Dirge of Cerberus: Review

Written by rob on August 28, 2006 – 12:08 pm -

Yesterday I beat Dirge of Cerberus for Playstation 2, the recent Final Fantasy VII spin-off that hopes to use the success of the Final Fantasy VII movie, Advent Children, to make profit. My final play clock was 6:45, so that right there should tell you that this is no normal Final Fantasy game. And let me get that out of the way right now: this game is very far from anything you are used to from the Final Fantasy world.

The game starts off with some cut scenes, like most Final Fantasy games. It is a mix of the regular in game cut scenes and the FMV sequences. The former are surprisingly attractive, considering the age of the PS2’s graphic hardware. The latter, on the other hand, are absolutely stunning, and on par with the Advent Children movie. In fact, the three-dimensional models from the movie for the various characters are used in the FMV sequences, so those who buy the game as a supplement for the movie will feel right at home. That being said, this game’s story has very little to do with the main Final Fantasy VII story or the Advent Children movie, instead creating a completely new threat to the world.

That threat comes in the form of a group of soldiers called DEEPGROUND. Through the cinematic and lengthy in game scenes, you learn about the origins of this enemy and also what they hope to accomplish. I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say that the world will be destroyed if someone doesn’t stop them. That is where the protagonist of the game, Vincent Valentine, comes in. Vincent, who was only a secret unlockable character in the original Final Fantasy VII game, is the focal point of this game. Through his eyes, you learn about the threats of DEEPGROUND, but also of his past. When you find Vincent in the original game, he is in a cave and very little explanation is given on who he is or where he came from. This game aims to solve that, and it succeeds.

By filling in a background story for Vincent at the same time the DEEPGROUND plot is unfolding, you essentially have two very different stories running parallel to each other. Inevitably the two merge into one, but for almost all of the game you are left to decipher these two different plots. The cinematic sequences, as previously mentioned, can get rather long. There are some that are easily ten minutes long, and just throw tons of details at you. While the story isn’t particularly deep, the first half of the game leaves you with many unanswered questions and you will hardly have any clue as to what is going on. The game doesn’t bother to let you figure anything out on your own, however, as the scenes in the later parts of the game will answer everything for you. And keep in mind that when I differentiate between the “early” and “later” parts of the game, there is really only about a two-hour difference. A dedicated gamer could definitely finish this game in one sitting, but given that there is a definite break (the Airship chapter), it is recommended that you take it in at least two.

Overall, I found the story intriguing. The parts of Vincent’s past have interesting moments that introduce moral dilemmas as well as a profound sense of romance. Similarly, the DEEPGROUND plot line explores more horrors of the Shinra Corporation, which naturally introduces moral aspects. It seems the game attempted to work that into the gameplay in some of the earlier chapters, where Vincent has the choice to save civilians from the DEEPGROUND soldiers. However, the presentation is off, and you never feel any consequences for not saving them, other than receiving less gil at the end of a mission. I’m not sure if there are alternate endings, but it didn’t seem like anything I did had an affect on the end of the game. That being said, the main plot line also revisits the concepts of the Lifestream inside the planet. I don’t know about you, but this was one of the most appealing things in the plot of the original Final Fantasy VII for me. I found it an interesting explanation on the cosmos and life and death, and Dirge of Cerberus only adds to the mythos. It is this diversity in the plot that really makes it stand out. The fact that there are essentially two separate plots going on at the same time, each with their own key characteristics, keeps everything fresh.

The ending, to me, was sub par by Final Fantasy standards. I know this is not an RPG, but the game contained enough story to make it feel like it had a true Final Fantasy story, albeit a shorter and less complex one. Still, as epic as the whole “the world is going end” thing was, the ending just didn’t do it for me. Usually when I complete a Final Fantasy game, the ending blows me away and I just sit there, watching the credits, contemplating the awesomeness of what I just saw. With Dirge of Cerberus, the ending feel cliché, but also just felt too stylistic for its own good. The movie sequences used to portray the ending were nice, but there wasn’t any one-liner at the end that wrapped everything up. The feeling is similar to watching a movie’s ending and realizing that they neglected to wrap things up to make room for a potential sequel. I doubt Dirge of Cerberus will spawn a sequel, but it still feels like there is just this lack of closure. Still, the story was fresh and interesting, and definitely warrants the Final Fantasy name.

Characters in this game are a lot less consistent than the story. There are excellent fleshed-out characters like Vincent himself, who has this profound back-story and seems to grow as a person throughout the game, but then there are some empty characters, particularly the bosses. The DEEPGROUND soldiers have an elite group inside them called the Tsviets. These are essentially the bosses that you will fight in the game (occasionally you fight a mechanical soldier or helicopter gunship, but the Tsviets are your primary bosses). They each have names and cool abilities, but they just seem to be “there”. You never learn about their stories, and their actions are never explained. The result is that you the boss fights don’t seem like anything at all, just a stronger version of a regular enemy. It is like you are disposing of nameless, faceless enemies on your way to the end of the game. In contrast, the original Final Fantasy VII and all other Final Fantasy RPGs, have these archrivals that are completely unique. We all know Sephiroth all too well, and his story was aptly explained during the Final Fantasy VII game. There is no such thing in Dirge of Cerberus.

Vincent also has various allies. Yuffie and Cait Sith from the original game make appearances, but aren’t explained all that well, nor are they focused on. The Reeve character, who is the mastermind behind the resistance group that Vincent fights for (the WRO), seems somewhere in between the empty shells of the bosses and the well-thought-out characters like Vincent. He has some moments that show that he is more than a character on a screen, and also delivers intelligent dialogue (in contrast to characters like Yuffie who seem to babble mindlessly). One character that stands out, however, is Shelke, a young girl who grows exponentially throughout the game. Without spoiling anything, I will just say she has a lot of things to work out with her sister, Shalua. Shelke starts as an empty shell, but then becomes filled in as the game goes on. The subplot involving her and her sister, which eventually intermingles with the overall plot of the game, has strong hints of gaining identity and other deep philosophical ideas. Shelke is personally my favorite character because, as the game goes on, she seems to become human, slowly but surely. She, with Vincent, is an example of how characters are meant to be done, and reminds you that the people behind this game are indeed very talented.

I don’t want to make it sound like Square Enix screwed up with the boss characters and some of the others. After all, this game is hardly trying to equal the original Final Fantasy VII (that would be quite a task). Still, with such a talented crew behind this game, having such empty and seemingly worthless enemies damages the immersiveness of the game. What happens is that you start to feel like you are fighting an idea more than a particular person or organization. The game can throw words like Tsviets and DEEPGROUND around all it wants, but what it all comes down to is that you’re saving the planet, and will kill anything that stands in your way. The few excellent characters in the game save it from what would be certain failure, and you as the player will not feel completely surrounded by lifeless beings. It is just that this game could have been so much more epic and could have felt so much more real, if only the enemies were more clearly defined, and some of the characters were explained better.

The gameplay itself is what sets Dirge of Cerberus apart from its other Final Fantasy siblings. It is not an RPG at all, but rather a shooter, or at least that is what Square will have you think. The game controls much like a console shooter, with the right analog stick aiming a crosshair and the R1 button shooting. That is essentially what it boils down to, as the levels are very linear. All you do is point and shoot, and occasionally check your map to see if you are heading toward the orange dot that signifies the location you should go towards to advance the game. As you move through the various maps in each chapter, you discover missions. For example, the first chapter of the game will have you save civilians. You can ignore the mission and simply proceed to the orange dot, but simply by killing everything in your path you usually complete about 50% of the mission, even if you don’t try to. Not completing the other half of the mission doesn’t really penalize you at all, save for giving you less gil at the end of the level. I confess that I didn’t really take these missions seriously… if you failed most missions, the game was not over, and so there was no real incentive to complete them. This sort of takes away from the validity of the missions at all, making them seem like an irrelevant diversion from the normal procedure of killing everything you see.

Aside from the worthlessness of the missions, I found the game to be pretty fun. The shooting and general gameplay kept fresh, as you constantly are faced with new enemies. Vincent has three different guns: a machine gun, a handgun, and a rifle. I used the handgun for the entire game, and only switched to the rifle when required (some enemy snipers were too far away to kill with the hand gun) and to the machine gun for boss battles. You have to pay to upgrade your weapons, so if you choose one or two weapons to focus on, you will be able to put all your money into them. I had the handgun and all its accessories maxed out just after the halfway point, while my machine gun and rifle were still near their original stats. That being said, the game does offer a fairly in-depth customization system for the weapons. You can change the barrel to long, for accuracy, or short, for quicker firing rate. You can also add various add-on accessories that boost Vincent’s stats or make the weapon stronger. Also, you can add materia. By drawing energy from Mako spots around the map, you gain MP. When aiming at an enemy, pressing the L1 button as opposed to the normal R1 to fire will activate the materia. This launches a powerful magical attack at the enemy. It is effective in boss fights and also to clear large groups of enemies (for example, the fire materia makes an explosion that damages many enemies at once), but becomes much more powerful later in the game when there are enemies that block normal gunfire. The customization takes away from the monotony of simply shooting everything, and really does become pretty fun trying to make a cool new feel for your same old weapon.

The levels themselves, as mentioned above, are linear. I found myself backtracking maybe once or twice. Simply put, if you look at the map often, you will never get lost. In one sewer level you had to press two buttons to open a gate, but aside from that you are essentially just moving forward and killing whatever you see. The problem I had with this is that Vincent can double-jump and also crouch. You almost never have to use these abilities of his, especially not the duck (which I didn’t even know was an option until in one of the last levels I had to duck under a pipe to proceed). The worse part about the jumping is that it doesn’t work as expected. You cannot jump anywhere, and there are these invisible walls everywhere that hinder even simple jumping. The end result is that you jump primarily in boss fights to avoid being hit by their fire, but other than that it is largely unused. I would have much preferred if the game had a more platforming feel to it, where you were forced to use some of the jumping to go places. Many third-person shooters have these types of things, like, for example, Tomb Raider. Even Half-Life 2, a first person shooter, has portions where you have to jump from platform to platform. Especially since Vincent is jumping all over the place and doing fancy acrobatics in the cut scenes, I think it would have added a different dimension to the game to have something to do other than run and gun. Aside from this issue, and the linear layout of the levels, the maps are still cool. It is always fun to visit old places that will be familiar to players of the original game, such as the Midgar train graveyard and the Shinra Mansion.

The gameplay is, in simplest terms, fun. However, the missions don’t seem to be very rewarding, the levels are linear, and all you do is run and gun. By the final levels of the game, you start to be glad that this is a short game. One of the biggest problems with this game, beyond all the “minor” problems discussed above, is the pacing of the gameplay. At the beginning and end of each chapter there are cut scenes to give you more of the story… that is to be expected, and even welcomed, by any fan of shooters or RPGs. However, during each chapter, there are also cut scenes. I know in RPGs this happens all the time, but keep in mind that this is NOT an RPG. Dirge of Cerberus is a shooter, but sometimes it seems that Square Enix forgot that. For example, the “save the civilians” mission I keep talking about shows a cut scene every time you actually save a civilian. A cut scene, meaning it cuts from the gameplay. The screen literally fades to black, there is a few seconds of loading, and a fifteen second scene of the civilians thanking Vincent is shown, the screen fades back to black, more loading, then you’re back to the game. The loading isn’t the problem, but rather the face that there is even a cut scene at all in a situation like that. If you are familiar with shooters like Half-Life or Call of Duty, you will know that occurrences like these are not handles by cut scenes, but merely just happen. When a game, especially a fast-paced game like a shooter, interrupts the gameplay just to make someone say “Thank you”, it takes away from the immersiveness completely. In Call of Duty, for example, going up to civilians you save will trigger an in-game event that will have the civilians thank you and run off to safety. The key is that there is no cut scene. Dirge of Cerberus’s tendency to break up the gameplay like that really makes things feel disjointed. What it all eventually feels like is that Square was confused as to what kind of game they were making. At times, when you are gunning away at dozens of enemies in some of the later levels, it definitely feels like a shooter. It is fast-paced and you are running, gunning, and jumping behind cover like crazy. But when you get interrupted and are forced to watch a fifteen second scene in the middle of saving the town of Kalm, it feels like an RPG. The developers really should have made up their mind and focused on making a shooting game.

Aside from the major issue of pacing, there is a similar issue in the voice-overs. I have no idea if this was a conscious design decision by the voice actors or whoever, but much of the dialogue seems just as disjointed as the gameplay. For example, on the air ship, Shelke will say something to the effect of “This feeling. Is this what you meant by doing something for someone you care about?” The way the voice actor says it, it comes out as follows: “This feeling… Is this what you meant…. By doing something… for someone you care about?” This may not illustrate the point well, but keep in mind that you will undoubtedly notice it. The scenes from Vincent’s past seem to be pretty good, but many of the scenes in his present have this issue. Again, I don’t know if there is a reason for the pauses, maybe to emphasize certain points, but even common phrases are split up. It isn’t a huge issue, but takes away from the seriousness of the dialogue, and sometimes completely ruins the mood. “We must… save… her!”

One last thing I would like to briefly mention is the music. I found it very cool, and followed Advent Children’s lead in combining metal riffs with techno beats, and throwing in some classic Final Fantasy goodness. I do, however, have some qualms. The music, for the most part, is well placed. However, during the boss battles there isn’t much of anything. If there was, it was very low and unnoticeable. I don’t know about you, but I love to hear some of those techno beats while fighting a boss, especially in a shooting game like this where you aren’t merely ordering the players what to do. Shadow Hearts, for example, is excellent in this respect… they have the coolest boss battle music I’ve ever heard, and it truly sets the mood. Again, I know Square Enix wasn’t trying to make this into an RPG, but if you are going to have good music, at least try to use it in scenes where it will be effective. All in all, though, the music was well placed, save for the boss battles. A final issue I had is that the theme song didn’t seem nearly epic enough for the game, and when it plays during the final credits you don’t really feel that sense of accomplishment inside. Maybe this was more attributed to the fact that the ending was weak, but I felt that maybe a stronger song would have elevated the game’s ending to the higher level where it should have been. I just love to get that feeling after I finish a game that something was accomplished, and I as the gamer had something to do with it. Dirge of Cerberus does not do this.

In conclusion, Dirge of Cerberus is a great game. Most of the problems come when you compare it to the previous released from Square. Final Fantasy VII, the original game, clearly redefined role-playing games as we know it, and still acts as a benchmark for other RPG developers. Dirge of Cerberus, however, is simply a good game… it will not turn heads, and certainly won’t give you the sense that your life was meaningless before you played it. It has its issues, primarily with empty enemy characters and disjointed gameplay.

I think all of this is attributed to the fact that Square Enix is used to making role-playing games. When creating a shooter, they stuck with what they knew sometimes, but threw it out at others. I wouldn’t mind a disjointed shooter if all the characters were fleshed out and interesting. Likewise, I wouldn’t mind a super fast-paced run and gun shooter with some platforming aspects that had a cast of empty characters. It seems that Square couldn’t pick sides… they wanted a shooter, but at the same time they wanted an RPG. The problem is that they weren’t consistent and didn’t deliver on either side, and it leaves the game, in its current state, in shambles. I hate to make it sound so horrific, because this game really does entertain and it was a fun seven hours for me. It just lacks the qualities to make it a game that you keep going back to and enjoy for years to come. To top it all off, the ending, which I think can be a redeeming quality in any decent game, was sub par and failed to wrap everything up in a nice package.

The Bottom Line: Dirge of Cerberus is a short, yet entertaining shooter. However, hardcore shooter fans will be disappointed by the disjointed gameplay. Likewise, hardcore RPG fans will be disappointed by some of the weak characters. The story really is amazing and I think the game most definitely deserves a play through by anyone who is mildly amused by the Final Fantasy VII universe. Just don’t expect to want to replay the game a couple times, and definitely don’t expect the same quality that Square Enix is known for. I rented this game, and I recommend you do the same thing. This game certainly isn’t worth a purchase, as there is no reason you would want to play through it again.

OVERALL: 7.5 / 10

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MMO Gaming: The Present and Future

Written by rob on July 22, 2006 – 12:07 am -

Any semi-serious gamer nowadays has either heard of or played some form of MMOG (Massively-Multiplayer Online Game), usually in the form of an RPG (Role-playing game). World of Warcraft (WOW), Guild Wars (GW), and Everquest 2 (EQ2) are three of the MMORPGs that have taken America, and the whole world, by storm.

Combining addictive gameplay features with tons of collectable items and obtainable levels, these games practically never end. They also receive patches every now and then, of various scopes. Some simple patches address equality within the game world (like, say, a particular race/class combo can get an ability too early, and thus has an advantage, or maybe some ability is too powerful for those it is intended for; the game developers will address this and tone down whatever is causing the problem, in an attempt to make the game world fair for everyone), while other major patches may add whole levels to the game. World of Warcraft is about to come out with an expansion pack called the Burning Crusade that will add new races, areas, mounts, etc. Expansions are like mega-patches that vastly change the game world.

I personally have played World of Warcraft a while ago. I played for about six months with one character, and only got him up to Level 37 (60 being the max in WOW). My game clock (how long I played under that character) was 9 days. As in 9 * 24 hours, or 216 hours! You progress the earlier levels quickly, but once you hit about Level 8 the gaps between levels become many hours. At my Level 37, I had about 8 hours to get to the next level, but I choose to stop playing. I found the game to be a wonderfully refreshing experience, as you get gameplay opportunities not possible in normal offline games. Playing in groups and making virtual friends is a type of fun that cannot fully be described. However, while it was enjoyable, I just reached a point in the game where grinding started to become necessary.

Grinding is one of the inherent problems in the huge online gaming worlds. Simply put, grinding is the deliberate leveling up of your character. It usually involves fighting the same monsters over and over again to get experience points, or having higher-level characters run you through instance levels like Scarlet Monastery (SM). The gameplay during grinding is either totally mindless and tedious or just plain boring because you are watching higher-level players beat bosses for you. Sure, SM may be fun the first five times. But in the road to Level 45 you go there dozens of times for the great gold and XP. One run can take about three hours, so you do the math.

Now before I go on, I want to reiterate how wonderful a game World of Warcraft is. I never played Everquest or Everquest 2, but WOW was a great game. I think its multi-million population now shows that others feel the same way. The gameplay moments from the game are among the best in my gaming experience on ANY platform.

But, I quit WOW for reasons that go beyond the monotony of grinding. I had schoolwork and regular work to attend to, and, simply put, I had to live my life. I played the game very litte… maybe two hours a day on average. This is extremely low for MMO players, as 5 hours a day is not uncommon. Still, I could see that it was eating up my spare time. On weekends especially, I did almost nothing but play WOW. It was fun, but you get to a point where you realize that it is going to take over your life. And here is the sad part: many people have become so consumed by the game that they have given up their jobs, girlfriends, spouses, and even health.

One of the larger patches to WOW was the addition of Battlegrounds, something that enhanced the competitiveness of the game, which in turn means people play longer sessions and more often. Battlegrounds is a system that allows players to make huge teams and play against other players. This PvP (Player versus Player) gameplay expanded as they added a Ranks system. Players who had the most wins and least losses in PvP battles would be ranked in the Top 25 or so, and would receive major rewards for doing so. Each rank reaped a special reward, the best reward of course going to the Rank 1 person. Rewards were usually cool mounts (horses, tigers, etc. that you can use to ride around the world) or armor that you could show off. People would know you were one of the top guys just by seeing your armor that couldn’t be received anywhere else. This would give you a level of pride and bragging rights that among MMO gamers is the ultimate reward. It is all about making other players envy you.

The whole Ranks system sounds real nice until you think about the consequences for the gamers. The magnitude of WOW is absolutely gigantic. The game is played by millions of people worldwide, in countries such as America, UK, South Korea, and even China. But no matter what country the gamers are from, they all know that the #1 rank is what they want to get. There are people who play WOW, as well as people who play any MMOG, that are willing to devote 20-24 hours a day to the game. The fact that players do this, and always will do this, ruins the concept of the present-day MMO. Average players like myself who only devoted a “measly” two hours a day cannot hope to compete. I couldn’t even get to Level 60, a goal most serious players eventually reach. But ranking in the Top 20 on any server requires you to give up a job, all schoolwork, relationships of any kind, and even food and bathroom breaks. And don’t think I’m kidding about that last bit. A guy from South Korea played the game so incessantly that he DIED from starvation.

This is where the massively multiplayer online games go from simply games to become a microcosmic view of the real world, with all the bitterness of reality with it. Inside the game, and also inside your life when you need to decide how long to play the game, comes moral and economical decisions. The average player doesn’t even realize that the world they are emerged in meant the death of somebody. And though the death was an isolated case, there are “gold farms” in India and China where players are paid pennies an hour to grind in the game to gather gold that will eventually be sold on eBay for real money. (more on this later) Regardless of whether people know about the exploitation and starvation resulting from the games, almost everyone is aware of the “envy factor” I introduced earlier.

In the real world, much is driven by envy. The people with the newest gadgets, the newest cars, and the trendiest clothes are often the most popular and have more friends. Generally speaking, people want to be with others that can benefit them. Whether it is a mutually beneficial relationship or not, people just love to live off others. They want what they see and hope that by immersing themselves in the lives of people with money and gadgets that some of it will rub off on to them. This envy that breeds much of the social interactions in modern society is deeply embedded into the MMOG world. In fact, it is a massive factor. Almost the entire appeal of MMO gaming is to show off your high levels and special items. The problem that eventually is bred by MMOGs is that the person with the highest level (and PvP rank) and items is not the most skilled player, but rather the one who can devote the most time to the game. Thus, if someone lets their inner envy and desire to get the in-game wealth and collections of cool items drive them, it will eventually lead to the allocation of hours upon hours a day to the game. This is a dangerous scenario that many people fit into.

Due to the fact that extremely hardcore players are willing to devote innumerable hours to the game, the balance of the PvP ranking system and overall game levels are thrown off. No matter how many times the developers release balancing patches, the issue of people that play at different paces can never be dealt with. It is one of the many inherent problems in MMOGs.

Beyond the vastly varying paces of gameplay, and the aforementioned monotonous grinding, there are other issues in almost all modern MMOGs. The next one I want to bring up was previously mentioned briefly: the in-game economy. WOW uses the standard currency of Gold and Silver. Final Fantasy XI uses Gil, Anarchy Online uses credits, etc. Regardless of what the in-game money is called, the problem is always the same. In the game, by excessively grinding in key areas, players can slowly but consistently earn massive amounts of money. This is a combination of the previous two problems that brews a ridiculously large balance problem. Those who are willing to grind for hours on end can have enough money to out-buy everyone else. Especially in games like WOW where there are auctions and a free-market system, economy is always changing, just like in the real world. Just like if the U.S. government started to print countless $100,000 bills and using them to pay for various things, if someone in a game like WOW grinds for fifty hours to get thousands of gold pieces, the balance of the economy is shifted severely. This makes the money worth less. However, in WOW and most MMORPGs, each quest you complete gives you a set amount of money. If the worth of money is less than when the game was originally launched, then players who are legitimately completing quests are going to get ripped off. There are also those who grind for certain items, like powerful swords or shields that can be sold for massive profits. Not only does this make the person who is making the money rich enough to unbalance the economy of the currency, but it also starts to create the same supply and demand issue with the item in question, lessening its value for those who get lucky enough to receive it per chance, as it was meant to be received. All of this is remarkably similar to how a free market economy can be (ab)used in reality, and shows that these “games” really are closer to reality than we give them credit for.

Beyond the balance problems associated with in game grinding for money comes an even bigger problem, and a problem that is really becoming a huge problem nowadays. People can sell their money that they have in the game for real money (such as USD $) on eBay or on some other services. Many games are coming out with Terms of Service (TOS) addendums that prevent such selling of in-game wares, claiming that all in-game items are the intellectual property of the developer. However, it hasn’t stopped what is now a booming business. As I mentioned before, there are so-called “gold farms” in foreign countries where cheap labor exists. The term “sweat shop” is often used to refer to similar environments where young children or otherwise poor people in foreign countries are exploited for monetary gain. These gold farms are no different. There are rooms full of computers connected to the Internet in China, India, Korea, etc. where people are paid mere pennies to sit and play WOW or other games continuously, for hours. You may be thinking that this could sort of be fun, despite the bad pay. After all, there are those who play extensively under their own volition. However, these gold farms figure out where in the game has the best gold yields or items that can be converted to gold, and the workers are forced to play in the same area for months. Being in the same place in game for hours a day, for weeks, is practically torture. The in game profits generated are usually pooled to one master account that is then used by the gold farm’s owner to distribute in game currency in exchange for real world dollars. Just a simple example, 200 gold in WOW on average costs $20. That is 10 gold per $1. To give you an idea, it takes roughly 10 hours straight in the game for a high-level character in the best possible dungeon to gain 10 gold. That means that you are paying only $.10/hour to the company for gold. And these people make profit, which means the exploited people actually gathering gold make less than ten cents an hour! And you thought your pay was bad? But in all seriousness, this is morally apprehensible at the highest level, and it really makes you wonder how things like this could be allowed to occur. The worse part is that Americans and Europeans who don’t feel like spending the hours in the game to get gold for themselves are the ones who support this foreign exploitation. Even worse is the fact that the makers of Star Wars Galaxy have created a marketplace for people to sell in game money and items for real world cash, obviously taking a commission. That means that the SWG developers are cashing in on the exploitation, profiting off the weak. Gold farms are the single worst aspect of MMO gaming when it comes to the real world, and truly shows how morals can play a key part on MMO players.

One final problem with present MMO games I would like to discuss is the monthly fee required to play the game. Most of these games go for about $49.99 in a store, just like every other game. However, they then cost an additional amount per month. WOW costs $14.99, while some games (I think Matrix Online is an example) cost as much as $20 (or possibly even more) per month. If you consider that a serious player of any of these games will play for at least a year, the cost of the game and the service will be over $225. With that kind of money, you could buy Playstation 2 and three of four normal RPG games. It is ridiculous to consider that people are willing to pay this. And then you have people that complain about the rumored cost of PS3 games ($65, which I do believe is steep, but try putting it in perspective with MMOGs). I think the cost of MMO games was necessary at one point, for the developers to be able to constantly produce patches and pay for servers. However, there is no longer a reason for the fees, as demonstrated by the games that have no monthly fee (Anarchy Online, Guild Wars). This monetary problem is another area where the MMOG may affect your real life, by putting a dent in your checkbook.

I have spent the last couple of paragraphs discussing the detriments of modern and present MMOGs. I am now going to take a look at what I believe the future MMOG should be, by using a model that I believe is the perfect MMOG. I am going to go through each and every problem I discussed, tell you why my “perfect MMOG” doesn’t have that problem, and why the future will correct this.

What I consider to be the perfect MMOG, which happens to be an MMORPG, is Guild Wars, for the reasons you will soon see. The first problem I discussed above was grinding, the monotonous pursuit of the next level or more gold required when quests just didn’t cut it any more. I’m not going to lie to you: Guild Wars has some grinding in its normal RPG mode. Every MMORPG has grinding; it is simply the nature of the beast. However, by having a lot of densely spaced quests, games can combat the grinding. Guild Wars starts off with a mode called pre-searing, in which you can do all kinds of quests. If you take advantage of all your quests here, and take care in progressing your character’s skills, you can get a nice head start on leveling. The quests in pre-searing are available only at that time, so it is best to do them all if you want to grind the least. You make the explicit choice to progress to the main part of the game, so you can choose to do as many or as little of the pre-searing quests as you want. I did as many as I could, and can tell you for a fact you don’t have to grind at all in the pre-searing mode. Just by doing all the quests you level yourself enough to battle with the Charr, which is necessary to get to the main game mode. Anyway, once you get past the beginning stages of the game, there is a lot to do, and a lot of ground to cover. Your ability to prevent grinding is solely based on how far you are willing to travel. If you stick to the first main areas, you will exhaust your quests quickly and find the need to grind in order to do some of the harder ones. The key is to spread out because there are easy-type quests all over that help you rack up experience points and gain levels. By doing all the easy quests, then all the medium, then all the hard, you can remove almost all grinding from the game. Naturally, no one will find every quest and do them in the right order, so there will be some grinding. I know that I am personally stuck in a grinding rut right now with my character because I stayed in one area for too long. Enough with that, though. The bottom line for grinding in Guild Wars is that there is very little if you tackle quests the right way. But what it basically comes down to is you can do as little or as much as you want, and it never becomes a true necessity.

The next issue I discussed was the pace issues, and the fact that there will always be people who play 24/7 and max out their character. This is always an issue, so it must plague Guild Wars, right? Well, not quite. Guild Wars employs this wonderful mechanism that truly eliminates all need for grinding or super-dedicated leveling. When you create your character, you can pick one of two game types: Normal RPG or PvP (the names may be slightly different, but the concepts are the same as what I will soon describe). The Normal RPG mode is what you would expect. You start at level 1, pick a class, and you’re off on your adventure. You gain levels and items and do the normal RPG thing. The maximum level in GW is 20, which is fairly low for a MMORPG. Getting to Level 20 in GW is a lot easier than getting to Level 60 in WOW, and not just because it is a lower number. But that isn’t the point. In the Normal RPG type game this problem of game pace will still exist. However, and where GW really shines, the PvP type game starts you off at Level 20, the maximum. How on earth could this create a balanced game world if everyone can just start at Level 20? Well, if you make a PvP type character, they don’t go through quests or the story mode. You pick every one of the skills the character will ever have right up front, then go ahead and use the character for PvP battles. You never intermingle with the lower-level characters, so the balance issue doesn’t come up. You can solely fight other players, not engage in the RPG world. GW is a very PvP focused game, and so this PvP mode is a very attractive option because it lets people experiment with different combinations of classes and skills without wasting their time grinding and speed leveling. It is in this way that GW really destroys the competition, as it really eliminates the balancing issues of pace.

Another way the game deals with pace is its instancing of the game world. In MMOGs, instances are your own little world. In other words, if you go into an instance dungeon, only you are in the dungeon, despite the fact that dozens of other people around the world are in the same dungeon. Only you and, if you have a group, your group is in the dungeon. In WOW, there are instance dungeons such as the briefly mentioned SM, as well as many others. When you go there, you can go ahead and do the quest without worrying about others getting the treasures before you, as it is your own version of the world cut off the from “massively multiplayer” part of the game. In GW, everything except the cities and towns are instanced. So, if you go to Fort Ranik (a town), you will see the hundreds of other players that are in that town (there are actually multiple versions of each town, especially big cities, to control lag and manageability, but that’s not the point). However, if you step out of the town (through the exit portal), you will be in your own instance, and only you and, if existent, your group will be there, along with all the items and monsters. That being said, if you never make a group, playing through the GW game, except for cities and towns, will feel like a single player game. That is how the pace issue can really be addressed because you can choose to play by yourself and not worry about others if you really desire. So, in essence, GW can be a single player game. There are even “henchmen” you can add to your group who are computer-controlled people to simulate a group. Using henchmen, you can make it through pretty much the whole game without ever interacting with another user. And, of course, if you want to, you can also go the old-fashioned group way.

The in-game economy of Guild Wars is exploitable just like every other game. There is really nothing that could be done about this. However, for what it’s worth, the problem doesn’t seem to be as widespread as in other games. The selling of entire characters, for example, like is popular in WOW on eBay, is irrelevant on GW since you can start at Level 20 if you so choose. Also, the fact that you can play the game primarily single-player if you want makes the economic factor really minor if you want to ignore it. If you do choose to play a part in the economy and use the various trading services provided in game, you will notice the fluctuation of various in-game commodities such as dyes for clothing. Just like any free market system, you can gamble on the increase or decrease in price of these items and profit that way. However, there is really not much room for exploitation, since so few people value gold in the game (it really is a very minor part, as most of the good items are not sellable).

The problem with most MMORPGs’ monthly fee is completely missing in GW. The game is free to play online, once you buy the $49.99 retail package. It thus feels like any other RPG on your wallet, but plays for so much longer, and of course the world keeps growing. The developers of the game can afford to eliminate the monthly fee by placing a heavy focus on expansion packs. GW recently released Factions, an expansion that added two new races, tons of items and monsters, an entire new continent to explore, and also enhanced PvP functionality. I haven’t bought it yet, but I definitely will eventually. Regardless, the expansion adds enough to warrant upgrade, and really doesn’t feel like you are being robbed like with the monthly fee. I know for a fact that much of WOW’s profits are from the monthly fee. There is no way the developers spend over 15 million dollars developing patches and maintaining servers (and this is assuming there is only one million players, which I know there is more when you count worldwide). GW capitalizes on this and believes that they don’t need to rob the gamer, but still can make money just like every other game developer who sells games at fifty bucks a pop. Anarchy Online is a completely different free approach. The game AND the online service is free. Anyone with an Internet connection can go download the game for free right now and play it for as long as they want. AO used to use the expansion pack system as well, but all the expansion packs are also now free! So how does the company afford all of this? They have in-game advertisements. It may sound annoying, but how could you complain if your getting a totally free MMORPG that is one of the best currently out there (the graphics are dated but it is still very fun). All of these alternative business models really make me happy, and the company is still making money. With everyone happy, it’s a wonder why people even spend money on WOW when there are free alternatives. I predict that developers will eventually all have to offer free service, or else GW and similar games will take over.

The future of MMO gaming will look very similar to the innovative GW. The ability to start at Level 20 for PvP eliminates any grinding. Its fully instanced system helps stop economic balance problems by letting the player completely bypass, if they so desire, the entire interactive part of the MMOG. Finally, the business models of both GW and AO that make the online service free are something that will become more and more of the way things work in the future. In-game advertisements, I predict, will begin to pop up all over the place as game developers realize the potential for profit. In games like AO with urban settings, in-game billboards for real products could actually enhance the realism of the game.

In conclusion, GW is all about giving the player choices, and that is really what everyone wants. The ability to play the game the way you want it, without all the hurdles of most current MMOGs, will keep more people coming. I think MMORPGs are quickly becoming mainstream, but as soon as the monthly fees are eradicated and the grinding and balance problems are faced, I think the casual gamer will find themselves right at home with MMOGs. I foresee a future where the MMOG replaces AIM. And by using VOIP and email features, it could replace telephones and email as well. Imagine massively multiplayer online games evolving into massively multiplayer online environments where your grandmother could exchange recipes with her old friends from school. I see computer systems evolving, and telecommunications and operating systems in general, I think, will eventually turn into this world of 3-dimensional avatars and large-scale social interaction. Just as current MMOGs portray society on a small level, I think society can eventually embed itself directly into what we today consider a game, but in the future will be more like a service for everyone to communicate with.

Until this future I speak of comes, enjoy the modern MMORPGs. Even the ones that rip you off with monthly fees and excessive grinding (WOW) are great fun. If you are looking to experience the future in the present, check out GW. This is where the MMOGs of the future are headed, and in the mean time it is extremely fun.

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Gran Turismo 4 Tuning

Written by rob on June 24, 2006 – 6:49 pm -

Arguably the best PS2 racing game available is Gran Turismo 4. However, as its subtitle, The Real Driving Simulator, suggests, this game isn’t your average racing game. Need For Speed games are known for adding tweaks to your car that boost the HP, but aside from that you just go ahead and race. The racing in NFS is primarily about letting off the gas on turns, and maybe a little braking. Anyone can pick the game up and start winning races if they have a superior car. What makes Gran Turismo 4, and all the Gran Turismo games, different is the fact that it is super realistic. Sure, it may not be 100% like driving a car, but if you attack GT4 with the same techniques used in NFS, you will be losing everything except the easiest of races. Simply put, the speed of your car becomes less of a factor, and it is more about how you as the player handles the corners.

I, for one, was utterly killed in Gran Turismo when I first started playing. I got a Nissan Skyline used and won the Sunday Cup, the first and easiest races of the game. With the few thousand dollars I won, I souped up the car and got it well about 250 HP. It easily outperformed every car in most of the Beginner Hall races, so I went to the FR challenge, the next step up above the Sunday Cup but still relatively easy. However, I got smoked. Absolutely destroyed. I made a lucky race and got 4th once, but on every other course of the FR Challenge I came in dead last (6th place). I didn’t understand it because I had such a better car than everyone. It all came down to the fact that I wasn’t taking the corners right and often went off the road. After going through the B and A license tests and following the tips in the manual, I learned that the technique called out-in-out cornering, usable for most of the early courses. Essentially, you start near the outside of the road, then when you get to the corner you brake and turn toward the inside of the road, and follow that around the corner. General inertia will pull your car back to the outside of the road, but if you do it right this will give you a huge advantage coming out of the corner. I mastered that in the Sunday Cup, and then went ahead and tried it out in the FR Challenge. Unfortunately, I still got beat.

I went online and looked for help on GameFAQs. I soon found a Beginner’s Guide, and saw that in there the author uses an old 1983 Honda Civic for all the early races. I took his advice and restarted my game with the slower but easier to handle Civic. I soon started to win races, even the FF Challenge (the Civic’s equivalent of the FR Challenge), and also won the Honda Civic Challenge at the Honda dealer. Every time you win a particular Cup or Challenge, you get a car as a prize. I followed the Beginner’s Guide further and did the Capri Rally special condition race. This netted me a crazy Toyota Rally Raid car with over 410 HP. Since I had improved my cornering substantially, I was now able to handle faster cars like the Toyota, and even bought another Skyline, but this one was souped up to 600HP. With that, I won most of the races in the Professional Hall, and am now trying to do some of the Japanese Championships.

However, cornering isn’t the only difficult thing in Gran Turismo 4. In fact, purchasing parts can also be daunting. Until NFS-type games, it isn’t all about the speed. I didn’t even know what half the parts did, as I’m not really a car buff. Flywheel, Limited Slip, Drivetrain, and Transmission… I didn’t know how any of these would affect the performance of my car. Again, GameFAQs helped a bit, and so did the in-game descriptions of these parts. It isn’t that bad after you spend some time experimenting, but I definitely wasted a lot of money on parts that didn’t help all that much. One piece of advice I can give people is do not underestimate tires… they are ESSENTIAL. Getting the S3, Soft Sports Tires, helps you own the Beginner Hall. Also, don’t overestimate HP. While raw horse power will help in the straight aways, one of my best cars is a Honda S2000 with only 210 HP. It can beat all kinds of other cars with 300+ HP simply because it handles corners so well. Plus, GT4 calculates the A-Spec points awarded for every race based on your HP and number of add-on parts, so if your car has less bling than the others but you are a good enough driver to win, you’ll really rack up the A-Spec points.

I have still yet to dwell upon the most complex part of the game, but also the most helpful: Tuning. Almost every aspect of your car can be tweaked and tuned in the wonderful Settings menu accessible before starting any race. Many beginners don’t even know it is there, and those that do get scared away by its complexity. But with a little initial help, you can be off on your way to becoming a tuning expert. The best part about tuning is that it gives you a major edge on your opponents. Also, based on specific courses, you can balance peak speed and acceleration, just to name an obvious example. The end result is that tuning lets you get every last penny’s worth of your car, and truly helps in the more challenging races that I am now starting to enter in my racing career.

As I stated above, I have very little car experience, as I barely knew what the parts were for. So, then, how is someone like me, and someone like you, who know so little about cars, supposed to know what to set things like Toe and Camber angles to? What about tweaking each separate gear of the trasmission? Well, luckily, GameFAQs comes to the rescue again. A wonderful gentleman by the name of k-wix published a Tuning Guide specifically for GT4 (look for it here). The most useful part of his guide are the “presets”. They are a list of what you should set certain settings to in order to achieve a certain thing. For example, he has a Pure Speed build that you should use on a course with a lot of straight-aways where you want the max speed out of your car. Then there is the Acceleration build for the quickest acceleration. These are just the first two examples. The most useful, however, is the General Improvement build, which does just what its name implies. It doesn’t mess with the balance of your acceleration/peak speed much, but generally improves handling and performance of the car. I recommend anyone to use this on any car if they are unsure how to tune themselves. I know this particularly helped my Honda Civic win those Beginners races and the Capri Rally. The following is the General Improvement build, straight from his guide, presented with permission by the author:

'General Improvement' Build - Simply Put, a good tuneup.

Spring Rate: Front 75% Rear 75%
Ride Height: Front 0% Rear 0%
Shock Bound: Front 60% Rear 60%
Shock Rebound: Front 100% Rear 100%
Camber Angle: Front 4.0 Rear 2.0
Toe Angle: Front 0.0 Rear 0.0
Stabilizers: Front 20% Rear 20%

Brake Balance: Front 25% Rear 25%

Auto: 50%
1st: +10
2nd: +5
3rd: +0
4th: +10 (If It Stops, its okay, leave it there)
5th: +20 (If It Stops, its okay, leave it there)
6th: +20 (If It Stops, its okay, leave it there)
7th: +15
Final Gear Setting Set this how you want, put it between 50% and 25%. Higher means more acceleration, lower means more top-end max speed.

Initial Torque: 5%

Downforce: Front 75% Rear 25%
ASM(Over): 50%
ASM(Under): 50%
TCS: 30%
Nitro: 100%
Ballast Weight: 0%
Front/Rear Balance: 40%

- This build will help you turn a bit better, get a better startup, and even improve your max speed a little.
- There is a bit of emphasis on Oversteer so your car has a bit of a 'looser' feel and takes corners a bit better.
- If you see a lot of sparks coming out of the bottom of your car constantly (all the time) then increase your Ride Height by 5%

The build is pretty easy to apply. There are just a couple things I’d like to mention. First of all, when k-wix states 40% or some other percent, you need to estimate for the most part. The reason it is in percent and not the actual value is because all cars have different max values for different settings, except the ones where he actually gives you a value. The bars used to modify the values of certain settings have three markings denoting 25%, 50%, and 75% respectively. You can use those to estimate the value. You can also use a little math to find the exact value if you want. (Max Val – Min Val) * .40 would give you 40% of one of the bars, where Max Val is obviously the maximum and Min Val is the minimum (which isn’t always 0). For the front-rear balance that goes from -50 to positive 50, I tend to just use +20 as the value. One final note is for the gear ratios. +10 actually means + 0.1, while +5 means + 0.05. They are given in hundredths. You will see when you’re in the menu that the settings are all very precise decimals. Also note that not all cars have the full seven gears. Just do the ones you can.

I would recommend that any beginning use that. Over time, you’ll begin to realize what some of the settings do and modify them for your needs. I noticed that on some really fast cars like my 600HP Nissan Skyline I need to tweak the above a bit to get the max performance out of my car. One major thing I change is the ASM (Over), ASM (Under), and TCM to 5, 5, and 5 respectively (not 50% but the actual value 5). Another thing I tend to change is just leaving Front/Rear Balance to 0. Other than that, k-wix’s General Improvement build is very, very useful for nearly every situation. I’ve used it to win many of the Professional Hall races and am on my way through the Japan Championships now.

I recommend that anyone interested in cars and looking for a challenge (you’ve got to admit that NFS is an easy game) pick up Gran Turismo 4 for PS2. It is a very impressive looking game, especially considering it is for the graphically inferior PS2. Beyond that, it is highly enjoyable and gives you a sense of how real race car drivers have to drive. With the pricey ( ~ $90 ) Logitech steering wheel, you can get the full experience of driving in races. Again, remember that tuning will give you huge advantages, and don’t be afraid to experiment with different settings. Happy racing!

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PlayStation 3: The Real Deal

Written by rob on May 8, 2006 – 10:31 pm -

The Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, California kicked off today. The show floor doesn’t actually open until Wednesday, so the only thing really shaking today was some announcements from a few developers…… and of course the official Sony Press Conference. The wait is over, and the exposé on the future of Playstation is, too. Oh, and the price is in green near the end of the article if that is all you care about.

There will undoubtedly be dozens on articles out tomorrow that will be infinitely more extensive than this, but I just wanted to give a brief look into exactly what was shown off, and cut right into the details that people actually care about. I got all the following info from watching the video feed on IGN Insider’s Livewire, so thanks to them for that. Made me feel like I was really there 😉

Anyway, the demo started off with a lot of boring charts and statistics on PS2 and PSP sales. I guess Sony is really happy about them, and I guess they have the right to be proud. 103 million PS2’s, and 17 million PSP’s as of March 31. They went on to say that there will be PS2 support for years to come, and then reiterated a bunch of PSP stuff we already knew (future firmware updates to add GPS, video camera, etc. updates), but also mentioned something called Memory Stick Boot, which I’m pretty sure is what they use later in the show to boot PS1 games from the memory card, though it may be something entirely different that they didn’t go into detail on. Also, PSP will get a Greatest Hits program, which was inevitable.

Now on to the PS3, what everyone actually wants to hear. It will support 1080p HDTV, despite what so many online articles were rumoring. It will also still support gigabit ethernet, bluetooth, as well as have SD and Memory Stick flash card functionality. Every PS3 will ship with a hard drive, the size of which depends on which model you get (see very bottom of this article for more on the two models). Blah, blah.

Then the tech demos started. There was a couple clips from Gran Turismo 4, except instead of being the PS2 version, it had updated graphics to support high-definition. I thought it looked pretty neat, but hardly anything special. However, then came the real wow!, for me at least. There is this card game that reminded me of Yu-Gi-Oh! that works along with the Eye Toy and actual real cards. In the demo, some cards were placed on a table, and then the digital representations of them appeared in the game, and monsters started to be summoned. It appears as if you move your cards in order to interact with the game. VERY COOL. Then there was just more games… all the same stuff we’ve already seen.

Then it got to the game we actually care about: Metal Gear Solid 4. The following is a quote from GameSpot’s summary of the teaser that is probably better than anything I can come up with:

“It’s in Japanese. Snake is sitting down, he’s still old. “War has changed,” he says. Talk about nanomachines, soldiers getting cut down in the streets by that crazy walking mech. Ther’es a ninja… is it the ninja? His mask looked different. Naomi Hunter. Col. Campbell says “you’re the world’s only hope!” Meryl says that we’re the new Foxhound. Otcan claims the Onus is ours! The ninja is Raiden! Liquid Ocelot! This is rad! Back to Snake, sitting down, smoking, holding a pistol. Oops, he just put it in his mouth! Is he taking the coward’s way out? “This is my final mission.” Gun shot, cut to black. Coming 2007.”

Definitely going to be interesting! I am hoping there will be a nicer view of this teaser tomorrow, as an isolated download that I can hopefully link to. I actually didn’t even get to see the whole thing… my stupid feed died out on me in the middle of it and I missed the second half 🙁 I’d love to see the whole thing in better quality soon.

Then they get on to the actual hardware stuff. Ken Kutaragi and Phil Harrison show up on stage to demonstrate the new controller which looks a lot like the current PS2 controller. The only difference is that the L2/R2 buttons are a little bigger and it has a button right in the middle… kind of like the middle button on the 360 controller. No, actually… exactly like the 360’s button. Anyone want to wager what that button’s going to do? Maybe bring out the dashboard interface from the side of the screen? And then Dylan Jobe, producer of Warhawk (jet plane fighter game) demonstrates the ability of the controller to track motion, which Sony calls “six degress of freedom”, whatever that is supposed to mean. In all reality, it is motion sensoring in the controller, just like Nintendo Wii’s controller. The only thing is that it only really senses tilts in directions, but not actual relative motion. That is, the game will know you went right, but not how far right you went, which is necessary to let you control a 3D sword or whatever. So, it still seems that the Wii will be the only system to get light saber games 🙁

Then Ken Kutaragi comes out for the big announcement, the one that everyone was waiting for. Pricing and release details, and here is the skinny. The PS3 will have two separate packages (sound familiar?), one with a 20GB hard drive and one with a 60GB drive. The 20GB one will be $499, while the 60GB one will be $599. And it looks like a November 17, 2006 release date for North America. Let’s just say I’m going to reserve mine this weekend.


EDIT (05-09-06): News has come in that the $499 and $599 versions are quite different. Aside from the aforementioned hard drive size differences, the $499 will not include Wi-Fi capabilities, the memory card (SD/Memory Stick) reader, or… and this is the big one… HDMI output.

The price is a little higher than I expected, but I am definitely still getting it the first day it comes out. I’m probably going to reserve it this weekend at Toys ‘R Us. I will never reserve at Gamestop considering what they did to all those people that reserved 360’s… and I don’t think anywhere else is even taking reservations yet.

On a very quick side note, Square Enix also had their conference today, and they announced a few notable things. There will be three new games coming out under the title of Final Fantasy XIII (yeah, I know… they’re getting carried away with this stuff). There will be a prequel RPG for cell phones. Then there will be the main FF13 RPG for PS3, in addition to an action game for PS3 called FF Versus 13. They also confirmed Final Fantasy III for Gameboy Advance, which was pretty much a known fact now anyway. Also there will be a game called Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII for the PSP. It will be interesting to see how that news shakes out.

All in all, it was an interesting day with a lot of cool stuff. I look forward to seeing the whole MGS4 teaser video downloadable tomorrow, as well as the Nintendo Wii news!

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Sony Cancels PS3!

Written by rob on April 1, 2006 – 12:00 am -

In a surprising press release, Sony announced that the Playstation 3 has been cancelled. Allegedly, there was a lawsuit between some software developer and Sony. The developer claimed to have a huge part in the creation of the Blu-Ray disc format, but was not properly compensated. The judge ruled that Sony must never use the Blu-Ray format in any commercially-released products. What does this mean for PS3? The end, to put it briefly.

Ken Kutaragi and Phil Harrison commented to the press about the cancellation. It seems that the absense of a disc format will, obviously, cause the system to be further delayed. Unfortunately, Kutaragi stated that the redevelopment of a format could take over two years. This is an unacceptable amount of time for the PS3 to be pushed back, as it has already been delayed five months. Therefore, the system is going to be canceled. It seems that Kutaragi and company plan to develop a new disc format, in addition to an entirely different system, from scratch. I assume it will still use the Cell processing architecture, given the amount of time and money devoted to the R&D of it, though it will most likely be a tweaked version. It seems that the company has in mind to skip the upcoming next-generation completely, and instead focus on the current generation of PSP and PS2 gaming. They will also get a head start on developing the PS4.

Also notable is that fact that Kutaragi stated that a redesigned version of the PS2 will be released soon. No details were given. However, I suspect it will feature upgraded graphical capabilities to keep the PS2 semi-competitive with the XBOX 360 and Nintendo Revolution. Given the fact that the recently released Nintendo Revolution specs are barely equivalent to the original XBOX, an upgraded PS2 may very well be competitive in the next generation.

Kutaragi seems to be a mastermind, so I don’t doubt his decision to cancel PS3. However, I think I speak for every Sony fan in saying that I am immeasureably disappointed. But, you can’t change the truth. Without Blu-Ray, the PS3 would probably need to be redesigned largely. Kutaragi states in the press release that not only will a new format have to be created, but the drive that encompasses that format will then have to be integrated into the system and tested. All of this takes time, and as he stated, “In the competitive world of consoles, this time does not exist.”

Hopefully the new PS2 that will come out will feature enough horsepower to at least rival the Nintendo Revolution. I’m sure Bill Gates and his buddies at Microsoft are laughing right now. But let them. As the release said, the PS4 will strike back with a vengeance. Getting this huge headstart on it, and using the knowledge gaining from the development of the PS3, should lead to a HUGELY impressive PS4. I expect it to utterly destroy the XBOX 720 (or whatever they decide to name it) and Nintendo Counter-Revolution (or whatever they decide to name it) even moreso than the PS3 would have destroyed the Revolution and 360.

In conclusion, am I angry, frustrated, and disappointed? YES! But am I giving up all hope for Sony and withdrawling $400 from the bank to buy a 360? NO! The new PS2 should last me until the PS4, and meanwhile I will continue playing the PSP and PC games. Sony skipping a generation doesn’t mean we must all give up hope. They are a huge company that won’t topple from even a large blow like this. Their new CEO combined with the genius of Kutaragi should easily get them through the troubling times ahead.

On a side note, I decided to convert the theme of the site permanently to pink. This masculine color will help us remember PS3’s legacy and celebrate these fateful times.

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The Godfather: The Game Review

Written by rob on March 29, 2006 – 8:26 am -

The Godfather: The Game was released on March 21, 2006 by EA Games. It represents years of hard work by a talented team of developers, and boasts to be a nonlinear, wide-open game putting you in the shoes of a new member to the Corleone family.

The main story of the game runs a close parallel to the first movie. You begin with a tutorial mission, but you are quickly hurled into action as you are a bystander during Luca Brasi’s assassination. From there, you begin to understand the unrest of the city, as you are pitted against the earliest rival family. From this point, the missions come pretty much directly from the movie. The only thing is that your character, this “new guy” to the family, winds up doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes things. For example, when Don Vito Corleone is shot, you have to tail his ambulance as a fellow gangster shoots out of the window of your car to take enemy cars out of the way. After being ambushed on a bridge, you then have to interrogate a high ranking member of the Tattaglia family for information as to who may have shot the Don. From there, you assume driver control of the ambulance and then have to rush to the hospital. It is a great mix of all the things you will be doing in this game in an early mission, and really gets things rolling.

Unfortunately, that is one of the better missions in the game. Subsequent missions are fun, but the story-telling is very weak. For example, when you must plant the gun behind the toilet for Michael Corleone to use in hitting Sollozzo and McClusky, the game doesn’t even tell you why you are doing it. The opening cutscene for the mission features a memorable quote from the movie, but doesn’t actually give you any direction. You wind up simply following the blue dot on the mini-map, a’la of GTA. So, if you haven’t seen the first movie, this game is going to seem like a bunch of random quests that have almost no direction or connection. I’m surprised EA didn’t take a more cinematic approach to their games, and make the missions seem more like an interactive version of the movie rather than a game with some clips from the movie thrown in. There are also quite a few frustrating levels that will undoubtedly take a few tries to complete. Also make sure to save often between missions so that you don’t lose progress when you fall victim to some of the games few but major glitches (e.g. if you are very close to an exploding car, but you aren’t kill by the blast, your guy gets stuck on the ground and can’t get up. It requires a restart of the game, essentially sending you back to your last save.)

Veering away from the main story line is easy, however, and is why this game is even enjoyable at all. The largest “side quest” you will be doing is trying to gain control of New York City. The mini-map displays businesses as either dollar signs or little triangle-looking things that are color coded based on who controls them. Taking control of businesses is extremely fun. The first business you must take over is not controlled by anyone, so you don’t have to worry about rival gang fire. You press the Triangle button near the shop owner (indicated by the puppet-master icon above their head) to attempt to extort them. Some people simply go along with the Corleone’s, but some require some “convincing”. You can convice people in many ways. When they don’t want to do what you ask, a bar appears under their name, with a blue bar showing how intimidated they are of you and then a green line showing where they will join your side. However, on the far end of the bar is a red area. If you hit that, they will no longer value life enough and won’t give you anything. The key to making the most money from a deal is getting as close to the red as you can without actually hitting it. The convincing itself usually entails breaking things in the store with your fists or a bat, grabbing the owner by the shirt and knocking them against the wall, simply beating up the owner, or holding a gun to them. Sometimes just doing one of these things is enough, in the case of the first business you have to convert. From there, however, it gets more difficult. Some people need to be beat within an inch of their life to go your way. Once they are convinced, you press Triangle again and their business will begin paying protection to the Corleone’s. Every time a week passes in the game, a summary will be displayed of all the businesses, and you will take your cut of the profit the family receives (about 30%). Taking over all the businesses in a district gives the Corleones control of that territory. The ultimate goal is to take control of all five districts.

After the tutorial mission in the game, I feel victim to a rival family trap. These are two parallel roads that lead to an enemy warehouse, and both roads are barricaded off by enemy cars. Driving into it is essentially a trap, but I somehow managed to escape alive by running over most of the enemies. Little did I know, I built up the Vendetta meter – that is, the meter that controls your relationship with rival families. I got it up high enough to start a mob war… in the first hour of the game! The game instructed me that to end it I needed to either bribe an FBI agent or bomb one of the enemy family’s businesses. I chose the former, as I had no bombs. Finding the agent was difficult, as he was in the basement of a church, but paying him off was easy. I had won the war.

This brings me to a point in the game that I don’t really enjoy: the way it handles money. Money is such a minor aspect, believe it or not. Taking over businesses, to me, is more about the fun of “convincing” than getting the money. Bribing the FBI agent was about $30,000. I only had $18,000 at that early point in the game. However, it only deducted about $1,000 from my funds. The Corleone family itself paid for the rest. Most times you pay off warehouse owners or FBI agents doesn’t come from your funds. The only real thing you buy with your own money is guns and clothes. Safe houses are really expensive and you can’t afford them until later. However, I just don’t think the game puts much of an emphasis on money. If you don’t care about weapons or what your guy looks like, you don’t even need money. Paying off cops isn’t even necessary. I never had them come after me except in one mission. It is these inconsistencies that really take away from the realism of the game.

The above lack of encouragement for money and police bribes, coupled with the weak story telling of the game, take what could have been great and make it merely “good”. The Godfather is a fun game, without a doubt. The taking over of businesses is a very great experience, and there is a certain satisfaction you get from throwing an enemy gangster out a window on the second floor! The mob wars, however, seem too easy to win, and if you drive fast enough the family you are at war with can’t even harm you with their gun fire (just drive past their part of town as fast as possible). But the real blow to the game is the story… it just seems like a random collection of bits from the movie, and few missions give you satisfaction after completion. The game is fun, but doesn’t have that extra layer required to truly stick in your mind. I only rented it, and can say that I’m happy I didn’t buy it.

OVERALL: 7 / 10

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Official Playstation Details… Finally!

Written by rob on March 15, 2006 – 4:06 pm -

Today, Sony executive Ken Kutaragi provided a business brief in Tokyo. Coined as the “father” of Playstation, Kutaragi was rightfully given the job of officially crushing PS3 and PSP rumors. While the interview with CEO Howard Stringer early last week gave official details of a Playstation 3 delay, it was not formal or even expressly stated. Today is the day for that, and much other Playstation news.

First and foremost was the confirmation of delay. Mr. Kutaragi apologized for Sony’s delay, stating what rumors had already been saying: a Fall 06 release due to Blu-Ray complications. He stated that the complications will result in a better HDMI (high definition output) support on launch day. He also specified the release date: within the first 10 days of November 2006. But, here’s the kicker… this is the worldwide launch. That means that Japan, the US, and Europe will all enjoy the PS3 within days of each other, all in early November. This is very good news, indeed, since I suspected the US date would be as late as Q1 2007.

Secondly, and where Sony always comes through, is that of backwards compatibility. Microsoft’s XBOX 360 only supports a few of the original XBOX titles, with some notable hits missing from the list. Also, it uses emulation to achieve this, meaning a small hit in performance. While the 360’s extreme power compared to the original makes this performance hit unnoticeable in old games, it is there nonetheless. Anyway, the PS3, as suspected, will be 100% backwards compatible with PS2 and PS1 games. This is a very attractive option to new gamers, as they will have Playstation’s ridiculously huge archive of games, including new ones, for just one investment. Also notable is the fact that when old games are played, they will be at high definition. XBOX 360’s emulation works much in the same way, but just supports less games.

On the topic of price, no official one was released at this time. What was announced, however, is that of price drops in current gen technology. The PS2 will not have its price dropped, as Sony predicts 10 million more units to be sold this year. However, which will be good news to all, is that the PSP basic package will be reduced from $249.99, to a much more appealing $199.99. This will hopefully, Sony predicts, influence more people to its new and ever-growing system.

Furthermore in terms of the PSP, Sony announced a new “E-Distribution System”, where you can essentially download playable content on your PSP. The first games to be released under this service are going to be original PS1 games. The fact that I will be able to play Final Fantasy IX on a long car ride is just too attractive to pass up: I cannot wait. I’m just hoping that Final Fantasy is indeed among the games offered. Finally, it was announced that an upgrade to the PSP’s browser later this year will fully support Macromedia Flash 6.0. That means playing Internet-enabled Flash games on the PSP… including the ones on this site!

The PS3 will also launch with a new online system. It will feature “matchmaking, messaging, rankings, friends lists, voice/video chat, in-game shopping, and game downloads to the hard drive. Best of all, the service will be free (as of right now, it isn’t clear on whether there will also be a paid tier of service similar to Xbox Live Gold). The service will also allow for publishers to connect their own game servers.” This basically means that you will be able to do anything you can do on XBOX Live!, only for free. Sounds good to me.

Among the release were also a few subtle statements that should not be ignored. For example, Kutaragi mentioned that the PS3 will act as a wireless access point for the PSP. While that is all he said, it can be inferred that it will also be an access point for other wireless devices. There was also mention of a 60GB hard drive with Linux pre-installed. However, the various sources I am reading disagree on this point. 1UP.com’s article states that “PS3 will include a 60GB hard drive (which is upgradeable) with Linux preinstalled.” However, GamingHorizon says, “Additionally, Sony has announced that the company’s next-generation console will “require” the 60GB, upgradeable hard drive; the HD will also support Linux. However, Kutaragi hasn’t confirmed that the PS3 will ship with a hard drive pre-installed (in fact, previous comments indicate otherwise – so either the console will ship with an HD or will require an immediate extra purchase in order to be played).” Considering the press release was in Japanese, things have undoubtedly been lost in translation. I venture to think the PS3 will include the hard drive. Otherwise, why would Kutaragi tell developers to assume a gamer has the HDD, or that the HDD is required? Only time will be able to confirm this.

In conclusion, this business brief is an excellent answerer of the many questions arising about the PS3. Now we pretty much know everything except whether or not it will carry a HD, and the price. Details on this will most likely become available in May, with the E3 convention. Also in May, Sony will distribute the “final” development kits to game companies. This should at least answer whether or not a hard drive is included. Sony may have missed their Spring 2006 release, but it looks as though the Playstation 3 will deliver on all fronts.

EDIT (03-18-06): It now seems that the general consensus among news sites is that the PS3 will indeed ship with the 60GB drive. This is very good news for Playstation fans. But here is the cooler thing: it will come pre-installed with Linux. If Sony pulls this off right, it could be the first real exposure home users get to Linux. So, if they do it right it may be a huge step forward for open source eventually taking control of the desktop environment.

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The DaVinci Cheat Code

Written by rob on March 9, 2006 – 4:46 pm -

I read this article last Friday and was extremely amused by it. I figured I would post a link here for everyone else’s entertainment. It is surprisingly pretty long, but every second of it is very funny. For example, the following is a quote that shows the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ mentality of the article:

“The Catholic Church!” he exclaimed. “There are truths that the church doesn’t want anyone to know. That’s why there was an Xbox 360 shortage.”

“You lost me.”

We ducked back into the garage. “The 360 supply shortages are caused by delays in the manufacture of RAM chips from a German corporation, appropriately named Infineon Technologies. Through holding companies, the Vatican owns 67% of Infineon stock. They’ll stop at nothing to keep that console off the market. But the cover-up’s been going on for centuries.”

Now you have an idea of how ridiculous the ‘story’ is. The whole article in its entirety is more funny than any one part, so I recommend you have a read. So, without further ado, I present Fargo’s The DaVinci Cheat Code.

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PS3 Delay Official

Written by rob on March 7, 2006 – 5:26 pm -

It is official: Sony has delayed the PS3. OK, actually this was official yesterday. I’m a bit behind. I got a little too into Guild Wars last night. Anyway, you already know how I feel about PS3, so I’ll be brief.

Variety Magazine interviewed the new CEO of Sony, Howard Stringer, who they call the “Traveling man”. He’s the first non-Japanese CEO of Sony since the company’s conception, and he is claiming that he will take the entire company to new heights. In fact, he’s British and has no formal CEO experience, but he’s level-headed and Sony thinks he is right for the job. He has much plans for the company in the coming years, which he discussed in the interview. And as you know, Sony cannot describe their roadmap for the future without mentioning Playstation and Blu-Ray.

The following is the snippet about PS3.

Sony’s new PlayStation 3 was widely expected to be introduced this spring, but will be delayed as the company fine-tunes the chips that are crucial to the success of the console’s Blu-ray function. The PlayStation 3 — which is being called “the poor man’s Blue-ray” — is vital to Sony’s plans because it plays Blu-ray discs as well as videogames.

Sony will roll out the PS3 by year end, in time for the holidays. If PS3 “delivers what everyone thinks it will, the game is up,” Stringer boasts.

Blu-ray is the system developed by Sony to view next-generation high-definition DVDs. Rival format HD DVD is championed by Toshiba. Microsoft recently joined the HD DVD camp, a move that came as its Xbox 360 videogame console is trying to grab market share from PlayStation, the industry leader.

The only scary thing I see here is that Stringer is only officially talking about the Japanese release. Sony claims to want to release the system in Europe, Japan, and America very close to each other, but I don’t know if I can believe that. If Japan’s release is Fall 06, an American release may very well be early 07. At least now we have an official report that Spring 06 is not happening, something that I sort of figured anyway.

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Playstation 3 Outlook

Written by rob on February 23, 2006 – 5:04 pm -

There have been a bunch of articles this week describing Sony’s upcoming game console, the Playstation 3. Almost every single one of them has been negative: pushing back launch dates, officially cancelling previously-promised features, and also a hands-on take of the console that is, in the reviewer’s words, unremarkable. Playstation “poser fans” are quaking nervously, but the real fans remain hopeful, mostly considering the fact that beating the XBOX 360 isn’t going to be that difficult.

I discussed the alleged Fall (September 16, 2006 for US is the unofficial take at this point) release in a previous post, which is contrary to Sony’s promise of a Spring release. A Sony executive recently denied any postponement of release, but a Spring 06 release is honestly looking doubtful at this point, unless Sony is keeping some serious news confidential from everyone. I honestly don’t believe the release date matters. As long as it delivers better performance and graphics than the 360, no one will care when it comes out. Though I must admit that if the Merrill Lynch estimates of a Q1 2007 release are correct, Sony may be in for trouble.

More notably than the pushed-back release date, however, was the report Kikizo released regarding the PS3. They received hands-on experience with a device of comparable specs to the PS3 and tried out the early versions of many of the system’s upcoming games. Their conclusion is worrying at best, as they state: “Sony’s showings of PS3 to date have been seriously sexy. But the reality, while still impressive, is nowhere near the leap beyond Xbox 360 Sony wants you to believe, and it seems many projects are still at an early enough stage for things to start getting a little worrying.” So, they are basically saying that the PS3’s Cell doesn’t meet expectations: fans expected it to blow the 360’s measly dual-core processor out of the water. My take on this is simple: either the developers are not fully taking advantage of the multi-threaded nature of the Cell, or the early versions of the games played are buggy in terms of performance. I simply refuse to draw any real conclusions based on some review of beta hardware and software. In short, PS3 will be better than the 360; that is not really the question. Rather, it is more of a matter of how much better it will be. This article seems to think that it won’t be that much better graphically or speed-wise, but I tend to think first-party games especially, when they are finished, will use the Cell to its advantage and tear the 360 to shreds.

The Taipei Game Show I talked about in my previous post (where I incorrectly cited the date) has come and gone, and still no real PS3 footage. This is surprisingly to me, as I really expected to at least see some real-time content from a real Playstation 3, or at least something close to one. This leads me to believe that there are indeed hardware issues that will take time to resolve. However, one must consider if Sony is just playing a really smart game. While it would be ignorant to believe the PS3 will release in Spring 06 and knock the socks off everyone in all of its glory, it would also be ignorant to dismiss the theory that Sony may be purposely witholding information. Hype is generally bred by suspense, and Sony’s lack of official statements surrounding the PS3 may just be their way of letting the hype germinate. Many companies have been known to purposely withold their biggest surprises, mostly because the unanimous wows when the official info comes out are enough to get even the most uninterested person to contemplate putting the product on their Christmas list. If Sony is playing the public will be seen soon enough, and I think it would be a brilliant move on their part if my speculations are true.

Today, more news has surfaced, though it isn’t directly related to the Playstation 3. Official documents from Sony have been leaked regarding a possible God of War sequel. The insanely popular original God of War was one of the best action-adventure games I have ever played, due mostly to its cool use of Greek mythology. The ending of the original, which I will not spoil here, definitely left room for a sequel, and let’s just say it would be an awesome sequel. If you beat the game you will know what I mean. Anyway, the “official documents” that were leaked were summarized by 1UP. The jist of their article is “The sequel’s allegedly coming in early 2007…on PS2.” The early 2007 (February) part is nothing to be wowed about, but the fact that it will be released on Playstation 2 is troubling, and this is where this revelation ties back to PS3. Games don’t usually get released on an “old” system any later than six months after the release of a “new” one. So, games shouldn’t be coming out on PS2 six months after PS3 is released, especially not high-profile ones like God of War. This leads me to believe that the PS3 launch date will indeed be later than the Spring. Also, I would like to note that company “leaks” are often media ploys, and are purposefully done by the company. Perhaps this God of War 2 leak is yet another chapter of Sony’s Machiavellian plan to dominate the console market. Or maybe it is just a leak.

The conclusion of all my above babbling is one of mystery: when it all comes down to it, no one really knows anything real about the Playstation 3. Whether it will be leaps and bounds above the XBOX 360, or when it will be released, are all questions that will never be answered fully until Sony officially states it. When they actually will is up for debate, but I would become very worried if nothing official is released at this year’s E3. Only time will tell…

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