Tuesday 25 June 2013

Gunpoint Review

I’ve just spent a lazy Sunday afternoon playing new indie title Gunpoint by Tom Francis. And what a great afternoon it was. Honestly, without deadlines, sales targets, or publishers breathing down your neck, indie games can concentrate on just being fun. And Gunpoint is one of the most fun titles that I have played in a long time.

In Gunpoint you play as Richard Conway – a freelance detective with a nifty pair of futuristic pants which give him superman level jumping and door kicking abilities. Richard is embroiled in a murder plot and must take contracts from a variety of people involved in the crime to clear his name, work out what actually happened, and catch the bad guys.

But really the story is just a basic means to move you between levels.  At its heart Gunpoint is a puzzle game. And it does this extremely well.

Each level presents you with a building (sometimes up to three) in a two dimensional plan style view. The buildings start off as two story affairs, but end up as multi-floor towers. Each building is populated by several guards. These range from rent-a-cops, armoured guards, and professional hit men, each with their own unique abilities. Rent-a-cops can be tackled and knocked out. Armoured guards can’t be tackled and must shot or evaded, and hitmen can see in the dark and can't be intimidated.   

Your mission is to navigate each building to carry out your clients instructions – which usually means getting to a particular computer terminal to steal video files or manipulate data. And each client usually has a secondary objective which will earn you more pay if you can achieve it; leave no witnesses to your intrusion alive, hack any additional laptops you find, get through the building as stealthily as possible, et cetera.  

An early level in Gunpoint needing you to hack 3 computer terminals - one on each floor.

Navigating the buildings is fantastic fun. To get around them Richard can scale walls, jump through windows, leap huge distances and (eventually) kick down doors. But, most importantly of all, he can also hack the circuitry of the building. This allows you to essentially re-wire the structure in any way you want. Light switches can instead open and close doors, or security cameras trigger elevators, metal detectors activating lights.... almost any combination is possible.

As a result many of the levels have several ways in which they can be approached. Do you kick down a ground floor door and hope that you can evade or shoot the guard on the other side before you are shot yourself? Do you approach from the roof and jump through the skylight, alerting the guards to your presence, and then scurrying away before one of them finds you? Or do you go the electrical rout - re-wiring a security camera so that it turns off the lights in another room, triggering the guard in that room to toggle the light switch which had already been re-wired to call the elevator in the room you wish to enter, distracting the guard in that room so you can sneak by him. 

Circuit hacking mode - allowing you to re-wire the building to your advantage.

The gameplay is supplemented by excellent level design which provides just the right amounts of linear lateral problem solving to free exploration. Towards the end of the game you are having to really think about how to get past the hitmen and armed guards. The game also features a robust auto save system which allows you to try out your ideas, and easily reload to a few seconds before your attempt if you are killed. And the controls are very good (WASD + mouse). Richard never feels sluggish or laggy.

A certain dry humour permeates the experience. Quips are made about the silliness of achievements, industrial espionage, and the game itself. The game is often very funny, with jokes being well written, not over-the-top, and don't detract from the gameplay.

Some minor issues....
There are a few niggling issues. The game feels too short. Of the 20 levels currently available the first 10 or so are of a more basic style. It's not until the last 2-3 levels that you start getting complex buildings that you can really sink your teeth into, and then the game ends. It leaves you feeling like you have yet to see everything Gunpoint has to offer. Like the game is missing its magnum opus. Gunpoint has a level editor, so hopefully we will see some new maps come out of the community (or the developer, if you are reading Mr. Francis :-P) soon.

The game also has limited scope for replaying levels. As you progress through the game you earn experience points which you can spend on upgrading your abilities. You also earn cash from completing levels which allow you to buy new abilities and equipment - a hand gun, ability to break windows silently, kick down doors...  While you can go back and replay levels as you wish, I found that I got an A+ grade on the majority of levels on my first attempt, and few of the earlier levels benefited from gaining upgrades or new equipment. It would have been nice if levels had additional objectives that could only be accessed through gaining upgrades, or were made markedly easier through new equipment -  encouraging replaying to achieve higher grades. 

But over all this is a minor gripe.

So far I've had over 5 hours of entertainment from Gunpoint, which is pretty damn good considering the US$10 price tag. The game is perhaps the most unique and fun title that I have played in weeks. Head to Steam right now and pick it up - it's well worth the price of admission.

Saturday 22 June 2013

E3 2013 Update - Xbox One DRM Reversal

So... in a flash of blatant common sense Microsoft has had a complete reversal on the Xbox One DRM. Given the thrashing the Xbox One was getting from gamers, and from games journalists, getting rid of the DRM is just so purely logical it’s almost Zen like.

In my post 'E3 2013 - A PC Gamers Perspective' I fell on the side of the PS4 (kind of), stating that if I was to buy either system at launch it would be the Sony console. Has my opinion changed? Read on dear viewer!

But first the DRM reversal itself...

Microsoft..... Complete Idiots? Yes.

To be perfectly honest this whole incident really speaks to how much Microsoft really sucks at understanding gamers and the target market. 

Just about everything about the Xbox One launch has been botched. The reveal event which tried to sell the console as a TV device to a core gamer audience. The middle finger to submariners and other military personnel. And an E3 press conference which said almost nothing about the console itself, the DRM, family sharing of games, indie titles, the cloud processing. Not to mention running the games on show at E3 on high end PCs rather than equivalent Xbox One hardware, and giving the impression that we may have another Aliens: Colonial Marines situation upcoming (Aliens Colonial Marines E3 2012 preview vs the 2013 released product).

Microsoft did the same thing with Windows 8. And again they have had to come out with an apology in the form of the Windows 8.1 service pack which will reintroduce the start button and ability to boot directly to desktop. 

It's almost like Microsoft's marketing and development teams are in a world of their own. Completely disconnected from reality, and without even a little bit of understanding of how the market works or how to communicate to the target audience.

High end Windows 7 PCs masquerading and Xbox One dev kits. Complete with Nvida GTX video cards rather the Xbox One equivalent AMD 7790 (Images from Blended Gaming).

This DRM situation was yet another example of Microsoft completely not getting the point. 

I get the need for these sorts of DRM systems, especially moving into a completely online distribution system as Microsoft is clearly trying to do. And I also think that systems that see developers continue to earn an income from their titles after the initial release period should be explored. But in my post on video game piracy I raised the issue that it is very easy to conceptually devalue a product by taking away features or otherwise negativity impacting the experience. If you take something away then you must give something back if you want the product to retain the same value in the eyes of customers.

This is where Microsoft fucked up. Being able to lend games to your mates, having access to cheap pre-owned games, being able to on sell your games, and not being tied to the internet are features that console gamers very much value. By taking these away Microsoft devalued their product to the point that no one wanted to buy it.

But the thing is Microsoft could have kept the DRM if it had just spent more time explaining the other ways that they would add value back to the system. Being able to access your Xbox Live library from any Xbox system. Being able to share your library with up to 10 people. Cloud processing. Trading digital games. Better indie support. All of these could have given the Xbox huge advantages in the eyes of gamers, and could have blunted the loss of features and freedoms through DRM. But instead Microsoft provided next to no information about how these features were going to work, what the restrictions would be, or what exact benefits they would provide. 

Instead from the point of view of gamers what we saw were the removal of freedoms that console gamers had enjoyed for decades. And fuck all of anything else.
The moment Sony 'won' E3 2013.

To be clear I am very happy with Microsoft dropping the online check in requirement. These systems just aren't ready for prime time yet. Error 37, the Sim City debacle, even Steam is not exactly 100% reliable. If you can't guarantee that your servers will never be down, don't make your console reliant on them. And that's without even getting into the problems faced by people who simply don't have consistent access to the net.

But the status quo is not exactly the greatest answer either. The status quo is games releasing at NZ$120. It's on disk DLC. It's micro transactions. It's generic 6 hour first person shooters. What Microsoft should have done is used this issue to identify and address why pre-owned games are so popular in the first place. Or why piracy exists. And then suggesting solutions. Yes removing the DRM is great from the consumers point of view. But it doesn't do anything to move the industry forward. It doesn't fix the underlying problems. It isn't exciting. Wouldn't it have been great if Microsoft could have kept the DRM, and also have kept all the other features that the DRM allowed, but also have address the issues of overpriced games, and increasingly poor production values? Actually have made gaming better to compensate for the inclusion of DRM. 

But then that would require a certain amount of competence the Microsoft just didn't seem to have.....

Personally I would have been fine with the loss of pre-owned games if Microsoft had announced that new titles would release at half the current price simply because of the extra revenue produced by every single person needing to buy them. Or that pricing would now reflect the length/quality of the game. Likewise having to be online to check in with Microsoft every 24 hours may not have been such a massive deal if it was shown how cloud processing actually provides a massive benefit to gaming. And actually showing us how indie titles were going to benefit from the new self publish systems could have made me at least take a notice.

So, would I buy one?

I own a PS3. I like my PS3. But there are some things that I prefer about Xbox consoles. The controller for example – I have big white man hands. The PS3 controller seems to be made for a Japanese school girl. Long gaming sessions on my PS3 often end up in crampy hands.  Sony also tends to focus on Japanese styled games (for lack of a better term), JRPGs, anime graphics, emo kids, etc...  which I’m just not into. I also own an original Xbox (an Xbox 1.... ?) and a PS2. The Xbox was easily my favourite console of that generation. Really the deciding factor in me getting a PS3 was the blue ray support - that machine is a kick ass blue ray player.

About 40% of my original Xbox Collection.
Does Microsoft’s DRM reversal change my mind in favour of the Xbox One? Yes... I guess.... Ultimately what was pushing me away from the Xbox One in favour of the PS4 was the difficulty in playing games. So in that case this news is a big plus for me in favour of the Xbox.

But both consoles are still very expensive considering that most of the non-gaming content is not available in NZ – and possibly never will be - and the games are about 20-30% more expensive than the same titles on PC at launch.

So you could say that for me the PS4 and the Xbox one are now on a closer to equal footing. Not that that is really a good thing for either manufacturer. Both Sony and Microsoft have yet to provide any compelling arguments for why I, as PC gamer, should buy a console at launch. The Xbox is now just slightly less shit.

PC gaming is still the best option for me, and I’m more than happy to sit back for 6 – 12 months after launch to see how Sony and Microsoft play things out.

Sunday 16 June 2013

E3 2013 - A PC Gamers Perspective

So, with the Microsoft and Sony E3 keynotes over am I, as a primarily PC gamer, any closer to picking up either of these consoles at launch? No. Not really. I can see the value of these machines, kind of, and I'm certainly not a member of the PC MASTER RACE. Well not a hugely active member anyway - I own a PS3, Wii, PS2, original Xbox, DS, and PSP, with dozens of games for each system. 

But I just wasn't blown away by what was on show by Microsoft or Sony this E3.

Microsoft and Sony press conferences E3 2013.

At the moment for the next gen consoles I'm not really seeing anything on the non-gaming front that my PC doesn't already do much much better. See, my desktop is already hooked up to my 40inch Samsung flat panel, and is equipped with a TV capture card and Windows 7 media centre. It works well - record two channels at once while watching a DVD or playing games. Our watch TV while playing games with picture in picture. So for me the DVR functions of the Xbox One are straight out redundant.

Well, that is to say that they would be if I actually had the opportunity to use them - the live TV specific content is not available outside the US at launch. At all. So, for me anyway, those functions of the Xbox may as well not even exist. NFL content, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, etc are also not available in New Zealand. And things like youtube, Twitch TV, Facebook, Skype, email and web browsing are available on pretty much everything. To be honest I'd be very surprised if either console gives me a better web browsing experience than my PC. 

Will the consoles let me play my DVD collection that I've ripped to .mkv format without needing my PC to act as a server? Can I access my iTunes content? Can I install Firefox and my favourite extensions? Probably not. 

The non-gaming features just don't offer anything to pull me away from my media PC. There is nothing here to make me sit up and take notice.

The prices of the two consoles aren't exactly grabbing me. 

The Xbox is releasing in New Zealand for a massive $749 ($748 if you buy it on the ebgames online store... yay savings!). The PS4 will be a slightly nicer $649 - but then the PS4 isn't shipping with the PlayStation eye as a pack in which will bump the price up to around $749 anyway. But to be clear that price isn't actually too much different to what people are paying in the States. Unlike the US, retail prices in NZ are quoted as sales tax inclusive. In New Zealand we pay a goods and services tax of 15% on all transactions, which means of that $749 price tag $112.35 is taxes - which we can't pin on Microsoft or Sony. Without taxes we're looking at NZ$636.65. With the current exchange rate NZ$636.65 = US$505.37. That's pretty good considering the Xbox One costs $499 in the States.
The thing is $749 is simply a hell of a lot of money for something that (for me anyway) only plays games. At $749 we’re getting into budget PC territory. Looking around my favourite online retailers right now for about $900 I could build a mid range gaming PC with equal, or in the case of the CPU much better, specs as the Xbox One. Given the nature of PC components that price is likely to fall in the 5-6 months before the consoles release. 

And that computer will be able to do all the extra computing stuff that the consoles can't; home office, audio and video editing, coding my own games, editing this blog, etc etc. It will also give me choice in my entertainment providers - which web browser I want to use, who I want to buy content from, what codec’s and players I want to use, and the formats I want to use - including playing my freaking .mkv files without needing another machine to convert them on the fly! It will also give me choice in which controller I want to use, mouse and keyboard or Xbox/Playstation controller - which for me is a huge advantage (I hate playing FPS with analogue sticks!).

Dosbox - The words greatest emulator
This mid range PC will almost certainly be able to play all the cross platform releases that will come out for PC for the next 2-3 years. Maybe not at the highest graphics quality available to the high end PCs, but they will run at the same level as the console. But thanks to DOSbox and virtualisation, this machine will also have access to the massive back catalogue of PC games that stretches back nearly 30 years. The Xbox One and PS4 won't even be backwards compatible with their own predecessors. It will also have pure awesome levels of cross platform compatibility through emulation. Want to play Sega Master System, SNES, PSone, ZX Spectrum games? No problem - this one machine will do it all.

Something else I need to consider is the price of actual games. New console titles release to retail in New Zealand at around $120. The same titles for PC release at around $80-$100. And then after that PC titles will begin declining in price. A year after release PC games cost around $30-$60, or less. Console titles have a tenancy to remain at a high price until the discount version comes out (classics collection, etc). If a classics version comes out at all that is.... Popular Nintendo titles seem to never drop in price.  But that is retail, if we head to Steam the discounts on PC games are huge. Entire franchises for as little as $10. New titles come out on Steam at about $70 as opposed to full retail on PSN. And New titles will quickly go on sale a few weeks after launch, with sometimes up to 50% off. Then consider the on going costs of console gaming; years of Xbox Live gold and (now with the PS4) PlayStation plus subscriptions.

$79.90 for Watchdogs on PC (                 $119.00 for Watchdogs on PS4 (

Console gaming just seems to keep getting more expensive, while the cost of PC gaming continues to decrease. At this price point there just isn't much justification for me to purchase a console. Not when a mid range PC will play many of the same games while also having access to all the PC exclusives, will have the ability to do far more stuff than the consoles, and ultimately (in NZ anyway) could work out to be a far cheaper option in the long run.

Rome 2: Total War - not on consoles.

PC has had DRM restrictions for years. Worse than those suggested by Microsoft for the Xbox One. It completely sucks. The current DRM systems employed by the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii U are a huge advantage that the consoles have over the PC. For me consoles are a secondary gaming device, and as a secondary device I want them to be as hassle free as possible. Not being able to trade games to friends? Restricting pre-owned games to 'participating' retailers? Mandatory 24 hourly check ins? No thanks. I already get enough DRM headaches from my desktop. So with that the PS4 has an obvious advantage. Well, at this stage it has an advantage anyway - Sony isn't putting restrictions on what DRM systems 3rd party published are allowed to use, so we could still see Xbox style DRM appear on the PS4. 

I think I'm going to wait to see how this one pays out before passing judgement.

But at least New Zealand is on Microsoft's 'ok to play' list. NZ must be considered one of the cool kids. But what the hell is up with Microsoft's region locking anyway?

Both consoles are going to be using the magic of the great and mystical cloud to supplement the systems. The PS4 is using the recently Sony acquired Gaikai network to provide some (limited) PS3 backwards compatibility. The Xbox One is using a remote server to augment the processing capability of the console, 'remotely upgrading' the system. To be honest I'm not sure how well these streaming systems are going to work.

I have 2 concerns;

1) It seems like this will require quite a bit of broadband data to transfer information to and from the console and the server. This could prove problematic in New Zealand where 40GB data caps are common. 

OnLive - will similar success grace the
Xbox and PS4 streaming services?
2) It seems that bandwidth it's a critical part of the equation. Thanks to government policies which saw telecommunications monopolized by one company for about 20 years, New Zealand's broadband sucks. I'm on asynchronous ADSL - downloads max out at about 8mbps and uploads are capped at 1mbps. Is that enough to use a streaming service like what's being advertised by Microsoft and Sony? It's not enough to watch 1080p video on YouTube.... And how much controller lag am I going to get when my button presses are being sent to a remote server on a 1mbps connection? What about PlayStation eye games or the Kinect - am I anywhere near able to stream games that need these controls? 

It seems more than likely that similar to OnLive (a streaming service which didn't exactly do very well on PC) these services will be more of a bare bones kind of affair to maximise the number of people who can access it.

That is if they come to New Zealand at all. I don't see Microsoft rushing to build local servers here. And Sony's track record for this sort of thing isn't exactly great. They couldn't be bothered to get most of the PlayStation classic titles re-classified so they could be released here over the PSN, and so our library of these titles is woefully small. I will be surprised if they release many streaming PS3 titles in this part of the world.

Blood Omen - one of the many PSone Classic titles that Sony never released to the New Zealand PSN.

But then they really haven't told us much of anything about these services. What exactly will be available? How will they be charging for the service? Will there be Xbox games that actually need this 'remote upgrading' in order to function? I think this is something else that I will reserve judgment on until release.

Parallel computing man! The PC has had CPUs with 4, 6, and 8 cores for ages, but most games are single or dual threaded and don't make full use of the processing power available. The Jaguar APU inside the Xbox One and PS4 are low powered, but with the consoles moving onto an x86-64 multithreaded platform we may finally see titles optimised for multithreaded CPUs arrive for PC. And optimised for AMD systems none the less. Those ultra cheap Piledriver chips which have poor single thread performance but kick ass multithreaded performance may start coming into their own, and providing some much needed competition to the Intel Core series. Ultimately we're looking at cheaper PC gaming and better PC ports.

The AMD FX series... just waiting to become relevant.
The Xbox kinect? Not interested. Gesture and speech controls don't do anything for me at all. To be honest I would rather not have my console watching and listening for me to say 'Xbox on'. Plus, while Microsoft has said that the kinect won't spy on you, Microsoft (and game publishers in general) haven't exactly been completely up front about these things in the past. I'd rather just not have to worry about it.

Games, games games. At the end of the day that's what it’s all about. And E3 had plenty of games that look really cool. The Order: 1886 (PS4 exclusive), Project Spark (Xbox and PC), Infamous: Second Son (PS4 exclusive), South Park: TheStick of Truth (cross platform), Xcom: The Bureau (cross platform), Wolfenstein: The New Order (cross platform), Murdered: Soul Suspect (cross platform), The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (cross platform), Thief 4 (cross platform) and Watch Dogs (cross platform) look great.

Most of the games that caught my attention are going to be released on PC, so the game line up isn't really pulling me towards either console at this stage.

The Witcher 3 - I really want to play this.

The heavy hitting exclusive franchises for both systems don't really do anything for me. I've never really enjoyed JRPGs and Final Fantasy just didn't interest me. Halo... Ok, I played Halo: Combat Evolved when it came out on PC back in 2003. I just didn't understand the hype. Dumb AI and repetitive boring level design (The Library - half a dozen floors of droning monotonous similarity). As a result I never bothered with the sequels. Yea, that's probably my fault for not giving the series a fair go. But it still isn't a console seller for me.

The PC has a massive indie game scene, which I like a lot. Half the games I play are indie titles. So both consoles taking indie a little more seriously is great. But then Microsoft's big reveal for indie was Minecraft... one of the most successful PC titles of recent years, and hardly what I would call a standard indie title. I would really have liked more information on what tools will be made available to indie's, pricing, gameplay or subject restrictions etc... But still, encouraging indie devs to the consoles can only be a good thing.

I'm still disappointed by the lack of some genres that I really like at E3. Turn based and real time strategy titles are a no show. And space combat simulators. Honestly why do we still not have an HD remake or sequel to Tie Fighter! I get that the audience has change a little bit, but genre variety is something that is quickly being drained from the industry.

Star Wars Tie Fighter: I really want to play this too!

Oh yea, the Oculus Rift is still cool!

So, that's E3 2013. Lots of good games, but no compelling arguments to buy either console. But if I was going to buy a console at launch? PS4. Without hesitation. It's cheaper (if you don't need the PlayStation eye), slightly more powerful, and without the crazier of the DRM strategies that Microsoft is implementing. Maybe if you are a diehard Halo fan you would go Microsoft? Otherwise I just can't see why you would buy an Xbox One.

I've been very happy with my PS3, and more than likely I will pick up a PS4 at some stage. But for me I'll still be waiting until the price drops and cheaper pre-owned games start appearing in stores.

Its a joke, calm down fan boys