Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Tag: microsoft

E3 2012

The Queen’s diamond jubilee could not have been better timed for two reasons. Firstly, it provided two days off work that lined up perfectly with the opening of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo in LA, meaning I could watch all the live-streamed press conferences with friends. And secondly, the weather was rubbish so I did not even need to feel guilty about staying indoors. Rather than a continuous stream of gaming related posts this week, I thought it best to save my thoughts on the big announcements for a single post afterwards. Take a deep breath: this could be a long one.

The easiest way to tell what to expect from the Big Three (Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo) is by considering the drinking game rules for the conferences. This year one would drink every time:

  1. tacked-on, unnecessary use of Kinect/motion controls are announced;
  2. a celebrity clearly does not understand the game (s)he is promoting; or
  3. dubstep is heard (seriously, every other trailer?).

Rule 1 alone would have ruined the livers of those watching the Microsoft conference, although (perhaps in the wake of Skyrim) they are now pushing far subtler integration for core games, based primarily around voice rather than motion. In Splinter Cell: Blacklist, for example, the player can attract a guard’s attention by calling out to them, “hey you!” whilst it was suggested that Fifa 13 may penalise players for swearing on the pitch! The big announcement was Xbox SmartGlass, which allows smartphones and tablets to integrate with the Xbox. The most promising thing being that Microsoft is not trying to push this as a selling point for Windows Phone and Windows 8 tablets, but is supporting Android and iOS devices too. It is the smart move but not one I was sure they would make.

Sony, meanwhile, largely ignored the floundering Playstation Vita and instead focused on its strength in console exclusives. The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic follow-up to the Uncharted trilogy is looking superb, with the player character aided by the young girl he is protecting (who now looks slightly less like Ellen Page than in the initial trailer). Rather than shooting away or being entirely passive like most companion AI, she instead helps out primarily when the player needs it, buying some extra breathing room. Meanwhile Quantic Dream’s awkwardly titled Beyond: Two Souls, using the motion capture and engine from the Kara tech demo, actually does star Ellen Page. The actual gameplay is up in the air, but it looks like a fast-paced supernatural adventure with a focus on subtle, realistic human interaction.

Nintendo had a lot to prove with the Wii U following a somewhat muted response to the console announcement last year. It became clear that they are serious about trying to win back core gamers and not merely courting the casual market they found with the Wii. However, despite a reasonable display of third party support and an exclusive zombie title ZombieU, it remains unclear why we should care. Its share price dropped following the somewhat lacklustre performance, wherein the most promising announcement was Lego City: Undercover, an open world GTA-style city in which the player solves crimes, along with the usual tongue-in-cheek Lego humour.

Interestingly, between Microsoft’s SmartGlass and Sony’s Vita integration with the PS3, both now have effective “tablet” support with the potential to undermine the uniqueness of the Wii U’s control system in the future. However, this could well be a blessing for Nintendo — if developers are able to incorporate similar functionality into all three, there is a greater incentive to support the Wii U with new titles where Wii support was often overlooked because of its radically different controls.

On to the big game announcements:

Watch Dogs from Ubisoft Montreal generated the biggest buzz, having been kept totally under wraps and debuting with both a trailer and gameplay. Think Matrix-style hackers with access to a glut of personal information on everyone, operating in an open world city by way of GTA and Deus Ex. It hints at a whole network of hackers collaborating to protect one another, though it is unclear whether this represents multiple protagonists, co-op or an MMOG. Big budget new IP in a world of sequels is always a welcome surprise.

Assassin’s Creed III appeared in pretty much every press conference and is looking great, despite my apathy towards Revelations, the last title in the series. The American Revolution setting freshens things up wonderfully and, although I had concerns about the open-world approach, climbing through the trees seems to make traversal as comfortable as in cities. Also: sailing ships.

Star Wars 1313 looks like it could be the remedy for those not enthused by recent titles in the franchise (and indeed, the franchise itself of late). Set on galactic hub Corsuscant during the original trilogy era it eschews the now-ubiquitous Jedi and lightsabers in favour of a mature bounty hunter tale. And using a tweaked version of the very latest Unreal 3 engine, it looks gorgeous.

Tomb Raider is a game Crystal Dynamics have earned the right to make. After paying their dues with a series of sequels faithful to the original games, Lara is now very much theirs, so they are rebooting the character with an origins story. And it looks brutal. Enough so that it has stirred some controversy as a result of the experiences through which she is put, but that is what forges her will to survive and we root for her throughout. Tycho at Penny Arcade rightly refers to both this and The Last of Us as fundamentally disempowerment fantasies.

Dishonored is the other big new IP, offering a surprising level of creative freedom in its assassination gameplay, set in a cyberpunk world courtesy of the designer of Half-Life 2’s City 17. The player has a large arsenal of Bioshock-style powers at his disposal in order to get the job done in a variety of ways. The debut trailer was great but the recent gameplay trailer left me slightly underwhelmed so I was glad to see much more polished demos on the show floor. Really the tagline alone is enough to win me over: revenge solves everything.

Halo 4 is, at first glance, much as one might expect. However it is clear that while maintaining its core, 343 Industries are keen to strike a new direction with the franchise they inherited from Bungie. In single player that means a new world inhabited by the Prometheans, with links to the Forerunners and new weaponry. Meanwhile multiplayer Spartan Ops offers new episodic, narrative co-op missions each month.

Those are what I took away, so over to you. Anything I missed? What was your game of the show?

Sequelphobia

Bioshock was a videogame – I think we can all agree on that much. It was also a vast idea. Do ideas have sequels? I guess they sort of do. A corollary is a kind of idea-sequel, right? Or is a corollary more like downloadable content? I shouldn’t have lead with something like this, maybe.

-Tycho, Penny Arcade

I was overtly biased against a sequel that took one of 2007’s finest games and handed the franchise over to another developer. My take now (without having played it, mind) is that the review scores are impressive, hailing it as an accomplished action game that polishes all the bits of the first game that I didn’t really care about. The awe of exploring Rapture, in all its art deco Ayn Rand-inspired glory, was a unique experience that you can’t really replicate by placing the player in the same environment but a bigger suit. Even if the combat works better.

On the other hand, if I’d read more about Mass Effect 2 before playing it, I’d have believed Bioware ruined an excellent RPG by removing the customisation depth and turning it into a straightforward action shooter. They haven’t. What they have done is carefully distilled their experimental hybrid into its purest essence. It’s exquisite. If you require more words, it’s one of the few games I think about solely in terms of its characters rather than its mechanics, which become almost invisible as you explore more of this vastly detailed universe which tears through the boundaries of previous “choice and consequence” simulations. If someone survived when I played the first game, I can converse and work with them. If they didn’t, I can’t. Because they’re still dead. Working out the permutations for the third instalment must be a terrifying prospect, but one whose benefits I cannot wait to reap.

Earlier this week Microsoft unveiled another sequel of sorts: the cumbersomely titled but rebuilt from the ground up Windows Phone 7 Series, replacing Windows Mobile. It’s not about to win over the iPhone crowd because, let’s face it, their attention is unflinchingly fixed in one direction. To be honest I’d be surprised if it wins over me because I’ve been stung too many times by beautiful bits of hardware that were crippled by the sluggish Windows Mobile OS. But for now I just want to talk interfaces.

At first it just seemed bland. The “chromeless” interface means no menu backgrounds, no reflective icons or dropped shadows (and apparently no carrier customisations either). It’s surprisingly different to current designs, taking its cues from the Zune rather than any existing smartphone OS. After a minute the focus on simplicity and clear typography is not only refreshing but rather beautiful, elegantly sliding between screens. Who would have thought Microsoft would be the minimalist ones? I remain wary until I play with one, but I think it will be all too easy to write this off as bland rather than bold: if that was your first impression, I’d urge you still to give them a whirl when devices arrive at the end of the year. I will be, even if I’m not holding my breath.

All this is a long way of saying that I should probably set my prejudice aside and try out Bioshock 2, remaining silent on it until I do so.

Michael McIntyre @ The O2

It was, he explained, the biggest night of his life. Looking around the heaving arena, it wasn’t hard to believe. For any stand-up comedian that was a serious crowd. I’ve previously made my feelings about The O2, at least as a music venue, very clear. However as Rav and I had booked these tickets back in January (fortunately he reminded me yesterday since I had entirely forgotten) I found myself there tonight for the biggest gig of Michael McIntyre’s life.

I’m a big fan and rather in awe of his sudden rise to such stratospheric fame. As you might expect, he was hilarious, though somewhat unusually the second half of his set felt significantly stronger than the first. The material felt fresh (by which I mean I hadn’t seen it all on TV before) but some of the observational humour seemed to miss its mark – I’m not certain of the intelligence required to point out the unnaturalness of plants inside houses when I’ve been railing against it for the past decade.

The chief problem was still the venue itself. Its size is a massive disadvantage particular with a comedian like McIntyre because (as his fans will know) half of his humour is derived from his facial expressions and/or hair. This means for the full effect one cannot look directly at him, but rather must focus on one of the screens, with the result that one often feels they may as well be watching at home. To his credit he played up to it, actively engaging the distant rear seats, and it’s certainly an impressive sight to see a single man keeping an crowd that size in constant laughter. He wasn’t aided by a triple echo that reverberated around the arena, though it was amusing to experience the laughter/applause that seemed to roll around the audience in waves rather than the usual ripples. Perhaps most worrying of all, however, was a long segment in which he discussed the removal of pants in a gym. It’s a sign of just how long I’ve been spending in the States of late that it took nearly five minutes to realise he was talking about underwear and not trousers.

Penny Arcade’s review of Windows 7 is decidedly succint, if not entirely inaccurate. Having had an experience with the Release Candidate so good that I installed it on my primary computer, I am pleased to say my experience with the final product has been (aside from a brief issue with Belkin’s wireless drivers) even smoother. Wandering home through Waterloo station I was impressed by Microsoft’s launch advertising which appears to be their most accurate campaign yet, highlighting how the changes in Windows 7 are simply what users have been asking for. It’s nothing massively innovative or original, it’s just what people want. In some ways that is what separates it from Apple (though I am not about to suggest this is what has characterised Microsoft over the years; if anything the opposite is true), which feels the need to tell people what they need from and how to use their technology. For the last generation perhaps it is true that users could not be trusted with such decisions and needed to be told. Now, as we all become increasingly familiar with technology, that approach seems just a little bit backward.

The Collector’s Mentality

In the past few years collector’s edition releases of major videogames have become a popular way for publishers to convince hardcore fans to part with a little extra cash. An extra £5-10 for a fancy tin box, an artbook and an extra disc with behind-the-scenes development footage is a pretty easy sell. The cheap approach, often used to entice pre-orders, is free-to-produce in-game content like an extra outfit or gold guns (yes, that happened). This year, all that has changed as videogame publishers have decided to up the ante.

Assassin's Creed Black EditionThe price of a collector’s edition game has rocketed to around £60-70, which in a recessionary year may seem either ill-advised or a blatant attempt to bolter lacklustre mid-year sales by cashing in doubly over the always-busy Christmas period. But the contents are a world away from the old fancy box and book. Batman: Arkham Asylum includes a fullsize batarang (that’s 14” of vigilante justice, one supposes, in marketing speak) for the proud owner to display/fight crime. The “black edition” of Assassin’s Creed II contains an 8.5” statue of protagonist Ezio as well as the game’s soundtrack on CD (and I’ll be honest, I’m tempted by this one). But the crowning jewel of this year’s line-up is the £120 “prestige edition” of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which comes with fully working night vision goggles. Seriously. If next year’s Dragon Age: Origins doesn’t come with a real dragon egg, I suspect fans will feel cheated.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Prestige EditionI’m a collector, I understand the mentality and, if we can find the right price-point for this stuff, it’s no bad thing. At least it’s real stuff we’re being offered. Unlike the new clothing and accessories for sale in Microsoft’s new Xbox Avatar Store. Paying a little to express oneself digitally is okay, but this stuff is all really advertising so I find the future plans to unlock related clothes through in-game achievements far more appealing. The problem again is pricing. 80 points (about 70p) for a t-shirt or a hat might be okay. But it shows that they know us far too well when they charge 400 points (about £3.50) for a virtual lightsabre, and it almost seems worth it.

Please Release (Candidate) Me

First off various bits that I’ve been meaning to share:

I have not said a great deal about my experience with Windows 7 since installing the beta a while ago. The reason is pretty simple: it’s just been incredibly smooth with very little to report. The general interface has undergone minimal change since Vista, with most of the changes under the hood. Subtle changes like the new Super Bar and AeroPeek are well-implemented evolutions of the Aero interface, but hardly revolutionary. Unlike the experience of early adopters of Vista, most software will already be fully compatible, particularly since most vendors now support 64-bit releases (yes, with 4 gigs of RAM in the laptop I’m using a 64-bit version of Windows 7). The result has been a very stable operating system that acts just as it should: generally stays out of your way and lets you get on with what you want to do.

So when the Release Candidate arrived earlier this month I didn’t jump at it. In fact, my experience with the beta has been so hassle-free that I probably won’t upgrade before my trip to the States either, since reinstalling all that software will be time-consuming. In fact my chief reason for switching to the RC will be to take advantage of its generous trial period, lasting until March 2010 (full expiration is technically June 2010 but forced shutdowns every 2 hours essentially render it useless in that period).

Xbox Interface Overhaul

New Xbox InterfaceI’ll discuss the weekend’s wonderful trip up to Cambridge once I get hold of some photos from the panto (I didn’t take my camera up with me). In the meantime I have a few thoughts on Microsoft’s new interface for the Xbox 360, which went live last Wednesday. I am not buying into their NXE moniker. “Experience” is somewhat overstating the product — it’s an interface not a skydiving holiday. It is the first time a console has undergone such a radical overhaul, though it is a logical step for a software giant like Microsoft. With so much strong content being released it would be wrong to say this update breathed new life into the three-year-old console but it was certainly welcome – the old blade interface was already arguably better than its competitors but as the games library grew, finding items online became a chore, scrolling through a list of hundreds of titles.

The other big change it brought was the introduction of avatars, undoubtedly inspired by the Wii’s Miis but a natural evolution with far more detail, taking advantage of the console’s superior processing power. Interestingly the facial customisation is arguably shallower in that one can select parts in various shapes and colours but there is no ability to alter positioning on the face. This is presumably to facilitate more detailed facial animation on the dashboard and in games.

However a large part of customisation is in clothing, which proves far more than just novelty outfits (although in future games may unlock new themed outfits) or exaggerated stereotypes. A behind-the-scenes video showed artists at Rare sketching concepts with fashion magazines as reference, which frankly seemed a bit excessive. The result, however, is that one recognises friends as much from their avatar’s fashion as their appearance – indeed my sister’s is most instantly recognisable from her choice of jumper. That I had not expected.



A New Job and Three Red Lights

The month long absence was largely to do with focusing on starting work as a trainee solicitor at Bird & Bird although, with the first two weeks spent on what broadly amounted to an LPC-lite Professional Skills course, very little has actually been going on. The trainees are a fantastic bunch, and I’d managed to meet about two thirds of them already through various social events over the past two years since the summer scheme (yes, it has been that long). From that bunch Rachel, Chelsea and Matt have joined, with Kelvin also starting in the firm’s Hong Kong office. Rob will be joining us next year.

Obviously client confidentiality means I’m unlikely to discuss work at length here, but the firm culture is possibly even better than we had hoped. Rather than waxing lyrical about the ubiquitous “work-life balance” claim of every law firm, instead they just give us great hours with virtually no late nights so that people can, well, go away and have lives. I’ll be in the IP department for the next six months and, having been a student for too long, I’m actually looking forward to getting properly stuck into some real work.

With classic poor timing in my last week of freedom before work, my Xbox 360 finally gave up the ghost, refusing to start and displaying the dreaded three red lights — meaning a critical hardware fault. While an electronic device of that value ought not to break after just 2 years, Microsoft’s support has been stellar. With unusually high failure rates they extended their warranty to three years, meaning that after logging the problem online they emailed me a UPS label and paid for all transportation costs. Once received the turnaround was only around a day, and it arrived back working fine. The included note stated they had found problems in both the motherboard and DVD drive, so not exactly a minor repair. The inclusion of an unboxed scratched-up disc of outdated tennis game Top Spin 2 was a somewhat insulting gift, but the 1 month Xbox Live subscription card was vastly more welcome. Overall it was a problem that should not have happened, but being able to resolve it for free without even calling up a helpline mean Microsoft get top marks for their response.

Service Pack Avoidance

Following the furore surrounding the release of Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, I gave it a very wide berth for about half a year before eventually installing it. Those issues largely surrounded the introduction of Windows Firewall (turned on by default in SP2) and in hindsight I came to respect the developers’ view which can be summed up as “enabling the firewall is inevitably going to break some things, so let’s make sure we break everything at once and then it’s done.” By the time I installed SP2 the process was pretty seamless and updates to my firewall software (still Norton back then) provided a quick solution to immediately switch off Windows Firewall and continue as before.

A cursory glance over the contents of the first Service Pack for Windows Vista shows nothing major at all for those who have kept their systems up-to-date. Since it largely deals with under-the-hood speed and stability issues I figured it would be safe enough to install at Windows Update’s suggestion, particularly since a public beta test had already occurred. Apparently I was wrong. After two attempts to install it, I’ve given up and will instead leave it well alone until either I hear the widespread issues have been resolved or it is actually forced upon us by Windows Update. What was my experience? One attempted installation caused a blue screen, failing halfway through. The second installation ran fine, taking about 40 minutes and reaching 100% in each of the 3 stages. After which, inexplicably, a message appeared stating “Service pack not installed” and rolled back again, which took it about half an hour. No error messages, nothing to explain why or even what on earth it was doing in those 3 stages if that didn’t constitute a full installation. The internet is now flooded with similar experiences, with one suggestion being that it may be caused the by the (very common) Realtek integrated audio chipset. I need to by a sound card to install an OS service pack!? The short version is really the common sense approach I should have followed: avoid Vista SP1 for as long as possible until all the kinks get sorted out.

UPDATE: Microsoft’s official advice is now to leave SP1 until mid-April, though Windows Update is still suggesting it.

"Luck is the residue of design."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2021 Priyan Meewella

Up ↑