Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Gamer Rant: XBLA vs. Steam

I love console gaming. For me, this involves hanging out on the couch, in front of a big screen with all the lights turned off and my headphones on. And until recently, playing games on my PC seemed like a stupid idea. I have a midlevel computer which lacks an especially impressive graphics card and I have a traumatic past filled with games crashing to the desktop for no apparent reason or even refusing to start up. So how did I learn to stop worrying and love PC gaming?

If you’ve played PC games in years past, you probably know first-hand about having to deal with bugs and unpredictable technical incompatibility. But as I found when finally giving PC gaming another go, these problems are getting less common and will likely be becoming even more rare. (If the promise for the future holds, installation of games may no longer be required as you will play online from a server, presumably on a remote computer with much better specs than your own.) And I finally realized that the current generation of consoles is ancient now by technology standards, so even a fairly cheap PC will be able to yield a better performance than a console with most games.

But the real clincher for me is this: the greatness of the Steam store (PC) versus the crappiness of the X-Box Live Arcade (XBLA) experience. As legally downloading games becomes more and more common, as opposed to running out to buy a physical copy, the importance of the sales platform greatly increases. Steam knows how to make people glad to spend money and entices them with very good temporary deals, making the sport of grabbing a great game while it’s on sale almost a game in itself. It’s also laid out well, making browsing of popular and/or cheap titles a snap. In a smart move, it lists the averaged score a title received at reviews-site Metacritic, even if it is a low one. It’s a convenient and honest piece of info, regardless of how much you think the score is worth. (There are occasional reports of reviews not being impartial and about good games being overlooked just because of a bad review or two.) Payment is easy once you’ve registered and there is a variety of options, like PayPal/CreditCard and iDeal (where applicable). When payment is complete, Steam lists the title you bought in your Library: you can download and install the game then or later. You can also buy a game as a gift for a friend, passing it to them right away or putting it aside for a while. And if you ultimately want to keep it for yourself, that is not a problem. Installing is automatic and requires no effort on your part. You can delete games if you need the hard-disk space and can re-download them later on. When you have Steam running it is also very easy (even for a novice like me) to see when friends are online and join them in a game. The only downside (which is admittedly a big one) is that Steam wants you to be online to start up your games and that you will be in trouble if you for some reason irretrievably lose access to the Steam account to which your games are attached. I thankfully haven’t needed to contact them about something like that, so don’t know how good their support team is.

You don’t have to be online to play on the X-Box 360, though it pays to connect to the internet for a moment when booting up a new game as there may be updates/bug patches to download. (Games are rarely released in a bug-free state unfortunately.) If you want to buy a game on XBLA, there is the stupidity of Microsoft Points (MS Points) to deal with. You have to use a creditcard or a scratch card bought at a store to put bundles of these points into your account. The amount you have rarely is in sync with what you want to buy, so you are likely to have unused point in your account most of the time. Compared to Steam (and to the iTunes store), prices on XBLA are high. There are a few special offers at any given time, but still nowhere near the price-level of Steam, where you are likely to find the same games a lot cheaper. It is also more work to find them: Microsoft recently gave the X-Box 360 a new, less user-friendly menu to put it in line with its mobile phone and Windows 8 design. Casually browsing through a lot of titles on the console becomes annoying fast, so I never do. It’s better to walk to your PC and browse and buy the games on there, after which they are added to your account. Admittedly, installation is as easy as it is through Steam; simply download and play. And it also leaves you the option of deleting a game to clear up space and re-downloading it whenever you feel like it. I have had the misfortune of locking myself out of a X-Box account once and in this case I can report on the customer service: it both sucks and blows. There was no response to my questions about options for getting back into my account. I ultimately had to start a new one and won’t have access to the handful of games I bought under the old one if my X-Box 360 breaks down at some point.

To be able to play with friends online, Microsoft wants you to pay for a subscription. Considering that these days money increasingly comes from people making in-game purchases while playing online in multiplayer games, you’d think Microsoft would want as many people online and playing as possible. But no. As I only play online maybe one day out of a month at most, I’ll stick to the PC on that front and buy my multiplayer games through Steam. In fact, I found that I spent a lot more money during the last two big Steam sale events (they go crazy with their prices a few times a year) than I ever spent on XBLA in my five years of owning an X-Box 360. On Steam, I ended up buying games I would never have considered full-price, simply because I was curious about them. Because of the bargain prices, I would sample a game just because of an interesting concept or presentation and not feel cheated if it ultimately wasn’t my thing. Bad for my wallet, smart of the Steam-team and a sign that XBLA is doing things wrong. I strongly doubt that apart from the occasional add-on for a game I bought for X-Box 360 before discovering Steam, they will get any more money out of me. They totally had me, but by now they have totally lost me. It’s time Microsoft stops trying to squeeze money out of their customers in obvious, unfriendly and ultimately counter-productive ways. They need to convert to a system where gamers are actually happy to buy things, because it’s made easy – even fun – and because prices are reasonable enough to encourage impulse buys. No more of that Microsoft Points crap for me. XBLA = nay. Steam = yay.

PS: To be fair, a downside is that Steam sometimes gets laggy or even crashes when it gets too busy, like during the current Halloween sale. I was unable to visit the site just now when trying to add the Steam link to this praising blogpost. Oh, the irony.

PS2: the PS3 and the store that goes with it are both unfamiliar to me, so your experience there may vary.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

The The Hunger Games franchise consists of a trilogy of young-adult books, which are being made into a quadrology of films over the next couple of years. The first chapter has already passed through cinemas and features an odd central concept: a bunch of kids is forced to kill each other until only one survives. There’s a bit of Battle Royale to be found here and even a hint of The Running Man, but those films weren’t aimed at a young audience. Admittedly, the franchise is not lauding juvenile violence and there is a societal satire lingering in the background, but still: it’s kids reading about - or watching - kids killing kids. Eepy-cray.

The story takes place in an alternate future. The brutal Hunger Games are a penalty for an uprising among part of the populace against their leaders. You are rooting against the dickey upper-class straight away, as they all sport silly haircuts and wear clothes that are way too colorful. It’s like a futuristic revenge of the eighties. By contrast, the former revolters lead a poor, minimalist, woodsy kind of existence. They have been sorted into districts and from each one a girl and a boy is selected yearly to do battle. The main heroine of the story is a girl (Katniss Everdeen) who gets drafted for these games – well, actually she volunteers; it’s complicated – and mostly because of her winning personality, she manages to gain a fan base among the viewers. She also threatens to spark another revolution, making the people who are coordinating the Hunger Games feel perturbed.

I have not read the books, but the first film has the violent central concept clashing awkwardly with an unwillingness to taint the heroine. Once Katniss gets thrown into the arena, she obviously can’t kill other innocents, but she does hang back while a small group of sociopaths does the dirty work for her. (By the way: it’s odd that a group would band together like that, as ultimately they would have to turn on each other until just one was left.) She only kills in self-defense and only people who deserve it. The writers seem to clear the way for her, taking care of any obstacle that could make her have to act immorally to survive. She’s not just lucky in this way, but also in that she tends to come across people or things that help her just as she needs them. Once you realize that the universe conspires to retain her virtue, the movie loses any edge it may have had apart from the occasional unclear or very short shot of a dead or dying kid. Very luck then, this lady, except for her love life: a complicated triangle seems to be getting set up for the sequel.

I don’t understand the mass appeal of this franchise, though it apparently has it. To me, it seems too toothless for adults and too morbid to let young-adults read or watch. But the action and the acting in the movie are okay, especially the solid performances by Jennifer Lawrence as the leading lady and by Woody Harrelson as her trainer. I guess I am curious to see where they go with it next, as this doesn’t seem like a formula you could just repeat as-is. But when the sequels roll around, they are likely to linger on my ‘I’ll get around to it’-list for a good, long while. In short: meh.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Movie Review: Hope Springs

The romantic life and especially the sex life of married people in their sixties is not a topic oft-encountered at the movies. Going by romantic lore, I guess you are supposed to have settled into your happily ever after by that age already, no questions asked. So it is refreshing that the rather sappily titled Hope Springs focuses on these relatively taboo topics. The movie is about a couple who find themselves in a marriage that has lost any semblance of vitality long ago. Kay (Meryl Streep) is a sad and lonely woman longing to have a real connection again with her husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), but has been afraid to speak up. For his part, he is going through his daily routine like a sleepwalker. He doesn’t seem especially happy, but is oblivious to her feelings or to the fact that things could or should be different.

When Kay comes across a book written by a lauded relationship therapist (played by an unusually subdued Steve Carell), she sees a week of intense marriage counseling with him as a last resort to save her marriage. Arnold begrudgingly comes along, convinced it is a waste of time and money, but as they go through their sessions something starts to happen. I don’t want to spoil whether it brings them back together or makes them at peace with breaking up, but it is a sweet character study acted to the hilt by Streep and Jones, with great support from Carell. Neither party is to blame for them growing apart exactly, but as the therapist has them reflecting on their past, it does become clear how the slow process took place. There are some gender cliché’s at play, but certainly among an older generation, those are likely indeed still valid. Going by the audience in the theater I was at, the movie mostly appeals to women in the 50+ category. There was a group of said category in the row behind me and going by the enthusiastic feedback they were giving each other, it hit home.

I really liked this movie, but do have to agree with other reviews that point out the horrible use of introspective pop songs on the soundtrack. Tunes with very blunt, obvious lyrics are applied to emotional scenes on a few occasions, to hammer home what the characters are feeling, even though the actors are doing a very good job of bringing that across already. It’s a bit like having great chef cook you a delicate meal full of subtle flavors and then pouring an avalanche of generic ketchup all over it. It wouldn’t matter in a soppy teenage romance movie, but is completely out of place here and you wonder how no one during the editing of the movie caught it. A studio underestimating the audience perhaps? In any case, go see this movie if you’re in a long-term relationship. And avoid getting to the stage of estrangement Kay and Arnold were at.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Game Review: The Walking Dead: season 1, episode 1-3

The Walking Dead is a comic book series about the survivors of a zombie-apocalypse. While the shambling, hungry corpses loom as an ever-present threat, the series is really more about the behavior of people in a desperate situation. (Note that the title possibly refers to the survivors rather than the zombies.) The comic has been adapted for television and is now also a point-and-click adventure game which is being released in five installments, each part taking a couple of hours to play through, together forming a ‘season’. So far, three of the five chapters have been released and this review is based on those chapters. The fourth chapter is being released for PC the day I post this.

While the comic and the television series focus on the story of former policeman Rick Grimes, his young son and the people he encounters, the game serves as a spin-off prequel to both. One of the characters that will go on to appear in both the comic and television series pops up before heading off to his twofold fates, but the lead is new: Lee Everett. He was on his way to prison when the world went mad, gets liberated because of it and soon stumbles onto an abandoned little girl (Clementine) he feels compelled to protect. Like Rick Grimes, he becomes part of a group with more than its share of power struggles and infighting, while taking care of a kid. He finds himself continuously having to take sides and make life-or-death decisions. Who does he pick when he can only recue one out of two people? When he spots a woman too far off to save, being attacked by zombies, does he let her die screaming to keep drawing attention to herself and away from him as he gathers vital supplies for his group? Or does he mercifully shoot her, which would draw the zombie-mob his way?

More than anything, The Walking Dead in its game incarnation is about interactive storytelling. There generally isn’t an obviously right or wrong solution to the morally muddy questions it asks and no matter what option you go for, you’re likely to piss off someone in your group. This isn’t necessarily something new and has been seen in games like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. But unlike in those games, where the dialogue and interaction between characters serves as an enticing backdrop to the action-packed meat of the experience, here the story is the main course. Sure, there are some bursts of action to keep you on your toes and there is the occasional traditional point-and-click problem-solving along the lines of ‘find this item and then use it on this person or thing to move the plot along’. But it’s all in service of the tale being skillfully told: it looks like a well-drawn, gritty graphic novel, the people Lee encounters are interesting and are always a bit more complex than they seem at first glance and the voice-acting is great. The combined effect is that you feel involved as you make your choices and see the sometimes unpredictable consequences. You care about the members of your little group. While kids can easily grate if written wrong, Clementine does make you want to keep her alive at all costs. And when the game makes you pick between two likeable people, knowing the other person will die, it hurts.

A very effective gameplay mechanic, which is a new one as far as I know, is that you only have a limited time to pick a reaction/response from the up to four options you get when having to make a decision. How much time you are given exactly, is contextual. If you are asked for your opinion in the middle of a discussion, you don’t have forever, but longer than when you have to convince someone to jump off a bridge onto a fast-moving vehicle. This forces you to be fairly spontaneous and in-the-moment, making your responses more honest: you tend to go with how you think you would really react under the given circumstances. This way, I discovered I would likely be very diplomatic, protective, suspicious and mostly very moral, though occasionally giving priority to pragmatism. And I did kill someone I didn’t technically need to. But he was a very, very bad man. The speed at which you have to read and respond make this game unsuitable for people with dyslexia and you are likely to accidentally select an unintended response once or twice. If you feel really annoyed about that, thankfully you can ‘rewind’ to the beginning of the chapter you messed up and set things right. Or as right as they get in the The Walking Dead universe, which is fuelled by hope, but dotted with the violent deaths of people who don’t deserve such a fate.

Speaking of gameplay issues: I have heard grumblings about them and the technical performance on various platforms, the iPad version being especially choppy, but my PC version was mostly fine apart from one memorable occasion on which I got eviscerated by a zombie for about ten times in a row because it was unclear which contextual button I was supposed to press in the second or two allotted to me. It ultimately is just a minor annoyance though and it won’t ruin the game for you.

The makers of the game claim that by the end of the five-part ‘season’ players will have much- different sets of survivors and allegiances. Much as I am enjoying the game, I unfortunately have to call shenanigans on this. Playing is engrossing and as addictive as reading a great book, making it hard to stop because you want to know what happens next. But the further you get into the story, the clearer it becomes that a lot of your choices don’t really matter in the long run. Circumstances beyond your control wipe the slate clean partly and invalidate a lot of your earlier hand-wringing. It makes perfect sense that the writers can’t let the plot get away from them and evolve into entirely separate stories, so like in Mass Effect they find ways to lead the various narrative paths back to the same seemingly fated main events. Different characters may fulfill the same roles and scenes may play out differently but have the same outcome. The flavoring is different, but it’s mostly the same dish. One day, someone will hopefully succeed in the nigh-impossible task of combining very tight storytelling with giving the player a lot of freedom, but The Walking Dead doesn’t quite crack that nut.

Due to the big success of the game version of The Walking Dead, a second ‘season’ has already been announced and I have mixed feelings about this. Though the franchise was always conceived as a zombie movie that doesn’t end, this makes it seems likely they will kill off all but one or two of the current cast in the end to have players start in the exact same place in season two, all previous decisions null-and-void. Then again, they may have an open ending, leave this group to their unknown destiny and jump to a fresh set of characters. Either way, despite not quite making good on the promise of wildly diverging paths, I am hooked and will be there to see where it all leads.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Movie Review: The Woman in Black

Daniel Radcliffe is immensely likeable. He doesn’t just have the specter of saint-like Harry Potter still hovering over him, he is also very outspoken about potentially controversial topics like gay marriage. He has made sizeable donations to – and starred in public service announcements for – The Trevor Project, which supports gay teens. And there is a charming rebellious streak apparent by him copping to being drunk quite a bit while filming the last chapter of the Harry Potter-saga and by going full-frontal on stage during a production of Equus. He is clearly trying to put some distance between him and his bespectacled alter-ego and his first movie on that path is The Woman in Black.

The Woman in Black is an old-fashioned haunted house horror movie that aims to make you squirm not by throwing entrails at your face, but by having carefully lit, spooky surroundings through which the camera creeps, dropping in the occasional unexpected burst of movement or a blast of sound to make you jump. Radcliffe’s primary role is to be the one who guides the viewer through these environments. Rather than run off screaming, he keeps stealthily sneaking towards whatever inexplicable noises echo through the house, which turns out to be less abandoned than advertised. His curiosity is ill-advised perhaps, but also necessary to keep the movie from being really, really short.

The primary motivation for his character to hang around is that he works for a law-firm and has to sort out the paperwork to be able to sell the mansion or lose his job and therefore the means to support his young son. Also, he is still grieving for his wife and is intrigued rather than scared by the idea of ghosts, as that seems to point to an afterlife in which he could be reunited with her. The locals of the town neighboring the house seem very keen to be rid of him, but rather than vocalizing exactly why that is, the writers prefer to have them make vague, ominous comments in an aggressive tone. Looking back, there is no convincing reason why they wouldn’t just spit out the entire back-story of the mansion and run him off. Radcliffe has to find out the slow, roundabout way what happened there and why children die violent deaths in the town at a higher than usual frequency.

The movie is not exactly an acting stretch for Radcliffe, his moods being fairly muted for the most part and switching primarily between sadness, apprehension and fear. But he does make you forget about Harry Potter for long stretches at a time, helped by a period look (end 19th century) that makes him appear more mature. He shies away from anything like glasses, that would remind you of his acting legacy. The Woman in Black isn’t a classic: it feels a bit slow despite being not all that long and though it sets the mood very well, it gets a bit more hokey near the end when the action is upped. But for a relaxed movie night at home with the lights off, on a big screen, curled up against a date, this nostalgic, atmospheric creepfest just about hits the right spot.