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The Life of P

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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?

Sony Tablet S

You would be forgiven for checking it’s not early April upon seeing a post by me on a newly acquired tablet. I have been an open tablet sceptic and overnight this has not changed. However, when Sony kindly sent a free Tablet S my way, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to see whether there really is a place for one in my life without taking a £400 gamble.

Some criticise Sony for taking over a year to bring their tablet offering to market, but I applaud their more thoughtful approach rather than merely churning out another “me too” device. The first thing you’ll notice is the tapered “folded back magazine” design, which is excellent for holding in portrait mode for lengthy periods, particularly as the weight distribution ergonomically falls down the “spine”, but less useful in landscape mode. It does mean you need to rotate the entire tablet to switch hands, but the display will smoothly reorientate automatically. The screen is vivid and, while many reviews suggest the housing does not feel sufficiently “premium”, the choice of materials allows for easy grip when carrying it around. You’ll need to decide for yourself whether such aesthetic considerations trump usability. It sports the tablet-optimised Honeycomb flavour of Android, with resizeable widgets, a new notification system and a multitasking app switcher.

What’s it good at? Tablets are, of course, for media consumption rather than creation. Reading email and RSS feeds (via Pulse) is slick and comfortable. Magazines look great too, but with a backlit screen rather than e-ink I can’t see myself reading e-books for long periods. Web browsing is crisp and fast, though as on phones I prefer Dolphin Browser to the default. Music works well enough, but at home I have a full speaker setup and when travelling I have better sounding, smaller PMP so it will likely get zero use. With a good front-facing camera it makes a really neat portable Skype device (slight volume issues notwithstanding) that doesn’t keep you stuck in one place. I can control my home theatre system with it as a giant remote, though in practice it’s only for browsing the library and selecting shows since a dedicated remote is swifter for quick actions.

Where does it fail? The tinny internal speaker is somewhat inevitable given the slim nature of tablets and, although it’s adequate for embedded news clips, even YouTube videos suffer. Hiding the power button and volume controls under the edge looks tidy, but they are positioned too closely so you’ll often find yourself accidentally turning off the screen and, depending on the current orientation, they can be hard to reach. Despite access to the PlayStation store, the lack of PS3 controller support is a real shame and means this just isn’t really a gaming device — at least until I can get OnLive running on it with a dedicated controller. Touch controls may be intuitive when games are specifically designed for them, but shipping with Crash Bandicoot was a mistake since it tends to be more frustrating than impressive. Fruit Ninja draws more excitement from visitors.

How do I find myself using it? Primarily it’s to check email and Facebook, and to browse IMDb while watching films, without having to fire up my laptop. I can see it slotting comfortably into my daily routine – checking email, news and weather when I wake up and before bed. These are all things I would otherwise do with my smartphone, but they are far more comfortable on the tablet. Watching a short videoclip while holding a tablet is fine but for anything longer you need to dock or balance it somewhere (and its asymmetry makes the Tablet S harder to prop up than others), whereas angling a laptop screen remains much more comfortable. When docked it can also serve admirably as a digital picture frame.

The deal-breaking moment for me was when I found myself reading an email on the tablet and then, wanting to respond in more than two sentences, I got up from the couch walked into my bedroom and typed the email out on the PC instead. SwiftKey Tablet X is a fantastic thumb-friendly predictive touchscreen keyboard designed for tablets, but it seems even that wasn’t enough.

Verdict: This is a  thoughtfully designed tablet and a worthy competitor to the other high-end products on the market. Beyond perhaps the internal speaker I have very little negative to say about the Tablet S by comparison to the competition. It seems there is a space for a tablet in my life but it is not “filling a need I didn’t know I had”. Ultimately it’s nice to fire up my laptop less frequently but £400 is still a lot of money for what a tablet does. Still, it’s a hell of a lot better than a netbook.

In closing, my personal views on tablets take nothing away from what Sony has produced and, if you are in the market for one, this is a model you ought to give serious consideration. However, I would highly recommend first holding one for yourself to decide whether its unique shape works for you.

Make Love, Not HD DVDs

I have not yet weighed in on the end of the high definition format war, now formally over following Toshiba’s announcement that shortly they will be ceasing production of HD DVD devices. This obviously leaves Sony’s blu-ray as the victor, presumably having learned from the famous failure of their betamax format to VHS and thus being willing to spend vast sums to win over major studios. It is, of course, content that decides competitions like this, not innate quality. On paper blu-ray the higher capacity blu-ray certainly looked to be the better format but as it stands things are not quite so clear cut for the consumer.

HD DVD was arguably a more direct evolution of the old format so production of both media and, more visibly, the players were much cheaper. The consumer is now saddled with the more expensive format and with the early victory for blu-ray, there hasn’t even been the competitive need for major cuts in player prices. The other issue is that the blu-ray movie format is still in flux. The java system used to provide interactive features has caused issues and there are already three tiers of players. The earliest adopters with profile 1.0 players are left out in the cold, while profile 1.1 and now profile 2.0 players leave one wondering whether there is any guarantee to the consumer that the format is going to be properly finalised at all. Certain discs have severe problems playing on earlier players, while others experience boot times of up to 90 seconds. The PS3 is the only blu-ray player that can be updated to keep up with these changes. Buying a standalone (and often more expensive) player is just too risky even with the war won.

A strange aside to all this is that, as well as blu-ray, Sony have spent a huge amount developing the cell processor which powers the PS3. Last year they arranged to stop production and transfer the technology to Toshiba who would produce the processors for them. The finer points of this deal were only recently settled leading some to suggest Toshiba may have been bought off through favourable terms in return for ending the format war early.

So the end of the format war does not make it safe for most consumers to bite the bullet and buy a blu-ray player just yet. If you want one now, the PS3 is the safest bet since it’s impressive processing power means that firmware updates should be sufficient to keep it on the cutting edge (and really it must be up-to-date if the Sony wish to maximise the advantage of holding the winning format).

Another question several people have asked me is what this means for Microsoft and the Xbox 360. Not a huge amount really. They hedged their bets supporting HD DVD via an external add-on rather than integrating it into the console. It is almost inevitable that a blu-ray add-on is in the works (rumour says they already have operating units in Redmond). The real difference is that the PS3 has suddenly become a much more appealing prospect as a second console and so it seems the gaming world will have a three-horse race after all…

New Month, New Start

The first day of a new month seemed like an appropriate time for a return to active duty. The flat is now really taking shape with just a few major additions left — the rest will be purely cosmetic. The living room is everything I had hoped with the Sony Bravia KDL-40W2000 taking centre stage. I have been stalking that screen from a distance for over a year, and it was with no small sense of accomplishment that I finally switched it on. The delivery man enviously described these screens as looking “like water” and he’s not wrong. This level of stunning television construction is approaching an affordable price at last (although the truly extravagant can still easily drop three grand on the new Philips Aurea — you know a launch is special when it requires Wong Kar Wei direct a short film). The only downside is that while the Xbox plays divinely and upscales DVDs with aplomb, it has proved stubbornly unwilling to communicate with wirelessly connected PC. Trailing a dozen metres of ethernet cabling between rooms is not really a solution so this needs to be investigated further.

You have probably gathered that we now have internet access from the flat, which also makes work decidedly easier since BPP conveniently make most of their resources available externally. Thus I can continue to keep unsociable student hours rather than restricting my work to the hours that librarians keep (the hours they are paid to keep at any rate). It’s no secret that I am a technophile but, while I wouldn’t characterise myself as dependant, I admit I was surprised by just how comfortable I instantly felt once the dual combination or the internet and TV were sorted out. In honesty I barely watched broadcast TV in the past few years, but I still needed my DVD and Xbox fix, particularly with the release of Halo 3. Yes, I have been playing it avidly, but I feel it probably deserves its own post shortly.

Given my absence there are obviously all manner of things I could ramble on about at length but I’d like to keep posts a bit more focused in order to ensure you retain a steady stream rather than the occasional deluge. Rest assured that regular service has now been resumed.

"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2024 Priyan Meewella

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