Wednesday, 31 October 2012

ANNOUNCEMENT: Greener Pastures

Hi guys,

I started this blog mainly as a way to push myself to improve my writing, by offering up at least a single piece of content per week. I eventually expanded to two pieces per week, and I feel that my writing has vastly improved as a result. In order to further my strive to my ultimate goal, which is to have a full-time paying job in the games industry, I've taken up a volunteer position at a Melbourne based gaming blog - Non-Fiction Gaming. What does that mean for you, my beautiful, loyal friends and readers? Sadly, this blog will only be updated rarely, whenever I have personal thoughts or opinions to share that don't belong on the Non-fiction Gaming website.

I thank you all for your support. If you enjoyed reading my posts and watching my videos, please bookmark this link to view posts I make over at Non-fiction Gaming (and feel free to read the rest of their content too!). I plan to keep up my current pace of two articles per week, so be sure to check it out every Wednesday and Saturday!

Thank you all again, and I'll see you over at Non-Fiction Gaming!

-Steven 'The Taco Man' Bogos

Thanks for all your support!

Saturday, 27 October 2012

NEWS: Saturday Roundup

Welcome to the Saturday Roundup, a (bi)weekly roundup of all the important news going on in the gaming world.  If you’re sick of gaming websites' content turning more and more casual, or trying to pass off a single sentence and a link to a cool picture they saw on deviant art as ‘news,’  you've come to the right place. I aim to consolidate and summarize only the stuff that’s most important to gaming enthusiasts. It’s a mix of hard news, interesting features, and other titbits that I feel like you guys would enjoy. Let’s see what’s been going on this week:

  • Does games journalism have standards? Eurogamer seems to think that no, it doesn't. Robert Florence authors a very interesting read that is outraged that more people aren't... outraged over how friendly games journo's and games PR people are, and how willing games journalists are to take 'bribes' of cash and video games.

     'PR people should be looking at games journos and thinking, "That person makes my job very challenging." Why are they all best buddies? What the hell is going on?'

    [UPDATE]: Author Robert Florence has 'stepped down' from Eurogamer shortly after posting this article.

    'I stand by every word of the original piece.'

    Here is an imgur link that contains a screengrab of the removed paragraphs. This is a very sad day for any games journalist that ever hopes to be taken seriously.
No, this man is not a Halo PR rep, he is Canadian journalist Geoff Keighley, and this image of him  shamelessly endorsing all of these products is what sparked the entire incident.
  • Linux fans rejoice, as popular PC gaming platform Steam has released it's first Linux port. Team Fortress 2 is now available for Linux. Steam hasn't been shy in showing it's support for non-windows operating systems, with SteamPlay allowing cross play between it's Windows gamers and it's growing library of Mac games.
Hitman: Absolution
  • The Elder Scrolls Online is a thing that is coming, and you should know about it. Joystiq recently got to go hands on with the MMO. Will TES: Online be a success story, or will it be the latest addition to the ever-growing MMO graveyard?
  • Hitmam: Absolution is slated for a November 20th release date, but subscribers to the Official Xbox Magazine have already been treated to the world first review. The good news is that it's quite positive, with  the review praising the game for being "slick, thrilling and well paced with jet-black humour"
  • Gaming giant Zynga, best known for Facebook sensation Farmville, recently laid off 100 employees. It seems that Zynga's shady business practices are finally catching up to them, as there have been rumors that they haven't been doing so well these days, and this lay-off could be seen as a confirmation of that.
  • SimCity, the successor to SimCity 4 (yes, we know how ridiculous that sounds) has a release date! The bad news is you'll have to wait until March 8th, 2013 to build up a sprawling metropolis and then hurl meteors at it.
  • 'Slingshot' will be the first DLC pack for Xcom: Enemy Unknown. The DLC will take players to China, where they can complete three missions and unlock a new squad-mate and weapons. Xcom received some mixed reviews, with some fans feeling that it is too far removed from the original, yet others praising it's fresh take on the series.
Slingshot's new blaster launcher
  • IGN have the scoop on a wealth of Dragon Age 3 details. The game promises to be much bigger than Origins, feature a home 'base' castle that can be customized and upgraded, and will use the Frostbite 2 engine. Opponents of Dragon Age 2 felt that it's short development cycle led to the game being rushed and broken, so it may make you a bit less skeptical to hear that Dragon Age 3 has apparently been in pre-production even longer than Origins was.
  • I know I've been big on Borderlands news as of late, but it just keeps on coming! The latest being this advertisement for an iOS Borderlands game. The ad was spotted in the Borderlands 2 digital strategy guide, and while there has been no official word from developers Gearbox, it looks like iPhone and iPad users will be able to guide Brick, Lilith, Roland or Mordecai through a series of randomized levels in their never-ending quest for loot.
Dunwall City
  • Dishonored has been out for a week and was released to generally positive reviews, so it looks like ZeniMax is wasting no time on building it's momentum  with the first DLC pack for the stealth-action shooter being announced this week. 'Dunwall City Trials' includes ten challenge maps designed to "test and track your combat, stealth and mobility skills". Dunwall City Trails will be released in December for $4.99 or 400 Microsoft Points.
  • Lastly, we've all heard of DRM for games, but how about DRM for your mouse? Users of the Razer Synapse 2.0 software are finding that the software ceases to function if you don't have an active internet connection. A quick note as this may seem a bit misleading - the actual mouse itself will still function as a mouse, but it will loose all the advanced features of the Razer software (such as increased DPI and macro buttons)
So that’s the news for this week. Be sure to subscribe to my twitter for up-to-date news and blog updates, and check back here every Wednesday and Saturday for more content!

Previous gamer news.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

IMPRESSIONS: World Of Warcraft - Mists of Pandaria (PC)

There’s a reason why World of Warcraft has managed to keep a subscriber base of around ten million users for almost a decade. There’s a reason why people forsake their families, their jobs, and in some circumstances, their bodily functions in order to play the game. There’s a reason why, amongst the corpses of countless failed MMOs, World of Warcraft still stands tall. It’s because it’s a good game. Haters gonna hate, but I think World of Warcraft may just be the best game of our generation, and one of the greatest games ever made. Actually, I should rephrase that. World of Warcraft is one of the greatest games still being made, as it’s regular free content updates and paid expansion packs demonstrate. Mists of Pandaria (MoP) is the latest paid expansion, and today I'm taking a good long look at how WoW has changed over the years.

I’d like to acknowledge that yes, I am a little late to the party. I was unavoidably busy during the first few weeks of release, and have only now been able to experience a majority of the content MoP offers. As such, I see this article as more of a promotion to those of you still on the fence about ‘coming back’ to WoW. I'm having a great time in Pandaria and I think that maybe you might too. Of course, if you are new to WoW, please read on, as Pandaria has a lot to offer to newbies as well.

Is Mists of Pandaria worth returning to Azeroth for?
First, lets get this panda thing settled. This expansion is primarily about the Panderan. Instead of the expansion’s main villain being on the box art of the game, as was the tradition for every other WoW expansion, it’s a Panderan. The Panderan race is available to both Horde and Alliance. 90% of the new quests, dungeons, and other content involve the Panderan in some way. They are THE major part of this expansion, and if you feel that kung-fu Pandas (and not pokemon battles, dancing carnival bears, steampunk goblins, Victorian werewolves, alien space goats, time-travelling dragons, and all the other wacky shit WoW has implemented over the years) have ruined the game by being ‘just silly’ and not fitting the universe, you will find nothing of value here. Close your browser, make a cup of tea, and think about rainbows or something for the next fifteen minutes.

Gone? Good. Those of you actual Warcraft fans that remain are in for a major treat with this expansion. Nothing is hugely revolutionary but all of the small changes and new additions build on what made WoW great in the first place, while working hard to eliminate all of the little quirks that people disliked about the game.

The Pandaren are a major part of this expansion.
Lets start with the first thing most returning Warcraft veterans will do upon first logging in; Level their main character to level 90. The first thing you will notice is that all of your talents are gone. MoP has brought with it a complete talent tree overhaul. Now, when choosing a specialization, you are automatically granted a suite of spells that used to be talents. The new talents themselves have then been simplified to just three choices in six tiers. What this means is that the specs themselves feel a lot more ‘specialized’ and that the actual talents come down to personal preference rather than min-maxing numbers. Many classes will also see some pretty big changes.

I main a Warlock, and they got a complete overhaul of the demonology and destruction specs, going so far as to invent a new resource for each one (demonic fury and burning embers respectively). I won’t go into any more details about class changes; just know that your class of choice will not be the same as how you left it when you stopped playing.

The new talent trees have been vastly simplified.

The journey to the level cap has never been more pleasant. In vanilla, you kind of shambled your way to sixty. Most people would run out of quests and have to resort to grinding boars for at least a few bars every level. The Burning Crusade was a disaster. Thousands of people crammed into a single zone, with quest monsters and items respawning infrequency enough to just make everything a huge clusterfuck of a mess. Wrath of the Lich King was a big step in the right direction, with TWO starting zones easing the burden. Cataclysm experimented heavily with ‘phasing’ technology, allowing players to take things at their own pace.

Mists of Pandaria
has perfected phasing and questing to the point where they don’t actually need two starting zones anymore. Every time you head back to a quest hub, you’ll get three to six quests to go out and complete, often with sensible drop and spawn rates. A particularly enjoyable change is that quest-specific monsters can be ‘tagged’ by multiple players, even if they are not in the same group or even the same faction. No more spawn-camping quest mobs.

The difference between the Pandaren and the original races is almost night and day.
It’s a lot easier on your eyes as well. Looking at the beautiful, Chinese culture-inspired locales and models of MoP will have you forget that the engine running the whole thing is from the same year people thought Doom 3’s atmospheric lighting was top shit. New animations, textures and particles will make you wonder what other tricks they can squeeze out of this aging engine. The Panderan models, for example, are so much more detailed that the models of the vanilla races that it almost looks like they are from a completely different game.

Perhaps most interesting is how alive the island of Pandaria feels. Unlike previous expansions which were plagued by death and destruction, Pandaria is all about life and energy. Memorable NPC’s such as Shen Stormstout will guide you through this beautiful land, and make a lasting impression. I get the feeling that every NPC I meet is out there living a life, and not just a big floating exclamation point. The living scenery, littered with critters, helps to create this feeling of a living continent.

The zones of Pandaria are inspired by Chinese mythology.
While the zones aren’t quite as varied as they were in Cataclysm, they are unique and well-paced enough to keep things fresh all throughout your levelling journey. But of course, we all know that the quest to max level is just the tip of the iceberg, and one of the things that has made Warcraft so great is its dedication to end game.

The good news is that there is no shortage of things to do once hitting the level cap, and the options available are sure to appease every kind of WoW player, from the weekend warriors to the hardcore raiders. The stock-standard pathway of normal dungeons -> heroic dungeons -> raid progression exists and the raiders will fit quite comfortably into it. Improvements to the dungeon finder system, and the impending release of the raid finder for MoP raids means that it’s easier than ever for more casual players, or players that prefer to play solo, to be able to experience all the content the expansion offers.

Dungeons have been pretty much perfected, with most heroic dungeons taking about 20-40 minutes and are a bit easier than the more punishing entry-level Cataclysm heroics. The addition of ‘challenge modes’ which offer extra rewards for completing dungeons within a time limit is sure to appease those who want a more challenging experience. Scholomance and Scarlet Monastery are the newest classic dungeons to receive the ‘heroic end level version’ makeover and along with a healthy serving of 7 new Pandaria dungeons, grinding heroics for gear is a quite fun and attractive option.

Scholomance is the latest classic dungeon to be revived.
Unfortunately, due to time constraints (mostly, wanting to be able to actually have free time, instead of just WoW time) I’ve made a conscious decision to NOT get into hardcore progression raiding. My friends who are raiding inform me that the current end level raids are quite well balanced.

Daily quest hubs are nothing new to WoW, but what is impressive is the sheer scope and variety of the MoP dailies. Blizzard had to remove the 25 per day maximum on daily quests; because they made so many quests that they didn’t want to force players to ‘choose’ 25 to do each day. The variety of quests means that in one day you will use goblin explosives to go fishing, tend to your own, personal farm, help giant bugs fight other giant bugs, use archaeology to discover the lore behind Pandaria, raise your very own cloud serpent mount, and protect the lands of Pandaria from aggressive Mogu forces.

As you gain reputation with the tillers, you'll unlock improvements to your farm.
I’m particularly fond of The Tillers faction, which has really taken this whole Farmville craze and run with it. You can upgrade your farm as your reputation increases, and the vegetables that you grow are very useful for high-end food buffs. Daily quests now reward Valour points, and it’s actually quite easy to hit the weekly Valour point cap just from doing your dailies! The highest reputation rewards are also on-par with some of the stuff that drops in the current raid tier, so you can quite respectably gear up your character without setting foot in a dungeon.

Then, of course, there are the Pokemon battles. Over the year, completionists such as myself have amassed a vast collection of non-combat vanity pets. Blizzard have finally given us something to do with these pets, and, of course, it's battle them like Pokemon! It works pretty much exactly how you'd expect - your pets start at level one and you can either battle wild pets or other battle pet trainers to gain experience. Just like in Pokemon, you can capture wild pets to add to your collection. Once you've trained up a team, challenge your friends to duels, or queue for a random pet battle with a member of the opposite faction. The system copies the rock-paper-scissors mechanic that made Pokemon so successful, with 10 types of pets each having their own strengths and weaknesses.

Pet battles - the latest fun distraction for bored raiders.
So now that we know what returning veterans can expect, let’s take a look at the new race and class. For convenience sake, I played them both together, and made myself a Pandaren Monk. I thought that Blizzard had completely nailed the starting experience with Goblins, as it featured a quest where I drove around town in my hot rod picking up chicks to bring back to my party.

But, they've really outdone themselves this time. The Pandaren starting zone is the Wandering Isle, an island on the back of a giant turtle. It will take you from level 1 to about level 12, and tells quite a story along the way. The Chinese kung-fu theme is very strong in the Pandaran storyline, as it has a simple community of Monks in training thrown into disarray by the sudden arrival of Horde and Alliance forces. As you try to settle their dispute, as well as restore balance to the wandering isle, you will discover the personalities and natures of both the Alliance and Horde. Ultimately, at the end of the experience, you will have to choose a side.

The Pandaren race is available to both Horde and Alliance.
As for the Monk, I only did manage to get him to about level 13, but he felt like a cross between a warrior and a rogue. He has a tank, a DPS and a healing spec, which makes him one of only three classes to be able to preform every role (the others being druids and paladins). In levelling, I mostly stuck with the DPS spec, which revolves around building up chi with basic attacks, then unleashing it to preform dazzling kung-fu moves.

I've played with some monks in end-level dungeons as both healers and tanks, and they seem to preform each role quite well, with the tanking ‘brewmaster’ spec using brews and drunken boxing remnant of Jackie Chan’s ‘drunken master’ and the ‘mistweaver’ spec using tai-chi-like healing magic. The Monk seems to fit well into the current selection of classes, and giving him the flexibility that he has means that the sudden influx of monks will filter into whatever roles are required.

The monk feels like a cross between a Rogue and a Warrior, with just a dash of Shaman.
After Catacylsm, I was ready to leave World of Warcraft for dead. I figured that the engine was so old that everything that could possibly be done had already been done. I had assumed that Mists of Pandaria would do relatively well, and would be the last expansion pack before Blizzard unveiled their new MMO, but now that I’ve actually experienced it, I’m not so sure anymore. MoP has shown me that Blizzard can still breathe life into their game after eight years, and it’s refining of content and features has made it the best expansion yet.

You can purchase Mists of Pandaria from the Blizzard store for $39.99

Liked this article? Check out my Natural Selection 2 impressions!

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Saturday, 20 October 2012

NEWS: Saturday Roundup

Welcome to the Saturday Roundup, a (bi)weekly roundup of all the important news going on in the gaming world. If you’re sick of gaming websites' content turning more and more casual, or trying to pass off a single sentence and a link to a cool picture they saw on deviant art as ‘news,’  you've come to the right place. I aim to consolidate and summarize only the stuff that’s most important to gaming enthusiasts. It’s a mix of hard news, interesting features, and other titbits that I feel like you guys would enjoy. Let’s see what’s been going on this week:
Is patch 1.05 enough to bring players back?

  • Halo 4 has been leaked a full month ahead of it's release. It's currently circulating torrent websites as two 8 gig files. While Microsoft is desperately trying to remove all leaked video content from youtube, it's like trying to stop a flood with a thimble at this stage, and having the entire game leaked so far in advance is sure to put a damper on their sales.
  • Diablo III patch 1.05 went live this week. If you've long since put the game down, or haven't yet gotten in to it yet, you might want to check it out. Blizzard have been hard at work to address the numerous complaints fans had with the game. Patch 1.04 was a big step in the right direction, and now patch 1.05 brings us 'monster power' (a way to scale the difficulty of monsters in inferno) and 'the infernal machine' (a way to battle 'uber' versions of bosses for extra loot) as well as a long list of quality-of-life changes. Diablofans have done a nice recap here, and you can view the official patch notes here.
  • The first screenshots from the stand-alone version of DayZ have surfaced. If you hadn't already heard, the developers hugely popular zombie-survival ArmA II mod recently announced the development of a stand-alone version.
  • Being able to alt-tab whenever I want is a staple of PC gaming. While a lot of games offer a full-screen windowed mode, many others make alt-tabbing a nightmare, often churning to a halt whenever minimized and taking forever to come back when maximised.  Steam user hell-strong has made an app that lets you play your games in border less windowed mode. Granted, this may put more of a strain on your system than running a game full-screen, but if your rig can handle it, it's a great little program!
  • Sleeping Dogs was a hit, but we haven't heard too much from developers Square Enix since it's release, except for the fact that DLC would come 'eventually'. Well, 'eventually' has been announced as October 30th, when Nightmare in North Point will be released. Nightmare in North Point is a Halloween themed expansion, in which a slain gang member comes back to life with an army of zombies, and it's up to detective Wei Shen to put them back in their graves. Check out my Sleeping Dogs review here!
Sleeping Dogs
  • Those of you with qualms over EA's business practices might be happy to hear the the gaming giant accidentally gave away thousands of free games due to a bug in their server-side validation of a promotional code. The fact that it was such a novice mistake, and that it took EA 18 hours to hotfix it certainly isn't winning Origin, EA's digital distribution service, any confidence.
  • Valve is supposedly hard at work on a number of 'secret' projects, but at least one of them is not so secret anymore. Users on popular gaming forum facepunch have reportedly discovered leaked screenshots and concept art for a game called Stars of Barathrum, an open-world space game. This is still just rumor and speculation at this point, so take this information with a grain of salt.
Stars of Barathrum concept art reportedly posted by ex-valve employee Peter K├Ânig
So that’s the news for this week. Be sure to subscribe to my twitter for up-to-date news and blog updates, and check back here every Wednesday and Saturday for more content!

Previous gamer news.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

OPINION: Are we living in the last console generation?

The original Nintendo was released in America in 1985. The Super Nintendo followed just six years afterward in 1991. The Nintendo 64 released five years later in 1996. There were six years between the Playstation 1 (1994) and Playstation 2 (2000), and the original Xbox (2001) and the Xbox 360 (2005) were separated by just four years. It’s now been almost seven years since the Xbox 360 began the last console generation, and there has been no sign -- short of a few unconfirmed rumours -- of Sony and Microsoft even developing new consoles. Where is the next console generation?
The original Xbox and the Xbox 360 were separated by only four years.
Before we get any further, I’d like to appease all the frothing Nintendo fanboys who are moments away from sending me a strongly worded letter/angry e-mail/death threat. I know the Wii U is set to release this November. However, with graphical capability barely above what current-gen consoles offer, and a launch lineup consisting mostly of ports of current-gen titles, I feel that the Wii U is simply Nintendo finally deciding to join us in the present console generation.
The WiiU's graphical capability is comparable to the current generation
So why are Sony and Microsoft so hesitant to start a new generation? For the answer, you need look no further than their yearly revenue streams. Sony only started making a profit on their latest machine two years ago, and the Xbox 360 was actually sold at a loss for several years before they were able to turn any profit. For either of these companies to even announce a new console now would decimate the relatively small profits they have made. But while Nintendo relies solely on video games as a bread winner, both Sony and Microsoft have alternate sources of revenue. Video games are more of a side job for them, so why even bother making another console when A. It’s so damn expensive, and B. Nintendo and PC platforms like Steam can do it cheaper and better? If they can simply ride the current generation out for five, even ten more years, why not? And why did they even get into video games in the first place if it’s so unprofitable?
Despite the PS3's much criticized $599 launch price, it was still sold at a loss
To answer that, we have to wind the clock all the way back to the days of the N64 and the PS1. Back then, consoles were the be-all and end-all of gaming, and huge profit machines. When Nintendo had a bit of a flop with the GameCube in the following generation, Microsoft decided they wanted a piece of the gaming pie and came along to pick up the slack. Then there was the PS2, which was so incredibly successful that it outsold the PS3 for years after its release. It also proved that consoles could capture the elusive ‘casual’ market of gamers with ‘party’ titles like Buzz, SingStar and Guitar Hero, and the following generation was eager to capitalize on this. Look no further than the Wii, which was almost entirely marketed to casual gamers, as well as Microsoft’s Kinect attachment and Sony’s Move controller. Just a few years ago, consoles were top shit, and every man and his dog was lining up to grab the newest Mario or Call of Duty.
The Wii had a strong focus on 'casual' gamers
So what happened? Facebook happened. Or more appropriately, Farmville happened. Companies like Zynga also wanted a piece of the previously ignored ‘casual gamer’ crowd and decided the best way to do it was not to force them into buying a room full of plastic instruments, but rather to give them free games through a platform they already own (the PC) and then sucker them into paying for extra content. Needless to say, they were incredibly successful. Basically, all of the casual gamers suddenly got up and said ‘Hey, why are we buying all these consoles and subscriptions when we can just play games on Facebook for free?’ The rising popularity of smartphones and blockbusters like Angry Birds also contributed to this. Similarly, many ‘enthusiast’ and ‘hardcore’ gamers saw the falling cost of PC hardware and rising prevalence and improvement of PC platforms like Steam as a time to finally join the PC Gaming Master Race.
Farmville took the gaming world by storm
So now we reach the present, with Microsoft and Sony plinking along with their aging hardware, issuing fairly regular console ‘redesigns’ aimed at tricking people into thinking their boxes are newer than they actually are, while much of their user base is slowly getting wise to the fact that a mid-range ~$500 PC will outperform even the elitist of Xbox Elites. Both companies are either losing or barely making money, so why would they bother making a new generation? My prediction is that the PC will once again take the crown as the dominant form of  gaming. This is already starting to happen, with developers like DICE and EPIC putting the PC first and foremost, and with the explosive popularity of recent PC exclusives like Diablo III and DoTA 2. I think that the Wii U still has a place due to its interesting gimmicks that offer a completely different play-style to the PC and because people like having a ‘party console’ that can do local multiplayer, but I feel like there is no room in the gaming world for consoles that essentially function as watered-down PCs
Epic Game's Fortnite is being developed primarily for the PC
If we could wind the clock forward a couple years, who knows what we might find? Maybe Sony and Microsoft will squeeze out another generation, but I really doubt there will be another one after that. The advancements of cloud computing and initiatives such as onlive seem to suggest that in the future, ‘consoles’ will simply be a service that is sold to us directly through our TV’s or PC's, much like a netflix subscription. It’s kind of funny to think that these days, your grandma doesn't know what an Xbox is, but by the time we become grandparents ourselves, our grandkids will be asking us about the funny little boxes we used to have to plug into our TV’s to play games.

Liked this article? Check out my other opinion pieces!

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Saturday, 13 October 2012

NEWS: Saturday Roundup

Welcome to the Saturday Roundup, a (bi)weekly roundup of all the important news going on in the gaming world. If you’re sick of gaming websites' content turning more and more casual, or trying to pass off a single sentence and a link to a cool picture they saw on deviant art as ‘news,’  you've come to the right place. I aim to consolidate and summarize only the stuff that’s most important to gaming enthusiasts. It’s a mix of hard news, interesting features, and other titbits that I feel like you guys would enjoy. Let’s see what’s been going on this week:
  • Blizzard promised that content patches for Mists of Pandaria would be released more frequently in order to address complaints that Cataclysm had very large 'lulls' in between major content, and it seems set to deliver with patch 5.1 to be deployed on public test realms very soon.  Patch 5.1 promises to put the 'war' back into Warcraft, with new daily quest hubs centered around the conflict between the Horde and the Alliance over Pandaria.
  • First person stealth action adventure game Dishonored shipped this week, and has been generally well received by notable video game critics. Not sure what platform to buy it on? Check out this PC/console comparison video
  • Long in-development sequel to popular half-life mod Natural Selection finally has a release date! Natural Selection 2 will launch on the 31st of October. Releasing exactly one decade after it's predecessor, Natural Selection 2 blends elements of both FPS and RTS. Check out my beta impressions of Natural Selection 2 here.
  • LAN party favorite 'The Ship' is getting a sequel. Developers Blazing Griffin have announced a series of events leading up to the release of the game, including a 75% off sale of the original The Ship.
  • Borderlands fans were treated to a nice surprise this week when the first piece of Borderlands 2 DLC released a week early! Gaige, the Mechromancer  is an all-new playable class for the first person shooter, free to all players who pre-purchased the game, and costing $9.99 for all those who didn't.
  • If that's not enough Borderlands news for you, hows this? Gearbox today announced the Captain Scarlet DLC pack, to release on October 16th. Captain Scarlett will introduce new enemies, new weapons, a new vehicle called the sand skiff, and seraph crystals – a new form of currency. Please note that Captain Scarlet and the Mechromancer pack are NOT included in the Borderlands 2 season pass. Check out my Borderlands 2 review here.

  • Microsoft Points have been the bane of many gamers, spanning both Microsoft's Xbox and Windows gaming platforms, and forcing gamers to purchase arbitrary 'points' before exchanging them for DLC, digital downloads, and other services. Fret no more, for Microsoft plans to follow the example set by other digital stores such as Steam and Nintendo's 3DS online store and do away with Microsoft Points for Windows 8. However, this happy news was countered by the rather unpleasant revelation that Windows 8 would not carry games rated above PEGI 16+. I guess we're going to stick to Windows 7 quite a while.
  • Disappointed that giant mech robots will never be a reality? Pirahna Games can give you the next best thing: they are making a MechWarrior MMO and they want you to test it!

    “Make a MECH-sized marking in your calendars for Tuesday, October 16th. In just one week, we will be opening up the InnerSphere to all MechWarriors and their friends.”
  • Resident Evil 6 is already not getting much praise from fans and critics, and the latest revelation that it has on-disc DLC despite Capcom's claims that it wouldn't pull this kind of shit any more is definitely  not helping. An extra difficulty mode, as well as unlockable costumes, melee attacks and taunts have been found hidden on the disk by modders.
  • ZombiU is shaping up to be one of the 'killer apps' of the WiiU's launch lineup. It's unique use of the WiiU's gamepad controler can hopefully put a new spin on the tired-and-true zombie survival formula, as Gamespot takes us for an exclusive walkthrough of one of the game's levels.

So that’s the news for this week. Be sure to subscribe to my twitter for up-to-date news and blog updates, and check back here every Wednesday and Saturday for more content!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

REVIEW: Borderlands 2 (PC)

No-one expected the first Borderlands to be as big as it was. The FPS slash RPG hit came out of nowhere, billing itself as ‘Diablo but with guns’ and despite an archaic quest system and an underwhelming finale, it was a very solid game. What Borderlands got right was the very core of the game – you shoot stuff and collect loot. It’s the same carrot-on-a-stick gameplay that caused Diablo to make people abandon their families and quit their jobs. It’s success was rewarded with multiple DLC packs (some good and some... not so goodand last September developer Gearbox gave us a fully-fledged sequel: Borderlands 2.

Let me say this first and foremost, as it’s probably the most important point in this entire review: Borderlands 2 is a multiplayer game. While it is possible to play through the entire game singleplayer, I guarantee you that you will have much more fun playing with other people. If you don’t have any friends, try the online matchmaking included in the game – it works quite well. Even with just one other player, your abilities will synergize well, and you’ll find more loot that people will actually use instead of just vendoring.

You definitely want to bring your friends along for this one
To say that Borderlands 2 plays the same as Borderlands is an understatement. While it has a shiny new coat of paint and a whole new cast of playable characters, explorable locales and killable enemies, at its core it’s the same kill-waves-of-bad-guys-and-check-their-pockets-for-guns that made its predecessor so fun. And I do mean waves of enemies. Oftentimes you’ll find yourself cutting through swathes of psychos and midgets like a hot knife through butter. It feels really satisfying when you get enough gear and just the right skill points that you can become nigh invincible in some circumstances. If brute force isn’t your style you can sit back and snipe enemy weak spots from a distance, attack intermittently from cover, or even use the terrain to your advantage by creating chokepoints to funnel bad guys into your waiting shotgun blast. Like I mentioned before, having teammates with varied play-styles and classes really helps with maximise whatever strategy you choose.

I played the Gunzerker and my main play-through buddy was on the Siren. We worked up a great synergy routine where I would spec myself down the ‘tank’ tree, and he would spec himself down the ‘healing’ tree. Then I would sit there and soak up all the damage while he kept me topped up and took potshots at the baddies running towards me. Another friend of mine played the Assassin, and I also tried out the Commando for long enough to get a feel of him, so between the three of us we have some insights on all four classes. How about some introductions?

Pleased to meet you, Sir. Mailbox
I’ll start with Salvador, the Gunzerker – the spiritual successor to Brick from the first game. The biggest complaint about Brick was that in a game all about collecting guns, his action skill completely forwent the use of his equipped weapon. It didn’t help that his action skill was so powerful and could be upgraded to the point where, by the end of the game, I was throwing more punches than shooting bullets. Gearbox has fixed this problem and then some with Salvador, by giving him the ‘gunzerking’ action skill. Gunzerking makes Salvador pull out a second gun and dual-wield, while regenerating ammo and health. His skill trees augment his guns, his gunzerking, or his tanking ability. He feels really good. The skill is on a long enough cooldown to make it feel meaningful, but short enough that you can have it when you need it. If you want to feel like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the end scene of Commando, the Gunzerker is the class for you.

Salvador's gunzerking is a welcome change from Brick's berserk.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Zero, the Assassin. In the first Borderlands, the ‘Assassin’ play-style was oddly split between two characters, with Mordecai getting the long-range sniping and Lilith getting the turn-invisible melee attack. Thankfully, Borderlands 2 has combined both of these traits into Zero, giving him a skill tree that focuses on sniper rifles as well as an action skill and accompanying skill tree that are all about going invisible and backstabbing dudes with your katana sword. My friend who played him, however, felt that the action skill was a bit underwhelming when you chose to focus on the sniper rifle skill tree.

Maya, the Siren, is the new Lilith, and the ‘Mage’ class of the group. Her action skill ‘phaselock’ can be used to lift up and incapacitate enemies, deal massive damage, or instantly revive fallen teammates depending on what skill tree you go down. She definitely feels a lot more Mage-like than Lilith ever did, being capable of dealing a lot of damage as well as supporting her team, with the tradeoff of being squishy. Again, my friend who played her felt a tad disappointed with her action skill, not because it didn’t feel powerful, but because its cooldown was strange. He said it was too short to simply save for the more powerful enemies, but too long to use on EVERY enemy. It kind of hit this middle ground where it was just being used randomly, instead of tactically.

Lilith's phaselock is great for lining up shots on weakpoints

Lastly, you have Axton, the Commando. Many people, myself included, felt that Roland, Axton’s counterpart from the first game, completely trumped the other classes. He was meant to be the ‘jack of all trades’ class, but he ended up excelling at almost everything. His turret could heal, replenish ammo, and do a shit-ton of damage. Its only real drawback was its cooldown, which could be reduced with class mods and skill points. With ammo regeneration given to Salvador, and healing given to Maya, it leaves Axton feeling a little underpowered. His three trees focus on improving the turret, improving his own gunpower, and improving his survivability. The latter two feel like weaker versions of Salvador’s trees, and the turret feels a bit underpowered, at least compared to the other action skills. He fills a nice niche with events where you have to defend an area, or boss fights, and your teammates will really appreciate your turret drawing fire, but he is in my opinion the least fun class to play.

Axton's Turret is a little underwhelming

Moving on from the characters, the story is a little bit more engaging this time, with a lot of the side quests being well written and filled with more pop culture references than an episode of the IT Crowd, and the main quests having a lot more memorable characters and about 80% less Claptrap. I particularly liked the extremely over-the-top James Bond villain personality of Handsome Jack, the game’s main antagonist, and seeing the playable cast of the original game turn up as major NPCs was always a cool surprise. The only time the writing gets stale is when you get tired of the half a dozen one-liners that your character yells out when getting a kill streak.

Seeing the original cast return was a welcome surprise

The quest and map systems have been cleaned up a lot from the original game, and the addition of a minimap is a godsend. However, it’s still far from perfect. All throughout the game, particularly when I had to drive across the map for a mission, I kept wishing for the amazing waypoint system of the recently released Sleeping Dogs, which literally highlighted the route I needed to take in real time. Sometimes I felt like I spent more time studying the map and figuring out which route wouldn’t lead me to another dead end than I did actually playing the game.

Speaking of the driving, it’s still shit. Again, after having played Sleeping Dogs, and even id software’s Rage, which both managed to have fantastic driving sections, it’s so frustrating to see Borderlands 2 fail so miserably. The game forces you to use the mouse to steer, which is just infuriating, and the vehicles bounce around the map with all the grace of a seven-year-old in a bumper car. Their usefulness has been toned down a little bit from the previous game - you can no-longer instagib every enemy by running them over - and they are fragile enough to warrant getting out of them when under heavy fire. They suffice only to get you from point A to point B, which could have been better handled by expanding the fast-travel network.

The UI, while seeing some improvements, still feels too 'consoley' and difficult to navigate with a keyboard and mouse
One excellent addition is the new ‘Badass Ranks,’ a great little idea that makes your achievements actually mean something. Basically, in the first Borderlands, you had challenges, such as ‘Kill 50 skaggs’ or ‘Kill a midget with a grenade’ or whatever: stuff that you would just kind of get as you were playing the game normally, but were still sort of mini-achievements. They gave you a small bonus of XP when you finished them. In Borderlands 2, instead of XP, they are added to your ‘Badass Rank,’ which is like another XP bar. When you ‘level up’ your Badass Rank, you get a Badass token that you can use to give a permanent boost to all of your characters. The boosts are usually quite small, like 0.7% health, but they add up as you accumulate rank, and the fact that they are shared across all of your characters means that it is quite helpful when deciding to level a new class. The ranks are also infinite, meaning that even after hitting the level cap you have a way to improve your character.

Did someone say 'pop culture reference?' No? Okay, I'll just leave then
Finally, the game looks better graphically, but it’s not that noticeable unless you are really looking. The great thing about the cell-shaded cartoon graphics of games like Borderlands is that they age exceptionally well; meaning that the first Borderlands still looks good and the sequel will look good for years to come. That said, the physics of this game are absolutely phenomenal and if you have a physX capable video card, I highly suggest you turn the advanced physics on. Blood and water ooze and form pools like you would expect them to, banners and cloth tear apart as bullets fly through them, and the terrain explodes and kicks up debris when under heavy fire. It’s one of the first games that really take advantage of the physX technology and will hopefully set the standard for games that follow.

Borderlands 2 is the first game I've seen that really takes full advantage of physX
Borderlands was a game that had it’s flaws, but had a solid engine that was really, really fun. Borderlands 2 is… still not without it’s flaws, but is also still really, really fun. Again, I can't stress enough that playing this game alone and playing it with other players will directly impact on the amount of fun you’ll have. If you like murdering a whole town full of dudes and then checking to see if the numbers on their guns are bigger than the numbers on your guns, Borderlands 2 is the right game for you.

Verdict: Buy

Liked this article? Check out my Sleeping Dogs review

Saturday, 6 October 2012

NEWS: Saturday Roundup

Hey guys, coming at you with a fat dosage of ‘new regular feature’ is the Saturday Roundup. The reason for this feature is twofold, one, so that I can bring more content to you guys on a regular basis and two, so that I can improve and broaden my writing by utilizing the different writing styles that news writing demands.

Welcome to the Saturday Roundup, a (bi)weekly roundup of all the important news going on in the gaming world.If you’re sick of gaming websites' content turning more and more casual, or trying to pass off a single sentence and a link to a cool picture they saw on deviant art as ‘news,’ you’ve come to the right place. I aim to consolidate and summarize only the stuff that’s most important to gaming enthusiasts. It’s a mix of hard news, interesting features, and other titbits that I feel like you guys would enjoy. Let’s see what’s been going on this week:

Cliff Bleszinski
  • Gaming great Cliff ‘CliffyB’ Bleszinski, the man responsible for multiple iconic gaming classics such as the Unreal and Gears of War series has announced his sudden departure from EPIC games studios.
    I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager, and outside of my sabbatical last year, I have been going non-stop. I literally grew up in this business, as Mike likes to say. And now that I’m grown up, it’s time for a much needed break.’
    Cliff was a much loved gaming personality who constantly pushed the boundaries of game development and will be missed by many. Hopefully he’s back on the scene sooner, rather than later!
  • Resident Evil 6 released this week, and is already being slammed by user reviews on Metacritic. Many fans felt that the series had strayed too far from its survival horror roots, instead providing us with a generic cover-based ‘Gears of War but with zombies’. This feeling seems to be confirmed with comments by game director Hiroyuki Kobayashi that Resident Evil 6’s survival horror elements were indeed toned down to get that mass-market appeal.

    We’re making games and we need to have mass-market appeal in order to survive. How far do we go into horror before we lose the support of the average player?'
  • Done with Borderlands 2 already and craving more? Gearbox has you covered. As well as the four planned DLC packs, 2 of which are already in development, brainstorming has already started on Borderlands 3, which if released will give Gearbox an opportunity to gloat over their previous employers, Valve Software, by actually releasing a game with a ‘3’ in it.
Borderlands 2
  • Speaking of Valve, they are one of the most secretive companies when it comes to what they are planning next, and Chet Faliszek is one of their most famous employees, providing the writing for many of Valve’s biggest blockbusters, including Half-life 2: Episode 2, Portal and Left 4 Dead. VG24/7 racks his brains to try and decipher what goes on behind Valve’s tightly closed doors.
  • Distraught that there wasn't enough of The Sims in Skyrim? Fret no more, Hearthfire has appeared on the steam store! Hearthfire is the second peice of official DLC for Skyirm, and for just $4.99 will allow you to design and built your own house, as well as raise a family by adopting a child with your wife.
  • Digital download services like Steam and Origin, as well as the major console platforms now offering digital downloads of much of their catalogue have us asking the question, ‘when will we forgo physical media entirely?’ TheGameJar’s Chris Jacobs seems to think the answer is ‘soon’, and discusses the possible implications of living in a digital world.
  • King Washington
  • Assassin’s Creed III has been pretty low on my radar, but a little bit of interesting news has cropped up concerning its first DLC pack. It assumes an alternate reality where George Washington, upon freeing America from the British, rose to become a tyrannical king. The DLC will have you do what every hot-blooded colonialist has always dreamed of – kill George Washington
  • SimCity is shaping up to be a great game, and while it won't be released until some time next year, lead designer Stone Librande takes us through a ten minute gameplay walktrhough. SimCity is the latest reboot of the titular 'SimCity' franchise, and is due out in 2013, with a promise to return to what made the city building sim that spawned dozens of offshoots (including the immensely popular The Sims) so popular in the first place.

So that’s the news for this week. Be sure to subscribe to my twitter for up-to-date news and blog updates, and check back here every Wednesday and Saturday for more content!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

OPINION: Hey, publishers, want people to pirate your game? Impose region restrictions.

In the past year or so, something completely unprecedented in the entire history of PC games has started to become common practice. I'm talking, of course, about region locking. It's made most bizarre by the fact that consoles, the very things that facilitated region locking in the first place, are actually moving away from it, with the PS3 being completely region free and the Xbox 360 having a sizable chunk of its library region free. Both the PS4 and the Xbox One will be completely region free. To understand why it IS happening, we must first understand why it SHOULDN'T be happening.

Being an Australian, this is a very common sight on the Steam Store
Let's travel back in time to when personal consoles were first starting to gain popularity. Back then, people had those big ugly blocks that our parents called 'analogue TVs' or just 'TVs'. Analogue TVs were split into two major broadcasting encodings: PAL, which is used in Australia and Western Europe, and NTSC which is used in America. There was also NTSC-J for Japan. Basically, all of these encodings have slight differences, such as an increased or decreased frame rate, which meant that creating a 'one-size-fits-all' game for all of them was impossible. Every game had to be modified for its respective region, and thus, 'region locks' were born.

But back here in the present, the majority of people serious about gaming have upgraded to a digital, High Definition TV. In fact, some countries such as Japan, have already completely switched over to digital, meaning you can't even get a signal on a standard analogue TV. Accordingly, there is no legitimate reason for developers to impose region locks on games in this day and age. 

So if there is no legitimate reason for region locking, then why are games, and specifically PC games that were never even affected by the reasons behind the original region locks, increasingly being shipped with locks? There are two reasons, and they are both shady, business centric, and all-around dick moves from publishers and developers (probably more so the publishers).

The first reason is to enforce region pricing. 

I'm an Australian. That means we get fucked over on the price of video games for some arbitrary reason. For perspective? The Australian dollar is more or less equal to the American dollar these days, yet our games are almost comically overpriced. Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which costs $89.99 in Australia is a whopping 77% cheaper in the US, where it retails for $19.99. Before the days of region locking, frugal gamers could utilize grey-import sites such as Play-Asia and Green Man Gaming in order to do what should be a god-given right on a system as free as the PC: find the best deal. With a lot of games these days, it's now impossible to do a grey import, as copies sold in specific regions will only work on a machine with an IP address in that region. 

Average new release price in the US: $39-49. In Australia? $90-$120
Let me give you an example. Last year, I purchased RAGE. As you know, I currently live in Japan, where the PC gaming scene is... minimal. At best. As such, I would be hard-pressed to find a copy of the game at retail. So, I did what I have done countless times before when trying to find cheap games and directed my web browser to I purchased the 'Asian Version' of the game. I figured that Japan, being a country populated mostly by Asians, as well as being in Asia geographically, was a sure fit for the 'Asian' region of the game. Unfortunately, id's description of Asia includes only Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei, the Philippines and South Korea. Pretty much every Asian country EXCEPT Japan. Consequently, I had a copy of RAGE sitting in my hand that I had paid for in full, that I could not play because my computer was telling id Software's servers that I was Japanese.

My RAGE experience...

The second shady reason behind region locking is to avoid hurting the publisher’s relationship with retail stores. 

I know it's inconceivable for all of us gaming enthusiasts, who purchase the majority of our games as either direct downloads or from internet import sites, but a sizable majority of our more casual brethren still buy their games from brick and mortar stores like EB and JB Hi-Fi. Thus, in order to not give grey importers or direct downloaders an 'unfair' advantage over shoppers at the brick and mortar stores, game releases are locked to whenever retail copies arrive in that region's stores. To quote the immortal Penny Arcade, 'We're slowing down every car just so we don't hurt a horse’s feelings'

You know what? Fuck horses
I’ve clashed with this second kind of region-locking twice: first with Skyrim, then with Borderlands 2. Both times I have bought the game via Steam (in the case of Skyrim, I actually prepurchased the game from the Australian Steam store while in Australia), yet because the little boxes hadn't moved around in Japan, I was unable to play said games. They were fully pre-loaded, sitting on my Steam account, yet I was being told 'No. You can't play these games, even though all of your friends are playing them. You have to wait like all the other good little Japanese children'. The case of Borderlands is particularly significant, as it is billed as a co-op game. What good is playing a co-op game a good month after all of my friends back in Australia have finished it?

So what can I, and many others, do, when faced with these situations? The first answer is to use a VPN to 'trick' steam into thinking you are in a different country. The only problem is this potentially risks having your entire steam account banned, as using a VPN to 'disguise' your location for any reason is technically against the steam subscriber agreement (You agree that you will not use IP proxying or other methods to disguise the place of your residence, whether to circumvent geographical restrictions on game content, to purchase at pricing not applicable to your geography, or for any other purpose. If you do this, we may terminate your access to your Account.) So what does that leave us? Piracy. Yarrrrr!

Steve and stevesgameblog in no way, shape or form endorses or promotes internet piracy.
One of the best explanations for piracy I have heard is that it becomes prevalent when the pirates offer a better service than the publishers. Let's look at Russia and Eastern Europe. Piracy is so incredibly rampant there, not because Russians are dirty thieves, but because most publishers neglect the region entirely. Games are released months late, if at all and face numerous region restrictions. I complained about Japan's version of borderlands releasing a month late, but the Russian version released ONLY in Russian (screw you, Estonians!) and was only able to be played with other people in Russia. In Russia, the only way to play a majority of games on release date with the full set of features is to pirate them. That's the pirate providing a better service than the publisher.

Region locks and intrusive DRM, as well as the 'always-online' requirement of many of these modern games can also be bypassed by pirating. Pirating a game gives you a much better quality-of-life than actually buying it. In fact, as was especially frustrating in the case of RAGE, I was actively punished for purchasing a legit copy. Thus, as more and more games become region locked, you can expect piracy rates to increase accordingly. If you think that's scary, it's now time to have a look at the 'how,' as in, how all this PC region locking is possible in the first place, and how it implicates the unlikely villain in this picture.

Borderlands 2 is a game that's built around co-op. Region locks can unintentionally remove this feature

Did you manage to guess the villain already? 

I actually dropped his name a couple of times: Steam. Yes, Steam -- the platform beloved by pretty much every PC gamer out there for its ease of use, support of indie developers,  great customer support and of course, the delicious holiday sales -- is the reason why modern PC games can be region locked. Steam has become so popular that it essentially has a monopoly on PC game digital downloads. While it seems like a perfect company, ANY kind of monopoly is a very bad thing, and the increasing prevalence of region locking is the first sign of this. It's gotten to the point where even if you buy a game retail, you still have to activate it on Steam.  This means that you effectively have to be 'always online' to play your games, and publishers can use this requirement to constantly check your IP address and block you from playing their games. While this hasn’t happened in any Valve-produced game, the fact that Valve actually allows publishers to do this is a sign that Valve is willing to look the other way with Publishers trying to exploit gamers.

Scumbag Steam
So, as you can see, this is a very real problem that is bound to especially affect those in markets such as Australia and South East Asia. What can we do about it? I might be crucified for saying this, but maybe Origin isn't such a bad idea after all. While we are happy and content to have our entire game libraries all in one place, Steam continuing its monopoly unchallenged is only going to give rise to more shady business practices. The lack of competition may also slow down its drive to improve itself at the rate it is now. Origin is far from perfect, but given time I actually hope it grows to become just as big as Steam. If you still have hatred for Origin, try using alternatives such as gamefly, gamer's gate and especially good old games.

And all you big name publishers out there, next time you cry foul of PC gamers and their rampant piracy ruining your bottom line, maybe you should think about actually offering a service that is at least comparable to what is being offered by the pirates themselves?

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