructions all the way through before you start, to prevent embarrassing, irreparable mistakes. Come to think of it, you may want to look at this either on a laptop, or a printout, since your computer will be out of action for a while.
You will need:
– Screwdriver (I use a penknife), preferably with an insulated handle.
– A relatively solid, stable surface (i.e: not a carpet), preferably a desk, so you don’t have to kneel on the floor.
– Your computer case (the thing with the disc tray that’s kind of fun to slide in and out).
IMPORTANT NOTE: You cannot modify, repair or otherwise fuck around with laptop computers. They are not designed to be easily opened or understood by anyone without a degree in computer science and a crowbar at their disposal.
The grand opening:

1) Turn off your computer at the power socket, and unplug the thick cable from the top of your PC, flipping the 1-0 switch to 0, if you have one (I don’t anymore).
2) Touch the metal case with your hand (if you have a special wrist strap for this sort of thing, you would do well to use it). It is important for your skin to come into contact with metal beforehand, to disperse any static charge you may be carrying, otherwise you could badly damage the components. Or you could conduct the residual electricity in the power supply unit and die horribly. Just kidding. Or maybe I’m not.
3) Proceed to unplug everything from the back of your computer. Don’t just yank it all out though; certain cables (ethernet and monitor leads, for example) have clips or screws which must be undone first. Make a mental note of what stuff goes where, for when you’re putting it back together. It should be pretty self-explanatory though.
4) Slowly lift, slide or throw (NO, BAD) your case from wherever you happen to have it stowed, and move it to the chosen work surface. For the love of god, don’t lay it on its side.
5) Take your weapon of choice and get to work on those screws. Important to note is the structure of your case. In a lot of computers, only one side of the case is designed to come off easily. This will usually be the right-hand side, when viewed from the front. You’ll want to remove screws on this side first, then attempt to gently slide or lift the panel away, exposing the frightening mess of cables inside.
Now you’ve hopefully been encouraged by the fact that you haven’t yet become an electron superhighway, on to
6) The Lowdown:
Here’s how it works. You see that big metal box at the rear top of the case? Stay the fuck away from it. That’s the Power Supply Unit (PSU for short), and if it’s still carrying a charge, it could qualify you for the backwards out a window longjump at the 2012 Olympics. We will deal with those 500 Watts of terror at a later date.
As for the stuff you’ll mostly be working with: you’ll notice that there is extra space next to your Hard Disk Drive (HDD), where you can install extra ones, giving yourself much more memory to store work, or in the case of most modern computers, porn and widgets. This is one of the simplest upgrades you can perform, and will be one of the first I show you later on.
Probably the heftiest thing in your computer, the Graphics Processing Unit (often abbreviated to GPU, or simply Graphics Card) is where your computer interprets and carries out rendering commands from the CPU. Modern GPUs do such a ridiculous amount of work playing games like STALKER and World in Conflict that they have their own cooling systems and take up about 180% of all the free space in your average case. My 9600GT, as you may have noticed, is wedged uncomfortably between the heatsink and motherboard, and I am constantly worrying that it is giving my other components self-esteem issues. Anyway, every time a lovely new generation of games comes out, you’ll notice this baby slip a little further into planned obselescence, until you have to replace it altogether. That’s if you’re smart. If you’re stupid, like me, you’ll attempt a magically wonderful and dangerous process known as overclocking, cock it up massively, and be forced to replace your GPU a few years ahead of schedule.
A cheaper, and sometimes better alternative is to buy more Random Access Memory (RAM) to speed up loading times, and improve general performance. RAM is easy to install, but it can be tricky finding out exactly what kind you need, so don’t rush into it expecting to have a supercomputer by the end of the week. RAM can only do so much, and you’ll generally want no more than 4 gigs, at the very most, 2 on average.
The heart of your machine is the Central Processing Unit (CPU). This is very small, maybe an inch across, and is where all the Half-Life magic comes from. It is a small square microchip, mounted on the motherboard, in an idiot-proof spring-lock mechanism. Don’t go looking for it now, as it’s hidden behind the big metal heatsink, and you’ll probably break something, so leave it. For your computer to really shine, it needs a top-of-the-line CPU. However, unlike graphics cards, CPUs are a massive pain in the arse to replace. Most of the time, when the CPU becomes obsolete, it’s best to pull out everything of value and start over with a shiny new case and motherboard.
Well, that’s all there is to see for now. Let’s put the whole shebang back together, and hope to god we didn’t lose any of those screws.
Next time on Dope Hardware: Performance Boosts!

I Have Control, but I don’t care

October 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

A couple of weeks ago we put up a debate on cutscenes versus in-game cinematics. Of course on a topic such as this there can really be no winner, but that didn’t stop us from having one more go at solving this most precocious of problems. Suzie’s reply, the final part, can be found here, whilst the first two posts can be found here and here.

Suzie,

You made a fair few points about cutscenes interrupting the flow of the game, and about removing the player from the protagonists experience. This is true. Watching the animators creation move across the screen completely independently of my control isn’t a particularly immersive experience, but at the same time it’s almost necessary to the game’s storyline, in that it allows the character to do far much than I could achieve within the game’s control scheme.

Are we to believe that every protagonist is a silent one stopping only to listen dumbly to the tales of others? Valve is the developer most credited with their game’s complete lack of cutscenes, and yet they’ve so far failed completely to create a character which does anything other than run and shoot. There are a million and one things a character might do during what might traditionally be a cutscene moment, but the one thing it’s impossible to give the player complete control over is the very thing that allows a player to most understand a character. That thing is dialogue.

Gordon Freeman is a mute, and perhaps the most famous mute in the entire videogaming world. If someone else therefore tried to achieve what Valve has with it’s storytelling, it would have to overcome this great hurdle. How to you allow the player to choose what to say without funneling them into predictable patturns. Mass Effect gave the player control over dialogue, but did this add to the game’s emotional meaning, or was it simply a much hyped means of distinguishing the “bad” player from the “good”? How can you really try and become the character that you want to be when you’re confined by knowing that certain answers will cause you to stray from the ideal gameplay path?

My second problem with in-game cinematics is a far more practical one, and relates much more to a so-called “old school” mentality when playing games. You can’t skip gameplay, and so as a result you can’t skip a lengthy in-game story sequence. If you save at the wrong point, and then fail immediately after a story sequence, your punishment will be to watch through the proceedings once more. In this console-centric age, when quicksaving still hasn’t become the norm, do developers really want to take the core gameplay away from a player, and give them no means to pass it by?

You might argue that I’m somewhat missing the point with gaming as an art form if I want to skip cutscenes, but I really don’t. I watch every single cutscene that comes my way when I’m playing a game with a story that wasn’t seemingly thought up in about ten minutes. When I’m playing Prince of Persia I’m going to take time to listen to this story, for exactly the same reason that I’d rad a book about time-travel, simply because it interests me. When hunting down terrorists around Vegas however, I couldn’t care less about which generic third world villian is up to their tricks now.

Ultimately I think that in order to do in-game cinematics well you need to start out to tell an interesting story, which also happens to be really fun to play. If you’re going to create a really fun game with a story tacked on then you’re better off with cutscenes: it’s much less effort, and the player can always skip them if they didn’t turn out so well (something I would have liked to do in Assasin’s Creed, but wasn’t given the option). Different games are made for different reasons, and if a game’s made for quick thrills then most players won’t have the patience to sit through the awfully written dialogue of an underpaid freelancer.

Maybe what I’m really looking for is better writing in games?

What do you think?

Jon Porter

Wipeout HD – Frustratingly beautiful

October 7, 2008 § Leave a comment

Wipeout HD is fast. It’s fast, and it’s colourful. In fact it’s so fast and colourful that the game warns you to take breaks every fifteen minutes to avoid epileptic seizures. That’s fast.

Those present at the beginning of the Playstation saga will remember the original Wipeout as the first game to be released on the system outside of Japan. Since then the series has gone from strength to strength (aside from a blip in the PS2 years) to emerge on the PSN as Wipeout HD, taking the best tracks and ships from Pure and Pulse – the two PSP titles – as well as shoving the graphics headfirst into the current generation. Fans of the PSP games therefore, will find little new in the series’ current-gen debut, but the ability to play on a big screen with a proper controller may be enough reason for some.

The gameplay from previous Wipeout’s has remained largely unchanged. You take control of a ship and can compete in several gameplay modes such as races, time trials and a zones, the latter placing you on a race course with an ever-increasing speed, tasked with simply staying alive. Speed pads and weapons can be found at regular intervals on the track, the former essential for staying ahead of the pack, and the latter providing you with some firepower should you fall behind. All the weapons present in the game are very well balanced, with no one weapon that will give you any significant advantage. Your craft is also equipped with air brakes which differ from standard brakes in that they slow down only one side of your ship. These are extremely important at higher levels, when you’re forced round tracks at breakneck speeds. The combination of the above gameplay elements amounts to an extremely tactful game, where a knowledge of the speed and handling of your craft, the twists and turns in the track, and the locations of speed pads and weapon pickups, are essential to succeed in the main career mode, and to avoid becoming a smouldering pile of wreckage at the side of the track.

The sole addition to this game from the PSP version is motion control support thanks to the PS3 hardware. Although it defaults to off, a quick trip into the options menu will reward you with the best implementation of Sixaxis controls yet, which although difficult to get to grips with at first, soon establish themselves as a real alternative. Playing with them enabled allows you much greater control over your turning angle, and serves to smooth your racing line, and make you look better in the process. These controls aren’t for everyone, but there’s a trophy available for completing a race using them, so it’s worth a try.

On the subject of Trophies, Wipeout HD is one of the first major releases to support them with a full roster of awards, including the obvious ‘Get gold on everything,’ challenges as well as more specific requirements such as completing a barrel roll on a more or less flat track. Trophy integration is good, and there’s a wide variety in their requirements, so no one has an excuse not to get one or two.

Custom soundtracks come completely supported, with the ability to play any albums you have saved on you hard drive. More impressive still is the effects the game puts on songs as you race. Going over a big jump will cause a phase effect to be placed on the track, or through a tunnel an echo. Unfortunately you’re only able to play music from one album at a time, so those looking to randomise their entire music collection will be left disappointed. For those with no music at all on their hard drives typical techno tunes are provided for your listening pleasure, which although generic, fit well with the overall mood of the game.

Wipeout HD is a hardcore game, and newcomers to the series may at first be put off by the steep learning curve. Although the game provides you with an in-game manual, you really need to get stuck in to understand how everything works. The game also provides you the option to play with “Pilot Assist” which prevents you from killing your speed and destroying your ship by keeping you away from the sides of the track, allowing newcomers to slip in with relative ease.

Wipeout HD isn’t the perfect continuation of the series. It falls into the easy trap of giving fans exactly what they want, which essentially equates to more Wipeout. Whilst this may satisfy some, others may be frustrated with the lack of change from previous games. Aside from updated graphics there’s little reason for you to return if you played the PSP games, but if you’re completely new to the series, then Wipeout HD is a game that should at least be tried, even if initially it takes some getting used to.

NB: All images in this post were taken with the in-game camera

Warning: May Contain Bright Lights and Success, Now In HD!

October 6, 2008 § 2 Comments

Post time!

The first part of this post is going to be a small review of Playstation Network and the second part is how I see the Playstation 3 now finally visibly moving forwards so be warned, haters of Sony it is advisiable you stop here and wait a few days for Niall’s PC shizzle.

So, last thursday night, rather frustrated with work I could never get finished. I bought Wipeout HD from PSN. I didn’t expect much, I bought the new Ratchet and Clank for £10 and although it’s worth just about that, you won’t get that much from it after you finish it and you’ll finish it quickly. What impressed me about Ratchet being a PSN game was how beautiful it looked and it really set the standard for Blu-ray and PSN games alike. So, £12 poorer I downloaded Wipeout and my first impressions of it… was that this game is what we would see if we looked through the eyes of God. It actually gave me a warning telling me how bright this game is so it’s advisable I take breaks. I’m not going to go into a deep review of why it’s great but this game opened my eyes to something. Trophies. The trophy and point system, although fatally flawed in that not a lot of games support it, is an extremely interesting and great addition to Playstation online. We see the fruits of Xbox Live, which I’ve always been extremely envious of, but alas I see hope for online. This brings me onto my next point. The Playstation store has been boosted thoroughly and daily updates are being made. The Bioshock demo, is a real treat for the eyes, the added trailers and programmes add variety into our downloads in the comfort of our own home. Oh and one more thing on the subject of PSN, Wipeout supports custom soundtracks, please Sony, pay attention to your rival Microsoft and what they’ve done. People like custom soundtracks, we really do…honest.

Next where does this leave Playstation then in the future? Before I even attempt to give my thoughts on this I’m going to mention a series of games I think will be influential. LittleBigPlanet, Mirror’s Edge, Fallout 3 and the eventual release of Final Fantasy XIII. To start with LBP, this game will change everything. The idea, although simple has never even been attempted to be executed like this and provides the perfect bridge between hardcore and casual gaming. Sony have managed to get LittleBigPlanet to be taken seriously by gamers without going all Nintendo on our asses and changing the target audience completely. How this has been done is beyond me but the creation of this newfound community will be a unique and brilliant addition to Playstation online. Why? We have the Xbox Halo and COD4, foaming at the mouth, n00b killing community down to a tee and done well. With the addition to that on Playstation, for the first time we can have everyone playing and going online to a wonderfully colourful game.

Mirror’s Edge, Fallout 3 and Final Fantasy XIII. None of these actually being Playstation exclusives however these are the games that are going to be getting the acclaim and awards from critics. These games will be the ones that Playstation can finally use to show off it’s superior hardware after developers have successfully adapted to the new 7th generation. None of that Resistance bollocks, (sorry Resistance fans). With the Wii in the background and Nintendo already making enough money and the Xbox 360 seemingly peaking and rumours of the what the next Xbox may have, the Playstation is just about to peak. Mark my words the games I mentioned will bring this system high above the rest. Naturally you would expect sales to follow suit but let’s talk about money another time.

Be pleased though that we are in for a treat the next year because with arcade and retail games all rushing up, the Playstation is the almighty black collosus that can support everything and vomit out the bright lights back at you with flair.

If you think I’m talking out my ass please feel free to tell me. However if you so much as look at LittleBigPlanet with a dirty expression I might need to send bricks your way.

Loving the games, hating the school, thank God for Wipeout HD..

The Wonderful World of Work

October 3, 2008 § 1 Comment

Those of you not interested in PC gaming/my life feel free to skip this post and wait for my inevitable Fable II worship session later this month. To everyone else:

I am soon to take a job in a local PC repair shop (to pay off my loan sharks) and as such need to pull my finger out of my arse and get to the book-learnin’. As a happy result, I will be writing a regular feature, which I am christening Hardware Dope. This will be a series of articles focused around how to turn that solitaire simulator of yours into something a little more hefty, and how to keep your beloved computer from death’s door for far longer than is natural or humane. If you find yourself frustrated by poor performance, worrying over the cost of a new computer or simply wondering what to do with that fancy new set of screwdrivers, tune in every so often and learn yourself some knowhow.
For specific repair issues, feel free to send me an email and I’ll be happy to try and help.
So that’s all for now. Next time: Opening that shit up.

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