Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Gran Turismo 5 To Feature 10GB HDD Installation

If you’re anything like me then you’ll always install PS3 games onto the hard drive if there’s an option available. Loading times are just another one of those things – along with poor texture filtering – that you just thought you’d see the back of with each progressing console generation. But like with image quality, there is always a reason, or two, for it to crop up again when least expected.

For Gran Turismo 5 Sony are once again providing an additional install option on top of simply being able to simply pop the disc into the drive and play the game. According to Kazunori Yamauchi (via his Twitter page) GT5’s installation feature will allow for a ‘smooth’ experience, but at the expense of a whopping 10 gigabytes of HDD space – double that of previous PS3 games.

If you just want to play the game, then you’ll only need a paltry 256 megabytes in order to do so. But then I imagine that loading times will be far more noticeable without the installation.

But what of Yamauchi’s ‘smooth’ quote? What could he possibly mean by that? Well, to be fair, those expecting some kind of framerate boost, or better performance in 1080p are going to be disappointed, as it's likely that GT5’s producer simply meant that quicker loading times would mean less noticeable break up between sections of play than if you didn’t install the game.

There’s nothing worse than having a lengthy session of loading screens between some highly impressive, fast-paced racing, and Yamauchi knows this. If nothing else having shorted load times will make for a more seamless experience, one which could be described as ‘smooth’, and very much the opposite of a more jarring ‘stop-start’ nature often caused by poor data management and long loading screens.

Nevertheless, 10 gigabytes is a huge file size, and it will be interesting to see just how much of a difference such a large install will make.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Review: Gunblade NY and L.A. Machineguns Arcade Hits Pack (Wii)

Lightgun games, along with the Daytona’s and Street Fighter’s of this world, were once the lifeblood of the arcade. You only have to look at the likes of Operation Wolf, Virtua Cop, Time Crisis, and House Of The Dead to see how the genre has progressed, and how it also made up many peoples favourite all-time arcade experiences. The simple, bare-bones shooting action of most of these titles provided a quick-fix adrenaline rush, and a way of killing a few minutes of your time loosing a bunch of fifty pence pieces in the process (or quarters if you’re American).

But now that is all gone. The scene, and the genre in general is in steady decline, if not completely dead. I used to love these games, but now they don’t seem to make ‘em anymore. And when they do, they’re just not the same. Just look at Sega’s Rambo - one of the few lightgun games released in the Arcades in 2008. It was positively bad, with low production values and uninspired stage design. These days this is exactly the kind of experiences you’ll get with games of this type.

Although saying that, maybe I’m just looking at all mid-nineties arcade shooters with rose-tinted specs. Outside of the large AAA releases like Virtua Cop and Time Crisis there was a whole lot of decidedly average experiences for your money. With that in mind, you could say that many of the newer lightgun games are simply in the same bracket as the some of those second rate titles we played all those years ago. Not really worse than you remember, but just as mediocre as the ones you hardly ever played.

This is were Sega’s latest Wii lightgun game offering fits in. The Gunblade NY and L.A. Machineguns Arcade Hits Pack is a collection of two relatively low-profile arcade gun games from 1996 and 1998, each delivering the same kind of simplistic, and near-constant blasting expected from machinegun games of the time, with both games being part of the same franchise. But unlike say Virtua Cop, you find your self riding in the back of a futuristic police helicopter, armed with a powerful machine gun and fending off waves of humanoid robots intend on controlling the city.

The first game, Gunblade NY was released in 1996 and runs on Sega’s once hugely popular Model 2 arcade board. It’s age is easily apparent, with blocky graphics, simple special effects, and a world consisting of scant amounts of geometry, with only a few enemies on screen at any given time in order to keep the level of detail up. At the same time this clean, albeit simplistic look works rather well, and the actual conversion itself is arcade perfect. The game runs flawlessly at 60fps and contains all the diffuse reflection mapping of the Model 2 original, along with some impressive texture filtering for a nearly twenty year old game. Dare I say, the IQ is better than the second game in this pack.

Outside of the obvious conversion factor, the gameplay is something of a disappointment. It’s not only really basic – the only thing you do is point, shoot, and occasionally change weapons – but also feels even more like a cash-in on the success the genre had back in the mid-nineties. The camera also feels a little wonky. It’s like its attached to a piece of string being waved around on screen, rather than one of a helicopter circling around, and swooping down on parts of the cityscape. Though perhaps this could be forgiven considering the age of the game and all.

Gunblade NY is just about enjoyable to play. Everything works, with no glitches to offend you. Although the whole thing feels pretty boring to say the least, and a little to ‘barren’ to provide any nostalgic excitement.

LA Machineguns fares a little better. Graphically the game isn’t quite as polished as its predecessor with regards to overall IQ, although texture detail, polygon counts and special effects are all noticeably ramped up far and beyond the Model 2 original. That is because this sequel used the Model 3 board and benefits from the extra power it provides. The standard diffuse mapping returns, but with only small highlights of specular sheen found in most Model 3 titles, though there is far more stuff being thrown around on screen at once compared to the last game.

Like with Gunblade NY, LA Machineguns looks to be arcade perfect, with only a little bit of slowdown, and the slightly darker look of the Wii version separating them apart. Still, visually it’s also a pretty dated affair, failing to hold up compared to other Model 3 arcade games like Scud Race, or Spike Out. Instead, like with Gunblade NY, this sequel also feels like a second rate title developed to keep the number of Sega games in the arcades up.

Where LA Machineguns succeeds however, is by providing a moderately fun, if not all too simple shooting experience. The on-rails nature of the game features a far better camera system than Gunblade which makes it feel more like you are actually shooting down things whilst riding on the side of a helicopter, and the action is more intense, featuring many more enemies on screen at once, with plentiful amounts of blocky explosions taking place.

Both games are hardly pinnacle examples of the genre however, and have very little replay value once you’ve finished them. I’d found the whole package can be completed easily in under one hour, and that the games themselves lacked any kind of challenge on the normal difficulty setting. Seeing as there’s no extras in which to speak of, after you’ve completed both titles there’s really nothing for you to do. You can upload your best rankings online via a leaderboard system, but that’s it.

Despite being a massive fan of Sega arcade games, and lightgun games in general, there’s really not much I can recommend here. Neither game is particularly great, failing to grab your attention positively – even in a cheesy, nineties Japanese-style arcade manner - and requiring very little skill to complete, after which boredom starts to set in. Unlike with the genre’s greats, Gunblade NY and LA Machineguns is less about testing your shooting skills, and more about spraying a load of bullets across the screen, hoping they all hit, and then continuing to the next stage, a full set of credits in hand.

At least both games have been given perfect conversions in the home. Sega could have so easily messed this up like they did with the Wii version of Ghost Squad. Thankfully, sans a bit of slowdown in LA Machineguns, both games have been nicely recreated, and from a conversion point of view, represents just how things should be done. Widescreen support has been included too, which sees both games being rendered in true 16:9 aspect ratio. Although all gameplay is strictly contained within an invisible 4:3 barrier which feels alittle strange.

Obsessed Sega arcade fans will no doubt do well to pick this up and show their support, as this could lead to more Model 2 and 3 hits coming our way, while most people (inc lightgun game fans) should give this one a miss. The Gunblade NY and L.A. Machineguns Arcade Hits Pack is worth a quick rental for an hour or two’s brief entertainment, or for those who need to own every Sega arcade release, but at £20 doesn’t represent a value for money purchase. Maybe as a £10 preowned buy further on down the line this is worth loading up and taking aim for, but certainly not at full price.


Saturday, 28 August 2010

Tech Report: Vanquish - The Resolution Game

Recently, over the last couple of weeks various direct-feed screenshots have surfaced of Platinum Games’ Vanquish, with each batch seemingly being rendered in different resolutions to the last, and with varying amounts of anti-aliasing. Some of these screenshots came directly from the developers blog, looking like authentic framebuffer grabs off an actual 360 or PS3 console, whilst some appeared to be of almost bullshot-like quality without going the whole hog of supersampling.

The question is, what resolution is the game really running at, and which platform did the framebuffer grabs come from? IQGamer takes a brief look a few days ahead of the game’s demo release attempting to set the record straight.

Vanquish, the latest action game from the mind behind such hits like Resident Evil and Devil May Cry - the legendary Shinji Mikami - is being developed using a modified version of the same engine which powered Bayonetta for Xbox 360 and PS3, with the PS3 version sighted as the lead platform this time around.

Like with Bayonetta, Vanquish’s engine clearly has its eye on delivering lots of alpha heavy particle effects and transparencies on screen during combat, which usually causes problems for the bandwidth staved PS3, especially without further optimisations or multiple resolution render targets for different graphical effects. Although compared to Bayonetta Vanquish doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as alpha heavy on first impressions, and the quality of the game’s effects do in fact look to be slightly higher than in Platinum Games’ other title, even if there is still evidence of lower-res buffers in action.

However, we’re not here to talk about the entire engine from a tech perspective today, instead focusing on determining platform and final rendering resolution. Saying that, our observations with regards to particle resolution in the released screens could well be achieved with a slightly greater saving in memory due to reducing the overall framebuffer size down somewhat. And this is exactly what appears to be happening when looking at the more genuine screen grabs released by the developer.

The first screenshots released of Vanquish were clearly supersampled bullshots. Shown below is an image of the game supposedly rendered in 720p, but with insanely high amounts of AA and some impressive post-processing effects rarely seen in such high quality at game level. It’s pretty obvious that this isn’t what the final game is going to look like. Not unless a PC version is in the bag and running behind the scenes.

This next screenshot looks a lot more authentic, and is actually rendered in 720p (1280x720) without any additional supersampling or downscaling of the image. However it also looks incredibly clean, with very high levels of AA – at least 8x MSAA or more, meaning that additional AA could well have been applied to the final framebuffer image for promotional use whilst keeping the game’s natural rendering res intact. It’s also possible that this could be from a different build – the 360 game perhaps. Although the levels of AA here are clearly beyond the 4xMSAA capable on MS’s console.

The final screenshot is far more telling, and looks blatantly like you’d expect one taken directly from the HDMI output of either console. Here you’ll see that there is no anti-aliasing to be found of any kind – not even 2xMSAA or QAA, and that the image quality is noticeably below that of the above 720p shot supposedly from a real framebuffer grab.

Resolution-wise, the below screen is being rendered out at 1024x720 with no AA, meaning that it clearly would fit into the 360’s EDRAM without tiling, and also appears to be something we’d expect from a standard multiplatform PS3 port; a slight drop in horizontal res, and no AA giving the game away.

But which version is this screen from? And is it simply possible that Vanquish will have no AA and a lower horizontal resolution on both platforms?

Well, there are obviously no straight up, one-hundred percent answers at the moment seeing as we don’t know for sure which version the screens are from. What we do know though, is that they were taken directly from the video output of either current-gen console, and that the visual composition of the image makes it likely that we are indeed looking at the PS3 build.

Traditionally, when downgrading resolution for both consoles developers usually only cut back on the horizontal res on PS3, and a mixture of both on 360. This due to the fact that the PS3 has no built in hardware scaler, other than the broken horizontal scaler found inside its RSX GPU, whereas 360 has advanced scaling capabilities found in Xenos.

The other issue is the lack of AA, and this is down to memory bandwidth. If resolution is not the first thing to be cut, then use of anti-aliasing is. The 360, with its 10mb of EDRAM, easily has enough bandwidth to usually deliver at least 2xMSAA for 720p games (with occasional cuts in overall res where required) whereas the PS3 for the most part does not.

This means that it is more than likely that the screenshots released from the developer (the ones that are genuine) are from the PS3 version of the game. The fact that Platinum Games have stated all the way through Vanquish’s development that the PS3 version is the lead build, also backs this up. As does the game’s appearance at various showcase venues for the press, in which it was the PS3 build that was usually demonstrated.

Of course this is simply well informed guesswork on what version we think the screens are from. In order to find out solidly we will have to wait until the demo goes live on Wednesday, September 1st, after which we should have our initial hands-on impressions with the title up on the site, and hopefully a proper tech analysis a few days later.

Until then we can say that Vanquish does appear to render in 1024x720 with no AA on at least one, or both consoles, with the PS3 version strongly edging our bets on which version the screens are from.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Review: Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days (360)

The original Kane & Lynch was a stab at something a little bit different; a third-person shooter starring two unlikeable, but potentially redeeming protagonists thrust head-on into a world of violence and deception. It was a brief, unpolished look into the criminal psyche, packed with plenty of explosions, bad language and a dodgy control scheme. The ideas that it threw around worked well on paper, but when it came down to the crunch the developers were unable to deliver on their vision.

Kane & Lynch 2 is nothing like that game. Well, it is in one sense being a third-person shooter. But really, that is all it has in common with its predecessor. Everything has been stripped down to the bare essentials; the action is more tightly focused, the control scheme is more responsive, and the story decidedly even more one-sided. In essence it has lost some of what made the original game mildly interesting for the sake of focusing on a single concept, with most of the personality of the two leads coming from the highly stylised visual presentation, and the kinds of things that you’ll be doing reduced to lots and lots of shooting.

Now, all this shooting Initially doesn’t seem so bad. And after all, the COD series survives on little else, with only short interludes in between heavy action sequences. However K&L 2 seems to miss the mark by quite some margin in this regard. Yes, there’s plenty of shooting. You do nothing else. And although the game is reasonably polished in some areas, and is pretty fun for a while, it’s also packed with various bugs and glitches meaning that it just doesn’t hold itself together well enough throughout the entire single player campaign.

The action is fast and frenetic and the gunplay is actually quite enjoyable at first. It’s perhaps only let down by the numerous glitches to be found throughout the game, and the relentless nature of the enemy AI, which tends to bring to the surface further problems with regards to weapon balance and implementation.

In the game’s smaller, more confined sections, the constant cat and mouse game between our despicable duo and the legions of enemies works rather well. But when thrown onto the deep end time and time again, with large, wide-open areas full of wave upon wave of enemies coming your way, it all becomes just a little too tiring, and very, very repetitive.

Throughout all of this the enemy AI is actually quite cleaver, constantly ducking and running between cover points, while at the same time trying to flush you out via flanking you from either side, drawing you with short bursts of fire. It definitely feels a cut above the average third-person shooter.

K&L 2 is also pretty relentless at all times, never letting up, and only stopping when it manages to glitch itself into submission; standing still waiting to be shot, or running circles around either two of the lead characters whilst failing to fire their weapon. Enemies also find themselves magically teleporting through, and over various parts of the scenery in moments of frustration and obvious hilarity. The consequences of which is a distinct inability for you being able to track and follow targets effectively.

In other silly moments NPC’s that you are meant to chase/follow occasionally become ‘confused’. You may find them simply standing in one place, or wandering around aimlessly until the game decides to fail you on the mission. Sometimes, these characters will also randomly appear and disappear from out of nowhere; there one minute, then gone the next. I’ve seen the same thing happen to groups of enemies, and even both Kane and Lynch themselves in the ending cut-scene. It’s hardly what I’d consider acceptable for a high-profile release, and annoyingly, feels rather unfinished like the demo.

Combat, for the most part is reasonably solid, with the controls being far more responsive compared to the original K&L. Aiming and shooting feels quick and relatively natural; lining up that crucial head shot is easy, and the only real reason for failure, outside of your varying degree of skill, is the wide-range of your targeting reticule giving you the feeling that the game is deliberately trying to help the more co-ordinately challenged of us take down the opposition.

In reality, although easier for beginners, it also makes it harder for experienced players, lending the game’s targeting system to feel somewhat inaccurate at times. However, the real problem comes into play when you realise that many of the weapons you encounter throughout the game do very little damage, and the ones that do, are considerably unbalanced. The shotgun for example, delivers the same amount of damage regardless of how far away you are from your intended target. Whilst the pistol and various machine guns do very little, even at close range, unless a headshot is clearly made - something that isn’t as easy to judge, as it should be.

Thankfully, moving around the environment and getting in and out of cover is a much simpler affair than in the original. Pushing the ‘A’ button on the controller when up against a wall, table, etc activates the cover mechanic, and pushing it again releases you. For the most part the system is pretty good, and I didn’t have too much trouble with it until the later parts of the game.

It’s only here, where you’ll really realise how inconsistent the implementation can be. Slow, is perhaps a too strong a word to use, even though your commands fail to respond fast enough in intense situations. Usually, this happens after you’ve just ran up to a surface for cover, pushing the button the instant you get there. In instances like this the game doesn’t recognise what you’ve done. Instead, you have to wait for a split second or so before attempting the cover move or it won’t register at all.

Although the overall cover system is a massive improvement over the one used before in the first Kane & Lynch, it isn’t really polished enough to help you in dealing with the constant barrage of enemies being thrown your way. Not when they can move around at unbelievable speeds using the game’s own glitches against you, even if this is just a side effect of the unfinished nature of the title.

Occasionally the non-stop action duck and cover action is broken up with some explosive set pieces, containing yet… even more shooting. There are some cool touches included; like tearing up a building full of Chinese Mafia goons killing dozens of enemies in nearly every room you pass, which provides a more laid-back, and mindless on-rails element giving you a chance to take a ‘time out’ in an odd kind of way. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of these sections to be found, and some are so short and under-whelming that they almost appear pointlessly tacked-on the end as a means for avoiding doing anything of real substance.

And that’s the problem with Kane & Lynch 2. The game is so caught up in delivering a never-ending spectacle of gunfights and explosions that it fails to see how lacking and completely shallow it is. Just a few months ago developers IO interactive promised that we would see a deeper storyline compared to the first game, fleshing out Lynch’s character and maybe taking you closer into what makes him tick, why he is the way he is, and how even he has some humanity left in him.

False promises then, as that element seems to be completely avoided in this sequel; what we have here is nothing more than a few sound bytes between each mission, a brief cinematic, and not a lot else. Playing through the game it is kinda hard to follow just what is supposed to be happening, let alone the reasoning behind it. I gather you’re being hunted down after a botched arms deal, and that the Chinese Mafia is after your blood after you accidentally killed the daughter of a Mob boss. But really, that’s about it. Each cut-scene simply ends with more enemies shooting at you, and does nothing but introduce the next piece of action.

The two leads also are left as simple caricatures of their former selves, spouting foul-mouthed banter, and brief expositions of plot as you run around gunning down everyone in sight. But never is any time given to explore the characters and their motivations, meaning that you never care for them, or really feel any impact when they are faced with the horrid reality of their situation. Instead it just feels like a game, and that the story is just a bit of filler in between. Which, it is, but it doesn’t always have to be like that though.

Instead, most of the game’s personality comes from the highly stylised visual presentation, in which the entire look of K&L 2 is covered in a grainy, pixelated, and blocky security cam video type effect, perfectly blending in the nature of the two lead’s with the grimy underworld they find themselves in. The screen constantly changes between being mildly clean, to featuring heavy bouts of film grain and YouTube-esque macroblocking, all contributing to the underlying shady nature of both the environment and the people that inhabit it.

A shaky-cam effect also adds more realism to the proceedings. The whole game is seen through the eyes of what looks like a snuff movie recording of sorts, capturing every detail of your actions, and censoring out the most gruesome parts entirely. Whilst pretty stylish to look at, the shaky nature of the camerawork leads easily to some pretty prevalent motion sickness if you’re not careful. The Gears Of War style run is the main culprit for this, and can make you go from feeling fine, to incredibly nauseous in just a few seconds.

The presentation and the smooth, responsive controls are easily the highlights of the experience. Visually the game isn’t all that great, being noticeably soft at times due to its sub-HD nature. And the single-player campaign is way too short, with it being possible to complete in under five hours in a single sitting – I did it in four over Xbox Live in co-op. Still, the game is reasonably fun to play online (either in co-op or against others) when the glaring flaws don’t rear their ugly heads to often. Plus, the duck and cover shooting on offer is actually pretty good, and reasonably enjoyable taken in short bursts rather than an afternoon slog.

All things considered, Kane & Lynch 2 is a noticeable improvement over the first game with regards to its core gameplay mechanics and intense gunplay. But, it is also a lot simpler, with none of the variety of the original, and much of what made it so potentially interesting stripped away down to a repetitive third-person shooter, with only brief flashes of brilliance. The story is paper thin, and the characters are barely given ample exposure to develop their personalities. Plus, the whole engine feels largely unfinished, suffering from occasional crashes and plenty of visible glitches.

However, that’s not to say that you won’t find gain some enjoyment from gunning down the many waves of enemies you’ll face throughout the game. Although your time spent is as likely to be one of equal parts frustration as it is fun. And these days that just isn’t good enough for such a high profile release.

In the end IO Interactive have produced a distinctly average shooter, coated in a unique gritty visual style, and well, not much else. The endless combat can only sustain your interest for so long, and the seemingly unfinished engine reeks of a rush job to market. The controls and action may be better than the first, as is the overall polish behind the game. But it comes at the expense of any real substance, and doesn’t do the underlying idea of playing a mentally unstable psychopath any justice. Kane & Lynch 2 then, is wasted potential that perhaps warrants a rental or a cheap bargain-bin purchase for curiosity’s sake, but in no way deserves your attention as a full price product.


Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Hands-On: The Xbox 360 S 4GB Console

We’ve already taken a look at the 250gb Xbox 360 S last month in our in-depth hands-on with the unit, and now today we sit down and do the same with the cheaper 4gb model of the console. For those looking for a more comprehensive report, you should check out our original feature, as what we have hear is more of look at the differences between the two models rather than a complete showcase.

Billed as the replacement for the previous Xbox 360 Arcade, the new 4gb S is £50 cheaper (retailing at £150 against £200) and comes complete with the same feature set as the 250gb unit. You’ve got the five USB ports (two on the front, three on the back), AV out, Optical out, HDMI output, Ethernet port, a custom connector for hooking up Kinect, and the inclusion of the built-in Wi-Fi adaptor previously speculated to remain exclusive to the larger unit S console. Effectively the only difference between the two is the size of the memory contained within the console, and the unit’s aesthetic finish.

The 250gb model 360 S went for a decidedly high-end approach to aesthetic design, featuring a glossy black plastic finish with some shiny chrome highlights complementing the style set chosen to represent the ‘elite’ of Xbox gaming. It was pretty stylish and really looked like a premium product of sorts. Although the shiny finish caused no end of problems if you weren’t careful with it. The unit easily picked up fingerprints, and attracted dust like it had just been cleaned with some kind of window polish.

By contrast the 4gb model features a matt finish and only subtle touches of the chrome highlighting; present only on the touch sensitive ‘power’ and disc tray ‘open/close’ buttons. The sides of the unit, which also previously had touches of chrome, now have a glossy black surround instead, complementing the matt black aesthetic found on the top, bottom, front and back of the machine. The contrast between the shiny edges and the rest of the machine is further accentuated by the difference in the shade of black used for the two parts of the console – it’s noticeable lighter on top.

I have to say that I actually much prefer the more traditional look of the 4gb unit above the overly shiny 250gb model. Sure, the 4gb unit lacks that ‘high-end’ look that most shiny products display so proudly. But at the same time I find that that the standard matt approach is far more functional, and still looks rather stylish overall. There’s no chance of accidentally leaving loads of smudged finger marks on the console, and in terms of cleaning the unit, a simple duster will more than suffice. Comparatively, cleaning the 250gb model required delicate use of a micro fibre cloth. And even then, there was still a small chance at marking the console.

I also think that the new matt finish better represents the 360 brand as a whole, owing to the fact that the overall look of the 4gb unit is much closer to an extension of the previous 360’s design, rather than an attempt to follow Sony and Apple’s idea of shiny meaning ‘top of the range’, as it were. Personal preference for sure, but I do think that having a glossy finish for the 250gn was a light miss-step for the company. Although it IS their brand, and having it unified with two black Xbox 360’s can only be a good thing, even if one happens to be annoyingly shiny.

In terms of storage space, the latest version of the Xbox 360 S features 4gb of inbuilt flash memory compared to the 250gb hard drive found in its bigger brother. The compartment containing the hard drive is still correct and present though, so a HDD can later be installed if need be, much like on the existing Arcade and Core 360 consoles.

According to both Microsoft, and the picture on the side of the box, a 250gb HDD will be available separately at some point in the near future. One US-based online retailer already has it up for preorder, listing it at $130, so we can also expect it to arrive in the UK for around the £100 mark shortly. Unless of course, that Microsoft tries to change us a premium £130 in a like for like exchange, which would be most unwise seeing as Kinect will be retailing for the same amount.

Other than the smooth matt exterior and the use of internal 4gb flash memory, the rest of the package is identical to the 250gb model. The very same controller can be found in the box, along with the new style AV Composite cable, and the curvy looking power supply unit, all of which can be seen in the screenshots above.

You may have noticed that we’ve used them before in our hands-on report of the original 250gb unit, but seeing as these components are identical, then what is the point in photographing them all over again. Impressions of these items can be found in our 250gb Xbox 360 S feature, if you’re interested.

Operating noise is identical to our 250gb S console, with the fan noise being barely audible in a quiet room, and only ever ramping up when placing a disc in the drive and booting up the game; DVD playback is, like with the original 360, at idling levels.

Seeing as there isn’t enough space to install disc-based games onto the flash memory (of which only 3gb is left after the OS steals the rest) we could only test out small XBL demos to determine the impact of playing games off the internal memory versus an actual disc. As with the 250gb machine, operating noise drops down to idling levels comfortably, only rising up slightly after twenty minutes or so of prolonged use. I also left the console on for another half hour or so with the game still running, but didn’t encounter any further rises in fan speed.

The 4gb Xbox 360 S then represents a solid upgrade for anyone looking to replace their existing Arcade or Core model 360’s, or even their 20gb Premium or Pro units if they haven’t the need for the extra space the hard drive provides. Like with the 250gb console the 4gb S has the same stylish design, and all of the additional features of its bigger brother, but without the overly shiny aesthetic of a ‘supposedly’ premium item. The advantage is that you don’t have to treat the 4gb S with kid gloves, and more importantly still have access to inbuilt Wi-Fi and a direct, all-in-one link for the Kinect.

Unfortunitely, for those looking to upgrade to this model over an old 360 with a hard drive, there is a distinct lack of storage space available going from 20 to 100 gigabytes to 4gb of flash of memory. However, a separate 250gb HDD will be available shortly, and when it arrives the 4gb model will actually represent a good, if not slightly more expensive, upgrade path for existing owners of the old 360 console.

Personally, I prefer the smooth matt exterior, with the glossy black and chrome highlights over the shiny finish of the 250gb S. And in turn, definitely feel that the 4gb machine represents how the new S console should look like when seen as a genuine continuation of the existing Xbox 360 brand. Then again, it makes perfect sense from Microsoft’s point of view to have two differently styled machines, with the 250gb leading the way with its ‘elite’ look about it, and the 4gb with its more traditional finish becoming a solid, yet barely lower-end alternative.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Demo Hands-On: Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X 2

For those expecting some high-octane aerial action taking you right to the edge of the danger zone, you need to look elsewhere because Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X 2 is a far more sedate, realistic take on airborne combat. Enemies appear as tiny dots ready to be engaged over the distant horizon rather than up close in intense choreographed battles, and the sense of speed expected by thrill-seekers hoping for a ‘Top Gun’ experience is also largely absent.

Instead Ubisoft are once again delivering a controlled slice of hybrid arcade action, arcade in the sense that most of the time all you have to do is move and shoot without needing to know the in-depth complications surrounding the difficulty of flying, and controlled in the sense that you can perform many intricate movements using the joypad without having to hit the various buttons required by a flight simulator. Realism then, glossed over in a more accessible package of sorts, more fun than non-fiction.

H.A.W.X 2 maybe fairly simplistic in what you are tasked to do; shooting down enemy aircraft in a slow-looking ballet below the clouds, however, there is much to learn with regards to manoeuvring your aircraft and successfully acquiring targets for takedown without stopping to blink. The control system, although initially daunting, allows for finite movements of your aircraft and subtle adjustments where a more direct method would hinder your accuracy.

The left analogue stick controls your aircraft’s position and roll, allowing you to turn slowly as well as perform a basic rolling manoeuvre much like After Burner’s trademark ‘barrel roll’. Pushing gently towards either direction, left and right, makes your craft turn subtly; just enough to keep up with other fighter jets at long range, whilst pushing down slightly more makes your craft perform a quick roll, allowing you to spin around in all 360 degrees of motion. It is also possible to slowly roll, and then reverse again. Or, to slowly turn and then enter into a quick roll as an evasive technique to avoid incoming missiles, but not really other aircraft.

Additional control for turning at high speeds is provided by the L1 and R1 shoulder buttons, whilst the L2 and R2 triggers are used to accelerate and brake your aircraft. Using the brake in combination with the analogue stick and either the L1 or R1 buttons allows you to ‘brake right’ or brake left’, much like seen in the film Top Gun, although not in anywhere near as dramatic a fashion. The implementation, like with the rest of the game’s controls, and realistic sense of motion, is delivered subtly.

Shooting missiles and firing off rounds from your ‘cannon’ is done purely on the face buttons, with X controlling missiles, and O the cannon, much like any other combat flying game, while lastly, the right stick is used to move the camera around your aircraft giving you almost 360 vision.

In the air enemies are represented as small yellow icons, with your next target surrounded by a yellow box which changes colour after you’ve highlighted it for a brief second with your cursor. Once this has happened you can fire missiles ‘off target’ and still make a direct hit possible. However, when using your machine cannon you need your cursor to be inside that box in order to successfully take down the target, although it is possible for skilled players to still do the same by firing off rounds when scrolling past and over enemy fighters.

Reading the air, and whether or not you’ve taken down the enemy is easy. Getting to grips with the game’s initially depthy control scheme isn’t. The first time you fly off and go for a spin for the benefit of the Soviet Union, control is both confusing and unwieldy. Seconds after picking up the joypad for the first time I was unintentionally performing barrel rolls instead of simply turning my craft around like I wanted to. Using both L1 and R1 to perform this manoeuvre instead of the stick didn’t feel right at all, and I felt a distinct disconnect between what I wanted to be doing and how the game wanted me to do it.

After a few minutes H.A.W.X’s somewhat in-depth approach to flight control (for a console) became wholly apparent, as did the need for subtlety rather than the quick-finger reflexes required for the likes of After Burner, or Blazing Angles. I would say that anyone not versed in the H.A.W.X series will need at least an hour or two to really adjust to the controls, and maybe a few days to become completely proficient in using them second nature. But I guess that is simply a requirement seeing as the right stick is sometimes essential in successfully tracking enemies from behind by providing an all round viewpoint of the action.

Strangely for me I also found that the camera system, in combination with the initially fiddly controls, were a catalyst for motion sickness. Usually I only suffer from the condition when playing first-person shooters, or shaky cam action games. However, in H.A.W.X 2 the need to be turning and constantly changing position in battle made me nauseous within ten minutes or so, having to adjust by taking a more relaxed approach to combat with slow turns and none of the Top Gun inspired stunt work that I’d been using so successfully juts prior to this.

Saying that, I suspect most people won’t suffer from this at all, and after getting to grips with the controls the chance of this happening by rolling around too much isn’t likely to be a regular occurrence.

Another point of note is with regards to the game’s graphics. The developers appeared to have re-tooled the overall graphics engine, placing emphasis on slightly more detailed visuals at the expense of having a blisteringly high framerate. The first H.A.W.X game ran at an incredibly smooth 60 frames per-second, reiterating the message that a higher framerate does more for a game than simply making it look pretty.

Sadly, for this sequel this has been paired back down to a more respectable 30fps to allow for more detail and additional effects. Although initially, the extra layer of visual polish doesn’t look quite enough to justify such a downgrade. Thankfully, in reality the lower framerate does very little to harm the overall experience, with the slow-paced nature of the gameplay meaning that very little is lost as a result of the change. The controls may be slightly less precise, but in the end I didn’t find the drop in smoothness to have an adverse effect on the action.

Aside from the graphical changes outlined here, the basic dog-fighting found in the demo, and a somewhat fiddly landing sequence, the developers are also looking to expand upon the types of missions that made up the list of things to do in the first game, along with providing a larger selection of controllable aircraft, and a greater range of weaponry that can be added to each one.

All of this should make H.A.W.X 2 a more enjoyable experience, or at least a more varied one. The demo however, barely provides us with a good enough look at the game to make any solid judgements though, and in many ways it appears to be a regression of the first H.A.W.X in terms of visuals alone. Well in terms of framerate that is. Plus, it’s also hard to see just how much has really been improved, given the fact that the gameplay taster provided is so similar to before, and that the control scheme, although still allowing for plenty of additional accuracy, is still a little too fiddly for its own good.

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X 2 isn’t likely to redefine arcade realism combat flight game in any way, but it’s certainly shaping up to be a rather polished, if not nauseous, alternative to another instalment in Namco’s upcoming Ace Combat series. Whether or not that will be enough to make it as worthwhile the second time around is anyone’s guess, though it does have solid foundations on which to build upon.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The PS3 'Hack' Updated

On Thursday we ran a story sighting that the PS3 system had been effectively cracked now allowing it to run custom code and copied games without an internal mod chips. Initially the jury was still out on whether the supposed ‘hack’ was real or not, although it can be confirmed that it does indeed work exactly as described, thus presenting a small problem for Sony.

However the hack itself isn’t exactly anything special. From what I gather the USB device contains a chip that has some code taken from a Sony recovery device, which is used to boot up a PS3 that has been bricked due to a corrupted firmware update making the machine supposedly unbootable, and it’s this that signals the standard retail PS3 to boot up in a service mode of sorts.

The tools used to rip games from their BluRay discs comes in the form of a variant of Sony’s own download manager, and is the second aspect which makes this hack work; without it you can enter the PS3’s service mode and run custom code, although you can’t copy any games over to the system.

The USB device is exactly the kind of thing that Sony approved repairers use in fixing broken PS3 consoles, bypassing the actual system firmware, and contains what can only be described as an easy short-term exploit into unlocking the console.

I say short-term as part of the boot exploit can be patched by a simple firmware update stopping unsigned games from running, and by requiring all new software to have this latest firmware update. This would stop people from running the newest releases on the console until either: the latest system update was installed, or until the hackers can create their own custom version of said update. However whilst patching the boot sequence may be relatively easy, curtailing use of the exploit may not. At least not without some kind of internal hardware revision.

The area in which the USB stick seems to exploit is the use of the system’s bios chip, which controls how and in what mode the PS3 boots (amongst other things). The USB is recognised as a Sony recovery device, and thus gains full access to the hardware. So in order to patch such a flaw you would need to be able to flash the bios chip to update the controlling software, thus preventing the exploit from taking place. And this is potentially a huge issue as usually this part of the hardware isn’t accessible to anyone. At least it wasn’t in the PSP, and may not be in the PS3 either.

What this means is that even if Sony patch the firmware and change the boot sequence stopping custom code from running, there’s still the very real possibility that the USB stick hack will continue to work. However, as new software will still require the latest firmware updates, some releases simply might not boot regardless.

Of course all this is assuming that the PS3’s bios cannot be flashed - something we don’t yet know. Although if it can, then the whole USB key and current exploit will be null and void in an instant. If not, then Sony will need to make changes to the internal hardware itself through new motherboard/bios revisions in new PS3 units leaving potentially all of the old consoles wide-open to the exploit, and the obvious route of re-written custom firmware – an ongoing problem with the PSP.

In the end Sony can easily make changes to their own security system through new firmware updates to circumvent the issue, along with new ‘game’ plus ‘disc’ checking features making running new releases much harder to do even if the bios flaw cannot be patched. There’s also the ability to change the boot system making the USB dongle rather useless in its current form. Instead hackers will need to continuously patch it in order to keep compatibility with PS3’s featuring the latest firmware.

Perhaps the only problem left is if the hardware bios cannot be flashed via a firmware update, in which case it would be possible for hackers to repeatedly break any new security measures Sony decides to implement. However, even if they do regardless (which is no easy task), this still means that ‘day one’ use of copied games is effectively ruled out, plus even with the hack in its current implementation you cannot run PS3 games downloaded from the net on the console; you need to have copied it over to the HDD directly from the BR disc.

Whatever seems to be possible at present, it appears that this certainly isn’t the PS3 equivalent of the PSone modchip, and that a definitive way of cracking the console allowing for true custom code and downloaded software to be run is still some ways off. At least compared to the PSP.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

PS3 Finally Cracked?

The ongoing battle between Sony and the pirates looking for a clean way of cracking the PS3 may have just taken an unexpected turn. Today, an Australian company (OzModChips) selling mod-chips revealed via YouTube that the PS3’s security system might finally be completely compromised supposedly allowing for copied games and custom code to be run on the console. Or so various mod sites have been claiming.

Apparently, the company was sent a USB dongle with software from an unknown source in Hong Kong, and has since been very keen to show off the device’s potential. This dongle looks to contain software which effectively converts a users home PS3 system into a Sony certified debug unit with a few button presses upon start-up. Shown in the two YouTube videos posted today here and here from the same source, is the complete process of activating the hack and getting retail games copied across to the PS3’s HDD.

The hack, called PSJailbreak, now allows for full retail games to be copied and run over the hard drive on any model PS3 without the aid of any internal modification. Quite what is happening here we’re not sure, but it looks like the dongle either contains some software keys from Sony, and some kind of custom hardware built in allowing the PS3 to be converted into a debug unit of sorts. This would mean that it is likely that someone from inside Sony at least provided the unknown hacker in Hong Kong with the keys, usually signed and locked down deep within developers.

Since OzModChips displayed the hack working on YouTube several other mod chip sites have also confirmed that the hack is apparently real; that the PS3 has been cracked wide open through a rather simple procedure, and what looks like some stolen software keys from Sony. It has also been revealed from an unknown source that Sony are working on a patch to fix the problem (officially unconfirmed), and that this will entail a modified boot sequence for the machine, along with coded game discs for all new releases in order to only make them playable on systems using the latest firmware.

So far Sony has yet to comment on the situation, and the jury’s still out with regards to how authentic the actual hack is itself. Still, this certainly looks like being the first truly successful attempt at completely unlocking the PS3, and a rather bad day for Sony.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Sony Announces New Slim PS3 Models

In what could been seen as a reactionary move by Sony is there ever was one, the company announced at their press conference at this year’s Gamescom in Cologne, Germany that they were planning to replace the two current models of Slim PS3 with ones containing larger hard drives.

The existing 120GB console is to be replaced by a slightly larger 160GB model, and the 250GB one gets upgraded to 320GB. The pricing structure for both machines is to remain the same as the current models. So expect to pay £249.99 for the 160GB version, and £284.99 for the 320GB one.

While these newer models are due to arrive in stores from 15th September, Sony also point out that there might be a cross over with old stock as the old models are phased out, meaning that it is likely that some places may be run additional ‘clearance’ deals for those not too fussed by having a smaller amount of storage capacity.

Currently, PS3 sales are officially standing at 38 million worldwide, whilst the 360, on 41.2 million, leads by a small margin. However, in Europe the situation is reversed with Sony commanding the largest lead in console sales between the PS3 and the 360 in any territory. With this in mind Sony’s Andrew House commented that the launch of these new models of PS3 was to ‘maintain leadership’ in that particular territory.

After the slow start in sales following the launch of the PS3 in March 2007 in Europe for a whopping £425, it appears Sony is well and truly back on track with the PlayStation brand, and that means the battle can only get more interesting from here on out. Perhaps now’s the right time for the company to turn their attention around to the ailing PSP brand, and the inevitable PSP2.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Tech Analysis: Mafia II Demo (PS3 vs 360)

It is pretty commonplace to say that titles which feature much in the way of dense foliage, high levels of geometry and plenty of alpha-based transparency effects usually have serious issues with performance on consoles. The framerate often tends to suffer, texture detail gets scaled back, and sometimes the framebuffer resolution takes a massive dive. All of these things not only impact on overall image quality but also take you firmly out of the lavish world the developers have tried so hard to create.

Large, open-world, sandbox type affairs is where this kind of thing happens the most. These types of games are rarely suited to the constrained nature of home console hardware specifications. Even when properly optimised, they still require a large memory footprint, not to mention a hefty chunk of GPU power - a commodity not quite as widely available as you might think given the Uncharted’s and Killzone’s of this world.

Mafia II is one of those games. But unlike the with Red Dead Redemption, the game isn’t anywhere near as polished, with the developers attempting to cram in every last detail of the lead PC version onto the consoles with somewhat mixed results. The world created here is huge and incredibly detailed, with not only high poly counts, but also lots of small intricate touches which really bring out the noticeable attention to detail that has gone into nearly every facet of the game’s visual make up. It’s this approach, which not only provides a genuinely immersive experience, but one that also causes the game no end of problems on both platforms.

It’s also these problems that at times really threaten to derail the experience - the feel that you are indeed part of a living, breathing 1950’s videogame world, and your enjoyment of that world. Although after playing each demo for several hours this doesn’t always seem to be the case. But the problems are pretty distracting at times, and at the very least the game could have benefited from additional polish and optimisations before release. Maybe in the final game we shall see some changes, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Despite what the screenshots on this page might be telling you on first glance, Mafia II actually renders in 720p (1280x720) on both platforms, with the blurriness found in some of the screens down to an additional blur filter being layered over parts of the image during the final stage of rendering.

As per usual the 360 version of the game receives 2xMSAA (multisampling anti-aliasing), while the PS3 is left with no AA at all, which is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from most multiplatform conversions these days. However, it is apparent that the 360’s use of AA here in Mafia II isn’t quite as good as it could be, as although 2x is applied largely to the whole image it also fails to succeed in managing the amount of jagged edges which appear throughout the game.

In any given scene some parts of it clearly get 2x AA, whilst other obviously do not. This faliure of dealing with aliasing also doesn’t appear to be due to any high contrasting pixel edges, as even in mid to dark areas with very little in the way of drastic contrast changes the AA fails as effortlessly as it does elsewhere. Instead, it simply appears that 2K Czech’s method of implementing 2xMSAA simply isn’t all that effective when mixed with all the other rendering elements in the engine. Comparatively, the PC version also suffers from this problem also, proving that it is definitely something with how the AA conflicts with other parts of the graphics make up.

As we mentioned earlier Mafia II also includes an additional blur filter on top of the 2xMSAA found in the 360 build, and no AA in the PS3 one. This is basically a 1-pxel wide edge blur, and it is applied to surfaces after the anti-aliasing has been done, much like the effect we saw back in the Dante’s Inferno demo on the 360.

Effectively, this results in a heightened amount of softness in the overall image which almost negates the use of rendering in full 720p. Instead the developers could have cut out the blur, rendered in slightly lower sub-HD resolution, and clawed back some of the performance they so seem to be missing.

The PS3 build also gets the same method of blur. However, the lack of AA means that despite this additional effect the overall image is sharper compared to that of the 360 build.

Bizarrely, this effect on the PS3 is pretty inconsistent compared to the one found on the 360 game, and also doesn’t seem to be as strong either. Sometimes the entire scene is completely blurred, while at other times it only seems to affect certain objects rather than everything on screen. The blur doesn’t appear to be selective either, so we’re not sure quite what is going on. It’s rather strange to say the least.

Now given the overall open world nature of the game the use of a full 720p frame buffer with or without AA is pretty impressive, especially when you consider how much stuff is being rendered in order to make up the richly detailed game world. It is no surprise then, to learn that certain effects have had to be paired back in order to allow for this feat to happen.

For one, much of the game’s foliage - simple 2D sprites which always turn and rotate towards facing the camera – and other such parts of the world are rendered in a lower resolution compared to the rest of the scene. And this applies to both platforms, which generally share similar compromises in maintaining high detail levels. There are of course some differences between the two versions, mainly pertaining to the use of varying blend effects for transparencies, the amount of foliage on screen, and the higher saturation of lighting in the 360 game.

As you can see in the screenshots below, the 360 build is using A2C for blending all of it’s alpha effects on foliage, while the PS3 is using some other method, though apparently it isn’t plain old alpha coverage.

A2C is normally chosen in order to save on overall memory bandwidth costs and additional processing power. Basically transparencies and objects which use it are rendered in an interlaced manner of sorts, effectively halving their resolution. The result is a screendoor look to everything that uses it, and a distinctly grainy appearance. This grainy look is usually blended away through the use of high levels of MSAA making this side effect far less noticeable. However, since the 360 build’s implementation of AA is less than successful it fails to work in doing this.

Combined with the blur filter and broken AA solution the foliage, like the rest of the game, appears very soft and distinctly sub-HD even in areas when it is not. By comparison, the PS3 build features much sharper looking foliage due to not using A2C, and by skipping over the broken AA solution entirely.

This additional sharpness, along with using a different blend technique for transparencies means that unlike on 360 the foliage tends to suffer from terrible shimmering, and plenty of crawling jagged edges. Pretty much everything from the foliage, to the buildings and power lines are affected by this, and it can be really unsightly.

Furthermore, the PS3 version has also seen additional cut backs to the levels of detail on offer throughout the game, and lacks the distinct shading method known as SSAO (screen-space ambient occlusion).

In order to work around the tighter memory constraints found in Sony’s machine, including the lack of available EDRAM (read: none) the developers have paired back much of the foliage on the PS3 game, reducing certain areas from densely packed fields of front lawn grass into a series of flat looking texture maps. It’s pretty disappointing to say the least, and really gives the game a flatter look overall compared to the other versions of the game.

Another thing is that the LOD system appears to be slightly more forceful on the PS3 build leading to higher levels of pop-up and less immediately visible on screen details. Thankfully it is only subtly worse than the 360 build, with the LOD issue being more noticeable in certain areas than others.

However, the foliage and LOD is really the only elements which has been noticeably cut back in terms of creating environment detail on PS3, leaving the rest of the game looking basically the same. This is both a good and a bad thing as it means that the un-optimised code constantly struggles to maintain any kind of consistent framerate, with lots of screen tear and heavy dips in smoothness.

In terms of shadowing differences, on the 360 side of things you have the inclusion of SSAO, which used to create an extra sense of depth to the image that you wouldn’t find with traditional shading alone. Sadly the use of this effect is particularly bad, and so inconsistently poor in its implementation that I have to wonder why the developers even decided to include it. Instead they could have feed up additional GPU power for other things if it simply wasn’t there. Certainly, the additional impression of depth wasn’t worth the effort.

The SSAO in Mafia II is clearly rendered in a very low resolution and suffers from noticeable pixelation at times, leading to shadows that can appear fuzzy and rather shimmery as a result, making the game look more rough around the edges than perhaps it should.

Shadows also appeared dithered on the 360 causing further artifacts which stick out noticeably compared to the PS3 build’s cleaner approach. Like with the use of A2C on the foliage, shadows look somewhat grainy, and are pretty fuzzy around the edges. The PS3 game also features slightly dithered shadows, but thankfully not to the same extent as found on the 360.

Outside of these graphical differences both versions of the game look very similar, if not mostly identical. That is to say that they are both lavishly detailed, and contain lots of neat little touches throughout. Everything from power lines to small backyard and side street fences are represented here, along with cracked kerbside slabs and subtle differences in similar building architecture have been meticulously implemented. It’s pretty impressive to say the least, and accurately matches up to the high-spec PC version.

Having this level of attention to detail on any console game compared to its PC counterpart is looking for trouble, especially when trying to achieve a decent level of performance without sacrificing playability. And this is exactly where Mafia II falls down. The game simply cannot hope to achieve a stable framerate when so much is being pushed around on screen at any given time, not to mention a near constant lack of being able to hold v-sync.

It is pretty obvious that the developers were originally aiming for a baseline framerate around the 30fps mark, with the overall framerate being allowed to drop off in heavy load situations. However, the game very rarely reaches that point at all throughout the demo. Even when starting out in the confines of your home, free from all the dense levels of detail visible outside, the framerate still takes a heavy dive below the expected 30fps, ending up somewhere in the mid 20’s, or often less.

In fact, the game regularly runs at between 20 to 25fps with drops venturing down to the 15fps mark in busy situations, and this causes no end of problems from erratic controller responsiveness, to an increase in noticeable jagged edges and aliasing artifacts. The additional controller lag when such constant drops in smoothness happen is what really impacts on the gameplay experience on offer here. I would even go as far as to say that it can make the game near unplayable at times, with your ability to accurately aim and take out the enemy being compromised continuously.

Most titles that suffer from such heavy framerate drops do so because the developers have decided to use v-sync in order to prevent the noticeable screen-tearing that would otherwise occur due to the constant changes in screen refresh. Sadly, Mafia II isn’t one of them. And as far as I can tell the game doesn’t even try to employ any kind of v-sync to help balance out the terrible framerate issues. Instead, what you are left with is a title that suffers from both large constant drops in framerate, and heavy screen tear – mostly at the same time - which affects both platforms to an almost equal extent, with the PS3 version coming off worse in the end.

Most noticeable is the fact that a large percentage of the tearing is happening right in the centre of the screen, thus greatly impacting on not only your overall field of view, but also providing a clear distraction which serves only to further hinder your progress. At worst, the game will decide to drop down to around 20fps and allow for heavy mid-screen tearing to occur, during which a reduction in controller response time, and the uneven refresh rate make any kind of quick and concise play completely useless in larger action sequences.

The PS3 game also tends to tear slightly more frequently than the 360 one. Thankfully this occurs mostly in the overscan area of the screen, so it’s not noticeable in real-world terms. However, the game does drop its framerate more heavily in the same situations as the 360 build, which is a different story altogether.

Overall, there’s simply no question that Mafia II’s general performance is sub-par, and is perhaps one of the worst titles that I have come across this generation when comparing games on either platform to other similar releases.

Despite featuring copious amounts of detail, and lots of subtleties everywhere you look, Mafia II clearly suffers from huge framerate issues, intrusive screen tearing, and a host of other noticeable graphical problems, all of which really show up the game’s original ‘made for PC’ heritage. Failing to properly optimise the title for consoles is exactly why, unlike Red Dead Redemption, Mafia II fails to command your senses in the way Rockstar’s title does so effortlessly.

It’s such a shame as 2K Games have created a world that is so full of personality, packed with intricate little details that it is so easy to initially become immersed in when you are first starting out. Unfortunately the game’s poor framerate, terrible jagged edges, and overall soft looking display completely take you out of the experience. Also hampering your potential enjoyment of the title is the laggy control which manifests itself whenever the framerate drops. And sadly that is pretty much continuously, regardless of whether anything intensive is happening on screen or not.

In conclusion, it is hard to recommend either console version of Mafia II. Both builds suffer terribly from various performance and graphical related problems. Although in the end it is the 360 version which is slightly less unsightly to look at, due to less edge shimmering and aliasing, even if the result is a blurrier image overall. The use of low-res SSAO and dithered shadows is a strong negative point however, and does distract from the noticeably more detailed foliage.

Personally, when it comes down to it I’d track down the vastly superior PC version of the game, in which it should be possible to achieve at least 720p with 2xMSAA at 60fps on a mid-spec gaming rig - something which both the PS3 and 360 can only dream of with regards to this release.

Thanks to Mr Deap for our comparison screens, and as always to AlStrong for his superb pixel counting skills.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Review: Dragon Quest IX (DS)

I’ll be honest. I’m a little biased towards the Dragon Quest games after my experiences with Dragon Quest VIII, a game which I would highly recommend playing to anyone with a forlorn looking PS2 and 60 hours of spare time. Dragon Quest VIII had charm, a captivating story and a fantastic, albeit it traditional, battle system. Dragon Quest IX seems to have taken these qualities and to myself, and several of my colleagues, become the best RPG on the DS console.

It’s difficult to say why. The game itself seems to have very little in terms of game play mechanics that differentiate it from the other Japanese RPGs the DS offers. The reason for this, I would suggest, is because it does everything that a traditional JRPG would do, very well.

The graphics are outstanding for a DS game; in cut scenes the characters’ faces can be seen clearly and do not appear too pixilated. When in battle there is a huge amount of detail visible, both on the monsters and on the equipment worn by your party. The only time I noticed that the graphics on the game were disappointing was whilst playing on a DSI XL console, when the pixels on the characters were blown up to make the appearance of everyone and anything appears very ‘blocky’. Having said that, I do not own a DSI XL myself, and this has been the only game I have tried it on, so I cannot definitively say whether this is due to hardware or software (hardware unfortunately – Dave).

The battle system is very simple and easy to navigate. The player will choose from several options, allowing either a basic attack, or the chance to cast a spell, to use a special ability (which are not over-powered and are situation- specific) or to use an item. You can also build up a character’s ‘tension’ over time to finally unleash a super charged move that can deal massive damage. This feature is useless in standard battles but is often a successful tactic in boss battles, allowing a bit of variation in the play.

You start the game with a default class or ‘vocation’ as they are known in Dragon Quest IX. As a minstrel you are rather akin to a Jack of All Trades which allows you complete freedom in choosing your fellow comrades later in the game. There are a number of character classes in Dragon Quest IX, beginning the game with the options of the Warrior, Mage, Priest, Thief, Martial Artist and Minstrel, but later able to unlock several additional classes. You are able to change your original character’s role about 10 hours in to the game but the level of your character is dependent on the vocation, meaning that each time you change any of the parties roles, they will start at level 1 again (unless you have previously levelled that vocation). This adds an additional level of strategy into the game as you have to think carefully about whether you have members of the party of a high enough level to support your level 1 ranger until they have gained much more experience.

At the beginning of the game you are able to design your character, choosing features such as your height, hairstyle and colour, eye shape and colour, and name. Later on you are able to choose an extra 3 companions, who you can either design yourself or accept predesigned characters created by the game. Every time you equip a new sword or a new robe or piece of armor the appearance of your character will change to reflect this. For me this resulted in hours of playing around with outfit combinations to get my characters looking as well dressed as should befit the hero of the mortal realms.

After you have created a hero you are thrown head first into the story, and learn that you are from a race of guardians, tasked with protecting the mortal world. You acquire a lovely set of wings and a halo but sadly and inevitably as in all JRPGs things start to go wrong, and the hero is cast down to the world below, loses their guardian status, and is gifted with a quest to build benevolence and thanks in order to get back home.

As with most RPGs there are a huge number of side quests that upon completion allow you access to rare equipment, weapons, items, or unlock additional job classes for your characters. This adds a great deal of play time to the game, as you set off to all four corners of the earth in a hunt for 3 rabbit tails, with the knowledge that upon completion you will receive that new shiny helm. Added to this is an achievement system that awards you new titles every time you hit a significant point. For example achieving rank 1 in sword skill, or taking part in 500 battles. For many players of JRPGS this adds to their already burning desire to have every piece of equipment or learnt every skill available.

The story is traditional, but this is in no way a bad thing, and the wit and speed with which the story transgresses means that you become captivated with the game’s plot. However due to the multiplayer ability built into the game, your own party results in 4 created characters with no personality whatsoever. There is no dialogue between your own character and your party members, and even your own character seems to have no personality. It is therefore very difficult to feel any sort of emotional attachment to any of the created characters. This is a shame because when it comes to the NPCs in the game, you often feel emotions when some evil befalls them. I do not wish to ruin the game for anyone but one sub storyline made me genuinely sad (One word, Coffingwell).

The multiplayer option in the game is excellently integrated. One player acts as a host and up to 3 friends can join in on their game. However they are not limited to simply following the host around, but instead can explore much as they can on their own game. There has even been the inclusion of blue chests that can be opened by the non-hosting players, as well as by the host when they return to single player. If the host requires assistance, other players can jump to their aid after a summons, which pulls them straight into the host’s current battle seamlessly.

I would highly recommend this game to any fan of the JRPG or even to anyone who is looking for a good game to get their teeth into this summer. Although some might consider the battle system slow moving, or the game play too similar to other games available, the game has bucket loads of charm which will captivate anyone willing it to give it a chance. Now, I need to go and hunt down some slimes to complete my set of slime armor…


Mary Antieul, Contributor

Thursday, 12 August 2010

PlayStation Phone Emerging?

Over the last few years there have been a few rumours doing the rounds singling out a potential link between the PlayStation brand and the mobile Phone. Many still believe that in order to truly succeed, as well as compete against the iPhone and DS casual market, that the PSP2 will effectively double up as a mobile phone and a lead gaming device, offering all the usual gaming and multimedia functionality on the go along with the ability to make calls.

Today, Engadget is reporting that Sony may well be planning to release a new mobile phone that not only has some serious gaming potential, but also that it features the prominent PlayStation branding firmly on its design. The new smartphone, currently in development at the Sony Ericsson wing of the company, is reportedly powered by the Android 3.0 operating system, and features a version of the Snapdragon SoC (system on a chip) running at 1GHz.

The device is speculated to have graphical capabilities somewhere in the region of the original PlayStation (PSX) to that of the PSP, and Sony are said to be interested in bringing existing franchises such as God Of War, Call Of Duty and Little big Planet to the system.

Apparently, the design of the phone is similar to both the Samsung Captivate and the PSPgo, featuring a panel that slides out to reveal the controls used for gaming. A d-pad and action buttons were mentioned, along with some shoulder buttons and a touch pad to replace the analogue nub found on all versions of the PSP. The device will also feature a 5 megapixel camera, and the overall screen size is estimated to be between 3.7 to 4.1 inches.

An October release date was said to be possible, which means that the device would arrive to market long before the PSP2 and provide Sony with a reasonable alternative to Apple’s domineering platform.

Interestingly, the phone is said to be labelled with the Xperia brand, although the PlayStation branding will also make an appearance. Could this be part of a unified branding strategy across all Sony platforms?

It definitely looks that way. However, having two devices with the strong PlayStation branding could very well split the market, with some wondering whether or not this phone is a proper successor to the existing PSP, or simply an extension of the brand in a different form. Certainly, it isn’t the PSP2, as rumours from other sources have already confirmed that it is being worked on independently from other mobile projects, meaning that this new smartphone is more of an extension of the whole PSN and PlayStation branding concept revealed by Sony a while back.

Saying that, the report also mentions Google, and the company's plan for a new 'ecosysyem' with Sony, so maybe this is only part of their original strategy.

Perhaps the biggest question that needs answering right now, is how this device will fit in the grand scheme of things with Sony’s own PSP2, and the PlayStation platform in general – something that isn’t apparently clear to us at the moment, and certainly makes little sense given the likelihood of the PSP2 emerging shortly.

Either way it is clear that the company sees incredible value in the space Apple currently occupy, and are looking towards this new cross branded phone as a way of entering that market.