Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Zero Punctuation Reviews: God of War - Chains of Olympus

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Trend Micro Going Downhill

Over the last week I've been having to spend an inordinate amount of time fixing things, both personally and professionally, and I'm struck how often the twisted and sordid trails are leading to Trend Micro Internet Security.

This tale starts with my acquisition of Trend Micro Internet Security 2007. I've been Running Trend Micro IS v11 (which I think they call 2002) for quite a long time now, and it's served me well over the years. So, I figured that the latest version would be that much better.

I must say I was disappointed in it. An install of Trend Micro 2007 on a private machine caused an excruciating selection of gripes. It garbled the fonts in firefox (but not IE7 oddly enough) such that I had to turn on Clearfonts. Any time I attempted to install something from a disk image using Daemon Tools the installation was usually corrupt. Indeed, sometimes the act of switching disk images would cause a lockup, requiring a hard reboot to fix. At first I was blaming this on the new version of Daemon tools, but then I also noticed that internet connectivity was noticeably slower with TMIS 2007 installed than it was previously. After a while it began to add up, and sure enough, all these problems went away the instant I uninstalled Trend Micro 2007.

Oh, but it gets better. Remember my tried and true, long-loyal TMIS 2002/v11? It has turned on me.

Both at home and at work I've noticed odd problems. I could ping any IP address, but I could only ping certain machines by name but not certain other machines. If an explorer window accessing a network resource is left open in the background, the computer often would lock up. Applications that access network resources by the //server/share naming convention would also frequently lock the system so hard that not even the task manager could open. All kinds of bizarre behavior, all behaving in a contrary manner to how I understand windows based networking to work based upon 10 or so years of professional experience and untold more of private experience. But it occurred to me I could also trace this aberrant behavior to one night a few days ago when Trend Micro (which I naturally keep on automatic update mode) received an update that not only was a new pattern but also altered something to such an extent as to require a reboot. This is rare but does happen from time to time. That update not only happened on all 3 of my home PCs and my laptop, but also the good 50% of the machines at work that also run Trend Micro Internet Security (based on my recommendation, naturally). It was after this update that not only did some of my machines at home start acting funny, but a good many of the machines at work also started paralyzing themselves doing otherwise routine activities.

It took me a little while to put all the pieces together about exactly what the hell was going on (especially since the problem only affected machines with XP SP2 but not SP1 on them), but final confirmation of my coalescent theory came when I used task manager to end pccpfw.exe and tmproxy.exe (Trend Micro's software firewall and proxy, respectively), disabled the network connections, re-enabled them, and magically all the problems went away instantly. I could ping anything by name, access any network //server/share without lockups both in explorer and in our professional software... in other words, removing Trend Micro Internet Security fixed the problem. I reinstalled... and things go ok until I update to the most current version... and pow. Faster than I could say "thank you sir, may I have another" the lockups and misbehavior are back.

This leaves me feeling severely disgruntled, if not betrayed. In researching this problem, I found that trend micro experienced a similar problem back in 2005 (1, 2) where a bad heuristic pattern in a virus pattern update caused the exact same symptoms I am experiencing today. That day, they allegedly fixed it within 90 minutes, but several days after this reboot-necessitating update still nothing is surfacing. And I'm left with egg on my face as the "company computer guy" for having recommended this product in the first place (never mind the years of trouble-free service it has given us previous to this episode).

So now it's time to move on, unfortunately... I'm looking at Kaspersky as a possible replacement, I suppose... but I still feel bummed at the ending of my Trend Micro era. All these years of us conquering viruses and worms together have ended with a bad taste, and it feels to me like that one episode of Dukes of Hazzard where Boss Hogg hired a hypnotist and they planted a compulsion in Luke Duke's mind while he slept to sell the General Lee the next time it broke down, then arranged for the GL to have a rather minor engine stall. And here I am the Bo Duke of this metaphor, wondering why my buddy is now against me, selling off my badass car and leaving me stranded to the mercies of the Boss Hogg viruses of the world.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review: Turning Point - Fall of Liberty

Looky looky. Another World War 2 FPS. This one using the Unreal 3 engine. However, I must report right out of the gate that this game is one which further validates the phrase "they can't all be winners." It also demonstrates that you can't judge a book (or a video game) by its cover (or the screenshots posted thereupon).

Does anybody here remember the PC games of the 1990s? There was a game called Duke Nukem 3D. It used a little engine called the "Build Engine." It was revolutionary for its time, and led to a lot of other so-called "Duke-a-likes" that were extremely similar to Duke3D because they used the same engine and the same basic level design and the same basic gameplay such that it felt more like a sprite swapping mod than a new game, and most of these games were god awful.

Return now to present day with this concept, and you have Turning Point - Fall of Liberty. This mediocre (at best) monstrosity is crammed down the gullet of the Unreal 3 engine like a 12 year old forced to eat pâté until he turns green, and any who play it will share in that suffering.

Graphics -
Let's just say this right now. The only redeeming feature of this game is that it uses the unreal 3 engine, so at least some of it is pretty to look at. That doesn't mean the graphics are all good, however. The shadow processing is absolutely abysmal, often causing stairstep-like zigzags in shadows that should be straight such that they don't look so much like shadows as incomplete paint jobs. The Unreal 3 engine makes a valiant stab, dressing up the pig it has been given in the fanciest prom dress it can find and dancing for all it is worth, hoping just to make it through the night without losing its lunch. The models are largely ugly, the physics are surreal, the art design is as bland as a sand sandwich. Even the motion of the enemy models is hilariously bad. Every nazi to run anywhere looks like he's trying to pantomime riding an imaginary unicycle. The nazis often literally mince around like ballet sissies as if lampooning what they represent. The graphical distortion/desaturization that is supposed to tell you when you're taking too much damage often fails to make its presence known because so much of the game is drab and squiggly to begin with.

Sound -
I suppose the sound effects and music aren't that bad. The voice acting is over the top (though that can be entertaining if you're into bad actors trying too hard).

Gameplay -
It's been a long time since I played a game as awkward to operate as this one. The player often gets hung up on corners or changes in elevation.

The game also hamstrings itself by only allowing you to carry two weapons total at any time. No, not two "full sized" weapons plus a pistol and knife, two weapons (full stop). That means a pistol and a rifle. Or a submachine gun and a rocket launcher. Or a shotgun and a large machine gun. Two weapons. So it is very easy to run out of ammo once you find a weapon you like and you may not have a suitable alternate weapon.

TP-FoL also forgoes using the usual save/load system in favor of a series of checkpoints (no doubt because of its bastard console roots) which, in later levels, are much too far apart.

The portions of the game which require climbing and hand-over-hand swinging and hanging to progress might get points for originality if they weren't so badly implemented. I wouldn't say the controls for these portions are clunky and poor, but let's just say your hamfisted big-apple alter ego ain't exactly Lara Croft.

Literally the dumbest thing I've ever had to do in a first person shooter - jump up and down on top of london bridge to shoot rockets at the turrets of a zeppelin... which then somehow did not catch fire from each turret exploding.

This game is good for anyone who ever wanted to be John Wayne in a world war 2 movie and spray a room with bullets, many of which just magically seem to find their target beyond all logic, while somehow not being cut down by the bullets of the 10 people he is shooting with no cover whatsoever to shield him.

It's hard to tell if this game is so bad on purpose or not. It almost could be a brilliant work of self-satire if I didn't know better. Not so funny is the constant hangups and stuttering for loading of new portions of maps.

The Verdict -
It's been a while since I played a genuinely bad game. It was so bad it was funny, and I kept playing all the way through to the end to see just how bad it could get. My answer: very bad. If Mystery Science Theater 3000 did video games, there is no doubt this one would have been in the lineup. My thoughts during watching the closing credits: "Man, a whole lot of people worked on this game for it to have sucked so bad."

Grade: D. The only thing saving it from an F is the Unreal 3 engine.

And that's the word from Bandit Camp.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Zero Punctuation Reviews - Super Smash Bros Brawl

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Review - Frontlines: Fuel of War

The FPSes are coming out in good numbers the last few months, and one of the ones that definitely caught my eye was Frontlines: Fuel of War. The TV advertising campaign made it look particularly juicy, and made me think how difficult it is these days to tell actual game engine footage from pre-rendered footage. Adding to my salivation was that it was put out by one of my favorite game publishers (THQ). So I got it... but work's been kicking my butt and I had a backlog of games awaiting my attention, and that worked out to F:FoW's advantage in this instance because it gave them time to issue two patches with a followup hotfix each. Thus, this game has a bit of an advantage on the review block as compared to some others, because the others mostly were reviewed before the patches could come out.

Graphics -
The visual experience in Frontlines: Fuel of War is absolutely breathtaking. The models are well-made and high poly. The textures are rich and detailed. The level design shows care and attention has been paid to every little aspect of the game. It's gorgeous. Beautiful. The 3rd person (vehicle and drone) cameras behave well. The post-processing effects also add well to the immersion, particularly the darkening and blurring of the first person view when taking damage. There is a fair amount of bloom-abuse going on, and sometimes motion blur gets a little silly at times, but overall your eyes could hardly ask for more. I particularly also like how the game tries to point out where enemies are firing at you by circling them in red, because sometimes they'd otherwise be a little hard to make out.

Audio -
A fair amount of effort also went into the auditory experience of Frontlines. Not only is there appropriate orchestral soundtracking, but ambient sounds of battle really help to immerse the player into the game. The voiceovers and cutscenes are a little low volume as compared to the gameplay portions, which led me to have to turn it up for the cut scenes and back down during play. The game also likes to push the bass, so if you've got a subwoofer on your gaming rig, prepare for complaining neighbors. While it is also nice that the single player bots are more vocal than in some other FPSes, shouting banter, muttering during down time, and of course describing the position of nearby attacking enemies, their taunts and quips tend to get a little repetitive.

Gameplay -
The controls are the familiar WASD-mouse combo, and perform well. This surprised me, given that Frontlines was another one of those thrice-cursed "console first" FPSes. Usually games that come out on console "and oh yeah, PC too" tend to favor their console roots, and you can feel them trying to interpolate thumbstick movements from your mouse. But not Frontlines.

The game does recycle quite a few things from other titles, but they're good ideas and deserve to be stolen. The "hide to heal" Call of Duty paradigm is used, along with the industry standard "wide crosshairs means innacurate" mechanic complete with accuracy boosts from crouching and going prone. The game uses a "respawn at a base you've taken and let you pick equipment" dynamic that clearly hearkens from Battlefield, with a limited number of respawns per battle. The choice of gear is less limiting than in Battlefield however, because you'll often find things like rocket launchers, drones and sniper rifles lying in enemy outposts as you take them over, and you don't have to "swap out" kits to use them. Conceivably, you could end up carrying every weapon available at once with no penalty really, except that these things can only be picked up once, and if you die with them they are gone. The game also uses a "take, hold and advance" methodry any BF fan will recognize instantly and take to as a duck to water.

The one truly original and novel area of the game is in its use of remote controlled drones. Used for getting around otherwise difficult to breach defenses and such, these tiny tanks, helicopters and cars are well implemented and fun to mess with. It was also a good idea to be able to switch back and forth between drone and soldier with a single right click, and to be able to pick the drone back up.

The accuracy of many of the weapons can be a problem for those who like to run and gun. Even the standard assault rifle needs a fair amount of crouching and sitting still to gain any sort of accuracy over more than a few dozen paces. Shooting while running (or sometimes even standing) often just hoses down a general area. Enemy troops can take a lot of punishment as they're as well armored as you, except even the slightest grazing of their head is good enough for a headshot, which is an instant kill.

Oh and speaking of headshots, I absolutely love how a headshot causes the target's headgear (be it big armored helmet or jaunty little beret) to flip 30 feet straight up into the air like some kind of carnival shooting gallery. It made me grin maliciously every time it happened. Hat's off to ya. Roffle.

The levels themselves are very good. You can tell a lot of time and effort went into the design of these maps. There's also a lot of destructability to the environment, meaning a tank could blow away that sandbag wall the bad guys are hiding behind, and a lot of the junkyard cover can be blasted away as well. A lot of other games make a few dozen standard structure types and "populate" a 2.5D topographical map with them and call it a day. I'm looking at you, Battlefield. You do this some too, Call of Duty, so don't look so innocent. Here, though, the level of detail and planning on each level brought adjectives to my mind as I played through them such as "lovingly crafted" and "painstakingly wrought." Given this, I suppose it only makes sense that the single player experience is rather brief.

Gripes -
Like Call of Duty 4, the single player campaign is a little on the short side, ringing in at around 4 hours or less. It's possible this could be because of the extraordinary amount put into each level, but I can't help but think that some of the blame for both of these games' short campaigns lies on their shared origins as FPSes made with the console crowd in mind. Damn those console tards and their short attention spans... CoD4 got a bit of a pass on this brevity, and largely so does Frontlines.

The story isn't as immersive here though. Your cohorts are largely disposable and interchangeable, and the cut scene characters are cookie cutter cardboard cutout stereotypes from the great big stockpile of banal clichés. This of course prevents you from identifying and commiserating with them even in the slightest, which is something of a pity. Even though I always had at least 4 buddies around me in the single player, I always felt alone, and was particularly unconcerned as to whether the others on my team lived or died, which was not true of other games of this ilk. This indifference was exacerbated by the fact that whenever one of my squad died, another stepped out from around a nearby corner to take his place as if he was waiting just out of camera shot for somebody to die so he could come out and maintain the status quo. It's too bad, because if you really look at it the AI on your squadmates is rather good; they know about taking cover, they shout out where the enemy is, they only occasionally do something incredibly stupid that ends up getting them dead. Also, I'm sure it took some creative programming to arrange so that a replacement squad member never spawned in plain sight of the camera... always just around a corner or behind some other such obstruction.

Most of the bugs have been worked out (including a rather entertaining transparency bug having to do with things hiding behind the sky), but there's still the occasional crash as of version 1.0.2.

My final, and perhaps most poignant gripe is that there are no bots in multiplayer. This prevents you from setting up private games with only a friend or two and getting the full experience. Instead, you have to share your multiplayer time with the unwashed masses of ECKSBAWKS! kiddies out there, which in my not-so-humble opinion hurts the replayability of the game.

The Verdict-
The Good: Great graphics, great feel, great levels, excellent and immersive combat experience.
The Bad: Short single player experience, no bots in multiplayer, trite plot/characters, a little heavy on weapon inaccuracy.

Overall, it's nice to see a game that really shows what the Unreal engine can do (since apparently Epic Games couldn't be bothered to do so). Unreal engine + THQ = nerdgasm, and the proof is in this game. If only it was a little longer or you could fill multiplayer games with bots.
Grade: A-.
And that's the word from bandit camp.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Zero Punctuation Reviews - Condemned 2 - Bloodshot

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Review: Depths of Peril

Launching in September of 07, Depths of Peril is a game that got by under my radar until recently. A game from a small, self-publishing developer which mixes action RPG elements with socio/political ones to make a sort of "Diablo meets Command HQ" type experience, it isn't the glitziest title one might play but under the modest exterior the game has an interesting hook that, if it is your particular cup of tea, will keep you tussling at it long past your bed time.

The graphics and user interface, truthfully, are probably the game's only truly noteworthy shortcoming. Using a low poly 3D rendered isometric 3rd person view, the game strongly evokes memories of Diablo, Ultima Online, or other such tile-based old school titles which were common 10 or so years ago to render 2 dimensional worlds in 3 dimensions without having to worry about scaling sprite-based graphics. It seems a little anachronistic, given that the world is actually rendered with 3D models and therefore scales seamlessly and flawlessly, but this of course also conveys the added benefit that the game is not particularly overtaxing to your video hardware. This makes it a particularly suitable game for laptoppers, who usually are limited to the rudimentary Intel 3D chipsets which usually cannot handle the beefier games. However, it will also unfortunately cause some with multi-thousand dollar frankenputers to pass over the game because of the dated look and feel. It is worth noting, however, that unlike certain "newer looking" games, this one has full support for both standard and widescreen aspect ratios of any resolution.

It is nice, incidentally, to see a game that knows how to use Bloom processing without abusing it. You can safely leave Bloom turned on and enjoy the enhanced lighting without have to worry about getting blinded by every light source and reflective surface.

The sounds are of uniformly adequate quality and diversity, making the game's auditory experience not stand out as particularly good or bad, though the interface does make use of some subtle yet useful audio notifications (such as the "door knock" sound effect for incoming diplomacy) which do well at standing out and getting your attention without the irritation of breaking immersion.

The game centers around you, the protagonist, being the head of one of several political factions in the barbarian city of Jorvik. Each faction's goal is to ultimately become the rulers of the city. The road to rulership is fraught with monsters, thievery, infighting, political maneuvering, treasure seeking and lots of hacking, slashing and chucking fireballs. The story isn't exactly linear, as it is mostly produced through who performs which quests first, and though this helps immersion through interaction it also makes the story have a little less depth. But it doesn't matter much, your struggle for life, death and power won't leave much time for you to sit around reading long story exposition anyway.

Depths of Peril utilizes a point-and-click mechanic most gamers will find familiar. It also adds some "common sense" features that speak well of the designer such as continuous autoattack (which anybody who's ever worn out a mouse button from combat in Diablo can appreciate). Combat is also the familiar point/click/kill with potion gulping with which most of us are already familiar, so the learning curve is very short and gentle. The interface pertaining to diplomacy is manifestly intuitive.

From the start of the game, the race is on. Factions are constantly gaining influence with the denizens of Jorvik based on killing monsters and completing quests, and their levels of influence determine the amount of tax each faction collects over time. Naturally, the influence level is also an important part of the "who is winning" calculation. Other important factors are what level the characters belonging to the factions are, how good their gear is, how well guarded the faction's headquarters is, and so on. In-game graphs and charts are available (and the viewing of them stops time, thankfully) to explicitly gauge the strength of the factions based upon any combination of the deciding factors ranging from one to all.

It isn't enough to just take a pointy piece of metal and go out to skewer orcs. You have to also engage in diplomacy (which also stops time, thankfully) with the other factions, lest your relations with some of them slip so low that your headquarters becomes attacked and possibly destroyed, eliminating you from the game. Of course, nothing says you can't attack first. Which, of course, leaves you open to a 3rd party attacking you... etc. Relations are generally improved by trading (or outright gifting) between the factions. This means you often make decisions such as "should I sell this booty I gathered to a merchant for cash, attempt to trade it to another faction, or just give it to another faction outright?" Factions are also in competition for completing quests first, recruiting new members, and most other things.

Aside from the aforementioned graphical antiquity, I have relatively few gripes about the game. The only real source of frustration I came up against was when I started a new game with a previously used character, some of the quests I was given were a bit too advanced for me to stand a chance. It made for some frustrating fighting (or rather, swift dying). But that can be largely alleviated by just starting a new character with a new game instead of trying to get a jump on things with an old character. Oh, and I never seem to be able to find the thief in thief quest, despite his supposedly being limited to an area approximately equivalent to the empty lot across the street from the house where you grew up.

The good - Novel concepts in combining action RPG play with political intrigue, intuitive interface, flexible engine leading to diverse game experience, lower than normal price tag.

The bad - Dated graphical look, some quest level suitability inconsistency, no multiplayer.

Verdict - B-. It's hard to get over the dated look, but once you do the game is interesting. And there are far worse "pretty" games of full price you could be subjected to. If Soldak took this exact same game and wrapped it in, say, the Gamebryo engine I have no doubt it would be an absolute sensation.

And that's the word from Bandit camp...

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Zero Punctuation Reviews - No More Heroes

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Off Topic Friday #24 -

funny graphs
see more funny graphs

Yeah, this is a good place to waste some time.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Zero Punctuation Reviews - Army of Two

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Review: Red Baron Arcade

Sometimes the game market seems so choked with multi-year-in-development multimillion dollar budget ubergames that so often fall tragically short of expectations that it's often surprising when a budget title actually brings more fun to the table than many a "real" game.

Make no mistake, Red Baron Arcade definitely is a budget game. At this very moment it is on Amazon for a mere $19.99, and it definitely doesn't have the depth or extras of your average full-price game, but sometimes the extra crap gets in the way of making a game fun... and naked of cut scenes, voices, complex mission structure and other high dollar features, it shows that a game can be fun even if the developers didn't mortgage a nation to make it.

Red Baron Arcade seems to me to be an attempt to take one of the first arcade games ever, Red Baron by Atari, and update it 25 years later. The original was a green and black 4 frame-per-second vector graphic wireframe flier... sometimes I still play it today just to feel the retro coursing through my veins.

In keeping with the quick entrance, immediate action and simplistic design of the original Red Baron, Red Baron Arcade also features lots of shooting and jinking and even some bombing and such. The game is very straightforward and looks pretty nice, although where the game really shines is in cloud rendering... it makes the ground and the structures on it seem a little cartoony in comparison. A better way to keep track of enemies on screen would have been nice too (the targeting brackets around enemy planes blends too easily into the ground), but it's a small gripe.

The game features 23 single player missions as well as online multiplayer through gamespy. It also allows you to set the controls to be either "arcade" or "simulation." The stick behaves more realistically under simulation mode, whereas arcade mode is mostly just point-and-shoot without having to worry about the actual methodry involved in flying a plane. This choice allows the game to appeal to both the casual gamer and the flight sim enthusiast who might want a slightly more realistic experience. But beyond that, there isn't much realism to be found here. Enemy planes often appear out of thin air to join the battle, and of course what biplane or triplane could carry so many darn bombs? There's also an "energy" bar that refills over time that you can use to perform special maneuvers such as a turbo boost, and what my father (who is actually a pilot) refers to as an "Immelman," that is, basically half a loop-de-loop with a twist that makes you nearly instantly change direction. Also, the "powerup balloons" that can instantly repair or rearm you aren't exactly historically accurate.

But who cares!

The point is, you start the game, you start shooting, and you enjoy shooting down planes in fire and smoke. Some of the single player missions can get a little hairy though, pitting you against 20 or more enemy planes (and sometimes alone against them). The zeppelin busting missions and the bombing missions are fun as well. The game also provides 8 different planes to unlock and use, each with different stats, and you can customize the paint scheme of your planes (nice to have a little fluff even in a $20 game). You'll get shot down a lot in this game, but a single click starts the mission again, and it's rare that a mission will last more than 20 minutes anyway so it isn't overly punishing.

Oh, and you're gonna need a joystick for this game. Really. You really would be missing out otherwise.

The Verdict: Grade B+. Ok, it's not the game of the century, but it's 20 bucks and short, casual fun.

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