Archive for the ‘ Gaming ’ Category

Gaming : (N)othing new (AT) (AL)l??

Have Microsoft broken all the boundaries? As I was perusing the net the other day, I came across a video on the BBC website, which was showing an application of project Natal, that Microsoft had been demonstrating at E3. The introduction to the video was claiming that this was something pretty special and I’ll have to be honest at first glance, it certainly did seem a little too good. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the video and analyse it a little. For those of you that haven’t seen it, or indeed can’t, I’ll give a short text description here.

The video starts with a woman walking up to a screen and greeting a small child who was playing on a swing. He walks over and greets her back. They then enter a discussion where the woman, Claire, questions the boy, Milo, as to whether he has done his homework or not. The boy then changes emotion, putting his head down and starts walking with shoulders hunched, not looking at Claire at all. The narrator points this out and describes a technology where Milo can recognise Claires emotions and visa versa. Interesting. As we continue, Claire offers to help Milo with his homework. He throws her a pair of goggles, which obviously can’t permeate through the screen into the real world, but Claire stoops to pick up the virtual goggles. He tells her to put the glasses on, and she uses her hands to make goggles like shapes in front of her eyes. Milo acknowledges this, and the camera then shifts to look into a pool of water, where Claire is now able to interact, by waving her hands in front of the screen, to make small waves in the water. After this she decides to help Milo and draws him an orange fish on a piece of paper. She shows this to a device above the screen and Milo reaches up and grabs what appears to be a copy of the drawing from above the screen. We hear him exclaim that it is orange shortly before the video finishes.

Clever stuff I hear you cry. Well yes and no, I feel that in some sense the video may be misrepresenting what is actually going on in front of our eyes. Now don’t get me wrong, the Natal framework certainly looks impressive, but I wanted to take a look at current technologies and see whether there is actually anything new in this at all. First of all we have facial recognition, Milo clearly recognises Claire and responds to her by name. Though facial recognition hasn’t been perfected, many machines are able to tell the difference between several faces. Head tracking and face tracking is something that even digital cameras can do nowadays and so this doesn’t surprise me. To be honest, let’s look at the market for this framework. It’s largely going to be of home entertainment use. Owing to that fact, the number of faces it has to differentiate between is likely to be small, often consisting of two adults of differing gender along with two children separated by age with a few years. I’ll admit I’m stereotyping a little here, but it’s nothing to be concerned about, any family is going to have similar differentiations between the various occupants.

Moving on from this we have the voice recognition. Voice recognition hasn’t received a huge boost to it’s technology of late, but it’s still good enough for recognising a few keywords. Extending this to the Natal framework and it’s hard to see whether the conversation is free form or scripted. Listening to the narrator speak about the project, and watching a few things on the screen it concerns me that the video is little more than a glorified script. What makes me say this? The fact that the narrator explains that everytime the pair of goggles is thrown at the interactee, they stoop down to pick them up. This seems to me to indicate that events are not at all free flowing and still have to utilise a large amount of pre-scripted effort. This is further confirmed by the feint but still visible symbol on screen of how to make the goggles symbol and this is repeated at the beginning of the demonstration where it appears Claire has been prompted to wave to Milo. It seems the NATAL system is driven by gestures and symbols. What did intrigue me is as Milo skips off to the pond, he mentions in conversation “I don’t know until I try do I?” This seemed to be a rather out of the blue sentence and could indicate more realism to the whole system, or a string of random phrases that Milo may utter, after discussing homework.

The emotional state of Milo is something which is touted by the narrator quite heavily in this video. He claims that Milo is able to recognise emotions in the interactee and is also able to exhibit emotions back. The second claim is a little easier to stomach. It’s entirely possible to put modifiers on the motion sequences to make them look happy or sad. Dropping the head, slouching forward is nothing special. The former of the two claims is more difficult to stomach. Just how can Milo recognise emotions from the interactee. In the video, we do not actually see any evidence of this, but it could possibly be achieved by monitoring the persons own stance and features of voice. Milo’s voice does indeed seem to change with his emotion, lending his voice to vary considerably depending on his “emotion”. This could be achieved quite easily with having a number of responses, dependent on the input of the interactee. Some could be happy, sad, surprised and based on keywords from the voice recognition and emotion analysis from stance and possibly face.

The next subject is one which unless the system is really limited I can’t fully explain. The synthesis of speech is actually really good. Along with speech recognition this appears to be an area which has been lacking in technological development in recent years. It could be that the demonstration has pre-scripted lines which Milo can speak, or it could be that the words can be generated on the fly. The NATAL sensor is apparently equipped with a multi array microphone which enables it to do acoustic source localisation and noise suppression which could aid the speech recognition, but the speech synthesis would probably be handled by the software on the console.

Next comes the interaction with water. Now in my mind, this is the easiest portion of the demonstration. There are a few nice touches, but again there is nothing ground breaking here. The sensor in NATAL is apparently capable of doing 3D full body motion capture of up to 4 people. Taking the movements of the Claire and making her ripple the water really is child’s play. It was, however, refreshing to see her reflection in the water. Presumably the RGB camera in the sensor is used to map video onto a plane which is then “rippled.” To be honest though not technically impressive this was one of my favourite parts of the demonstration video. The camera is also used to take a quick photo when Claire draws a picture of a fish for Milo. Though we hear Milo exclaim that it’s orange, the video ends before we can see whether he recognises it as a fish or not. Assuming that Milo is expecting to see a certain set of shapes, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility for the software to be able to pick out rudimentary shapes from the drawing and convert those for Milo to process.

Some of you reading this, who have watched the video may be thinking that I’m being a little harsh and that the video was pretty amazing. I’m not denying the fact that the video was impressive at all. However after my first initial watch I decided that I wanted to dig a little deeper, and not take everything on face value. I wanted to see whether Microsoft were bringing anything ground breaking to the market. In my personal opinion the technologies behind this are nothing new at all. What NATAL does appear to bring, is a way to amalgamate all of these new technologies together into a single package. If the API behind this is as good the demonstration video, then it will be very interesting to see what the XBox360 has to offer, once NATAL is released. To be honest it is all going to hinge on what Microsoft do with the technology. Having a great technical demo is one thing, but being able to turn that into an immersive gaming experience is a completely different thing altogether. After all, we all have virtual reality now don’t we? Oh….yeh….what did happen to that?

But I don’t wanna use my head….or do I?

All this talk of full body motion capture and second generation controllers sparked off a thought process yesterday. It happened as I was sat in my chair and picked up my PS3 controller to turn on a DVD. I mused briefly on what it would be like if the PS3 had full motion capabilities. I’d probably have to swing my arm or punch forward to start my DVD playing. It then occurred to me that in all honesty, I like having a controller, an interface that isn’t like the real world. Maybe this takes some explaining but, for me at least, I often want to sit and play a game in the comfort of my chair. It’s what takes me away from real life. If all of a sudden I have to stand up and jump around to play a game of Killzone 3, then I’m forced to wonder would I actually play it?

It’s not just because I’m a lazy monkey, though that’s probably a contributing factor, but I seriously like the way that a controller is a gateway into another realm. Seem strange? I spend my entire day moving my body around in order to get it to do things. That’s real life. Using a controller allows me to control a virtual world through a seemingly non real world interface. In actual fact, have you ever sat down and considered how ironic it is using a keyboard and mouse for playing things like FPS games. The very tools that were invented to do productive work, are also responsible for controlling virtual characters in one of the biggest wastes of time there is. Playing games 🙂

The Wii revolutionised the controller market, wireless controllers were nothing new, but actually using the orientation of the controller to bridge the gap between the physical and the virtual was something that hadn’t ever really been done before. Credit where credit’s due, it was a fantastic foray into the world of immersive controlling, where your body position and physical movements matter on a scale never before seen. With the addition of limb position being introduced into the gaming mix, I have to wonder whether we’re taking this a little too far too soon, or if a vital component is missing. I recall how much I used to fantasise about VR. Being able to explore a virtual world. Now couple a great stereographic head up display with all of these motion controllers and you have a far greater argument for me to actually want to use them.

You see the one problem which pains all of this motion activated gaming at the moment is that of head position. We are very much tied to a single screen. Our head must remain in the centre at all times and it’s this limiting factor that reduces the effectiveness of the virtual facade. For me it’s one of the key factors that leads me to prefer sitting on my butt with a controller. Being able to turn your head in any direction and still being able to see what’s going on around you? Now that is key. With the positional features of the new PS3 controllers being overlayed onto something like a VR headset, we could see something absolutely magical happening in the near future. The question is, are people now ready for the full VR experience? Were people ready for it before? I guess only time will tell.

Gaming : Me gamer, me angry!

markI’ve just come home from a bad day at work so prepare yourself! I decided to play a bit of Fable 2 to let off a bit of steam but that didn’t work. It only made me madder. More of that below, but, got me thinking about some of the things that get me mad in terms of games. Here are just a few. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! Continue reading

Gaming : Hello, my name is: _’Gamer’_

markI was in a computer store the other day browsing high end graphics cards and the latest games, killing time waiting for a train, when the salesman came up to me and asked in a rather excited manner “does one like playing games? Is Sir a hardcore gamer?” Worrying that if I didn’t stop him talking soon the next few sentences out of his mouth would sound something like “Are there certain games sir likes to play? Does sir like to rub oneself up against the cases, touch them when no one’s looking, OH Suit You Sir!”, I blurted out “err, yes, I’m a fairly hardcore gamer”. The salesman then proceeded to squeak something else at me but I didn’t hear him as what I’d said got me thinking. How do you define ‘hardcore’? How do you define ‘casual’? Is there a middle ground? More importantly, where do I fit in? Am I ‘hardcore’? Even more importantly than that, has the salesman gone yet? I could only answer the last one and it was definitely ‘no’!

On to the train and I’m still thinking. I’ll freely admit that I’m a gamer but that’s about all. I don’t consider myself ‘hardcore’ in the truest sense but by the same token I don’t consider myself ‘casual’, however, seemingly, middle ground isn’t acceptable. You are either one or the other. I found myself stuck with the same unanswerable question that I face whilst stood in the frozen desert section in the supermarket. “Mint choc chip or cookie dough ice cream, why can’t we have the best of both worlds? Damn you Ben and Jerry”.

So what is ‘hardcore’ and what’s not? Hardcore gaming is something that’s developed over the years and is referred to by Wikipedia as ‘gamers whose leisure time is largely dedicated to playing or reading about video games. This type of gamer prefers to take significant time and practice on games’. The media has polarised this image further by creating one of a socially awkward teenager preferring to spend time with virtual friends rather than real ones. An image often used in Hollywood to signify an outsider. Casual is another label that’s been popularised by the media, mainly after the launch of Nintendo’s Wii. Wikipedia refers to a casual gamer as someone ‘whose time or interest in playing games is limited’ often preferring the ‘pick up and play experience that any age group or skill level could enjoy’. By these two definitions I like both aspects. I love to get immersed in the long running story of a role playing game such as Fable 2 or Oblivion, but at the same time I love the idea of picking up a Wii remote and beating the hell out of someone at a game of boxing (virtually of course but having seen the damage Wii remote thrown at speed can do it wouldn’t be hard to do it for real).

I thought to start with, I’d analyse my console history to see if I could build a picture of my gaming habits. It dawned on me that by doing it this way I bordered far more towards the ‘hardcore’ definition. I produce a sharp intake of breath, “Oh dear” I say, forgetting I’m still on the train, panicking those around me. I’ve had at least one console from every generation and at least one from each category, in most cases trading the previous gaming system for the new one at, or slightly after, launch. Looking at more recent times it makes the situation look even more ‘hardcore’. Previously I’d only generally have one console at a time but in the past year I’ve managed to work my way to owning every one of the current generation consoles simultaneously. Bringing it right up to date, I recently sold my Wii (The novelty of the console may have worn off but the innuendos still make me giggle like a school girl) which to many, including the media, is considered a ‘casual’ gamer’s console, stating a marked preference for the more involving, more in depth (more ‘hardcore’) games of the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. Hardcore: 1, Casual: 0

Then, as the train hurtled through the English countryside, my brain hurtled towards another thought. This time I thought I’d look at my actual game playing habits. This instantly started to swing the argument the other way. I thought ‘with all these consoles I must play games all the time, heck, I only played Bioshock recently, when was it….erm… well I watched that film last night, oh, and I was out at the snooker hall with Dan on Wednesday…err… Tuesday was my turn to cook and the subsequent kitchen decontamination took all evening’. I continued to work back and it turned out I last played a game 7 days previously. Then it occurred to me, having thought about Bioshock, the last save file for that particular game was Feb 2008. I hadn’t played it in nearly 14 months! I tend to wander through games at my leisure, often playing frequently for a week or so after a release and then it slowly trails off. Not exactly ‘hardcore’ by any means. The score was even, Hardcore: 1, Casual: 1. Then I remembered why I hadn’t played Bioshock for so long. I have about 29 other games and that’s just on the Xbox. Hardcore: 2, Casual: 1. Bugger.

Ok, I thought ‘let us look at another aspect’ (by this point I was worrying about my use of ‘us’ when I was the only one there. The guard on the train clearly saw my worried expression as he said “Don’t worry, all I want is to check your ticket”… ‘What? Oh. Yes, sorry’). This other aspect, once I’d got my train of thought back, was my use of the surround gaming community. Referring back to the Wikipedia definition, I don’t really read magazines about gaming, only dipping in to the odd magazine in the newsagents if I’m intrigued by a cover story, usually just killing time waiting for a train. I’ve already spent my pennies on an Autosport magazine subscription. As far as the extra features available on Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Sony’s Playstation Network go, well…. those of you that have read my article **’Home’ Isn’t Where the Heart is’** will know that I really don’t get on well with Sony’s ‘Home’ network. A place where you can go to chat and play games arcade games with fellow gamers, check out the latest releases and shop for virtual items. I’d rather suck my own socks thank you very much! The Xbox Live features fair better in my opinion as it’s a little more intuitive and lets the user choose what they’re exposed to and what to ignore. However, the downside to it all; this Xbox content is premium content and therefore costs money. I really can’t be bothered to hand over hard earned cash in order to be able to play games online against random people. People who seem no more than 8 years old and are endlessly amused by ‘your mum’ jokes. People who shout endless torrents of abuse at you when you kill them, ruining they’re perfect 1 million kills, 0 deaths ratio whilst you’re trying to rectify your 0 kills, 1 million deaths ratio. There’s also the endless radio chatter. “Oh man, did you see that kill?” someone screams over the radio. “YES, I was the one doing the dying; you don’t need to walk me through it again.” I will freely admit that in the grand scale of worldwide game playing, I suck, big time. I’d probably get better practice but I simply don’t find it fun playing against overenthusiastic people that are so dedicated to the game that they lose all notion of the fact that ‘it’s just a game’. Is that the statement of a ‘hardcore’ gamer? Er…No. Hardcore 2; Casual 2

It’s at this point that I stopped thinking (not an unusual occurrence if my girlfriend is to be believed). Why do I have to justify what my habits are? Surely I am a gamer first and foremost, whatever my habits are beyond that are irrelevant. I may simply drop in, casually, on a game for 15 mins with a group of mates or I may sit down for hours each day, on my own, to play through the latest blockbuster game in a ‘hardcore’ manner. It’s all a modern phenomena anyway. Before the Wii, and to some extent the Nintendo DS, the tag was, more often than not, ‘gamer’, the only variation was how often you played. Yes, the extreme of that gamer ‘label’ could be referred to as hardcore but it wasn’t a label in itself. It’s only since the emergence of ‘casual’ as a label on its own that ‘hardcore’ has had to become the polar opposite. Bruce Lee famously once said “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water in a bottle it becomes the bottle. Water can flow; creep, drip or it can crash. Be water my friend…be water.” I couldn’t agree more. I’m not a hardcore gamer. I’m not a casual gamer. I’m going to be water instead!

Gaming : Multiformat Releases == BAD?

peteIt’s hard sometimes to pick out quality among the huge amount of just average mediocrity that paves our games market.  Finding something truly stunning and groundbreaking is not only difficult but sometimes almost impossible.  It’s true to say that a great title comes along around 3-4 times per platform, per year.  For your average casual gamer, that’s about right in the spending department.  Unfortunately these rare classics don’t always fall into the genres that we either like or adore.  However why are there so many rare gems around?

One of the reasons for this, I believe, is the notion of multiformatting and in the 7th generation of games consoles it seems to be widening a chasm which is going to be difficult to fill.  We currently have three 7th generation consoles, 4 if you count the PC, the Wii, the XBox 360 and the PS3.  In fact, sometimes I sit here and wonder really what is so similar about them, apart from the fact that they all play games.  Taking a quick look at these machines, and I’m not going to go into any real details here, we have the following contenders.

Weighing in at the top end, in terms of raw power is the 8 core monster that is the PS3, its sheer architecture requires a completely different way of coding games, which according to some coders is frustratingly difficult.  Next in line is the XBox 360, which although is a console in name, is really just an non-upgradeable super powerful gaming PC at a very reasonable price.  Last in line is the tiny white fruit-esque, though we can’t think why, Wii.  At its core, there’s precious little extra in terms of processing power than its predecessor.  Many people have called it a GameCube with Bluetooth, because essentially, technically, it’s not far from the truth.  Where’s the PC I hear you ask, well, quite frankly, it could be in all three of them.

I’m not going to venture into the realms of handheld consoles such as the DS and the PSP, but you can see already the shear difference in the machines that are available in today’s gaming society.  So what’s wrong with that I hear you ask?  Variety is a good thing, it’s what keeps our society and industry moving.  I totally agree with you here dear reader.  Variety is the spice of life and it’s what keeps one manufacturer from hogging the entire market.  It forces companies to constantly reevaluate their current product and come up with something better and new.

Whilst for the overall market variety is a good thing, the problem comes when publishers want the largest slice of the pie.  I am of course talking about the main subject of the article; multiformat games.  Multiformat games allow publishers to target the broadest range of gamers imaginable.  From the timid and often amateurish nature of the Wii owners, to the down right dirty, all out war, dukem nukem, rockem sockem, die hard PS3 owners.  Although multiformat games have a great advantage for the publisher, ie, more monata, the benefit for the consumer is often less so.

I can hear some of you in the audience already with their hands half up, wondering whether to say something or not.  Yes, I agree, multiformat can be a good thing for the consumer as it allows them the opportunity to play the same game that their friend has on an entirely different platform, but it’s worth looking at the overriding argument of, wait for it, quality.  And you thought I was going to mention the cost of producing all those different covers.

“a supercar body, which was the original design idea, is going to handle like a pushbike with a jet engine when placed inside a three wheeler„

Spare a thought for the coders of these ill-fated franchise games.  Whilst coding for any console is no easy ride, making sure a game is physically implementable on several must be a nightmare.  Having little insight into the actual process behind multiformat game developing makes it difficult for me to come up with some definitive citations, however one thing seems abundantly clear;  multiformat games are generally of lower overall quality than their platform exclusive counterparts.  I recently ran across a thread on a forum where some XBox 360, PC and PS3 gamers were battling out one of the age old troll wars; “My console has better graphics than yours.”  Whilst I agree graphics isn’t everything, it does seem to be one of the more important aspects for gamers.  I’m as much a sucker for slick graphics as the next CG fanboy, but I do feel deep down that there is some truth behind graphics being one of the more important of the console ideals.

Of course this used not to be the case, before we had fancy controllers and console OSs, it had to really be plainly squared on graphics and playability, now all of a sudden we have a new contender in the “Mine’s better than yours” campaign.  It’s true that Nintendo has revolutionised the way people interact with their gaming consoles.  Having not used an XBox I cannot comment here, but the Sixaxis feature of the PS3 controllers does tend to feel a little tacked on and definitely doesn’t have the same level of responsiveness as that of a Wiimote.

Of course I’ve digressed quite wildly, as is the nature of my articles on numerous occasions, however the user interface is yet another aspect that the poor developers have to think about when converting a game’s core ideals to several platforms.  It’s like building the exact same car body around a supercar, a centurion tank and a three wheeler.  What fits one isn’t necessarily going to fit the other and here’s where the consumer gets hit in the face.  Coders will and do make cut backs in functionality in order to make a game fit to its intended platform.  If you think about it, they have to because a supercar body, which was the original design idea, is going to handle like a pushbike with a jet engine when placed inside a three wheeler, and is going to have to be subjected to many rounds of panel beating to get it to fit on the Centurion tank and even then, it’s just going to look naff and half finished.  Ringing any bells here.

How many times have I heard people say that a game feels more unfinished on one platform than it does on another, that games feel flat on one platform than on another.  It’s sad when a great game gets its guts reorganised to ensure that it’ll still remain usable on another platform.  What’s even scarier is the amount of innovation that may be left out of a game, purely because it isn’t implementable on another console.

So why do the graphics looks better on one console than on another? Probably because initially development may have been for one platform in particular and then developers were forced to include more, leading to a less glossed finish on the subsequent implementations. However, platform exclusivity can lead to some of the most awesome games ever.  At the moment I’m thinking about Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X, KillZone 2, Little Big Planet, World of Goo, Super Smash Bros.  For me Killzone 2 has some of, if not at the moment, the best graphics out of any game I have personally ever played.  I’m hoping I’m not going to receive a torrent of, X looks so much better than KZ2 or, Y beats the stuffing out of KZ2, because quite frankly I don’t care.  These are my opinions, and you know what, I’m entitled to them.

“we have to remember that we are all just pawns in the publishers ever more difficult and strategic game to make the stockholders more money„

There has been some speculation that Sony played a part in the success of KillZone 2, purely because of the disappointment at the first installments wow factor after the initial tooting it was given.  To be honest I don’t really care, but it does go to show, that when a game is designed exclusively for a particular platform, it can absolutely shine.  Little Big Planet is another great example of this.  The very nature of the game just wouldn’t be possible on the tiny processing power of the Wii, the physics would be far too complex.  Contrast this with the beautiful Lost Winds on the Wii, and you can see how development around the Wiimote has really played to Nintendo’s advantage. 

Several people on one forum were comparing a multiformat game’s graphics and saying how much more superior it was on the XBox 360 to that of the PC and the PS3.  I must admit, I’ve experienced a differing quality in F.E.A.R 2.  The PC version has far superior graphics to that of the PS3, in comparison I’d say that KillZone 2 on the PS3 beats the graphics in F.E.A.R 2, both on the PS3 and on the PC, but I guess some level of subjectivity is needed here.

So why don’t developers and publishers alike put the effort in and make every game on every console a winner?  Quite frankly the large factor is the same as it’s always been and it’s cost.  Tada! Suprised?  I have no figures to back this up, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the development cost of KillZone 2 on a single platform, equaled or exceeded that of Tomb Raider:Underworld on all the platforms it was released on.  At the end of the day we have to remember that we are all just pawns in the publishers ever more difficult and strategic game to make the stockholders more money.  It’s all about maximising profit at the end of the day and developing for one console may be much easier than another.  Optimisation is always key here, as it drives down the expense, and raises the profits.  Coders will try to reuse as much code as they can.  So, and this is just an example here as there are probably built in routines for this, whilst a rendering engine built for the Wii may perform exceedingly subpar on the PS3, if it can be adapted quicker than writing a separate engine exclusively for one game, for one platform, which option do you think they’ll pick?  It really is a no brainer.

So who’s the real winner here?  Well unfortunately it appears to be the publishers again.  The wool has once again been pulled squarely over our eyes.  It’s a shame, but it really does seem like multiformat games tend to perform poorly on at least one console.  At the end of the day there really “ain’t a lot we can do bout it guv”.  The situation is here to stay.  Consoles will be different.  Publishers will want to do multiformat releases.  Personally I’m hoping that the dual release of Final Fantasy XIII on the XBox 360 and the PS3 doesn’t hurt it too much.  Hey I might get lucky.  Mightn’t I?

Gaming : Top Gaming Moments

peteThis is a little bit odd for me.  I usually write about computing, or the open source community, or Linux, or anything Computery, if that is even a word.  Today, I’m tackling a slightly different topic; gaming.  As a prelude to another article I’m going to write, I wanted to discuss my favorite moments in gaming.  From using the Atari 800, to firing up the PS3, this is a short journey through what I believe are my defining moments in the gaming arena.  The events are not grouped in any way, and are roughly chronologically.

Hardest Game – Ollies Follies – Atari 800

This game was one of the longest loading on the Atari 800 and in fact I think there must have been something wrong with our tape as you could almost gaurantee that it wouldn’t load every time.  Ollies Follies has got to be one of the hardest games I ever played.  It was a platform game where the entire level was contained in one screen.  Though the controls were responsive, timing was so crucial that it was almost impossible to get far into the game.  By crucial I’m kinda underestimating.  Imagine being able to snap your fingers shut on a pin travelling past you at 50 mph.  Of course the other thing to note is that I was only about 13 years old.  I’d also missed out on much of the coin-op era and so my reflexes hadn’t toughened up yet.  Oh ok fine…..I’m making excuses…..but it was freakin hard!

Most Satisfying Moment – Super Mario Land – Game Boy

I think this was probably the first console game that I ever completed, unlike some of the other rather unknown titles I have presented, SML is fairly well known.  Coupled with the fact that there were no saves, and that it was a fairly lengthy game, completing SML for the first time was an exceedingly satisfying moment.  Nintendo hit the nail right on the head in most respects in this fine gem in the platform genre, but one part shines for me above the rest.  Music.  The themes that play through the game great without a doubt, however it has to be the ending theme which made me feeel most satisfied.  As I sit here now writing this, I can still hum the tune in my head, even though I haven’t played the game for probably over 10 years.  Flying through the clouds in the ending sequence listening to that music was one of the most surreal and satisfying moments in my gaming life.

Seamless Integration – Final Fantasy VIII – PS One

If there ever was a game which hit the point of seamless integration of FMV and gameplay, then FF VIII was it.  I can still recall the moment that my wife and I fired it up for the first time.  The graphics were absolutely breathtaking, something which Square Enix have turned into absolute masters at.  And then it happend.  The FMV, which I believe was showing some kind of water craft arriving on a shoreline, slowed and our character got out.  Then we sat there.  Nothing happened.  As I recall the water continued to lap on the shoreline, but nothing else happened.  We waited for a good minute, thinking the game had crashed or that there was a bug in the FMV.  It was only then we realised that as the FMV had drawn to a close, the last few frames had become the background of the in-game graphics.  I touched the controller sticks, and the character burst into life.  It’s these levels of shear detail that make some game makers stand out above all the rest.

Scariest Moment – Silent Hill 3 – PS2

My word, talk about brown trousers time.  I’m not talking about the game in general.  It is a pretty freaky game, but overall not that scary, however there is one bit of Silent Hill 3 that I just adore for the way it made me feel the first time I played it through.  Having played the previous Silent Hill games, I pretty much knew what to expect, but this threw me completely off guard.  I’ll say one word.  Mirrors.  Ok, I’ll say a few more since 99% of you have no clue what I’m talking about.  You walk into a room……the door locks behind you…..nothing particularly scary there.  Then you walk around the room and look at one of the walls which is in fact a gigantic mirror.  As you walk about the room in a state of some confusion, all of a sudden your characters reflection stops.  A tad freaky.  Then a bath tub which is sitting in the room starts to fill up with blood and goo, but only in the reflection.  It spills out all over the floor, at which point you’re running around literally wetting yourself.  It touches your reflection and your alter ego starts to decay.  All the time you’re thinking “Oh my word, let me out, let me out, let me out” and perhaps the freakiest thing of all.  Nothing happens to you what so ever.  You’re sure you’re gonna die.  You’re sure you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, but then…..all is well.

Most Impressive Graphics – Kill Zone 2 – PS3

Following on from the mention about seamless integration, KillZone 2 probably has to be the most spectacular demo I have ever played.  The initial sequence with the close encounter with a friendly craft turns into proper game play, in a way normally reserved for flamboyant Royal visits, and by that I mean with the utmost finesse.  I was watching the beginning sequence thinking, is this an FMV or is it in game graphics.  I got my answer when my HUD appeard.  Couple that with the most awesome AI I think I have ever seen.  These guys are clever.  They seek cover and will fling their gun over their head and blind fire to try to hit you.  They try to flank you.  They don’t exit from hiding at regular intervals.  Heck I don’t even think these guys would ever use the same toilet twice.  Absolutely marvellous demo.  The graphics are absolutely amazing, attention to detail has not been skimped on at all.  In one scene inside a building, light is streaming through some windows.  If you’re standing in the right place you get some awesome lighting effects off of your helmet.

Presentation – LittleBigPlanet – PS3

Well it has to be said that LBP is without doubt one of the most beautifully presented games on the face of the planet.  The choice of Stephen Fry for the narration was in my book absolutely brilliant.  I must have watched the intro sequence to it many times purely because I love the concept, and I just love the way it’s been presented to the audience.  The simplicity of their being a world created from the dreams of all the inhabitants of this world it probably nothing new, but it’s the last line of the introductory narration that always gets me “And you can go there now”.  The guys at Mm have certainly done a grand job here.  The attention to detail is fantastic and I just love the cries of “Oh man, you can even see……do……make X do……”  Sheer genius.

Longevity – Destruction Derby – PC

This has got to have been one of the games I played most whilst growing up.  I would sit in front of the screen for hours upon hours smashing cars up till they exploded.  I like to tell people that I just love the physics of things smashing into each other, but deep down I think it’s just something that boys never grow up from.  It was pretty fun too to thwack a car in the tail just at the right point to spin it round 360 degrees and hurl the driver into a high pitched scream.  I think in all honesety the reason I loved playing the game so much, was although often the levels were very samey, because it was based on real physics, you’d very rarely get a round that was identical to the last one.  That’s the beauty of entropy, it always increases.  Tell that to the young ones.

Gaming : ‘Home’ isn’t where the heart is

markPlaystation Home is Sony’s somewhat delayed response to the ever increasing social networking phenomena. It’s also an attempt to attract its share of the ever expanding audience of the ‘causal gamer’. With Sony’s entry, all three of the main consoles now have their own social networking infrastructure. The Wii has the ‘lightest’ of the three networks, mainly focusing on ‘offline’ networking, putting the emphasis on groups of people playing together around one TV, but it is noted for the fact that it was the first to introduce avatars to a wider audience. This is not to say that the Wii doesn’t have online facilities though. You can message friends, send them your home made avatars and with some of the more recent games, play against each other online. In recent months Microsoft has pushed its new Xbox Experience, essentially an update to the consoles user interface, the ‘dashboard’, granting access to a wealth of community material such as film trailers, interviews, reviews, all from the main interface. The new update also follows the example set by the Wii in allowing users to create avatars of themselves.

So, where does Sony’s ‘Home’ fit into things? They’ve attempted to integrate the best bits of Nintendo and Microsoft’s efforts but with a slightly different emphasis. With both the Xbox and the Wii, social interaction often occurs after a game has been chosen and loaded, which, whilst providing the user like mind individuals, can often limit social diversity. There is no central place to meet new people. Sony has taken note of this and has produced a stand alone environment that exists without any association to a game. This environment consists of a virtual world, similar in nature to that of the ever popular Second Life, into which users create an avatar of themselves. It’s through this avatar that the users can explore the world. Right from the start it’s obvious that Sony have tried to implement a virtual version of real world social interaction. Every avatar has an apartment, there’s a bowling alley, an arcade, a shopping mall and a cinema. All places that Sony’s key demographic are likely to interact socially.

“Upon leaving the shopping mall a small remote control helicopter heads straight for me, exploding inches from my face. I don’t ask„

So is it any good?…… Frankly, in my opinion, no. My first use of ‘Home’ was marred right from the word go by the horrendous amount of loading needed. I signed up and waited 10 minutes for the installation files to download. I then waited again whilst the files installed. ‘Great, I’m in’ I thought. After a quick tutorial and a very limited ‘create an avatar’ task you’re left to look around your rather minimalist apartment. I went to leave the apartment and guess what…… ‘Now downloading plaza’. By now 30 minutes had passed and all I’d done was stack a few pieces of furniture and attempted to throw chairs off the balcony (within ‘Home’ obviously but by this point I was considering it for real). Out in the plaza I was struck by two thoughts. The first was how empty the place was and the  second was how limited the ‘create an avatar’ function actually is. I was faced with about 20 or so people of which about half looked similar to my avatar. Most of these people were dancing, randomly, with no music. ‘OK…..moving on’ I thought, ‘Oh, cinema, I’ll go there’…..’Now downloading cinema’…….grrrrrrrrrr. The experience hadn’t started well.

So, to the cinema I went. Once inside (10 minutes later) I get the sneaky suspicion that a new film is about to be released. I could watch a constantly looping trailer of the new film Watchmen, a teaser trailer for the new film Watchmen, a 2 minute ‘making of’ the new film Watchmen, a short action scene from the new film Watchmen and about a million posters for the new film Watchmen. I left the virtual cinema with a strange urge to go to a real cinema to watch some kind of film, the name escapes me…….Leaving the cinema means going back to the plaza once again. ‘Ahh, at least this has already downloaded’ I thought. Well, yes but, ‘Plaza loading……..’ ZZZZzzzzzzzzz.

So, back in the plaza. Another avatar runs up to me and sends a private message in German. I slowly but politely reply stating that I don’t know any German. (A painful task as text input is never quick with a joy pad and I refuse to spend a fortune of the aftermarket keypad addition for the joy pad. Yes, I can use a USB keyboard, it’s just a shame I don’t own one!). The reply to that was in German. I laboriously reply once again and apologise. They reply, once again, in German but this time in capitals with many exclamation marks with the avatar flailing it’s arms wildly……. I run, deciding to hide in the bowling alley, forgetting I haven’t downloaded it yet. I hit the invisible wall at the door that refuses entry until it downloads and look back to see the German avatar chasing after me. I run back to the cinema whilst the bowling alley downloads. That was close. Whilst there I find out about this wonderful new film called Watchmen, don’t know if you’ve heard about it but I damn well have!!!! Anyway, I head to the bowling alley once it’s installed and think about going bowling. Thinking about bowling is as far as I get. I reach the top of the stairs and cast my ‘virtual’ eye over the bowling alley. This virtual world is open to greater Europe and how many bowling lanes do they supply?…..six….genius. I walk up to one game and start to write a message asking to join, only for another avatar to run up, controlled by someone with far more supple thumbs, who manages to type ‘hello, please could I join your game’ in the time it’s taken me to write ‘Hi’. Not wishing to look like the last kid to be picked for sports I leave promptly. Wow, that was worth watching the Watchmen trailer for the 7th time for.

“By now 30 minutes had passed and all I’d done was stack a few pieces of furniture and attempted to throw chairs off the balcony„

So, I finally arrive at the last place, the shopping mall. Now I know why the apartment is minimalist and the avatars are similar. The shops within the mall all sell virtual clothes and furniture. £4 for a virtual sofa for my virtual apartment….. Excuse me? £4 for a virtual item that does nothing but sit there. On to the next shop. £2 for a new virtual shirt? There are shops in real shopping malls that sell real shirts for that much!! I look at what’s free. Wow, what a coincidence, costumes from the new film Watchmen. I stand there, watching carbon copies of my avatar arrive, get changed and leave as carbon copies of Watchmen characters. I laugh and walk out (minus the costumes). Upon leaving the shopping mall a small remote control helicopter heads straight for me, exploding inches from my face. I don’t ask. Realising that there are more pressing things in real life; like choosing which fragrance of deodorant to put on and finding my car keys, I leave ‘Home’.

Whilst I think you’ll agree that all of the above would make for one interesting day out if it were real, I really couldn’t be bothered to go through all of that on purpose in the virtual world when in reality I’ve decided to allocate time in front of my Playstation to play a game. I’m not knocking the principle. I’m just as likely to be on Facebook or some form of messenger program as the next person, I just don’t think Home is worth it. There’s nothing in there I can’t already do with Google, YouTube, a few chat rooms, a few simple browser based games and possibly Amazon or Play.com which are all available anyway if you have an internet connection. Using the modern wonders that are the mouse, the keyboard and a multi-tab browser, it’d also be a damn site quicker! In its favour it is presented very well, with good graphics and some very nice touches to the virtual world. It also has massive potential as other areas, shops and games could be simply tacked on with a future download, however, as it stands, it’s a rather hollow experience. It’s easy to see why Microsoft and Nintendo decided to dispense with the visuals and stuck with a simple menu based system. The Xbox system I find particularly good as choice content is displayed on the main screen as ‘headlines’ next to your options to load a game. You are free to ignore them and load your game or explore the ‘headlines’ further. The Wii has its ‘Channels’ that sit on the front screen. You view the channel or you don’t, it’s up to you.  You let the content do the talking, not the visuals (or random Germans).

Is it fair to criticise a free addition? Not really, but you can’t help wondering whether the time and money being pumped into Home’s development couldn’t be better spent elsewhere. Anyway……..I’m off to go to a real cinema….. Watchmen looks quite good.