Playing old games

I already have a proper, beefy gamestation which I use to play games the few days a year I spend at home. It’s there for games like Fallout 4, Skyrim and the lot where actual processing power is needed. I also use it for my photo editing, since I ended up accepting that Adobe tools are actually superior (particularly in long-term compatibility support) to anything I could find open-source.

On the other hand, I spend a significant amount of time “on the road”, as they say, travelling for conferences, or meeting my supported development teams, or just trying to get some time for myself, playing Ingress, or whatever else. The guy who was so scared of flying is now clearly a frequent flyer and one that likes seeing confs and cons.

This means that I spend a significant amount of time in a hotel room, without my gamestation and with some will to play games. Particularly when I’m somewhere for work, and so not spending the evenings out with friends — I do that sometimes when I’m out for work too, but not always. I have for a very long while spent the hotel time writing blog posts, but since the blog went down I didn’t (and even now, because of what I chose to use, it’s going to be awkward since it ends up requiring SSH access to post.) After that I spent some of the time by effectively working overtime, writing design docs and figuring out work-related problems; this is not great, not only because it leaves me with a horrible work/life balance, but also because I wouldn’t want to give the impression to my colleagues that this is something we need to do, particularly those who joined after me.

So on my last US trip, back in April, I was thinking of what I could actually play during my stay. Games on mobile and tablet are… not quite satisfying pretty quickly. I used to have a PSP (I didn’t bring it with me), but except for Monster Hunter Freedom, most of the games I’ve played have been JRPGs — I was considering getting myself a PlayStation Vita so that I could play Tales of Heart R but then I thought against it, because seriously, the Vita platform clearly failed a long time ago. I briefly considered the latest iteration of Nintendo’s portable (remember this is before they announced the Switch) but I also thought against it because I simply don’t like their form factor.

I settled on getting myself an Ideapad 100S, a very cheap, Windows laptop, and a random HP bluetooth mouse, total damage, less than €200. This is a very underpowered device if you want to use it for anything at all, including browsing the net, but the reason why I bought it was actually much simpler: it is powerful enough to play games such as Caesar 3, Pharaoh, The Settlers IV and so on. And while I may have taken a not very ethical approach to these back in the days, these games are easily, and legally, available on gog.com.

While they are not ported to Linux, some of them do play on Wine, on the other hand I did not want to spend time trying to get them to work on my Linux laptop because I want to play to relax, not to get even more aggravated when things stopped working. So instead I play them on that otherwise terrible laptop.

I actually did not play on it on my last trip, that included two 12-hours flight between, respectively, Paris and Shanghai, and Tokyo and Paris, but that was because I was visiting China, and I’m trained to be paranoid, but otherwise I have been having quite a bit of luck to play this even in the economy section to play Pharaoh and company. The only game I have not managed to play on it yet is NoX, for whatever reason the screen flickers when I try to start it up. I should just try that one on Wine, I’m fairly sure it works.

I’m actually wondering how many people have been considering reimplementing these games based on the original assets; I know people have over time done that for Dune 22000 and for Total Annihilation, but I have not dared trying to figure out if anyone else tried for other games. It would definitely be interested. I have not played any RTS in a while even though I do have a copy of Age of Empires 2 HD on my gamestation; I only played a couple of deathmatch games online with friends and even that was difficult to organize, what with all of us working, and me almost always being in different timezones.

On a more technical point, the Lenovo laptop is quite interesting. It’s very low specs, but it has some hardware that is rare to find on PCs at all, particularly it comes with an SDIO-based WiFi card. I have not tried even getting Linux to run on it, but if I were bored, I’m sure it would be an interesting set of hardware devices that might or might not work correctly, on that one.

Oh well, that’s a story for another time.

New personal gamestation!

Beside a new devbox that I talked about setting up, now that I no longer pay for the tinderbox I also decided to buy myself a new PC for playing games (so Windows-bound, unfortunately), replacing Yamato that has been serving me well for years at this point.

Given we’ve talked about this at the office as well, I’ll write down the specs over here, with the links to Amazon (where I bought the components), as I know a fair number of people are always interested to know specs. I will probably write down some reviews on Amazon itself as well as on the blog, for the components that can be discussed “standalone”.

  • CPU: Intel i7 5930K, hex-core Haswell-E; it was intended as a good compromise between high performance and price, not only for gaming but also for Adobe Lightroom.
  • Motherboard: Asus X99-S
  • Memory: Crucial Ballistix 32GB (8GBx4) actually this one I ordered from Crucial directly, because the one I originally ordered on Amazon UK was going to ship from Las Vegas, which meant I had to pay customs on it. I am still waiting for that one to be fully cancelled, but then Crucial was able to deliver an order placed on Wednesday at 10pm by Friday, which was pretty good (given that this is a long weekend in Ireland.)
  • Case: Fractal Design Define R5 upon suggestion of two colleagues, one who only saw it in reviews, the other actually having the previous version. It is eerily quiet and very well organized; it would also fit a huge amount of storage if I needed to build a new NAS rather than a desktop PC.
  • CPU cooler: NZXT Kraken X61 I went with water cooling for the CPU because I did not like the size of the copper fins in the other alternatives of suggested coolers for the chosen CPU. Since this is a completely sealed system it didn’t feel too bad. The only shaky part is that the only proper space for this to fit into the case is on the top-front side, and it does require forcing the last insulation panel in a little bit.

Now you probably notices some parts missing; the reason is that I have bought a bunch of components to upgrade Yamato over the past year and a half since being employed also means being able to just scratch your itch for power more easily, especially if you, like me, are single and not planning a future as a stock player. Some of the updates are still pretty good and others are a bit below average now, and barely average when I bought it, but I think it might be worth listing them still.

  • SSD: Samsung 850 EVO and Crucial M550, both 1TB. The reason for having two different ones is because the latter (which was the first of the two) was not available when I decided to get a second one, and the reason to get a second one was because I realized that while keeping pictures on the SSD helped a lot, the rest of the OS was still too slow…
  • GPU: Asus GeForce GTX660 because I needed something good that didn’t cost too much at the time.
  • PSU: be quiet! Dark Power Pro 1200W which I had to replace when I bought the graphics card, as the one I had before didn’t have the right PCI-E power connectors, or rather it had one too few. Given that Yamato is a Dual-Quad Opteron, with registered ECC memory, I needed something that would at least take 1kW; I’m not sure how much it’s consuming right now to be honest.

We’ll see how it fares once I have it fully installed and started playing games on it, I guess.

Game Review: Metal Gear Rising

Okay I know that most of you do not follow my blog with the intention of reading about videogames, but given my Open Source time lately has been limited by me being quite busy with settling down and caring for an apartment, some updates are better than nothing. And since one of the first things that I bought for my apartment was a TV and a (new) PlayStation 3, I got to spend some time with Metal Gear Rising I thought it might be a good idea to write something about it.

First of all I have to apologize to the fans of the whole saga. I only played Metal Gear Solid 4 before, and I didn’t even finish it (my first PS3 died while I was playing it, and I had no backup of the save games — and since this happened quite a bit within the game I didn’t want to play it back from the start afterwards, I might do so now, honestly). I’m also not a big fan of stealth games (I never even completed the demo of Thief, for instance). But I liked MGS4 and I wanted to give a try to MGR simply because I loved the character of Raiden (I like blades, what can I say).

So the gameplay is nice. I love being able to cut almost everything down to pieces, especially when I’m pissed off by the neighbour’s alarm ringing at ten in the night. Or seven in the morning on a bank holiday. I admit I played through in easy mode (I wanted to vent off the stress, not cause more), and thus that might have helped with being able to get away with a basically random kind of attacks. But I liked it, and I liked the fact that it’s not entirely random. I think it might be worth a re-play now that I understand the attacks better (I’m hoping in a new game plus kind of deal).

Graphic is .. well, it’s not like there are any more games that have a bad graphics, but it could be better. It does not feel at the level of Metal Gear Solid 4. It’s also running in 720p, which is surprising for a new game. Although it might have something to do with the fact that the PS3 lacks the memory to run this properly. Oh well, not surprised I’d say, but a bit disappointed.

The soundtrack, oh wow the soundtrack! I’ve loved the soundtrack to the point I had to get it on iTunes. It charges me the same way as DMC4 did.

Unfortunately, maybe because I played in Easy mode, the game is quite too short. Yes there are downloadable chapters, and side “VR” missions, but the former you have to pay for extra, which is just a lowly trick for the publisher, and the latter is not part of the story. One “file” (chapter) consists of … one cut scene and a single batter. That’s not really that nice, in my opinion. As I said I’m going to re-play it with a bit more clue about the attacks, it’s likely going to be more enjoyable. But seriously even in “easy”, two weeks playing on and off were enough to get to the final Metal Gear… I’m not really excited about it.

Kindle Fire and Games

Yes, there goes another post writing about my flashed Kindle Fire. If you’re bored just skip it.

When I had Amazon’s operating system I tried quite a number of games, mostly “Free apps of the day” from Amazon’s appstore, or a few free (ad-supported) games — even though I did buy Rovio’s Amazing Alex as I liked the demo quite a bit. The only game that was really unplayable on the device was Jetpack Joyride (which is free). Even the Google Play version, with CyanogenMod, stutters enough that I don’t want to play it there, while on the other hand it works perfectly fine on my iPad and iPod Touch.

Since I haven’t even tried installing the Amazon App Store after flashing CyanogenMod on the device, I haven’t played Amazing Alex in a long time. On the other hand I played Fieldrunners HD (link goes to Amazon) which I bought on Google Play instead, and played on the Desire HD before. This worked like a perfect charm (and if you like tower defense games, this is a terrific game, and you should give it a try!).

The first games I bought on the newly flashed Kindle Fire were Eve of Genesis and Dark Gate (latter link goes to Google Play), thanks to Caster’s suggestion. These are classic Japanese RPGs, likely re-made from older 8- and 16-bit systems to Android and iOS, exactly what I like for the few moments I spend playing on it. They play quite nicely, even if sometimes they do stutter as well.

But the problem starts with the most recent (at the time of writing) Humble Bundle with Android 5 which I bought in the hope to play Dungeon Defenders on the tablet at least, since my Dell laptop does not play it smoothly on Windows, and my Zenbook has an HD4000 “videocard” and with that card, there’s a bug that was not fixed yet, as far as I can tell. Ryan would know better.

Unfortunately, trying to get Dungeon Defenders to play on that tablet is a bad idea, in particular the moment when you have to load the input method to type your name, it crashes completely. Other games in the bundle are not better. Splice crashes just after loading, for instance, and so did Solar 2. While Crayon Physics works, it will complain if even a single other application is running that it doesn’t have enough memory, and it’s probably correct in that.

Among the games that works, Crayon Physics is definitely worth it — I’m going to try Sword & Sworcery EP and see if that one works as well. Dynamite Jack is not my cup of tea but works great (and it shows that it was well designed and written by the way it was faster to start up that most apps).

Of course these are only some examples, but it shows two main problems: the first is that it really is necessary to put requirements on software, and try to spare as much memory as possible without making the application unusable, if you want to be compatible; the other that if you want to create a gateway app, like Humble Bundle did, you need to make sure you check the requirements before allowing the user to install the games. In this case, the tablet is obviously not supported, as I flashed an experimental, unofficial ROM myself, but I’m pretty sure that most of the Chinese tablets that I’ll find at the local Mediaworld (Italian brand for Mediamarkt) will have even less memory than the Fire.

Oh well, hopefully I’ll soon be able top lay these games on a real gaming PC, be it with Linux or Windows, thanks to Steam, and then it won’t matter that the Fire is not that powerful.

Game style considerations

Warning for the readers of Gentoo Universe, this is a blog post that has nothing to do with technology, and it should rather be categorised as personal ramblings on life and games. Feel free to ignore the post if you don’t care about it. Also, I’m dealing slightly with my political views, please do not troll the comments about it, thanks.

Spoiler alert: not much about what you’ll learn about me, but rather on Fallout: New Vegas of which I’ll describe the ending in a moment. So if you intend to play the game, you should stop reading now, or I might make it not work playing (well, not really, but nevermind).

While I’m nowhere near an hardcore gamer, I’ve played my fair share at one time. I’ve been playing videogames since my childhood, leaving them be about at the time I finished high school, limiting to Pokémon and a couple more; I returned to games after my hospitalisation (which was happening exactly four years ago), when I bought a PlayStation 3 as a way to relieve stress — the suggestion, which came from my best friend, actually worked quite well up to now, even though I’ve still had a couple of near-breakdowns.

While there are all kinds of games, my personal preference in term of genres is probably the role-playing games, both “Western” and “Japanese” styles of those — the distinction of the two being very clear for those who played either of the types; quickly and roughly put one is an open story, the other forces you through a single story, with some optional branches depending on how thorough you were on completing it. Most Western-style role-playing games come with a karma system: you’re “good” or “bad” depending on your actions during the game, and yet you’re not discouraged from playing the games with either choice.

More interesting still is Fallout: New Vegas: when you play the game you’ve got different factions that will treat you differently depending on your actions to them, and to their enemies, separately from the karma system itself. Also, while you have a few parties that are definitely bad, you’ve got a choice of three/four different endings, that depend on who you plead allegiance to (if anybody) during gameplay.

I first noticed how much involved I (and not just I) get with the games’ “lifestyle” choices when I spent a whole evening discussing the best outcome for the game’s world with my above-mentioned best friend, with whom I share not a single view in politics. My view, which might sound strange coming from a primarily leftist, is that the best outcome for the Mojave is if the New Californa Republic faction takes control of the region, since that will give order, and an organized society, to the area, while his choice – even stranger coming from a rightist! – is to liberate the area from controlling sources, leaving it in a state of sorta-anarchism. For those who wonder, I maintained my view underscoring my support for the Followers of the Apocalypse faction as well, to equilibrate the scales.

You can see from what I wrote above that I am actually comparing, and somewhat doubting, my personal political views with my choices in-game. After we spent some time talking about this topic, we noticed how silly it is, from a non-gamer point of view, to do so — well, we realised that with the help of my friend’s fiancée, who’s tired silly of listening to us two talking about Elder Scrolls and Fallout games.

Turns out that this is not the only game having a similar effect on me, the previous instalment of the series, Fallout 3, has a similar effect. Since I’ve played the base game twice, both with good and neutral karma, to get the PlayStation 3 platinum trophy I was just lacking a playthrough with bad karma. I’m having a pretty difficult emotional stint, so I thought that playing the ruthless asshole in-game would help me distract, so I restarted the game, and went out of my way to play bad.

I’m having a hard time.

It’s not just the Fallout 3 way to decide your starting karma that bothered me (letting Amata’s vulnerability be used against her), it’s the whole lifestyle of the bad person in-game. Ouch. So many innocents to kill, so little good to be done to them. It hurts me to play this way, it’s like being trapped in Tranquillity Lane for the whole time — if you played the game, you know what I mean!

But that’s not what most concerns me: modern games are quite immersive, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that they stimulate my personal, ethical behaviour. I consider myself a good person, after all. Of course it shows a bit more of my wished politics choices, since I could find in New Vegas a combination that, in my opinion, works better than any one party in Italy, in the NCR and FoA combined. I guess I’m a socialist with a strong sense of authority, which is not exactly the kind of leftist we’re used to here.

At any rate, what concerned me is comparing this situation with the kind of gamestyle I used to have when I was younger. Back in the days I played on a (pirate) shard of Ultima OnLine (well, I mastered, actually), and my player was always either neutral (as in, follow-whoever-does-me-good neutral), or a variation of “negative order”, possibly “legal evil”, but not quite. And in other games, I have had my satisfying destruction, without any order or legality before…

Am I growing old? Has my gamestyle changed so much because I started considering my own responsibilities? I’m wondering this, not just for the games, but also because lately I found myself considering what I should be doing, if I’m supposed to find a way to live more wildly, or if, at twenty-six, I should rather look at solidifying my own status. The fact I can’t even enjoy playing with bad karma, is making me wonder if I’m already changing more that I could tell before.

Oh well.

How Sony gets even more of my money

As I said before, I’m a very pragmatic person when it comes to software and hardware, as they are just tools. While I can understand ethics, I find there are a number of much more important things to fight for the higher ground in (politics, environment, and even more of those, health care). In particular, when it comes to videogames, I’m very much just looking for the entertainment value. So I really don’t care whether a game is free software or not.

*If you disagree with that and find me a bad person for actually playing any proprietary game, you’re free to stop reading this entry, or even my blog entirely, now.*

Sometimes this is for the greater good anyway, given that id Software at least used to release the engine of their older games to the public, and you can actually learn from that and create something new. How many games are there, based on the Quake 3 engine that was opened up?

But at any rate, this said I think that it’s interesting to look at the strategies that proprietary software developers use to get money, as some of those can be used in the Free Software world to find the funds to work on new projects. And this includes to some point proprietary games developers.

This said, I have already written about Hustle Kings which I positively adored. a pool game, much more complex than foobillard for what it’s worth (not that I’ve been able to play any foobillard since a very long time ago, it doesn’t seem to work that well on an r700 with KMS and Compiz, let alone the older r300 I was using). It’s a pretty inexpensive game by itself, and they provided “crazy tables” expansions for free, and then a (even cheaper) snooker table extension — and I adore snooker.

Also, just like I’m quite happy to buy hardware from Free Software-friendly producers, and subsidize projects I’m relying upon and I cannot help with technique, I’m quite fine with paying for games if that means the studios that made them can make better, nicer games for me to play and be entertained.

At the same time, I don’t think that trying to spill my money with “premium content” such as avatars and themes is something that works out at all; this is done, though, by both Sony and Microsoft with their consoles. But there are people paying for that stuff, and if it works for them.. it’s just like people paying for novelty ringtones… and if somebody feels like I’m quoting some witty British author whose unfortunate departure a few years ago is still hurting us… well, it’s the case.

Anyway, last July, Sony started a subscription model for their PlayStation Network, called PlayStation Plus. While it is priced not too lower than the Microsoft subscription for XBox Live Gold, it feels less oppressive: anything that you could do before is still free, it just adds discounts, some premium content, one feature or two but more importantly, they feed you four free games each months, divided into a standard game for the PS3, one first PlayStation game, and two minis that can be played both on PS3 and PSP.

I subscripted to the option (I’m not subscribed to XBox Live), and actually I find it not too bad an idea. And it shows that they are not just dumping a whole lot of stuff on users this way; first of all, by subscribing in the first two months of offering, they added one extra bonus: Little Big Planet. The game, which I won’t go much in the details of, is still selling for whole price in Italy (€60), so it’s not a bad gift, with a one-year subscription priced at €50. But even so it’s a game that is just a start for them, as it has a huge number of “premium” download content in form of costumes for your character (slightly more decent offering than avatars, I’d say), and level creation kits. And new levels altogether!

With the basic offering for July, they also gave out a definitely-nice Wipeout HD, which I have to say, I loved, as it reminds me of the Podracer game I played as a demo sooo many times when I was a boy. What is important of this is that while the game does not have multiple download content as LBP has, it got an expansion already available in the store… and even more cleverly, they made available the extension (Wipeout HD Fury) with a discount for PlayStation Plus subscribers in August. I’m quite sure a lot of people will be getting that if they didn’t do so before already.

And this month’s main game is instead Zen Pinball. Now I got to say I was very happy with this choice, because I’m a closeted virtual pinball player. I used to play a lot of pinball games when I was younger, one I had as a MS-DOS game, at the time when copying or passing a game was just a matter of calling DISKCOPY (in all-caps obviously, since it was DOS), and another demo I played for a veeery long time (if you couldn’t tell, i wasn’t buying so many games when I was actually playing them as a kid and boy, under Windows), was Balls of Steel … so Zen Pinball actually interested me for a while; I ever came close to buying it at some point, but dropped out of the idea, and thus I’m quite happy for their choice.

What has this in common with the other choices, though? Well there are a series of extra tables, with different, themed features, available to download for a price small enough to be interesting. So even here, even by giving away the basic game, they are making money in distributing the extra download content.

It is interesting how even Sony is moving toward a free(ish)-platform, paid-content idea, and that is not altogether a bad thing. The problem is, can we provide any similar strategy in Free Software without compromising? If so, how?

Sometimes it’s really just about what’s shinier

Recently, I bought an Xbox 360 (Elite) unit, to replace my now-dead PlayStation 3 (yes I’ll replace that as well, but for now this option was cheaper, and I can borrow a few games from a friend of mine this way). Please don’t start with the whole “Micro$soft” crap, and learn to attack your adversary on proper (technical) ground rather than with slurs and similar.

Besides, I can’t see any reason why any of the three current-generation consoles is better than any other for what concerns Free Software ideals: sure they do use some open source software in their products (PS3, PSP and Sony Bravia TVs) but as far as I can see they don’t give much back in term of new software, nor they seem to support Free Software that could somewhat work with their hardware (like a proper Free DLNA implementation, that would be something very welcome by PS3 and Bravia users). Even the one thing that PS3 had that the others lacked – support for installing Linux using PPC64 and the Cell Broadband Engine to develop for IBM’s new platform – was dropped out of the new “Slim” model.

I also have to say now that even when I’m taking time off I end up thinking about the technical details, to the point that my friends do dislike me a bit when I start decomposing the way things are implemented in games; probably just as much as I disliked my friend the amateur director when he decomposed the films we see together — on the other hand, after helping him out with his own production, I’m much more resilient to that and I actually started to take a liking to watch the special content of DVDs and BluRays where they do the same. So with this in mind, I did make some consideration about the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, and how they fare in comparison, from what I can tell in my point of view.

For some reasons, I always have seen the Xbox having a worse graphic engine than the PlayStation 3; this was somewhat supported by my friend who owns one because he had it hooked up to an old, standard definition CRT, rather than to a modern Hihh Definition LCD, like I had the PlayStation 3 set up. With this in mind, I definitely thought of the Xbox as a “lower” console; on the other hand I soon noticed, after connecting it to my system, that it fares pretty well in comparison during game play (I’m saying this looking at Star Ocean The Last Hope — gotta love second hand games stores!), so what might have brought this (at least here) common mistake about Xbox’s graphics being worse?

  • the original Xbox models, especially the Arcade entry-level one, lacked HDMI support; while even the PlayStation 3 ships with just the worse cable possible (video composite), it has at least out-of-the-box support for standard HDMI cable which are both cheap and easy to find;
  • the only two cables supporting High Definition resolutions for the original models are VGA and video component cables; the former is unlikely to be supported by lower-end HD LCDs – like the one my friend bought a few months ago – and also depends on having a proper optical audio input port to feed the sound; the latter is difficult to find as only one store out of ten that sell games and consoles in my area had some available;
  • since a lot of people bought the entry-level version to spend as little as possible, it’s very likely that a lot of them didn’t want to spend an extra 30 euro to get the cable, by the way, which means lots of them still play in standard definition;
  • even those who spent money to get the cable, might not get the best graphics available; I got the cable for my friend as Xmas gift (note: I’m using the name Xmas just to note that it is mostly a convention for me, being an atheist – and my friend as well – I don’t care much), and he was enthusiast about the improvement; it was just a couple of weeks later that I found he didn’t configure the console to output in Full HD resolution through the component cable;
  • the Dashboard menu is not in HD quality; it might sound petty to note that, but it does strike as odd to have these heavily aliased fonts, and blurry icons on top of an HD-quality game render – such as the above-noted Star Ocean, or Fable 2 – especially when it happens for a trophy an achievement reached;
  • cutscenes are the killers! While the renders are pretty much on par, if not better than the PlaStation 3, the pre-rendered full-motion videos are a different story: Sony can make use of the huge storage provided by the 50GB BluRay discs, while Microsoft has to live with 4GB DVDs; this does not only mean that you end up with 3-disc games, like Star Ocean, that need to get fully installed on the hard drive (which is, by the way, optional for the entry-level system), but also that they cannot just put minutes over minutes of HD FMVs, and end up compressing them; the opening sequence of Star Ocean shows this pretty well: the DVD-quality video is duly noted, especially when compared with the rest of the awesome game renderings; luckily, the in-game cutscenes are rendered instead.

So why am I caring about noting these petty facts? Well, there is one lesson to be learned in that as well; Microsoft’s choices about the system impacted on its general reputation: not providing HDMI support, requiring many extra additional accessory over the basic system (high definition cable; hard drive), and not supporting standard upgrades (you need Xbox-specific storage to back-up and copy saves around, and you cannot increase the system’s storage, while Sony allows you to use USB mass storage devices for copy – and backup – operations, as well as having user-serviceable hard drives). A system that might have been, on many areas, better is actually considered lower-end by many, many people.

No matter how many technical reasons you have to win, you might still fail if you don’t consider what people will say about your system! And that includes the people who won’t be bothered to learn manuals, instructions, and documentation. This is one thing that Linux developers, and advocates, need to learn pretty well from others, before being crushed by learning that the hard way.

And as a final note, I got the Xbox for many reasons, among which, as I stated above, was the chance to borrow some games from a friend rather than outright buying them; on the whole experience, though, I think I still like the PS3 better. It’s more expensive, and sometimes it glitches badly in graphics and physics (Fallout 3, anybody?), but there are many reasons for which it’s better. The Xbox is much more noisy – even when installing the games to hard drive – to begin with, and then the PlayStation 3 plays BluRay, does not need line-of-sight for the remote control, does not require special cables to charge the wireless controllers. I think the system is generally better, although Xbox got more flak than it should, at least from the people I know around here, for the above-noted problems.

Mini musings

Again for those who don’t care about me writing about proprietary anything (games, cellphones, dishwashers, microwaves, clocks, radios, …) you can just skip over this post.

I’ve already slightly ranted about Sony’s Minis initiative as they have some silly business practises in my opinion, tied to a very good idea. The minis are simply “smaller” (in term of space logical space used) games, initially releases for Sony’s handheld (PSP) and, since last December, playable on the PlayStation 3 through software emulation.

The idea was pretty interesting: games that occupy less than 100MB in size can be store aplenty on a MemoryStick card (or on the failure debatable PSP Go), and they are generally better suited for idly situations, like a four hours train travel (that I’m expecting next month) or waiting at the doctor’s office. The pricing, around or even less than €5 is also not too bad, especially for those games as they don’t have “story”, and are rather pastimes, that aren’t just discarded once completed. Adding the option of playing them on the PS3, while not a kind of tipping point, is also a decent additions (a little more for your money).

What is the problem then? Well, as I said in my older post, even though the 3.15 firmware update for PlayStation3 (recently made a mandatory update, rather than an optional one) added the minis emulator, Sony has not forced the publisher to publish minis to work on both systems, so the number of minis playable on the PlayStation 3 is still much lower than that of those available for the PSP. Not a huge problem by itself, to be honest, as running them on the PS3 is definitely just “a nice extra” but it shows the way Sony always lack the strength of a common environment for their games (some are published in 5-languages-in-1 discs, other are published region-coded, some are distributed through both PSN and physically via UMD, others only through UMD, and so on).

But beside these problems with Sony’s corporate strategy, that might well be much more complex than I can think of at all, there are some interesting technicalities around the minis. The most obvious one, apparent to anybody who played a couple of them, with or without technical skills to appreciate it, is that the “quality” (in sense of polish used on the game) is varying widely. Tetris (released as a PSP-only mini, for the first time on PSP, as they even state in the store description) is definitely very well polished: no rough edges anywhere, fast, with good music, and altogether well calibrated. The mahjong solitaire one (I forgot the full name) already sounds a little rougher: while it doesn’t have blatant bugs, there are times where reaching a given tile is very difficult as the cursor jumps around it; but even more importantly, you can see the framerate drop drastically (which should be a rare event on a console, as they have stable resource limits) when playing endless mode. And a similar slow-down happens on another mini, Bubble Trubble (which has nothing to do with Puzzle Bubble but sounds a lot more like Puyo Puyo meets a lot of soap), which is even rougher: while the gameplay look quite interesting, and the physics involved is definitely not too trivial, the menus look like something coming out of Commodore 64 (or SNES) era.

In particular, the two slow-downs seem to disappear on the PS3; while you could argue that the sheer power of the PS3 is a few times higher than that of the PSP, the idea is that they are currently emulated on the PS3, and most emulators, even on much more powerful system have problems of slowing down, rather than going too fast, especially because it’s usually trivial to limit the speed at which the code is executed. So: the minis are either bugged (or designed) without caring of the performance limit of the PSP, and Sony’s emulator on the PS3 does not cap its speed to the equivalent speed of the PSP.

This doesn’t really bring us any news, but mark my: that if Sony brings up a new device to run the minis, I wouldn’t be surprised. Given they are now trying to extend their PlayStation Network outside of the boundaries of PS3 and PSP, it sounds quite plausible to me. Or it might be another software to play them on the PC. Who knows, but it still is something interesting to look at.

The real hustler: DLC

Today I’m not going to write my usual rant or generic post about arguments tied to Free Software but rather a commentary about modern content, in this particular case, games. If you don’t care, or if you feel like I’m a cancer to the Free Software movement because I do play proprietary games, then you’re free to not read this post at all. Thanks.

There is one thing I love about the “cheap” (less than €10) games that are available on “PlayStation Network” (Sony’s digital content delivery platform — or to use less buzzwords, their online store): they often are multiplayer, either via network or locally. This is something I find quite important because of two tied reasons: most of the games you buy on BluRay for PlayStation 3 are single-player, or only allow network multiplayer, but at the same time I often have friends home to play with. Of course there are notable exceptions like Street Fighter IV and Naruto (to name two I have) but even these only stop at two-players modes, while games like Worms and Bomberman Ultra (both available on PSN for less than €10) can be played with three and more people.

Following this idea, yesterday I bought Hustler Kings, a pool game for the PS3, something that, with a friend of mine, we were waiting for a long time. I like pool, both the real thing and the videogames, so I felt like it was a nice €8 to spend on that (it’s still less than a single session at a pool place around here). The game itself is pretty cool, both for what concerns the pure graphic aspect (very shiny), and the local gameplay, the AI is not too stupid and not too perfect in the non-Hard modes — something that cannot be said of Bomberman Ultra.

While the game provides different modes of play, beside the usual 8-ball pool game (9-ball , English black-ball , and cut-throat ) it still lacks snooker which I got addicted with FooBillard. And for those wondering, I couldn’t get FooBillard to work any good in the last years, both with and without compiz. Given that it seems to be dead upstream that really makes me sad.

What I haven’t had the guts of trying yet is the online play. While, obviously, all games provide a “online game experience may vary”, this game does not really have much of a network-bound problem as it’s mainly turn based, so I guess the gameplay itself wouldn’t change much. But rather than the usual methods of network play, the developers of Hustler Kings tried to go one step further – thus the name – and I quite like the idea: you play for (fictitious) money with other players, investing from the balance you can earn in local play as well. Might not sound that much new but they also seem to have added two extra quirks that I hadn’t found on other games before.

The first quirk takes form of a special “trophy” for the PlayStation 3: you can only earn it by beating another player that has it, with the developers of the game being the only people starting with the trophy on them. This makes the whole competition interesting for the “completitionists” out there.

The second quirk actually made me a bit angry for the moment, but then I thought it was actually a very interesting way of playing it out: special chalk to make complex shots easier is available on the store… not with the virtual money, but with actual money: €0.25 a piece (at least for two out of three versions, the last is a combination of the other two so I guess it’d be priced slightly higher). While they might sound pretty useless for playing locally, or for those who play over the network with friends, they are most likely the required edge that allows entering the online hall of fame.

Now it’s interesting to see the way different developers (and thus different games) consider the so-called DLC (Downloadable Content): some make it the very basis of the game (LittleBig Planet, the various Rock Band and company), others provide expansions (Fallout 3 , Brütal Legend ). I don’t think I have seen anything as interesting as the Hustler Kings method up to now though. The price of the single DLC (the chalk) is very small (even though the PlayStation Store will impose a €5 minimum fund), and it’s neither strictly needed to play nor essential to face other players that have it. And it’s not a one-time expense (like music tracks or costumes).

Changing console is not as easy as C-M-F2

I never have been an extreme player; sure I did play quite a bit when I was young, but I always resisted to buy most games for PC and never got a console until last year. I did get an handheld to play Pokémon two years ago which started my actual “game career”, then I got the PS3 last year and the PSP last Christmas.

Now, I’m still playing with the PS3, I got a few games I haven finished yet, and I really enjoy them; on the other hand I noticed that a lot of games that I’d like, like Lost Odyssey that Mark suggested me, are only available for the XBox 360… didn’t seem to be that way when I got the PS3 (which, to be honest, I originally got to watch BluRays).

So now I’m sticking with the PS3, the few games that I have and waiting to see if something new come out; I do have UT3 and I love that, but I don’t have a table in my room to play with keyboard and mouse (and I can’t play it with the controller, I tried but I cannot!), not yet at least (I need to go searching for one at Ikea). And of course I’m waiting for the Monster Hunter Freedom Unite release for PSP.

All in all seems like you Gentoo users were lucky; if I had an XBox 360 I’d be playing all day long instead of working on Gentoo… and I’m not going to get another console, given I don’t have the money to.