Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Lazy Gamer's Guide to Gran Turismo 4

Before I begin the tips for playing GT4, I'd like to pass along three items of general advice:

  1. GT4 saves your screen aspect ratio to your memory card but not your screen resolution. So if you want to play at 480p or 1080i, you'll need to set that every time you start the game.
  2. Play GT4 in 480i or 1080i. 480p looks awful.
  3. Get a Logitech Driving Force Pro wheel. You won't be sorry.

If you think that the fun part of driving and racing games is driving fast and exotic cars in races against other fast and exotic cars, if you think that cone challenges and hot laps and pace laps are just the chores you have to get through to get to the good stuff, then this article is for you.

Here's how to play GT4 so you maximize the amount of time you spend racing fast cars and minimize the amount of time you spend earning the money you need to buy them:

First, get your B and A licenses. Yeah, I know, it's a chore, but it's less of one than getting to the same place by trying to race without licenses and earning money in dribs and drabs. Plus, you'll need those licenses later in order to race more interesting courses against more challenging opponents. For that matter, you'll need the IB, IA and S licenses in order to run all the races in the game, so resign yourself to working through them. Don't worry about golding the licenses; bronze will get you what you need.

Now, go to Used Car Showroom I and buy a Honda Civic SiR-II (EG) '92. The '91 will probably serve just as well; it's the same price and has the same specifications. Give your Civic an oil change to boost its HP, then add the following modifications:

  • Racing Chip
  • Exhaust and Air Filter: Semi Racing
This should be enough for the next step.

Using your modified Civic or the car you got for your A license, go to the Beginner arena and win the Sunday Cup a couple of times. The second time run it in B-Spec mode, unless you enjoy these races. To win races in B-Spec mode, start the race at speed 5, passing mode and maximum time acceleration. As soon as your car is in front, turn off passing mode and drop back to speed 3. Keep the first car you win (an Autobianchi A112 Abarth '79) for your collection, and sell the second one for the roughly 8,000 CR it's worth. Take this money and add the following modifications to your Civic:

  • Flywheel: Racing
  • Turbine: Stage 2
  • Weight Reduction: Stage 1
This will improve the performance to the point that the car can now win at least the first race in the next step.

Go to Honda under Japan, and enter the Civic championship under One-Make Races. With each race you win or almost win, use the money to improve your Civic's performance so it can win the next race. Again, use B-Spec mode to cut down on the boredom of running the same race over and over. Here are the modifications to apply, in the order they should be applied:

  • Clutch: Sports
  • Brakes: Racing
  • Sports Tires: Soft
  • Weight Reduction: Stage 2
  • Clutch: Triple Plate
Winning this championship will get you a MUGEN MOTUL CIVIC Si Race Car '87, which unmodified is good enough to do the next step.

Get in your new Civic race car, and go to the Special Conditions arena. There, enter the second series. This is the Capri Rally at Costa di Amalfi. You can easily win this race with this car. Keep the Toyota RSC Rally Raid Car '02 you get for winning this series, and use it to win a second time. Sell the second Rally Raid Car for 265,624 CR. Rinse and repeat until you have at least 441,250 CR.

Go to Mercedes-Benz under Germany and buy an SL65 AMG (R230) '04. Give it an oil change, then take it to the tuning shop and add these modifications:

  • Exhaust & Air Filter: Racing
  • Racing Brakes
  • Brake Controller
  • Port Polish
  • Engine Balancing
  • Racing Chip
  • Nitrous
  • Transmission: Full Customize
  • Clutch: Triple-plate
  • Flywheel: Racing
  • Limited Slip: Full Customize
  • Carbon Driveshaft
  • Turbine Kit: Stage 4
  • Intercooler: Racing
  • Suspension: Full Customize
  • Racing Tires: Hard
  • Weight Reduction: Stage 1
  • Weight Reduction: Stage 2
  • Weight Reduction: Stage 3
  • Increase Rigidity
  • Rigidity Refresher Plan
Enter it in the one-make series Legends of the Silver Arrow. For winning you'll get a Mercedes-Benz CLK Touring Car '00.

Give your new CLK Touring Car an oil change and add these mods:

  • Exhaust & Air Filter: Racing
  • Brake Controller
  • NA Tuning: Stage 3
  • Nitrous
  • Transmission: Full Customize
  • Limited Slip: Full Customize
  • Turbine Kit: Stage 4
  • Suspension: Full Customize
  • Racing Tires: Medium
  • Increase Rigidity
  • Rigidity Refresher Plan
Go to the European Events arena and enter the car in the Deutsche Touring Car Meisterschaft series. The first time you win, keep the AMG Mercedes CLK-GTR Race Car for your collection. After that you can sell succeeding prizes from this series for 743,749 CR. That should be enough cash flow to buy even the most expensive cars in the game.

Remember to play the Deutsche Touring Car Meisterschaft series in B-Spec mode, to speed up your cash flow. Also, you can skip the first race in the series and still win, speeding up your cash flow even more. Yes, you'll lose the money you'd have won from that first race, but that's more than made up for by how much faster you pull in the prize cars.

And that's it! When it comes to in-game money, you're now on Easy Street. Go race.

Norton Ghost Exorcised

There was a time when Peter Norton's programs were the best system tools available for the PC. However, in recent years, mostly since the acquisition by Symantec, the quality appears to have been slipping.

  • Norton Antivirus has a significant negative impact on system performance.
  • Norton SpeedDisk made my system unusably slow for the entire week I left it running, with no indication that it would ever finish 'optimizing' my hard drive.
  • Norton Protected Recycle Bin didn't really add any significant functionality to the Windows Recycle Bin, and like the other apps was a resource hog.
  • Norton GoBack is another resource hog, adds little to Windows System Restore, and by many accounts makes systems unstable or even renders them unbootable. Hardly acceptable behavior for a program that's supposed to protect you from buggy software that screws up your system.

Norton Ghost has now joined the growing list of Symantec products I would never voluntarily install.

I was getting ready to upgrade to a larger hard drive, and wanted to simply move my entire filesystem to the new disk, along with all my installed games and game saves. A drive imaging program would do the trick. I happened to have a copy of Norton Ghost 2003 I'd gotten with a hard drive, and I'd heard good things about it, so I decided to try that.

I installed Ghost, ran it, and found that it wanted to boot in its own "virtual partition" so it could copy files that are locked while Windows is running. Fine. So I let it do its thing and rebooted the PC. On reboot Ghost told me something was wrong and offered to let me reboot the machine in its previous state (i.e. before Ghost twiddled the partitions). So I chose that, rebooted, and it...

Displayed the same error message.

After several hours and an rapidly increasing percentage of gray hairs, I was able to find a combination of commands issued from the Windows XP Home install disk and from a Linux boot disk (Knoppix 4.01) that allowed me to fix the partitions and drive letters back and delete Ghost's virtual partition. To my great relief, on the next reboot I was back in my familiar Windows XP environment.

After uninstalling Ghost and removing from my system any trace of it I could find, I did some research. I dug into the nooks and crannies of the Web, and it appears that Ghost has problems with SATA boot drives, which is the kind I have. But that's really beside the point.

What we have here is a backup tool: a program to assist you in securing your data against mishap. But it modifies the source before copying it, and does so in a way that renders the machine unusable if anything goes wrong. Sure, I was able to restore the machine to its previous state. But I'm also a computer professional with over twenty years of experience. Joe Normal who doesn't know the tricks I do would be sunk; he'd either have to find someone like me to help him or reformat his drive and lose everything.

So I now renounce all software Symantec. There would have to be some indication that their software development methods have had a major change for the better before I considered purchasing or using any of their products.

Epilogue: I found a combination of Linux tools that would let me do the image copy, and which was considerably faster than solutions based on reading the filesystem file by file. And I can now use it to make regular backups of my system drive.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

ActionReplay Max PS2: Mind the Sharp End

ActionReplay Max for the PS2 can be useful for backing up your game saves, but it also contains gotchas that can destroy them as well. Here's a quick guide to the gotchas and how to work around them.

Failure to Read While Restoring: Sometimes the MaxMemory software will report an error while trying to copy (or uncompress) a game save from the ActionReplay flash drive to a standard PS2 memory card. In fact, it will sometimes happen multiple times on a single save file. This may give you the idea that the save is corrupt on the flash drive. Fear not! Often ActionReplay has trouble reading its own flash drive. Retry the operation several times, and reset the PS2 at least once and try several more times, before giving up. One of my saves refused to be copied five or six times before finally succeeding.

Failure to Write While Restoring: Sometimes the MaxMemory software will corrupt the data on the standard PS2 memory card it's writing to, resulting in a partially or wholly unusable memory card. The PS2 browser cannot be used to reformat the card. The only way to recover use of the card is to reformat it using the MaxMemory software. Once reformatted, it can be used again, but all of the saves that were on the card are gone. I strongly recommend restoring saves only to a memory card that has nothing else on it.

Incompatible With Other ActionReplay Hardware: The ActionReplay MaxMemory software can neither read from nor write to the ActionReplay MaxMemory 64MB memory card. It only works with standard 8MB memory cards and the 64MB USB flash drive that comes with the MaxMemory software.

Making Unsafe Saves Safer

If you've ever worried about losing your Xbox, Xbox 360 or PS2 game saves (to an accident, mistake, hardware failure or small child), then you may have tried to make backups of your saves, only to find that you can't copy some of them. In this article I'll describe the problem, guess at the reasons for it, present some advice for game makers, and finally pass on what workarounds I know of to make backups of these 'uncopyable' game saves.

The Problem

A few months after I bought an Xbox and a PS2, I realized I had hours of progress on some games that I'd be unhappy about losing.

So I set out to save my saves. I have purchased memory cards for all my systems to backup saves onto, and tried to copy my saves to the cards.

The first system I had trouble with was the Xbox. Ordinarily when a save is selected, the Xbox dashboard offers options to copy or delete. But on some of my games, only the delete option was offered. Some web research revealed that Microsoft offers developers the ability to mark saves so that the dashboard won't copy them.

What the-???!!!

Out of my library of 79 Xbox titles, 15 have save games that are uncopyable either explicitly, or practically (Fatal Frame's saves are five times the size of an Xbox memory card). That's about one out of five. The titles from my collection with the problem are:

  • Black
  • Burnout 2: Point of Impact
  • Burnout 3: Takedown
  • Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
  • Darkwatch
  • Driver 3
  • Fatal Frame
  • Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly: Director's Cut
  • FlatOut
  • Forza Motorsport
  • Half-Life 2
  • Jade Empire Limited Edition
  • Psychonauts
  • Silent Hill 4: The Room
  • Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II The Sith Lords

I checked my PS2 saves, and there was a property on each save called "file protection" that made me nervous. Just this year I picked up two titles that turned out to have uncopyable saves:

  • TOCA Race Driver 2
  • TOCA Race Driver 3
Sure enough, the 'file protection' save property was on. So Sony offers the same kind of game save copy protection to developers that Microsoft does. It seems to get used far less often, though; only those two out of the 28 PS2 titles I've tested have uncopyable saves.

Just recently I started backing up my Xbox 360 saves, and two out of the 10 titles I own won't allow copying of save files:

  • Perfect Dark Zero
  • Gears of War

The Reasons

After the surprise and outrage over not being able to copy some of my game saves subsided, I began to see the reasons why a console maker might offer such a thing, and why game publishers might use it. The purpose is not, despite how it may appear, to prevent players from using their saves on a friend's system, nor to make players restart their games from scratch in the event of a hard drive or memory card failure. Those are just side effects.

Nor is the intent to stop the hardcore hackers, those who are willing to modify the console hardware to get what they want. With hardware mods all bets are off. Legal tactics are the method of choice for suppressing hardware mods.

No, the intent of the manufacturer, the game publishers, and the game developers is to stop casual activities they don't want. I think there are four main reasons why some game saves are uncopyable: online cheating, piracy, homebrew, and offline cheating.

Online Cheating: The idea here is that a game that gets a reputation as a playground for cheaters will sell less. This also applies to games which are single-player only but which have online leaderboards. The easiest way to cheat online is with a hacked gamesave. The cheater transfers the save to a PC, applies a hacking tool, and transfers it back. Some forms of cheating don't even require a hack; if a game stores online progress in offline saves, then merely having a backup of a save is a kind of cheating. Wins can be copied to the backup, while losses can be erased by restoring from it. Making game saves uncopyable closes this particular avenue for cheating, though of course it still leaves open hardware mods and net hacks (and does nothing to stop save hacking on systems where there's no built-in hard drive).

Piracy: This affects the manufacturer's bottom line as well as the publisher's, as the manufacturer gets a percentage of game sales revenue. Not every pirated copy of a game represents a lost sale, but some number of copies do. In order to reduce the amount of this going on, the manufacturers have taken steps to prevent burned copies of games from running on the console. These include [a] Microsoft using a DVD-ROM drive that has trouble reading writable media (or in more recent hardware revisions, is deliberately configured to reject DVD-Rs), [b] Microsoft using an unusual disk format that can't be read by PC DVD readers, [c] Microsoft writing into the disk loading program a check to see if the game disk has been cryptographically signed by Microsoft, and [d] Sony writing their loader to check the disk media type to make sure it's a commercially pressed game disk rather than a burned copy.

One of the more convenient ways pirates use to get DVD-R copies of games to run is hacked saves. Some games contain bugs that can be exploited to make part of a game save's data executed as code, thus enabling the pirate to run a game loader that doesn't check for the cryptographic signature or media code. Making the game saves uncopyable closes this opening for casual pirates, at least on the Xbox where the only way to get the save onto a PC is to first get it off the Xbox hard drive and onto a memory card. Serious pirates can still use hardware mods in order to play their downloads, but this requires skill and money, thus greatly reducing the number of people playing burned copies.

Homebrew: Many game consoles are sold at a loss. This is true in particular of the P52, the Xbox, and the Xbox 360, at least for the first year or two after their introduction. The way the manufacturer makes money is through licensing fees on games. In return for the licensing fee (and other conditions such as certification), Microsoft adds the cryptographic signature that will allow the game to run on the console, and both console makers press the disks on commercial media. If people could easily make games run on the console without the cryptographic signature or correct media code, then there'd be no reason for anyone to pay the licensing fee. Then instead of losing money on the console and making it back on the games, the console manufacturers would just be losing money. Not only that, but the quality of games would be completely uncontrolled and there could be a repeat of the Atari 2600 fiasco from the 80s. Not an attractive proposition.

As mentioned before, the easy way to get unsigned code and burned disks to run is to exploit a game bug with a hacked save. Again, not being able to copy saves for that game closes that loophole (on the Xbox). Hardware modders can still run homebrew games, but that's a tiny fraction of the financial exposure that would come from everyone being able to run unlicensed games.

Offline Cheating: I don't see a financial reason to stop cheats in offline games, so I'm going to chalk this one up to pure anal-retentiveness. I know for sure that there are developers who wish to force a particular game experience on the player. For instance, in the case of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, the developers had the option to create a save-anywhere feature, but--quite deliberately--chose to have savepoints instead, so that the player could not (for instance) choose to save during a frightening and deadly action scene. The designers wanted the player to feel the fear of having to do the entire scene over again, in addition to fearing the things trying to kill the player's character.

With this sort of high-handed attitude, the player must experience the form of enjoyment intended by the game designer and no other. Given that, I can understand if not approve of attempts to stop single-player offline cheating. Even something as simple as loading an earlier (backed-up) save in order to get out of the corner the player has painted himself into, rather than having to start the game over from the beginning, can circumvent the designer's intended experience. And cheating via hacked saves? That completely demolishes it. Making the saves uncopyable prevents debasement of the designer's work by the casual cheater.

Or I could give the benefit of the doubt and suppose that the saves are actually uncopyable in order to prevent online cheating, piracy hacks and homebrew hacks.

So... With all these reasons why console manufacturers and game makers would want uncopyable Xbox saves, why are any saves copyable at all? I think it's due to a combination of factors, including a lack of anal-retentiveness, an evaluation that the losses stopped by preventing game save backups are less than the losses created by angering customers, and having other less onerous methods of achieving the same results. It's telling, I think, that Microsoft thought these problems serious enough that they deliberately removed from the Xbox 360 a function to copy Xbox saves for backward compatible games, and also prevented those saves, once created on the 360, from being copied onto memory cards. That's right; no original Xbox game saves can be copied from the Xbox 360 hard drive onto a memory card.

Some of these copy/no copy decisions, however, appear to defy logic, leaving the above explanations in doubt. For instance, take Burnout 3: Takedown. The saves on the PS2 version can be freely copied, but the ones on the Xbox are locked. Yet the saves for Burnout: Revenge can be copied on both platforms. One could argue that the problems with copyable saves on Burnout 3 were fixed with Revenge, and that there's not much point in protecting saves on the PS2 as it has no internal hard drive. But then there's TOCA Race Driver 3, which has saves copyable on the Xbox but not on the PS2! Try to make sense of that one.

Advice for Game Makers

Though using game save copy protection may stop abuses like casual softmodding for piracy or homebrew, and casual savehacking for online or offline cheating, it also stops legitimate players from from safeguarding their progress. Game makers may come to the conclusion that hindering the abuses is worth more to them than the goodwill of their legitimate customers, but what if they didn't have to choose one or the other? What if there were ways to stop the abuses without angering the customers?

Let's go through the reasons mentioned above for uncopyable saves, and see if there aren't other solutions. I will begin by stipulating that these other solutions are ineffective against modchips and other hardware hacks; but then, so are 'uncopyable' saves.

Online Cheating: If all online progress is stored on the server rather than the console, then online cheating by hacking the save becomes impossible, as the player doesnt have an offline save to hack. Some material, such as downloaded multiplayer expansion maps, has to be stored on the console, as broadband comnections are not yet fast enough to make on-demand maps practical. However, this kind of static content can incorporate cryptographic signatures that are validated at load time, making savehacked maps useless.

But what about games that use offline single-player progress to unlock online bonuses, or that keep online leaderboards of single-player achievements? The first of these is a bad idea for game design reasons, and both can be handled by a fairly simple technique.

With the exception of co-op story mode, multiplayer and single-player modes in games tend to be very different experiences. In fact, they're usually different enough to be like completely separate games, appealing to players with opposite tastes and skills. Single-player content draws those who prefer to be told a story and progress through the content to its end, beating the game, while multiplayer draws those who want pick-up-and-play action where they're competing against or teaming with other people. Skills that are necessary to dominate one mode are often useless in the other. Even players who enjoy both kinds of experience tend to play them as separate games; I know I do.

Worlds apart as the two play modes are, it doesn't make sense to tie progress in one to the other; most multiplayer enthusiasts I've heard from are uninterested in single-player game modes. Requiring single-player progress in order to unlock multiplayer bonuses makes a game a chore rather than fun. If there's going to be online multiplayer progress, it should be tied to online multiplayer achievements.

That said, if the game designer is going to insist on tyeing mutliplayer features to single-player achievement, or if an online leaderboard of single-player scores is wanted, then the way to do it is to provide a separate online single-player mode. Such a mode would be playable only online, with all save data being stored on the server. This eliminates savehack cheating, so that the save data on the console can be freely copied.

Piracty and Homebrew: The solution to this one is basic software quality control. Treat save data as input and validate it before using it. Array bounds checking, offset range validation, and other input verification techniques are basic tools for safe programming, as are automated unit tests that check for such vulnerabilities. If buffers can't overflow, then executable code can't be altered to give an attacker access.

Offline Cheating: Oh come on. This isn't a problem that needs solving. Really. In fact, leaving this vulnerability open may increase sales and will certainly increase the game's enjoyability for those with lesser skills.


For original Xbox games, the only workaround I can offer is for the one game that prevents copying to memory card by being too big: Fatal Frame. For the others, nothing short of running Xbox Linux or an alternative dashboard will give the ability to copy the protected saves. And both of those require a modchip or (for older machines not connected to Xbox Live) a savehack. Here's the workaround for Fatal Frame:

  • Get an Xbox USB adapter. This is a device that plugs into a controller port and provides a USB socket.
  • Get a USB flash drive that's compatible with the Xbox and big enough to hold the save (64MB or larger). You can find lists of these drives by searching the Web. I use a Lexar Jumpdrive Secure 128MB.
  • Plug the flash drive into the adapter, the adapter into a controller port, and format the drive.
  • Copy your Fatal Frame save to the flash drive.

For PS2 and Xbox 360 games, the general strategy for backing up saves is this:

  • Start the game with the original memory device inserted, as well as the backup.
  • Load the save from the original device.
  • Remove the original memory device.
  • Switch the game's save location to the backup device.
  • Make the game save itself to the backup device (usually by tweaking some game setting, then tweaking it back).
The reason for removing the first memory device is because some games will attempt to delete the old save when you change which memory device you're using.

The above strategy will work for both TOCA Race Driver 2 and TOCA Race Driver 3 on the PS2. You can drop the removal step, as neither game tries to delete the old save.

For the Xbox 360 game Perfect Dark Zero, the above strategy works when the original save is on a memory card. Just drop the settings change step, as the game saves itself the moment you change the save location. But when the original save is on the hard drive, a variation on the technique is necessary, as I think it unwise to remove the hard drive while the console is running! To copy your save from the hard drive to a memory card, do this:

  • Insert the memory card.
  • Start the game and proceed to the main menu.
  • Change the save location to the memory card.
  • Remove the memory card.
  • Change the save location to the hard drive.

For the Xbox 360 game Gears of War the above strategy will not work, and a different technique is necessary. A Gears save cannot be copied to an empty memory device; the 360 complains that it can't copy the save to a new profile. However, an existing save tied to the same profile can be overwritten. So:

  • Start the game with both memory devices inserted.
  • Change the save location to the backup memory device.
  • Start a new single-player game.
  • Skip cutscenes as much as possible and play until the first checkpoint is passed.
  • Quit the game.
  • Exit to the dashboard.
  • Copy the game save from the original device to the backup device, overwriting the save just created.
  • After this, the save can be copied from the original device to the backup device without a problem.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Xbox 360 - Gears of War - First Impressions

Nearly two weeks ago I picked up several new games, including Gears of War. I tried it first, and since then I've had to force myself to sample the others. It's that good.

No single aspect of this science fictional third-person shooter is novel, but each is state-of-the-art, integrated into a cohesive whole, and polished until it shines. It's a joy to play.

So far, I grade it A.

Enough scribbling, I've got aliens to frag.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Levelling the Playing Field: Mice And Analog Sticks in First-Person Shooters

During a game of SOCOM 2, player Red One catches sight of Blue One. Blue has his back to Red, so Red decides to try for a headshot. Red aims at Blue, but the crosshair stops to the left of him. So he tugs the analog stick up and right. But he overshoots, so he tugs left. Overshoots again, and tugs right. Tugs left. Right. Left. Down and right. While all of this is going on, Blue notices Red's presence, turns, and tosses a grenade. The grenade goes off, and Red is dead.

Before the next match, Red reduces his control sensitivity so he can aim precisely and get a headshot next time on Blue.

Red creeps along a wall, past a closed door, peeks around the corner, and there's Blue. Red aims and gets a headshot on Blue. But then he hears the door open behind him. He tries to turn but with the decreased control sensitivity it takes a long time. Long enough for Blue One's teammate Blue Two to kill Red.

Frustrating, isn't it?

Had it been a PC shooter such as Counter-Strike, the mouse would have given Red the precision control to get the headshot as well as the turning speed to deal with a threat from behind.

This is why people who have played PC shooters tend to prefer them to shooters on the consoles.

Console shooter designers are faced with a dilemma: if they make the input ramp steep enough to provide quick turning when the stick is pushed over all the way, then the turning speed rises too quickly near the stick's dead zone for precision aiming. But if they make the ramp shallow enough to provide slow turning in the area near the dead zone, then it is still too slow when the stick is pushed over all the way.

A number of solutions to the problem have been tried, with varying degrees of success. Many involve eliminating to one degree or another the need for precision aiming. These include:

  • Aiming assistance - either the crosshair or the shots will drift towards the target when the player's aim is close enough
  • Target lock
  • Target lock with fine tuning
  • Large hitboxes around targets
  • Inaccurate automatic weapons with high rates of fire
  • Large blast radius for explosive weapons
  • Enemies who aim or react slowly and aim inaccurately
  • Translating the position of the analog stick, within a certain range, into the position of the aiming crosshair. Outside that range, stick position is translated into turning speed.
  • Accelerating turning speed with time - the longer the stick is held in one position, the faster the turning speed becomes.
In addition to these solutions, many shooters pass the dilemma on to the player by giving him an input sensitivity control. Not that I think having such a control is bad; it's just not a way to fix the problem at hand.

The above, by the way, is one reason that console and PC versions of the same shooter cannot play on the same server; every solution above, if applied equally to both PC and console, continues to leave the advantage in the hands of the PC user. If applied to one but not the other, it results in battlefields that are incompatible and can't run on the same server.

There is a solution, however, that I believe can level the playing field and even give console players a slight edge over the keyboard-and-mouse crowd:

Input Acceleration

I first encountered this when playing Half-Life on a laptop PC. It wasn't always practical to use a mouse when I wanted to play, so I began experimenting with the TrackPoint device. For those of you not familiar with it, the TrackPoint is a tiny pressure-sensitive joystick that sits between G and H on a laptop keyboard and is meant to substitute for the mouse. The harder you push it, the faster it moves the pointer across the screen.

Most people don't like TrackPoint devices because of the difficulty in controlling them: on low sensitivity they can get accuracy but not speed, and on high sensitivity they can get speed but not accuracy. Sound familiar?

This is where input acceleration comes in. With input acceleration turned on, a gentle to moderate push results in slow pointer movement for pixel-perfect accuracy, while a medium to hard push sends the pointer zipping across the screen. When applied to Half-Life, this permitted precision aiming with a gentle push and quick turning with a hard push.

Without input acceleration, doubling the pressure doublea the speed, tripling the pressure triples the speed, and so on. With input acceleration, doubling the pressure might give four times the speed, tripling it might give nine times, and so on.

If input acceleration were applied to an analog stick as to the TrackPoint in my laptop, this would give console gamers the speed and accuracy they need in order to compete with mouse-and-keyboard users.

In fact, it should give them a slight edge. Using the left stick for running and strafing is superior to using the keyboard, because it allows the player to more precisely control movement speed. And having all the buttons within finger's reach means a quicker response than when they're scattered over a keyboard.

So if input acceleration is so good, why isn't it in use? Well, it could be that some console shooters do use this method to make aiming easier, and I either haven't played them or I haven't noticed. That would then make the question why it's not used more.

I suspect the three major factors are ignorance, inertia, and haste. Some developers are ignorant of the possibility of using the technique, so it isn't even considered. For others, there's inertia; it's easier to do what's already been done than to invent something new. For many of the existing solutions, there may even be code available that can be lifted and reused. Finally, there's haste. Software development tends to be on tight schedules, never more so than when the project is a port from a PC shooter. When deadlines are tight, the risk to the ship date from using a known solution is far less than using something new.

On the other hand, analog sticks have a travel and are operated by the thumb, while TrackPoint sticks don't move and are operated by the more dexterous index finger. It could be that developers have tried it, and the differences between analog sticks and pressure sticks mean that input acceleration doesn't work nearly as well for consoles as for notebooks. In which case I, and this entire article, are full of it. Wouldn't be the first time.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

UMD Repair - Less Is More

WEASEL WORDS OF WARNING: The procedure described below is entirely at your own risk. It has worked for me, but that is no guarantee that it will do so for you. Damage or destruction of your UMD or PSP is not my responsibility.

That said, I don't see how, if you follow my instructions competently, you could do any such damage. But fools are surprisingly innovative in their foolishness.

UMD shells are not rugged. Store too many UMDs in a space too small for them, such as the outside pocket of a PSP carrying case, and you're likely to find some of them damaged.

An undamaged UMD

The most common damage type I found was separation of the window, which then falls into the interior of the shell. When the UMD is inserted into a PSP, the window jams against the data disk and keeps it from spinning.

A UMD with window separation

PSP not booting from damaged UMD

PSP not loading damaged UMD

Close-up on trying-to-load icon

I have spent a lot of time tryng to re-seat or partially re-seat the window, and searching the web for a source of UMD replacement shells. The first is an exercise in frustration, and Sony prevents the second. Apparently their position is that cracked UMDs are prima facie evidence of piracy, so they neither make replacements nor license the patents.

Then I had an idea inspired by a YouTube video. It worked beautifully. Here's my workaround:

That's it!

Monday, September 11, 2006

My Grading System

In my post on my reviewing system, I mentioned that I'd be giving various aspects of games letter grades with specific meanings, but failed to mention those specifics. Here they are:

Grading Scale

Very Good.
Significantly better than average.
Better than average.
Worse than average.
Significantly worse than average.
Really bad.

Further UPS Yours

When I called Microsoft on Tuesday August 29th, I was delighted to hear that my repaired Xbox 360 console had already been shipped. This meant that I would have it back by Friday, in time for the three-day Labor Day weekend. I got the tracking number, and checked the UPS site to see where the package was. Sure enough, it was on its way.

On Thursday evening, the tracking information showed that the package had arrived at the Phoenix distribution center. So surely I would have it the next day, right on schedule.

Or not.

I checked the tracking log a few times during the day Friday, but there were no updates. This wasn't that unusual; sometimes the out-for-delivery scan wouldn't happen, and the next item in the log would be the delivery. And the delivery attempt could be as late as 7PM (officially; on the previous shipment, I saw a couple of attempts around 7:30). So I went home at 5PM and called UPS.

I wanted to know if the package was at the UPS distribution facility. If it was, I could go down and pick it up, even after 6PM by going to the Will Call window. The customer service representative had no more information than what was in the tracking log, but promised I would get a call back within an hour from the distribution center to let me know where my package was.

An hour came and went, and there was no call. I waited until 7PM, then called UPS again. This time I was told it was too late for me to pick it up, even from Will Call, so I would have to wait until Tuesday for a delivery attempt. Sigh.

Having resigned myself to not having my toy until after the weekend, I asked them to hold it for me. I said I would come and pick it up Tuesday morning. I didn't want a repeat of the previous fiasco where it took a week and five alleged delivery attempts to get me my package. The customer service rep said that would be fine. Around 8 I got a call from the distribution center, asking me if it was correct that I wanted the package held. I said yes.

During the weekend, I saw in the tracking log that the package had been missed at the distribution center, and was scheduled for delivery the next business day. This gave me pause. Hadn't I asked them to hold it? But since the distribution center had called me back to make sure I wanted the package held, surely this time they'd hold it for me and it would be there when I went to pick it up on Tuesday.

Or not.

After fighting through traffic for 45 minutes on Tuesday morning, and waiting in line for 20 minutes behind other people who thought they'd beat the rush by showing up early, I got to the counter and asked for my package. Only to be told that it was on a truck that had already left.

Feeling much like Charlie Brown having once again fallen for Lucy Van Pelt's promise not to yank away the football at the last minute, I drove to work.

I checked the tracking log a couple more times during the day, and found that my parcel had been (finally) delivered to the apartment leasing office in the early afternoon. Surely it would be there when I got home from work.

And it was.

So UPS, at least here in Phoenix, is a delivery company that sometimes holds packages when it's supposed to deliver them, and sometimes delivers them when it's supposed to hold them.

So what can Brown do for me? I will leave that as an exercise for the reader, but here are some hints: it involves my posterior, and osculation.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

PlayStation 2 (PS2) - Killzone Review - Single Player Complete (as Templar)

Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Release Date: 11/02/2004
Game Type: First Person Shooter
Genres: Science Fiction, Military
Single Player Modes: Story, Skirmish
Multiplayer Modes: Console, Online
ESRB Rating: M (Blood, Strong Language, Violence)
Current Price (used): $15 USD (
Grade: B

General Comments

When Killzone was in development, it was hailed as the "Halo Killer", the title PS2 fanboys were waiting for, the game that would prove once and for all that anything the Xbox could do, the PS2 could do as well or better. But anyone with even a casual knowledge of the technology differences between the two platforms knew that this claim could only be marketing uber-hype. And so it was.

The problem with over-hyping a product is that it creates expectations that cannot be satisfied. It short-sightedly trades a spike in pre-review sales for a slump in post-review profit, as the reviews will reflect those disappointed expectations. And only the most rabid of fanboys will buy solely on the strength of the publisher's pre-release hype.

The reviews did reflect that disappointment, with the average score on coming in at a disappointing 72.3% ("C-" grade), compared to Halo's 95.8% ("A"). Similar discrepancies are seen in the units-shipped figures, with Halo coming in at over six million and Killzone less than two. Some will say that the financial figures don't reflect the true popularity of each title, as Halo's been out for more than twice as long, and for a long time it came bundled with every new Xbox. Which would be a more convincing argument if it weren't for the fact that Halo 2 came out around the same time as Killzone, and has already sold more than five million copies.

So, which is correct, the reviews or the hype? Is Killzone better than Halo and worth buying a PS2 to play, or is it a yawn-inducing, barely pasable shooter? The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Game Description And Initial Impressions

Killzone is about the invasion of the planet Vekta by gas-mask-wearing Helghast troops. The planet Helghan became home to a group of people exiled from the rest of insterstellar society, who have since built a mighty war machine and are now exacting revenge on their perceived oppressors by conquering them. Vekta has the misfortune of being Helghan's nearest neighbor, and therefore the first target in the campaign against the ISA.

If this all sounds familiar, it should; the backstory closely parallels the historical events surrounding the start of World War II. This makes Helghan the equivalent of Nazi Germany, and Vekta a future version of Poland.

The single-player game puts me in the combat boots of Jan Templar, a captain in the ISA Defense Forces, and later provides the chance to play as any of the members of his four-man squad. Each of the four has unique strengths; Templar is the all-around soldier who can use any weapon. Luger is an assassin who gets a fully automatic sniper pistol and night-vision goggles. Rico is the heavy-weapons specialist who carries a chaingun. Hakka is a half-Helghast spy who can get better accuracy with Helghast weapons and can operate Helghast equipment. The goal is first to get the planet's hacked orbital defenses back online, and later...well, that would be telling.

After a cutscene summarizing Helghast history and showing the first moments of the invasion of Vekta, the game presents the main menu. After choosing the single-player campaign, there is a brief cutscene that sets up the tactical situation. Then I am thrown into combat, attempting (as Captain Templar) to repel the Helghast assault on a Vektan city.

When I first started playing the campaign, I got a sinking feeling in my gut. I began having flashbacks to Medal of Honor: Rising Sun and its rail-shooter sequences. The game opens with Templar and other soldiers in a trench, with a mass of Helghast troops rushing their position. I, as Templar, must stay in a fixed position and shoot down enemies before they can reach the trench. This is followed by movement to a new trench and more defensive fire. Much of the first mission follows this pattern.

Now, I have nothing against shooting galleries or rail shooters per se. I'm sure they're a lot of fun for the people with the twitch reflexes to succeed at them. I'm just not one of them. In fact, I don't think I ever was one of them. But when I buy a first-person shooter, I have a certain expectation that there will be movement and tactics, use of cover and concealment, perhaps even a flanking maneuver. Rail shooters and shooting galleries offer none of these. They are unwelcome in my first-person shooter, except in very small portions. Less is more. If I want The House of the Dead or Beachhead 2000, I know where to find them. And when such scenes do appear in my FPS, they should be a welcome respite from more difficult portions, offering overwhelming firepower with which to mow down great swaths of enemies while laughing maniacally.

And so I put Killzone away for a long time, turning to more rewarding (or so I thought) games. When I did return to the single player game, it was only to practice for online multiplayer with a distant friend.

I quickly discovered that the shooting galleries of the first mission are not ubiquitous. Gameplay after the first mission is more about attacking enemy forces and driving through them than it is about repelling their assaults. My interest began to revive, and I played it almost exclusively until I finished it.



I found the storyline to be good, but not outstanding; it's a fairly standard war story, which is not surprising considering the situation is a thinly-disguised version of World War II. The characters all have distinct personalities and their own backstories, and conflicts between the members of my squad make for some watchable cutscenes. The dialogue is (mostly) well-written, and there are some memorable lines. On the other hand, there are plot holes big enough to drop an asteroid through, and the villain's ending speech is so bad that it's obvious the actor was embarrassed to deliver it.


The graphics are pretty good, and look like they're pushing the limits of the PS2's technology. Unfortunately, "pushing the limits" also means that frame rates sometimes suffer. Widescreen is available but not 480p. Polys and textures seem pretty high on the people, and medium elsewhere. I'd say the models and textures for the characters are comparable to the best in other PS2 games, including Silent Hill 2 and Shadow of the Colossus. Draw distance is limited, and there's a little bit of popup to be seen here and there, but nothing too distracting. What is noticeable are the occasional seams visible between some of the polygons for the environment. Still, it wasn't so bad that it interfered with my enjoyment of the game. And once an APC turret briefly appeared to be ten times its normal size, though that only lasted for a moment. Animation is good, with most character movement looking pretty natural. The sole exception I noticed was when a killed soldier would do the "ragdoll jitterbug" as it failed to find rest in death. But that comes with almost any game that uses ragdolls. Weapon animations, especially reloading, are outstanding and easily on a par with anything I've seen elsewhere. Animation of vehicles and other environmental objects is of equal quality. Physics is cheated into the game using scripted animations and particles; a system like Havok just isn't feasible within the limitations of the PS2. But the cheats are pretty good. Notably enjoyable ones are windows shattering, water cooler bottles exploding and bouncing around, tank turrets blasted into the air, and guard towers collapsing.

Art Direction

Art direction is very good bordering on excellent, doing a fine job of giving a gritty, war-torn feel to all the areas. Buildings, vehicles, scenery and people look quite realistic. The only oddity I found in this area was the lack of contrast. Everything is in muted shades of white, grey, blue, brown and green, with hardly a saturated color to be found anywhere. The most colorful thing in the game is the yellow-orange glow emanating from the Helghast soldiers' goggles. This muted color scheme works well when the environment is a series of trenches reminiscent of World War I, or an industrial zone of concrete and steel. It is less suited to city parks, malls or jungles.

The designs look like near-future versions of contemporary ones, from the weapons and vehicles to buildings and clothing. No death-ray handguns, no holograms. The ISA designs have a kind of NATO feel to them, while the Helghast ones have a more WWII German or Cold War eastern european look.

Sound Design

The sound design is outstanding. No detail in this department is overlooked, from the zip of near-misses whizzing by my head, to the crunch of combat boots on gravel, to the atmosphere of distant explosions and gunfire in the cities and of birds and insects in the jungle. The guns each have a distinctive sound both in firing and reloading, with the clip-fed ISA assault rifle barking and the barrel-fed Helghast version whining as the electric motor shoves fresh rounds into the chamber. This aspect of the presentation is significantly responsible for giving the player a feeling of immersion. There are however some occasional sound glitches where a particular sound can be lost. It's very odd to hear ejected shells tinkling but not the weapon's report.


Music is sparse. It's only really heard in the introductory cutscene, and in the cutscenes at the beginning and end of each chapter, but what it has is competently done, matching the scene's mood and timing.

Voice Acting

The voice acting is very good; the lines are delivered with conviction by the various actors, some of them known in film and television (such as Ronny Cox and Brian Cox). The cutscenes are particularly enjoyable in this regard. The only real problem is that there's not enough of it. Hearing the same few lines repeated over and over during hours of gameplay becomes a little repetitive, no matter how well they're spoken. I'm not very sensitive to that sort of thing, so it didn't hurt my enjoyment of the game much.


So overall, I give the game's presentation high but not outstanding marks. The sound design, animation, voice acting and art design all add to the enjoyment, while the repetitive dialogue, minor graphical glitches and constant drabness to every environment all mildly subtract from it.



The controls are fairly straightforward. The game offers a layout that seems natural almost immediately, and the ability to customize the individual buttons - a feature that other console shooters would do well to emulate. I only felt the need to alter two of the settings; I changed crouch from hold to toggle, and I switched the sprint and crouch buttons. It's just too awkward to try to move the left stick to run while attempting to hold the left stick in the clicked position. So now L2 is sprint, and L3 toggles crouch...which makes more sense. Who needs to go into a crouch while running? I never did. The controls feel tight and responsive, though I could wish for a little more fine control near the stick's dead zone without having to sacrifice turning speed by reducing the control sensitivity. The only glitch I noticed was that toggling crouch off while positioned under a low overhang results in crouch not being toggled off at all.


The game has a weapons system very similar to that of Halo, except that instead of two weapons three can be carried. There is usually plenty of ammo and weapons to take from fallen soldiers, increasingly enemy soldiers as the game progresses.

All the weapons have a solid feel to them, with more heft and recoil than in other sci-fi shooters such as Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force or even Halo.

Some have complained about the sniper rifle's zoom targeting system, finding it awkward. It's certainly the case that mouse adapters such as the Max Shooter or SmartJoy Frag can't be used with this weapon. But I think the awkwardness serves an important purpose in balancing the multyplayer game; the extra time it takes to aim the weapon prevents it from making the wielder nigh-invulnerable.

And some of the weapons are just plain nifty, like the single-shot grenade launcher pistol, or the four-barrel AA gun.

Learning Curve

As a result of the rational control scheme, and the tutorial integrated into the first mission (complete with a controller image that shows which buttons to press), the learning curve is fairly short. I was competent with the controller within the first five minutes of gameplay.

User Interface

The user interface is equally straightforward, from the standard FPS hud display to the no-nonsense menus. The only oddity in this area is that the widescreen/standard video setting doesn't stick; every time I start the game, this setting is set to standard. It's a minor annoyance having to change it to widescreen every time I start the game. On the plus side, every cutscene can be skipped except for the publisher and developer logos when the game first loads. Guerrilla deserves praise for this, as there's little that's more irritating than having to watch an unwanted cutscene, whether it's because it's the second playthrough, or because of a desire to immediately retry the boss fight (I'm talking about you, Final Fantasy X).


The difficulty is moderate, even on the easiest of the three difficulty levels. I generally play shooters on the "normal" or "standard" difficulty level and have an enjoyable experience. Killzone defaults to the easiest difficulty level, and I have left it there. Even so, I found myself dying more and more frequently as I progressed through the chapters. Particularly when the enemy started using grenade launchers. What helps in this regard is that even though health packs are fairly rare, the life meter partially recharges after injury, in a system reminiscent of Halo's.

Save System

This brings us to the topic of the save system, which like the life meter is similar but not identical to that of Halo. Killzone is divided into eleven chapters, with each chapter divided into several missions, and each mission having zero or more checkpoints. There is a single save for each player profile, and mission-end saves instead of save-anywhere. One can replay an earlier chapter, at the cost of losing one's progress within the latest chapter. Checkpoints provide places within a mission to retry from if killed, but are not saved to the memory card and cannot be loaded when starting play.

I have mixed feelings about this kind of save system. On the positive side, it allows the developers to control the pacing of the action, and to raise the stakes for the player in order to increase feelings of suspense. When one stands to lose a half-hour of progress instead of just a few seconds, the fear of getting killed is higher. When done well, it increases immersion by keeping the player moving forward instead of playing the same few seconds over and over. On the negative side, it can lead to frustration and conflicts with real life. It's frustrating for me to play the same 20 minutes of action over and over just to get to the part where the bad guy with the uber-weapon kills me with one shot. And who wants to have to lose a half hour of progress because there was a power outage or it's someone else's turn to use the console? When save points are too far apart, they detract from the enjoyment of the game.

I must mark Killzone down for all too frequently having save points so far apart that when I died I turned the console off rather than repeating the half-hour of fighting I'd just lost. That's not play, it's work.


Killzone is plenty long; there are about 27 hours of gameplay included. There are 36 missions, each taking about 45 minutes to complete (counting replays when killed). I'm assuming that all missions are played as Templar, and all are played using my play style (which is to take cover for healing when shot, use cover to avoid enemy fire, and pick them off from a distance). Using a different character such as Rico, or a run-and-gun style (assuming survival that way) will probably get a quicker playthrough.

I'd say it's almost too long. For some players, a game is all about the action, and the story is completely unimportant. They want to get to the running and shooting, and the only thing they're interested in is the action and the variety in it. Such players are likely to downgrade a title if it's short, because they want more shooting. They're also more likely to favor multiplayer gaming. Others, such as myself, are more interested in the game as a total experience, in which the action is just part of a larger whole, which includes the story. Repetitive gameplay just to make the game longer detracts from the total experience and leads to a kind of boredom. Ico, at about 10 hours, would be disparaged by pure-action fans for being too short. I, on the other hand, thought its length was just right. And so I became impatient for the next Killzone story development.

Level Design

Level design is fairly linear. Again, given the limitations of the PS2, this is not surprising. Open levels require more polygons, textures and models, and therefore more processor power and memory than linear ones. There are ways around this, such as streaming in higher-detail textures and models from disk as the viewpoint approaches them. The best example I know of this technique is Shadow of the Colossus, which has no levels and everything is streamed as one moves around the map. Killzone does some of it as well, but even this approach has its limitations as one can see while playing - if one approaches a person or object faster than the graphical detail can be loaded, the person or object looks blurry until the load completes, at which point the view suddenly "focusses". The least linear level I've encountered is the battle in the city park, which is open enough that I got lost a couple of times trying to find the exit to the mall.

But within the linear nature of the levels, Guerilla has done a fine job of providing a variety of situations to fight in. There have been city areas, military bases, swamps, jungles, trenches, desert, and snow-covered mountains. I haven't seen yet any of the repetitive level design used to make Halo longer. Each area within each environment has presented its own unique tactical challenge. One thing I have noticed that's nifty - the level designers like to force the player into attacking enemies holding a superier tactical position. For instance, in one level my squad must move down a shallow river with steep banks. As soon as the enemy sees me, the tops of those banks fill with soldiers raining fire down on my position. In other places, the enemy has grenade launchers, forcing me to rush their position even though my preferred style is to use cover. Outstanding!

The one minor complaint I have with the level design is that it violates the "curb rule". This is the rule that states, if an obstacle could easily be stepped over or climbed by the character being played, don't make it impassable. If the player isn't supposed to leave Main street, don't make the barrier a six-inch-high curb! The two most glaring examples of this are a speed-bump-sized hump in a jungle road that the player should be able to walk over and can't, and the inconsistency where some 3-foot-high sandbag barriers can be climbed over and some can't. It's not annoying enough, though, to seriously interfere with enjoyment of the game.


Character AI is pretty good in enemies and only fair-to-passable in allies. Enemies will use cover, peeking over the top and only stepping out long enough to shoot. They even attempt to figure out when I'm reloading, and wait until then to break cover and fire. They attack in groups, and at least once appeared to be trying to flank my squad (though that was more likely a result of their initial placement). They are aware of what happens to their comrades; on one occasion I snipered a Helghast soldier in a busy camp and all the others immediately scattered, seeking cover. They will try to advance on my position if they can do so without being seen. This cover-seeking behavior sometimes works to their disadvantage, however; there were times when there were so many enemy soldiers that they could have overrun my squad had they chosen to rush us. Instead they continued to hide. Another exploitable behavior is their method for deciding when to break cover. They think I'm reloading when I stop firing for a couple of seconds, so I can fire a single shot, wait for an enemy to step out, and shoot him.

My squadmates, on the other hand, don't use cover much, so it's a good thing they're invulnerable. They don't act invulnerable, though. After taking fire they will retreat, leaving me to advance on the enemy myself. Sometimes they will advance in front of me, and in those cases they will do some damage to the enemy. And sometimes they will cross my line of fire. Most of the time they stay behind me, and impede me when I try to back up out of the enemy's line of fire. So my mates were helpful some of the time, and a lot of the time they got in my way.

Replay Value

I'm not going to say much about replay value here, but save most of that for future reviews. I will note that I was able to play as any of the four squad members, and each has unique strengths and vulnerabilities. For instance, Luger gets a silenced machine pistol which doubles as a sniper weapon, and can sneak up on enemies. Rico gets a chain gun. I will also note that there are the multiplayer modes, which add a different kind of replay value. I expect to cover multiplayer in a future review.

Emotional Impact


I did get significant feelings of accomplishment at various points within the game. Whether it was reaching the end of a mission, eliminating a well-dug-in enemy, or surviving a massive onslaught even when seriously outnumbered, I felt like I had gotten somewhere. This was one of the major factors that kept interest up.


I didn't find much that was awe-inspiring in this game; there were two parts that came close, both involving destruction on a large scale, but nothing as jaw-dropping as the first sight of the final enemy in Shadow of the Colossus. There was nothing even on the scale of the final scene in Halo.


There should have been moments to cheer at, when then villains met their end and the heroes were victorious. Unfortunately, the villains were not portrayed as sufficiently sadistic nor the heroes as sufficiently sympathetic. There are no Raiders of the Lost Ark or Die Hard cheers here.


The closest the game came to the kind of ''That is so cool!" reaction inspired by Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or 007: Everything or Nothing was in some of the weapon reloading and destruction animations - particularly the grenade launcher revolver and guard tower collapse. Not especially thrilling, to be sure, but they are somewhat cool.


Feelings of frustration arose mostly as a result of the save system, which was partly the result of poor design, and partly the result of technical limitations of the PS2. It could be worse; SOCOM 2: US Navy Seals has longer missions and nary a checkpoint to be found.


Is this game fun? Yes it is. Once I got into the flow of the action, immersion took over, I stopped noticing the technical glitches, and I became part of the world of Killzone. It's fun to wipe out a nest of dug-in Helghast with a well-placed lob from a grenade launcher. It's fun to take out an enemy sniper by destroying the guard tower he's hiding in. And it's fun to charge into a dozen Helghast, mowing them down with a squad automatic weapon before they can get in more than a shot or two.


Is this game funny? Not particularly. There are a few comic relief moments in cutscenes, once about Templar and Luger's past relationship, but otherwise it's the bickering between the Helghast-hating Rico and the more-civilized-than-thou half-Helghast Hakka. These comic relief moments are rare, so for the most part Killzone is a serious action-adventure war story.


Between the pretty good immersion factor and the fun gameplay, my interest was strong and I kept playing until I reached the end.


I only experienced one moment of outrage in the game. I was approaching a hill with enemies dug in at the top. As soon as they saw me, they started lobbing grenades, so I turned to run back out of range and behind cover. On the path I'd just come from and cleared, four Helghast appeared in front of me and started blasting. I don't mean they stepped out of hidey holes, I mean they popped into existence as if they had a teleporter. The game cheated!

Well, the air turned blue around me from the names I called the level designer, but I survived the encounter so the outrage didn't last long.


There is a single shock in the game, when the identity of the traitor is revealed. But this didn't shock me at all, since I'd already figured it out from clues provided in the game's cutscenes. Would it shock someone who hasn't already figured it out? Probably.


There isn't a lot of this in the game. It doesn't have any ticking clocks, no goals that have to be reached within a certain time or before the enemy reaches theirs. Instead, like many other games in which all events are triggered by player action, it tries to create an artificial sense of urgency by having characters in the game claim that there are deadlines (when there aren't) or complain that you're moving too slow. I was unconvinced by this technique, and have trouble believing that anyone else would fall for it.


Overall, I'm going to give Killzone a grade of B. The fun gameplay, impressive voice acting and sound, and strong visual presentation raised the score, while the mediocre storyline, flawed save system and minor glitches lowered it.

Would I recommend buying this game? Yes. At its current price of $15 USD it's a good value if you like military-themed and science-fiction-themed console shooters.

Grading Chart

Overall Grade: B
  • Presentation: B+
    • Story: B-
    • Graphics: B+
      • Frame Rate: C-
      • Polygon Count: A-
      • Textures: B+
      • Seams: C-
      • Glitches: C
      • Animation: A
        • Character Animations: A
        • Weapons: A
        • Vehicles And Other Environment: A-
    • Art Direction: B+
      • Theme: A-
      • Color: C+
      • Design: B+
    • Sound: A
    • Music: B+
    • Voice Acting: A-
  • Playability: B+
    • Controls: A-
    • Weapons: A
    • Learning Curve: A
    • UI: A
      • HUD: A
      • Menus: A
      • Cutscene skippability: A-
    • Difficulty: C+
    • Save System: D+
    • Length: C+
    • Level Design: A-
    • A.I.: B-
  • Emotional Impact: C+
    • Accomplishment: A-
    • Awe: C
    • Cheer: D
    • Cool: C
    • Frustration: C-
    • Fun: B+
    • Funny: C+
    • Interest: A-
    • Outrage: B-
    • Shock: C
    • Urgency: C-

Monday, August 21, 2006

UPS Yours!

In Xbox 360: Game Console Or Paperweight?, I wrote about how my console died, repairing it, and the hard lesson learned about service contracts for cutting-edge technology. This time I'm writing about another hard lesson, this one learned in the process of trying to get the console repaired.

Here's how an out-of-warranty Xbox 360 repair is supposed to work: The console owner calls Microsoft and pays for a repair with a credit card. Microsoft sends an empty box to the owner via UPS. The owner packs the Xbox 360 in the box and sends it back to Microsoft. After fixing it, Microsoft ships it back to the customer again.

Here's how it has actually worked, so far: I called Microsoft on the 8th and made a repair order. The good news is that as part of the repair price, Microsoft will pick up the shipping costs both ways. The bad news is that it via be three business days each way for shipping and something like five business days for the repair. So I resign myself to waiting a couple of weeks until I can get my working console back.

Tuesday the 15th comes, and the good news is, surely the shipping box will be delivered by today. The bad news is that it isn't. I get home around 6:30PM from shopping and there is neither a delivery notice on my door nor the blue card in my mailbox that means the package has been left at the apartment complex's leasing office. I call Microsoft, and the customer service representative gives me the UPS tracking number. I look it up on the UPS website, and the good news is that the package was shipped and has arrived in Phoenix. The bad news is that both times when delivery was attempted, I wasn't home and the carrier didn't leave a delivery notice. The good news here is that the regular UPS delivery guy, Dave, frequently delivers stuff I order online, and knows to leave packages at the apartment leasing office before 6PM. The bad news is that this can't possibly be him; the second delivery attempt was around 5:30PM.

So I call UPS and ask item to inform the driver that the package needs to be left at the apartment leasing office before 6PM. The good news is that UPS agrees to do this and text indicating an exception appears in the tracking log. The bad news is that on Wednesday the 16th the package is again not delivered, and again there's no delivery notice. The log indicates that delivery was attempted shortly after 7PM. I was home the entire evening, and my doorbell never rang. So perhaps he tried to deliver it directly to the leasing office as I requested...but after 6PM, which I'd indicated was too late. He certainly never attempted to deliver it directly to me.

I again call UPS to complain, and ask them to make sure the driver knows that the package must be delivered before 6PM, and to the leasing office. I know that the next day I'm definitely not going to be there to get it. The good news is that UPS agrees to inform the driver, and I make sure he can't miss it by taping a note to the outside of my door. The bad news is that of course he does somehow miss it, and again on Thursday the 17th delivery is attempted after 7PM and no notice is left.

I call UPS one more time, and since the log indicates that the package will be held at the local UPS office for pickup, I get the address from the customer service representative and change my Friday plans so I can be at their office before 6PM when they close. The good news is that I'll definitely be able to get the package, finally. The bad news is that I have to rearrange my schedule.

It's a good thing, though, that I check the tracking log one more time Friday afternoon; the good news is that the package was delivered at 1:30PM.

Dave's back!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

My Reviewing System

Well, it's not so much a system as a vague notion of how to proceed. My approach will be somewhat similar to that of the website The Game Chair; I'll be providing partial reviews of games as I play them, along with a summary when I'm done. If I revisit a game later on for a replay and have something to add, I'll post another partial review. If you want a hasty impression based on the reviewer playing through a game as fast as possible to get it written a day or two after game release, then go to one of the regular gaming websites like GameSpot or IGN.

Reviews will be contextual; the original release date of a game and the system it runs on will be considered when evaluating its quality, especially as regards technical aspects; I don't expect a game from 1996 to have the graphics, sound and physics support of a game from 2006. Nor do I expect a PSP game to have the same level of presentation as a PS2 game.

My first review of a game will start with some reference information, such as the release date, game type and publisher. Then I'll make some general comments, and describe the game, including where applicable such elements as story, point of view, play style, goals, target audience, and so on. Next I'll make some evaluative comments and tell what I thought of various aspects. Finally I'll summarize my evaluation and provide detail and summary scores.

Subsequent reviews will describe and evaluate the portion of the game I've played through and provide a summary that covers both the new portion and the game overall so far. The detail and summary scores will cover new newly-played portion, adding an overall score that covers the game so far.

The final review will be like the partial ones, only with a more complete summary section and a final score for the game.

A word about scores: Most reviewers provide scores that more closely resemble the U.S. grammar school grading system than a legitimate numerical rating like 0-100 with 0 being unplayable and 100 being unmissable and 50 being average. Instead, 75 corresponds to a "C" grade and means that a game is average. Anything below a 60 is like an "F" and considered not worth playing.

There have been some exceptions to this, such as the new aggregation site that intends to normalize scores on a curve on a per-site basis, or the site The Game Chair, where each of the four star ratings has a specific meaning, which makes score inflation difficult.

My approach will be a little different. Instead of a numeric score or stars, I'll be explicitly grading games as though they were school projects. Grades will range from A+ to F, omitting E. Like The Game Chair, each grade will have a specific meaning in order to avoid grade inflation.

Another difference is that the summary grades are not averages of the detail grades; instead every grade is given independently, with summary grades reflecting my impression of that general aspect of the game. Also, not every game will be evaluated on the same criteria, and the list of criteria will probably grow with time.

Here's my initial list of grading criteria:
  • Graphics
  • Music
  • Sound
  • Story
  • Voice Acting
  • Overall Presentation
  • Controls
  • Difficulty
  • Frustration
  • Gameplay
  • Learning Curve
  • Length
  • Replay Value
  • UI
  • Overall Playability
  • Awe
  • Awww
  • Cheer
  • Cool
  • Fear
  • Fun
  • Funny
  • Outrage
  • Sadness
  • Scare
  • Shock
  • Suspense
  • Thrill
  • Overall Emotional Impact
  • Overall Grade
  • Purchase Recommendation

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Xbox 360: Game Console Or Paperweight?

Yesterday my Xbox 360 died, quietly and without warning. One moment it was playing a DVD for my cat, and the next it was frozen. Rebooting resulted in a freeze partway through the boot logo, and then the dreaded three red segments flashed around the power button.

I performed all the steps listed in the troubleshooting guide at Microsoft's website. Still I got the red lights, the dread lights, the your-box-is-dead-lights.

I've had the box for six months, so it's no longer covered by the default 90-day warranty. I had had very few problems in that time, and thought I was past any manufacturing defects.

Usually I don't buy extended warranties, because I baby my equipment and manufacturing defects show up in the first day or two of use. So my stuff either fails right away or keeps working until it wears out. So I didn't buy one this time either. Just to make sure, I had left the machine running for an entire weekend shortly after I got it, and had no freezes. So I thought I was safe.

I was wrong. What I failed to consider was that the initial manufacturing runs of a new product are often the most trouble-prone, and not all defects show up in the first few days of use.

Now I'm out the cost of repair, which is double the cost of a two-year service contract. Make that triple since I'm going to buy the contract when I get the machine back.

Moral of the story: Service contracts are usually a waste of money...but not always.

My Life As a Gamer Part 4: Reconstruction

After the Recent Unpleasantness in mid-2003, rebuilding of everything began, including my collection of games and gaming hardware.

With the aid of a new job and steady income, my library passed its former size sometime in 2005. So now it's all about new titles and next-gen systems, old titles that are new to me, completing collections of game series, and my first tentative steps into mutliplayer and online gaming.

And actually finishing some of the games!

I'm still adding to my library, of course, but as I have enough games to play for years, I'm being far more selective. For me to consider acquiring it, a game has to be one that I would be interested in anyway, and pass one of the following four tests:
  • Does it help complete a game series I like and already own one or more from it, such as Prince of Persia or Wing Commander?
  • Does it score 90% or better on
  • Has it been recommended to me by someone I trust for reasons I agree with?
  • Is it a game I need in order to play online or multiplayer with a friend?
Titles I've enjoyed during these years include Silent Hill 3 and 4, the first three titles in the Myst series, Max Payne, Halo, Starlancer, Freelancer, Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider Legend, Starfleet Command III, TIE Fighter, Fury3, Babylon 5 I've Found Her: Danger and Opportunity, Armagetron, Grim Fandango, Final Fantasy VII and X, Painkiller, Frozen Bubble, Bejewelled 2, Black Knight, Golden Sun, Burnout Takedown and Revenge, Burnout Legends, all three Fatal Frames, Wipeout 3 and Pure, Katamari Damacy, Dragon Quest 8, Need for Speed Most Wanted, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Battlestar Galactica, Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, Mercury, Stubbs the Zombie, Half-Life 2, Black, EVE Online, Medal of Honor Frontline, Shadow of the Colossus, Jet Set Radio Future, SSX 3, the Marathon series, Metal Gear Acid, Ridge Racer PSP, Prey, Ninja Gaiden, Nintendogs, Guitar Hero, Forza Motorsport, and Killzone.

Those who say there are no good games out there are deluded; I think the ratio of dreck to worthwhile titles remains about the same (90%/10%), but the volume of titles has increased dramatically in recent years. Clearly, given that the above list isn't complete, I'd say there's plenty out there worth playing.

That brings us to the present, the start of this blog, and the end of this post.

My Life As a Gamer Part 3: After Us, The Deluge

By 1997 Commodore was no more, and it was plain that the Amiga's days were numbered. Additionally, I'd married a PC user who also owned a Playstation, and picked up her old PC when she got a new one. So the Amiga gathered dust while I played X-Wing and Wipeout and Duke Nukem 3D. Real Life concerns ate up my gaming time, and the Amiga moved from the house to the garage and finally to the trash.

Technically this was not a violation of my oath, as by this time the Intel processors had moved to a less-brain-dead architecture, and something close to a real operating system had come from Microsoft (Windows 95). Still, I punished myself by feeling bad about it. Honest!

During this era, which lasted until 2003, I steadily accumulated PC and PS1 titles, and PS2 and Xbox titles after we acquired those platforms.

Memorably enjoyable titles from this era include (in addition to the ones already mentioned): Dark Forces, Jedi Knight, Colony Wars, Rainbow Six, Half-Life, Silent Hill, Wipeout 3, Aliens vs. Predator, Star Trek DS9: The Fallen, Gunman Chronicles, Fear Effect 2, Gran Turismo 3, Ico, Ace Combat 4, Ghost Recon, Jedi Outcast, Star Trek Elite Force, and Silent Hill 2.

In 2003 came Divorce, and among other things washed away in the Deluge was my entire game collection. And that bring us to the last era: Reconstruction.

My Life As a Gamer Part 2: The PC Years

With 1981 came college and the continuation of TRS-80 gaming. It also saw the introduction of the IBM PC, a machine I was utterly uninterested in, for esoteric programming-related reasons. Having dealt with CP/M86, I had sworn an oath never to own a machine primarily based on Intel's brain-damaged segmented architecture. This oath I kept until 1997.

There weren't a lot of games for the TRS-80, but in combination with trips to the arcades there were enough to keep the gaming spark alive through around 1990 or so. Most were ports of arcade games, including surprisingly good (considering the 128x48 resolution graphics) versions of Defender, Galaxian and Pac-Man. There were also occasional original games like the hilarious and fun Outhouse. And there were text adventures from Adventure International and later Infocom.

By 1990 I'd been working for a major IT firm for four years and could afford a new PC (dont beat me up over the ''microcomputer vs. PC" distinction; that battle was lost long ago). I stuck to my oath and bought a Commodore Amiga. It was easy. At the time, the PC wars had not yet been decided, and in every technical respect the Amiga was superior to an Intel-based PC running Windows 3.0. It was also superior in some suspects to a Mac, and was considerably cheaper.

And of course it had better games.

These ranged from the unwieldy ArcticFox, Barbarian, Defender of the Crown, Dungeon Master, Falcon, Jet, Pac-Mania, Red Baron, SDI, Space Quest, and Their Finest Hour: Battle of Britain, to the middling Emerald Mine, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Ferrari Formula One, Great Giana Sisters, Gunship 2000, Knights of the Sky, Outrun, Plutos, Silent Service, and StarGlider 2, to the excellent A-10 Tank Killer, Arkanoids, F-16 Combat Pilot, F/A-18 Interceptor, Fighter Duel Pro, Frontier Elite II, Indianapolis 500, Lemmings, Marble Madness, Star Wars, Super Hang-On, Test Drive 2, Turrican, and Wing Commander.

All this kept me in gaming goodness until 1997. My trips to the arcades dropped off drastically; those shallow coin-eating game designs couldn't compete with the hours of enjoyment in titles like Wing Commander, A-10 Tank Killer, or Frontier Elite II. Nor could the Nintendos or Segas, which I perceived as arcade rip-offs. I was unaware of superior titles like Metroid or Final Fantasy.

Then, in 1997, I got married, and the PC-only phase of my gaming life ended. And the next began: After Us, The Deluge.

Monday, August 07, 2006

My Life As A Gamer Part 1: The Public School Years

My first exposure to videogames was in the early 70s, when as a child I saw a Pong machine in a local store. Once I played, I was hooked. After that, I played whatever I could, whenever I could get a few quarters. Arcades, department stores, supermarkets, bowling alleys, whatever. If there was a game there and I could wheedle some quarters, I was playing.

The Atari 2600, when it came out, interested me. Intensely. But alas, Mom and Dad were of modest means and so I had to make do with a dedicated Tank War videogame. Which I played. Until it wore out.

Upon entering high school, I was presented with the opportunity to write software - first for programmable calculators (including my TI-57), then for the school's leased IBM 1130 "small" computer system, and finally for the TRS-80 and CP/M systems (the latter as a summer and part-time job). So of course I tried my hand at writing computer games.

First were a couple of games for the TI-57:

Pinball: A string of '1's would randomly grow and shrink, and you had to hit a button before it shrank to nothing.

Dogfight: You had to put in a roll and pitch value on each turn, and was told the angles of the target plane in response. If you managed to get the angles under five degrees, you shot the other plane down.

Then there were these games in BASIC for the TRS-80:

Blasteroids: This was a side-scrolling shoot-em-down with your ship at the top, dodging and shooting down at the asteroids that scrolled up from the bottom.

Night of the Living Dead: You're in a minefield full of electric mines - they electrocute rather than explode so they're reusable. You can see the mines. The zombies run straight at you. To win, move so that the zombies step on the mines. Don't get caught or step on a mine yourself.

Escape From Death Star: This was my masterpiece. It's the first game I know of to cover loading time with a cutscene. It began with the Star Wars logo, followed by the title and some forgettable text, scrolling from bottom to top. Then came the cutscene of the Falcon leaving the Death Star's docking bay. Finally was an animation of the ship flying away. When gameplay started, the player was presented with a starfield behind a targeting crosshair. You could rotate the turret up, down, left or right. A T.I.E. fighter would move randomly across the starfield, shooting at you. Sometimes it would hit. When you shot at it, two lasers would come in from the corners of the screen and meet at the crosshair. Shoot down all four TIEs, and win. Get hit five times (25% shield loss on each hit) and lose.

This, my acquisition of a TRS-80 Model III, and the availability of some rather good commercial games for it such as Adventure International's Adventure and subLogic's Flight Simulator took some of the shine off arcade games and consoles (like the 2600 and the Nintendo). That's not to say I quit putting quarters into arcade machines; after all, there was Space Invaders, Galaxian, Galaga, Asteroids, and Donkey Kong, just to name a few. But gameplay on the TRS-80, crude as its graphics and sound were, was good enough to kill my interest in consoles entirely. And this perception that anything a console can do, a PC can do as well or better, continued throughout my adult life until around 1997. So I missed out on the Nintendo and Sega eras.

And that brings us to 1981, graduation from high school, and the next era in this gamer's history: the PC years.


Hello, and welcome to Hans On Video Gaming. This blog is where I will, when the mood strikes me, write about things video-game-related. Expect sporadic updates.