Filed under Jon

What do I want from a new console?

It’s that time now where I’m being increasingly asked which new console I’m going to get (ignoring the two slightly more likely options of either getting neither or both of course). I mean, really? What’s the odds of me just getting one if I decide I want in on this console generation?

The answer is that I pre-ordered both in a no cash up front kind of way so I could get one if I wanted and am fully prepared to cancel either or both if somebody doesn’t start saying something to excite me soon.

I have an easy enough set of requirements that put consoles onto the plus side of the decision:

  • A controller that I don’t hate. This is the reason why my PS3s never became my console of choice. Points to MS and Sony here so far it seems, but of course I need a hands on with them to be sure.
  • Unprotected game video footage for recording. Points to MS here for announcing it, while Sony need to make a statement one way or the other although the PS3 sets a bad precedent due to its locked down HDMI. Before anybody says anything, no the inbuilt video capture is useless for what I want due to recording lengths on both platforms.
  • Fast times from switching on to playing games. No lengthy patches, no lengthy installs, just playing games. Provisional points to both sides as they are saying the right kind of things. Again, seeing the results is the only way to know for sure. It’s also going to need to not throw up an error message and lengthy recovery task every time you boot from having pulled the power cord out to shut the damn thing up (looking at you PS3)
  • A good range of exclusive games. I think Sony may nudge it here, but not by much. Either way the number of games that I’ll not be playing on PC instead is rather small in the first six months or more.
  • Good media remote. One of these consoles would replace a PS3 as a blu-ray player so it needs to have a nice remote. On the previous generation the 360 had an awful one that could be replaced with a universal remote and the PS3 had a great one that couldn’t due to lack of IR (some limited HDMI based control works for some TVs as well, which is cool). Neither companies have announced their replacements as far as I can tell, but MS certainly support IR remotes. I’m going to predict that the company who is also a TV manufacturer will probably come out on top again.
  • Proper independent game support on the console. Sony have already said no, their self-publishing isn’t what I’m after. MS are announcing their support at Gamescon, so maybe they will have what I want, which is something like their Indie Arcade on 360. If it supports Unity then frankly they’ve got a sale. I’m not hopeful.

The real test is how much use a new console would get in the first few months, and with the way things are I think that’s going to be quite limited unless it’s your primary games platform. Buying both is probably unwise at this time, as is buying a console if you already have a good PC. Will that stop me though? I’m not sure yet.

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I fear that the HD future still might not be HD

We have new consoles coming out in a few months! This is a cause for celebration no mater what type of games you play on whatever platform you prefer.

The main gain is that it moves the state of play for what we still insist on calling AAA games from 512mb up to 5gb of memory, and this is  massive win for gamers everywhere. Even the PC gets a massive push as the basic game designs will expand and then the other 10gb of memory we have on our PCs over that initial 5 can be used for stupidly high resolution textures and the like. Happy times for all.

I do have a worry about the consoles, and it’s one that comes from the sad reality of the 360 and PS3: the stated resolution for a game is most likely utter bollocks.

A common practice with console games is to render the game at sub 720p resolution and then scale it up so that it fits. This means that you might have SD content that has only gone through a scaling process and so, and I’m sure everybody has seen this, looks so jagged it’s painful. The reason for this was that the hardware in the consoles just wasn’t powerful enough to do what they wanted to do at the proper resolution.

This is of course the point where PC owners get to be smug as a new graphics card has always been seen as the solution to the problem there rather than upscaling. This is mainly due, I suspect, to the fact that it’s easier and cheaper to just make it the PC gamer’s problem of running games as intended and, generally, PC gamers are happy to have that responsibility to keep their rigs up to speed.

I should of course say at this point that we are so far away from seeing final games on these consoles that this is all speculation, but I suspect that we’re destined for a repeat of last generation in this matter anyway, especially when it comes to the Xbox as it lags behind the PS4 on paper, much like the PS3 lagged behind the 360 for most of the generation.

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Steam really could do with a new UI

Sometimes we put up with things that are just a bit old fashioned and primitive when we really should move on to something a bit more interesting and modern, it’s a fact of life. Often we are locked in by a closed platform and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Take Steam. The main Steam UI is pretty useless when you come to think about it. It’s primitive in many places, although it does do the basics of what needs to be done it never quite goes far enough.

I’m going to ignore some of the annoying parts of Steam here, such as the way it ignores what shift+tab does in Windows, the rules for having a flashing caret in Windows and the fact that it can’t keep up with using the virtual view of the file system that Windows has had for nearly 20 years. You shouldn’t have to dig for the Documents or Desktop folder in this day and age!

The Steam Library page is where it’s most annoying as this really does start to get very cluttered very quickly, what with it being a very simplistic list of games. At the top I have 1.. 2.. 3.. Kick it! And at the bottom I have the XCOM: Enemy Unknown and in the middle I have a rather modest (compared to many) list of two hundred odd games from every genre imaginable.

Finding games to play is a nightmare, especially after a sale.

Steam knows much more about these games than we do just from looking at a list of names. It knows the release order of a series of games that is just <game name>:<subtitle> when all I know is that I just grabbed the bundle because it was cheap and I wanted to play the latest game. It knows what genre games are. It knows what games are part of a franchise. It should know what games I’ve never played.

There are some things you can do with the game list. You can pin games as favourites and you can add categories, which just adds them to a section of the list. You can make a category for Assassin’s Creed for instance and add all the games, which helps, but it’s all rather manual.

What I’d like to see is some better support for large libraries with better search and discovery tools. Even being able to auto-sort the list by the most recently purchased or total time played would be nice and that’s information is already displayed elsewhere on the Steam UI. Being able to collapse the list automatically so that a game and its sequels went into subfolders would be good, as would being able to filter just the RTS or RPG games. Sometimes I’d just like a list of all the space 4X games I have. It’s a lot and I don’t always think about the ones I may have grabbed during a sale and not played yet.

Steam is clunky and could do with a new UI.

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Replaying Assassin’s Creed 1

Assassin's Creed

This week I’ve mostly been an Assassin in the Holy Land. There were also periods where I was Nolan North, but the less said about them the better.

I shall, for now, pretend that my assault on PC gaming has started with the start of the alphabet, but in reality I grabbed all the Assassin’s Creed games cheaply on Steam and decided to have a replay through them all as a preparation for the next game, which comes out later this year. I think I was one of the only people who actually liked the first game before it because a popular franchise (hipster warning) but I can really understand where people had problems with this first game.

Going back to the first game in a series is always a risk, especially when it’s one that is notorious for having an initial installment that lots of people disliked. It seems that I may be OK this time as although I’m only as far in as having just completed the two assassinations, the first of which was a low key wrist blade to the target in a crowded square as he walked past followed by my patented “leg it!” maneuver rather than anything with any real finesse. The controls on PC are causing me a bit of trouble so that’s going to need a bit of effort before I can reliably panic and not draw my sword instead of hiding. This, as you can imagine, results in a lot more running away. At least my character is getting a workout while he’s at it.

The only really annoying bit so far is the way that they implemented cutscenes, which are from a fixed point of view until you click the mouse at appropriate times. It does make them a bit more interactive, but not in a good way. On Xbox you even got an achievement for doing a certain percentage of those swaps, but thankfully the game is early enough that it’s only that version has any achievements. Saying that I did 100% it on Xbox, something that should be an achievement in itself.

Another moment that I had which I’m sad went away from later games occurred when I was running away from a bunch of guards who were rather irate that I had randomly drawn my sword yet again. Running along the rooftops I reached a point where I ran out of ways to go and a risky jump straight into the street was called for. I knew I would take damage, but the guards would be slower to hit the ground than me because they prefer the less direct route that doesn’t rely quite so much on gravity.

Usually it’s a good trade off, but this time I landed right next to a Templar. In the first game these heavily armoured, quite tough knights were a collectible of sorts as you had to find them all at specific points on the map and then kill them. It was much easier to instakill them silently, but in this case I was forced to dispatch the poor man (Although Poor isn’t really a good description for the Templars at that time) using the traditional death by pointy metal thing. I’d forgotten how much I had enjoyed the small puzzle that trying to stealth kill them presented and wish the later games had a similar feature. I suspect I was making content for myself there and everybody else just hit them with a sword until they stopped moving.

So far I’m quite happy with the game, although I do have a vague recollection of more annoyances towards the end, but being back in these cities really is as refreshing as it was back when it released. I seem to have been in dystopian futures way too much recently, and so a bit of good old fashioned murdering in the past is a nice change.

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Self publish on the Xbox One?

Self publishing on consoles is the new hotness; you can’t avoid hearing both Microsoft and Sony saying that they are going to do it. But what does it mean?

The truth is it means several things, but you would be hard pressed to know that going by just what is being reported. There’s a big answer and a small answer.

The big answer is that you don’t need to use a publisher as a middleman between you and platform holder. At this point they effectively become your publisher, you hopefully get a bigger share of the profits than you otherwise would and there are less people getting in the way with you getting on with making a game. The problem with this is that you need to be selected by the platform holder in the first place, which means you need to have a proven track record somewhere, probably on PC or at otheir studios. Calling this self publishing really isn’t true as you do still need to impress a publisher in the first place, it’s just that they happen to also make consoles and probably aren’t giving the support you would usually get.

The small answer is the one that I think a lot of people are more familiar with, and the one that I think is more useful for the term. This is the model that Google, Apple and Microsoft use for their phones and Microsoft and Apple use for their stores built into their operating systems. In these cases they are more distributors than publishers; they give you a place to sell your software in return for taking 30% of your cash. The only selection going on here are ones for basic quality (hopefully) and “objectionable material”, which is a vague concept that trips up people wanting to make political points.

They are both truly useful things that benefit all of games, and gems come out of both models. In the previous generation it’s probably safe to say that Microsoft had more success with the small model and Sony had more success with the large one.

Looking forwards the PS4 is going all out with the large model it seems. There’s no sign at all of the small one going by what I’ve seen said, and that’s fine. Sony really aren’t a development tools provider like Microsoft, Apple and even Google are. It’s a big ask to spool up a massive program that lets anybody code however they want, and they sure have a track record of supporting some fantastic games already. Long may it continue.

The Xbox One is interesting as Microsoft have made some very vague announcements about the One supporting self publishing. The question is if it’s the small or large model. The 360 went full out with the small model with the Indie Arcade and despite it being hidden away on the dashboard for a lot of the time I would say that it did its job well, which was to allow anybody to publish a game on the Xbox. There was some true dross on there, but that’s the point: it’s an open field that anybody can join in on. Discovery is a problem, just as it is on iTunes or Google Play and that really does need to be addressed on all the platforms but a certain rose tinted view can dismiss that as a problem to be solved, not one that is a problem with the idea. Every 360 could be used for development; every 360 could be used for debugging a live game. You just had to live in a sandbox that didn’t let you see everything. It’s much like the sandboxes that “full” games live in, just a lot, lot smaller.

So what is this new Microsoft self publishing thing? Is it the small or big model? Is it a replacement for Indie arcade, or is it a sweeping new publishing policy for the large model in competition with the shortcomings that Sony have pounced on with the PS4?

It’s hard to say really. On one hand it really does sound like a new Indie arcade. We know that it is going to return on the One as Microsoft employees let it slip more than once over the course of the Build conference last month. Is this that happening? If so this isn’t a spontaneous u-turn as it has to have been in development for a long time as it’s a big job that will involve Windows phone and Windows 8 as well. I’ve suspected that the timing will be around the Windows Phone 8.5 release next year, but that’s only my gut feeling.

Or is it the large model and not related to the Indie arcade at all? The thing that makes me think that this could be the case is the fact that you get access to achievements. We know that Microsoft are relaxing the rules around achievements considerably with this new release, but will they go as far as letting bedroom coders making Minecraft clones add them? I’m not so sure, there’s the risk of devaluing achievements like Apple did with Game Center. How many “easy 100points”, or whatever the limit is, games would we see just to boost your score? I just can’t see them doing this, we’ve seen it go wrong with things like Cryptic adding the Foundry to their games and XP farming levels being made. People will always try and take it to that extreme.

If I had to call it, I would say that it was the big model we were talking about, but even so we know that the small model will return at some stage. We can all just hope that it does return sooner rather than later.

The interesting final note on the replacement for the Indie arcade is that Microsoft have already said, probably accidentally, that those games would be in the main store alongside Arcade and digital versions of retail games. That’s the exciting thing when it does return. Combine that with the promised discovery tools which apparently will recommend things based on what your friends have played, or what people with similar tastes have played and you start to stand a chance to get noticed no matter if you’re a bedroom coder on your own or a middle sized studio whose publisher isn’t pulling their weight. That is, of course, that those guides are fair and true and not influenced too much by the big players.

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Predicting motion control failing isn’t exactly rocket science.

Motion Control. Never have two words filled gamers with so much dread. The Wii got it right, it was enforced from the start and attracted a new generation of people to put a console under their TV, but Nintendo spectacularly failed to capitialise on this and most ended up gathering dust. Now the replacement isn’t selling well and Nintendo really haven’t managed to come up with a compelling argument (i.e. a good enough games catalogue) to justify buying a new one.

I wonder how important the compulsory part of the deal is. Microsoft are certainly going with that, but although Kinect hasn’t flopped (24million sold earlier this year, more now so any normal person might actually call it a success)  it’s never really caught on with us. It works well for things like exercise games, which are really more like apps than games, but I’m hard pressed to think of a single “proper” game that used it well. Add to that living room sizes outside of the US and even the new better camera with the One probably isn’t going to work with most living rooms. From what I’ve seen it’ll work with my living room now, but that’s no good for me as I’ve taken to playing all my games sitting at a desk so I don’t take up the TV. That makes Kinect dead on arrival for me even if the games aimed at me do arrive, and going by past history I find that highly unlikely.

Sony launched the PS3 with built in motion control, and it wasn’t very good. Not a single game managed to use tilting the controller in a meaningful way and even today games use it for meaningless gimmicks like having to shake the controller when The Last of Us decides to make you flashlight flicker. Be honest: how many of you who have played it saw the icon on screen, was confused for a bit and then thought “oh yes, I’d forgotten this controller has motion control” before deciding to ignore shaking it as the light fixes itself anyway?

Later on PS3 launched the PlayStation Move and I really do want to say it flopped. Sony went as far as saying it “had not lived up to their expectations” but it was deeply flawed from the word go. The PlayStation Eye that it needed in order to work had a big, very bright, red LED on it that was always on even when you were just watching a blu-ray, and that was annoying even before people started asking why there was a camera watching them all the time. Next there was the problem of having to buy so many bits, with the camera, wands and navigation controller. The problems continued with only being able to use one navigation controller, which limited the sort of things that games could do in the crucial “two people standing in front of the TV looking silly” market that Nintendo had so successfully created. In the end the thing that did it in was of course the lack of games, as is always the way. It turned out to be slightly more useful than Kinect for “real” games as you could control first person shooters with it, but that was always a gimmick and a controller always felt better.

Lastly we come to the PS4 and yet another form of motion control. The new controller has the light from the Move on the front of it and if you add a Sensor Bar (think smaller Kinect) it has some form of motion control that isn’t entirely defined. The gaming press is of course not exactly clambering for more details as they don’t care, which is a position shared by most gamers. Interestingly although the light is on every controller the sensor bar does not come with the console, a decision that it many believe resulted from Sony shaving some cost from the PS4 in order not to be as expensive as the Xbox One. I think the differences in reaction to the prices of the two consoles well and truly justifies that if it’s true.

I think that win comes at a cost, and the cost is that the motion control on the PS4 will flop. Unless Sony can come up with a compelling feature set beyond tracking controllers then people just won’t touch it, especially if compelling games don’t arrive. I have images of developers working on games that need it crying when Sony announced that it was no longer shipping in the box, but that probably isn’t true. The thing I find odd about the whole thing is Sony’s insistence that the light can be used for other things. Killzone shows your health, games can flash the light when you fire your gun to simulate muzzle flash. All of these things are on a light that you can’t see directly, and will just annoy you if it reflects in your TV. It’s like they are trying to justify having motion control without actually wanting to say it’s for motion control.

So where does that leave us? The Kinect will be the best selling full motion control system of the generation because you have no choice when you buy an Xbox, but the PS4 controller will be the best selling part of a motion control setup by far (it doesn’t have a removable battery so will die like the current one, and you’ll buy more than one controller anyway) so both will be able to claim meaningless victories. If there’s more than a couple of games that truly show off motion control on either system I’ll be shocked, and by the end of the generation we’ll all be wondering why our controller has a light on it, or why we need that camera that we’ve kept plugged in because the system needs it, but have put out of the way behind the TV where it can only barely see the wall through a covering of dust.

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Xbox DRM, anger and acceptance

I’ve been finding myself getting increasingly annoyed over DRM with games. I apologise to anybody who follows me on Twitter for it, and I guess I should apologise to you as well for reading this as it’s more of the same.

Microsoft have announced that the Xbox one (I still actually prefer Xbone as a real product name) has what the world has decided is draconian DRM. It’s pretty nasty because it needs an internet connection every 24 hours or you are locked out of your games. It doesn’t take a lot of guesswork to figure out that I think this is a bloody stupid idea because I just went a long time without broadband at home, which was only fixed by getting a brand new phone number. Telecoms companies are useless, you can’t rely on them at all. During this time my PC games on Steam all locked out because of what I thought at the time was a draconian two week online check. 24 hours is totally insane.

I’m not annoyed with Microsoft though. From a business point of view I can respect why they are doing it. I can even give them credit for taking the next step and actually allowing the transfer of licenses for digital products. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for one of the big players, and something that the music and movie industry really needs to take notice of. Nobody is giving them credit for that of course because of the actual story being that 360 games didn’t have these restrictions and yet One games do.

This is where it gets tricky because if you say anything positive about the One you’re an Xbox fanboy, and if you say anything bad about it you’re obviously a massive fan of Sony. I suspect people think I’m one or the other, but since I only really mention things that annoy me about them on Twitter I’m usually moaning about something that I’m actually using the most at that time.

If I’m not annoyed at Microsoft then who am I annoyed with? Sony for not announcing what I really expect to be similar restrictions on the PS4 yet so that Microsoft can take all the flak? I really hope I’m proven wrong on that one, but Sony are right to be quiet if it’s true. If it wasn’t you would expect them to maybe mention it and get a load of free really good publicity though, wouldn’t you?

The people I’m actually annoyed with are the media who are saying that Microsoft are doing something really evil. Which they are, but that’s not the point. The point is that they weren’t shouting from the mountain tops over Steam having what is in most ways a much more restrictive DRM scheme with no transfers of ownership allowed and games being locked to a user and not available for everybody on the PC.

The always online thing is a battle we lost a long, long time ago but nobody cared about. I’m angry that the fight wasn’t made until now, when it’s far too late. All of a sudden games journalists have woken up to the fact that the world changed and they didn’t care about it until now. Steam has been the hero of gaming while doing all of this, and it just didn’t matter.

Most of all I’m angry with myself though. I’m not going to be buying my games primarily on Xbox next generation, I shall be rejecting one restrictive licensing system and going with another as I’ll be buying them on Steam. This is a decision I made before the One was announced and was caused by me actually getting my arse into gear and getting a new PC so it could run modern games, and by being a fan of better graphics, modding and mice making headshots easier. I’m angry that the DRM doesn’t matter to me, when it should. We lost the battle over DRM years ago, and it’s our fault for not complaining more at the time.

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Delving into PS3 trophies

You know how it is, you start digging into something and before you know it you have far more information than you could ever need. Well my digging into PS3 Trophies means that I think I understand them now and so I thought I would take a look at what they are for, what they are worth and how they compare. This is not the post to read if you think that achievements/trophies/etc are a waste of time.

For the uninitiated there are four levels of trophies on PS3: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. According to this they are weighted as follows:

  • Bronze: 15
  • Silver: 30
  • Gold: 90
  • Platinum: 180

Games can only have one Platinum, and it has to be for getting all of the rest of the trophies in the game, not including DLC.

So if we take a small game, one of the Sam&Max ones will do, we get a total of 1g (90) 3s (90) and 9b(135) for a total of 315. These small games are not allowed to have a Platinum trophy.

ICO, on the other hand as a medium sized game, has 1p, 9g, 4s and 2b for a total of (180+9*90+4*30+2*15) 690 points. A bit more digging and we have GT5(1p1g4s53b) at 1185 points and an awful long time to that platinum because they’ve been weighted with lots of small ones. Burnout Paradise has a massive 2255 points and Arkham Asylum has 1230. In fact if you dig for a while you find that ~1230 is the normal value for games if you don’t count DLC.

This is all well and good, but what do those levels mean? Well stealing a table from the original post I started with you get:

  • Level 1 – 0 pts
  • Level 2 – 200 pts
  • Level 3 – 600 pts
  • Level 4 – 1200 pts
  • Level 5 – 2400 pts
  • Level 6 – 4000 pts
  • Level 7 – 6000 pts
  • Level 8 – 8000 pts
  • Level 9 – 10000 pts
  • Level 10 – 12000 pts
  • Level 11 – 14000 pts
  • Level 12 – 16000 pts
  • Level 13 – 24000 pts
  • Level 14 – 32000 pts
  • Level 15 – 40000 pts
  • Level 16 – 48000 pts
  • Level 17 – 56000 pts
  • Level 18 – 64000 pts
  • Level 19 – 72000 pts
  • Level 20 – 80000 pts
  • It takes 8,000 points between levels after 20 also.

This tells us that Just playing burnout and completing it all will get you nearly to level 5.

Putting this on a graph we see the following scores for levels 1 through 20:

PS3 Trophy Graph

Well that’s depressing to look at. At level 5 it slows down a bit, and at level 12 you hit a bit of a cliff where it then takes 8000 points to get a single level instead of the 2000 it was taking for the last few levels. I guess that explains why I think I’ve been noticing so many level 12s then!

So why is it designed like this? To start with it’s a very clear run up to level 5 and you will grab a few levels just finishing the single player side of the games you grabbed when you got the console. Things then slow down until you bog down towards the level 12 point, and that is where I think most normal players are going to hit beforereally slowing down.  In fact my first thought when seeing that is to just discard the levels completely, the time between milestones is too great.

The level system for PS3 seems pretty well thought out, it’s just not for average people. To start it gives people the sense of progress and at the end it gives a hardcore grind that makes your level really actually mean an achievement. Now I’ve seen the numbers the thought of bouncing off level 12 and maybe 13 for at least a year that makes it all a bit useless as no progress means it becomes meaningless unless you are a really heavy player.

A quick look at a leaderboard should be enough to scare you. Level 50? 275 platinum? That’s a lot of playing.

Since we know that a PS3 game will be around 1230 points we can take the standard 360 value, 1000, for the exact game in some cases and so some very quick and dirty maths to give a very misleading normalised total for the two. I’m not kidding there, this is at best a bad generalisation and at worse a total fabrication.

  1. Level 1 – 0 pts 0 gs
  2. Level 2 – 200 pts 163 gs
  3. Level 3 – 600 pts 488 gs
  4. Level 4 – 1,200 pts 976 gs
  5. Level 5 – 2,400 pts 1,952 gs
  6. Level 6 – 4,000 pts 3,252 gs
  7. Level 7 – 6,000 pts 1,878 gs
  8. Level 8 – 8,000 pts 6,504 gs
  9. Level 9 – 10,000 pts 8,130 gs
  10. Level 10 – 12,000 pts 9,756 gs
  11. Level 11 – 14,000 pts 11,382 gs
  12. Level 12 – 16,000 pts 13,008 gs
  13. Level 13 – 24,000 pts 19,512 gs
  14. Level 14 – 32,000 pts 26,016 gs
  15. Level 15 – 40,000 pts 32,520 gs
  16. Level 16 – 48,000 pts 39,024 gs
  17. Level 17 – 56,000 pts 45,528 gs
  18. Level 18 – 64,000 pts 52,032 gs
  19. Level 19 – 72,000 pts 58,536 gs
  20. Level 20 – 80,000 pts 65,040 gs
  21. Level 21 – 88,000 pts 71,544 gs
  22. Level 22 – 96,000 pts 78,048 gs
  23. Level 23 – 104,000 pts 84,552 gs

Looking at my gamerscore for 360 I would be level 21, which is higher than my first guess was. I think that might be a bit telling.

At this point it might be good to consider what achievement/trophies are for. Primarily they are a mechanism to make us play more games, with a secondary use of getting us to play individual titles longer than we might otherwise do so.

They make us play more games by letting us see where our friends are and hoping that we get all excited about rivalry. The Sony system doesn’t really make that as easy as the Microsoft one as it’s really not clear how far behind somebody you are until you get bored one weekend and do so much research that you blog about it just to make it seem worthwhile. On the other hand the Microsoft system can really make it clear that somebody is so far ahead of you that you will never catch them. Another problem that I also hit with my Gamerscore is that after I passed 60k or so it just started reminding me that I play way too many games. I would be less likely to consider Level 21 to be overkill than I am to think that 75,000gs is, but that comes at a cost of me not caring about the level because the progression is just too slow.

From this I conclude that past a certain point your gamerscore or trophy level become meaningless, and it would be interesting to see if it’s at the same point in both systems or if one keeps players interested longer. My gut feeling would be that slower levels would burn it out fastest, but I just can’t tell.

The more useful use of trophies and achievements are for our benefit and neither Microsoft or Sony really go out of their way to make this easy. In fact Sony have gone out of their way to make this hard in the past. I maintain that the best use of them is to tell us what our friends have been playing so we can be reminded of games we may have on our shelves that we haven’t played in a while, or that we might wish to play online. Neither platform supports this without third party sites, but something like Raptr or one of the myriad of other web sites step into the gap. These sites are all hampered by Sony’s attitude to letting you get the information as you need to give them your PSN account details (BAD SECURITY, SONY!) whereas sites have been getting the Microsoft data for years over the web without needing that information, admittedly with many issues along the way. In fact the Sony logging in situation came about from their hacking scandal, so it could be argued that they have made their security weaker instead of improving it by requiring passwords. Maybe an Eve Online style API key system would be better for their needs if they wish to restrict casual browsing/scraping of usernames.

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Review: From Dust

The second game in Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade promotion this was From Dust, which is a God Sim and so I just had to play it.

You are, shockingly, a god and must help a tribe travel to something called The Sanctuary. You do this through various powers such as raising and lowering land and moving water and lava. The star of the show is the landscape engine. Move a pile of dirt and it will flow neatly into a hill. Water will carve channels through the dirt to form rivers, but if you drop some lava and it will set into rock that will be a lot more robust. Your goal is to settle all the villages in each land, of which there will be a maximum of four, and each village will give you a new power. You can also collect repel water and lava powers that are flown as kites above the villages and these are very important to keep your villages alive. Once you have all the villages populated the exit lights up and you have to send some people there to end the level.

It all sounds very simple, and honestly it is. You might have to build some more islands to get them where they need to go, or build some defences against tidal waves which seem to happen every few minutes on some levels. You also need to manage lava and deal with the fact that it tends to set plants on fire, which causes out of control wildfires.

At its heart it’s a game wanting to be the world manipulation from populous, and it does this very well. Graphically it’s great, the atmosphere is spot on and using lava to create a breakwater to protect a village is immensely satisfying. The cracks start to show with the game though as the building is a bit too limited because of the task at hand, and rushing to grab villages isn’t nearly as hard as it could be even when you are diverting streams or massive lava flows.

At the end the game gives you a final level where the gloves are taken off and you get to place the villages as well as creating land, water and lava from out of thin air. This is a disappointing moment as you realise that when you are given the freedom to do anything all you need to is place four villages and then hold out against a collapsing island until an amount of time has elapsed. I’m not sure what I would have preferred, but I think it needs some more conflict instead of being against the environment.

As you complete each map you unlock challenges that go a bit further towards being an interesting game, but at the end it feels like a tech demo that has gotten a bit out of control, but it’s still worth playing if only for the experience. It feels like a stepping stone for an engine before a real game is added and the engine is more than ready for the challenge. I somehow managed to come away very disappointed that it never really goes anywhere and somewhat relieved that people can still experiment with games in this way. Take a look at the demo, and if you enjoy what you see and accept that there’s only a few days play in the game and it never really expands much beyond the first few levels then it’s an enjoyable way to try something new.

The game is out now on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 points, and will show up for PC and PS3 over the next few months.

Review: Bastion

Summer is notoriously rubbish for game releases, but luckily Microsoft have the Summer of Arcade promotion on Xbox Live Arcade so we get a few good games each year that are released in a window that doesn’t swamp them with competition from retail releases.

The first of these this year was Bastion, which is an isometric style RPG game. You collect weapons, upgrade them by collecting items dropped by monsters and scenery you destroy and level up your character with a solid, if simplistic system, but we’re not here for the mechanics with this game. We are here for the gameplay and style.

The big, attention grabbing feature for this game is that it has a dynamic voice over that describes what you do. Amazingly this works, from the basics of standing up and starting to explore at the start to details such as destroying lots of scenery when you don’t have to, getting killed and the like. I was expecting to get annoyed by it, but even at the end of the game it was still providing a large chunk of the atmosphere, and since that is the biggest pull for Bastion I suspect that turning it off would diminish the game greatly.

You play The Kid, a silent character who has survived something called The Calamity that has caused the world to be fractured. Everybody had agreed to meet up in The Bastion, so you set off to find this area. When you get there you meet the narrator and he sets you off to rebuild the world by collecting items to rejuvenate the bastion. As you move along the world rises up in front of you in a very pleasing way and the game has that artistically interesting feel that quite a few good smaller games have strived for over the last few years.

The key question is will you like this game? You will know within a few minutes if the narration annoys you so download the trial and give it a go. I suspect that only a few people will get annoyed by it and the rest will love it.

The game itself is short, as you would expect for an arcade game, but there is plenty of extra content beyond the plot with a new game+ mode after you complete it and a large number of challenges that you can complete.

Microsoft have chosen a very high quality game to start the Summer of Arcade this year, but it’s not one that takes many risks. This isn’t a bad thing, just them choosing a reliably solid opener and it’s certainly worth a look for 1200 Microsoft points. I believe a PC version will show up later in the year as well. Grab the trial and take a look, which you can set to download to your Xbox from this handy link.